Give It Time

Give It Time
By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
March 20, 2022

Luke 13:1-9 

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Let us pray. O Lord, Uphold me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

My grandmother had a cross-stitched saying above her sink. “Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God.” It was titled the gardener’s prayer. Her yard was covered with daffodils. I knew her as the fun loving master of the game of Simon says. “Simon didn’t say!” back to square one we’d go, having a ball. But, this woman from what I know now did not have an easy life. Perhaps that is what drew her to tending African violets, these houseplants that are famously fussy. It sounds like my grandfather led the household like a game of Simon says. They were at square one a number of times. I think of her at that sink sometimes, praying that prayer, and trusting that God was with her.

Today’s text is about rugged seasons of life. If you have ever gone through a time of suffering, real suffering, the divorce, the hospital stays where time was measured by the shift changes scribbled on the dry erase board, the greyed-out reality of depression, the shock of a death, if you’ve seen war or natural disasters like what is playing out on the news, then you know our theology is grabbing God by the sleeve and refusing to let go. It’s sitting in the back of the church and staring into the eyeballs of God as hymns wash over you wave upon wave. Faith becomes as essential as air. It’s a load bearing wall in life.

That is how I imagine today’s story in Luke starting off. People came up to Jesus, waving a newspaper saying, “How in God’s name do you explain this, Jesus? Senseless tragedy. Violence in a place that was supposed to be safe and holy. What did these people do to deserve this?” That might be the most asked question to any pastor. After a God-awful thing happens to someone you love, or to you personally! Why? What kind of God would do this to people?

Jesus met the people in their heartbreaking question. He always seems to meet people where they are. He asked, “Are you wondering if these folks who suffered were worse sinners than anyone else? If they brought this on themselves? No. I tell you.”

No. That’s not it. That’s never it. God loves you. How many ways do I have say it, Jesus wonders? He’d eventually give his life on the cross to answer this question. But in this moment, Jesus called the people to repent. Repent is a Lent-y word that means think differently. Change the direction of your thoughts on this. You’re headed in the wrong way. And that’s when he gives them this parable.

Imagine a disappointing fig tree, he says. Imagine a vineyard owner who wants it to be ripped out. Imagine the years of waiting for something worthwhile to grow there. And there was nothing. No figs at all. Imagine seeing nothing in that tree but loss. Can you see that empty tree?

Of course, they can.

Many people read this parable and assume God is the vineyard owner. Many people assume God is fed up. God is going to tear this tree up from its roots because our lives have not yielded anything. Many people read this story to mean: If we don’t repent, we are as worthless as a barren fig tree, so no wonder God visits pain upon us. It’s so we will finally learn. Others face suffering and abandon the whole idea of God, but then, they often substitute ideas just as unforgiving… like genetics or physics or politics… which also feel like inescapable powers that are not on your side.

Here’s the cool part: Parables always have a surprising twist to them. They always upend conventional wisdom. They are stories meant to disorient and challenge people, not confirm the biases people have already. In those days, many people believed the gods were as fickle and punitive as human beings. Either that or they relied on cold hard logic. So, as in all of Jesus’ parables, he is unearthing, challenging and uprooting the standard way of thinking.

In the Gospel of Luke, it’s important to know that God is rarely cast as the vineyard owner. That is often the role that Scripture uses to describe people. How hard we are on ourselves. How merciless we are with each other. How quick we are to judge. We know that voice, don’t we? The voice that says, “After all I gave to that church! After all I poured into that marriage! After three years slaving for that job! What did it get me? Not one single fig.” We know that urge to uproot, don’t we? “We are moving. I am quitting. I have no choice but to step back.” I believe that in this parable the voice of the land owner is us.

So, who then is the other character here?

The other voice is that of a gutsy gardener. (Note: With thanks to Rev. Joe Clifford for his observations about this in his strong paper for The Well, our annual lectionary preaching group.)

In the story of the Scripture, God is more often depicted as the gardener. Remember the story of Genesis? God is the gardener who gives Adam and Eve all they need to flourish. Remember the story of Easter? Jesus is in the garden transforming even betrayal and death into new life. And in this parable, it is the gardener who refuses to give up on the fig tree. The gardener says… let me have another year. Let me give this tree some space. Let me spread some manure. The gardener believes, knows that life will come. The gardener knows that fruit will come, knows that it will be well and good. And even so, the gardener does not force the vineyard owner to accept this fact. He says, “If after a year, you still don’t like the results, you cut down the tree yourself.” As I hear this parable, it seems like God is the gutsy gardener who does not give up on the tree. God is the gutsy gardener who knows space and time and yes, even manure, will bring growth. Do we believe that? This is not an idle question.

Did you know that our view of God affects our brains? People who believe in a punishing God get increased activation in their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that coordinates fear and anger. They get angry more easily, and that increased anger makes it hard for them to forgive themselves when they fail. And because they can’t forgive themselves, they can’t forgive other people either. It fuels the tribalism and fear of the other that we see on the political extremes. If you believe God is a divine police officer, it can be helpful with impulse control on a short-term basis. You are not going to eat that cookie if you think God will smite you, but after a while, it can make you into a fearful person with chronic stress. It can make you prone to powerlessness.

And on the flip side, when you look at someone who believes God’s primary attributes are love and mercy, their blood pressure is lower. Their stress levels decrease. And a very different picture appears in brain imaging studies.

There are really fascinating structural changes in the brain. First, there is a thickening or richening of gray matter in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (https://relevantmagazine.com/god/how-your-brain-wired-god, also as Mike McHargue, aka “Science Mike,” described on the podcast, For the Love, with Jen Hatmaker). I love this part of the brain because it’s where empathy and compassion emerge. And then, there is a richening and a thickening in your prefrontal cortexes, which is where willpower and agency and intentionality live.

So, people who believe in a loving God become more compassionate, more thoughtful, and more patient people, who are less fearful of people who are different than they are, and they find it easy to forgive themselves and forgive other people.

Today, I want to make one point: How we see God matters.

If we worship a gutsy gardener God, we are much less apt to see suffering as something that is done to us, as punishment, and more likely to see God as making space, bringing growth, and insisting on life, even if things smell like manure sometimes.

One of the best books I have ever read about suffering was by Gerry Sittser. It’s called A Grace Disguised. Sittser was a theology professor, and one awful day, he lost his mother, his wife of two decades, and his daughter in a car wreck. He faced a kind of loss that was immobilizing. He sank into a darkness that he thought would swallow him whole, along with his two remaining traumatized children. But, somehow, it did not. He wrote this:

Initially my loss was so overwhelming to me that it was the dominant emotion – sometimes the only emotion I had. I felt like I was staring at the stump of a huge tree that had just been cut down in my backyard. That stump, which sat all alone, kept reminding me of the beloved tree that I had lost. I could think of nothing but that tree. Every time I looked out the window, all I could see was that stump. Eventually, however, I decided to do something about it. I landscaped my backyard, reclaiming it once again as my own. I decided to keep the stump there, since it was both too big and too precious to remove. Instead of getting rid of it, I worked around it. I planted shrubs, trees, flowers and grass. I laid out a brick pathway and built two benches. Then I watched everything grow. Now, three years later, the stump remains, still reminding me of the beloved tree I lost. But the stump is surrounded by a beautiful garden of blooming flowers and growing trees and lush grass. Likewise, the sorrow I feel remains, but I have tried to create a landscape around the loss so that what was once ugly is now an integral part of a larger, lovely whole.

That is the work of the gutsy gardener.

Did you read about people from 165 countries using Airbnb to book rooms they never intend to use to funnel $17,000,000 to people in Ukraine? Or 36,000 people who used the platform to offer their home to refugees?

That is the work of the gutsy gardener. That is the work of a God who does not give up on us. From cross to grave to garden of new life, God will not let us go. Maybe we need that cross-stitched near the sink or maybe it’s written on our heart, but it sounds like this:

The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope ensures.
He will my strength and portion be, as long as life endures.

May it be so.

 

Even in the Desert

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

1st Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022

 

Luke 4:1-13
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Let us pray. Gracious God, when we crave quick fixes and easy comfort, feed us on your word instead. When we desire control and power, give us trust instead. When we want popularity, give us your purpose instead. And Lord, uplift me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

Today let’s get into this text. All the way in. Perhaps differently than we do normally when we study or observe or…  pray soundly. If the church is the body of Christ, really the body of Christ, then imagine the text from Luke sounding like this:

There she was, the church. The church was still damp from her baptism, still humming the melodies “And he walks with me and he talks with me…. And he tells me I am his own….” Her voice crackling a little. But she didn’t care that her hair was messy and her voice crackly because she knew she was beloved, anointed by the Spirit, and that made her glad. Sometimes she thought about doing a liturgical dance, but part of her wasn’t too into ribbons these days. Now that choir, those hymns, opened up in her a holy place, a portal to heaven. And she found she could comfort the sick and feed hungry people and grow strong and weather all kinds of hard things and not grow weary even after thousands of years. She sang, “Lead me Lord,” and lifted her hands up in praise. And the spirit of the Lord led her.

But even as she followed, the terrain around her began to change. Suddenly, the crowds were gone. Her mouth felt dry, and it got harder to sing out loud. Her tools, all those books and maps and lectures from before, they all felt obsolete. The church found herself in the wilderness, but not the glamorous kind that made her feel brave and cutting edge and sinewy and tan like ole what’s his face, Charlton Heston. It was the bewildering kind of wilderness, where things felt confusing and full of extremes. The days were too hot. The nights were too cold. There was music, but it was extreme too. Too loud. Too slow. There was light, but it was either full blast or incredibly dim. There were scandals and all kinds of ugliness. The coffee and the sermons were either trying too hard or somewhat bitter. She amused herself with the coffee metaphor, but then she felt old and lost and incredibly hungry. 

Just then, a stunning young devil strolled up to her. “Oh honey,” she said, “You look awful. You’ve got to get some new families in here quick. Gotta turn those sermons into pledging units. Tell people whatever they want to hear and make them smile. Turn those thorny topics into a nice warm loaf of whateverism. You know that song: “Talk less, smile more, never let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” People don’t want all those moans, groans and gall stones. They want a quick hit from an agreeable God who is mad at the same people they’re mad at. So, deliver the goods, my dear, and the babies and bucks and clicks and likes will flood in. Feed yourself, church, please, for the love of God. Call it… self-care. At least take the edge off all the grief you’ve been carrying. It’s like manna, right?” She beamed. Slid the church a business card. “Your Best Church Now: In Three Easy Steps.”

The church saw the subtitles …. They read: Quick comfort, quick control, quick power.

But for some reason she refused. We do not live on bread alone, she said. Nor budgets nor babies nor buildings. We are birthed from the very breath of God and we subsist on the food of grace at that table right there. We pattern our lives after the one who came to serve, not to be served, and gave his life for many. And our God knows our hunger, better than we do, in fact. And God knows what it is like to go without. Better a scrap from Christ’s table than gorging on what will make us unrecognizable to ourselves. 

Well, the sharp devil came back again. “Goodness,” she said. “You are strident. No wonder people are turned off. And last I checked, your sermons and programs and twangy hymns really have not changed the world. Poverty and warfare and this coronavirus are doing pretty well these days. And, how low are your numbers now? You could do a lot more good and get a lot more funding if you washed those controversial crosses off of things and just became a non-profit. And, if you had a lick of strategy, you’d know that you could sway far more political leaders if you went all in on one side or the other. Aren’t you sick of losing?  Is it cold up there on the moral high ground? You have got to throw your weight around if you want people to care who you are. Gotta be wise as a serpent, right? Isn’t that in the Bible? If you don’t get in the game soon, there won’t be a church left to save.”

Again, the church shook her head. She squinted her eyes and heard herself quote from the Book of Order. “The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” The devil rolled her eyes.

Finally, the devil laughed playfully and put her arm around the church. “The Book of Order. That’s cute. Let’s take a walk.” Up they went to the top of the world. “You got me. I’m seriously impressed. And you’re adorable when you’re feisty. I think if we work together, there is nothing stopping us. What do you want? Prestige among the young people again? You want to be the hero of movies or viral TED talks? Want sermons in the newspapers? What do you want: The White House? The earth? Let’s do this! All I ask is one small thing: your loyalty. If someone disagrees with me, I want you to go after them, ok? Tell them how morally awful they are, call them a wretch, whatever it takes, you take them down. We have to stick together.”

The church turned on her heels to march away. She slipped, scraped her elbow, felt the sting, a dash of blood, then felt a deep muscle memory helping her get back up. “Depart from me. You distort our scriptures. You divorce our living from its Source, from life itself. And your ways are not our ways. We bless our enemies. We don’t curse them. We find strength in our weakness and we find blessings in brokenness that you could never understand. We are not afraid of being poor because that is when we are closest to our God. We are not afraid of a mess because we came from the dirt and God makes beautiful things from the dust of the earth. You know what — You might even bury us…. but guess what – know this too. We are seeds, tossed in every direction by a God of resurrection and new life. We grow in broken sidewalks and broken lives. We bloom in deserts. And in the dark… in wombs and tombs… that’s where we grow the fastest. We’re already promised to someone else.”

So the devil walked away. And the church started to sing again. And sat down at a crowded table. 

Blessed are the Unpopular

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

February 27, 2022

 

Matthew 5:1-2, 9-11

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Will you pray with me and for me? Gracious God, Prince of Peace, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

I am an early riser. I love to hear the cardinal who starts his morning song while it is still ink black. When I go out to get the paper, I love to see the brave daffodil pressing its green head out of the crust of the ground when it is still freezing cold. And usually I see my neighbor Fran, out walking her dog like she always does. She is a quirky woman who infuriates the neighbors because even though her dog is a 14-year-old Golden who wouldn’t hurt a flea, he lumbers behind her off leash, sometimes leaving “gifts” behind him in people’s yards that Fran doesn’t pick up. It has caused strife. Fran is Presbyterian, sigh, and she knows I am too, so when she passes, she’ll often say “Peace be with you…” so of course, I say, “And also with you.”  I truly mean it for her and our street. And, I wonder if we are peace-makers in that moment, or if peace-making might be a conversation with her about picking up after Scout more often or with others who level more blame on her than might be due.

As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about peace a lot this week. It happens more often than you’d think, that the pre-chosen text for Sunday rings out like a bell, the peal that startles us out of the gray headlines and summons us to God. And so it is that today as headlines thunder and smoke, we hear “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  

And so it is that today, as history signals with the haunting siren that we have seen brutality and aggression like this before, we hear “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

And so it is that today, as another generation wonders whether it is worth doing the right thing when it just leads to more work and real enemies and a ton of disparaging words in the comments section, we hear “blessed are you when this trolling and this assault happens on my account, rejoice and be glad, it will be noted on heaven’s paycheck.”  As Jesus spoke these words during the Sermon on the Mount, I wonder if the disciples felt shivers up their spines, not surprised one bit that he left these particular beatitudes for the very end of his list. 

Jesus was cutting to the chase: The Jesus way is no popularity contest. It is no stride down the red carpet. If you follow Jesus, people will say you are naïve and unrealistic. They will say loving your enemies is dangerous and eating with folks on that side of the aisle is a complete waste of time and Sunday worship conflicts with too many activities. They will say extending welcome to the stranger can be a security threat. Some people might revile you for being too religious and others might revile you for being not religious enough.  You may be called to the front lines, some of you truly have been, but more likely, the way of Jesus means attempting to love people who soil your yard, it means speaking up for the least of these when it would be easier to go with the crowd, and it means refusing to live only by the light of statistics or the fluorescents of despair, because you are squinting hard to follow the light of Christ.

And an important clarification: in our country practicing our faith may feel challenging, awkward, uncomfortable. but for most of us, it does not actually involve persecution. To be sure, persecution of Christians is still a real thing in our world. According to The New York Times in December of 2021, Christians in India have faced increasing violence and imprisonment, and there are anti-conversion laws on the books in half of the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/22/world/asia/india-christians-attacked.html). The Washington Post in February of 2021 reported that Christians in Russia have been tormented mercilessly. In 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses – who are pacifists and do not vote or participate in military service – were outlawed as “extremists” in Russia, such that a 69-year-old woman named Valentina and her 46-year-old son Roman had their home ransacked, had their Bibles confiscated, and are currently in jail serving a 3-year sentence (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/jehovahs-witnesses-russia-persecution/2021/02/28/980b4c06-76d8-11eb-9537-496158cc5fd9_story.html). When I lived in Guatemala, a Pastor named Jorge Colindres told me that in the ‘80s, the Bible was considered a subversive book and he had to hide his for many years. I asked him why that was, and his chest heaved, “Haven’t you read it? The Bible is about holy freedom and Christ-like love for the poor and wild hope that won’t be tamped down. Dictators don’t like that.” He did the hand motion of a bomb going off. 

Peter, James and John – disciples of Jesus – faced that kind of persecution. The Apostle Paul perpetrated that kind of persecution until his own conversion and then he faced that kind of persecution. They were all martyred. And of course, sadly, professed Christians have persecuted other Christians and Christians have persecuted people of other faiths. Members of 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham and Mother Emanuel in Charleston and Tree of Life in Pittsburgh know that all too well.

By the time he preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus knew humanity was a boiling stew of goodness and sin, and the good news … the headline of this story…is that he blessed us anyway.

Today, Jesus’ blessing makes direct eye contact with us. It shifts from the global third person “blessed are those who” to hyperlocal second person, blessed are you. And whew, I feel it deeply. Blessed are you when you have felt bombarded with falsehoods. Blessed are you when you have witnessed so much nastiness. Blessed are you having seen so much evil that it is tempting to hole up in the bunker of cynicism, tempting to hide in the basement of overwhelm, tempting to take up arms in the foxhole of vengeance, or tempting to pull the blinds on everything for the sake of your sanity. Good news. You are siblings with every person who has ever breathed and wept and spilled coffee and lost something they can’t get back and behaved stupidly and needed a second and a third chance and who nevertheless deserves not to be bullied, harassed, or attacked.

When you work for real peace, Jesus says you are on your way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh, one more thing, that means you are not on a Disney Cruise. These beatitudes are the voice over the intercom of our lives, saying the captain has illuminated the fasten seat belt sign and there will be turbulence. These are words for when we are gripping the armrest. But even if we are scared, our job is to trust the Prince of Peace anyway. We trust that a greater hand is steering the vessel. We know that Christ went before us and faced all that we face and emerged shrouded in light and goodness. 

Today is called Transfiguration Sunday. It is when we remember that the disciples didn’t just hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount and go on their scary way. They also beheld Jesus in transcendent glory on the mount, next to Moses and Elijah. And you don’t forget something like that. That kind of luminous peace stays within you as you endeavor to make peace in the world. In fact, I think you need peace inside you if you ever hope to see it in the world.

What do you do when the turbulence of conflict comes? Do you pray? Do you breathe deeply? Do you remember the goodness and glory of God that can’t be tamped down?

This week, I reached for the sermon C.S. Lewis preached in 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. He said, “this war creates no absolutely new situation. It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” And our job is still to live every day ‘as to God.’ 

Then, I read sermons from Peter Marshall, preaching at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church when the US entered WWII. He said this country could never achieve internationally what it wouldn’t accede to individually, nationally, locally. He said, “A different world cannot be created by indifferent people.” 

And finally, I read what Apostle Paul preached. There weren’t armrests enough for the turbulence he faced — shipwrecks, floggings, being jailed at least three times. And still he wrote, Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

In their words, I heard something deeply true. Peace-making is as local as it is global. It is as personal as it is universal. It is as theological as it is situational.

Earlier this week, Fran made her way down the street again, and I prayed for the peace to see this situation differently. And that’s when I saw her stoop down to pick something up. I thought this might be a turning point for our street. The moment she cleaned up her ways. And it was, but not in the way I thought, because what she did next surprised me. She was picking up the newspaper from the sidewalk in front of the Georgiadis home. Lord knows that family has faced so many health problems lately. I wondered if she was going to “borrow” their Washington Post bag. But instead, she tromped the newspaper all the way up their icy brick stairway so that it would be placed neatly on their doormat when they woke up. And on down the sidewalk she went, Scout lumbering freely behind her. And in that small interaction, I felt blessed, blessed by a turn of events I hadn’t counted on. I felt a peace, peace that surpassed the understanding I had previously held about my neighbor.

Apparently, the wall of Shishu Bhavan, a children’s home of Calcutta operated by the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, reads: 

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.  Love them anyway. 

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Do good anyway. 

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway. 

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway. 

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway. 

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you help them.  Help people anyway. 

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

For you see, in the end it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

 

What a great summary.

The cardinal sings in the dark. The daffodil rises in the cold. The world is messy and broken and beautiful and surprising. The headlines are grim but when Ms. Georgiadis opens her door the paper will be right there and she won’t necessarily know who helped her but she’ll feel blessed anyway. 

The Great Reversal: Blessed are the Powerless

By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church
February 13, 2022

Matthew 5:1-2, 5-6

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I lived in Atlanta, I attended Trinity Presbyterian Church where a pastor named Joanna Adams dazzled people with her sermons like a theological Olympian. Her sermons were in preaching textbooks. Every Sunday, I would scribble notes on my bulletin. Once I waited in the receiving line and finally greeted her with the nervous energy of a child finally greeting Santa at the Mall. I said, “I truly appreciated that message. See, I wrote notes all over my bulletin.” My voice trailed off. And she said, “Oh, I am so glad to hear that… But are you are going to walk out with the hymnal too?” I went flush. There it was, under my scribbled bulletin. I was caught red hymnal handed. “No, I, um.” I laughed meekly. “I used it to bear down on…” She blinked. Then I said something very parochial like, “Peace be with you” and went back in the church to return the hot hymnal. 

In today’s text Jesus continues his sermon on the mount with two more surprising blessings. Blessed are the meek. The Greek word is proates. It’s a word we don’t use too often in English, but it also means humbled, gentle, those with the right blend of force and reserve. Here are some definitions I would add: The meek are not the ones who will argue until they are blue in the face. Nor the ones who write in all caps. Nor the ones who always direct the conversation back to themselves. Nor the ones who trick out their car so that it can be heard from a mile away nor those who interrupt every sentence. No, blessed are the meek, the ones who think it through, who take a beat to process, who would prefer to get something right more than to be right, and perhaps those who felt the warm wash of humility, while singing from a hymnal or nearly making off with one.

Then, Jesus continues in that spirit so that we don’t miss the point. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a better way for everyone than to appear better than everyone. Blessed are those who can feel in their bones what is righteous and fair and yet who do not spend a lot of time wanting credit it for their own virtue. Blessed are those who don’t try to leave a long shadow. But instead shine a bright light.  After the dust settles, Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. Even after the attention shifts, Jesus says those whose souls grumble for righteousness find themselves filled. 

Today we are ordaining new church officers. And usually an event like this is paired with one of the robust stories of windswept fishermen pushing out to the deep. Or the call of Isaiah to speak even when the words are as hot as a burning coal. We often want muscular texts for ordinations. Chuck Norris texts for ordinations. The ones that make ministry out to be a white water romp down the rivers of righteousness. Maybe that is our inclination because the culture in which we live blesses almost the opposite of what Jesus blesses. Our culture might say: “Blessed are those who take down their foe with a roundhouse kick to the face. Blessed are those who destroy that person’s argument on Twitter. Blessed are those with the largest arsenal, the largest rings on their fingers, the largest following. Blessed are those willing to burn it all down because righteousness and repair take too long.” On its face, it seems like Jesus is blessing the very ones who have the least cultural power or tactics or bravado to enact the vision he has for the world. But the more we listen, we realize Jesus is upending the whole premise that might makes right, challenging the whole assumption that the one who has the gold makes the rules. He is confronting the entire attention economy. 

Now I am not usually one for pithy rhyming sayings. But today, I hear Jesus saying, “Meekness is not weakness.” That is why I think these are ideal blessings for today’s church officers. Jesus acknowledges that it takes a lot more strength to hold people together than to divide them. It takes a lot more vigor to be repairers of the breach, as Isaiah called it, than it does to dominate people. It takes more courage to offer a solution and craft a fledgling budget and build an imperfect team than to decry what has or might fail us. It takes more stamina to hang in there after the excitement has worn off than to build something lasting. But that is the Jesus way. The way of gardens and vineyard that require tending. The way of oddball teams who learn to work past their annoyance with each other and inherit something that is better than they expected. That is why meekness, this same word, is considered a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. It is a posture of maturity, not timidity or avoidance. 

Meakness is not weakness. There are actually a few key Biblical characters who are described as meek. Meekly raise your hand if you think you know who they are. First, Moses. In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described the as meekest man ever to live. I bet that is not the superlative he wanted in high school. But all those things that seemed to be disqualifiers became part of his great strength. Think about it. It wasn’t the Egyptian palace life that made him impressive. It was when he stared down all that he had been trying to avoid… a traumatic childhood, a criminal record, a season of making ends meet while in the equivalent of his in-laws basement in Midian… at his meekest moment, he was called. When he quit trying to fill his hunger with quick fixes, he was called to his life’s work which freed thousands of others.

Meekness is not weakness. The other person who is called meek is Jesus. In Matthew 11:29, “Gentle am I,” same word. “Humble in heart.” Then again in Matthew 21:5, on Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey when the leaders of the day entered on tricked out war horses. I might now refer the triumphal entry as the Preakness of Meekness. Jesus calls himself meek. He would be barely visible in the attention economy. Think about it: The only words he ever wrote were in the sand. The only meals he attended were in the homes of people who were distasteful for one reason or another. He built no buildings. Raised no money. Won no athletic competitions. Offered people stories and questions and parables rather than think pieces or slogans or studies or rants. He greeted every power of the known world, including death itself, unarmed and exposed. And at his meekest moment, a whisper in a borrowed tomb, he was called to rise. And freed us all. And his inheritance is the earth herself, his hunger leads to a fullness that has outlasted all other powers.

I think the world is longing for leaders like this especially in the noise of unmeeekness. We are tired of leaders who hide their scars with arrogance and aggression and we are weary of those tactics in ourselves. We are weary of trying to white knuckle through a global pandemic and we feel that beatitudes hunger for things to be right, not just for us but for the teen in the lunchroom and the gentleman with Parkinsons in the wheelchair and the people of Afghanistan and Ukraine and Honduras and the woman who fell during the Olympics and the people who cross through our parking lot day after day and lonesome kid in our own mind. We want things to be right in God’s eyes – the word for that kind of righteousness is dikaiosune – we want that for all of them. Deeper than bumper stickers. More lasting than yard signs. And so we need to continually ask ourselves if we are blessing the ones that Jesus is blessing. Are we able to muster the meekness of Moses and Jesus and lead with a sacrificial love? Could we build an attentive economy?

I think of wild popularity of Ted Lasso, a mini-series that featured Jason Sudeikis in his new role as coach of a premier league football club, aka soccer, when his experience was in midwestern American football. It was a show that elevates kindness and celebrates goofiness. He says things like “I shouldn’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.” And “I feel like I fell out of the lucky tree, hit every branch on the way down and ended up in a pool full of cash and sour patch kids.” Ted is genuinely humble, and over the course of the show, you find out why that is. His heartaches make him an unusual kind of strong, strong in lifting up other people and a strong radar for the heartaches of other people. At one point he is being mocked, challenged to a game of darts by the philandering former owner of the team, and he responds: “Guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, and it was painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.” The dart sticks in the triple segment. 

“So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden in hits me. All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out. So they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me, who I was had nothing to do with it.” Another dart sticks. “Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. You know. Questions like, have you played a lot of darts, Ted? Which I would have answered. Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 to 16 when he passed away.” Bulls eye.

And I think of Amanda Gorman, a young African American Catholic woman from South Central Los Angeles, who grew up week in and week out as a child lay reader at St. Brigid’s and became the poet laureate of the United States. She said, “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried.” 

Let’s all remember that meekness is not weakness. Whether you are a child of this church or feel like one in your faith, I hope you keep asking questions. Your rainbow connections and Godly play wonderings and IMPACT songs and musicals and term as an elder or deacon make a difference on this earth. Like salt and yeast, like candlelight and mustard seeds, like Moses and Jesus Christ, God chose you just as you are. At your meekest moment, God blesses you so that you might bless the world. These blessings are yours to take with you from this church into all the world like a hot hymnal to teach an angry world a new song. A song of peace, and hope, and hunger for righteousness.  

Amen. 

Blessed Are the Spiritual Beggars

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church

February 6, 2022

 

Matthew 5:1-4

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Let us pray. O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

Today, imagine that I am a kind of journalist, giving you the who, what, when, where, why’s, from one of the most significant teachings ever to take place. The Sermon on the Mount. More significant than a TED talk with 50 million views. Or Steve Jobs giving a keynote address to his employees at Apple. Or the Gettysburg Address. Imagine words that are not intended as information, but formation. The blueprint of how humanity is and should be, according to God, spoken by the one in history who lived the words, who … was the Word. Imagine we are all there to hear that.

Where are we? On the mount, of course. Well, Luke called it a plain. But, probably it was a mountain that looked down over the Galilean countryside and the Sea of Galilee. There is now a church there that is called the Church of the Beatitudes. But it is important to know that Matthew’s hearers would have been abuzz at the notion of a leader, going up a mountain, giving a list, sharing a blueprint for how to live. The whispers would have been audible. That sounds like Moses 2.0! This is the new Torah! See, I told you we had to come!

When did this happen and who is there? According to Matthew, this address happened after the calling of the first four disciples. The band had been traveling together, healing people, and attracting large crowds, hence the need for a bit of a mounted pulpit.

What does he say? Certainly he is not selling a focus-grouped, piloted product that fixes things like spider veins or broken windshields. Nor is he touting some kind of be-happy-attitude, tagged as #blessed. He is challenging the culture itself. He is orienting his disciples to the Kingdom of Heaven, and teaching his disciples what – in light of that Kingdom – is unassailably true.

Was it well received? The people in the back loved it. But, the powers-that-be of the Pax Romana found it …problematic. Commentator James Howell said, “[Jesus] rudely crumpled up the mental map of the known world, and nobody in Galilee or Jerusalem seemed to appreciate having their traditional view of the world refolded and then redrawn, as if by some spiritual origami” (Howell, James C., The Beatitudes for Today, 2006).

Jesus offers this paper crane to us in the form of the beatitudes. (I am thankful to Rev. Jessica Tate for the idea of “offering a paper crane” and also for her research that deepened this sermon.) Nine declarations of blessedness (beatus) with powerful but indirect ethical imperatives. They do not ask for sad people to turn their minutes into moments nor find the rainbow in the rain nor learn their lesson. They pronounce shalom upon the very people who are in the emotional cheap seats, who drew the short straw of the soul. They declare the worthiness of those who feel like spiritual vagabonds. As Richard Rohr said, they elevate the weeping class.

Let’s start with the first one, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Theologian Tom Long suggests a helpful translation of the poor in spirit might be “spiritual beggars,” by which he means those who have come to the end of their own resources. The poor in spirit can be interpreted as both those being crushed by economic poverty and those who are affluent but humbly reminded of their dependence upon God. No matter how much money they have, these are the ones whose pain can’t be fixed by a nice bubble bath or a credit card. But Jesus says that when your spiritual piggy bank gets busted, inside there is a ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven. This whole other way of being in the world is yours.

Maybe we know people who are affluent, highly-educated, type-A folks – leaders of industry or military or government, or classrooms which feel like some combination of all three of those.  Maybe we were taught from a young age that all things are possible with the right connections, the right mindset, at the right price point. And yet life can smack us in the face every so often—with death, divorce, job loss, drug abuse, infertility, a pandemic!—and then we discover that actually we can’t control it all and perhaps trying to control it all is what’s actually killing us.  The author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “You’re afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control, but you never had control. All you had was anxiety.”

I think this beatitude suggests that letting go of control that you never had anyway is the river that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  

I’m reminded of the time, one of the times, the government shut down. Many people, men especially, in my former congregation were suddenly at home with no paychecks immediately coming in. They were worried and cagey and so frustrated. Driven by compassion mixed with boredom, quite a few offered to help at the Wednesday lunch we had for Spanish speaking day workers in Herndon. But there was a moment when Brad and Andy sat down next to Ramon and Nery, and the ache for work in the heart of every man at that table was slowly replaced with this fullness, that was partly Esther’s very filling chili, and partly the experience of metal folding chairs on linoleum scooching up to a full table, but ultimately, the taste of real community, unbroken by all the economic, language and cultural barriers that are almost always there. And from then on, those two in particular showed up over and over again to support that ministry. Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Renowned priest, Richard Rohr wrote, “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it.  That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom.  The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible…. The weeping mode allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in.  Tears from God are always for everybody.”  

And that leads straight to the next beatitude. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. There is a deep biblical tradition called lamenting. This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final. With Zion we mourn the systems of injustice, the pain and the brokenness, and we receive the assurance that our struggle for justice is not futile. A prominent seminary professor said it this way, “the hope is in the struggle.”  

And when I boil that down to a personal level, it sounds like “the hope, the comfort, is in admitting you are actually struggling.” 

I suspect we all are mourning, even those work conferences we used to dread, even as we realize how hard the before-times were on many people. Some of us are mourning specific people. As I have shared with you, my mom died on March 20, 2020. I remember holding fast to this particular beatitude like promissory note from Jesus directly to me, thinking to myself, “Blessed are those who have to put on this blessed dress and these ridiculous pumps and fill out this absurd paperwork and write this impossible speech and comb through belongings that smell like her that don’t fit at all but should not be thrown out either, bless my heart…I will be comforted. Somehow. I don’t know how. But somehow. I will be.” Real hope often looks pretty messy. 

But you know what, sure enough, I was comforted. I was comforted in specific and mystical ways. Comforted by cinnamon rolls someone dropped off and comforted by text messages from friends and people I hadn’t talked to in years. Comforted by singing Great is Thy Faithfulness in the same tiny chapel where I’d been confirmed as a teenager and comforted by hearing my Dad’s tenor voice carry on singing when I couldn’t.  Comforted by an interim pastor and the Biblical words he spoke that felt like searchlights on the dark floodwaters of grief looking just for me. Comforted by music and art that I understood in a whole new way, comforted by birds hovering around the feeder that my mom tended so well, comforted by bulbs she planted coming up again from the crust of March flowerbeds. And that comfort has stayed with me. Because you know what, comfort then also means comfort now which also means comfort for what will come. I trust that. When we admit the struggle, and let ourselves mourn, we also allow room for comfort to find us.

Frederick Buechner wrote that we tend to live our lives like a big clenched fist.  The clenched fist can do many things: it can work, hang onto things, impress, even fight.  But, “the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from good God himself, a helping hand.” 

When the crowds left the mount that day, brushed off their pant legs, I suspect some of them realized that this sermon changed things for them. It was a syllabus for the rest of their lives. Maybe they realized that they were not meant to fear poverty or death of any kind. Their hands were open. They looked at the people in the crowd, from the wealthy man with a serious drinking problem, to the woman dressed all in grief, to the sunny face of a child who had been playing with lilies and chasing butterflies the whole time even in a dangerous Empire, looked at themselves, and realized something was forming. It’s as if the mount was not a mountain after all, but soil covering this massive bulb that was due to grow all over the earth, realized that they themselves were part of that somehow. They felt that growth in their fingertips when they helped someone who was suffering or let themselves be helped. They felt that growth in their toes when they did something brave and they felt that growth most of all when they broke bread with those they were not usually eating with before and opened their hands to receive bread they did not bake. And that is when they felt it. That is when we feel it too. 

Blessed.

You Do Enough ~ Vocation and Joy

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church

January 30, 2022

 

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Let us pray: Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

There is a song by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper called Shallow. I wanted to hate this song because it somehow makes the two syllable word Shallow into nine syllables… In the Shalalalalalalow. But it is dreadfully catchy such that when that guitar lick starts, my children go “Oh no, here she goes.” And I can’t even not sing it when people are “cooling down after a fitness class.” The words are Tell me something boy, aren’t you tired of trying to fill that void. Or do you need more? Is there something else you’re searching for? Then the chorus: I’m in the deep end, watch as I dive in, we’re far from the shallow now.

Longing for something deep, away from the void, Gaga dives into one of the most powerful currents in being human. And that is where Jesus takes Peter in today’s reading. This story starts with the exhaustion of the shallows and the void of empty nets, but goes on to describe a vocation out in the deep water that is safe and full and joyful.

First the exhaustion of the shallows. The crowds are pressing in around Jesus. That’s what crowds do. They want something. They want out of something, or maybe in on something. But it’s a sweaty sea of shoulders and tiptoes there at the Sea of Galilee, also known as Gennesaret. We don’t know if Jesus was tired by this or not, but we have a term for the kind of exhaustion that often accompanies the yawning disparities in the world and the intractable problems that press in on what feels like a limited supply of helpers. We call it compassion fatigue. I imagine that was present in the shallows.

Then, there was the work of cleaning nets that had caught nothing. What a perfect metaphor for a labor that is both physical and emotional. Maybe we call it the void or fruitlessness, ennui or languishing. Either way, it one of the hardest feelings there is. Work that is physically tiring we can handle and it often makes us stronger. However, work that is emotionally tiring because it seems pointless really messes with us. I suspect many in our world have been in these shallows as the pandemic has dragged on and on. Maybe we have not been exhausted by barnacles on fishing nets, but we are drained by junk on the internet. Maybe we have not felt a void due to lack of silver musht, the fish in the tilapia family that Peter’s crew might have been trolling for. But maybe we have experienced a void in progress or productivity, that foggy feeling when someone says “what have you been up to?” and you struggle to respond.

That is when Jesus tells Peter to put out into the deeper water and let down those nets for a catch. I wonder if Simon Peter had to take a deep breath, because those nets had just been cleaned. I wonder if he had to bite his tongue so he didn’t say “look, I am a professional fisherman, ok, not just a hobbyist, so kindly spare me the tips.” But, instead, it seems Simon Peter calmly explained they have been fishing all night and had come up empty. It makes me wonder if Peter was so tired he simply had no resistance left in him. “If you say so…” he responds. And, you know what else, I suspect that Peter knew enough of Jesus not to bet against him. “If you say so.” Peters words come from that soft place where exhaustion and hope pool together. “If you say so.” And off they went, to catch a flopping haul of fish that requires multiple crews to bring in. The fish is the symbol of the way of Jesus: the way sacrificial love and hope, found somewhere beyond the self, grow exponentially because of the nature of God.

I have noticed that many of my conversations with friends, with church members, buzz with the question, “Am I doing enough?” As people change how they do their jobs or move through retirement, a lot of questions about vocation are surfacing. “Where is God calling me at this point in my life?” Church leaders may relate deeply to this text, saying, “Lord, I stayed in the boat. But, I think I’ve thrown by back out working on these nets and I am not sure what we have hauled in and now we are to go out again?”

BUT, if we are in the same boat with Peter, the good news is we are with the same Lord. It’s interesting. Often, we think the call of Christ (vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare, to call). We think it should be like a trumpet blast, or a blinding lighthouse beam, a 2×4 to the heart, or a descending dove. And sometimes it is. But it comforts me to know that it can also feel like a sunburned surrender, when Jesus invites us not to go somewhere else but to go a bit deeper where we already are, trusting the results to God.

Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian minister who served the same congregation for almost 30 years. I love his definition of God’s call as a long obedience in the same direction. Now while serving that same church, Peterson translated the Bible into modern language, the version we call The Message, cleaning and mending that old net for use by a whole new generation of readers while letting the Bible remain as deep and untamable as it actually is. He became rather famous. Bono from the band U2 sought him out as a mentor. Still, he remained deeply humble, like Peter and Jeremiah in today’s readings. He remained hopeful. He wrote,

“Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what God said God will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith.”

That’s what this story is about. The boat is the faith but the oars to push out further, that takes imagination. That takes effort, commitment, discipline of hope. That is what makes the difference between a job and a vocation. Vocation, insomuch as this story describes it, doesn’t mean just staying in boat. Vocation means pushing out beyond the shallow waters into the deep blue, pushing out even if you are already tired, even if your faced is covered with salt, even if you feel washed up, even if on that particular day the endeavor seems pretty unlikely to dredge up much more than an old boot. Jesus invites us to go deep because that is actually how we develop the muscles of hope and train our eyes for joy.

This past summer, our family went whale watching out of Boothbay in Maine. The posters around the check-in station were curled around the edges like the whale tales they advertised. The crowd pressed on board, pushing each other to get that prized seat near the side of the boat for the best view. People kept their cameras on their laps as if Moby Dick would wave at us from just beyond the buoys. A woman who worked on the boat said, “Yes, we saw a few yesterday and the day before, and we’ll see what today brings.” Her eyes sparkled. “Did you say we’ll definitely see one today?” my son asked. “No,” I said, “We’ll see. But I can tell you one thing, it’s easier to spot them out there than from the dock.” But then the waves and wind kicked up. Some folks popped a Dramamine, others went below deck looking a little green. We saw a bunch of white crests of waves, darting birds, and lighthouses. “There’s one!” a child would yell. Heads would whip in excitement and the child would clarify, “I meant there’s another boat!” Eventually it was time to head back and instead of consoling people, the woman on the speaker said, “Whales are wild creatures so we don’t get to control their movements, but when you do this often enough, over many years, it feels like you see them all the time.” It was clear to me that this bright eyed woman had found her vocation.

This week, I was feeling a bit drained, probably due to lots of time providing pastoral care to annual meeting videos, which are much grumpier than any congregant. So, when I drove to dinner at the hypothermia shelter, it was in a tender spirit of “Lord, if you say so.” Mara Ashby walked me through the church where FACETS had set up a friendly welcome table and a narthex had been turned into sleeping quarters. The fellowship hall was set up with round tables and white table cloths and a hive of Presbyterians and Baptists prepared food. Guests came in, sunburned, windburned, and we all sat around tables together and feasted on what felt like a January Thanksgiving meal. I spoke with Enrique in Spanish. He removed his earbuds. “What are you watching?” “Cobra Kai!” he said. He had just left the hospital where he’d gotten treatment for a painful molar. We talked for a long time, about how our children love macaroni, about the blessing of a decent night sleep, and how hard it is to lose someone you love. Finally he said, “I never forget a face. I will probably see you again in 17 years and remember this.” Then he got choked up. “People never forget when they feel God’s love, especially when they really need it.” On the way home, I felt full in a way I can’t really describe. Hope. Vocation. Enough. Humility. Joy. A kind of communion with macaroni and bagged rolls. But without question, it was the deep waters to be sure. Seeing the spout of the spirit. Nets bracing with the weight of new hope.

I’ll leave you with this. If you are tired, perhaps what you need is not vacation but to reconnect to your vocation. To listen for how Jesus might be calling you to go deeper. In service to others. In your relationships. At church. At work. A long obedience in the same direction but beyond the familiar shorelines that you didn’t realize had made you so tired. You may not see doves descending every day, but if you pull those muscles of hope and train your eyes for joy, there will be days so full of God’s love you will never forget it.

 

How Do You say “Enough” ~ Boundaries

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church

January 23, 2022

 

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a  

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts.

Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

 

Paul used the metaphor of the body frequently to describe the church. Sure, sometimes he’d compare a group of people to a temple, to a building, to a field, to a vineyard, but his favorite metaphor was the body. 

You can hear him telling people, Trust the body. It may seem hard to maintain unity when people seem so different from one another, but your body does it every day and that is how we survive. It may seem like some folks have all the power and all the influence and all the visibility and others are practically ignored, forgotten, and disrespected, but your body intuitively understands our interdependence. Trust the body. It may seem like the pain and stress and strain is shouldered by a small group of people, but your body is less convinced by the numbers. It has learned the power of small things like animal bites, cancers, viruses, and toothaches to shut down everything. Likewise, it gravitates to small things, like hot showers, naps, bird songs, and hugs to make things right again. You can hear Paul saying, trust the body and learn from it. Trust the body, God made it. Trust the body, God made us to be the body of Christ.

Biblical scholar James Cousar wrote that Paul was addressing all these feelings of inferiority and conceit that were seeping into the Corinthian Church. Paul was speaking to all these divisions weeping in from the culture into worship. There were competing loyalties, cliques, and factions, and in some cases, whole different world views. They had all this information, but there wasn’t precious little wisdom and a lot of foolishness. They talked so much about freedom, but seemed completely enslaved to their appetites. Fads, affairs and lawsuits were out of control. They had all this bounty. But, they had no boundaries. 

The notion of “boundaries” has been in vogue in recent years, but the best definition I have heard for boundaries comes from Kelly Rae Roberts. Roberts was a social worker who worked with cancer patients and became a prolific artist. Discouraged by some of her art students copying her work and making money from it, she wrote a piece called “What’s OK and What’s not Ok.” When it came to her work, it was ok to be inspired by her work, it was not ok to copy it and sell it. 

The body is a beautiful object lesson in boundaries. In the Pauline community, it was ok for a hand to be a hand. Clap, wave, praise, do sign language, point, pray, write that missive, pat someone’s back. We love hands. But, it is not ok to disparage feet, stomp on toes, or laugh at their appearance. It is not ok, probably quite dangerous, for hands to try to be feet – unless you’re in Cirque de Soleil. Feet are essential to the body. There are times when you have to stand for something. Put your best foot forward. Take that next step, not just scroll. Likewise, Paul says, it’s ok to be an eye. Behold, notice, gaze, observe. Weep, wink, watch. The eyes are the window to the soul. But, it’s not ok to discount how something feels or tastes or sounds. It’s not ok, probably quite dangerous, to assume what you see is all there is. As Mark Twain said, “you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

Sometimes people have too many boundaries. Others have too few. So, here is how using boundaries might sound in our lives: (hat tip to Brene Brown, a church lady herself, for some of these)

  • It’s ok to be upset.  It’s not ok to raise your voice or gossip or ignore my calls for weeks.
  • It’s ok to make decisions. It’s not ok to assume I am fine with those decisions if we haven’t discussed them.
  • It’s ok to ask about my life. I’m pretty sensitive about this particular issue so I’d appreciate if you didn’t ask about it for now. I’ll definitely keep you in the loop.
  • It’s ok to use those ideas in the project. It’s not ok to claim them as your own.

We are kind to each other when we honor our boundaries, knowing where we stop and another starts. That makes for a healthy body, full of compassion and generosity. Author Prentis Hemphill said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” I love that. That it ultimately what Paul was getting at, as we know from the famous I Corinthians 13. All of this is about being able to live and serve together with love. 

Trust the body. It knows its gifts and it knows its limits. It will not lie to you. Paul suspected that what would waste people’s energies even more than running over the boundaries of others was playing comparisons, which is when boundaries fall in on you. One of my all-time favorite quotes is “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison obliterates boundaries. For example, someone sees a co-worker’s email at 10 pm. They start comparing ideas, work ethics, their worth in the organization. So, they respond right away, leaving an important bonding time with family. No boundaries. Or another example, someone has a brilliant poetic mind, words spin like ornate tapestries in their mind and become a garment of truth in their life. But, they start comparing themselves to the Instagram influencers and TikTok dancers. And all of a sudden, their gift looks threadbare in comparison. They go about trying to be everyone else. Trying to please everyone else. And their gift from God stays in the box. That is how people, how families, whole churches become ill. Trust your body when it tells you its limits and trust that God gave you a gift that is essential for the health of this body, even if it looks different from others.

And it turns out this isn’t just a nice metaphor. It isn’t just a handy (haha) teaching tool for Paul. Not just a nice wellness idea for January. It is the ongoing incarnation, the word that means love made flesh. Frederick Buechner wrote, God was making a body for Christ. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody [God] could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. [God] was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, [God] put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better. Trust the Body, the parts you like and the parts you don’t, it is the love of God made flesh.

Paul ends with this line, strive for greater gifts. At first that confused me. Why extol these intricate body parts, why ward off all comparisons, then say “Ah, but wait…look for more!” At first I wanted Paul to end with, “look, be the best darn elbow there is and you’ll be fine.” But I have to come to realize that there are times when our bodies hurt, when the world changes dramatically and our bodies can’t take it, when we lose people and it feels like an amputation, and when that happens, Paul uses his finger to point toward Christ. Gently, without judgement. Paul points toward Christ to remind practical people of what happened to the body of Christ… Betrayal, suffering and death come with the territory. Yes, that’s true. But, guess what, so does forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life. God’s body, given … for us. These are times when we have to trust God’s goodness even beyond our present understanding. There are hints, of course. If you cut your finger, it will heal, whether you read a book about healing or not. Forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life are a feature of the bodily enterprise, not a bug. Trust the body.

Few people were students of creation to the degree of Annie Dillard. She won a Pulitzer for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She spent years crawling on muddy hands and knees, ears open, eyes open, paying worshipful attention to insects and tree leaves and her own life, through its hardest seasons. From this vantage point, she discovers greater gifts indeed.

“What do I make of all this texture? What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility of beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the Spirit I seek.” 

The spirit invites us to trust the body. If you have a decent set of pipes, sing out so that the air fills with joy. If you are more of an ear, listen deeply so that truth finds safe haven. If you are arms and hands, amazing biceps, if you are able to be the feet, send them into service. Those of you who are internal organs, knees and backbones, for God’s sake, be you so that the church doesn’t lose heart or a pulse or prayer or her spine especially when the winds are fierce and the air cold and the ties that bind feel brittle. 

Perhaps you know this famous Teresa of Avila quote. Today, it is our MRI, as well as our discharge orders:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Amen.

Full Disclosure

By Rebecca Messman

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon VA

March 15, 2020

 

Matthew 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Let us pray. Lord in anxious times and in joyful times, when we hold people close as their next breath and when we are afraid to be close, grant us your wisdom. And Lord in my words, offered in this new format, may your people hear your timeless word. Amen. 

 

Social distancing. It’s a new term for us but the practice is ancient. Some of my friends are introverts. They have been preparing for days such as these their entire lives.

Today’s text has several forms of social distancing: Men, especially single men, should keep away from women. Jews should keep away from Samaritans. Those who are super religious should keep away from those with a checkered past. People should not trespass on other’s property. People who are thirsty should bring their own bucket to a well and people who are hungry should get their own food. And in general, people should mind their own business. And yet, Jesus, a man, a single man, a religious man, was at the well, property of the Samaritans since the ancient times, with a Samaritan woman, a woman with a checkered past. He was there with no bucket and no food and plenty of personal questions. 

Social distancing. It’s a societal side effect of epidemics that we pray slows the spread of disease but it threatens the connections we have with each other. When natural disasters come, people band together. People rush toward one another. We shovel each other’s snow, lend a chainsaw to remove trees from another’s driveway, and make sure elderly neighbors have food, heat and medicine when the lights go out. But with epidemics, our instinct is to rush away. And it’s urgent that we do not let compassion die during these times of contagious fear.

During the 1918 Spanish flu, 675,000 Americans died by flu, that’s more than 10x the number of Americans lost in battle during WWI. But when pleas came from health agencies for help caring for sick children, no one responded. The director wrote disdainfully, Hundreds of [people] … had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. … Nothing seems to rouse them now. … There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back” (Brooks, 2020).

That might explain the puzzling cultural silence that shrouded the big flu. No plays were written. Few documentaries. It was like people did not like what the disease revealed about them. They emerged spiritually drained and ashamed. The story is told the tiny communion cups that began during those days, but that’s about it. We don’t have a common cup of wisdom to share. 

So, there are two points from today’s text that hold us accountable to what it means to follow Jesus in a time of social distancing. 

First, let’s fight the moral disease as well as the physical one. How do we do that? By nursing our connections. Jesus tended the places where society itself was wounded. The places burning with stigma and division. The places hot with contempt. The places feverish with scarcity. He went right there and doled out living water of compassion. And what happened then? It startled the society with generosity.

Notice: The woman in this story didn’t just give Jesus a small cup of water, she left her entire jar at the well. Compassion is also contagious. It’s important to remember that part. Our ministry right now might feel hamstrung. Our lives might feel rife with anxiety. We feel like there is nothing we can do. But we can’t forget what we do have. We have more ways to connect to each than ever before. We have networks of relationships in our pocket. We have money and information. We have this love in Christ that overpowers death. Church, we have jars of compassion and this text reminds us that when we use it, others will too. And we will witness miracles.

In the days of the early church, a plague of dysentery racked the Roman empire. When people contracted dysentery, they were put out of their homes and left for dead. In the midst of this, Christians would take in those with dysentery, keep them warm and give them fluids–which is in fact the treatment for dysentery. It turned out to be the greatest evangelism effort of the early church. People thought it was a miracle. It was simply loving care, which is in fact its own miracle.

If every single one of us made a sincere phone call to someone in this church and one other person to express love, that would be 1300 startling connections. 

The second point is this: Stick around for the full story. Jesus stayed. Stayed beyond the easy quick first answer. Beyond the “socially safe” second answer where most of us dwell. Stayed until the bucket dropped all the way down into the deepest part of the story, stayed until he heard the splash of trust, the dawning of full disclosure, the place where humans feel what life and love are really about. 

This month has been hard for me, as you know. As mom has battled cancer and entered hospice care, I’ve been keenly aware of the fragile ones. Being fragile means you don’t have easy answers to basic questions. “How are you?” Well, I am somewhere between fine and horrible, thanks for asking. “Where are you now?” Gosh, I am physically here. I am emotionally in Danville. I’m all over the place. 

The Samaritan woman didn’t like being associated with a sad marriage history. And, at first I felt awkward being associated with something sad too. I always saw myself as a cheerful person. I did not know how to handle what author Kate Bowler calls “cocker spaniel face,” when people look at you like you have a big red sign on your face that says “sad.” But I’ve noticed the power of sticking around for the fuller story. I’ve started responding: “Thanks for asking about my mom. Have you been through something like this before?” I hear this splash of holiness with the stories that are shared. Usually the tears pool with the question itself. With the permission to mention exquisite details. “My dad always loved daffodils.” “When my mom died, I had a hard time with nights for about 18 months.” “That was why I left the church for about 8 years.” “That’s what made me come to this church for the first time, sat in that pew right there and cried.”

Some of you feel fragile around your health. Fragile around your job. Fragile around your family. And Jesus meets that fragility not by running away but welcoming it. By showing how freedom runs smack dab through it. When I get gummed up these days on simple questions, I remember Jesus turned fragility into freedom on a cosmic scale. It’s alchemy, that resides at the center of our faith, the alchemy of the cross and resurrection. And that means there is nothing to fear. There is only love.

So, church. Nurse the connections you have with all the tools you have. Stay in the longer story so you don’t miss the splash of real connection. While we might have some space between us these days, God is as close as breath.

 

Reference

Brooks, David (March 12, 2020).  Pandemics Kill Compassion Too. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/opinion/pandemic-coronavirus-compassion.html?searchResultPosition=2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home With Us

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church

December 26, 2021

 

John 1:1-18

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

 

Let us pray. O Lord Uphold me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

This is John’s Christmas story. Notice no manger scene, no shepherds, no wise people from the East, only light. A surprising light coming all the way from the beginning and crashing into human reality. The other Gospels provide the backstory, the characters, the plot like the rolling yellow narrative at the beginning of Star Wars. John is like the booming soundtrack that makes you hum along and pump your fist. 

I heard what sounded like two distinct voices in those opening words. The most prominent voice is like a boys’ choir singing in the rose glow of stained glass. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The flawless voices sing about the cosmic Christ. Light and life for all people and our classic failure to grasp it. 

But then comes the other voice, more of a raspy voice butting in, telling us the particulars of a guy named John. You see, says the voice, John was more of a witness to the light. This other voice is like a guy who can’t whisper too well, leaning over to his wife during the concert. Or like the Grandpa in Princess Bride, “Like I was saying, John did mention this, that he was outranked by this Jesus.” Undaunted, the chorus soars on, eyes fixed to heaven, ancient themes, grace upon grace, but then, the human, the flesh, the bone, the skin, the heart, the rasp, mingles right in there. 

It is supposed to be that way. This interplay between the epic and the ordinary. For it to be a real Christmas, when the timeless word is made into actual flesh, we should let the choirs sing, but we should also hear the custodian run the vacuum. We should hear the toilet flush. The tears and sniffles of real life aren’t to be edited out. Christmas is not some sanitized experience that only occurs when the choir hits the perfect high note and when the poinsettias are just right and the living room is ready for guests. Christmas is the word made flesh. It’s the cosmic creator becoming known, in actual human lives, the light of the world breaking in even when folks bump into each other or test positive for Covid or can’t hang that particular ornament this year because it’s just too hard. Home with us. 

God with us in our real home, not the one we just vacuumed. God with us in our humanness, including those habits we thought we’d outgrown. The tears in the car. The rage we carry so often these days that it’s like a little tissue in our pocket, right there by the car keys. God with us in the desperate prayer at night. With us in the staring at the ceiling. With us when our seemingly normal life was interrupted by cancer, by the layoff, by this wild idea, by the politics of the day, by this looming divorce, this scandal, this unexpected pregnancy in a world that wants babies to come in a certain way. That’s when we find ourselves like all the actual Christmas characters, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the magi. God making a home with us even when our plans fell through and even when the inn is full and even when the star takes us out of our comfort zone. This message is perfect for the Sunday after Christmas. John tells us that light of Christ finds us even when we don’t have candles in our hands to receive it.

One of my all-time favorite books is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s the story of a blind French girl and a white-haired German boy whose lives intersect amidst the devastation of World War II. In the story, secret radio transmissions are sent into the air, overheard on a makeshift radio by children growing up in the rubble and thick fear of war. One of these released messages was a voice saying this, “What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” What a powerful word to hear in their home battered by war.

John’s Gospel says as much. A lot of people will miss or reject this Christ light, including us sometimes. That does not mean that there is less light though. It just means we can get very narrow in what we think counts as God’s presence.

A few years ago, I was a tired pastor mom. I had been trying to do Christmas. Errands. Gifts. Logistics. And from the backseat, Davis, who was about 5 years old, said,  “Mommy, Christmas is a feeling in your heart. It’s wow. It’s woah. It’s for everyone.” It was like he was speaking out of an ancient hymnal. Then, don’t you know that rather than sitting in the unbridled beauty of a kindergartener talking about God, I launched into an explanation, a mom-a-logue. “Yes. Jesus is a human and divine, God’s only son, he taught and saved us and it’s called the in-car-nation.” The voice from the back seat stopped. Darn. I blew it. The bird of peace takes cover if it senses someone is trying to put it in a cage. I took a deep breath and laughed at myself and my little traveling lecture series, teaching in-car-nation to someone who had already felt it in-the-car-seat. But thankfully, that light was there for me too. Sometimes that Christ light is pure enlightenment but other times, it is the grace to lighten up. The light is full of grace and truth. So relaxed my shoulders and said, “Hey buddy, have you been feeling Christmas in your heart?” “Yes, it’s super big this year.”  

The light that catches us off guard from the backseat when we were least expecting it. The ancient chorus that meets our raspy voices. The light that is in our actual life, not just the one on the Christmas card. The light that is for all people, not just the ones who seem to have it all together. Maybe you don’t see it with your eyes but you feel it. The light is the lightening up of a world that is so darn clenched we are one giant fist. The light is the lightening of the load for those who carrying way too much. The light is experiencing delight as often as you can. 

The other day on a run I saw a dog with a log in his mouth. He looked so darn proud. And I felt delight. Then, I saw a sunrise that stopped me in my tracks. All the gradations of light that I know exist but God had to paint them on the sky for it to sink in. Delight. Then, I saw a runner tethered to another runner who was wearing a vest that said BLIND and I thought now if that isn’t the Kingdom of God, I don’t know what is. That light is all around us. All the time. At home with us.

Leonard Bernstein penned a musical called Mass that was the first musical performed at the Kennedy Center, in 1971. It’s about a big kind of Christmas – here’s part of it:

You can lock up the bold men

Go and lock up your bold men

And hold them in tow,

You can stifle all adventure

For a century or so.

Smother hope before it’s risen.

Watch it wizen like a gourd,

But you cannot imprison

The Word of the Lord. . . .

For the Word

For the Word was at the birth of the beginning

It made the heavens and the earth and set them spinning,

And for several million years

It’s endured all our forums and fine ideas

It’s been rough 

It’s been rough 

but it appears to be winning! . . .

For the Word

For the Word created mud and got it going

It filled our empty brains with blood and set it flowing

And for thousands of regimes

It’s endured all our follies and fancy schemes.

It’s been tough,

It’s been tough, and yet it seems to be growing!

O you people of power,

O you people of power, your hour is now.

You may seem to rule forever, but you never do somehow.

So we wait in silent treason until reason is restored

And we wait for the season of the Word of the Lord.

We await the season of the Word of the Lord

We wait … 

we wait for the Word of the Lord . . 

 

The light of Christ is home with us. Our homes as they actually are. The light of Christ is not just enlightenment, it is lightening up, lightening the load of others, and experiencing delight in the world. The light of Christ is there when we see it and when we can’t. It is super big this year, and it seems to be growing. 

Invited Home

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church

December 24, 2021

 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

In those days, Caesar had issued a decree that all the world be registered. I know first hand that when fear whispers in your ear, “you are losing control, things are out of hand,” anxiety always suggests making a wildly ambitious list. I think that is what was happening with Caesar.

In those days, the headlines did not care about religious minorities or pregnant women or really women at all. The headlines and anxious decrees did not care about Joseph’s carpentry business in Nazareth. His income would have to stop to travel to this registration. There was no such thing as tele-woodworking. And of course, travel was risky. Illness was rampant. Pregnancy could be deadly. Fears once global then got deeply personal. I know first-hand how fear works its way into the body and the mind. That is when it can override a human’s best qualities. Reason, generosity, justice, patience… fear can tackle them all if it is allowed in the body and the mind.

In those days, the local headlines in Nazareth would have been the scandal surrounding Joseph, an upstanding man in the community whose young fiancée was noticeably pregnant. I imagine the comment section would have been full of vitriol and snark: “Tell me again how this baby is somehow holy?” “He should be kicked out of the synagogue immediately!” “So embarrassing. That woman should be stoned.” Fear loves shame and rumors and blame. Fear has the pointiest of fingers.

In those days, shepherds were the hidden nameless labor force that sustained a hungry population. They did not own the assets under their care. They were merely a jingle or a bleat in the soundscape of a world that just expected them to be silent and work at night. They had none of the power but shouldered all of the risk. One wolf. One sheep that nibbled itself lost. They’d be let go. I suspect we all know how much fear loves silence and darkness and powerlessness and waiting. 

In those days, fear was the headline and fear followed people home and fear divided families and fear made some people very loud and other people silent. Fear and its siblings paranoia and anxiety were the true governors and the Bible reminds us that everyone was expected to move according to their decrees.

But another plan was being hatched in the fearless heart of God. God had seen sparrows and lilies live joyfully on the earth. Dolphins and prairie dogs needed no intervention to find a playful existence. And yet, from the very beginning, God had seen fear on faces of Adam and Eve even in the garden of Eden, had seen fear cause Cain to kill his brother Abel, had seen fear pollute the family of Jacob and Esau, had seen fear prop up judges and kings and silence prophets, had seen fear divide nations and houses of worship based on fear of each other, had seen centuries of people projecting their fear onto God and weaponizing that fear to maintain their power … power that never seemed powerful enough cast out fear. 

In those days, it was time to end the reign of fear. And God’s audacious plan emerged… to dwell among us… full of grace and truth… to live with us as perfect love that casts out fear… God planned to become the one thing that evokes no fear in humankind at all, a baby.

When God announced to the angels the plan to come among us as a baby, even the angels were fearful.  Renowned preacher Barbara Brown Taylor imagines that conversation going this way: “Could you at least create yourself as a magical baby with special powers?” they ask.  “It wouldn’t take much—just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl bolts of lightning if the need arose.  The baby idea was a stroke of genius …but it lacks adequate safety features.”  Taylor writes, “God thanked the angels for their concern but said, no, [it] would just be a regular baby.  How else could God gain the trust of [God’s] creatures? …There was a risk … a high risk, but that was part of what God wanted us to know—that God was willing to risk everything to get close to us in hopes that we might love God again.”  

So, in those days, God worked from sidelines instead of the headlines, it seemed. To a sidelined Mary, the angel said, “do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” To a sidelined Joseph, the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” To the sidelined shepherds, the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Good news: Do not be afraid. That is the number one message throughout the Bible from God to humanity. It is said 365 times, once for every day of the year. 

And on it goes, this good news. In a boat buffeted by storms, Jesus said, “Quiet, be still. Why are you afraid?” In the Upper Room, to the disciples, fear coursing up their legs, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you, do not be afraid.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, to the women on Easter morning, exhausted and rattled, angels said, “Do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus. He is not here. He is risen.” To the Easter disciples, desperate and doubting, “Do not be afraid. Go tell the others.” And even in the book of Revelation that sometimes feels hot to the touch, “fear not. I am the first and the last.” And that love was there all along: In the words of Isaiah, “Do not fear. I have redeemed you!” In the Psalms, “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We always knew fear and love were close, but without love calling the shots, fear instantly comes tyrannical.

And how about you in these days? As you read the headlines, the decrees of fear still blaring over all the world, shame and its pointy fingers still poking our families and neighborhoods, can you hear from the sidelines the Christmas refrain? And if you hear it, can you sing it? And if you sing it, can you invite that love to make its home in your heart? To dwell in your body and govern your mind? We know firsthand that love’s deputies are candles and infants and bits of bread and defiant hope and you, yes you, even when you feel the most fragile. Love loves to work with small things like that and grows them up and multiplies them and changes the world through them. 

A headline caught my eye this week. A woman named Kim Morton in Baltimore received a text from her neighbor across the street telling her to peek outside. Matt Riggs had hung a string of white Christmas lights from his home to hers. He’d also left a tin of homemade cookies on her doorstep. The lights, he said, were meant to reinforce that they were always connected despite all their pandemic isolation. Matt said, “I was was reaching to Kim to brighten her world.” He knew she had been facing a dark time… depression, the loss of a loved one and work stress. The pressure led to panic attacks. Matt understood. His teenagers had been struggling, financial pressures had been mounting. He knew a lot of light was in order. He did not expect to start something of a neighborhood movement. In that followed, Riggs light-hanging gesture, neighbor after neighbor followed suit, stringing Christmas lights up and down all the streets. A neighbor named Leabe Commisso wanted in. She said to her neighbor, “Let’s do it too. Before we knew it,” she said, “We were cleaning Home Depot out of lights.” Then, Kim said, the entire neighborhood did it. The lights were a physical sign of connection and love.” She said, “What blows my mind is that it was all organic. There was no planning. It just grew out of everyone’s  desire for beauty and connection.” Riggs said, “it brought tears to my eyes. From such a humble beginning, a tiny little act, it became a movement.” A woman down the street made her lights into a sign that said, “Love lives here,” bending coat hangers all night long. Finally, Kim Morton after such a hard year said, “It was light pushing back the darkness.” 

He rules the world with truth and grace

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness

And wonders of His love. And wonders of His Love. And  wonders of His love. 

That’s the only headline we need. Merry Christmas. Amen.