Category Archives: Life in the church

How to Listen to a Sermon

I don’t often post my weekly sermons to this blog. My sermons are written for and preached to a very specific congregation in a very specific context, not to mention that sermons are primarily for hearing and not for reading.

I’m going to break that rule this week. While the above caveats are also true of this sermon, I think it also raises an important issue for the larger church. How do we listen to preaching? It’s a particularly important question for this hyper-partisan, hyper-critical moment in time. What I’m suggesting is that just as Christians read the bible differently than other literature, we listen to preaching differently than other spoken discourse. And if you don’t want to read the whole sermon, here’s the short answer. We listen to preaching with a posture of humility, expecting to hear a word from God.

Oh, and by the way, the sermon is based on Sunday’s lesson, Jeremiah 28:5-9. It’s a bit obscure and hard to understand without the larger context, which I explain in the opening part of the sermon. 5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

This morning I want to talk about how to listen to a sermon, or maybe more accurately, how not to listen to a sermon.

But first, I want to tell a story, the story that our first lesson is a part of. It’s a critical time in the political history of God’s chosen people, the nation Judah, about 600 years before Christ. There have been a series of pretty awful kings of Judah; now Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is becoming more and more powerful. In 594, the armies of Babylon swept into Judah and deposed King Jehoiachin and carried him off to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with a 21-year-old, the son of a former king; he would be a puppet of Nebuchadnezzar. Things looked pretty precarious for this tiny nation. Jeremiah consistently preached the message to Judah that their hard times were a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God. The prophet Jeremiah was fond of using object lessons to accompany his preaching. So, he got a big wooden yoke and placed it on his shoulders and said to the king, the priests, and the other rulers, this yoke symbolizes how for the next 3 generations, you all – God’s people – will be under the yoke of the Babylonians. Certainly not the kind of news that any of the ruling class wanted to hear. So, in comes Hananiah, a rival prophet with a very different message. Hananiah told them, “Don’t worry. Within a few months, Nebuchadnezzar will be gone; his power is waning, and we’ll have nothing to worry about.” Now that was more like it. That’s what the people wanted to hear.

Of course, we know how the story turned out. We know that Jeremiah was precisely right. Within a decade, the Babylonian army would return and crush Judah, destroying the Temple, burning the city, and carrying the living inhabitants off to 3 generations of exile in Babylon. But at the time, no one knew who was right. Turns out the uncomfortable, challenging word of Jeremiah was the true word from the Lord, even though the people desperately wanted to believe the easier, comforting word from Hananiah.

Which brings me to wanting to talk to you about how to listen to a sermon. Most of us, and I would include me in that group, would rather hear a message of comfort and ease than a message of dire warning and challenge. When the world is falling in around us, we come to church to hear a word of comfort. The bible definitely offers that, and preaching definitely offers that. But not always. We all know there’s another side to the biblical message. If you read the bible in its totality you know that there’s also rebuke and challenge. There’s an awful lot in the bible that is uncomfortable, that demands a change in our lives, in our community, in the world. The bible recognizes that sin and evil and death are always trying to drag us away from God’s ways to our own selfish ways and the ways of the world.

Someone once told me, “Your job in preaching is to bring us comfort and strength.” I said, “Yes, and to challenge you.” And they replied, “yes, but more comfort.” You see the dilemma.

We believe that in both the bible and preaching, God speaks. Let’s consider the bible for a moment. We know that we don’t read the bible in the same way that we read other literature. We read the bible, not critically, but humbly, submitting ourselves to its authority, expecting as we read it, that we will hear a word from God. That’s how we listen to preaching. We don’t listen to a sermon the same way we listen to a speech or a news report. We listen to preaching expecting a word from God. We listen humbly, submitting ourselves to the authority of the Word. Not the authority of the preacher, but the authority of the spoken Word.

That’s hard to remember in such a hyper-partisan and hyper-critical moment in time. For many of us, our opinions about the way the world is ordered are set in stone and our kneejerk reaction to everything we hear is, “I agree,” or “I disagree.” But when we listen to preaching, our first response isn’t about whether we agree or disagree.

There are two important sets of questions that we should ask. The first set is:

  • What is God trying to say to me here?
  • Where is the good news of what God has done for me in Jesus?
  • What is God inviting me to be?
  • What is God empowering me to do?

The second question comes into play especially if we hear something that makes us uncomfortable. It’s important to sit in that place of discomfort, to linger there for a while.

  • Is there something in my life that needs to change?
  • Why does it make me uncomfortable?
  • Is there some long held belief that God is challenging?
  • Is this somehow related to my ego and to the idols that I set up in my life, those things that become hyper-important to me?
  • Is there something I’m trying to protect, something that maybe I cherish too much?

We don’t like to change and we don’t like to be changed. Yet our faith is based on the premise that God is always at work transforming us from the kingdom of the Enslaver to the reign of God. That means God is changing us.

I want to be clear. I’m not suggesting that everything I say is infallible. I am as capable of mistakes as anyone. I preach under the authority of the community and I’m accountable to the community for what I preach – this congregation, my bishop, my denomination. Instead, I’m suggesting that questions about agree or disagree are not the first questions we should be asking, and if we’re listening for a word from God, maybe we never even get around to those kinds of questions.

I want to talk about one more thing, and I realize it may be uncomfortable for some of us. One of the most common comments I receive about my preaching is that it is sometimes political. My gentle response is that if I’m going to be faithful to the gospel and my ordination vows, then my preaching has to be political. Did you hear our lesson for today? Jeremiah and his opponent are preaching in the middle of a geo-political crisis. They are speaking into the situation in which God’s people were living. They preach about where God is in that crisis and about seeing the situation as God sees it. Do you why preaching has to be political? Or maybe a better word is social? Because God cares about human communities. God cares about how we relate to each other, how we form ourselves socially, how we care for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable. Preaching calls us to consider the values of the kingdom of God and to call out our leaders and our policies that are in opposition to the values of the kingdom, regardless of who or what party is in power. The gospel is social because sin is social, systemic, and cultural. The gospel is personal because we as individuals are caught up in these social sins and must be saved out of them. This is what’s possible in Christ. This is what God does in us and through us.

Knowing God’s will and what the word is from God in real time can be tricky. Yet we believe that God is speaking. God has spoken primarily through God’s son, who in his death and resurrection has given us life with God. We live confidently from that promise; and we live humbly and expectantly, knowing that God is at work in us transforming us, and through us transforming the world. Listen. I listen. You listen. We listen together. God is speaking. Dear God, give us ears so we can hear.

“I Can’t Breathe. . .”

This weekend, churches are going to be hearing a lot about breath and breathing. Folks will hear the story of the Spirit coming at Pentecost, visible with tongues of fire, audible like the sound of a mighty wind, or was it a mighty breath. Take your pick, the Greek word there can mean either. At any rate it was something good. That wind, that breath, empowered them and propelled them into the streets to proclaim this new thing God was getting started.

Then they’ll hear the story of Jesus on Easter evening, his appearance to those same disciples. He appeared to that gathering of disciples, sans Thomas, and showed them the scars of his torture and death and offered them a word of blessing. Then Jesus breathed on them. He breathed on them and gave them the gift of that Holy Spirit that Luke reports only came at Pentecost. Regardless, both imparted by a breath. Breath is life-giving. On June 7, we’ll read the long account of creation which ends with the forming of the human creatures. In the more detailed account (which we won’t read), the humans were formed out of the dust of the ground, and then God breathed (Spirit-ed, wind-ed) into them the breath of life. Breath is life-giving.

Except when it’s not. It’s so jarring to have these images of the life-giving breath when we are all locked up in our homes because of the fear of the other’s breath. As we continue to learn more about this virus, it is becoming more and more clear that the primary risk is breathing the aerosol that has come from the exhaling breath of an infected person. So, life-giving breath becomes illness-bearing breath and potentially life-robbing breath.

And then there’s the lynching this week of George Floyd in Minneapolis by those whose vocation is supposed to be to protect and to serve. As he was pinned to the ground with the police officer’s knee on his neck, he repeatedly pleaded with the officer; “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” His pleas fell silent on the ears of those who decided that the life of a black man wasn’t worth the trouble. Robbed of his breath. Robbed of his life.

Though I’m not expert on crucifixion, I read that those who hung on the cross actually suffocated – they couldn’t breathe. The weight of the body pulling down from the extended arms eventually prevented the victim from expanding their lungs and eventually they could no longer inhale. I wonder if in the cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was also saying, “I can’t breathe.”

Another crucifixion on the asphalt of Minneapolis.

The breath that God breathed into us is the breath of life; it is holy breath. Every breathing human is holy. Every human breath is holy because it comes from the divine; every human who breathes that holy human breath is the holy creation of the one who breathes into all of us the breath of life. Period. No exceptions.

How could we ever have misplaced that critical truth? It’s why the outrage is flowing out into the streets and into the Target store and the other businesses in the neighborhood. The denial of the equal humanity of black folks has been ignored; add to that the stoking of the flames of bigotry and hatred and division and it all adds up to death, literally and figuratively. Apparently way too many of us are fine with peaceful protests as long as the protesters are white, even if they’re carrying assault rifles. But when the protesters – both white and black – are protesting the lynching of a black man at the hands of the police, out comes the riot gear and tear gas. Honestly, what do you expect them to do when no outlet is allowed for their justifiable outrage?

I am both heart-broken and outraged and the senseless brutality and death of George Floyd. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be black in this country right now.

But this is not just about injustice to our black siblings. Racism is suffocating all of us; our black siblings know it because they live it every day. But we white people are suffocating under racism, too; we just don’t see it and can casually ignore the effects. Racism lies to us about our history and allows us to live in denial of 400 years of systematic and systemic oppression of people of color and Native Americans. It hides all the ways that the success of white people came on the backs of others and leads to the mistaken assumption that we are more deserving than we are. It robs of us the talents and gifts of our siblings of color. Racism makes us think that none of this applies to us and that we have a right not to feel uncomfortable about it. We develop a knee-jerk reaction, “I’m not racist!” that prevents us from hearing and receiving and understanding the experience of our siblings of color, and in the end it prevents us from taking responsibility for our part. We are suffocating. Collectively, we can’t breathe.

This Pentecost, when we hear the story of the powerful wind that blew through that upper room, I’m praying for a new breath/wind of the Spirit to blow through the church. That first coming of the Spirit was disruptive, and I’m hoping that this one will be no less disruptive. That She will not only breathe on us but also send fire to burn us out of our blindness and complacency and denial. That She will send us out of our ease and comfort into the streets to stand side by side with our siblings of color. And that She will light the fire of anger under us so that we will no longer settle for a society that works only for some of us, but demand that it works for all of us.

So that every man and woman, holy and good, created in the image of God, can breathe.

Easter Lament?

As I was trying to find some inspiration earlier this week for a Holy Week devotion, I ran across this quote from Angela Bauer-Levesque, a biblical scholar who writes for Feasting on the Word. “Exile is not just a matter of time and place. Exile. . .represents a sense of radical dislocation, separation from all that is familiar and beloved.”

Not “all,” of course. But enough that I can tap into the feeling; it’s what I’m experiencing. For instance, the loss of:

  • familiar work space and the people I enjoy working with
  • freedom to go where I want
  • making pastoral calls
  • going out to a restaurant
  • getting my hair cut at my favorite salon
  • meeting parishioners or community members for coffee
  • a quick trip to the grocery store or hardware store
  • shaking hands or receiving a hug
  • and most of all, not being able to go to church, not gathering as the weekly Christian assembly.

One of the cruel ironies is that in times of grief and loss, we crave, indeed, we need connection. That’s exactly what we’re being denied as we work together to slow the spread of this pandemic. In this exile, we are experiencing not only the uncertainties of the future, but losses upon losses in the present. And that is even without the rising tide of death that the experts warn us to expect.

I’m a church geek. I acutely miss the weekly gathering. I miss the greetings, the singing, the preaching when I can see the faces of those I’m preaching to, the gathering at the table.

I think I have a much better insight into what it must have felt like for the exiles from Judah after the Temple was destroyed and they were carted off to Babylon. They, too, wondered how to worship when the core location of their worship was no longer available. The words of Psalm 137 have become viscerally real.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a strange land?

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How shall we sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen today” in an empty sanctuary, or even while taping the service at home? In a faith and a tradition where the gathered assembly is so important, where bodies washed with baptismal water stands as the entry rite, where bodies gather around the altar to receive Christ’s body in a morsel of real bread, how do we capture the joy of the resurrection when none of it is the way we want it to be? We preachers are trying to figure out how best to preach the joy of resurrection in these strange times with a strange way of worship, worship in a foreign land.

I get it that the building and the assembly is not required for our worship. We’ve been proving that for the last few weeks. Yet the truth that this is not how we wish it would be needs to be acknowledged. Honesty and pastoral care – both – push us to figure out how to lament on Easter Sunday even as we celebrate the joy of resurrection.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann repeatedly insists on the necessity of lament. He writes that full one third of the psalms are psalms of lament or complaint, yet they are largely absent from our lectionary. In lament we acknowledge the reality of our situation and then move from there to action. Brueeggmann warns us about depriving the church of language to express the depth of disappointment, despair, and anger. It leads either to guilt – there’s something wrong, and it’s my fault – or denial – pretending there’s nothing wrong when there’s actually something deeply wrong. Action without lament brings false hope; in this case, celebration without lament brings false joy.

So, in the worship I lead this Easter – taped on Holy Saturday, which itself feels so weird – there will be an element of lament. I’m not sure yet how. For sure it will be in my preaching; maybe in the prayers of intercession; maybe an acknowledgement of the longing we experience to share the Eucharistic meal, though we are not; maybe even a song that departs from the exuberance of Easter hymns. While I’m not sure what it will be, it will be there.

If Bauer-Levesque is right, that exile is a sense of dislocation and the loss of things that are familiar and beloved, then this feels like exile. I suppose as Christians, we are always in exile, aliens in a strange land; this year that theological concept feels not like a concept, but real life. I’ll preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection, for sure. And maybe, knowing and acknowledging our dislocation and loss, it will be more meaningful this year than ever.

 

For Such a Time as This. . .

What a time to be the church, huh? A sign of life in the midst of swirling waters.

Challenging times and difficult decisions, decisions that are at the very heart of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: to love and care for people as the presence of Christ in the world. 

I know that a lot of you are weighed down with the burden of the moment. I am, too. When we make hard decisions, even those for which there really is no other option, no matter what we decide, someone’s going to be disappointed, even angry. Don’t take it personally. That comes with the territory. It’s not about you. 

At our place, we made the decision on Saturday morning to suspend in-person worship for the next four weeks. That seemed pretty radical at the time. It’s only 48 hours later, and the CDC is recommending that we plan on not gathering for the next 8 weeks. This morning, it was no gatherings of more than 50. This afternoon, it’s no gatherings more than 10. 

I came away from our meeting on Saturday with a deep respect for our leaders. They knew the gravity of the decision we were making. Individually, we did not come to the same conclusion about how we should move forward. Yet our conversation was respectful, loving, and imbued with a spirit of how best to love our neighbor. That was community and leadership at its best. I love those people. 

We are carefully avoiding using the language that church is cancelled. It’s not. At our place, it’s just taking a different form. So, yesterday morning I gathered in the sanctuary with a couple of tech people, a pianist, and a small group of singers and we worshiped. Before going live, we gathered in prayer, asking God to use this time to bring us together even though we were separated by distance. The whole experience was not what I imagined it would be. It was way better. We were standing on holy ground, even if virtual holy ground. A remnant gathered though scattered. And while I couldn’t read the comments, I could see on my phone screen the comments that poured in while we were worshiping, people participating remotely, yet still somehow gathered together. For those who weren’t on Facebook or couldn’t tune in at the right time, the whole service was uploaded to our website for folks to join at any time, and as the day rolled on, so did the supportive comments. I did my grocery run this afternoon, and saw a member who said she loved going to church in her pajamas.

What I’m discovering already — even in these first few days that necessitate a different way of being church — s that though we are not together, a strong sense of community persists, and maybe it’s even growing. At our meeting on Saturday, our council members committed to make personal phone calls to all our local residents once a week. I’ve also committed to making 10 phone calls a day, just checking in with people. We send out a weekly e-newsletter; I think for the time being, I’m going to send out a daily e-letter, just to remind God’s people that they are part of us, and they are in our prayers. I’m also designating times when I’m going to invite the whole congregation to be in prayer (thanks, Northwest Synod!). And instead of our midweek Lenten service, I’m going to livestream a brief order of compline. We’re going to use our website to upload printed versions of our livestream services so folks at home can follow along. In these times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are going to do our best to keep people connected. For all of us, what a blessing to have social media, email, websites, and iPhones! 

We got a message from our bishop this morning recommending that all congregations cancel their services. I’m grateful for that word coming from the synod office, especially to provide cover for pastors who would be putting their own ministry at risk were they to make the decision without support from above. 

If you’re a leader, hang in there. Take care of yourself. Make sure to schedule those times that feed you and get your mind off the hard stuff for a while. I’m finding myself even more drawn to spend time in scripture and prayer. Maybe that, too, is one of the blessings of suddenly having everything taken off my schedule. 

If you’re a lay member of a church, give your pastor and congregational leaders some love. They need it. They are feeling the weight and the burden of the decisions and of how to be in ministry to you and with you. Send them an email or note of encouragement. Post something supportive and kind publicly on Facebook. Let them know you are praying for them. Make sure you keep up with your pledge. 

I feel the weight of these times. Yet, I feel unexpectedly hopeful, even excited, for the authentic opportunities we have to be church. For such a time as this, we are church. 

Life from the Ashes

I’m the pastor of a congregation that’s really not into Ash Wednesday.

Maybe every congregation where I’ve been pastor has not really been into Ash Wednesday.

Maybe the human community is not into Ash Wednesday. I don’t know. You tell me.

What I know is that the twin themes of Ash Wednesday — repentance and mortality — are not on the top 10 list of things that we pay attention to.

In bible class yesterday we spent a lot of time on the reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the story from Genesis 3 that the church has traditionally referred to as The Fall. The church has spent way too much energy trying to use this story as an explanation for the how evil came into the world. I don’t think that’s really what it is.

Characteristic of the Hebrew scriptures, the text is not interested in explanations; it’s more attuned to a mystery at the heart of human existence. The story offers us a touch point to that thing we all know in our bones. We possess an inclination to yearn for what is beyond us. We bristle at limitations. In trying to make the move from creature to creator, we transgress the divinely established boundaries that were graciously established to give us life. Instead of life, we barter in the ways of death. By our own behavior, by giving in to our deep-seated, but misguided yearnings, we distort and inevitably destroy the gracious relationship that God created and still desires to have with us.

“I’m sorry.” That’s what repentance is. “I’ve done wrong, and I’ve got no excuses.” That’s it. Well, that and a commitment to go in a different direction. It’s not that complicated. That it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I still wonder why it’s so hard to acknowledge that we have done wrong and are in need of a change of direction. I wonder that in my own heart. So, Ash Wednesday. I am wrong. I need a change of direction. Not one that finds the initiative in my own heart. One that by definition needs to come from outside me.

Which is why the ashes that are placed on my forehead is in the shape of a cross. Only the death and resurrection of the Son of God is able to enact that reality that I cannot. The death that I keep on choosing through my ten thousand acts of rebellion are reversed in his death and resurrection. The Ash Wednesday reversal calls us to that life.

Paradoxically, the ashen cross also confronts us with our mortality.

I remember a day in the life of a pastor when I talked by phone with the spouse of a 93 year old who had been diagnosed with a not necessarily fatal form of cancer. “I just hope (s)he’s strong enough to endure the treatment.” The assumption was that if (s)he is not strong enough, the alternative was death.

A few hours later, I made a hospital visit to someone who had been in and out of the hospital for a few months, never with a diagnosis that in and of itself would be alarming. On the day of my visit, the diagnosis came that signals the end. Neither (s)he nor anyone else in their circle of family or friends could change that. We all know we are going to die. (S)he knew that it was going to happen in the next few months. And so it did.

I sometimes marvel at the clever and creative ways our culture denies the reality of death. Despite the fact that we all know that none of us is going to get out of this alive.

I read once that in medieval times, the work of the local parish priest was to prepare his parishioners to die. Ars morendi, I think they called it. The art of dying. On the one hand, I suppose death was much more a reality in those times than it is for us. Lack of understanding, and therefore treatment, of illness and disease made life expectancies much shorter. On the other hand, the mortality rate for humans is still 100%.

I think Ash Wednesday is one small and useful step on the way to confronting the reality of our own death and to embrace it. I don’t know that any of us are looking forward to that day in the same way that we look forward to a visit from someone we deeply love. Yet, I also believe that we don’t need to dread it or deny it. If the central tenet of our faith is true— that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Last Enemy has been vanquished — then there’s no good reason for denial or fear. Because we bear the hope that comes from the promise, we  live these meantime days to their fullest.

So, that ashen cross. And the words spoken along with the gesture, “Remember that you are dust; to dust you shall return.” Indeed they are words that express the reality of human life. And the ashen cross inscribed on our foreheads sears on our bodies and our being the hope that is in us. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

Here’s to life that springs from the ashes.

Unsettled by the Visit of the Magi

I must confess regret that for my 30-some years of pastoral ministry, I have not made a big enough deal about Epiphany. Liturgical purist that I too often have been, if it didn’t fall on a Sunday, we didn’t celebrate it. As I do, I looked back through my preaching files, and found no sermon from the last 20 years on the Epiphany gospel from Matthew. That’s really too bad. Because there’s so much in the story of the Magi coming from a distant land to worship the newborn king.

Scholarly consensus holds that the Magi were wealthy and educated, members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion. Early Zoroastrians paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced another religion and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. They came to worship, bowing the knee and bringing valuable gifts. In one of the greatest ironies of the story, God used these scientists who practiced another religion to let King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in on the news that their Messiah had been born.

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East.  From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger.  Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.

As a pastor in the church, pushed by this story to contemplate God’s radical grace, I find it a little unsettling. What could it mean that God led ancient scientists who practiced another religion and lived far outside the geographical limits of Judea to come and worship Christ? What could it mean that God used these outsiders to announce the good news that comes to the world in and through Christ? What, then, does it mean to have faith?

I have been trained and conditioned to think that there is one pretty narrow and formulaic way to come to Christ. For me, it’s always been through the church — preaching, Word, liturgy, sacrament. I’ve always held that the local congregation is the body of Christ through whom God gets God’s work done in the local community. Those are things that I hold dear. Yet the Magi came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who holds on to favorite, cherished ways that God uses to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith, it’s both wondrous and unsettling to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.

When I think about it, I can see that God has been reaching out to embrace me in new ways. A new call and a new setting, learning how to be a good pastor in a very different context. Trying to keep my mouth shut and listen to my siblings of color who are helping me to see my blind spots about race and privilege and who are teaching me what it means to be a neighbor. I’m learning from Asian and African and South American and womanist and LGBTQ Christians that my way of reading the bible is not the only way to read the bible, and certainly should not be the privileged way to read the bible. As always, I learn much about truth-telling from reading classic and contemporary fiction. I’m learning that the whole world, all peoples, all cultures can be the places where God is at work, revealing God’s self and God’s truth to me, to us, to the church, and to the world. While I love to bask in the starlight that I know as the church, I am led to wonder about the implications of the Magi coming to faith apart from the church or outside our formulaic approaches to how faith happens.

I’m still learning to be less suspicious and judgmental about people whose experiences of faith are different than mine or different than what I might think is normal. It’s has been challenging for me. I wonder how many people’s experiences of God over the years I have shattered and slaughtered because they didn’t fit my patterns, practices, and perspectives.

I’m guessing that it will continue to be a struggle and a challenge for me (and the congregation I serve) to proclaim God’s ever-expanding embrace in the midst of my own need to protect and preserve. One lifetime seems far too short to figure these things out. Still, I’m grateful to be on the journey.

(Thanks to Bishop Craig Satterllee and his essay on WorkingPreacher.org for the inspiration for these reflections.)

O King of All Nations — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

A strange king, the king we worship, the king whose coming we soon celebrate, the king whose first cradle was a feed trough.

The king wore no crown of precious metals and jewels, but  crown of thorns. He sat on no gilded throne, but was nailed to the throne of the cross. That unkingly ascension transformed all of history – divided it into before and after, made possible the transformation of our lives from slaves to sin, lost, condemned – to children of God, free to serve God and serve our neighbor, subjects in a kingdom of grace and love.

Because Jesus chose to wear a thorny crown and not a kingly crown, it tells us not only about Jesus the king, but about God. Because we have come to know God in Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection, this is what we know about God:

  • God loves us. Period. Doesn’t depend on how we feel or on the strength of our faith. It doesn’t depend on what we do or who we are. We aren’t excluded because of what we’ve done or who we aren’t. God loves us. Period.
  • God is with us. Yes, God is with us in the joys, the pleasures, the successes. That’s not hard to believe. What’s harder to believe is that God can also be with us, even bringing us blessing in the times of our grief, our pain, our suffering. God has come to us. God has chosen to meet us in the messes of our lives, the tragedies that come along, the disappointments, the failures, the broken relationships.
  • God is even now bringing all things to the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Through Christ the servant king, all the contingencies of human history are moving along toward the fulfillment of what God intends to accomplish.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

O Radiant Dawn — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

I’m a morning person. It’s my best time of the day. I live in the woods and in these short days and long nights here in the north, I get up in the dark. I make a cup of coffee and go to my desk, surrounded by windows and sit in the quiet. It’s my prayer time, my quiet time, my thinking time. And it’s also a time to watch the day gradually dawn.

The day doesn’t explode into light. It’s a gradual transition from darkness to light. Even though the weather app on my phone tells me the precise time of the sunrise, in actual experience, there’s not a precise time when I say, “ok, the night is gone and the day is here.” Gradually the light overtakes the darkness and almost imperceptibly, the day is here.

During these days of advent, we have stood with the prophets who waited patiently for the coming of the Morningstar, the One which today’s O Antiphon calls the Radiant Dawn.

In the darknesses of my own life, the Light has come. Often slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, but always relentlessly, irrepressibly, the light comes. Into the dark corners of my heart, my life, and into the dark corners of a fear-ridden world, the Light comes.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O Key of David — December 20

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, there’s a scene in which Barrister Jaggers’ clerk, John Wemmick, walks through a London prison. “Wemmick walked among the prisoners much as a gardener walked among his plants.” Wemmick was highly popular among the prisoners, personally recognized each of Mr. Jaggers’ clients. Wemmick inquired about each of them, taking note of their condition since his last visit.  But it was clear that he was not there to bring them the deliverance the prisoners were hoping for. When a prisoner might ask for something that Wemmick could not deliver, his reply was, “It’s no use, my boy; I’m only a subordinate. . .don’t go on that way with a subordinate.” At the end of the scene Pip and the clerk come to the end of their walk through the jail, they come to a man known only as the Colonel; the Colonel speculates that he’ll be out of jail by Monday. As they leave the jail, Wemmick instead reports that the Colonel is to be executed on Monday.

The Key of David is no subordinate. Indeed he cares about those locked in their deathly prisons, those of us — all of us — sentenced for our rebellion. The One whose birth is near, was born to die and in his death and resurrection he has opened the prison doors, set the prisoners free, and invited all into Life and Freedom.

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Leader of Israel — December 18

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In the O Antiphon for December 18, Christ is called the Leader of the House of Israel.

Call to mind the great leaders of the nation of Israel: Moses, who let God’s people out of slavery, through the long wilderness wandering, and into the promised land. Deborah, the prophetess who masterminded the assault against Jabin, king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera. David, the great warrior king who got his start as a young shepherd boy who slew the giant. Esther, the Jewish queen of Persian who foiled the plans of Haman to have all the Jews in the land killed.

The Messiah was to be the great leader of God’s people all rolled into one. “He will lead his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah proclaimed.

The shepherd who himself was led to slaughter. The shepherd who became the Lamb. The shepherd who was stripped, beaten, crowned with thorns, and led outside the gates of Jerusalem to the place of the skull where in his mighty cruciform power he rescued all creation.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!