Found

“Calling Disciples”, He Qi (from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN)

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  John 1: 43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Most of us love the stories of Jesus calling the disciples.  I have this image of Jesus walking around, just an ordinary guy calling ordinary people to become a part of this new way of being, this new way of living, this new Way of understanding God and how God relates to us.  But don’t limit it to “The Twelve”, as if they are some sort of elite management team of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus was always calling people.  Some stayed on the edges of the movement, not really wanting to get too involved.  Some wandered off, only to return when it was convenient or when they felt like they wanted to be a part of it.  (They probably showed up for Christmas Eve and Easter!…kidding!)  And there were some that chose not to participate at all, opting instead to continue down their very carefully-planned life’s path.  But some, a few, went all in, becoming disciples and walking with Jesus through it all.

In the Gospel by the writer we know as John, this account follows the beginning of Jesus’ calling of the disciples.  He left Jordan and John the Baptist points Andrew and Simon Peter toward Jesus.  They follow him and then we’re told that Jesus found Philip, who was from their hometown.  Now in this week’s passage, we’re told that Philip then tries to recruit Nathanael.  But Nathanael was seemingly unimpressed, almost skeptical about what Philip was telling him.  Nathanael was the first person that we know that dared to ask questions about Jesus and this new Way. I mean, “who was this guy?”, he thought.  “Why should I follow him?”  But notice that Philip doesn’t give up.  He doesn’t argue with Nathanael.  He doesn’t berate him for not getting on board immediately.  With great faith, Philip’s response to the question was not a hard-baked answer but rather an invitation: “Come and see.”

We are all Nathanaels.  We have questions.  Sometimes we have doubts.  Sometimes this does not make sense at all. And despite what some current-day religious folks will tell you, that’s ok.  God never laid out some definitive answer or even one pathway to walk.  God never desired that we be right; God desired that we have faith.  Those two things are not interchangeable.  Faith is not a math equation where we’re trying to pursue the right answer to understand everything.  Faith is a journey full of questions and doubts and twists and turns in our pathway that lead us not to the answer but to the next step.  That’s where God is trying to lead us—the next step toward relationship, toward oneness, with God.

And look at what Nathanael did.  He wasn’t completely convinced but he turned and he looked.  And he saw.  He saw who Jesus was.  After all this time of searching, all this time of wandering around lost, he found what he had been looking for.  And, more than that, Jesus found him. The passage ends by reaching back into what Nathanael knew, back into the Scriptures that he had known even as a child.  It ends with an allusion to Jacob’s dream at the place we call Bethel.  Jacob dreamed of angels traveling up and down a ladder (actually, more of a ramp or stairway or maybe even a Mesopotamian ziggurat).  It is an interesting image, implying that our faith pathway is not a “one-way” road but rather a way that the spiritual and physical realms are connected as we travel back and forth with our searching and our questions.  And Jacob’s response to it, “Surely the Lord was in this place—and I did not know it!”, is our response over and over and over again.

Our world is strange right now, I know.  We thought the new year would bring us relief from Covid-19 and just days into it, we are met with an insurrection on The Capitol.  Are you kidding me?  It’s easy to question, to even feel lost.  It’s easy to find yourself overtaken by fear and anger.  I know I have.  But when I read this Scripture, what struck me was the notion of being “found”.  As I mentioned before, I don’t think of our pathway to faith as one limited way.  God is everywhere, inviting us to “come and see”, come and see everything, come and see all ways and all people and all incarnations of God.  Maybe lostness doesn’t happen by getting “off the path”.  Maybe lostness happens when we become so convinced that we have the answers, when we become so convinced that we are right, that we shut down or, even worse, we lash out.  I pray for all of us.  I pray for those that were victims of that attack on The Capitol.  And I pray for those that for whatever reason felt so compelled by their “rightness” (and some, dare I say, by their “whiteness”) that they would be willing to throw everything away to force what they think on others.

God is so incredibly patient with us.  God lets us wander around, sometimes aimlessly, searching and trying and trying again.  God lets us test our faith, and defy our faith, and find our faith yet again.  And in those incredible moments when we, too, feel that “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”, God celebrates that we have found it again.  And God reminds us that we were always found.  We just have to “come and see”.     

Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God…They prayed and wrestled and sought…in season and out, and when they had found [God], the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking.” (A. W. Tozer)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Standing in the Waters

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So after weeks of going through the announcement and birth of Jesus, suddenly the story seems to stop.  We must wait, almost suspended in time, until Jesus grows into an adult.  From our 21st century seat, we know that Jesus is figuratively waiting in the wings, waiting to emerge with the Spirit of God in his very being. But remember, it wasn’t just the thirty years before Jesus committed to public ministry that we waited.  It was the centuries upon centuries and ages upon ages that all of Creation had waited for the dawn to break.  In essence, Creation has been groaning and straining for this very moment. And so Jesus goes to John at the Jordan to be baptized.  And just as each of us received the gift of water in our own Baptism, Jesus kneels in the Jordan and John bends over him and baptizes him.  The work has begun.

The writer of the Gospel According to Mark depicts that at this moment of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are opened and the Spirit emerges in the form of a dove.  We read of the heavens being “torn”, violently ripped apart so that they could not go back together in the same way.  The Greek word there is a form of the verb schitzo as in schism or schizophrenia. It is not the same word as open. I open the door. I close the door. The door looks the same, but something torn apart is not easily closed again. The ragged edges never go back together as they were. Mark wasn’t careless in using that word: schitzo. He remembered Isaiah’s plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” In other words, at this moment, God’s Spirit on earth becomes present in a brand new way.  A new ordering of Creation has begun. 

It was at that moment that the heavens opened and spilled onto the earth.  The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.  And we hear what the world has always been straining to hear: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Even though the writers of several of the Gospels have presented Jesus as the Son of God in the birth stories, it is not until this moment that the title is actually conferred.  This is the moment toward which all of Creation has been moving.  This the moment for which we’ve been waiting.

The story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own.  It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life.  And it calls us to do something with our life.  But I actually don’t remember the day of my baptism.  It happened when I was a little over seven months old, on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1962.  It was at First United Methodist Church, Brookshire, TX and Rev. Bert Condrey was the officiant.  I had a special dress and lots of family present.  That would be all I really know and the only reason I know that is from one picture of my grandfather holding me in front of the church.

And, yet, we are reminded to “remember our baptism”.  What does that mean for those of us who don’t?  I think “remembering” is something bigger than a chronological recount of our own memories.  It is bigger than remembering what we wore or where we stood or who the actual person was that touched our head with or even immersed us in water. It means remembering our very identity, our creation, what it is that made us, that collective memory that is part of our tradition, our liturgy, our family.  That is what “remembering” our baptism is.  It’s not just remembering the moment that we felt that baptismal stream; it is remembering the story into which we entered.  It is at that point that we affirmed who we are (or it was affirmed for us) and we began to become who God intends us to be.  And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens tore apart, spilled out, and the Holy Spirit emerged.  And we, too, were conferred with a title.  “This is my child, my daughter, my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And in that moment, whether we are infants or older, we are ordained for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  We are ordained to the work of Christ and the work of Christ’s church.  Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world.  [So then], ministry is not something in particular that we do; it is what we are about in everything we do.”  In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus began.  And, like Jesus, our own Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves before God.  As we begin to find ourselves standing in those waters with Christ, we also find ourselves ready to be followers of Christ.  

Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God.  As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens tore apart and spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him.  We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ.  As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life.  Breathe in.  It will be with you always. Submit your life, empty yourself, so that there will finally be room for Christ in this world.  Then…it is up to you to finish the story.  This day and every day, remember your baptism, remember that you are a daughter or son of God with whom God is well pleased and be thankful. You are now part of the story, part of this ordering of chaos, part of light emerging from darkness, part of life born from death.  You are part of God’s re-creation.  And it is very, very good.

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Fear not the strangeness you feel.  The future must enter you long before it happens.  Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

What Now?

Lectionary Passage:  Matthew 2: 1-12

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

New Year’s Day is always somewhat mixed for me, filled with hope for the future, maybe a chance at a “reset” but also regrets for what the past year has left undone and a sadness for what is left behind.  I always have this feeling that I’m somehow leaving those that are not here to celebrate behind, like I’m moving into a place where they are not.  This year is especially bittersweet.  The good part is that 2020 is over.  I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to see this one leave.  But as I write this, there are officially 346,859 Americans that are not stepping into the new year with us because of Covid-19. One of those is my funny, flamboyant friend Brian.  And left behind with him is my friend Lahonda and sweet Maynard, the wonder dog.  Brian and Lahonda were musicians.  Maynard just sort of had his own song.  The music is still here but it is different.

This Scripture is used for Epiphany, which is not until January 6th but is celebrated by most churches this Sunday.  But it’s also a good reading for New Year’s, for that time of resetting what is normal, of rethinking what it is that is your life, and perhaps figuring out a way to carry the past with you in a new way. Now is the time to go back to what is “normal” (or in our case, parademic-normal).  But, regardless, what does that really mean?  What do we do after it all ends?  What now?  The truth is, “after” is when it begins, “after” is when it becomes real, and “after” is the whole reason we do this at all.

The text that we read begins by setting us “in the time of King Herod”.  And in it, we find that the last question of Advent comes not at Christmas but afterward and is asked not by an individual but by a group.  They believe that the star (or, for some, an unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light—hence the “Christmas Star” name given to the recent conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in our solar system) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king.  And they ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

And so Herod hears that a king had been born in Bethlehem.  Well, the formula is simple—a king is born, but a king is already here; and in Herod’s mind and the minds of all those who follow him, there is room for only one king.  The passage says that King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.  They probably were pretty fearful.  After all, there was a distinct possibility that their world was about to change.  It seemed that the birth of this humble child might have the ability to shake the very foundations of the earth and announce the fall of the mighty.  Things would never be the same again.  So Herod relies on these wisest ones in his court.  The writer of Matthew’s Gospel says that they’re from the East.  Some traditions hold that these wise ones were Magi, a Priestly caste of Persian origin that followed Zoroastrianism and practiced the interpretation of dreams and portents and astrology.  Other traditions depict them with different ethnicities as the birth of this Messiah begins to move into the whole world.  In fact, the early Western church gave them names that depict this.  (No, these names are not in the Bible.)  But according to tradition, Melchior was a Persian scholar, Caspar was a learned man from India, and Balthazar, a scholar with a Babylonian name.  These three areas represented the known world at that point.  The Messiah had come to every nook and cranny of the world.

But, regardless of who they were, somewhere along the way, they had heard of the birth of this king and came to the obvious place where he might be—in the royal household.  So, sensing a rival, Herod sends these “wise ones” to find the new king so that he could “pay homage” to him.  We of course know that this was deceitful.  His intent was not to pay homage at all, but to destroy Jesus and stop what was about to happen to his empire.  It was the only way that he could preserve what he had.

According to the passage, the wise men know that Christ was born; they needed God’s guidance, though, to find where Christ was.  When they get to the place where the star has stopped, the passage tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy”.  They knelt down and paid the new king homage and offered him gifts fit for a king.  Even though later interpreters have often tried to place specific meanings on these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, it is possible that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew simply thought that these gifts, exotic and expensive as they were, were gifts that would be worthy of a great and mighty king.  They were gifts of joy, gifts of gratitude, gifts of celebration. 

And then the passage tells us that, heeding a warning in a dream, these wise and learned (and probably powerful and wealthy) members of the court of Herod, left and returned to their own country, a long and difficult journey through the Middle Eastern desert.  But rather than returning to their comfortable lives and their secure and powerful places in the court of Herod, they left and went a different way.  They knew they had to go back to life.  But it didn’t have to be the same.

We often profess that Jesus came to change the world.  But that really didn’t happen.  Does that mean that this whole Holy Birth was a failure, just some sort of pretty, romantic story in the midst of our sometimes-chaotic life?  Maybe Jesus never intended to change the world at all; maybe Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, came into this world to change us, to invite us to travel a different way.  Maybe it has to do with what we do after.  It has to do with how we choose to go back to our lives.  Do we just pick up where we left off?  Or do we, like those wise visitors choose to go home by another way?  Do we choose, then, to change our lives, to listen to the familiar music in a new way?

God did not just visit our little earth so long ago and then return to wherever God lives.  God came as Emmanuel, God with Us, and that has never changed.  The birth of Jesus means that God was born in a specific person in a specific place.  The Christmas story affirms to us that God is here, that the Messiah for whom we had waited has come, that we are in God’s hands (and God is in ours).  But the Epiphany story moves it beyond the manger.  And all of a sudden we are part of the story.  We are part of the Incarnation of God, the manifestation of God’s Presence here on our little earth.  The God in whose hands we rest danced into our very lives and is now all over our hands.  It is our move.  God was not just born into the child Jesus; God is born into us, into humanity.  And the world really hasn’t changed.  I don’t know. Maybe it never will. But we have.  Our music is the same; but it sounds different to us.  Because, it’s up to us.  Christ’s coming means that we need to get going.  We are called to change the world.

When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
     
To find the lost,
     To heal the broken,
     To feed the hungry,
     To release the prisoner,
     To rebuild the nations,
     To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
     To make music in the heart.
                                                               
(Howard Thurman)

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I might go safely out into the darkness.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be more to you than a light, and safer than a known way.’ (M.L. Haskins)

Happy New Year!

Shelli

With God on Our Hands

Lectionary Passage:  Luke 2: 22-35 (36-40)

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

So before you exhale after all your cooking and wrapping and running around frantically to get everything done, I have to tell you that we’re not done.  The truth is, the birthing is never really over.  This is the Season of Christmas (as opposed to the Season of Advent that we just completed).  But we don’t get a whole lot of help from the Scriptures.  We read the story of Jesus’ birth and then Scripture accounts of the days and years that followed are spotty at best.  This passage is one of the few accounts of Jesus’ childhood.  But it is a reminder that Jesus was a Jew, lived among Jews, and, for that matter, was Jewish for his entire life.

So, in this passage that we read, our story has jumped forty days from the birth story that we read just a few days ago.  Eight days after Jesus had been born, he had, in accordance with Jewish law, been circumcised and named.  Now thirty-two days later, they go to the temple.  The trip is serving two purposes.  First of all, Mary must be purified.  According to the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, after a woman gives birth, she is impure for forty days.  At the end of that time, she is to bring an offering to the temple and be purified.  Additionally, Jesus, the firstborn son, is to be consecrated and offered to God. 

So, in this moment, a man named Simeon appears.  It says that he took Jesus in his arms.  Can you imagine Mary and Joseph’s reaction?  After all, this was their newborn, probably the first time that they had ever really had him out in public, and this old man comes out of the shadows and scoops up their child.  But something made them step back.  Was it his words, or his demeanor, or something else?  This frail, older man, held the child with a tenderness that was amazing.  He cradles Jesus in his arms and looks into his eyes.  And he begins to prophesy.

But the words were a bit different than the foretelling over the last months and weeks from angels and shepherds and the like. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon was a righteous and devout man.  His Jewish faith had been important to him his entire life.  And that faith included a promise that God would indeed send a Savior, a Messiah.  And he knew that his life would not end until he had seen the promise fulfilled.  So he looked down into the bright, dark brown eyes of this child and he knew. Simeon had waited his entire life for this child, for this moment.  Now he could die in peace. Don’t take that as a giving up of life.  It was his resolve.  His life, his promise, had been fulfilled.  He was at such peace that he couldn’t even imagine life being any more than it was in this moment.  He had not waited for moments or the four weeks of Advent or even a few months.  He had waited decades, his entire life, for this moment. 

Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now send away”), is sometimes sung after Communion and often at the end of a funeral.  It is a plea for peace.  He is not asking for death; he is accepting it and with it, the promise of redemption.  For Simeon, death is no longer a pall that hangs over him; it is part of life.

So as Simeon, with a gleam of life in his eyes, hands the child back to Mary, he adds: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.  In other words, once again, things are about to change.  This child is special.  This child provokes a decision that each person must make.  Notice the order.  We talk of the rise and fall of people, the rise and fall of nations, the rise and fall through history of whole societies.  But THIS child, THIS child will cause the falling and rising, THIS child will turn the world upside down and bring life.  In that moment, Mary knew that she would experience grief.   But she also knew that her grief would rise and become life.

So why are we talking about death so soon after the glory of Jesus’ birth?  Shouldn’t we get a little bit of a reprieve before we start walking to the cross?  The reason is that the two cannot be separated.  Simeon knew who Jesus was.  He saw Jesus’ life.  He saw Jesus’ death.  And he saw life again. He saw, even at that early time, the signs of redemption.

So what do we do with this?  You know, we probably should have known.  This thing for which we have hoped, and waited, had to involve us in some way.  God was born unto us.  We, like Simeon, have God on our hands.  What do we do with God now? I don’t know about you but on some level, it’s hard to find the right words.  Maybe all we have left to do is praise and sing and respond.  God has come into this world and is here, here on our hands.   

The truth, of course, is that Jesus’ coming does not end with the calendar or with the festivities or with the final packing-up.  His coming is always a beginning and a sending.  We, too, are now sent away.  We, too, are at peace with letting our old selves die and becoming the ones unto whom Christ was born. The hope that was so prevalent during Advent, the promise for which we waited and prepared, is here, right before us.  God is with us, on our hands. 

Christ has come!  God has been born unto us and we have God all over our hands.  Jesus’ coming begins our going.  We are not sent into the world with all the answers or with an assurance that we really even know what we’re doing.  Our directions, like our Scriptures, are spotty at best.  We are not called to be perfect; we are not called to be brilliant; we are called to be courageously faithful, to go, to go and be Christ in the world.  Christ has come!  And we have begun.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. (Wendell Berry)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Made Flesh

Scripture Passage:  John 1: 1-14

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word became flesh.  Think about it.  God’s Spirit, God’s breath, the Hebrew language refers to it as ruah, the very essence and being of God was suddenly given flesh and bone and cartilage and hands and feet and all those very human things that we humans require to be here on earth.  In other words, the Divine became human, if only for a while.  That tells us that God does not desire a partner, or a relative, or a close friend.  God desires to live with each of us as one of us.  The miracle of Christmas is not just that God came, although that would be miracle enough.  The miracle of Christmas is that God takes on flesh. 

In The Message paraphrase of the Bible, Eugene Peterson says that “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  That’s actually a little disconcerting when you think about it.  That means that you’ll see God when you’re out walking your dog or getting your mail.  It means that you’ll run into God in the grocery store when you’re in a terrible hurry and don’t have time. It means that God will show up at your door when the house is a wreck and you are least expecting visitors.

As the Scripture says, in the beginning was God and in the end will be God and in between?  In between, God is with us.  In between, God is one of us.  In between, is us.  That is the very mystery of Christmas.  So what do we do then with a God who is with us?  God is not limited to this sanctuary or to the places in our lives where we’ve sort of cleaned up a bit.  God comes into place of darkness and places of light.  God comes into profound poverty and into gated communities.  God is with us every step of our lives.  God is one of us in our flesh and our bone.  God has moved in.

So, now it’s our move.  I suppose we could just pick up the Christmas decorations and put them back in the box for another year.  I suppose we could just go back to whatever we define as our normal lives.  But the problem is that God is with us.  God lives with us, here, in the neighborhood.  Everywhere we turn, we will meet God—over and over and over again.  And once you’ve met God, you can’t go back to the way it was before.

The problem with God is not that God comes at times that might be a little inconvenient for us; the problem with God is that God never goes away.  God is all over us.  That first Christmas was God’s unveiling, God’s coming out of the darkness and the shadows and showing us what we could not see before.  God poured the Divine into the lowliest of humanity, into a dirty animal stall, and began to pick us up so we could walk with God. 

And we are asked to follow.  We are asked to become something new.  We are asked to now become the very reflection of the God that is here everywhere.  Thomas Merton once said that “the Advent mystery is the beginning of the end in all of us that is not yet Christ.”  It’s Christmas.  Now is the time.  Let us go see this thing that has happened.

God is closer to me than I am to myself. (Meister Eckhart)

Thank you for joining me on this Advent journey!  I hope it gave you some hope and some light in this very-hard time in which we live right now.  Now I’m going to take just a small break.  BUT…I’m back in  practice, so I’m going to try to continue (but not every day!).  I’ll continue to post at least once a week around the Lectionary passages and maybe sometimes you’ll get an extra post in a week if I just have something else to say! SO, look for a post Sunday morning or earlier for the Sunday after Christmas and then a post for Epiphany Sunday early next week and that will be our plan for now.  Thanks again for joining me! Have a wonderful Christmas! 

Merry Christmas!

Shelli

The Story of God

Scripture Passage:  Luke 2: 1-20 (KJV)

2 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.  (Luke 2: 1-20, KJV)

And it came to pass…after all this time, not just the season we’re wrapping up but those centuries upon centuries of humanity’s waiting.  Generations passed.  Time passed.  Centuries passed. To be honest, whole cultures passed.  And finally, this, too, has come to pass.  It’s the time for which we have waited.  This is the time that makes the world stop, if only for a moment, and say a prayer for peace and light our candle and gather around our Savior.  This is the night that we keep and ponder.  So even if Covid is keeping you at home, light a candle.  Light a candle to honor the waiting, to honor those people that brought you here, to honor their journeying and their wrestling and their burning bushes.  Light a candle for peace.  Light a candle in affirmation that the Light has dawned.  Now, go back and read the passage like you do not know the story (I even gave you the King James version!).  Pretend that this is the first time you have heard the greatest story ever told. 

The journey took many days.  They were tired and thought about turning back several times.  But they had to keep moving.  The time was almost here.  The desert wilderness was cold and unforgiving.  The winds whipped around the mountains this time of year and made it worse.  The pathway was treacherous.  But now they were here.  Mary and Joseph have arrived in Bethlehem.  The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them.  Mary doesn’t feel well.  She really needs to just lie down and rest.  And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming.  They need to hurry.  There is not much time left. 

They stop at a small house up on the hill overlooking the Shepherds’ Field down below.  The owner offers a bed and a meal for a reasonable price.  Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay.  But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears.  He tells Mary that the inn is full.  In fact, the whole town is full.  There is no place to stay.  There is no room.  But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stable room in the back of the house to keep warm.  He’s freshening the hay now.  Well, it will have to do.

You know, I think the innkeeper gets a bad rap.  I mean, was he supposed to kick someone else out?  And consider this:  This was not the Hilton.  It probably wouldn’t even qualify as a roadside motel.  It was probably just a couple of small beds in the innkeeper’s home that he rented out to help make ends meet.  And first century houses were often just a room or maybe two of actual living quarters anyway.  The second or third room was attached to the house and used to house the animals that were so much a part of their life.  No one in this small town would have owned a large “ranch” estate or a garage apartment. The stable probably wasn’t “out back” the way we interject into the story.  It was part of the home.  So the innkeeper was possibly, on some level, bringing Mary and Joseph, bringing strangers, into his home. His home became part of the story.

So Mary and Joseph entered the stable room and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest.   They could still hear the crowded city outside but at least it was warm.  The innkeeper has actually been really nice.  They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds.  It made the place feel ever more foreign, even more foreboding.  But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen.  It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light.  So Mary laid down and closed her eyes.  She knew that the time was almost here.  She knew that the baby was coming into the world.

And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty, smelly stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by foreign soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, into a back door, God comes.  The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life.  And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us.  God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be part of the story.

There is not one of us that does not love The Christmas Story.  It’s got it all–heartache, darkness, intrigue, danger, animals, innocence, an oppressive government, and a baby to boot.  It’s got all those things that make great tales.  No wonder it’s a bestseller!  No wonder there are so many songs written about it and paintings depicting it.  But for all the romantic notions of a baby born into a cold desert night in a small town on the other side of the world to poor, struggling parents, this story is not about a birth.  It’s not a story about a baby.  This is the Story of God.

God has come before.  There have always been incarnations of God.  But this night, THIS Incarnation, is God’s unveiling.  It is God coming out of the darkness and out of the shadows and showing us what we could not see before.  God became one of us to show who we were created to be.  So, in this season, we again hear the story.  We hear the story of God.  But unless we realize that it is our story, it still won’t be enough.  God came as God Incarnate into this little world to tell the story that goes back to the beginning.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1: 1-5)

Just now, the light is beginning to dawn.  It is not a new light, but the light that was created in the beginning.  But, this time, THIS time, let us finally see the story it holds—because it is the story of God, the story of God who loved us so much that the heavens would open and spill into the earth so that we would know the story, know the story so well that we would have a part in writing it.  Because this is the chapter in which you and I come to be, the very dawn of redeeming grace spilling into a waiting story-filled earth.  Tonight a baby is born and we continue the story.  What will you now do with your chapter?  Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.  

Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort. No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of God which is laid into those arms that are stretched out in longing. In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew, both to individuals and to the whole world. (Eberhard Arnold)

Merry Christmas!

Shelli

Walking Each Other Home

Scripture Passage:  Matthew 1: 1-17

An account of the genealogy* of Jesus the Messiah,* the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,* 8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,* and Amos* the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.*  17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah,* fourteen generations.

I know what you’re thinking.  What an odd scripture to use on the day before Christmas Eve, the day when we are almost there, almost ready to emerge from the darkness into the glorious Light.  The truth is, we usually skip over these verses.  I mean, they’re full of hard-to-pronounce words that none of us want to have to read from the lectern and, frankly, they’re kind of boring.  Am I right?  In fact, these verses are NEVER included in the Lectionary, regardless of what year you use.  So….why?  Why are we reading them?  Because the story itself is buried in the details…

I suppose God could come into the world with no help from us, with no help from all those faithful ones who came before us.  But what would it mean?  Why bother?  After all, the name of the Christ child is “God With US”.  Doesn’t that mean something?  God did not just drop the baby out of the sky like some sort of Divine UPS package.  The story is incomplete without those that came before. And it is incomplete without us.  Because without us, without every one of us, without EACH of us, God never would have come at all.  God came as Emmanuel, “God with US”, and calls us into the story.

And what a story it is!  It is a story of those that were called and those that ran away, a story of some who were exiled and some who wrestled, a story of scared and wandering people sent to new places and new lives with new names. The story includes prophets and poets, priests and kings.  It is a story of movement between darkness and light and, always, a hope for a Savior.  This line of David shown by the writer known as Matthew is 42 generations of God’s people, six sets of seven generations that lived and questioned and prayed and worshipped and wondered and sometimes shook their fists at God and then handed it off to the children that followed them.  Now you might remember that the number 7 is one of those numbers that connotes perfection or completeness, the hallowed finishing.  So, six completed ages of the history of God’s people waiting and watching and walking the journey brings us to the seventh, the New Creation, the beginning of what is next.

The Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity.  There’s no way out.  The Divine is even now pouring into our midst and we are changed forever.  But we have to birth the Godchild into our lives.  Knowing that we could never become Divine, the Divine became us.  The world is turned upside down.  And so God stayed around to show us how to live in this new world.  The writer of Matthew is right.  All this DID take place to fulfill what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophets.  The Light is just beyond our sight, ready to dawn, ready to call us into it that we might continue the story.  We are all walking together.  As Ram Dass said, “we’re all just walking each other home”.

Open your eyes.  The Light is about to dawn.

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time.  God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain.  God came with Love.  Rejoice!  Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (Madeleine L’Engle)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli