Archives for November 2017

Surprised by God, Advent 4 – December 24, 2017

[RCL] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 Mary was not expecting visitors, and she certainly was not expecting a visit from the Angel Gabriel. But there he was, with the afterglow of divine light fresh on his robes standing before her. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!” Not your typical greeting. Who says stuff like that? Is he trying to impress someone? Mary is a nobody, in a village filled with nobodies, no need to waste grand angelic pronouncements on her.  Gabriel’s presence is more than enough to impress.

“Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.” Do not be afraid? How can Mary not be afraid? Angels don’t come to Nazareth and they most certainly don’t come to poor peasant girls like Mary. God doesn’t find favor with the likes of her. The angel must be mistaken. Perhaps he is lost. Maybe he is looking for a different Mary. But he keeps talking. Mary is perplexed and afraid.

“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Surprise! How can this be? No great ruler has ever come out of Nazareth. And yet here is the angel, speaking of ancestors, and throne and kingdoms. It makes no sense. Why choose a barely engaged teenager to carry God’s son? Why not? If Elizabeth, like Sarah before her, could bear a son in her old age there is nothing impossible with God. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s surprise is our surprise. Thousands of years later God’s call still mystifies us, still has the power to provoke us to wonder and awe. The news from God is frequently too good to be true and messengers are often wholly unexpected and astonishing, but the message remains the same: God will always surprise us.

God is in the business of surprising us over and over and over again. Scripture is filled with God showing up in the most unlooked-for places and the unlikeliest of people.  People have encountered the God of wonder in bushes that burn, donkeys that talk, raging whirlwinds, pillars of fire, and under starry night skies. God has a way of amazing us on the tops of mountains, at wells in the noonday sun, and strangers bearing gifts. No matter how often we look for God in the familiar places, God will somehow be revealed in the unexpected, the unlooked-for, and the unpredicted.

Jesus’ birth to an unwed teenaged mother, in a backwater town a little north of nowhere, was perhaps God’s biggest surprise of all. No great kings or rulers to welcome the Messiah—instead, the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast attended the birth of God made flesh. No fanfare, fireworks or finery for the Prince of Peace, just a manger bed on an average night, punctuated by the message of the angels and the bewilderment of shepherds. God surprised the world in the extraordinarily ordinary birth of Jesus.

As we make our way once more with the shepherds and angels towards Bethlehem, we celebrate God’s favor for the last, the lowest, and the least. At Christmas, we rejoice with Mary that Jesus is God’s biggest surprise. With this tiny helpless child in Mary’s arms, we see God making the common holy, the mundane mighty, and the everyday extraordinary. We are called to revel in God’s continued choice of the unexpected.

This is the good news at Christmas and beyond: that God is found not in a mansion but in a manger, not in a palace but in a poor house. The Good News about Jesus that we, as the Church, here, now, today are called to preach, is that we will be surprised at who God chooses to deliver the message of hope. Yet still we look for God in the halls of power and privilege. But that is not the message of the God of the universe and it is not the message of the angel.

In a world filled with wars and rumors of war, injustices, and violence, we need the message of the angel. For those who are searching and seeking a different way, God finds us in our need and raises us up. Our world is desperate for Good News.

The neglected, forgotten, and the left out are in need of the message of hope found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the son of Mary.  For us as a church to be relevant, we need to be bearers of the Good News that God stands with the left out, the lonely, and the lost. Our world is in need of God’s mystery and awe and surprise. But too often, we as the church find comfort in the known, the recognized, and the familiar. We like safe, we like certain, we like stability, but with God, we are never safe, or certain, or stable.

As we turn our gaze towards Christmas, the question we who look for and follow Jesus must ask ourselves is this: Have we heard the stories so often that we fail to see or share the surprise? Have we drained so much of the mystery from the world that we are no longer able to be startled by the workings of God? Have we failed to recognize Jesus in the passing touch of a hand, the fleeting beauty of a smile, the gentleness of a word of encouragement? Our lives, our communities, and our world are filled with God’s surprise if we stop long enough to recognize it.

When we domesticate the divine and muzzle the mysterious we leave little room for God to work in and through us. When the mystery of God is regimented, regulated, and relegated to be contained within four walls on any given Sunday, we have ceased to seek the surprise of God’s in-breaking into our world. And yet, God still finds a way to get our attention and fill us with surprise.

As people of God, as God’s beloved, we are called like Mary to fall into the uncertainty of God. We are called to let our lives, our hearts, and our eyes be open for glimpses of the divine so that we may follow in the way that Jesus has led.

To be amazed by God means that in Christ Jesus there is no work, no ministry, no person beyond our compassionate reach. If we are to be interrupted by God, we like Mary and Joseph must risk stepping out on faith into an uncertain future, knowing that God is out there waiting with just one more surprise.

When we are surprised by God, our hearts are set free, our burdens are lifted and our fear fades. Like Mary, when we encounter the divine mystery, we can only respond in joyful song. As we journey to the manger once more, may we seek once again to be surprised by a God who finds favor in us, who has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. May we in our lives and our living magnify the Holy One, may we be messengers of God who seek the divine in the midst of the ordinary and may we in joyful song proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Amen.

A priest, a parent, and a (recovering) perfectionist, the Rev. Deon K. Johnson is a native of Barbados who has questioned Michigan winters in his eleven years as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. Deon’s passion for inclusion, welcome, and worship geekiness has led him to be trained as a Liturgical Consultant, helping communities of faith re-envision their worship and worship spaces to better reflect the beauty, mystery, and all-around awesomeness of following Jesus. Deon graduated from Case Western Reserve University and the General Theological Seminary. When he isn’t ruing temperatures below fifty degrees, Deon enjoys traveling, biking, hiking, and spending time with his family.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(B).

Do Not Despise the Words of Prophets, Advent 3 – December 17, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 6:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

 Listen to the words of Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners.

Listen to the words of Mary of Nazareth:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

Listen to John the Baptizer:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. . .”

Listen and try to remember. Do you know any who are oppressed? Have you met with people who are brokenhearted? Have you ever been a captive or have you visited a prisoner?

Now, change direction and remember the mighty on their thrones. Identify them; call out their names as you pray to God, as Mary did, to cast them down. For they are the ones who cause oppression, who take away liberty and make prisoners of the innocent.

Lift up the lowly, oh Lord, we cry with Mary. Fill the hungry with good things. Send the rich away empty, for they are the ones who have emptied everything the poor ever had.

Is any of us courageous enough to cry out with Mary? Yet, this is what the prophets have seen and have proclaimed throughout the centuries. And the people laugh at them while the prophetic voices echo, like that of John’s, in the wilderness.

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” This was a real man; he had a mother and a father—Zechariah and Elizabeth. Yet, he was sent from God. He was a prophet. “Who are you?” the people asked, taunting him. Who gave you the right to call us to repentance, to baptize your followers, to remind us of our sins? Who are you?

“I am a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

They are familiar with the words of the great prophets of their tradition. But what they don’t know is what he tells them next. “I came as a witness to the light,” he announces, and then he personifies the light— “so that all might believe through him.” He is talking about light not as a phenomenon or an effect, but as a person. “I myself am not this light,” John the humble, the profound, tells them, “but I have come to give witness to this light.” And his courageous, prophetic voice continues with the surprising statement: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Untying the thongs of sandals was a slave’s job. A slave would have to bend down to untie the sandals of feet that had walked on dusty and dirty unpaved roads. Yet John, wildly popular at that time, claiming crowds of followers, has the humility to say that he is lower than a slave compared to the one he is about to introduce to them as the Light.

Truth, humility, and self-awareness: these are marks of the prophet. There are other marks made visible in the life of Jesus.

A modern-day prophet, the peacemaker Father John Dear, has identified six marks of the prophet in his book on the Beatitudes. One of them is that “the prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless. Indeed, a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God.” At a time when the poor are despised and neglected, at a time when the very rich rule our world, we need to listen to the prophets who consistently remind us to pay attention. Advent is the right time for paying attention. Remember the oppressed, the voiceless, the widows, the orphans, the poor, we are reminded by the prophets.

Another mark of the prophets is that they are always concerned with justice and peace.

Justice and peace are at the heart of God, John Dear reminds us. Not in some future afterlife, but here, on this earth, “as it is in heaven.” We cannot have peace without justice.

Fearlessness and courage are the most evident marks of the prophet. We see those in John; we hear them in his cry, and we know that they brought him to the attention of one of those who sit on their thrones. John’s courage led to his gruesome death.

Jesus of Nazareth took the words of Isaiah and made them his own. He was filled with spirit of the Lord; he was the Lord’s anointed, the Christ. He too proclaimed good news to the poor as he bound the brokenhearted. He was the Light, the evangelist tells us, and the Light cannot be put out; it flickers, but it is not extinguished.

John the Baptizer was a witness to this light. We too are asked to be witnesses to the Light. We cannot have courage to proclaim the good news in a culture filled with the idols of wealth, weapons, and war unless we are filled and guided by God’s light.

Do not despise the words of the prophets, St. Paul reminds us. This Advent, as always, may we be filled with their passion for justice and peace and with their courage and fearlessness as we too seek to witness to the Light. Amen.

Katerina Whitley is an author, a retreat leader, and a social justice advocate. She has worked as an Episcopal communicator on the diocesan and national church level for four decades. The author of seven books, she lives in Boone and teaches at Appalachian State University. She lectures on St Paul and the First Century as the author of A New Love which is centered on the ministry of the great apostle. She invites you to visit her website, www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 3 (B).

The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2 – December 10, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Comfort, O comfort. There is so much need for comfort in this world of heartbreak where we find ourselves. Every day, we hear new stories of how we have failed each other, how we have used our talents, gifts, power, and position to maneuver our way to “success” at the expense of so many others. We have so completely fallen for this version of the world that we expect losers and winners at every turn. If you are not a winner, you are a loser. If not a loser, a winner, and the winners get to be in charge. They get to use their power to remind everyone else who is on top. In this way, living in this kind of world, we can relate to the exiled community of Israelites. The Babylonians were clearly the winners of this power struggle; they used their power to take over and kick out the losers. They used their power to enact laws that undermined the foundations of the Jewish people, their culture, and their faith. They used their power to proclaim again and again that they were the winners. Despite all of this, feeling forgotten and alone, strangers in a strange land, God was with God’s people. God did not abandon them.

Comfort, O Comfort. The prophet has given many commands in this passage, but the first was to comfort. To be human is to be vulnerable. This vulnerability leaves us with many reasons to need comfort. We are hurt – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The community to which Isaiah was called was an especially vulnerable community, suffering the effects of years in exile. Though most of us may never understand that form of vulnerability, we can all acknowledge our need for comfort in the midst of our variety of vulnerabilities. Yet, what is especially interesting to notice is that God does not call for comfort alone. Specifically, we are not meant to get comfortable, but to be comforted so we can then be moved into action. The way of the Lord is prepared in the midst of our mutual suffering. In our compassion for one another, the way of the Lord is made clear. The Good News breaks through with the promise of new life and a new way of being together.

Lift up your voice. From comfort, God’s people are called into action. Not just any action, but an action of proclamation and gathering together, centered on the unwavering promises of God. This call to action is for the whole body, not just a few specially gifted wordsmiths. What would it mean for us to take this call to lift our voices seriously? What keeps us as a community from unabashedly proclaiming the Good News of God for us? Too often, we allow our individualism and busyness to distract us from the call of God to a life of community. Our individual calendars and task lists put the proclamation of Good News low on the priority list. How often is proclamation honestly discussed together in congregational meetings or when organizing the yearly budget? This is a challenge that brings us to a variety of excuses, often using other words from scripture that allude to spiritual gifts or priestly duties. Yet again, we use our individuality to shield us from the very real call to gather and proclaim. Perhaps this is why following closely after the call to lift up our voices (with strength!) the prophet adds, “Do not fear.”

Say and see; the Lord God comes. God’s word, God’s promises, will stand forever. Here, as we rise to the call to action, we are given a vision of God arriving to fulfill God’s promises. These promises come by way of God’s might, but God’s might is not what we would think. God’s might is not wielded in the same manner of the winners of this world. Although a glorious promise, herein lies another challenge. Will we recognize and accept this kind of power, this new world to come? The truth is, we like being winners. While we may not always find ourselves in the winner’s circle, we enjoy the idea of being there someday. The rules are easier to understand in a world where there are winners and losers. In this world, we also retain our control, or at least our idea of control. If we are honest, we also like this version of the world because we can believe that we do not have to rely on anyone but ourselves. Yet, in today’s word from Isaiah, we hear clearly that God promises a world reliant on God. It is God who will gather us, care for us, and lead us home.

The Lord God comes with might. We rely on God’s might, under the rule of God’s arm. This rule is powerful but does not warp power in the same ways we are used to. Instead, the rule and power of God are about restoration. The rule of God’s arm brings recompense. Dictionary.com defines recompense in two ways: “To pay or give compensation for; make restitution or requital for (damage, injury, or the like),” and, “To make compensation for something; repay someone.” One can imagine that this is an especially powerful word for a community in exile. In what ways do you need the promise of recompense? In what ways does our world need the promise of God’s rule? Though challenging to our current way of life, we hear the cry for recompense echoing on city streets, barren farmlands, school classrooms, concert venues, and country churches. One thing is certain: our world needs a God of comfort and justice. That is Good News for which we are to hope. That is Good News to proclaim.

God’s rule for us. God’s rule is a promise. This is a promise to a scattered community, crying out in loss and pain. This is a promise that is not dependent on winners and losers, but dependent on the very being – the essence – of our God. The reward is our reliance on a trustworthy God who never leaves God’s people, no matter how bad things may get. In fact, our God enters into even the worst places of our world to gather and lead the beloved community into new life together, time and time again. This truth is where we find our comfort and hope. This truth is what we are called to proclaim to all because it is a truth for all. God’s might and reward are not for winners or losers, but for all. Our scripture today closes with the beautiful image of the new way of life under God’s rule, where we are gathered, held close, fed, and led gently. As a song goes, “Home is wherever I’m with you.” May we, along with the exiled peoples of the past and present, hold fast to the promise of our God, who comes to gather us home. It is this promise of home that we await in this Advent season, preparing for the Savior to come, born a loser in this world, to hang out with losers of this world, named Emmanuel, God with us, so that we may find home in God, with us, for us.

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Eagle, ID. You can read more of her sermons, devotions, thoughts, and youth ministry ideas at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Download the sermon for Advent 2 (B).

Keep Awake!, Advent 1 – December 3, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“Keep awake!”

Have you ever stayed up all night?

Christ calls to his disciples and the whole Church to “keep awake,” to keep alert. This idea of keeping awake is at the heart of Advent, a time of waiting and watching, but it also calls to mind a very human thing: to stay awake when you would normally be sleeping.

New parents certainly know what it means to keep awake — to be up in the middle of the night caring for a child. Youth leaders everywhere have endured the crucible of the “lock-in” — when the church is overrun by teenagers for an entire night, who stay up playing games and making mischief while everyone else sleeps.

There are also many professions that require keeping awake through the night: paramedics, firefighters, police, and other first responders, military personnel, and hospital night staff must keep awake during the wee hours of the night. Some cleaning, restaurant, retail, and factory staff must keep vigil, working through the night to complete their work.

At some point, every person has cause to be awake through the night, whether for work, for play, for a child or ailing loved one, for an emergency, or for a long night out. Depending on the circumstances, it can be either exhausting or exhilarating, or some combination of both.

Many people keep awake to accomplish something. There’s a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It’s a 100+ mile endurance race in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants will tell you that the loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. The race is 1/3 on trails and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change.

Completing the race takes five loops, and almost no one finishes. Runners run day and night, and they have only sixty hours to complete the race. If they sleep at all, it’s only for an hour or two over the course of that sixty hours.

Talk about keeping awake.

The start of the race is variable. Runners are told to show up at a particular day and time, but the race start time varies according to the race directors’ whims. A conch shell is blown sometime within a 12-hour window, signaling that the race starts in one hour. This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Some years the race begins in the dark; some years it doesn’t.

Keep awake. Keep alert.

Lazarus, co-creator of the Barkley Marathons, says, “People who have trouble with [any of the various last minute or informal race details] are not going to do well on the course, because [no matter what,] it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.”

This, essentially, captures both the spirit of Advent and the theme of our Gospel reading today.

Keep awake. Be alert, and remember: this is going to be difficult. It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.

At the beginning of this chapter of Mark, Jesus is walking out of the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples when they point up and exclaim, “What large stones, and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Most of the disciples are rural guys, after all — like many people who go to a major city for the first time, the huge structures that they see can be impressive.

Jesus cryptically tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

If you imagine someone saying this in Times Square today, you’re approximating the effect Jesus had by saying this. He’s telling them that disaster is coming, and it has a chilling effect on the disciples. They’re intrigued, naturally, and want to know more about all of this, namely, when it will happen.

Jesus tells them, in so many words: keep awake. And he doesn’t give them specifics, I imagine because, like Lazarus from the Barkley Marathons says, “It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” They want the specifics so that they can make a plan, when the best thing to do is simply keep alert.

As Christmas approaches, many of us begin (or continue) our fervent preparations to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Clergy and musicians and choirs prepare for services, as many of us prepare for travel or the arrival of loved ones or family dinners or community parties or frantically wondering what we will do or where we will go this year.

The coming of Christmas creates, in most of us, a sense of both longing and urgency. We call ourselves to keep alert, keep awake, to work hard to get ready for this holiday that’s coming whether we like it or not.

And many years, it doesn’t happen the way we plan it. We have to adapt and adjust and keep awake — we have to stay on our toes.

As we stress over the coming holiday, Advent calls us to prepare for something much bigger than the yearly arrival of Christmas. Advent calls us to pay attention to the world around us, even as it is wracked with suffering, violence, and hunger. The first Sunday of Advent begins a story of cosmic proportions, with the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven.

Advent, in all the readings today, reminds us that our ancestors once called out for a Savior, and that we in the Church wait for the return of one. We wait, and we hope, knowing nothing other than to keep working, keep watching, and keep awake.

In our world torn by pain and division, we look at the pain all around us and we wonder, “how long?” How long will people in our own country and around the world have to live in fear in their communities, in their schools, and in their own homes? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger and pain, right up to our own doorstep?

In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever.

But this season that we begin today — Advent — has a presence that calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” It is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming that is even bigger than Christmas.

The world still waits for justice. The world still waits for peace.

The world still waits for God.

Like the Barkley Marathoners, and like the disciples, we wait in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.

Peace on earth.

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.

“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)

 

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

Download the sermon for Advent 1 (B).