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 last week 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 subsequent 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 Lord… 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 feel slightly safer than angels on the ground.  If the angels are above, that means that they came from above.  It means that heaven is “up there” somewhere.  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.  We want to put borders on oceans.  And we certainly seem to want 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.  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 need his diapers changed.

“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, Christ is present everywhere, in, with, and under everything.  Including you.  And me.  And all those people we’re inclined not to like.

That, in the end, is what Christmas, the incarnation, is all about.  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 we think we oversee and all the things we overlook.  Christmas is angels standing on the earth to sing 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, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said.  

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.

Christmas is earthy and concrete.  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 looks out at the world with new eyes and tries to see and understand.  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 in all creation so that you are always 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.  May Christ be born anew in your heart.  In Jesus’ name.

When the Men Are Silent

Luke 1:26-56

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. ­–Luke 1:28029

When I was seven years old my parents sat me down and said, “We are moving to California.”  I was much perplexed by their words.  I mean, I understood all their words… individually… as words.  I even understood their words as they had put them together in that sentence: we are moving to California.  It conveyed coherent meaning to me.  But that was the problem.  There was too much meaning in those five words strung together like that.   They were heavy with meaning.  They meant that I would be saying goodbye to life as I knew it in Kansas City, Missouri, saying goodbye to my best friend Dennis who lived right next door and all my other friends and cousins and Daniel Boone Elementary School and the woods where we played and fireflies in the backyard in the summer and sledding down the little hill in front of our house in the snow in the winter and a million other things that were crowding into my seven year old mind all at once.  Mom and Dad tried to make it sound like it was good news.  Beaches!  Disneyland!  New Friends!  (Are there any scarier words in the world for a kid than “New Friends?”)  But while I was still feeling the shock of their words, still being perplexed and wondering in my seven-year-old mind if maybe I had somehow caused this terrible thing to happen, I realized that things were already in motion and there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it.  

“Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.”  When I read that Mary was perplexed by the Angel Gabriel’s words I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t feeling something like what I felt that day when my parents told me that my life was about to change completely and utterly.  Perplexed is a pretty tame translation for the word that’s in Luke’s Greek text.  Perplexed sounds like she was a bit puzzled, perhaps a little confused.  Diatarasso, the verb in the original text means she was distressed, disturbed, deeply troubled by the angel’s words.  

Mary apparently knew that the ones who are highly favored by the Lord, those whom the Lord was with, were not folk who tended to have quiet, easy, uneventful lives.  The Lord tends to use his favorites to get things done.  The Lord tends to move them around like chess pieces.  If an angel shows up to tell you that you are favored by God and that God is with you, hold on to your wallet.  It means that God has plans for you.  Mary may have only been a teenager, but she was smart and she knew the stories about those whom the Lord favored.  So she pondered what sort of greeting this might be and waited for the angel to say more.  What was God up to?  What was God planning to do with her?

After a long moment of Mary saying nothing, Gabriel cleared his throat.  He had a message to deliver.  God had given him a script and told him not to deviate from it.  So he launched back into his speech.  It’s a nice speech, a very formal speech, the kind of speech you’d expect from an archangel. 

He told her she would conceive—in her womb, just in case she was uninformed about where conception happened.  He told her that the child would be a boy and that she was to name him Jesus.  He would be great.  He would be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord would give him the throne of David.  His kingdom will have no end.

Up to this point Mary had been silent, but now she interrupts.  “How can this be,” she asks,  “since I am a virgin?”  She’s got some moxie, this young woman.  She’s not afraid to stop an archangel in the middle of his spiel and say, “Excuse me, but you’re forgetting one very important technicality.  I don’t know how it’s done with angels, but for humans there’s a part of the process missing in your plan here.”

“Ah, yes,” says the angel.  “I’m coming to that.”  And he resumes his recitation.  He told her that the Holy Spirit would initiate the pregnancy, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, so the child would be holy.  He told her that her relative, Elizabeth, who was getting along in years and had never had children was now pregnant because nothing is impossible with God.  And with that Gabriel reached the end of his script and stood there waiting for a response.

Finally Mary has a chance to speak again. 

Our translations soften the impact of her words, I think.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s how it reads in the NRSV and our other versions are in the same dynamic range.  They sound so docile compared to the force of the words in the original language.  Even the Latin toned it down from Luke’s original Greek where there are hints of both fierceness and resignation in her words that don’t come through in the niceties of our translations.

The first thing she says is rather startling, especially if you remind yourself that she is saying it to one of the seven archangels that stand at the throne of God.  The first thing she says, literally translated, is, “Look.”  She invites the angel to really see her.  “Look,” she says, “the slave girl of the Lord.  Let it happen to me according to your word.”

“Look at me, angel, before you vanish back to heaven.  Really pay attention for a moment to the one who is highly favored, the Lord’s slave girl. Let it happen as you have said.  But before you go, see me.  And think about how your visit will change my life.  See me, and think about what it will cost me because the Lord is with me.  Think about what it means to be the slave girl of God, even if the slave agrees to play a part.”

Then the angel departed from her, and Mary went to see her relative, Elizabeth, and her miraculous pregnancy.

Now here’s an interesting thing.  Have you ever noticed that in the original Advent, that time building up to the birth of both John the Baptizer and Jesus, the men in the story are silent?  Well, Gabriel talks a lot, but he’s an angel and everything he says is a message from God.  Otherwise the male voices are almost entirely silent.  

Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband doubts Gabriel when Gabriel tells him he’s going to be a father so late in life, so Gabriel makes him mute for the entire time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  Joseph is visited by an angel a few times in Matthew’s gospel, but Joseph never speaks.

The women, though,  the women speak powerfully and prophetically.  Elizabeth silences the gossipy busybodies of her community saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” 

When Mary comes to see her, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary with words so powerful that they have become engraved in the psyche of our faith for all generations. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”    And then she affirms Mary for agreeing to her role in God’s plan: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”   Elizabeth speaks in the tradition of the five women prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and the unnamed prophetess mentioned in Isaiah 8.  She speaks in the strength of Judith, the conviction of Tamar, and joyful mirth of Sarah. 

Moved by her words and stirred by the Spirit, Mary begins to sing a prophetic song full of joy and power to proclaim the work of God.  Young, poor, unmarried and pregnant, she becomes a prophet.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  She rejoices that God isn’t transforming the world through the rich and the powerful, but instead is working through the poor, the humble, the disenfranchised and marginalized—through her and people like her.  

She sings of things to come as if they are already accomplished, a proleptic vison of God remaking the world from the bottom up.  “Prophets,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it — not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone, maybe even God.”

 “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung,” said Dietrich Bonnhoeffer.   She sings of a sweeping change in the social order, a change so radical that her Magnificat has been regarded as politically dangerous in places where despots and tyrants have tried to maintain control.  It was banned in India during British rule.  When Guatemala was ruled by a military junta in the 1980s they outlawed her Magnificat, and it was outlawed again during the “dirty war” in Argentina when the mothers of disappeared children began papering the streets with posters of her song.  When you’re trying to rule people with an iron fist you can’t have them singing about power being overturned.

“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.”

In a time when her own land and her own her own people are burdened by the yoke of Rome, she sings of God’s faithfulness:  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

Mary sings an overture for the work of her son, The Son of the Most High.  She sings to proclaim God’s vision of justice.  She sings to remind us that we are called to share the vision and to share the work of making God’s reign a reality on earth as it is in heaven.

Look.  See the slave girl of the Lord.  An angel speaks to her and she is much perplexed.  But she is not silenced.  She sings the song of Advent, the song of God’s revolution.

When the men are silent, the women sing.  And their songs change the world.

The Light Over the Barnyard

John 1:6-9; 19-28; 1Thessalonians 5:16-24

If we’re lucky and there is no cloud cover, on December 21, the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, we will get to see something like the Star of Bethlehem.  Jupiter and Saturn will appear in a great conjunction, within 0.1 degrees of each other as viewed from earth, so that they will appear to be not two bright planets, but one very bright star.  Close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, but the last time they were this close was more than 800 years ago, in 1226.

So in these closing days of 2020, a strange year of plague and politics, protests and polemics, could it be that we are being given a sign in the heavens as two great planets combine their radiance into one great light?    

One of the things I loved to do when I was a kid, during the times when we would visit the family farm in Kansas, was to go out at night and stand in the middle of the field and just stare at the brilliance of the night sky.  I loved to see the lights of heaven spread out above me in the Milky Way.  We would get far enough away from the house so that the house lights didn’t interfere with our stargazing, then just let ourselves get lost in those deep fields of space and all those millions of stars.  

On a night with a full moon the stars were fainter, but we could see well enough to nose around a bit in the pasture and to make our way back to the house without our flashlights if we were careful.  But on a night with no moon it was another story altogether.  On a night with no moon it was easy to lose yourself in the sky and get turned around, and if the lights at the house went out, as they did one time, you could lose your bearings in the dark.

On those nights, standing in the dark, marveling at the stars, I would feel such a strange mixture of awe and vulnerability.  I learned fairly early about the distance and strangeness of the stars and planets and it was always a source of wonder to me to think about the great journey through time and space those lights had taken to reach me standing in a field in Kansas.  It made me feel both important and insignificant at the same time—important because God had given me the eyes to see and a mind to comprehend the vastness of creation—insignificant because I realized that I was one kid standing on a small planet orbiting a minor star on an outer spiral arm of one galaxy among billions.

And in the middle of these kinds of thoughts, always, every single time, something would happen to remind us that the night was not our natural habitat.  Some noise or movement would remind us as we stood out there in the field that the night was full of other creatures and that some of them were not our friends.  Fortunately, that also always seemed to be about the time when Mom or Aunt Betty would decide we had been out in the dark long enough and they would turn on the big mercury vapor light that glared over the barnyard.  The message was clear.  Time to come home.  And there was no mistaking which way to go once that light was turned on…provided you were turned in the right direction so you could see it.

Sometimes, if you get turned around in the moonless night and you are facing the wrong direction, you need a nudge from someone to turn you toward the light so you can find your way home.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  To give people a nudge in the right direction.

This happened during a time of tension and anxiety, but for many it was also a time of anticipation and expectation, so when John began baptizing and preaching it was understandable that the priests and Levites would want to know who he was and what he had to say for himself.  What was surprising was that John started by telling them who he was not.

“I’m not the Messiah.”  He said that pretty plainly, right off the top.

So they asked him, “Well… what then.  Are you Elijah?”

“Nope.”

“The prophet?”

“No. Not the prophet.”

“Well then who are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’  Just like the prophet Isaiah said.

“Well if you’re not the Messiah and you’re not Elijah and you’re not the prophet, why are you baptizing?”

“I’m baptizing with water.  But if you knew who was already standing here among you… the one who comes after me… I’m not worthy to even untie his sandals.”

For what it’s worth, a little thing should be noted here.  It says in the text at the beginning of this passage that John was sent by God.  But it says that the people giving John the third degree here, the priests and Levites, were sent by the Pharisees.  It’s an interesting contrast.  The one who is sent by God wants to focus the attention, to shine the light if you will, on someone else.  But the interrogation team sent by the Pharisees are laser-focused on John.  John keeps trying to redirect their attention to the one they’ve really been expecting for eons.  He tells them,   “Guys, at best I’m the moon.  You should be looking for the sun.  And if you had eyes to see it, you would realize he’s already here among you.”

John comes to a people who, as Isaiah said, are walking in darkness and points to the light that is dawning among us.  He comes to a people who are disoriented in the night and turns us to face the beacon that can bring us home.  

And here we are in the closing days of the year of Covid and Chaos, craving Christmas, singing Christ be our Light.  And God hears our prayers.  God sends us John the Baptist to turn us in the right direction, to face us toward the light of Christ. 

God sends us a sign in the heavens.  In a year when politics has pulled us ever further apart, two gas giants (make of that what you will) have drawn close to each other, Jupiter and Saturn in a rare conjunction, shining with a single bright light to remind us that we are brighter when we shine together.

In a year when we have not been able to come together as the body of Christ in the familiar surroundings of our sanctuaries, God reminds us that Christ is, as Luther said, in, with, and under the common things of life like bread and wine and water so that life, itself is sacred.  God reminds us that Christ is in all of creation.  God reminds us that Christ is in you and in me.  And, more importantly, that we are in Christ, so that even in our individual homes, gathered together by way of our computers and phones we are still the body of Christ.

At the end of a year when we have had so many reasons to weep, God sends us the words of Saint Paul writing in his first letter to Thessaloniki, the oldest of his letters:  “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  Do not quench the Spirit.”  

So if you feel like you’ve been walking through a moonless night and you’re all turned around, stop.  Take a minute.  Take a breath.  Look up.

There is a sign in the heavens to remind you that you are not alone.  Christ is in, with and under all of creation and that includes your own sacred life.  

Rejoice.  Pray.  Give thanks.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Any minute now the light’s going to come on over the barnyard.  And if necessary, someone will nudge you in the right direction so you can see it.

Until then, may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

A Way in the Wilderness

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

2        As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

         “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

                  who will prepare your way; 

3        the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

                  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                  make his paths straight,’” 

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“The beginning of the good news…”

Those words take us somewhere, don’t they?  Right away they tell us we’re going to hear a story.  You might as well say Once Upon a Time. 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  But Mark, the writer telling us this story, doesn’t start with Jesus.  He reminds us that the story started before Jesus.  Long before Jesus.  He reminds us that Advent, before it was a season in the Church calendar, was a long season of history, centuries of waiting for Emmanuel to come.  He reminds us that during that long Advent of history God would speak through the prophets from time to time to remind the people that the covenant and promises that God had made to Abraham and Sarah and to Moses and to David had not been forgotten.  The prophets would remind them that God was with them in their times of trouble, and the day was coming when God would be with them more powerfully and concretely than they dared to imagine.  

Mark reminds us that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God”—that this story had its real beginning long before Jesus arrived.  “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” he writes, to remind us that even though Jesus is the title character of his story, he’s really not entering the stage until the second act.  The stage has to be set.  The way has to be prepared.

Even the announcement has to be announced. To give the prophetic voice extra weight, Mark gives Isaiah a preamble from Malachi and simply refers to them both as Isaiah because who said it is not as important as what is being said:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

                  who will prepare your way;” – that’s Malachi–

         “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

                  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                  make his paths straight” –that’s Isaiah.

But it isn’t Jesus the prophets are announcing.  Not here anyway.

First, there is another character we need to hear from.  Another prophet, some would say.  John, the Baptizer, dressed like Elijah and living off the land out in the wilderness where he can listen to God without distractions.  John the Baptizer who wants to be sure we’re ready, really ready for Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  So he prepares the way by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and announcing—wait for it—that someone even more powerful is coming. 

Repentance.  It’s not something you would think would draw a crowd.  But Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  He must have been some preacher, that John.

Repentance.  In English it’s a smudged and leaden word filled with regret and contrition.  Repentance is a stinging backside, bruised knees and hunched shoulders.  I suggest we ban it and replace it with the Greek word: Metanoia.  Metanoia is climbing out of a dank hole into the sunlight.  Metanoia is being freed from the nasty habits that ruin your health and suck the life out of your wallet.  Metanoia is putting on new glasses with the right prescription and realizing that you had only been seeing a third of the details and half the colors in the world.  Metanoia  is shoes that fit right, have cushy insoles, perfect arch support, and take the cramp out of your lower back.  Metanoia is thinking new thoughts and behaving in new ways.  Metanoia is a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of life, a new direction.  

John came proclaiming a baptism of metanoia.  And to make sure the idea really stuck with people, he gave them an experience to go with it.  He dunked them in the river.  “There.  You were dry, now you’re wet.  You were going down the wrong road, now you’re on the right one.  You were dusty and crusty, now you’re clean.  You’re changed.  You’re new.  And just in time, too.  Because the One we’ve been waiting for is coming.  I’m just the warm-up band.  I dunked you in water.  He’s going to marinate you in the Holy Spirit.”

A voice cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

A voice cried out! “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”

There is no punctuation in the ancient languages.  So the translators try to make sense of it for us.

Is it a voice in the wilderness calling us to prepare?  Or is it a voice calling us to prepare a way in the wilderness?  Isaiah has it one way, Mark has it the other way.

Either way the message is clear: this is a time to prepare.

Sue Monk Kidd wrote about how when she was younger she would take time during Advent to sit next to the nativity set under her Christmas tree and think about the past year and then think about the coming of Jesus and what she might do to prepare herself for a meaningful Christmas.  One year she decided to visit a monastery for a day.  As she passed one of the monks she greeted him with, “Merry Christmas.”  He replied, “May Christ be born in you.”  His words caught her off guard and she found that she had to sit with them for a long time. It was in those words from that monk that she realized that Advent is a time of preparation and transformation.  A time of metanoia.  It is a time, she wrote, “of discovering our soul and letting Christ be born from the waiting heart.”

What kind of metanoia do you need to open the path for Christmas, to make way for Christ to be born anew in your waiting heart?   

This has in many ways been a wilderness year for all of us.  Sometimes it has seemed that the way of Christ, the way ahead is not clear.  Except for this: the way of Christ is the way of love.  Love God. And love our neighbors as ourselves. 

It’s been hard to love our neighbors when we can’t be with them in person, when we have to wear masks, when we can’t hug, when we have to maintain physical distance.  It’s been hard to understand that those things are, in fact, acts of love.  

It’s been hard to stand together when we have to stay so far apart.

But this, too, is part of our Advent.  This has been part of our wilderness where we have heard the voice cry out, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord.  This is where we are preparing the way for Christ be born in the waiting heart.  This is where we are transformed.  This is our metanoia.

We’ve all had conversations about “when things get back to normal.”  But maybe this Advent, this Prepare the Way of the Lord time, this metanoia time is a good time to ask if we really want things to get back to normal.

Sure, we want to be done with the pandemic and the restrictions and protocols.  But do we really want to go back to the kind of hectic lives we were living before?  What have we been learning during this time?  We have a chance to make things new, different, better.  So what is Christ calling us to make of this life?  As we make a new path through the wilderness, what is our collective metanoia?  What is our new way, our better way?

There’s an old John Denver song, Rhymes and Reasons, that I’ve had stuck in my head for weeks now.  Sometimes I think, “Oh there’s that dumb song again.”  But other times I just let myself fall into it.  And you know, it really has brought me more than a little hope and comfort.  For weeks now.  Especially at times when I’ve felt really sad.  Or really angry.  Or both.

So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter

Fear that is within you now and it seems will never end

And the dreams that have escaped you and the hopes that you’ve forgotten

And you tell me that you need me now and you want to be my friend

And you wonder where we’re going, where’s the rhyme and the reason

And it’s you cannot accept it is here we must begin

To seek the wisdom of the children and the graceful way of flowers in the wind.

For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers

Their laughter and their loveliness can clear a cloudy day

Like the music of the mountains and the colors of the rainbow

They’re a promise of the future and a blessing for today.

Though the cities start to crumble and the towers fall around us

The sun is slowly fading and it’s colder than the sea

It is written from the desert to the mountains they shall lead us

By the hand and by the heart and they will comfort you and me.

In their innocence and trusting they will teach us to be free.

For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers

Their laughter and their loveliness can clear a cloudy day

And the song that I am singing is a prayer to nonbelievers

If you come and stand beside us, we can find a better way.

As I said, that song has been running through my head for weeks now.  In my more cynical moments I think it’s kind of insipid and puerile.  I mean really, “the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers.”  But then I stop and listen again.  And I realize that that cynical critic in me, that inner voice that wants to disparage the simple honesty of these lyrics and even the healing joy of my own experience of the song is one of the places where I need metanoia.  This is where I need to clear a path in the wilderness.  My own internal wilderness.

So.  This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  This is the beginning of the story.  Get ready.  Jesus is coming.  Christmas is coming.  Prepare the way.

This Is The Time

It’s time.  

Time to get out the boxes with the special decorations, each one with its own story and all of them together part of the bigger story.  It’s time to deck the halls, to fill the home with light and music.  It’s time to dig out recipes and to bake.  It’s time to prepare.

I loved Christmas as a kid.  I still do.  What I didn’t realize for years, though, was how much I loved Advent.  I loved all the preparation. I loved the anticipation.  I loved the way the house looked when it was all decorated.  I loved the way the kitchen smelled when it was full of baking and roasting.  I loved how everyone, even though they were a bit frazzled, still managed to be in a pretty cheery mood.  

I love the honesty of Advent.  I love the sense of longing in the texts and prayers.  “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”  And yes, Christ has already come to us, but no, Christ has not yet returned, and we surely do feel sometimes like he’s overdue.  There is an honest yearning for things to be better, especially in this year when everything has been scrambled and turned sideways by the pandemic.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah shouts for us.  We’re in over our heads.  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved!” the Psalmist cries out for us.  But we also hear, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Every valley will be lifted up.  Every mountain and hill made low.  The uneven ground shall be made level and the rough places a plain.”  Things will be smoother.  Something better, something brighter is coming.  Help is on the way.  A new day will dawn.  

I love the way Advent, if we pay attention to it, sets the scene for Christmas by reminding us that we are not the first ones to live in a time of shadows hoping for light.  “During the rule of King Herod of Judea…” we read in the first chapter of Luke.  This is the same King Herod who, in Matthew’s gospel, murdered all the male babies in Bethlehem under age two.  This is the Herod who killed two of his own sons because he suspected them of plotting against him, the Herod who killed his wife Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, along with her brother and her mother.  This is the Herod who replaced the High Priest in the temple with a Sadducee who would be more inclined to do things the way he wanted them done.  This is the same Herod who, according to Josephus, as he lay dying, ordered that one member of every family in Judea should be slain so that the whole country would be in mourning when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but the people never forgot that it had been issued.  

This is the time, Luke reminds us, when Quirinius is appointed legate of the expanded Roman province of Syria with the specific mandate to carry out a census, something forbidden by Jewish law, so that Tiberius can impose a new tax.  This is a time when Rome’s domination of Judea is iron-clad and iron-fisted with no velvet glove to make it less harsh.  This is a time when work is hard, taxes are heavy, and freedom is limited.

But this is also the time when an angel appears to an aged childless couple, Elizabeth, whose name means “God keeps promises” and to Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers.”  The angel promises them that they will have a child and that they are to name him Yochanan, John, which means “God is gracious,” and that many will rejoice because of him and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is the time when a kinswoman comes to visit Elizabeth, a young, unmarried kinswoman named Mary, who is also pregnant with a miraculous child.  And when Elizabeth sees her, her unborn child leaps in her womb.  This is the time when Mary sings a prophetic song of joy and rebellion that has been bringing hope to people on the margins for two thousand years.  My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… 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…”

This is the time to sit with the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.  This is the time to remember.  And to look forward.  This is Advent.  And soon, Christmas.

The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,

         the sun will be darkened,

                  and the moon will not give its light, 

25       and the stars will be falling from heaven,

                  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

28  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

As of this weekend, 270,000 people in the United States have died of the Corona virus.  That’s two hundred seventy thousand empty seats at the Thanksgiving table this year, enough people to fill every seat in Angels’ Stadium in Anaheim six times.  

Because of the Corona virus, job losses and general economic disparity, only 44% of American households with children feel confident that they will be able to afford the food they need for the coming week.[1]  Put another way, 56% of American households with children are food insecure.  Twelve percent of those households reported that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.  

One in 5 renters in America are behind on rent and worried about eviction.  Persons of color were likelier to report difficulty affording rent because they have been harder hit by pandemic job losses.

In so many ways and for so many of us, this is a grim and precarious time.  The words of Isaiah ring in us like a bell:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

                  so that the mountains would quake at your presence—  

          When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

                           you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.[2]

O God, why won’t you do for us the kinds of things you did in the past?  Where’s our parting of the sea?  Where is our manna falling from the sky?  

It was a grim and precarious time for the people of Judah when Isaiah wrote those words.  They were suffering under the harsh oppression of Babylon.  They wanted divine intervention.  And isn’t that what we want now?

It was a grim and precarious time when Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives and shared his apocalyptic vision with his disciples.  As we read the story in chapter 13 of Mark, Jesus is telling his disciples about the end of the world not long before Judas betrays him, not long before he is crucified.  And it’s a very perilous time when the writer of the gospel records all this.  If biblical scholar Ched Myers is correct, Mark is writing this gospel some time during the Jewish revolt against Rome, the rebellion that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

“But in those days, after that suffering,

         the sun will be darkened,

                  and the moon will not give its light, 

         and the stars will be falling from heaven,

                  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 

Those words take on new weight on the first Sunday of Advent when you think of them being spoken during a time of violent political oppression, a time when any hint of opposition is quickly and decisively squashed.  These words have a sharper edge when you think of them being written down and preserved while the streets of the city are filled with the noise and bloodshed of battle between Roman soldiers and Jewish partisans.  

Beware.  Stay alert.  Stay awake.  The advice Jesus gives is practical.  Keep your eyes open.  Don’t fall for false messiahs and conmen. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to figure out God’s timetable because only God knows.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.  There will be trying times.  Stay awake.

Advent is a time for pragmatism and preparation.  

Advent is a time to walk into the turmoil and the pain of life with your eyes wide open.  In an age and a season when it is all too easy to live in denial, when we would love to jump straight to Christmas, Advent calls us to take a hard look at the world around us.  Advent calls us to see the world as it really is, to see ourselves as we really are, to open our eyes to things that we maybe don’t want to see, to listen to things we might prefer not to hear.  Advent calls us to be realistic…about the world and about ourselves. 

In 1952, as the Korean War was dragging on and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was becoming more intense, William and Annabeth Gay wrote a haunting and profound hymn that, to my mind, perfectly captures the spirit of Advent for our age.  The title that Annabeth gave it is Carol of Hope, but you might know it by its first line which is how it’s titled in most hymnals, a line that sounds anything but hopeful:  Each Winter As the Year Grows Older.

Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too.  

The chill sets in a little colder; the verities we knew

seem shaken and untrue.[3]

When race and class cry out for treason, when sirens call for war, 

they overshout the voice of reason and scream till we ignore

 all we held dear before.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,

that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath

and turn transfixed by faith.

So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,

the living flame, in secret burning, can kindle on the earth

and bring God’s love to birth.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows, O Prince of peace and pain,

brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s, renew our lives again;

Lord Jesus, come and reign!

Advent calls us to be realistic about the shadow side of life, to mark where we’ve not only grown older but colder, where the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.  Advent calls us to identify those voices that overshout the voice of reason so we can be more attentive to reason and to the Prince of Peace and pain.  

But Advent doesn’t simply ask us to dwell in gloom and shadows.  Advent also calls us to bring light—four lights to restore brightness and health to a self, a nation, a world stumbling in murky obscurity—four lights to prepare the way for the true light of Christ. 

And the first light is Hope.

“Genuine hope is not blind optimism,” said Jürgen Moltmann.  “It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering and yet believes in the future.”

And perhaps Barack Obama was thinking of Moltmann when he said, ““Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us.

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver. “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.”[4]

So on this first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Hope.  

On this first Sunday of Advent as we begin a new year in the calendar of the Church, we light the candle of Hope.  If the sun is darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars seem to be falling, light the candle of hope.

If we are suffering now because of the pandemic, Saint Paul reminds us that, “suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[5]

“If we hope for what we do not see,” he said, “we wait for it with patience.”[6]  

So if it looks like the sun has been darkened and the moon won’t shine and the stars are falling and the world is more or less metaphorically ending, in the spirit of Advent, let’s be realistic and honest about it.  Let’s stay awake and aware.  And then let’s light a candle of Hope.  Because Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]


[1] https://www.cbpp.org/blog/as-thanksgiving-approaches-fewer-than-half-of-households-with-kids-very-confident-about;  also https://www.marketplace.org/2020/05/07/44-of-americans-fear-they-wont-be-able-to-afford-food-poll-finds/ (Marketplace/Edison Research)

[2] Isaiah 64:1-2

[3] Each Winter As the Year Grows Older, William Gay, 1920-2008;

  Tune: Carol of Hope, Annabeth Gay, 1925-2020;  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #252

[4] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

[5] Romans 5:4-5

[6] Romans 8:25

[7] Romans 15.13

The Royal Law

Matthew 25:41-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

I think it’s interesting to see how people react to this picture of Jesus as the king and judge of humanity.  Some people are all too ready for Jesus to return and get the judging underway.  Others—and I’m one of those—are content for him to take his own sweet time.  Yeah, there are a lot of things I would like to see repaired in this world, a lot of things where I would like to see the divine hand taking direct action, but then I remind myself that Christ is taking direct action through you and me and that, in fact, that is what this particular picture that Jesus is painting is really all about.

In one of our ELCA clergy Facebook groups this week, one pastor asked the question, “Where is the grace in this passage?”  That’s a really Lutheran question, and to their credit, a lot of our pastors did a pretty fair job of making a case for grace in this passage even though it is so clearly about judgment.  I was feeling a little bit contrarian, so I noted that the writer of Matthew was not a Lutheran and didn’t seem to be all that concerned about grace.  Righteousness, yes. Grace, not so much.  In fact, the word grace doesn’t appear even once in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

But that doesn’t mean grace isn’t in there.  Mercy is a kind of grace, and twice Jesus quotes Hosea and tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”[1]  In Matthew 18 he tells the parable of a slave who is forgiven a great debt, a story about mercy, grace and forgiveness and how we sometimes fail to pass that same grace along to others.  In chapter 23, Jesus again scolds the Pharisees for their lack of grace when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

In an odd way, there is even grace in this picture of the final judgment where the sheep are separated from the goats, even though the goats are sent away to eternal punishment.  To see that grace clearly, though, may take a bit of translating.

In Hebrew there are two words for “people.”  The word ‘am is used to designate people who are Jewish, the people of the covenant, our people.  Goy or goyim are people who are pagans or gentiles.  Those other people.  The same idea appears in the Greek of the New Testament.  Laoí is used for people inside the faith community or the church and éthne is used for people or peoples outside the faith community or church.  When this passage says “All the nations will be gathered before him,” the word that is translated as nations is éthne.  So this is a description of all those people who are outside the community of faith.  Those other people.  They’re the ones being judged.  At least that’s what’s implied in the language.

The implication of the language and the lesson for those within the community of believers, is that there are people who are righteous even among those who live by other beliefs and those who have never heard of Christ.  They are instinctively taking care of the persons in their communities who are in need, and in doing so, they are caring for Christ.  It’s specifically because they are not believers, not members of the community of faith, that they ask Jesus “When did we see you in these circumstances?”

So one way you might see grace in this passage about judgment, then, is that even though these “sheep” on the right hand were not people of the covenant or followers of Jesus, they inherit the kingdom because they lived lives of righteousness and compassion.  Christ, the king, surrounded by his angels, seated on the throne of his glory, brings in all these people who never knew him or knew about him because they simply acted out of compassion.

Having said that, it’s also a given that if you are part of the community of faith, a follower of Jesus, it is expected that you will also be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger.  Those things are part of the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.  This kind of righteousness rooted in compassion—it’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  It’s how we, too, encounter Jesus.

Whether you read it as applying to insiders or outsiders or both, it’s tempting sometimes to read this passage as our Ticket to Heaven Punch Card.  Feed the hungry?  Check.  Clothing for the poor? Check.  Welcome a stranger?  Check.  Visit someone in prison?  Check.  If we do that, though, we’ll miss the point of everything Jesus had to say in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven and about what constitutes real righteousness.  We would be like those scribes and Pharisees he rebuked in chapter 23, paying attention to the details but neglecting the justice, mercy, and faith at the heart of it all.  

Oh, and love. We would be missing the love.

In chapter 19 someone asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies, “If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”  “But which ones?” he is asked.  Jesus replies, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;  Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus repeats the commandment to love later in chapter 22 when he is asked what is the greatest commandment.  He replies, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” he wasn’t inventing a new rule, he was quoting Leviticus.  Love your neighbor as yourself was an important ethic of the Jewish people.  Jesus broadened that ethic and applied it more widely by expanding the definition of neighbor.  Because “love your neighbor” was so central to the teaching of Jesus, it became the central ethic of his followers.

Saint Paul wrote in Galatians, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Again, writing in Romans, he said, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[3]  James called it the royal law: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4]

What the “sheep,” the righteous who are rewarded in Matthew 25 are doing when they feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger is simply this: they are loving their neighbor.

In this picture of judgment in Matthew 25 we also see another portrait of love.  We see a king sitting on his throne of glory.  But this is a king who cares deeply for “the least of these” in the human family, a king who has compassion for those who struggle.  He cares so much about the struggling and suffering that how they are treated becomes the yardstick by which the others around them are judged.  We see a king who walks with them in their struggles and identifies with them.  With us.  We see a king who rewards those who show love and compassion through acts of mercy and assistance and kindness.  We see a king who defines “love your neighbor as yourself” as the heart and soul, the absolute bottom line of righteousness.

Love, real love, the kind that Jesus is talking about, the kind that comes from a decision and sticks around for the long haul, the kind that gives of itself… love is transformative.  It transforms the hungry into the well-fed.  It transforms the naked into the clothed.  It transforms the unemployed into workers.  It transforms the homeless into the housed.  It transforms the stranger into a friend. 

The other day I was listening to a TED talk by Andrew Solomon called Love, No Matter What.  His TED talk is about what life is like for families where one of the kids is different in some way, and in that talk he told about Clinton Brown.  

When Clinton was born he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism, a very disabling condition.  The doctors at the hospital told his parents that Clinton would never walk or talk, that he wouldn’t have any intellectual capacity, that he probably wouldn’t even recognize them.  The doctors suggested that they should just leave Clinton at the hospital so he could die there quietly and not be a burden to them.

But his mother wasn’t having it.   She took him home.  And even though she didn’t have a lot in the way of education or financial assets, she managed to find the best doctor in the country for treating diastrophic dwarfism and convinced him to take Clinton as a patient.  

Over the course of his childhood, Clinton had 30 major surgical procedures.  Since he was stuck in the hospital during all that time, he had tutors.  It turns out he was not intellectually challenged at all.  He studied hard and became the first member of his family to go to college.  And because he could walk now, he even lived on campus and managed to customize a car so it would accommodate his unusual body.

One day his mother was driving home and she saw his car parked in the parking lot of a bar near the college that was popular with the students.  “I saw that car, which you can always recognize, in the parking lot of a bar,” she said.  “And I thought to myself, ‘They’re six feet tall, he’s three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him.'” She said, “I knew I couldn’t go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone.  And then I thought, if someone had said to me, when he was born, that my future worry would be that he’d go drinking and driving with his college buddies …” 

Solomon asked her, “What do you think you did that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?” And she said, “What did I do? I loved him, that’s all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there.”

She loved him.  She loved him enough to not leave him at the hospital to die quietly.  She loved him enough to find the best doctor.  She loved him enough to make sure he was educated.  She loved him enough to see him as a person and not as a condition or an anomaly.  Love transformed him.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

Christ is with us and among us, always, waiting to see how we love each other and love the world…how we love him.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Matthew 9:13, 12:7

[2] Galatians 5:14

[3] Romans 13.9

[4] James 2:8

Hidden Talent

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I saw a video of a painting not long ago that was nothing short of mind-boggling.  It was a painting by Spanish artist Sergi Cadenas who has developed a technique that allows him to paint multiple images on the same canvas so that if you view the painting from one angle you see one thing but if you see it from a different angle you see something completely different.  For instance, in the first painting of his that I saw when you view the left side you see a portrait of a young woman but as you move to the right you see her age and when you come all the way to the right side of the painting, you see her as an old woman.  In another one of his paintings you see Marilyn Monroe transition into Albert Einstein as you move from left to right.  What you see depends entirely on where you stand.

Sometimes the parables of Jesus are like that.  Mark Allen Powell once talked about how his students in different countries interpreted the Parable of the Prodigal Son very differently.  When he asked his students, “Why did the prodigal have nothing to eat?”  His students in Tanzania replied, “Because no one gave him anything.” To them the idea that no one would give a hungry person something to eat was a shocking element in the story.   His students in St. Petersburg in Russia replied, “Because there was a famine in the land.”  They still had a cultural memory of the famine of World War II and that element of the story stood out to them.  His American students answered, “Because he wasted his father’s money.”  That’s the thing that stood out to them.  All of those things are in the text of the story, but people heard the same story very differently because of their history, culture and location.

“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from,” said Barbara Brown Taylor.  The same parable can look different or sound different to different people depending on where they’re hearing it from.  It’s like a Sergi Cadenas painting: what you see depends on where you’re standing.

I think when it comes to this parable, the Parable of the Talents, most of us have been standing in the same spot and hearing it or seeing it pretty much the same way all of our lives.  We hear it primarily as a stewardship parable.  God, the Master, gives each of us certain gifts and resources and abilities, talents, each according to our abilities.  We’re supposed to use our talents—our resources, gifts and abilities—to build up the church and further the kingdom of God.  Someday, either when Jesus returns or when we meet our Maker, there will be an accounting, and you surely do not want to be the “wicked and lazy slave” who just buried your talent in the ground.

There are some real strengths in hearing the parable this way.  We can focus on those first two slaves who apparently have a high opinion of their master and want to follow his example.  We can put our talents to good use.  We can put our abilities to good use.  We can enlarge them.  And in the end we can be praised and rewarded for doing so.

That raises the issue of how we see and understand God and God’s generosity, and that is always a good thing for each of us to spend some time thinking about.  You’ll notice that at the beginning of the parable the Master doesn’t actually give any instructions as he doles out the money, nor does he give any warnings about consequences.  The actions the slaves take depend entirely on how well they know the master and what they think about him.  

It’s the same for us.  The actions we take or fail to take with the gifts and resources God has placed in our hands depends entirely on how well we know God, how much we trust God, how we see God, how we understand God, how much we love God.  The first two slaves have a positive opinion of their Master and act accordingly.  The third slave regards him as “a harsh man” and something of a thief and acts accordingly.  So how do you picture God?  What kind of God are you responding to as you use the talents that are at your disposal?  Are you responding in trust to a benevolent God of grace and generosity or are you responding in timid fear to a God of harsh judgment?  Or are you just obliviously toodling along in life and not giving much thought to either God or your gifts?

God gives us talents and resources to help make God’s kin-dom a reality on earth as it is in heaven and to build up the church as the nucleus of that reality.  You’ve been blessed so you can be a blessing.  And I suppose I should stop right there and ask you to get out your checkbooks and sign up to volunteer for various ministries because what I’ve said so far is pretty much the bottom line of good stewardship and we’re long overdue for a word about stewardship.  

As I implied earlier, however, there is another way to hear this parable.  There is another place to stand so that we see the story differently, but to get there we need to be reminded of a few facts.

If we’re going to try to hear this parable the way those listening to Jesus heard it, one of the first things we need to know is that a talent was a huge amount of money.  One talent was equivalent to twenty years’ wages.  So there’s a bit of shock value right at the beginning of the story.  A man going on a journey summons three slaves.  He gives the first one of the equivalent of 100 years’ wages.  He gives the next one 40 years’ wages.  The third one gets 20 years’ wages.  It’s tempting to try to calculate what that would be in our money in our time, but it’s really kind of pointless because the other differences between their culture and ours and their economy and ours are too vast for the numbers to really have any meaning.  

The next thing to know if we’re going to try to hear this the way Jesus’ audience was hearing it is that, according to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, most people in the first century Mediterranean world had a “limited good” understanding of the world.  They believed that there was only so much of the pie to go around, so if someone had a great deal of the worlds goods it meant that someone else had been deprived.  Honorable people did not try to get more and those who did were regarded as thieves, even if their means were technically legal.  “Noblemen avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves. Such behavior could be condoned in slaves, since slaves were without honor anyway.”[1]

Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19 expressly forbid Jews to charge interest to other Jews, although Deuteronomy 23:20 says that interest may be charged to a foreigner.  Here again the wealthy used their slaves as a bypass of the law, making loans to the poor at interest rates anywhere from 60% to as high as 200%. According to Will Herzog,[2]  the poor would put their fields up as security and when they couldn’t pay the exorbitant interest, the wealthy would take their land.  So those first century people gathered around Jesus listening to this parable would probably assume that the wealthy master and his two slaves who doubled their money had “traded” in this way.

The slave who buried his Master’s talent in the ground was actually acting in accordance with Jewish law and custom.  The Talmud states that this is the safest way to safeguard someone else’s money.  As for the suggestion the Master makes that he should have left the talent with the banker so it could have at least made some interest, a case could be made that to do so would violate Torah.

So for those listening to Jesus, the Master who is wealthy enough to hand his slaves such staggering amounts of money must be a crook because how else would he ever come by such wealth?  He gives his money to his slaves to invest because that’s what rich people do to sidestep Torah and avoid tainting their reputations any further.  Two of the slaves enter wholeheartedly into this economic scheme and manage to double their master’s money.  One can only assume, if you’re in the crowd listening to Jesus, that they did it on the backs of the poor.  

And now comes the big question.  What if the third slave—the one the master calls wicked and lazy, the one who hid the talent in the ground—what if the third slave is really the hero of the story? What if when he says, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” –what if he’s simply calling him out and telling the truth.  What if Jesus is simply saying, then and now, this is how the system works, folks.  This is what the money people do.  This is why the CEO makes 300 times what the clerk makes.

Will Herzog, Amy-Jill Levine, Malina & Rohrbaugh and others have pointed out that, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was often using parables to highlight the disparities, inequities and injustices of the political and economic systems of his time…and ours.  

And yes, the third slave is punished.  His talent is taken away and given to the one who has ten.  Even though he does the right thing, according to the Talmud, he’s thrown out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  But then a few days after telling this story, at least in Matthew’s chronology, after turning over the tables of the money changers and standing up to both political and religious authorities, Jesus, himself, is thrown to the darkness of crucifixion and death.  He will be buried like the third slave’s talent.  But he will rise again.

So how do you hear this parable now?

Do you hear it as a call to stewardship?  Do you hear it as a call to take stock of the gifts God has entrusted to you, a call to evaluate how you have been using those gifts?  That’s still a perfectly good way to hear it.

Do you hear it as an invitation to consider how you have been thinking about and seeing God and how you respond to your picture of God?

Do you hear this parable as an invitation to take another look at how our economic systems work—to look at who benefits and who gets the shaft?

There is more than one way to hear it.  There is more than one face in  this painting.

And that is so Jesus.

Regardless of how you hear it, how are you going to respond to it?


[1] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 149

[2] William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Try Wait

Matthew25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

In the middle of Hanalei town on the island of Kauai is a long grassy common area where people can sit and eat or just chill.  Along its southeast edge is a line of shops and a cafe in what used to be the old school building.  There’s also another little food place that sits apart from the old school building and intrudes into the middle of the common.  It’s Federico’s Fresh Mex Cuisine now, and the food’s pretty good.  But that little place used to be Bubba’s Burgers.  And Bubba’s in Hanalei was legendary.

There was always a line of people out the door waiting to get burgers and fries, Bubba’s t-shirts or hats.  And the people working in that place—well you never saw a crew work so hard and so fast to keep a line moving.  And all without air conditioning.  And even though anybody with eyes could see that these amazing people were working as hard and as fast as humanly possible, there was always some Haole bugging the staff to ask when their order would be ready.  When that happened, the person handling orders at the counter would just point to a sign that was 100% pure Hawaiian philosophy: 

TRY WAIT.

Try wait.  

Don’t you love it?  Try wait.

We’ve had a lot of practice this week with “try wait” as we waited for ballots to be counted and results to be reported so we could find out who is going to be president.   It’s been interesting to see how people handled the suspense as we watched states move from one color to another.  I think we could all sympathize with the little three-year old girl who asked, “Mommy, how much longer are you gonna watch the map show?”

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story about waiting.  Ten bridesmaids take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom.  In a traditional wedding the bridegroom would come with his companions to meet the bride at her parents’ house.  Her bridesmaids would then escort her along with the groom and his companions to the groom’s house for the wedding and celebration.  If the wedding was to take place after sunset, the bridesmaids’ lamps would be essential to help keep people from stumbling in the dark.  

When Jesus tells this story it all sounds perfectly normal to his audience.  The bride is assumed to be in her parents’ house waiting with family.  The bridesmaids are waiting in the courtyard.  Five of them were smart enough to bring extra oil for their lamps.  Well of course they did.  Who would be foolish enough not to bring extra oil?  Everyone knows how these things can go.  What if the groom and his friends have a little pre-party party and lose track of time?  What if the groom’s uncle Mordecai is late in arriving from his village?  These things happen.  Of course they brought extra oil.

Ah, says Jesus, but five were not so smart.  They didn’t bring any extra oil.  And the bridegroom was delayed.  Uncle Mordecai was very late.  And it took a while for the best man to sober up.  And all that time the bridesmaids were sitting in the courtyard of the bride’s parents’ house with their lamps burning because any minute now the bridegroom might come. 

But he didn’t.  And they fell asleep.  All ten of them.

Finally, at midnight—Midnight!—somebody shouts that the bridegroom is coming.  The bridesmaids scramble to trim their wicks and refill and relight their lamps.  The foolish five who didn’t bring any extra oil see their lamps sputtering out and ask their sisters to share some of their extra oil.  “No!” they reply.  “There won’t be enough for you and for us.”  

It sounds harsh and stingy, but they’re right to say that.  It’s going to be bad enough that the whole wedding party has to go in procession to the groom’s house with only the dim light of five lamps instead of ten.  How awful would it be if they had ten lamps but they all burned out half way there and everyone was left to stumble blindly in the dark?  What if the bride stepped in donkey dumplings?  Or broke her ankle in a pothole?

And this, if you’re listening to Jesus tell this story in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, this next line is where you would chuckle or maybe even laugh out loud.  “You better go to the dealers and buy some more oil for yourselves,” say the wise bridesmaids to the foolish bridesmaids.  Find a dealer and buy some oil at midnight?  That’s funny, that is.  That’s nonsense! And what’s even more ridiculous?  They try to do it!  These five silly women run off into the night to try to find more oil.  Which, of course, they can’t.

While they were gone, the bridegroom came and the whole wedding party, minus the foolish bridesmaids, made their way to the wedding feast and went inside and shut the gates.  Later the other bridesmaids managed to find their way to the wedding but the gate was already shut.  They banged on the gate and cried out “Lord, lord, open up!  It’s us!”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

And how could he know them?  He couldn’t see their faces standing out there on the other side of the gate in the dark with no lamp to light them.

Hmm.  So aside from a few chuckles at the expense of the foolish bridesmaids, where is the grace in this story?  Where is the good news?

Well let’s try this.  Let’s say that we’re the bridesmaids.

If we’re the bridesmaids, then it’s both grace and good news that we’re invited to the wedding.  We are invited to the eternal celebration of God’s love.

That invitation is a gift of grace.  But that grace, like freedom, brings with it responsibilities.  That’s the oil in the lamp. A bridesmaid gets to go to the celebration.  But a bridesmaid also has responsibilities as part of the wedding party.

When the foolish bridesmaids are standing in the dark asking to be admitted to the wedding and the gatekeeper says, “Truly, I don’t know you,” it’s an echo of Matthew 7:22-23 where Jesus says,  “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Clearly it’s not enough just to talk the talk.  It’s not enough even to “do many deeds of power” in Jesus’ name.  God isn’t interested in our showmanship or our piety or our religiosity.  You need to be recognized.  

So what does Jesus want?

In Matthew 5:16 in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  Light does not illuminate itself.  It illuminates everything it shines on.  Our job is to bring light and to be light, to shine the light on others, to help others see.  Our job is also to be the heat, the energy that gets the work done in a world that needs work so that God’s reign may come on earth as it is in heaven.   

When we bear the light of Christ, when it shines through us like living lamps of God’s love, it makes us recognizable as companions of Christ.  When we bear the light of God’s love we are known by Christ.

Another bit of grace I see in this story, and I admit it doesn’t look like grace or good news at first glance, is in the very last line at the close of the parable where Jesus says,  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The grace here is in the warning.  Jesus tells us flat out that the day will come when the door will close.  It is an article of our faith, our creed, that Christ will return.  We don’t talk about it much.  It’s not the centerpiece of our tradition as it is with some.  But it’s there.  

Jesus gives us a warning.  Someday, in your personal life or in the life of the world, the end will come.  It may catch you by surprise.  Keep awake.  Or it may seem like you’ve been waiting forever.  Try wait some more.  Either way, keep awake.  Stay ready.

The big mistake the foolish bridesmaids make in this parable is not that they didn’t bring extra oil. That’s certainly a mistake, but it’s not the mistake that leaves them standing in the dark.  The really huge mistake they make that ends up excluding them from the party is that they go running off into the night to try to find more oil instead of staying with the wedding party to do their main job which was to escort the bride.

On May 18, 1790 the sky was thick and heavy over New England.  The sun was pale and red in the early morning and at dusk, and when the moon rose it was pink.  The next day, May 19th, starting at about  9 or 10 in the morning, the sky began to darken.  By noon the sun was completely obscured, leaving almost all of New England in darkness.  Roosters began crowing.  Hens returned to roost.  Crickets began chirping.  Cows returned to their barns.   Many people, thinking it was the Day of Judgment, hurried to their churches to make confession and pray.  

The Connecticut Governor’s Council happened to be meeting and it was suggested that they adjourn so that they might prepare to meet their Maker.  Councilman Abraham Davenport, a Connecticut militia colonel, wouldn’t hear of it. “I am against adjournment,” he said. “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”

Some things take a long time coming.  Our election this week has taught us that.  All votes will be counted and challenges met.  Eventually.  The pandemic will end.  Eventually.  In the meantime, let your light shine.  And when the election and the pandemic are behind us and we start to move forward again, let your light shine some more.  That’s how Jesus will recognize you when he returns.

Keep awake, let your light shine, do your duty… and when necessary, try wait.

(Note:  There is still a Bubba’s Burgers in Kapa’a.  Worth the wait.)

Saint Don of Long Beach

Matthew 5:1-12

My sense of time is out of sync.  With Covid messing up all our internal clocks and scrambling our routines, Summer didn’t so much fade into Fall as crash land into it.  Halloween just didn’t feel like the big seasonal transition point that it has been in past years, and after seeing everyone in masks for nine months it lost a bit of its punch.  Still, this is where we are in the calendar, so it’s probably best for all our psyches if we acknowledge the season and move forward.

Since Halloween and Reformation Day happen at the same time—you do remember that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on All Hallows Eve in 1517, right?—I always used to suggest to my confirmation students that they should dress for Halloween as great characters from the Reformation.  You know, Martin or Katie Luther, Phillip Melancthon, Duke Frederick the Wise, Father Staupitz, Cardinal Cajetan, Pope Leo X….  For some reason none of the kids ever did it.  

Did you dress up for Halloween?  Did you put on a costume or a disguise?  I think we should stretch the All Hallows fun for a while.  I was thinking a kind of masquerade might be fun.  It might even help to take some of the anxiety out of election day.  

I think we should all pretend to be Saints.  Wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate All Saints Day?   And the best part is, you don’t have to wear a costume or make yourself look different in any way.  You would need to wear a mask if you go out in public.  Because that’s what a saint would do. To protect others.  But other than that, you could just look like you.  Because if you’re a disciple of Jesus—if you’re someone who is really trying hard to listen closely to Jesus and live the way he calls us to live—you are a saint.

Somewhere along the way in the last two thousand years we got the idea that saints have to be dead—that saints are particularly holy persons who have performed miracles both before and after death.  Somewhere we got the idea that to be a saint you have to be people put through a rigorous certification process by the Roman church. 

Well, those people definitely are saints.  They deserve our respect, and any number of them can serve as good examples of how to live a saintly life.  But when St. Paul addressed his letters to “all the saints” in Phillipi or Corinth or Rome he wasn’t talking about people who had been canonized by an official process that didn’t yet exist.  And he certainly wasn’t talking to people who were dead.  The word he used, the word we translate as “saints” was hagiois.  It means those who are consecrated or dedicated to following Jesus and serving the community of the faithful.  It was Paul’s way of referring to all those who had been baptized.

So, if you’ve been baptized—consecrated to Christ—you are a saint.

So see!  No costume! 

Except there kind of is.  A costume.  Of sorts.

It’s a very subtle disguise we wear, we saints.  So subtle that most never see it.

Our costume, our masquerade, is that we actually live in a different world, a different reality, than everyone else, a world that is in, with, and under, and around, and through, and over the world everyone else is living in.  We who are saints are called to live in the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is not some future reality that we may accomplish someday.  Well, it is that, but it’s also a present reality that we can be living into right now. 

The kingdom of heaven is not some abstract life after life.  It is not some mythical place with pearly gates and golden slippers and halos and harps.  It’s not fluffy clouds and angels.

The kingdom of heaven occurs when people take the words of Jesus to heart and live into them.  Here.  Now.  Always.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the contrast between heaven and earth as something that isn’t as binary as spiritual versus physical or now versus later.   Heaven is, quite simply, where God’s will is done.  Heaven is where God rules rather than where “the kings of the earth” hold sway. Heaven is the place God is constructing and inviting us to enter. Now.  Not in some indefinite future.  Not after death.  Now.

Heaven is both present and future, since God is both present and future.  God’s kingdom is not yet fully established “on earth as it is in heaven,” but we are invited to live into it now and to help make it more fully a reality.  The thing is, though, even though we are saints we need instructions on how to do that.  Fortunately, Jesus gives us those instructions.  

The Sermon on the Mount is, as Amy-Jill Levine describes it, “the beginner’s guide to the kingdom of heaven,”[1] and the Beatitudes which we see in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:1-12) are the first lesson in that guide.  This is the lesson where the saints learn how to see, because living in this other reality, the kingdom of heaven that’s layered over the world of everybody else, requires a special kind of vision.  

The first thing we need to learn to see is who are the blessed ones.  We need to learn to see this because common wisdom tells us that the blessed ones in this world are the rich, the powerful, the well-connected—the people who know where are all the strings are and how to pull them.  The blessed ones, according to common wisdom, are the healthy, the well-fed, the well-housed, the well thought-of, and the well-off –those for whom everything is going pretty darn well.  

Jesus would quibble.  Those folk may or may not be blessed.  Certainly they are fortunate.  But blessed, as Jesus is using it here, is different.  Blessed means God sees them.  Blessed means God takes note of them.  Blessed means God is on their side and in their corner.  

So who are the blessed?  

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  I’ve always struggled with understanding exactly who “the poor in spirit” are, with what exactly that phrase really means.  One understanding has said that the poor in spirit are those who struggle with or are weak in their faith.  Maybe, but that has never felt quite right to me.  Another definition says the poor in spirit are simply those who are not being conceited or prideful.  That might be closer, but it’s not quite there.

Amy-Jill Levine defines the poor in spirit as “those who recognize that they are both the beneficiaries of the help of others and part of a system in which they are to pay it forward and help those whom they can.  Poor in spirit are those who do not sit around saying ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished,’ or worse, feel resentful because they have not received what they consider sufficient honor.  They know they did the right thing; they know God knows, and that’s sufficient recognition indeed.”[2]

The poor in spirit see their privilege.  They are aware of their interdependence.  They see the gap between what they have and what others do not have and they have a vision of leveling the field.  The poor in spirit feel empathy for those who do not have what they have and that spurs them to generosity. They are blessed because they have that insight, that vision of the kin-dom, an understanding of their common humanity with others. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

Let’s back up for a moment to our definition of blessed.  The Greek word here is makarioi. It literally means the blessed ones but in most of our translations it becomes blessed are.  But it’s still a tricky word.  Makarios, the root word, can mean happy, fortunate, free from care, favored.  It can also mean a gift bestowed.   None of those definitions seem to go with “those who mourn.”

As I noted a moment ago, Jesus is using the term blessed a little differently.  Remember, this is lesson one in entering into the kingdom of heaven.  This is learning to see how God is present and at work in our lives, even in the excruciatingly painful moments.  Even when we mourn. 

Death is painful.  Death is real.  And the Bible takes death seriously.  The scriptures do not diminish mourning with platitudes.  Jesus weeps for Lazarus.  The disciples mourn for Jesus.

So where is the blessing for those who mourn?

“In part those who mourn are blessed because not everyone can mourn.  To mourn is to say, ‘I loved this person, and I desperately miss this person’—a heart that knows how to grieve is a heart that know how to love,” writes Amy-Jill Levine.[3]

Being able to mourn also means taking time to mourn.  Our culture is so uncomfortable with loss and grief that we tend to want to rush through it and diminish it.  We say the most inane things to each other instead of acknowledging the loss and listening with open hearts and open arms or simply sitting in silence.

Blessed are those who mourn because they take time to mourn.  Blessed are those who mourn because God stands with the brokenhearted. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Meek does not mean insignificant.  It does not mean being a doormat.  The Greek word that’s used here is praus. It’s the same word that’s used to describe a wild animal that’s been tamed.  A tame lion is still a lion.  It might be more helpful to think in terms of gentle.  Blessed are the gentle.  Blessed are the nonviolent.  Blessed are those with great authority who do not lord it over others.  Blessed are those who model servant leadership rather than despotism.  Blessed are those who do not use their power for exploitation.  They shall inherit the earth.

To inherit the earth is not a windfall.  It is a responsibility.  Creation is handed into your care and stewardship.  It is something to be treasured and tended and cared for.  It is an inheritance to be passed along to bless future generations.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, righteousness is one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Righteousness is also one of the hallmarks of the kingdom of heaven.  In Greek, the word is dikaiosyne. It’s a compound word combining dike, justice, and syne, together.  It means to be just together or to create justice together.   Righteousness affects the whole community.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who want to live in a just and fair world where laws and economics and opportunities are applied evenly and fairly to everyone regardless of their station or standing in life.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They will be filled because their hunger and thirst will move them to address the inequities and inequalities of the world one by one as they encounter them.  Their lives will always have purpose and they will know that they are doing good as the prophet Micah described it: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

And so the list goes on—the beginner’s guide for entering the kingdom of heaven.  We keep learning– learning to see life through the blessed eyes of the merciful and the pure of heart, learning to be peacemakers.  Learning to endure persecution if we must.  Learning to live in this other reality that is in, with, and under the day-to-day world.  Learning to live into the kingdom of heaven.  Learning to be saints.

And yes, this is All Saints Day, the day we pause to remember the saints who have gone before us.  Saints like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi.  But also we remember our local, everyday saints.  Saints like St. Mike and St. Marion and St. Don of Long Beach.  This is the day we stop to remember how they were blessed, and how they blessed us.

This is a day to remember that, now and always, we are blessed.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven; Abingdon, 2020; xiii

[2] Ibid, 8

[3] Ibid;12