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.


Comfort In, Dump Out

Inspired by Isaiah 40:1-11

The prophet Isaiah had a Herculean task before him. To quickly recap the overall narrative trajectory that we have been on in these Bible stories, God’s people have now been in exile for quite some time; taken from their Promised Land by a conquering neighbor, the Babylonians, who were now the top dog, having conquered the Assyrians since last week’s reading. There’s always a bigger fish, right? And speaking of bigger fish, the Babylonians are having their own problems with one of their neighboring nations, the Persians. So it’s probably safe to say that their attention is on the Persians at this point in the story and keeping the exiles under their thumb is less of a priority, which is good news for God’s people.

All this is to say that their exile is winding down a bit and so there is now some light at the end of the tunnel. The Herculean task before Isaiah that I mentioned, is to provide comfort to a suffering people. Why would that be so hard, you might ask? Well, because deep down in their theological psyche, they believed that their exile was due to their bad behavior, which we have talked about before. That belief was so ingrained in them, it was difficult for them to see life in any other way, with any other lens. The reality is, they didn’t need God to punish them, they had become their own source of punishment, their own jailors. They were convinced that they deserved the exile and no one was going to convince them otherwise.

One of the things that I love about these old stories from the Bible is just how relatable they are. This is a very human reaction for a lot of us when we know that we have done something wrong. Not everyone, to be sure, but a lot of us have a need to pay for our wrongs, to make things right, so we can move on. But that’s where we get hung up, moving on. Who determines when it’s time to stop punishing ourselves for our wrongs and move on? Is there a chart out there somewhere that I don’t know about. If there is please share it with me so I can see if it’s time to stop my self-inflicted punishment for my own wrongdoings! This practice of being so hard on ourselves was exemplified in our daughter Grace.

When she was little, Sara and I didn’t have to be that hard on her when she misbehaved because she was her own best punisher. No lie, she would put herself on timeout. She had this innate sense of right and wrong and nothing in between and she kept herself in check without anyone’s help. The trouble was, she was a bit too hard on herself. And that’s the state that God’s people were in when Isaiah became their prophet. So the question that he had to answer was this, how do you provide comfort and peace to a people who don’t know when to stop punishing themselves? Isaiah’s answer to this is nothing short of brilliant!

Instead of trying to convince them that their suffering was just a part of life and that God does not directly inflict pain and suffering on the world, he leans into it. He allows them to keep believing that, and actually uses it to provide a word of comfort for them. He tells them that God says that they’ve been punished enough, in fact, he goes even further and tells them that they’ve actually suffered twice as much as they should have! Brilliant! Instead of trying to change their well-ingrained belief system, he uses it to get them to move beyond their self-punishment—to get them to move forward beyond their pain and suffering—especially before it becomes part of their identity.

The passage then ends in a very curious way. Isaiah presents God in a way that a doorman announces the arrival of guests at a Victorian party. But the way that he does it, is as if they wouldn’t recognize God upon arrival, and I don’t think that’s far from the truth! If they have believed for centuries that God is someone who directly inflicts pain and suffering on the world to punish humans for bad behavior, then it only makes sense that when God shows up, God would be unrecognizable to them. So Isaiah, just to make sure that they recognize God and don’t miss God’s arrival, tells them what to expect. And his description is not what they’d expect.

It starts off quite normal, with Isaiah mentioning just how powerful and mighty God is, and how strong God’s arms are! But then he tells them what those strong arms are for, and they were probably stunned! Because those strong arms of God are not for punishing, not for forcing them into submission, not for killing, not for scaring them into behaving, no! Isaiah tells them that those strong arms are for feeding the flock, leading mother ewes with gentleness, gathering lambs, and holding them close, which is just the biblical way of saying “hugging them.” This description of God is so sugary sweet I was half expecting Isaiah to say that God was coming with a puppy under the other arm!

And I believe this description of God is so sugary sweet because Isaiah is having to fight this millennia-old notion that God is this angry old bearded guy in the clouds waiting to throw a lightning bolt at anyone who looks at him funny! Like I said, a Herculean task indeed, but I think Isaiah is pretty effective here. If they can’t get past their “punishment” and be comforted by this, I don’t know what will. And that’s the bottom line in this passage of Isaiah. His job here is to provide comfort and will try anything to accomplish that, even allow them to believe things about God that aren’t necessarily true—whatever gets them past this pain and suffering they are in, and into a future of comfort and peace with God and with themselves, so they can, in turn, provide comfort for others in pain and suffering.

So, I’d like to end with something practical that we all can do to provide comfort to those around us, and it’s called the Ring Theory. A psychologist by the name of Susan Silk came up with this theory after hearing some rather strange, if not downright hurtful, remarks from colleagues, friends, and family, while she was battling breast cancer. The theory goes like this: draw a small circle and put the person who is at the center of the crisis at hand. Maybe it’s someone who just lost their spouse. Maybe it’s someone who has just lost a job. Maybe it’s someone who is having a health crisis. Maybe it’s you. Whoever it is, put that person in the center of that small circle.

Then you’re going to draw larger circles around that small circle and in each of those circles, you’re going to place people who are closest to that person in the center in the nearest circle to them, to those who are merely acquaintances on the outside circle, all based on how close they are to the actual center crisis circle. So, spouses, children, parents might be in the smaller circles, friends might be in the medium-sized circles, and so on. Ok, now here’s where it gets interesting. And instead of trying to paraphrase this I’m just going to read to you from Dr. Silk’s own words.

“Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants, to anyone, anywhere. She can…complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it.

Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a [meal]?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.” If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. Comfort IN, dump OUT.”

Comfort in, dump out. Isaiah recognized that God’s people were in the center crisis circle and so he knew that his job now was to comfort, period. And so that’s what he did. This Ring Theory has played an important role in my own life, it has been invaluable to me, not just as a pastor but simply as a human being that crosses paths with lots of other human beings that are going through pain and suffering. I hope you find it helpful as well. I will link some interesting articles about it when I post this sermon online if you’d like to read more about it.

I can’t think of a higher calling than to bring comfort to those around us. And that’s one of the things I appreciate most about these old Bible stories, the ability they give us to give hope to others because we too have been through some tough times as well. May this season of Advent rekindle in us the desire to bring hope to a troubled world, with care and gentleness, gentle as a God holding lambs and hugging them. Thanks be to God. Amen.


A New Hope: Jeremiah and the Rebellious Nature of Advent

Inspired by Jeremiah 33:14-18

So, I can’t take credit for that, a youth director in New Mexico made that. And yes, she plans to make one for every Sunday in Advent. Whether I’ll use them all I’m not sure yet but I couldn’t help but use this one. I was downright giddy when she first posted it. I hope the rest are as good as this one. I love that way that she put our Bible story for today, which is rather short, in perfect context for us.

So, let’s dig in. Jeremiah is not known for being a hopeful prophet. I mean, prophets aren’t generally known as glass-half-full people. As my Hebrew professor always used to joke, when a prophet enters the scene, you know it’s already too late. But Jeremiah in particular, is known as being the prophet of doom and gloom. And it’s really hard to blame him. As we read last week, the northern kingdom of God’s people had fallen and the southern kingdom was just waiting for their turn to be conquered. And that’s exactly what happens.

The southern kingdom of God’s people falls to a neighboring kingdom, and so now they’re just waiting to be sent into exile, the ancient version of modern-day internment camps; where God’s people were sent, away from their homes, away from what was familiar, away from all that brought them comfort. And Jeremiah, the prophet of doom and gloom, and judgment, felt called to tell his people that this was all their fault, due to their bad behavior. And so his king, not the king of the conquering nation, but Jeremiah’s own king, throws him into prison for speaking out against his own people. And so there sits Jeremiah, in a prison cell, probably thinking, “Now what do I do? My own people won’t listen to me, we’re on the brink of being sent into exile now that we’ve been conquered. What’s left to say?”

And so, he does something rather remarkable for him. He takes his doom and gloom hat off, and puts his hospice chaplain hat on. Jeremiah realizes that reminding his people of their bad behavior now is a moot point. Their end is nigh, and what they need now is not more judgment heaped upon them, but hope and comfort and promise—things a hospice chaplain brings, not your typical prophet. But here’s the thing, Jeremiah can’t help but be rebellious. But instead of rebelling against the behavior of his own people, he’s now rebelling against despair, and probably not just for the sake of his own people, but for the sake of his own heart as well, as he continues to sit in that prison cell, and fight his own despair. Like any good preacher, he knows that he can’t preach a sermon that he himself doesn’t also need to hear.

And so, Jeremiah should probably be known as the prophet of the rebellion and not the prophet of doom and gloom. Rebellion is in his blood and he, thankfully, can’t help that. And speaking of rebellions, Star Wars is full of them! From big rebellions against an entire Empire, to smaller rebellions against the human tendency to give in to the evil found deep within ourselves. Like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars has become a mythology that speaks truth to our modern reality, which is probably why it has such an enduring place in the hearts of so many. One of my favorite Star Wars quotes comes from my second favorite Star Wars movie, Rogue One, in which the main protagonist exclaims, “Rebellions are built on hope!” And so is Jeremiah sitting in that prison cell, and so is this season of Advent.

Jeremiah, seeing his people and his nation whom he loves so dearly, crumble to pieces right before his eyes, decides to give words of hope and comfort and promise—words that endured in the hearts of so many, for millennia. Jeremiah speaks of a future time when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled. He speaks of one who will come and put even the best of their kings to shame by his perfection. Jeremiah speaks of a time when they will be whole again. He speaks of a time when the disconnectedness that they are currently feeling between them and their God will be no more. And they hear all of this while they are watching their world being stripped away from them piece by piece. But in spite of all the hopelessness that they see around them, Jeremiah has the audacity to give them a word of hope.

And for the life of me, I can’t imagine how they took that. Because I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t take it well. Not when I see the world in the condition that it’s in. My gut reaction to Jeremiah is to say, “You’re joking right? How the hell can you be talking to us about hope when there’s so much hate in the world, when there’s so much poverty in the world, when there’s so much violence in the world, when there’s so much inequality in the world! How dare you come here and try to give us hope Jeremiah! Go back to being the prophet of doom and gloom, that’s what you’re best at!” But Jeremiah knows that if we fall into despair and hopelessness then we will truly be lost. And that is what Jeremiah wants us to rebel against first, because without hope, we won’t have it in us to rebel against all those other things in our world that need us to rebel against.

Today, our Christian eyes read this passage of Jeremiah and immediately think of the greatest rebel leader of them all, Jesus. And for those of you who’ve never thought of Jesus as a rebel, we’ll be reading through the Gospel of Mark starting in a few weeks and you’ll see just how much of a rebel Jesus was! Speaking of Jesus, there’s an interesting line in today’s reading. Jeremiah is talking about the one who is to come and fulfill all of God’s promises, and he says that he will be known by this phrase, “Our God is our righteousness.” Jeremiah had recognized, even way back then, centuries before Jesus, that they weren’t going to survive by their own righteousness, by their own perfection, but by another, whom we know today as Jesus, God incarnate, rebel of all rebels.

So rebellious, that when all the other gods of the world were making people sacrifice in order to be loved by God, our God just decided to love us. Period. That was a new kind of hope that the world had never seen before. That was a rebellion that had never been tried before by any other God. And that’s a rebellion that we don’t need to join, because God has already taken care of that one. So, before you join the many rebellions that are out there for you to join, fighting against racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, you name it, there’s a rebellion to join, but before you do, Jeremiah reminds us today, that the greatest rebellion is the fight against despair and hopelessness. And that’s a rebellion we can all get behind. For "rebellions are built on hope." And our God has a never-ending supply of it. Thanks be to God. Amen.