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Not an Empty Tomb, but the Risen Jesus

[This message was proclaimed on Easter sunrise, April 4, 2021, outdoors at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 24:1-12. It was not recorded or taped.]

“Cemetery Residents Returning.” I collect funny headlines. This one came from the Albany Times-Union 16 years ago. Really? Cemetery residents are dead. They don’t get time out for good behavior. We go to cemeteries to honor the dead.

I like to visit cemeteries. I grew up in greater Los Angeles, which has a well-known cemetery named Forest Lawn (not the one in Buffalo). Forest Lawn in Rochester is a beach with beautiful views of sunsets over Lake Ontario. I know the other Forest Lawn, the renowned cemetery in Glendale, CA. When I was dating the woman, who is now my wife, I took her on dates to a cemetery, Forest Lawn. The rolling hills are perfectly green. There is statuary art everywhere. And it is a really cheap date. Since moving to this area, I have become fond of visiting Mt. Hope Cemetery. I like to walk the trails in any season, especially fall, and visit the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, two American heroes of mine. When out of town friends visit us, I generally take them to Mt. Hope Cemetery. If they can’t handle that, they won’t visit again. At Mt. Hope Cemetery there are some above ground buildings, family mausoleums or crypts, in which people are buried. They are secured. One cannot enter them unless they are opened in advance. Now let’s say you have a friend or relative buried in one of those. You go to visit on a beautiful sunny spring day and see the gated door is open. You look in and where your friend was once laid in death is empty. What is your first thought?

Exactly. You aren’t thinking resurrection, but that someone broke in and stole the body. That is not good news. Contrary to thousands of sermons preached over the centuries, the empty tomb is not good news. I read an article days ago in a great national newspaper that said the empty tomb made all the difference. I beg to differ. In every Easter account in the New Testament—and we have four, each with a different perspective; no two identical in the reporting—there is doubt and disbelief. No one of the first disciples left an empty tomb declaring good news; not the women and not the men. In Matthew they were afraid. In Mark they were trembling and bewildered. In John, Mary Magdalene speaks for all of them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” In Luke, before us now, the women who were first at the tomb were perplexed. They didn’t go to the tomb for a resurrection, but to say their final goodbye to Jesus, whom they saw killed on a cross two days before. When Peter got to the tomb, he too found it empty and was puzzled as he walked away.

The turning point was never an empty tomb. The women walk to a borrowed tomb where the dead body of Jesus was laid two days ago. They are grieving. Their hearts are still broken from seeing him die a humiliating, excruciating death They bring burial spices, an act of homage, a simple gesture of dignity. A large tablet shaped stone was rolled over the opening to that tomb two days ago. It had two purposes: to keep grave robbers out and keep the smell of a decaying body in. They arrive early in the morning and are stunned to see the massive stone rolled back. They take a peek inside. The body is gone. Easter joy? No, deeper grieving. Insult is added to injury. Salt is poured in an open wound.

Two messengers sent by God are there. One speaks. They jump out of their skin and back into their skin. “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Does anyone have an answer for that piercing question? I think not. Does anyone of them dare say a word? No. The messenger continues, “He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Well, of course. He did say that, didn’t he? They go to the men. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

An empty tomb isn’t that hard to believe. Graves get ransacked and robbed, then and now. What is hard to believe is that one who was killed on a bloody cross is walking around greeting his old friends a few days later.

Many years ago there was a kind man on TV named Mr. Rogers. My daughters watched him just about every afternoon. Before that, there was a morning show for children called Captain Kangaroo. I watched him when I was a child. Their TV shows overlapped by some years, so there were some children who watched Captain Kangaroo in the morning and Mr. Rogers in the afternoon. One boy watched both. When it was announced that Captain Kangaroo would visit Mr. Rogers, that boy was beside himself with excitement. The boy’s family was all gathered around the TV for this historic moment. The adults were spellbound. After about a minute, they realized that the boy had left the room. His mother was puzzled and went to his room and asked, “Are you feeling OK? Is something wrong?” The boy said, “It’s too good. It’s just too good.”

When the risen Jesus stood in their presence and spoke to them, it was just too good. Too good to believe. That same Jesus walks into walks into our lives. Our good news is not that the tomb is empty. Our good news is that the tomb couldn’t hold him. Our good news is not that Jesus’ body is missing. Our good news is that Jesus is risen and walking among us. Living among us and in us. Our faith isn’t about what isn’t there, but who is here. Our faith is not about subtraction, but addition. Not division, but multiplication. We don’t worship an empty tomb; we worship the risen Christ. Christ is risen. Morning has broken. New life has begun.

Thirst

[This message was delivered for Good Friday, April 2, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church (and at Community of the Savior, both pre-recorded). The service can be found in video form on the Perinton Presbyterian FaceBook page, starting at noon, or the Community of the Savior page on FaceBook or YouTube.]

   

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’” John 19:28

When dying, one doesn’t engage in small talk. Every breath is precious. Every last word is labored. Of all the words Jesus speaks from the cross, one seems insignificant, the least momentous, far from memorable. The other six are compelling; they grab hold of us.

  • “Father, forgive them….” What selfless grace.
  • “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What a promise in the hour of extremity.
  • “Mary, that disciple will look after you as his own mother.” What consideration; what a commitment to family.
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What intense anguish.
  • “It is finished.” What persevering purpose.
  • “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” What unswerving submission and trust.

Then there’s this one that sounds so mundane, so unimportant, so ordinary, so every day. “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’”

Thirsty. Whenever I preach, I bring a mug of hot tea with honey, to soothe my vocal chords. I take sips before I preach and after I preach. This is not that. This is a dying man, hanging from a bloody cross. I have had the holy privilege of being alongside people in their dying moments. If they can speak, they often ask for water. More likely, they are too weak for words, but they gesture that their lips are parched. A wet cloth on the lips or some ice chips will soothe them. Thirst is powerful. Even when dying, parched lips cannot be ignored.

Jesus had said to a Samaritan woman as they stood beside a well, those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And now he thirsts. In John 6, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The one who quenches our spiritual thirst is now thirsty. The one who is the river of life, now finds the river bed bone dry.

Jesus is suffering at an extreme level—spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and physically. This is no charade. He is not punching a clock. He is not playing a role. He is suffering. And he is thirsty. A careful reading of the passion of our Lord reveals that nothing is being done by accident. God is in the details. That does not absolve the religious and political leaders for their part in this cruelty, this miscarriage of justice. No one gets qualified immunity in this: not Judas, not Pilate, not Herod, and not us. We are all guilty, all complicit. We are all culpable. And he is thirsty.

In Jesus’ passion, God is at work. Jesus knows the scriptures and quotes them. He knows Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Just hours before, in the garden of the olive press, he dares pray that the Father would remove the cup of suffering from him. While he will submit to suffering, he likes it no more than we do. He prays that the cup of suffering will be spared him. And now he prays for a drink of water to soothe his parched lips. Is that not a reasonable request? In our time, when we engage in the barbaric act of executing someone, we allow them to select their last meal—whatever they want. Can he not ask for a splash of water? Though the will of God is being done, we must not over-spiritualize the moment. He is parched. He is experiencing the worst kind of death. It is real, as real as when death comes to us, but far more raw. He is drinking from the cup of suffering, right down to the dregs. And he is thirsty.

Several decades ago there was a terrible accident in which 96 people were crushed to death at a soccer game in England. At a hospital to which the suffering and dying were brought, a doctor had the terrible duty of reading the names of the dead. Think of Atlanta two weeks ago: eight names read. Think of Boulder last week: ten names read. After the doctor read the names of the dead to the grieving, he said that he believed that God understood their grief and was with them in their sorrow. One parent said aloud, “What does God know about losing a son?” God knows everything about losing a son. God is not aloof and estranged from our suffering. God knows the way of suffering and loss. On the cross, Jesus thirsts and the Father grieves.

When dying, one doesn’t engage in small talk. Every breath is precious. Every last word is labored. Six of the words from the cross show us the heart of God: forgiving, granting eternal life, caring for a bereaved mother, hearing our sense of abandonment, finishing the work of salvation, committing all to God’s providential care. Six words clearly do that. The other one shows us the depth of the humanity of our Lord. There we see Jesus embodying our weakness, our frailty, our humanness, all lifted to God as Jesus cries, “I am thirsty.” Nowhere is the deity of the Messiah more on display than on the cross. Nowhere is the humanity of Jesus more apparent than on the cross. We see Jesus lifted up. Glorified on the wondrous cross. He brings our humanity with him, in him, as he thirsts from the cross.

We Want to See Jesus (Don’t We?)

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21, 2021. The text is John 12:20-33. It can also by viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian FaceBook page.]

It was Christmas Eve, three months after I turned 40. At the end of the last service, just about midnight, the far corners of the sanctuary seemed fuzzy. I had been on my feet ministering for most of the past eight hours and was tired; my eye sight had a right to be tired. Since I had always had excellent eyesight, I told no one. Then I noticed again a few days later that I wasn’t reading signs in the distance as well as usual. For the first time in my life, I went to an optometrist. After a bunch of tests, he said, “Have you heard of presbyopia?” “Of course, I am a Presbyterian pastor,” I replied. “Now just what is presbyopia?” “It is losing some of the eyes’ elasticity, which comes from age.” “Yeah, I have seen that in the church I serve. People start losing their vision, but at all ages.”

 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Their request wasn’t about changing or failing eyesight. They were hearing about this Jesus. He had turned water into wine at a wedding reception. As he approached the Temple at Passover, he saw merchants and money-changers scamming people, so he overturned their tables and send money flying in all directions. And just one chapter before today’s, he stopped at Bethany, just up the hill to the east of Jerusalem and, finding that his friend Lazarus was dead and buried, visited the tomb and called Lazarus back to life. Who wouldn’t want to see this man? “We want to see Jesus.” “We would see Jesus.” “We wish to see Jesus.”

Sometimes we don’t see what is right in front of us. We are in a hurry, or distracted, or just not observant to what is happening right around us. Joshua Bell is one of our country’s finest violinists. He fills concert halls where people pay lots of money to see and hear his musical genius. A few years back, he filled Liberty Hall in Washington DC for a concert. A few days later the Washington Post had him play some of that same music, some of the most demanding music written for the violin, but in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro subway stop, with hidden cameras. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. A three-year old stopped to watch and listen; then his mother pulled him away. Oh, and that violin he was playing in the subway station was worth about $4 million.

“We want to see Jesus.” Do we really? TV news programs often warn us that an upcoming clip may be explicit, so we can choose to look away. I warn us: seeing Jesus may not be what we are expecting. In Isaiah 53, a chapter often read in late Lent and Holy Week, we get a prophetic view of the Messiah (vss. 2-3 from “The Message”): There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.” There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that he looked like anyone other than a Palesttinian Jewish peasant, which means he was about 5’4” tall, thin, with dark hair, dark eyes, olive hued skin, and calloused hands. He didn’t have wavy chestnut brown hair with golden highlights and blue eyes. Sorry.

In Ephesians 2 we get another view of Jesus. There Paul describes the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles. It was a racial wall as high as any we know today. Then Paul paints this picture: For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” After my sermon two weeks ago, in which I mentioned systemic racism and sexism, one of you wrote me these words: “If we were created in God’s image, then God must be all colors, shapes, sexes. etc.” That is precisely the picture the New Testament paints of Jesus. All of us are in him. Galatians 3:28 nails it: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us another look at how we can see him. There he tells how can see him in how we treat others, especially others in need. The surprise is that when we serve anyone in need, we are serving Jesus. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Until a few days ago, I didn’t know who Steven Amenhauser was. Then I heard in the local news that he died last week a few days after being set on fire, allegedly by two teenagers. Steven was alone in the world. He was adopted in childhood and then orphaned. His wife died some years ago. Then his girlfriend died five months ago. He lived alone. Did anyone notice? Did anyone reach out and care for him? I am heartened that over $2,000 has been collected since he died to make sure he has a decent burial. Do we ever see people like Steven Amenhauser and fail to stop and recognize Jesus in them? I do.

A few years ago I took a course in Ignatian spirituality at Mercy Spirituality Center in Rochester. We met weekly for about 40 weeks, with readings, assignments, talks, and small group conversation. The single most memorable experience was in my small group. We were talking about seeing Jesus in everyday life. Vilma told how she volunteered visiting people in hospice care in their homes. She was making her weekly visit to an old man living alone, nearing the end of his earthly days. A hospice nurse was there. She asked Vilma if she would gently massage the man’s body with oil. Vilma began gently rubbing his old, dying body with soothing oil. Then she teared up and said to us, “Suddenly, I realized I was anointing the body of Jesus as I cared for this dying man.” Vilma wasn’t the only one crying at that point. We remembered how a woman did the same for Jesus as he was heading to Jerusalem.

“We want to see Jesus.” Jesus is present all around us, especially in people in need. The underserved and overlooked. The oppressed and persecuted. To use Jesus’ words: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.

Jesus hears that some people want to see him and what does he talk about? Not making some more disciples. Not calling for a photo-op or press conference with reporters present. He talks about his death.

  • “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
  • “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
  • “’And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

In John’s gospel being glorified means dying. In John’s gospel being lifted up means being hung on a cross. Three times in John’s gospel, Jesus is spoken of as being lifted up. One was in last week’s sermon on Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus at night: so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) The second is John 8:28: “So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.’” The third is right here. “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When Jesus is lifted up, it isn’t on a pedestal. It isn’t on a platform of honor. It isn’t on a throne. When Jesus is lifted up, it is on a cross.

Death isn’t Christ’s enemy; it is his opportunity to be glorified, to be lifted up; to confront evil and defeat it. When that grain of wheat falls into the ground, new life emerges. “We want to see Jesus.” He is visible, all around us. High and lifted up, right here in our neighbor, in the one in need. Do we want to see Jesus” Let’s open our eyes; he is very near.


No Justice, No Peace

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2021, based on Micah 6:6-13 and John 2:13-22. It may also be viewed on the Perinton facebook page.]

Scott Willoughby, felt pretty lucky two weeks ago in his suburban Dallas home. With Texas in an energy crisis, his home didn’t lose power. Willoughby kept his lights on, perhaps so he’d know if his power failed. Then he got his bill. In a period for which his energy bill was usually $70, he was charged over $16,000. It was taken directly from his bank and cleaned out his savings. While those rocketing prices have financially devastated some, others profited from the massive price surge. The president of a shale drilling company was heard in a conference call saying, “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.” The billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, is now under fire for being a majority shareholder in that energy company.

Jesus approaches the Temple mount. It is Passover week. Jewish pilgrims have come from all corners of Israel, some traveling 100 miles on foot. The merchants and money-changers are out in force. To fulfill religious ritual, they need to get animals for Temple offerings and sacrifices. That’s why the merchants are there—to sell the right animals to people coming to worship. It is accepted; a needed exchange of goods. The free market is at work. It is good for the Temple and the merchants and money-changers. Except, there were areas designated for these transactions and these merchants had moved their wares closer to the Temple, where they could raise their prices and make big profits. The closer to the Temple, the higher the prices. Jesus cannot overlook this. He sees an unjust system taking advantage of these vulnerable pilgrims. He is angered and he does something about it.

Last year, the great civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis died. When our former Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died two years ago, I went to her public memorial service at the Kodak Hall downtown for one reason: John Lewis would be there to speak. A preacher in his youth, he became a national hero. For the cause of civil rights, he was arrested about 50 times, beaten several times, once near to death. Lewis customarily said that he often got in trouble, good trouble for good causes. He urged people to get into good trouble. Today is the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, AL, where Lewis was beaten for marching for voting rights. He got in good trouble that day

Jesus is about to get in some good trouble. What he sees angers him. He sees a practice of injustice happening, vulnerable people being taken advantage of, and he does something about it. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” I will not water it down. He does something dramatic. Some might call it an act of civil disobedience: the religious leaders take note. I don’t see him hurting people, but I see him hurting business that day. This is basic Christianity: seeing injustice and doing something about it. Jesus is showing us God’s heart for justice.

The Lord speaks through the prophet Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Then Micah names injustice in the marketplace. The Lord says, “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?” Merchants were cheating people by having rigged scales, so what was measured out was weighed as if it were more. Dishonest weights were used to favor the seller and scam the buyer. Containers had false bottoms, so consumers thought they were getting more than they were. This passage came to life when I was in seminary on the north shore of Boston. Many of us poor seminarians would drive into Boston on Saturday mornings and do our week’s food shopping at outdoor Haymarket Square, where merchants had most everything for cheaper prices than the food markets. Then one of the Boston TV stations did an investigative report on Haymarket Square. A number of the merchants had rigged scales, so instead of a pound of produce, we were getting 3/4s of a pound while paying for a pound. At that time I was taking a class in the Old Testament prophets. Our professor jumped on this one and showed us that what some merchants in Boston were doing was exactly what Micah was naming 2,700 years earlier. And the Lord was not pleased. “Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths. Therefore I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.”

Jesus comes to our world as peacemaker, but there is no peace where there is no justice. Almost always, injustice favors the wealthy and the powerful; the poor and underserved get the short end. Even in the distribution of the Covid vaccines, the poor and people of color are underserved again. Justice and peace are intertwined. Injustice is the enemy of peace.

God desires justice. Jesus is angered by injustice and calls it out forcefully. Injustice has existed in all cultures since sin entered the world. We see it today in hosts of ways, at both the individual level and the systemic level. One area is in how people in power, usually men, cross boundaries in relationships. I am going to name three: a Christian leader, a Republican leader, and a Democrat leader. The first is Ravi Zacharias, a noted preacher and evangelist who died last year. I have heard him speak in person several times and was always impressed with his breadth of knowledge. Some allegations were made while he was alive, but they were denied. Now the organization that bears his name has admitted that an independent investigation found that Zacharias was guilty of mistreatment of many women over many years. He told some of them to keep his actions quiet because he was doing God’s work. The second is a former president, who is on record as boasting about what he could do to women, and then was credibly charged with authorizing hush money payments to two women with whom he had brief affairs. The third is a current governor, who has been credibly charged by three women with inappropriate language and touch. The “Me Too” movement is not over as long as women are used and abused by men. It gives me no joy to say such things in our worship. But I am convinced from the Bible that God is greatly concerned about injustice, whenever and wherever it occurs, whether at the individual or the systemic level. Jesus doesn’t look the other way.

God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Just over a year ago, a young Black man was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood in Georgia. He was immediately seen as suspicious. Within minutes, two white men, a father and son, confronted him and shot him three times, leaving him to die on the pavement. The Black jogger was unarmed and creating no trouble. I am a jogger. I don’t fear for my life when I jog through neighborhoods where I am not known. Because of my skin color, I am not seen as suspicious. His name was Ahmaud Arbery. On the day of his death, the Glynn County Police Department said, “make no arrests.” A day later, they still said “make no arrests.” The case went to four jurisdictions resulting in no arrests. The suspects, Gregory and Travis McMichael were named, but not arrested. Then a lawyer went to work on this for Arbery’s family. He found that a third neighbor saw something happening and took a video of it. The lawyer released the video on May 5. It went viral. Then, 74 days after Arbery’s homicide, two arrests were made. Murder charges were filed. The autopsy of Arbery showed that he had no alcohol or drugs in his system. Why did it take 74 days and a video for arrests to be made? Could it be because he was a young Black man and, therefore, suspicious? Just a few days ago, Amanda Gorman, the 22-year old poet who thrilled us with her poem at the recent presidential inauguration, was followed by a security guard as she walked to her apartment. He got close and asked what she was doing there. She showed him her entry key. He made no apology. She looked suspicious for one reason: she is Black. Systemic racism and injustice are still strong in our land.

God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Injustice in any area of life is offensive to our Lord. Jesus does not look the other way, but confronts the injustice he sees in the Temple courts. But he does more than that. He upends a system of worship dependent on one place or one building. He introduces a new temple, his own body. The kingdom of God—the realm and reign of God—is wherever Jesus is working. The temple of God is wherever Jesus is worshiped in spirit and truth. Our Lenten journey is not about our self-discipline; it is about following and worshiping this Jesus, all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to the cross.

A Presbyterian pastor in Scotland in the 20th century, George MacLeod, caught this in a powerful way in this quote:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek … and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s own ought to be, and that is what church people ought to be about.”

God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. When we see injustice, will we care too or look the other way?

Now!

[This sermon was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church, Fairport NY, on the first Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021. The text is Mark 1:9-15. It can be seen in the worship service of that day, now on the Perinton page on FaceBook.]

What movie best fits this pandemic? Someone suggested “Groundhog Day.” It was showing on some cable movie network three weeks ago on February 2, Groundhog Day, so I watched it again. I hadn’t seen it from beginning to end in some years. It really does have the right feel for now. This TV weather forecaster, played memorably by Bill Murray, is sent to Punxsutawney PA to cover the story of whether this groundhog sees his shadow or not, which determines whether we get six more weeks of winter or an early spring. That’s not much of a storyline, but it gets interesting when the weather guy starts reliving February 2, day after day after day. He is caught in one day repeating itself and he doesn’t know why or how to end it. It takes a while, but he eventually figures out what to do with that day that keeps recurring. He learns to live in the now.

This has been a month of gray days and snow flurries. Day after day, there has been much sameness. I like to watch the drama of the phases of the moon. I have hardly seen the moon in a month. How we love it when the clouds part and we see the sun again. In Jesus’ baptism, the heavens tear open. The word Mark uses is graphic: the root word is schism. “The Message” says “the sky split open.” The picture is not a gentle little incision, but a dramatic tearing open. The way children might open birthday gifts: grab and rip. My granddaughter just turned one. She and her parents are living in Cambodia. Our daughter has been sending us brief videos of her opening gifts. She usually tears some wrapping paper and puts it in her mouth.

The sky is ripped open, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, God’s voice affirms his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. My question, which Mark doesn’t answer directly, is this: as Jesus goes into the wilderness, does the sky neatly heal or remain torn open? What do you think? I get a clue from two things Mark tells about Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days: “He was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Jesus was with wild beasts, but there is no hint that they attacked him. He was with wild beasts and it didn’t seem to bother him or them. God’s angels were working. Here is another word picture. Literally, Mark says, “the messengers were deaconing him.” Ministry was happening in that wilderness. Ministry is always happening in our wildernesses. Always. That tear in the sky stays open over our wildernesses. We are not alone in our wildernesses.

Lent is a wilderness season. These 40 days are designed to help us appreciate the journey Jesus took, even to walk alongside him. I am not always drawn to wilderness experiences, like in the deep freeze of winter. An hour of the National Geographic channel can satisfy me. But whenever I have been in a wilderness, I have known a sense of awe. In a wilderness I realize my own smallness and powerlessness. I appreciate the raw power of nature in a wilderness. The pandemic has been a year-long wilderness. Now we are in Lent, which is a call to be attentive to our wilderness. As Laura noted from Mary Oliver’s poem last week, Lent is a time to “pay attention, be astonished, then to tell.”

Jesus emerges from that wilderness ready to serve. He makes his first big announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God becomes Jesus’ dominant theme. The phrase occurs about 140 times in the gospels. We have some work to do here, because what Jesus is describing is not like the kingdoms we picture. Two kingdoms probably come to mind readily.

The first, the United Kingdom, is being chronicled in a hit Netflix series called “The Crown.” While fictionalized, it tells about real people. Queen Elizabeth’s four children are a strange lot, marked by divorces, marital unfaithfulness, some shady friendships, and incredible wealth. One son has been withdrawn from the public. One of her grandsons—my favorite because how could I not like someone called Prince Harry?—has walked away from some of the perks of royalty to live with his American mixed race wife in California. This United Kingdom is hardly united. Scotland is in disagreement about Brexit and Barbados officially left the fold last year. Since 1939, 62 countries have left the British Empire. The British royal family might be called dysfunctional, but it fascinates us.

Then there is the Magic Kingdom, which seems altogether functional. I grew up with the original Disneyland in southern California and that was a charmed part of my childhood. All of our relatives from the Midwest and east started visiting us in the late 1950s for one reason: they wanted us to take them to Disneyland. We reluctantly obliged them. You could blindfold me in the center of the Magic Kingdom and name a ride and I could take you there.

When we picture kingdoms, we likely think castles and palaces, enchanting stories, and the perks of royalty. Jesus brings none of that. He comes among us a poor Palestinian Jew. Trained as a carpenter, he is now a humble preacher, without his own Leer jet, limo, and bodyguards. He wears no crown (though he will wear a crown on the Friday Lent is leading us to), has no gold bling, or any palaces or castles. In fact, he never owns a home. Our king comes in poverty and humility. Obviously, Jesus is talking about something else, something radically different than the two kingdoms we know best. We might search for another word. The New Testament Greek word translated kingdom is actually a feminine noun. Think about that (queendom?). A better translation is the realm of God or the reign of God. The essence of the New Testament teaching is that the realm of God is wherever Jesus is present. It’s that simple: no castles, no palaces, no jewels; where Jesus is present, the reign of God has arrived, the realm of God is happening.

And it is now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. The reign of God is happening now. It is not waiting for heaven in some far off day: it is now. The Apostle Paul writes: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2.) The New Testament has two words that translate into our word time. One means the march of time, like chronology. That word is chronos, from which we get chronology, chronic, and chronometer. It is what a watch, clock, or calendar does for us; mark the movement of time. The second word (kairos) means something momentous, like an interruption to the flow of seconds, minutes, and hours. It is an emphatic now. It is that word that Jesus uses when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near….” It is that word that Paul uses when he writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Jesus is announcing that the reign of God is present now. When people live only in chronos, they merely exist. When we live in the second sense (kairos), God’s momentous time, we truly come to life.

A friend of mine is a chaplain at a caring facility in Brighton. In her prayer letter last Tuesday, she wrote, “I am working from home today on my virtual Ash Wednesday service which I will broadcast twice tomorrow at the facility. Things remain challenging at work; we have lost 27 residents to Covid since the beginning of December and to quote one staff member last week ‘it feels like we are hanging on by a thread.’” Aren’t we all hanging by a thread? Some of us know it better than others, but it is true of all of us.

A country song made popular by Tim McGraw deals with a person facing news that their life might be ending sooner than once expected has this haunting refrain:

“And I loved deeper/And I spoke sweeter; And I watched an eagle as it was flying/And he said ‘Someday I hope you get the chance/To live like you were dying.’”

Is the tear in the sky still open? Emphatically yes. Jesus is working through that opening, bridging the waters that once divided:

  • God and humanity,
  • heaven and earth,
  • life and death.

Jesus still comes to us, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God is right here, right now.” There is an opening in the skies.Now! Right here and right now. Right here. Right now!

Captured by Grace

[This message was delivered on 1/31/21 at Perinton Presbyterian Church, Fairport NY. The video of it in that service of worship can be found at Perinton Presbyterian on FaceBook.]           

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:4b-9, NIV)

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, “The Message”)

What would you see as the most dangerous occupation in the New Testament? I have my choice and I think I’m right. It is an occupation with which I am well acquainted. Does that give you a clue? I think the most dangerous occupation, the one most to be avoided, is religious leader. The New Testament sees being a religious leader as dangerous. Ouch! Jesus had the hardest time with the religious leaders and the religious leaders had the hardest time with Jesus, who wouldn’t fit into their neat religious categories.

I was born into a home of Christian faith. I always knew about Jesus. My mother nurtured me in the faith in wonderful ways. My dad never talked about faith and I think sometimes he went to church reluctantly, but he went because he loved my mom and wanted to be a good example to me. He mainly communicated love for me by playing baseball with me and coaching my Little League and Pop Warner teams. My mom took care of communicating the faith and she did a fine job. Believing in Jesus was as natural as breathing. This Jesus was kind, loving, and gracious.

Then in my teen years this religion thing got complicated. In my home church there was an emphasis on having dramatic conversion experiences. So I was born again. And again. And again. And again. My youth director encouraged us to go to Camp Pinecrest in the San Bernardino Mountains not far from Los Angeles. I could earn credit for going to camp by memorizing Bible verses. So I memorized all the verses he gave us. I think I went to youth camp free. At this Pentecostal youth camp I had a good time. There were plenty of good looking girls there and nightly meetings under a big tent, in which full manipulation was used to get us hormone driven teens to the altar. I went forward for, I think, four years in a row. One night was especially memorable. I arranged to be in the tent service when it began, then sneak out with a girl during the singing. We walked around the camp holding hands (and maybe a little more), which was strictly forbidden. Then we snuck back in just as the preacher ended. He was giving a powerful invitation to come forward and get right with God. I was nailed. Guilty. I ran to the altar with tears streaming down my face. My youth director came and put his hands on my shoulders and prayed with me. He was proud of me.

There was another matter that was bothering me even more. We had a code of conduct in our church. To become a member of my church meant signing this code which named five behaviors that were so sinful—so dreadfully sinful—we were not to do them: smoking, drinking any alcohol, social dancing, going to movies, and playing cards. If we refrained from those behaviors, we were in. There was nothing about racism or injustice in the code. We were taught that we were the only real Christians. Roman Catholics weren’t in the circle, with all their ritual. Mainline Protestants weren’t in; there was no emotion in their faith. Certainly Presbyterians weren’t in; they believed in things like education and science. We were in. We were safe. God was ok with us, as long as we didn’t smoke, drink, dance, go to movies, or play cards. In my religion there was a toxic cocktail of emotionalism, legalism, and arrogance.

I started thinking that this doesn’t make sense. For one thing, my mother was from Italy and we always had wine on the table at dinner. And we occasionally went to see movies, like “The Ten Commandments.” But we went to see it at a drive-in, so we didn’t actually sit with the sinners watching it in a theatre. The gentle grace of Jesus I experienced from my mother didn’t jive with the manipulated faith and harsh legalism in my church. I was troubled. Did Jesus ever condemn dancing, playing cards, or going to a good movie?

Saul, whom we know as Paul, was a religious leader before he was a follower of Jesus. His credentials were impeccable. His sash was filled with merit badges. His pedigree was impressive—he was best in show. He lists seven items: circumcised on the right day, the right citizenship, born in the right tribe, a Hebrew to the core, a Pharisee keeping the whole law, so zealous for his religion that he persecuted followers of Jesus, and flawless in attaining righteousness through keeping the law. He was a Hebrew Eagle Scout, a National Honor Society member, and was an altar boy all rolled into one. If anyone could earn God’s favor, it was he. God must have felt very lucky to have Saul on his team.

And then—boom! —everything changes. The risen Jesus reveals himself to Saul, and old Saul’s transformation is so radical, so thorough, that his name has to change too. Old law-keeping goody-goody Saul becomes captured-by-the-grace-of-Jesus Paul. He is saved, redeemed, and transformed—not by meticulous law-keeping, which he had worked so hard to do, but by the amazing grace of Jesus that found him, which he could never earn or merit. Something like that started happening to me, too. I wasn’t as devout as Paul, but I was better than most teens that I knew. If I broke the rules at times—and I did—it was in minor ways. I avoided the big sins.

In this new-found freedom Paul enters a journey of letting go of what he once held so tightly and pressing on toward living in this incredible grace found in Jesus. Paul will take all that he once valued: all his merit badges, all his Sunday school perfect attendance pins, all his Bible memorization certificates, all that he once used to prove to himself and others that God was pleased with him, and trash them. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish (or garbage), in order that I may gain Christ. . . .”  That word translated “rubbish” or “garbage” is more accurately the “dog dung” of “The Message.” I don’t like to use Greek words in preaching, but here I make an exception. The word is “skubala” and it literally means—what you probably are thinking it means. Refuse, dung, dog droppings, excrement. That is what all Paul’s tedious religious rule keeping came to be: “skubala.”

My story is similar. I was raised in this faith, knowing about Jesus from my mother’s knee. I worked hard at pleasing God and was good at it in the eyes of others. I was faithful in Sunday school and worship. I have been a religious leader for most of my adult life. And that is dangerous. Religious leaders can be enemies of God’s grace. I have growing sympathy with people that find Jesus more attractive and the Church less attractive, as the church too often communicates judgmentalism and harsh legalism, as it looks down at the kind of people Jesus loved to be with. As religion is popularly understood, I don’t want to be religious. I love the Church—the body of Christ—but I am often offended and embarrassed by churches and religious people. I am greatly troubled in this time that the Church is being used for partisan political purposes. I want the Church to work at being more like Jesus and less like religion. I want to be more like Jesus, who is ever reaching out to the unlovely, touching the untouchables, caring for the most needy. I have so far to go, but I intend to keep growing in grace.

That’s my story in short form. Like Laura and Julie, I was nurtured by loving parents that shared the good news with me. For that I am every grateful. But I was burned by religion and I don’t ever want to be that kind of religious person or leader. As “The Message” renders the words of Jesus, I want to leave that old religion behind. It never worked and never will. I have been captured by grace. I couldn’t earn it or merit it. There is not a thing I can do to impress God. The amazing grace of Jesus has come to me and I want to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

I didn’t figure this out or discover it. Jesus found me and showered me with his grace. And everything began changing. And it hasn’t stopped. I have been captured by grace. I am a captive of grace.

A Cosmic Christmas

[This message was given at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on the second Sunday os Christmas, 1/3/21, based on John 1:1-18.]

It hadn’t happened in about 800 years and, just in time for Christmas, it was happening at the end of 2020, that year of much disappointment and suffering. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system would nearly be touching from our earthly perspective. Some wondered if this planetary conjunction would be something like the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. I wanted to see it. So six nights in a row I looked:

  • December 21, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 22, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 23, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 24, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 25, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 26, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.

That completed what I read would be the six nights for viewing. I don’t think I’ll live another 800 years to see this when it might happen again. Then, on December 27, the first Sunday of Christmas, I was seated with family around the dining table eating leftovers. I had a view of the low southwest sky. Before it was fully dark, I saw a light in the sky. Was it an airplane? No. Could it be the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter? Yes. My skywatcher app confirmed it.

Let the Magi begin their long journey, just as John recorded it. Oops. John didn’t report it. Only Matthew did. And Bethlehem? John didn’t report it either. In John’s breathtaking opening, there is no manger, no Bethlehem, no shepherds, no angelic chorus, no star, no magi. But surely John would tell us about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. No. No. No. If John were our only gospel account, there would be no Christmas pageants, at least we know them.

If we designed a Christmas pageant from John, we would need to go to a planetarium with a large telescope. His account is cosmic. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” If Mark is the beat reporter getting the story done by the deadline, and if Matthew is the biblical student showing us how Jesus fulfilled all righteousness and is Messiah, and if Luke is the physician who cares about babies, women, and all the underappreciated, then John is the poet, the artist, even the astronomer. Like Edwin Hubble and the telescope named for him, John sees beyond what most see. The icon traditionally given to John’s Gospel is the eagle, the most majestic of all birds, with ability to soar high and see what is happening on terra firma with great accuracy.

Make no mistake: John tells the story of the coming of Jesus, just in a way no one else does. The poet is at work: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” I can never read that without thinking of how Eugene Peterson rendered it in “The Message.” “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Yes!

John loves playing with words, like any poet. This poet’s parchment is panoramic. This artist’s canvas is cosmic. In 2020 the coronavirus enlarged our vocabulary. Some words and phrases skyrocketed. “You’re on mute” was said 1,000 percent more in 2020 compared with 2019. Zoom is no longer just a word for moving quickly; it is how most of us go to work. And “pandemic” was named word of the year by dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. Those words already existed, but in 2020, they took on new meanings. So it is in the New Testament. Old words take on new meaning. Rare words become common, but with uncommon power. Everyday words take on eternal significance. In John 1:1-18, three such words emerge and cluster in glorious ways.

The first word is word, which in the Greek is logos. That is not just a unit of speech or so many letters representing something, but a concept with cosmic connotations. In the first sentence of John, it occurs three times. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word logos like this one. Logos speaks of the cosmic creative activity of God in Christ. It crackles with consequence.

The second word is light. It occurs seven times in this passage. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . He himself (John the Baptizer) was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word light like this one. Our 2020 was a year of unusual darkness in our world. I needn’t rehearse the statistics. And it looks like the first quarter of 2021 will be no better and probably worse. In the midst of darkness, the light is shining. And it will shine. Nothing can extinguish the light of Jesus the Messiah. Nothing.

The third word is grace. It occurs four times in the climax of this narrative of the incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. . . .  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” 

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word grace like this one. The apostle Paul develops the doctrine of grace like no one else, but it isn’t original to him. Grace dawned on our weary world in an unprecedented way in the coming of Jesus, enfleshing God’s grace.

In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our world has been visited in a way as never before: he is the creative power of the God of the cosmos; he is the light shining in our darkness; he comes to us in grace upon grace, that we may experience God’s favor, God’s salvation.

A friend challenged me several years ago to choose a word to use as a focus point in my annual journals, which are a form of reflective prayer. The word I have chosen for 2021 is mystery. I am aware that there is much I don’t fully understand and cannot adequately explain (and much of my work for the seminary and the church calls on me to understand and explain!). I realize increasingly that I live in the mystery of God’s creative genius, in the mystery of Jesus, the light of the world (the word for world is cosmos), and in the mystery of God’s grace in my life through Jesus. I will revel in the mysteries of God. But there is no mystery about how to respond to Jesus’ coming. In two days, we will be concluding the liturgical season of Christmas. That brings to mind the poem of Howard Thurman, that I visit this time each year.

When the song of the angels is still

  When the star in the sky us gone

    When the kings and princes are home

      When the shepherds are back with their sheep

Then the work of Christmas begins

  To find the lost

    To heal the broken

      To feed the hungry

        To release the prisoners

          To bring peace among peoples

            To rebuild the nations

To make music in the heart.

This second Sunday of Christmas, this 10th day of Christmas, Merry Christmas, planet earth! Merry Christmas, Community of the Savior. Happy birthday, star child. The Word is made flesh, the light is shining in the darkness, Jesus is bringing us grace upon grace.

Is This Old Folks’ Sunday?

[This message was delivered on the First Sunday of Christmas, 12/27/20, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 2:22-40. It can also be viewed at the church’s channel on FaceBook.]

Just three words. They are perhaps the most dreaded words we read on a Christmas morning. They can ruin a child’s joy and make for a long day for parents. The three words: Some assembly required. I like the instructions Ikea, the Swedish furniture maker, uses: they have no words, but really good pictures showing just which screw goes in what piece of wood. Some assembly is required and they make it so I even can I do it.

Parenthood is not such a simple matter. Some assembly is required. We humans see ourselves at the pinnacle of the created order, as Genesis 1 affirms. Yet our offspring seem to be the most helpless of all. A baby giraffe is standing in about 30 minutes. Not the human baby. A puppy can be house-trained in four months or so. Not the human baby. Not the human baby. Most birds begin flying at two weeks. Not the human baby. There is some parental assembly required for every human baby.

There is something lean and neat about Mark’s Gospel. Jesus appears as a fully-grown person. He walks, talks, is an accomplished carpenter, and is potty trained when we meet him. His parents are hardly needed. We never meet Joseph in Mark. We read of Mary by name just once. That’s it.

Luke takes another tack, for which we are most grateful. Perhaps it was because Luke was a physician. Doctors back then were generalists. They cared for people at every stage of life and knew that babies were vulnerable. It was not assumed that all babies would make it to adulthood. Before we meet Jesus, we are introduced to Joseph and Mary, especially Mary. When we meet Jesus, he is a baby. Unable to walk, talk, feed himself, or—how shall I say it?—toilet himself. Whoever wrote the lyrics to “Away in a Manger,” gave us a great gift; I love that carol. Except for that one line that is pure heresy: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried. Babies cry. I don’t think the straw in that manger was fine-tooth combed, all soft and snuggly.

Joseph and Mary are intent on doing the right thing, this intrepid young couple. Did anyone think to give Mary a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting?” Thrust into circumstances unexpected and nearly unimaginable, they keep doing the right thing. In today’s passage in Luke 2, five times the law of the Lord is mentioned. Joseph and Mary do what is required of them by the law at every step in this perilous journey that will cover hundreds of miles, without a car, a bus, a train, or an airplane. The tradition carries them in their uncertainty. The faith passed down from generation to generation lights their rocky path. Tradition has such power. Tradition!

Jaroslav Pelikan, a 20th century theologian, said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” I’m also with that other theologian, Teyve the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tradition carries us and helps us know who we are. I need tradition. Tradition!

There is a generation today in our land that is hesitant to embrace our Christian faith. This younger generation often finds the Church cold, harsh, and rigid. Traditionalism can become like that. The Church often seems more concerned with judgment than justice. More concerned with ritual than right living. More concerned with grading other people than graciously welcoming other people. More concerned with self-preservation than with self-giving. More concerned with its own monuments than with mercy. I believe that when the Church starts living more like Jesus, with grace and mercy, people now estranged from the Church will start coming back. And they will welcome tradition that isn’t cold, harsh, and rigid, but is warm, loving, and filled with grace and mercy. People want healthy tradition, not rigid traditionalism.

The adult Jesus honored tradition, except when it was cold, harsh, and rigid. Jesus always keeps the law of the Lord, but he always puts human need above ritual. He perfectly kept and keeps the two great commandments: to love God supremely and to love neighbor as one loves oneself. The religious leaders of that time had the hardest time with Jesus and gave him the hardest time, because he honored tradition without being cold, harsh, and rigid to human need. He put people above old precepts. He was not a traditionalist.

Joseph and Mary do everything required of them by the law of the Lord. They honor the tradition. In the temple two old people are waiting, seemingly stuck in Advent for who knows how long. Who said Christmas is for children? With their failing eyesight, they are sensitive to every movement around them. With their failing hearing, they hear things that most people miss. A young couple with a baby enter the temple. He is dressed like a carpenter. She is very young, a teenager. They aren’t regulars at the temple. They look like Galileans. They look tired, as if they have traveled far. But they are not downcast; they seem happy and proud with this little baby. They make an offering, as is done when bringing a baby in dedication. The Hebrew scriptures call for the offering of a lamb and a pigeon, but they bring two doves. There is a provision in the law for financial hardship, for the poor: two doves, such common birds. They are poor. And they are blessed.

Simeon steps out first. But not sprightly, at his advanced age. Perhaps he has had a knee replaced or two. He is shaky as he goes right to the baby, and, surprise, takes the baby into his arms. Mary is wondering, will he drop the baby? Joseph, be ready to catch our baby. Then the old man blesses the baby: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” But he isn’t finished. He is compelled to say something to this young mother: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” In his little book about Biblical people, “Peculiar Treasures,” Frederick Buechner says this about old Simeon at that moment: “He would rather have bitten off his tongue than have said it, but in that holy place, he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby. . . .” It is now for Mary and Joseph to keep on keeping the law of the Lord, their tradition, with this helpless little miracle baby entrusted to them.

A Nigerian woman who is a physician at a major American teaching hospital heard an outstanding lecture. She sought out the lecturer to thank him. He asked her name. She gave her Americanized name. He asked, “What’s your African name?” She gave it, several syllables long. “What does your name mean?” he asked. She said, “It means ‘Child who takes away the anger.’” He asked why that name was given her. She explained. Her parents, from different tribes, had been forbidden by their parents to marry. They were in love and married anyway. For several years, neither set of parents accepted them. Then her mother became pregnant and had a baby girl. I quote, “When my grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the child that takes away the anger. That’s the name my mother and father gave me. And it pleased my grandparents.”

God sends a baby to bring the people together: Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, women and men, old and young. Here is the temple this day, four people, two very old and two very young, are brought together by a baby. A baby named Jesus. A baby who takes away all that is wrong and brings people together. Yes, Christmas is for children. And for really old people. And everyone in between. The one who came among us as a baby holds all of us together.

Comfort and Hope

[This message was delivered at the Blue Comfort and Hope worship service at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday afternoon of Advent, Dec. 13, 2020. The texts: Psalm 42 and 2 Corinthians 1:3-7.]

There is one kind of praying that too often is ignored. We need to know the prayer of lament. It is a biblical form of prayer; it belongs in our prayer vocabulary. Early in the pandemic, Time magazine asked a number of people from different areas of life to write brief thoughts on dealing with this plague. Among those selected was New Testament scholar and Church of England leader N. T. Wright. He named several ways of dealing with our trouble. First, he noted that there are the rationalists, even Christian rationalists, that want an explanation for everything. Second, he noted that there are romantics, even Christian romantics, that breathe a sigh of relief and see everything with rose-colored glasses. Finally, he concluded: But perhaps what we need more than either [of those] is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.” 

When I read that there was an immediate click, a connection, in my spirit. Of the 150 psalms in the Bible’s prayer book, about forty are psalms of lament, about 30 of which are individual psalms of lament and the rest are communal. One book of the Bible is named Lamentations. It’s five long chapters of lament. One cannot read anywhere in the Bible for very long without finding lament.

Paul had a thorn in the flesh. We are not sure what it was, but it bothered and perhaps hindered him. He wanted it removed. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) He couldn’t have been happy about that response, but he accepted it.

When Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple an old man named Simeon took the baby and blessed it and then said: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Then he looked right at Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) Three decades later, Mary would feel the piercing force of that sword.

Even Jesus felt it, as he prayed in a garden, shortly before that sword would fall on him: “I am deeply grieved, even to death. . . he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  (Matthew 26:38-39) Even Jesus wanted a plan B.

Psalm 42 is one of those psalms of lament. Biblical laments tend to follow a simple pattern: acknowledge God, complain to God, hope in God, with the complaint section being the longest. Psalm 42 begins in a pleasant way: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Then come the complaints. Listen to some of the cries of lament:

  • My tears have been my food day and night,
    while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
  • My soul is downcast within me. . .
  • . . . all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
  • Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?

The final act of hope is tinged with the reality of the one praying: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Our troubles do not have the last word. God does. Jesus, our Emmanuel—God with us—does. The Holy Spirit does. God hears our cries and our laments.

In our New Testament reading, brief as it is, there are nine occurrences of the word comfort or forms of it. Our English word comfort comes from two words in the Latin meaning fortify with or strengthen together. “Com” means with, as in communion and community. “Fort” is directly from fortify, to strengthen. To comfort is to fortify another, to strengthen and encourage another. But there is a word behind that word. In the original language of the New Testament this word translated comfort is one of the names for the Holy Spirit. That word literally means “called to come alongside.” God’s Spirit comes alongside us. In our losses and troubles, we are never alone. The Holy Spirit is walking with us, comforting us.

In “The Message,” this phrase of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 catches the meaning: God comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.” 

This Blue Advent worship is a service of comfort and hope for all: for those of us recently bereaved by the death of a loved one; for those of us that have lost jobs; for those of us facing health challenges, whether physical, mental, or emotional; for all of us who know our own brokenness and are willing to be honest with God, the God of all comfort and hope. God’s word invites us to be honest, whether in lament or in praise. Indeed, lament is a form of praise when it is directed to God. If we have not experienced these kinds of losses, we have relatives and friends that have. We are not alone. Jesus has come to be our Emmanuel, God with us. We put our hope in God, and we praise our Savior and our God, the God of all comfort.

Did Someone Forget Christmas?

[This message was delivered for the second Sunday of Advent, 12/6/20, where I am now serving as a parish associate. The texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8. The video of the worship service can be found on Facebook, under Perinton Presbyterian Church.]

There is no straight path from Henrietta to Perinton, let alone a highway. In the three weeks I have been on your staff, I have experimented with various routes, looking for the quickest and the most interesting. There is no straight path. One takes me through four towns, with Pittsford and Bushnell’s Basin in the middle of Henrietta and Perinton. One takes me on some highways, touching parts of Brighton, but that is the longest. And one takes me through the village of Pittsford. I tend to move quickly and I like getting things done, so I want to know the quickest route. Advent is not the easiest season for me. But it has become a favorite of mine. In a society that starts a headlong rush to Christmas as soon as Halloween’s candy is consumed, with a slight break for Thanksgiving, Advent slows me down. It invites me to read ancient prophecies, encounter curious people, ponder great mysteries, and find a Savior who was not exactly what we were looking for. And sometimes not even close.

Of all the characters we meet this season, none is more quirky and strange than John the Baptist. I have this annual appointment with John the Baptist, which comes on the second Sunday of Advent every year, just like clockwork. This Sunday confronts me with John and his message.

The beginning of Mark’s gospel strikes me as no way to begin a gospel, a story of good news.

Did someone forget Christmas? It seems Mark did. This is generally considered the first written of the four gospel accounts we have. Thank God Matthew and Luke followed, because if we only had Mark, we would have no Christmas pageants. Not only would there be no room in the inn, there would be no inn. And no journey to Bethlehem. No shepherds. No grand angelic announcements. No Mary pondering mysteries and no Joseph wondering what to do in the most troubling circumstance. No magi traveling from afar with lavish, if impractical, gifts. We would have no crèches, no living nativities. Bedford Falls would be Potterville every day. Is Mark the Grinch who forgot Christmas?

Does Mark, then, begin with Jesus? No. Instead we get John the Baptist, this eccentric preacher thundering in the wilderness. I have been a preacher for most of my adult life. John both encourages me and intimidates me.

  • He encourages me for his bold forthrightness and his radical nonconformity, not caring what anyone thinks of him.
  • And he intimidates me for his bold forthrightness and his radical nonconformity, not caring what anyone thinks of him.

Pastors want people to like them. John seems not to care about such matters. I can’t picture a church calling John to be their pastor, unless that church were somewhere out in the wilderness, where there is no competition.

Take his manner of dress. Some churches expect preachers to wear robes or albs. Some expect preachers to wear their Sunday best: modest dresses or tasteful pantsuits for women and coat and tie for men—all color coordinated. Some churches these days prefer shirts untucked and torn jeans. But no one is expecting what John wears: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” To be sure, I am wearing a belt today. And to meet all expectations, I am wearing a dress shirt and a well-chosen tie from my Advent collection, with a coat that looks like camel’s hair. And jeans, though they don’t have holes and faded patches. And I am wearing a robe given me by Brunswick Church at a milestone for me. And a stole that a friend made for me to wear in Advent, which I love to wear.

And what a diet John has: “he ate locusts and wild honey.” Since I gained about five pounds over Thanksgiving weekend, mainly from four varieties of homemade pies topped with generous portions of hand whipped cream, I am dieting now. Sort of. I have stopped eating pie all day long. If I used the Baptist’s diet, I expect I would need a lot of wild honey, maybe a ratio of 10 parts honey to one part locust, which is probably as bad as eating pie three times a day.

How John dresses and eats fits his setting: the wilderness. This wilderness is to the east of Jerusalem, that city that is the center of Israel’s cultural and religious life. I have been to this wilderness. It is desolate. Most of us are not naturally drawn to the wilderness. Life there is stark; the dominant color is sunbaked tan. And God uses the wilderness. Isn’t it interesting how God uses unexpected places? Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum: these are backwater towns, whose names we would hardly know, save that God used them. And then there is the wilderness. Jesus never lives in Jerusalem. He visits there a few times. On his big visit, he is crucified.

A little later in Mark 1, right after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, listen to what Mark reports: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness,and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:11-13.) “Congratulations on your baptism, Jesus. We are sending you on an all-expenses paid 40-day trip to the wilderness, where you will fast and be sorely tempted.” It is as if we were to say to little Sophie today right after her baptism, “Sophie, now we are sending you into the wilderness. We’ll pick you up in 40 days. Have a good time in the wilderness with the wild animals and angels.”

This has been a wilderness year for us, for the world, in so many ways. A global pandemic rages claiming over a quarter million lives in our country and approaching two million globally. The long journey toward racial justice has had some wilderness times in 2020. Our ability to be a democracy of civility and mutual respect is being tested. It has been a wilderness year and it’s not over. When we are in the wilderness, we need not like it, but we must not resent it. God is at work in the wilderness. In the wilderness, God does amazing things. Isaiah had another wilderness vision: “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. . . . And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.” (From Isaiah 35:6-8)

It is in the wilderness that we find John pointing everyone to Jesus. John is not for keeping Christ in Christmas; he is for getting Christ out of Christmas into people’s lives; in villages, cities, and yes, the wilderness. Probably all of us began following Jesus because there were people like John the Baptist sent by God, pointing us to Jesus. For me, that started with my mother. From my babyhood, she was pointing me to Jesus. She died four years ago at age 101, still faithfully following Jesus and pointing people to him. I hope she is listening in this morning; why shouldn’t there be live-streaming in heaven? And there has been a stream of other John the Baptist types who kept pointing me to Jesus. Not one of them dressed or ate like John, but they did John the Baptist ministry. Who have been some John the Baptist types in your journey? Perhaps you can name three right now. Here is our assignment: For those Johns in our lives that have died, let’s give thanks to God for them. For those that are still alive, let’s thank them. God uses people to bring us to Jesus and to bring Jesus to us.

In this wilderness time, in just three weeks among you, I see our deacons doing John the Baptist ministry. I see them making straight paths for people in need. I see them preparing the way of the Lord. I see them pointing people to Jesus. I am blessed to work with them. I am honored to be part of this team and this congregation, and to serve with these deacons.

But there is no straight way from Henrietta to Perinton. If we took Isaiah’s and John’s call to make straight paths from Henrietta to Perinton literally, we’d have to destroy a lot of nice homes and build a new highway. For this Advent season, I have chosen to drive from Henrietta to Perinton and back on the route that takes me through Pittsford, largely for one reason. There is a short road, Mitchell Road, that connects routes 96 and 31. Mitchell Road is two lanes, except where it crosses the Erie Canal it is one lane wide. There are no stop signs or traffic lights to control the traffic. That one lane for two-way traffic slows me down and makes me attentive to other people, whose time is just as valuable as mine. Drivers must be attentive and ready to yield to others and wait. Like Advent living: attentive and ready to yield to others. John calls me to be attentive, to prepare my heart for Jesus, to prepare the way for the Lord.