About Kelly Whittington

Posts by Kelly Whittington:

It’s Not All About Us

It is good to be back in this pulpit.  I have missed all of you.  I am still working on recovering from surgery and will be easing back into my work.  I am in the pulpit a week before I planned so I ask your patience with me.  I am not yet ready to carry the level of load I did before surgery.  I will get there.  I have found that recovery from knee joint replacement can be hard, frustrating and non-linear. I have a newfound deep respect for all of you who have had this surgery before me.


While I have been gone you have been weaving your way through the “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John.  Here I show back up to preach on the “I Am” statement I have always found most disturbing:  “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father accept through me.”  I have heard all the same voices you have heard about this scripture.  Voices that tell us that Jesus was preaching a message of exclusion.   Voices that say you can’t be Jewish or Muslim or Sikh if you want to get a heavenly mansion someday.  They have Jesus saying, “God is my Daddy and if you want to spend eternity with God than I am your only way in.  Believe in me or you are going straight to hell.” That is how this text has always been preached at me.


I beg you today to throw out what you have always been taught about this scripture and if you can’t throw it away, set it aside for just 15 minutes and hear me out.  There are several glaring problems with this heaven and hell interpretation.  The first thing we need to look at is context.  Look at it next to the other “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John. The other “I Am” statements are comforting. “I Am the Light of the World.”  “I Am the good shepherd.”  “I Am the gate.”  “I Am the bread of life.”  “I Am the true vine.” They carry in them a promise of presence with us here and now.  A message of exclusion in the form of an “I Am” statement runs counter to all the other “I Am” statements in John.


We also need to look at this text within the context of where, when and to whom Jesus spoke these words.  Jesus speaks these words to his disciples in Jerusalem.  This is the after dinner conversation at the Last Supper in the Upper Room.  Jesus is preparing them for his upcoming crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  We call these words of Jesus his final discourse.  It is clear he knows he has little time left to make sure they all understand everything he has been trying to teach them for the last three years. He tells them that he is leaving.  He also says that where he is going they cannot follow.  He knows he is going to die and he knows it will throw this fledging movement into a deep panic and possibly into chaos.


Just prior to this passage Jesus has given his disciples a new commandment:  “Love as I have loved you.”   And then Peter in his typical grandiose way promised to lay down his life for Jesus.  Jesus lets Peter know that he not only won’t lay down his life for Jesus he will deny Jesus.  Jesus is urgent.  He has only a little time left to convey what he most wants his followers to hear. He doesn’t want them to throw away what they have seen and heard and believed in him.  Because these are the ones who are being entrusted with carrying the incarnation with them.


In all the hours and hours of media coverage after the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the part that made it brutally real for me was hearing about the texts that high school students sent their loved ones.  When people think they are about to die in a school shooting or a plane crash, they reach out to the ones they love with a final message.  One teenage son wrote his mother a text:  “If I don’t make it, know I loved you and appreciated everything you did for me.” Two brothers hiding on different levels of the school texted back and forth:  “Just know I love you.”  “I love you too.”  “Forever and you’re the best brother.”


Jesus knows he is about to die and he needs these disciples to hold on to the way, the truth and the life he as been modeling for them.  Hear these words in that context of someone’s dying words.  Jesus is speaking words of comfort and of love in the last hours of his life.


Another thing we need to look at is how this scripture has been translated. Most of us have heard this scripture at a funeral as a promise of a mansion in heaven for all those who have declared Jesus their Lord and Savior.  But mansion is a bad translation that Tynsdale placed on this text years go.  The word “mansion” isn’t anywhere in this text.  Jesus isn’t promising a place in heaven.  This isn’t a scripture about place but about relationship.  Jesus is telling them they are part of God’s family already and they live in God’s house…now.

“Don’t be afraid of what is ahead,” Jesus says. “Trust in God and trust in what I have taught you.  You are children of the living God and you live in the household of God here and now where there is plenty of room for everyone.  It isn’t long now before I am gone.  But it isn’t the end.  I go before you and eventually you will follow me.”

Be aware that those who translate the Bible for us have the power to enlighten or to harm.


I know that studying the context of this scripture doesn’t suddenly clear everything up.  Even the disciples in the room seemed very confused by what Jesus was trying to tell them. Part of that is due to the Gospel of John.  We are linear people who are bombarded constantly with 24-hour media coverage reading a Gospel written by someone who loved metaphor:  light, gates, bread, shepherd, vines.  John wasn’t a historian.  John was a poet calling to our deeper selves. He wants us to see the shape of Jesus.


Thomas, like most of us, is completely confused.   Thomas says, “I have no idea where you are going with this, Jesus.  How will we know how to follow you? Can you give us a diagram or a map or something?”  It is to Thomas’ request that Jesus speaks his “I Am” statement.  “I Am the way, the truth and the life.”


“I Am…”  which remember is the name God uses to identify himself to Moses.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the phrase “I Am” to teach others about the presence of God.  “I Am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus says.  We have always heard this scripture as Jesus claiming to be the way, the truth and the life.   But you could also read it like this:  “God (the Great I Am) is the way, the truth and the life.”  Or you could see it as Jesus saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life and I am pointing to God (the Great I Am) who is the way, the truth and the life. You don’t need a map or a diagram for as a member of God’s family you are already home. God is here now and God’s kingdom lies within you.”


Now if Jesus had stopped there I think we would not have ended up in the mess we are in.  “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It seems so clear doesn’t it?  It appears that Jesus is just lobbing off all other religions and their followers.  But again, look at context.  Jesus wasn’t afraid his disciples were going to become Buddhists.  He wasn’t trying to form a new world religion and call it superior.  I find that thought absurd.  He was speaking to his Jewish disciples in a time when the battle was with the empire.  He wanted them to live their lives by the way, and truth of love. He wasn’t saying, “Whose team are you on anyway?  He was saying, “Open your eyes for the Kingdom of God is within you. Follow the way…embrace the life…act in truth. Follow the shape of me.  The way to relationship to God is the journey you have been on with me.   Keep following me even when I am not here.  You can see me.  Act as I have acted.  Love as I have loved.  If you know me…and I know you know me…if you know me you have seen God.”


But the disciples weren’t used to communicating on this metaphorical level. Still wildly confused, Philip steps in and says, “Okay, Jesus.  Show us God and maybe we will be able to understand what you are talking about.”  Jesus shakes his head and says, “Philip, how long have we been together and you still can’t see God?  I have shown you the way, the truth and the life that leads to God. I have been a constant sign pointing in the direction of God. If you trust that what I have modeled for you is true you will be amazed for you will see and experience even greater things than you have seen through me.  I am going away soon but I am not leaving you alone.  I’m also not leaving you a list of dos and don’ts. Pick up the mantle and keep following the way, in truth and life.  Do this, not because I said so, but because you have taken on this shape…this incarnation…you have become love.”

I don’t believe that Jesus final text to his loved ones is a declaration of exclusion for some and a safety net for the faithful.  Jesus’ final message is one of love and invitation, promise and calling.  How we hear this text is extremely important because generations of Christians have used this scripture to shape their faith. People have been tortured because of this scripture. I have witnessed many Christians who have clutched onto this text, claiming that they are “safely on the way to heaven” even while they beat their children or lie on their income tax returns or count their money while the hungry die or denounce others as hated by God.  That is not the shape Jesus wants us to take on.  Jesus didn’t give us a plane ticket to the great by and by.  Jesus gave us the Kingdom of God and called us to love and be love…..and as Valerie Kauer says, “…that kind of love saves us all.”   Amen.

Jesus the Light of the World

There are 4 gospels in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus. Every one of the Gospel writings have a particular point of view about who Jesus is. For Matthew, Jesus is the King. For Mark, he is the Messiah. For Luke, he’s the champion of the poor and oppressed. Those three are sometimes called the “Synoptic Gospels” because they tell many of the same stories and have the same sources.


The writer of the Gospel of John goes in a different direction. His whole purpose is to show that, in Jesus, there is a unique spark of the Divine, so much of the character and nature of God, that Jesus is the incarnation of God in actual human flesh. That is the revolutionary assertion of the Gospel of John.


The writer is also a master of language. He uses words with double meanings to point the reader to a deeper truth. He uses metaphors and word associations brilliantly.  Seven or eight times he uses the term “I am” to describe some truth about the divine nature of Jesus. Each time Jesus says “I am” followed by something that would only be true of God; with, by the way, a corresponding miracle story for each one of those sayings. It’s a brilliant essay.


But the cleverest point of those sayings are the words “I AM” themselves. As Pastor Dawna already explained last week, this is the Greek translation of the sacred Hebrew word that is the very name of God in the Old Testament – Yahweh. It means “I AM – the infinite, eternal, omnipotent, Alpha and Omega, the God of all.” God is the great I AM, and according to John, so is Jesus. Pretty clever, don’t you think?


So here is the one we’re looking at today: Chapter 8, verse 12, Jesus says “I AM the light of the world.


In the context of the story, Jesus is not around a crowd who had never heard of God. They are at one of the three great religious festivals of the year – the Feast of Tabernacles. He is in Jerusalem, standing in the Temple as he makes this claim. Verse 20 says that he was standing in the Treasury of the Temple, and there are, in that place, several unique items that we wouldn’t normally know about. It was called the Treasury because there were 13 trumpet shaped vessels that were used for collecting the offerings of the people. Small at the top, broad at the bottom, all 13 were used for various collections


Along with those, in this same place, were four massive candelabras. Some say that these candelabras were nearly as tall as this building.   Think of that. Four huge candelabras, that burned with oil continually replenished for the 8 days of the Feast.


When dark came, the four great Candelabra sent such a blaze of light throughout Jerusalem that it was said that every courtyard was lit up by their brilliance. Pretty amazing. It puts you in mind of being in places like Las Vegas, or New York’s Time Square.


Against that background Jesus said “I AM the Light of the World.”


And how did people understand that? For years the rabbis and scholars had thought that when the Messiah comes, he will be wrapped in the brilliance of the sun. So that, when he came, he would bring light to the world. And that is the very claim that Jesus is making. He is saying, “I am the Messiah, and where the world is in darkness, God has promised light, and I AM that light in the darkness.”


I love the story about the battleship that saw a light in the darkness ahead. And after noting the light’s coordinates, the captain recognized that his ship was on a collision course with the other vessel. So the captain instructed, “Signal that ship: we are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.”


The return signal countered, “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.” The captain signaled, “I’m a captain, change course 20 degrees.” The response was “I’m a seaman second class, you’d better change course 20 degrees.


By this time the captain was furious. His signal curtly ordered, “I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.” The reply: “I’m a lighthouse. You make the call.”


I think we know light when we see it. We certainly recognize it when it isn’t there. On almost every trip I’ve made to Puerto Rico, we would visit one of the many caves found throughout that mountainous country. While we were only at the surface of that cavern system, our guide told us that this particular cave had already been explored to a depth of 9 miles—and it went much deeper. We saw fascinating bats, nocturnal birds, fish that only existed in that place in the whole world, and interesting formations. Once, when were there, the lights went out in the deepest part of that cave, and the darkness became unnerving—almost suffocating. We were so relieved when we returned to the surface and the light of day.


That experience was a stark reminder of how oppressive darkness can be and how much we need light.


I don’t need to say much to remind you or convince you that we too live in a generation filled with darkness. The events of the last weeks and months show us that the Empire of darkness exists.


When violence overwhelms us,

And it seems that no place is safe,

There is the shadow and seed of darkness.


Where corruption,

Haves and have nots,



Power abused,


All the systems of evil

That perpetrates misery, poverty and injustice

Stack up against hope and reason,

There is the shadow and seed of the Empire of darkness.

Darkness exists.


But this same Gospel writer says in the 1st Chapter of the Gospel of John that this Light of the World, this God become flesh, this Jesus was life, and his “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In the Greek it’s a wrestling term – it means it cannot ever pin it down. Like the old hymn that says, The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin, the Light of the World is Jesus!


So, sisters and brothers, there is hope. Better yet, we are that hope. The bible says boldly that Jesus is the Light of the World, but Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it succinctly when he wrote, “We are the agents of transformation that God uses to transform the world.”


Whenever the Kingdom of Light and Love are threatened, heroes and witnesses have stood up. Sometimes they are us.


Every time you stand up to hypocrisy,

Every time you stand up to ignorance,

Every time you stand up for truth and right,

You are the light of the world.


Every time you resist evil,

Every time you resist corruption, power and greed,

Every time you resist violence in every form,

Every time you speak out for agape love in the face of injustice,

You are the light of the world.


Each time you speak a word of kindness,

Offer forgiveness,

Give someone your help,

Feed a hungry person,

Help an immigrant,

Give a blanket to a homeless person,

You are the light of the world.


Whenever you help a child,

Encourage a stranger,

Visit the sick,

Give to a worthy cause,

Learn something about another culture,

You are the light of the world.


Lights on, Eyes open, Love glowing.

Dear Jesus,

Take our light.
It is yours. It came from you.

Wherever our feet go, our words land, or our keyboard sends, use us to dispel darkness today.

Help us to shine for you so others may see YOUR LIGHT and have the eyes of their heart enlightened and filled with HOPE.

Show me how to point others toward the TRUTH.

Open our own eyes to see the ETERNAL and give us strength to stand against the darkness and those who would seek to blow out our little light.

Hallelujah, and Amen!

Buy a Slice

Buy-A-Slice Youth Fundraiser, March 4, 2018, will mark the return of this popular youth fundraiser. Look for the youth in the courtyard following church service, offering a delicious selection of pie and cake slices, ready to take home and enjoy. Some of the selections will include: strawberry, banana cream, lemon meringue pies and peach cobbler along with carrot cake and brownies with peanut butter buttercream frosting All selections will cost $5.00 a slice and will be served with a smile and tremendous gratitude!

The Emphatic; I Am

I feel very, honored to have been asked by our denomination to be one of three keynote speakers at the Young Adult Conference, an annual, national gathering of young adults this May. I’m guessing they are getting ready to promote the event because I was recently asked to complete a survey with questions like, “What’s your favorite ice cream”, and  “If you could talk with anyone –dead or alive, who would it be? Why?”  These may seem like simple questions to you, but for me answering these questions requires an agonizing process of questioning, and over thinking. I would like to demonstrate what I mean by that with a little glimpse behind the curtain of my internal conversation: “Hhmmm…favorite ice cream? I usually say, Cookies and Cream – but I haven’t allowed myself to have ice cream forever! My go to dessert is ‘no sugar added’ frozen yogurt from Granny’s– but they asked about a flavor and I am definitely NOT answering with vanilla!! Halo Top has some good flavors….Oh for heaven’s sake, Dawna! It’s not like they are paying you with your favorite ice cream! Just write Cookies and Cream! Question 2: Who would I most like to talk to, dead or alive? Jerry Garcia. Oh wait. Am I supposed to say Jesus?”

I told you it was agonizing!

The questions did not get any easier for me and neither did my process for answering them! The conference theme is: “Teach with your life,” Based on 1 Timothy 4:11–16, which is about living an authentic life in Christ, using the gifts you’ve been given. The next set of questions, were about childhood. Specifically, “Who were your most memorable teachers? Why?” So, that is where this process got even more complicated because – for some reason, I can’t recall many details from my childhood. Before you travel too far down any nefarious path wondering if something traumatic happened to me – let me assure you, I have traveled down that path as well, exploring memory gaps with my parents, friends and even professionals. There is simply no repressed trauma that I am blocking, unless you want to call growing up with a family who adored me, in a small town where everyone knew me, traumatic. At times I have been convinced that my lack of memory is some foreshadowing of future cognitive impairment. And, I actually have been told that memory lapses “are normal for people my age”. But, for a multitude of reasons – I don’t buy that either!  Kirk Smith (of this congregation) is my age, he grew up in the same small community and his memory is flawless. Freakish even! He can remember what I wore on the first day of school 1960-something!!  Believe me, I have diligently looked at this memory issue with great curiosity and what I have discovered – looking backwards – is that even though I was well liked by my teachers, had lots of friends, and a stable home life, I spent a great deal of time questioning and wondering about my place in the world. Unsurprisingly, that was NOT comfortable so I learned how to sort of skate through my days focusing on the good feels that I got from making friends laugh, being a good listener, or scarfing down and entire sleeve of graham crackers in the company of Gilligan, the Skipper, the Millionaire and his wife. Like most of my peers I was just trying to get through the day without ever having to experience that feeling of shaky uncertainty in myself. It was more comfortable to not be fully present than to deal with my uncertainty/anxiety. Dr. Brené Brown, author and sociologist names that shaky feeling, vulnerability. Vulnerability is that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control. Brown says this about the ways we try to sidestep it: “We emotionally “armor up” each morning when we face the day to avoid feeling shame, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. The particular armor changes from person to person, but it usually revolves around one of three methods: striving for perfection, numbing out, or disrupting joyful moments by “dress rehearsing tragedy” and imagining all the ways that things could go wrong”.

Can you identify? Do you ever use these coping mechanisms to skirt around being fully present in your own life?

Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful life experiences and bummer of it is – it requires uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. What could be more uncertain and risky than offering your life, your flesh and blood so that others may have abundant life with God? And that brings me to our scripture for today.

Throughout Lent this year we will be focusing on the “I am” statements found in John. There are seven. The word “I am” that John uses is the same word revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus. When he asked “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”  John uses that same word, “I Am” to describe Jesus. These statements are unique to John as they emphatically express Jesus’ divinity and oneness with God more than the other synoptic gospels. What caught me, what I find so interesting about all of the “I am” sayings, is how they express Jesus’ relationship to humanity. Today I will focus on, “I am the bread of life”. The other six are: I am the light of the world, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, and the truth, and the life, and the true vine. These stories reveal how Jesus went about being “flesh” in the world as the incarnate God seeking real time relationship with us. The “I am” statements in John call us, over and over again, to see Jesus as God present with us, here and now.

Jesus says, I am the bread of life. This bread is my flesh – the living presence sent to you from God.  I wonder if it as helpful to you as it is for me to think of flesh as presence. I have always found the “eat my flesh, drink my blood” language really unsettling, it’s weird, right? Of course you and I know that Jesus is speaking spiritually, rather than physically. But, it’s still weird. The disciples struggled with it too. In the very next verse after where our text today stopped, the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Now, fast forward 2,000 years – we have the advantage of taking communion, (eating and drinking in remembrance of Jesus) with an abundance of goodwill. For me taking communion during worship is an act of commitment to my faith and to my community. And when we break bread together at Love Feast? How much more warm and relational can our religious practices get? We join each other around the table for fellowship, to pray, sing, and to share a meal. Love Feast is an absolutely sacred highlight of the church calendar for me. But for those gathered around Jesus the “flesh and blood” language would have been scandalous – highly offensive! Rabbinic law was clear about the practices of preparing, cleaning, and consuming animal flesh. And I assume the concept of eating human flesh would be reprehensible, to say the least. There were also strict rules about handling blood. Because blood was considered life itself – it belonged to God alone. No one would consider drinking blood to be anything but purely offensive – an act against God. Therefore, I am inclined to think that for Jesus to make these outrageous statements he is trying to get our attention, to shock us out of numbness and into the present moment. When Jesus says, “I am” it is emphatic, a statement of presence. “I am the bread of life” is an invitation to have life and have it abundantly, right now. Any claim about life with Jesus/life with God, means an abiding, a unity, a reciprocity, and oneness. It means real time relationship, life that is not in remembrance of Jesus’ past life or a hope for a future, but life lived in the moment with God’s grace upon grace and Jesus staked his life on that.

I have come to realize that the challenge of this text is in the choosing to follow Jesus who does not ask, “what would you risk dying for” (for some of us it’s not difficult to think of things we’d risk our lives for; I would risk my life trying to save my children. I would risk my life to give a family member an organ if they needed it to survive). But, in modeling self-sacrificing love for abundant life with God, Jesus is really asking, “what would you risk living for?”  What would you cause you to live fully present – in this life? To show up, bring your whole self – warts and all! And say, yes to the abundance of life in communion with the one who is with you, and for you, always.

On this first Sunday of Lent I invite you to make the next 6-weeks a time of examination. Every time you gather around the table for a meal, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What parts of my life am I playing it safe instead of giving my all”? You don’t have to do anything with it. Just be with the question and let this reflection become your daily Eucharist of communion with God.       Amen

Sermon 2-11-18

Hello. Apparently if you tell your pastor that you “could” write a sermon you end up here. To give you context, I am the same individual who began a summer as a Youth Peace Travel Team Member without his own bible. I look up to many of you as teachers, and so I would like to report on what I have learned.


I grew up angry. Or I was raised angry. Although constantly told that with the divorce rate close to 50%, my childhood was not unique, the effects of a family divided were felt. Whether it was learned by example or innate matters little, the truth is I was angry. During a time of self-reflection in my senior year of college, I wrote the following:


“I am no good at talking about my anger. Few people know what anger is. What other people call yelling, I call raising my voice. What other people call mean, I call a daily routine.


You don’t know anger until its behind you, in your house, raising you. The face darkens and the tone deepens as emotions are blasted at you from a depth you don’t even understand. But it isn’t some enemy or some person you don’t know behind you, berating you verbally for the crash you just caused. No it is you staring right back at you, maybe not quite, but forty years older and your only model for manhood.


So you push it back. You don’t listen, you just grow up with the negation. That is NOT what I want to be. I can be smart, funny, outgoing, and NOT angry. But that is never as powerful as the positive. I do not want to just be NOT ANGRY. I want to be HAPPY.”
Expressions of this anger took the form of beating up on my younger brother with new wrestling moves I had learned, yelling at various family members, or sulking. Once, I argued with our mother about how much Alex was crying and how it was unacceptable for him to cry when I appeared as I was his older brother, and by the same coin his biggest bully. I am sure Alex could list more examples for you, however, either by choice or old age I can no longer remember more.


I struggled with anger and the appropriate expression of many of my emotions. I was told frequently to “feel my feelings”. Sporting event losses, childhood antics, and sibling relationships were all discussed heavily in our family. Unfortunately, in life, the best teachers are the mistakes we make.


One Sunday evening in the San Gabriel Mountains, I pushed my brother onto a rope swing over a ravine. He would end up falling and breaking both of his wrists and shattering the top of his left knee cap. I have thought about the moments leading up to the push. Why? What does this do for you? I think I wanted my brother to be like me. Maybe I didn’t want him to be afraid.


After impact, he yelled at me “Chris, how come you never listen to me?”


I helped him limp to my Mom. She called 9-1-1. I made my way to a car alone.


I thrashed, yelled, cried. All in that car alone for half an hour. I drove to my relatives’ house and told them Alex was in the hospital and that he fell. I did not tell them I pushed him.

I was in a loop: “What have I done? Will he ever talk to me again?”


To wrap up a happy story, I took care of him for the next few months or so until it felt like we could be brothers again. The anger and guilt subsided. In some small way, I was allowed to apologize for a lifetime of pain.


At the time, I did not have the words for the lesson I learned. Previously, I had dealt with anger by negating it or using it in sport. After a few years, a friend of mine from high school recommended watching a movie entitled “American History X”. In the movie, we follow a pair of brothers handling race relations in Venice Beach, CA. After their family loses their father, the elder brother cultivates a white supremacist group to effect what he believes is positive change. The elder brother spends time in prison after an incident with his newfound group.


As the horrors of prison life become more visible and corporeal, he is visited by an old high school teacher. Through the discussions they have, the teacher recognizes the same frustration and fury he had in his youth in the man in prison. The teacher poses this question to the man in prison:


“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”


The man shakes his head and asks for help to get out. The teacher goes on to tell him that running from the situation he has created will not be enough. He has to struggle with the frustration and anger he has stirred.


After hearing my brother’s words and asking myself the teacher’s question, I have attempted to use my anger. To use that initial surge of energy to alert me to pay attention. The act, the person, or the moment are important to me. My person wants to expend more energy to address the situation. Although I may not always get it right, the acknowledgement of my piqued interest in an event gives me an opportunity to have a better response than I would otherwise.


I am still working on making my life better but that is the wrestling match that is life. We are called to continue the endeavor and grip the weakness of our character, whether that be anger, fear, shame, sadness, or emptiness. To be aware of these flaws or concerns we have and not to fix them, but to be mindful. To be mindful that these reactions are signals for where to put our energy.

Eventually the energy turns to action, action into lesson, and lesson into a better life.

Praying Our Goodbyes

“Make me to know the measure of my days, O maker of my mortal frame. I would survey life’s brief and narrow space, and learn how frail I am.”


This is a tender Sunday – a gentle, somber and maybe aching experience of worship for some. Maybe some people stay away because it’s too much. I understand that.


Someone asked me, not too long ago, “Do you still miss your mother?”

The question caught me off guard. Actually I had just been thinking about her that day. I had spent the morning in a hospital, and had watched a nurse put in a line for an IV drip. My mother was a nurse, and I wondered how many times she had done that for a patient. Thousands, probably.

Do I still miss my mother? It took me longer to answer that question than I think was comfortable.

My mom died of a series of strokes in February of 1996, which seems now like a long time ago. And in other ways, it was just yesterday. And for many years, I missed her vividly. I remember the smell of earth and cold air when she came in from working in the garden. I remember the sound of her making a glass of ice tea. I remember seeing her make Amish fat noodles, that we called pot-pie. I missed the sound of her voice. Later, I missed remembering what her voice sounded like. I missed her.

With time, the rawness of her loss faded. And we had work to do and children to raise and my dad and my grandmother to care for. Although her absence was real, I no longer felt I was falling into a hole her absence created. I could see the edges of it. I think I worked hard at not getting too close to those edges, which may not have been fair to myself or my family. I have appreciated Pastor Susan’s willingness to share her grief honestly from this pulpit, which has been helpful for us all.

Do I still miss my mother? You know, it’s funny, though I probably don’t remember as many things about mom as I used to, the things I recall are all in sharper focus now – like a 3-D image on a movie screen:  the way she could run rings around all of us, although she was only about 5 foot-nothing; the look of contentment on her face when she worked in the flowerbed or repaired a piece of old furniture; the look she gave us when she disapproved of something we did (did your mother have one of those?)

She taught me the importance of humor and to be generous with laughter. She taught me about forgiveness and acceptance. She taught me how to live with grace and grit even when everything falls apart. She taught me that life is short, way too short, and that I shouldn’t let a day go by without telling those I love how much I love them, and that it’s ok to give them a hug.

Today is a day set aside in the church year to remember our saints. We celebrate that we have, in all who’ve gone before us, what St Paul calls such a great cloud of witnesses and that the faithful departed are as much the body of Christ as we are.

It is quite a thing, really.  That we are connected to so many. Connected to so much faith. So many stories. So much divine love. Especially in this day and age of alienation and trying to find community and belonging in smaller and smaller ways. I mean, I may think that the basis of me being connected to other people is in having theology or political beliefs or denominational affiliation or neighborhood or musical taste or Facebook groups in common.  But none of that is what connects me to the Body of Christ. What connects me to the body of Christ is not my piety or good works or theological beliefs.  It’s God. A God who gathers up all of God’s children into the church eternal.

So, today we remember all the deeply faithful and deeply flawed saints of God’s church through whom the glory of God has been revealed and will be revealed.  Let us remember Mary Magdalene and Peter the fisherman and the glorious disciples.  Let us remember St. Frances and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. Let us remember all the ones we have named and my mom and your mom, and every brother and teacher and friend who took us in when we were messed up and loved us, and the ones we loved back. Today let us thank God for gathering so many into the church eternal, some of whom still light our own paths.

Do I still miss my mother? Like everyone else this morning, I feel fresh tugs at my heart as I think about that question. I would have liked to have had my mom see how successful her grandchildren have become; to have met Josih’s husband Jon; to have gone with us to watch the whales. But I also feel solid in the knowledge that she was and is a part of me, and part of my children too.

Yes. I still miss my mother.

So, now you are invited to remember and honor those in your own personal lives who have gone before you.  It may be a spouse, a parent, a child, a beloved friend.  You are given time now to come forward to one of these three round tables and light a candle in memory of your loved one and place it in the sand.  It is your memory.  It is your time.  It is your privilege to remember and allow the life of this person to speak to you today.



Leading in an Upside-Down World

I grew up with two brothers – so, as you might imagine, there were quite a few fights in our house.  Mind you, they were mostly between my two brothers; one time, it got so bad my dad had to establish a “demilitarized zone” down the middle of the house just to keep the peace.  But every now and then I got involved.  Usually this happened when something wasn’t fair: the slices of cake were not exactly equal, someone had taken more than their share of the Halloween candy, and why did I always have to sit in the middle on road trips?  That last one was probably because my brothers fought all the time and somebody had to be a buffer zone in the backseat.

So when I first read these stories of the disciples bickering over who would be the greatest, it sounded like home to me.  But then I thought about it and wondered “Seriously?  They’ve been hanging with Jesus all this time and they are still arguing about who is the greatest?”  How is it even possible that so little of that Christ-like attitude had rubbed off?  How could they have missed his message all this time?  They were even bickering at the Last Supper!

Today’s headlines remind us that this desire for greatness, the all-consuming drive to be #1, is definitely part of our fallen nature as human beings.  Whether it’s a misguided and divisive nationalism evident in entire groups of citizens who declare America is the greatest or whether it’s the leader of the free world insisting he is a “very stable genius,” there seems to be a persistent pattern of needing to be at the top of the heap.

But lest we point fingers at everyone else and ignore our own tendencies in this area, the same sort of pattern is evident when we think our church is the best church in the denomination (well, of course it is!) or when we as individuals try to out-humble other Brethren.  There’s nothing wrong with striving for excellence or going for your own personal best; the problem arises when we act like there’s only one seat next to Jesus and we’re all fighting over who gets it.

Jesus’ response to all this bickering was not to create a demilitarized zone down the middle of the house or to put on his Make God Great Again ball cap.  Rather, as the book of John tells the story, he took up a towel and started washing their feet.  And that turned their world upside down.  In Hebrew culture foot washing was something that only Gentile slaves were required to do for houseguests – Jewish slaves did not have to do so.  But it was also an act that wives did for their husbands, that children did for their parents, and that protégées did for their mentors.  So it was an intimate and respectful act, as well as an act of service.  In this one act, as well as in his words that followed, Jesus showed his disciples the new world he was ushering in.

In response to their bickering over who was #1 on the Best Disciple List, Jesus reminded them that “the kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…but it is not to be that way with you.  Let the greatest become like the youngest, and let the leader act the part of the servant.”  Another topsy-turvy idea!

Now I must confess that those passages in the Bible that say “the first shall be last” are some of my favorites—for other people. In fact, I’m really rooting for that prophecy to come true in my lifetime…and maybe even this year.  Come on, Jesus!  We may feel like our current world is upside-down and in need of a hard reset, but that’s not what Jesus was talking about here.  He meant that the leadership patterns and practices of his world were not the same as those of this world.  In his world, leadership was characterized by three defining elements: (1) service, not authority or position, was its hallmark, (2) it was open to anyone, not just the elite, and (3) it was communal, not individual.  Let’s explore each of these dimensions for some clues as to how the La Verne Church of the Brethren might envision and support leadership.

First, leadership in the upside-down world of Jesus was defined as service.  In an oppressive culture that treated wives, children, and slaves as property, for Jesus to suggest that the greatest should become like a little child and that leaders should act like servants was unthinkably radical.  In describing a servant attitude, however, I think it’s important for us not to romanticize the attitudes that slaves and other persons who were treated as property developed as a response to oppression.  Jesus is not suggesting that we enslave one another in order to develop positive traits; rather, he is suggesting that we can and should humble ourselves to learn from those who are under the thumb of injustice and oppression—even as we work to combat those systemic forces.

So today I want to use an example from my own life as we consider the hallmarks of servants—well, actually servers.  You see, I was a Bonanza girl for all of 6 days when I was a teenager.  It was my first job, and I was excited about making some extra money and becoming an adult.  Then reality hit.  Do you know what Bonanza girls did for $1.60 an hour?  (Yes, that was my pay, plus whatever coins people left on the table, which they rarely did.)  Bonanza girls did not just wear fun cowgirl hats and show people to their tables—they also delivered food to those tables, cleaned the tables, mopped the floors, refilled the drinks, replaced the plates, and kept the right amount of the right kind of food on the buffet line.  Let’s just say I was not in my sweet spot!  My first day I forgot all about an entire table of people who needed their food, I spilled a drink on a customer, and I managed to get my mop so tangled in the wringer that I had to cut the strands to get it out.

A large part of my problem was that I had not yet acquired a serving attitude.  What do I mean by that?  Sometimes it’s called a servant heart, which implies you’re born with it, but I’m pretty convinced it’s an acquired skill.  The eyes of a servant notice what needs to be done—and even anticipate the needs of others.  The ears of a servant are always listening for what is important or valued by the other person.  The hands of a servant are always doing for others, often cleaning up after them.  And the feet of a servant are walking the extra mile to go above and beyond what is expected as they put the other person first.  A tall order, to be sure, but one that leadership guru Robert Greenleaf says is descriptive of some of the most trusted leaders in history.  In fact, he calls it the Best Test of a servant leader: Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit?  Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, was known for saying, “Service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth.”  What message are we sending about our privilege when we don’t serve?  How are we as a church displaying leadership in the surrounding community through our service?

Second, servant leadership is open to anyone and everyone.  Unlike our world where one is born to greatness according to some theories or buys their way into power or is given leadership because of their pedigree, the world Christ invites us to inhabit opens leadership to everyone who desires to serve.  The desire to serve is then coupled with acquiring the skills to do so most effectively.  And this is where my own research and work in the leadership area has provided some helpful insights.  For we’ve found that individuals are likely to thrive as leaders when they are in an environment that brings out their best and is a good fit for the strengths they bring to the table.  Good leaders know their strengths and weaknesses and know what situations they are best suited for—and which ones they are not, as I so readily discovered in my Bonanza days.  Each of us has been uniquely designed to do good work that God has called us to do; in the book of Ephesians, Paul reminds us that “you are God’s workmanship [masterpiece or work of art], created in Christ Jesus to do good work which he has prepared for you to do.”  By discovering your unique strengths and talents—or discerning your gifts, as we like to call it here—you are better able to lean into your calling and see where your gifts are needed, not only in the church but in the world.  Equipped with this perspective, you will more readily recognize when it’s the right time to step into leadership and service.

Third, leadership in this upside-down world is not a solo act, but rather is communal.  The passage in I Corinthians 12 that describes the church as Christ’s Body is powerfully instructive here, as author Eugene Peterson paraphrases in The Message: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits….All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.  You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) …..The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.  You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.”

This emphasis on the church as the body of Christ is what we are envisioning through the CONNECT! Program—multiple opportunities to grow together, to build community, and to serve our neighbors.  Part of that program involves preparing its leaders, which will happen next Saturday as we spend time together learning some of the skills that are needed to accompany the serving attitude that is the hallmark of leadership in the kingdom of God.  I hope you’ll join us in this time of mutual learning!

This concept of interdependent parts of one body is also displayed in nature.  In geese, to be more specific.  Now, I am not a birder like Jeff Stroegen—I had to check National Geographic to find out what to call a group of geese: did you know they are called a gaggle when they are on the ground, but are called a wedge when they are flying in formation?  It’s that flying in formation that fascinates me—and can provide some leadership lessons for us, as well.

When geese fly in a V-formation, the whole flock can fly 71% further than if flying alone.  It saves energy as they catch the upward air currents of the other geese and can glide for longer periods of time.  When flying together, their heart rates calm down.  It’s like that with us, too.  Working with others toward a common goal is not nearly as stressful or difficult as taking on a challenge alone.  The presence of others working with us calms us down and keeps us on course.  When a goose isn’t paying attention and falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and air resistance of flying alone, so it quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lift of the bird in front of it.

And they rotate leadership!  The bird in the very front gets tired pretty quickly, as there is no lift gained from the group.  So the other geese rotate into that front position continuously, so that the strain is shared.  The lead goose is the one who has to know when to rotate, however.  Knowing when we need a respite and can trust others to keep the flock—or rather, the wedge—together and moving in the right direction is also an important leadership skill.  But the other geese always have an eye out for when the leader gets tired, and one is always there to rotate in.  That’s how we do church here, too—rotating our leaders so that one is less likely to get burned out.  But it means the rest of us have to be attentive to those in leadership, watching for signs that it’s time to rotate.  And the leader doesn’t drop out of the wedge—they simply take another position in the formation and get to glide for a while.  Everyone is both follower and leader.

And what about those in the back of the formation?  They’re not just gliding along, benefiting from the updraft of the others’ wings.  They are honking like geese—it’s the ones in the back who do all the honking (I’m convinced the lead bird is too exhausted to do much of anything except navigate the wedge).  This honking is encouragement for the wedge to keep up its speed.  And don’t we need that?  We need encouragers in our formation to help us keep our momentum, just as we need leaders to head us in the right direction.

Finally, when one of the geese in the wedge gets sick or wounded, two geese typically drop out of the formation and follow it down to safety, staying with it until it recovers or dies.  Then they begin their own formation or they may join another in order to eventually get to their home.  The lesson here is that they never do anything alone.  Every action is communal.  The geese thrive because they are in this together—and so are we!

So as we commission our leaders on this Sunday morning, let us do so with a sense of gratitude for being able to glide on their updraft for this season, and with a commitment to being one of the flock (or wedge) in this upside-down world: willing to serve alongside them, to respond and support the issues to which they call our attention, and to answer the call and rotate in when it’s our turn.  Amen.

Is It Too Soon?

If I were Matthew I would have ended the story of Jesus’ birth with the magi arriving with adoration and expensive presents.  It is a beautiful, tender scene.  It just puts a nice cap to the Advent/Christmas season.  And that is what we most often do here.  We end before the end of the story.  Then we pack up the Christmas decorations, throw away the last of the leftover Christmas ham, finish off the eggnog and go back to our regularly scheduled lives until next Christmas.  When we run into people we haven’t seen for a couple weeks we say, “How was your Christmas?”  “It was good,” we say.


Christmas is supposed to be filled with joy and wonder….but Matthew moves on from the gift-bearing kings to a darker tale.  You heard it this morning.  When Herod learns that the magi returned by a different route and did not stop back by the palace to tell him where the new king had been born, he goes berserk.  Herod decides that that if he isn’t going to be told any more about the location of this child than that he was born in Bethlehem then Herod will just kill all the babies.  He orders the murder of all children less than two years of age in and around Bethlehem.


Imagine if your infant had been snatched from your arms and murdered in front of you.  Unfathomable…Matthew tells an evil story.  I don’t like preaching about it and so I have only preached on this text one other time.  It was when I was the pastor of the Manchester Church of the Brethren in Indiana.  The worship leader got up to read this passage as the first scripture reading of the day.  Then we went immediately into the Children’s Time, in which we called the children forward using the same song every week.  So the scripture ended like this:

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.

Immediately after these words the pianist began the song:

Let them come, let them come,

Let the children come to me,

I have time, I have time,

Said the savior tenderly.


We just told the sinister tale of Herod slaughtering the innocents and then in a sweet little song, we called the innocents forward.  You could tell the congregation was jarred by it.  At first they looked horrified and then they broke the tension with their laughter. I had two thoughts at the time:

  1. I really need to do a better job of thinking through the transitions in a service.
  2. I doubt I will ever choose to preach on this scripture again.


And here I am only seventeen years later, trying it again.  First of all I have come to the realization that it is hard to make this scripture more abrasive than it already is.  Secondly, even though this scripture feels abrupt, jarring and sinister I think it isn’t as unimaginable as it seems.  In fact, I think it happens to be consistent with the world in which we live.  Actually, it is more familiar to us than the idea of magi traveling from the East to leave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh with a total stranger they have tracked by starlight.


Think about it.  Is this scripture more jolting than the images we have seen on our TV and computer screens of dead children floating in the waters of the Mediterranean or innocents slaughtered in Aleppo?  Are we more horrified by this story than the shooting of children in a church service in Texas?  Friends, 21,000 children will die today because that many children die everyday.  I am afraid that the innocents are still being slaughtered.


Matthew tells this story because it is our story.  As much as we don’t want to end on this note, Matthew drops us right back into our reality.  And yet….this story is a bit different because in this story the Word becomes flesh and lives among us.


Matthew highlights the vulnerability of incarnation. God comes to us in the form of an infant who can’t care for himself.  The Christ child is not spared the tension, fear and violence of our world. God comes in such a way that God is not exempt from the suffering of the world.  In this story, God doesn’t squash the census or dethrone Herod or stop the slaughtering of the innocents.  At the end of the story we find God fleeing from terror in the arms of his adopted father, Joseph.  They are escaping to Egypt.


There is an interesting juxtaposition here.  In the Hebrew Bible, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt….out of danger…they escape from Egypt.  It happens after the tenth plague in which God instructs the Israelites to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts.  When God sees the blood he will pass over their homes and not harm them.  But all the firstborn children of those without the blood of the lamb on their doorposts shall be killed…which means the firstborn children of the Egyptians. God is righting the wrongs and punishing the oppressors and their children.


But Matthew tells a different story in which the holy family flees Israel to Egypt not from Egypt.  As they flee they hear the screams of Israelite children being murdered in the streets…the ones being killed are the oppressed.  The story from Matthew is a complete reversal of the story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt to the sounds of Egyptian parents weeping in the streets.


Matthew wants us to know this is a whole new story. This isn’t simply the triumphant victory tale of Moses being retold.  Jesus isn’t the new Moses.  The story of Moses is upended with this story.  God is not acting out of total power from on high somewhere. In fact, God is a baby in danger because Herod thinks this baby has come to usurp his power…to become the new king.  Herod doesn’t understand that the Christ’s child kingdom will be very different from the one Herod rules.  Even in infancy Jesus is seen as a threat to world order.  Baby Jesus’ life is spared because of a warning in a dream. But Jesus lives only to be killed later with the approval of a new Herod who also sees Jesus as a threat to his worldly kingdom. But even death couldn’t win.  That is a story for a different Sunday.


What do we learn from this story from the Book of Matthew? We learn that God is not the architect of pain and suffering.  Suffering happens at the hands of humans and under the command of the empire.  We also learn that God loves us so much God is willing to become flesh and experience and endure all that we endure – all the death, violence, fear, vulnerability, suffering and disappointment that we will experience over a lifetime.  David Lose writes:  “When you think about it, Emmanuel – God-with-us – wouldn’t really mean all that much if it was only God with us during the tender moments.”  God comes to us so that we know we are not alone in the trials and triumphs of life and in that process God experiences real suffering.  God submits to the evil we humans lash out at each other just so God can be with us. How more deeply could God display her love for us?


The Word became flesh to teach us a better way.  Jesus came that we might learn to choose the lesser seat at the table….that we might lay down our lives for our friends….that we might sell what we have and give the money to the poor…that we might worship God and not Herod…that we might love our neighbor and pray for our enemies…that we might turn the other cheek and walk the second mile….that we might welcome home the prodigal…that we might wash each others’ feet…that we might truly learn the ways of peace…that we might be part of this new kingdom, forsaking all desires for power and privilege…and through this way of Jesus learn they joy of being love.


We are about to take communion together.  We do it together because we don’t live in God’s kingdom by ourselves.  We do it as a reminder that God loves us so much that, in Jesus, God joined our story.  We do it to reaffirm our desire to live the way Jesus taught us…loving neighbor, prodigal, enemy, even Herod.  Amen.



And the Time Came

One of the topics parents of young children love to talk about is the day their babies were born or adopted.  Parents can talk for hours about all the details.  There is always a story worth telling from that much-anticipated day.  I admit I still like to tell the stories of the days my children were born.


Think of Luke 2 in the genre of that kind of story.  Just like most birth stories, someone sets the stage.  The storyteller describes the setting….the back seat of a car; a hospital room with a nurse that reminds them of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; a lawyer’s office.  They tell us their circumstances…they already had two children; they were going to graduate school and had so little income; they had been through years of infertility treatments; they had waited years for the news of a possible adoption and been disappointed many times.


So Luke sets the stage for Jesus’ birth story like this:

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. 


Luke sets the scene by having Roman trumpets heralding an imperial order from Caesar Augustus. This was during Caesar’s reign when Quirinius was governor of Syria after Herod Archelaus was already banished. The trumpets blare and the empire jumps to attention under Roman domination.  One man, as long as he is Caesar, has the power to make everyone stand up straight and do his bidding.  The ruler of the empire was demanding order for his Pax Romana….Roman imposed peace.


Luke wants us to know that this birth story takes place when Caesar Augustus had ordered a census.  He had a tax plan but it only worked if he knew the names of everyone he could tax.  He wanted to make sure everyone ponied up for the empire.


So now that we understand the political setting Luke moves on to tell us about the parents.  They were not Romans.  No, this birth is about to take place in a poor Jewish family who lives on the outskirts of the empire, where order is maintained by any means necessary.  Subjugated to the whims, rages and taxes of distant Roman rulers this poor couple has to make a journey to another town, also on the periphery of the empire, so that they can be registered in order to pay taxes that will benefit the good of wealthy people they will never see or know.


The father was a Jewish man named Joseph who traced his family lineage to the town of Bethlehem, the home of David.  And so, Joseph and his betrothed became moveable pieces in the grand scheme of the empire. They had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census.  The woman’s name was Mary.  She was pregnant and her doctor had warned her not to travel but the empire isn’t known for its compassion.


That is the setting, according to Luke.  Here is the birth story:

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.


And so, when the time came, when the water broke and the labor pains began, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem.  They weren’t staying in the inn because it was packed.  They were staying in a stable with the animals.


In the empire where order is maintained at all costs, the main event takes place far away from the centers of power.  It happens in the little town of Bethlehem on the fringe of society, where a scared teenage girl and her betrothed can’t find a decent place to give birth to their firstborn.  So there they are welcoming their child in the stench of the stable.


I know we make it look like Mary just starched and ironed her clothes before having a makeover at Sephora.  But if you have seen a woman right after eight hours of labor you know that all our Christmas cards depict this scene incorrectly.  In an empire of order and opulence, the main stage’s principal characters are a woman, pale and overwrought from labor with her sweaty hair pasted to her forehead and a man who looks so relieved that he was able to help his betrothed birth a baby with cows assisting.  That is the image….now imagine the smell.  If you are having a hard time doing that the nativity scene is covered with the same odor as we had here a few Sundays ago when the city sewer backed up into our downstairs rooms.


The important question is why did Luke choose to tell the story this way? It is always a good question to ask ourselves when reading the Bible:  Why tell the story this way?  I think Luke is making a point because Luke is always making a point.


Frederick Buechner in his book Peculiar Treasures:  A Biblical Who’s Who writes about Caesar Augustus like this:

Caesar…ruled Rome and thus virtually the whole civilized world.  He was worshiped as a god. People burned incense to him.  Insofar as he is remembered at all, most people remember him mainly because at some point during his reign, in a rundown section of one of the more obscure imperial provinces, out behind a cheesy motel among cowflops and moldy hay, a child was born to a pair of up-country rubes you could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge to without even trying.[1]


Buechner also thinks that Luke is making a point and here it is:  The birth of Jesus is an indictment on the empire and the false order and power it tries to place on top of this vulnerable and fragile world. The empire thinks it is in charge.  It thinks it is the most important thing going.  It thinks that Caesar is Lord and it is the center of the universe.  But the truth is completely the opposite.  While Roman orators and poets are crafting their words to announce the arrival of peace on earth through the birth of the next emperor, God is showing up in the ordinary…in the muck and mess of real life. The redemptive story is actually happening on the fringe of society, where it always happens.  God is coming to earth in the places we walk quickly past.  The King of Kings was not born in the palace but in a stable.  Love came down in Bethlehem, not Rome.  The Light of the World was covered in the stench of animals not cared for by royal attendants.  Heavenly angels sang to sheep, not to those gathered in the Temple of Janus. And now, over two millennia later, the Roman Empire has crumbled.  People line up to walk through the ruins of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.  Caesar Augustus is remembered almost exclusively for being mentioned in the birth story of a peasant boy named Jesus.  Empires always fade only to be replaced with new ones, which will also eventually fail.


This perspective, from further out, switches everything on its head.  We think of Bethlehem as being on the outskirts but if God is born there, then it becomes the center and Rome is the city on the periphery.


That is one way to look at this story and I think it has some merit.  But there is another way. Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher from the 15th century wrote:  “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”  The Word didn’t become flesh so that God could inform us who is in and who is out….who resides in the center and who is banished to the periphery.  No.  The Word became flesh to let us know that nothing is outside of God’s embrace…not Bethlehem or even Rome.


“God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”  It is like that benediction we often say here…there is nowhere you can go that God is not.  That is the message of Christmas.  God comes to us….Immanuel….God with us….wherever we are.  There is no circumference when it comes to God.  Amen.






[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures:  A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 18.

When the Divine Interrupts the Nightmare: A New Dream

Most everyone in this sanctuary today will have a dream dying experience sometime during your lifetime. By that I mean a time when you watched your dreams float away due to illness or death or the end of a relationship or infertility or cancer or financial issues or decisions of others that are completely outside your control. Most of us know what it is like to have a dream die. If you have had a dream die than you can get in touch with what Joseph was going through in our scripture text for today.

The story begins like this:
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 with child from the Holy Spirit.

Joseph had been betrothed to Mary but they had not yet established a home together. That was the way it worked back then. Joseph knew that when the time was right Mary would be his wife. We wrap this tale in the genre of a love story but it really was more like a contract. Mary’s father had agreed to marry her off to Joseph, the carpenter.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place like this….when God was ready to come to us in the flesh God chose a peasant teenage girl and a man who worked with his hands to be the parents. He chose real people and that choice caused them real challenge and heartbreak.

Joseph was a righteous man, the scripture says. He was tzaddik, which means he was unflinchingly faithful to the Torah, the Law of Moses. John Ortberg describes it like this:
Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep his carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to make a few extra drachmas. He was a tsaddîyq; that was his identity. Everybody knew this about him. Nobody invited Joseph over to have ham sandwiches with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was what people wanted to be.
Joseph was also a man who had dreams. They weren’t dreams about power and privilege. They were dreams about being faithful…dreams about family and home. In his woodshop, when he was not building things for others, he was building furniture for the home he and Mary would create. He imagined their wedding night and the little boy named Joseph Jr. who would follow him around in the shop, eager to grow up to be just like his father. He dreamed of family dinners around the table he had built for their home and their religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem. He imagined his large family joining together with his brothers’ large families for Sabbath dinner. He knew what his life would look like and he dreamed about it. He was ready to be a married man…to enter the world as a full adult.

And then Mary showed up in his workshop to tell him that she was pregnant…by the Holy Spirit. That was a new one. She told him that the child she carried was the Messiah. That God had chosen her….and therefore, him….to be the parents of God in the flesh. Either she had lost her mind or she thought he was stupid. Neither boded well for him. Suddenly Joseph had to make a decision. What was he, a tsaddik man, going to do?

What do we do when we face a dilemma in which all the choices are bad ones? Worry. Agonize. Overeat. Snap at our families. Try to get others to make the decision for us so that we can blame them if it goes awry. We can get in touch with Joseph’s agony. We have all had to make a decision when all the options seemed like negative ones.

This is how Joseph saw it…he could either be kind by quietly divorcing Mary or publicly divorce her, which would not only humiliate her but put her well-being in jeopardy because she could be stoned to death for adultery. That thought horrified Joseph. This woman he dreamed of creating family with would instead die a horrific death. Back and forth he went between the only two possibilities he thought he had. Finally, he decided to divorce her quietly. There would still be gossip but, at least, he would not be haunted by her death and the death of her unborn child. “That is what a righteous man does,” he decided. She would have to deal with the consequences of being an unwed mother all on her own.

But you and I know that somewhere along the line, Joseph changed his mind or we wouldn’t place him in all our crèche scenes. Joseph is a very present character in the story of Jesus’ early life. He walked by Mary’s very pregnant side all the way to Bethlehem. He found a stable in which she could give birth. He greeted the shepherds and the magi when they showed up. He was with Mary when they took Jesus to be blessed in the temple. He helped Mary and the baby escape to Egypt for their safety. He was there with Mary when Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and they thought they had lost him. What happened to his decision to divorce her quietly? Something happened that made him fully commit to parenting this child he knew was not his own.

An angel showed up….that is what happened. Be wary of angels. They show up in the New Testament whenever there is a very real reason to be afraid and they say, “Don’t be afraid.” They appear when someone is being asked to believe the unbelievable. They happen upon the scene when there is heavy lifting to be done. Angels are needed when a new level of tzaddik is required.

That is exactly what happened to Joseph on the day when his dreams died. After Joseph decides that he will privately divorce Mary and let her deal with the circumstances, he finally falls asleep. It seems that while God chose a peasant girl to be the mother of the incarnation, he didn’t want her to go it alone…. so….time for an angel.

While Joseph sleeps an angel hovers over his sleeping body and whispers into his ear, “You have another option, Joseph. You can choose to believe her. You can choose to believe that God needs you to be the father of Immanuel. You can enter God’s story and be depicted on Christmas cards and painted by the Masters. All it requires is everything you’ve got to give.”

Alyce McKenzie a professor at Perkins School of Theology imagines what the angel whispered in Joseph’s ear like this:
“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.
“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.
“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.
“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”

With Joseph’s dreams gone the angel invites him to replace the old dream with a dream in which he lives a very challenging life but this one has new meaning and purpose. And so, Joseph left the 2.5 children and a two-car garage dream behind in favor of a dream in which he provided safety, guidance, nurture and role modeling for the One who was the Light of the World. Joseph woke up a different man than when he fell asleep and I’m guessing that God chose him because Joseph could let his dreams die while a new one resurrected.

It hardly seems fair that Joseph plays such a back seat role in all our nativity scenes. Hardly any Christmas carols or anthems even mention him. But Joseph matters to the story. He matters because he represents us in the crèche scene. We have a choice to make also. Do we believe in the deep truth of this outrageous tale or do we dismiss it privately? Do we dream little dreams about perfect families and nice homes or do we dream outrageous dreams about harboring Christ? Do we reject the challenge because it asks too much or do we disrupt our lives to keep the incarnation safe from the Empire? Can we see beyond our wants to the needs of the world?

This is no small choice for Joseph or for us. Joseph lost his status as the tsaddik man….well, at least in his life time. When he took Mary to be his wife he in essence allowed people to think that he had sex with her before they were formally married. He was no longer considered righteous, but a hypocrite. His friends and neighbors no longer looked at him with respect and adoration.

But being a truly righteous man, those things no longer mattered to Joseph. Once Joseph laid eyes on that baby he knew he made the right choice. He had sacrificed his reputation for something larger….for God to be born on earth that we might know that true righteousness isn’t about the love of the law but about the law of love….he sacrificed and received true joy.

Years after Joseph died, when Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount he said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I bet Jesus was thinking of Joseph when he said those words. Joseph, who found new righteousness, new life, new joy, new hope, a new dream in welcoming the incarnation. We get to make the same choice. Choose well. Amen.