Advent IV, Year A, 2016

In the Gospel of Luke we get the annunciation from Mary’s point of view. We get the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat. We tell Luke’s version of the story every year in our pageant. Luke’s version appears in Christmas cards and children’s books. But Luke’s is only one version of our Christmas story.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different story to tell.

“Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s annunciation happens off stage. Mary initially is a problem to be solved, not the heroine of the story.

In one of the first scenes in the Sound of Music, the nuns are gathering to express their concerns about their flighty postulant. Maria has been off spinning in circles on top of mountains again and they are tired of her shenanigans. The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

I imagine Joseph singing the same tune about Mary! How is he, a faithful Jew, going to go forward now that he has found out that his fiancée is pregnant? He knows that, according to the law, he has the right to dissolve the marriage. In fact, the correct legal thing to do would be to have a public tribunal, where Mary would be be shamed publically. She has been unfaithful, clearly—despite all this crazy talk about the Holy Spirit—but he doesn’t want to shame her, so he plans on dismissing her quietly.

But God has different plans for Joseph. God understands that Mary’s situation is a huge gift, not a problem, and that Mary is going to need Joseph to fully live out her call to be Jesus’ mother. While God has given Joseph the law as a tool, he is calling Joseph beyond the law to love and risk.

So, in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, not to Mary. Just like his namesake, Joseph has an incredible dream given to him by God. And in the dream an angel appears before him and reassures him that Mary’s story is true, that this baby is of God and will save humanity. The angel tells him to marry Mary—and so Mary is able to fulfill her call.

Joseph is a vital part of Mary’s story. Joseph gives Mary the legitimacy she needs to raise Jesus. Joseph gives Mary and Jesus protection. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph also gives Jesus lineage. The savior must come from the line of King David, and Joseph does. So Joseph, though not his genetic father, becomes Jesus’ legal father and bestows the line of David upon Jesus.

Joseph is the often-unheralded backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t hear much about Joseph later. This is his one really heroic act as far as we know, but in cooperating with God he allowed so much goodness to come into the world.

Joseph’s movement beyond the letter of the law to an act of great love and trust also gives us a preview of how Jesus is going to live in the world. Over and over again, Jesus shows that God gave us the law as a tool to love each other and love God better. Joseph’s story begins to give us a glimpse of who our savior is going to be.

We each have a call from God—to serve him in some particular way. And each of us needs the cooperation of our family and communities to make that call happen. I think back to Maria from the Sound of Music. She thinks her call is to be a nun, because she loves God so much. But it takes her cloistered community and a family of children to help her live out her true calling–to be a loving mother who helps a family to heal through music and has the courage they need in a time of danger.

Joseph gives us a model of how to respond when God is calling someone we love to something we don’t understand. We can get ideas about who the people we love are and what is best for them. We want to keep them safe and close to us. But sometimes God calls people to risk—to love people we wouldn’t choose, to move to parts of the world far from us, to make less money so they can serve the world. It can be tempting to want to corral and give advice and keep our people safe. But Joseph shows us a different way forward.

Joseph was willing to believe God was doing something miraculous through and with Mary. Joseph was willing to take the risk of public shame and humiliation by marrying someone who carried someone else’s child. Joseph was willing to trust that God was calling him beyond the letter of the law to an act of love and faithfulness. Joseph was willing to be Mary’s partner on a terrifying and exciting adventure, to give up his own ideas of what his future might hold so that he could serve God.

And this risk was its own end. When you list biblical heroes, Joseph isn’t at the top of the list. He never slayed a giant or led people out of Egypt. He probably died before Jesus’ public ministry, which is why we know so little about him. But he had the privilege of living with the Son of God, and watching him grow up—an experience that must have been incredibly moving. The part of Jesus’ life that Joseph affected is hidden from us, is something he and Mary kept in their hearts. And perhaps that intimacy with our Lord was enough of a reward for Joseph. As Christians, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but how Joseph and Mary must roll their eyes at us, for they know Jesus in a way no one else ever will, in all of his vulnerability and humanity. They taught him how to toilet and brought him to Temple for the very first time. They told him his first stories, and fed him his first loaf of bread. They taught him to love his neighbor, and gave him space to pray to his Father. They literally made a home for the living God in their hearts and in their house.

This final week of Advent, we are invited to make a home in our heart, too. We may not be called to rock the infant God to sleep, but God does choose to be born in us. God chooses to dwell in us and transform us. God chooses us. May we follow Joseph and say yes to God’s call.



All Saints, Year B, 2015

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That’s what the Gospel of John tells us right after Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ death. This family is special to Jesus. So special that Jesus stays with them in Bethany when he travels to Jerusalem to face his death. If you map out that final week or so of his life, you see him walking back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem, over and over. They gave Jesus the comfort he needed to face the most difficult time in his life. So, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are not anonymous people that are part of a crowd who follow Jesus. They aren’t even the disciples. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends, his tribe. Mary anoints Jesus. She is the only person in his life who seems to truly understand that death is in his future. In the Gospel of Luke we experience Mary and Martha as bickering sisters, but in the Gospel of John we see them both as women of faith, beloved of Jesus.

So, when their brother Lazarus dies, and Jesus does not come right away to heal him, both the sisters are understandably devastated. They have sent word to Jesus, Jesus could have come, but he doesn’t. Jesus has healed hundreds of other people’s brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but he won’t come to Bethany to heal one of his closest friends?

One of the most painful experiences after the death of a loved one can be this sense that God has abandoned you and your loved one. That, if God really saw your pain, heard your prayers, loved you, then God would heal the people you love. This pain and sense of loss can even mutate into a belief that God chose death for your loved one, chose suffering for you. We can come to believe that God is capricious and malevolent, or that you are somehow not holy enough to be worth his attention.

One of the great gifts of this story is that Mary and Martha ask our question to Jesus. Because they are two different people, in two different emotional spaces, Jesus answers them individually. When Jesus first arrives on the scene Martha runs up to him and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus then goes on to have a theological conversation with her. He explains to her that he is the resurrection and life, that he is the Messiah that has power even over death. When she and Jesus get to the house, he encounters Mary, who is still weeping. She also says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus doesn’t give her a theological lecture. For a moment, he stops being the teacher, and simply weeps alongside of her.

This is our Jesus. He is both the power over death and the one who weeps alongside us.

There was a time when theologians understood God as impassable, so this moment when Jesus weeps alongside Mary was a real puzzler for them. Jesus must have been weeping as some kind of a show, to make a point, because if Jesus was God than Jesus could not be affected by deeper human emotions. But for all those of you who have been following along with us in the Old Testament, you’ll have noticed that God, as expressed by the Hebrew Scriptures, is the opposite of impassable. He is deeply connected to human beings. He loves them and is frustrated by them. And throughout the Gospels we have experienced Jesus as deeply moved by the humans around him and their suffering. He moves toward people, does not keep distance from them. So, Jesus’ tears seem completely in line with the God we are getting to know. A God who made us, but also identifies with us. A God who weeps with us when we face the limitations of our bodies, and makes a way for us beyond our bodies’ finitude.

Our bodies are part of Creation. And creation is by definition finite and imperfect. Only the Creator is eternal and perfect. Every human being dies. Ideally, we would all die peacefully in our sleep when we felt like we have wrung every drop out of the life we have been given. But because our bodies are created and imperfect, we can die young from any number of diseases, accidents, or acts of violence. These deaths are not God’s judgment on us as individuals; they are just what it means to be part of a broken Creation.

God does not always intervene in our illnesses and accidents, but that does not mean God has abandoned us. God has already proclaimed his love for us and our liberation from death through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our ally not only in mourning the death of his friend, but in actually experiencing death. He engages with us on the deepest possible level, facing our fears head on and experiencing the very worst our lives can offer.

But his Father, our Creator, does not leave Jesus to face the consequences of death. Instead he pulls Jesus from the depths of death into the fullness of life again. And in that moment he offers all of us the same eternal life. You do not need to wonder if God has abandoned you, because God has already done everything he needs to do to ensure you and God and all the Saints that have come before us and will come after us will have eternal life together.

When Jesus chooses to resurrect Lazarus he is demonstrating the radical power of God over death. He is giving his close friends a front row seat to God’s new plan for humanity. No longer will we be limited by the imperfections of creation. No longer will we be banished for our sin. Jesus is making a way for Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be his friends eternally. Jesus is making a way for all of us to be united with God forever.

Wherever you are in relationship to your own mortality or the death of someone you have loved, know this: Jesus is with you, not against you. Jesus is alongside you as you grieve and Jesus is at work preparing a place for you and the ones you love in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus loved ordinary saints like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Jesus loves ordinary saints like us.

On All Saints day we celebrate this reality as we give thanks for all the Saints that have gone before us. We lift up their names in gratitude and in the deep joy that they are now living their resurrected lives alongside Lazarus.

Thanks Be to God.


Christmas Eve, Year A, 2013

No matter my level of Christmas cheer, there is a moment in every Christmas pageant when I am instantly filled with joy.  Whatever the reason, every year, when small children dressed in angel wings run up to the stage and shout to the frightened shepherds:  “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!”  a huge smile lights up my face.

The children of course, aren’t actually angels.  They are ordinary children who fight with their brothers and sisters.  Their haloes are crooked.  Their wings get into the eyes of the angels behind them in line.  Some years they push and shove and jockey for position.  They are holy and ordinary in an entirely charming way.

According to the Gospel of Luke, God used angels prominently in the incarnation.  An Angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.  The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, to invite her to bear God’s son.  And, of course, The Angel of the Lord and a band of angels appear to shepherds in the fields, announcing the arrival of the Messiah.

Biblical angels don’t belong on earth.  They are not sweet and cute like our pageant angels.  They are huge and winged and shiny.  They belong to another kingdom, where glowing with the Lord’s presence is less terrifying.  Nevertheless, angels broke through whatever space/time barrier separates us from heaven.  They burst into our reality, terrifying the humans that witnessed their majesty.

The host of angels came to us in an unusual way. They did not swoop in to a group of priests, or at the temple, or even to the King. The host of heaven revealed itself to ordinary shepherds. The transcendent broke into the ordinary.

This juxtaposition of divine and ordinary is the heart of the incarnation.

God could have remained in heaven, relating to his creatures via a distance.  Instead he chose to become a creature.  He chose to be limited by gravity and time and flesh.  He traded the infinite for the finite.  He became ordinary.

This collision of the divine and the ordinary can’t help but change what it means to be an ordinary human.

In this Gospel, when Mary first is confronted by the Angel Gabriel she exclaims the Magnificat, a hymn that marvels at how God turns everything upside down. Mary has a deep understanding that in choosing her, an ordinary girl, to bear God into the world, God is changing the rules completely.  He lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry.  The ordinary becomes sacred.  The insignificant become significant.

The angels are not announcing a Jesus who is visiting as a tourist, taking in the curiosities of having skin and feet and limited points of view.  The angels announce that everything has changed, our categories are irrelevant.  The holy is here, born to an ordinary girl.

My husband picked up a nativity scene at Ten Thousand Villages this week that depicts the Holy Family as a Peruvian family riding a bus.  I love it because it captures the heart of Christ’s birth in a modern context.  If the incarnation happened now, Mary would probably be the kind of girl who rode a bus.  She probably wouldn’t be American. She certainly wouldn’t be rich.  Mary would be an ordinary girl.

News Anchor Megyn Kelly grabbed media attention this month when she insisted both Santa and Jesus were white.  This is easy to laugh about, but it shows how people who have power—white Europeans and Americans—through art and media have remade Jesus in our image.  He becomes more Swedish than Middle Eastern.  We subtly imply that holiness has to look like us.  We are fine with Jesus being ordinary, so long as he is our kind of ordinary.

Theologian James Cone has written that “God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know that they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”

God came to earth and made nobodies, somebodies.  God came to earth to make the ordinary holy.  God came to earth so that children of every color and nation could be in relationship with him.  God’s incarnation in Jesus makes holy our ordinary experiences, whatever our skin color or our income.

Andrea Elliot of The New York Times has written a series of articles exposing New York City’s homelessness problem, by following one child—a middle school girl named Dasani.  The story is incredibly bleak. Dasani’s parents are terrible money managers, their room in a homeless shelter is shared by mold and rats, no one in the family feels safe.  But the story is also incredibly powerful because by shining the light on Dasani, we get the rare opportunity to get to know a young, poor girl.  The Marys of our world don’t get screen time.  You just don’t write thirty page stories about a girl like that.  But Elliot captures this girl—her drive, her desire to do well in school, her hunger, her exhaustion, the love she has for her family.  Elliot focuses our attention on a single girl, and reminds us that children like Dasani should matter to us.  Children like Dasani matter to God.

Our outreach team works their tails off to provide for families around Christmastime not because it is a sweet thing to do, but because they know that we are the hands and feet of Jesus.  By buying Christmas gifts and packaging up Christmas hams and vegetables we are shaking our fists at the powers in the world that tell us that there are some people who don’t matter.  By walking alongside our neighbors in need we are proclaiming that their lives are holy. When we celebrate Eucharist in a nursing home or a prison, we are proclaiming the power of God’s love for ordinary, even marginalized people. When we travel halfway across the world to make relationships in Nzali, Tanzania, we are celebrating that all humanity is united by one miraculous birth two thousand years ago.

Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, your life is holy.  You may think you don’t matter.  You may think you are too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too jaded or too tired, but God has chosen to make your life holy.  And your life isn’t just holy that hour a week you spend in church.  Whether you’re washing the dishes, or walking the dog; typing up a report at work or in the middle of a boring meeting; on the phone with a friend or going for a run—your ordinary life is sacred.  Because before those angels burst onto the scene, the God of the Universe quietly became an ordinary human being.  A human being who presumably had chores and a job..  A human being who had sore feet and stomach aches and who cried and laughed.  Jesus was one of a kind and he was just like us.  Jesus was completely divine and completely human.

Jesus was born and he lived his life and he died and he was resurrected for you. And for the woman who cleans your office, the man who delivers your mail, and the women who made the shirt you’re wearing today.  Jesus was also born for people you will never meet, whose lives are so different from yours you cannot comprehend their experiences, as they could not comprehend yours.

It seems unlikely that any of us in this room will have the gift of a visit from an angel to wake us up to the miracle of our humanity.  So really all we have is moments like these—prayers and candlelight and hymns we’ve sung a hundred times.  We gather together to remember who we are, and whose we are.

And this is who we are. We are people who remember a poor girl who was brave enough to let God in.  We gather with her at the manger and marvel that the very God who created the universe now has tiny baby toes.  We tremble as we consider the risk he’s taking.  He takes this risk for no good reason other than his love for us.

And so we become his, completely ordinary, completely holy, completely humbled.



Proper 11, Year C, 2013

Matt and Charlie’s birthdays are one day apart in April.  This creates no small amount of pressure.  But this year, we decided to keep things low key.  Matt’s parents came to stay with us and we planned a quiet day together.

But there had to be a homemade cake, of course.  I mean, I do CARE about my husband and my child. I decided not to get carried away.  No Thomas the Trains carved out of fondant or Legos made from melted white chocolate.  I would make a simple angel food cake.  An angel food cake festooned with whipped cream and strawberries would be the perfect, simple harbinger of spring.

I woke up early the morning of Matt’s birthday and followed the Cooks Illustrated recipe perfectly.  I whipped my eggwhites, measured my flour and sugar, carefully folded the two together.  By this time, everything was taking a little longer than I expected and other members of the family were starting to trickle in, looking hopeful that they might get started on the breakfast biscuit part of the morning.  Moving a little faster, I got the cake ready for the oven.  Cooks Illustrated said to line the bottom of my pan with parchment paper, so I did.  And to really demonstrate my care for this cake, I also lined the sides of the pan.  With great confidence I put the cake in the oven.

About twenty minutes later, I took a look in the oven.  Disaster.  The cake was collapsing in on itself because of that extra parchment paper. Apparently an angel food cake needs to cling to the side of a pan to rise properly.

I might have handled this with great grace, but I didn’t. I flung cookbooks around to see what other kind of cake I could make in the next hour. I questioned my ability to be a mother.  I threw myself on my bed and cried.

I, in other words, had a serious Martha moment.

I would argue about 90% of women identify with Martha.  And so, about 90% of women hate this biblical passage.

Although women are no longer trapped in the sphere of our kitchens, we are still judged by our homes, our gardens, our food.  We judge ourselves for these things.  We go to Pinterest and post pictures of dream bathrooms and creative crafts to do with children and recipes that we’re sure to try one day.  We take our homes and our families seriously.

Martha has been working her tail off in the kitchen getting ready for Jesus.  Jesus never traveled by himself, so she’s getting lunch ready for him and who knows how many disciples.  She has disrupted her entire routine to have this man in her home.  And she’s not the first woman to do so.  Think of all the places Jesus has stayed, all the hospitality he has enjoyed, the hundreds of invisible women who have made him breakfast, lunch, dinner, cleaned his clothes, made sure he had somewhere to sleep.  These women have been incredibly hospitable.

The translator of this passage demeans Martha’s hospitality.  Martha’s work is translated as “tasks” here, evoking the image of a list stuck to a refrigerator with a magnet.  But the Greek word is diakonia.  Everywhere else in the New Testament, that word is translated as ministry or mission.  That’s right.  Whenever a man in the New Testament is doing diakonia it is ministry, but when Martha does diakonia, she is distracted by her “tasks”.

So, it’s no wonder women get grumpy reading about poor Martha!

Mary has abandoned her.  Her sister has left the hot kitchen, trespassing convention and unspoken family bonds.  Her sister has chosen this new role as student without as much as consulting Martha.  Mary just walks away from the kitchen like she can!  Like hundreds of years of history and tradition can just be unmade by sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Martha is left hot and frustrated and alone.

And so, she does something else we can relate to.  Instead of dealing directly with the person who is irritating her she gets passive aggressive with Jesus trying to shame her sister into getting with the program.

Jesus’ reaction to Martha feels like a slap in the face to all of us who have been in her shoes.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. .  .”  To our defensive ears, Jesus sounds patronizing and dismissive.  After all, it’s Jesus’ lunch that is distracting her!  Who is he to criticize?

But what if Jesus is not insulting Martha?  What if Jesus is issuing Martha an invitation?  What if he is saying to her, “Mary has chosen the better part. . .and you can, too.”  What if his response is an invitation to sit at his feet?  To walk away from the roles Martha thinks she has to fill?

This summer, a group of us have been reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly together.  The book is all about how embracing vulnerability can lead to wholehearted and transformative lives.  Brown argues that in our culture women are judged on how we look, how our homes look, how our children behave, and how effortlessly we pull all that perfection off.  All summer we have been talking about what it would mean to embrace our imperfection, to let go of the myth of perfection and live our lives as our authentic selves.

Martha has this idea that she has to work, work, work to care for Jesus.  But Jesus would be perfectly satisfied if Martha did not do a stitch of work on his behalf, but really connected with him instead.

Our lives as modern women are really complicated.  There are areas of our lives where we are as free as any women have ever been free.  Women my age have been brought up believing we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be.   We can be scientists and politicians and editors and soldiers.  Even priests.  We can be mothers and wives and travel and write novels in our spare time.  And so we get it in our heads that we have to be all these things.  We have to be professional women at the top of our field.  We have to be incredibly attentive wives and girlfriends, fulfilling unspoken fantasies with our perfect gym-toned bodies.  We have to be the most nurturing mothers of any generation.  We have to be best friends, and excellent hostesses, and affectionate pet owners.  And we have to do all of this without breaking a sweat.

We work and we work and we work and in the end, if we’re lucky, we realize that this is all baloney!  Or, we end up weeping on our beds because our stupid cake has fallen and we are exhausted from trying to keep everything together.

And this where grace can enter in.  Because it’s hard for grace to wedge its way into a perfect life.  Grace is like light—it prefers cracks to make itself known.

When you are weeping on your bed because your cake fell apart, your husband can reassure you that all he wanted was cake and berries mashed together and you realize you can make a trifle!  When you are weeping on your bed, you realize the only person in the house that gave a hoot about the cake was you and what everyone in the house wants is for you to be happy and to join them in the kitchen and to eat a biscuit slathered in peach butter.

In that kitchen, surrounded by love, you really understand Jesus’ invitation.  Because Jesus loves Martha—not for what she does for him, but just because he loves her.  And if Martha would be happier sitting by Jesus’ feet, then she should sit by Jesus’ feet.  But if Martha would rather make sandwiches in love, that’s great, too!  Both are ministry, no matter what the translators think.

All of us Marthas need to realize that there is not one way to be.  There is not one way to serve Jesus.  There is not one way to be a woman, a friend, a wife, a daughter, a mother.  Human beings are infinitely varied and flawed and interesting.  We are loved.  Full stop.  Not for how we look, not for how we perform at work, not for how our children behave, not for how much volunteer work we do.  We are loved by God because God wants to love us.  Full stop.

And as we baptize three infants today (at 10:30) we can remember that sometimes the best way to help them live into their baptismal identities is by living as if are worthy of being loved.  What better way to teach them about the generous grace of God and the value of their small lives?

May God’s grace shine through the cracks of your lives.  Amen.


Advent 3, Year B, 2008

God will make a way.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we have rounded a corner from the repentant beginning of Advent to the great celebration of Christmas.  We light the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath because it represents joy and the act of rejoicing as we begin to anticipate the birth of our Savior.

The problem for us, is that this third Sunday in Advent does not feel very joyous.  Half a million Americans are unemployed. I know I have a handful of friends who work in various state jobs who are nervous about losing their jobs come budget cuts in January.  I have had three serious conversations with friends who are preparing either to move in with relatives or have relatives move in with them should the worst come.  I even have friends who have just flat out cancelled Christmas. We are a nation at edge faced for the first time, in many years, for a dramatic change in the way we live. 

And yet, I tell you today, despite all of this, that God will make a way.  I can say this with confidence because that is just who God is-he is One who makes a way.  Mary’s story reminds us of this.

The Canticle we [read/sing] today are the words of Mary as she fully absorbs the news that she is bearing God’s child.  This news was absurd on many levels. 

First of all, Mary has never been with a man, so her being pregnant isn’t even a possibility.

Second of all, why Mary?  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s not from a powerful family.  She’s not rich.  She’s a nobody.

Another word for this kind of absurdity is grace.  Mary is blessed by God not because of who she was or what she did, but because God is a gracious, loving God, who breaks into our world and transforms it.

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary’s annunciation is paired with her cousin’s Elizabeth’s annunciation.  There are many stories of miraculous pregnancies though out the bible and Elizabeth’s fits the pattern beautifully.  Like Sarah and Hannah before her, Elizabeth is older and believes she is barren.  She and her husband are extremely pious.  Zacharias is even a priest in the temple!  They both deeply desire a child and are granted the gift of a child late in their life, much to their surprise.

Placed so close to Elizabeth’s story, we realize how shocking Mary’s story really is!  God made a way to enter the world through Mary in a way completely unprecedented.  Mary’s annunciation happens in a different way so that we know that God is doing something really unusual. Mary does not fit the mold of annunciation stories. Mary is not an older woman who is longing for children.  In fact, children are probably the last thing on her mind!  She is a young teenager, betrothed to Joseph, minding her own business.  The angel Gabriel comes to her not in a temple, but in an ordinary city, probably in an ordinary home or street.  Gabriel does not reassure Mary that she and Joseph will be able to have children, but suggests something entirely different-that the power of the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will bear a child via a miracle of God.

God makes a way to enflesh himself with humanity and he does it in cooperation with an ordinary girl in an ordinary town.  God does not enter our world through the most powerful family or the most religious family.  God makes a way to enter into and redeem our experience by being born of a girl who was willing to be completely open to God’s will for her life.

A month after her experience, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  While there she has a moment of clarity about what is happening to her and she speaks or sings the words of the Magnificat.  The Magnificat is all about Mary’s astonishment at God’s decision to visit his grace upon her.  She understands the deeper implications of this-that God’s grace will no longer be expressed via the kings and the hierarchy, but to the lowly, every day person.  She understands that God is continuing the relationship begun with Abraham, but that he is transforming the nature of the relationship completely.

Mary is no more deserving than other girls of her temperament or background, but she is favored by God as an act of grace.  Jesus’ whole life will be about explaining how the love of God works.  How God loves us without pre-condition and despite our seeming inherent compulsion to betray him.  Our God is a god of grace.  He bestows upon us love, acceptance, forgiveness because of who he is, not because of who we are.

We currently live in a meritocracy, so we have a hard time understanding grace.  We believe we have earned everything in our lives because of our hard work and intelligence.  Our country is now in a time when suddenly hard work and intelligence is not enough.  Good, hardworking, smart people are still losing their jobs through no fault of their own.  The sands are shifting beneath our feet and it feels, for good reason, really frightening.

But God will make a way.

And when I say God will make a way I don’t mean that God is going to swoop in and solve this financial crisis.  I don’t even mean that God will swoop in and solve your personal job or retirement crisis.

What I mean is, that God will make a way for grace in the midst of difficult times.  God will make a way for the unexpected to occur. 

God will make a way to provide for you when you least expect it.  God will make a way for you to experience love and deep connection in your community.  God will help you experience his love for you in new and deeper ways. 

Many of us will be faced with difficult decisions in the next few years, and most of us will have to make some level of sacrifice.  But in the end, what I hope for us, is that in retrospect we will have experienced this economic crisis as a time when the members of Emmanuel really put their trust in God and really opened up to one other.  We are the beloved community.  We are the family of God.  We have the capacity to help each other-not just through moral and practical support, but through holding one another in prayer and asking that we each may experience God’s grace in a new way.

No one could have predicted how Jesus would enter the world.  No one can predict how God’s grace will break through to us over the next few years.  But we know it will-not because we deserve that in-breaking, but because God is a god of grace who extends himself to us over and over and over again.  We join Mary in rejoicing in the goodness of our God and waiting in expectation to see what God will do next.

God will make a way.

Lent 5, Year A, 2008

The time is getting close.

The clock is ticking.

Our gospel story today has all the passion and intensity of the cliffhanger season finale of some character drama.

Immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some of the witnesses get freaked out and run to tell the Pharisees what happened.  This act, of course, leads to Jesus’ arrest and execution.  But, we’ll get to that next week.

For now, Jesus is still safe and sound.

We meet up with Jesus as he is traveling with his disciples.  Jesus gets the news that his friend Lazarus is ill in Judea.  We don’t know how Jesus knew Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, but they are the only people described as Jesus’ personal friends in the Bible.  Janice, our parish administrator, and I spent some time speculating about this.  We’ve decided, that we would like them to be childhood friends.  Maybe they went to grade school together.  Maybe they have known Jesus since before he was this big shot miracle worker.  Maybe they knew him when he was just Jesus, that carpenter’s kid.  Maybe they tossed a ball around or caught lizards in jugs and surprised their mothers with them.  Maybe with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Jesus does not feel any pressure to be “the Holy Son of God”.  They quietly accept him for who he is, they do not fawn over him or demand to be healed.

However they know each other, it is well enough that Mary pours expensive oil all over Jesus’ feet to anoint him.  They also know each other well enough that Martha and Jesus snap at each other when Mary is too lazy to help with the dishes at a dinner party.  Their intimacy with each other has a domestic, everyday feel to it.

We should feel no surprise then, at how intense Jesus’ emotions are around the event of Lazarus’s death.  Jesus seems to experience incredible internal conflict around Lazarus’s illness and death.  At first, he seems almost indifferent, delaying the trip to Judea and casually mentioning that the illness will lead to God’s glory.  Even after he hears of Lazarus’s death, Jesus seems very nonchalant as he tells his disciples he is going to Judea to “wake Lazarus up”.

Jesus does not fall apart until he sees his friends.  You know the feeling. You’re holding everything together, just barely, and then you see a person you trust and love and all your defenses crumble around you.  Jesus manages to hold it together through his conversation with Martha, where she makes great proclamations of faith in him, but when he sees Mary weeping, he falls apart. His dear friend Mary, who is so open and free with her feelings.  Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and then anointed those same feet with expensive oil.  Mary, who had such faith in Jesus and now seems so disappointed.

When Jesus does weep, he does not weep in the same  way that Mary does.  The Greek word used to describe Mary’s weeping is klaio.  The word for Jesus’s weeping is dakruo.  This is the only time in the bible the word dakruo is used.  We don’t know why the author of this story chose to use a different word.  I imagine the quality of weeping was different.  The culture of the time had a kind of ritualistic weeping that was done at funerals to properly honor the dead.  Perhaps the author wanted to distinguish what Jesus was doing from that kind of ritualistic weeping.

I imagine Jesus’ tears came from somewhere deep, deep inside himself.  I wonder if, because Jesus knew God had given him the power of resurrection, he was unprepared for the reality of Lazarus’s death. Jesus had grieved before—the death of John the Baptist was deeply upsetting to him—but never before do we see him weeping.  Not only does Jesus weep, but he also feels “greatly disturbed in his spirit”.  While some Bibles translate this word to mean compassion, the word has a more disruptive, angry edge to it.   Jesus was really traumatized by Lazarus’s death.

There is no passage in the bible, in my opinion, that better sheds light on Jesus’ humanity than this one.  Jesus has been ministering to people for years by this point, but somehow the reality of what it means to be human—to be finite, to have a beginning and an end, to be born and to die—really seem to sink in for him here.

Immediately before this passage, Jesus has been describing himself quite frequently as the Good Shepherd.  And in fact, he goes on and calls Lazarus by name, just as shepherds call their sheep by name.  Lazarus hears his voice, and obeys, even after death.  But for now, Jesus is just another sheep.  He is one of us.  For now, in this moment, he understands our feelings of grief and hopelessness.  He tastes the bitter reality of loss.

In this moment, Jesus cements himself as someone we can trust.  In this moment we realize that he has credibility—that he truly understands what it means to be us.

Because of this, we know we can trust him as a Shepherd, who will guide us gently and compassionately. Because of this, we can have the courage to follow Jesus on the rest of his journey to Jerusalem.  We feel empathy for him because of his own experience of loss, but Lazarus’ resurrection also makes us wonder if perhaps Jesus can outsmart his enemies, after all.

Maybe the road to Jerusalem, into the heart of political and religious power, is not a one way road.  Maybe Jesus still has something to show us.  Maybe the rising of Lazarus is just the beginning.

Starting next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we’ll spend eight days in Jerusalem with Jesus.  Come join us and find out how the story ends!

Good Friday, Year B, 2006

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Cosmic Word.  From the very beginning he is clear about his transcendent nature and his close relationship with his Father in heaven. 

How painful then, for his friends and family, to see Jesus in the most degrading of human positions-hung on a cross.  He has been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and hangs before the Marys and his beloved disciple, slowly dying.  O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, a hymn we sing today, expresses this grief:

Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expirèd,
and quenched the light of light.

Jesus was light and life and hope.  Jesus dying must have felt like the most gut wrenching, mind spinning incongruity.  I know I would have wanted to run.  Run somewhere safe, somewhere far away. 

The Marys and the beloved disciple challenge us.  They do not run from the agony.  They do not turn away from Jesus’s pained body.  They do not try to get Jesus off the cross.  They have the courage to sit with Jesus, to commune with him, to be present to him, as he experiences his final suffering.

In the news lately, there has been a lot of talk about the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.  In this text, written about 150 years after our four Gospels, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus, Jesus asks Judas to turn him in.  There’s something comforting about this image-It presents a Jesus fully in control.  But none of the Gospels in our canon presents this convenient story.

Jesus was betrayed.  Jesus did die. Jesus willingly let go of control over his own life for our benefit.  And through all of that, the Marys and the beloved disciple never left his side. 

Last week, I had the opportunity of hearing Charles LaFond, the former assistant at Church of Our Savior, lead a retreat about Holy Week.  He told the story of the experiences of the chaplains to the morticians in New Orleans.  After the waters in New Orleans receded, the city was left with the horrifying task of dealing with tens of thousands of dead bodies.  400 morticians from around the country were brought in and a temporary tent city was built. 

Trucks brought in 40 bodies at a time, and they were distributed among the morticians.  While there were many drownings, there were also as many as 85 murder victims disguised as hurricane victims. After the autopsies, bodies were tagged and stored in refrigerated units. 

The job of the chaplains was to bless the truck with the bodies, to bless the bodies again as they were taken to the refrigerators after the autopsies, and to be with the morticians when they wept between autopsies.  Like the Marys and the beloved disciple’s ministry of presence to Jesus, the chaplains’ jobs were not to free the morticians from their horrific duties, but to stay close with them, to love them and pray for them, to be alongside them as they did their work.

That kind of commitment and presence takes enormous courage.  Facing Jesus’ death takes courage, too.  We worship a God who, while ultimately triumphant, was willing to be completely weak and mortal for our behalf.  While we are Easter people, we are also called to remember the shocking vulnerability of our Lord.  We are called to abide with him in prayer, as many of you did during the prayer vigil last night. 

In the same way, when our loved ones are experiencing crisis that makes us uncomfortable:  when they are losing their memory, dying, getting a divorce, losing a child, we are called to be with them.  We cannot solve their problems.  We cannot always make them feel better, but like the Marys and the beloved disciple, we can show up, we can pray for them, we can love them.

Good Friday invites us to grow into people who can abide in pain.  For we know that it is through Jesus’ pain, through his death that we must enter to experience the joy that follows.  In the meantime, we are asked to wait with Jesus still on the Cross.  Again from our hymn:

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

Christmas Eve, Year B, 2005

And Mary pondered these things in her heart. 

Mary had a lot to ponder that night long ago.  The child that had grown within her so miraculously and then been carried so precariously through the long journey to Bethlehem had finally been born.  Instead of a quiet moment with her new baby in a safe and warm bed, she is surrounded by livestock and strangers. 

The word translated as “pondered” literally means, “thrown together”.  This pondering is not a quiet, meditative one, but a frantic scrambling to understand what is happening, to absorb all the new information and feelings Mary is experiencing. 

Mary experienced affirmation that her baby was from God throughout her pregnancy.  An angel spoke to her and then, thankfully, to her cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth. Her husband Joseph believed her, but the news of this incredible incarnation was still quiet and contained to a few family members.

This holy secret ends when a flock of shepherds bursts into Mary’s makeshift birthing room, still illuminated from the vision they have seen, talking over each other to tell the story of the angels and how they had visited what felt like every barn in Bethlehem until finally they found this one, with the baby wrapped in strips of cloth.

At this moment, as she holds the baby a little closer to her chest, Mary realizes, this is not “her” baby, not entirely.  In this moment of joy at his birth, there is also a little grief, as Mary realizes her child is a child she will have to share.  Not just with these eager shepherds, but with all people.

Usually in painted icons of Mary and the baby Jesus, Mary holds Jesus on her lap, close to her body.  However, there is one icon in which Mary faces the onlooker and holds Jesus away from her body, towards whoever is looking at the icon. 

This is the Mary who realizes her sacrifice will be to lose her son, not only to death, but also in life.  This baby will grow up to create a new family of misfits and criminals.  This baby will grow up to live a life of a wanderer, traveling from town to town.  He will never settle down or provide her with grandchildren. In this icon, Mary not only accepts this reality, but offers Jesus to us.

This baby who was born, was born of Mary, but was born for the world.  After all, we must remember that this tiny baby contains all of God.  All the powers that created the universe, pushed the stars into their rotations, created green grass and human flesh out of dust. 

One of our acolytes was helping to green the church last Sunday and observed that the baby Jesus in our nativity scene is about half the size of Mary.  He looks at least six years old.  I wonder if that was an intentional decision on the part of the artist.  Perhaps the artist got carried away as she meditated on the huge implications of the incarnation, of God choosing to limit himself in human flesh.  Maybe she thought no small baby could handle the enormity of God, so she made the baby a little bigger, to give God more room to wiggle around.

I wonder what it was like for God to suddenly also be completely human, to have his infiniteness constrained by skin, to suddenly have to turn his head to look behind him, to suffer the indignity of having to learn to walk?  Was there a part of being a baby Jesus really loved?  Did he love his own tiny fingers and toes the way we love the toes of our favorite babies? 

From the very start, just by being born, God began to redeem what it is to be human.  If Jesus can learn to walk, and read, and eat, then walking and reading and eating have the potential to be holy activities, not just human ones. 

If God chooses to be born in a dingy stable in the midst of chaos, then God redeems all those who suffer the indignities of poverty and chaotic lives.  God choose to came, not to a family that had it all together, but to an exhausted traveling couple who were just trying to find a dry place to lay their heads.  Mary and Joseph did not have the time or resources to prepare for a “proper” arrival for their son, so he came in the most awkward and uncomfortable of situations.

Yes, Mary’s sweet baby was no ordinary child. 

God came to earth as the Christ so we could know him in a deeper and more intimate way. He came embodied, in actual human flesh, not some divine ephemeral cloud.  He could taste and touch and feel.  He could get headaches and feel hunger pangs.  He came to face all our temptations and sorrows.  He came to know what it is to love and lose. He came not only to save us from our sins, but to redeem the very lives we live.

Know that whether you sorrow or feel deep joy at this moment, that Christ has compassion for you, knows what those emotions feel like, and loves you.  He offers you hope for redemption and continued joy. . .not just in the next life, but in this life.  There is no experience you can have that is outside the scope of Christ’s forgiveness, nothing you can do that, if repented, will prevent Christ’s embrace.

I’ll close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle about Christ’ birth from Mary’s perspective.

O ORIENS, by Madeleine L’Engle

O come, O come Emmanuel

Within this fragile vessel here to dwell.
O Child conceived by heaven’s power
Give me thy strength: it is the hour.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high;

Like any babe at life you cry;

For me, like any mother, birth

Was hard, O light of earth.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,

Whose birth came hastily at night,

Born in a stable, in blood and pain
Is this the king who comes to reign?

O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,

The stars will be thy diadem.
How can the infinite finite be?

Why choose, child, to be born of me?

O come, thou key of David, come,

Open the door to my heart-home.
I cannot love thee as a king-

So fragile and so small a thing.

O come, thou Day-spring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings

I saw the shepherds and the kings.

O come, Desire of nations, be

Simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.

The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,

God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell.

Advent 4, Year B, 2005

King David was a manly man.  He slayed giants. He slept with other men’s wives and killed their husbands.  He led the armies that secured Jerusalem.  He established a kingdom.  (He also danced through the streets naked, but that is another sermon.)

Sweet Mary, on the other hand, was by all accounts a nice girl from a good family.  She was open, receptive, non-confrontational.  She was even a virgin.

Somewhere, Gloria Steinem is pulling out her hair.  These descriptions are a feminist’s nightmare, right?  Manly men and wimpy women.  Women of my generation were told we could grow up to do anything, be anyone we want to be.  Women before me had fought for their rights to work alongside men in every field you could imagine, and I certainly reaped the benefits of their hard work.  After all, I was born the year after the first women priests were ordained. What women are not supposed to be is passive, waiting around for some man (or God) to fulfill our destiny.

So, what do we do with these images of David and Mary?  These contrasting images of aggressive and passive behavior.

The good news is, we don’t have to choose just one.  (Though I’d be careful which attributes of David you emulate.)  God uses both David and Mary in Jesus’ conception.  In the Lukan geneaology of Jesus, Joseph, Jesus’ father, was descended from the line of David.  We’ll never know how the genetics of the assumption work, whether Jesus inherited any of Joseph’s traits, but for all legal purposes, Jesus could trace his heritage back to David.  

Throughout Jesus’ life, his incredible faithfulness to his heavenly Father will be a powerful combination of both David’s aggression and Mary’s ability to yield to God.  We see David in Jesus when he stands up to the powers of the day, when Jesus throws over the tables in the Temple.  We see Mary’s quiet faithfulness when Jesus yields to God in prayer over and over again, especially when he must choose to follow the path that he knows will lead to his death.  And in this struggle, we learn that yielding to God, as Mary and Jesus do, can be the most courageous and frightening way of faithfulness possible.  Yielding to God is not wimpy.

Mary was a woman who knew where her life was going.  She was marrying a carpenter, and would have a lovely quiet married life in which she’d take care of her husband and raise their children.  All this is interrupted when the Angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that she is the favored one of God.

When Mary accepts God’s unexpected plan for her life, she yields to a future she cannot predict.  She does not know whether Joseph will accept or reject her, whether her family will shun her.  She certainly cannot know that she will one day have to watch her son be brutally murdered. 

When Mary yields to God, she surrenders her very understanding of how the world operates.  She surrenders her understanding of how God intervenes in the world.  Mary is open to God behaving in a completely new and unanticipated manner. 

Yielding to God is no small thing.  When we acknowledge that we do not control our destinies, we face the terror that we cannot predict our future.  There is no way to ensure that we or our loved ones will be safe, secure, or happy. 

Still, the Angel Gabriel refers to Mary as “favored one”. This Greek word translated as favored-charitoo– means, “endowed with grace”.  God chooses Mary, not because she is perfect, but because he chooses to endow her with his grace, just as he chooses to endow humanity with grace through the life and death of Jesus.

So, where is the grace in this yielding to God? 

I’d like to think that the grace, for Mary, came from her relationship with her Son.  She had the privilege of watching this incredible man grow from the baby and young boy she had nurtured to the powerful, wise and self-giving man he would become.  She experienced the grace of knowing God first hand, for a longer period of time then anyone before her.  She lived with this incarnate God 24 hours a day for years.  I’d like to think somewhere inside of her was a Jewish mother who got a chuckle out of the thought of disciplining the Lord of the Universe.  Potty training God?

In the same way, the grace when we yield to God, is that we get to learn more about God, we get to sit in his presence for a bit, and get a tiny sense of who he really is.  Yielding to God is not always about doing the will of God, it can also be a emotional or psychological transaction.  For instance, if you have a hard time trusting the father figure in your life, that distrust probably plays out in your prayer life with God.  If your dad abandoned you, why shouldn’t God?  In that case, yielding to God might be a moment of epiphany when you realize that God loves you, that God is not going to abandon you.  In that moment, you feel your body relax, your defenses lower.  That is yielding to God. 

You might believe you don’t need God.  In that case, yielding to God may happen when you get hit with a major crisis.  In a moment, in a flash, you realize that you are finite, that you don’t have all the answers. 

When we yield to God, we become God’s favored ones.  Not because we earn the distinction, but because God longs to bestow his grace upon us. 

And it is only when we yield to God, that it becomes appropriate to have a more confrontational, aggressive faith like David.  When we have yielded in prayer to God and have a sense of God’s call in our lives, we can then live out the “masculine” side of our faith.

Some of us might be called to fight for justice-writing letters to legislators, or organizing protests.  Others of us might be called to bring bible studies into local prisons or to work with the Bread Fund. 

The Christian life is a dance of yielding and responding to call.  The Christian Life is a dance of prayer and action. 

We are called to be both Mary and David.

As Jesus came into life through David and Mary, we are called to bring Jesus to life in this world.