Ask Me Anything: Why does God not include some of the worst atrocities in the Ten Commandments?

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

Sunday, January 29, 2023

 

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains,

and let the hills hear your voice.

Hear, you mountains, the case of the Lord,

and you enduring foundations of the earth,

for the Lord has a case against his people,

and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?

In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt

and redeemed you from the house of slavery,

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,

what Balaam son of Beor answered him,

and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,

that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good,

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice and to love kindness

and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

In my exuberance to support our congregation’s beautiful ministries in Kenya, I auctioned off a sermon topic. It has always been my belief that sermons were never intended to be monologues. So, I was both thrilled and daunted when Randy Lee posed his 10,000 lb question.

He asks: “I wonder if you could address what caused a temporary crisis of faith for me maybe 15 years ago…I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be, in my humble opinion, at least four sins that were much worse than those covered by the 10 Commandments. Rape, slavery, child abuse, torture. Are these covered by lesser commandments? How many lesser commandments are there?” And then he goes on to wonder, as perhaps you have in your life as well, if it is possible to rack and stack these commandments in some kind of order or moral priority. Under those questions I heard a tender faith claim: Any serious moral framework must condemn the kinds of abuses that scar individuals and whole groups of people that deeply, so if it is not overtly set in stone, do people need to catch up or does God?

So, without further ado, I will launch our 73-week sermon series as a response. In all seriousness, I want to thank you, Randy, and BPC for attempting to live an honest, curious, life-sized faith that takes the Bible seriously.

I have prayed and researched, and posed these questions to pastors and rabbis, alike. The most common response I received was, “Thanks for reminding why I will never auction off a sermon topic.” So, with no thanks to them, here are the 5 Caveats for the 10 Commandments.

 

Number 1. When it comes to Biblical commandments, there are more than ten.

There are actually 613 commandments, or mitzvot, in the Torah. There are commandments that deal with the health of our relationship to God and one another. Such as not to use the name of God in vain or lie. There are commandments dealing with the specifics of the community health. Such as not eating weasels or bats. They were ahead of their time in many cases, credited with preventing all kinds of illnesses, especially for people traveling in the wilderness long before refrigeration.

Naturally, human beings want to rank them, and when the disciples asked Jesus to do so, we know his answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is Jesus’ ranking system.

 

Number 2. Commandments are more about boundaries than behaviors.

Some commandments are positive, the shalts, thou shalt honor thy father and mother and remember the Sabbath and keep it holy and others are negative, the shalt nots, thou salt not steal, murder, covet, commit adultery.

An evergreen fascination of people of faith is to derive meaning from the numbers themselves. And if that is you, behold that in the 613 laws there are 365 negative commandments, one for every day of the year, and there are 248 positive commandments, the same as the number of bones and organs in the body. I find that interesting.

But more than heavy stones and burdensome behaviors to carry around or even a symbolic code, these laws are a sacred set of boundaries. An Old Testament scholar named Terrence Freitheim said, “While the address [of the 10 Commandments] is individual, the concern is not some private welfare. The focus is on protecting the health of the community, to which end the individual plays such an important role…. They open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors.

 

Number 3. They are a breath-taking announcement of freedom.

The Hebrew title for the Big Ten is Aseret HaDibrot which actually means the ten statements or sayings. If you want to sound fancy, the English word for this is Decalogue, which means the 10 words. They are saying something about what this world can and should be. They don’t declare: “here are 10 rules – stay in line!” They start with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Another scholar named Patrick Miller says the 10 Commandments are an ethic of neighborliness. They are not just about condemning theft but truly considering the worth and well-being of a neighbor.

That brings us to the crux of Randy’s question and our own. When we read hear about the crushing atrocities that face our world, genocide and chattel slavery that cement trauma into the DNA of whole groups of people for generations, when we hear about brutalities like rape and child abuse and torture that cement pain into the psyche of a person even if their body happens to survive, when we hear about mass shootings like those in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park Califonia, when we hear about terrorism and the destruction of Ukraine and the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols, we can understand that kind of pain as a violation of several commandments at once. These assaults are an idolatry of power combined with the theft of dignity and body. They often take the name of God in vain or violate the most intimate trust we have with each other. They are an assault on the center of the Venn diagram of the ten commandments, the anti-shalom. And when that happens, we are no longer free… we are enslaved by flashbacks and nightmares, stuck in a cycle of blame and shame and often revenge and repetition.

 

Which brings us to number 4. The commandments evolve with us.

Moses was just a few steps off Mount Sinai, water bottle still in hand I imagine, when he saw his congregation already worshipping a new shiny golden god. From that moment, Moses smashed the tables to the ground and the interpretation of the commandments began. From then on, the laws were carried around literally and spiritually by the people of Israel into new places and time periods and understandings. The interpretations became an entire Rabbinic tradition and something called the Talmud. The Talmud is an ancient library of legal opinions written by Rabbis throughout the centuries all about these commandments. In many ways, the rest of the Bible is a lived interpretation of the commandments.

They are meant to be written upon our hearts to shape us as a people. Like the beatitudes that Jesus shared from another mount. Take for example today’s text, such a beloved one. One in which the people of God are still asking for God to boil it down, rack and stack the rules so that they can bear the anxiety of living. And God sums it up like this: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. But to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.

 

Number 5. God’s ultimate gavel is the cross.

In his life, Jesus had more religious lawyers following him than an episode of Law and Order. Dung dung. They would set up rhetorical traps so that it would seem like he was either throwing out the commandments completely or breaking them constantly. That is a human tendency as well. To draw the lines as starkly as we can. To define people as worthy or unworthy, insider or outsider, guilty or innocent, good or evil, friend or foe, sinner or saint. Jesus showed what justice truly looked like. There is no you vs me, or us vs them, or – perhaps the toughest judge there is – me vs myself, but a new covenant, for the forgiveness of sins, a gavel of grace upon all of us, a pronouncement yet again a divine dance of justice and mercy and ultimately freedom.

Frederick Buechner said it this way:

 Justice is the pitch of the roof and the structure of the walls. Mercy is the patter of rain on the roof and the life sheltered by the walls. Justice is the grammar of things. Mercy is the poetry of things.

The cross says something like the same thing on a scale so cosmic and full of mystery that it is hard to grasp. As it represents what one way or another human beings are always doing to each other, the death of that innocent man convicts us as a race, and we deserve the grim world that over the centuries we have made for ourselves. As it represents what one way or another we are always doing not so much to God above us somewhere as to God within us and among us everywhere, we deserve the very godlessness we have brought down on our own heads. That is the justice of things.

But the cross also represents the fact that goodness is present even in grimness and God even in godlessness. That is why it has become the symbol not of our darkest hopelessness, but of our brightest hope. That is the mercy of things. Granted who we are, perhaps we could have seen it no other way.

 

There are than 10. They are boundaries more than behaviors. They are a pronouncement of freedom and they evolve with us and the gavel is the cross.

 AMEN.

Now What? Listen to Your Life

Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

January 22, 2023 – Bible Sunday

Matthew 4:12-23

 

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, 
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — 
16  the people who sat in darkness 
have seen a great light, 
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death 
light has dawned.” 
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets (same word as forgive) and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

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

The Bible sometimes makes me scratch my head. Other times it makes me cry or flinch or gasp or melt into a smile or litigate or sing in my head. But this week it made me laugh.

Jesus walks by the sea, where Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea and the Bible feels it necessary to state the obvious – for they were fishermen. Yes, Matthew, we kind of gathered that. Even without a title like Lake Monsters of Galilee or a sponsorship by Bass Masters or someone yelling like they do on fishing shows “Woo baby, just look at those fish,” we had figured that much out. But Matthew really wants us to know this was their job, their context, their culture, their family business – for they were fishermen.

Why did Jesus start with fishermen? Have you ever wondered that? John Steinbeck said, “It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.”

Jesus came from Nazareth, a community of farmers and evidently carpenters.  When he heard about the imprisonment of his friend, John, he left his rural homeland to go to Galilee and there he called people to follow him.  He could’ve summoned disciples at any point during his life, but he chose these.  Fishermen.  Why fishermen?  Why not carpenters who know home building?  They can build things.  Why not farmers?  They know what it is to sew, to plant a seed and wait and watch?  He eventually chose people of other professions, like tax collectors, but why did he start with fishermen?

Maybe because it is so ordinary.  I doubt anyone in Galilee would be that surprised to meet a fisherman.  It’s like meeting a federal employee in DC.  Based on where they are, based on where they live, it’s a common thing to do.  They prove to us that God calls people when they are thinking about work and what’s for lunch, rather than contemplating the Almighty.

But, because God is never generic – always sees a person’s past and future as part of the same calling – there is something about fishing that shaped these four guys to be Jesus’ first disciples. And Matthew deviates from Mark’s account of this exact same story to highlight that it had to be Galilee, not other places, in order to fulfill the scriptures.

I am no fisherman, but I am a fishing enthusiast, which is why Dave and I went fishing three times on our honeymoon in Belize. A small skiff would pick us up around 7 in the morning, and our guide, without a navigational system, would settle upon a place in the ocean where he knew there were fish.  Without warning, the boat would slow and our guide would say, “We’ll fish here.”  In one place, my job seemed to be losing one piece of bait after the other.  Every time I dropped in my line, I would feel the familiar nibbles, reel hopefully, and as the line became easier and easier to reel, I’d produce nothing but a bare hook or some colorful seaweed.  Every time Dave dropped in his line, I’d hear the guide say, “Reel now.  Reel.  Reel.”  And then, “Oh, that’s a red snapper.  That one, he’s a yellow tail snapper.”  I triumphantly brought up a small striped fish that made snorting noises.  The guide said, “We’ll use that one for bait.  It’s called a grunt.”  Then, suddenly the roles reversed, and I seemed to be master angler.  One snapper after another, while Dave’s side of the boat was silent.  “She’s getting all your fish,” the guide laughed.  We surged with excitement as Dave’s line leaped low, “reel, reel, reel” the guide called.  But the line slackened as quickly as it had tightened, and fishing line blew in the breeze without hook or sinker.  After that, it was as if all the fish below the surface had received a warning call “Beware!”  So, we baked silently in the skiff above, moving only to reapply sunscreen, for the better part of an hour, or so it seemed.  “Reel ‘em in,” our guide said, and the motor began to purr again.

The boat seemed even smaller as we bumped our way beyond the barrier reef where the water was dark and deep.  There, the boat nodded along with the colossal rollers.  We were instructed to troll the line over a hundred feet behind the boat, which seemed about the length of the whale sharks I suspected were watching us from the depths.  I called to our guide over the motor, wind and waves, “How we will know if we have a fish?”  “You’ll know,” our guide said.  “That was less than helpful,” I thought, with no idea what to expect and skeptical that we would catch anything but a tan. But our reverence for what was below the surface kept our hands firm on those rods.  Nearly dozing off to sleep as the sun beat down on us, I felt myself nearly jerked out of the boat.  “See, you’ll know,” I hear from the guide.  As I reeled, I saw something leap silver out of the water and surge below again.  “Reel, reel, reel” – though it didn’t matter, because for every inch I reeled, the fish pulled away another yard.  Had I caught him or had he caught me?  It was indefinable at that point because we were linked to each other.  My rod would rise and bend low again, as if it were motioning the fish to pull further away so that I’d give up.  After twenty minutes of this back and forth, I was feeling like the old man and the sea when finally we saw the long silvery body of the barracuda next the boat.  The guide dodged his teeth and removed the hook. The fish moved the cooler around as he leapt inside. I imagine he was frustrated to spend his final moments beside snappers and the grunts rather than chasing them down.  After that fish, we were exhausted and covered in sea salt and turned the boat back toward the distant shore, heading home.

Why fishermen?  I remember closing my eyes into the wind as we returned in silence.  I could imagine being in the boat with Simon Peter, James, Andrew and John.  After many days of casting out and reeling in, they knew as well as I did the difference between fishing and catching.  It is more mystery than formula, more faith that this time will work better than the last time rather than a perfect recipe you can follow over and over again.  It is knowing when to remain in a place and when to move on.  They were not fixed to one place, like their farming friends.  They didn’t start the day with a blueprint, like their building friends, but they were drawn by mysterious and plentiful fish themselves to deep waters.  They did not aim to stay dry and keep their hands clean, and I imagine to some they looked like fools and drifters, and in some ways they were. But fishing had taught them things… that fear and trust and boredom could exist in the same boat. Taught them to hone their attention to landscape and wind and what the fish liked if they wanted anything besides empty hooks. Taught them a lesson some people never learn, that when it is time to go you go. Taught them what Thoreau would famously share centuries later, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Maybe that’s why, when the defining moment came that day on the shore of Galilee, when a stranger said to them, “Follow Me,” they knew, they felt what was tugging on them to follow.  For they were fishermen.

An important caveat: I am relieved that Jesus never treats people like trophy catches and certainly not glassy-eyed victories bound for some holy cooler, though the language of some Christians can sound transactional like that.

No, Jesus is using the language of these people’s actual livelihood to summon them to something that will take them beyond the breakers, change them and change the world. Long before there were Jesus-fish magnets on SUVs, the early church would use the sign of a fish carved in the sand to indicate to one another that they were followers of the Way.

Imagine if the church took this kind of work-a-day call seriously, rather than assuming burning bushes were required for it to count?

Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated Monday, said this, “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.”

Perhaps your sense of call is similarly tidal in nature, something new washing up on the shore day by day, rather than some parting of the waters. A tug here, a nibble there, an unmissable yank to startle you from complacency or burnout, and occasionally the flash of silver on the horizon reminding you that whatever you have brought with you or inside you – your job, your quirks, even your deep wounds, all that makes you you – that is enough to connect you to depths of the soul of another, to a Christ-given mission in this life that wilt not let you go. Listen to that.

Listen to your life. Your normal networking – and yes, I mean that Biblically and metaphorically – is very likely the headwaters of Christ’s audacious call. We’ve already heard about Simon Peter, James, Andrew, John, and Martin. Fred Rogers who angled to make television into a vessel for love for children, Oscar Romero who angled to make the church in El Salvador a voice for the poor, Rigoberta Menchu who floated on her fluency in Mayan languages to share the truth of the oppression in Guatemala. But my life has been touched by Anne Marie who started an immigrant ministry at her church – for she was an immigrant herself. Or Ray who spoke up for public school children – for he was a principal. Or Jim who volunteered tirelessly until he was 93 years old – for he was retired, and once said to me, “you know, there is no theology of retirement.”

Listen to your life, oh people of the baptismal waters and a messiah of living water. You are called and you are enough to answer that call. Often amidst the baking boredom, it comes in a silver flash and you’ll know.

Amen.

 

Now What? Come and See

By Adam Ogg

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

January 15, 2023

 

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Let it be so now

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

January 8, 2023

 

  Matthew 3: 13-17    

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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

 It is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a feast day in many denominations that immediately follows Epiphany. It is the day we focus on Jesus slopping into the waters of the Jordan ready for a holy cleansing. Eventually those cool waters will close over Jesus’ head, and he’ll rise again, out of the water, to see the heavens opened and dove descending and Spirit alighting and God beloving, but according to Matthew, not before John the Baptist suggests that Jesus is doing it wrong. Baptism is only for sinners, sorry Jesus. Only Matthew captures that detail.

In this slight correction from John the Baptist to Jesus, I hear this comforting word: take comfort, ye perfectionists and holy-controllers of every time and place, all ye who serve God mostly in an advisory capacity, all ye proofreaders of piety and ye devout with white-out, all ye who prefer a God who sticks to the bulletin and a Spirit who avoids surprises as much as you do, this water of grace is for you.

There is a lot of meaning in this text – a lot of ways to go. But, sparkling in the water I see this beautiful phrase Jesus offers to John that allows him to go with the flow. Jesus says simply, “Let it be so now.” “Let it be so now.” In this tender moment, Jesus is not scolding John or overpowering John. But he is inviting John into a new way of being. He gets to touch what is holy, tend it, baptize it, and behold it, but he does not get to control this holiness before him, or limit it, or force it to remain the way it was in the past, or correct it as if that would correct the future, any more than he could control the water rolling past his ankles.

“Let it be so now.” It sounds like the voice of God at creation who says to the dark watery chaos in Genesis “let there be light.” And it reminds me of the voice of Mary in Advent who says to the angel Gabriel with a beautiful but frightening invitation, “let it be with me according to your will.” And sure, the voice of John Lennon too. Letting be in this sense is not trying to be the sun of certainty ourselves, trying to have all the answers, trying to know in advance how things will go. But neither is it going limp on the shores of life as if our energy and action and our gifts don’t matter. Letting be is this middle place in the river where we actively participate with what God is doing even as we acknowledge that we don’t set the agenda. Letting be is humility that stays engaged and vertical in the river we don’t control.

Let it be so now. It comes from a very cool Greek word, aphes. Aphes is used about 15 times in the New Testament in stories I wouldn’t have guessed. It means to actively release. It’s the same word Jesus uses when he tells people to leave their offerings at the temple and go and be reconciled to that relationship that has been spoiled by conflict. Same word Jesus uses on the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt let them have your cloak as well.” Same word in the Lord’s prayer that means forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Same word Jesus uses in reference to letting that log of judgment fall out of your own eye before obsessing over the speck in someone else’s. Same word the devil uses, finally releasing Jesus from all the trials in the wilderness. Same word when the fever departs a woman who is desperately ill and the very same word Jesus uses on the cross when he says “father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Let it be so now means actively releasing something that belongs to God.

Let it be so now. It was a deeply personal mantra for me over Christmas this year. As Christmas approached, I heard people say, “this is the first normal Christmas since 2019. Glad to get things back to normal. It will be refreshing to do what we always do.” But our family had changed over the pandemic. In particular, my mom had died and my father had gotten remarried and the family house where Christmas had been for 40 years had been sold and we no longer had a dog. And, what’s more, I am serving here with you all and my children are a few years older and my Dad’s wife and her young adult children and their new house are lovely. It is a big river of change. And, honestly, at first I sought to iron out those complexities and changes as I do most complexities and changes…  with a plan. If we stick with the plan, I thought, we can find our way back to normal. Back up the river somewhere. And then, my sister’s flight got messed up by Southwest Airlines. Her husband was sick. Other people had other plans, the nerve. And suddenly, I felt like John the Baptist, out in the water, saying to Jesus, per my email, this is not the way it is supposed to go. But over and over again, I remembered this phrase… let it be so now. Let it be so now. And it changed me. I started to see my life as more baptismal river than concrete sidewalk. There was water there that could hold tears of grief and also fill water glasses on new tables as well. Maybe it was an epiphany, the gift of seeing God wet-faced right there with me in the river of change, the ink on my plans blurring and soaking through and somehow by God’s grace always expanding toward something kind and loving, grace descending and alighting toward something more healing than what I could have planned myself, Christ splashing on all of us the only identity that matters, “you are loved.”

I read that when Martin Luther would slip into one of his darker places, which apparently happened a lot, he would comfort himself by saying, “Martin, be calm, you are baptized.”

It is not just a sentimental internal thing to draw near to the waters. Baptism theology fueled the Civil Rights Movement as leaders sought to remove racial barriers on drinking fountains and it fuels us now as we consider the health of our rivers and oceans. This water is not ours. It belongs to God who tells every person “you are loved.”

As a metaphor-loving person, I have been imagining the church standing there in the river with Jesus. Church universal or church this very one. The pandemic has changed us. There are people whose absence makes us ache and there are new people here who are indescribably lovely. We are a little older and a little younger. We have this new shape and all these new wires and cameras and new identities and new tables. And yet, a wet-faced savior continues to call us to welcome, continues to send justice rolling down like the mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, continues to require our participation and engagement, continues to descend in music and alight in the voices of children and roll down our walls, literally, splashing on us the only identity we need, “loved.” Jesus says to us, let it be so now.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in her beautiful book Searching for Sunday, “Two thousand years later, John’s call remains a wilderness call, a cry from the margins. Because we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worth and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not that they do.” Grace has been out of hand for two thousand years now. We best get used to it. And so the call persists: repent, reorient, prepare the way of the Lord. Make clear the path. God is tumbling through the world like white water on rock. There’s nothing left but to surrender.”

So for us today:

Let it be so now, whether your life feels like white-water rapids or still waters.

Let it be so now, hands on but hands open.

Let it be so now, a church old and always new, reformed and always reforming, standing on promises and sparkling with new color.

Let it be so now, forgiveness, freedom, fever breaking, mindful of all the things we actively release to God because they weren’t ours to control anyway.

Let it be so now, a future completely drenched in the love of God.

Amen.

 

What if Herod got his way?

By Rev. Adam Ogg

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

January 1, 2023

 

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What if what they say is true? (or how people become real)

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

Christmas Eve, 2022

Luke 2:1-14

 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.

Now in that same 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!”
 

Let us pray. Holy God, on this silent and holy night, may your people hear your word, a word made flesh to dwell among us. And Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

The Velveteen Rabbit is 100 years old this year. In the ‘80s, PBS would feature Meryl Streep reading this story on the backdrop of soothing piano solos of George Winston. As a child, it would play every Christmas especially when life was messy and the Christmas bread wasn’t rising. I now realize it was ‘in case of emergency, break glass” parenting move for when things were getting real, but now, at this time in my life, it is very special to me. And perhaps that is also a grace for the parent part of me.

The story goes like this. A boy receives a special bunny for Christmas. This rabbit is bunchy with velvet ears and a spring of holly between his paws. The rabbit was forgotten about in the excitement of Christmas and mocked by toy soldiers and model boats for being made of sawdust. Then he met the wise skin horse who had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. “He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.”

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The rabbit stayed by the boy’s side until his velvet was all rubbed off. When the boy got a case of Scarlet Fever, and went to live by the seaside to heal, the rabbit had to be thrown away. And the rabbit was so sad that he cried. A tear hit the ground and all of a sudden, the rabbit changed. He realized he had hind legs and could jump and play in the grass with the other rabbits. Autumn and winter melted into Spring, and one day the boy saw the rabbit and felt a stirring of recognition. “Why he looks just like my old bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever.” And the child never knew it was in fact his own bunny, come back to look at the child who had helped him become real.

What is real? Do you ever wonder about that? As people tell stories in their Christmas cards and Instagram stories, as people all over the world wrestle over how to tell the story of 2022 from so many vantage points, what is real?

For the author of this story, Margery Williams, I suspect this question was deeply personal. She grew up in a loving home and her father died suddenly when she was 7 years old and a sort of melancholy hovered over her writing. The Velveteen Rabbit was published in 1922, after she experienced WWI in England and its devastating aftermath. Her work for children was criticized for being too somber for Christmas, too somber for children, who should be given happy tales, but Williams insisted that love is not easy but it makes you real.

Now, let’s explore a story of real love that has been inspiring us for 2000 years. The story of Christmas. The messiah was born in a world that was literally overtaxed. In a world that had no room for him. In a world that felt dark and worrisome and too crowded. In a world defined by leaders who were just as brutal as they were insecure. And what’s more, the savior was born to a family in crisis, with an unplanned pregnancy and unplanned travel. And what’s more, the news of this savior was first received only by other people at the edges of society, like night shift shepherds and magi from a completely different ethnicity and religion. It is tempting for us now to see this story through the halo of nostalgia. But this year, there is grace in remembering that this birth was all too real for them. Really complicated. Really messy. Really hard. Really unexpected. Really beautiful. Really important. Real.

Father Greg Boyle is a priest in Los Angeles, who lives in the neighborhoods hardest hit by gang violence. He founded Homeboy Industries, which has grown to be a bakery, a clothing shop and a tattoo and graffiti removal service that employs hundreds of former gang rivals. He has New York Times bestsellers. But in the city, they just call him Father G. He was interviewed by Krista Tippet which for church folks is like winning an Oscar.

On Christmas Day, I said to a former gang member named Louis, “What’d you do on Christmas Eve?” And he was an orphan, and abandoned and abused by his parents, and worked for me in our graffiti crew. …“Oh, just right here.” I said, “Alone?” And he said, “No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t had no place to go,” he said. “And they were all…” He named them, and they were enemies with each other. I said, “What’d you do?” He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”

I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?” He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style.” And I said, “No, I don’t think I’m familiar with that recipe.” And he said, “Well, you rub it with a gang of butter, and you squeeze two limones on it, and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said. I said, “Wow. Well, what else did you have besides turkey?” “Well, that’s it, just turkey.”
“Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done. Did I mention it tasted proper?” I said, “Yeah, you did.”

So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn’t lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends, and that’s the incarnation, I think.”

Maybe Christmas in your house is not like rival gang members, well, maybe sometimes it is, but I wonder if you have said this year: “It’s getting real.” When your child is suffering, when your mom has cancer, when you finally call the therapist, when you sit in the front pew at the funeral. It gets real.

It gets real in good times too. When your kid sends you photos from afar, when you sit in the front pew at the wedding or the softball game, when you sit in the pew at Christmas and the grace of Christ is the realest thing you know. When things get real, we see what we are made of.

But, Christmas magic is strange and wonderful. Something happens to you. Year after year. It changes you, maybe not all at once. One year it’s the hymns that get you. The next year it’s something you read or hear that strikes you as deeply true. Sometimes the love of God squeezes you so hard you wonder if your skin has come clean off. Some years you feel awfully shabby. But eventually when you realize this Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate this night, loves you, not just to play with you, but really really loves you and gave his life for you, it’s hard not to get choked up. And that’s when you start to notice these hind legs you didn’t know you had, that propel you to serve beyond what is convenient, that propel you to give more than you used to and that push you to forgive more than you planned. You’re kinder, more compassionate toward those around you who have sharp edges or lots of moving parts. You laugh with your whole bunchy body and start to tell the longer truer story about yourself because it can never be ugly, except to those who don’t understand this real love yet. What’s more, you’re grateful and there are new friends who are there in the tall grass with you. And then, you realize that hurting and crying and even dying were never the end of the story. Not for Jesus and not for you. Jesus is the one who told you how much more there is to hope for.

Then, you become real. And not only you, but Christmas, your faith, your hope, your whole reason for being here. And all you can do is kneel down in the straw of your own life and say thank you.

What if Joseph chose anger instead?

by Rev. Adam Ogg

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

December 18, 2022

 

 

 Matthew 1:18-25                       

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.

What if John couldn’t wait?

Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

December 4, 2022

 

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Let us pray. Startle us again O God with joy when we were imprisoned in anxiety. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

Most years on the second Sunday of Advent, we focus on John the Baptist thundering out in the wilderness like an Old Testament prophet speaking about he coming of Christ all while wearing a camel hair outfit and eating locusts and honey. He is a curiously dressed misfit with a powerful voice, kind of like a special Advent mix of Buddy the Elf mixed and Charlton Heston.

But by this point in Matthew’s Gospel, our text for today, that chutzpah has faded and John is in prison. He is in prison simply because he might have raised embarrassing questions about the King’s incestuous side-hustle and dictators are perennially brutal. From prison, John sends this question to Jesus by way of the disciples: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” This question haunts me. It’s an end of your rope kind of question. It’s a “please tell me this has not been a complete waste of time” question. It’s a “put up or shut up” question. Maybe you have lobbed a question like this before.

The spouse asks the doctor, “Is that the best treatment plan you’ve got, or is it time to seek a second opinion?” A congregation member pulls aside the pastor, “Is this church really what it says it is, or should I go find another place to worship?” A man asks his wife, “Do our vows still mean what they did, or have you already made up your mind that it’s over?” This is less a question, more calling the question.

It seems like John’s context has changed him. He used to be wild and free and baptizing people and eating artisanal locusts far off the grid. Now, his reality is four walls. He used to feel the water and sand of the Jordan pool around his toes, feel the thrill of holiness course through is hands. Now, his ears ring with all the sounds of despair around him

When you’re in prison, you don’t have patience for generic “everything is going to be fine” sermons. When you’re in prison, whether its illness or grief or anxiety or divorce proceedings, you have already waited long enough so Advent waiting is not your favorite. It would have been easy enough for John to give up. To let go of these naïve questions and succumb to the cold hard reality of his imprisonment. Sometimes that’s easier than the risk of further disappointment. But John took one more shot in the dark. “Are you it, or do we wait for another?”

Notice: the response he receives from Jesus, it reads like a press release, not a fuzzy sermon. “Tell him”, Jesus says, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk. The lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Tell him because he doesn’t know that yet. Tell him because he needs to know that for his soul to endure. He doesn’t need to worry about who I am right now. That will come. But, he does need to know that the world is actually changing and he does need to remember who he is.”

 And in that response, a gust of peace blows through the bars. Advent truth often feels like that, a gust in the dark, a glowing paradox rather than a perfect Christmas card. It is what some people call the already and not yet of the kingdom of God. There are two main parts to it: the first is proclamation and second is affirmation.

First, proclamation. Proclamation is the fancy word for telling the stories of God’s liberation and healing that we have seen using actual words. A few years ago, I was part of a workshop about 21st century Christianity that I’ll never forget. Many Presbyterians shared around the tables how they were worried about talking about their faith. They didn’t want to offend. They didn’t claim to have all the answers. “I get that,” Brian, the workshop leader said, “But imagine you’re downtown and someone comes up to you, lost, frustrated and says, ‘Where is the Metro?’ Imagine if you responded, “There are many metros.” The guy would get irritated and say, ‘I know that! Just tell me the one that you know! Tell me one that is close to here!”

I can’t tell you how many people have pulled me aside to ask about Christianity. Some clumsy because they haven’t been to church in years, others are at the end of their rope with church but not with Jesus. And one of the best parts of my job is that I often have front row seats to good news. Like today, I can tell them people who are experiencing homelessness received 66 sweaters, oh, and also housing and medical care and meals and community at Christ House since 1976. I can tell them people of faith worked together to resettle more than 260 refugee families from Afghanistan in Burke in the last year. I can say that forgiveness that makes you gulp back tears actually happens. I can say that there is a love that is stronger than cancer. I can say that the ones who died still light our path in mysterious ways. These are stories I simply can’t explain that except by the grace of God. The world may be tired of simplistic pamphlets but the world is hungry for proclamation.

Second, there is affirmation. Jesus offers this public blessing over John, this beautiful affirmation of who he is, regardless of where he is. It sounds like this: “The John I know is no reed blowing in the breeze. He’s never been one for soft robes and slippers. He is not just a messenger. He’s a prophet the likes of which the world has never seen.” To be a Christian is to see everyone through the grace of Christ. To see them as beloved. To see them as powerful. Not because they are perfect but because God works through imperfect people. Including you, including you on your worst days, including you if you’ve been pent up in a prison of stress or pain or depression and you lash out at those you love. Even still, you are essential to God. That is affirmation.

I am sick with pride that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. His show was quiet proclamation and constant affirmation. Proclamation: Look, children in wheelchairs are celebrated. Children who are blind know what is going on because he took the time to say aloud what he was doing “Now I am feeding the fish.” Look, African-American police officers have their feet washed in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood the same week national protests erupted over black children praying in an integrated swimming pool. Mr. Rogers taught the world affirmation. Do you remember this song?

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

One last story. This week, I was in a meeting with the Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Fairfax. A few pastors and I were trying to get him to speak boldly in favor of mental health care, especially for those on the margins, like high schoolers and the poor and the elderly. During the meeting, this thunderous leader so full of power and ideas kind of folded and said, “I don’t know what to tell you. I have done all I can. You should blame Richmond. I really don’t know why something so obvious has to be so hard!” The air seemed to go out of the room. Then, this pastor from Springfield who kind of looks like Abraham Lincoln said, “Listen, you are talking to pastors. We are used to working on things that should be obvious but are hard. Civil rights, women’s rights, care for the poor, welcome for all people. But we have also seen amazing things happen even if it takes longer than we prefer.” With those words, the air shifted. The chairman paused, perhaps remembering who he was before the fancy chair, remembering the people who had inspired him long ago, and after maybe a minute of quiet, he said, “Ok, tell me what I need to do.”

Proclamation is the key that unlocks us from hopelessness, and affirmation is the gust of love, enoughness, transcendent peace and courage, that blows into our lives, reminding us who we are before the world weighed in on us, so that we start to move again and that is how we ultimately discover who God is.

If I had to sum up that second Advent candle, in a year when we need peace so desperately, it would sound like this: The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, and Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Proclamation, affirmation, two candles that darkness cannot overcome.

Amen.

 

 

 

What if … Zechariah believed the first time?

By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
November 27, 2022

Luke 1:5-20 

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Lord, we come today with longing. Sometimes with a certain prayer that we have prayed so long we barely say it out loud anymore. Hear us today, Lord, like you did Zechariah. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

Advent is a season of preparation. We light candles. We count the days. We often treat preparation like a nice soft mental state, but I tell you, there are few times my kids are more wary of me than those last preparations before people come over. The last few minutes before the knock on the door are a count down with higher drama than the end of a reality show. Is anyone else like that?

As a late-career priest, Zechariah, from our reading today, knew all about preparations. How to set up the incense. How to say the special words at the right time. You could say he was a “preparations professional.” That year it happened, his name was selected for the once in a lifetime opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies, to set a trembling foot behind the curtain where God was thought to dwell and say that 400-year-old prayer for the redemption of Israel. I am sure Zechariah had that official prayer at the ready, the sanctioned one he’d waited a lifetime to pray. As a preparations professional, he knew what to do.

But, you know what else….I bet he had a second prayer. That deeply personal one he’d prayed so often it had worn grooves in his mouth, the prayer that had to be gulped back down when people looked at him and he had work to do. I bet Zechariah had a second prayer, a prayer for a child.

And then the day came. He went back there, to the Holy of Holies, felt the closeness of God all around him, and there I bet he prayed prayer number one for the restoration of Israel, like a professional. Of course he would. But I can almost guarantee he prayed prayer number two as well, sanctioned or not. He prayed it like any human being who can’t fake it before God even if he’s been putting on the brave face in front of the congregation. In the Holy of Holies, it all comes out.

Do you have that kind of prayer? The one you have been praying for so long or so hard that it is tattered around the edges? Maybe your personal prayer is that a relationship might heal. Maybe it is for a child, but your child and the worries around him or her are a lot bigger now that he or she is bigger. Maybe your prayer is to feel some sense of peace about what happened to you.

Well, in that darkness, Zechariah expected nothing would happen. Right until the very second that it did. An angel appeared to him Zechariah and said, “I have heard your prayer.” And I wonder if Zechariah thought, half terrified, half desperate… which one?  Which prayer? The one for the redemption of this nation, the one to save Israel from a Roman government that seems to bring out the worst instincts in all of us and deliver constant suffering to the most vulnerable? Or did you hear that other prayer, the one that I probably wasn’t sanctioned to pray, the one I am too old to pray with any seriousness but I can’t let go of? Which prayer did you hear?

The answer from the angel was essentially: “Yes. Big yes. All yes.” It strikes me that God doesn’t see the healing of our personal pain and the healing of the collective pain of the world as these vastly separate things, like we tend to. The angel went on to describe a child who is to be born, their child, a child who will be both a delight to his parents (how lovely is that?) and the one to prepare the whole nation to meet the Lord.

Next Zechariah asked this lovely ridiculous question, “How will I know this is so?” He asked this to an angel. I don’t know that angels speak with sarcasm, though that would have been understandable. The angel simply responded, “I am Gabriel… I stand in the presence of God.” That should have been answer enough.

So, what happened next may not be a story that makes the nativity scenes. Next, Zechariah, the explainer, the wordsmith, the professional preparer, was struck mute for 9 months. The angel says that it happens because he did not believe.

After this, Zechariah leaves the Holy of Holies and returns to the normal of normals. And lo and behold, Elizabeth did become pregnant and Zechariah still could not talk. I imagine people asking Elizabeth how it was to have a husband who wasn’t able to speak a word for her entire pregnancy. I imagine her saying with half a laugh, “It’s working out well for both of us. Thank you for your concern.”

For some reason, most of my life, I assumed Zechariah was struck mute as a form of punishment. Had he only believed the first time, he could have spoken hope to a weary people. Had he only believed the angel of God, he could have given voice to the coming redemption of the nation. I initially saw silence as judgment. Maybe that is because I am also a “preparations professional.” A word girl. An explainer. But I am seeing Zechariah differently this year. Now I see that there are times that are so holy our words fall short, there are times when our talking gets in the way, there are times when our preparations – as lovely as they are – put a cellophane of sound over the hope we long for. And this year, I notice how God removed those distractions from Zechariah. And we know what happened next: John the Baptist arrived and prepared the way for Jesus Christ to enter the world.

Human silence preceded the Word made flesh.

There are many times in life when silence is not punishment but a gift. Thomas Merton said, “there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” Isn’t it often the case that the short sermons stay with you. Or that the friend who shows up and says the least but who listens the longest offers the most comfort. Or that the person at the mic in the moment of tragedy or overwhelming joy who just cannot speak communicates best what we all feel.

So, an invitation today as this Advent begins…. if you are seeking hope, and keep finding yourself overwhelmed, be still. Be quiet. Enter the pregnant pause of Zechariah. Not because your doubts are ridiculous. Not because your faith is not enough. Not because that second prayer you are praying doesn’t matter or that the pain of the world can be ignored. Be silent because silence makes space enough for hope to be discovered. Be silent because then you can hear what God is saying. Be silent because then you can eat the food God is giving you and feel the waters of baptism cool on your forehead assuring you that the healing of your own life and the healing of the nations has been God’s plan all along. Be silent to allow your soul to hear God, in the painful of painfuls, the joyful of joyfuls, or the normal of normal.

Amen.

 

 

 

Not a Force but a Face

By Rev. Rebecca Messman
Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2022
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

Colossians 1:11-20

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

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

 

It is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the Christian year. I suspect it is not a holiday that many of us have deep feelings about, except perhaps about its sanguine hymns. On this day, the trailhead of Advent is in view, but we can’t start that Christmas quest without remembering again who made the trail to begin with. And, so this week I have welcomed the invitation to think of kings in general, and Jesus in particular as King.

Two weeks ago, I attended my cousin’s wedding in Las Vegas. I did not officiate, but you can imagine who did, given a liturgical set-up like that. That’s right, Elvis. As we approached the Neon Chapel, one Elvis was leaving the building as another Elvis arrived, though ours was a more late-stage hard-knocks version. And of course we knew he was not actually the King. And we knew that the Elvis he was impersonating through his lambchops and spasmodic hip thrusts was also not a King in any real sense though I enjoy his music. But as I sat there, I thought, what an interesting job to call yourself the King. And then, theological nerd that I am, I wondered who are the other would-be sovereigns out there, who else is laying claim to our time and attention, just without the sequins? It strikes me that on Christ the King Sunday, we need to practice saying “no” to a bunch of other lesser Kings.

One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. King Arthur begins shouting at some peasants who are slopping around in mud, not obeying him. A man says, “We are part of an autonomous collective, an anarco-syndicalist commune!” Arthur shouts, “BE QUIET!  I *order* you to be quiet!” The woman says, “Order”, eh, ‘oo does ‘e think ‘e is?” Arthur says, “I am your king!” The woman says, “Well I didn’t vote for you!” Arthur says, “You don’t vote for kings!” She replies, “Well ‘ow’d you become king then?” Arthur gazes at the sky as holy music plays, “The Lady of the Lake– her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.  THAT is why I am your king!” The man says, laughingly, “Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!  Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some… farcical aquatic ceremony!” That is one way to say no.

Who else is vying to be king? For starters, the coronation of King Charles III will take place on May 6 of next year and I learned this week that there are apparently 43 countries with a monarch as head of state in our world.

And there is our country, formed by rebelling against Kings. And yet, political pundits talk often about kingmakers, and elected leaders flanked by flags speak in apocalyptic terms about what is at stake if they lose, and some Christians have adopted a belief that they should be prepared to fight, physically, to preserve a worldly political agenda that they believe is the agenda for any true believer, an argument that played into the violence of January 6th.[1] That worldview sounds very different than Jesus reconciling all things and making peace through the cross.

Even so, I bet it is easier to say no to that kind of king than to the dozens of sneakier monarchs who dominate our days:

Like the phone and the imperial internet, with power such that to log off or unplug or simply run out of batteries can feel like a quiet rebellion.

Like the hierarchies of our workplace and school, with power such a small group of people have enormous sway how we feel about our lives.

Like the harsh and fickle autocrat of the economy, with power such that a bank account attempts to tell us our worth in dollars and cents.

Like the rude princess of beauty culture, with power such that the scale and mirror, and minions of Instagram influencers, try to tell us what it takes to be loved.

Like the ultimate Ice Queen of Time herself, her cold calculating clock and calendar, her armies of wrinkles and illnesses, with power such that the steady tick of mortality might dominate our most important decisions. And those are just a few.

Some people are strangely controlled by coffee or wine. Others by their immigration status. Others are ordered around by this itty bitty cruddy committee in their brain that can douse them with anxiety or cloak them with sadness without the kindness of a warning.

And then, just as winter is coming, just when we might think Black Friday sales and post-Thanksgiving scales and pushers of political blackmail have seized the throne, here comes this passage. Tucked into a letter from thousands of years ago. Might as well have been a new passport in the mail. This passage invites us to declare our citizenship in a different kind of kingdom. One defined by great power that comes through vulnerability. One defined by service even to the point of death on the cross. One where the last is first. And the foreigner is a guest of honor. And everyone has a home. One where sorrow may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. One where shocking abundance arrives not through force of will but sometimes through utter surrender. One where the church is not a building, even the beautiful one we are dedicating today, but people, people who are sent to be salt and yeast and light in the world. That is the Kingdom, or commonwealth, of Christ.

Sometimes when there is a coup going on in my heart, and all the lesser kings are butting in, I stop myself and ask, “Who are you serving right now? Who is this for?” If the answer is anything but the prince of peace, the image of the invisible God, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, I stop to check my papers. I then attempt to live once again as a citizen of a true grace land. And as I do that, I feel myself staging a soft rebellion against all those would-be kings.

Whenever you are dealing with forces that seems inescapable in your life, none of which has any eternal credibility, you might practice some healthy dethroning. Anxiety brain, dethroned. Societal forces that cause you to rage, dethroned. The need to be perfect or right or pleasing all the time, dethroned. The power of debt over the wild imagination of a church, dethroned. Even cancer, dethroned. They have no jurisdictional authority over your heart.

This week that has been helped by reading the words of Michael Gerson who passed away on Thursday. He was a speech writer for some of the most powerful people in the world and he struggled with depression throughout his life. So he was familiar with power of many kinds. But the kind of power he experienced one day in the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral changed him – he saw the statue of the prodigal son melting into his father’s arms – read the inscription how he fell on his neck, and kissed him and wrote in his journal, “I felt tears and calm, like something important had happened to me and in me… My goals are pretty clear. I want to stop thinking about myself all the time. I want to be a mature disciple of Jesus, not a casual believer. I want to be God’s man.”

Reflecting on that powerful day, he said, “I have failed at these goals in a disturbing variety of ways. And I have more doubts than I did on that day. These kind of experiences may result from inspiration… or indigestion. Your brain may be playing tricks. Or you may be feeling the beating heart of the universe. Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt. It consists of staking your life on the rumor of grace.”

Then he said, “This experience of pulling back the curtain of materiality, and briefly seeing the landscape of a broader world, comes in many forms. It can be religious and non-religious, Christian and non-Christian. We sometimes search for a hidden door when the city has a hundred open gates. But there is this difference for a Christian believer: At the end of all our striving and longing we find, not a force, but a face. All language about God is metaphorical. But the metaphor became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That line, wow, it seized me. Not a force, but a face. How amazing. The authority in our lives made his throne on a grassy hillside and a timeless baptismal river and a dinner table of former enemies and a cross erected by a timestamped empire and an empty tomb that opened to eternity. The authority in our lives is a love story that makes all those other fearful stories we tell ourselves seem rather puny. With that in mind, we can step into Advent. We can get out our creche scenes and those brave purple candles. And rolling around in the box with the last year’s pine needles, I am sure we’ll discover those three kings who journeyed that way long ago and dethroned themselves at the sight of that face.

GK Chesterton wrote this lovely poem about those kings, which seems like the perfect cosmic wording for where we are about to go.

To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/february-web-only/what-is-christian-nationalism.html