Encounters With Jesus: The Woman at the Well

Scripture: John 4:1-26

Maybe you think you know my story.

Maybe you’ve heard it before.

I know you’ve heard that I was loose. A scarlet woman. A sinner. How else would a woman end up with five husbands, and then living with a man who wasn’t even her husband? We do make assumptions about these things sometimes, don’t we? But that’s not how this story goes.

This is a story of redemption, but not that kind. Jesus never told me to go and sin no more. That is someone else’s story.[1]

My story is a sad one. It didn’t start out that way. I was sought after when I was young. My parents arranged my marriage to the oldest son of a prominent family in our village outside of Sychar. He was a good man. I was bright-eyed and hopeful about the future. We talked about what life would be like: full of joy, and the laughter of children. But time passed, and there were no children.

He died young, my husband. We never even knew why.

We have a custom, in our society, that when an man dies without children, his brother should marry his wife and have children for him.[2] I didn’t want his brother, but what choice did I have? His brother, meanwhile, didn’t want children that wouldn’t even bear his name. He didn’t need to worry. Eventually, that brother died too.

It was then that people began to whisper.

There was one more brother, one more chance to carry on his family’s line. But at this point you know how the story goes: no children came, and that brother died as well.

People began to say that I was cursed. To be honest, I began to believe them. My husbands’ family shunned me, and I didn’t blame them. My own father wouldn’t take me back.

A widow is worth nothing in our society – especially a childless one. I lived on what charm I had left. I found one man to take me in, and then another. What could I do? My only other option was to beg. My fourth husband left me, and the fifth. The sixth took me in, but wouldn’t marry me at all. Would you have?

People said it was my fault, having so many husbands, but how much choice do you think a woman in my society had? None of this was how my life was supposed to go. But oh yes, we like to think we know someone else’s story. 

But that brings me to that one fateful day at the well.

When I went to get water that day, I intentionally left after most of the village women would have already come and gone. I was tired of the whispers and stares. The ones who didn’t act like they were afraid I’d cast a spell on them looked at me with pity in their eyes instead. I didn’t want any of it.

There he was, sitting there: a man I’d never seen before. He must have been a traveler. I prayed he was just thirsty; the only other reason men came to wells was to meet women, as our father Jacob did, and his father Isaac before him.[3] I did my best to ignore him. I had every intention of avoiding women that day, and I certainly didn’t need to deal with men.

But he didn’t ignore me. Instead, he asked me for a drink. His accent was Galilean. Jewish. I backed away. My people don’t associate with Jews. Oh, we have a lot of shared history, Jews and Samaritans – in fact, according to the Scriptures we share, we used to be one people. But not anymore. They have their Temple, and we have ours, and we are each heretics and idolaters to the other.

“Why are you asking me for water?” I said. The whole thing seemed a little off.

He smiled at me like he had a secret. He leaned in, and he said, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for living water.”

Living water. It sounds fancy in translation, but all it really means is water that flows, like from a spring. Still, there was no spring here, just the well, and besides, from the way he said it – living water – it was clear he meant more than that.  Yep, here was just another man, talking big. Another man, trying to sell me something. I’d heard it all before. I pointed out that he didn’t even have a jug. Was he magic? Was this some sort of magic water?

“Look,” he said, “you get water from this well, you drink it, a few hours later, you’re thirsty again, right?” I nodded.

“Well,” he said, “whoever drinks the water I have will never be thirsty again.”

“Well, then, fine,” I said, as all of my bitterness rose to the surface. “Give me your magic water. I don’t ever want to have to come back to this well, anyway.”

Was I thirsty? Of course I was thirsty. I was thirsty for a life that wasn’t this one. Thirsty for a life with friendship, and intimacy, and community. I was thirsty for a life where I was cared for, and respected. Thirsty for a life where all my bad luck didn’t define me and I didn’t have always come to this well alone, where people knew my story instead of just assuming they did. All of it, I was thirsty for all of it. So yeah, if he had magic water that could do all that, I’d take it.  

He just looked at me for a while. Looked at me like he knew me. He softened somehow, or maybe it was me. He didn’t seem like he was selling something anymore.

“Why don’t you go home and get your husband,” he said quietly.

I felt myself tensing up again. “I’m not married.”

He said, “I know.”

He let that sink in.

“You’ve had five husbands, haven’t you,” he said, “and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband.”

“Look at that,” I said, “a prophet.” But my voice shook a little bit as I said it.

Could he know? Could he know my story?

And if so, could he know all of it? Not just the bad luck, not just the rumors and the whispers, not just the choices I was forced to make, but all of it – all the disappointment and the grief I’d been forced to bear; all the pain of exclusion; the fear that what they said was true; all the sheer force of will that kept me going every day? Could he know that bright-eyed girl I used to be, dreaming of the future?

His eyes said he did. He did. He knew all of it. He knew that I was thirsty for more than water. But then, aren’t we all?

I said this next part shakily, as if testing out a hypothesis. I said, “Sir, our people don’t worship God in the same way as yours. But we both believe the Messiah is coming.” I set those words down and waited.

It was quiet for a moment, and then he said, simply, “I AM.”

And that was the end of our conversation. A group of men – I suppose his disciples – arrived on the scene. They stopped in shock when they saw him talking to me, a Samaritan woman, but he beckoned them forward. But me, I put my jug down and ran. I ran toward the city and the people I usually tried so hard to avoid. I ran toward them to tell the story of the One who knew mine.

And because of me, the Samaritans of Sychar came to have faith in a Jewish Messiah.

And from that day on I told my story differently. Not just a story of brokenness, but a story of hope. Not a story of someone cursed, but of someone chosen. Not just a story of death after death, but a story of new life, for me and everyone who heard my words.

And not the story of a redeemed sinner, but the story of a person fully known.

From that day on I told my story differently, because it was part of a bigger one, and telling it meant telling God’s story too.

[1] Cf. John 8, the woman caught in adultery. The first time I preached on this passage, John 4, I really did think Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. (I set myself straight before I preached it, though.)

[2] Deuteronomy 25:5-6 (the Samaritans also held the Pentateuch as Scripture, by the way, with some minor textual differences); cf. also Matthew 22:23-33. This practice is called levirate marriage.

[3] The well as a place to find a wife: Genesis 24 and 29

Encounters With Jesus: Zacchaeus

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Late one morning in the town of Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus happened to find himself up a tree.

He hadn’t set out that morning planning to climb trees. In fact, it had been a long time since Zacchaeus had climbed a tree, though it brought him back to his childhood, running and playing around the village with the other kids. He wondered briefly what they were up to these days. Zacchaeus had long since left that village for the customs hub of Jericho, and he had rarely looked back.

No, it had started out like any other morning, as Zacchaeus set out to make his collections. He noticed that the main part of town, by the road that led to Jerusalem, was awfully crowded that morning. He stopped to ask a bystander what was going on.

“Jesus of Nazareth is coming through!” the man said. Then the man realized who he was talking to, and his face clouded over.

Zacchaeus was used to that kind of reaction, but to tell you the truth it was getting to him these days. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Actually, he was a chief tax collector, in charge of a bunch of lower-level tax collectors, and that made him relatively unpopular with the masses. It wasn’t just because people liked to grumble about the inefficiency of the public sector. It was because being a tax collector meant collecting money for the Roman Empire, the occupying power.

Sellout, they called him.

In cahoots with the enemy, they said.        

And worse names, too: Cheat. Fraud. They accused him of skimming some off the top for himself. Sometimes they spat the words of the prophets at him, words about trampling the poor under your sandals.

Zacchaeus narrowed his eyes back at the man, then turned around and kicked the trunk of a nearby sycamore tree.

He had heard about this guy Jesus, who was on his way into town.  He had heard he was a healer and that he told stories about the Kingdom of God. People even claimed that when you were with him it was like being in the presence of God Godself. Zacchaeus hadn’t really put much stock in any of it. He was more of a realist than a romantic. You know what was real? Money. Money was real.

Still, if Jesus was coming right through his own town, he figured he might as well stick around.

People were continuing to gather and Zacchaeus pushed his way to the front of the crowd so he could see. It seemed like Zacchaeus spent his whole life fighting his way to the front in one way or another: fighting to prove he was as tough as the tall kids, fighting to leave his village and make something of himself. This time he happened to jostle a woman in the process. She looked over to glare at him and when recognition dawned, she glared harder. “Traitor,” she muttered under her breath.

Zacchaeus felt anger rising up in his chest like a fire. He turned around to storm home. He stopped to kick the sycamore tree again as he went. Then he had an idea.

And that’s how Zacchaeus found himself up a tree that morning.

He felt a little silly at first. But he also breathed a little easier once he was slightly removed from the crush of the crowd. From his perch on a strong branch, he surveyed the scene and felt a wave of bitterness rush through him. There were people talking, laughing, little kids jumping up and down and sitting on their fathers’ shoulders. It was a scene that was familiar to him, one he would have fit right into, once.

But he was poor, then, too.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree and had a fight, in his head, with all the people down on the ground. They wanted to call him a sellout for working for the Romans? Well, who maintained those roads they walked on every day? Who provided security and protection against all the nations around them? Hypocrites, he thought, always complaining when they don’t even know how much they benefit from Roman rule.

Oh, fine, it’s not that the Romans are perfect, he thought, still fighting with the people in his head. But it’s a rough world out there, and a man has to make his way in it somehow. Everyone was jealous, he knew, that Zacchaeus had managed to make a life for himself, that he had found his way out of the poverty they lived in – that he dressed well and could afford to throw a nice dinner party now and then.

Any of them would have done the same if they’d had the opportunity, he said to himself.

And the cheating? Well, Zacchaeus wasn’t saying it was true, but if he demanded extra from his guys, who demanded extra from the people they collected from, it was just because the guy above him demanded extra, too. It’s just the way the system worked, he didn’t make it up. You had to live in the real world.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree, justifying himself.

“I’m a good person,” he finally said aloud, to people who weren’t listening and didn’t care. He heard how it sounded coming out of his mouth, the absurdity of it.

He shook his head and almost went home. Who needed Jesus, anyway. He would probably just judge him like everyone else. The religious ones were always the worst.

But just as he was about to climb down, the crowd erupted in cheers, and Zacchaeus looked up. He could see people running up to someone a ways down the road, trying to lean in and touch his robe. That must be him!  He could see the man on the road leaning down to a hug a child.  He could see him stretch his hand out to bless someone. And for a moment, Zacchaeus allowed himself to get swept up in the excitement, and he felt a strange feeling: maybe hope, if he remembered what that was.

Jesus drew closer and closer until he was almost under the tree where Zacchaeus sat. Zacchaeus shrunk back, seeking safety in the anonymity the branches provided him, and waited for Jesus to pass.

But Jesus didn’t walk past.

Instead he stopped. 

And he looked up.  Right into Zacchaeus’s tree.

Zacchaeus’s eyes inadvertently caught his.  Zacchaeus quickly looked away.

But Jesus didn’t move.  So Zacchaeus looked back, half waiting for Jesus to call him out.  Sellout. Fraud.

But Jesus just stood there for a minute and then he called over the sound of the crowd, “Zacchaeus.”

Zacchaeus suddenly wished that instead of being up high in a tree, he could sink into the ground. He didn’t know how Jesus knew his name, but his reputation must have preceded him. He braced himself for the words to follow. He prepared to fight with Jesus in his head. I’m a good person, he muttered to himself. He felt that fire rising up in him again.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “come on down from there.  I’m coming to your house.”

Zacchaeus paused, wondering for a moment if he had heard correctly. But Jesus stood there, looking up. And, since he didn’t know what else to do, Zacchaeus climbed down and stood before him.

And, in a complete surprise to himself, he started to cry.

And instead of justifying himself Zacchaeus suddenly wanted to say, no, no Jesus, you can’t come over, because it’s true, what they say, all of it, I’m a sellout and a fraud, a traitor to my people and a disappointment to God.

But Jesus just stood there, and somehow Zacchaeus sensed that Jesus knew. But he wasn’t looking at him with judgment. He didn’t wear that same cloudy expression Zacchaeus was used to everywhere he went.

He knew who Zacchaeus was. And he wanted to come over anyway. 

The crowd seemed to catch on to what was happening. “You can’t go to his house,” came one voice.  “Don’t you know who he is?”  “He’s a sinner!” another voice said.  “Sinner!” came more voices.  The voices echoed and blurred in Zacchaeus’s ears.

And though Jesus had only asked to come to his house, without even thinking, Zacchaeus blurted out the only thing he could think of to make the voices stop: “I’m going to give half of what I own to the poor!”

The crowd got quiet for a minute.  Zacchaeus had surprised even himself again.  For a split second he regretted it.  He wondered if he could take it back.

But then he saw a little smile begin to form on Jesus’ face.

So he didn’t take it back.  Instead, Zacchaeus took a deep breath, and he said, a little shakily this time, but with resolve: “And if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back four times over.”

He was surprised to find that it felt good to say it.  He felt lighter, somehow, like possibilities were opening before him, like things could be different, and he didn’t have to fight so hard anymore. He looked Jesus in the eye this time, and laughed. Not because it was funny, but because he was free.

Jesus laughed back.  “Child of God,” he said, “this is what salvation feels like.” 

He put a hand gently on Zacchaeus’s back, and on they walked, down the road to Zacchaeus’s house.

Star Words: Call

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 4:18-22

“Call” is a word I’ve used a lot since I became a pastor. In fact, if I had a way to go back and tally things up, it might be the Star Word I’ve used the most of all the Star Words on our list. I’ve used it to talk about my own entrance into ministry, and with people discerning whether that is their path too. I often use it in sermons: I pose it as a question – where is God calling us? – or as an answer: This is what God calls us to. Sometimes I use it in conversation with you all: how are you feeling called to serve?

I think that before I was a pastor, or at least before I was in the process toward becoming one, I didn’t use the word call very much. And that does make me wonder if it’s another one of those words we throw around in church without necessarily stopping to talk about what it means.

It’s not that the word or concept of call or calling is entirely absent from our secular world. It is a word we use sometimes, not just in the sense of a conversation on the phone but in the sense of fulfilling a higher purpose: so-and-so has found their calling. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Disney movie Moana – it came out about 5 years ago but I had never seen it until this fall when Moana became suddenly very popular in our house. Moana is Disney’s Polynesian princess, the daughter of a chief who sets out to help her island in a time of need. She stands at the brink of the sea and knows she is supposed to cross it, just like her ancestors once did. “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,” she sings in the song “How Far I’ll Go.” So we do hear and understand these things, both inside church and out.

What I don’t know is whether we mean the same thing. What does it mean to be called by God? And maybe the most important question: how do we know?

If you think about those stories in the Bible that we sometimes call “call stories,” there is seldom any room to doubt just what is happening and what’s supposed to happen next. Moses encounters a burning bush in the wilderness and hears a voice telling him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. The prophet Isaiah sees smoke filling the temple and the threshold shakes as he hears “Whom shall I send?” For Jonah it takes being swallowed up by a giant fish to convince him to go proclaim God’s grace to his enemies in Nineveh. Mary has a face-to-face conversation with an angel who tells her she is going to be the mother of Jesus. And later, when that baby boy grows up, fishermen drop their nets at the sound of his voice, and follow.

I used to think that call stories should happen like that – the proverbial flash of lightning, the one, clear answer or direction for your life, that when God made it known, you knew. And I know people now, with stories like that. But for most people, I think, that’s not how it works.

I know that for me, call was something I awakened to gradually. I read books by faith leaders who inspired me with their work and sacrifice for justice. I learned to read the Bible in a new way and fell in love with God’s story. I met people and had the growing realization that these were God’s people, in all their varying colors and backgrounds and abilities and stories.  The more I learned about the Kingdom of God, this vision of divine reality here on earth, where all are loved and all are valued and all are welcome, the more I wanted to invite other people to be part of that vision with me. And I prayed and I asked questions and I talked to people and they said things like, “Yeah, that sounds right,” and “We’ve always seen something of that in you.”

I didn’t go to college thinking that I was headed to seminary when I graduated. But somewhere along the way it was a thought that crossed my mind, and came and went for a while, until eventually it didn’t go away anymore.

Like most pastors I know, I’ve told my call story a lot of times by now, from my interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry to the random conversation in line at 7-11, and I think one of the mistakes we make in church is assuming that call stories are only for pastors, because we’re the ones that tell them. But they’re not. God calls all sorts of people to all sorts of different things: to teaching, to science, to caregiving, to politics, to art. These are vocations that are every bit as crucial to the Kingdom of God, to God’s intended reality here on earth, as standing up to preach every Sunday (or sitting down, as the case may be) and each of those journeys, I know, has its own holy story.

And that story might even change over time, as new chapters are added. I used to think that “call” was when you knew the one thing you were meant to do with your life, even if it might have been any number of things. I don’t necessarily believe that now. I used to hear people in ministry say a lot that you shouldn’t be a pastor if you could imagine yourself doing anything else. I don’t know if that’s a thing they say in other professions, but I think it misses the mark. I could see myself doing lots of things. This one, I believe, on most days, is the best way I can use my gifts and passions and skills for the glory of God. I prefer that quote by Frederick Buechner – “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Note that “calling” is not synonymous with “career.” Not all of us will find our deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger doing the thing that pays us money. Some of us have to put food on the table; not everyone has the luxury of being choosy. Some of us may be unable to work at a job; others may be past that point in their life. Still, some people answer their God-given call by volunteering with kids on the weekends, or serving in church leadership; some people answer their call less by doing a certain thing and more by doing whatever it is they do in a certain way: by making sure their employees are treated fairly, by making choices with integrity, by bringing joy to their neighbors, or by always looking for a chance to help. Maybe the problem is that sometimes, we make the idea of “call” too fancy. We think we have to be the chosen one; when really, we can be called on any given day to make the hard choice, to welcome someone new, to forgive someone, to march or sit or ride a bus, or to pick up the phone and let someone know they’re loved. Sometimes, God called people, like Moses, to a lifelong position; sometimes God called people, like Jonah, to a particular task. Sometimes, when Jesus tells us to drop our nets, he means for the rest of our lives; sometimes, maybe, he means for today – and nets or no nets, we follow him.

I love the story the author Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a hard decision she once had to make.  She prayed and prayed, hoping God would reveal to her which path God wanted her to take. Eventually, she said, the answer she got was this: “Do whatever pleases you, and belong to me.”[1]

In the end, our ultimate, unchanging call is this: to be God’s people in the world. In the end, our call is this: to follow Jesus in whatever circumstances we find ourselves; to love God and our neighbor with everything God has given us. And might God sometimes have a more specific task or purpose for us? Sure. And if we are living every day with the intention of giving what we have for the God’s glory, then I suspect we won’t miss that call when it comes. And if we do? There will be other chances.

You may never see the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, or meet an angelic messenger face to face, or hear a voice booming from heaven. But we follow one who called fishermen and tax collectors, overlooked women and Pharisees, and he calls us too, to live and love as God intended, and to use our gifts for the Kingdom of God.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Star Words: Salvation

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10; Ephesians 2:4-10

Maybe you’ve heard of a man named Zacchaeus. You may remember him best as the man who climbed a tree to see Jesus. He worked as a tax collector, a low-level agent of the Roman Empire whose job it was to extract tribute from its unwilling subjects. The advantage of being a tax-collector, of course, was that you also got to demand a little extra on the side, and one could apparently make quite the living that way.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as Jesus traveled through Jericho to Jerusalem. The crowds were big and Zacchaeus was, as they say, a wee little man, so he climbed a nearby tree to see better. Imagine his surprise when Jesus stopped right in front of that tree, shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked up, and said, “Go home and start the coffee, Zacchaeus, I’m coming over.”

He didn’t say anything about Zacchaeus’s unpopular profession. He didn’t say anything about repentance. And yet as Zacchaeus climbed down he said “I promise, Lord, I’ll give half my possessions to the poor – and if I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll pay them back four times what I took!” And Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Salvation – that ultimate churchy word. It is in some sense the reason most of us are here, because we want it for ourselves. And yet we might not all understand that word in the same way, and there may be those of us who aren’t quite sure what it’s really getting at at all. That’s why salvation is our next Star Word, on our list of words we use in church sometimes without really stopping to define them.

I know that when I hear a word like “saved,” I often think of those signs you sometimes see on the side of the highway: If you died tonight, where would you go? One side of the sign usually depicts heaven, with some majestic clouds and angelic light, and the other side depicts the flames of hell. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it promises, and the answer can be different. Sometimes there is a number to call.

I do not happen to personally appreciate this form of evangelism, but I do think the sign expresses something of the way many of us have been taught to understand salvation: that first, it’s about what happens when you die, and second, it’s a big ol’ either-or.  

I don’t think that what happens after we die is irrelevant. And I don’t doubt that along the way there is a choice to be made. I do suspect that if we treat salvation as just a yes or no question, there’s a lot there that we’re missing. 

After all, what did Jesus mean when he said of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house”? Did he mean that as of that moment, a switch flipped, and Zacchaeus was destined for heaven instead of hell? Zacchaeus made no formal statement of faith in Jesus, though he clearly saw something in him he wanted. Jesus recognizes that a shift has occurred – but he doesn’t talk explicitly about life after death.

A few weeks ago you heard me talk about the word grace, and how John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, saw grace at work in our lives. What Wesley believed was this: that we are all created in the image of God. Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that God also has two arms and some legs and a nose. It means that we are created for love – to love and be loved. Something, however, has gone wrong, because we don’t love God and each other like we are made to. That is sin, that thing we talked about a few weeks ago that is in us and bigger than us. Because of sin, we have lost something of that divine image.[1]

When I thought I was going to be doing this from church this morning, I had a bowl to show you. (You’re going to have to use your imagination with me here.) It’s a pretty pottery bowl, and I accidentally broke it one Christmas Eve when I used it to hold some candles and it fell off the piano, and ever since it’s been my go-to illustration for brokenness and wholeness. It is both beautifully made and broken. You can still see its beauty and goodness. You can still see what it was created for. It even still holds things. But it can’t completely fulfill its purpose.

Wesley believed that God’s prevenient grace is still at work in our lives from the beginning to draw our broken selves back to God. He believed that when we are ready to say no to sin and the forces of evil and yes to God and God’s love, God’s justifying grace reconciles us to God. And God’s sanctifying grace continues to work on us for our whole lives (as we let it) – helping us love better, and restoring us fully in the image of God.[2] The bowl goes back together. Did you hear that verse of the first hymn we sang today? Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.[3]

What’s more, Wesley believed that that whole process was salvation – that salvation is a journey, and not a destination. He said, in fact, in a sermon on the topic: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness…It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death…The salvation which is here spoken of may be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul until it is consummated in glory.”[4]

When Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’s house that day, this is what I imagine he means: that Zacchaeus has recognized and accepted God’s unconditional love for him, that he will live differently in light of that from this day forward. And probably he’ll mess up, and try again, and figure it out and learn and grow, but in all of that, life for Zacchaeus will never be the same again.

I preached something along these lines a few years back and one of the comments I got afterwards was: well, that’s nice, but I’m trying to get into heaven here. And I get it, right? That is, perhaps, the ultimate question, at least as far as it relates to our own individual destinies, and may seem especially urgent if the here and now isn’t really cutting it. In Sunday Bible study the question that came up multiple times as we made our way through the New Testament last year was what about people who are good people but who aren’t Christian, who don’t profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior – what happens to them, after? OK, maybe salvation isn’t just about getting into heaven – but at the same time, we’d really like to know the requirements for that.

It is by grace you have been saved through faith, Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians (2:8).

I of course don’t know for sure exactly what happens after this life. People may claim to know how it all works, but I would be skeptical of that. You’re welcome to come explore with us what the Bible has to say about some of these big questions further after worship today in Bible study. What I can say is that by faith, I know a God whose grace is bigger than I could ever imagine, who will search us out when we’re hiding, up in a tree somewhere, who calls us down and wants to come over, even though we’re sinners, who is the creator of new possibilities in us and for us. And I can’t believe that that grace ends with death, and I have to believe that somehow, when all is said and done, the wideness of God’s mercy will be known.

When Paul writes to the Ephesians he is writing to people who didn’t know God – until they met God in Jesus. And who didn’t have reason to count themselves among God’s people – until they did. That was God’s grace; that was their leap of faith; that, to them, was salvation. And it meant that they could no longer live life in the same way as before. Kind of like our friend Zacchaeus.

Salvation: not a box to be checked, or a number to call; not just a yes or a no: but new life, there for the living, now.

Someday, the dead will be raised. Someday, God’s Kingdom will come. But in the meantime, I believe, as we allow our hearts to be shaped in love like God’s own, we can begin to experience it here together. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place; till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.[5]

[1] John Wesley, “The Image of God” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 13-21.

[2] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 371-380.

[3] Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The United Methodist Hymnal #384

[4] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 372.

[5] Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The United Methodist Hymnal #384.

Star Words: Grace

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

Every once in a while someone asks you a question that you think you know the answer to, until you actually try to put your answer into words. That’s what happened to me a couple weeks ago when the question “What is grace” came up in Sunday Bible study. As I told you last week, that question was the prompt for this series we’re doing on words we throw around in church a lot without always knowing what they mean.  What is grace? It’s…grace. It just is.

That, of course, is not really a good answer, and it’s an even worse sermon.

I thought a bit about how we use the word grace, not just in church but in life. There but for the grace of God go I, we might say when we see a friend or neighbor going through a rough time – which reminds us that we are not better than them just because things are going better for us, but also might raise some questions about why God’s grace is apparently so selective. Another one I’ve heard a lot these days, largely from women who are trying to hold down full-time jobs and maybe homeschool kids and care for their families and themselves. Give yourself grace: it is a way of reminding each other that imperfection is allowed. Each of those phrases might give us some glimpse into what grace is; neither really encapsulates it.

The most common way I’ve heard grace defined is unmerited favor. And, in fact, every church or denomination in Western Christianity seems to use some version of this definition. Our United Methodist Book of Disciple puts it this way: grace is the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.[1] In other words, at its most basic level, grace is simply God’s goodness present and at work in our lives. It is the gift of waking up to a new day, the view of the sunrise out your window and the song of the birds as you sip your morning coffee; it’s the help of friends and neighbors when times are tough; it’s the strength you somehow find in yourself in the midst of adversity and real forgiveness in the face of real wrong; it’s the promise of hope when everything around you is hopeless.

None of those, things that we earn; none of those, things we can buy (except, I guess, the coffee); none of those, things we deserve; all, gifts freely given by a God who loves us.

I suppose that’s why grace is hard to define, because it’s all of those things, and more.

But Methodists also have a pretty distinctive understanding of God’s grace works in a life of faith. I told you last week, when we talked about the word sin, that we had to start there before we could get to grace. That’s not because sin precedes grace; God’s grace is present in creation itself. But to fully understand grace, we have to know that sin is a problem. And we have to know that it’s our problem. We are all created in the image of God, to love and be loved, but we also all have to reckon with the fact that there is this thing in us and outside us and bigger than us that has tarnished that image.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement, believed that God’s grace – that unmerited goodness – is present in our lives even so. He called this prevenient grace. This is grace that goes before us and meets us wherever we go. It’s God’s grace that is always with you, no matter what, before you know it, whether or not you believe in God at all.

When I baptize a baby, for example, we’re testifying to prevenient grace at work. That baby doesn’t know what’s going on. She isn’t able to say that she’s sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He isn’t able to make a commitment to a new way of life in following Jesus. But we baptize babies and children anyway because we believe that God is already at work in their lives, hopefully with our help, bringing them to the point where they will be able to make that decision for themselves.

Prevenient grace is grace that allows us to finally say yes.

But at some point we do have to say yes, and that brings us to justifying grace.

We could say that it’s the grace that wakes us up. It’s when we suddenly look around and realize we’ve been surrounded by prevenient grace the whole time, and what’s more, we needed it, because we are in fact broken, and we do not want to be. But then we also realize that we are forgiven, and accepted, and that God loves us anyway. In other words, we are justified: through the life, death, and rising of Jesus.

Last week, when I talked about sin, I described it using the example of the sin of racism – how it’s a matter of personal choices made on a day-to-day basis, but also a matter of heart and the unconscious prejudice we often hold there, as well as a matter of forces that are bigger than us. Every preacher knows that to end a sermon on some good news, but I struggled with that last week. It’s easy to talk about grace when it’s forgiveness for something little, a one-time action in the past. But racism isn’t past. What does grace look like when we talk about the sin of racism? Surely it can’t be just a pat on the back for white people, God saying, it’s OK, you mean well, while Black people continued to be murdered in their homes by misinformed police and polling sites are closed and an armed mob storms the Capitol waving Confederate flags and wearing Nazi shirts? That would be what the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call cheap grace, grace that makes us feel good but demands nothing from us.

In the last week and a half, whenever I’ve heard pleas for national healing and unity and moving forward, that’s the term that comes to mind: cheap grace. Because we haven’t reckoned with the things that divide us, and there is still no justice for those who are still marginalized in our society.

The same goes for me: how can I ask for grace when I know that I still haven’t fully reckoned with the privilege that comes from generations of whiteness?

But justifying grace isn’t cheap grace. It’s grace found in repentance: not just feeling sorry, but turning away. I am loved, no matter what. And I don’t have to be perfect. But I do have to keep turning.

It’s God’s justifying grace that allows something new to begin. This is the grace of which we sing: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

In some traditions, this might have been the end of the story, but not for Wesley. In fact, something that Wesley struggled with is the fact that people who called themselves Christian just didn’t seem to be actually better or nicer or more loving than anyone else. Have you heard the quote, “Christians aren’t better people, they’re just forgiven?” Well, Wesley would have hated that quote. Grace, for Wesley, isn’t just a one-time thing; it continues to unfold through the course of our lives helping us grow in love and holiness. He called this sanctifying grace: grace that doesn’t stop at forgiving us, but can actually change us. This is the grace, for example, that allows me to keep doing the work of examining my own privilege and prejudice and to begin saying no; to become someone who embodies justice and reconciliation instead. Not a one-time event, but a lifelong process of allowing myself to be shaped into the person God created me to be.[2]

And maybe that’s a lot. So maybe I’ll go back to the beginning: grace is God’s goodness at work in our lives, in ways we can never earn or buy or deserve. Sometimes it looks like a sunrise and a helping hand from a friend. Sometimes it looks like mercy: God’s unconditional love and complete forgiveness of a wretch like me. Sometimes it looks like growth: God giving me what I need to love my neighbor better, whether that’s a word from the Bible, or the opportunity for ongoing confession, or the experience of God’s presence in bread and wine at communion.

Maybe you’ve heard of a guy named Paul. He was fervent in his beliefs, steadfast in his commitment, clear in his understanding of right and wrong. He went after early followers of Christ. He tracked them down and turned them in and, when one of them was stoned for blasphemy, he held the coats of those who did the stoning. And then one day he saw a bright light and heard a voice from heaven, and nothing was ever the same again.

We heard his words just before I began speaking. “I am what I am by the grace of God,” he said.

And from then on, Paul was God’s person, devoted to God’s work: to sharing the message with others, that they are loved, they are included, they are forgiven, that they can be God’s people, too. That is, he says, not me, but the grace of God working in me. God’s free gift, not one he ever deserved, but one that continued working and unfolding in his life to the very end.

What is grace? It’s God loving you into creation, calling you back when you went astray, calling you God’s own; it’s God forgiving you and calling you into new life and forgiving you again. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. It is by grace that we go out to be God’s people in the world.

[1] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016, p. 51.

[2] John Wesley, The Scripture Way of Salvation. http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-43-the-scripture-way-of-salvation/

Star Words: Sin

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11; Romans 7:14-25

A few weeks ago in Bible study, toward the end of our journey through the Bible in a year one of the participants asked a simple question. “What is grace?” she said.

It was a question that caught me momentarily off guard. The person who asked was not a new Christian, someone who had grown up in church. And grace is a word we use all the time in church. And there I was, just bandying it about in Bible study like we all knew what it meant.

When I thought about it, though, I realized I wasn’t that surprised. There are lots of these words we bandy about in church without ever really stopping to define them, and maybe we kind of know what they mean through a process of absorption over time, but maybe also in this process we’ve been left not always knowing what we’re talking about, and maybe with questions we’re afraid to ask.

So I introduce you to our latest sermon series, Star Words, a reference to the “star words” we chose for Epiphany last week to guide us through the coming year. The words we’ll talk about over the next few weeks will be words that are basic to our Christian faith, so basic that perhaps we rarely stop to actually ask what they mean.

We’re going to start today with the word sin. And yes, I realize that sin would make a pretty bad star word; it’s not a word you’re going to hang on your refrigerator all year. But it is, in a way, our starting point: we have to talk about sin before we talk about grace and salvation and all those nicer words. And it is one of those words we bandy about in church, perhaps without being totally clear on what it is. We know it when we see it, or at least we think we do, but that’s not quite the same.

I have to issue a caveat here – and this is a drum I’ve beaten all through our Bible in a Year study – which is that the Bible isn’t written by one person. It’s written by lots of people, sometimes even within the same book, and those people have different opinions and perspectives. And so that is to say that the Bible’s not a dictionary, you don’t just look up sin under the letter s and find a definition. Nevertheless! It is good to have a working definition that can be the starting point for our theological conversation.

On a very basic level, we might say that sin is something bad you do. We could go all the way back to the Garden of Eden here. The first two humans in creation are placed in a garden, and in the center of the garden is a tree, and the tree is bearing fruit. And God says to the two humans, to Adam and Eve, you can eat what you want from any tree in this garden – except that one. And what do they do? They eat it anyway.

The word sin is not used yet in this story, and yet it has informed so much of how we think of sin. Sin, here, is disobedience to God. And sin is that: we see it over and over again in the story of God’s people, how God told them not to worship other gods, but they worshiped other gods. How God told them to be good to the poor, but they exploited the poor instead.

Maybe this is also the basic way we think about sin in our own lives. What is sin? It’s that lie I told; it’s the time I walked past that person in need; it’s the thing I said to my annoying coworker last week; it’s any number of worse things I might have done or left undone. And yes, I’d call all of those things sin, or at least they might be.

And yet to call sin simply a matter of breaking rules, of racking up demerits, sounds a little simplistic, doesn’t it? We can’t even seem to agree on what God’s rules are, or which ones in the Bible still apply to us today. Understanding how God wants us to live is important, but there must be something more to talk about than just a list of rules.

The Hebrew Bible tends to be known by Christians for its rules, but even there, we find an understanding that the problem of sin goes deeper than just bad things we do. In Psalm 51, for example, which we often read on Ash Wednesday, we hear the Psalmist pray: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This Psalm is linked in its heading to David and his “taking” of Bathsheba: one very bad decision that, in the story, leads on to a number of other bad decisions as David tries to cover his tracks. This Psalm, though, acknowledges that sinfulness is more than just a collection of bad decisions: it’s something about us, something that has been there since birth. When the Psalmist prays “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” it is not just about forgiveness for one act; it is the whole heart that is the problem and that needs cleansing.

As we get into the New Testament, and especially into the letters of Paul, sin starts to mean something even bigger than that. You heard some of his words from Romans before: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” For Paul, sin is not just a human tendency but a force both within and outside of ourselves, to which we are beholden. Surely we can relate to this: the feeling of wanting to do one thing, but doing another instead, the feeling that we can’t escape our own brokenness and failing and that of the world around us no matter what we do. For Paul, sin is something that rules and enslaves us.

For me, one of the most useful ways I’ve come to understand sin in all its aspects is through the example of racism. On a basic level, I am a person who can make choices, good or bad, when it comes to how I treat people of different races. I can choose to snub someone of a different race than me, or make offensive jokes, or pass them over for a job I’m hiring for. Those are all sins, and all require repentance.

But I think most of us know racism is more than that. It’s not just a matter of simple good and bad choices. Instead, speaking as a white person in America, those decisions I make each day about how to treat my neighbors are tinged by ideas that I’ve absorbed since I was born about who is good, and who is smart, and who is dangerous. These are not things I’ve been explicitly taught; they’re in the American air we breathe. And so when I make that decision about hiring, maybe I don’t make it based on race – but that’s there, underneath, shaping my opinion of the person whose resume is on my desk. And maybe, when I call the police on someone unfamiliar in my neighborhood, I don’t do it just because they’re brown or Black, but at the same time, if I’m honest, I might have felt less threatened if they were white. This is sin, not just the sin of individual choices, but sin that requires a new heart, cleansed of all bias and prejudice.

And it’s bigger than that, too. Racism isn’t just about me or other people like me, but, in America, it’s a reality in which we live. It is not just inside us but all around us, in the monuments that line our streets, the gross economic inequality that exists between white people and Black or Latino people, our failure to come to terms with our history of slavery and Jim Crow, in policies that make it harder for Black people to vote.  We saw it this week, when an armed mob of mostly white people protesting election results broke into the Capitol waving not just Trump flags, but Confederate flags, and Nazi flags, and wearing shirts that said things like “Camp Auschwitz.” This was not just politics, but white supremacy on display, and still, and still these protestors were met with less resistance from police than many of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, especially as they first arrived at the Capitol. This is sin, and it’s sin that we all here in America live and move within. And many of us, I’m sure, feel powerless to change it.

And yet the individual choices we make do still matter.  It matters that we call out white supremacy when we see it in our lives or on the news. It matters that we do our parts to change unjust policies. It matters that we choose to interrogate our own assumptions and biases. It matters that we repent when we fail to do these things. Sin is all these things: a matter of choice and a matter of heart and a matter of the forces over which we have little control.

But sin is not the end of the story. For Christians, sin is always met by grace: grace that doesn’t excuse us, but does change us. And yes, grace will be the next word we talk more about next week. As we find our new identity in Christ, who has died and risen, Paul tells us we enter into a new reality, one where sin doesn’t wield its power over us any longer.[1]

At the beginning of the service, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, and in a few minutes we will remember ours as well. Before we are baptized, in the United Methodist Church, we take some vows – or, if we are too young, someone takes them on our behalf, and we confirm them later. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? We are asked, and we say, we do. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? We do. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord? We do. We do.

In our baptism, we say no to sin and yes to grace. No to injustice and oppression and yes to justice and mercy. No to the forces of wickedness and yes to the power of the love of Jesus Christ.

It seems like a good time to remember and renew those vows.

And, in baptism, we find a new beginning. We have all sinned. We have all fallen short of God’s glory. We have all participated in evils larger than ourselves. And the good news is that our sinful, broken selves are met by a God who loves us, gives us new hearts, and empowers us to live, serve, reject, and resist in the reality of grace.

[1] Interpretation: Romans by Paul J. Achtemeier was helpful to me in my understanding of Paul’s concept of sin and grace as two different realms we live in.

Christmas Eve: The God Who is Already Here

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

When I was little, Christmas always meant a trip to Philadelphia, where my dad’s family lived. We’d wake up Christmas morning and open presents around my grandmother’s tree. Family members who lived nearby – and they all lived nearby – would stop in throughout the day, and at night we’d gather at my Aunt Kay’s house a few blocks over for dinner and a party. Sometime during that week we would gather with my mom’s family at my Aunt Cindy’s house an hour or so away, exchange gifts and play games with my cousins. We’d always be back at my grandmother’s in Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve, when the whole family would gather again and cook sauerkraut and watch Dick Clark on TV and go outside on the steps at midnight with noisemakers, along with the rest of the block.

As I got older, Christmas changed. We started spending Christmas Eve night at home in Virginia and opening gifts around our own tree in the morning before making the drive to Gram’s. When I was 14, Aunt Kay died, and we started having a smaller holiday meal with my grandmother and uncle. The gatherings with my mom’s side of the family persisted until my grandparents died, but the cousins grew up and had families and went our separate ways. Even then, our trips would only last a day or two; we hadn’t stayed for New Year’s in a while.

In my first few years as a pastor, I had Christmas morning services to attend to, and so I stopped going to Pennsylvania at all. I just couldn’t make it home in time. My parents and brother still went, though, so that left me on my own to make Christmas plans with a friend or boyfriend’s family. When I started seriously dating Jon, we started alternating holidays between our two families, so Christmas was different every year.

I’m sure your Christmases have looked different over the years, too. There are faces that have faded out of the picture and new ones added in; the scenery has changed; old traditions have been lost and new ones begun. I think it helps to remember that in a year when, for many of us, Christmas looks and feels different from ever before. The family get togethers have been abandoned or modified, we’re figuring out how to cook meals for ourselves, there have been no parties with the neighbors, no caroling, no trips to the mall to see Santa. And maybe for some of us there’s some relief in these changes: less family drama to manage, a less frenzied pace to the season, but for many of us, I think, Christmas feels a little deflated this year, too.

This Advent season we talked about waiting, as we always do during Advent, and how we’re not just waiting for the birth of a baby or a day on a calendar, but waiting for the second coming of Christ, and the culmination of God’s Kingdom here on earth. And Advent worked, Advent resonated, Advent made sense, this year, I think, because it’s been a year of waiting – for the curve to trend back down, for a vaccine to come, for this pandemic to be over. But now Christmas is here and we’re still waiting. And Christmas isn’t supposed to be about waiting: it’s supposed to be about promises fulfilled.

So what do we do with that this year?

Mary and Joseph, of course, didn’t have Christmases past to get nostalgic about. There were no traditions to maintain, no one on the radio crooning “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to make them tear up, no childish sense of wonder to try to conjure. There was just real life: An inconveniently-timed journey forced by an oppressive ruler; no room to be found in a busy city; a birth that didn’t happen according to anyone’s birth plan; uninvited guests who smelled like sheep. We’ve successfully romanticized it over the years, but Christmas has never been about conforming to all our best-laid and cherished plans.

Maybe it helps to remember how much still hadn’t happened on that first Christmas night. Yes, a baby was born. Yes, angels appeared and sang to shepherds, who went to see for themselves. Yes, absolutely, something significant happened that night in Bethlehem.

But there was so much still to come. Bodies healed, meals shared, lives restored, hearts reconciled to God. Stories of God’s Kingdom told to crowds on a mountainside. Questions asked and new commandments given: love one another as I have loved you. Disciples who heard the call and dropped their fishing nets to follow. A palm parade, and a final meal, and a cross, and an empty tomb. As Mary held that baby in her arms, it was the future she saw and pondered in her heart. And as the shepherds returned to their fields rejoicing, it was this child’s future that gave them reason to rejoice.

Christmas was never the end of the story. It was always the beginning, always a promise of more to come, always an invitation to keep waiting.

But it IS a beginning, a reminder that God is at work in the brokenness and imperfection of our world, when all our best laid plans have amounted to nothing. It IS a beginning, proof that God’s story is still unfolding, and that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, God will find a way to be with us. That God is with us now, this Christmas when nothing is as it should be, just as God has been with us in all the Christmases of our lives.

We may still feel stuck in our Advent waiting. But we are not alone in our waiting. Because the Christ who will come one day in glory to make everything right is that baby in the manger, born to us and for us when nothing is right with the world.

We are not alone: maybe that’s the good news we need in a year of isolation. There is still so much to wait for, so many reasons to hope that next year will be better than this one. But there is also reason to rejoice: because the God on whom we wait is the God who is already here.

Advent Apocalypse: God Who Rends the Heavens

Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-4

This past Monday morning, at 9:20 am, an ICU nurse named Sandra Lindsay made history when she became the first person in the US to receive a Covid-19 vaccine after its FDA approval.[1] Since then, over the course of this week, more pictures and videos of healthcare workers receiving vaccines have been  popping up in my social media feed and in the news. I talked to a mentor on Wednesday whose husband is a physician’s assistant in a hospital outside of Harrisonburg, who had just gotten his first dose earlier that morning. “It’s real,” she said. “I keep telling people it’s real. If we have it here in Augusta County, VA, it’s real.”

Collectively, this week, it seems, the world – or at least our part of it – has breathed a sigh of relief. We’ve gotten that collective lump in our throat seeing these pictures and hearing this news. We still have a long way to go in our battle against Covid-19. Some less well-off countries undoubtedly have longer. And things will probably still get worse before they truly get better. But, for just a moment this week, it was as if there was a ray of hope breaking through a thoroughly apocalyptic year.

And it has been an apocalyptic year, in all senses of that word. Our lives have been turned upside down. There are things that will probably never be the same as they were Before, for better or for worse. And the crisis of epidemic has done a lot to reveal its truth about who we are as a society: from the social and political divisions highlighted through science we can’t agree on, to the racial disparity and economic fragility we ignore at our peril.

This week, though, we could dare to believe that maybe the world isn’t ending after all.

We have often, in the past nine months, called these “unprecedented times,” but people, of course, have lived through apocalyptic times before, some decidedly worse than these. (Worse, at least, for those of us who mostly have to stay inside and have Zoom meetings.) Once in a while I will still come across a picture of shelled-out buildings in a barren landscape in Syria or Yemen and try to imagine, or perhaps try not to imagine too hard, what it must be like to be someone in one of those places at this time.

Sometimes, likewise, I read the Bible and try to imagine, or perhaps try not to imagine too hard, what it must have been like to live in Jerusalem in 587 BCE when the city fell to the Babylonian Empire after being under siege for over a year.

It’s that history that the prophet Isaiah has in mind in today’s Scripture reading: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! It’s part of a longer passage in which the prophet remembers God’s faithful acts in the past: how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. Where is that God now? the prophet wants to know, as God’s people sit in exile and Jerusalem remains in ruins. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. God, why don’t you show yourself? Because when it seems like the world is ending, that is literally the only hope we have left.

The prophet’s prayer contains a note of desperation that we don’t normally hear during Advent, because if all we are waiting for in Advent is the birth of the baby in a manger, we can expect with full confidence that it will come as scheduled. All we have to do is light the candles and count the days, open the little doors on our Advent calendars. But maybe at some point this year, or at another time in your life, you’ve felt it. That desperate plea has been yours. O that you would tear open the heavens; O that you would rend the heavens – I like that translation, rend. And maybe God did. Or maybe God hasn’t, yet. And so I think it’s appropriate to conclude an apocalyptic Advent with a prayer like this one, because when everything else has been exhausted, desperation is what we are left with. There’s nothing we can do ourselves that we haven’t tried, and we are forced to look outside ourselves and our own power to make anything better.

In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, the preacher Fleming Rutledge writes about how the second coming of Christ is discontinuous with what has come before. “It means,” she writes, “that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God” (p. 20-21). God’s coming kingdom is not a matter of our own human progress, if we are in fact making any at all. We talk often in church about building God’s kingdom here on earth. I know you hear that language because I use it all the time. There is something powerful and, to me, inspiring about accepting our mission to be part of this ultimate task. This apocalyptic Advent has made me reconsider that, though. Nothing I can do is going to bring God’s Kingdom in all its glory; all I can do is live in a way that makes me ready when it comes. This Isaiah also recognizes in his urgent prayer over the fallen temple: “But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are the potter” (64:8). All he and his people can do is cry into the heavens, and wait for God’s response.

We’ve learned something about waiting and praying in the past nine months.  Scientists across the world, of course, have been hard at work to make a vaccine happen. For most of us, though, who aren’t part of that work, we’ve had to reckon with our own powerlessness. Yes, we have worn our masks, and yes, we’ve stayed home more, and yes, perhaps we’ve donated money or food or time to lighten the load of others, but in the end, most of us have had to wait for news that something new was coming. And it seems to me that this has been a very Advent-y season, this whole time, because one of the things we’ve had to grapple with is our inability to change this reality on our own.

Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of someone who recognizes their own powerlessness. But it is not a hopeless powerlessness. In these past nine months, I think, we have been largely powerless, but we have not been hopeless. And that’s why we’ve worn our masks and made our donations and done our best to help flatten the curves – because we have hope that this will not be forever; because we have hope that something new is on the horizon. These things are our witness to our belief in better days to come.

Try to envision this divine entrance into the world the way the prophet does. Come down, Isaiah says, and the mountains will quake, and the nations will tremble, and it will be like fire sweeping through brushwood. It will be like water coming to a boil.

It’s quite a way to picture God coming into our world, right? This kind of divine arrival that is pictured and longed and called for is not exactly Santa Claus coming to town. It’s not even Jesus, the baby in the manger, who couldn’t manage to get a reservation elsewhere. Here, apocalypse calls for apocalypse: when it seems like the world is ending, the only thing left is for God to tear open the heavens and toss the mountains aside and make it right.

And Isaiah may not know it then, but the divine response will come. Jerusalem will not remain in ruins forever. Because the God who hears our desperate cries is a God who is desperate to come to us, knocking mountains out of their way and leaving fire in their wake.

For a moment this week, it was as if a ray of hope broke through this truly apocalyptic year, and we dared to believe that maybe the world wasn’t ending, after all.

But still we wait: for justice to be done. For right to vindicated. For the mighty to fall and the lowly to be exalted, the hungry to be fed and the full to be sent away. Still we wait: for the power of death to be vanquished; for every tear to be wiped away, for needless suffering to cease. Still we wait: for our own hearts to be remade in the image of God’s.

We wait, and are powerless in our waiting, but the one we wait on is the one with power and authority over all creation. And as our desperate cries reach heaven, somewhere in the distance, the mountains begin to quake.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/14/nyregion/us-covid-vaccine-first-sandra-lindsay.html

Advent Apocalypse: Keep Awake

Scripture: Mark 13:28-37

If you were a kid in the early 90’s, or if you had kids in the early 90’s, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with my favorite Christmas movie of all time, Home Alone (followed by Home Alone 2 as a close second). In case it’s been a while, the movie is the story of 8-year old Kevin McCallister, who gets accidentally left behind when his large family goes on Christmas vacation. It turns out some local thieves who call themselves the Wet Bandits, because they always leave the water on, have been planning to rob Kevin’s house while the family is out of town. Kevin discovers their plan and lays an elaborate set of booby traps made out of children’s toys and Christmas ornaments and other household implements to catch them in the act. The bad guys arrive and hilarity ensues, set to a now-classic soundtrack.

I’ve realized, more recently, that while Home Alone may be one of the great Christmas movies of our time, it’s actually also a really good Advent movie, because a key theme of Advent is being ready. And not just ready like we’ve checked the necessary boxes and are ready to move on to the next thing on our holiday to-do list, not just ready for a certain date on the calendar, but ready for something big to happen at any time.

“Keep awake,” Jesus tells his disciples.

We heard part of this passage from Mark 13 last week as we began our focus on the apocalyptic side of Advent for this year. While we tend to focus on these four weeks leading up to Christmas as a time of hope, love, joy, and peace as we wait for the birth of Jesus, that’s only part of the meaning of Advent. Advent is also about waiting for the second coming of Christ, and the end of this age, when everything will be turned upside down and all that is wrong will be made right. In other words, we here in this cozy season of lights and cookies are waiting on the apocalypse. It kind of makes us sound like we should be off in a bunker somewhere, but instead, here we are, going about our lives, hoping to be caught awake when the time comes.

As Pastor Sarah from Central UMC told us last week, Jesus gives this speech to his disciples at the beginning of Holy Week, as he prepares himself and them for his suffering and death. He tells them to watch out that no one deceives them while he is gone, for false messiahs are sure to come. He tells them there will be wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and that all these things will be just the beginning of the end. He tells his disciples that they themselves will suffer, but the Holy Spirit will be with them. After all this, he says, the sun will become dark and the stars will fall and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds, to gather up his people. This is a verse that did not quite make it into most of our favorite Christmas carols, and frankly one we may rather not read as we sip our eggnog and put the finishing touches on our tree. But as Sarah and I said last week, what better year to set our hopes on something other than what is now than this one.

This week, Jesus continues his apocalyptic speech. “Nobody knows the day or the hour” when all this will happen, he says. Keep awake! “It is as if someone took a trip,” he says, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge. Keep awake! You do not know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning. Don’t be caught sleeping when he comes. Keep awake.”

It’s as if a family went on vacation and left their eight-year-old son behind in charge of the house. Keep awake! You do not know when the Wet Bandits will come. (Midnight. They come at midnight.) The Apostle Paul, in fact, says in his first letter to the Thessalonians that “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” An interesting image, there, because surely when Christ comes we’d like to greet him with something other than ice on the front step and booby traps concocted from Legos. Surely we’d like to prepare a room instead, and, you, know, vacuum. Still, the point is, be ready. If Jesus is a guest, he’s not calling ahead. Keep awake, Paul echoes, for you are children of the day, and not of the night.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. It’s been a long year. It’s a busy season. Honestly, the last thing I want to be told right now is to stay awake. Mostly, I’d like to take a long nap. Of course I don’t think Jesus means it literally: it has been 2000 years, after all. So what does it mean to keep awake as we wait for Jesus to return?

Paul talks some about this in that passage of 1 Thessalonians 5 as well. This letter is the oldest New Testament writing we have, probably from around 50 CE, and even then, it seems, people were getting tired. They expected Jesus to come back soon – he does, after all, say in Mark that this generation will not pass away before he does. They didn’t understand why he seemed to be taking his time. So when Paul tells these early Christians to keep awake, he stays, “stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet….continuing encouraging one another and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”

What does it mean to be ready for the coming of Christ? Only not to tire of all the things Christ calls us to every waking day of our lives: care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, love for our enemies, forgiveness for those with whom we live in community. Don’t lose your hope, Paul tells this tired church, that these things still matter. Don’t lose faith that this way of life will be vindicated. Keep awake.

It’s easy to grow tired, I know, when the world always seems to demand something else of us: get ahead, stock up for the future, divide into camps, let the others fend for themselves. And most days it seems like I have a long time to get it right, if I’m not right now – but I wonder sometimes what it would really look like to live like Jesus could come back anytime. What kind of urgency would that give to my faith? What choices might I make differently? How would I want to be prepared if that thief were coming tonight?

Jesus does tell his disciples that there will be signs. “Think of the fig tree,” he says. When it begins to sprout new leaves, you know that summer is near. Likewise, when things in this world seem like they can’t get any worse, “you’ll know that he is near – at the very gates.”

Fleming Rutledge, the author of Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, writes that a key image of Advent is the watchtower: “Those who serve God stand still in a dark place, but we strain forward with expectation and an unconquerable hope toward the horizon where the Sun of Righteousness will appear someday.”[1] I like that image, our eyes on the horizon. But I like this image from Mark, too: the image of Jesus already at the front gate, getting ready to knock – or to break in, as the case may be. We wait, keeping the faith, knowing all the time that he is near.

Maybe Advent is a time to watch for those signs, that Christ is near, if not yet arrived in all his glory. Signs that when the whole world seems to have gone to hell, love yet wins. Signs that suffering and division will not have the last word. Signs that oppression will cease and tyrants will not occupy their thrones forever. Signs that our hearts can still be molded after the heart of Christ. Signs that our hope is not in vain.

Maybe Advent is a time to watch for those small things, even as we wait for everything to be turned upside down.

So keep awake. Put on your armor of faithfulness and love and your helmet of salvation. Scatter your Legos in the hallways and ice down the front steps. Or, get out the vacuum and make the bed in the guestroom. Whatever metaphor you choose, Jesus is coming. When? I don’t know. But he is near, at the very gates.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, p. 86.

An Advent Apocalypse

This sermon was recorded as a dialogue with Rev. Sarah Harrison-McQueen of Central UMC, Ballston.

Scripture: Mark 13:24-27

Allie: Hey Sarah!

Sarah: Good morning, Allie! 

Allie: It’s really cool to be doing this series with you. Our churches have always been so close and so similar, and we’ve been able to take advantage of that before, we’ve swapped pulpits a couple times, and now “these unprecedented times” have opened up this new way for us to partner in worship. 

Sarah: Yes, I’m surprised to discover there are some hidden blessings in the challenges we face with virtual worship – and the opportunity to collaborate with you has been really fun! Planning his worship series for Advent with you really helped me get excited for this season. I was having a bit of a hard time this year because I love Advent and was feeling pretty sad about all the ways Advent would be different this year. There are so many things I love about Advent – especially the music and the decorations.

Allie: Yes, I love the whole feeling of the season, and I especially love the stories we tell. What’s your favorite Advent scripture, Sarah?

Sarah: I think it is when the Gospels quote from the Prophet Isaiah, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.” That scripture really captures my imagination. What’s your favorite?

Allie: I think mine would have to be the Magnificat, the song Mary sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus, about how God is turning everything upside down. How about this passage we just read from Mark 13? Have you ever heard anyone say that one was their favorite for Advent?

Sarah: Definitely not. It’s kind of weird to hear this apocalyptic reading during a season when we’re thinking about hope, love, joy, and peace. It’s in the lectionary, though. That means for churches who follow the three year lectionary cycle of scripture readings on the First Sunday of Advent they’ll hear a version of this story from Mark 13, or Luke 21, or Matthew 24. So, some committee of scholars thought it made sense for us to hear every year about an Advent Apocalypse.

Allie: It is kind of weird, and it’s easy to forget there is a reason it is tradition to hear these texts in this season. 

I’ve always loved this season leading up to Christmas, but growing up, as I began to learn more about Advent and how it was a season of waiting and expectation for the birth of Jesus, there was something that didn’t quite add up for me there. Because Jesus was already born 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. So what does it mean to wait for something that already happened? What does it mean to expect something that’s a done deal?

Yes, there’s value to living out this waiting and expecting and to telling the story of the birth of Christ year after year, but it began to seem like I was missing something. Fleming Rutledge, an author of an Advent book I’ve been reading, said, “For many years, I thought that during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came.”[1] I guess I did too.

I was in college when I learned that Advent isn’t only about waiting for the birth of the baby in the manger in Bethlehem. It’s also about waiting for the second coming of Christ. Advent is also the season that teaches us what it means to wait for and expect this thing that hasn’t happened yet. 

Sarah: That’s really helpful to remember that when we talk about “waiting” in advent we aren’t just pretending the baby Jesus hasn’t been born yet, but that we are actually waiting for something that hasn’t happened yet. But, when we start talking about the end of this age we live in sometimes that can feel a little uncomfortable. We don’t usually talk much about the Second Coming in our mainline tradition.

Allie: That’s true. Of course in our churches we all come from lots of different places and traditions, and so some of us may be more comfortable talking in those terms than others. But on the whole we don’t tend to get too apocalyptic in mainline Protestantism. I think we’re scared of sounding too out there, like those street preachers always going on about the end of the world.

Exactly. During Advent, I am usually much more comfortable talking about the Angels who appeared to Mary and Joseph – it’s new for me to consider the angels mentioned in our text today from Mark 13.

Jesus is talking to his disciples in one of his many attempts to prepare them for the future that will come following his death and resurrection. At the beginning of Chapter 13 Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. His disciples are impressed by the setting – after all, they believed this is the place to go to enter God’s presence. But, Jesus knows that one day this physical temple will fall away. And, this could cause a crisis of faith if people expect to find God in a place and then that place disappears – where do you go to find God then?

This entire chapter takes place in Mark’s Gospel just before the Passion narrative which tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus knew that his disciples would have their whole world thrown upside down by the events to come – and he tries to prepare them. When the world as we know it comes to an end it is easy to feel confused, and possibly be lured away from the truth by false messiahs and false prophets. So, Jesus warns them of what is to come – both the fall of the temple, and also at the end of time when it seems like the world is ending.

This text can feel a little scary to think about “in those days…” but it also can simply be a little confusing. On the one hand, it seems like Mark is telling the listener to expect to see this for themselves and to be prepared for the end of the world at any moment – on the other hand, it could be read like Mark is emphasizing perseverance through the hardships of this life because this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. 

So, our text gives us no clear indication if the Second Coming of Christ will happen in a minute or in a million years. When I was a kid, I remember seeing cars with the bumper sticker sharing a warning letting people know that, “in case of rapture this car will become driverless.” While that bumper sticker points to a theological understanding outside our tradition – the idea of a “rapture of the saved” with the unsaved “left behind” – it does still remind me that there is value to remembering that Christ has promised to return again to this earth. I think this season of Advent gives us a chance to turn our focus towards the future that God has promised.

Allie: There’s a reason I think many of us don’t usually want to focus on that future. For one thing: it seems really far away. Jesus hasn’t come back in 2000 years, so why should we think it’s going to be tomorrow? People are always trying to guess and predict these things, but so far, they haven’t been right. 

And the other thing is: maybe I don’t necessarily WANT Jesus to come back and usher in the end of the age. This age is OK, right? This year itself has been a little rough, but in general, I want to work and enjoy life with my family and my friends. I want to write a book. I want to visit Argentina someday. I want to spend summer vacations at the beach with my kids. So: I guess I want Jesus to come back someday, but not too soon. I have plans. 

In other words, I think, I’ve gotten complacent. 

Sarah: I can understand feeling complacent. I think 2020 has knocked a lot of us out of that complacency. And, I can imagine that for someone whose life is constantly filled with hardships, that this text could actually bring some real comfort. There is powerful hope in this text to folks experiencing their world falling apart, or when it feels like the whole world is on fire.

Allie: Yes, in a lot of ways this whole year has felt kind of like the apocalypse, hasn’t it? We’ve been on lockdown, hiding out from a potentially deadly disease; we’ve seen pictures of the makeshift morgues in hospital parking lots; we’ve gone long stretches of time without seeing other people; we’ve seen the continual reports of violence targeting people of color and the mass protests that have followed; and it feels a lot of the time like our country is on the verge of a complete breakdown along party lines. I agree that maybe one of the unexpected gifts of this year is that it’s shaken us out of our complacency. Nothing in 2020 is how it should be, and we need a reason to believe it won’t always be like this! And so when I pray “Come, Lord Jesus,” this year, I mean it: Come, and make this better. Come, and defeat the evil of this plague. Come, and give life back to those bodies in the hospital parking lot. Come, and judge our racist acts, and grant justice to those who have been oppressed. Come and turn things over and heal our wounds as a people.

2020 is a year when I need to be able to find hope not just in looking back at something that already happened, but in looking forward to something new. 

Sarah: Yes, one of the interesting experiences of 2020 is that all around the globe we’re all looking forward to something new – and for the first time in my lifetime that means millions of people are waiting and hoping for the same thing to happen as we wait for a Covid vaccine. 

Allie: Yes, and of course as the church that’s our job, to be waiting and preparing for God’s Kingdom here on earth, together. So, over the next few weeks, we’re going to get to talk about what it means to wait, and what exactly is this apocalypse we’re waiting for. Sarah, I hope this series will be able to lend new purpose and new reason to hope to this season. As the famous theologian Karl Barth once said, “What other time or season can or will the church ever have but Advent?”[2]

Sarah: Thanks be God, Amen!

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, p. 58

[2] Rutledge, p. 7