Of Fig Leaves & Sewing Needles


Inspired by Genesis 3:8–21 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

This might be too old of a sci-fi reference but some of you might remember the show Lost in Space from the mid to late ’60s. That was before my time but I remember watching reruns as a kid and hearing this famous line from it, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” The Robot would say that whenever it detected any source of harm, especially around the youngest child, Will. Wouldn’t that be nice to have a robot like that for our lives? Especially as a parent of teenagers, it would have been nice to send them with a robot that would alert them of danger when we weren’t around to do that for them. And not just danger, but maybe even the possible bad decisions! How awesome would that be! Well, for the parents anyway. This is kind of how this story from Genesis operates for us. Let me explain.

As we read last week, the woman and the man had just eaten from the tree that God had instructed them not to, they realized they were naked, and so they covered themselves up with fig leaves. Not a long-term solution by any means but they were afraid, and people who are afraid don’t always make the best decisions. So there they were, hiding in the garden, fig leaves blowing in the wind, and what do they hear? God taking a stroll through the garden, calling out for them, “Where are you?” Quick side note here, notice that God’s omniscience, God’s all-knowingness, and God’s omnipresence, God’s ability to be everywhere at once, are not in play here. In this story, God does not know where they are, and God is in some kind of physical form, in only one place at a time, as we humans know all too well.

Oddly enough, our faith ancestors were ok with that! But we don’t have time to go down that rabbit hole so let’s keep moving. God finds them and discovers what they had done. What gave them away? Those darn fig leaves! The fact that they were hiding their appearance and their selves from God was the telltale sign that they had done wrong. And isn’t that human nature? When we know we’ve done wrong, we hide, we withdraw, or we just straight-up run. And sometimes we do that physically, but we can also do that emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well. We humans have discovered all kinds of ways to withdraw with our guilt in tow, rather than face the music. After hearing what they had done, God hands out some curses, but not to whom you’re expecting! God curses the snake, and the ground, but not them!

Did you notice that? Oh, they don’t get off scot-free, to be sure, but the author doesn’t use the word “curse” in reference to the woman or the man. I find that pretty darn fascinating! They get their fair share of consequences doled out to them but they both are able to leave that garden without being labeled as “cursed.” Why is that important? Because if they walked outside of that garden cursed, then we walk outside that garden cursed! And that just wouldn’t do, not for our God. Life was already going to be hard enough as it was without us having to also carry around the label of being cursed. And besides that, it’s just not the way of our God, and it never has been. This story flies in the face of this lingering idea that somehow the God of the Hebrew scriptures was different somehow, angrier, more vengeful, more strict, etc.

The reality is, God has been a God of grace and mercy since day one! And that has never changed! Humans have certainly tried to make God out to be those other things when it suited them, even in scripture we see that. But the God of love and compassion that we have come to know through Christ has always been there. Sometimes you just need to weed through all the human redactions to get at the original truths that lie beneath, to get to the heart of God. And the heart of God shines brightest in the very last verse of our Genesis reading, “And God made garments of skins for the woman and her man, and clothed them.” That doesn’t sound like an angry God to me. It’s easy for us to read the preceding consequences in an angry tone of voice, or worse yet, a parental disappointed voice!

But this action of making clothes for them, doesn’t sound like the action of someone who is angry. Maybe a better tone of voice to read this with might simply be a tone of sadness. The way a parent is sad when their child makes some regrettable decisions and there’s nothing the parent can do about it. Kids are gonna be kids. But that parent’s love never wanes. Quite the opposite in fact, that love produces compassion and empathy. And that’s what I see here in this tender scene between God and Eve and Adam. In her book, This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley writes,

“On the day the world began to die, God became a seamstress. This is the moment in the Bible that I wish we talked about more often. When Eve and Adam eat from the tree, and decay and despair begin to creep in, when they learn to hide from their own bodies, when they learn to hide from each other—no one ever told me the story of a God who kneels and makes clothes out of animal skin for them. I remember many conversations about the doom and consequence imparted by God after humans ate from that tree. I learned of the curses, too, and could maybe even recite them. But no one ever told me of the tenderness of this moment. It makes me question the tone of everything that surrounds it. In the garden, when shame had replaced Eve’s and Adam’s dignity, God became a seamstress.”

If you haven’t read that book, I highly recommend it. Certainly my favorite book of last year, and quite possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. When we are at our lowest, when we are at our most guilt-ridden, when all we can do is hang our head in shame, when punishment seems to be our only future, God is there to clothe us in grace and love, with a compassionate heart that just can’t be matched. This story serves two purposes for us. To warn us of danger, that this life is fraught with peril, both from outside and from within. And also that God will not only be there through it all, but will be there with sewing machine in tow, ready to clothe us. May you hear the gentle hum of God’s sewing machine this Lent, my friends, wherever this season leads you. Thanks be to God. Amen.



Inspired by Genesis 3:1-7 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

During my time off this past month, I got a massage. I knew my back and shoulders were riddled in knots, and though we were out of town at the time and couldn’t go to my usual place, I was in so much pain that I found the first place had an opening, made an appointment, and went. It was a nice place with very friendly staff and they promptly took me back to my massage room and told me to get undressed. Now, some people strip down to their birthday suit for a massage but I haven’t been that brave yet. I know, details about your pastor’s life that might not belong in a sermon! But hey, it’s me. Anyway, I am certainly glad I didn’t choose to be brave that day because of what happened next! So there I am, laying face down on the table, eyes closed, ready to be transported to nirvana for the next hour and a half. 

I hear her walk back in, without a word, and all of a sudden I feel the table shift and move and that’s when I realize that she’s getting on the table! And yes, I too was thinking what kind of a place was this! But before I could even finish that thought, I feel her feet on my thigh, then her other one on my glute, as she continues to walk to my upper back like this is the most normal thing in the world! And for this place it was, because that’s when I remember seeing on their sign, “Thai Massage”, and thought, “Oh, so this is what a Thai massage is! I’ve always wondered!” How many of you have ever had one? It is a very different kind of massage, and I don’t just mean the walking on the back! It is very…I don’t know a better word than, intimate. 

Those therapists are not afraid to use their whole body to not only massage you but to stretch you, to pound on you, to contort your body into unnatural positions, all for the purpose of releasing tension found throughout your body. And that she did! But I gotta tell ya, that was next-level vulnerability! I don’t think I have ever felt quite that vulnerable, and at one point, a little scared! I may not have been naked, but I sure felt like I was! And speaking of naked, I know, that was an odd path to our Bible readings. But again, it’s me. If you wanted ordinary, well-trodden paths to the Bible, you wouldn’t have come here today! I’ve preached on our first reading many times over the past decade, but I don’t think I have ever centered on this particular element of the story, their nakedness. 

One of the questions I’ve walked away from this story with is, “Was nakedness a good thing or a bad thing?” And the answer to that question, is yes, according to our author. Being naked began by representing innocence and a oneness with creation, but ends with it representing shame and embarrassment. And in between all that, the author uses the snake, who by the way, is not represented as a villain in the text, that’s something that we’ve done to that character, but I digress, the snake makes this weird connection between nakedness and, intelligence and knowledge on the one hand, and shame and embarrassment on the other. So, is nakedness a good thing or a bad thing? Again, yes! So, let’s talk about what nakedness means for us in our everyday lives. 

Like most everything else in this Genesis story, it’s not supposed to be taken literally. Another word that might be more helpful when thinking of our nakedness, is vulnerability. Is being vulnerable a good thing or a bad thing? Yes! It is both necessary and useful for growth as a human being, but also one of the most frightening states of being for us to be in. So, let’s use the words interchangeably. Whenever I use the word naked, think vulnerable. Likewise, whenever I use the word vulnerable, think naked. I don’t want to be distracted by the word naked, but I also don’t want to lose its intensity. So, what does it mean to be naked? What does it mean to be vulnerable? One of the consequences of sin in our story is the loss of comfort that we had in being vulnerable with one another. 

Once humans understood what it even means to be vulnerable, they quickly covered themselves up, began building these invisible walls around ourselves, our families, our tribes, our churches, our genders, our communities, our sexualities, our nations. We cover ourselves in so many ways it’s no wonder we have trouble seeing each other. To add further complication, many times we cover ourselves up to protect ourselves from abuse. Many of us have been treated so badly by others, for reasons out of our control, like the color of our skin, or our age, or who we love, that we have very legitimate reasons to build those invisible walls! But those walls that we build to cover ourselves up with, are unstable at best, not unlike those fig leaves, but they also come at a high price. 

There are many lessons from this story that we can walk away with, and one of them is to remind us that there is another way, another way to relate to one another, to live with each other. This story is a call, a challenge for us to return to that original state of being, that state of vulnerability. Now, I realize we can’t do that fully, I’m not that naïve. As long as there is sin in the world, we can never be truly, fully vulnerable with each other. But I also know that we can’t move forward as a people, as a community, as a nation, as a church, unless we are willing to be as vulnerable as we can be with one another. How else are we going to gain empathy for each other and the world? How else are we going to gain compassion for each other and the world? Do you have anyone like that in your life? 

Someone who you can be vulnerable with? Someone who you can be yourself with? Maybe it’s your spouse, a friend, a sibling or other family member. One of those people in my life is my wife Sara. One of the reasons I’m always getting on her case to take care of herself so that we can live long lives together is purely out of selfishness, because if she ever left me behind, the chances of me finding someone else in this world that I can be that vulnerable with is slim to none. I hope you all have someone like that in your life. Now, imagine practicing some of that vulnerability with others, maybe even the occasional stranger! How’s that for a terrifying thought? That’s the stuff of nightmares for an introvert like me! Especially when you take into account how this ended for Jesus. 

But what did we think it meant when Jesus told us to take up our crosses? That following Jesus was going to be a cakewalk? Of course not! Following Jesus isn’t always going to end well for us but it will bring our world closer to that garden, closer to the way things were meant to be, until our ultimate end, when Christ finishes that work. So, what might this vulnerability look like? Here’s a few questions to help you process that this coming week. Can we be vulnerable enough to share when we are in need of help? Spoiler alert, we are always in need of help! But imagine the chain effect that could cause in others, sharing that they need help after seeing you do it. Here’s another one, can we be vulnerable enough to share with someone or some people that they have wronged us, hurt us? 

Can we imagine a world without the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King being vulnerable enough to tell the white world how much his people had been hurt by them? As a person of color, I cannot. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a world worse than this, but trust me, it most certainly could be worse. Here’s a follow-up to that, can we be vulnerable enough to admit when we have hurt others, and do that dreaded deed, apologize! You know, I have seen public apologies to indigenous peoples for the stealing of their land, I’ve seen public apologies to black Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors, I’ve seen public apologies to the LGBTQ+ community for their exclusion by the church, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public apology to the women of the world for their disenfranchisement and exploitation at the hands of men. 

Is that too big an expectation? Maybe I’m being naïve. What other ways of being vulnerable with each other and the world would you add? Here’s one that’ll really throw you for a loop! How vulnerable are you with…yourself? Are you able to truly be yourself, with yourself? Asked another way, how honest are you with yourself? Scholar Phyllis Trible calls Eve the Bible’s first theologian. For she was vulnerable enough with herself to not only contemplate who God really is, but also to interpret God’s words, and maybe even to question God’s integrity. 

Talk about being vulnerable with oneself! But maybe that’s where this work of vulnerability needs to begin, from within. But, don’t forget, before you do, brace yourselves! This story calls us to some hard work, without many guarantees, save this one. That, just like the cross of Christ, it is guaranteed to bring new life. New life to you, to those around you, even to the world, as it can be quite contagious. Thanks be to the author of vulnerability, Jesus the Christ. Amen.


We Need To Talk About Bruno

A sermon inspired by Isaiah 16:1–5, Ephesians 3:1–6, and Luke 3:23, 31–38 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church. Press play button ▷ above for audio.

We had a good time on Wednesday evening talking about our family trees. I am so thankful for the few who attend that each week. Not only because is makes my preparation time worth it but more importantly, we learn so much from each other, we learn so much about each other, and even deeper than that, this journey with Christ, which is challenging, feels a little less lonely for the rest of the week. This past Wednesday we shared members of our family tree that have inspired us and made us proud. But we also talked about those members of our family tree that no one talks about, or even some that have been all but erased and now only live on in rumors and hushed voices. The stories we shared! It was difficult to focus on the Bible readings because we were so captivated by our family trees! 

Throughout the discussion, I had this song in my head and it hasn’t left since. It’s from the Disney movie Encanto. Encanto is a Spanish word that is a little tricky to translate into English. Just like Biblical translation, context is key. It can mean enchantment, delight, joy, but it often has a whimsical, even other-worldly notion to it, like a spell or a magical place. And that’s the way it’s used in this movie. It’s this enchanted realm that this family lives in to be protected from the evils of the outside world, only for them to realize that evil is inescapable. An example of this is the way that this family has emotionally, mentally, and spiritually abused one of their own, Bruno. I know, that sounds pretty grim for a Disney movie, but Disney’s been pretty grim since they imprisoned Dumbo’s mom and murdered Bambi’s! 

Not that I was emotionally scarred by that or anything as a kid! Bruno has an unusual gift in this movie. He can see visions of the future. Unfortunately for him, most of his visions are of catastrophes that befall the family, and instead of seeing that as a gift, his family sees it as a curse, and even blames him for all the horrible things that happen to them. They disown him, banish him, and he spends a decade living inside the walls of their mansion, hiding from them, while at the same time, needing to be near them, because they’re all he has. Which leads to the song I mentioned, which is called, We Don’t Talk About Bruno. In the same way that many of us have members in the family tree that we don’t talk about or even have attempted to erase. Which also raises the question, how do we define family? But let’s save that for later. 

Let’s switch gears and take a look at our readings for today. Our Gospel reading was “interesting.” It’s another one that isn’t typically read during Sunday worship as it doesn’t show up in either the Revised Common Lectionary or the Narrative Lectionary. Which is a shame because there’s a lot of fruit to pick here. At first glance, it’s “just” a genealogy that shows where Jesus came from. But when you ,take a moment to look at the names, you discover that something else might be going on here. There might be a covert message here, hidden behind the walls of Luke’s Gospel. First of all, it should be pointed out that the Greek manuscripts that we have of Luke do not include any women’s names in this genealogy. In an effort to make this translation as inclusive as possible, the translator added in the women that we know of connected to all those men. 

This doesn’t just bring inclusivity though. It highlights the hidden message that Luke included here. Because it causes you to remember some of the stories that are connected to these names and before you know it you realize that these characters weren’t exactly the cream of the crop! In fact, there are some pretty unsavory family members included in Jesus’ family tree. Here’s some examples: Abraham’s personal fears put his wife Sarah in great danger multiple times; his grandson Jacob was a manipulative thief, his son Judah sold his own brother into slavery and then allowed his dad to believe that he died for years; and David was a murdering rapist! Add to that list, there are Gentiles included in this list! Outsiders! Gasp! How dare they! Ruth was a Moabite, remember those people because they’ll come up again, and Tamar was a Canaanite! 

Now those last two might not sound like a big deal but for them it was. For them, purity of bloodlines was crucial to the survival of their people and their religion. It was forbidden, many times over throughout the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, to “mix” with other nations. Which makes the inclusion of Gentiles in Jesus’ genealogy all the more surprising, on top of the unsavory characters! And by including them, Luke is saying, in between the lines, in between the walls, this is the blood that is running through the savior of the universe! In any other religion, a genealogy would be there to prove the purity and holiness of a divine figure. But for Luke, Jesus’ impure, profane genealogy doesn’t weaken the message, it makes it stronger! 

As if to say, God’s message of love will not be held back by your or your ancestor’s behavior! God’s message of love will not be held back by your or your ancestor’s resident status, or societal status, or marital status, or criminal history, or anything else that our world tries to convince us will do so, or anything else that our religious institutions, our religious families, have tried to convince us will do so. And this has been on the books for a long time. In our reading from Isaiah, God tells her people to grant justice and shelter to the outcasts and the fugitives, even the Moabites, an ancient enemy of theirs! Going so far as to consider them birds from the same nest—family. 

Likewise, in our Ephesians reading, the author states that Gentiles, outsiders, once forbidden, have now “become coinheritors, are of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”—family. And so I ask you, how do you define family? I asked this of our group on Wednesday and they came up with descriptors like love, protection, safety, acceptance. What would you add to that list? Maybe a better question is, who do you consider family? Blood relatives? Friends? Church? Who else would you add to that list? I can tell you who God would add to that list? Just using our readings for today, God adds strangers to that list, foreigners, criminals, enemies, those of other religious faiths, the outcasts, the erased ones, the Brunos of their world. 

Your homework this week is to explore who in our world needs to be re-added to our list of family members. Who are the strangers today, the forgotten, the outcast, the erased. Who are the Brunos of our world? It’s a daunting task, I know. Trust me, I’d much rather be up here just telling you how much God loves you and how much you are included in God’s family. But then I’d only be doing half my job, because that’s only half the story. So, as you revel in the gift of being called a child of God, the privilege of having your very own leaf on God’s family tree, remember those who have been pushed behind the walls of that gift, remember Bruno, all the Brunos of our world. We need to talk about Bruno. Amen.


Healed to Work

Sermon inspired by Zephaniah 3:14–20; 1 Timothy 4:1–6, 9–10 & Mark 1:29–31 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W. Press play button ▷ above for audio.

During my internship year in Alabama, I took a few of our church-members to an interfaith forum at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The forum included a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. They were asked various questions, and so each gave their own take on a variety of topics. It was fascinating, and we all learned a lot. One of the highlights for me was when they started taking questions from the audience and someone asked the rabbi, “How do you go about converting to Judaism.” He kinda chuckled and said, “Well, the first thing I would ask someone who wanted to convert is, why! Why would you do this to yourself? It’s not that fun! It’s a lot of work! From the way we eat, to the way we dress, to learning Hebrew, worship, and don’t get me started about all the rules on the Sabbath! I wouldn’t recommend this way of life to anyone!” he said. 

Not only was that a surprising answer, believe me, nobody saw that coming, but what I appreciated about that answer was how authentic and honest it was. It’s something we could use more of in our own religion. We have a tendency to emphasize all the great and wonderful things you’re gonna get if you “join us”, like love, community, family, care, guidance, knowledge, support, and the other wonderful things that you would add to that list. It’s a great sell! It really is! And I’d agree, those are all things that you should be getting from any religious institution. What I haven’t heard enough of in my lifetime as a follower of Jesus, are all the other not-so-positive things that you get from church. And I’m not talking about any kind of abuse, that’s for a whole other day! But the reality is, in addition to all that wonderful stuff, you’re also gonna get a whole lot of work! 

And, you’re not gonna get paid for any of it! Well, not with money anyway. Hopefully, at the end of the day the work is worth it for you. So, what kind of work am I talking about? Well, let’s talk about the obvious kind, the kind that’s probably going through many of your minds right now, and that’s all the volunteer hours it takes to run a church. I would love to add up those volunteer hours sometime. I think we would be amazed at that number! Just the volunteer hours to put this Sunday morning show on for you each week is a lot! But even aside from that there’s cleaning, there’s set up for coffee hour, take down of coffee hour, making the coffee, cooking, committee meetings, repairs on an old building, groundskeeping, and the list goes on! It’s a lot! And I haven’t even mentioned what our president, vice-president, and treasurer have to go through! 

So there’s that kind of work that goes along with being part of a religious institution but that’s the obvious stuff. Before we get into the less obvious stuff though, let me tell you why the work of ministry is on my mind. Whenever we have a super short Gospel reading, today’s was only four short sentences, I always think to myself, “How am I gonna get a whole sermon outta that?” So I took a harder look at the other readings and at first I was having a hard time finding anything useful, and sometimes there isn’t, and that’s ok. But I read them again, and again, and again, which is probably why I didn’t finish this sermon until last night, which is really unusual for me, but something finally jumped out at me. A thread that ran through each of our readings, though very subtly. 

In our reading from Zephaniah, what you heard was the very ending of a very short book, it’s a pamphlet really. And throughout it, Zephaniah is doing what many prophets did, and that was trying their best to get their people to get their act together and follow the way of God. In spite of that however, it’s a very hopeful book, because for Zephaniah, God isn’t tied down by our behavior. Halleluiah! Right? Our behavior does not dictate what God can or cannot do. God does what God wants, period. And so, Zephaniah wrote about God’s powerful, saving work, and how, at the end of the day, God will bring you home. But there was one line that stood out like a sore thumb. In God’s voice, Zephaniah writes, “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, Zion; do not let your hands grow weak, daughter.” 

What a strange thing to say, “do not let your hands grow weak.” In the midst of all the talk about rejoicing in God’s power, God’s salvation, God’s protection, God says, oh yeah, by the way, keep them hands strong. Okaaay, kinda weird. What’s that about? Put a pin in that and let’s take quick look at our second reading, which was from First Timothy. Here we have a pastoral letter to a young Christian who was sort of an apprentice of Paul’s, part of the next generation of followers of Jesus. The letter was written to encourage, teach, and support Timothy, and so the line that jumped out at me was when the author said, “for this we toil and struggle.” And again I thought, that’s an odd thing to say, especially in the midst of so much love and support for Timothy. But the thread doesn’t stop there, it continues to the Gospel reading. 

This is just the second miracle that Mark records. Jesus had just left the synagogue where he healed a man of what they called an unclean spirit. It was a big production, lots of people witnessed this, including the Jewish leadership. And you have to believe that was intentional. This was Jesus’ way of saying, “Heads up y’all! Your messiah has arrived.” And word began to spread quickly. Mark then writes, “Immediately they went to Simon’s house.” Whenever Mark uses the word “immediately”, and it’s often, that’s our cue to see if there’s a connection between the two stories, and there usually is. What I love about these two stories is that it goes from a big miracle with a big audience for maximum exposure, to this small miracle, in this small intimate family moment, where Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. 

'Healing of Peter`s Mother in law'
Rembrandt, 1660
And so, right outta the gate in this book, Mark shows us a Jesus who is not just here for big miracles and lots of attention, but that he was also here to make time for the small, personal, miracles that no one around them would even see or know about, except Simon’s family. I love that about Jesus, but believe it or not, that wasn’t the most profound moment of this story. After Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and heals her, Mark records that she got up and ministered to them. And again, I thought, that’s an odd detail to include. Why didn’t the story end with her healing—Jesus took her by the hand, lifted her up, and healed her. Period, end of story. Next scene. What was the point of telling us that she ministered to them right after her healing? Well, I think this is where that thread ends. 

The take away that Mark wants you to leave this story with, just like the author of Zephaniah and First Timothy, is that God’s saving, protecting, guiding, healing work on us is not for nothing. Meaning, whenever God heals us, that’s never supposed to be the end of the story. Rather, God heals us for the work ahead. And no, that’s not God pulling a fast one on us, nor is it God being manipulative. This is God seeing value in you and your God-given abilities. If there’s anything selfish about this it’s only in that God loves the world so much that God wants you working in it, to make it a better place than the way you found it. So, let’s end with what this work might look like. Other than the obvious stuff that we already talked about. 

Last night my family and I were watching the National Day of Racial Healing: An MSNBC Town Hall, and one of their guests, author Nikole Hannah-Jones, was asked what racial healing means to her. She said, when I think of racial healing, the people I think who really need healing are white people. “We black people may have suffered a lot of harm, but the people who caused the harm, are the people who need the healing, the reflection, the fixing.” That is the kind of work that Christ calls us into. The kind of work that causes us to reflect on what makes us who we are, and be honest with what needs healed. Another guest, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, who was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black teenagers who integrated Little Rock Central High School, said, “Activism is a life sentence.” 

While many of us might call it being a social justice warrior, she on the other hand, likened it to incarceration. That is the kind of work that Christ calls us into. The kind that costs us something. Now, those are big dramatic examples, but the work of ministry that we are all called to comes in all shapes and sizes. From parenting and marriage, to being the best supervisor at work that you can be or, like Simon’s mother-in-law, serving those around you with a heart for hospitality, and everything in between. At our Wednesday evening Bible discussion, one of our college students shared a little bit of what it was like to take care of her family when everyone in her household got COVID. I remember texting with her during that time and even through my phone screen I could hear her exhaustion and frustration and fear. 

So, on Wednesday I asked her, “Why did you do that? How did you get through it? What motivated you?” She said, “Love and duty.” Love and duty. I thought to myself, maybe I should have her preach this Sunday! Christ comes with healing for whatever ails us, for whatever holds us back, but Christ doesn’t heal for nothing. And no it’s not a requirement, not an ultimatum, we don’t believe in a do-this-or-else kind of God. So, how about we call it an expectation, or in the words of Marie Claire, our duty? Whatever we call it, it is Christ’s hope for us. May we be ready, each time Christ lifts us up by the hand, to be healed, and to go to work. Amen.

Let It Go

Sermon inspired by Mattew 3:1–6, 11–17 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W. Press play button  above for audio.

As some of you may remember, I serve on our synod’s Candidacy Committee. For those who don’t know, a synod is simply the geographic areas that our denomination is separated into. Ours is the Sierra Pacific Synod and it stretches from Porterville to the Oregon border, and from the West coast to Elko, Nevada. And just like a congregation, each synod has an ordained leader, only there it’s called a bishop, and it has a council and lots of committees. The Candidacy Committee is in charge of overseeing those who want to become pastors and deacons in our denomination. It’s been extremely rewarding work, and honestly, some of the most holy work that I do, other than leading worship for you all of course! 

But it’s an honor to accompany others on the same journey to ordination that I took not that long ago. One of the things that has been enlightening for me is the advice that I hear myself giving them. Whatever it is, it almost always comes from my own experience as a pastor, and usually from the pitfalls that I have encountered over the years. I find myself getting quite protective of them. A common piece of advice that I give baby pastors is this, “The day to day duties of a pastor take up more time than you think, leaving less time to do the “exciting” stuff that I know you want to do. Unless you’re a workaholic.” Which always leads to a second piece of advice, “Don’t be a workaholic!” Nobody is going to sing your praises after you die for being a workaholic. 

Because being a workaholic is easy! But being good at your job, whatever it is, while also making quality time for family, friends, those in need, and self-care—that takes real work—and you will be remembered for it because it will leave a lasting impression on a lot of people. But I digress. What “exciting” stuff am I referring to when talking to these incubating future pastors? Well, a lot of them are social justice warriors, ready to take their ordination papers to the streets before the ink is even dry, to battle each and every injustice that comes their way! Some of them are interfaith networkers, ready to show the world just how wide God’s love stretches as they work side by side with people of other religious faiths. 

Some are writers, some are social media influencers, some are musicians, some are podcasters, some are youth ministers, some even want to be politicians! Unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot of extra time to work on those “exciting” things. Especially since so many of them are going to find themselves in churches a lot like Bethlehem, where they’re gonna end up carrying the load of two or more positions! Heck, for ten months in the heart of the pandemic I was pastor, office manager, and music director! Not that I’m counting or anything. So what I ask them is this, “Do you find the day to day, week in and week out, work of a pastor, exciting? Because if not, are you absolutely sure this is what you want to spend the rest of your working years doing? 

But, this is really getting at something deeper, something more foundational. What we’re really talking about is, managing your expectations. How well you manage your expectations is going to have a profound impact on how successful you are. And, of course, I’m not talking about financial or professional success. Although, this could apply to those too. I’m talking about how successful you are at being a human being. And since I am a pastor, I’m also talking about spiritual success as well. Now there’s a concept, right! Spiritual success? What in the world is pastor talking about now? Well, for the answer to that, let’s focus our attention on today’s Gospel reading. We read about the Baptism of Jesus, but oddly enough, it wasn’t Jesus that got my attention. I’m sure he’ll forgive me. 

What grabbed my attention was John. Now, I have always found him to be a fascinating character. I mean, who doesn’t love a camel hair wearing, bug eating, wilderness preacher! But it’s practically impossible to walk away from the Gospels and not have a ton of questions about this guy! Like, why did he dress like that? Why did he eat like that? Did his personality make up for it all? Not to mention all that has been written about the possible mental health challenges that he may have suffered from. Fascinating character, but it’s none of those things that caught my attention. It was actually the struggle he has in this story of Jesus’ baptism, and particularly how he gets through it, in the moment even. So, Jesus makes his first appearance in the Bible as an adult. 

There’s nothing in the Bible about him between last week’s story of him as a twelve year old boy in the temple to today’s story at his baptism. Scholars have said he was around thirty years old by that point. John is about the same age, and is a cousin of Jesus, which we read about last month in the story of Elizabeth. We know even less about his life up to this point. Jesus finds him in the wilderness by the Jordan river in full blown ministry mode. He is baptizing, preaching, teaching, telling everyone who would listen that the messiah was almost here. He dressed like a prophet, ate like a monk, and had already gained a large following. Not only were crowds of people coming to see him in the wilderness and getting baptized, but the religious leadership was also coming out to see what all the fuss was about. 

Which is just another way of saying they were wondering what was taking attention away from them. So, in the midst of all this, Jesus shows up and he too wants to be baptized, and John, looks Jesus, the savior of the world, in the eye, and says, “No!” But he doesn’t stop there! He explains to Jesus, that he’s got this all backwards! As if Jesus doesn’t know how to be the messiah, he says, you should be baptizing me! And no one would have blamed Jesus for getting angry at this point and saying, “Who do you think you’re talking to, bug breath!” But that’s not the Jesus we know, is it. Jesus oozes empathy and goes straight to the heart of the matter like only Jesus can, looks John in the eye and says, “Let it go. This is the way it’s meant to happen.” Let it go. So, what did John have to let go? 

Why was baptizing Jesus so difficult for him to do? Why did it feel so wrong for John? Well, if you go to seminary, they’ll give you lots of answers for that. Deep theological answers about the nature of Jesus’ divinity, the nature of Jesus’ humanity, and don’t get them started on how Jesus’ baptism was different than ours! There’s a whole separate bookcase for that topic! Have you ever noticed when an answer is particularly complicated, that you begin to wonder if it’s because they really don’t know the answer? Yeah, I got the feeling quite a bit in seminary. So, none of their answer were really satisfying concerning John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus, and so I searched for something a little more down to earth. Truth be told, these biblical authors were not writing grand theological dissertations. 

They related truths using very relatable, human stories. So, what did John have to let go? He had to let go of his expectations, his preconceived notions of who Jesus was going to be, how Jesus was going to operate, what Jesus was going to believe. As his cousin, John already knew Jesus, they probably grew up seeing each other regularly, probably spent holidays together. But John didn’t know this Jesus, the Jesus who was now ready to get to work as the messiah, the savior of the entire universe. And already, in this first moment of meeting Jesus the messiah, he’s already not meeting his expectations! On day one! Hell, on minute one! In John’s eyes, Jesus is already failing! Thankfully, Jesus knew. Jesus knew John’s struggle. 

And he also knew it was going to be a common struggle, with everyone who encountered him…then and now. Jesus knows that in order for something new to come our way, that we have to let something go. Sometimes it’s a preconceived notion or expectation we have, sometimes it’s a particular attitude or perspective we have, sometimes it’s our ego, sometimes it’s our behavior, only you and Jesus can determine what that is. Whatever it is, Jesus is looking at you in the eye, both of you still dripping from the waters of your baptisms, and says, “Let it go.” Jesus doesn’t just bring life, Jesus brings new life, emphasis on new, something you’ve not experienced before, something you’ve not thought about before, something that’s gonna surprise you, excite you, maybe even startle you a bit! 

And there’s Jesus, still standing there with you, at the river, saying, “Let it go.” And like John, you probably know what it is he’s referring to. Thankfully, each day, hell, each moment, we have that same opportunity to let it go, and let Jesus surprise us with whatever is up his sleeve. And I know, we all have different feelings about surprises, but this is Jesus we’re talking about. We know him. We trust him. My advice, would be to follow John’s lead and let it go. Not so that God will love you, God already does, but so you can see what new thing Jesus has up his sleeve for you. Because God has already looked at you and proclaimed to the universe, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Thanks be to God. Amen.