Of Pregnancy and Prophecy

Prophecy and parenthood have little in common at first glance. But on closer examination, both require you to let go of the belief that you are in control of anything. 

And both are about hope.

Pregnancy and parenthood are a really good way to discover that you are not in control. Of anything. Of course, this is a lesson that we all have to learn sooner or later, but the path of parenthood certainly teaches it quickly. Just the circumstances of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s pregnancies are a perfect example. For some, like Elizabeth, img_5413the struggle to become pregnant is a lifelong ordeal, while others, like Mary, find themselves unexpectedly expecting. 

And then, once pregnant, the planning begins. These days, there are birth plans and announcements and gender-reveal parties and scheduled c-sections or inductions to accommodate the doctor’s schedules, all based on the basic idea that we can, somehow, be in control of this whole affair. 

But all of that planning is just a delusion. I went into labor with Grace 5 weeks early, but even before that, I had begun to come to terms with how little control I had over this pregnancy and childbirth thing. Gestational diabetes and hypertension put an end to my idealistic plans for a home birth or a new age-y Seattle-Style birthing center. It was a hospital birth – no midwife would consider anything else. Then, when I went into labor 5 weeks early, there was no further pretense of planning. This baby was arriving whether we were ready or not. And we were not. No bag packed, no freezer full of food, nothing ready. 

It was a crash course in how little control we had, a course that continues to this day and only grows more obvious with each additional kid. Holden arrived on the day of his baby shower, so that we had to tape a note to the door for our guests, who arrived at our house 3 hours after he had arrived at the hospital. 

And, of course, it was not part of my long-term plan to be ordained at 7 months pregnant, but Elinor had other ideas. She decided to get her first semester of Greek in utero and accompanied me into my first 6 weeks of ministry here at Peace.

But alongside this growing awareness that you have no control over, well, anything, this new life brings with it a sense of absolutely irrational purpose, promise, and hope. Even as the sense of our own inadequacy grows in the face of this immense responsibility, so does the feeling that this little life could be amazing, that because of this tiny human, who has now become a medium sized or even full-grown human, the world could become a better place. Has already become a better place. 

And that’s the other link between prophecy and parenthood: both lean into hope – the hope that something amazing and new and wonderful is brewing. 

This is what sends Mary with haste to the Judean hill country. 

This is what brings these two pregnant women, unexpectedly expectant, together to share their thrilling expectations, to share their words of prophecy and proclamation.

Elizabeth is an old woman by the time this story takes place. Like her ancestors Sarah and Hannah, she has long since given up hope of becoming a mother when she discovers that she is pregnant. A pregnancy she had once longed for but no longer expected. She had come to accept a long time ago that she was not in control. And now, she is in her sixth month of pregnancy and here comes her kinswoman Mary. 

Mary is so young, so full of promise, promise now seemingly ruined. Because at this time, in this place, what can become of a young woman pregnant out of wedlock, unexpectedly expecting, likely to face shaming and rejection for her pregnancy, shaming and rejection that Elizabeth herself had once faced for her own lack of pregnancy. Women’s bodies have ever been subjected to the hopes and expectations of their society, and when they fail to live up to those hopes and expectations, society demands a punishment.

But in this story the shaming and rejection never come. Instead of being the vessels of society’s demands, these two women’s bodies have become the vessels of the world’s hope, of God’s promises. They have been made into living prophecies, the proclamation that God is present and active in this world.

Prophecy in Scripture is not quite the same thing as it is in popular culture. In the movies and TV, our popular imagination always make prophecy about some prediction of future calamity or good, along with a series of signs that we can use to determine when the prophecy is going to happen. 

But Biblical prophecy is different. Biblical prophecy, like parenthood,is about control and hope. When a prophet speaks in the Bible it is most often to remind us that we are not in control,  or to point us toward the hope of the future. The prophets always speak uncomfortable truths. 

Sometimes they are reminding those in power of their responsibility for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. 

Sometimes they are scolding the people for neglecting the aliens, the foreigners who have come to them for help and shelter. 

Sometimes they are pointing out the abuses of the wealthy and the religious authorities. 

But always what they come back to is the reminder – you are not in control. God is. 

You may think that you are the one in charge, and you may be abusing that power, but at the end of the day, God is the king. Your administration is only a temporary thing. God’s reign is forever. 

For the powerful and the wealthy and the insiders, this is not good news. Because it turns out that God’s administration has different priorities, and God’s priorities almost always take power and wealth and insider status away from those who abuse it.

But even as they are speaking these uncomfortable truths, the prophets of the Bible are also delivering hope and speaking words of promise. 

Because if you are poor, a widow, an orphan, an alien at the door, an outsider, an asylum-seeker, a beggar, oppressed, imprisoned, afflicted in any way, God’s priorities bring hope. 

For these people, the prophets speak of new life, of a world in which all have enough and everyone is accepted as they are, and the flocks are fed. 

The prophets promise that the mighty will cast down from their thrones while the lowly are lifted up, that the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. 

The prophets promise that God’s lovingkindness, that God’s steadfast mercy and love, will have the last word.

In the Book of Luke, the Messiah who has arrived in Jesus Christ is first and foremost a prophet. 

As I said on the first Sunday of Advent, in Christ, God comes to us in History, in Mystery, and in Majesty. And in the four Gospel accounts, the authors each emphasize a different one of these, although all three can be found in each. Sometimes the Messiah is a King, coming in Majesty to set human thrones aside. Sometimes the Messiah is a Savior, coming in Mystery to forgive sins and defeat death. 

But for Luke, who begins his book as “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” the focus is primarily on History. And so the Messiah is a Prophet, come to remind us of God’s presence, of God’s activity, of how God turns human history into God’s story.

And so Luke begins with pregnancies and parents and prophets. These pregnancies themselves, like all pregnancies everywhere to some extent, are embodied prophecies, living instances of hope and promise. A barren woman unexpectedly expecting well past her years of motherhood. A young virgin impossibly expecting by the grace of God. These events themselves are so telling that no words are necessary, and in fact, Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah is silenced by the angel Gabriel, as if to remind him and us that God’s work does not require our interpretation and manipulation, our planning and our perfecting. God is at work and God is in control, and our plans and priorities will take a back seat. If parenthood in his old age won’t convince Zechariah of this, maybe 9 months of silence will. It is only after Mary’s song, after Elizabeth gives birth, after John is named, that Zechariah’s silence ends and he breaks forth with his own song, declaring that God’s plans are good enough for him.

Meanwhile, Mary receives the angel Gabriel with the open guileless trusting hope of the young, simply saying, “Let it be.” For this trust, Elizabeth declares, Mary will be praised throughout the ages, blessed throughout the world, and has the embodiment of hope already growing inside her.

These babies, John and Jesus, will both grow, as babies do, and become something amazing. They will surpass their parents’ expectations, and they will bring grief to the women who carried them. These women, who stand here today with hope and joy on their lips will someday witness the brutal death of these children at the hands of corrupt and violent regimes. And again, their prophetic lives will bear witness to the harsh truths of human power, abused and misused for power’s sake.

But here at the beginning of Luke, it is all about the God who shows up in history, who comes with words and deeds of prophecy, whose very birth is itself prophetic, showing us that God can and will come to us where and when we least expect it. We are not in control, and we encounter that truth in our daily lives, through the unexpected ways that God shows up. Through the joy we inexplicably receive when we give of ourselves, when we share what we have, when we become for someone else the embodiment of hope.

So Mary sings what her body lives, and Zechariah echoes her song at the birth of John, and Simeon in a couple weeks will sing his prophecies as well, on encountering the baby Jesus in the Temple. And all these songs, all these births, and even their ultimate deaths, tell us the truths that the prophets have sung for centuries: 

God is in control, and God’s priorities are not ours. 

And though we will try to manipulate and interpret, to make our own plans and bring our own power to bear, to make history reflect human priorities, though we will build higher walls and rehearse the stories of insider privilege, and though we will place tyrants on thrones and think proud thoughts and hoard wealth and neglect the widows and orphans and aliens who turn to us for help, God is busy coming into this world, being born in every time and place, bringing God’s unexpected mercy and God’s steadfast love into being

Mary is the embodiment of God’s already and not yet, a continuation of the long line of God’s prophets. Mary’s song, sung in the past tense, is about the God who has always been up to this exact thing. Always been coming to God’s people and blessing them, down through the ages, always giving the hope that comes with new life. 

And Mary’s body, Mary’s very being as the Mother of God, is about the God who is always going to come to us, always looking to be born into this world, to embody the hope and blessing, the assurance that we are in fact not in control, and this is indeed good news.

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December 16

Sisters and Brothers, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Or, if you prefer John’s way of greeting the congregation as he begins his sermon, “You brood of vipers!” 

It certainly grabs the audience’s attention!

These poor people have just come 20 miles, walked all day, dropped from 3000 feet above sea level to 1000 feet below sea level, and they will have to walk back. And this is how they are greeted. “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?!” 

And before they can formulate their answer, before the can form their justification, which was about to be “But what wrath? We’re children of Abraham!” He cuts them off. Before the words have even formed on their lips. “Do not even begin to say, don’t come at me with, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” 

To be very clear, this is not just an off-hand comment. This is a game-changer. Regardless of who you are in ancient Israel, Abraham is the basis of your identity. Whether you are a Pharisee, committed to perfect adherence to the law of Moses, or whether you are just an everyday schmo, tending the fields and only going to the Temple when it’s required, Abraham is everything. The covenant with Abraham is everything. Through Abraham, God was determined to make a great nation, and if you are a Jew, you are that nation. If you are a Jew, you are an heir to God’s promise of blessing. 

And here is John, calling that into question. Wrath is coming, he says. Judgement is coming, he claims. The ax is lying at the root of the tree, and being a child of Abraham is not going to be enough.

Which is going to be shocking news to the crowds gathered there to hear John. No wonder he wound up in prison and then beheaded. His message is not a popular one. But the people of Israel are not the only ones to believe that their ancestry was enough to save them, enough to make them special, enough to set them apart as God’s only beloved people.

180 years ago today, another people who believed they had been set apart as God’s beloved people won a major victory.

In the 1830s, 5000 Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers in the South African Cape, left the Cape Colony, taking with them the people they called their “clients.” These were, in fact, slaves, the descendants of the local KhoiKhoi and San tribes that had lived in the Cape for thousands of years. The British had recently taken control of the Cape Colony, about the same time they had abolished slavery throughout the British empire. These Afrikaners were determined to keep their slaves, and so they set out in wagons that looked very much like the ones that left here for Oregon during the American Westward Expansion. These Voortrekkers, as they are now known, were intent on establishing their own colonies in the African interior, and they eventually spread throughout Southern Africa into Namibia and Rhodesia. But it started with about 5000 people, men, women, and children, straggling out into the vast empty wilderness. 

Except that it wasn’t empty wilderness. It was settled land. It was home to bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, KhoiKhoi and San, but more than that, it was the settled land of tribes of Bantu-speaking peoples, including the Zulu kingdom, a nation that had been founded by Shaka Zulu and was now run by his heir, Dingaan. And Dingaan and his people were not interested in sharing their land with these outsiders.

Over the next several years, amid skirmishes, attempted peace treaties, and perceived betrayals on both sides, many of the white families were killed and their cattle and sheep taken.History has not seen fit to report how many Africans died in these years.

Finally, in December of 1838, an Afrikaner commando militia of 500 men, along with 2 cannons and at least 500 guns, trekked toward the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, on the southeast coast of South Africa, near present-day Durban. About 300 miles from the coast, they created a laager, lashing their wagons together in a circle to form a strong defensive position on the banks of the Ncome River. 

The next day, December 16, 1838169539-050-dfe23e42, a huge Zulu force of over 10,000 attacked. They were armed only with spears. They were met by cannon and rifle fire. When they finally retreated, they left over 3000 dead behind. The Afrikaners lost not a single man of their 500. The Battle of Blood River, so-named for the waters that ran red that day, was the beginning of the end for the Zulu Kingdom, which soon split and disintegrated under further pressure from Afrikaner settlers.

The Afrikaners took their victory as evidence, not of the superiority of rifles over spears or cannons over barefoot warriors; rather, they took it as evidence of God’s favor for their cause. They took it as confirmation that God approved of their actions, that God had destined this land for them, that God had chosen them to subdue and civilize the savages. This story became their foundational story, and the retelling of it was used to justify and reinforce Apartheid over 100 years later. 

December 16 was a national holiday for the ruling Afrikaners, and was called Dingaan’s Day, just to remind the defeated African people of their disgraced king. Later it became known as the Day of the Covenant. Because they believed that they had a new covenant, a mandate from God to slaughter the Zulu people and their neighbors, to steal their land, and to establish their own White African nation.

I would not want to equate the deeds of white South Africans before and during Apartheid with the crowds that stand in front of John the Baptist in the wilderness of the Jordan. The Jewish people have been, through most of their history, the victims of the kind of bigotry and hatred that led to Apartheid and the Holocaust and the Atlantic Slave Trade and a long list of other atrocities. But John’s message to them is the same message that was lost on so many down through the years: 

God is in the business of bringing blessing, yes. Of claiming God’s children, absolutely. Of making covenants, even. But God’s blessing of Abraham was not for Abraham. It was for all nations. Abraham was blessed so that all nations of the world would be blessed through him. 

Blessed to be a blessing.

This is what we so often miss in God’s blessings. And in missing this, we create for ourselves mythologies of being blessed-er than thou.We stake our righteousness, our identity, on our own sense of who we are, and we forget who we have been made by God to be. Afrikaners in South Africa, Aryan nationalists in Nazi Germany, white slavers in the American South, the Ottomans in Armenia, Hutus in Rwanda, the settlers of the American West, it has happened over and over again throughout history. We buy in to a belief that God has favored us, our people, over and above others, and we claim those blessings for ourselves. We read wealth and worldly success as signs of God’s favor, and we forget what God’s first covenant stipulated. “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

This is what John calls the crowds back to, there in the wilderness. Blessed to be a blessing. 

God’s promise does not depend on our actions. We are not blessed because we do anything. We are blessed, simply because God loves us. But being blessed, our question becomes, along with the crowds, “What then should we do?” 

The fact is, we who sit in this room are among the most blessed people in the world, if we use the measures of wealth, power, access, and privilege. But none of that is proof of anything other than an accident of our birth. 

What then should we do? 

John’s answer is clear. The terms of God’s covenant are clear. Having been so blessed, we are to use our blessings to bless others. Our wealth, our power, our privilege is to be used to alleviate the suffering of others. We are to share our comfort, and to use our access to advocate for those who do not have access. 

Last week, John proclaimed, in the words of Isaiah, that “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” God has promised to make smooth paths through our wilderness. Yet we humans insist on building mountains, and setting ourselves on top of them, building fortresses in which to horde our blessings, our privilege, our sense of self-importance, while outside our neighbors suffer and beg for the scraps from our tables. We focus on human community, defined in human terms, by the blessings we most value: Race, ethnicity, nationality, class, denomination, politics; we build walls of every stripe, determined to be right, to be proven worthy, to earn God’s blessing, for our community.

But this week, John reminds us what God’s community looks like. What God’s covenant looks like. Whether it is the covenant with Abraham or with Moses, or with David, or the New Covenant that was established through Christ. 

God’s covenant always points us toward one another. 

God’s covenant always leads us to ask, what then should we do? 

How should we be with one another?

Since 1990, Apartheid has been history in South Africa. But the mythologies, the stories and beliefs that made Apartheid possible, those endure. And in the early days of their new nation, the people had to decide what to do with December 16. Abolish it completely? Or transform it? Finally it was decided that it would be kept as a public holiday, “with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.” 

The first meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place on December 16, 1995. Since then, December 16 has become the Day of Reconciliation, and it has been used to celebrate the many minorities of South Africa, as well as promote equality between all, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or gender.

What then should we do? The story of December 16 is a good start. Reconciliation. Turning toward one another. If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall. John challenges the crowds to return to the path that God is building for us through the wilderness, the path of right relationship with God and with one another.

The problem is, we will always want to believe that this path is the prerequisite. We always re-tell the story as an if-then. What then should we do, we ask, so that God will love us? What then should we do, we wonder, in order to win God’s favor, in order to be considered a child of God, in order to be raised up as God’s child. 

But our story, the story that matters more than any ancestry.com story about where we came from, our story is the story of the God who comes to us, regardless of where we are from. The Word of God that came to John in the wilderness was a game-changer. John dismissed human stories claiming that God would only, could only, work through the children of Abraham. Instead, John told us God’s story. God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones. 

And God has. 

From the stones of our hearts, the stones of our fortress walls, God has raised up children of Abraham, children of God’s covenant, children of God’s story, those who seek relationship and reconciliation, rather than privilege and separation. 

God has chosen us, raised us up, named us and claimed us as God’s own, while we were yet sinners, while we were yet placing our trust in stories of our own superiority, while we were yet shutting ourselves off, God has come to us, in the prophets, in the wilderness, in the Word made flesh, in a baby in a manger, in our baptisms, in the body and blood of Christ,and claimed us for a different story,for God’s story. The story of those blessed to be a blessing.

Rules for Wilderness Living

In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, during the priesthood of Caiaphas and Annas, the word of God…

came to John, son of Zechariah. 

The Word of God, which we would expect to go to the halls of power, instead, skipped over Rome, bypassed Jerusalem, circumvented Caesarea, sidestepped the Temple, dodged the kings, princes, priests and powers of the day, and came to John, son of Zechariah, a simple village priest from a small town in the hills of Judea. 

In the 15th year of his reign, Emperor Tiberius, himself considered a god-figure for the empire, received no message from the Lord. Pilate’s fax machine was silent. Herod and Philip’s inbox was empty. Annas and Caiaphas did not receive any visitations from the Angel Gabriel. In fact, none of the important people that we would expect to receive such an important thing as the Word of God, did. 

But the Word of God did show up in mightily unexpected places, such as on the lips of an unmarried teenage girl in the family way, in a small town in the middle of nowhere; such as in the song of a formerly deaf and mute priest whose wife was barren until her old age; such as to this priest’s son, now grown and living away from the towns, away from the cities, away from the halls of power and the institutions of empire and religion. In the wilderness.

In the wilderness.

My understanding of wilderness has changed some this year. Having spent some time in the wilderness of South Africa, at the far southern end of the Great Rift Valley that stretches almost from Johannesburg to the Jordan, I have a new appreciation for this word, wilderness. For the deep-seated relationship that we humans have to wilderness. There is something about hearing the roar of a lion hunting in the night less than a mile off. Even when you know there is a fence. That roar connects with something visceral in you, shivering up your spine, setting off ancient alarms in your nerves. Wilderness day does not exactly soothe this feeling. There are thorns the size of human fingers, bull elephants with huge tusks walking past your car, crocodiles and hippos in every waterhole.

The brush is so thick and exactly the right height and color, so that even large animals like elephants, giraffes, and water buffalo are not visible a few yards away. You cannot see them until it is too late to avoid them, and you wonder at the animals whose camouflage was so good that you missed them – cheetahs you didn’t see, just a few feet away, until someone pointed them out. You imagine what it would be like to walk through here, without the barely adequate protection of a car. Because for all the animals you can see, there are many that you’ve missed, leopards, snakes, insects, each one competing for its space in this landscape. And you have a new appreciation for the evolutionary work of our anxiety, a mental state bound to our DNA to keep our ancestors alert and alive in this environment, in this wilderness. 

My understanding of wilderness has changed some this year. Having spent some time deep down in grief. The first few weeks are a blur, I barely remember them. And even now, though I am mostly okay, unexpected things catch me off guard, and the wilderness of grief comes howling back. Baking a certain Christmas cookie, hanging a certain ornament, listening to John Denver and the Muppets sing carols. The smell of the hardware store and the automotive aisle got me last week – a smell that is my entire childhood. I had read about grief. I could talk about it thoughtfully and with a certain compassion. But I didn’t understand the wilderness of grief. Not until this year.

You have encountered the wilderness in your own way. I have walked with some of you in that wilderness. You have tread carefully through the thorns of relationships, have stumbled into the jaws of unexpected trouble, have cringed as dangers have passed much too close for comfort, or have cried as they plowed right through your life. You have spent sleepless nights feeding the anxiety that your wilderness ancestors planted in your DNA. You have lost it in Costco, or the library, or the car wash, or somewhere else that triggered your grief in unexpected ways. You know the wilderness. You have walked in it through days, weeks, seasons, maybe even lived in it for years.

The thing about the wilderness, whether it is the literal wilderness of the Jordan or Africa, or the figurative wilderness that we carry inside, the thing about the wilderness is, that it feels so lonely. It feels for all the world as if we were the first ever to inhabit this space. We stand in the wilderness and we can see the sun rising and setting and the sky stretching out overhead, and the only sound is the sound of the breeze,of the earth, of our own breath. We stand in our grief or our depression or our fear, in the wilderness inside, and the darkness closes around us. It can be hard to see where others have come alongside, where others have walked here before us, where others are reaching out to us. It can feel for all the world as if we are the only ones ever to have grieved, to have been afraid, to have stood in this wilderness. But the wilderness is littered with stories. Or rather, our stories are full of wilderness.

It was in the wilderness that Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah, and together they found the Promised Land and became the parents of nations, nations through whom all nations would be blessed. 

It is in the wilderness that the people of Israel went from a loose band of freed slaves to a priestly nation. It took 40 years, a lot of complaining, and a change of personnel, but they came into the land of Canaan as God’s chosen people. 

It was in the wilderness that the Word of God came to Isaiah, Comfort O Comfort my people! A word of promise and return, a word of restoration and redemption. 

It was in the wilderness of the Jordan that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah. 

And the word that came to John in the wilderness, as to Isaiah and Moses and Abram, as it comes to you in your wilderness, was a word of promise. It is the good news that, in fact, you are NOT alone. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, generations who have their own wilderness stories, stories to pass on to you, to encourage you, and to remind you of this fundamental fact: The wilderness is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. 

The wilderness is the preparation, the place where perhaps we hear God’s prompting a little more clearly, because we have escaped from the noise and crowds of Jerusalem. 

It is the place where we see the burning bush more clearly, because we have moved out of the circle of city lights. 

It is the place where we receive the word of God more readily, because we are so desperate for a voice in the silence. 

It is the place where our feet are pulled back to God’s path, because we are so far removed from the streets and roads and alleys of the world, and it becomes easier to see what is truly important. Food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep. And the company of other people.

These are the priorities of the wilderness. Whether you are on the African savannah or coping with your grief. This is how you get through the wilderness – food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep. And the company of other people.

These wilderness experiences, from Biblical stories to now, have so often been the experiences that lead us back to God. Back to God’s intent for us. This is what John is crying out in the wilderness, “Repent!” Turn!, Come Back! Come back to what God has always called us to. To one another. Let go of the distractions, the greed, the power-grabbing. Stop chasing after security and feeding fear. Turn! Come Back! Return to the path that God has prepared for us in the wilderness. Return to the way of the Lord. 

Of course, we so often look for our own way, figuring that we know our wilderness best, or figuring that God would not want to bother with wilderness paths. Wilderness, after all, is no place for God, we think. Like Tiberius and Pilate and their contemporaries, we expect that God will be in the cities and towns and halls of power. 

But God has a history of finding God’s people in the wilderness. Of accompanying God’s people through the wilderness. Of leading us as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, through the wilderness. Of making straight our paths and smoothing our rough places, through the wilderness. 

We would take highway T through the wilderness, over hills and through valleys, fording streams and skirting drop-offs. We would hike this solitary path, why? To show our moxie, to demonstrate our courage, to prove ourselves to be rugged individuals, capable of doing it ourselves, like a toddler pushing away from her parents, only to tumble and skin a knee. 

But what God wants us to hear, in our wilderness, the reason that God comes to us in the wilderness, that God sends Abram and Moses and Isaiah and John, and the reason that God then comes to us God’s self, as God’s own Son, is because we do not have to do it ourself. We do not have to prove anything. We do not have to walk this wilderness alone. The way of the Lord fills the valleys and lowers the hills, straightens the curves and smooths the bumps. Like an interstate highway, I-44, opening the way before us. 

And the way of the Lord is relationship.
The way of the Lord is one another.
The way of the Lord, the law of God, is the community. Other people.
God has filled the valleys and lowered the hills, with the Body of Christ, the people who would walk this wilderness with you, holding you hand, wiping your tears, sitting in the automotive aisle with you while you reminisce, filling that wilderness with warmth, shelter, food, drink, laughter, joy, and love. Until it doesn’t really look like a wilderness at all, but like a community.

In the 242nd year of the United States, in the 45th presidency, in the 115th Congress, in the 41st year of the Star Wars films, in the first days of the new bridge in Washington, the Word of God came to the people of Peace Lutheran in the wilderness. 

In your wilderness. The Word of God comes to you, calling you to the way of the Lord. You are not alone in this wilderness. You do not have to blaze your own trail through. God has prepared a path, a path that is filled with fellow travelers. 

This Too Shall Pass Away

Each year the first gospel reading for Advent is a vision of destruction and desolation. This year it is from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus, in his final days on earth, predicts a coming time of fear and distress. To the people who first heard this discourse, sitting around Jesus in the Temple, surrounded by Roman guards and occupied by a Roman army, it was perhaps not too difficult to imagine the kind of fear and distress that he was talking about. For Luke’s original audience, such horrifying, earth-shattering calamity was all too easy to imagine. They had seen it, many with their own eyes, when the Temple was torn down and Jerusalem destroyed by Roman troops. Their own contemporaries had committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Roman troops that besieged the city. Thousands upon thousands of their people had died between the years 66 and 73 during the First Jewish-Roman War. They knew what it meant to see people faint from fear and foreboding. Even outside of the wars and occupation, life was no guarantee for these people. A bad harvest, an accident with a horse, even a bad cold could lay them low. Their life expectancy was short, infant mortality was high, and death was the most certain thing in life. They understood the impermanence of things, so when Jesus told them that “heaven and earth will pass away,” they nodded, they understood.

We, on the other hand, have just enjoyed a nice long weekend, played cards with the family, stuffed ourselves stupid with pie and maybe done a little Christmas shopping from the comfort of our pajamas. We’re feeling festive and content, and here comes Jesus with people fainting and nations confused and powers shaken. It’s a bit jarring. But it seems that the committee that assigned the reading for our lectionary cycle is out of step with the mood of the holiday season. Or they want to give us a little splash, or maybe a bucket, of cold water in the face to wake us up, to pull us out of our turkey coma and remind us that nothing, not even our sated sense of holiday happy, can last. Everything, as Jesus reminds us, will pass away. Nothing can be taken for granted.

As if we really need such a reminder. Just turn on the news to be reminded of all that the world is doing to pull down peace and push us into the fear and distress that Jesus describes. There is distress among confused nations, and people are fainting or nearly so from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. People are walking thousands of miles to escape the fear and foreboding only to be met by more fear and foreboding. Fear and foreboding could easily describe the feelings of parents dropping their children off at school in this time of mass shooting. Fear and foreboding is certainly how I hear the mothers of black sons describe worrying about what might happen should they happen to “fit the description” of someone the police are looking for. Fear and foreboding is a way of life for many of our neighbors.

So I hardly need the lectionary committee to give me a nudge, or to remind me of the impermanence of things. Many of us are fearful because we see the world changing. Our parents’ and grandparents’ way of life, our own way of life, is disappearing in a world that is changing much too quickly, moving beyond the modern and Digital age into something unrecognizable. The nation is changing, the values we thought were rock-solid are shifting, even identity is becoming murky and vague, and we do not recognize the world around us as our own, as something we belong to. Societies and cultures and values and ways of life will pass away.

Some of us are fearful because the world is not changing quickly enough. We had taken some steps forward, moving into our vision for the future of our town, our nation, our world. And now we fear as the pendulum swings and we find our work undone, our progress unravelling, worrying that the next swing of the pendulum will not be soon enough or far enough for those on the margins, those most vulnerable to the whims of the powerful and the consequences of delayed action. Even progress and change are impermanent, even these things will pass away.

But these things are big, the things of powers and principalities, the work of nations, out of our hands in many ways. Maybe we had a quick conversation about these things at Thanksgiving dinner, but then quickly switched the subject because it was not cheerful or it was too divisive. These things are important, but there are impermanences closer to home that truly hold us captive. That truly make us faint with fear, and cause the distress that wakes us at 3 a.m. to fret and worry. The impermanence of us, of the people we love, of the plans we make, of the impact our lives, our stories, have on the people we meet, the communities where we live, the families and friends we leave when we pass on. These are the conversations that we dwell on at Thanksgiving gatherings, the topics that really make up our lives, our stories, our hearts. 

The stories of relationships that always seemed so firm but have faltered: the mother and daughter who were once inseparable and yet have not spoken for 2 years and one doesn’t know why and the other won’t say; Or the marriage that looked perfect to everyone, seemingly made for each other, but is falling apart and no one can say quite what changed, only that it is over. These too will pass away.

The stories of plans so carefully made that have crumbled: my colleague in Seattle who went from high school to college to seminary to 40 years of faithful ministry to retirement at 65, and on his celebratory holiday became a quadriplegic in the blink of an eye, a freak accident, and now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life; the man who worked so hard all his life, 60 hour weeks and all-nighters, earning his retirement so he can travel and enjoy the earned rest, only to be diagnosed a year or two into retirement with ALS or cancer. These plans too will pass away.

The young man with a young family who suddenly faces a year of surgeries and chemo, fighting for his life. The young woman full of promise, bright with life and light, now dulled and drained by addiction and mental illness. The disappointments and daily struggles of jobs lost, of vacations cancelled, of dreams slipping away. These are the stories we dwell on over dinner, the stories that break our hearts and hold us captive to fear, wondering how we would handle it, if we could cope, what we will do when the other shoe drops, when impermanence pays us a visit, when these things that seemed like all our world, these things, too, pass away. 

These are our Advent stories. Our Advent lives.

We are Advent people. Living Advent lives. Longing, waiting, yearning for something certain, something that will give us a foundation to stand on when everything else is shaking.

But the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise. The days are surely coming. The days of promise. The days of restoration. Your redemption is drawing near. 

Because, Jesus tells us, while all of these things will pass away, there is one thing that stands firm, one thing that will never pass away. 

The Word of God. 

The Word of God will never pass away. This is the same Word of God that brought light from darkness in the beginning, the same Word of God that brought creation out of the formless void. The same Word of God that saw everything that God had made and named it as good. 

These things will pass away, but the Word of God will not pass away.

This is the same Word of God that Jeremiah brought to the people of Exile, people dragged across a desert, away from their home and their land. These people in Exile saw the line of David extinguished, their hope destroyed. But the Word of God came to them in Exile, and brought a righteous branch for David from the stump of Jesse. The Word of God breathed new life into the bones of Israel, and brought them out of exile. 

All things will pass away, but the Word of God will not pass away.

This is the same Word of God that has been born, is born, will be born in Bethlehem. The light that appears in our darkness. The God who comes to us, in history, and in mystery, and in majesty. 

I don’t know who first said that phrase, that God comes to us in history and mystery and majesty. But it is so well suited to the season of Advent. 

We live in history, and we long for God to meet us here, in real, concrete ways, in ways that we can comprehend. In ways that meet our fear and foreboding. We are Advent people, longing for the God who comes into history, in a manger, born to a woman, to live among us. 

At the same time, God remains mystery, other, unknowable, and that is what we need as well. We need the God who we know best by knowing others, by encountering the ways that others cannot be known. We long for the God who is our connection to the mystery within our own hearts, and to the mystery of our loved ones, and the mysteries of the universe, as we stand in the midwinter darkness and gaze out into the cosmos, and feel how small we truly are.

And we need the majesty of God, the knowledge that, in all the ways that we are small, God is big. In all the ways that we are not in control, God is taking charge. In all the ways that we are impermanent, God is forever. 

All these things will pass away, but the Word of God will not pass away.

History, Mystery, Majesty.

We are Advent people. All year round. We live in the tension between the important and the impermanent – navigating daily the ways in which what looms so large on our personal horizons, the things that are in our lives the sun and the moon, the heavens and the earth, these things will pass away.

And we gather here each week to encounter the One whose Word will never pass away. The One to whom we belong, who has named and claimed us, and who comes to us each week, In History, Mystery, and Majesty.

Here each week, we encounter God in History, in the tangible elements of water, wine, and wheat. 

Here each week, we encounter God in Mystery, through the sacraments, the water, wine, and word that deliver God’s promises, and in the shared Word of Scripture and liturgy, and through the community that is, somehow, in a way that we cannot understand or explain, the Body of Christ.

Here each week, we encounter God in Majesty, through the Lord’s Prayer, in which we surrender our own will to God’s control – Thy will be done; 

and through the Confession and Forgiveness, in which we acknowledge that we are unable to live up to God’s ideal, and receive God’s promise of forgiveness; and through the sacraments, the water, wine, and word that mysteriously bring the Kingdom of God to us, and send us out as ambassadors of Christ for this world.

The impertinent impermanence of this world leaves us breathless, fearful, shaken, confused, Advent people, longing and anxious. But God has come, is coming, will come, in History, and Mystery, and Majesty, bringing God’s Word, new life, restoration, redemption, drawing us out of the Advent darkness into the light and hope of Incarnation and even Resurrection. Into God’s story, the story, into the story that is now your story, the story of the Word of God, which will never pass away. 

Nazareth? What a dump!

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael’s question hits home. Nazareth is nothing much. A small village of maybe 2-300 people in Jesus’ day. Philip and Nathanael weren’t from Nazareth. They were from across the border in Bethsaida, a territory controlled by a different ruler, a brother of Herod. There was probably some of that typical neighbors hassling neighbors thing that happens, the good-natured ribbing people give one another when they come from neighboring towns or counties. But there’s also a little too much bite to the comment for it to be completely innocent joshing. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is a question with thorns. For those from Nazareth and other towns like it, it is a dismissal and an insult. And in this instance, when Philip comes and tells Nathanael, “We have found him,” Nathanael’s question not only dismisses Nazareth as a useless backwater, but it implies that the God he worships would have nothing to do with such a place, with people from such a place. He has not only eliminated their importance to himself, he has assumed that they are also unimportant to God.

I grew up in an area of Alexandria, Virginia known as Del Rey. Although it has gentrified and changed over the last 30 years, so that it is almost unrecognizable – so that now the Senate softball team feels comfortable practicing there, or at least did until a year ago – when I lived there, it was the kind of neighborhood that people would have asked, “Can anything good come out of Del Rey?” Primarily a working class neighborhood, most of my neighbors were African-American. Over the years, the demographics shifted to include Latinos as well, along with a few Asian families. Most of the new arrivals were fleeing devastating wars in other parts of the world, wars that were often instigated and paid for by the politicians on Capitol Hill, just 5 miles away. My neighborhood was diverse, and tight-knit. The neighbors who remain still ask after me, and hug me when I walk by. But our status in the city was clear to us. The city waited until after all the rest of the roads had been plowed to clear our streets of snow. If they came at all. Our schools were the last in the city to receive A/C. Police response time was slow – if there was crime, well, that just came with living in “that neighborhood.” Then there were the assumptions – about who lived there, and what happened there. When I was in high school, no one would give me a ride home after dark. Some of them wouldn’t even go to Del Rey in the daylight. Because it was a neighborhood full of people with dark skin, it was assumed that nothing good could come out of there, and nothing good could happen there. The people there were not important, not to the rest of the city. They could be safely forgotten, safely derided, safely ignored.

Philip doesn’t try to convince Nathanael. There’s no point. When you’re dealing with someone who dismisses an entire town out of hand, there’s no point in trying to talk reason. There’s no point in even engaging the question. “Come and see,” he says. And when Nathanael does, he is amazed. Because what he discovers is that, not only can something good come from such a place. God can.

And this is, in large part, the point. Not just of this passage, but of the Book of John. The world is a rough place. John says so in his introduction. “He was in the world, yet the world did not know him.” He says it again in chapter 3. “people loved darkness rather than light.” This is the human story. Really, almost all of us in this world could say that we come from somewhere like Del Rey, somewhere that has been dismissed and declaimed as unworthy. Unworthy of human regard, and certainly unworthy of God. Small towns in the middle of nowhere, rough neighborhoods in the city, suburbs full of cookie cutter houses. And even if we’re from somewhere special, we have been through rough patches that render us unworthy of regard, we have endured difficulties and seen ourselves diminished by our circumstances. Can anything good come from Franklin County? Can anything good come from addiction? Can anything good come from divorce, grief, depression, despair? Can anything good come from this broken, violent, destructive world? This difficult, lonely, painful life?

“Come and see.”

And Philip takes him to meet Jesus. The Word of God, made flesh. The Son of God who has come into this world, not to bless and gild the halls of the wealthy, the powerful, the well-regarded. God did not choose to be born in Herod’s court, or to be raised near the seats of power and the center of religious authority. Philip did not invite Nathanael to meet Jesus of Rome or Jesus of Jerusalem. Instead, God became Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of a place of nothing good. This is where God’s love for this world has been made manifest, in the places that this world does not love.

When Jesus meets Nathanael, he doesn’t reprimand him, or deride him. He welcomes him. Here’s a guy who says what he’s thinking, even when it’s mean-spirited. Well, Jesus doesn’t reject him. He doesn’t repay insult with insult. He simply sees him. Sees him for a beloved, marvelously made, child of God, known by God in the womb, knit together by the hand of the Creator. Who knows what has happened to him since to make him spiteful, to make him mean-spirited, to make him say such terrible things about his fellow human beings? Well, Jesus knows, and Jesus sees him, and Jesus welcomes him. Just as he is.

Nathanael, of course, is astounded. Who has ever simply welcomed him before? Who has ignored his spite and his bile and just loved him before? “Where did you see me?” he asks, probably worried because he knows he was saying terrible things only a few minutes ago, and afraid that this kind man will have heard him. And Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Half a mile from my dad’s house in Del Rey sits Christ Church, the church where George Washington had his family pew. What a difference a half mile can make. No one ever asks, can anything good come from Christ Church? No one ever asks, can anything good come from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home 8 miles away. Anyway, George Washington, founder of this nation, had a favorite Bible verse, a verse that guided his work throughout his life. It was Micah 4:4 – “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” It is a promise delivered to the nation of Israel in their greatest distress. They are in exile, a people oppressed. Those in power look at Israel and say, “Can anything good come out of Israel?” And God answers that with a promise; a promise to draw them back to God, to provide safety and security, to hold each one of them as precious, as deserving, to see each one of them for who they truly are; not for where they come from, but for the person God has made them to be. George Washington dreamed that this nation would welcome people from all over the world, from places that were disregarded and dehumanized by people who thought they knew more, who thought that they were better because of where they came from. George Washington hoped that this country that he worked to found would be a place where everyone would be welcomed and would sit under their own vine and fig tree. Where they would not be afraid. A place where each person would be welcomed for who they were, welcomed because they were a beloved, marvelously made child of God.

When Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree, he was telling Nathanael that this verse of Micah had been fulfilled, that God had seen him, and known him, and loved him. Sitting under that fig tree, Nathanael was seen by Jesus for the beloved, marvelously made child of God that he was.

Come and see, says Philip. Come and see, says Jesus. Come and see. This is the invitation. Come and see what it is like to sit under your own vine and fig tree. To be welcomed as you are, and known fully by God, and loved, simply because you are God’s. Where you come from, what you have been through, your broken places and your secret shame, none of those things define you. You are not less than human, you are not less worthy, you are not less important because of anything that has come before. Instead, you are invited. You are invited to come and see. And then you are invited to invite others. Having been seen yourself, you are given new eyes to see the world around you. You are given the opportunity to see others as God sees them, worthy of their own vine and fig tree, worthy of receiving the Son of God, worthy of following Jesus as well. Because they, too, are marvelously made. The word the psalmist uses, “marvelously made,” that word appears throughout the Hebrew Bible, describing the greatest wonders God has done: Creation; the Exodus; the return from Exile. These are God’s most marvelous works. And you are one of them. A work of God on a par with the Creation itself. This is what God calls you. This is what Jesus sees in you. This is what you are invited to live out of.

George Washington’s vision was imperfect. Like everyone, he was a product of a particular time and place, and though he was influenced by Micah’s vision of a world of plenty, in which God provided equally for all, the nation he helped to found has fallen short of that vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this week, helped to move that vision forward in his way. He opened our eyes to the injustices around us, and helped us find new ways of seeing one another. He invited us into the dream as well, moving us closer to Micah’s vision. Invited us to come and see with him what could come of seeing others as God sees them. But like George Washington, he was human, and also imperfect.

None of us comes to this work perfect. All of us will find it difficult to see the humanity, the beauty, the marvel of God in other people. For some of us, we are so damaged, so broken, that we may never see it. For others of us, we may only see it in certain people, those we agree with, those we understand. A few of us will be lucky enough to see it more than miss it. But none of us will ever be able to fully see as God sees, to fully appreciate the wonder of one another. Which is why God came to this world, why God became human in a backwater place like Nazareth. To remind us that even those places we would ignore, those people we would reject out of hand, even they are touched by God; even they are marvelously made, by God’s hand.

And that’s why God comes to us each week at this table, to remind us that we are not defined by where we come from. We are defined by this – the God who has made us, who has named and claimed us, who has come to us and invited us, in the Word and Bread and the Wine, to come and see greater works than even this.

Called to Gather

Christians do not have a strong history of working things out. Well, at least not over the last 500 years. Ever since that October 31 in 1517, when Luther started asking the wrong right questions in Wittenberg, we have developed a habit of splitting. Argue about fault and cast blame all you like, any way you slice it, the history of the church since then has been a history of divisions and splits. Among Lutherans alone, there are 62 different denominations listed on Wikipedia, many of them the result of a long chain of mergers and splits. Some estimates say that there are as many as 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. 33,000. Of course that includes a lot of traditions that might not be called Christian by everyone, including 9 denominations that are classified under the title, “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ.” Seriously, how do you wind up with 9 different denominations of “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ?” Well, in many instances, it is because of this passage that we have heard today.

On the face of it, this passage sounds like instructions for a disciplinary committee. It sounds like for dealing with toxic people that you find in any community:

1) talk to the offender one-on-one;
2) take one or two others along to confront the offender;
3) tell it to the church;
and if the offender still won’t listen, then and only then,
4) “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

But we’re not very good at following through on this. Because it involves awkward conversations. Remember those “hard conversations” I talked about last week, the conversations that we mostly avoid having, because they’re awkward and uncomfortable and lead to conflict? The conversations about race and sexuality and gender and privilege and death and grief and shame and economics and every thing else we ever disagree about, which is everything?

For some reason, instead of following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, the church often just pretends like everything is fine, and go along to get along. Until we find something really innocuous to argue and split over. And so the church has the reputation of either being a schismatic, judgmental group of hypocrites, or of being a bunch of pollyannas who avoid dealing with the real nitty gritty stuff of life. Lately my non-church-going friends have been posting comments asking when Christians are going to stop sending thoughts and prayers, and start actually taking some action – on anything. Don’t stop praying, they say, but don’t stop at praying. Do something!

But of course, we can’t agree on what to do. So we don’t. We send our thoughts and prayers, and keep our opinions to ourselves, because we don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to ruffle feathers. We don’t want to do that most un-Christian of things, to disagree, to argue, to have conflict.

Except that conflict is not unchristian. Given the history of the last 500 years, it seems obvious that conflict is in our DNA. Churches argue over everything!

Do you know that one church actually split over a piano bench? But of course, it wasn’t over a piano bench. It was over something else, probably something really important, that no one wanted to talk about, because it would have been too awkward. So instead of having the awkward conversation about whatever was really going on, they split over a piano bench. It’s not the conflict that’s unChristian. It’s that we often forget who sits at the table with us. So maybe we ought to revisit exactly what Jesus is telling us about conflict.

First of all, there’s the Greek. In Greek, there are several different kinds of “ifs.” There’s the causality if. “If X, then Y.” And ifs that imply something unlikely. “If pigs had wings, they could fly.” There are ifs that apply to a single situation. “If I find out, I’ll let you know.” And there are ifs that are for a thing that happens all. the. time. “If it rains, the streets will get wet.” That’s the if that assumes that something will happen because it always does. You know that it’s going to rain again. And you know that the rain will cause the streets to get wet. There’s not really any doubt implied in this statement.

And that is the “if” Jesus uses in this passage. In the Greek, what it says there is “If another sins against you,” which they totally will because you people always disagree about everything, “then the next thing you do is to go and point this out to them.” This whole passage assumes that we are going to disagree, because that’s what communities do. Disagree. But it also assumes that we’re going to talk about that disagreement. That we’re going to do the hard work of having the awkward conversations. And then, when those awkward conversations go off the rails, we are going to do the hard work of following up on them.

Not “kick ‘em out.” That’s not what this is about, though this passage has been used to justify excommunication and worse. This is the passage the piano bench church used to justify splitting. But this passage is not about schism. It’s not about Kick ‘em out.

After all, it comes right on the heels of the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus has just finished describing how God rejoices more at finding one lost sheep than at the ninety-nine who never strayed. And then, just after today’s passage, Jesus tells Peter that if (when) a member of the church sins against him, he is to forgive the offender not seven times, but seventy times seven times.

How, then, can we read this passage in between as permission to kick someone out of our community? How can we read it as permission to enforce the same rules as society. Where we are expected to hide our imperfections in order to prove that we are better than our neighbor. Where justice has more to do with revenge than with reconciliation.

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” says Jesus. And for so long, we in the church have read that as a command to cast those who sin and fall short into the outer darkness. Yet throughout the book of Matthew, Jesus has dined with gentiles and tax collectors; throughout the gospels, Jesus has gone out of his way to welcome people like Zacchaeus, a tax collector; like the Canaanite woman, a gentile; like lepers and blind men and bleeding women and centurions; like Matthew himself, who was a tax collector. Jesus has gone out of his way to seek out people who are broken and scarred, inside and out; to find people who have lost themselves in their search for acceptance; to welcome people who are not perfect, not insiders; not upstanding and righteous and sinless; but people like you and me.

That is what makes a community in Christ different from other communities, if we will take him seriously and have the awkward conversations. If we will remember who else is sitting at the table with us. If we truly gather in His name, Jesus is at the table, too.

It’s not just rhetoric, just throw Christ’s name around, and use it in vain, all the while acting like He is not sitting there with us.

It’s taking seriously what that name stands for: healing, reconciliation, love. Taking seriously the promise that Jesus is with us in our gathering, and that because he is right here with us, whether it’s in the sanctuary or the kitchen or the narthex or the nursery, we want to do better. Knowing he is there, ready to bring the fulfillment of the law, love, to be the heart of the conversation; knowing that Jesus is willing to place himself in the middle of any gathering, we can go ahead and do the hard work of making ourselves truly available for one another. Even, especially, when we disagree.

Because Christ’s name is a name that means that you are gathered, not in spite of your brokenness and need, but because of it. Christ’s name means that you are welcomed as you are, in all your sinfulness and in all your saintliness. Christ’s name means that your community comes after you when you stray, not to punish you or to make you feel shame or to ostracize you, but to remind you of God’s promises, and to welcome you back when you are ready.

That is the name that we gather in. And that is what makes us different from other gatherings. We gather in the name of reconciliation in the midst of a world that calls for revenge. We gather in the name of hope in a world that thrives on fear. We gather in the name of unity even in our differences in a world that bullies those who are different. We gather in the name of life, in a world that has made fortunes and nations by glorifying death.

I recently read a quote from a theologian, who said, “Sin makes you dead, not bad.” In other words, our brokenness cuts us off from the abundant life that God wants for us. It doesn’t make us bad people, it doesn’t even make us different. We are people. We are broken people, looking for community. When we sin and fall short, we are not being bad. We are being human. When we close in on ourselves it is because we are afraid, afraid to be vulnerable, to be open, to be shown for who we are; we are afraid, and our fear kills us, it cuts us off from those around us just as surely as if we were in a tomb. Sin makes you dead, not bad.

But this theologian then went on to say, “God wants you alive, not better.”

“Sin makes you dead, not bad; God wants you alive, not better.” Not better. But alive!

God wants you alive – God wants you to have life and to have it abundantly. God knows that you and I are broken people in a broken world, and that we are going to screw up. We are going to find ourselves cut off time and again, and not know how to get ourselves back out of that tomb.

And so God goes into the tomb after us. God in Christ dies, and dying, overcomes death, and draws you and me back out of that tomb and puts us right back into the world of the living, into the world of reconciliation and healing, into community that meets us right where we are, and then challenges us to grow into what we could become.

God calls us into a community gathered in the name of Christ, and knowing that we cannot make such a community ourselves God sends the Holy Spirit to help us. To help us be the authentic community that our world so badly needs.

It is not our doing, but it is our calling. To be a community that gathers in the name of the healing and reconciling Christ; a community that sees past the sin and brokenness, to the beloved child of God, and draws that child into the light; a community of broken people, gathered because of their brokenness, not in spite of it; a community gathered to show their scars, not hide them; a community of sinners and saints, bumbling our way into the light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ.

Awkward Grace

images-2So. That was awkward. One minute Peter is on fire, calling Jesus the Messiah, getting praised by the Son of God himself, even getting a new name, “You will be Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” You can only imagine how excited Peter is feeling. He’s on the rise! And then Jesus just pretty well blows it for him by going and talking about awkward things like suffering and death and persecution.

So Peter, you know, the rock, he’s ready to bring the awkward conversation to Jesus. He pulls Jesus aside to let him know that he’s making the guys uncomfortable and could he maybe lay off that stuff for a while, because he’s really bumming them all out. But Jesus just dials up the awkward! “Get behind me, Satan!” And he starts going on about the cross and how it’s not just for Jesus himself, but that the disciples will have a cross to carry, too, and this is all just really, you know, uncomfortable. Awkward.

But Jesus and the disciples are at a cross-roads in this story. This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus mentions the cross, and from here on, everything kind of rolls into slow motion, as Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and takes step after painful step toward what now seems to be the inevitable ending of his story – the cross. So this is the cross-roads in this story of Jesus; and it is a crossroads for the disciples, because now they must make a choice. This is the moment when Peter and the rest of them realize that what they thought was going on here was not really what was going on. Last week, they were on such a high – here is the Messiah! here is the founding of a new church! here are the keys to the kingdom! this is so exciting!

And now, it turns out that whatever they thought Messiah meant, what it really means is going to Jerusalem to suffer and be cast out of society and be killed as a common criminal. To carry a cross, the mark of the most abhorrent of Rome’s death sentences – to ally themselves with outsiders and insurrectionists and thieves and bandits. To die.

And now they have to decide. Are they ready to follow through? Are they getting on this bus? Are they ready to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus? It makes for an awkward moment. An awkward conversation. It’s time to shift their thinking and to push forward with God’s plan instead of their own plan,

or to admit that they don’t really want to follow Jesus.

They’re at a crossroads. And crossroads are awkward. That moment when you have to make a decision about how things are going to go, to have the awkward conversations you’ve been putting off. Until something happens that forces the conversation, and you have to deal. You have to set aside the fear and anxiety and just talk.

We are in a season of awkward conversations. We are at a crossroads, as a culture. Over the past months and years, some old wounds have been opened, and some awful things have happened, and our country is at a crossroads. We are figuring out together what we want to be as a nation, what we can be as a nation; as a culture; as a people.

And that means that we are having awkward conversations. About race, privilege, white supremacy, sexuality, the environment, immigration – so many awkward conversations.

This week alone, I have been involved in awkward conversations

And that’s not even getting into the important personal conversations we all have or don’t have. Conversations like the one I haven’t had yet with my dad, about dying well and saying goodbye. We all have these conversations at some point, about who hurt who, and how the kids are doing in school, and how we are going to live without our friend, our spouse, our parent. Or the day-to-day awkward conversations we all have about which way the toilet paper should face and whose turn it is to do the dishes or take out the garbage.

So in the middle of this week of awkward conversations, I got an email from one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle. It was about the release of her book Love Warrior, which is, as she puts it, about “awkward conversations about love and sex and infidelity and divorce and leaving the church and finding the church and learning how to trust yourself and do the next right thing.” And in this email she went on to say, “I am starting to truly believe that the willingness to have awkward conversations –imperfectly and over and over again — is a key to healing our hearts, our families, our communities and our country.” She continued, “The Bad News is Awkward Conversations are Hard. The Good News is We Can Do Hard Things.”

So this week is brought to you by the word awkward. It usually evokes an image of physical blundering, someone who is ungainly or just not comfortable in their own body is called awkward.

What’s the opposite of awkward? Graceful.

Awkwardness and grace stand in opposition to one another in our language. But in my experience, awkwardness and grace are actually beautifully intended for one another.

Physical awkwardness can be beautiful, like a newborn colt finding its legs and taking its first tentative steps. There is grace even in that awkward movement. 

Social awkwardness is me speaking when I should listen, or getting worked up into a lather about something and I make every else uncomfortable. But even in that, there is grace, as others make room for my passion and my soapboxing, and go ahead and love me anyway.

This week, this month, this year, this life, has left me with this certainty: awkwardness demands grace. Every life encounters awkwardness, in larger and smaller degrees. And awkwardness demands grace, demands that we act in the name of compassion and grace even when we are confronted with hard truths and crossroads decisions, and what we really want to do is to retreat into the comfort of complacency, return to the way things have always been, so that we don’t have to make any hard choices, and we don’t have to face any of the painful realities. It’s easier to stay the same, even if the same is painful, than it is to have the awkward conversations that come with pain and growth and healing.

Peter did not want to have an awkward conversation with Jesus about suffering and dying, because it meant suffering for himself, too. It meant changing his own understanding of what a Messiah meant, for himself and for his nation. Taking up a cross and following Jesus meant, means, taking risks for the sake of grace, and then trusting in grace to guide us as we risk. It means leaning heavily on grace, because the more awkward the conversation, the more grace is needed.

That’s why Moses didn’t want to go when the burning bush sent him to Pharaoh to set the people free. He was being sent into some seriously awkward conversations. In fact, one of Moses’ main objections was “O my LORD, I have never been eloquent, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In other words, I hate having awkward conversations! I’m no good at it! To which God responded, “I will be with you and teach you what you are to speak.” In other words, God will be with you in the awkwardness. If that’s not the definition of grace, I don’t know what is. God will be with you. Emmanuel. Grace.

This is the grace that we have to rely on to have these awkward conversations. The promise that God is with us. Even, maybe especially, in the hardest, most awkward conversations. Conversations about race and privilege and sexuality and climate and even grief and death and shame. These are all hard things to talk about. And God is not just willing, not just able, to join us in them. God is willing to be the heart of these conversations. God is prepared to put God’s own self on the line, to become the ground on which these conversations are held.

You know from your own experience how fear can overwhelm a conversation. How fear and pain, guilt, defensiveness can quickly derail what started out as a well-intentioned discussion between friends. We quickly find ourselves at a crossroads, especially when things get painful, especially when we are forced to think about our privilege, or our failure, or our own pain. And at this crossroads, I get anxious – about my past, about my future, about my security, about my ambitions, about my stuff. Anxiety about me, about myself, quickly moves to the center of my attention. Embarrassment and shame begin to rear their heads, and begin to feed me. They become the basis of my crossroads decision. Will I turn toward the other person? Will I accept their story as true? Will I acknowledge their pain and walk with them in it? Or will I turn back, turn in on myself, shore up my own defenses and pretend that my pain, my grief, my experience is the only one that matters? At the crossroads, I have to decide, What will become the grounding, the rock on which I build? Will I feed myself with fear? Will I let my shame and my defensiveness and my pain define me?

Or will I trust in grace? Will I place the grace and love of Jesus Christ at the center, and have the hard, awkward conversations anyway?

The Bad News is Awkward Conversations are Hard.

The Good News is We Can Do Hard Things.

The really good news is, we don’t do hard things alone.

Because we have been named and claimed by the God of grace. We are fed and watered by grace, not by fear. You have received grace upon grace. You have been bathed in grace in the waters of baptism, and you are fed each week at this table with the body and blood of grace, God with us, Emmanuel. Grace.

This is not a simple platitude. This is real. This is the Messiah that Peter did not expect. But this is the Messiah that we got. The Messiah who gives all that he is, for you. He is not (only) a Messiah for easy, comfortable times. He is the Son of the Living God, the God who came into this world to be with us in the most painful, difficult, awkward places. To stand with us at the crossroads and ask us which way we intend to go. To have the hard conversations, and to be the grounding of grace and love when those conversations get painful, and to be the hope of reconciliation and resurrection when those conversations go wrong. We can do hard things. But we do not do them alone. Thanks be to God.