No Lullaby Here - or - Mary the Badass

Inspired by Luke 1:26-28, 30-32, 38, 46-55

Today’s Gospel reading assigned for today is the Annunciation, where Luke shares with us the story of the angel announcing to Mary that she was going to have a baby, even though she’d never had sex, details, oh and that this baby was just going to be the chosen one of God,  more details. And let me pause here and say thank you to Debbie and Roberta for singing this for us today. It has been a joy singing Holden Evening Prayer again with them this Advent.

So, the angel drops this explosive news on Mary and though confused and surprised, she agrees to what the angel said—and then poof, the angel is gone—leaving Mary to process what just happened. How would you react? How would you even begin to process this? Aside from the fact that it would be a medical miracle for me to get this news, I have no idea how I would respond.

But after a little time, and a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, Mary responds, in a big way, in a surprising way. And she responds in song, which in and of itself is a bit odd to us. But that’s only the beginning of the surprise! It’s what she actually sings about, that makes this song so astonishing. Because, if a woman is going to break into song, shortly after getting the news that she’s pregnant, you’d expect her to sing a lullaby maybe. But no, not Mary. That would be too ordinary.

After all, she is not carrying just any baby, but the chosen one of God most high! So instead, she sings this earth shattering song of protest—she doesn’t sing of babies and cradles, instead she sings of justice, of the mighty being cast down from their thrones, of the wealthy having no part in any of this, she sings of world that is about to be turned upside down, by God, through this little one that she now carries within her.

This is not a song of some meek, timid, woman who was just expected to do what she was told. This was the song of a badass. Am I aloud to say that in a sermon? Oh well, too late! I can see the headlines now, pastor of Bethlehem curses in church, youth group caught doing drugs in parking lot shortly after! I think we’ll all be ok. You have to understand, we all have different ways of communicating.

And for people like me, whatever that means, calling someone a badass is a term of endearment, is a way to show the ultimate respect for someone. It describes someone who doesn’t take no for an answer, someone who laughs in the face of life’s toughest obstacles, who doesn’t care what the world thinks of her, someone who keeps forging ahead, no matter what. In short, Mary.

It’s no wonder her son turned out the way he did. He followed in his mother’s footsteps. But now we are getting ahead of ourselves. I want to share with you why it’s so important to remember Mary this way, and specifically this song of hers. She had the foresight to recognize, that this baby she was now carrying, was on a path that would not be easy, to say the least.

And she knew that because she was not ignorant to the realities of the world that she woke up in every day, that her baby would soon wake up in every day. She saw the injustice in her world. She saw the inequality. She saw the poor. She saw the sick. She saw the racism. She saw the bigotry. She saw it all. And she was waiting for a savior to show us a new way. And lo and behold, there he was, in her belly.

And so she sung of this mighty savior, who had a lot of work to do, and who was about to make a lot of enemies. And why is this so important for us to remember today? Because the work is still ongoing. Two thousand years later and the body of Christ, you and I, is still living out this song, filling the hungry with wondrous things, casting the mighty down from their thrones, lifting the humble, humbling the proud, working for justice, love, and kindness forevermore.

Why do we do this? Because we are not ignorant to the realities of the world that we wake up in every day, that our babies wake up in every day. We see the injustice. We see the racism. We see the sexism. We see the homophobia. We see the xenophobia. We see the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the aging, the veterans, the mental illness. We see it all, like Mary did long ago.

But unlike Mary, we do not wait for a savior to come and show us a better way. Because lo and behold, Christ has come, and gone, and come again. And now we get to live this song of justice that is needed now as much as it was needed then. I was listening to NPR with Jesha the other morning on our way to school and we heard a story that really moved me. They shared a statistic I had not heard before. In the US, black babies die at a rate that is double than that of white babies, in their first year of life. Double! Doctors and researchers have been trying to figure this out for a long time, and the two main culprits have been thought to have been poverty and lack of education. But new studies are now saying that racism is to blame.

NPR reports that, “When we are stressed, our bodies produce stress hormones. When the source of stress goes away, so do the stress hormones. It's a normal, healthy process. But when someone is stressed out all the time, their bodies have perpetually high levels of stress hormones.” And stress of course, can bring on early labor and other complications.

And for black women, that stress level is higher due to the racial discrimination that they have to endure: whether it’s purchasing a new car, finding housing, applying for a job, getting an education, it’s difficult to find any aspect of a black woman’s life that is not impacted by racial discrimination. And I didn’t even mention the fact that black women are often the primary breadwinner and caregiver due to the higher incarceration and unemployment rate of black men, yet another result of racial discrimination, causing this horrifying cycle that isn’t slowing down fast enough. I share this with you as an example of how timely this ancient song of Mary’s still is.

Now, I know that tonight is Christmas Eve. And maybe you thought that it’d be all joy and carols this morning. But it’s not Christmas yet. And for some, it never is. If we lose sight of the real reason that Christ came in the first place, if we forget why the mother of God chose to sing this song, then what are we even doing here? Our next hymn, Canticle of the Turning, is not very Adventy, which Jeff was not shy to point out. But it is based on this same song of Mary, which is also not very Adventy, at least not in the way we would traditionally think of Advent. But maybe it should be.

Verse two begins, “Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,” which speaks to this call we have to continue to work for justice and peace in the world. But verse four gives us some comfort in that difficult and overwhelming work, “Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast.” Ultimately it is God, through Christ, that comes to turn the world upside down, or right side up, depending on your perspective. And it is in that promise, that we can live this song that Mary has left us, this calling that Mary has left us. Thanks be to God, to Jesus, and his mother Mary. Amen.

Who Are You?

Inspired by John 1:6-8, 19-28

“The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. “Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “ I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” “What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!” “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” “I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.” “It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar. “Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you ?” “Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar. “Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice; “all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.” “You!” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?” Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation.

That of course was a passage from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. I figured, with the recent Game of Thrones and Star Trek references, I’d choose a really old pop culture reference to make sure we were all familiar. Seriously though, as soon as I read the priests repeatedly asking John the Baptist, “Who are you?” I thought of the caterpillar from this book. The story of course is about Alice who falls through a rabbit hole and has many adventures in Wonderland, meeting many fantastical creatures and characters, not the least of whom is a caterpillar, repeatedly asking Alice, “Who are you?”

And oddly enough, even in her young age, she immediately recognizes that he is not simply asking for her name, but is asking on a deeper, existential level, “Who are you?” And she doesn’t know anymore. By this time in the book Alice has already been through so much. She has gone through changes, seen so much, that she is questioning everything she ever thought was true. Her whole world has been turned upside down, to the point that she is now questioning her entire existence. So to answer the question, “Who are you?” is no easy task.

Director Tim Burton, in his 2010 film version of this old story, explores this identity crisis even further. In that movie, a prophecy states that someone by the name of Alice will slay a dragon that has been terrorizing the land. And when she meets the caterpillar for the first time, the white rabbit asks him, if this is that Alice, and his answer is, “hardly.” Alice assumes “hardly” means no, because slaying dragons isn’t the business of a young woman, right?

But the next time she sees the caterpillar she discovers that she is now “almost” Alice. Meaning she has changed from being “hardly” the Alice that is needed to slay the dragon, to being “almost” the Alice needed to slay the dragon. And by their last meeting, she has become the Alice that they need, the Alice that they have been waiting for. She can finally answer that old question, “Who are you?” And the caterpillar exclaims, “Alice, at last!”

In our story today from the Gospel of John, the priests repeatedly ask John the Baptist, “Who are you?” And, in an ever so Lutheran way, he responds by telling them instead who he is not. “I’m not the Christ.” I’m not Elijah. I’m not the prophet. We’re pretty good at that aren’t we? Telling people who we are by telling people who we are not. Partly out of necessity. In the ever increasing polarization of our nation, we often find ourselves having to differentiate from other Lutherans, or other Christians. At one of our recent funerals, I was talking to a distant family member of one of the deceased, and she asked me point blank, “What kind of Lutheran are you?”

I appreciated the directness of the question and I went into my usual spiel about the differences between the Lutheran denominations but it turns out she already knew enough of all that because when she learned that we were an ELCA congregation, she let out a sigh of relief and said, “Oh good. I’ve been to the others, and didn’t feel welcome there.” I could tell there was a story or two behind that statement but it was not the time or the place to get into all that. And though it was nice to hear that we are becoming known for being a welcoming denomination, it did make me wonder if we are saying that loud enough. How often are we even saying it out loud?

Though John the Baptist begins to answer the question, “Who are you?” with all who he is not, he doesn’t end there. There’s nothing wrong with us differentiating ourselves from others, as long as at the end of all that, we can confidently say who we are, out loud, for all to hear! John the Baptist, after sharing who he was not, confidently proclaimed who he was by saying, “I am a voice.”

For John the Baptist, who he was, was defined by what he was called to do, to be a voice, a voice in the wilderness. I believe that’s our call too, to be a voice in the wilderness. And the wilderness can be a variety of things, all at the same time, and the wilderness that has been foremost on my mind, our dragon if you will, is a wilderness of voices. I mentioned earlier about the polarization of the world and our nation, and that’s part of it.

And in this state of polarization that we find ourselves in, there are so many voices. Loud voices! Competing voices! Some are loving voices but there are so many hateful voices out there too. And some of them are coming from Christians. But our calling is not to change their minds. Good luck with that anyway! Our calling, our job, is to be a voice—a voice of equal volume, of equal confidence, of equal passion. But before we are a voice we have to know who we are. The world is asking, “Who are you?” What is our answer? Like, John, our answer is based on what we do. Do we love people of all colors? Then say it! Out loud!

Let me tell you something, as a person of color, I need to hear those words! Especially from my white sisters and brothers! Because it is not a given everywhere I go! Do we love people of all sexual orientations? Then say it! Out loud! Because it is not a given everywhere they go! Do we love women and give them equal places of leadership? Then say it! Out loud! Because it is not a given everywhere they go! Do we love the environment? Do we love visiting people? Do we love feeding people? Then we need to say it. Out loud. For all to hear. Because those things aren’t givens, everywhere we go. And we cannot leave it up to visitors to assume such things, because they may assume wrong, based on the many other voices that are outside these walls.

I’ve been your pastor for long enough to see that you have a pretty good grasp of who you are. It’s been a long road, with twists and turns, and your share of bumps and bruises, but because of that, it has helped you to find yourselves, to discover who you are, who you have become, in order fulfill your calling here in this place. And like John the Baptist and Alice in Wonderland, once you know who you are, it’s time to proclaim it, out loud, for all to hear—to be a voice, in a wilderness of voices. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our Continuing Mission

Inspired by Mark 1:1-8

Last week’s Gospel reading from Mark was about the end of all things, the end of time itself, which is always a strange way to begin Advent. And today’s Gospel reading from Mark is where we would have thought last week’s would be, at the beginning of the Gospel. And as we learned at our Christmas trivia game at our Advent party on Wednesday night, we do not find a nativity story here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Mark skips all that and dives right into Jesus life.

You see, Mark, being the first Gospel written, and the best, in my opinion at least, we have a very human Jesus presented to us—a human doing some pretty amazing things to be sure, but a human nonetheless. It’s Matthew and Luke that explore the divine nature of Jesus, and by the time you get to John, the last Gospel written, you have a full blown God on earth. But again, that’s not where Mark is when he writes this story for us. For Mark, Jesus’ humanity was vital to the good news he was proclaiming. And this will be important in minute.

First, I want to talk about beginnings and endings, a dichotomy that I mentioned last week, one of many that we find during the season of Advent. Beginnings and endings are often on our minds at this time of year. The holidays bring out the nostalgia in all of us. And for those of us who have babies around us, whether they are our own, or grandchildren, or friend’s babies, their first Christmas is felt by all of us.

Even those of us who have a new puppy at home. You’d think we have a baby at home the we talk about her first this and her first that. And if you ask my wife she’d say yes, we do. And, as I mentioned last week, also on our minds are all those loved ones that have died, that will be on our minds this Christmas as well. Beginnings and endings, this time of year is full of both.

And for us personally here at Bethlehem, endings seem most prominent right now, as we have suffered the recent loss of three of our own, Joe and Delores Amaro, and Frank Gregersen, whose funerals were yesterday, and also tomorrow. This time of year seems like such a cruel time for families to suffer through a death in the family. And of course, these are not the only ones, as I have heard story after story of people in your lives suffering through deaths.

As I was preparing for yesterday’s Amaro funeral, I was given a word of hope, from beyond the grave, which helped to start me on the path that this sermon will take. Delores left me some detailed notes for yesterday’s funeral, which I’m sure doesn’t surprise anyone that knew her. And in those notes she shared some reflections, these one line thoughts from her faith. About death, she shared this, “Life has changed, not ended.”

What a beautiful thought, which, for anyone who knew Delores, doesn’t surprise us. And it’s also a thought that runs parallel with the mind of Mark in today’s Gospel reading. Mark’s first words are, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah.” The beginning of the good news—literally it reads, the beginning of the gospel. And I don’t think he is referring to his first sentence, anyone can see that this first sentence is the beginning of this book. He is referring to the whole book. In other words, this whole book you are about to read, is the beginning of the gospel, the beginning of the good news. And to find out how we know this, you have to skip to the end of the book.

The original ending! Not the endings that were added later that are usually in brackets at the end of the book. But before those brackets, this is how the Gospel of Mark, originally “ended”, “Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

That’s it! That’s how it ended! No post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. No Jesus walking through walls. No Thomas putting his finger in Jesus wounded side to see if he was a ghost. No road to Emmaus or fish by the sea shore—nothing—but the disciples fleeing in terror. Mark just stops, almost mid-thought. No proper ending. No nice neat closure provided. Why? Because Mark was a genius! I know, I know, I’m a bit biased, this is my favorite Gospel, but this is part of the reason why.

Scholars believe, that this was done on purpose—that Mark intentionally did not end his book. Why? Because you are supposed to continue it! And I don’t mean with pen and paper, but with your lives. Mark presents us with this amazing story of this amazing human being, who dies and is raised, and then leaves us with the cliff-hanger of all cliff-hangers, as if to look us dead in the eye to say, now go continue the story.

Like Captain Picard and the starship Enterprise, this is our continuing mission. Ok, you knew I was a geek when you called me to be your pastor right? Our continuing mission, to continue the story of God’s unconditional love for the world. Mark’s gospel is the beginning, but only the beginning, the rest is up to us. Now if you’re not feeling the weight of that right now, let me reiterate it this way. How we live our lives, for good or bad; how we treat others, with kindness or ill; how we welcome the stranger, those that are strange to us, or keep them out; how we serve those in need, or turn a blind eye; how we live out our callings as baptized children of God, are continuations of this Gospel from Mark that we will read this coming year—and are just as important, if not more, than the Gospel itself. Now if that doesn’t strike fear and dread in you as it did those disciples of old at the empty tomb, I don’t know what will. Either way, this season of Advent calls us to stay the course, not flee; to proclaim the good news with our words but especially our deeds, not fear; to continue this baptismal voyage—steady as she goes—with hope and courage, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hold the Door

Inspired by Mark 13:24-37


Happy new year! Don’t panic! You didn’t miss December. As the first Sunday of Advent, today marks the beginning of a new church year, in which we travel through the story of Jesus from beginning to end and beyond. Last year our Gospel readings came from Matthew and this year they will come from the best Gospel, Mark; with some John sprinkled throughout for good measure because the Gospel of Mark is so short—and because John just likes to butt in where he’s not wanted. I may have mentioned before that John is my least favorite Gospel. Anywho.

Now, you’d think that we’d start at the beginning of Mark but no, like every first Sunday of Advent, we begin at the end, no not the end of the Gospel, but at the end of all things, at the end of time itself. You see Advent is not just to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ, but it’s also the time of the church year when we prepare for the second coming of Christ as well.

And there are many scholarly reasons why we do this every year on this Sunday, but my own take on it is this. As we embark on this journey once again, as we take these first steps of Jesus’ life with him, we know that this road is going to be a bumpy ride. We know, as people on this side of the cross and empty tomb, that this road will not be all roses and tulips, but will take some very dark turns—and with the disciples, we will experience their hopelessness, confusion, and despair, as Jesus’ life doesn’t turn out the way they expected it to.

And for me, the reason why we begin this journey at the end of all things, with Jesus speaking of his return when not even the sun nor the moon light will be needed, is to remind us, to steady us, with the promise that God is ultimately in control here, that God carries the cosmos, which includes little ol’ us, in God’s loving hands.

And therefore, there is no need to fear, all will be made right in the end, regardless of how bumpy of a ride it may seem. So, buckle your seatbelts once again, as we begin at the end. Like last week’s Gospel reading, today’s story from Mark comes right before the events of Holy Week begin—and again, that detail should not be overlooked. Now, how much Jesus knew is up for debate, but he was no fool. If he didn’t know precisely, I’m sure he could sense that his end was near. Tensions were high between him and the Jewish and Roman leadership. So of course, on his mind are endings, and darkness, and death.

Not all that different from us at this time of year. Though the holidays are filled with parties and celebrations, underneath all of that are some of life’s stark realities. Not only are the days darker, which wreaks havoc on those suffering from depression, but we are also reminded of all those whom we have lost, those that we will be missing at our holiday celebrations. And like our lives, the season of Advent is one dichotomy after another: beginnings and endings, life and death, light and darkness, despair and hope. Keep these in mind as we travel together.

And even though Jesus is speaking of the end, it is not all doom and gloom. His words are full of hope and promise, which was the whole point. He knew that if anyone needed words of comfort, his followers soon would, as his arrest was right around the corner. But before we get into that, let me pause and ask, I’m not expecting many hands raised here and that’s ok but raise your hand if you are a Game of Thrones fan.

My wife and I are big fans of the TV show. And let me warn you now, if you’re not caught up, spoilers are ahead. And if you don’t watch the show, it’s ok, I’ll explain. So, this reading from Mark reminded me of a particular character from the show named Hodor, H O D O R, Hodor. He’s a huge guy, almost giant like. And for the first five seasons you’re led to believe that he has a learning disability as he can only say his name. No matter what he is trying to communicate all that comes out of his mouth is “Hodor.”

But then we finally learn that he wasn’t born that way, but that he suffered a seizure as a young boy that made him that way. The reason why he suffered that seizure is because he saw a vision of the future, in fact, of his own death. Now I’m not even going to get into how he saw that vision all that’s important is that he did. Seeing his own death was so traumatic, he seized and was never the same again. But it’s a detail about that vision that brought it to my attention when I read today’s gospel passage.

You see, when he saw himself die in that vision of the future, he also saw himself heroically save his friends, and how did he save his friends, by holding a door to keep their enemies from killing them. Enemies that eventually killed him. His friends kept yelling, “Hold the door!” And so, as he layed on the ground seizing, he said that phrase over and over. Hold the door. Hold the door. Hol da door. Ho da or. Hodor. So it turned out, he wasn’t saying his name, Hodor, like most people thought, he was saying hold the door, because in his vision of the future, he died saving his friends, by holding the door.

Ok, hold that thought, as we return to our reading from Mark. A door is mentioned twice in this passage. And the part that I noticed, seemingly for the first time, was toward the end of our reading. Now, if you read this too fast and aren’t paying attention, you might assume that we are the servants that Jesus refers to but that’s not the case. Listen again. Jesus says, “It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Therefore, stay alert!”

In other words, you’re the door keeper! So stay alert! And carry out your duties as doorkeepers. Now, what are those duties? You might hear the word doorkeeper and think of the word gatekeeper. And a gatekeeper is often thought of as someone who decides who gets in and who is kept out.

But by this time in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has already made it clear, that role belongs to him. Jesus is the one who decides who is in and who is out. And to the consternation of many, as we sung in our opening hymn, he flings that door wide open! So if our job is to not decide who is in and who is out, what is our role as the doorkeeper? To hold the door! Jesus has flung it wide open for the world to enter in and all we have to do is hold the door. That’s it. Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds is it. Because there are many forces in this world that want it shut, otherwise there would be no need for us doorkeepers.

There are those who want to play the role of Jesus and decide who is in and who is out. There are those whose behavior, as “followers” of Christ, shut the door on people’s faces because when they see Jesus’ followers misbehaving, they don’t want anything to with Jesus, and who would blame them! There are those whose inaction, whose complacency, whose act of turning a blind eye to the needs of the world, shut the door. Though Jesus has done the heavy lifting by flinging wide the door to his heart, keeping it open, is no easy task. And like Hodor, it can be a costly endeavor, it can be a sacrificial act. But like I always say, if this journey of faith ain’t costing you anything, then you’re doing it wrong.

The other side of this, are the doors that need to be shut, we won’t get into them right now, but doors like sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hunger, homelessness—doors like those need shut, forever—and as doorkeepers, that’s our job too. As we journey again this new year, with Christ by our side, through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, may we recommit ourselves to seeking out ways to answer our calling, our calling to be doorkeepers, for the sake of the world, to hold the door, that Christ has flung wide open. Thanks be to God. Amen.