We Learn By Doing

Inspired by Mark 4:1-34

We are now four chapters into the Gospel of Mark and he finally shares with us some of Jesus’ lessons that he taught his followers. Up ‘til now, Mark has been more focused on what Jesus was doing, not so much on what Jesus was saying. But all that changes in this chapter where Jesus sits his followers down for some good ol’ fashioned lessons from the master. Can you imagine how excited they were? I mean, after all, this is the chosen one of God, the savior of the world, and he’s finally gonna teach a Sunday school class! Or I guess it would be synagogue class? Whatever they called it, the moment was finally here! I can see them sitting down, ready to take notes, wondering what he would teach them! Only for them to be completely let down when he finally does!

He tells them a story that has come to be known as the Parable of the Soils, of the soils! Not the most exciting of stories! Not only that but they are completely perplexed by it! So much so that they ask him later to explain it! Now, that might not seem like a big deal but if I preached a sermon one Sunday, and you all came to me and asked me to explain it, I would be sure that I had failed at that sermon. But not Jesus, he does his best to explain and then continues to teach. He tells them another story, in spite of the lackluster reviews from the last one, and this story is about, wait for it, lamps and baskets! Maybe now we know why Jesus didn’t write any of the books of the Bible!

Lamps and baskets. Anyway, the next story is about how a seed grows, and then he gets really spicy and tells them a story about a mustard seed! Did you see what I did there? Spicy…mustard? What do you expect from me? Jesus isn’t giving me much to work with here! In addition to these being some of the most boring stories any savior of the world had ever taught, they don’t seem to understand any of them! Not even his closest followers, the twelve, understood them! I can see their bursting excitement slowly deflate with each and every story, ‘til they finally put their notepads down, feeling disappointed, if not altogether dumb. This is what they had been waiting for? Just to be made to feel stupid for not knowing what in the world Jesus is talking about?

Two thousand years later, people are still debating on what Jesus meant by these and his other parables, leaving us just as frustrated as his original followers were. And that’s what I want to focus on today. Besides, you’ve heard plenty of sermons that have attempted to explain these parables anyway, some of them probably from me I’ve been here long enough now. But what struck me was not only the confusion of his followers but how Jesus doesn’t exactly help them out either. Even when he attempts to explain they still seem a bit stumped. He even asks them, “Don’t you understand?” He could see it all over their faces. No, they didn’t understand. And in what seems like a move that lacked greatly in the compassion department, Jesus just keeps forging ahead in his lesson plan.

What do we do with that? Because being confused by Jesus is nothing new, right! We are constantly confused and frustrated by Jesus! We are constantly asked to do or believe things that seem to not only go against our grain, but don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense either! Love our enemies? What? Even when they deliver death threats to us? Feed the hungry? Even when they’re probably gonna go and buy a beer instead of food? Forgive so we’ll be forgiven? Even when the pain still hurts? Being confused and frustrated by Jesus is nothing new! So, what do we do with that? Well, my suggestion is to do what Jesus did, just keep moving forward, just keep moving. Or in the words of the ever-wise Dory, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Swimming. Swimming.”

So wise. Seriously, because I wonder if Jesus was teaching us something about not having all the answers, about what to do when we are confused and frustrated when we don’t have all the answers. Particularly for us Western-minded people, having all the answers is everything! Somehow we got this idea that faith was about getting all the answers. Even Luther’s Small Catechism asks the question, “What does this mean?” over and over. What does this mean? What does this mean? Knowledge and meaning have been put on a pedestal in our faith, so much so that we’ve lost so much of the mystery and the unknown that our faith inherently has within it. And like Jesus’ first parables that were about soils and lamps and seeds, I personally find that quite boring.

I’m not one of those people that needs all the answers, I like a bit of mystery on my faith! I don’t need to know how everything works. I don’t need to know what’s behind the curtain. But that doesn’t mean that I’m never frustrated by Jesus, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my moments when Jesus just utterly confuses me, moments when Jesus asks me to do or believe something that makes absolutely no sense. In those moments, I think this chapter, and Dory, have some great advice. And that’s just to keep moving, or keep swimming. In this chapter, I hear Jesus and Mark telling us that answers aren’t everything! That sometimes, our faith is more experiential, than knowledge-based. In this chapter, I hear Jesus and Mark calling us not to understand, but to just follow. Just follow them on the journey.

Which is also a call to trust. I hear Jesus and Mark saying, “Trust us, even though this might not make any sense right now, even if it goes against your instincts or what you’ve been taught before, just trust us, and see where this goes.” Sometimes faith is something you have to experience before it can really make any sense to you. At the end of the movie, Finding Nemo, Dory learns that she isn’t alone.

At the beginning of her story, she has some memory problems that caused her to live a lonely life because she couldn’t remember who was who, but by the end of the movie, she not only has friends but has a family. But if someone had told her that at the beginning of the movie that wouldn’t have made any sense and she would have never believed you. It was something that she had to experience.

This also reminds me of the movie The Karate Kid. Remember how Mr. Miyagi made Daniel paint the fence and sand the floor, and Daniel gets frustrated because he just wanted to be trained in Karate, only to discover that those were the lessons? But in order for Daniel to get there he just had to keep moving forward, had to keep doing what Mr. Miyagi was asking him to do, even if it didn’t make sense, even if it was frustrating and confusing. And that took a healthy amount of trust on Daniel’s part. I believe that this is what Mark is trying to point out in this chapter. Faith isn’t about having all the answers. It isn’t even about searching for the answers. Sometimes, it’s just about moving, swimming, following, doing what Jesus asks, and then seeing what happens.

I find a tremendous amount of grace in that. For me, that takes an enormous amount of weight off my shoulders, to know that I don’t have to find all the answers, that that isn’t even the point of all of this, that it’s enough to just keep moving, and maybe faith will make more sense down the road, and maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s ok. Mark knew where he was going with this story. And talk about an ending that doesn’t make any sense!

Well, I don’t want to spoil the story for you but let me just say that this confusion, this bewilderment, never ends. And that might not sound like good news to you but to Mark it was. And I think that’s because it meant we weren’t alone in our frustration in not having all the answers, it meant that we had a family, even if it’s a family of a bunch of confused people, confused people who love Jesus and is loved back. Granted, it’s a weird kind of grace, but maybe that’s why I love Mark so much. Amen.

Jesus Will Always Eat with "Those People"

Inspired by Mark 2:1-22

Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, which was on Tuesday. That is the day that we remember the visit of the magi to the little Jesus when they blessed his family with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The day is significant because the magi were not Jewish, and so that day has become known as the day that the very Jewish Jesus was revealed to the first gentiles, and therefore, to the whole world. 
However, this revealing, this epiphany, was not just a once and done deal, but has been an ongoing revelation to the world for the last two thousand plus years—which is why it gets its own little green season before Lent arrives. Jesus continues to be revealed to the world in new and often surprising ways both today and in the Gospel of Mark, as we will see over the next seven weeks, which will culminate with the reveal of all reveals in the story of the transfiguration.
We are still very early in the Gospel, only starting chapter two today, and Jesus is still leading by example. There are some teaching moments here and there, but Mark still seems to be more focused on Jesus’ actions rather than his words. And in this chapter, there is a whole lot of action going on and we didn’t even read the whole thing! The chapter begins with a dramatic healing of a man whose friends were so desperate for healing for him, they tore the roof open and lowered him down to Jesus! 
That story always makes me chuckle because, if you saw someone desperately tearing through the roof just to get to Jesus, wouldn’t you or even Jesus have said, don’t do that! Let him through for crying out loud! But Mark wastes no time with trivial details, he’s got a story to tell, he’s got a savior to reveal to the world, so he just pushes right through his story.
Next, we have the calling of a fifth disciple, Levi, that grows what will be his inner circle of followers. Levi is a tax collector which will be important in a minute. That scene ends with Jesus sitting at Levi’s house dining with other “tax collectors and sinners.” Mark quickly moves on to the next scene which just has Jesus being asked why he and his disciples don’t fast like everyone else does, meaning like their rest of their Jewish community. Which brings us to what I think is the main point of this chapter. We are given three scenes in this reading and it would be easy to preach on any one of them but I’m going to instead talk about a thread that I see running through each of them. As amazing as Jesus is in this chapter, healing, and calling, and feasting, in spite of all that, at every turn he runs into a wall of opposition.
At this point in the story the opposition comes very subtly, and it comes in the form of questions. In the first scene, Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof by saying, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” And immediately, some of society’s elite begin to ask, “Why does he speak this way? Only God can forgive sins!” In the next scene, Jesus is eating with those tax collectors and sinners and they ask, “Why is he eating with them?” In the final scene, Jesus is just eating, and they ask, “Why isn’t he fasting like us?” Questions can sometimes be innocent, coming from a place that is genuinely inquisitive. But not these questions, they are anything but innocent. In fact, you could say they are downright malicious and malevolent. Not because of the questions themselves but because of the heart that they come from. 
How do we know this? Because these same elite figures continue to appear throughout this Gospel, particularly at the end when they crucify Jesus. If there was ever a group whose heart was not in the right place, it’s these guys. But the funny thing is, at this point in the story, you’d never know that. If you didn’t know how this story ended, these might just seem like innocent questions. But we know they are anything but innocent, especially when he keeps running into questions like these around every corner. At this point, Jesus remains patient but even Jesus has limits, as we will see later in the Gospel, because these seemingly innocent questions have a cumulative effect. Let me give you modern-day example.
People of color get asked one of these seemingly innocent questions all the time, way more than white people, and the question is this, “Where are you from?” That’s it! Where are you from? Well, that seems innocent enough, right? But not when you take into account two things, one, white people don’t get asked this question nearly as often, and two, that cumulative effect. Let’s tackle that first one. This question is often a proxy for what they really want to know but even they realize would be socially unacceptable to ask. From things like, "You don’t sound like us so you must be from someplace else", to the much more simplified, “Why are you brown?” No one would ever ask that, so instead, we get the question, “Where are you from?” 
My friend Tuhina, whose parents are from India, and has preached here before, gets this question all the time. She knows what they’re really asking but refuses to play this game with them. And so, she just answers the question like anyone else would and says, I’m from Colorado. I’ve been witness to several of these encounters with her. The puzzled look on people’s faces when she says Colorado is hilarious, or it would be if you didn’t know what was behind the question. The answer is usually met with, “I mean, where are you from?” Emphasis on the word from, as if they weren’t clear enough the first time. So, she responds, “Oh, you mean, where am I from? Well, I’m from Denver.” At that point they often just give up.
Now some might think, why not just answer what you know they are trying to get at? Can’t it just be an innocent question. Well, maybe but that brings me to the cumulative effect of this question and questions like these that white people just don’t get because they haven’t experienced them to the degree that people of color have. When you are asked, over and over, around every corner of your life, “Where are you from?” You soon begin to feel like you don’t belong. A seemingly innocent question like “Where are you from?” soon begins to sound like, “you’re not from here”, which soon begins to sound like, “you don’t belong here.” 
You wanna know where I get this question most often? In Lutheran gatherings. The one place where we already look like we don’t belong. The ELCA is literally the whitest denomination in the U.S., so when we as people of color walk into a room full of Lutherans, we are walking into a sea of white, so believe me when I say we already feel like we don’t belong in the room. And every time we hear that seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?”, it stings—not one question all by itself, but the cumulative effect of that question being asked over and over, across a lifetime, asked in much greater number than that of my white siblings.
It's these same kinds of seemingly innocent questions that Jesus was bombarded with throughout his ministry, and they will not only have a cumulative effect within him, but will also lead to his crucifixion. These questions though, make me feel oddly sorry for those asking them. Could it be that they wanted to be part of what Jesus was doing, and felt left out? I wonder this because I think we too quickly assume that we are the ones dining with Jesus in this story, or we are the ones being lowered through the ceiling. But, what if we’re not? What if we are the ones on the outside looking in? Before I confuse you beyond repair let’s take a closer look at that dinner scene with Levi and his fellow “tax collectors and sinners.” 
You might hear “tax collectors” and think IRS agents but they were even more insidious than that! These guys were considered treasonous traitors! Sellouts of the worst kind! You see, they were known for taking advantage of their own people! They were Jews, working for Rome to collect taxes for them, from their fellow Jews, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, they were skimming a bit too much off the top if you know what I mean. In modern terms, if they weren’t already the 1%, they were willing participants in creating the 1%. They were the worst of what Wallstreet has to offer. So, when they see Jesus eating with them, spending time with them, they’re horrified! Let me put it to you in another modern way, but I’m gonna warn ya, it’s not gonna be pleasant to hear!
If you were a Trump voter, then in this story, Jesus is eating with Hillary and her supporters. Likewise, if you were a Hillary voter, then in this story, Jesus is eating with Trump and his supporters. It’s all a matter of perspective but that’s how horrifying this scene is for them. But here’s the inescapable truth, Jesus is always going to dine with, spend time with, the outsider, the ones that society, you and I, have named as “those people.” Now, here’s the grace in that, sometimes that’s you and I. It’s all a matter of perspective. 
"Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners" by Sieger Köder
But sometimes, it’s not you and I, and we have to be willing to not only accept that, but then ask ourselves the difficult question, “Why is Jesus eating with them and not me?” Which is why this table is so profound! Here, in this place, we gather not just as Republicans and Democrats, not just as conservatives and progressives, not just as whites and people of color, not just as gendered and nongendered, men and women, but above all, we come to this table on equal ground, as sinners. And because of that, guess who shows up, every time we gather here, without fail, to dine with us? Jesus does. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Mark the Introvert - or - Actions Speak Louder than Words

Inspired by Mark 1:21-45

I was so jealous of Katie Smith last week because she got to preach on the Gospel of Mark first! We’ve been waiting to get to our Gospel for the year since September! Not only that but Mark is my favorite Gospel! Oh well. This being Year 2 of the Narrative Lectionary, we will be reading through Mark’s Gospel between now and Easter. Two Sundays ago our Gospel reading was from Luke and that was just because Mark’s Gospel is so short, almost half the length of the other Gospels. One of the things I like so much about this Gospel is that it’s short and sweet. Mark wastes no time getting to the point and moving on. I like to think that Mark was a fellow introvert. He doesn’t give much time to small talk like Matthew and Luke, and don’t get me started on John, who just talks and talks and talks for chapters on end!

One of the other reasons we had to start in Luke is because Mark doesn’t even include any stories of Jesus’ birth. For Mark, all that stuff is just fluff! Angels, shepherds, stars, magi from the east, all fluff for Mark. He just wasn’t interested in where Jesus came from, or how he got here! All that was on Mark’s mind was that Jesus was here, and in typical introvert fashion, he wastes no time getting to the meat and potatoes of this story. My apologies to any vegetarians in the house. A frequent compliment I get on my sermons is how concise they are, and it’s more than just being thankful for short sermons. They seem to appreciate my efficient use of words, as someone once put it, and I think that has to do with my introversion, to be honest.

Whereas an extrovert will tell you something four different ways so that they’re sure you understand, introverts will tell you once, in the most thought out and precise manner they can, and if you don’t get it, well, that’s on you, because we’ve already moved on. Granted, it’s not a trait that’s gonna win us any popularity contests to be sure, but what are ya gonna do? Likewise, it is rare to find someone who’s favorite Gospel is Mark’s. Which Gospel do we read every Christmas? Luke’s! Which Gospel have we traditionally read during Lent? John’s! Which Gospel do we think of first at Easter? Mathew’s! Mark just gets thrown in every once and while so he doesn’t get his feeling hurt! Poor Mark, the church has just never really known what to do with him.

Another hallmark of introverts—my gosh, how much is pastor gonna talk about introverts today? Hey, you know me, I’m going somewhere with this, just stay with me. Another hallmark of many introverts is this similar belief that actions speak louder than words. For instance, a common area of friction during the early years of our marriage was her complaining that I didn’t say I love you enough, while I would complain that she wasn’t cuddly enough. A classic disagreement between an extrovert and an introvert! I would rather show and be shown love, whereas she needed to say and hear it. In the proceeding years, of course, I have realized the error of my ways, and hence, we’re celebrating 25 years of marriage in May this year!

Which brings me to our reading from Mark’s Gospel, no, not our anniversary, but actions speaking louder than words. We’re only 21 verses into this book, still in chapter one, and all that’s happened so far is Jesus getting himself baptized, John gets himself arrested, one sentence is given to Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and Jesus calls his first followers, the ones who will begin to form his inner circle. That’s it. Jesus hasn’t done anything substantial yet. Now, if you can, try to step outside of everything you know about the Jesus story. If you had never heard the story before, what would be the first thing you’d expect to read next? God’s chosen one has come down from heaven, in the form of a human being, the messiah, the anointed one, God incarnate, the ruler of the cosmos, here on Earth, what would you expect next?

Let me put it another way, if you met Jesus today, in the flesh, not just in the bread and wine as we will in a few moments, but the person, Jesus himself, what would you do or say? I’m betting, that after you’re done hugging him, the first thing you’d do or say is, ask him some questions. Right? I mean, here is the almighty standing before you, this is your chance to ask your questions, to be taught by the master himself, to learn from his wisdom! I’m betting that’s what most of us would do. I’m betting, you wouldn’t ask him to do something, you’d ask him to say something. In other words, I’d be surprised if any of us would go grab a glass of water and then go to Jesus and be like, hey, do that thing, you know, the thing you do.

No, we would expect words, we would expect to be taught, to be guided, to be given the wisdom of the ages. If we were writing this book, I think most of us would start there—but that’s not where Mark goes. Mark dives right into the action. As soon as Jesus calls his first followers, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, he hasn’t even called all twelve yet, and then boom, he’s exorcising a demon out of someone! Oh, Mark mentions that some teaching occurred, but he doesn’t even bother to share what was taught! Those words are just not important to Mark right now. Think about it, Mark could have written anything he wanted, he could have started this story wherever he wanted to, he sat there with his blank scroll and his number two pencil and asked himself, how should I present the Son of God to the world?

And Mark chose not to share Jesus’ words first, but his actions. This is how Mark decides to present Jesus to the world, by focusing on his actions, not his words. In fact, he doubles down on this because it isn’t until the fourth chapter, almost a quarter of the way into his book, that he finally shares some traditional, sit down I’m gonna teach you something, kind of teaching moments from Jesus.

In this passage alone is an exorcism, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, then a plethora of other healings and exorcisms, too many for Mark to even mention, then the healing of a man with a skin disease. It’s not Jesus’ teachings, it’s not Jesus’ wise sayings, it’s not even some practical advice from Jesus that Mark shares. No, Mark chooses to present Jesus to the world as a powerfully compassionate being, who seems to have a soft spot for those the world has given the cold shoulder to.

Pope Francis recently said something that really piqued my interest. While he was taking a break from slapping that hands of his weird followers—have you seen that yet? Look it up online if you want a good laugh, but not right now! Anyway, he was recently speaking at a high school and afterward he allowed for questions. Two students asked him about how to share their faith and about how to convert people to the Christian faith. His answer was quite astonishing. He told them to lead by example, rather than pushing faith on others. I think Mark would have liked that answer. I do too. As a writer, I love words, I adore words, so much so that putting them together to form sentences is both an art and a science for me. So I don’t take this lightly.

"Jesus Heals a Child" by Daniel Bonnell
Yes, words are important, and powerful, but if people can’t tell we are followers of a powerfully compassionate inclusive God by our actions, by how we live our lives, then what is any of this really for? And I don’t mean things like whether or not we drink alcohol or smoke or use colorful language. I mean by how we treat other people. If how we treat other people, does not point people to our God, then we’ve really missed the point here, haven’t we.

I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mark begins by sharing how Jesus lived his life, and not with what he said. And for that, I am so very thankful. And no, not just because I’m an introvert, but because there are so many people who have been hurt by Christians who value doctrines more than the world around them. And so, if we allow ourselves to be guided by Mark, and follow Jesus’ lead in making our actions speak louder than words, we can put an end to the senseless pain that the church has inflicted on others, and begin to heal others, the same way Jesus began his ministry. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Waiting = Living

Inspired by Luke 1:5-13, 57-80

I don’t know about you but I am really excited to be reading from the Gospels again! Don’t get me wrong, I have really enjoyed reading from the Hebrew scriptures since the beginning of Fall, especially those stories that we are not as familiar with. It’s been quite an adventure. But there’s something quite comforting about reading from the Gospels. It’s almost like we’ve been fasting from them since September! And maybe that’s a good way to look at it. Fasting is an age-old practice that helps us focus, as well as appreciate what we are fasting from.

And I’m not just talking about food of course. We fast from the word Alleluia during Lent, and we cover our crosses too at that same time which the ancients used to call a fasting of the eyes, and we fast from Christmas songs during Advent, or we try at least, we sneak in some Christmas melodies here and there because we just can’t help it.

I’m not sure where or which culture began the practice of fasting but its origin must have an odd story connected it. Because waiting and fasting seem to go hand in hand, and isn’t waiting hard enough? Who thought it was a good idea to make waiting harder than it already is? Not only do I have to wait but I have to be hungry while I wait? Not only do I have to wait but I can’t enjoy the songs that everyone else is enjoying? Not only do I have to wait but I can’t even look at the symbols that bring me comfort? Do you see what I mean? Waiting is hard enough as it is! And since we started reading through the Hebrew scriptures back in September beginning in Genesis, we have heard how God’s people had to do a lot of waiting, sometimes it seems like that’s all they did was wait.

Sarah and Abraham waited a lifetime for God to fulfill God’s promise of a child; the Israelites waited several lifetimes in slavery to be freed;  once freed they waited for their Promised Land; then they waited for a king; then they waited for a good king; then they waited to be conquered; once conquered they waited in exile; once freed again, they waited as they rebuilt their lives from the rubble of what once was. Waiting, waiting, and more waiting—but I’m beginning to think that this waiting might need to be reframed for us. What if instead of calling it waiting, we just called it living. I mean, the word wait is a four-letter word anyway, nobody likes to wait. Who has ever heard that they had to wait for something and thought, “Oh, that’s great news!” Nobody.

Not only that but waiting implies inaction. Waiting implies that you are holding back from doing something until what you’re waiting for actually happens. Waiting implies stagnation, a lack of movement, particularly forward movement. Not always of course but I think this can often be the case; which is why I think we need to rethink this whole waiting business. What if that’s just life? As John Lennon sang in his song Beautiful Boy, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." If all we do is plan for the waiting to end, is that really living? Now, I know, easier said than done. Waiting can be so hard, and so consuming.

After waiting twenty years to become a pastor I certainly know firsthand how hard waiting can be. And those first few years were pretty tough let me tell you. I had to come to terms with why God was making me wait so long. And then it occurred to me that while I was “waiting” some pretty amazing things were happening to me. Like getting married, like having three daughters, like maturing into the person that my future churches would need me to be. All these amazing things and more helped me to forget I was even waiting for something in the first place—making becoming a pastor feel more like a surprise than something that had been stalling my life. Which brings me to our story for today of Elizabeth and Zechariah getting the news that they would have the baby they had prayed for so many years before.

Luke begins his Gospel by zooming in tight on this seemingly ordinary old couple. Zechariah was a temple priest but there were a lot of those by this time, hundreds in fact. Like a Lutheran pastor, they were a dime a dozen. Not only were they ordinary, they were old, well past their prime in the eyes of the world, meaning, nothing special was expected from these two. I imagine Zechariah being quite excited about being chosen to offer prayers in the temple, he would have been quite honored by that and taken it very seriously. And I imagine that over his long career as a temple priest he had done it before, when he was much younger, back when he was still praying for a baby for him and his wife Elizabeth.

But not this time. That prayer hadn’t escaped his lips in many years. So long that he had forgotten about it. In his eyes, their lives were coming to a close. They had lived a good life, in spite of what they lacked. You don’t’ hear him complaining. And then an angel appears to him while he’s burning incense in the temple and says, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard.” In that moment, I wonder what Zechariah thought the angel meant by “prayers.” What prayers? His prayers for his people? His prayers for their livelihood? His prayers for Rome to be more merciful during their occupation of their homeland? Or maybe his prayers for a messiah to deliver them from Rome once and for all? Which prayers! It turns out, it was none of those prayers, instead, it was a prayer that Zechariah had forgotten about—his prayer for a baby!

A baby? He probably thought, “You gotta be kidding me? God sent an angel with jokes? God’s got that much free time these days?” We didn’t’ read this part of the story but Zechariah wasn’t even that excited about this news! He probably thought, “At our age, there are other more pressing needs; like back pain, or failing eyesight, or their retirement income!” He all but said no thanks to the angel's offer! Which didn’t go over so well with the angel but that’s for another sermon. But a baby is what they got, and Zechariah had nine months to come to terms with this surprise, and nine months is about how long it took him.

On the day of his new baby boy’s circumcision, it’s as though he had a revelation, an epiphany if you will, as if it all came together in his mind, and it was one question that sparked it for him. After the family heard the surprising news of what they were going to name the baby, surprising because it went against tradition, they asked, “What then will this child be?” That question seems to help him put it all together, it helped him realize that this whole story was so much bigger than him—that something else was at work here. How relatable is that? How many times in your life have you needed a reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around you? I’ve needed that a time or two, or three, nobody’s counting Sara!

And so, old Zechariah, answers their question with a prophecy in song, because it’s almost Christmas so why not slip in a musical number here right! I picture him holding his new baby boy in his arms, his new baby boy that now has a name, John! And singing this song as if it’s a lullaby. He sings of blessings, and new hope. He sings of God’s mighty arm of protection. He sings of promises kept. I imagine him gazing into his baby boy’s eyes and singing of preparing the way for God’s salvation and mercy to come.

But he wasn’t just singing then to his new baby boy, that we’ve come to know as John the Baptist, he is singing still to this day, to us. The precious words of hope and promise and mercy are sung for you too dear children of God, as well as sung by you as you spread God’s Word wherever God leads you. So, while you wait, while you live, know that you are not forgotten, you are not alone, but that God works for you and through you, in the most surprising ways imaginable. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Going Home

Inspired by Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

Every year since we moved back to the west coast, I’ve used one of my vacation weeks to go and visit my parents up in the Seattle area. Technically I’m not “going home” because I was raised in Vacaville, California. But no matter where your parents now live, whenever you visit them, it’s like going home, isn’t it. I always take my girls with me. They were raised in Pennsylvania so they didn’t get to see my parents a whole lot growing up.

Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to make up for lost time, but you can make time, so it’s important for me to bring them with me, for as long as I’m able. I get a kick out of watching them get to know my parents a little more each year. We have a great time with them. My dad loves to take them to the ocean and we have a blast looking for crabs, jellyfish, anemones, even found a sea cucumber this year! We play catch, we share stories, and we eat 'til we can’t eat anymore! Good times.

However, if I’m being honest, as much as I enjoy our visits, there is a part of me that wishes I had a time machine; a time machine that could take my girls and I back to my childhood. Because I wish they could have known my parents in their prime, I wish they could see what being home was really like back then. And then I remember some of the not-so-pleasant memories of my childhood and rethink the whole time machine thing because there are certainly some things I’d rather not revisit. I guess the bottom line for me is, going home is different now: my parents are different, the house is different, so much is just different. It’s not worse, it’s not better, it’s just different. And different doesn’t always feel that good, does it. And I think it’s important for us to make room for that feeling. Hold that thought.

Today we have a story that typically isn’t read at Sunday worship services, so it may be a new one for many of you. It comes from the book of Ezra, a short little book, only ten chapters long, which is mostly about the return of the exiles, those who had been sent away by the Babylonians, away from their native land where their conquerors could keep them under control and close watch—very much like the United States did to American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.

But, as often happens, the Babylonians were themselves conquered, by the Persians, and their king, King Cyrus, had a very different way of ruling over the nations that his army conquered. Maybe he was a merciful king, or maybe he was just a great politician, but for whatever reason, his policy was to allow people to not only live in their native land, but also worship however they wanted to.

And so that’s where our story picks up. King Cyrus had allowed God’s people to go home and the first thing they do back home is rebuild the temple, because the temple that King Solomon built, centuries before them, was completely destroyed by the Babylonians. And so, they go home, and from the rubble, they begin to rebuild the temple, and more importantly, they begin to rebuild their lives—and that means discovering what this new normal will look like. So, they lay a foundation for the new temple and build an altar so that worship can immediately begin, even before the temple is complete. Once that is done, it is time to celebrate, and celebrate they did! Ezra writes that the noise of their celebration could be heard from far away!

And that’s where the story takes an unexpected turn. If they listened closely, in the midst of all the rejoicing and celebration, they could hear the sound of weeping. Ezra shares that it was the older folk that were weeping. Why? Because they were old enough to remember what that first temple looked like, what that first altar looked like, and even though they weren’t even done with it, this new temple just wasn’t the same. It paled in comparison to the original. And so, they wept. They wept for what once was. They wept for what could have been. And they wept loudly, Ezra writes. So loudly that you couldn’t make out where the rejoicing or crying was even coming from. It all just blended together. And I think we have here yet another relatable old Bible story.

Going home isn’t always what you’d expect, is it. At best it is a strange mixture of highs and lows. You long for the good ol’ days, and yet, at the same time, you love the present as well. So much so, you probably wouldn’t give it up for anything. What a strange place to be in. I was sharing a story with one of my daughters the other day, about something that she did when she was little. She had no memory of it. But that wasn’t the sad part. The sad part was the realization that the young woman who was sitting with me, would never have done that today. She is a very different person today, and I love the person who she is today, and yet. And yet, I sure miss that little girl she once was.

This time of year can be fraught with these kinds of feelings, these kinds of mixed emotions—the kind that make you unsure of whether you’re supposed to be laughing or crying. The holidays can bring with them some of the warmest nostalgia, while causing deep sadness over what once was, over what could have been, over who is not at the Christmas dinner table this year. And all these feelings, all these memories, the good and bad ones, the happy and sad ones, they all just dissolve together, and trying to separate them will just drive you insane so you don’t even try. And I don’t think we should. I think we should just let them be—and allow yourself to celebrate when you want to, or cry when you want to, or both at the same time.

I believe it’s important that we make room for that, to make room for laughter and tears. And not just because it’s a healthier way to live but because it allows for possibilities that might otherwise not be there. Because if all you do is allow for rejoicing, you might miss learning from the past. And if all you do is weep for the past, you might not appreciate the joys right in front of you. And so, I think both are vitally important to maintain. Not just on an individual level but on a communal level as well. I don’t have to tell you how different the church is today! Many of you remember the “good ol’ days!” Those days when this room was full every Sunday, full of the old and young alike. Those days when pastors didn’t pierce their ears or have tattoos or wear jeans on Sunday!

Ezra doesn’t share how the younger generations reacted to all the weeping while they were celebrating. My hope is, that they didn’t look upon those elderly tears with ridicule or judgment. My hope is, that they comforted them. Just like I also hope the elderly didn’t ask for the celebration to stop on account of their tears. Both are needed—past and present—joys and tears—for a healthy future.

So I have something I’d like us to do to help us remember that. The bowl here is filled with water from the baptismal font. In front of the bowl are two small containers. One is filled with salt, representing your tears that you bring to this holy place. The other is filled with sugar, representing the joys you bring to this holy place. They are intentionally not labeled. As you come up for communion, I invite you to take a small pinch of each and place them in the baptismal waters before you take communion, knowing most assuredly that both your joys and your tears are welcome in this holy place, and both are needed for the life and health of this holy place, in fact, they are part of what makes this a holy place. Thanks be to God. Amen.