Leftover Pieces

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. –Luke 2:19

The Reverend Dr. Luke Harris and his wife Sarah knew what the two men who came to their door would tell them that Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve of 1967.

Sarah had seen them first.

“Here they come.” Her voice, calm and even, surprised her.

Luke opened his mouth to reply, but his chin shook, so he clamped it shut.

Sarah had sat in silence in the living room all afternoon with a book in her lap, but she had lost her place hours before. The room had darkened as evening fell, but neither she nor her husband had turned on a light.

Sarah was not sure how long she had been staring out the window when the men arrived. Walking in step between the snow banks on each side of the walkway, wearing dark uniforms with medals on their chests, they marched up the steps onto the porch. They halted at the door. They could not see her in the darkened room, but she saw them standing at the door in the glow of the porch light. One of the men, a corporal, probably not yet twenty, looked as if he had never yet needed to shave. He looked at the other one, the chaplain, and Sarah wondered, when she saw the way he looked to the chaplain for guidance, if maybe this was his first time. When the chaplain nodded, the boy raised his white-gloved fist to knock, then held it in position for a second. So quickly one might have missed it, the boy crossed himself; not a full forehead to umbilicus, shoulder to shoulder; just two fingers, up and down, side to side, like a prayer mouthed but unspoken, not even whispered.

Sarah, as Protestant as any, nevertheless joined him in silent prayer, her eyes wet, but open.

The boy knocked. Neither Luke nor Sarah moved.

Until I hear them say the words, David still lives, Sarah told herself. She and Luke sat in the darkness and kept their son, their only son, alive for just a moment longer until the corporal knocked again. Luke answered the door and their lives changed forever.

“Regret to inform you, . . . killed in action, . . . . sorrow for your loss . . . grateful nation,” the memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After they left, Luke exhaled. “Well,” he said, “That is that.” He donned his overcoat and gloves. He looked at his wife who had not moved from her chair. “Will you worship tonight?” he asked.

Sarah wiped her tears and looked up at him. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Luke preached the Christmas Eve sermon he had prepared in the days before the visit of the two men. The words he had written did not sound familiar, even as he spoke them. He knew then that his life would be divided in two: life before David’s death, and life ever after.

At the communion table, he broke the bread, poured the wine, and inhaled deeply the aroma of the elements before he spoke the liturgy. “broken . . . take, eat . . .poured out . . . drink ye all….” The memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After he had spoken the benediction and extinguished all the candles, he did not wait at the door to exchange Christmas greetings with his congregation. He did not want to put them in that position of saying two such incongruous things: “Merry Christmas, sorry for your loss.” He did not think he could bear it.

He hung his robe in the closet of the church study, closed the closet door, turned and looked around at the spacious room; the shelves of books, the oak desk and chair, and a cushioned chair where parishioners in need of comfort had, for a dozen years, found refuge in his counsel. He sat in the parishioners’ chair and could not remember if he had ever sat in it before. It was lumpy, not at all as comfortable as he had expected.

People would refer in the future to this moment as “his decision.” It was not a decision. It was a revelation. It was as if an angel appeared before him, but stood in silence, as if it had forgotten its opening line, “Fear not.”

Luke was sore afraid in the darkness of this revelation. When the curtain pulled back, he saw the place where his faith had lived, and it was cavernous and dark and hollow, like a sanctuary after a wedding, emptied of life after everyone has left for the reception.

It took him all of Christmas Day to pack his books.

He loaded the black Underwood typewriter into the car with the boxes of books. He returned to the study one last time and sifted through the drawers of the oak desk for anything that might be important. He found a plastic bag with some small black screws left over from the last time he had cleaned the typewriter, but he threw them away. He always seemed to have pieces left over.

By the end of January, he found a job teaching undergraduate Hebrew and Greek in a liberal arts college far from their upstate New York roots. Luke and Sarah settled in to a small town in the Texas Hill Country, not far from San Antonio. They began a new life together, the life Luke called, though only to Sarah, “the life after death.”

Sarah found a church, but Luke rarely attended. He spent his Sundays gardening when the weather allowed, and reading when it did not. The wheel barrow he bought at the hardware store shortly after they arrived in Texas came in a box. After assembling it, he wheeled it around to the back porch where Sarah was reading in the sun. “Only two pieces left over,” he said, unable to hide the pride in his voice.

The wheel wobbled, but Luke did not mind. “That’ll have to do,” he said, and for eight years it did.

It came to pass that on Christmas Eve of 1975, Luke had two things he was required to assemble:

One of them was a sermon, and the other was a bicycle.

Why he had agreed to preach on Christmas Eve, he could not fathom; but, he had begun to suspect that it was a conspiracy between his wife and his friend. His friend Ian, who taught biblical studies, had set him up.

“Immanuel is a small congregation between pastors,” Ian had said. “I would preach there myself if I hadn’t already committed to Kerrville.”

“I don’t preach anymore,” Luke said. “I don’t even know what I believe anymore.”

“For God’s sake, Luke,” Ian said. “You know you don’t preach your own faith. You preach Christ’s faith. Just read the story. Tell them what it says. Throw in a Greek word here and there, it will impress them.”

“I just don’t think . . .” he objected, “that I would be up to it. Especially on that night.”

Ian interrupted him, “Pull out an old sermon. Touch it up, if you want. This congregation is a handful of saints so solid in their faith you can’t do them any harm. Just tell them the Christmas story, light the candles, celebrate Communion, and sing Silent Night. They have it all memorized by now, they just want to hear it again.”

Luke opened his mouth to object again, but Ian stopped him. “I would be eternally grateful,” Ian said.

Whatever Luke did or did not believe by then, he did believe in doing things for a friend, especially a friend who had done so much for him; who had warmly welcomed Sarah and him, even with their Yankee accents and Northern reserve.

He had only one more objection. “I don’t have a robe anymore,” he said. Luke had left his black Geneva gown in the church closet back in New York.

Ian waved his hand as if brushing away a bit of dust. “I have one you can borrow.”

And so, Luke sat in his home study at his old Underwood typewriter on Christmas Eve morning and stared at a blank sheet of paper. By the time Sarah brought him lunch, the paper had begun to stare back at him, blankly.

At two in the afternoon, he opened his Bible to the Gospel According to Luke and began to type. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” He hit the return handle on the typewriter and the carriage flew off of the typewriter across the room and landed on the floor.

He stared at the carriage lying in the corner, then looked back at the remains of the typewriter in front of him, and the black inky ribbon that floated to the carpet between one and the other. Had it been red or green, he thought, it would have been festive.

A memory emerged, like a dream that returns in the middle of the day: a little plastic bag with two small black screws. The leftover pieces had caught up with him, even as he knew they would.

Luke opened his file cabinet and found an old Christmas Eve sermon manuscript. He folded it up and stuck it between the pages of his black leather Bible.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, because he still had to go back to his office and pick up the robe Ian had left for him.

And, since it was Christmas Eve, he had to go downtown and buy a Christmas present for Sarah. It was not that he had procrastinated; no, it was part of his plan. She wanted a bicycle, she had pointed to a bicycle in the window of Treadwell’s hardware shop, and that is exactly what he planned to buy for her–not a boxed up bicycle from the back that he would have to assemble, but the very bicycle in the window.

When he arrived at Treadwell’s it was nearly four o’clock on Christmas Eve, so he delivered the pitch he had prepared: “I’ll give you $20 extra for the bicycle in the window already put together.” The young sales clerk, a girl named Maria who lived down the street from Luke and Sarah, said, “I don’t really have the authority to do that.”

She called Mr. Treadwell at home. He stood firm. “That’s a man’s bike in the display. Luke needs a woman’s model for Sarah.”

So, instead of a bicycle, Luke bought a big box full of bicycle parts.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said. “I put together the bicycle in the window. It only takes a couple of hours.”

Luke sighed with a prayer too deep for words as he loaded the box into the trunk of the Monte Carlo and headed for his office. He found there the robe Ian had left for him; Ian’s extra robe; his white robe. And, Luke had not thought about the fact that Ian was over six feet tall and Luke was not. Their students exaggerated, but only a bit, when they called Ian and Luke “Goliath and Zacchaeus” whenever they walked across the campus together. The robe would swallow him, but when he tried it on and looked in the mirror, he sighed, “It’ll have to do.”

Luke arrived home just in time to change clothes so Sarah could drive them across town at six o’clock for the seven o’clock service. Luke went through his mental list: Bible, old sermon manuscript, church address, robe. He plowed through that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, and got in the car.

Sarah drove as night fell and a light fog settled over everything. On their way, he remembered. “I was supposed to bring communion bread,” he said. “That’s what I forgot.”

Sarah sighed. “I’ll go get some bread. You go sit down in the church and get focused. Go pray until the service starts. I’ll be back soon. Something is bound to be open.”

Luke stepped out of the car at the corner and watched the taillights of the Monte Carlo fade into the foggy night. He did not wait until he was sitting in the church to begin praying because when he looked up, he saw the choir already gathered outside the front door. He heard organ music. He prayed, “God help me, I thought it started at seven!” and ran across the church yard, pulling on his long white robe at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he pushed through the choir and took his place at the front of the procession. The choir broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the procession moved into the church and the man next to Luke, eyes wide, asked, “Who are you?”

Luke began to introduce himself, to say, “I’m the preacher tonight,” but when he looked at the man next to him at the front of the procession and saw that he wore a robe and an intricately embroidered stole, his words caught in his throat. He looked up at the front of the church and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary.

This, he realized, is not a Presbyterian Church.

The question still hung in the air, “Who are you?”

That was when the first miracle of the night arrived. His sense of humor, long buried in a fog of grief, returned.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” he told the astonished priest, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” By this time, they had reached the chancel and Luke spotted the side exit. As he glided toward it, hoisting his flowing white robe to keep from tripping over it, he turned and called to the priest, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” With that, he dashed out into the night. He crossed the street where the plain white prairie gothic church stood waiting. The sign in front announced candlelight and communion at 7:00 pm.

Stepping inside, he caught his breath and greeted the puzzled man who handed him a worship bulletin and a candle. The man stared at him from windblown hair to white robe that dragged on the floor, and back up to the sleeves that covered his hands.

“Merry Christmas,” they said to one another in unison.

When the service began, Sarah had not yet returned. Luke preached with an eye on the communion table which had a chalice and pitcher, but no bread, and an eye on the door at the back, where, any minute, he knew, he hoped, he prayed, Sarah would walk through with the communion bread.

He spoke slowly and drew out each dramatic pause to give her more time.

When he reached the end of the sermon, the congregation sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As the last chorus began, Sarah stepped in, carrying a basket of bread, and came, faithfully, down the aisle and up to the communion table where Luke took from her the basket with bread wrapped in a white napkin.

As the congregation sang, “O come, let us adore him,” and Luke placed the bread on the table, Sarah mouthed something to Luke. What was she saying? “Took the bus?” He wondered if the Monte Carlo had broken down and she had to take a bus and that was why she had taken so long.

When he lifted the cloth from the bread, it came to him. She had not said “took the bus.” There were no busses running on Christmas Eve. There were, in their little town, no grocery stores open after 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. She had gone all the way back to their house and found the only bread they had, far back in the freezer, left over from summer.

She had said, “hot dog buns.”

bread-and-wineThough she had cut them into neat little cubes, she left one of them sitting on the top, unbroken. The second miracle of the night arrived when he looked out over the congregation and recited the invitation to the table, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” Something fell into place; something fell back into place that had been missing since the two men had visited that Christmas Eve eight years before. It began with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when he looked at Sarah with her mischievous smile; it grew into his own barely stifled laughter when he looked at the neatly cubed hot dog buns on the communion table and thought about the befuddled priest across the street.

All the absurd pieces of his life, and his son’s death, came together for just a moment when he broke the bread and poured the wine and he knew, deep in his bones, that this story was for him. God had become flesh and blood. And though Luke had long ago memorized the liturgy of the table, it did not feel rote. The words did not run together, but instead they soared around the sanctuary and landed somewhere deep within him.

For a moment, the space thinned between heaven and earth. That vast emptiness between this broken war-torn world where death reigns and God’s new creation where love conquers all, filled with hope, and peace and joy.

That night, after Sarah fell asleep, Luke rose quietly from bed, padded out to the garage, pulled the box of bicycle parts from the trunk of the car and went to work assembling Sarah’s present by the light of the Christmas tree.

Maria of the hardware store had not been far off. After two hours, Luke had assembled a bicycle.

With only two parts left over.

One of the parts looked like a heavy-duty bobby pin and the other resembled a thick paper clip. Luke considered his old mantra, “That’ll have to do,” but the vision of his typewriter in pieces haunted him.

It was midnight when the third miracle of the night arrived.

Luke read the directions, all forty-two steps.

He found that he had put everything together just as the directions described. At the very end, after step forty-two, Luke read, “When the bicycle is fully assembled, you will have the two parts pictured, a cotter key and a chain clip, in duplicate. Place them in a safe place where you can find them when the original pieces wear out.”

Luke sat by the Christmas tree with the leftover pieces in his hand, and remembered the story he had repeated that night in church. He remembered how the words of the shepherds amazed all those who had gathered around the newborn baby Jesus. Nobody, including Mary, knew quite what to make of the words of angels and shepherds that night in Bethlehem.

But Mary kept all these things, these absurdities, these puzzles, these leftover pieces, and treasured them, pondered them in her heart.

Turning the World Upside Down

Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014. To subscribe, click here.

Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. —Luke 1: 46-55

Turning the World Upside Down

Our Advent journey leads us today into the hill country of Judea where we find two pregnant women conspiring to take over the world. I have been thinking this week about John Williams’ description of the difference between the four Gospels: how if you asked them how to get to Dallas City Hall from here, Mark would send you straight down Highway 75 to IH 30, take the Ervay Street exit and you’re there. Get there, get there, get there.

Matthew would take you in a fairly direct route, but he would keep stopping along the way to tell you why each street is named what it is, who they were and why that matters.

John would take you in a space shuttle; or, just answer, “City? What exactly is a city?”

Today, our tour guide is Luke. Luke will not hurry the journey. All around us, the world is getting ready for Christmas, but Luke says, “Wait, let’s walk slowly here and meet some people; not just the people who have Closeup5streets named after them, but also the people sleeping on cardboard sheets under the eves of old buildings. Let’s take a tour through Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff, Swiss Avenue and that renovated Park Street warehouse across from First Presbyterian where Robert Johnson recorded the blues. Luke would say, listen to the songs, both music and lyrics.

Luke would say that we find God and the Gospel not just in the people who had streets named after them: Herod, Emperor Augustus, and Quirinius governor of Syria, but with these two women: Mary, a young girl from a backwater town in Galilee, and her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of a priest and a woman who describes her life so far as one in which she has endured the disgrace of her people because of their childlessness. Both of them are country people, far from the seat of power; and yet, we find them here singing about turning the world upside down.

More accurately, of course, we hear them singing about God working through them to turn the world upside down.

Luke began this Gospel by telling Theophilus that he has set out to write “an orderly account.” And, Luke does that: this happened, then that happened, then another thing. But Luke is not opposed to some poetry along the way.

In an oppressive system like the late first century Roman empire, poets are dangerous. Those who attack the Empire directly, through editorials and pamphlets or armed uprising will be dealt with directly.

But how will the Empire strike back against poetry and song? How will the Empire suppress metaphors that seep into the cracks of power and slowly degrade the political infrastructure, and reveal its weakness and fragility?

When Luke gets to the part about Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies, he revels in the metaphor: the world is pregnant with revolution. God has struck the match, lit a candle, and started the fire not with a battle cry, but with a baby’s cry.

To all outward appearances, the cry has not yet been heard. When Luke’s first readers looked around at the world, Rome still ruled with a brutal hand. If God was at work in the world, it was not altogether visible.

And yet, Mary sings in the past tense.

With Jesus growing inside of her, the victory is won, she sings, as only a poet can say: the hungry have been fed; the oppressors have been thrown down; the lowly have been exalted.

In Mary’s song, we hear the promise of God to anyone who lives under oppression: that all unjust systems of power are doomed.

Pregnancy, of course, is uncomfortable. Or so I have been told.

Shannon Kershner told the story of her parents coming to visit their grandchildren shortly before Christmas one year, and bringing a Christmas story book for Shannon’s five-year-old.

Her mother and her daughter began reading it together. It told a very sweet version of the Christmas story–beginning when the Angel Gabriel came to tell Mary what was going to happen in and to her. The book said, “and when the angel told Mary she was going to have the baby Jesus, Mary was very happy.” At that point the five-year-old stopped her grandmother: “Well, actually, Nini, that’s wrong. Mary was afraid.”

It’s the kind of reply you get, I suppose, from a child whose mother and grandfather are Presbyterian ministers.

And of course, five-year-old Hannah was right. Mary was afraid and perplexed, and she ran with haste from her parents to her cousin Elizabeth. She ran out of there as quickly as she could and went to the only place she thought might be safe; after all, Gabriel had told her that Elizabeth also was pregnant with a child miraculously conceived.

And so, when Luke brings us to the blessing from Elizabeth and the song of Mary, “from now on, all generations will call me blessed,” the blessing comes into a world full of fear. In Mary’s pregnancy, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Where do your hopes and fears meet? In pregnancy, yes, for some families now. In the waiting and hoping for all to go as planned.

And, for other families, the hopes and fears meet in a hoped-for pregnancy and the fear that it will not happen.

And, for some, hopes and fears meet in the hope for a better life for their children, and the fear that they cannot provide it.

And, for all who work for the justice Mary proclaims in her song, the hope is clear, but the fears are real, even in the face of love that casts out all fear. Love does cast out all fear, but not all at once, and not on our timetable.

Today our youth group gathered around the Advent wreath and lit the candle of Joy. The song of Mary, even when sung in the minor key that foreshadows the birth pangs to come, bursts with a joy so unrepressed that we’re not entirely comfortable with it.

Isn’t it a bit too exuberant for grownups? Isn’t exuberance over a world into which God is breaking in with justice a bit premature in a world where wars rage and, well, Ferguson, Missouri.

A friend told me that when he was driving around after a snow storm, he saw an old man with a piece of cardboard for a sled, riding down a hill with a huge grin on his face and his hands raised above his head. He was all by himself, no children or grandchildren in sight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf it had been a young person, it wouldn’t have been such an unusual sight. But, as we grow older, even if we can preserve our bodies from broken bones, our joy somehow gets mashed down. An adult, a grown man or woman, laughing or singing in unrestrained joy, becomes an unusual sight.

The self-exposure, the fear of looking like a fool, the fear of getting hurt emotionally if not physically, maybe that’s part of it.

But the other part is that as we grow older, we see the world’s sorrows. We lose people we love to disease and death. How can we have joy in a world in which teenagers walk into a school and gun down children and teachers; a world in which war claims not just those who abuse power, but the innocent, the children caught in the crossfire, and the would-be peacemakers who go hungry?

How can you read the news and be joyful? How can you live for even a handful of decades and hold on to joy?

Here’s Luke’s bottom line: Joy is not the same thing as happiness, or fun, or pleasure. All of those depend on good conditions, health, happy family, financial security, lots of toys. Joy is something different.

Joy comes from the awareness that we are walking a path God has set before us, and that God walks it with us.

Joy doesn’t happen when we get what we want. Did Mary want what happened to her? It is much more likely to happen when we do not get what we want and we find ourselves laughing instead of crying, because God’s ideas are so much better than ours, only we have a hard time seeing that until our own wishes have crashed and burned.

Joy in the face of loss–that’s how you know God is present–because nobody else knows how to make life out of death. No one else knows how to come into a dark room and turn on all the lights, surprising everyone inside with the last thing any of them ever expected.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. The Gospel story of this pregnant moment tells us that our fears, however real, can be met in the cold and darkness of winter, by the light of Christ.

The light has come into darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

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Third Sunday of Advent

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Here are a couple of Advent sermons for your reading pleasure as we await the Second Sunday of Advent. Enjoy.

John 1:26-27 (From The Message)

26-27John answered, “I only baptize using water. A person you don’t recognize has taken his stand in your midst. He comes after me, but he is not in second place to me. I’m not even worthy to hold his coat for him.”

Chipping Away At the Darkness

A legend of Michelangelo says that his patron looked upon the finished sculpture of David and asked, “How on earth did you carve such a realistic sculpture?”

Michelangelo replied, “It was easy.  I took a big piece of marble and carved away everything that didn’t look like davidDavid.”

The Gospel writer John, telling us his Christmas story of the Word becoming “flesh and blood and moving into the neighborhood” (The Message) begins with the other John, the cousin of Jesus, and begins to chip away at all that is not Jesus.

Nope, I’m not the Messiah, John says.

Nope, I’m not the Light; no, I’m not Elijah, no, I’m not the prophet.

John, in the tradition of the prophets, presents himself as next to nothing, just a voice, “thunder in the desert,” a sound that comes before the life-giving rain.  Amos said, “I’m only a shepherd;” Moses said, “I can’t speak well enough;” Jeremiah said, “I’m too young.”  John says, “I’m not worthy.”

That’s not the response we would expect from someone who is about to get a ticket for baptizing without a license.  We might expect him to flash his credentials, to defend himself, to say, “Hey, I’ve got a right to be here!  God sent me!”  Instead, the voice crying out in the wilderness echoes Isaiah who resisted his call, saying, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

It’s the third Sunday of Advent, and we’re about ready to hear Luke’s version of the Christmas story, about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, ending up in a stable where Mary gives birth with all the farm animals, then the shepherds coming to tell them what they heard from a chorus of heavenly angels.

But, that’s not how John tells it.  If all we had was this gospel, our Christmas pageants would be easy:  just one child, standing on a dark and empty stage, reciting or singing about the light:

“In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.”

And instead of Joseph and Mary riding into Bethlehem, as we imagine, on a donkey, in the Gospel according to John, there’s just one guy, the other John, maybe not even visible, but just a voice out of the darkness, because he is not the light, but a witness to the light.

Which brings us to the reason the temple police came all the way out from Jerusalem to Bethany, some backwater village known for its lepers and outcasts:  “If you are not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet, why do you baptize?”

John’s answer, of course, is a non-answer.  He doesn’t tell them why he baptizes; instead, he tells them that those who are baptized with water are a preview of the One who comes after him.

A few years ago, I served a congregation as it went through a building project that included a small chapel. The building committee counted the cost, listened to ideas from the whole congregation, prayed and discussed and tried to discern the shape of a building that would serve as a tool for ministry in the decades to come.  The architect, began to draw.  The committee looked at the drawings and said, “We like this; this part, not so much.”  The architect drew some more.  He drew the floor plan, then the elevation from each direction, then more detailed drawings for the plumber and electrician.  By the time we broke ground, we had a stack of drawings an inch thick.

I studied the drawings carefully and felt like I knew this building.  I knew what it would look like inside and out, and I knew how it could be used.

And then, after construction had continued for a few weeks, I drove up one morning and the framing was underway.  By that afternoon, the walls and the joists were all together and it looked like a building.

When I walked through, and came into the middle room on the north side with the vaulted ceiling, I realized that the drawings were just pointing to the space.  They could give us information, they could describe the space, but they were not the same as walking into a place that instantly opened all my senses to the presence of something Holy.

Looking at the drawings, I knew that the middle room would be pretty.

Walking into the space, I felt the need to worship God.

That’s something like what John is saying about baptism with water.  It’s the architectural drawing.  We who are baptized are not the light; we’re not Elijah, we’re not the Messiah.  We are people with ordinary names.  Like architectural drawings, those names may be beautiful.  And all together, we are called the church, the body of Christ.  But, we are not Christ.  We are not the light, we only point to the light, the Word made flesh and blood.

In a culture where Christmas has become primarily a marketing event, we in the church have to struggle to keep our attention on the light to which John pointed.  At a time of year when the days are short and the night is long; when all the music and merriment can emphasize the loneliness and heartache for those on the sidelines, it is a struggle to focus on the incarnation, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

If your Christmas tradition includes giving to organizations that are changing the world, you may have noticed must how much need there is in this world. Browsing through the Alternative Christmas Market catalogue could be a downer.  Without a faith in the light of the world, it would be easier to keep our spirits up through the darkest time of the year if we tried not to think about the intractable poverty of the people of Haiti; tried not to look at the haunting photograph of a child sold by her parents as a sexual slave; if we tried to forget about people who will spend this Christmas on the street or in homeless shelters.

For some among us today, this is the first Christmas after the death of a loved one.  For those in the still-fresh pangs of grief, the merriment of the season can deepen the sadness of all we have lost.

This, however, is the darkness into which the light of Christ came.  The light of God, the Christmas light, God made flesh, came into deep darkness.  The good news of Advent is that the light still enters the dark.  With the Christmas story of John, we have no fear of the dark; the darkness of the world is like bits of stone that Michelangelo carved away from the marble to reveal his vision of David.

As those who are baptized with water, we chip away at the darkness with the faith of those who know that the light is breaking through in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

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Second Sunday of Advent

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Mark 1:1-8

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 

The Christmas Angel

To find the Christmas angel in the gospel according to Mark, we have to look hard. There is no angelic appearance of Gabriel to Mary, as there is in Luke. There is no angel appearing in a dream to Joseph as there is in Matthew. In Mark, Mary the mother of Jesus is named only in passing and Joseph is nowhere to be found.

The Christmas angel comes in the quotation from Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;”

The angel is almost impossible to find until we remember that the word “my messenger” is the English translation of the Greek word, angelon. There it is, not Gabriel, not Clarence, but John the Baptizer in the part of the Christmas angel, announcing the advent of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, the Son of David, Messiah, God in human flesh. Mattia-Preti-St-John-the-Baptist-Preaching-600x360

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy steps out on the set with a strange smile plastered on his face. You know immediately he’s doing an impression of someone, but it takes just a second to realize who it is. It’s when he puts on the cardigan sweater and the tennis shoes that you know, even if you don’t have the sound turned up, that he’s singing “It’s a beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and channeling Fred Rogers.

John the Baptizer, when he slips on the camel hair and leather belt and crunches in his teeth those delicious locusts dipped in wild honey, we know what kind of angel, what kind of messenger John is channeling. Even if we don’t have the sound turned up, we can hear the tune of that piece from Handel’s Messiah,

“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way . . .”

Ah, a prophet like Isaiah or Elijah.

And, sure enough, John comes preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This is not the Christmas angel of our culture, not at all; but then, the church, at its best, does not follow the world, it follows Christ. Imagine if we sent out Advent cards instead of Christmas cards. Perhaps the front of the card could feature the prophet in the wilderness dressed like Elijah, with a cartoon balloon from his mouth saying, in huge capital letters, “REPENT!”

What would the inside say? Perhaps, “Wishing you a season of shocking self-awareness and humble contrition.” Imagine receiving such a card from a loved one, perhaps with a list of suggestions of sins you in particular might want to consider putting on your repentance list.

Well, thanks a lot, Mark the Gospel writer. I can already feel that Christmas spirit.

It may sound kind of ridiculous, given how far removed such a thing is from the world in which we live, and yet, that is exactly where the gospel leads us on the path to Christmas. We cannot realize the depth of God’s gift in Jesus Christ until we realize the depth of our need. It’s a paradox, this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

On the one hand, traveling that path from the starting point of blaming others into that dark and frightening forest of seeing our own sin as part of every problem we care about can overwhelm us. It can lead to pain and heartache. It’s not exactly the kind of Christmas preparation the secular world presents as a pathway to comfort and joy.

And yet, the comfort and joy God has prepared for us waits at the end of that very path.

In the movie Blood Diamond, Solomon Vandy, a fisherman from Sierra Leone, is taken prisoner by the rebels and forced to work in a river panning for diamonds that will be used to finance the civil war. His eleven year old son is kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, forced to participate in such atrocities they can hardly be described. His wife and daughters become refugees, barely escaping the violence of the civil war.
When a very dodgy character, a diamond dealer and gun runner, asks a journalist named Maddy to take Solomon with her and reunite him with his family, she says, “All this suffering, millions of people dying, and you want me to help one guy? Why should I do that?”
And then, you can see it on her face. She hears what she has said. In the next scene, we see her next to Solomon in a helicopter on the way to a refugee camp where he will begin to put his family back together.
What difference can I make? Why bother to help one child with an angel from a tree, why bother to give a few dollars toward the problem of sexual slavery when the problems of human suffering are so huge? Surely we can do nothing more than bail out a cup of salt water from the Gulf.
The Advent message is that God has come to earth in human flesh. Even when all we can see is suffering and sin, we gather at this table and affirm that God has not abandoned this world. We commit ourselves to rise up and live for the Prince of Peace. In these few years we have, we will walk in the path that God has made, even when we cannot see the sweet fruit hidden deep in the orchard.
Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through the mountains of North Carolina one afternoon, and they encountered sheadstoneeveral miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone.” The words on the road sign read:
End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

Until we reach the end of construction, the journey will be full of road blocks, frustrations, and rough patches.
The courage to take this Advent journey comes from knowing our destination, that place where peace reigns, where every path is made straight, every rough place made plain. Until then, remember the words of the Christmas Angel: “Fear not.”
Thanks be to God.

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Escape From the Advent Zombies

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Mark 13:24-37

“what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 

Escape From the Advent Zombies

 “Keep Awake?” How dare a preacher stand up here in the busiest time of the year and intone, “Keep Awake,” when students work through caffeine-induced hallucinations to finish their final papers; when managers and labor work into the night to prepare their end-of-the year reports; and when parents fight the madness of the midnight shopping crowds to buy their child a PlayStation 4, braving even pepper-spray.

“Keep awake,” indeed.

That is more the world’s requirement than the way of Christ, don’t you think?

And keep awake for what? Haven’t we heard enough from the religious fringe of this eschatology, this end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it rhetoric? And haven’t they always been wrong?

And hey, Christmas is coming—angels, shepherds, baby in a manger with animals all around—why on earth does the church’s calendar of Bible readings give us all this stuff about the end of the world?

Then again, maybe this is exactly what we need to think about now, as scientists predict catastrophic climate change, as ISIS spreads their terror and influence from Syria to Iraq and Iran, and North Korea shoots off missiles between issuing threats to destroy the world with their nuclear capability.

The problem with passages such as the little apocalypse in Mark is that they have been used and abused as weapons of mass distraction. They have been used in our own day to frighten and threaten anyone who does not fall in line with a particular theology. They have even been used as contemporary political texts to threaten the righteous destruction of other nations.

So how do we pick through the rubble of mistaken predictions, misguided interpretation, and just plain rotten theology (am I a curmudgeon yet?) to assemble a responsible Christian proclamation of gospel, of good news, for Advent—and do so with the background music of Winter Wonderland?

Those of you who have been listening to me preach for lo these many years will know by now where I’m going—back to the original context of Mark’s writing of this passage.

It takes us back to about 70 A.D., forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, in the midst of, or in the immediate aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple. [Much of Mark may have been written earlier than that, but chapter 13 reflects the context of the siege of Jerusalem.] For the first century Jewish and Christian community, this was their 9-11 moment, their Pearl Harbor, and their Cuban Missile Crisis, all wrapped up in one event. The world as they knew it had, in fact, come to an end. As the dust of destruction billowed up and darkened the sky over Jerusalem, the words of Jesus came back to Mark, how the sun would be darkened and the moon would not give its light. The poetic language of stars falling and the powers of heaven being shaken took on a new and literal context. Their question was not when it would happen—for them, it already had. Their questions were, “What now? What next?”

In that context, the words of Mark 13 are not threats, but words of hope.

They reach back to the words of the psalm,

 God is our refuge and strength,

   a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

 In other words, God is still in charge.

No matter what happens, no matter what human failures we suffer through, God remains in charge of our ultimate destiny.

That is the apocalypse, which means, literally, an unveiling.

Mark’s apocalypse, his unveiling, or pulling back the curtain to show us what’s going on backstage, proclaims that even when it seems the world is falling apart, even when it seems life is falling apart, God is at work making a new heaven and a new earth, a place where God will wipe away every tear.

To those who feel that the burden of their family or their business, or the survival of the world is on their shoulders, the good news of apocalyptic hope is that God has not abandoned the world; God has not left us to our own devices.

There was a time, in the nineteenth century, when Protestant ministers preached these apocalyptic texts as descriptions of what human progress could accomplish. The industrial revolution and advances in science promised a new age, a day when illness could be eradicated and slavery and poverty abolished, if only we worked hard enough.

For those who harbored ultimate hope in human moral progress into the twentieth century, however, the mass destruction of WW I and WW II, along with the holocaust, and the ongoing scourge of sexual slavery destroyed any such illusion. Scientific progress, in the hands of human beings, did not and does not automatically lead us into the Kingdom of God.

Our hope, then, is not that we will create a new heaven and a new earth. It is not that you and I, through super-human effort, will bring ultimate reconciliation to all those around us in conflict, or bring about peace on earth.

Our hope, our vision, is the promise that God is leading us toward a new heaven and a new earth, and we get to be part of it. The paradox is that the work is God’s not ours, and we are relieved from the anxiety of our past failures; and yet, because the work is God’s, not ours, the work of reconciliation and generosity and peacemaking is not doomed to failure. It is meaningful.

Jesus said,

28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

Staying awake, staying alert, then, is not so much suffering the sleep deprivation of this busy time of year as it is keeping our eyes open for the signs of God’s grace breaking into the world.

A few years ago, there was an advertisement in a magazine for a beaded handbag costing thousands of dollars held by a model, eyes closed, looking beautiful but comatose. The banner read, “Comfort and joy.” [Thanks to Kathleen Norris in Christian Century for this.]

Staying awake, keeping alert, in the gospel’s word of hope, is the encouragement we need if we are to escape the fate of becoming Advent zombies. Instead, we can keep our eyes and ears open for God’s presence.

In 1993, John Prine released a different kind of Christmas album. Along with a few old standards like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause,” he also explores the shadow side of Christmas with a song called “Christmas in Prison.” At the beginning of the second song on the record, he tells a live audience a story before he sings. He says, “I got a kind of unusual gift for Christmas a couple of years back, I got a divorce for Christmas, so I really didn’t know what to do; so I went out and bought myself an electric train because I never had one before. And me and this friend of mine, we nailed it to the dining room table. Just ‘cause we could.”

After that, though, he sings a song he wrote for his ex in which he pokes fun at his own bitterness and finally sings, “I wish you love/ I wish you happiness/ I guess I wish you/ all the best.”

Ignace Yan Paderewski was a Russian composer-pianist who died in 1941. One evening he was scheduled to perform at a great concert hall. In the audience of black tuxedos and long evening gowns was a mother with her fidgety nine-year old son. His mother brought him in hopes her boy would be encouraged to practice the piano if he could just hear the immortal Paderewski. So, against his own wishes, he had come.

As the mother turned to talk with her friends before the concert began, the boy slipped from her side, and without much notice from the audience, he sat down at the stool, staring wide-eyed at the black and white keys, and he put his fingers on the keyboard. He began to play “Chopsticks.”  The roar of the crowd was hushed by hundreds of frowning faces turned in his direction. An angered audience began jeering at the boy, booing and hissing for him to be taken from the stage.

Backstage, Paderewski overheard the sounds out front and put together what was happening. He grabbed his coat and rushed toward the stage. Without one word of announcement, he stooped over the boy, reached around both sides and began to improvise a counter melody to harmonize and enhance the tune. As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy’s ear:  “Keep going. Don’t quit son. Keep on playing. Don’t quit. I’m right here…don’t quit!” [Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson on Day 1 for this story].

Though our efforts to live out the grace and love and generosity of a crucified and risen Lord may be as “Chopsticks” next to the soaring music of Handel’s “Messiah,” yet we have this word of encouragement constantly in our ear. God is the composer, whispering in our ear, “Don’t quit, I’m right here, keep on, keep on, keep on.”

Thanks be to God.

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Grace Enough To Spare

I preached this sermon in 2011 when I was pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman, Texas. It is specific to that congregation, and dependent on the exegetical work of many different ministers, including Anna Carter Florence in Lectionary Homiletics.

“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ Matthew 25:25

 

The easiest way to deal with a weapons-grade parable like this is to turn it into an allegory—turn it into a story in which each character stands in for someone and each thing stands in for something else. That way, when we get to the part about a worthless slave getting thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, we can make sure that the worthless slave is a stand-in for somebody else, not us.

The challenge we face, though, is that Jesus never took a course in literary forms of biblical literature; therefore, he felt free, and Matthew the writer of this parable felt free, to tell a story that sometimes works as an allegory and sometimes works as a parable.

“The Kingdom of heaven is as if . . .” That phrase begins a creative, imaginative story of a wealthy landowner, and we can easily make the connection, “O.K., wealthy powerful guy who owns everything, I know That Guy, it has to be God.”

We hear about the distribution of talents and we learn from the footnote that a talent is a huge measure of gold, but we make the automatic correlation with talents in the English language and think about the gifts God has entrusted to each of us.

We hear about the three slaves, two of whom do well and one who buries his talent in the ground and by this time, we’re on a roll, this is easy—that first guy is me, the good Christian, the second one is my friend, the first runner-up in the good Christian contest, and the third one, the one who deserves to be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? As I heard someone say in a Bible study once, “I know that guy! He’s my no-good lazy ex-husband!”

That’s always a comfortable way to read scripture – to weaponize it and wield it against somebody else. It may be comfortable, but it doesn’t hold up to a close reading.

The problem begins to arise when we hear the slave’s description of the wealthy landowner, as someone who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter. Maybe the third slave is just mistaken, but that sure isn’t a description of God who created the heavens and the earth. And, at the end, when he tells the third slave he should have invested the talent in the bank to collect interest? Interest is an acceptable way of doing business now, but in the first century Jewish culture, it was strictly forbidden by God’s law. It makes no sense that a stand-in for God would advocate such a thing as the least you can do.

And then, the word “talent.” Our English word “talent” comes from the Greek language in which Matthew wrote, but Jesus did not tell this parable in Greek, (he would have used the Aramaic/Hebrew word kikkar) and besides, the English language had not yet been invented. In its original context, there was no automatic correlation between this weight of gold or silver, 3000 shekels, and our contemporary word for gifts and skills.

So, what’s going on here?

Let’s think about how the parable would have been heard by the gospel writer Matthew’s congregation. This is the second of three parables in the twenty-fifth chapter telling us about a community that is waiting for the return of someone, but they do not know the day or the hour.

For a community that had expected Jesus to return any day, and it had now been forty years, and almost all of the people who had walked with Jesus had died, these parables address the question, “What are we supposed to do now? What do we do while we wait around to die or see the end of the world as we know it?”

This parable, along with the other three parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25, make this much clear: the Gospel has been given to us, but not for us to have and to hold. Jesus gave us stories that we would repeat them; Jesus gave us his life that we might live for others. He gave us the bread of life and the cup of salvation that we would eat and drink and remember his presence from one day to the next.

We read the slave’s declaration, “Master, I knew 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.’” And we realize, yes, that slave got it wrong on two fronts.

First, the Master he describes is not the One who sent his only Son to die that we might live.

And second, his misplaced fear led him to do exactly the opposite of what the Master desired.

It is human nature to hoard what we value, to try to keep it, save it, preserve it. The surprise of this parable, maybe the shocking recognition, is that the last thing Jesus wants to hear when he walks through those doors and into this sanctuary is, “Look Jesus, we kept it for you just the way it was when you gave it to us!”

It takes energy, intelligence, imagination, and love and all the gifts of the spirit to do what God has called us to do, to put it all out there, to risk proclaiming the gospel with all the assets with which God has entrusted us, whether it is money, or this building, or the new building, or our emotional reserve, or our style of worship, or anything else. It does not happen by accident, it only happens through a commitment and intent to be obedient to Christ even when we are afraid.

Many, many years ago, when I was still the new pastor here, [Covenant Presbyterian in Sherman, Texas] and we did not yet know each other well, I got a phone call from a funeral home while I was on vacation at Nancy’s mother’s house in Pensacola. A family member of an immigrant Hindu family had died, and they wanted to do the funeral service in Sherman where their friends and colleagues could attend. Wynne Chapel was being remodeled, and several other churches with a sanctuary large enough to accommodate them had declined to host a funeral in the Hindu tradition.

I thought, this would be a great discussion for our session to have, but I was thirteen hours away, the clock was ticking, and there was no way to get the session together in time to make this decision. I had to make it, yes or no.

When I thought, “What would Jesus do?” it was very clear to me. The one who told the story of the kind Samaritan, the foreigner who showed kindness to the stranger in need regardless of their religious differences would not hesitate to give them comfort in their time of grief.

I thought of that and all kinds of other reasons that it was the right thing to do as a church, and I tried to anticipate all the reasons people might give for declining to have it here.

I told the funeral home we would be glad to do it, and I ran down to the coffee shop with wifi where I could get an email out to the session that just said I had to make this decision today, here’s what I told them, and here’s why I think it’s the right thing to do.

I did not yet know you well. I feared I might get fired. I thought someone on session might take some disciplinary action against me to the Presbytery’s committee on ministry. I did not know what might happen.

But, I’m not the hero of this story. You are.

Here’s what happened. It turns out I was foolish in my fears. Every single email that came back from the session members said the same thing, essentially: “Good decision, this is who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. We are a people with grace enough to spare.”

A few years later, our daughter Rachel asked me to come and pray and read scripture and pronounce a blessing as she and Lili promised each other that they would stay together as long as they both shall live.

You all know that my views on gay and lesbian partnerships is more liberal than the average Presbyterian. The Permanent Judicial Committee had ruled that Presbyterian clergy such as I could perform such a ceremony as long as I didn’t publicly refer to it as a wedding or a marriage, but we all knew what it was. It was my daughter’s wedding.

I know that many of you have strong feelings on the other side of this issue, just as strongly-held, just as theologically genuine as my own. So, when I wrote to you in the church newsletter [the web page did not yet exist] to let you know what our family was going to Florida to celebrate, I waited with some trepidation for the phone to ring on the day the newsletter hit the mailboxes.

And the phone began to ring. And every single person who called us, regardless of what they thought of gay marriage or ordination, was asking why we didn’t include an address for Rachel and Lili so they could send a gift.

Whatever else we may be here at Covenant, with all our imperfections and struggles, this is something I know for sure: we are a people with grace enough to spare.

There are many, many good things in this world that need our time, energy, prayers, and money. If we supported them all as we wish we could, I fear, perhaps foolishly, that there would be nothing left to live on.

Here’s what keeps me wanting to support the work of this congregation with more money, time, and energy than any other cause. I believe that the greatest need of this world is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; and, I have never known another congregation that is so generous, so profligate, so reckless and Christ-like in extending grace to a world in need.

So, friends, let’s put it all out there, with grace enough to spare. It’s who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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More Wine, That’s the Ticket

John 2:1-11

9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 

More Wine, That’s the Ticket

Weddings are accidents waiting to happen.

Ask any minister.  We have all had a moment, after several meetings with a couple for pre-marriage counseling in which both the bride and the groom presented themselves as normal, sane, and deeply thoughtful people, when, suddenly, we begin to doubt our  initial judgment.  It is the moment when Continue reading “More Wine, That’s the Ticket”

Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. . . . the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

One of my high school teachers had a few verses of scripture memorized that he liked to pull out of its holster and whack us with when the occasion presented itself. When he coached track and cut people from the team, he sent away those who didn’t make it with, “Many are called, but few are chosen!”

And, if someone was late to class, he slammed the door as soon as the bell rang with the proclamation of the Gospel, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you!”

I’m all for dramatic presentations of biblical passages, but I thought it the wiser course of action not to instruct the ushers today to slam the doors at 10:50 and send away the latecomers.

Instead, I thought it better to look at this parable in its context.

First, we can look at this passage in the context of the community that produced the Gospel According to Matthew. The were a predominantly Jewish community, both by ethnicity and in practice, who believed in Jesus as the Messiah described Continue reading “Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Watcha Gonna Wear?

Exodus 32:1-14

Aaron . . took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Philippians 4:1-9

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Matthew 22:1-14

‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.

Watcha Gonna Wear?

The story of the golden calf and Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet stand together in today’s readings as a gift to that part of ourselves that feels wise, intelligent, and more worthy when we focus on those who really mess things up.

I like to think that if I had been in Aaron’s place, I would have counseled patience to the people who waited for Moses to return from the mountaintop. Maybe pull out the guitar, sing “Here I Am, Lord,” while we wait. Not that silly Aaron. No, he starts fundraising to diminish his anxiety. “Give me the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters,” Which, of course, were plundered Continue reading “Watcha Gonna Wear?”

Matthew 22:15-22

The Worship of Happiness

[Jesus] said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

The Pharisees and Herodians make an unlikely coalition. The Pharisees defend the Torah, the law of God, with a radical fervor that makes it uncomfortable for them to live under the rule of the Roman government. A dictatorship is bad enough, but when a dictator mints coins with his image imprinted on it and the inscription, “The Divine Emperor,” every good Pharisee squirms a bit having to use such a coin – You shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make any graven images are, after all, number one and number two of the big ten of the Torah. Just handling a coin like that presents the faithful Pharisee with a big problem, much less using it to pay taxes to support that dictator who claims to be a god. Continue reading “Matthew 22:15-22”