“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of mine own I claim but solely lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
That hymn and the Thomas Merton prayer were the two things which saw me through seminary. This isn’t a hymn I knew from my youth – it wasn’t in the 1940 or 1982 Hymnals (it is in Lift Every Voice and Sing, though). This hymn is one I go back to when everything seems to fall apart and I need reminding of where to place my hope. Where do you place your hope?
Today’s Gospel reading takes us back in time. This story from Luke’s Gospel, commonly known as the Walk to Emmaus, is one which informs our weekly liturgy. We hear about the disciples being met by Jesus on the road and hearing the scriptures and having them opened through teaching – this is the first half of our worship each Sunday. This is followed by the Eucharist where Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread. So if you think about it, each week we journey on the Emmaus road to find the risen Christ in this community which empowers us to take the good news of Christ into the world.
This is a joyous story of the appearance of the risen Christ which takes place on evening of the Resurrection. But there was something in the story this week which stuck with me – in fact, it haunted me. Luke tells us that the disciples were very sad as they walked towards Emmaus. They were depressed after all that had happened – their hopes were dashed. When Jesus comes alongside and asks what they are talking about, the disciple named Cleopas basically asks if he’s the only one in Jerusalem without a clue about what has happened. Jesus plays along and Cleopas tells him about himself – that he was a prophet, mighty in word and deed before God and all the people and how the chief priests and elders turned him over to the authorities to be crucified. He then says, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But we had hoped …
The disciples were Jews who had a very well formed idea of what the redemption of Israel would look like. It would be when a descendent of King David would rise up, drive out the Roman occupiers, and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel under their own autonomous control. This redemption plan had a very earthly and concrete set of expectations as to how it would happen. A suffering and dying Messiah just wasn’t in the equation! They had pinned their hopes on a vision of a preferred outcome and the loss of that outcome depressed them. They couldn’t see another way.
We are not so different from these disciples, are we? We can get caught up in our visions of preferred outcomes to situations. Don’t get me wrong, having a vision for the future is not inherently a bad thing. But when we set our hope on a preferred outcome instead of the risen Christ who is there regardless of the results, it is devastating and becomes idolatrous.
We have had many hopes dashed since the beginning of this year, haven’t we? Those haunting words of Cleopas, “but we had hoped,” are in our hearts too. But we had hoped … to avoid the layoff. But we had hoped … to get the job and didn’t. But we had hoped … at least one of those bids would have come through. But we had hoped … the chemo would have worked and Lila would still be here. But we had hoped …
Today we bring those dashed hopes to Christ here at Grace. We bring them to this altar in this community. We will be offering the sacrament of unction shortly, right here in front of this altar. I invite you all to come forward with those shattered hopes, your hurt and brokenness to meet the risen Christ, be anointed in his name, and to receive his spirit in touch and the oil. And then, may our eyes be opened to see the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of his Body and Blood.
“His oath, his covenant, and blood sustain me in the raging flood. When all supports are washed away, he then is all my hope and stay. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Tonight we enter the holiest time of the Christian year: the Triduum – the Great Three Days. The Triduum encompasses the three days of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection – it is the central theme of our faith. I often tell my catechumens preparing for baptism and confirmation, “If you don’t get the Triduum, you are missing the center of your faith.” And the center of our faith begins with a commandment. This day is called Maundy Thursday and “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning mandate or commandment. We are given the mandate to love one another as Christ loved us. This is no small, trivial task.
We don’t know how to love well. None of us do. We often stunt our understanding of love and limit it to sentimental romanticism or sexual attraction. We treat it as a noun – as if it is a place or state of being with phrases like “falling in love” (as if it were a sinkhole … although at times this may be an apt metaphor!). This isn’t the kind of love that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel. The love he speaks of is a verb and a willful act of giving oneself, even to death. It is a love which suffers – and great suffering always walks hand in hand with great love.
This night is one of both love and suffering. Jesus is gathered with his closest intimate friends. He knows that one of them is going to sell him out to the authorities – throw him under the bus. He knows he could run away to the Judean hill country and hide out. His followers would have likely applauded that move – “Way to stick it to the man, Jesus!” But he doesn’t run away … he stays right there – right in the middle of this mess. Why? Because real love does not cut and run when things go wrong. Real love presses through, suffers with, takes us into death and does not leave us.
This isn’t “touchy feely” stuff of sentiment. This is the hard road of the cross. Christ this night demands something from us – from you and me. That we love one another with the self-giving love he demonstrated. That we love to the point of losing ourselves – which is a kind of death. It is a death of ego, of selfishness, of wanting life on our terms and our terms alone. It is a death of grudge holding and score keeping that puts us in the sin accounting business instead of the loving business. It is the death of my small pathetic life on this earth so that God can do something so much bigger than anything this pea-brain can imagine. And you know what? I don’t like that idea any more than you do! That’s right. I fight it tooth and nail with a spiritual internal struggle that feels like Sisyphus eternally pushing that boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again … over and over and over.
And yet, like it or not, the way of love unto death is the only way out I have found. Because the truth is, death will come. We know this … and we deny this all the time. I’m not solely referring to physical death – I’m talking about all the kinds of death we experience around us. Death comes in many forms throughout our lives: death of dreams, of hopes, of careers, of our health, of security, of our abilities, of family and friends. Whether we choose to love others as Christ loved us or not, death will come – you can’t stop it.
The love that Christ commands us to show for one another is what transforms dying into something more than just a nihilistic end without meaning. It is dying so that something, or someone, might live and live abundantly. And on this day we not only hear of Jesus washing the disciples feet, but we also hearken to our other gospel accounts that this is the night where Jesus gave a new meaning to the Passover feast. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples telling them “this is my Body which is given for you.” Jesus himself is the sacrifice who is broken for us and who we receive in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And it is this kind of brokenness to which he calls us – to be broken for a reason … to be broken for love’s sake.
Jesus tells us to love him, love God, love each other and he shows us how to do it. As we partake of his Body and Blood broken and poured out for us, may this be our invitation to also love through our brokenness and be given to others for Christ’s sake.
In keeping with our Lenten theme of contrasts, this week is no exception. We have explored contrasts of temptation which tries to steal our identity as beloved daughters and sons and the contrasts of how we trust … or not. Today’s readings reveal the contrast between freedom and slavery.
For all of you in our Coffee Talk Bible Study … here’s the “spoiler alert” (plug your ears!) … Pharaoh lets the Israelites go. OK … you can take your fingers out of your ears now. Today’s reading from Exodus is another “whine and geez” party thrown by the Israelites in the desert. In the prior chapter, the people were whining about having no food and God provided Manna in the wilderness. This week, we hear they are at a desert place encamped and there is no water. So round 2 of the “whine and geez” party starts as the people quarrel with Moses. A big part of this whining has to do with how people deal with freedom.
The Israelites had been in slavery under the Egyptians for 400 years and suddenly they were free from that bondage. But freedom exacts a high price! The first stage in this freedom process is that the people have to grow up. You don’t get the luxury of having your overlords decide everything about your life anymore. You have to grow up and make your own decisions. This is no simple task!! The whole wilderness experience of the Israelites is about their growing up, making decision, and taking the radical risk that God really is in the midst of them. This is spiritual adulthood … and they aren’t sure they want it. And we are not unlike them at all, are we? I don’t know about you, but there are times I really don’t want to be the adult in the room! I’d rather have somebody else tell me what to do and then I get the luxury of blaming them when things don’t work out … who wouldn’t want that?
Slavery isn’t something we think applies to us, but it does. In his book Addiction and Grace, Dr. Gerry May talks about addictions and attachments which steal our freedom. Addiction is the absolute enemy of freedom and addiction isn’t just limited to drugs or alcohol. Think about it … there are many things to which we are addicted. In our culture, the most common addiction is money. Doesn’t matter how much money you have, does it? You always want more, right? These addictions and attachments are forms of slavery – they are the absolute enemy of the freedom God created us to live in. But giving up these addictions and attachments means we have to work … we have to think … we have to make decisions … and we have to place our trust in God’s presence even when things appear to be falling apart. We have to trust that there will be living water in our own wilderness instead of griping and falling back into our old ways. Admittedly, the Israelites are ambivalent about this freedom thing and it takes them a long time of wandering and trusting God before they forget the bondage of Egypt and trust in God’s freedom
In our gospel reading, we hear of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and this too is a story about freedom and liberation. Too often, much is made of her domestic situation: she’s been married five times and now living with a man who is not her husband. I have seen way too many Biblical literalists classify this woman as a “whore” when Jesus uses no such word. Let’s be clear – there is NOTHING in this reading which indicates that the woman is engaged in immoral practices nor is there anything which condemns her sex life. There are all kinds of reasons she may have been in this situation. In a culture where women had no rights, a husband could toss his wife out on her ear for no reason by giving her a writ of divorce, and where life expectancies were shorter than today (Who knows? She may have outlived 5 men!), not to mention the requirement of the Levirate marriage which would have caused her to be married to the brother of her deceased husband to raise up children for the dead brother … well, let’s just say there are any number of reasons she was in this condition. Jesus never tells her to “go and sin no more” – in fact, sin isn’t even mentioned. So let’s get off the morality train right now and let that go! Her plight is likely one that is marked more by tragedy than immorality.
When Jesus tells her to call her husband and then tells her the truth of her life, her response is quite surprising – she doesn’t get defensive or argue. Did you notice that? Jesus puts the finger right on her place of greatest brokenness and she doesn’t get angry. That’s quite remarkable because most of us would get angry or lash out. I know how I am. When my spiritual director or therapist puts their finger on something broken in me, my first reaction is defensive. It hurts when somebody looks through us and tells us the unvarnished truth. But that’s when I have to take a deep breath and trust these people aren’t trying to hurt me – they are trying to help heal me. I think Jesus’ words are received by this woman as a non-judgmental statement of fact … meant for her liberation. Instead of responding in anger, she makes a confession of faith: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” In John’s gospel, the concept of “seeing” is strongly linked with believing. She believes that Jesus has really seen her too – she is a whole person to him, not just an object or a victim. She has worth in Jesus’ eyes.
Her next question may seem like a non sequitur: On which mountain will we worship God? This question continues to divide Jews and Samaritans. She is testing whether or not Jesus will separate himself from her because of the things which have kept her in captivity: her gender, her ethnicity, her dependence on other men. All of these have enslaved her ... will Jesus be just another Jewish man who will keep her in shackles?
Instead of the either/or response she expects, Jesus’ answer opens a third way for her – not a black and white answer which chooses sides. This third way opens a path of liberation for her where she can chart a new course to believe in God in a whole new way. And it is so exciting that she drops her water jars and races off to tell her friends. She leaves behind the very thing that had been so important to her – the water she drew which symbolically could be the chores and expectations placed upon her. In dropping everything, she was freed to share this news of a new and transformed life with her friends.
We, like this woman, are burdened with many struggles, temptations and challenges in life which can enslave us and hold us back from being the people God calls us to be. Take a moment and think … what are you facing right now? What are the past tragedies of your life that you need to drop and leave behind? A dead-end job? A death dealing relationship? An addiction or attachment which is killing you physically or spiritually? Anxiety, guilt, sadness? What holds you back from living into your freedom in Christ? Offer it to Christ right now and ask for the courage to drop your water jars, to seek God’s freedom and to give us the grace to tell our friends what God has done for us! What do you need to drop this day … on a broken altar … at the foot of a broken Christ on the cross?
For those of you who are going through football withdrawal – today is your day! Yes, it’s “John 3:16” day! You know, there’s always that guy in the end zone that you see when the kick is good holding up the sign with “John 3:16” on it. I’ve always wanted to go to a game and stand in the end zone with a sign that says “John 3:17” … just to mess with people. But in all seriousness, John 3:16 has become a bit of a cliché which gets rattled off by those trying to proof-text why unbelievers will not go to heaven or to bolster another believer who is going through a difficult time (after all, if God so loved the world, then you can’t really be having any problems, can you?). For those of you who are tired of this cliché, fear not! This sermon isn’t going there. Instead, I’ve been fascinated by the contrasts our readings have presented so far … and I think I’ll stick with that theme.
For those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday, you know why our altar is uncovered this Lent. If you missed that, here’s the recap. About 15 years ago, Grace Church experienced violence in its walls. There was a break in and vandals desecrated the church. In their rampage, the Blessed Sacrament was dumped out on the rug at the high altar and crushed under foot, candlesticks were smashed and this altar’s marble top was smashed. When you come up for communion, take a moment to look at it … run your hands over the damage. It was a day when a small group of people poured out contempt on Christ and his people. This community was violated. It was an act of evil.
We speak of evil in our prayer of confession and Lent is a time for us to face evil: the evil we do, the evil done to us and the evil done on our behalf as our confession prayer states. Evil and sin are intertwined and they manifest through our broken lives – broken like this altar, broken like Christ on the cross. Our readings thus far have talked about our broken nature. Last week’s readings were about the identity theft that temptation causes – the ways that our true identity as beloved sons and daughters is stolen when we are tempted to break relationship with God and others and “go it alone” in our lives. The contrast was between Eve and Adam who fell for the temptation to “be like God” and go it alone and Jesus who completely trusted God and stayed in solidarity with us.
Today we are given another set of contrasts – this time about trust. While the word “faith” and “belief” run rampant through these readings (especially in the Epistle), I’m using the word “trust” intentionally. Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking “faith” and “belief” are intellectual assents to a set of propositions. That isn’t how the early Christians experienced this. It was about what you gave yourself over to completely – a complete act of trust: trust of body, mind and spirit. And trust is something with which we struggle, isn’t it? Anybody have “trust issues?” Of course we do. Our experience is that people have let us down and we are wary of trusting, giving ourselves over, to the care of someone or something outside ourselves. Abram and Nicodemus are both put in the position of being called into complete trust.
The Torah portion from Genesis is known by our Jewish sisters and brothers as “Lech, Lecha!” – or “Get up and Get out of here!” It comes from God’s call to Abram – “[Get up and] Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that God does not say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to this lovely little condo I have picked out for you in Haifa. It has a great ocean view – you’re gonna love it!” No … God says, “Go … to a land I will show you.” Abram had no clue where he was going – but he had to go – and he trusted this voice and acted upon it as if it were true.
Now you might be thinking Abram was nuts and you would never be able to trust God at this level. Admittedly, God doesn’t tend to speak with us directly like he appeared to do with Abram. Perhaps it would be easier if God did do this. But we often hear the voice of God calling us through the mediation of regular old human beings … which brings up those trust issues again, doesn’t it? But think for a moment about a time when somebody called you – speaking something to your heart that you just knew was true. Now you may not have wanted to hear the truth – and it was painful to face. Truth isn’t always fun but it is always healing – always healing! Gloria Steinem is said to have riffed on this: “The truth shall set you free … but first it will piss you off.” This kind of truth is a place where Christ’s light shines into the darkness of the evil that may be enslaving you – it’s an invitation to drop the pretense, get real, and be free. And when you trust that truth, you begin to live as if it were real – even if you don’t really fully trust it yet.
It may be that a deep, heart penetrating truth gets spoken to you and it calls you to do or be something that you never imagined yourself to be. Think about that for a moment … did you ever have a moment when somebody believed you were capable of more than you thought? And because they had trust in you, you began to behave as if it were true even if you didn’t totally get it yet? The Saturday before Ash Wednesday, Wendy made a trip over to visit Lila and Bill Wenner. She asked me, “Is there anything I can take to them?” I said, “Yes … Holy Communion.” My response just came … and I think Wendy was a little taken aback as she asked me, “Can I do that??” I told her, “Of course you can. Let’s get a kit and I have a book for you.” And … she did. She took Communion to Lila and Bill and, reports have it and as we say in Brunswick, she “done good.” Now Bill did put her at ease by telling her that if she made a mistake, God would just laugh anyway. But here was a place where God called Wendy … oh sure, I was the mouthpiece, but I am persuaded God called her to this. She hadn’t seen this in herself up to that point – but when I said she could, she believed … she trusted this was true and acted as if it were true and she went. It was an Abram response.
The Gospel reading tells us of another response. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – out of the darkness to encounter the light of Christ. Forget your preconceived ideas about Pharisees – Nicodemus isn’t a bad guy. He’s genuinely interested in Jesus and acknowledges that he sees God’s power working through him. Jesus then tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless you are “born from above.” The phrase “born from above” also can mean “born again.” I think it’s a both/and – born again from above. He’s speaking of the death of our egos and our preconceived ideas of God and ourselves. This has to die for us to turn over our trust completely to God and thus be spiritually resurrected. This is totally going over Nicodemus’ head – essentially he says, “You can’t go back into your mother’s womb! That’s just crazy talk!” Nicodemus’ knowledge of scripture and his own attachment to his identity becomes a stumbling block – he can’t see the God behind the words of scripture. He can’t quite understand that no words, no Torah, no earthly container can possibly limit God’s power. Trusting Jesus’ words just is beyond him. Perhaps it’s because God’s call is being mediated through what appears to be a mere human being (we’re not the only ones with trust issues). Or maybe it is just seems too good to be true.
Abram and Nicodemus are two sides of our ability to trust God. There are those grace filled moments when we hear something that just cuts to our hearts and we know it is true – we know God is behind those words (even if we don’t really want to hear them) and we step out as if what was said was actually true. And then we have times when our preconceived ideas, our egos, our addictions and attachments, seem to get in the way of God’s call to us for a healed and resurrected life.
Now before we “flat Stanley” these two characters as “Abram who is faithful” and “Nicodemus who doesn’t get it,” we need to remember that Abram will doubt God’s call on more than one occasion (the folks w.ho journeyed through Genesis with us at our Coffee Talk Bible Study will remember that). Nicodemus does not disappear from the Gospel of John after he stumbles in his trust – he shows up again to defend Jesus’ legal right to a fair trial … and he shows up again with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Our ability to trust God’s call in our lives is, admittedly, a mixed bag and our challenge is not necessarily to always “get it right” but to keep struggling and wrestling with it. Our trust may be broken, like this altar, but it is the broken Christ who meets us in order to heal us and make us new again.
Have you ever had your identity stolen? Unfortunately, it’s getting to be a more common occurrence, isn’t it? I remember the first time it happened to us and our bank account was drained in Barcelona …unfortunately, I wasn’t in Barcelona so it wasn’t me. There’s a horrible feeling of violation when our identity is stolen and it’s a real pain to clear it up. What was violated was my good name – my creditworthiness was in peril. And my creditworthiness is a sign and symbol of my being a trustworthy person. But it’s only part of my identity. I have a lot of other pieces to my identity – wife, mother, priest, friend, and daughter, among others. And most of these pieces of my identity are dependent upon my relationship with others. Think about it, I cannot be a wife without my husband. I cannot be a mother without children. I cannot be a priest without the consent of the Church and people to whom I minister as a priest. Even my creditworthiness and trustworthiness are dependent upon how I treat others – like my creditors. Much of our identity is rooted in our relationships.
Today’s readings are about identity theft. It may not seem like that on the surface, but this is what is happening in both the reading from Genesis and from Matthew. We often frame these as stories of temptation; however, temptation is the means by which our identity can be stolen.
In the reading from Genesis, we hear about the temptation of Eve by the serpent. He questions her about what she is allowed to eat. She tells him that they can eat of any tree, but not the one in the middle of the garden because if they eat of that tree they will die. Eve’s identity at this point is based on her relationship with God as a trusting child of God. The serpent sets about at stealing her identity – through a temptation to break this trusting relationship with God and “go it alone” by eating of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not only does this thievery work, it fundamentally changes Eve and Adam’s relationship with God. This story is our story – of how we distrust God and are constantly tempted to “go it alone.”
In contrast, Matthew tells of how Satan attempts to steal Jesus’ identity. This is a day when the Church Year readings take a chronological twist. We are now back to the baptism of Jesus … which we celebrated in January. When Jesus was baptized, a voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” This was the same voice we heard last week in the reading from the Transfiguration and it is Jesus’ core identity: God’s Son, the Beloved with whom God is well pleased (or some translations say, “in whom I take great delight”). This is the truth and it is a truth spoken not just in Jesus’ baptism, but at ours. Our core identity is as beloved sons and daughters of God.
But, we hear that right after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness – and here his core identity is at risk of being stolen. Satan appears and makes three attempts to get Jesus to break relationship with God and us – and to lose his core identity. The first temptation is “I need.” Satan attacks Jesus’ very real need to eat: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I want you to know that Satan is not questioning the identity of Jesus with this statement – he is attempting to steal it. His statement “If you are the Son of God” is not a challenge to his identity – it is an assertion of it. The “if” used in the Greek is the “if of certainty” not the one of uncertainty; which means we can translate this as “Since you are the Son of God.” Satan never questions Jesus’ identity as Son of God. Jesus could have at that point given in. If he had, not only would he have broken his dependence on God in an attempt to “go it alone,” he also would have broken his solidarity with us who hunger, both literally and figuratively. Jesus responds by quoting scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He thwarts the attempt at identity theft through the temptation of “I need.”
But Satan isn’t done with him yet. If Jesus can quote scripture, so can the devil (remember that!). Satan takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and gives him the temptation of “I can”: “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Satan is quoting Psalm 91. Yes, Jesus could have done this … he could have succumbed to the temptation of “I can.” But if he had, he again would have broken his dependence on God and would have become invulnerable – and in so doing, would have broken relationship with us as vulnerable human beings. Jesus resists this attempt to steal his identity with another quote from scripture: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Satan’s final attempt at stealing Jesus’ identity comes with the temptation of “I want” by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and promising that to Jesus if only he would bow down and worship him … in essence worshiping as God that which is not … committing idolatry. Had he given in, his core self as God incarnate would have shattered and he would have lost any power to save this broken humanity. Jesus tells Satan to be gone and with one final word of scripture tells him: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Each of these temptations – “I need,” “I can,” and “I want” – are our temptations too. Each represents the opportunity for us to break relationships with each other and with God. Each of them is an attempt to steal our core identity and get us to distrust God’s promise in our baptism that we really are beloved sons, beloved daughters. When our core identity is stolen, we forget who we are and Whose we are and the results can be devastating.
Think for a moment over this past week. Where was your core identity as beloved put at risk by the Identity Thief? Where did “I need,” “I can,” or “I want” trip you up? How did it make you feel in the moment? As you see it in this light, how does it make you feel now? Has it made you doubt your beloved status? Now hear the words of St. Paul:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is your promise beloved in Christ. Regardless of our failings, which are merely opportunities to turn and return to God, absolutely nothing can steal your baptismal identity away.
Have you ever been scared to death? OK, maybe not literally since you all are sitting here in church, but you know what I mean. If you live long enough, you’ll encounter things that will scare the daylights out of you. Most of the things that have scared me in my life have been the times when I thought I could defy the forces of natural law laid down by the Almighty from before the foundation of the world. You know, laws like … gravity … or inertia (especially when I’m the body in motion that is tending to stay in motion and meeting the body at rest that is staying at rest … that always leaves a mark) … or the second law of thermodynamics (ask me about that one later … it’s a long story). I often think of the times when I've tried to confront the awesome forces of nature and come up short. You know, "Awesome Forces of Nature versus 112 pounds of ... Me! Let's get ready to rumble!!!" Yeah ... it usually ended up pretty bad.
Awesome forces of nature usually ends up putting me in a place where I was scared out of my wits on more than one occasion. I remember being about 16 when one of those incidences happened. I grew up in California and did a lot of body surfing. There was this place I went to called “The Wedge” in Newport Beach. It’s where the jetty that protects the opening to Newport Harbor juts out at the end of the Balboa Peninsula. That structure creates really serious waves – like 10-20 foot waves. The problem is when a set comes in, these big waves suck all the water out from where you are standing, so you really can’t duck or dive under the incoming wave. It’s a fine art to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time … an art which I had not mastered when I found myself standing in about 12 inches of water with a 15 foot wave about to crash on my head. All I could do was take a deep breath and tuck down. When that wave hit, it knocked me face down flat into the sand and pinned me there. I could not move and the sound of the water was deafening. That’s scary … can’t move, tons of water holding you down and hoping you didn’t run out of breath. I heard a voice say, “Hold on. The wave will let you go.” And eventually it did and I was sucked up into the swirling waters and made my way back to the surface. But for that time when I could not move, I was terrified.
We live in a culture that is deeply fearful but in total denial about it, don’t we? Somewhere, usually in our teen years, we get the message that to be “grown up” means we can’t be afraid – or at least we can’t admit we are afraid. But there are many fears that try to claim us, aren’t there? Most of what we fear is loss – loss of job, loss of our faculties, loss of security, loss of loved ones, alienation from friends and family, loss of control, loss of life. Most of us try to mask our fears – and the most common way we do it is through anger. Somehow it’s ok to be angry and lash out in our culture but it isn’t ok to deal with the underlying fear that brings us to that angry place. How screwed up is that??
Today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus – a story which is about fear and transformation. Admittedly, it is a rather weird and unsettling story with a whole lot of “woo woo” factor about it. Shining Jesus (and no, we aren’t going to sing “Shine Jesus Shine” today) with Moses and Elijah showing up out of nowhere. I always wondered how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah … not like they had Facebook pages with selfies on them to check their id. It just is a weird story! No matter what happened and what was seen by Peter, James and John, the fact that it was weird didn’t cause them to be afraid. There is no mention of fear at all at the sight of Jesus, Moses and Elijah at all. But I suppose the weirdness of it all was what prompted Peter to blurt out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Matthew goes on to say that while Peter was still speaking, the bright cloud came down and the voice came out of the cloud and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” If these words sound vaguely familiar, you heard them just a few weeks ago. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” was what the voice said at Jesus’ baptism – word for word! Peter, James and John were not at Jesus’ baptism to hear that voice and that voice now interrupts Peter as if to say, “You’ve said enough Peter! Shut up and listen! This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased … Listen to him!”
It is at this point, the disciples fall face down in fear. This was something big … and WAY beyond their control. The writer of Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Our finitude is no match for the Eternal One. Awesome forces beyond their understanding or control scaring the daylights out of these disciples. But Jesus doesn’t leave them there. He came to them and touched them and he said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This is where I wish our English language could better capture the nuance of what Jesus says. His command to “get up” is also translated “arise” … and it means “resurrection.” Its mood and voice in Greek tell us that God is the power behind their rising – as if to say “Let God resurrect you!” I’ve said it before and will say it again: resurrection isn’t the revivification of a corpse. Resurrection is rising to become something new and transformed! Jesus follows this with another command “do not be afraid” whose mood and voice in Greek tell us that letting go of our fear is not something we can do in and of ourselves; it is an act in which Christ is also participating. So it’s more like, “Let God resurrect you and I will walk with you so you can let go of your fear.”
Jesus was not the only one transfigured on the mountain. Peter, James and John were also changed. Their experience that day confronted them with awesome powers that were far beyond their puny human abilities to handle. But the touch of Jesus invited Peter, James and John into a transformed, resurrected understanding of Jesus in that moment and to let Jesus walk with them into and through their fear so they could be released and no longer hold power over them.
Each of us faces powers in our life that are far beyond our control. There will always be things which will make us fearful. Even the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration would not be immune to fears in the future – the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and the disciples abandoning him would prove that. But the message Christ gives us this day is to trust his touch, which still comes to us through this community, our loved ones and friends: a touch which bids us to let God raise us up and let Christ walk with us and not be afraid.
Did you know that it is illegal to take a lion to the movies in Baltimore? It is … I know you were worried about that. It is also required to document the services of a jackass in Maryland … which could mean I’ll be filling out timesheets in 2014. But Maryland isn’t alone in having wacky laws. In Washington DC, “bridges must be clear of sheep between 6 and 10 AM.” That’s right … no driving your sheep to market over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the morning. Apparently, doing so during the evening rush hour is not a problem. You also cannot operate a surfboard while under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other hallucinogenic drugs. That should make the Potomac River safe for everyone. But my favorite wacky law from DC was “Manure may not be deposited without a permit.” Somehow I don’t think congress got that message! There are a lot of downright weird laws on the books all over the world and this week’s readings have a lot to do with law and its place in our lives.
Ideally, laws exist so that people can live together and relate to each other in a civilized manner. It’s been said that “good fences make good neighbors” and laws serve as a way to set fences, or boundaries, by which we can live somewhat peaceably. But people being who they are, laws don’t always function that way. Sometimes laws, especially some of these weird ones, are created as a reactive response to a group’s “delicate sensibilities” or as a way of protecting one group’s status or privilege. I’m thinking of things like Jim Crow laws that excluded African Americans from full participation in society in order to protect white privilege. Right now, the Kansas state legislature passed a law saying anyone can refuse to serve LGBT people without explanation because of their religious objections. Really? Can you imagine saying “We don’t serve your kind” to any other group of people in 2014? It sickens me when religion is used as a cover for bigotry and then gets enshrined in law. But we have a track record of doing that, don’t we?
Today we are hearing much about the Law – the Halakah which governs the Jewish people. We are familiar with the “top 10” that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But there’s a whole body of rabbinic law which makes up the Halakah and in total, it’s about 700 specific laws. These laws cover all aspects of what it means to be Jewish: what to eat and not eat, proper business practices, who you can and cannot marry, how to maintain purity, judicial procedures including crime and punishment and restitution, temple worship, and more. Admittedly, some of these laws are archaic holdovers from a stone-age people … and they sound as weird as not taking lions to the movies. But if we throw out the Law because of a few oddball pieces, I think we do so at our own peril – even as Christians.
Christians often misunderstand adherence to the law by Jews – it sounds burdensome, and didn’t Paul say in Christ we are set free from the law? Well, not really. Last week, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The word Halakah actually means “the way in which we walk.” To an observant Jew, this means the law is a gift from God to help them be in right relationship – with God and with each other. So for us, it is not irrelevant. Fr. Richard Rohr speaks about the importance of the Law as giving us a container, or a “home base,” from which to operate in right relationship to God and with each other. In today’s reading from Sirach, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, we hear that God gives us choices – fire or water, life or death. God made us to be moral beings with the ability make choices – even if we make bad choices. It is a reminder that the law has a place in our lives, even as Christians.
Jesus’ teaching today, which is from the Sermon on the Mount, follows last week’s reading where he says that not one stroke of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. He even commends the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Today, he is teaching on the law with a very specific kind of rhetoric. It follows a pattern: “You’ve heard it said in ancient times … but I say to you …” In a way what Jesus is doing is challenging his listeners to go deeper into the meaning of the law. In essence, he tells them, “So you’ve heard this and I’m sure you think you ‘got this’ buttoned up and handled … but I say you don’t and here’s why…”
Martin Luther once called this a “second use of the Law.” He used the metaphor that the Law is both mirror and hammer. First, the Law holds up a mirror to us and shows us our behaviors. And if we take a serious and sober look at how we behave, we have to admit we fail … epically. That’s when the second part comes in … the hammer. It falls on us like a judge’s gavel and convicts us of our bondage to the power of Sin. This is what Jesus seems to be doing as he teaches “what I say to you.” The truth is we will never have a handle on Sin and its grip on our souls. Luther said we are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves – sounds a lot like addiction, doesn’t it? It is … we are Sin sick souls and we have no power in and of ourselves to break this hold. But that’s not Gospel, is it? No, not at all … it’s a page out of the book of DUH!
At this point we tend to go into one of two paths when we are confronted by so stark a reality as how much power Sin has over us. The first is to run away and go into denial about the serious nature of our condition. This is the path of rationalization. It sounds like, “I’m really not a bad person” or “This is just a guilt trip laid on us by the Church to try and control us.” If we succumb to these rationalizations, we’ll tend to minimize the very real damage caused by Sin – damage we do to ourselves, to others, and to creation. We’ll ignore the bigger implications of Sin – the systemic Sin of society which can seem too big for us to do anything about and so we ignore it. But do take this path is to reject the truth of our condition and to let Sin puff us up with a false grandiosity blocking our ability to let God’s grace in to heal us.
The other temptation we have is to heap coals of fire on ourselves. We can mistake our bondage to the power of Sin as something which renders us worthless and beyond the saving grace of God. After all, if I’m so terrible, why would God waste time, let alone love, on me? This too is a distortion caused by Sin itself and blocks the grace of God by sending us into a cynical, nihilistic spiral of doom.
Fortunately, there is a way in which we can walk … a way forward out of the mess. First is to let the Law be both mirror and hammer but, rather than take the road of rationalization or worthlessness, let the Law be an agent of the Spirit’s gift of humility. Humility is that place where we walk the middle way with Christ in both acknowledging and naming our sin and trusting completely that the promises of baptism are true – we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Forever beloved, forever belonging to God and nothing, absolutely nothing, can erase this. Our sins are not powerful enough to cause God to reject us … to think so is sheer ego driven hubris.
Last week, I spent three days at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park NY. It is an Episcopal Benedictine monastery and they hosted Fr. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who conducted a workshop for clergy on the sacrament of reconciliation which is probably the most underutilized part of the Prayer Book … second only to the Historical Documents in the back of the book! For those of you who are former Roman Catholics, you may have been more accustomed to the compulsory nature of the sacrament of reconciliation as a requirement for receiving the Eucharist. Those of you from more Protestant traditions may wonder why we have this as a sacrament. And those of you who are cradle Episcopalians likely just ignore its presence in the Prayer Book and figure the general prayer of confession before the Eucharist is sufficient. We seem to have an ambivalent feeling about this sacrament.
The Anglican ethos tells us that Baptism and Eucharist are the only sacraments “necessary for salvation” because Jesus commanded we do them; however, we would be selling ourselves short to think the other sacraments “don’t really matter.” They do matter! They are given to us for a reason. The sacrament of reconciliation is important because it gives us a means by which we can avoid the temptations of rationalization and worthlessness as we let go of what Martin called “spiritual congestion” which impedes our ability to accept God’s grace and healing. The Anglican approach to this sacrament is one of healing and proclamation of the Gospel – so that we can receive the good news of our belovedness given to us in Baptism and live in the freedom of Christ as God’s children.
And so, as we begin our journey towards Lent on this Septuigesima Sunday, I encourage you to reflect on your life in self-examination. Take some time in the silence we have before our general confession to recall those things done and left undone this week and be intentional about giving them over to God. As you uncover those things which you may find more troubling, I encourage you to consider availing yourself of sacramental reconciliation. Think of it this way … it’s a place you can dump your spiritual manure and leave it … and you don’t even need a permit!
Jesus has just moved from Nazareth to Capernaum in the northern part of Israel on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. It’s a fishing village and so to get the attention of the first disciples he calls, it is natural he would use a fishing metaphor. I’m not so sure this language resonates with us in quite the same way in the 21st century, especially for those who know nothing about fishing … like me. I don’t fish. Shocking, I know, but it’s just not something I ever really did. It wasn’t for lack of trying. My husband fishes and grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and spent days going out on the boat with his dad to go fishing and crabbing. When we first were married, he tried to teach me about fishing. It went over about as well as his golf lessons … which is to say not at all. I tried, but when I waded out into the Potomac to do some fly fishing and found myself face to face with a water snake … I was done! Indiana Jones and I have a lot in common – I hate snakes! I tried fishing again from shore but once you get the fish on the hook, getting it off is another thing … and getting my hand barbed trying to get it off the hook just isn’t how I define the words “fun” or “relaxing.”
I grew up on the coast of California with some exposure to commercial fishing enterprises. The Dory Fleet would pull into Newport Beach every night and drop their catch of fresh fish right on the beach. If you got there around 4pm, you could buy your fish right there on the beach. That was pretty much the story in any coastal town. These commercial operations would fish with large drag nets and their fishing enterprise was really made up of two parts. The first was catching the fish and hauling them in and the second was sorting the fish and throwing some of them back. Fishing, sorting, accepting and rejecting. Now there were lots of reasons for fish being thrown back – too small, malformed, not the kind you were looking for, couldn’t sell it in the market.
What has been sticking with me this week with the little I know about fishing has as much to do with what Jesus doesn’t say as with what he does say to Simon, Andrew, James and John. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” is what he says. What he doesn’t say is, “And you’ll sort out the catch and throw the ones back we don’t want.” (#thingsjesusdidnotsay) This made me think about how the Church (writ large) has listened and responded to Jesus’ call to fish for people and resisted the urge to sort out the catch and throw some people back. Since the Church is made up of people who are human and therefore sinners, I’m afraid we have a mixed record on this. Our human nature seems inclined towards sorting and throwing back – accepting and rejecting.
When I was in seminary, I had a conversation with Vic Lawson+. Vic+ is an Episcopal priest who led the Nelson Cluster of churches just across the river in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Vic+ is also African-American. He told me about going to an Episcopal Church in Washington DC back in the days of segregation and being met at the door by two ushers – white men – who told him “his kind” would be more welcomed at the Episcopal Church on the next block … the “black church.” Talk about being sorted and thrown back!
I know some of you have experienced being sorted and thrown back – often in life (that’s the way of the world) but sadly also in the Church. Maybe it was over who you love, or you are told your Biblical interpretation isn’t “right with the Lord” (which means it doesn’t match ours), or that your gender identity isn’t quite as neat and binary as others want to see, or maybe you are remarried after divorce and have been turned away from receiving the sacraments, or you are divorced and have been told you cannot be a leader in your church, or maybe you’re a woman who has been told to sit down and shut up because women are not to speak in the Church. There are an infinite number of ways the Church has put itself in the sorting and throwing back business instead of fishing for people.
Jesus called his disciples to fish for people. To go and tell and bring them into the fellowship of the Church … and get out of the sorting and throwing back business. This is our call and it isn’t easy – it is not without risk. Remember two weeks ago, I told you the font should have the sign “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” When we plunge into the waters of baptism we accept our call to fish for people and not throw them back … and that is risky business!
One of the risks we take involves what happens after we bring people to encounter Christ here at Grace. We can fish for people and invite them to journey with us but some of them will not stay here. Some may find that our way of worship and common life doesn’t resonate with them. It may seem odd but there are people who do not find the dulcet tones of organ music and the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer stirring for their souls. We are different and what moves me isn’t what moves everyone and so people may leave seeking another kind of church community. Some may come and find that the invitation to transformation the Gospel brings isn’t what they bargained for … it is too unsettling. Now I have to tell you that I’ve been in many churches over the years and Grace has a particular charism of the Spirit when it comes to inviting people to be transformed by Christ. We are a loving, gentle and forgiving community. We do screw ups. We hold the messiness of life gently in prayer. We do “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and that’s reconciliation. We do second chances … and thirds … and fourths … and fifths … because it is how we do love. This makes Grace a pretty safe place to experience change, healing and transformation into Christ’s likeness. But even as loving and gentle as we make it, some will find this still too frightening to bear and may choose to leave. There are still others who come into this community and behave in abusive or menacing ways. The way of Christ is not a way of abuse or exploitation. As your priest, when I see or hear about abusive behavior, whether it is within these walls, in the community or on social media, you can be assured I will address it because abuse is not of God. And if that person, after being rebuked seeks reconciliation and genuinely seeks an amendment of life, then … we do second chances, right? But if they persist and are not intent on reconciliation, the one perpetrating the abuse will walk apart – not because we have thrown them back, but because they choose by their actions to excuse themselves from the Body of Christ.
Now these are some of the risks with people we fish for not staying here … but we also will encounter risks with those who stay. The risk is that of great love. In living into this love, we create a community where lives are changed and people go from death into life. I have watched in wonder as many of you who have come have found joy, grace, and healing. I have witnessed miracles and I know some of you have too. But within the joy that this transformative love brings, there is another side to love – it sometimes breaks our hearts.
I am keenly aware of where I was one year ago today. After a sleepless night, I was awaiting word on the whereabouts of our sister Sophia Schmidt. Sophia came to us in the end stages of bipolar disorder – a disease which had not responded well to the therapies we have available for it. Sophia had suffered horribly from depressive episodes and had constant thoughts of ending her life for over 15 years. We had reason to believe she had gone through with her plan and I was waiting for a call which came late that night. Sophia was only with us for six months, but she had joined our confirmation class and came to Grace as often as her illness would allow. Even when she felt unlovable, we continued to show her Christ’s love. And even though our hearts broke, we continued to express our love through our grieving together, in planting a prayer garden, and welcoming her family here to dedicate that sacred space to Sophia’s memory. God brought her here by way of two fishers of people … throwing her back was never an option.
Just two weeks later, another woman came to us in the final months of her life. We met Jenny Cabbiness at Ashes to Go at the MARC station. She had end stage breast cancer and began attending Grace. She was convinced God had led her to us and how it was no coincidence that the priest was a former hospice chaplain and a current hospice chaplain was also in residence here. We cheered her on when she was feeling good and prayed and cried with her when she was struggling. And when she died, our hearts broke and God’s love poured out on her family and friends as we celebrated her life with a burial Eucharist for over 250 people here. God brought her here … and throwing her back was not an option either.
You and I are called by Christ through the hazardous waters of baptism to take great risks for the sake of God’s love. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He is still teaching us to fish for people … to fish and not throw back.
When I was in college, I spent some time whitewater rafting on the American and Kern rivers. I remember very distinctly the sign that was on the road leading into the Kern River gorge telling you exactly how many people had died on the river since 1974. Like that was going to stop us from running that river … we took it as a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, there were spots where we portaged, taking the boat it out of the water and going around a feature that was just a bit too much for our boat and skill level to handle. We weren’t stupid! But it seems to me if we had let that sign and its ominous message of death scare us, we would have missed out on a whole lot of fun.
There is a similar sign in the Jordan River near the traditional spot where John baptized Jesus. The sign says this: “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” A friend of mine took a photo of that sign when the Jordan was experiencing a flash flood … the sign partway submerged in raging muddy water.
I think this sign should be posted on top of every baptismal font. Seriously … “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” is a pretty good description of baptism. When we enter these waters, we do enter them at our own risk! And so did Jesus. Today we hear Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke (the synoptic Gospels) all give a direct account of Jesus’ baptism. John’s gospel even gives a veiled reference through the testimony of John the Baptist telling about seeing the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove while he was baptizing. It is in Matthew’s account, though, that we get this dialog between John and Jesus. John objects to Jesus coming to him to be baptized saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Some suggest this was to address the question of why Jesus, who was “tempted in every way we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) would even come to John for a baptism which involved “confessing of sins.” (Matthew 3:6) Jesus tells him to let it be so to fulfill all righteousness – which is kind of a cryptic response, if you ask me.
But this dialog aside, the bottom line is Jesus comes to John for baptism – a ritual washing which is framed by John preaching repentance. Repent is one of those loaded words in theology, but one of its meanings is simply to “turn around” – to change your mind. It is an invitation to turn around and turn back to God – to get back on track with God and God’s will as the center of your life, not you and your own will. Or in other words, to reorient yourself to live the truth that God is God and you are not.
Repentance has another more subtle meaning too. It is the realization that something has profoundly changed in you. Perhaps not such a dramatic 180 turn, but the knowledge that from this point forward life will be different – very different. Repentance can mean the ending of one way of being and the beginning of a new way of life.
We really can’t get into Jesus’ head about what he was thinking when he came to John but I think it’s a fair statement to say something in Jesus drew him to being baptized by John and I think repentance is part of it. Jesus’ baptism takes the shape of that second kind of repentance – the end of one way of being to step into a new life. Jesus will no longer be “Joseph the carpenter’s kid” – he will be the Messiah. His public ministry begins in a very public way – this is no private revelation! Of course, what we don’t hear in today’s gospel reading is that right after he comes up out of the water, receives the Holy Spirit and hears the proclamation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” … Jesus was lead up to the wilderness by the same Spirit for 40 days and nights to be tempted by the devil. Baptism isn’t going to confer a safe, easy life on Jesus! Hazardous waters … enter at your own risk indeed!
Today’s baptisms won’t be quite that dramatic. I can’t promise the heavens will be opened and the Spirit descending like a dove or anything like that. I can promise that I’m not going to take the suggestion of my Lutheran pastor colleague Bob Ierien and take a SuperSoaker to you en masse. But I can promise today will be a turning point in the lives of Kristine, Kennedy, Emory, Quincy, Callista, Aidan and Scarlett. Today marks a turning away from the powers and forces of Sin and Death which can only lead us down dead ends and towards Christ who promises eternal life.
In a few minutes, we will ask you a series of questions known as the renunciations and affirmations. We ask you six main questions indicating a turning – a turning away from the powers of Sin and Death as they come to us through the world, the flesh and the devil and a turning toward Jesus Christ as savior in whom you will place your trust and promise to follow him. This is repentance – turning around and heading for your true home in God.
But make no mistake – you are entering hazardous waters and at your own risk. It is a big risk to your ego to turn over your trust to Christ and let God’s way be your way. “Thy will be done” is really the only legit prayer a Christian will ever say the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do! Just as Jesus went straight from his baptism to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, you also will face temptations to return to doing life on your own terms. That’s what it means to be human. You will struggle for the rest of your life to live into the vows you make today. But the good news is we don’t enter these hazardous waters alone! Being baptized means joining the Church – which, by the way, is much bigger than just us here at Grace (although I admit, God is doing some pretty cool stuff here through us!). The Church, across time and throughout the world, is an extended family of sisters and brothers, most of whom you will never meet in real life, who support each other through love, prayer and self-giving so that when those temptations to return to life on our own terms bubble up, we have a community that can help us turn around and back to Christ. You do not enter these hazardous waters alone! You are entering them with two millennia of believers who have gone before you and you enter them just as we have … and we are here for you, to encourage you, to pray with you, to rejoice with you, to grieve with you – to live fully with you as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. And that is awesome because we need each other.
Each of us comes to these hazardous waters lacking. We know we are broken in body, mind and spirit … even when we are little kids, we can feel small, helpless and inadequate. I was the dorky, weird kid in my school. I often felt alone and isolated growing up. Brokenness isn’t something that only adults feel. But the promise we have in baptism is that Christ knits us together into a community who can carry us when we can’t carry ourselves. It’s no longer about “me,” it’s about “we.” And when we make our baptismal covenant, that promise of where we will place our trust and what we promise to do as members of this community, the answer to the promises we make is “I will, with God’s help.” God’s help is necessary, not optional. We cannot live into the promises we make in these hazardous waters without asking God’s help … and that help comes through this community. We never go it alone!
So yes, today you enter hazardous waters at your own risk yet not alone … but fear not. Like that scary death sign at the Kern River, if you let that stop you you will miss out on following Christ, which is the greatest adventure of your life.
“Did you find what were you looking for?” You have likely heard this phrase uttered many times over these past few weeks during Christmas shopping forays. It’s rather ubiquitous, isn’t it? “Did you find what you were looking for?” Most of the time, you likely answered “Yes, thank you” or perhaps you inquired about something you had not been able to find. And in the context of purchasing something, you probably didn’t give your answer much thought beyond the immediate transaction. But right now, on this Christmas Eve, I want to ask you this question again: “Did you find what you were looking for?”
On this night we once again hear an old familiar story. It’s one we all know, even if all we know of it is seeing Linus deliver its words in King James English on A Charlie Brown Christmas. But it is so familiar we often lose sight of the scandalous nature of it. An unwed teenage mother-to-be named Mary and her fiancé Joseph make the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem under orders to be enrolled, no doubt for tax purposes, from their Roman overlords. No doubt the reason they end up in a stable is because nobody in Joseph’s extended family is going out of their way to welcome the pregnant girlfriend – whose pregnancy is of questionable origins anyway. While they are in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to a son and we hear that a messenger from God appears to shepherds who get the initial report of the birth of the Messiah. Now this takes the scandal to a whole new level. Shepherds, in first century Palestine, are shady lowlifes who cannot be called as witnesses in a court of law and … well … they smell funny. So our God comes into human form under scandalous circumstances and the news is first announced to a bunch of lowlifes – because that’s just how our God rolls. After getting the news, the shepherds decide to go check this out and they find things just as the angel had reported to them. They found what they were looking for! And while they found what they were looking for, what they did not know and could not fully comprehend in that moment over 2,000 years ago is what this child would mean for them … and for us.
While Luke tells us the events of Christ’s birth, in essence answering the “what happened” question, we are left with another question: “Why did it happen?” Why did God choose to come to us and live as one of us? Part of the answer is found in the three short verses from the Letter to Titus:
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
I paraphrased the passage to clarify the point of the author: the birth of Christ happened to save us. It happened precisely because we could not save ourselves from the mess of living life on our own terms. If we could have done so, we would have, right? But human history has proved that we can’t do it in and of ourselves. So God took the initiative and set about this saving work, not because we earned it in any way, but solely because of God’s grace. What a radical idea this is – especially in light of our capitalistic meritocracy-based culture. We are programmed by the messages of our culture that we need to earn everything – including earning love by being good “little boys and little girls.” Some of us have internalized a message that we are not loveable and that God expects us to get our act together in order to be worthy of God’s grace. And that … is … wrong! It’s not how our God rolls.
Our salvation was a free gift of God’s grace. Grace is that love which God has for all of creation and is poured out on everything and everyone – regardless of whether we deserve it or not! The letter to Titus goes on to say that this grace “justifies” us which means it makes our relationship with God right and balanced. God initiates making the relationship with us right. Make no mistake, we have the obligation to respond to this invitation and participate in a right relationship; however, we do not initiate the action – God does. And the reason God makes this relationship right is so that we might become heirs, that is children of God, with a hope of eternal life. Eternal life is an often misunderstood concept and often posited as “going to heaven when you die” which turns it into some kind of celestial evacuation plan. But that isn’t what the scriptures mean by the term eternal life. Eternal life is living fully and freely in the present now, loving God and each other. This lifetime of loving presence happens right here and now and continues forever.
So when we think about the birth of Christ beyond the story of what happened and consider why it happened, it leads us back to the question “Did you find what you were looking for?” Perhaps you haven’t considered that question in this context but do so for just a moment. You are here, in this church, on Christmas. Why did you come? You didn’t have to come, you know. Oh sure, some of here will give a nod to attending church on Christmas being part of your family tradition, or maybe it was to appease parents or grandparents, and some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church. But regardless of why you think you are here, ponder in your heart for a moment what you are really seeking because perhaps something deeper brought you here. What are you really looking for?
We all have a deep longing – a sense of something missing in our lives. Some call this the “hole in our soul.” It is the nagging feeling that we are incomplete and lacking – which is true. We humans are consciously aware of our fragility, our finitude, our faults and our failings. It is a fearful thing to acknowledge this truth. Most of us spend our lives running away from this stark reality by attempting to fill this hole in our soul with anything which promises to fulfill or fix us. But try as we might, we cannot fill this hole ourselves because it was placed there by God when we were breathed into existence. It was placed there for a purpose: to draw us to say “yes” to God’s free gift of love in Christ. It was put there as a space for God to enter into you – for each and every one of you is an Innkeeper this night and your heart is the place where Christ wants to dwell.
Christmas is the proclamation that God spoke an eternal “yes” to us by slipping through the back door of history as a helpless baby, to grow up and live with us, die for us, and be raised from the dead to prove once and for all that our fragility, finitude, faults and failings do not define us and they do not get the last word! Christ is still renewing, redeeming, and giving life to us – all of us, no exceptions.
No matter what your life circumstances are this day, God called you here to speak a word of eternal life and love to you: a love that you didn’t have to earn or prove yourself worthy to receive. God’s movement is towards us and for us in the birth of Jesus Christ. This love is mystical and it is the only enduring and life giving way to fill the hole in your soul. It comes to us through Word and Sacrament and is present through this community. So come. Come to this Table. Come as you are. Come here this night and you will find what you are looking for.