Sunday, December 25, 2016

Blessed are you who bear the light...

A portion of Jan Richardson’s poem “Blessed are you who bear the light…”

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith,
in stubborn hope,
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

From Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons by Jan Richardson, pages 47-48.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Are you the one? Or should we wait?

 Isaiah 35 & Matthew 11

“Are you the one who we’ve been waiting for Jesus? Or what?”

John is in prison. Things are not looking good. Emboldened by God’s Spirit and maybe by the flocks of people coming to receive baptism, John had spoken out against the tyrants of his time—Herod and Herodias—and they heard the critique, were upset, and threw him in prison … and probably at this point in the story, John’s whole sense of God’s plans are called into question. Things are not looking good from the inside of the cell, so he calls out this question to Jesus. “Is there any reason for hope? Are you the one or did I stake my life on this God-mission for nothing?”

Whether or not we’re at John’s level of passion and commitment, we’ve had something like that question go through our minds. It’s a question about purpose, about where we put our hopes, and about wondering from the middle of the story what the end will be.

These past couple of weeks, several of us at Christ have been walking with and praying intently for the Humphrey family of Rock of Ages, the Baptist church that worships in this space right after us. Pastor John Humphrey gave me permission to share with you that their oldest daughter, Jonnay, has been in jail. She was coerced at gunpoint to participate in a robbery, and with the real criminals, she was incarcerated. Her faith has been tested in jail. Doesn’t God hear our prayers? Then, why is she still in the cell? Why is the bail so high? Why did this even happen to her? Knowing she was vulnerable, why didn’t God protect her?

These are the questions we ask God on behalf of Jonnay… these are the questions that rise up from the cell, when all looks bleakest… when it seems as if God is powerless or not acting on behalf of God’s people at all.

And here is what Jesus says in response to John’s deep questions (and ours)—

People who have been unable to walk can now walk. People covered with leprosy are now cleansed. People who could not hear can now hear. People who live in poverty can look forward to a time when there will more than enough…

God will release individuals and systems from these disabling conditions, so that all interactions and relationships take place according to God’s original purposes.[1]

And although some of God’s healing, then and now, is literal—literally, people being given glasses and being able to see—I think that Jesus is not saying that the physical cure is the main thing… because we can all think of so many examples, then and now, of moments when a physical cure just didn’t happen.

In fact, John’s story ends in a bizarre turn of events… with his death.

John’s story ends, but the storyteller seems to be trying to tell us that it is not the end for him, or for the God-movement that he was part of… God’s work continues in Jesus, who is confident that God never gives up offering the world opportunities to become more like heaven.[2] And God’s work continues through “even the least in the kingdom of heaven”… then and now.

Maybe we feel like “the least” as we wait and watch for God’s action… maybe we feel like those exiles Isaiah describes—with weak hands, feeble knees, fearful hearts, obscured vision, hindered hearing, broken bodies, and silent tongues… I imagine that with that long list, there’s none of us who can’t identify because either we have that physical challenge or we have it metaphorically. This season, so many people have been utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness. Our capacities needed to move through this world have been diminished. We’ve felt sorrow in our bodies, deep in our bones.[3]

But the good news is that God does not abandon us to our despair. Our sorrow will come to an end, and on a day when the sick body will find new life in God, Isaiah says the people of God will: “Come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

It’s not just humans who will benefit, Isaiah describes the whole creation will experience new life… and Isaiah in the end invites us into this life-changing vision, giving us both something to do and something to preach to others (you heard me right, you are all invited to be preachers in your everyday life… sharing your reasons for hope and assurance with those who are bent down by despair and hopelessness).

Here’s the invitation to courage:

Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”

That is not our usual picture of vengeance. It’s not our usual picture of payback.

God’s way is to protect and save—and it’s for you… and for everyone who needs to see this life and hear this word from you.

This morning, we’ll act this out. We’ll stand and sing. We’ll confess our sins and hear them forgiven. We’ll pray for people like Jonnay who are incarcerated and for all those who need healing—from physical pain and for all the other kinds of fear and despair that make us unable to move—and we’ll pray for confidence in God who has come in Jesus Christ and will continue to come to save us.

And then at Holy Communion, you are invited up to receive not only the bread and cup, the healing & restoring body of Christ… but to receive prayers personally, through the laying on of hands of another sister or brother in Christ who is clinging with you to the promise that this future that Isaiah and Jesus describe is not just a dream unfulfilled. In fact, it has been and is and will continue to come into being.

So we are invited to watch and walk with Jesus, the One, for signs of the Holy Way, both as we wait and then as waiting comes to an end… and God’s joy breaks through to us.

[1] Ron Allen, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 at, Accessed 12/6/2016.
[2] Ron Allen, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 at, Accessed 12/6/2016.
[3] Michael Chan, Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10 at, Accessed 12/6/2016.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

In the wilderness... glorious signs

Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3 

A friend of mine seems to always be watching for stories online… stories of that look like the vision of God as Isaiah paints it… she posts these stories of poor people being lifted up, of enemies reconciling, of violence ending… and she labels them this way. “The kingdom of God is like… [this].”
She is a more subtle John the Baptist…. But as for the original John the Baptist? There was nothing subtle about him! Out from the wilderness he speaks with total clarity, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He looks like a modern-day Elijah, a prophet inviting people into practices to prepare for a new way of life with God.
And in the part of John’s message that we didn’t print today, John compares this work of getting ready to removing the chaff from the grain. Or in other words, removing the protective covering around the grain that was very important while it was growing and maturing but that is no longer needed since the grain is now fully mature and ready for harvest. I wonder, What is chaff in our lives? “What has outlived its purpose in our lives? What have we convinced ourselves is protecting us when it is not?”[1] What is the chaff this season that could just as well be removed and thrown into the oven for fuel (where it could do far more good than it’s doing clinging to us)?
This reminds me a lot of the kinds of conversations we had together throughout the last month in the forums that Roger and Anne facilitated, as we talked about the book Being Mortal, and asked ourselves and each other, “What do we need to do as we age or face health crises to make life worthwhile, each step of the way?”  What can we do during this season to make life worthwhile? There are moments for acquiring (December can surely feel like that kind of month!) but there are also moments in this season for letting go of what is unnecessary (the chaff) so we can get to the real kernel.
So that’s one image… an image that in ancient language would have been called “purgation” or spiritual cleansing or in today’s terms, “Simplifying.” It’s emptying ourselves to make space for more.
It seems as if we’re being invited through Advent to be open to more.
All month, we’re preparing… for what? For Christmas Day? Well, let’s be honest. For our consumer culture, it all ends on December 25th when people throw out their trees on the curb, thanking God it’s finally over.  For Christians, this month is getting ready to start. It’s more like the concept behind the Black Belt in Taekwondo. You go through all this training, learn all these forms, and finally you achieve the Black Belt which means, “I’m ready to begin.”
That is what Advent is for us… practices, learning our forms, letting go of what is not needed anymore, and getting ready to be open to God’s fresh new start.
And in that way, perhaps the deep darkness of this month is a gift.
For those of us who feel such pressure to bring God’s justice and peace to people in need right now, to those of us who are impatient with God’s timing, for those who want to move mountains and make a way out of no way…For those who are crushed by their anxiety in not being able to do all and be all… the darkness of Advent blocks out so many things, makes it impossible to see the big picture, means we have to rely on just on what’s right in front of us, God, and each other… as somehow in this deep winter darkness, God is doing something bigger than what we can see, under the ground, in the root system.
When things look bleakest, when we look at what once was a grand tree and now appears to be a chopped-down stump, God’s work is like that strong shoot springing out from the stump, a signal to all of us that God doesn’t leave us in death. God doesn’t leave us lost in the night. God is not done yet. We try to chop these volunteer tree shoots away because this tree’s invading our fences or alleys, and in response, it relentlessly grows. It’s like a body giving birth. Once the labor has begun, there’s no going back for mother or baby… and really, although it’s painful, stressful, strange… we have to go through it to get through to the new life on the other side.
So what practices can we do to get ready for it all to begin again? Well David Whyte, a poet, invites us to be brave in facing the challenges this way:
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take…
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take2

Here’s where we might start being brave…
In prayer; In paying attention to other people
lighting candles in trust in the darkness and waiting time
Practicing silence and listening
Ramping down vs. ramping up… practicing peace

However we practice, we can know that the final result is not up to us. Remember the dawn at the other end of the dark that Pastor Elizabeth spoke of last Sunday? Remember Isaiah’s lion and ox, and that child with its hand over the snake’s hole (but unharmed)?
God’s vision of wholeness and completion has been around for all of time… and God is not done bringing this vision into being. We watch for God’s signal in the wilderness, flickering like a candle, growing relentlessly from the stump… crying out like a prophet… God is near and so we get ready… to begin again.

2 David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

[1] From Denise Anderson, current Co-Moderator of the PC-USA