Gold, Circumstance, and Mud


The Annunciation

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”

The Magnificat. 

Then Mary said, “In the depths of who I am, I rejoice, in God my savior. God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honor God. God has shown strength with a mighty arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. God has come to the aid of Israel, remembering mercy, and the promised made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud

The Magi, the shepherds, the donkey, of course, Joseph, and even the inn keeper are all important to the Christmas story. But, outside of Jesus himself, I think Mary takes center stage. And in this fourth Sunday of Advent, the day when we celebrate the love of God come down to earth, I think it’s no accident that Mary is the star.

Why? Well, because when she hears the call of God, she responds. She’s a  model of faith, servanthood, discipleship, and hospitality. I mean, in the Annunciation, the first part of our reading, Mary hears an incredible message. ! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. And of course, Mary asks, as any of us would: “How could this possibly be true?” The response, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Now, the point of this story isn’t whether or not it’s literal or symbolic, in other words, let’s not be bogged down in the virgin birth debate or whether or not stars stop over particular buildings. I don’t think that the message we need to focus on today. Instead, we’re invited to consider who God calls rather than the circumstances surrounding that call. What do I mean by that?  Well, we need begin by to remembering that Mary was call an ordinary young woman. She wasn’t a princess or a queen, she wasn’t a great warrior or scholar, Mary was an ordinary teenage girl who, within the boundries of her ordinary daily life, was invited to see and do something, extraordinary.

But what might doing extraordinary within the ordinary look like in our world? Well, there’s an old story about a man who was home with the children one afternoon while his wife went out Christmas shopping.  He was reclining on the couch, half sleeping, half watching a football game, when the kids came into the room. “Dad, we have a play to put on?  Do you want to see it?” Now, he really didn’t want to, but he knew he needed to, so he sat up, came out of his slumber, and became a one-man audience. His four children, four, six, eight, ten years old, were the actors:  Mary, Joseph, an angel and a wise man.  Joseph came in with a mop handle.  Mary came in with a pillow under her pajamas; another child was an angel, flapping her arms as wings. Finally the last child, the eight year old, came out, with all of the jewelry on that she could find in the house, her arms filled with three presents.  “I am all three wise men,” she said.  “I bring three precious gifts:  gold, circumstance, and mud.”[i]

Now, here’s the really amazing part of this story. The father didn’t laugh, as you might expect he would, and he didn’t correct his wise young daughter.  Instead, the father began to reflect on the extraordinary meaning behind those mis-understood words and how they somehow got to the heart of the Christmas story. I mean, God loves us for who we are: our gold. God loves us no matter where we find ourselves on the journey: our circumstances. And finally, God loves us in our brokenness, transgressions and mistakes and stubbornness and all: our mud.

The Christmas story reminds us God chose an ordinary human being–Mary—someone like us, to be the vessel through which God would become a little more accessible to humanity.  What is impossible for us is possible with God.  God can take our gold, our circumstance, our mud, and do something awesome with it. So this, in a nutshell, is the Annunciation. God’s calling to humanity. [ii]  

But remember, we have two parts to today’s lesson. There’s also the Magnificat!  Humanities’ response. In the text Mary says, ” … God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant.”  In other words, Mary is saying, “I am an ordinary person, I’m not perfect, and yet, God has chosen me for this.” 

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that when God begins to look for us, God is not looking for perfection. God chooses ordinary people like you and me, God loves the unlovable, and God welcomes everyone, no matter what country we come from, no matter what color our skin, no matter how we choose to worship, or how we voted, or who we love.

My friends, when all is said and done, the most important thing we can take-away from Mary’s story is that God is love incarnate. I always say at the end of my service, “God Loves You” and that’s true. But it goes even deeper than that, God is love itself. God is the embodiment of love. God is love come down to earth, born in a manger, embracing the most vulnerable with the security of love, healing the most broken with the wholeness of love; and calling each of us to be bearers of love, proclaiming and sharing it to all the ends of the globe.

Let me conclude my remarks today with a blessing. May each of you be surrounded and infused with the love of God. And may that love move us to overcome the challenges of this pandemic, may that love call to us to stand against the racial injustice that still favors the privileged and infests our systems of government, may that love challenge all of us to come together, to unify, even when we disagree, to become one people under God. And, my friends, if we hear and respond to love’s call, we can do these things, we can find unity within our diversity, we can bring justice to our neighbor and peace to our shores, and with God’s love we can endure the struggles of our times; and it’s then, then that we will truly be, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My friends, nothing is impossible with God, …nothing.  Amen & amen.

[i] James Moore Won’t You Let Him In? (found in “An Advent Study for Adult”, pg.30)

[ii] Bishop Kenneth Carter Call and Response ( 2011

Unabashed Joy II

Isaiah 35

The desert and the dry land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.

They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear!
    Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution
    God will come to save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
    and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
    grass will become reeds and rushes.

 A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
    but it will be for those walking on that way.

Even fools won’t get lost on it;
     no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
    only the redeemed will walk on it.

The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
    with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
    grief and groaning will flee away.

“Each year, it seems to get worse. The build-up to Christmas becomes more frenetic, more stressful, and more expensive with each passing season, and the observance of “Advent”–even the word itself–seems to get lost in our secularized holiday outburst of consumerism.”These words come to us today from the pen of Kathryn Matthews whose scathing observance of the post-modern Christmas Season seems to challenge the very notion of hope; of joy.

“And yet,” she continues, “each year, the hope is the same. Each year, underneath the fast-paced, media-driven, frantic preparations for ‘the big day’– the shopping, the family gatherings, the arrival of Santa and the opening of gifts, so many people express a yearning for something else, for something more.”[i]  

“A yearning for something more.” Perhaps that’s the greatest hope of this season we call “Advent.” Perhaps Advent isn’t about looking back at the nativity to see a little baby in a manger, so much as it is to remember the incarnate presence of the Divine that the Christ-Child represents. A memory, by the way, which can propagate within us a reason to be moved toward hope. The kind of hope that challenges us to look forward to the healing Reign of God in all its wholeness even while we are in the midst of brokenness; even as this pandemic rages on, even as injustice continues, even as our very planet is in peril.  It’s a hope not only that things might change, but that they will change.

Now, as people of faith we have come to understand that hope and the beginning of that movement toward Justice and Peace have indeed arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. And as the Body of Christ today, we continue to embody hope even as we look longingly toward a time when there will be a fullness of justice and peace and healing in this world. And not just some pie-in-the-sky, faraway in heaven after death kinda peace, but real peace and genuine transformation, right here, in this time and this place, and for all of God’s people and creation.

Now, we’re not the first to long for this peace, justice, and healing. The prophet in today’s reading looked forward to “signs of healing” or what I call “a movement toward wholeness” within creation itself. He wrote of a parched earth that would be transformed by streams of water breaking forth in the desert and of burning sands in the desert becoming pools of refreshing water. Beautiful imagery to be sure.

Imagery that invites us to recall the Peaceful Reign also from the Book of Isaiah. A Peaceful Reign where swords are pounded into plowshares and weapons of war and death are transformed into tools of agriculture, tools of life. A Peaceful Reign where lions and lambs coexist and no one will be held back by weakness of body or spirit, for God, whose power makes all things possible, will hold them up and carry them through.[ii] 

And again, beautiful imagery. But then, Isaiah unloads on us with this matter of “vengeance”. Vengeance isn’t something we like to think about at Christmastime, is it? So, what gives? Well, this is a place where the great United Church of Christ theologian Walter Brueggemann helps us out a bit. He expands upon this idea of God’s “vengeance” by transforming it into something “positive.” He says, “..that God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order” and all of these things are encapsulated by Brueggemann in a single term: “transformative compassion” And here’s the really awesome part! This compassion can be expected to transform the lives of those who are “overwhelmed” or incapable of “living effectively or joyously.” People we all know. People we love. People like us.

But what did all this mean to Isaiah? Well, it meant that the lame would not just walk but would leap, and perhaps even dance with joy! The speechless would not just find words but music and a song of joy. “People are given back their lives,” Brueggemann notes; and “humanity is restored to its full function”[iii]

Do you see where I’m going here? The image of a lame person walking is awesome, I’m sure that person would be happy. But to leap and dance, that’s joy. Isaiah wants us to understand that joy, unabashed joy is what lays at the very core of God’s coming wholeness to all the earth.  

Now, you might say, that’s great theology, but what does it mean for me? Well, when December 26 rolls around, I think we must ask ourselves these questions: Where am I today? Where’s my hope? Where will I continue to find joy? I mean, will we continue to be disappointed because we didn’t get to gather with family or at church, or will we be let down because these modified holiday celebrations that didn’t quite measure up to expectations, or will we be just plain exhausted as we’re forced to face our troubled world once again? I don’t know what your answers to these questions will be, or mine for that matter. But perhaps Dr. King was on to something when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” …never lose infinite hope.

And even if our new holiday traditions were lovely and did live up to our expectations, is there not more to our hope than just a lovely holiday? Where do we find Dr. King’s “infinite hope”? Where’s that unabashed joy that supersedes mere happiness? And looking at Advent itself with an even wider lens, how is God still speaking to us today, in the church and in society, about our expectations?

Well, as I see it, this is something we must struggle with right here in our churches. We must challenge ourselves on a personal level as we move beyond the societal expectations of the holidays and begin to discover that deeper joy that Isaiah so longed for us to indwell. And on a communal or societal level, how will we as a church community continue to innovate, to work toward social justice and systemic change, and to engage all kinds of people as we begin to journey together, toward wholeness, by becoming a reflection of this deeper understanding of joy.

And again, there are no pat answers here. Even within the structure of community we’re all individuals with individual callings and talents and challenges and we’re all on our own journeys of faith. My friends, God is calling each of us to BE the Church in our own unique way; we’re a patchwork of characters if you will. But here’s the thing. It’s from a diverse patchwork of colors and patterns that the most beautiful quilts are created. So, the great hope for us today, the unabashed joy for us as we continue this journey, is that we are engaged in an on-going process of co-creating with God a beautiful quilt that will be marked by the peace and justice that Isaiah speaks of here. Not as individuals, but as a collection of individuals, a chorus of voices, neighbor with neighbor and friend with friend.

This is the deeper vision of Isaiah that we’ve been considering this Advent season, a vision that has the ability to move us beyond the mundane trappings of the holidays, to discover the “transformative compassion” of being in service to others, of welcoming and inviting all people to God’s table, of sharing the unconditional love of God and yes, the Unabashed Joy of Christmas with all whom we encounter in this world.

So, my prayer for all of you, as we approach the manger once again, is that you will open yourselves not only to the presence of the Sacred, but to the deeper joy and relentless hope of the season and that you will be compassionately transformed into instruments of peace and justice and healing as the on-going process of God Reign continues to indwell all of creation.[iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and Amen

[i] Kathryn Matthews Choose to be Courageous ( 2019

[ii] Ibid Matthews

[iii] Walter Brueggemann Isaiah 1-19, Westminster Bible Companion found at

(www. sermon/seeds) 2019

[iv] Phil Milam Unabashed Joy ( Dec. 10 2019

From Hope to Peace

Philippians 4:4-9 (Common English Bible)

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

“From Hope to Peace And All the Gunk In-Between.” That’s the title of today’s Message. And I think it’s especially significant today considering the times we’re living through. I mean, we often talk about Advent in terms of a journey, right? And I was reminded this week to remember to “stop and smell the roses” along the way.  I was reminded to remember to look for the Sacred in each moment.

Now, this reminder got me to thinking about something I read a couple of years ago. In her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott helps us to think about living in the moment. Lamott writes: Every time we choose the good action or response, the descent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.” She goes on to say, “We live stitch by stitch, when were lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or is unraveling, but if it was precise, we’d pretend that life is just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often the cuckoo clock with rusty gears.”[i]What a profound statement! I mean, in this time of pandemic when everything around us seems to be upside/down, I think we tend to “fixate on the big picture.” And please don’t misunderstand me. There is a time and a place to consider the big picture. Believe me, I’m a big picture kind of person. But in times like these it’s so important to live, as Anne Lamott suggests, “stitch by stitch.” We must pause and examine each stitch because each stitch, each encounter with another person, each moment spent listening, really listening to the sounds of nature, contains a bit of God; a spark of the divine as it were. You see, Advent is a time when we must live the life God has given us right now. We must refuse to live yesterday over and over again and resist the temptation to save our best selves for tomorrow. Do not put off living the kind of life your meant to live. Live in the moment. Which leads us to an even deeper place.  A place where we finally discover that living in the moment can bring peace.

What do I mean? Well, consider the hope we encountered last week, the anticipation of Advent, which, in the order of things, gives way this week to the peace of Christ, a peace that Paul says, “exceeds all understanding.” Why? Well, hope is a precursor to peace, but we all know that the transition isn’t always smooth. There can be a lot of “gunk” in-between.

So, I think, the question becomes: “How do we wade through all of the gunk in order to discover this sense of peace?” Well, just the other day, when speaking about the abnormal-ness of our new normal,  I used the example of making lemonade out of life’s lemons. Now, this is an expression we’ve all heard a thousand times. It’s glib, it’s pedestrian, I know. But it’s also appropriate in these difficult days. I mean, how many more lemons can 2020 give us? How much can we take? That’s, of course, the lemon part. However, the lemonade part of this example might surprise you. The lemonade, as I see it, boils down to a single word: opportunity. Yes, we will miss our traditions. And yes, we will miss our family gatherings and seeing our kids and grandkids in person. But once the dust has settled on these realities, what opportunities for lemonade do these lemons provide?

Well, I can think of a couple. First, reflection. Amid the busyness, the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas, we sometimes forget the meaning of it all. We sometimes forget that the Christ-child is so much more than a ceramic figurine in our Nativity set.  We sometimes forget that the incarnation forever changed the world and forever change the way humanity viewed itself in relation to the Sacred.

Reflection on the true meaning of Christmas is the first thing and the second is related to it and ties back into this idea of living in the moment. You see, this change in ritual and routine affords us the opportunity to really contemplate and then implement those “higher ideals” that Paul shared. In our text for today, Paul said, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on those things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” Perhaps one of our pitchers of lemonade this Christmas Season could be a “refocusing” on any one of these values. Values, that while offered here in a very broad sense, could be narrowed down, by each of us, and applied to a specific event or segment of our journey. Values that could be lived-out in the moment, stitch by stitch, in ways that are as unique as each of you are unique people of God. Which, Paul says, will invite “…the God of peace to be with you.”

So, here we go. The journey continues as we move through all the gunk seeking solace, seeking that “solemn stillness”. But, our journey doesn’t end here. Next week, on the third Sunday of Advent we will consider the place of love in all this. So, until then, may your journey be smooth, may you and your family and your friends and your neighbors, be healthy and safe, and may the Peace of Christ, a peace that exceeds all understanding, indwell your spirit and enliven your soul. Amen, and the people of God said, “Amen.”

[i] Anne Lamott Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (Riverhead Books, 2013)