1/29/2023

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.

1/24/2023

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.

1/10/2023

Wonder Mode

A sermon inspired by Isaiah 52:1–10, Psalm 36:5–10, 1 Corinthians 1:26–31, and Luke 2:41–51 as found in A Women's Lectionary For the Whole Church.

When we first moved to the house we now live in, the backyard was completely overgrown. It was so bad that at least fifty percent of it did not allow you to walk upright. You had to crouch down to walk through most of it as if you were lost in the jungle. So that first year I spent a lot of time back there, cutting, pulling, yanking out all the overgrown vegetation. It was good exercise for me, but there were times when it got the best of me and I needed some help, when a root or tree trunk wouldn’t budge from the ground it had clearly called home for a long time. When things got that bad, there was one person I knew I needed to call. My teenage daughter, Jesha. 

So, I’d get my phone out as I took a rest in that mess of a backyard, and called Jesha, who was just inside the house, because that’s how families communicate these days. And when she would answer, I wouldn’t just ask, “Can you come out and help me, please?” There was a key phrase that would signal to her just how dire the help really was. I would say, “I need your help in the backyard, and I need you to come in Beast Mode.” Beast Mode is what we call it when I just need her brute strength and let me tell you, she is one strong specimen of a human being. There were times when she would come out and see me struggling, pat me on the shoulder to signal to me to get out of the way, and like Samson of old, she’d just rip out whatever it was I was struggling with! Let me tell ya, her Beast Mode is something to behold! 

Now, let me tell you about my other daughter, Grace, and her Tank Mode. All her life she has been a protector. She and her sisters might fight like cats and dogs but when there’s an outside threat, she will go into Tank Mode faster that you can say help, and no one will touch her sister without first going through her! Tank Mode is something to behold too but I’m not gonna lie, it’s a bit scary to witness! The first time I saw it, she was probably around three, four tops, and my wife Sara and my oldest daughter were wrestling on the bed, and I guess things got a little too intense for tiny little Grace, and before we knew it, we heard what can only be described as a battle cry coming from the corner of the room, “Don’t hurt my mommy!” 

And as I look over, she’s running at full speed, though in my memory this is all happening in slow motion, and she throws her whole tiny body into her sister, who was twice her size but she didn’t care, because she had to save her mommy. I literally had to pull her off her big sister and assure her that no one was in any real danger. Like I said, it’s a bit scary to witness but also comforting at the same time. Beast Mode, Tank Mode, we all have different kinds of modes that we can turn on at any given moment, different switches we can flip when a need arises. Have you ever seen Lisa’s Mama Bear Mode? Well, if you do, word to the wise, just step out of the way. Ok, so why am I talking about our different modes? Well, because I noticed a few in our readings today and one in particular really got me wondering. 

The first one I noticed is from our first reading, which was from Isaiah. The first line says it all really, “Awake, daughter, awake! This is Isaiah being in Prophet Mode. Prophet Mode is less about telling the future, which is what most people think of when they hear the word prophet or prophecy, and much more about disturbing the status quo. In this passage, Isaiah was literally telling them to, “Wake up! Snap out of it!” Which is particularly poignant when the person or people being told that, doesn’t realize they’re asleep! Meaning, I think it’s all too common for us humans to not even know when we are stagnant, standing still, with no forward movement, either content with the status quo or just too lazy to do anything about it! And sometimes you can get by for a while like that. Isaiah was there to tell them, times up. 

Hold that thought, as we take a snapshot of the next two readings. Our Psalmist is in Cheerleader Mode, but not to cheer us on, to cheer God on, to urge God to be the God that the Psalmist knew God to be. One who is faithful to us, with a love like no other. And in our second reading, Paul is doing what Paul loves to do, be in Teacher Mode. But it’s our Gospel reading that I found most fascinating. Here we find the only story of Jesus’ childhood from the time the magi visited him as a toddler to when we encounter him as an adult, that made its way into the Bible. In reality, there’s lots of stories about these missing years written back then, they just didn’t make it into the Bible for a variety of reasons which we don’t have time to get into. 

In this story that Luke tells, the twelve-year-old Jesus and his parents are making their yearly pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. On their way back is when things go sideways. Now, maybe he was very mature for his age and was given a lot of freedom, but it took them a day to realize that he wasn’t in their traveling group, and then another two days of backtracking before they finally traced him back to the temple! Mary is in full-blown Mom Mode. I mean, you can practically here her use her mom voice. You know the one, the voice they use when there’s a lot of people around and they don’t want to cause a scene but they also want to communicate to you that this is far from over! Yeah, nobody likes the mom voice. And Joseph, well, he just seems to be in Oblivious Mode, otherwise known as Dad Mode. 

Now, I have preached on this story many times over the past decade. One time my sermon was titled Jesus the Brat Child, keying in on how he sasses his mother. Another time it was titled, That Time We Lost the Kid. But as usual, it was something else that caught my heart this time around. Luke writes that they found the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus was in Wonder Mode. The savior of the world, the ruler of the cosmos, the King of kings, was sitting there looking up at these weathered, gray faces, listening and asking questions. Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on that wall! What was he asking? What could he have possibly been wondering about? I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s the point here. 

Jesus here is demonstrating something that I think has largely been lost in our religion. And that is a sense of wonder, of questioning, of searching for something new, of doubting, of critical thinking, and, being comfortable with not getting all the answers we want. After two thousand years, the church has acted like we’ve got all the answers, we’ve had long enough to figure all this faith business out. And we have become comfortable with the answers provided. So much so, that any other answer is automatically suspect, if not outright labeled heretical. Let me tell you something, if Jesus can sit there and wonder and question and listen, imagine how much freedom we have to enter into Wonder Mode! But we humans like to have answers, they bring a sense of comfort to us. 

And we also like things in black and white, right and wrong, left or right. Gray areas? Not for us? Uncertainty? That’s a form of weakness! Not having the answers? Our society will label you naïve at best. Well, that’s not what Paul calls Jesus in our second reading. Paul calls him the very personification of Wisdom. Which in itself is interesting because the Hebrew scriptures always personified wisdom as a female but that’s a discussion for some other time. This is what I hear God saying today. It is not weak to be uncertain. It is not naïve to not have an answer. And the gray areas of our faith, and there are many, many more than we’d like to admit, those areas are not devoid of God. On the contrary, God thrives there! Because that’s where we grow, where we are stretched, where our hearts and minds are opened. 

The gray is full of adventure and excitement! But the only way to get there, is to be like Jesus in our Gospel reading, and go into Wonder Mode with our faith. And I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t scary in the gray, but if it makes you feel any better, you’ll be in really good company there! So go ahead, question your faith, think critically about what you read in the Bible, dabble with some doubt and see where that takes you! Don’t settle for something some old, white, straight guy wrote a long time ago just because he got some doctorate somewhere. Jesus didn’t call professors to follow him. Heck, he didn’t even call ministry professionals to follow him! He called people who had a heart, a heart that wanted more out of faith, a heart that wondered if there was more out there. So, do yourself a favor, try out your faith sometime, in Wonder Mode. Just, don’t forget to buckle your seatbelt. Amen.

12/25/2022

A Walking Dead Christmas Eve

A Christmas Eve sermon inspired by Isaiah 26:16-19 and Luke 2:1-14 as found in The Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church Year W

What are we even doing here? Not how you thought I was gonna start this, was it! Seriously though, why do we do this every year? Why do we put ourselves through all of this? I like Christmas as much as the next guy but dear lord, is it really worth it all? All the stress? All the running around? All the credit card debt? All the anxiety? All the manual labor? Emotional and mental labor? All the family drama? All the awkward conversations at Christmas parties? All the sitting and standing at church, not to mention another sermon! How many of these do you actually need? Didn’t the last one stick? – Is anybody out there thinking, now that you put it that way, why do we do this every year? It’s a lot, isn’t it! I mean, baby Jesus is cute and all, just look at him, he’s adorable! But he ain’t no baby no more! 

Even he is too old for Christmas! So the question remains. Why do we do continue to do this every year? Hold that thought, cuz I’d like to highlight one of our readings that Stephanie just read for us. Thank you, Stephanie. It was the first one, which came from the book of Isaiah. I don’t know if you noticed, but it wasn’t your typical Christmas Eve reading, to say the least! Isaiah was throwing around words like distress, disciplined, labor pains, writhing, dust, and just for good measure, corpses! Well, now that I say them out loud, that does sound a lot like Christmas! When did I become such a Grinch? Honestly though, I had to double check that I didn’t look up the wrong reading! This sounds more like an episode of The Walking Dead than Christmas Eve! And for those of you who’ve never seen that show, it’s about zombies, walking corpses. That’s really all you need to know to get that reference. 

So, I read it again, and it made me cry, right there in the library! I didn’t make a fool of myself or anything, but tears were formed. And I think it’s because it is one of the most real, authentic, raw, Christmas Eve readings I’ve ever heard. You adults, do you remember when we were kids, and Christmas was just nothing but fun and joy and receiving? And I know that not everyone experienced that as children, and if that’s you, my heart goes with you. But then we became adults and realized that Christmas doesn’t just happen, does it? We adults have to make all that happen! On top of all of the family stress, work stress, relationship stress, children stress, financial stress, mourning the faces we won’t see at the Christmas dinner table this year. On top of all that and more, we got to make Christmas happen! 

Isaiah, describes a woman giving birth, and it’s the perfect analogy. Think about it, for those of you who have seen a woman give birth, up close and personal like, and that same woman decides later to have another one, tell me you didn’t think, Why!? Why would you do that again? That was horrible! It was horrible for me! And I just stood there like an idiot taking pictures! If ever there was a reason why women should rule the world, that’s it right there. Those who can push a baby out their body and say, Let’s do that again, should be calling the shots! Am I right? I have a strong feeling that Isaiah, like Jesus, had a good momma. I think if they had asked their mothers, why did you have me if it hurts so much, they’d have said, because I couldn’t wait to meet you, silly! 

Because they knew, as most mothers do, that it’s not about them, it’s about something bigger than them, something more profound than even a mother. If we’re honest, we don’t know as parents how our kids are gonna turn out! So why go through all the trouble, all the pain, if there’s no guarantee it’ll be worth it all!? Well, here’s my answer to that question. Because mothers, like Mary and Isaiah’s momma, have this uncanny ability to sense a bigger picture at work in their lives and the lives of those around them—an insight into 

a hope bigger than any kind of hope we humans can muster,

a love bigger than our love,

a promise bigger than our flailing attempts to keep our word,

a faithfulness so big that it puts our human loyalties to shame,

a selflessness that makes us question if we even know what sacrifice is! 

That, my friends, is why we gather here, year in and year out, on this night, during a time when the nights are at their longest, and we succumb to the Earth’s shadow for so long that our very hearts and souls can feel its weight! We do this every year because this is our opportunity to thumb our noses at all that tries to keep us down, 

at all that tries to lead us to despair,

at all the walking corpses that follow us around,

the corpses of pain,

the corpses of heartache,

the corpses of stress,

the corpses of unrealistic expectations,

the corpses of self-doubt,

and all the other walking corpses who aren’t worthy to be named,

on this night we tell them all where they can go,

because Mary didn’t raise no baby! 

Mary raised the very hope she knew was bigger than our hope,

the very love she knew was bigger than our love,

the very promise she knew was bigger than ours,

the very faithfulness she knew was bigger than ours,

the very selflessness she knew was bigger than ours…

Mary…raised…Jesus!

That, my friends, is why we find ourselves here again: Mary’s little baby boy, born for us again, when we need it the most. Amen? Amen.