Before we read our scripture passage today, I want you to think about everything that is wrong in your life. That seems a bit counter-intuitive, I know, but trust me on this. We’re going to do a kind of the antithesis of “Counting Your Blessings.” -- sort of like Alexander in the Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day….where basically everything goes wrong for poor Alexander and he wants to move to Australia, and at the end he realizes that people have bad days in Australia too - like, the grass is never any greener elsewhere.
So let’s get the list going -- I’ll start -- it’s really hard to wait my turn with the vaccine (or I haven’t seen my family in over 6 months or haven’t had a proper date with Ben in almost a year or…)
The passage that we’re about to hear today was written for the Israelites living in Babylon near the end of the exile. Just as a brief reminder of your Bible history, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem around 600 BCE and eventually conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, including the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzer deported much of the city’s population to Babylon.
The Jews living in Babylon had lost the Promised Land and had been living for generations in this new place. The Temple - their most sacred symbol of God’s presence among the people - had been destroyed. They were a people without a home, without a sense of identity, longing for and mourning what they had lost and had no idea if they would ever see themselves having a place and a purpose again. (Maybe that puts some of our things in perspective but it also means that those who heard and understood these words knew hardship and struggle).
So they were having a very long Terrible Horrible Very Bad Day.
It’s into that situation that the prophet Isaiah spoke. So keep that in mind - and keep what you’re carrying in mind as well as we hear Isaiah 40:21-31. We’ll hear it read from the Contemporary English Version.
Scripture - Isaiah 40:21-31
Isaiah 40:21-31 (CEV)
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
Isn’t it clear that God
created the world?
God is the one who rules
the whole earth,
and we that live here
are merely insects.
He spread out the heavens
like a curtain or an open tent.
God brings down rulers
and turns them into nothing.
They are like flowers
freshly sprung up
and starting to grow.
But when God blows on them,
and are carried off
like straw in a storm.
The holy God asks,
“Who compares with me?
Is anyone my equal?”
Look at the evening sky!
Who created the stars?
Who gave them each a name?
Who leads them like an army?
The Lord is so powerful
that none of the stars
are ever missing.
You people of Israel, say,
“God pays no attention to us!
He doesn’t care if we
are treated unjustly.”
But how can you say that?
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the eternal God,
Creator of the earth.
He never gets weary or tired;
his wisdom cannot be measured.
The Lord gives strength
to those who are weary.
Even young people get tired,
then stumble and fall.
But those who trust the Lord
will find new strength.
They will be strong like eagles
soaring upward on wings;
they will walk and run
without getting tired.
Part of me thinks I really should have had Ben preach part of this sermon, because one of the things that struck me as I was reading this text was that it’s written to a people at the end of exile who will be getting ready to go back to their homeland and rebuild….and here we are, in the midst of our own restoration project on Firehouse road.
I think most of you know what the inside of that place was like when we bought it over a year ago. I won’t go into full on detail about what it was like wading through the inside of this abandoned property - but let’s say that seeing beyond the piles of filth and neglect took some imagination. When we came to it, it was a sad little house, an overgrown property, an eyesore and a spot of grief for so many who remembered what it was like in happier times in the past.
Bit by bit, we - and I mostly mean Ben - have taken the time to clear it out, tend to the grounds, and have begun constructing a vision for what that place could be again - with fruit trees, children’s laughter, blossoming gardens, and dinner gatherings. Bit by bit - trash bag by trash bag, I can see the project take shape. It’s easy to see the unfolding of this vision as the house tangibly changes as a result of our work and effort.
What happens, though, when that rebuilding isn’t so tangible?
We have here words from the beginning of what is called the “Book of Consolation” in Isaiah - a book that provides encouragement and comfort to a people, preparing them to return to their homeland. Here in this passage, the questions spoken by God aren’t meant to be answered, but to remind the people who really is in charge, and to get them back into a different mindset -- one of hope for a future and a readiness to rebuild.
But I have to wonder how these words landed with those living in exile. Presumably, the older generation may have remembered what life had been like in their homeland, but newer generations did not. The generation that sees the end in this story - a return to Judah - wasn’t present for the beginning. Any memories or stories of Jerusalem were before their time in captivity in Babylon - and that world had been wiped away. What does restoration look like when you know that you can never truly go back to what was? What does hope look like then?
This passage serves to not only encourage them that they will be restored, but tells them that they can also withstand the pains of restoration.
We face in our reality a similar transition. We have certainly carried our own share of troubles in our very own national and global Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. The rollout of the vaccine promises a restoration of “normalcy” that many of us have been craving for almost a year, but supply and distribution continue to be problematic. We’re still reeling from partisan divisions - divisions that may have been exacerbated under the previous administration but that have not gone away. Truth, facts, and reality seem to be up for negotiation from huge segments of our country’s population. We’re still in the midst of the pandemic with its economic challenges and mental health difficulties of loneliness and isolation. The end is in sight for some of these things - but as we move forward, what does hope and restoration really look like as we take stock of all that we have lost? How can we get back to normal when normal is what landed us in this situation in the first place?
Sometimes, where you start is acknowledging the difficulty of your current reality, the challenge that lies ahead, and then stepping into the vision of what you hope will be….and trusting God’s work and movement in the midst of that.
This, I think, is the power in this passage. God reminds the people - and us - that God is involved and present throughout all of history - through the very creation of the cosmos. There is nothing that compares to God’s sovereignty - and God will continue to act in the world to bring healing and wholeness and restoration - not in the sense that things will be back to the way they were, but closer to the way God always intended them to be.
That’s not a project that will just suddenly happen. That world will not suddenly appear - that’s a project that needs hands and feet to enact.
God prepared the Israelites for the rebuilding of their homeland and the hard work ahead - they cannot go back to what was. God prepares us, too, for the work of rebuilding as we recover from the pandemic - and we, too, cannot go back.
I’ve heard so many people talk about what they hope will be different going forward - more priority on spending time with loved ones. Slowing down the frantic pace of life. Shopping more locally and with greater intention. Learning how to do without, or being more creative with the resources they have on hand. Paying more attention to how policies from our government or state affect vulnerable populations among us and our planet. Allowing more time for prayer and gratitude. Spending more time doing the things that honor God and God’s movement in their life.
As we come out of this unsettling, uncertain, and disorienting time - there is a wonderful opportunity to reorient ourselves in ways that give us life, that are aligned with God’s hopes and dreams for us and our world, that enable us to partner with God’s work in our community, giving life and hope to others. We have a chance to widen our spiritual imaginations to live and be in ways that witness to the healing and redemptive work of God in our lives and in the world. That’s something more than what name is on our sign or what denomination we’re a part of -- that’s something about who we are as individuals and as a community seeking after Jesus. It’s that vision that we should be yearning after with our whole being because we serve a God who cares about people over principles, who gives hope and strength to those who live in trust that God is weaving all things for God’s greater purposes for all of creation.
And so as we enter this time of transition - both as we rebuild as a community and as we approach the vote that impacts our relationship with the United Methodist Church - my prayer is that we look to God for faith and trust in the midst of the waiting...that we look to God for hope in the efforts of rebuilding...that we look to God for the vision to live and act as witness to the grace and truth present in Jesus Christ...that we follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in being people of abundant life and hope in service to others.
May God be with us as we move into these days together - may we look only to Jesus to guide our steps - and may the Spirit grant us strength and renewal in the time ahead. Amen.
We’re going to do some Bible study around our text for this morning, and before I read it - I have a question. What does it mean when someone speaks with authority on a topic? What about exercising authority toward others?
The passage that we’re going to read today gets at the heart of Jesus’s authority and how others reacted to his presence - and what that authority means for us as disciples of Jesus.
Scripture - Mark 1:21-28
Mark 1:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
A bit of background on this text before we move into some discussion- and much credit to the work of Faith Element for the background on this text.
We see Jesus teaching in Capernaum at the synagogue on the sabbath. We don’t know what he’s talking about or anything about the content of his teaching except that the people who were there were astounded. This is another area where the translation from Greek to English misses a lot of the nuance. The word exesplanto - which gets translated as astounded - doesn’t mean they were impressed with what Jesus had to say. It means astounded to the point of being overwhelmed, shocked, or panicked. Probably Jesus’s words were so moving that they struck people at the heart and perhaps made some of them uncomfortable. Jesus was not like any other teacher they had ever heard before.
Now the man with an unclean spirit comes on the scene - and cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us?” The spirit recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God and realizes that he could destroy them. And he does - he silences the spirit and banishes it - and the people were amazed - again we lose something in translation - the Greek word means amazed or terrified.
But what’s important here as well is that the people saw this act of healing as a new teaching with authority. Jesus’s teaching made the man whole. According to Nikki Hardiman at Faith Element, “Jesus did not teach like the other teachers. Jesus’s teachings were liberating and they brought wholeness.”
At the end of the passage, we read that Jesus' fame spread - his fame spread because of this new way of teaching with authority - his words and his actions bringing liberation and wholeness to the people. This is the important part of the story - that the authority of Jesus as the Holy One of God is bound up in the very nature of Jesus himself - that Jesus is the new teaching that liberates us and brings us to wholeness.
So let’s talk a little bit more about this passage together.
Do you think that Jesus’ authority came from the manner in which he spoke, or his content… or both?
Why might Jesus’ impressive teaching have triggered the episode with the unclean spirit?
Does our place as followers of Jesus give us the right to speak as people of authority too? Explain. If not, how should we speak?
When we speak and act on Jesus’ behalf today, will others automatically be drawn? What about our words and actions can point others to Jesus? (Work with video, if time or conversation leads in that direction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YztvjePz0uk&feature=youtu.be)
Jesus’ teachings are ones that liberate and bring wholeness. Where does Jesus need to work more fully in your life to lead you closer to wholeness?
I want that last question to lead us into our time of sharing joys and concerns - because those are the places we can be in prayer for each other for. We’re not on this journey alone - being a church means that we trust God to be present among us and that we can share our vulnerabilities with one another because we’re all on the journey together. Jesus continues to heal us through his word and his actions to restore us to greater wholeness and love. We can pray for and with one another in these moments.
Scripture Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Jonah 3:1-10 (The Message)
Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
3 This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.
Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.
4 Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”
5 The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.
6-9 When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”
10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.
Mark 1:14-20 (New Revised Standard Version)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
I love the book of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the story, and if you have 10 minutes, I encourage you to read this book, which is satire. Here’s a quick refresher: Jonah gets a message from God to prophesy against the city of Ninevah - a major city in Assyria that had conquered Israel. Needless to say, the Israelites weren’t huge fans of the Assyrians and Jonah is no exception. He decides to go in the opposite direction, hoping to escape the command of God. He boards a ship only to come face to face with a terrible storm. As the crew are throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load, the sailors discover that the storm is Jonah’s fault. Jonah volunteers to be thrown overboard as well, and consequently a big fish swallows him up. Jonah appears to have a revelation while inside its belly, whereupon God causes the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the shore. This is where our story picks up - and we see Jonah half-heartedly walking across the city for three days, yelling out a one-liner of judgment, with no mention of God or how they can change their ways - and all of a sudden the whole city repents, even the animals are commanded by the king to join in the fasting and to put on sackcloth.
Contrast what Jonah pronounces: “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed” to the one-liners that Jesus delivers in the Gospel text: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In Jonah’s case, of course, the book is satire; it’s meant to be an exaggeration - a story of a reluctant prophet sent to convey judgment upon Israel’s enemies - and he’s reluctant because he knows how merciful and compassionate God is and he doesn’t want to give the Ninevites a chance to receive the mercy he feels is reserved for his people alone. Of course, a message of pure doom and destruction wouldn’t normally play well in any given situation. It makes me think about people who stand on street corners and preach hellfire and eternal punishment - does anyone really respond to that? I remember one individual in particular, who wore a gigantic billboard with every “turn or burn” stereotype you could think of plastered on it, and he stood outside the TD Garden or Fenway for every single Celtics and Red Sox home game. It made me feel sad that this messaging was not likely to lead anyone into repentance of any kind. I much prefer Jesus’s invitation - a call toward something - belief in a cause, a new purpose, a message of hope and excitement as opposed to one of doom and gloom.
In each situation, those we’d expect would have no business with religious matters go all in for God. The evil outsider Assyrians change their ways, the fishermen drop everything, and perhaps the extremity of their responses (going so far as to make their animals fast or leaving their very livelihoods and families behind) has something to teach us about who God is and what God yearns to be up to in our lives and in our world.
It hinges on this word: repentance.
I think many of us associate the word repentance with feelings of guilt or sorrow that we need to absolve ourselves of or the sins that we commit that we look back at in contrition. We feel bad, we resolve to do better next time. Repentance. We repent to try and escape the feelings of shame, thinking that by saying we’re sorry it absolves us from discomfort and means that all is well again. If we want an extreme picture of repentance - we have our perfect illustration from the people of Ninevah.
The Greek word, however, that gets translated as “repentance” in the New Testament is metanoia. There’s no easy english equivalent. It’s perhaps best translated as “a change of mind” - and not a change of mind like you thought you wanted an egg salad sandwich for lunch and then decided you really wanted tuna. Metanoia refers to a change of mind and heart that denotes a fundamental shift in outlook and attitude - and that prompts a change in behavior. Maybe the metaphor would be more like you wanting an egg salad sandwich for lunch, but then you decided to become a vegan.
Metanoia is a word that is utterly devoid of emotional charge. There’s no connotation anywhere in this word that denotes contrition, regret, or sorrow for actions as a requirement for changing your mind. So to use repentance - which does convey these meanings - as a translation for metanoia misses the fullness of the invitation Jesus is making. It doesn’t mean that remorse and contrition don’t have their place in our discipleship - certainly we have seen the need for personal and communal lament and penitence - but it isn’t precisely what Jesus is asking of us in this verse.
When Jesus preaches “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” Jesus more accurately is inviting people to change their outlook. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near. Change your outlook and believe in the good news.
How would your outlook change if you knew Jesus has come near to you? If you knew the kingdom of God was in your midst?
I don’t know about you, but I think that I would be so captivated and drawn in by the beauty and joy and hope and grace, that that alone would be enough for me to take a breath and say “yes - I need more of that in my life - that’s the outlook I want to have as I understand myself, as I look out on my friends and family, as I look out on my world - maybe not as I look out on my enemies, but I want to get to that place.” I think I wouldn’t be so focused on all the things we’re conditioned to view as important - climbing the ladder of success, acquiring the latest gadget, thinking others are here to serve and satisfy our own needs, worrying about my own small anxieties and insecurities, thinking that salvation can be found in power and empire. Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom arriving would place all those things in perspective for me.
There’s a beautiful quote from author Madeline L’Engle, who is perhaps best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time. She’s also a faithful Christian, and writes this: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
I believe that’s the kind of invitation that would lead to a brand new outlook on life. I believe that’s what God wants from us - belief in the good news - a transformed perspective - an awareness that Jesus himself is near to us which leads to a desire to know with our whole being how we are a part of God’s unfolding kingdom.
What I take from both these texts is that God draws near to us - through the message of a reluctant prophet, through the presence of Love Incarnate, through the words of scripture or the pages of creation, through whatever means necessary - God draws near. Sometimes the nearness of God causes us to make amends and change our ways. Sometimes the nearness of God overwhelms us and leads to life-changing decisions. Sometimes the nearness of God is a gentle reminder to reorient our perspective toward hope, love, grace, and truth.
As we make our way toward the season of Lent - how do you see God drawing near to you? What enables you to experience metanoia - that change in outlook - that enables you to believe the good news of life abundant?
May we open our hearts and our lives in new ways to God’s transforming Spirit - in our lives and in the world around us. Amen.
Scripture - Selections from Amos 5
Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!”
They shall call the farmers to mourning,
and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;
in all the vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,
says the Lord.
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
This is a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in 1963. He wrote this letter in response to a statement named “A Call for Unity” made by eight white clergymen in Alabama - a statement that expressed awareness that social injustices existed, but argued that the battle for justice should be fought through the courts and not taken to the streets.
I want to share a portion of this letter (you can find the whole text online https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html or tune in tomorrow to a reading sponsored by the BTS Center) - because in it, there is a lot that addresses the church - and the white church in particular. I believe his plea for action resonates today as our nation faces a continued struggle with Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and economic justice. This video is from Park Community Church in Chicago, IL.
As you listen and watch, I invite you to find a word or phrase or image that strikes you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXVdKdgetK4 - Park Community Church, Chicago, IL
What did you find that resonated with you?
I share this in hopes that we might find a renewed commitment in our own lives - and in our life together as a church - to not remain silent on these issues. What we’ve seen over these past weeks - and months - is not a new reality, but one that has been revealed; not a creation of tension, but one that has existed for generations that can not be ignored. We may wonder what our place might be in the struggle for racial justice, as many of us can feel helpless, unsure, timid, or even far removed and wonder what impact any of our actions could have. And yet - hate has its adherents in every corner of our country. Even while we work on our own personal preferences and prejudices, we’ve seen that that is only one piece in a wider system engineered to disenfranchise our Black siblings.
My prayer for us is that we carry these convictions and not just leave them as personal ones - but that we find ways to engage in the struggle, whether that’s jumping in to our book study with Gloria on Sunday afternoons, or by sending a letter to our elected officials about your concerns, or by planting seeds in conversations with friends or family. There’s always a place to start, whether you are new to anti-racism work or are a seasoned advocate.
It’s only together that we can help be a witness to and create together a community where we can be extremists for love in the way of Jesus - Jesus who had this radical, persistent, unwavering message of love of God and others that was so powerful it threatened the very fabric of empire. It is that relentless pursuit of love that will turn the church once again into a thermostat transforming the mores of society - so that we might be reflections of God’s beloved kingdom here in this place and wherever we might find ourselves. In Jesus’ Name, this I pray. Amen.
I almost didn’t know where to start this week. Coming back from vacation into the midst of unfolding national crisis - not the pandemic, which is the crisis we’re now all used to, but the unsettling upheaval at the Capitol building - made me feel like I was diving back into the deep end with no time to catch my breath.
There were tears, there was prayer, there was my own fair share of doomscrolling as I tried to reorient myself in the midst of all the disorientation.
Scripture has a remarkable way of speaking into our griefs, our fears, our despairing. The text appointed for this Sunday - the Baptism of the Lord in this Epiphanytide - is the passage from Mark we will hear. I chose to pair it with these words from the Gospel of John - a passage I read this week in my own prayertime with Ben - because as we look at baptism, one of the sacraments in the Christian life, I believe how we understand baptism and how we live out those vows we made or were made on our behalf and we claimed for our own later in life is important to how we respond in a moment like this one.
I invite us to listen to Mark, 1:4-11 and John, 3:16-21; Mark will be from the New Revised Standard Version, John from The Message.
Scripture - Mark 1:4 - 11; John 3:16 - 21
Mark 1:4-11, NRSV - Eldon Mayer
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John 3:16-21 The Message - Deb Bowman
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
19-21 “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
The word that caught me in my reading of the Mark passage is the word “wilderness.” Perhaps that is because I’m reading Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness right now, perhaps it’s because it’s an adequate metaphor for how I’m feeling these days. In any case, this is where John the Baptizer first appears on the scene - ministering in the wilderness, people coming from all over to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. Among the people we also have Jesus - and at his baptism, we see the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and the voice of God saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If we read further on in Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus from here is thrust out again into the wilderness to be tested and tried for 40 days and 40 nights.
I’ve often considered baptism as the rite of belonging. Everyone, of course, is God’s beloved child, but the act of baptism is one where you claim it for yourself (or, in the case of young children, where that promise is made on your behalf). It’s a public act, one of staking out your identity as someone who yearns to steep themselves in God’s love and live their life out of that center, one that says “yes” to God’s action in your life and in the world. It’s the reason that baptisms in the United Methodist tradition are always done in the midst of public worship - because it’s a sacrament that not only honors the commitment of one individual or family, but also because the community promises their nurture, care, and support as well.
Because in addition to belonging, in addition to baptism being about saying “yes, I’m going to live like I’m in God’s family”, baptism is also about boundary making. In our increasingly secularized world, the very act of baptism, the commitment to actively living as a baptized Christian in this society, is one that places us squarely in the wilderness, and you need a community of support around you in this journey. It means that how we define ourselves, how we understand the world around us, is by nature going to be different from the systems of the world - and that’s because of the vows we make and claim as part of the baptized.
In the United Methodist tradition, there are three questions that are asked of those being baptized (or are asked to the parents/sponsors when the individual being baptized is unable to answer for themself):
(1) Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
(2) Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
(3) Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
3 vows: Repentance of sin and rejection of the spiritual forces of wickedness. Resting evil, injustice and oppression out of an acceptance of God’s power. Relying fully on Jesus Christ and his grace and living a life in service to him as Lord.
Repent. Resist. Rely.
This means that as we look out on our world - as we look at what happened in our Capitol building on Wednesday, as we look at the continuing dehumanization and polarization of our country, as we look at our systems of health care or equality for our LGBTQ siblings or anti-racism or how we care for the most vulnerable members of our population - we do so through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus sets the agenda, the witness of God’s action in the world is our compass, the Holy Spirit becomes our guide. That puts us out in the wilderness because of the calling to live our lives steeped in this awareness of who we are as beloved children of God and how God is active in our world. We see this most clearly in our reading from the gospel of John: “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
Father Richard Rohr, a Fransican priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, wrote this week in his daily devotional email:
“I’m convinced we are living in [a time of unveiling] —when reality is being revealed as it is. Systems of evil have become both more brazen and banal, our sense of “normal” has been upended, and yet in the midst of it, God continues to invite us to deeper transformation.
No matter what is going on around us, it’s important to remember that God keeps transforming creation into something both good and new. Instead of hurtling us towards catastrophe, God always wants to bring us somewhere even better. A helpful word here is “evolution.” God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. That might be hard to see sometimes in the moment, but it’s nevertheless true.”
Given where we are right now, our world...our community...our church...I want us for a moment to take a step back and consider these events through the lens of our baptismal vows. Where do we as a local church need to repent? What injustices do you personally need to be more aware of and resist? In what ways does our congregation need to rely more fully on Jesus?
Where do we as a local church need to repent?
What injustices do you personally need to be more aware of and resist?
In what ways does our congregation need to rely more fully on Jesus?
I’m going to give us a few minutes to think about and jot down responses to these questions before we move into discussion together. You’ll also need your bowl or cup of water handy.
We’ve heard these yearnings - both for us as individuals in our own personal journeys, and for us as a congregation together. We hold these intentions as we reaffirm our baptismal vows together - and if you aren’t baptized and you are feeling moved in this moment, let’s have a conversation and talk together.
We remember in this moment that we are a baptized people - called to live as God’s children in this world. We come today to the waters to renew our commitments in each other’s presence to Christ who has raised us, the Spirit who has birthed us, and the Creator who is making all things new.
And so I ask you, will you turn away from the powers of sin and death?
We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of our sin!
Will you let the Spirit use you as prophets to the powers that be?
We accept the freedom and power God gives us
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves!
Will you proclaim the good news and live as disciples of Jesus Christ, his body on earth?
We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior,
put our whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as our Lord,
in union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races!
I invite you to hold your hand over your water as I pray,
(written by Scott A. Ressman in Immerse Yourself: Elements for a Liturgy on Baptism of Christ Sunday. https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/12/litany-god-of-waters.html)
God of the waters. Water of birth,
moving us from safety into the world.
God of the waters. Water of connection,
engaging the playful Spirit,
the passionate Christ,
the challenging God.
God of the waters. Water of life,
God of the waters. Water of trouble,
journeying us from here to there,
from the known to the unknown.
God of the waters.
Live in us.
The waters are here - an opportunity to refresh and renew our souls - to remember your baptism and to be thankful. Come to the water and dip your hands to commit again to living out these vows that we claim for ourselves. You can make the sign of the cross on your forehead or simply let the water run through your hands.
[moment for people to do that]
Song - Rain Down
Rain down, rain down
Rain down your love on your people
Rain down, rain down
Rain down your love God of life
Scripture - Luke 2:15-20
Luke 2:15-20 (Common English Bible)
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
I grew up with this definite image of how the birth of Jesus came about. I’m not even sure of where this idea came from - but maybe you all can relate to the story as it is so often told. I have the image of an incredibly pregnant Mary on the back of a donkey that Joseph is leading into Bethlehem. They stop at an inn and are told by the innkeeper they have no room. They stop at another inn - same story. No room. A third innkeeper has compassion on the couple, seeing as Mary is about to give birth, and says that there’s a stable round back. They make it just in time because lo and behold, Jesus is ready to appear and Mary wraps him in swaddling clothes, lays him in a manger with no one else but Joseph and the animals in attendance. Jesus is rejected even before his birth, alone and apart from the rest of humanity except for his nuclear family - and that somehow, we have to go find him out in the stable to worship him - that we have to go to him because he’s this figure that was somehow marginalized at birth.
What if the birth took place in a different way?
If we carefully look at the text, what the birth narrative actually says, and understand the traditions around hospitality and homes present in first century Palestinian culture - we might find a story that fits more consistently with the idea that Jesus comes into our ordinary lives in surprising (and disruptive!) ways and turns everything upside down forever.
Much of this comes from the writings of Ian Paul, who is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and serves as an adjunct minister at an Anglican church in England. He writes every year about this - how Jesus wasn’t born in a stable. That one fact makes all the difference. (Drop the link: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-wasnt-born-in-a-stable-and-that-makes-all-the-difference/)
But how? Wasn’t Jesus laid in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger? Isn’t that where animals eat? And if Mary and Joseph were where animals ate, wouldn’t that be in a stable?
Well, yes, Jesus was laid in a manger - but that wasn’t necessarily in a stable. That idea probably got traction in the middle ages, where medieval illustrators got the notion of the oxen and donkey being present in the story (a reference to a verse in Isaiah, by the way). The illustrators assumed, then, because animals were kept in a stable, then that’s where Jesus was.
But what about the inn?
The word translated as “inn” in verse 7 of Luke’s 2nd chapter in the original greek is the word “kataluma”, which more accurately refers to a room in a private house where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected. The design of first century Palestinian homes supports this, where families would live in a one room house, with a room in the back or on the roof for travelers, and where animals would bed at night in a lower compartment adjacent to the main room. There would be divots in the floor of the main room by the animal compartment or “stable” filled with hay for the animals to feed at night. (Incidentally, the recommendations of midwives at the time based on archaeology was for new mothers to place their babies in these hollows for use as a cradle.)
The home most likely would have been one belonging to relatives of Joseph - even distant relatives. The culture of hospitality at the time meant that if Joseph was returning to his ancestral home, he was honor-bound to seek out members of his family, and they would have received him. All he had to do was recite his lineage, and he would have been welcomed and received as family.
So the likely scenario is this: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. The family guest room is already full, with family members who have arrived earlier, so they have to stay with the family in the main house. (Or, the guest room isn’t big enough for Mary to give birth in). Mary gives birth there; she would not have given birth alone, but would have been attended to by the other women of the household or midwives. She lays Jesus in the animal feeding trough, right in the center of everyday life. People are in and out of the home, including the shepherds who have received this wondrous message from the angels as they were tending their sheep. The text says, “16 [The shepherds] went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”
And we find Mary through this experience, taking it in, considering what this all means.
For me, this means that when God chose to come down as one of us - as Love incarnate is born into the world - it doesn’t happen in a far away place, distant from the rest of humanity. It doesn’t happen in a neat and tidy guestroom, special and prepared and reserved for honored guests. It happens right where life happens. Messy, chaotic, life.
And if that’s where Jesus comes into the world, if that where love is waiting for us, if Jesus bursts onto the scene right in the middle of everything - then maybe that’s where we can find Jesus too - in the midst of our everyday life with its routines and its chaos. Jesus is Immanuel - God with us - and that means we don’t have to go off to some specially prepared place where everything is just so, but we can find him right where we are. Because God came as one of us.
As Ian Paul puts it, “For Luke, Jesus isn’t pictured as born ‘over there’, away from everyday life, inviting us to visit once a year, but at the heart of the home, asking whether we too will make space for him. He isn’t pictured as poor and outcast (not here at least) asking what we can do for him, but as a child of hope and promise, asking what he might do for us. He isn’t pictured as rejected, inviting us to pity him, but as welcomed, asking us whether we will welcome him too.”
As we look to be unafraid to choose love in a world bound by uncertainty, as we strive to hold on to hope, bring peace, and practice joy - it starts here. In this year where we cannot hold on to our traditions and routines very easily, where many of us cannot make the pilgrimage to visit family and friends, the fact that Jesus meets us right in our very homes, coming as a surprising, disruptive, but welcome presence, who will turn our very lives upside down, is important to hold on to. It gives us the courage and the strength to choose love again and again - because we don’t have to have it all perfect, we don’t have to have everything prepared and just so, we don’t have to go away and have some spiritual experience - we just have to start right here, wherever we are, and chose to welcome Jesus - sometimes welcoming him each and every day.
Jesus was born among family, right into the center of home and life. May we let Jesus be born in our homes, in our lives, in our hearts. And may we do so knowing that as we choose love, we do so for the sake of a world that God so desperately loves - as we work and pray for the healing and redemption of us all. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 2:1-14
Luke 2:1-14 (Common English Version)
2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
When was the last time you genuinely experienced joy? Like, the kind of joy that bubbles up without you having to think “oh, is this joy I’m feeling?” - the kind of joy that is an easy and natural response to something outside of yourself, like hearing good news or listening to that favorite song on the radio or catching that spectacular moment of beauty?
If you are anything like me, it might be tough to think of a moment. I am lucky in that I have two sources of joy constantly around me. Watching Genevieve and Michael - especially when they interact - is one of my greatest sources of joy. Outside of my kids and the spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen, being ambushed with hugs, or getting swept up in their laughter - experiencing joy is something more often than not something I have to practice.
It’s a bit, I think, like the shepherds in the field, who instead of feeling joy at the presence of the angel, felt terror. Even the news that the heavenly host came to bring - wonderful, joyous news for all people - it seemed to take a moment for the shepherds to share in that joy. It’s amazing news for a people who had been waiting for so long for the Messiah to come among them, waiting for the one who would deliver them, waiting for the one that came to make all things right.
It’s like they had to be reminded of what joy meant - what it felt like and how that joy can not only transform us but others as well.
I love how the Illustrated Ministry devotion for this week invites us to think about joy as a practice we can cultivate and not as something where you either have it or you don’t. Sometimes we need other people to come alongside us to teach us how to nurture joy within ourselves. (I think that’s why kids are such great teachers - they don’t overthink these kinds of things). For me, those teachable moments are when Genevieve wants me to come over and twirl to a song on the radio...or when Michael gives me an extra treat he’s managed to wheedle out of Gail at the dump...or when Michael holds up something he’s created with such pride and joy...or when Genevieve does something silly just to get me to laugh.
In these times where so much of the world seems uncertain, where fear and anxiety are in the air that we breathe, when many of us are operating at reduced capacities, when the emotional energy it takes to get through a day can sometimes feel like more than we have - it is more important to ever to find ways to practice joy as part of our routine.
Joy is not some luxury that we have to be in the right frame of mind to experience, nor is it a fleeting grace that lifts our spirits for a moment before we dive back into the doldrums of daily life.
Joy is something we can practice - and much as we practice any skill, be that the piano, knitting, woodcrafting, writing, patience, running, etc, to increase our capacity, we can do the same with joy. We also practice those things we may be good at already, but know that we’ll lose it if we don’t use it. I’m a good flute player, but incredibly rusty after many years of neglecting my practice.
So we’re going to do some brainstorming together - going off of what we shared at the beginning of those moments of joy - and we’re going to think up some practices together - and one of them may spark something within you and how you experience joy - and we’ll commit to practicing joy together this week.
So what might help you develop or deepen a practice of joy? What might that practice look like?
Seeing the positive in a negative situation
Sit with a clear mind for a few seconds, look at something and remember why you have it
Practice gratitude (perhaps at the end of the day), list the things you are thankful for
Seek joy and acknowledge it when you a find it (and remind yourself you are looking for it!)
Walk and get outside and noticing what is around you
Slow down the pace of life
Practice random acts of kindness
Pick one or two from this list to practice this week. We’ll check back in with each other during joys and concerns to see how we’ve done and how those practices sat with us for the week.
Because here’s the thing - if joy is not a spontaneous luxury but a practice, it becomes a tool we can use to face challenges, to overcome fears, to help us move beyond ourselves and into an expression of God’s kingdom that is infectious. Ever notice how joy is infectious? It’s something that is meant to be shared, and that is part of God’s power residing within us. If joy is a practice that we can hone and use, then we can help others access that same joy - and it’s one way that we can both bring lightness and laughter to our daily life and sustain ourselves and others through the heavy, harder times.
So this week, let us go forth to practice joy - knowing that as we do so, we are deepening our experience of God’s kingdom in and around us, and bringing hope and peace along with us as well. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 1:46-55
Luke 1:46-55 (The Message)
46-55 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened--
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
You’ve probably done some form of personality test - there are many out there - Meyers Briggs is the one that most people are familiar with, where it categorizes you into one of 16 types based on how you interact with the world and how you process information.
There is also the Enneagram, which is a system gaining in popularity, particularly in faith traditions. There are 9 types, arranged graphically in a circle, labeled by number and each type is nuanced further by how one reacts to stress, how one grows as a person - it’s a really fascinating system designed for self-discovery and there are free tests out there and if you want to learn more, I’ll drop the link in the chat (https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/).
So I am an enneagram 9 - which is known as the peacemaker. 9’s are people, in general, who seek to create peace. At their best, they are able to bring people together and heal conflicts. They are the ones who are continual seekers of internal and external peace - both for themselves and for others. Their key motivations are wanting to create harmony in their environment - admirable - but also a motivation for 9s are to avoid conflicts and tension and to preserve things as they are.
So when I read this morning’s scripture passage - which, incidentally, is one of my favorite pieces of scripture in the Bible - there’s a part of me that is intensely uncomfortable, because what Mary sings to Elizabeth is, on the surface, very much not about creating peace - but about the opposite. There is nothing about preserving the status quo in what God’s about to do. God knocking down the powerful - nothing peaceful about that. God sending rich folks away empty-handed - nothing peaceful about that. God humbling the proud - doesn’t sound peaceful to me. Even as we look at God lifting up the lowly, filling hungry bellies, extending mercy and grace - all good and wonderful things...that many of us, I think, would love to see happen, but we want that to happen without changing and challenging the systems that perpetuate hunger, injustice, and poverty.
When many of us think about peace - we think about the absence of conflict. We think about everyone “getting along.” We think about stability...and balance...and comfort...and that our external circumstances must be in alignment before we experience peace as an inward reality. There’s peace in a global sense - peace on earth, goodwill to all...and peace in the individual, “at one with everything” sense. Peace can be elusive, intangible, unquantifiable - a hoped for dream as opposed to a lived reality.
And yet, here we have Mary - Mary, who understood that life under Roman rule meant that “peace” was enforced by violent means; Mary, who was unwed and pregnant in a culture where she could have been put to death; Mary, who sings out this song of God’s glorious deeds and favor in a time when the injustices of her community mean that peace - deep peace inside and out - could not be reality.
Still Mary sings. She sings of peace in these very specific ways - echoing the tradition written of in the Old Testament - where just and lasting peace isn’t an elusive, ephemeral state of mind or a reality without discomfort. Peace - God’s peace - is a concrete change in circumstances; it is a rewriting of people’s lived reality. It is, as Mary sings of it, a reversal on a cosmic scale - and it looks different for different people.
As the weekly Illustrated Ministry devotional puts it - to those who have been impoverished and oppressed, [peace] feels like finally having a full belly. To those who have been privileged, it feels like a rumbling stomach, like a reckoning of all that they’ve gained at the expense of others. It feels like laying down the weapons by which that advantage is gained and picking up tools for building a more equitable and beautiful world: like swinging a hammer, like dipping a paintbrush, like digging in the dirt, dropping in a handful of seeds; like kneading bread.
This peace is wild and dangerous and threatening - and more so the more public it becomes. Kind of counterintuitive in a way, The more this vision grows, the more people catch on to the deep, lasting peace that God ushers in as we live kingdom lives, the more the systems of the world work to undo it - and taking aim at the powers and principalities of the world means becoming a target as well.
Yet the angel told Mary - “do not be afraid.” Those words weren’t just about carrying the child. Those words were also about being the one to birth this peace into the world. We are called to be the same bringers of peace - God’s peace - in that same tradition of God’s promises to Abraham right up to this very day and beyond.
I have two questions for us to think about as we consider being bringers of God’s peace - and we’ll use the idea of peace linked with justice, as a concrete change in circumstances, a rewriting of people’s lived reality.
I invite us to remember that peace isn’t just a nice feeling or an absence of conflict, or a comfortable space we inhabit - and that’s a challenging thought to many of us - myself included - who would much prefer everything to hum along as normal. But maintaining that comes at the expense of justice - God’s peace comes through role reversal, through tangible realignment of material circumstances and priorities, and that means God’s peace comes through discomfort and challenge - but we need not be afraid - for God will be with us.
Scripture - Philippians 4:11-13
Philippians 4:11-13 (The Message)
I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.
I was scrolling through Twitter a few weeks ago and came upon this question that I found really interesting.
It was: what have you been able to do that you wouldn’t have done were it not for the pandemic?
In other words, what did the pandemic enable you to do or experience that it would have been hard to make space for otherwise?
Responses to this question were wide and varied. Some talked about the quality of time with their children as business trip after business trip had been cancelled. Others talked about the pandemic pushing them to finally get into therapy or recovery. Some reconnected with an estranged family member or old friend. Some talked about the ability to declutter their life. Tried new recipes. Others talked about the gift being able to slow down and take note of the small things.
There’s no question that these past eight months have been full of heartbreak and grief for many - the grief of losing loved ones to a virus, the grief of cancelled plans or delayed dreams, the hardship of enduring lockdown or economic uncertainty, of not knowing when it will be safe to visit family or friends again without the logistical nightmare of a 14 day quarantine for a weekend getaway. There is no denying that life has been hard here in the northeast since March -- much earlier than that in other parts of the country. And there’s no denying that we are all experiencing COVID fatigue heading into the holiday season where we’ve all just had enough.
That’s why this question, I think, is helpful right now to center ourselves a bit again - not just in the difficult circumstances we continue to be in as a country, although that is important to acknowledge. It’s important as well to remember what the interruption to our business-as-usual life gave us space to realize and experience.
The scripture from Philippians we heard read demonstrates this principle so well. Paul here writes about being content no matter the circumstances, whether he has much or little, whether imprisoned or free, however he finds himself, no matter the hardship. Such a perspective is not said lightly, however. Paul wrote this letter to the church at Philippi while he was in prison, after much suffering. This isn’t just the power of positive thinking or a cliche saying without the weight of experience behind it.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I want us to share about the things we are grateful for - specifically as we consider the past several months, the way our lives have changed, and what that has enabled us to do or experience as a result.
I’ll put the question in the chat box for us to share around - but let’s take some time - even as we find ourselves riding the ups and downs of pandemic life - and consider what we can be grateful for.
What have you been able to do (or experience) that you might not have otherwise had the opportunity to do because of how your life has changed in response to the pandemic?
I want to close with some other words from Paul - written right before the verses we read this morning:
4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
6-7 Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
We can be thankful that through it all - Jesus has been with us. Jesus walks alongside us, Jesus is the center that grounds us - Jesus brings us through and works a sense of God’s wholeness in and through our lives, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. So as we approach this Thanksgiving, let it be with gratitude for what God has worked in us - how Jesus has brought us safe thus far - and how the Spirit will continue to bring all things together for God’s wholeness and redemption in the world. Let us be God’s thankful people together. Amen.
Scripture - Matthew 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This is a parable that oftentimes is used around this time of year to talk about good stewardship - about how to use our gifts, our “talents”, our money, our time and “invest” them in God’s kingdom so that God will take whatever offerings we bring and multiply them for a bountiful harvest. That’s the way many of us are used to interpreting this story.
Growing up, I have always wondered about the third slave. You know, the one who went and buried his talent in the ground. I had always thought that he had done the right thing, knowing that his master was harsh and benefitting from the work of others and collecting resources that weren’t properly his to enjoy. The safe option was to keep that money exactly as it was for his master’s return. It seemed like a wise decision to me - after all, can you imagine what a harsh master would do to a slave who had taken what was entrusted to him and lost it all? Too risky. Better to play it safe and not provide any further ill-gotten gains for the master.
And so in many of our interpretations of this passage, we look at the first to slaves as the ones to emulate and the third as the bad example.
But what if….what if we could look at it a different way? What if another way to read this story is to see the third slave as the hero?
To explore this, I’m going to draw a lot on the work of New Testament scholars Amy Jill Levine and William Herzog as written in Debie Thomas’s essay at Journey with Jesus. I found the analysis and historical context there fascinating so you’ll hear a lot of her words in what I have to say this morning.
The first thing to note is that this alternate way of reading the parable shifts our perspective a bit - instead of reading this as a story about God who rewards and punishes (either here and now or in the afterlife), we’re looking at this parable more descriptively - a story about us as human beings, about what life looks like.
Secondly - some context. The “talents” that Jesus refers to in the passage weren’t small coins or portable pieces of currency. They were precious metals - often silver or gold - weighing between 80 and 130 pounds. One talent could be worth anywhere from 15 - 20 years of an ordinary laborer’s wages. To bring it easily into our modern framework, if an ordinary person made $50,000 per year - 20 years - or one “talent” would be worth $1,000,000. That’s a large amount of money in our minds; it’s a staggering amount of money to those who would have heard Jesus speak. Only the wealthy elite might possess that much.
How did the elite amass that kind of wealth? The practice at the time was lending money to poor farmers at huge interest rates - between 60 and 200 percent - and when they were unable to pay, took their land. Those who took these loans often did so out of desperation, putting their land up as collateral but would inevitably be unable to make good on their payments...drought would hit, sickness would befall the family, or a harvest wouldn’t produce enough to settle the debt. So the creditor would come in to take the farmer’s ancestral land and the farmer would become a landless day laborer who couldn’t know from day to day where their bread would come from.
This is the situation we find here in the Parable of the Talents. The slaves noted here aren’t the poor farmers who have been stripped of their land, but they are the wealthy master’s bureaucrats who helped things run smoothly for the master - the managers who oversee the land and the workers, who collect the debts, who keep the profits coming while the master is away on business. Part of the way the slaves made their living was buy taking a little extra on the side - like charging farmers extra fees or interest - and as long as money kept flowing into the master’s pockets, it was ok. The more money the slaves make for the master, the better and more comfortable life would be for them.
So we have here a wealthy man, giving his most trusted managers a fortune to play with - 8 talents total - 8 million dollars - giving 5 to one, 2 to another, and to the last, 1. The rules of the game are - the more money they make for the master, the more they get to keep for themselves. It doesn’t matter how - all that matters is profit.
Two of the slaves play the game well - and make double their money. What’s not said is how they do it, but people in Jesus’ time would have understood all too well how that would have happened. Seizing fields, impoverishing farmers, collecting on debts, ruining families...all for their own gain and for that of their master. And the master? He’s thrilled with their work and invites them into his joy of more wealth, more profit - and more exploitation.
Here’s where we get to the third slave. The third slave...doesn’t play. He knows full well what’s been going on - how his master has been benefiting on the backs of the poor and desperate - and he decides that he doesn’t want to participate in this system based on oppression and injustice. Knowing full well what it will cost him, he buries the talent, placing it somewhere where it will do no further harm to others, taking it out of circulation.
So of course when the master comes back, he’s angry with the third slave and banishes him. In Herzog’s words, the slave is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistle-blower. At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation — the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from for years. He relinquishes his claim on wealth and comfort, calls out the master’s greed and rapacity (“I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”), and accepts the ostracism and poverty that must follow from his choice.
This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven - the kingdom of heaven happens when a slave stands up to and calls out his master for being greedy and unjust, when his fellow slaves get more wealthy and what he was given gets taken away, and when he gets kicked out of the household and abused.
We may have thought the first two slaves had the riskiest venture - but the third slave did not play it safe at all - but risked everything to step outside the cycles of power and domination - and paid the cost in safety, security, comfort - all the things that had been afforded to him by his station...all the things he had gained by being complicit in the system. What did the third slave gain - well, I find it interesting that the passage that follows is Jesus talking about the sheep and the goats, where the peoples are judged precisely for how they treated the poor, hungry, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger.
To me, this isn’t a story about what God’s kingdom looks like in the future - but about what happens on earth right now and where we see that kingdom unfolding in our midst. As Debie Thomas writes, “It’s a parable about what faithfulness looks like in hard, hidden places. A parable about our complicity, and the high stakes involved in ending it. A parable about speaking truth to power. A parable about opting out of systems of oppression and exploitation — even and especially when we are accustomed to benefiting from such systems. A parable about interrupting "business as usual" for the sake of justice and mercy. A parable about turning reality upside down in the name of love. A parable about saying, “Enough is enough,” when it comes to the abuse and marginalization of the world's most vulnerable people. A parable about the rejection, impoverishment, and loneliness we might suffer if we take seriously the call of God.”
It’s a parable that makes you take a deep breath and weigh the costs. There is risk and challenge and discomfort. There is also the knowledge that we don’t do this on our own. To be sure the parable talks about one slave who took this bold stand - but as people who are called to pattern our lives after that of Jesus, who seek to be like him and be witnesses of this kingdom - that’s not something we do on our own, but something we do together. There is strength in knowing that the journey we take isn’t a solitary one, but we have one another and that can help us be resilient in the work. We also have strength in knowing that Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything that has not done himself. Just days after telling this parable, he too was cast aside as worthless after his teachings touched a nerve with the empire - for interrupting business as usual, for standing up for justice, for preaching a radical love and hospitality that dared subvert the fabric of society in the Roman Empire.
My prayer for us this week is that we might have the courage to embody that good kind of “worthless” we find in God’s economy - that we might be able to examine our own lives and notice what systems we are complicit in, whether that’s through our consumption habits, through unintentionally perpetuating racist or harmful postures or beliefs, or through not speaking up for the marginalized - and then to find ways to reorient our relationships on Jesus and God’s purposes in this world.
The kingdom of God happens not just when we are kind or loving, compassionate or forgiving - the kingdom of God happens even when we stand up for what is right, when we refuse to play games that harm the vulnerable, when we are righteously angry in the face of injustice and are punished by the world for it -- because Jesus is right there with us too. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.