Christmas Eve: The Innkeeper’s Redemption

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

It was a busy day in Bethlehem that day.  Busy was an understatement, really – it was sheer pandemonium. The innkeeper sighed as he fought his way down the street to the market, fending off the crowds with his elbows.  He was already tired, even though he knew all the travelers in town were good for business.  His wife kept reminding him of that.

Over the last few days people had been streaming into town for the census, descendants of David or at least they claimed to be.  They showed up, some tired and dirty and ready to argue about the price of a room; others laughing and greeting friends, glad for the disruption to their ordinary routine.  One by one, his rooms filled up until there were none.  And yet still the travelers came, and he sent them away to find other rooms, in other corners of town.

That’s what the innkeeper would have wanted you to know – they weren’t the only travelers to be told there was no room that night.  They weren’t even the first.

He wasn’t a monster.  He would have wanted you to know that.  He saw that the woman – barely more than a girl, really – was already groaning and bending over in labor.  He saw the slightly ragged clothes that she and her husband wore, certainly not the clothes of people who could pay to make everything work out in their favor.  Still, they weren’t the only ones with needs, and over the past few days he’d done his best to accommodate all the needs he could.  He hadn’t charged exorbitant prices just to meet the surge in demand – unlike some of his neighbors, he might add.  He’d let a family with 6 tired and squirmy children negotiate the price down to what they could afford.  He’d felt compassion for them.  He’d even fed a couple of desperate and hungry looking travelers for free.  The innkeeper would have wanted you to know that he was the kind of person who would do these things for people.

But he couldn’t help everyone, after all.  He was just one person.  The problems of this world were bigger than him.  He would have given them a room if he had had one, really he would have.  But they were full.  Which weary traveler was he supposed to kick out?

And still, he saw the pain that racked the woman’s body, and he saw the panic in her husband’s eyes, and so he agreed to give them the only space he had to offer, and showed them the way to the animal stalls.

That baby wasn’t born there, among the cows and goats, because he wanted to turn them away.  The innkeeper would have wanted you to know that.  It was because he didn’t turn them away, even when he could have.  He arranged some soft hay for the woman to lie down on, and put some in the manger to make a little bed for when the baby came, and left to attend to business, of which there was plenty.

And yet when everything was attended to and things had largely quieted down for the night, when all the innkeeper wanted to do was sleep, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it hadn’t been enough.  He didn’t just forget about that poor couple – he would have wanted you to know that.  Instead he tossed and turned, wondering if he should have done more, remembering stories of Abraham, who welcomed travelers who turned out to be angels in disguise.  He tried to talk himself down from his own discomfort.  He told himself that he had done what he could, given what he had, within reason, of course.  He told himself that their emergency couldn’t be his emergency.  He reminded himself that his wife was always telling him not to get so wrapped up in other people’s problems all the time, that it wasn’t his job to save everyone.  He told himself he had a business to run.

But none of it helped him sleep, so he got up and went down to the animal stalls to check on them.

What greeted him was a sight he would never forget as long as he lived.  There, on the ground in the hay, were the man and the woman, dirty but smiling.  There, in the little bed he’d made of the manger, lay a tiny baby waving tiny arms and trying his best to break out of his swaddle.  There, also, were a group of newcomers who appeared to be shepherds, cooing over the baby and singing lullabies and saying prayers in synagogue Hebrew and their native Aramaic.  And there, in the night sky, an almost blinding light, and the strains of something that sounded like music.

The innkeeper felt the sudden urge to kneel.

Instead he backed away, feeling like an intruder on the scene.  But what he knew then is that this couple whose makeshift quarters he had hastily arranged out of hay was no ordinary couple, and that this baby who now slept in the trough his animals ate from was no ordinary baby.  That he would be no ordinary man.

And, in fact, as time went on, many years later, the innkeeper began to hear things, rumors about a wandering preacher who did miracles and healed people and told stories of the Kingdom of God.  Some said he was a holy man.  Some said he was a revolutionary.  Some said he hung around with loose women and traitorous tax collectors.  Some even said he was the Son of God, the Savior of Israel, even the Savior of the world.  And they said he’d been born in Bethlehem, in the city of King David, to parents who had traveled there for the census.  And though he never could have proved it, the innkeeper knew.

It was meant to be, his wife told him, that he was born here in the animal stalls.  It couldn’t have happened any other way.  But the innkeeper wondered.

What he would have wanted you to know is that that night changed him.  That he vowed then and there that he would never again miss an opportunity to extend hospitality to someone in need.

It wasn’t true, he knew, even as he vowed it – not quite.  He was human, and he’d miss those opportunities again, just as all people do.

But the next time his inn was full and a poor family came looking for room, he gave them his.

This time no shepherds gathered and no angels sang.  But, thought the innkeeper, they might as well have.

He was pretty sure the wandering preacher would agree.






Christmas Stories: A Song You Can’t Sing Alone

Scripture: Luke 1:39-56

Mary hurried down the road that led to Judea, thoughts tumbling wildly around in her head.

It had barely been a month since everything had changed.   The angel at the well.  His impossible announcement, to which she had said yes.  Her own body’s confirmation of his words.  The worst conversation with her parents she’d ever had to have in her life.

To Gabriel, to her family, to Joseph, Mary had been strong and calm and resolute.  She had to be.  If she showed any sign of doubting herself, Mary thought, everything would crumble.  Their belief, if they had any at all, rested purely on her own.

The thing was – and this was maybe the worst part – that Mary couldn’t even pinpoint how she felt about it all.  She was scared one moment, brave the next.  She felt fierce and capable of anything – and then wondered who she was to raise any child, let alone this one.   She felt relieved and grateful when Joseph hadn’t left – and relieved that with his acceptance her parents had come to accept things too, if not embrace them.  She felt honored to have been chosen – maybe.  And then in the next moment she wished God had just chosen someone else.  She felt dread when she thought of facing her neighbors, even with Joseph by her side, and even though she knew she couldn’t avoid them forever.

Mary had so many feelings that she didn’t know how she felt at all.

And so she did the one thing she could think of to do: she left.

Before Gabriel had vanished, that day at the well, he had told her that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, too.  It had been a long time since Mary had seen Elizabeth.  When Mary was younger, her family used to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah sometimes when they went to Jerusalem for Passover.  Even then, Elizabeth had seemed old to her.  But she had also seemed warm, and wise, and if anyone could understand what Mary was going through now, it would have to be her.

It was a long journey from Nazareth to Judea, and though Mary walked with her head held high as always, she began to doubt herself again.  What would Elizabeth say when she showed up alone?  Would she even recognize her?  Would she send her home?  What had Gabriel told her?

But Mary kept walking, quickly, as if to escape it all.

She was tired and dirty when she finally reached that little house in the hill country that she remembered for its smell of roast lamb and seder wine.  Elizabeth appeared in the doorway as Mary approached, and Mary saw her expression change from curiosity, to recognition, to surprise.

And Mary, who rarely cried, burst into tears.  “I had to see you,” she choked out.

Elizabeth said nothing but simply wrapped her arms around her and hugged her.  With Elizabeth’s bulging belly pressed against Mary’s still-small one, Mary was surprised to feel a kick.  Then she was equally surprised when Elizabeth started to cry, too.

“Mary!” Elizabeth said.  “Did you feel that?  That’s my baby leaping for joy.  This is such a blessing.  You are so blessed.  And that baby you’re growing is too.  And I’m blessed because the mother of my Lord is standing right here in front of me.”

The two women looked in wonder at each other’s tear-stained faces and then, in an instant, they both started to laugh.

It was a strange feeling, laughing.  Mary felt like she hadn’t laughed for a long time.  It was funny – out of all those feelings she’d been trying to sort out for the past month, joy had never been one of them.  And yet now, here with Elizabeth, she felt all her fears and doubts and feelings of unworthiness melting away, and joy bubbling up as if from a deep reservoir inside her.

And Mary couldn’t help herself.  She found herself bursting into song.

She was surprised at the words coming out of her own mouth: words of mercy and joy and redemption and promise, but also words about God scattering the proud and casting the powerful off their thrones.  Words of the hungry being filled with good things while the rich were sent away empty.  Words of divine reversal.  Dangerous words, if you thought about them – words that would have gotten a man in trouble.  Certainly words a peasant girl from Galilee would have never been taught to sing, though they rang with echoes of words and songs Mary had grown up hearing in the synagogue, whenever the scroll was opened to the prophets.

She was surprised, even, at the tense of her own words, as if God had already done all these things, as if they had been brought to completion.  Mary knew as well as anyone in Palestine that the powerful still ruled from their thrones, and that the poor still had to beg for scraps from the rich.

But God had done such things before.  And, she thought, with her hand on her belly, God was about to do them again, even better this time.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.  And when the fears and the doubts started to creep back in, Elizabeth would begin to hum, and Mary would sing those words again.  And she would remember that this was about more than her, more than whether she was strong enough or what people would think.  It was about God, and ancient promises to Mary’s people, and the redemption of the world.  And Mary would rejoice.

She sang those same words on the day she headed back down the road that led to Galilee.  Mary gave thanks for this song that God had given her that gave her joy and courage when she was afraid.  But she also gave thanks for the one who had helped her to sing it, because it was the kind of song Mary never could have sung alone.  She could believe in the truth and promise of those words, not only because holy women and prophets had sung words like them before her, but because Elizabeth believed them, too.

In later years they would teach the song to their children, to John and to Jesus, as they gathered for Passover seders and the boys played in that same little house in the hill country.  And Mary gave thanks that they, too, had each other, as they lived out the lives of mercy and redemption and promise that God had called them to.  They could be strong for each other when courage failed.  They could believe for each other when doubt started to set in.  No life of real and radical faith could ever truly be lived alone.

But, thought Mary, it could be lived together, believing in the promises of the song Elizabeth had helped her sing.

Christmas Stories: A Righteous Man

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph couldn’t sleep.

He shut his eyes tighter and willed himself to fall asleep.  He told his body he needed rest, that it wasn’t doing any good to lie awake and worry.  He told himself that everything would be clearer in the morning.

It was no use.  His mind kept playing and replaying the events of earlier that day.

Mary’s father, Joachim, had come over in the morning.  Joseph was in his woodworking shop, already hard at work for the day, sanding down the edges of a table.  He stood when he saw Joachim, who lingered hesitantly in the doorway.  He waved him in.

“It’s good to see you,” he said.  “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Joachim didn’t answer right away.  Joseph saw that he looked tired, maybe worried.

“Is everything OK?”  Joseph asked.

Joachim sighed.  “Joseph,” he said, “I have to tell you something.  Mary is pregnant.”

It took a moment for the words to register.  “Pregnant?” he asked.  Then, as if Joachim was accusing him of something: “But – we haven’t…I haven’t…”

“I know,” said Joachim.

He let the words sit there.  Joseph sat down.

Questions swirled around in his mind.  How could this have happened?  Did Mary love someone else?  Had she wanted to?  Had she not wanted to?  Was she OK?  What now?

He only asked, “But who?”

“I don’t know,” Joachim said.  “She won’t say.  She keeps telling some story about an angel and being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.  That’s all I can get out of her.”

Joseph shook his head.

“Joseph,” said Joachim.  “You’re a righteous man.  I understand if you can’t marry Mary now, under these circumstances.  I know I can’t ask you to do that.  But please, let’s keep things quiet.  Say the engagement is off.  Say you changed your mind.  You know she’ll be in danger if the word gets out.  We all will be.  Please don’t ruin our family.”

“I have to think,” was all Joseph could say.

Joachim looked down and nodded.  He got up and left.  His shoulders slumped as he headed back out the door of the shop.

Joseph continued to sit.  Then, because he didn’t know what else to do, he got back up and started working.  Cutting.  Sanding. Things that made sense.

As the news sunk in Joseph found himself getting angry. He sanded harder.  “Betrayal,” he muttered under his breath.  He pounded his fist against the wall.  “Betrayal!”

“How could this have happened?” he said aloud.  “I’ve always treated her well!  I was going to make her happy!”

Then anger gave way to despair and Joseph wept, seeing his future crumbling in front of him.

Later that night, having yelled and cried and sanded until his hands were raw, Joseph only felt numb.  As he lay in bed sleepless, he kept hearing Joachim’s words replaying over and over in his head.  You’re a righteous man, JosephA righteous man.

He was right, Joseph had always tried to be a righteous man.  He paid his tithe to the Temple, what little he had, and he was always ready to help a neighbor in need.  He kept the Sabbath and went to the synagogue each week for prayers.  He showed hospitality to guests and strangers.  He honored his father and his mother and never took God’s name in vain, and he had always treated Mary and her family with respect.

But those things were easy.  Clear.  Laws for him to follow.  What did it mean to be a righteous man now?

He knew he would be within his rights to ruin Mary, to humiliate her, to make sure she could never get married, and quite possibly none of her sisters could as well.  The law would be on his side.  In fact, according to the law, she could be stoned, though Joseph wouldn’t think of going that far.  Still, Joseph could make sure everyone in town knew what Mary had done, and still be a righteous man.  After all, wasn’t it right and good that she should face the consequences for what she had done?

And what if she hadn’t done it?  What if it hadn’t been her choice?  Joseph rolled over, trying to put that possibility out of his mind as well.

In the end, he knew that a righteous man couldn’t only follow the letter of the law.  A righteous man had to love his neighbor as himself.  And while they weren’t yet married, Joseph did love Mary.  He had always been good to her, and, up until now, she had always been good to him.  Somehow it just didn’t seem right, or righteous, to give Mary and her whole family over to public ruin.  Maybe Joachim was right, and the righteous thing to do was to have mercy, to end things quietly, to shut down the neighborhood gossip as much as it was up to him.  But was that really the righteous thing, either?  What about justice?  What about accountability?  Why should Joseph be the one to bear the burden of this silence?

And yet should Mary have to pay for this mistake for the rest of her life?

But she was pregnant.  There would be no hiding that, not for long.  Joseph knew that Mary would pay, one way or another.  He could only make things better or worse.  He just didn’t know which was which.

Suddenly being righteous seemed a lot less black and white than it always had.

Sometime, in the middle of the night, Joseph finally fell asleep.

First, he dreamed of Mary.  Mary, who in all of this, had never gotten to speak for herself.  “I never betrayed you, Joseph,” she said.  “This baby is from God.  And I know the risk I’m taking.  I’ve accepted it and I don’t expect you to take it with me.  But I want you to know that.”

He woke, and tossed and turned, and fell asleep again.

Then he dreamed an angel came and stood over his bed.  “Joseph,” said the angel.  “Don’t be afraid.  What Mary is telling you is true.  Go ahead and marry her.  You’ll have a son – yes, he’ll be your son.  But he’ll also be God’s, and he’ll save your people from sin.”

The dream seemed so real that Joseph was surprised to wake up.  He shook his head to clear his mind and remembered his dilemma: Mary. Pregnant. Not his.

But at the same time Joseph realized what he had to do.

He didn’t know if the angel was real, or right; if the same angel really had visited Mary or what he had said or if this child really was from God – and if that was the case, he really didn’t know what he was getting into.  What he knew is that this was something bigger than he realized, something more important, and if Mary was willing to risk everything, then so was he.  If Mary was willing to do this alone, whatever this was, then he would do it with her.

Joseph had always followed the rules, and been called a good man for doing so.  But what if, instead of being an end in themselves, those rules had always been shaping him, preparing him, pointing him to something more?

For the moment, Joseph set aside his worries about accountability and consequences and the interplay of justice and mercy.  He was going to take a leap of faith – to bet everything he had on God’s grace and love.  He didn’t know what people would say.  But he knew, even facing this unknown, that he felt more fully alive than he ever had before.

It was early, but Joseph cleaned up, got dressed, and headed to Mary’s house.  Joachim was already out in the yard, feeding the goats.  He looked up as Joseph approached.

“I’m here to marry Mary,” Joseph said.

Joachim smiled.  “I knew you were a righteous man,” he said.

Christmas Stories: Theotokos (God-bearer)

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

You may have imagined it was night when Gabriel came to give Mary the big news, but it wasn’t.  It was broad daylight when he met her, at the well outside town where she came to draw water.  Mary was running a little late that day – drama at home with her younger siblings – and so she came alone, when it was already late morning, long after all the other women of Nazareth had drawn their water and gone home.

The first thought Gabriel had as Mary approached the well, empty water jug in her arms, was how very young she looked.  He knew it wasn’t so long ago that she had been just a kid on the streets of Nazareth, with unruly hair and scuffed-up knees.  Some people would say that God had chosen Mary for this job because she was pure, pious, and deferential.  But the truth was Mary wasn’t known around Nazareth for being any of those things.  Mary, instead, had a little bit of fire to her.  She was tough, stubborn, willing to break the rules for a good cause.  She was always ready to stand up for someone less powerful who was being or hurt or taken advantage of, even if it got her in trouble. That, Gabriel thought, was why she had found favor with God, even if she often exasperated her parents and made the neighbors talk.  Of course, Mary was a woman now – about to be married – and the days of childhood scuffles and adventures were behind her, her tangled hair and scuffed-up knees now well-covered.  A woman – with all the expectations that came along with that.

He watched her as she approached.  From a distance she looked slight, even wispy, but as she got closer Gabriel could see how she walked with her shoulders straight and head held high.  Gabriel had relayed a lot of divine messages to powerful men in his day, but out of all them, this young woman was someone he sensed you didn’t want to mess with.

She stopped short when she saw him.  In their tradition, love stories often took place at wells.  But Mary, though young, wasn’t stupid.   This was real life, and in real life a woman had to be careful.

Gabriel got up.  “Greetings, favored one!” he said with a flourish.  “The Lord is with you!”

Confusion – maybe even fear – flashed across Mary’s face momentarily, as she wondered what he was getting at with this greeting and perhaps realized at the same time that this man standing before her wasn’t quite human.  But she regained her composure and looked Gabriel straight in the eye.  “Who are you?” she asked.  “What are you doing here?”

“Mary,” Gabriel said.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said, and though Gabriel knew that this was probably a lie, her voice didn’t falter or give her away.

Gabriel continued.  “Mary, I’m here to tell you that you’ve found favor with God.  This is what’s going to happen: you’re going to get pregnant and you’re going to have a son, and you’ll name him Jesus.  He will be great and powerful and reign on the throne of David forever.”  He finished the speech he had prepared, and waited.

Mary stared at Gabriel, eyes narrowed, as if sizing him up.  “I’m not married yet,” she said, a hint of challenge in her voice.  She stepped forward, as if to walk past him and continue on her original mission of drawing water.  But before she lowered her jug into the well she looked back at him, skeptical – but intrigued.

“We’ve got it all worked out,” he said.  “You’re going to conceive by the Holy Spirit.”

She just stared back at him.

“Mary,” Gabriel said. “The baby you’re going to have will be holy.  He’ll be the Son of God.”

Mary held his gaze for what seemed like a long time.  Gabriel could imagine the thoughts that were going through her head.   Wondering if all of this was for real, if she was being played somehow, if she was imagining things. Wondering if she really had a choice.  Thinking about the consequences – what her family would say, what Joseph would say, what everyone would say.  If she would be ruined, if she and her baby would be consigned to a life of poverty, if they’d have to beg, if she’d have to do dire things to keep them both alive.  If she even wanted a kid who was supposed to reign on the throne of David and would probably meet an untimely end like everyone else who aspired to power around here – instead of you know, just a regular kid, who would run and play on the streets of Nazareth.  There was always, thought Gabriel, a risk involved in answering the call of God.  Sometimes a big one.

Gabriel wished he could tell her that the risk would be worth it.  That this was her chance for her life to be something bigger, to mean something more, to be part of God’s greater plan for the world.  That there would be sacrifice, and heartache, plenty of it – but also so much love and beauty.  There always was, in answering God’s call.  “Don’t be afraid,” he wanted to tell her again, more gently this time.

But Gabriel stuck to his lines.  Sure, God had a way of chasing people down when they ran away from God’s call.  But in the end, he knew, the answer had to come from Mary, uncoerced.  He had presented his case – or rather, God’s case.  He simply offered these last words of comfort: “Your cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too, even though she was called barren.  Nothing is impossible with God, Mary.”

Then Gabriel waited.

After a long silence Mary took a deep breath as if to prepare herself for all that was to come.  And then she said, clearly and firmly: “I’m in.”

For a long time afterward, Gabriel wondered what had made Mary say yes.  Maybe because she already knew what he had wanted to say, about being part of something bigger, about heartache and beauty.  Maybe it was simply because in the end, when God calls, you answer.

As he left, he saw what looked like fire in her eyes.

Let’s do this, he whispered to himself.  This young, fierce woman was about to bear God into the world.

Gabriel thought of all the people he’d delivered divine messages to before, and all the people he would in the future: important people, normal people, scared people, broken people. All called, in their own way and their own time, to bear God into the world.  He knew not all of them would be as bold and brave as Mary in accepting that call.

But he hoped they would be.

He wished her well, and vanished.

Christmas Stories: The Silencing

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

Before there was Jesus – at least as far as the world was concerned – there was John the Baptist.  John was the Forerunner, the one who would call people to prepare the way of the Lord.  A wild-eyed prophet on the margins of society, he ate locusts and wore camel hair and told the people who flocked to the banks of the Jordan River for baptism to repent.  But that was all later.  Before there was Jesus, there was John, and the story of his own miraculous birth to his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

On the day that Zechariah came to call The Silencing, he thought he had been cursed.

It would be a lie to say the day started off like any other, because it wasn’t every day that his section of priests was called up to Temple duty.  Still, that happened twice a year, and the long walk into Jerusalem that morning was old and familiar, as was the commotion outside the Temple, and the sweet smell of incense mixed with blood from the previous day’s offerings.  Zechariah knew the routine.  Each morning, lots would be drawn, and whichever priest was chosen would enter the sanctuary – not the very inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter once a year, but the outer inner sanctuary – to light the incense offering.  Zechariah had been serving as a priest for many years, but he had never been chosen to light the incense offering.  In fact, he had kind of given up hope that he ever would.  Zechariah had given up hope about a lot of things, to be honest.  He could hardly believe it when his lot was drawn.

But it was drawn, and so that morning Zechariah found himself stepping – hesitantly, reverently – into the sanctuary of the Lord.  And for a moment, he felt a strange feeling that he hardly remembered anymore, as much as he prayed every day, as much as he could recite the Psalms by heart.  It felt something like hope.

He was just about to light the first stick of incense when he saw him.

The person – could he call him that? – the figure, the creature, standing on the right side of the altar, didn’t move at first.  Afterward, all Zechariah could remember was that he glowed.  And that he spoke with the most booming voice Zechariah had ever heard, like thunder.  Zechariah cried out, and jumped back, and cowered, though in retrospect, he could have told you as well as anyone that when an angel of the Lord appeared, you were not supposed to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the creature told him.  “I have good news for you, news you’ve prayed for for a long time.”

Zechariah’s first instinct was to laugh, though luckily he didn’t do so out loud.  It was true that he and Elizabeth had prayed for a child, almost from the time they were married.  In their world, though later generations would argue the point, children were a sign of God’s blessing, and if you didn’t have them, well, that said something too.  Barren.  He’d heard that word whispered about Elizabeth, and it always stung.  Barren, such a cold and empty word.  He supposed over time his prayers had become somewhat barren too.  He said the words, but it was hard to believe deep down that anyone was really listening.  In time, he had made peace with it all, he thought.

So Zechariah didn’t laugh, but he did shake his head at the pure cognitive dissonance of standing there, in the sanctuary, incense stick in hand, being told by this glowing creature that now, now, his prayers had been answered. “How can this be?” he said, mostly wondering aloud.

That was when The Silencing began – this time in his life that made Zechariah think he had been cursed.  “Because you didn’t believe me,” the creature said, “you won’t be able to talk until your son John is born.”

Zechariah opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out.  And just like that, Gabriel was gone and Zechariah found himself alone in the sanctuary once more.

“That’s not fair!” he tried to cry out into the empty sanctuary, momentarily overlooking the actual good news the angel had delivered.  “I wasn’t doubting you!” he mouthed, at the space where Gabriel had stood.  “I was just wondering about the logistics!”  Nothing.

Zechariah slumped down by the altar and buried his head in his hands.  Leave it to him to get the best news of his life, and ruin everything, all at the same time.  He, who had always been faithful, he, who had kept saying his prayers even when they seemed to go into an empty void, he, who was known as righteous and blameless before God, was being punished for his lack of faith.

After a while he realized that those gathered outside were waiting for him, and probably wondering what was taking so long.  So Zechariah sighed, got up, and walked back out of the Temple into the courtyard, into a sea of people who looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to offer the benediction.

He made one last valiant effort: “The Lord bless you and keep you!”  No sound came out.  The crowd continued to look at him expectantly.  “The Lord make his face to shine upon you!” he tried.  Nothing.  People started to whisper.  Zechariah threw up his hands and gestured wildly.  Finally, someone in the crowd cried out, “He can’t talk!  He’s seen a vision in the sanctuary!” and the whole crowd began to roar.

When it was time to leave Jerusalem, Zechariah walked home alone in silence.  He had never minded those long and quiet walks before.  But this time silence felt like prison.  Now, more than ever, he had so much to say.  He still had questions, questions the angel hadn’t given him the chance to ask.  He had people wanting to know what had happened in the sanctuary, what he had seen, if they should be worried.  He wanted to tell God he was sorry for doubting, not just then in the Temple, but all these years.  After a while, he even remembered that this was good news, and wanted to praise God, but he couldn’t even do that.  He couldn’t even fall back on his old, familiar prayers, though he said them to himself as his old feet plodded their way back home.  Most of all, he wondered – what was he going to tell Elizabeth?

Nothing.  That’s what he was going to tell her.

He felt a pang of guilt about Elizabeth, who was oblivious to all of it.  He wouldn’t be able to prepare her for what was about to happen.  There would be no planning together, no discussing their hopes and dreams and fears for the future, no talking late into the night about the bigger thing that God was apparently about to do in the world.  And then Zechariah envied Elizabeth, because she would be able to talk about all these things, just not with him.

When Zechariah arrived home, Elizabeth was confused at first, then frustrated, then amused.  And, in a matter of weeks, Elizabeth discovered for herself the news that Zechariah hadn’t been able to tell her.  Zechariah waited, from behind his wall of silence, to see what her reaction would be.

And then a strange thing happened.

Because when Elizabeth found out, the first thing she did was close the doors and sit – in silence.

Months went by and Zechariah watched his wife, amazed.  There had, as far as he knew, been no glowing creature that stole Elizabeth’s voice; she hadn’t doubted and been punished for her disbelief.  Yet now, at this time, when there was so much to say, so many questions to ask, so many people wanting answers, Elizabeth chose silence.  It was as if, Zechariah thought, it was the only fitting response – not just to their own answered prayers, but to what God was getting ready to do.

Five months later, when Mary came to stay, Elizabeth broke her silence and sang the praises of another miraculous child.  Zechariah’s sentence, on the other end, wasn’t over.  But surprisingly, he found that he minded less now.  He found himself thinking of all the words he had said before: beautiful prayers, advice offered to friends, theological ponderings, hastily made promises, arguments, the occasional soapbox – and somehow, now, none of them seemed as important as they once had.  He began to think that maybe, in the end, there wasn’t so much to say that couldn’t wait.  That maybe the world didn’t hang on his words as much as he had once thought.  That he even prayed better when he didn’t always feel the pressure to articulate things too precisely.  That he could sit with the mystery of it all a little more.

When John was born, the curse of The Silencing was lifted, and Zechariah sang: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them!”

But by that time, Zechariah could look back and see that The Silencing had been a gift.[1]

[1] With inspiration from Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro

Things Hold Together

Scripture: Colossians 1:1-15

I’m a believer that there are some things that can only really be said in song.  When you love someone, it doesn’t really do you any good to try to describe your love for that person in prose.  Instead you sing, “I can’t help falling in love with you.”  Or, “How wonderful life is now you’re in the world.”  Or, “When you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while.”

And when you’re angry or heartbroken, it might be of some use to try to write out how you feel, but also, you have to crank up I Will Survive and sing along at the top of your lungs.  Right?

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted by the beauty of nature, whether it’s true “lofty mountain grandeur” or just a beautiful sunset, the one thing I want to do is sing How Great Thou Art.

So when I read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I think I recognize what he’s doing here.  This poem he uses in the opening part of his letter is probably an excerpt from a hymn that people were already singing in church.  It’s like he’s trying to describe the majesty and grandeur of Jesus Christ, and he just doesn’t really have his own words to describe it, and so the only thing to do is break into the song that’s written on his heart.  I imagine that he sings as he writes it: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created in him and through and for him…and in him things hold together.”  These are verses that early Christians may have used to formulate doctrine about Jesus’ preexistence as part of the Trinity and the nature of  his relationship to the Father, but they aren’t meant as doctrine in themselves: these verses are, quite, simply, praise for the risen Christ who reigns over all things.

It’s a song I find myself coming back to for Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday, which is today, and if I knew the tune I would want to sing it.  Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year before we start over again with Advent and the promise of Christ’s birth.  That means that in the past year, just like every year, we’ve waited for Christ’s coming, celebrated his birth in that stable in Bethlehem; followed him through his ministry in Galilee, healing people and teaching on hilltops and telling stories of the Kingdom of God; we’ve walked with him through his final week in Jerusalem, including his arrest, trial, and execution; we’ve gathered to celebrate his rising again and ascension into heaven.  And we’ve asked what it means to follow him and grow in our discipleship.  Now it all culminates in this, this Sunday that reminds us that this human figure whose birth and death and earthly work we’ve spent the year telling stories of is also “the image of the invisible God…the one in whom all things were created.”

For those of us who tend to spend a lot of time thinking about who Jesus was as a person on earth, and maybe less about who Jesus is now – or even for those of us who tend to think of who Jesus is now mostly in terms of our individual relationship with him – Christ the King Sunday always bring us back to the risen king who reigns over heaven and earth.

And the thing is, it’s really hard to preach on that.  Because where my heart wants to go is back to this song I heard, which puts things better than I ever could.  In any case, there’s part of me that just wants to leave this there, these words of praise of the majesty of Christ, without trying to explain it or theologize it away or turn it into doctrine.  But then, like with a favorite song, I also want to comb through the lyrics, thinking more deeply about what they mean.

If there’s one phrase that captures my imagination from this hymn Paul uses in Colossians, it’s the line “in him, all things hold together.”

I had to think a little bit about why that particular line stuck out at me so much.  There’s something almost mystical sounding about it, Christ as the underlying force or principle of the universe in a way that takes my mind to something much bigger than the human Christ I usually imagine collecting fishermen on the shores of Galilee.

But to be honest, mostly I think I like this line because so much of the time, life seems to be held together so precariously, as if it’s just one dropped ball away from falling apart altogether.  I don’t mean this in a dire way, like you should be overly worried about me.  I mean it in a way that I think a lot of us probably feel much of the time, as we try to balance the demands of work, and school, and parenting – making sure you follow all the rules, even though they keep changing! – or caring for our own parents, getting our oil changed, finding time for appointments, maintaining relationships and not forgetting friends’ birthdays, not letting the dishes pile up too high.  I know every year I think, “This is the year I’m going to have it together enough to send out Christmas cards!” and every year, it is not that year.  And, of course, it’s easy to look at other people we know and think how they’re balancing all the same things we are and somehow they’re managing to keep it all together, though I’m sure they also think they are not.

Do you feel me on this?  I know some of you may even have bigger and less mundane reasons to feel like things are falling apart, like whatever has been the center of your life somehow isn’t holding anymore – whether that’s a job or a relationship or a housing struggle or illness or some aspect of your identity that you seem to have lost.

In one way or another, I think, we’re all probably desperately praying for things to hold together.

To be honest, I really don’t think that the grand promise of this cosmic Christ is that I’m ever going to feel like I personally have it all together.  That’s much more the realm of self-help books or people who come over and give your closet a makeover than it is the one who is the visible image of the invisible God.  Jesus, as the one who not only reigns in heaven but is God incarnate, deals much more in the messiness of our real, barely-holding together lives.   He never really seemed to get along with the people who had it all together, anyway.  And yet I do really love this idea that underneath it all, whenever things seems to be falling apart, Jesus is there holding all things together.

In the world around us, too, there’s plenty that seems to be falling apart.  Climate scientists are telling us we’re just about at the tipping point where it’s too late to walk back the damage we’ve already done to the earth, and we’re left to imagine what that’s going to mean 20 years from now.  In California in just the past few weeks, thousands of people have lost their homes and possibly also loved ones to fire.  Across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, migrants in the caravan wait to see what’s next – which I don’t mention to evoke fear of those migrants, but out of a sense that our world is a place where so many people are forced to uproot themselves out of poverty or fear for their lives.  Our own political system seems so often on the verge of breakdown when we can’t work together and sometimes aren’t sure if we should even try, and, as we head toward February and the special United Methodist General Conference which will revisit our denominational stance on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, the Church (big C) seems on the verge of breakdown as well.

Again, I don’t think that the promise here is that Jesus will magically swoop in and physically save us from the consequences of our actions, whether those actions are too-large carbon footprints or political extremism or economic policies with far-reaching effects.  And yet somehow in the midst of all of this, we cling to the same words Paul did: that in Christ, all things – somehow – hold together.

And while I don’t want to explain or theologize away a beautiful line from a hymn, it makes me wonder what this promise does mean for me, for us, for all of us living these messy and almost-falling-apart lives here on earth, while Christ reigns in heaven.

The hymn goes on to say that God, in Christ, was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself.  And while this work has been done – on the cross – it also continues: as God calls us back to Godself, as God calls us back together, as God calls us back to love, as God calls us back to wholeness in Christ.  Christ’s life and death made that reconciliation real in heaven, and it’s still being realized here on earth.

What I hear in that is that Christ is not only holding things together, preserving and sustaining what is, shaky as it may be, but actually drawing all things together into a state of shalom – in the full sense of that Hebrew word, which is to say not just peace, but love, and justice, and wholeness.

We all know that saying beloved by Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I go back and forth on whether I believe that or not.  Some days it seems like things really are getting better, as far as we still have to go.  Some days it seems like our only hope is for Jesus to come back real soon and set things right.  I don’t know which one of those things is true, to be honest.  But what I know, either way, is that there is something, or someone, who holds all of it in his hands, who will one day establish that shalom on earth as it is in heaven.

One of my commentaries put it this way: “What does it mean in a world of fragmentation, suffering and confusion to repeat its claim that all things cohere in Christ or that they have been reconciled in him?  It reflects an absolutely basic conviction that, despite the vastness of the cosmos, its determinative principle is not impersonal.  The God who is the ground of existence bears a human face – that of Jesus Christ.  This means, too, that despite fragmenting and chaotic forces at work, we humans can trust that the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is more fundamental and gives the power that sustains the world its distinctive character.  So, although it defies present empirical verification, we confess that what holds the world together is not the survival of the fittest or an unending cycle of violence but the reconciliation and peace of Christ.”[1]

There’s a boldness, a leap of faith, inherent in saying that, isn’t there?  That the underlying, fundamental holding-together principle of the cosmos is not any other of these things that seem to exert so much power and influence – but Christ’s love and goodness?

Paul usually closes his letters with exhortation – instructions on how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ – and while he’ll get there in Colossians too, this hymn that he chooses to begin his letter isn’t that.  It’s not instruction to us, it’s praise.  And at the same time, it’s hard to deny that the one we praise in such a way has a claim on our lives.  Maybe that’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians that we, as Christians, have been given a ministry of reconciliation – that the ordering principles of our lives should be the same as that of the cosmos, lives that lead ourselves and others toward shalom.  What would it look like for our lives to be places of God’s reconciliation?

I asked a colleague this the other day and she said that if she can trust that in Christ all things hold together, then she can actually dare to live in this risky way that is following Christ.

Because this Christ we dare to follow “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…He himself is before all things, [and even when it seems like everything around us and in us is falling apart], in him, all things hold together.”


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, p. 609





Margins: Leave the Corners

Leviticus 19:9-10

The book of Leviticus often gets a bad rap.  It is most famous for laws that probably seem irrelevant to many of us today: Don’t eat animals with cloven hooves who don’t chew their cud (11:7).  Don’t wear clothing made out of two different kinds of fabric (19:19). Don’t touch dead lizards (11:31). There are certainly people – mostly Jews of various levels of orthodoxy – who do still follow these laws (or some of them) today, but I imagine most of us here, if we had questions about what kind of meat to eat or what to do if we suspected that we had contracted a skin disease, would probably seek out a different source for our answers.

But Leviticus does also have some good pretty good stuff, some laws that many of us would probably agree are not only applicable to our lives today but even central to our faith.  You must not steal or deceive or lie to each other.  That’s from chapter 19 (v. 11).  Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge fairly (19:15).  Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens (19:34).  Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18).

Leviticus also contains the first mention of the law we talked about last week, the command to tithe, or to give 10% of that which we produce back to God.  For the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant 10% of the grain from your fields, 10% of the fruit from your trees, and later 10% of your livestock as well.  That 10% would then go to supporting Temple worship and the priests and Levites who made that happen, as well as to feed the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community – the immigrants, widows, orphans, and anyone who didn’t have the means to produce food for themselves.

As I said last week, we may have some differing opinions over whether this is still a good and relevant law for us today.  We are no longer a primarily agricultural society, though of course we can still easily translate a principle of giving 10% to our modern paychecks.  Even so, nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to give a fixed proportion of our income. And yet I would (and did) argue that there is something holy and good about creating margins in our lives, in setting aside a fixed amount of what we have in thanksgiving to God and for investment in God’s work.  Even if 10% isn’t realistic for you at the moment, you can still commit to this practice of setting some aside to give back to God – the practice itself is more important than the number, especially to start.

But this command to tithe isn’t the only law about giving and generosity in Leviticus that I think it might be worth coming back to.  If we go back to chapter 19 again, we’ll also find this one: When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest.  Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

We hear it again in Deuteronomy 24: Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it.  Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows so that the Lord God blesses you in all that you do.  Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.  Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows.  Remember how you were a slave in Egypt.  That’s why I’m commanding you to do this.

In Jewish teaching this is called pe’ah, the practice of leaving the edges or the corners.

How many of you have ever been gleaning?  The practice of gleaning comes from this biblical command.  Some farmers will let organizations and volunteers come in once the fields and trees have been harvested to collect what’s left over.  You may find apples still on the trees or on the ground that are still good to eat.  I’ve gotten to dig for sweet potatoes before, the ones that were missed the first time around.  Instead of becoming food waste, this food goes to local food pantries and organizations to feed those who might not otherwise have access to fresh produce.

When it comes to applying a law like this to our lives more generally, though, it may once again seem like a relic of the past.  Again, most of us don’t have fields or grapes or olives anymore.  When it comes to tithing, it’s pretty easy to translate into a non-agricultural context: instead of 10% of our grapes we give 10% of our paychecks back to God and to God’s work.  But when it comes to leaving the corners, it may be harder to translate.  What does it mean for us modern urbanites to leave the corners or not go back over our fields a second time?

Just like the law of the tithe asks us to create a margin in our lives to live within and set a certain amount aside, the law of pe’ah, of leaving the corners, asks us to create a margin – to leave room in our wallets and our budgets to help those in need.  It asks us to leave room to be able to live generously in community with others.

I usually listen to the news on the radio while I drive into work in the morning, and for a long time off and on, I’ve been hearing about the civil war going on in Yemen.  It’s been going long enough that it often gets eclipsed by the other news of the day, and yet every once in a while it will make its way back to the top of the news cycle and I’ll be reminded people are calling it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  The war has brought widespread famine and starvation and people don’t have access to basic healthcare.  After the most recent time I heard this, I thought that I should maybe give some money toward aid work in Yemen.

But, you know, I’m trying to stick to a budget.  And there was just some other stuff going on this month.  I needed some new orthotic inserts for my shoes to help me run better.  I decided it was time to buy some new clothes.  I bought a gift for a friend who was having a baby.  So then there wasn’t really a lot left over.  I thought, maybe next month.  Of course, next month it’s time to start buying Christmas presents.  So maybe Yemen will have to wait until the new year.  Maybe in January?  Well, that’s when my car insurance auto-renews, so…

This past week, after I preached about tithing and as I started to think about this practice of leaving the corners, I finally made a donation to an organization that is doing aid work in Yemen.  Because what I want to do is to live and spend in such a way that there is room in my life and budget for things like this – to live generously in respect to those who are vulnerable or suffering in the world around me.  If my whole field is harvested – if all my money is accounted for with other expenditures – then I’m not going to be able to do this.

For better or worse, it’s never specified how much room you’re supposed to leave.  When we’re talking about tithing, it’s pretty clear: 10% is 10%.  We can ask about things like before tax and after tax or what the loopholes are, but we at least have a good, solid guideline for what God expects from us.  But if we are talking about pe’ah, leaving the corners and edges of our field unharvested so the poor and hungry can come and be fed, just how wide are we supposed to make those corners, anyway?  Rabbinic commentators debated this, and came up with different answers that they disagreed on.[1]  There is no one definite answer to that, which, depending on your personality, maybe drives you crazy or maybe you appreciate the flexibility.

Personally it drives me crazy.  I really like to know when I’ve checked the box.  But when it comes to loving and caring for your neighbor, there’s really no box to check.  Maybe you can leave bigger corners this year than you did last.  That’s what we Methodists call sanctification, growing in love and holiness throughout the course of our lives as God gives us grace.

Some of you might be saying, oh man, last week you told us we were supposed to tithe, and now you’re telling us that’s not even enough?  And yeah, I guess that’s right.  Someone once told me that stewardship begins with the 90%.  10% (or at least that portion that we have committed to set aside) goes back to God, and we are entrusted with living faithfully and generously with that which is left to us – which is the meaning of stewardship. Let’s face it, if you place your check in the offering each week but don’t have any left over to buy lunch for someone who needs it, that’s probably not what God intended.  If you tithe faithfully but have to wait three months to donate to Yemen because you spent your whole budget on new clothes you didn’t strictly need, that’s probably not what God intended either.  (See, sometimes I am preaching to myself.)

In the end I believe these two commands are meant to be lived together.  One asks us to set aside a fixed amount of what we have and one asks us to leave enough room to be generous with the rest.  Both ask us in different ways to create margins in our lives, to set some of what we have aside for God, for our world, and for our neighbors in need.

Both commands challenge this dangerous idea we have that everything we have belongs to us.  After all, we might say, we’ve worked hard for these crops – or for this paycheck, this lifestyle.  We’ve plowed and sown and watered and tended our fields and our trees.  We’ve worked long hours, sacrificed time with friends and family, put everything we had into that project, or stood on our feet until we could barely walk.  Surely we have a right to that which our work yields.  And yet it’s God to whom the field belongs first, God who gives the growth, God who gives us the gifts and ability to work and earn a living and have enough to share.

When we set aside a portion of our harvest to tithe, we are reminded of these truths, and reminded even to leave some more room to let others in.  Because God also tells us that some of what we have belongs to others.  Not just that we can give some if we’re feeling particularly generous.  But that it belongs to them.

You know that enclosed in your bulletin you can find a Commitment to Giving card.  I hope that you will take this home, pray about the margins God is calling you to create in your life and what portion God is calling you to set aside.  And then I hope that you will bring it back next week so we can celebrate our commitments for 2019 as we give thanks for all God has done for us.

You heard Sarah talk earlier about the welcome she found here at Arlington Temple and why she decided to make this her church home.  This is part of God’s work that you are investing in when you make that commitment to setting some aside.  You’re investing in worship that not only brings us together each week but also welcomes visitors from all over the world and provides a spiritual home away from home.  You’re investing in opportunities for each of us to grow in our relationship with God through prayer, music, and Bible study, so that we can go out to be God’s people in the world.  You’re investing in this space which welcomes our neighbors who come each weekday for something to eat, to get warm or cool off, or simply to find community.  You’re investing in our surrounding community through the bag lunches we pack, produce we bag, and backpacks we fill with school supplies.  And you’re investing in our future as we make plans for the renovation of this space in a couple years and think about the opportunities for ministry that that might open up.  God is doing good things here and I believe God wants to do even more.  So I do hope you will fill out this card.

But I also hope this card will be just the beginning.  That as you make this commitment, and each time you fulfill it, you will be reminded of all that God has given you, reminded of your neighbors who God loves, and reminded of God’s call on your whole life – including your fields.  And your paychecks.  And I hope then you will make some extra room, and go out there and live generously as God’s people in the world.