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. 

If we say we have no sin…then we haven’t been paying attention to the news

I spent a lot of this week swearing at the radio. As the world news went from bad to worse, I flipped from Facebook articles to NPR to CNN to the Daily Show, trying to make sense of what I was hearing and seeing, and, I confess, muttering, and sometimes shouting, “Idiots! They are all just so stupid! Can’t they just stop?!”

It’s not even a matter of politics for me. It is just plain heartbreak. In Israel and Palestine, people are holding their ground and pointing the finger and using the lives of their citizens as talking points and propaganda. People on both sides of the conflict are saying, “they started it!” and Israel says they’ll stop bombing when Hamas stops bombing and Hamas says they’ll stop bombing when Israel stops bombing, and it appears that things are at a stalemate, and meanwhile, children are dying.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…

In the Ukraine, there are rebels and there are government officials and there are foreign officials, and everyone is blaming everyone else for that stupid stupid missile. Kiev claims the weapons came from Moscow; Moscow claims Kiev should divert commercial aircraft; and the rebels are hiding behind masks while they loot the crash site and remove evidence. Everyone is blaming someone else, and no one appears to be considering just stopping the violence, stopping the escalation, stopping the childish blame-game, and meanwhile, children are dying.

If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us…

On our own borders, tens of thousands of children are fleeing violence in their homelands. On our own borders, children are facing untold dangers to escape from far worse back home; mothers are sending their children across deserts and jungles to escape the horrors at home; and we are sending them back to almost certain death, and possibly worse. And I don’t care what your politics of immigration are, because the finger pointing and the politics are not getting us anywhere; the rhetoric about border security and asylum are not helping any one of these families; the lives of these people, these precious children of God, are not summed up by bickering between grown men and women who claim to honor the God of Israel, the God who commanded us to protect the widows and the orphans and the aliens, to remember that we once were aliens ourselves, but now we are turning back the widowed and orphaned and aliens among us, and meanwhile, make no mistake, children are dying.

If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

I am preaching to you the sermon that I needed to hear today. I am naming some hard truths today, because they have been rattling around in my head all week, and I don’t know what to do with them. Because I feel powerless in the face of so much violence and so much anger and so much bloody stupidity. And because I know that the sins of our borders are my sins, as well as anyone’s. Because I know that the sins of Israel and Hamas are my sins, just as much as they are those of Benjamin Netanyahu and Khaled Mashal. Because I know that the sins of Putin and Poroshenko are my sins as well. Because I belong to this world, and this world belongs to me, and we all belong to each other,but there is no way for me to fix it all. If I choose a side, people will die. If I don’t choose a side, people will die. Even if I study the situation, and put my energy and my time and my money and my gifts into doing the right thing, it won’t be enough, and the world will still be a broken place, and I will still be broken right along with it, and there is no way I can fix it all, and there is no way I can distance myself from it, and there is no way I can pretend like it doesn’t belong to me. And I’m stymied. Frozen. Afraid. Helpless. If we say we have no sin….

1 John was a real letter written to a real congregation of people living in the real world. They lived in a world where violence was a daily threat, where people had recent memory of the desolation of Jerusalem, of the final destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, of the deaths of almost 1000 rebels at Masada, who took their own lives rather than waiting for the Romans to kill or enslave them. Then, as now, there were those who sought to lead people away from the world, away from this brokenness, away from the pain and messiness of life in this fallen creation. What eventually became gnosticism in the 2nd century was, at the time of this letter, not yet a fully formed movement. But it was an attractive sort of idea. I talked about this last week, this strain of thought that pitted the tangible, created world against the spirit world. For the gnostics, the goal was to find some secret, some knowledge, some way of thinking or being or believing or praying that would allow them to ascend out of this world, into the world of the spirit, to escape the bonds of human existence. Many of them were beginning to lose sight of the embodied, incarnate Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. They were beginning to talk of him as a spiritual idea, a belief that would get them a ticket out of this life and into some other better spirit existence.

And this was a huge problem. As I said last week, the incarnation is really really important.

Without the incarnation, we can find ourselves becoming insensitive, hard-hearted. If this world is not important to God, or if this world is just plain bad, then we are justified in ignoring it. It doesn’t matter what we do, who we hurt, how we pillage and destroy, what we dump, pollute, or strip-mine. It’s not important, so we can do what we like. If God is only interested in what happens next, or in some other-worldly spirit existence, then the only thing that matters now is getting what we want, by any means necessary. In which case, as history has made abundantly clear, our god becomes power, violence, destruction, and horror. Indeed, I would argue that for many in this world, and this is a critique of many Christians, as well as others, the god they worship is not the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but some other god, made in a human image, formed to human desires of power and greed. It is a god of darkness. It is not the God of incarnation. The God of life. The creator. In this God, the God we meet in Jesus, there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with this God, while we are lifting up and proclaiming an uncaring, unfeeling, exploitative, violent god, we lie and do not do what is true. These are the words of John in this first letter, and they are true now as they were then.

We Americans like to see ourselves as self-made people, and we like to fancy ourselves rather lone wolves. We idolize the cowboy and the maverick and the archetype of the strong, silent individualist, standing alone against the world. Most of us don’t really mind the idea of a distant, spiritual reality, a God that stands back from the world, and keeps clean hands; a God that we can take or leave as it suits us; a God that we can see in the sunset or the stars. That’s a fairly comfortable sort of faith; it doesn’t much challenge me. But if God became human, in a real particular way, if there is a story about a real, live, flesh and blood guy, who died a real, live, flesh and blood death, and then rose again in a real, live, flesh and blood way, that is a particular kind of claim about a particular kind of God. That is embodied faith that gets lived out in embodied ways in embodied community. That is faith that challenges me to see God, not only in sunsets and stars, but in the face of the guy sitting next to me in church who kind of bugs me; that is faith that forces me to admit that God even loves the crying baby and the grumpy grandpa and the guy who sings off key; that is faith that will not rest until I understand that this particular Jesus came to die for all – that he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world! That this Jesus, this particular, flesh and blood Jesus, came to die for both Israel and for Palestine, That this Jesus can be seen in both Putin and Poroshenko, and in the faces of each and every widow and orphan and in every person who has fled their home out of fear. That this Jesus came to die even for those who are making widows and orphans and forcing people from their homes.

[And this was not in the original manuscript, but this is the thing that really makes me mad about our God. The biggest challenge of our faith. That God loves and would die even for those who are causing these problems, those who doing the hurting and perpetrating the violence. That really bugs me. But that is the story of this God in Jesus, who comes to forgive the sins of all the world. Everyone. It’s a really big tent.]

If we forget the incarnation, we lose sight of the story of a God who loves this world, a God who loves this world, and who is at work right now to redeem this world, to heal the brokenness and draw us into a new future that is of God’s making.

If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. Like it or not, we are a part of this broken world, and we are a part of the brokenness. We can no more undo the brokenness ourselves than we can decide to avoid sin. To live in the world is to sin. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” This is the paradox in which we live. And it can be petrifying. Literally. It can freeze us, so that we are too afraid to do anything, too afraid to try. So that we feel helpless. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate. Because in him there is no darkness at all – his light shines into our darkness and shows the truth of us. We discover that God knows exactly the truth about us, knows how bound up we are in this world, in the sin of this world, how we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, and knowing all that, having shined the light on all that, having seen the full truth about us, God came into the world, became incarnate, came to know us, came to die for us. To make us his own. This is the claim that God has on you – that you are free. What has happened in the past does not decide what happens next. The brokenness and violence of the world do not define you, and they do not define the future. In God’s light, even these things may be redeemed. In the fellowship of God, only God’s love has power over you. Not fear. Not hopelessness. Not nihilism. Only love. You can choose to act, you can choose to live out of the love of God, you can choose to proclaim the light, even when it would appear that darkness rules the day. God has seen you for everything that you are, has seen the world for everything that it is, and has seen how you are a part of this world and all that that means, and God has said, I want to love that one. I want to die for that one. God has named you and claimed you for love. You are free.

Paul, Silas, Slavery, and Our Girls

ImageThere is a website called slaveryfootprint.org where you can answer a series of questions and find out how many slaves work for you. Turns out, there are 37 slaves working for me. Wait, what? 37 slaves? How is that possible, in the 21st century, in the United States of America? Well, as I learned, reading this website, there are at least 27 million people, many of them children, living in slavery throughout the world, including here in the United States. They are forced into servitude through kidnapping, through poverty, and through lies. They make the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furnishings for our homes.nSo there are, according to this website, 37 people in the world who are forced into labor, unable to walk away, so that I can have more clothes, more gadgets, strawberries in the winter, and my all-around comfortable lifestyle. 37 people whose poverty, age, gender, ethnicity, or some other circumstance, has enslaved them, somewhere in the world. 37 people, 37 children of God, whose names I will never know.

And that’s exactly the point of slavery. People whose names are never known. If we knew their names, it would be harder to exploit them. It would be harder to pretend that they don’t exist, if they had names and faces. When someone is a nameless, faceless slave in a factory on the other side of the world, it is hard to give them much thought, it is hard to maintain the level of outrage that is necessary to make a change.

Of all the characters in chapter 16 of Acts, it is the slave-girl who draws my attention this week. When we last saw Paul, he was being baptized, after a miraculous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Since then, the message of the gospel has spread to the gentiles, starting with the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. For the next several chapters, the church leaders at Jerusalem struggle with this new turn the Holy Spirit has taken. What does it mean for such different people to be a part of the church? Jews have always been set apart from their surrounding cultures – they keep the Sabbath, they eat Kosher foods, they worship only one God, and they are circumcised. But what will they do with these new, non-Jewish Christians? People who are not circumcised, and who do not keep Kosher? Finally, in chapter 15, the Jerusalem church comes to some sort of resolution: they will welcome the Gentiles, and ask them to set themselves apart with a few small rules, but not the whole of Levitical law.

After this decision has been reached, Paul sets out on a journey with Silas, visiting a few of the cities in Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches, as our author tells us. This is where we find Paul at the beginning of chapter 16. But so far, Paul’s journeys have only taken him into Asia Minor. Now it appears that the Holy Spirit is drawing Paul to Europe. He has a vision one night: “a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘come over to Macedonia and help us.’” So the next day, Paul and Silas head across the Aegean Sea, and find themselves in Philippi, the leading Roman city of the region. There, on the sabbath, they encounter Lydia, a rich woman, a seller of purple cloth, who is baptized and becomes the first European Christian. Paul and Silas become her guests while they are at Philippi, and continue to preach around the city. And this is where they meet the slave-girl.

Our author has made the contrast very plain for us, and it is troubling. Lydia is a rich woman, a worshiper of God, and she has standing, citizenship, wealth, and a name. She deals in a commodity, trades purple cloth. She is Lydia. This slave girl has none of that. She has a spirit of divination, people who own her, and no name. She is a commodity, brings her owners a great deal of money with her fortune-telling. Her only name is slave-girl.

For many days, she follows Paul and Silas through the city, and cries out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” When Paul finally heals her, we who read the story would like to read that he did it out of his great compassion for her, out of his desire to see her freed from her servitude, or from an evil spirit. But instead, it is Paul’s irritability that gets the best of him, and he casts out the spirit with an almost petulant attitude. Honestly, for the slave-girl, it probably would have been best to leave her alone. The spirit was not hurting her, and in that culture and time, it would have probably been deemed something of an honor to have an oracle spirit.  But taking the spirit away would not set her up for a better life – if anything it would be worse. Without this spirit, her owners have lost a significant source of income. They will be forced to make it up by selling her, or forcing her into hard labor. Or worse. We will never know, because she drops out of the story completely at this point. So insignificant is this nameless slave girl that we don’t even know the rest of her story. We can only speculate, but we can be fairly certain that Paul’s little hissy fit has cost this girl dearly. So what was it that annoyed him so badly?

I think she is a reminder for him. And for us. A reminder of what we don’t want to remember. She is the real face of a society that relies on slaves. And Paul is saint Paul, yes, but he’s also sinner Paul, and is no better, at the end of the day, than the rest of us. He does not want the reminders, not when they follow him around and speak hard truths about him in the public square where everyone can hear. But he’s listening, because even though the slave-girl disappears from this story, we hear echoes of her later, in Paul’s letters, when he calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ, a slave of the gospel, and slave of God. I think the truth that she spoke at Philippi worked its way into Paul’s mind, and informed his ministry and his theology as his travels continued. We will see this in a couple weeks when we read his letter back to the Philippians. The imagery of humility and slavery runs throughout that letter, and recalls for us this incident, when Paul was confronted with the realities of slavery, the nameless faceless stories that are lived by the slaves on the edges of society so that we at the center of society can be comfortable.

This week, the news was everywhere of the nearly 300 Nigerian girls who were kidnappedImage by militants on April 14. As you may know by now, it took weeks for this to hit the western media. And it is still not widely known that these same militants are responsible for many other atrocities that have not been reported. Other kidnappings, massacres, and widespread violence and mayhem. Why does it take so long for us to hear about them? For the same reason that we do not hear about the slaves who make our clothes. Because they are nameless, faceless, others. They live a world away, in poverty that we cannot imagine, amidst violence that we cannot fathom. Their stories are so completely foreign to us that we simply cannot wrap our heads around them, and so it is hard to care. Not because we’re callous, not because we’re bad people, but simply because we are human. And the realities of this situation are just that hard for us to grasp. Until someone released a list of their names. What a brilliant move it was, to give us their names. Because when we began reading the list of names, we began making connections. One was named Rebecca, my middle name. One was Suzanna, the name of a friend’s sister. Which makes us wonder, does she have a sister? Oh, look, the next name on the list, Juliana, shares Suzanna’s last name. They may be sister, or cousins. And now a story begins to emerge, imagined though it may be – they are sisters and they are together and supporting one another through this. And it is hard not to care, it is hard to turn our backs on this horror now. They are no longer nameless faceless others. They are real people. They are God’s children. And if we read the list very closely, we might begin to notice something else – names like Grace and Confort and Mary; Ruth Paul, Esther Joshua, Glory Yaga – these are names that come from the Christian tradition. These are baptismal names. And reading these names, it is hard not to realize the profound truth of the sign that Michelle Obama and Amy Pohler and Ellen Degeneres and many many others have been holding, the sign that says Bring Back Our Girls. Because the truth is, these are Our girls. These girls belong to us as surely as any girl we know. These are children of God, baptized sisters in Christ. They are Our Girls. And the ones who sit with them in the back of the truck, begin hauled across the desert to be sold into the slavery of forced marriage, whether they are baptized or not, they are also Our Girls. They are children of God. They have names and faces and stories and mothers who want them to come home.

Like Paul, we need these reminders. It is easy to get comfortable and complacent. It is easy to forget what is suffered on our behalf.

But there is also another reminder here. The slave-girl names Paul and Silas as slaves of the Most High God, a name that Paul takes for himself later in his ministry. But these slaves are the only people in the entire story who are actually free. The slave-girl is beholden to her masters; the masters are beholden to their money and their jingoistic accusations; the magistrates are beholden to the crowds; and the jailer is beholden to the magistrates, to the point where he will kill himself in fear of punishment. But the slaves of the Most High God are free even when there are chains on their feet. Free to sing hymns and pray; so free that, when the cells are opened and the chains are broken, they do not feel the need to escape. They stay put, for the sake of the jailer. They are free to act on his behalf, not their own, and their freedom is a witness to him, so that he becomes a believer and is baptized without delay.

Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Stories like this out of Nigeria feel hopeless – how can we prevail against such reckless hate? How can we stand with the 27 million slaves in this world, when everything in our society connects us to them in a system of oppression and violence? Maybe hardest of all, how can we pray for the perpetrators of these crimes, love them and pray for them, in the face of their apparent inhumanity? These are difficult questions, made all the more real by a list of names. 276 girls who risked their lives Imagefor a basic education that we take for granted. And frankly, I don’t have a pat answer for you. There just isn’t one this week.

But here’s what I can tell you. You have a name. You have been claimed. You are a slave of the Most High God. You are a part of that God’s story. And that story is one that intervenes in slavery, and leads entire nations into freedom. It is a story that disrupts oppression and darkness, and steps into the fiery furnace with us. It is a story that breaks down the barriers of death and leaves the tomb empty. It is a story of love winning over hatred, of life winning over death, and of freedom winning over slavery. And it is your story, a story you are free to proclaim in word and deed, even when there are chains on your feet.

Death is Real. But Life is Real-er.

I have a confession to make: I am afraid of the dark. I put on a brave face for my children, tucking them in, ushering them through the darkness between the car and the house, holding back the imagined ghosts and goblins that threaten them. But the truth is, when I’m alone in the dark, I freak out a little. When the house is empty, I avoid the basement, where shadows lurk even at mid-day. When I have somewhere to be at night, whether it’s the church parking lot or my own back yard, I am on high alert, checking back seats, walking quickly, looking behind me, and carrying my cell phone ready to dial. I’ve been mugged twice, both in broad daylight. Yet it is the dark that scares me.

Which is why I think Mary Magdalene must be a little crazy, or more likely desperate, when she goes, alone, while it was still dark, to the garden outside the city, to Jesus’ tomb. Jerusalem is probably a city that never really sleeps, but the darkness of this pre-electric world would still be pretty dark. And probably dangerous for a woman walking alone. But she is driven by something else on this night. On this night, the darkness within her is greater – the darkness of grief, of sorrow, of despair. Her beloved teacher, rabbi, friend, is gone. Brutally murdered in front of her, a victim of the cruelty of empire and occupation and fear. She probably doesn’t even notice the darkness that surrounds her as she comes to the tomb.

But what she finds there is enough to startle her, to shake her from her inner darkness. The stone is rolled back! The tomb is empty! She is awakened from her sleepwalking grief – where is Jesus’ body? – and she runs, back to the city, back to find Peter and the other disciple. And together they run, at a sprint it seems, and find the tomb empty. Not the kind of empty that it would be if grave-robbers had been there. Grave-robbers do not remove the wrappings and roll them up neatly. Something else is happening here. And the disciples believed, but did not understand. While it was still dark.

I think this is the hardest thing for us, we who come to the Christian story, the Christian faith 2000 years on. It is still dark. This week alone is evidence enough of that. As we mark one year since the Boston Marathon bombings, it was hard not to notice that this week is the most tragedy-filled week in American history. This week last year also brought the huge explosion in the town of West, Texas. Going all the way back, this week in 1775 Paul Revere made his famous ride. On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre. In 1906, a huge earthquake struck San Francisco on April 18, killing more than 3000 and destroying the city. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank. On April 17, 1967, was the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. In 1983, the US Embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a bomber, killing 63. On April 19, 1993, the ATF stormed the compound of the Branch Davidians, resulting in 76 deaths. The Oklahoma City bombings happened 2 years later on the same date. Fifteen years ago today was Columbine. On April 16, 2007, a gunman killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech. Four years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded. And I could go on. It is indeed still dark.

It was dark on that morning 2000 years ago. The People of Israel were occupied, put down by the Roman Empire, under the thumb of a foreign ruler who called himself god and demanded the allegiance and the homage of his subjects. Less than 50 years later, the Romans would destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews in an exile that lasted until 1945 and beyond. For the followers of this preacher from Galilee, things were darker than dark. Their teacher and friend, the one they had hoped would be king, messiah even, who would push out the Roman occupiers, who would establish David’s throne, who would bring God’s Kingdom, this rabbi and lord, was dead. Three-days, sword-pierced-his-side, wrapped-in-linens-and-spices dead. Hope was gone. There was nothing left to do but mourn.

We are, most of us, living in this kind of darkness. Whether it is the tragedy of the newspapers, or the difficulty of daily living, it is dark. We don’t have to go so far as history to know how dark it is. We live in the darkness of Holy Saturday, caught between the pain of tragedy and the uncertainty of what is next, breathing in hope and despair simultaneously, like a crazy conflicted oxygen molecule, hope and despair joined together, pulsing through our veins, exhausting us with its contradiction. This is where we live, in hospital rooms and AA meetings and courts of law; this is where we live, at kitchen tables, and coffee shops, and therapists’ offices; this is where we live, in heartbroken silence, and red-faced anger, and crushing loneliness. It is still so dark. So dark that we cannot see the one we are looking for standing in front of us.

Until he speaks our name. Jesus said to her, “Mary!” and she turned and recognized him! Rabbouni! A term of endearment for a beloved teacher. Rabbouni! And now she believes and understands. Believes and understands that darkness is not the winner. Darkness is not the final word. Darkness does not rule. No matter how dark it gets. When the darkness inside overwhelms the darkness outside, still, it cannot win. When it is so dark that you cannot see your beloved standing right in front of you, still, it cannot win. When it is so dark that the world seems lost and hopeless, still, it cannot win.

Because the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it. This is the promise of Easter. This is the promise of the empty tomb. It is not a promise that darkness disappears. The world still turns, and the sun still sets, and darkness is still a part of life. Jesus still died. The cross still happened. The tomb is still part of the story. Jesus raised still had the marks on his hand; the wound in his side. Easter does not erase that, or eliminate it, or ignore it. Mary’s tears are still fresh on her face and very very real. But those tears are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story. The tomb and the waiting and the despair are not the end of the story. Because the tomb. Was. Empty. As a friend posted on her Facebook page today, “Death is real. But life is real-er.” Because the beloved Rabbouni was standing in the garden. Because the risen Christ called her by name, and suddenly she could see clearly. Everything that had come before had a new light on it, because he called her by name, and opened her eyes to the light. To believe. To understand. Even while it was still dark, she could see her risen Lord. And darkness no longer had power over her.

In your baptism, Christ called you by name. Even while it was still dark. Whether you were baptized as a little infant, or as an adult, Christ called you by name. Even if you have not yet been baptized, this invitation is for you, and Christ is calling to you. Calling you by name. It doesn’t take away the darkness, it doesn’t mean that life will be easy or perfect or sin-free from now on. Instead what it means is that the light has named you as its own. That while it was still dark, the light has chosen to dwell in you. That your identity is not caught up in darkness, or despair, or grief. Your identity is not a Holy Saturday, darkness-of-the-tomb identity. You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. You joined with the Body of Christ, and while it is still dark, your identity is now the light, shining for others in their darkness. Pushing back at the darkness, reminding the world that darkness cannot win. Light has the final word. Love defeats despair. Life will not be held by the tomb. You are an Easter Person. We are an Easter People. Your identity is a Named and Claimed by the Light that shines in the Darkness. And your life is a Resurrection life. Death is real. But life is real-er. Thanks be to God!