Christmas Eve Communion Message

This will be my last sermon for a while, even though it’s not really a sermon. Starting this Sunday (1/6) we are going to a shorter worship, preceded by a Faith Formation hour for everyone. I’ll be leading a discussion on Christianity 101–what our faith is all about and what Jesus’ significance is for our faith. 

I’m not sure what I should post about. I’m going to try to preach my 3-4 minute sermons without a full text. Maybe I can record them and post a sound file. I’d also love to allow people to keep up on the Faith Formation material. Maybe I can summarize the discussion here. I’d welcome suggestions!

Communion Invitation 2018

Christmas celebrates the coming of God’s own personal being into this flawed and fragile world. In doing so God affirms the continuing beauty and goodness of this world, and reminds us that our ordinary life shows God’s beauty and that we can reflect this goodness. God also commences in the infant Jesus a new kingdom, a new human order with a simple shape: There is now one human family, extending to the ends of the earth.

And so this night we recognize that we all participate in our own way in this spirit of one human family, all year, whenever we treat each other as siblings, not competitors; as equals, not superiors and inferiors; as belonging to one another in God, not as foreigners or enemies. Every time you reach out to that oddball kid at school, you are participating in that spirit of one family. Whenever you remember that your employee is a full human being facing all kinds of challenges, not just contracted help, or you likewise treat with compassion the maybe irritable person working behind the counter and you respect her whole humanity; every time you take responsibility for your part of the problems in your marriage or in a rocky friendship, and say, “I want to set this right”; every time you resist the appeal to vote your pocketbook and instead vote for what you think will help all of God’s children; when you do these things, you are enacting this one human family, and you can do this every day. This is a manifestation of the birth of Christ always happening, of God-with-us, always renewing our humanity.

In the infant Jesus, God reminds us that our ordinary life shows God’s beauty and that we can reflect this goodness every day. And God also commences in the infant Jesus a new kingdom: There is now one human family, extending to the ends of the earth. 2018 years later, we tonight share the bread and cup of Jesus, enacting this new human order as a community in his name and according to his grace. This is a family table for a family that has no end.

Let’s not pretend that creating this family is easy. There are many real forces that pull us apart and set us against one another. There are also real hurts, real sins, real injustice that have to be amended. The church sets ourselves to this work, week after week, starting with accepting with grace each other’s unique backgrounds and differing gifts and oddities and flaws. We also strive to bring the spirit of one family to our community and our world. We hope soon to host a Red/Blue Workshop run by Better Angels, whose goal is to build mutual understanding and areas of consensus across the red/blue divide—talk about real forces pulling us apart! We host events to bring our community together, often around a table—Dinofest, Chicken Pie Supper, Family Fun nights. And we seek to aid those in our community who most need it, raising money for food aid, supporting Neighbors Helping Neighbors, our local food pantry, and joining those who live on the streets for a meal and worship. In one of our favorite new ways to serve, we put together bags of supplies that are useful and encouraging to people living on the street. Can you imagine not having a real home to go back to after this service? In a few weeks we’ll do a big assembly of these bags, but tonight we’ve got a few dozen, and you can help us in this ministry by taking one with you—they will be near the door as you go out. Keep it in your car. When you see someone asking for help on the street, you don’t have to choose between doing nothing and giving money. Give them a blessing bag. I’ve met with such warm gratitude doing this, and struck up really great and enlightening conversations. And thanks for helping us spread God’s grace.

We are all a little homeless in this broken world. People affected by the tsunami in Indonesia are much more so; pray for them. We all need a bigger family. Tonight God brings us all a blessing, a token of what we need to live abundantly. I’d love it if we could all come forward and be a family gathered around this table, sharing the good things of God by the light of grace. If you can’t come forward, we will serve you at your pew, but otherwise you can come forward as directed by a deacon, and take the bread, dip it in the chalice of juice, and give thanks to God with an Amen. Then receive a candle and we’ll sing by candlelight, before we go out to continue in song or make our way to family feasts tonight. You can bring your coats and things with you, or come back to get them later. We can continue by following along in our Communion Liturgy insert.

In this one infant Jesus God became one with the whole human race and even the cosmos. All are welcome to share in these good gifts as one family.

 

 

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Fourth in Advent (12/23): “Grace as Justice”

Micah 5:2-5a ; Luke 1:47-55

“Grace” is one of those words that says it all, when it comes to the Christian faith, Like “Love,” or “hope,” or “joy,” or “peace,” and above all like “Jesus the Christ.” Yet these words do almost too good a job saying it all; we can easily forget each of these words and the faith they stand for are endlessly rich and complex. Just talking about “grace” doesn’t work if we have a thin, one dimensional idea of grace.

Picture it this way. “Grace” acts like a window through which we peer in at the many-roomed mansion that is our Christian faith. This mansion of ours is a place of wisdom and power, a home where we are welcomed and can explore; a place where we can learn and grow up, like any home. This Advent we’ve been pausing to look through this window of grace, frosty with the mid-winter chill; to peer in at the foyer of our house of faith, where the Christmas tree is set up and decorated, and the stockings are hung, ready to welcome us and the infant Christ; and we are almost ready to step inside into the warmth and join the feast of Christmas.

As we have peered through this window of grace, the most obvious picture we get of our Christian faith is as a place where God welcomes everyone into the new beginning we talked about two weeks ago, receiving us with forgiveness and a clean slate. It turns out that that window of grace was in fact on the front door, which is always unlocked but which God, on Christmas morning in particular, flings wide open, inviting all inside. And when we enter by grace, that grace of welcome cheers us, makes us thankful, like we talked about last week, and works in us to welcome others as they enter this joyful house. All this is so basic to who we are, and expressed in the UCC slogan we adopted into our Mission Statement: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

We have been peering in this widow and preparing ourselves to receive this joyful welcome—partly by reminding ourselves just how cold it is out here! But like any window, grace affords us a clear view of only some parts of this great mansion of faith. There are many rooms we can’t see easily through this window, although by grace we can enter in and begin to explore—which is essentially what we do throughout the liturgical year, season by season; we explore the many rooms of our Christian faith. And we learn and do different things in these many rooms.

For instance, we get a different view into this mansion today from Micah, one of the earlier prophets, during whose lifetime the northern part of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Micah’s prophesies are not evidently full of grace; there’s a lot about God judging Israel by letting the Assyrians conquer them. But there’s also a hope for restoration, which is featured in our passage. So we recognize grace in that. But with Micah, it’s like we snuck around the back of the mansion and peered through a high window that’s almost out of our view: the window that Israel used to watch for the coming of another king like David. In our reading, Micah is peering out that window, looking for one who will come from David’s hometown of Bethlehem, one who will restore the security and power of Israel. When he comes, “[Israel] shall live secure, for now he [the king] shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace.” What Micah is looking for in this house is security and power, the kind of thing that only a strong king can give. If you keep on reading, he says in the next passage, in effect, ‘And if those nasty Assyrians come looking for trouble, we’ll wallop ‘em!” So when he says this king “shall be the one of peace,” he probably means that the king will defeat our enemies.

Even though we Christians have long appropriated Micah’s words to describe the one we wait for in Advent, we are often quick to point out that Jesus isn’t that kind of king, which is true. Maybe Micah is looking for the wrong person and the wrong goods inside this mansion. Jesus isn’t a warrior king! But before we scold him and click our tongues (tsk tsk), we should ask ourselves: are we any more consistent? How many of us are looking for the same thing as Micah: peace through security, peace through making our enemies sorry, peace through power and intimidation. Of course we are; it’s almost inevitable in the world we live in. But when we light that peace candle, are we even looking to Christ to bring peace in some very different way, in his utterly unique way of being King? Are we peering anxiously inside this mansion to find real peace, world peace? Aren’t we more often than not looking in a very different neighborhood for peace among nations—looking to the great halls of power and American might, and the palace of some Strong Man? Micah at least pinned his hopes on God’s house. We divide our hopes and commitments, devoting some, probably a lot, to worldly power, which deals ‘with the real world,’ and then we come to visit the mansion of God as if it were a charming rustic cottage where one can pop in for a peaceful little getaway, before going back downtown to get what we really want: power, security.

Well, by grace God still lets us in. But maybe after popping through the door of grace, and receiving a lovely greeting and welcome, we should stay awhile, and look around a little. Maybe we’ll find some other rooms in this mansion that are rather surprising (surprises are part of Christmas), and that may just offer us what we thought we could only find across town in the great halls of worldly power.

Mary’s magnificat, as it’s traditionally called, comes as one of those surprises. We still get to it through the door of grace. Mary, remember, was greeted by Gabriel with words that literally mean, “Grace to you! O Graced-one!” She’s then told, “You have found favor (charis, grace) with God.” Today we read Mary’s Magnificat, as we call it. This is Mary’s big number, her show-stopping aria, or soul-bearing anthem, to speak more in a pop vernacular. What do we expect Mary to sing about? Well, we have this image, don’t we, of Mary “meek and mild,” as one song puts it. Perhaps that comes from her response to Gabriel, “Here am I, a handmaid of the Lord.” That sounds so feminine, doesn’t it? (Leaving aside associations with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”) We think of Mary as a good traditional girl; paintings and images of Mary make her look quiet and submissive, the archetype of a mother who is there to serve Gabriel and then serve her son the king. It doesn’t help that Luke gives us no background on Mary; he tells us more about Elizabeth. So we don’t know what struggles Mary has faced, except we can assume that the premarital pregnancy was awkward to say the least.

So what would you expect if the Magnificat were a show-stopping number in a broadway musical? This is my version:

Oh this is what I always wanted,

A tiny little baby of my own,

Someone to love and cuddle,

I’ll never again feel all alone.

One day he’ll do great things,

Famed for all the battles he’s won

I just hope when he looks down from his throne,

He’ll see me and remember, he’s still my son.

Ah, so beautiful! That’s what we love—a pious mother who defers to and is fulfilled by her son.

But wait a minute, that’s not what we get at all. (You know that sounds you get when the needle gets dragged across the record; that’s the effect of reading the Magnificat.) Mary doesn’t mention Jesus or her child at all in this song. It’s all about what God has done for her. “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant”—now we could also translate lowliness as “humiliation,” and that makes a big difference. “Lowliness” implies that God favored Mary because she was so meek and mild; but I think in context it makes more sense that God is vindicating her humiliation stemming from her poverty, perhaps, or more likely her shunning for being an unwed mother (why else did she stay with her cousin for three months of her pregnancy?). ‘They shunned me at first, and called me a disgrace, but now all generations will call me blessed.” The God to whom Mary sings is not one who gives patient endurance to those who are wronged, but a savior, a vindicator, a Mighty One who does great things for me, for those who fear him, because Mary believed that God had the power to shake things up and set things right.

In what follows, Mary doesn’t sound like a quiet, passive, peasant girl with her hair demurely covered, as she’s always pictured (try doing an image search). She sounds like a badass revolutionary. “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 [same word here as “the lowliness of his servant,” so this is definitely about reversing the unjust order rather than rewarding patience and meekness].” Anticipating Jesus’ preaching blessings and woes in chapter 6, Mary continues: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” And yes, God has helped his servant Israel as he promised, but for Mary this is just a part God’s radical justice work—righting wrongs, reversing fortunes, overturning the established order.

Hail Mary, full of grace. We gender grace as feminine, and justice as masculine. Medieval Christians went to Mary for mercy and help, because they associated Jesus with the scary final judgment and God the Father with a harsh demand for perfection. So we assume Mary is grace-ful, like women are supposed to be; and we imagine justice is too manly for her. So it is we assume grace is the opposite of justice, like woman is to man. If we go to God for grace, we must have to go to some other god or some blowhard strongman for justice.

It is true that we need grace to correct our ideas of justice. Even Scripture sometimes presents us with a narrow, nationalist view of justice, like what we hear in Micah’s longing for another King David. The message of grace seeks to correct this kind of God-is-on-our-side thinking. God’s favor is not intended for one people and against all others. God loves everybody, so we say with some justice. This is the message of grace befitting the entryway, the Christmas-decorated foyer of God’s mansion, God’s house of salvation. And if you explore no farther in this house, if you don’t look around and get the plan of the whole house and wonder what it’s like to actually live here, you might like a caroler or a C-and-E Christian say, “Thanks, this was lovely, see you next time” and you’re out the door. (Don’t worry, I love welcoming our C-and-E folks for Christmas Eve. I’ll be good.) And that’s ok, grace doesn’t try to trap you inside, like some Hotel California. So you go on outside and maybe say to yourself, ‘Ah I like the warmth and peace of that house—it does give me peace in my soul, peace of mind. I’ll have to come back next year. But Ah! the night is cold, life is unfair; our enemies are bastards; so I’m going to swing by the State House and marvel at all the real power that’s keeping us safe and secure.’

If that’s you, then you missed wandering upstairs, and ducking into that low-lit room at the end of the hall where Mary is laying out her revolutionary plans on a table, and she’s arguing with Micah: “Defeating our enemies won’t bring us peace! The real enemy isn’t them over there, it’s not Assyria! The enemy is in our midst, when the proud humiliate the lowly; when those in power oppress those who are ruled; when people are going hungry because they are so poor, and the rich don’t lift a finger to help. Real peace comes whenever God overthrows all this injustice, just as God has always done, starting with Egypt. And by the way, Micah, God had nothing against Egypt—he had Joseph help Egypt, remember? It’s when started enslaving people that God fought against them.” And I imagine Mary being cheered on by others around the table: by Amos and Isaiah, by Miriam and steely Deborah. And I picture Jesus listening carefully in the corner, marveling at his mother.

Mary is full of grace, and that’s why she longs for justice. This house welcomes all, it wishes peace on all who enter, and it also invites you upstairs to get to work on justice so we can make that peace complete and lasting.

 

Prison Sentencing Reform: This is fun and informative…

A nice interactive piece in the NY Times: Interactive Op-ed on sentencing

There is a broad, bi-partisan consensus that the “get tough on crime” movement that flourished in the 1990s (partly under Bill Clinton) was misguided. From a Christian perspective, it was bent on vengeance rather than restitution and reconciliation. The article makes the point that much of the work going forward will have to take place at the local and state levels. We should get to know what’s happening at our local prisons!

Third in Advent (12/16): “Grace and Thankfulness”

Isaiah 12:1-6 (Assurance of pardon) ; Philippians 4:4-7 ; Luke 3: 7-18

Advent is a time to rediscover grace, one of the most central words in our Christian language of faith. We can prepare ourselves for Christmas by examining our world and ourselves and confessing that we very much need to be renewed by grace.

Last week we talked about grace as a new beginning. Instead of bearing a grudge, God offers new beginnings as a free gift. Do you know the word “gratis?” It’s a Latin word meaning, “freely, by kindness.” Gratis is from the Latin gratia, grace. God is generous with new beginnings, and we the church are called to do likewise.

Today, we take a cue from our Advent candle and attend to the joy that comes from grace. Even the secular celebration of Christmas has preserved this connection of grace and joy by putting gift-giving at the heart of Christmas. We enjoy exchanging gifts with friends and family (especially if we get as good as we give). But we can’t really give God anything. We can’t exchange gifts with God. People have tried: we’ve sacrificed animals and tried to give all kinds of things up to God. But talk about hard to shop for! God is all fullness and completion in eternity; God doesn’t need anything from us. Instead, God invites us to repent for each other’s benefit, as John preaches repentance in today’s gospel reading. He doesn’t tell people to sacrifice something to God. He says, if you have two coats, give one away. (We’ve got a rack for that in the parish hall.) Share your food. Don’t cheat others or extort money from them.

But repentance the way John preaches it sounds anxious and worried: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Bah humbug! We talked about this passage at the Thursday Bible reflection. For me, John’s peaching as Luke presents it is one of those places where the Bible is unintentionally funny. To begin with, John sounds so harsh. He talks about the coming messiah as one who will baptize not with cool, refreshing water but “with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear this threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now, when you thresh wheat, you beat it, then throw it up into the air, which makes the light chaff or skin float away in the breeze, while the grain falls down where you can collect it. The chaff here are those people who do not repent. You could just let the chaff blow away, but John gratuitously adds that the messiah will burn them with unquenchable fire. And then Luke comments quite matter-of-factly, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Isn’t that funny? What good news?

Did John really get the gospel, the good news, the joy? He sounds so angry and threatening, greeting the crowds who came out to be baptized with, “You brood of vipers!” Now, our welcome ministries committee might take note. John gives us a genuinely biblical way to welcome visitors to the church. How about a big sign out front: “Welcome brood of vipers!” But I for one am glad John is not on that committee.

Where in John’s proclamation is the grace and the joy that arises from it? The funny irony is that, contrary to Luke’s gloss about proclaiming the good news, John is so consumed by a zeal for fiery judgment that he misses the joy and good news that this messiah represents. Maybe that’s why, in the very next passage, John baptizes Jesus apparently without recognizing him. And later on, in chapter 7 John sends messengers from prison to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Evidently, John was not hearing enough fire and brood of vipers talk to be sure that this was the real messiah.

So we can chuckle at John and his misguided zeal. But what about us? Do we know this Jesus any better? Do we understand him any better than John did? Or do we also place misguided expectations on him? I don’t think we in this church overplay the fire of judgment, as John did. But you have to hand it to John: he understood that the messiah will overturn everything. The coming of the Christ is earth-shaking for the state of the world (more on that next week), and has serious consequences for how we live our life, particularly with regard to how we deal with wealth and our professional obligations—sharing coats and food, and following good professional ethics. We understand better than John that Jesus represents love and forgiveness, but have we perhaps made Jesus into someone who leaves everything pretty much the way it is, and leaves us the way we are? I don’t see much grace in John’s fire and judgment, but if the Christ is not in fact changing the world both on the big scale and in our every day practices, where’s the grace in that? Where’s the joy? ‘Oh yay! We get more of the same for Christmas.’ I can hear John Lennon: “So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one begun.” Maybe there’s something to the edginess of John’s call to prepare and repent that we need to listen to after all.

The test of grace is joy, our theme for today. Paul exclaims to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Chairete! Rejoice! Do you hear the charis, grace, remember, in Paul’s “Chairete?” Like John, Paul proclaims, “The Lord is near!” But he adds, “Do not worry about anything. But let your requests be known to God”—in other words, don’t be anxious, but don’t pretend everything is fine either. The peace we are looking for in Christ is not some Pollyannaish peace that refuses to see the reality of suffering and want and injustice. The peace we are looking for is not in a Hallmark version of Christmas that whites out everything with snow and glow; it is a peace that surpasses understanding, a peace uniquely grounded in God, one which only faith can see.

I guess the lesson here is that while grace is freely given, it is not easy to receive correctly. We easily misunderstand and misapply grace. Israel got it wrong over and over again, and so has the church—Catholics err on grace one way, Protestants err another way. John can only see fire and judgment; we are so easily lulled into a superficial Hallmark grace in which everything really is lovely if we just have a positive attitude.

What we need is a grace that is serious and world-changing, like John expected, but which does not make us anxious, rather it always grounds us in joy—Rejoice in the Lord always! We rejoice in the midst of our suffering, not by denying our suffering, and even less by ignoring the suffering of others. Instead, we pour out our requests to God, as Paul says, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving”—eucharistias. Remember, the other side of grace, charis is eucharistos, thankfulness; grace gives rise to gratitude.

Now, gratitude isn’t like John’s scary call to repent and bear fruit or else. You can’t just will yourself to be grateful; much less can you be threatened into gratitude. (But am I the only parent who has found himself saying, “You need to be grateful!”) Real gratitude only arises as a response to a gift, only when grace is seen and acknowledged. When you see life, and friends, and good things, and above all your own partnership with God, your adoption as a child of God—when you see all of that as a gift, then gratitude and joy will naturally follow. You will have a thankfulness—a eucharistos that makes you say, “chairete,” rejoice!—and nothing will be able to overcome it.

In other words, if you want to be happy, to be joyful, don’t go home and practice your delighted face in the mirror. You can’t manufacture joy; it’s a response to a gift, to grace. But you can go home and ask yourself: “Why do I not feel more gratitude? Why do I repress it? Am I carrying resentment that is blocking my gratitude? And why? Was it something in my childhood or later experience? Was there something in my relationships that made me think of other people as a threat instead of a gift?

Or maybe it’s not something that happened to me. Maybe I’ve bought into our culture’s teaching that what’s mine is mine because I earned it. Maybe I’ve bought into the story that says, everything is about merit—rather than the Christian story of grace, that it’s all a gift. Or maybe you’ve been so fed on anxiety and threats of danger that our John-like media continually pumps out that you assumed a defensive posture: the world is not a gift, it’s a menace! Best to keep to yourself and just hold on to what you got.

The reasons why we lose we lose our natural gratitude are murky. Ingratitude and the depression it brings hardly makes sense. How many people have you known who, contrary to all reason, make themselves miserable? And even as our economy booms, we are seeing suicide rates reach epidemic proportions in all ages but the very young. Children are our inspiration; a love of life and gratitude come so naturally to them. But as we age something is robbing us of that natural love for life. This is a matter of life and death. I’d like to never have to do another suicide funeral.

What steals our natural love of life away from us? What makes us repress our gratitude? These are the right questions to ask ourselves, as we prepare to receive the grace of Christ anew.  Today we lit the rose candle of joy. If you’re not feeling that joy, then you’re missing out on the benefits of salvation. So take a cue from John: it is time to repent, to turn your life around. John offered baptism as a sign of repentance—it is an offer of grace (though he repressed the fact), and a chance to take a decisive step toward acknowledging grace. John didn’t claim there was magic in the water or in himself. Repentance involves hard work, tough questions. It’s hard work to figure out all the things repressing our natural gratitude for life. Water can’t instantly erase a bad childhood or the selfishness of capitalism or make the threats and violence and injustice in the world disappear. But it represents God’s grace, God’s desire that we have joy. On the other hand, some of you have been through such loss and trauma and suffering and have come through more joyful than ever, more full of gratitude for life than before, because you know the grace of God, the peace that surpasses all understanding. There are witnesses in our midst to the power of grace.

The rose candle of joy is by the baptismal font, to remind us that the fire of Christ is not a threat, it is the light of God that illumines the presence of grace. If you do not know joy and gratitude in your life, take a decisive step and come forward to reclaim your baptism (even if you haven’t been baptized yet). Come touch this water of grace, and know that gratitude and joy flow from it. It’s here for the taking.

Second in Advent (12/9): “The Coming Grace of New Beginnings”

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 1:68-79

“All of you share in grace with me.” That’s what Paul says to the Philippians. What is this grace they are sharing in? What is this grace that we, hopefully, are sharing in with Paul and the Philippians? What would you say? (Now when we try the faith formation hour in January, I will be able to actually listen to your answers.)

The word “grace” is one of the essential building-blocks in our Christian vocabulary. Even the Greek word Paul uses, charis, is not completely foreign to English-speaking Christians. You can hear charis in eucharist, for instance, and charisma. In Greek, the related work “Chaire” was also used to say hello, and so Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with a kind of pun: “Grace to you and peace from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”

Christmastime only sees a greater flooding of grace into our vocabulary. When the angel Gabriel greets Mary to announce her coming pregnancy in Luke 2, he literally says, “Grace! O Graced One.” (Our translation has, “Greetings, favored one.”) Now, “Favored one” is an ok translation. One meaning of grace is divine favor; God makes a favorable choice of someone for something. In the Bible, God often chooses someone for something special when God wants to make a new beginning, whether that’s by choosing Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom, or choosing Mary to give birth to the Messiah. We’ll talk about grace and new beginnings today. But we’ll also explore grace through my topics in the next two weeks: grace and thanksgiving; grace and liberation.

I had an experience of grace this week, I think. It was a kind of breakthrough, a new beginning of sorts; and it seemed like divine favor. But I’m not entirely comfortable with calling it that. I can hear my old friend Pam Jones in my head; it used to drive her crazy when she would ask her fellow church members, “How’re you doin’?” And they would answer in a way that had become a kind of trend: “I’m blessed and highly favored!” That’s from “grace,” and I’m sure it is meant well. But it sounds so privileged.

Well, I had an insight this week. I’m not comfortable saying it came from God. Because I’ve had that feeling before and then went on to see that my insight was at least partially mistaken. But I’m not comfortable saying it just came from me, either. Well, what came to me had something to do with my work that prepared for it. But when you have a sudden breakthrough, a new beginning, it doesn’t feel like you deserve the credit. My insight felt like a gift, a charism, and it made me thankful—eucharistos in Greek. But I’m waiting until I test this gift to make sure it’s not just wishful thinking.

As it happens, my insight was all about the meaning of grace. And it is far too involved to share here today—maybe in the faith formation hour… But it involved some insight into why Christians have such a hard time understanding this word, “grace.” It’s like what bugged my friend Pam about saying “I’m highly favored,” highly graced. It sounds unfair. “Oh, so your God’s favorite, are you? Since when does God play favorites?” If God’s grace is favor, then how is that fair? That question has been around a long time, and is woven throughout the Bible. Why does God elect or choose the Israelites for special favors over all nations? Why does God choose Mary, or Jesus for that matter, to be a special, favored one of revelation? We who believe in fairness and equality of all—which is a value God reveals, after all—find it hard to believe grace could be so imparted and received through this one Jesus, but not through others. We’ve wrestled with this, maybe without being fully aware we were, and some of us are forced to the conclusion that there must be nothing truly special about this one Jesus, that salvation can come through other religious figures, or none at all. That’s only fair.

The whole of Christian history has wrestled with the meaning of grace. That’s the original reason we have our Protestant church on this side of 202, and the Catholic Church across the street—it was a dispute about whether (and how) grace is fair. And then the Protestants disagreed among themselves. Some, including our Calvinist ancestors, took things as far as they could go, claiming double Predestination, the ultimate in unfair grace: God chooses some for salvation and some for eternal damnation, and that’s just the way it is. I think we’ve probably all backed away from that one (even though Paul does seem to say something like that).

Well, in my moment of insight this week, perhaps my new beginning by grace, I think I solved this one. I think I got clarity on how to hold onto grace as a particular favor but without making grace unfair. I think there is a way forward for Christians from these nagging doubts and disputes we’ve had about grace for 2000 years. But it requires some careful rethinking of our faith, and we may have to give up some things. I’m not really ready to share it with you, but I might sneak a little of it in today.

Our Gospel today is an outburst of praise that came from Zechariah, according to Luke, who alone reports this story. Zechariah was a temple priest, and he and his wife Elizabeth were “righteous before God,” we are told, but also barren and getting old. One day Zechariah receives a visit from the angel Gabriel while he is offering incense before God. He is told that they shall bear a son named John who will make a new beginning for the people Israel: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Zechariah, the distinguished priest, responds with doubt about this revelation—quite the contrast to the response of the teen nobody, Mary, when Gabriel visits her, who says “Let it be with me according to your word.” For his doubt and hesitation, Gabriel makes Zechariah mute. Soon after, he and Elizabeth indeed conceive a child. Now, there might be a lesson there for the guys about how to improve your love life. I’m not going to go there, but I can say with confidence that mansplaining is definitely not a turn on. Try shutting up and listening for a change, and see what happens.

So John is born, a kind of new beginning for Elizabeth and Zechariah. At his circumcision, the people in the temple were ready to name him Zechariah Jr., which was normal. Elizabeth says, no, name him John. And when Zechariah himself, since he can’t speak, also insists, “His name is John,” his tongue is suddenly free he unleashes praise upon his startled audience.

When we look at Zechariah’s prophesy (which in all fairness was probably written by Luke), it seems to start one way but end another way; it shows movement. Appropriate to Advent, we see Zechariah move from affirming the old to pointing toward the new, the new beginning that only grace can make happen. So it is that Zechariah starts his prophesy like an old-style, classical Jewish prayer: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” for all the great things God has done. That format goes back to the song of Moses. Zechariah first praises God for upholding God’s past promises, which often went along with maintaining a sovereign Kingdom, even an empire, under David’s royal line. We read, “He has raised up a mighty savior,” but the Greek says, “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David…that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” That’s an old promise of a king with divine right and might, and it’s rooted in an old understanding of grace: God favors us, God is on our side, and God shows this by destroying our enemies. This is not wrong, exactly. And we as a church can still resonate with this understanding of grace. Remember your covenant, O Lord, and save us from our enemies that are undermining our church: those town regulations that raise our taxes and hem us in; this culture of lazy indulgence that has people preferring to read the paper in their jammies and watch the game than set aside an hour or so for church on Sunday; all those new religious options that we didn’t used to have to worry about; that awful teenage music and those video games that seduce our children away from spiritual things; and those cursed sports leagues that hold practices on Sunday mornings—avenge us, O Lord!

I’m with you, my Zechariahs. But I also suspect none of that has any real power over God. If we were truly and deeply tapped into the power of God, none of these would really be enemies.

For six months, ever since Pentecost, we’ve been heavily focused on being the church, being God’s kingdom, God’s people. And a lot of you have been doing this all your lives. There’s a temptation there to imagine that we are God’s ‘favorites,’ we have God’s grace, and anyone who opposes or messes with us is an enemy of God. That was a temptation for ancient Israel too. It’s where Zechariah sounds like he is starting out from, all the way up to the point he says, “[God] has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies…” But then he shifts toward something new: “Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness.” God’s grace doesn’t just have our back; the real goal of grace is to enable us to serve God rightly. Hmm. And Zechariah gets even better when he gets off the enemies kick and turns to this new, 8 day old child before him: “And you, child, will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Now he’s looking ahead at a new beginning that will include new knowledge of salvation, forgiveness of sins (that is, a release from the past), and new light dawning; and instead of defeat of enemies, this new beginning will guide our feet into the way of peace. That’s not upholding the old guard against all those enemies: it’s release from the past, and rebirth as a transformed people—a new beginning as a church.

We all want and need the grace of new beginnings in our personal life as well. I’ve seen you long for new beginnings. They are not always guaranteed. I saw Nancy long for a new beginning with her father before he passed, and with her siblings as they came together to say goodbye to him. It ought to be that way, but it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve seen too many families fly apart at the occasion of a death, rather than begin again. I’ve seen some of you long for a new beginning with a wayward child, a longing that can go on for years. Love ought to be enough to make it happen, but it doesn’t always happen. For some of us, divorce can promise a new beginning; but it’s rarely easy to be truly freed of the past, and it can take years to really feel like you are getting a fresh start. Grace does not rule in the world. But our hope as a church, and our commitment as an institution, is to be a place where grace does rule. We are to be a people of grace. When we together baptize your child, or bury your loved ones, or bless your marital vows, we invoke the grace of God over your child, your dearly departed, and your vows, as the guide and rule that says, a new beginning is always possible, and is what God offers us and commands of us.

We’re far from perfect as a church in nurturing new beginnings; sometimes we hold on to grudges for a very long time. But then we are convicted by our own testimony, because everything about us points to the grace of new beginnings in the Christ child. We may not always perfectly embody his grace, but like John we at least point to it and prepare the way for the one who, in Zechariah’s stirring conclusion, “will give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of sins. By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” To be God’s people who, here and now, “share in the grace of God together”—the words from Paul with which we started. That is our prayer: “That [our] love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help [us] determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ [we] may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Amen.

Reign of Christ Sunday (Nov. 26): “King in Truth”

This sermon could have done with a little more editing. Between traveling for Thanksgiving and making lunch for our Church Spruce-up Day, I ran out of time. The point of the sermon is this: holding Christ as our king gives us a way to embrace our modest use of power and authority, while also being free of it and giving it up to God. 

Psalm 132; 2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday. It is also the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, so get ready to say good-bye to green vestments for a little while. For six months or so, ever since Pentecost and its celebration of the Holy Spirit making the disciples into the church, we have been striving to be the Kingdom of God in the Spirit. Next week, with our Hanging of the Greens service, we start our new liturgical year, dressing our church in the greens that represent hope in the midst of our winter discontents, and the purple vestments of a people looking for renewal. So this day marks a significant transition: the transition from being Christ’s people focused on living today, to a people awaiting the coming of Jesus anew.

Not too long ago, church tradition came to mark this significant transition by remembering the reign of Christ—that Christ is our king. What does this mean for us personally? Do you think of Jesus the Christ as your king? I seldom do. Kings and queens seem very remote from our populist politics, especially just after an election. Maybe you follow the British royal family? They are a source of fascination for many—the pageantry, the drama of marriage and pregnancy, occasional marital infidelity. It’s like our life, and the life of a whole nation, personified in a single family. But king Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world, carries none of those fascinating, even titillating elements.

We hardly know what it means to have a king anymore; even Britain’s royal family is nothing like queens and kings of old. So it’s hard for us to think of Jesus as a king, when royalty means so little to us. Our lectionary readings provide some help today, but if we include the Psalm reading from our Call to Worship, we see a complex set of three texts about kingship. By way of an overview, we get three different pictures of a king. In Samuel, David is the king. In the Psalms, God is our king. And in John, Jesus is the king—maybe. Let’s take them one at a time and figure out how each picture of a king pertains to us today.

King David was the first great King of Israel. His life in the Bible is embellished with legends, like his slaying of Goliath. Some parts of the Bible were compiled if not written by members of the court of David or the kings whose legitimacy came from his lineage. If we are honest, we’ll recognize that the Bible has a bias toward David. What is amazing, and no doubt a tribute to the God-centered truthfulness of the Israelites, is how many of David’s flaws are carefully documented, like his seduction of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. But he was without a doubt a very pious king. He didn’t write all of the psalms, but surely he wrote some of them, and they are beautiful songs expressing all kinds of emotions arising from a deep relationship to God.

Originally Israel did not have a king. In the time of the judges, they preferred to rule themselves locally, each tribe taking care of itself. The informality of this style felt to them like they were being more spontaneously dependent on God. You might think of the times at this church when you’ve been between pastors, or the pastor has been away. Maybe you had that feeling of closeness to God. / But you didn’t have neighboring churches invading you on occasion, trying to take you over. That was Israel’s problem. So they desired a king like all the other nations had. And God reluctantly acquiesced, knowing that kings would be power-hungry and abuse their authority (pastors, of course, aren’t like that at all). David was one of the best, but in our scripture which claims to be his last words, he does not sound like the most humble man of faith. He seems to crow a bit, seeing himself “like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning.” And he recalls God’s everlasting covenant, by which God promised David’s sons would always be on the throne. (This covenant seems to have failed, when a few hundred years later, the last king of Israel was dragged off to exile.) David, like many powerful leaders, seems quite confident God is on his side: “Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” And likewise, he is finds the godless deserving of only “an iron bar or the shaft of a spear”—perhaps he’s thinking of those rivals whom David had to defeat by battle.

Kings get things done. They centralize authority in one person, allowing them to make decisions and delegate. They hold onto power until death, so there is no question of who is in charge. The US, like most countries, dispensed with kings long ago, although there is a disturbing attraction around the world to strong-men populist leaders who seem ambivalent about the limits democracy and the free press put on them. But democracies got rid of leaders who carry absolutely power. Still, all organizations find themselves occasionally in need of strong leadership. Ideally, our authority would be held in common, each person working for the whole; and often it really is like that here. Still, like Israel the church sometimes finds itself needing to act like all the other nations, like all the other organizations, using a self-interested mentality to advance our own interests and secure our future. It can be advantageous to talk about marketing the church, or to think of the church as a business, although there are many ways that analogy does not work. It is perhaps helpful, but maybe not, to think of me as your CEO, or as your contracted service provider. Those worldly concepts can be helpful, because we are still a human organization and must get things done. We need a little of that pious ruthlessness that David had. But as we’ll see, Jesus is no David.

Even more so in our everyday life, we do not spend every day practicing selfless Christian virtue. We mostly spend a lot of time looking out for ourselves and the things we are responsible for. We have to be a little ruthless maximizing our finances, securing a retirement, calculating how to save for college (something on Jessica and my mind at least), figuring out how to spend more time doing the things that make us happy. Some of us work in vocations that require us to be a little ruthless with people we oversee. Or we must creatively endure the unfair treatment we receive by people in authority. Many must spend our time and energy at work at the expense of our families. These kinds of situations often present us with no good options for handling a situation in a fully Christian way. It’s ok to be compromised. Even great godly leaders like David were compromised. God compromised with Israel all the time, including giving them permission to have a king in the first place. Do not be ashamed when you can’t be a perfect Christian in every situation. But confess your troubles and your regrets to God, who will forgive you and purify your conscience. David did that too. /

King David comes up again in Psalm 132, which we read for our call to worship. It recalls that “The Lord swore to David a sure oath,” that “one of your sons I will set on the throne.” So this psalmist believes that God has guaranteed the divine right of David’s line, which eventually falls through. And the Psalmist has God say of Zion or Jerusalem, David’s royal capital, “This is my resting place forever.” Again, Jerusalem will fall and God will leave the temple at Jerusalem. So the Psalmist is overly confident that God is on his side. But at least he addresses all of this to God. In this Psalm, it is clear that, however much God is seen to prop up and secure the royal line of David, it is God who is Lord, and not the King of Israel. The Israelites sometimes exaggerated the faithfulness and piety of their kings, but they never ever came close to confusing the authority of human kings with the ultimate authority of God as king. Jews never prayed to the king of Israel, nor addressed the king as if he were divine—“Your highness”—but that is what many of its neighbors did—in the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Hellenistic as well as the Roman empires. Not so for the kings of Israel. And so it turns out that, even though they did compromise and ask for a king like the other nations, the Israelites remained true to God. They didn’t compromise everything.

And so when we compromise with the world in order to make a living, or to get the job done, we must never claim we do this with divine authority. God allows us to make compromises. God does not assure us that these are in fact not compromises, these are God’s own will, and we are doing God’s perfect will when we take care of our own interests, or deal harshly with someone we have authority over, or maintain a cool professional posture instead of treating everyone like a living, breathing human individual. This is not God’s will being done, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. But God accepts us as human creatures, and loves us as his own even so.

To recognize that God is king and God alone is to respect God’s holiness. We don’t need to drag God’s good name and authority into everything we do. Instead we recognize that our authority is very limited, it’s very much imperfect, and it does not bear the divine stamp of approval. And on the other side of that, there’s real peace to be had in knowing that God alone is king and is not constrained or limited by my very flawed way of carrying out my responsibilities. God’s kingdom is beyond compromise. It exists in the realm of heaven, populated by the angels. Now heaven is not a place, exactly, and I don’t know what angels are, exactly. But these words are ways of saying that to God belongs the realm of perfection. And we all understand perfection. The better we understand perfection, the more we realize that we never see perfection on earth, but that doesn’t make perfection unreal. God may reside in Jerusalem for a time, but our Psalmist was wrong to believe that it would be God’s resting place forever. God dwells in perfection and is the perfect. We will give ourselves much peace to realize that God’s perfection does not make us it permanent dwelling place. Our efforts are nothing even close to perfection. To think otherwise is to confuse heaven and earth. And it is to forget that God alone is our king.

So we no longer look to a king like David, certainly not in our pastors. We no longer aspire to royal power and authority ourselves, but recognize our efforts as flawed and human. We humbly acknowledge that God alone is king.

But if God alone is king, if we dare not mingle God’s perfection with the compromised power of the world, why then do we talk about Jesus as our king? Well, that question takes us right into all the mysteries of our faith. To talk about the mysteries of the faith is not to say that our faith makes no sense, you just have to accept it without understanding. Absolutely not. It means that understanding the deep things of Christian faith will probably require a lot of hard thought, and you will have to rethink what you thought seemed obvious about God and about things like kingship.

Now, Pilate and Jesus have a very interesting discussion about all that. And it would take a lot of time to puzzle through their exchange. As is usual in John’s gospel, Jesus and his opponents seem to constantly talk past one another. Pilate wants to pin kingship on Jesus, probably because he wants to get this trial over with, and if Jesus claims to be a king, then he is threatening Roman authority. (Pilate was Rome’s appointed governor of Judea or Israel, and he had a reputation for being brutal when he needed to be.) So when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from here,” Pilate misses the point and jump on the word “kingdom,” asking Jesus or trying to put words in his mouth, “So you are a king.” Jesus can only answer, “You say that I am a king.” Because Jesus knows that Pilate is not willing to do the hard work of rethinking what kingship means. When God and the world collide, nothing can ever mean what it meant before. God doesn’t destroy the world when God enters into the world, but you can be sure that nothing is left unchanged. And so Jesus refocuses the discussion on truth. If you don’t get that truth as such is at issue when you are dealing with God, you will never understand any more practical question, like whether Jesus is a king or not. You have to belong to the truth; you have to be ready to give yourself to it. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate shows that he does not belong to the truth: “What is truth?” he cynically asks. For him, the conversation is over. If he can’t exercise his worldly authority, if he has to pause and make some distracting detour into the truth, then the conversation is over.

Pilate, too engrossed in his gruesome, worldly duties, will never see the mystery of Jesus standing before him. According to the mysteries of Christian faith, to proclaim Jesus as king is not to take away from God alone being king. God and Jesus are one, so our tradition believes. Not because we are trying to pull God down from heavenly perfection into our compromised world. God did not wish to remain aloof in heavenly perfection. This is God’s world. God loves it in its fallenness and imperfection, and still claims it as God’s own—and not just the city of Jerusalem, but the whole world and all its people.

So when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he’s not saying, “My kingdom is in some distant place called heaven.” The kingdom of Christ does not come from the fallenness of our compromised world, but it certainly comes to it. It doesn’t come from the world’s usual means of establishing power. So Jesus says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting” to free me. They would compromise love by committing violence. But the kingdom of Christ does not come with the threats and violence of other kings, nor with the divisive partisan power-plays that characterize our secular government.

That there can be a third alternative is the miracle. We are not stuck only with compromised action to get our jobs done, or a confession that God’s kingship is far beyond the compromises of our every day life. There is a third possibility—a king who is not like David, but really of and from God. Who does not bequeath his rule to his son—sorry Dan Brown, but a Jesus who passes down his royal blood just like every other king is absolutely uninteresting—but he bequeaths his reign to us by faith. Advent is the time to open ourselves again to this mystery, this thing that seems impossible. And come Christmas, we can start to believe in it all over again .

 

 

 

The Epidemic of Loneliness, or, Why We Need the Church More than Ever

Here’s a fairly good piece by Arthur Brooks that offers some evidence that loneliness has risen in the US and is having harmful effects on our culture, including attracting people to a politics of division (that part of the argument is not as well supported, in my opinion). The essay is based largely on a recent book by Senator Ben Sasse.

Brooks doesn’t say so explicitly, but his essay is a great argument for why churches and other houses of worship and community organizations are more needed than ever.

Brooks on Loneliness

Incidentally, I try to make a point of highlighting op-ed pieces by people like Brooks (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute), Ross Douthat, and David (not to be confused with Arthur) Brooks, all of whom are conservatives. While I think they sometimes ignore the problems of racism, poverty, sexism, and the environment, their form of pro-religious communitarian conservatism connects in its own way very well with Christian social ethics. In this way, they are a good resource for showing how Christians can avoid the excessive partisanship and divisiveness of our times by drawing on more than one political philosophy. At the same time, it should be noted that all three of these conservatives strongly oppose President Trump, who is strongly attached to divisive rhetoric and policies, nationalism, and a kind of libertarian, value-free public space, and for whom compassion does not seem to be politically relevant. I find it much harder to see how one can make a case for Trumpism connects in any meaningful way with Christian values. But you are welcome to make a case for this in the comments below.