The Light

Well, here we are. Isolated. Sequestered. Some of us are self-quarantined while others are practicing social distancing. Words that, quite frankly, weren’t even in my vocabulary just a few short weeks ago. But here we are.

Now, as we turn to our lectionary narrative for today, we see that Jesus is once again “on the move.” Even as we’re hunkered down in our homes, we can see the dynamic movement of Jesus in the wider world, if we are willing to metaphorically replace our blindness, whatever that blindness may be, with a deeper insight into the perspective of John’s account of Jesus’ life.

And as we continue this Lenten journey toward a deeper insight, the first thing we encounter is the continuity of this imagery that John uses between darkness and light. Remember, two weeks ago we met Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus as they came together under the cover of darkness. And from that encounter, Nicodemus, who wrestled with the meaning of what it meant to be “restored from above,” perhaps gained his first tiny glimmer of Light. And last week, in contrast to the midnight visit of the religious leader, Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman in the light of the midday sun at Jacob’s Well. A simple woman who was an outsider in both of their cultures, but who, in the end, was able to more fully grasp the deeper insight of Jesus than the learned religious leader. And as a result, she was sent out to share Jesus’ message of grace and hope with her people. And today, our journey takes its next step, as Jesus comes upon a man who was born blind. Here’s the story.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So, the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

Later…

Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?” He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.” The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Healing. Healing is an interesting animal. Healing can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. And it’s been my experience that all three of these types of healing are interconnected and interdependent upon each other. Healing can come in an instant like a lightning bolt or over the course of time like a long, slow sunrise. And sometimes, healing doesn’t come until after we’ve departed this life.

This week’s healing story is the lightning bolt kind. It’s about Jesus giving sight to “a man born blind.” Now, in this text, John uses “seeing” as a metaphor for faith and for the process of discovering the nature of God. And even though the healing itself is sudden, the man in this story makes his way, like most of us, toward faith and understanding, over the course of time, through a process of encountering the long, slow sunrise of being in the loving presence of the Divine.

Now, this former beggar’s openness and growth in his faith contrast sharply with the fearful, hesitant questions of his neighbors and the downright judgmental reaction of the religious establishment. While the other characters in the story remained unchanged by this encounter, the healed man’s life was transformed, and he found himself in a very different place; he found himself not only able to see but restored and reunited within community.

Now, John told this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, of darkness and light to help an early Christian community find themselves in the story. They knew what it felt like to be driven out of the synagogue by the religious authorities, to be expelled from their “church home.”[i]

Sound familiar to anyone? We’ve been expelled from our church home, from our faith community, from social interaction with our neighbors, not because of religious persecution, but because of this on-going pandemic. And this where we find ourselves in the text today. We’re isolated in our homes like the blind man was isolated. We’re practicing social distancing like this man was distant from his society. My friends, we were thrust into a situation that was not of our own making just as this man who was born blind, found himself living under circumstances which were not of his own making. And it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand that this man lived, every day, with a sense of fear and longing, because most of us find ourselves griped by a fear of the unknown and a longing for the way things were.

Now, that being said, there are really three questions we must ask ourselves as we endure this on-going global crisis. The first question we must consider is this: How will we take care of our neighbor? The man born blind depended upon the generosity of his neighbors. Imagine the fear in being blind within a society where there was no social safety net. The man was left with no recourse except to beg by the roadside. He was thoroughly and completely dependent upon the generosity of his neighbors.

Many of our fellow citizens in this nation and this world face this same kind of fear. Exacerbated by this pandemic, imagine the fear of the poor and the marginalized, who are and will continue to be, disproportionality hurt by the circumstances under which they exist. Our task then, is to find remote ways to help. One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) is one way among a myriad of others. Today we would have taken up our OGHS offering. If you wish, you can still send a donation into either Delta United Church of Christ or Cable United Church of Christ or in Cable, you also have the opportunity to sign up for on-line giving. You can access that opportunity through our Website. My friends, the folks who were struggling before will be at an even greater risk now. I encourage you to seek out and find ways to reach-out to the most vulnerable in these difficult times.

The second question we face is this: How will we continue to be in community with each other? Well, community doesn’t have to be nurtured face to face. Especially with the technology available in our time, we can view messages like this one, speak with family and friends and neighbors by phone, email, text message, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Facetime, Snapchat …and so and so on. The point is this. We can communicate and pray and share our joys and concerns with each other through these medias. And in the days and week and isolating months to come, it’s especially important that we reach out to our neighbors who are at home alone through all this. We can do this. We can continue to be in community.

Which leads us to the final question we must ask ourselves during this pandemic: How will we take care of ourselves? Beyond reach out to help the most vulnerable, beyond maintaining community, we must also care for ourselves. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we must find ways to get through this difficult situation.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, yes the same Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who brought us the five stages of grief, says this about enduring trying times. She writes, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”[ii]

My friends, we’re all beautiful people. We beautiful people who can and will get through this. We are beautiful because we’ve been formed by our experiences, both good and bad. We’re beautiful because each of us has on multiple occasions “found our way out of the depths.” And it’s because of these trying times that we are now able to be more compassionate. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the deeper insight of this text. It’s how we respond to both success and failure, to triumph and adversity, that finally makes up our character. The response of those gathered at the blind man’s healing was lukewarm at best, cynical at worst. The response of the Pharisees was to conserve their tradition, to adhere to the letter of the Law, by trying to discredit Jesus. Both of these positions demonstrate a character that was less-than-desirable. Both the crowd and the Pharisees are left wanting.

But not the blind man. Yes, it took him a bit of time to come around, but in the end, he saw the Light as it were! The Light of the World. The Beacon of Grace and the Illumination of God’s Love that was expressed in the person and life and teachings of Jesus.

One final thought. Our Hymn of Response today would have been #584 in the New Century Hymnal, I Am the Light of the World composed by a man named Jim Stranhdee as he responded to a Christmas poem written by Howard Thurman. And since we cannot sing it together today, I’d like to close with these wonderful words from the final verse. “to bring hope to every task you do, to dance at a new baby’s birth, to make music in an old person’s heart, and sing to the colors of the earth.” And then from the refrain, “If you follow and love you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.”[iii]

May we, in these uncertain days, follow and love and continue to be in the process of learning the mystery and meaning of our existence. And as we do these things by remembering and reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society, by participating even if it’s at an arms distance in community, and by practicing self-care. My friends, in these difficult times my all remember that we are beautiful in God’s eyes and we are all being held in the loving embrace of the One who calls us, forgives us, and heals us. It’s in Jesus that we can summon the courage and discover the hope to move forward.

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

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[i] Katheryn Matthews I Am Because We Are (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross found at (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[iii] The New Century Hymnal #584 I Am the Light of the World (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press) 1995

Restored

Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou.

We, unaccustomed to courage exiles from delight live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight to liberate us into life.

Love arrives and in its train come ecstasies old memories of pleasure ancient histories of pain. Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity in the flush of love’s light we dare be brave
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be.
Yet it is only love which sets us free.

 John 4:4-15

As I began to think about the message for today, I came across the following TED talk, which I also posted on my Blog and on Facebook: It’s called The Danger of a Single Story by a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Here’s her story. Growing up in Nigeria, she lived a comfortable, middle-class life on a university campus where her father was a professor and her mother was an administrator. This meant that her family, like many others of that social class in Nigeria, had “domestic help.” When she was eight-years-old, Adichie recalls that a new house boy named Fide came to work for them. Her mother told her only that he was from a poor family in a neighboring village. Now, Adichie was moved to pity by the boy’s poverty. All she know of his family is that her mother would send them extra food and old clothes. That was her “single story” of him. He was a poor boy.

So, when she visited Fide’s home one day, she was shocked to discover that this family was more than just the sum of their poverty. Fide’s brother showed her a beautiful patterned basket that he had made. That didn’t fit into the “single story” she had in her head about Fide’s family: she didn’t think they could do anything but “be poor.”

Her story continued, but in reverse this time. When Adichie came to school in America, she was dismayed that her roommate asked her how she learned to speak English so well. English is Nigeria’s official language. And when her roommate asked her to play some of her “tribal” music, her roommate was dismayed this time when Adichie played a Mariah Carey CD. She describes her roommate’s “default” position as “patronizing, well-meaning pity” because she had only one single story of Africa. And that single story, western culture tells us, is one of “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

For her roommate, that single story was easy to understand, and she didn’t seem to know how to encounter and engage Adichie as an equal, as someone who was like her in many ways, as a complex person shaped by many different stories.

Of course, life would be so much simpler if everyone has a single story. A story that shows them as one thing, as only one thing, and then we would be able to tell that single story over and over, until they become that thing. This is about power, of course, when somebody else decides what your story is and, therefore, who you are because of it. That’s where stereotypes come from, and we all know how helpful stereotypes are, right? Adichie goes on to say that to engage a person properly we have to engage all the stories that have made that person who they are.

So, holding onto this idea of the danger of a single story, we come to our text about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

Now, like most of you, I’ve heard and read this story many times; it’s one of my favorites. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in the Bible and who he has this “longest conversation” with. He chose to sit and talk with someone who was on the margins of society in many ways. First, she was a woman and a Samaritan woman at that, she was a person who’d had many husbands and was currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. So, many in her day would boil all these circumstances down to the single story, a dangerous single story. According to her culture she was an outsider and to Jesus’ culture she was an unclean sinner.

And we need I think to hit pause here for a second and consider contextual significance of this scene. Jesus, as a Jewish male, was not even supposed to talk to a woman who was not his wife, let alone accepting water from a sinful foreigner. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear, right? [i]

But, as we often see with Jesus, rules are made to be reinterpreted. Rules, or the Law, as the Bible calls it, was intended to lead people flourish, to be healthy, to find abundance. Too often the Law, however, both then and now, casts judgment, excludes the outsider and the most vulnerable in favor of those with the most power.

But Jesus doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s only welcome to this Living Water if she repents and changes her sinful ways. No. Jesus doesn’t put any conditions on receiving the Living Water of God’s grace because God’s grace is a free gift available to all people. This is an understand of the Law as embedded in grace rather than judgment. Instead, Jesus, in this pivotal story in John’s Gospel, is just sitting there with her, sharing a cool drink in the hot noonday sun, listening to her, and treating her like a beloved child of God, because she was indeed a beloved child of God.

And speaking of sharing a cool drink of water, recently, Becky, Manny, and I watched a couple of seasons of a show called A Series of Unfortunate Events based on the popular Lemony Snicket book series by Daniel Handler. And all of these month later something that the main character Lemony Snicket said has stuck with me. He said, “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”

You know, this quote has special meaning today as we consider the fear surrounding this growing pandemic. Now, we’re NOT called to tell people, “don’t be afraid.” Of course, people are afraid. We’re afraid because we care about one another. We’re afraid because there are so many misleading rumors out there about what’s going on. We’re afraid because the security we’ve become accustomed to has been disrupted. We’re afraid because the road ahead is unclear, our immediate future is unknown. We’re afraid because quite frankly, there’s been a lack of responsible leadership or even a coherent message around this current pandemic. Of course, people are afraid.

However, our calling in this moment, I think, our calling as a people of faith and as citizens of this nation, is to figuratively sit with each other in our common fear, even if sitting together literally is unwise. But the challenge that we face is this: in these uncertain times we cannot let our fear eclipse our faith. Our faith, as you all know, is based on what the Apostle Paul called greatest among all the virtues: Love: love of God, love of neighbor, love for the least and the lost and the lonely, love for the marginalized and the oppressed and the poor in our society, love for the stranger and the enemy and the friend alike, love for the refugee and the immigrant, love for those who practice our faith but in a different way and love for those who practice another religion or none at all, love for all people and all of creation. Fear leaves love in the Holy Temple, as Maya Angelou so poignantly observed, rather than recognizing it’s liberating presence within and around us and among us.

My friends, God is that Love. This moment isn’t a time to succumb to our fear, rather, this is a moment in time to let the light of love and the courage of our faith illumine the path for those living “coiled in shells of loneliness” so they too might experience a love that comes into our sight to “liberate us into life.”

My friends, as go from this place today, as we go out-there, into the unknown, may we do so with a myriad of stories, with a wealth of courage, and may we do so in lock-step with a God who chose to restore a fallen, foreign woman, from a different religion, nation, and culture, a woman who in many respects, is a lot like you and me.  And as we sit with each other in our common fear, over the course of the next days, weeks, and months, may we let our faith in God and each other be our hope.

May it be so for you and for me, Amen and the people of God said, Amen

 

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Reflection on John 4 (www.ucc.org/sermonseeds/samuel.com) 2020

Bold Blessings

John 3:1-9

The need to be “born again” or in the contextually better translation “to be renewed from above” is at the heart of this story about the midnight encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. But, as most of you know, the meaning and therefore the application of this famous passage is often misunderstood and thusly, it’s either used as a litmus test for who’s in or who’ out of heaven or it’s completely ignored. Today, I submit that neither extreme, neither solution to Nicodemus’ question is sufficient.

Let’s begin with a real-life illustration about misunderstanding the meaning of being renewed from above and then we’ll take a look at the text itself in more detail.

Back when I was a student-pastor of a small suburban church in Iowa, I was called upon to officiate the celebration of life service for a young man with no church affiliation who was killed in a motorcycle accident while trying to evade the police. Not an easy task for any pastor let alone a rookie. But there we were. So, on the day of the service, our little church which held maybe 150 people was packed with over 300 friends and family of the young man. He was a 20somehting and the vast majority of the gathered crowd were 20somethings. He, as I said before, was unchurched. And when we began to attempt to sing the first hymn, notice I said attempt, most of those young people didn’t know to open the hymnal to find the words of the hymn. We were probably on the final verse of Amazing Grace before even a smattering of the group figured it out. This told me that they too were unchurched.

Well, long story short, the hospital chaplain that co-officiated with me gave a beautiful, grace-filled time of remembrance. I preached a message of forgiveness and grace and of God’s acceptance of all people. The young man’s father and a good number of his friends spoke words of loss and they remembered the good and joyous times they had spent together. His AA sponsor spoke of his struggles and his courage in the face of addiction. It was a moving and I dare say and holy experience.

Now, fast-forward to the funeral lunch following the service. I had a man approach me. He turned out to the young man’s uncle. And even though his wife was visibly trying to dissuade him, he felt the need to express his disappointment and disgust with me over the content of the service. After what seemed like an eternity of being brow-beat, he closed with “you missed an opportunity here today. The Bible has been fulfilled, the end is near, and all of these young people won’t be saved! You have the chance to save all of these people and you failed!” he then stormed off, got in this car a drove away.

Now, as you might imagine, I was kind of upset by his comments. I didn’t agree with him, but was he right on some level? Did I miss an opportunity to bring salvation to many that day? So, I shared my worry with the very seasoned chaplain who had co-officiated the service with me. And in his wisdom, he used this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus to open my eyes to the deeper message of Jesus. Now, I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but the following summary captures the essence of his wisdom.

In verse 9, the Pharisee says to Jesus, “How are these things possible?” Isn’t that the sixty-four thousand question for us as well? How are these things possible? How are the miracles we see around us every day possible? How is community possible? How is the unconditional love of God, possible?

Of course, in the story, Nicodemus was asking a different kind of question. He was questioning how he might go back into his mother’s womb in order to be born again. Which, as he rightly points out here is non-sense. And its non-sense because he was being too literal. “Like most texts in John’s Gospel, [this story] is rich with symbolism, missed connections and double meanings.”[i] And to discover and investigate this richness is important.

So, what are these symbols, missed connections, and double meanings? Well, first consider the images of darkness and light. These symbols are present throughout all of John’s account. He says that Jesus is the Light shinning in the darkness, the Light of the World, the true light that enlightens every person, and Jesus is the one who gives sight to the blind. And even though Nicodemus has come to the light, he has yet really seen the light.[ii]

So, it’s important for us to understand that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus was in the dark, he was confused, and he was seeking something, but he didn’t know what that something was. But even after laying-out, in pretty stark detail, the symbolism of light and darkness, the double-meaning of wind and Spirit, (The word in Greek pneumatos is the same for both wind and spirit as well as breath) So, Jesus said the wind blows where it chooses which has both a double meaning and is symbolic of the Spirit freely moving within creation. Even after all that explanation, Nicodemus missed the connection; he still didn’t quite follow.

And Jesus gets-on him a little bit here, doesn’t he? Jesus says in essence, “You’re a teacher of religion and yet you still don’t understand?” Why. Because again, Nicodemus was listening to the teaching on a surface, literal level while Jesus was speaking on a much deeper spiritual level.

And this is the mistake many still make today. They try to reduce the symbolism and the missed connections and the double-meanings in this text to a literal litmus test for salvation. But here’s the thing. When we as the faithful do that, when we are reductive regarding Scripture, we miss the real message that Jesus has to offer here.

What exactly do I mean? Well, “the Greek word from which “save” (so-zo) comes is also the root of words meaning to heal, to preserve, to do well, and to be made whole.”[iii] In our context, we’ve reduced this word, along with being renewed from above, to a “one time, static achievement. “I’m saved that that’s-that” But the first disciples, those who followed Jesus in the earliest days of the church, called themselves “The Way.” The very name itself suggests that quite the opposite was true. They followed Jesus and preached a message of salvation that was dynamic, communal, and always, always in progress. They were always on “their way” toward salvation.[iv]

And if we can open ourselves to this broader definition of what salvation can mean, if we can open our hearts and commit our lives to a deeper understanding of what healing, and preservation, and doing well, and being made whole might look like, it’s then that we are truly living in the process of being “renewed from above.”

My friends, there’s no litmus test you can pass, no creed you can recite, no altar call you can answer, that will “save you.” It’s like we’re fond of saying in the United Church of Christ, we believe in “testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith.” My siblings in Christ, God loves you and God calls you to indwell that love by actively seeking transformation, renewal, and restoration deep within yourself; and God is leading you to share that love within and beyond this community by seeking peace, and practicing justice, and by reaching out by loving those others have deemed unlovable; and God is challenging us to BE that love to all people, to be kind, and to be gracious, and to be truthful, and to be ethical, and to be faithful in all of our interactions with others, even those with whom we disagree. That’s the essence of salvation. We can love because God first loved us. That should be our creed. That should be our testimony of faith.

Which leads us back to that celebration of life service that I spoke of previously. All of those unchurched young people shared their testimony of faith that day. You see, by their presence and through their willingness to gather in community for prayer and restoration, in their attempt to try and find some meaning in the death of their friend, and I would add, even through their meager attempt to sing Amazing Grace, these young people began a process of renewal, a process of moving toward wholeness, of being “saved” as defined by John’s Gospel and in terms of feeling the healing presence of God in that community and in that moment. A healing that no amount of bad theology or propagation of end-of-days fear could have produced.

And perhaps some seeds were even sown that day, seeds of grace or compassion or faith, and maybe, just maybe, some of those seeds sprouted later on, with a viriditas, a greening from the inside/out like a twig in the spring time transforms from a life-less gray into the living-green shoots of “wholeness”. Who knows? The Wind blows and the Spirit works wherever she chooses.

So, here’s my hope and my Bold Blessing for all of you. May that same healing, that same viriditas, that same understanding of salvation, that we’ve discovered in John’s words today, lead you though this season and all the seasons of life that lay beyond this one. May find your place in this story and may you find your “renewal from above” in whatever form that renewal may take. And may you find healing, genuine healing, the God-gifted healing that starts on the inside.

May it be so. Amen & Amen

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[i] Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2004) pg. 105

[ii] Ibid. Borg. Pg. 105

[iii] David M. Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy. Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2012) pg. 215

[iv] Ibid Felton Pg. 215

From the Heart

Micah 6:6-8

What does God require of us? Micah says we are to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with our God. Doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? We’re all kind people, most of the time anyway. We attempt to practice justice by loving our neighbor, most of the time anyway. And we’re humble enough when it comes to loving God. But is most of the time enough?

In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the prophets of Israel were about two things. Their ministry included both criticizing and energizing. The prophets criticize the elite, they disturb our status quo, they question the reigning order of things, they help us to see the normal state of affairs in a different light, and they advocate for a new way of living every dimension of life: personal, social, spiritual, economic, and political. The prophets afflicted the comfortable and the complacent. Brueggemann says that when we read the prophets we should expect “a slap on our helmet.”

But the prophets, he goes on to say, also energized God’s people. They comforted the afflicted. They intended to “generate hope, affirm identity, and create a new future.”  They weren’t just negative naysayers. One of the functions of a prophet was to offer positive affirmation, and encouragement. Brueggemann concluded his remarks by saying, “Yes, the prophets dished out the vinegar; but they also gave us honey for the heart.” [I]

So, bearing in mind the vinegar and the honey, the two faces of a prophet if you will, let’s take a deeper look at this passage. But as we begin to do that I think we must first consider the meaning of humility. The common connotation of the word “humility” is “to be taken down a peg,” right? To be humble is to lower one’s self to the level of others. But humility also carries with it, overtones of repentance. One often has to be haughty or arrogant or prideful before one discovers humility.

Now these are all good definitions and helpful for us to understand our place in the order of things. But I think Micah was driving at something else here. Consider that he uses humility as the descriptor for being in the presence of God. And not just in God’s presence but actually journeying with God in this life.

This is fascinating considering the common theology of Micah’s day. Remember the God of the Hebrew Bible was “other-than,” God was literally believed to be in the Holy of Holies, in the Arc of the Covenant, in the center of the Temple. There was no Jesus yet. There was no understanding of an incarnate God, yet. There was no wider understanding of God being with or journeying beside anyone.

Or was there? Think about some of the earliest writings in the Bible, the Psalms. In the Psalter, some of the writers there seem to have a personal understanding of the divine both in creation and within the events of their lives. Even Genesis uses human characteristics to describe God, God walking in the Garden of Eden for example. And there were many incarnational visions, especially among the prophets, of what a messiah might look like, a warrior, a king, a liberator, a servant.

My point here is that Micah was really ahead of his time theologically. He’s proposing that humility should ultimately be endowed with an understanding that God is not “other-than” but instead “present-with” us as we walk through this world.

And this is no small thing as we look at this prophecy of Micah. He was criticizing the elite class of his day. Before and after this text he’s anything but hopeful. Micah said that God would cut down, destroy, demolish all of their buildings and their idols, their cities and even their horses. Real gloom and doom kind of stuff. At one-point Micah even says, “I will make you a sign of destruction, your inhabitants an object of hissing!”

Now, this is important to the contextual integrity of this text. Micah wasn’t a fortuneteller looking into his crystal ball, he was looking at the failure of the nation and what that failure would most likely cost them. What was that failure? They failed to live up to their covenant with God. God’s covenant challenged them, as a nation, to care of the widows and orphans, to provide relief to the suffering and liberation of the oppressed. But they weren’t doing that. In fact, Israel was doing quite the opposite, the were stuck deep within that trap that I alluded to earlier; the trap of “I’ve got mine, too bad for everyone else.” Does that sound familiar to anyone as we think about the state of our nation today?

But, it’s not all hopeless. Remember Brueggemann’s words. A prophet was also tasked with energizing the people. And it’s this energizing grace that lays at the heart of this passage. What do I mean? Well, inserted among all of this doom and gloom is a short message of hope; a message to show them, and us, a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. And what does this flicker of hope look like? What does God require for hope to win the day? God as told you, human ones, what is good and what is required to express that goodness. “Do justice, embrace faithful love,” older versions of the Bible say, “love kindness,” and finally, “walk humbly with your God.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the nugget that we can take-away from this articulation of hope. These “requirements” are not disconnected from one another. They’re interdependent. Like the peanut butter and the chocolate in a Reses cup, each one is enhanced by the other.

I mean, what does it mean to “embrace faithful love”? Maybe it means going out of our way to share random acts of kindness? How? Well, how about smiling at a stranger just to brighten their day or giving a hug to a friend who’s down so they might feel the literal embrace of faithful love? I don’t know. Maybe walking dogs at the humane society just because you can? There are so many examples of this. So many ways we can be kind.

But if being kind represents the little things that we can do to share an embrace of faithful love, then doing justice takes it to the next level. Doing justice is kindness on steroids. Doing justice is taking those random acts of kindness and intentionally acting in such a way that brings the embrace of faithful love to the whole of society. Doing justice means changing our narrative from “I’ve got mine” to “we’ve got ours.” Do you see what I’m driving at here? Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. This is important so I’ll say it again. Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. The two are inseparable.

So, when we take-action, when we live-into our covenant with God as a people and as a nation, when we’re just to each person and kind to everyone, we’re sharing our embrace of faithful love. When we advocate for the rights of immigrants, we’re sharing the loving embrace of God with the “widows and orphans” who are seeking something greater for themselves and their loved ones. When we march to raise awareness of the on-going disaster of climate change and when we challenge ourselves to address and reduce our own carbon footprint, we’re embracing the planet with the love of God. When we propagate peace, both within ourselves and to the ends of earth, we’re offering the peace of Christ to everyone as we coexist in this world by respecting all forms of religious expression. And we do all of these things, my friends, all of these things, not of our own accord, but as we walk humbly, side by side, and hand in hand with each other and with our Creator.

Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen


[I] Dan Clendenin. Micah: Prophetic Critique and Pastoral Comfort (www.journeyingwithjesus.net) 2017

 

 

Restoring Beauty

Matthew 5:13-20

Nelson Mandela once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[I]

This, it seems to me is the perfect way to begin to understand the Sermon on the Mount. I say this because Mandela’s words offer us the security of balance over the fear of chaos. What do I mean? Well, there’s an important balance that can be found throughout Scripture. And although it’s foundational for truly grasping the message of the Bible, I’m afraid that far too many of us have missed this balance across the years. The balance I’m talking about here is the balance between grace and demand.

You see, in the Bible, God’s grace, God’s gift of life and love and mercy, always precede any demands.  This is true from the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Apostles’ teachings. Grace always precedes demand. The point here is that we who have experienced God’s amazing grace in the gifts of love and new life and community are to reflect that grace in the way we relate to others.[ii]

Now, this balance is crucial for our understanding of Scripture and our understanding of live in general, because when we downplay one side or the other, it skews our vision. When we overlook the fact that all the demands of the Bible are grounded in the grace, we tend to turn those demands into rigid rules that are often applied in a strict or exclusionary way. I mean, we can all think of various communities in our world who enforce a ruthless set of demands and expel those who don’t live up to them; and often, unfortunately, in the name of religion. But I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God who has lovingly called the human family into relationship throughout the centuries.

However, the opposite is also true. It’s far too easy for us to focus only on grace and ignore the very real demands of living a life of faith. And when we make this mistake, we miss the whole point of God’s outpouring of grace in the first place. The point is to shape us into the people we we’re meant to be from the beginning. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “…when we ignore the demand for heartfelt obedience to God’s commands, we turn all that God has done for us into ‘cheap grace.’”[iii]  In other words, grace is something that needs to be lived-out through our participation in acts of justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another. Does that make sense? The invitation to love our neighbor is equal and inseparable from the graciously-restored beauty of loving God with, as Jesus tells us, “all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.”

Now, we see this balance of grace and demand beautifully reflected when we look at the imagery of our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus says that we are the “Salt of the Earth” and in the same breath, he also says that we are the “Light of the World.” Remember now, this invitation to be salt and light comes at the beginning of his very first sermon to his followers, as reported by Matthew anyway. So, it makes sense that he would tell them what it would look like to be his disciple. What the demands would be to follow him.

Which begs the question for us: what does discipleship look like? Well, simply put, Jesus is telling us that we are no longer expected to live or work for ourselves alone, but for others.[iv] And that, for me anyway, is the very foundation of morality. When we are able to think of the other, whoever the other may be, if we are able to think of the other before ourselves, that’s the beginning of what it means to live a virtuous life. So, the balance between grace and demand that Jesus invites us to consider today is really at the core of what we should aspire to as a community of faith. And these images of salt and light challenge us to strike this moral balance.

First consider salt. Salt is the doing. It’s the “boots-on-the-ground” work of peace and justice. It’s the finding-it-within-ourselves grit to stand up for those on the margins of society, even when it’s unpopular. Salt is speaking out for those who are oppressed, befriending those who are lonely, bringing hope to those who are hopeless, loving those whom society has deemed unlovable; salt is becoming good news to the “poor in spirit” who Jesus lifted up in the Beatitudes. Being salt is being the hands and feet, the heart and voice of God in this world. And Jesus warns us here, doesn’t he? What good is salt, he says, if it loses its saltiness? What good is it to say we’re followers of Jesus, that we’re people who stand for social justice and inclusion and equality, if we don’t actually practice what we preach? If we’re going to be salt my friends, we have to be “salty.”

Now, being light isn’t completely disconnected from being salty. When Jesus says that we’re “the light of the world” he’s inviting us to be shinning examples of discipleship for all the world to see. My friends, when we overcome that “fear of being powerful” that Nelson Mandela so beautifully articulated in the quote that I begin this message with, it’s then that we can display who we are as God’s people on that metaphorical lampstand. And remember that Mandela said, “it’s a power that’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. [When] we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So, if salt is the acts of compassion and justice that come from the power of God within us, then light is the display those powerful actions for all to witness. And these “witnessed actions” find their grounding in God’s invitation, God’s call, God’s demand, to practice kindness, to promote peace, and to participate in bringing the justice of God into this realm. But remember, grace always precedes demand. So, it’s though the grace of God and because of the power of God that resides within all of us, that we are invited to act.

One final thought this morning. I know that being salt and becoming light isn’t always comfortable or easy. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said it this way. “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”[v]

As we journey together, my siblings in Christ, the path won’t always be sunny. Sometimes there will be naysayers along the way. People who have let their fear of the other, fear of the unknown, or just plain self-righteousness cloud the mission of justice and ministry of extravagant inclusion to which Christ has called us. Don’t let that stop you! When someone’s throwing shade, let your inner God-light shine through. When someone’s degrading or cutting down people from other races or ideologies or from other nations or religions, no matter how self-important that person thinks they are, let your saltiness overcome their fear, their hurtful words, with the wonderful flavoring and preserving power of God’s justice.

One final, final, thought. Please remember that we do all of this because the Reign of God, realized in the person and life of Jesus the Christ, is walking this path with us. God is present through the Spirit in the world and deep within our very being, right now and forever from now. And it’s because of this presence that we can continue to be salty; it’s because of this presence, that we can shine, that we can reflect the Light of God, to all the world.

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

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[i] Nelson Mandela quoting Marianne Williamson.

[ii] Alan Brehm.  Light for the World (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2014

[iii]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4. Pg. 43.

[iv] Common English Study Bible. (Lowe Publishing: 2013) Gen. Ed. Joel Green – Commentary on Matthew 13 & 14. pg. 13NT.

[v] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

The Vision Beautiful

Matthew 5:1-14

What was Matthew’s beautiful vision? What was it about Christ’s message that touched him so deeply; so deeply that he was compelled to offer this mountainside teaching as a centerpiece of his gospel, a centerpiece of the early part anyway? What was it about this Jesus?

Perhaps, it would be wise for us to consider these questions within Matthew’s context. He was speaking to a primarily Jewish audience. By that I mean his faith community was comprised of people who were immigrants or first-generation adherents to this fledgling faith called Christianity. They were immigrants from the Jewish faith and like most immigrants they brought many of their customs, values, and traditions with them. Simply put, most of them had lived under the Law of Moses. So, one of the challenges for Matthew, as he spoke to this community, was to both respect the tradition and communicate this “new way of being” that Jesus had preached. Remember Jesus said that didn’t come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. In other words, to reimagine the Law of Moses in a more compassionate, more liberating way.

So, Matthew, I think, had to walk kind of a fine line between respecting the tradition and expressing the world-altering message of Jesus. And in my opinion, he does this brilliantly! I say that because what Matthew presents here in the Beatitudes is a set of teachings that turn the world’s values upside down. The Beatitudes declared that the poor in spirit, our version of the Bible says “hopeless;” the hopeless, the humble, the compassionate, the peacemakers; these are the ones who are truly blessed. The world, however, favored the self-sufficient, the assertive, the power brokers. Might made right! But the people whom the world saw as pitiful or mournful or suffering under persecution; these are the very people that Jesus claims are truly joyful”[I]

Now, I would be willing to bet that some if not most of Matthew’s audience were living in poverty. So, it’s not hard to imagine that this understanding of life and faith, this “joy in poverty,” might have been a little counterintuitive to those folks. Heck, it’s still counterintuitive to us today. Yes, we’ve all heard this text many times and we’ve come to accept the premise that Jesus lifts up the downtrodden; that he champions the marginalized; that he came to liberate those who are in bondage. We’ve heard all of these things time and again, but what do they really mean? Is it really a blessing to be poor?

I don’t think that’s right. So, what’s really going on here? Well, consider this example. A number of years ago I accepted a call, my first call actually, to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Geneva Iowa. Now, I think I need to paint a picture of the Geneva church before we continue. It’s country church in the truest sense. The church building, parsonage, and cemetery sit alone among acre upon acre of row crops and I’ve become fond of saying that our nearest neighbors were 3,000 hogs. We were in the country. Now, this part of north-centeral Iowa is a more traditional area and the church is a reflection that culture. And while there were many, many good people and wonderful traditions in that congregation, one of the challenges we faced was how to understand our role in the wider, and less traditional, mission of the United Church of Christ. Figuring out how we might “do mission” differently seemed to be one of our looming questions.

Well, that question got answered a couple of years in. You see, I was at a local clergy gathering one day, when one of my constituents offered an opportunity to join with an organization called Outreach Africa. The mission of Outreach Africa was to gather a whole bunch of people on a Saturday to package meals for those who were hungry in Africa. It was a huge event. Hundreds of people came, six or eight assembly lines were formed, and tens-of-thousands of meals were packaged, boxed, and shipped.

In that first year, however, St. Peter’s didn’t participate. Why? Because of the pastor’s short-sightedness. I didn’t think anyone from our church would be interested in going, so, I never even presented this as a mission opportunity.

Now, fast forward to the next year. I was once again given the chance to participate, so I decided that this might be something the youth group would be able to do. And on what we called “Mission Sunday” I set up a projector and screen and I showed a power-point presentation about Outreach Africa’s mission. I shared the struggles of these folks a world away and we were all especially moved to learn that when children had nothing else to eat, that would eat mud just to fill their stomach.

But here’s the connection back to the Beatitudes. In the weeks between the presentation and the actual food-packaging event, this whole mission project caught fire. And not only did all of the youth and their parents come to package food, 30 or so people, about 40 other members of the congregation showed up. Our little country church, St. Peter’s, had the largest number of volunteers per-capita than anyone else. And it didn’t end on that fall Saturday. A lay-leader of the congregation came up to me afterward and wondered why our church couldn’t host such a packaging event?

In my estimation, that single event changed the vision of the congregation. Because, you see, if we view the Beatitudes through the lens of social justice, through our actions of reaching out beyond ourselves, it’s then that we’re invited to seek and find the action of God in the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. Their lives now, in the present, hold the blessing and transforming power of God, as they live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in their world. [ii]

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The poor aren’t blessed because their poor, poverty isn’t a virtue. Jesus says happy are the poor, the hopeless, because within their struggle there exists the opportunity to demonstrate our humanity by struggling with those who are on the margins. And here’s the kicker. At different points in time we’re the hopeless ones that Jesus speaks of here. I would be willing to bet the house, that there have been times in your life when you were the one struggling, when you were ashamed, when you were the one who was grieving, when you were “poor in spirit,” and in that moment, my friends, you were blessed! Blessed because there was someone who was willing to demonstrate their humanity, their compassion, their love, to alleviate your suffering. It’s a both/and situation. We’re, at the same time, the caregiver and the one in need of care; we’re the bearer of the Light of God and the one standing in the shadows. We’re the peacemakers and we’re the ones being persecuted for taking that stance. We’re the sharers of God’s love and forgiveness and grace, and at the same time, we’re the ones who stand in need of God’s love, and grace, and forgiveness, every day. But, in all of this, because of our response within and to the human condition, Jesus says, that we will be called, all of us, the “Children of God.”

One more thing. God is the bedrock of our faith. Without our faith in God as the ‘Source of Life and the Source of Love,’ to quote Bishop Sprong, and the “Source of Being,” to quote Paul Tillich, we would be just another social club. Not that there’s anything wrong with social clubs or the good work they do. But as a people of faith, as a community of faith, our reason for practicing peace and seeking social justice comes from a different Source. And the beatitudes are meant to point us toward that Source as we live-into a “beautiful vision” of justice for all.

My friends, God is calling us to follow Christ into the world to engage in a lifetime of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love. That was, in a nutshell, Matthew’s “vision beautiful.” Might that vision become our vision as well. May it be so. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Thomas Long, Westminster Bible Companion (found at www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Susan Blain The Vision Beautiful (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

Infinite Possibilities

Baptism of Christ Sunday

Introduction to the Text

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. The Sunday when we officially move from the Christmas story into the life and teachings of Jesus. The time of year when we leave the manger, Magi, and myrrh   behind, at least for the moment, and begin to look at the adult version of Jesus. And every year, this happens through the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. And today is no exception. But there’s always seems to be a lingering question about his baptism, one that I’ve heard more than any other: “If Jesus was without sin, then why did he need to be baptized?” That’s actually a very perceptive question. A question that leads us to look beyond just forgiveness and into a deeper understanding of baptism. Hear now, once again, the story of the Baptism of Christ.

Scripture Reading                                                          Matthew 3:13-17

Now, I’m going to begin today by giving you some contextual background to the narrative that we just heard. Hear these additional words from the second writer in the Book of Isaiah.

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.

My friends, there are places in our world that are so dark that most of us really don’t want to look at them. Nations where law and order are so broken down that people’s lives are in danger just because they belong to the wrong faith or the wrong political party or the wrong tribe. Cities where crime is so rampant that even murder becomes just another part of life. We hear lies and deception, hate-filled rhetoric and threats to our very being all the time. It’s hard to even watch the news anymore. Sometimes it all seems hopeless.

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure to meet a man we’ll call Dave. Dave suffered from some form of autism perhaps or a mental illness, and as a result, was a person of diminished capacity. He was an adult man, living on his own, with the mind of about a 12-year-old. Dave was often homeless and often confused. Now, I don’t tell you this to cut him down or to diminish him in any way, but to give you an idea of Dave’s struggle. Anyway, I met Dave at free dinner that was served once a month by a large downtown UCC church for those in need and for anyone who wanted to share a meal. Dave was always the first one there and he was always ready to share with you everything one could possibly want to know about lightbulbs. Yes, I said lightbulbs. He was fascinated with lightbulbs. He studied up on them, collected them, working or not. I have no idea where he kept them all, but lightbulbs were his thing. Now, the other fact about Dave is that he was not only the first one there, he was the first one to help set up tables, the first one to help clear plates, the first one to greet newcomers. And it struck me one day that this “collector of lightbulbs” was really being the Light of Christ in the church. In his own and unique way, Dave was being God’s Light to the world.

As I read the passage from Isaiah, the one that I just shared, I thought once again of Dave and the hope that someone like him inspires. Isaiah says that God will appoint someone to bring light into the dark places of this world. He speaks of “a servant of the God” who would come to right the wrongs; who would bring God’s justice. This is of course Isaiah’s vision of what a Messiah might look like, but isn’t this also what we are called to look like? Are we not called to be like Dave and bring God’s light into the world as best as we are able?

Now, I know I’ve said this many times before, but I think our post-modern idea of justice is very different than that of Bible. When we think about justice, most of the secular world envisions something that happens in a courtroom with a judge and a jury. The world sees Justice is as arbitrating disputes and determining guilt or innocence and handing down punishments for crimes.

But justice in the Bible has a very different meaning. God’s justice is about feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free, recovery of sight to the blind; in a biblical understanding of justice, those who have been struck down are lifted up, and the immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them.  Simply put—God’s justice is the light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally.

And It’s important to notice the way in which the “servant” in Isaiah establishes this kind of justice. The prophet says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”.  In other words, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”[I]

You see, God’s justice doesn’t take place through vengeance but forgiveness.  God’s justice doesn’t take place through violence but compassion.  God’s justice doesn’t take place through hostility but mercy.  It’s a justice that leads to peace.  And in order to achieve this kind of divine justice we have to employ God’s ways instead of ours.

And in our Gospel text it says in essence that “God’s work of putting things right throughout all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”[ii]  In a very real sense, Christ’s baptism was making a public declaration that he was going to take the side of God’s justice.  He was going to set about promoting God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed.  He was going to shine the light of God into all the dark places of the world.

And guess what. That’s exactly what he did.  And that’s what we’re called to do as well. My friends, by sharing in Christ’s baptism through our own, we have taken on the same calling, accepted the same challenge, the same risk, the same covenant: a covenant to shine the Light of God; God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s mercy into all the dark places of this world. [iii]

One final thought this morning. When we celebrate a baptism here in our church, in the liturgy, I ask all of you to “remember your baptism.” Now, I’m not talking about the actual pouring of water over your head, (many of you were infants at that time) But what I am asking you to do is to remember the meaning of your baptism. A meaning that includes the things we’ve talked about here today. A meaning that starts by establishing a covenant, a covenant that continues to grow and to develop into a relationship with a community of faith. And within that community we share in things like forgiveness, like grace, like compassion, but it still doesn’t end there. Our baptismal calling as a community is to participate in the present reign of God by shining the radiant Light of God’s Justice outward, to, as the last chapter in Matthew says, “…to all the ends of the earth.”

My friends, as we continue our journey from Christmas through the Season of Epiphany, may the Light of God’s Grace shine into the very depths of your being and the Light of God’s Justice shine forth through your words, your actions, your life. And may each of us, in our own unique way, be a “Dave.” May it be so.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Eugene Peterson The Message from Isaiah 42

[ii] Ibid Peterson

[iii] Alan Brehm.  Shining Light into Darkness. (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2014

 

Another Road

Epiphany Sunday

Christmas has passed, the New Year’s Eve festivities are over, and now we’re left with the glitter, wrapping paper, empty boxes, and perhaps a few empty hearts. For some people, the holidays have been a delightful time of love and giving. Others may look back on the week with a little relief that it’s over. Are we allowed to say that? Can we be honest and admit that sometimes these big days are not as joyful in real life as we want them to be?

But in the passage that you’re about to hear, John reminds us that our big days and calendars are really of little importance to the God who created us. God existed before time itself. So, while we human beings may lift up one day over another, God is consistently present in every day.[I]

Read John 1:1-9 & 14 here.
Now, today’s reading, taken from the prologue to the Gospel According to John, begins with those famous words we all know so well: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This is where John’s gospel begins–in the beginning. This is John’s nativity story. There are no shepherds, or angels, or a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  In this nativity story, this Christmas story, John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes the words from the Genesis: In beginning-ness God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, “Let there be light.” And in John’s nativity story, from the very beginning, there was the Logos, the Word.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said, “let there be light,” this same God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people, ALL people! And, this Light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not extinguish it.”

Wow. There’s a lot going on here. So, let’s pause here for a moment and unpack some this. First of all, theologically speaking, Christmas is about a transcendent God who comes near, becomes immanent, incarnate, God-with-us, Emmanuel. Now, sometimes we talk about the transcendence of God, a God who’s mysterious and unknowable, beyond comprehension–which is true–but here in this text, God the Creator takes on flesh and becomes one of us and lives among us. And to extend John’s metaphor, in the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus comes announcing life and not death. Later in John’s gospel, we’ll hear Jesus say, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” And it’s through this abundance that God has invited us to allow the light of the Sacred to shine forth in our lives and through our actions.[ii]

In his book, Original Blessing, theologian Matthew Fox writes: “We enter a broken, torn and sinful world–that is for sure.  But we do not enter as blotches on existence; we burst onto the scene as ‘original blessings.'”[iii]  And, oh, how we need to hear that.  The incarnation, God becoming flesh, has shown us a different way of seeing life and living in the world. It has shown us that the creation is good, that the world we live in is good, that our bodies are good, that we are indeed, “original blessings.”  And as original blessings, we are called to live with love and justice with all that is part of the created order; we are called to be fully human, fully alive. Matthew Fox goes on to say, “Being alive is not the same as going shopping or making a nest in which to escape the suffering of others.  Living has something to do with love of life, and the love of other’s lives and the other’s rights to life and dignity.”[iv]

And this is where I believe we find ourselves today. Jesus, the whole concept of a Messiah actually, is intended to show us the nature of God and how we should respond because that nature. Do you see what I’m driving at here? John says, we have received from God’s fullness, grace upon grace. “Grace upon grace.” This phrase, I think, needs to set the tone as we embark upon a new year. A new year when grace will be so desperately needed. We need God’s grace as we continue to struggle with divisions and resentments, controversies and discontent. We need grace as we remain immersed in and surrounded by endless election rhetoric; rhetoric that’s intended to further divide rather than unite. And even as many of us enjoy a stable economy, some of our neighbors stand in need of our commitment to be gracious. Neighbors who still struggle with deep economic troubles. Things like under-employment, the rising cost of housing, and a lack of affordable healthcare have left millions of our fellow citizens behind, still wanting, still caught in a web of poverty.

But perhaps our greatest challenge as people of faith and as a nation, is to understand that this abundance of grace, that this grace upon grace, is not meant just for us. From the very beginning of creation, God intended that grace be shared among all of God’s beloved creation. John says here in our text, that Jesus came as a light to all people. Not just some people, not just religious people, not just people who think and act and believe as I think they should, but ALL people.

My friends, if we as a society could find it within ourselves in 2020 to grasp and then live-into this understanding of grace; a grace that is for all people, a grace that is immanent, a grace that is fully expressed in our acts of faith and kindness and love; if we could begin to practice this kind of grace, if we could become an original blessing to others, might that be a first step on the path to peace; on our quest for justice? Might that finally be the Light of which John speaks? I don’t know the answer to these questions; I don’t even know if we can find this kind of grace within ourselves; but, wouldn’t it be amazing to try?

Amen & amen.

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[i] Lillian Daniel In the Beginning (www.ucc.org/stillspeakingdevotional) 2020

[ii] William McCord Thigpen III. Our Hearts Belong (www.Day1.org) 2009

[iii] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Santa Fe, Bear & Co., 1983, p. 47.

[iv] Ibid. Fox

A Meditation on Christmas

A Meditation on Christmas by Bishop John Shelby Sprong

 

Katherine from Richmond, Virginia writes:

Question:

What is it about this Jesus that you find so compelling? When I hear the Christmas story from the Bible I believe that I am listening to fairy tales. Stars do not announce the birth of a human being. Angels do not sing to hillside shepherds. Virgins do not conceive and give birth. Is there something behind the old mythology that I am missing? Can you still, with any integrity, refer to Jesus as “the son of God?”

Answer:

Dear Katharine,

Thank you for your questions. Not only are they important ones but they give me the opportunity to articulate my deepest convictions about this Jesus in the column that will go out to my subscribers on Christmas Eve. So I shall frame my answer to you in the form of a Christmas meditation, for this Jesus has always both fascinated and attracted me.

My deepest self-definition is that I am a Christian, by which I mean that in Jesus of Nazareth I believe I see the meaning of God most clearly. This experience of an in-breaking divine presence is what I believe created the Christmas traditions that you refer to in your question. Certainly during this season they are omnipresent.

It was more than two thousand years ago that the historic figure we call Jesus lived. It was a life of relatively short duration, only thirty-three years. At most only three of those years were devoted to a public career. Yet, that life appears to have been a source of wonder and power to those who knew him. Tales of miraculous power surrounded him. Words of insight and wisdom were believed to have flowed from his lips. Love and freedom seemed to be qualities that marked his existence. Men and women found themselves called into being by him. Those laden with guilt discovered, somehow, the joy of forgiveness in him. The alone, the insecure, the warped and twisted found him to be a source of peace. He possessed the courage to be who he was. He is described in terms that portray him as an incredibly free man.

Jesus seems to have had no internal needs that drove him to prove himself – no anxieties that centered his attention on himself. He rather appears to have had an uncanny capacity to give his life away. He gave love, he gave selfhood, he gave freedom, and he gave them abundantly – wastefully, extravagantly.

Lives touched by his life were never the same. Somehow life’s secret, its very purpose, seemed to be revealed in him. When people looked at him they were somehow able to see beyond him, and even through him. They saw in his life the Source of all life that expanded them. They saw in his love the Source of love and the hope of their own fulfillment. This kind of transforming power was something they had not known before.

Freedom is always scary. People seek security in rules that curb freedom. So his enemies conspired to remove him and his threat to them. From one perspective it might be said that they killed him. When one looks more closely at the story, however, it might be more accurate to say that he found in himself the freedom to give his life away and to do so quite deliberately. He died caring for those who took his life from him. In that moment he revealed a love that could embrace all the hostilities of human life without allowing those hostilities to compromise his ability to love. He demonstrated rather dramatically that there is nothing a person can do and nothing a person can be that will finally render any of us either unlovable or unforgivable. Even when a person destroys the giver of life and love, that person does not cease to be loved by the Source of love or called into life by the Source of life. That was his message or at least that is what people believed they had met in this Jesus. Such a life could not help but transcend human limits. For this kind of love can never be overwhelmed by hatred; this life can never finally be destroyed by death.

Is it any wonder that people had to break the barriers of language when they sought to make rational sense out of this Jesus experience? They called him the Son of God. They said that somehow God was in him. So deeply did people believe these things that the way they perceived history was changed by him. To this day we still date the birth of our civilization from the birth of this Jesus.

They believed that he was able to give love and forgiveness, acceptance and courage. They believed that he had the power to fill life full. Since people tended to define God as the Source of life and love, they began to say that in this human Jesus they had engaged the holy God.

When they began to write about this transforming experience they confronted a problem. How could the human mind, which can only think using human vocabulary, stretch far enough to embrace the God presence they had experienced in this life? How could mere words be big enough to capture this divine meaning? Inevitably, as they wrote they lapsed into poetry and imagery. When this life entered human history, they said, even the heavens rejoiced. A star appeared in the sky. A heavenly host of angels sang hosanna. Judean shepherds came to view him. Eastern Magi journeyed from the ends of the earth to worship him. Since they were certain that they had met the presence of God in him, they reasoned that God must have been his father in some unique way. It was certainly a human reference but that is all we human beings have to use.

Life as we know it, they said, could never have produced what we have found in him. That is why they created birth traditions capable of accounting for the adult power that they found in him.

Our modern and much less mysterious world reads these birth narratives and, assuming a literalness of human language that the biblical writers never intended, say “How ridiculous! How unbelievable! Things like that just do not happen. Stars don’t suddenly appear in the night to announce a human birth. Angels do not entertain hillside shepherds with heavenly songs. Virgins do not conceive. These things cannot be true.”

On one level those criticisms are accurate. Things like that do not happen in any literal sense. But does that mean that the experience this ecstatic language was created to communicate was not real. I do not think so.

The time has come for Christians, when we try to talk about God, to face without being defensive, the inadequacy of human language. These stories were never meant to be read literally. They were written by those who had been touched by this Jesus. That is why they challenge our imaginations and sound so fanciful and unreal. Our minds are so earthbound that our imaginations have become impoverished. Literal truth has given way to interpretive images. When life meets God and finds fulfillment one sees sights never before seen, one knows joy never before experienced, and one expects the heavens to sing and dance in celebration.

The story of Christmas, as told by the gospel writers, has a meaning beyond the rational and a truth beyond the scientific. It points to a reality that no life touched by this Jesus could ever deny. The beauty of our Christmas story is bigger than our rational minds can embrace. For when this Jesus is known, when love, acceptance, and forgiveness are experienced, when we become whole, free and affirmed people, the heavens do sing “Glory to God in the Highest,” and on earth there is “Peace and Good Will among Us All.” Hence, we Christians rejoice in the transcendent beauty and wonder of this Christmas story. To those who have never stepped inside this experience we issue an invitation to come stand where we stand and look through our eyes at this babe of Bethlehem. Then perhaps they too will join those of us who read these

Christmas stories year after year for one purpose only: to worship the Lord of life who still sets us free and who calls us to live, to love and to be all that we can be. That is why the Christmas invitation is so simple: Come, come, let us adore him.

How do we adore him? In my mind the answer to that query is clear. I adore him not by becoming religious or by becoming a missionary who seeks to convert the world to my understanding of Jesus. I do it rather by dedicating my energies to the task of building a world where everyone in this world might have an opportunity to live more fully, love more wastefully and have the courage to be all that they were created to be. This is the only way I know how to acknowledge the Source of Life, the Source of Love and the Ground of Being that I believe that I have experienced in this Jesus. How can one adore the Source of Life except by living? How can one adore the Source of Love except by loving? How can one adore the Ground of all Being except by having the courage to be all that one can be. It is not possible to seek these gifts for oneself and then deny them to every other life. So our task as disciples of Jesus is to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that we can be while we seek to enable every other person, in the infinite variety of our humanity, to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that each person can be. That also means that we can brook no prejudice that would hurt or reject another based on any external characteristic, be it race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It all seems so simple to me. God was in Christ. That is the essence of what I believe about this Jesus.

Have a blessed and holy Christmas.

~ John Shelby Spong