Wild Things

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all of Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Where the Wild Things Are

Let us pray:

Stir up your power, Holy One.

You call to us from the desert of our souls

            Those arid places that need your baptismal water

                        Again and again.

But we are like snakes: without ears, and we don’t hear well

            What with all our distractions.

Send us the baptizer again.

            We’ll take John

                        But who we really need is Jesus

                        Immanuel

He’s the one we’re waiting for in these Advent days.

Amen.

Greetings, Beloved!

My name is Pastor Tim Brown, and I serve the ELCA as the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though I live just up the road from you all in Raleigh, North Carolina with my wife and two crazy boys.  It’s my honor to bring you blessings and greetings from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and all the churchwide staff.  In my work in congregations, Lutheran Disaster Relief, Lutheran World Hunger, and the many missions that you all support here with your good work I have seen lives changed.

You’d helped make that happen. You make that happen. Thank you. As one of our most generous congregations in the ELCA to the life-changing work of the Gospel, I truly greet you with wonderful thanks.

Before I was the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though, I was a parish pastor both in Raleigh and before that in downtown Chicago, and I’m really grateful to have been invited to be with you on this second Sunday in Advent because out of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is by far my favorite.  And some of you may remember me, as I did preach here once before, when I was young and full of dreams, during the pandemic.

Wonderful to be with you in person, and not on a screen.

What’s your favorite children’s book?  Anyone?

Mine is _Where the Wild Things Are_ by Maurice Sendak. 

I know it by heart. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind/and another. His mother called him ‘wild thing’ and said, ‘I’ll eat you up!’ So, he was sent to bed without eating anything at all.”

The imagine of Max in his wolf suit captivated the young me, and still today the not-so-young me. Wild things, wild beasts, wild dreams: these are the things of excitement and urgency and danger.

John the Baptizer falls into that category, the family and genus of the wild things.  His manner of dress and his diet give clues to us of what stock he is from.  Sure, he’s son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, but his PETA-offending clothes, his long, wild hair, and his food of bugs and honey put him in the lineage of the desert-roaming prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Amos.  He calls to people from the outskirts of the city, down by the river, reminding the nice town-folk that God cares little for their attractive floor coverings, their polite language, their proper technique when it comes to exterior illumination.  God doesn’t even care if they sing Christmas songs in Advent.

“You sneaky snakes,” John says. “You distract yourselves with your rules, in competition to get life right.  But God is more like a farmer than a judge in a competition.  In competition you get points for style and effort, but the farmer’s attention is on the heart of the fruit.”

The words of this wild John the Baptizer thing do eat us up.  And the urgency is real, not manufactured like all the fake urgency manufactured by all the fake news flying around our world today.  The urgency is real because, as John the Baptizer rightly says, the time is now.

It is always now.  So why, Beloved, are you still living in the past or anxious about the future?  The urgency doesn’t lie there; it is now.

Our ancient mothers and fathers conceived of God as being a bit wild.  Why do you think the angels always open with the words, “Fear not!”? We’ve domesticated God, equating God with Santa Clause, the giver of gifts and tally-taker of who is on the nice and naughty list.  But God’s encounter with Moses was not the red of a flannel suit and rosy cheeks, but a bush on wild-fire, defying physics and tantalizing the imagination.

We’ve domesticated Jesus, pretending he votes our values (or we vote his), putting him in stark white robes so that he looks like the pastor we’ve always dreamed of (with considerably more hair).  But perhaps Jesus is more John the Baptist than John Smith.

We’ve domesticated the Holy Spirit, relegating her to a peaceful dove who gently alights upon shoulders and inspires beautiful paintings.  But maybe the Holy Spirit is more gadfly than dove, aggravating more often than alighting.  For this example, I appreciate my Celtic ancestry.  They referred to the Holy Spirit as “Ah Gaedh-Glas” or “The Wild Goose,” sending the Celts on a wild goose chase, literally, as they sought out the Spirit to inform their lives.

And if God is wild, then the kingdom of God is wild.

The kingdom of God, the one John claims is near, does not look like an earthly kingdom.  It looks more like, well, a wilderness: where you can’t tell who is good and who is bad because those categories don’t exist when everyone is loved. Where you can’t tell who is servant and who is ruler because everyone is servant, and therefore, everyone is ruler, and the first is last and the last is first, and who could figure out the rules of living in such a confusing world?

It’s like a strange wilderness where all rules are broken.  It’s supposed to be what the church looks like. 

Perhaps we’ve been domesticated by the world. 

Because this world expects us to live for money, power, fame, and fortune.  It expects us to reinforce the idea of who is in and who is out.  Those are the rules. It expects us to love our own, take care of our own, and be with our own, and survive on our own.  Those are the rules.

But in Advent we remind ourselves of this story of a lonely couple, on their own, who are trying to follow the rules even though the rules oppress them, who in their time of need become surrounded by the strangest crew, brought from the rule-breaking wild margins of society: dirty shepherds, elusive angels, and pagan sorcerers that we’ve domesticated by calling them “magi” or “kings.”

The wild one, John the Baptizer, calls to us in Advent to remind us of just who we’re waiting for: a wild one from the margins who will minister to those on the margins and who invites the church to move from the center to the wilderness of the margins.

Into the wilderness of walking with those with mental illness.  Into the wilderness of walking with those who are oppressed because of their skin color, their ethnic heritage, their family ancestry.  “Do not think that your family is better,” John the Baptizer tells us.  “God can create families from stones to rival yours.”

Called even into the wilderness of your soul, where you will search for certainty your whole life only to have those tables overturned numerous times throughout your life.  I’ve seen it, Beloved.  At age 12.  At age 33.  At age 40 (we’ve domesticated it by calling it mid-life crisis, but it’s really a table-flipping feeling, as if everything is upended).  At the empty-nest stage.  At the death of a partner, parent, lover, child. 

In these wilderness places we hear the voice of God speak, cutting through all this fake news we watch on TV and post on our social media, that fake news that creates a fake urgency. 

And in the wilderness place we hear the voice of one, crying out for us saying: I love you; you are mine.  Crying out with us: my God my God, why have you forsaken me?  Crying out on behalf of us to God: Forgive them, they know not what they do. 

And only a wild goose of a God who loves with such wild abandon, who is willing to break the rules to love and forgive those broken open on the so-called rules of the world, can swallow our lives, sinliness and saintliness…all of it…into the waters of baptism, into the heart of grace.

Look, I know.  I know some of you feel like you’re in a wilderness time.  The bed at night is empty.  The job is mindless, or non-existent.  The marriage is empty.  The chemo leaves you empty. The pantry is empty. For some democracy seems empty.  For others civility seems empty. In these post-pandemic days the pews feel emptier. The emptiness seeks to devour us, or at least it feels that way.  I know it because I at times feel all that, too.

But, Beloved, even as we wait for Christ in the manger, perhaps the real truth is that the Wild Goose is on the loose even now, always now, chasing us down in our wilderness spaces, seeking to infuse those empty places of our lives with the wholeness that comes only from a God who is wild and more powerful than any other wild thing seeking to devour us.

At Christmas we are reminded that God always invites us to dine at this table of continual grace in the wilderness of our lives, and that God sends those other things that try to devour us to bed, to the grave.

Without eating anything at all.

On Misquotes and Mistletoe

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all of Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

On Misquotes and Mistletoe

Holy One,
In these days we pray that you stir up your power
And arrive.
But often we’re the ones who need stirring.
Remind us that we are full of Divine life
Even as creation around us dies and becomes dormant
in December’s chill.
Call to us again, holy one
And we will arise and wait for you again this Advent.
Amen.

Greetings, Beloved!

My name is Pastor Tim Brown, and I serve the ELCA as the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though I live just up the road from you all in Raleigh, North Carolina with my wife and two crazy boys.  It’s my honor to bring you blessings and greetings from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and all the churchwide staff.  In my work in congregations, Lutheran Disaster Relief, Lutheran World Hunger, and the many missions that you all support here with your good work I have seen lives changed.

You’d helped make that happen. You make that happen. Thank you. As one of our most generous congregations in the ELCA to the life-changing work of the Gospel, I truly greet you with wonderful thanks.

Before I was the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though, I was a parish pastor both in Raleigh and before that in downtown Chicago, and I’m really grateful to have been invited to be with you on this second Sunday in Advent because out of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is by far my favorite.  And some of you may remember me, as I did preach here once before, when I was young and full of dreams, during the pandemic.

Wonderful to be with you in person, and not on a screen.

Anyone have a favorite famous misquote?  Not a mishearing, or misunderstood lyrics to songs…there are a lot of those.  I’m talking about a genuine, full-fledged misquote that is still so often used.  Anyone?

OK. As a student of history and philosophy, one of my favorite misquotes comes from early in the years of the Roman world where a most famous assassination is underway and the victim turns to his best companion in the middle of the fray and says, “Et tu, Brute?”

Who said that?

Right. Julius Caesar. Except, he didn’t. Shakespeare said it.  Or, rather, had Caesar say it.  The only thing historians have said the ancient Caesar may have said, may mind you, during that harrowing event is, “you also, young man?”

Another favorite is quite familiar to you, “Houston, we have a problem…”

Who said it?

Some of you may think Apollo 13’s commander Jim Lovell said that, but in reality, it was just Tom Hanks.

No. Actually it was Jack Swigert the command module’s pilot who called mission control, and he didn’t even say that iconic, pithy line.  He actually said, “OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem here…”

Not as cool. Not as iconic.

There are others, of course. Marie Antoinette never told anyone to “eat cake,” Gandhi never said, “Be the change you want to see in the world” (though that is nice), Marylin Monroe never said, “Well-behaved women rarely change the world,” and Patrick Henry never said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Sorry to burst your bubbles here, Beloved.  It’s not that these statements aren’t true it’s just that, well, they’re not quite correct. Or, at least, correctly attributed.

And believe it or not, we have another one this very morning in our reading from Matthew. 

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew loves a good quote, especially from the Hebrew scriptures. In fact by my arm-chair counting, Matthew will quote the Hebrew scriptures or use an allusion to them over 70 times in his retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  He’s big on connecting the story of Jesus to the Hebrew scriptures, and today he attempts to quote the prophet Isaiah.

“Attempt,” I say, because he actually misquotes Isaiah…

Matthew has Isaiah saying, “A voice cries out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord!”

See, in Isaiah’s 40th chapter the prophet doesn’t write that.  Instead, the prophet writes:

“A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!”

You might not think this matters much, and perhaps it doesn’t for the text…it fits so well, right?  Matthew wants John the Baptizer (I refuse to just give him to the Baptists) to be the voice we think of crawling out of the wilderness with his PETA-offending clothes and unusual diet telling us to prepare the way of the Lord.

And that’s all well and good, except Beloved.

Well.

Sometimes I think we’re the ones who find ourselves in the wilderness of life, no?

Sometimes I think we’re the ones who find ourselves in the wilderness of church life coming out of a pandemic and the pews are a little emptier than before.

Sometimes we’re the ones who find ourselves in the wilderness of a bed that is empty on one side where it used to be filled.

Or the wilderness of an empty-nester house.

Or the wilderness of a lifeless job, a lifeless marriage, an unwanted singleness, a confused state in between all of those things.

Or perhaps some are in the wilderness time of regret for things done and things left undone, as our Rite of Confession says.  The things that weigh on our hearts can sometimes keep us lost in the wilderness of guilt and anxiety, and John the Baptizer speaks clearly to that kind of wilderness today…

And we may think that these sorts of things are some sort of mistakes in our life, a misquote perhaps, or that something we’ve done or not done have made us a misquote in this world, where something is not quite what it should be because it all just doesn’t feel right, and we’re coming up on the holidays and, well, it just might not feel quite right this year.

We may think we’re the mistake, misquote of existence, by God.

And here is John the Baptizer, Beloved, breaking into that noise to remind us that whether we’re in the wilderness or not, it is in the wilderness where the paths of God are made.

Advent is that wilderness season where we wait for God because Christmas is not a Hallmark movie made for perfect people, but a radical reminder that in our world of imperfection, of misquotes, of times when it all feels like a mistake, God arrives, even now, causing the lifeless parts of our lives to bear good fruit in time.

In time.

Poet and prophet himself, Antonio Machado said it so beautifully when he said, of a dream he once had:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

On a day when we highlight one who ate wild honey, it only makes sense to speak of the bees…

You are not a misquote, Beloved. We, all together, this church, our efforts, your life, your existence, are not misquotes no matter how the wilderness feels, no matter how your failures feel, or the tragedies feel, or the hurts feel…

Advent is when we practice living in the wilderness for a while, living by candlelight as the days shorten and the nights lengthen.  It’s where we feast on the locusts of promise and the wild honey of hope for a while, so we’ll know how to do that when we enter the wilderness moments of our lives.

Do any of you know how the tradition of mistletoe came about?

It’s an old Norse tale of a young goddess who lost her son when he was mistakenly struck by an arrow made of mistletoe. She vowed from then on that mistletoe would kiss anyone it came in contact with as long as it wasn’t made anymore of arrows.

And in the roundabout ways of history and time and practice, we now kiss underneath the mistletoe. Something that once was used to hurt now is redeemed as something that blesses, honey out of failures, kisses out of arrows…

And I can’t help but think, Beloved, that this is exactly what the grace of God, the grace that John the Baptist calls about from the wilderness to those of us in the wilderness: that even now God is busy working, redeeming, resurrecting, birthing something new that will kiss our lives with grace and love.

In you. In us. In this world.  Because God loves you, for Christ’s sake, and will not let you go no matter where you are or how you find yourself in the wilderness of this Advent season.

And that, Beloved, you can quote.

Advent is For the B Side of the Record

John 1:35-42

35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Advent is For the B Side of the Record

We sentimentalize it.

The much beloved Saint Bette of the Midler’s even wrote a soaring song about it where she belts,

It must have been cold there in my shadow
to never have sunlight on your face…
Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
And everything I would like to be
I can fly higher than an eagle
‘Cause you are the wind beneath my wings…

You didn’t know that was an Advent hymn, did you?

Here’s something that is just true:

for as much as we romanticize it, and even for as many of us are introverts at heart, it kind of stinks to be famous only in relation to someone else, to always be in the “shadow and never have sunlight on your face,” as the syrupy sweet song goes. No sentimentality will change that it stinks for the person stuck in the shadows.

Saint Andrew is one such person, and though he gets a feast day today, even the reading itself seems to focus in not on the one who told people about Jesus, but on the one that Jesus gives a special nickname to: Saint Peter, Cephas, the Rock.

Andrew stands in the shadow of the rock throughout most of the scriptures.

He is mentioned, though rarely seems to mention anything himself.

He’s on the scene, but always in the periphery.

His brother gets all the air time and Andrew? Andrew gets the afterthought.

Every forgotten sibling can relate.  Perhaps Andrew is the patron saint of middle children, though I’m not sure.  He is the patron saint of seafaring people, another population of humanity that is often overlooked and forgotten, though we benefit from their toil.  He is the patron saint of Scotland, my heritage, a people often overshadowed by their sibling to the south who takes the lion’s share of the attention.

The B-side of the record, the footnote at the bottom of the page of history, the wind beneath the wings of Peter who, had it not been for him, would never have apparently met Jesus, Saint Andrew is a favorite saint of mine not for who he was but for who he was not:

He was not the center of attention.

Which honestly, Beloved, gives me some hope because so often my own ambitious are brought to naught I find myself watching history rather than making it…

But in the end the joke is on everyone who discounts Saint Andrew, who doesn’t listen to the B-side of the vinyl, who overlooks the overlooked.

You see, in its wisdom the church saw fit to give this oft-forgotten apostle who seems to clutch the coat-tails of his brother a place of prominence in the end.  The start of Advent is marked by that Sunday that falls closest to Saint Andrew’s Day. 

And Advent itself, Beloved, is a season where the underdog gets their day, where the overlooked comes into focus, where the periphery is centered:

An aged Elisabeth and Zechariah in their third act of life, at an age where they are considered past their prime, are given their due.

An unwed teenager, the unlikely carrier of God’s graceful gift in a world that lavishes attention on the powerful and wealthy, becomes the center of our singing.

A wandering street prophet who babbles on about equality and justice turns out to be telling deep truths though he’d be considered crazy in most corners of the world.

A pilgriming immigrant family hold the holy keys to eternal life in time…

And an average 160lb Jewish guy from a non-name family from Nazareth will stretch out his arms like any common, overlooked one falsely accused in this world, and will reach out just far enough to hold the cosmos in his hands…

I mean, Advent highlights the B-sides of the record because the salvation story that God ushers in, starting in these days, is one that lifts the lowly, those stuck in the shadows of a history that favors the proud and an economy that favors the wealthy and a humanity that showers accolades on the exciting personalities, and we all get to hang on to the coattails of salvation through an unlikely incarnation, by God.

By God.

So today, and most days, I give thanks for Saint Andrew. He is in so many ways, me.

But more so I give thanks to the God who listens to the B-side of the record and celebrates all of us in the music of salvation.

So come, oh come Emmanuel.

On Putting a Candle in the Window

Matthew 24:36-44
[Jesus said to the disciples,]  36 “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of
heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming
of the Son of Man.  38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,  39 and they knew nothing
until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of
Man.  40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  41 Two women will be
grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  42 Keep awake therefore, for you
do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  43 But understand this: if the owner of the house
had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and
would not have let his house be broken into.  44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of
Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

On Putting a Candle in the Window

Greetings, Beloved!


My name is Pastor Tim Brown, and I serve the ELCA as the Director of Congregational
Stewardship, though I live just up the road from you all in Raleigh, North Carolina with my wife
and two crazy boys. It’s my honor to bring you blessings and greetings from Presiding Bishop
Elizabeth Eaton, and all the churchwide staff. In my work in congregations, Lutheran Disaster
Relief, Lutheran World Hunger, and the many missions that you all support here with your good
work I have seen lives changed.


You’d helped make that happen. You make that happen. Thank you.


Before I was the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though, I was a parish pastor both in
Raleigh and before that in downtown Chicago, and I’m really grateful to have been invited to be
with you on this first Sunday in Advent because out of all the seasons of the church year,
Advent is by far my favorite.


And it’s my favorite because it helps me practice doing something that I am really not great at
doing, and you might not be great at doing, too, and so the church calendar makes us practice it
every single year.


And to be very very honest with you, the thing we practice in this time is not something I enjoy
doing at all…hence why I need the practice.


And what I’m talking about is not setting up trees and not spinning Christmas records (oh yes,
my friends, I have an extensive vinyl collection at home and Christmas has it’s own category).
What I’m talking about, what we do here in these Advent days, is we practice waiting.

And I hate waiting. I wonder if you do, too.


But waiting is exactly what we need to practice in these days because I hate to tell you my
friends, a good chunk of life, a good chunk of our time, is spent waiting. Sometimes anxiously,
sometimes expectantly, sometimes twiddling bored thumbs, but waiting is part and parcel to
being a mortal subject of time, and so we need the practice.


I need the practice.


We wait for births, Beloved. I remember being told at the hospital that our first born,
Findley…a good Irish name because I’m Irish stock, would probably not be born for another 48
hours and so I better settle in and break the news gently to my obviously laboring wife. Uhm,
spoiler alert: Findley was born about 45 minutes after that conversation.


Sometimes we don’t wait long…but it’s still anxious.


We also, on the other end of that spectrum, sometimes wait for death. Death can be a
welcome guest at the end of a long life, or a rude and horrible guest uninvited to the party of
life, but sometimes we wait for death, too.


We wait for pink slips. For new job opportunities. We wait for the other shoe to drop. We wait
for that windfall to bring new hope.


We wait. We wait. We wait.


We wait for the people who used to darken our door before the pandemic to come back…even
though some may not. We wait for resurrection…it takes at least three days, but in my
experience resurrection sometimes takes a lot longer.


And we wait and wrestle with that unwelcome truth that resurrection and rebirth can only
happen after a death.


I hate waiting. I need to learn how to pay attention while I’m waiting.


It’s why I need the practice. Maybe you do, too.


It’s why Advent starts every year with these readings that are so weird and talking about signs
and how we “don’t know the day nor the hour,” because like a thief in the night holy waiting
comes to a holy end.


Because two will be sitting around at coffee, and one will disappear into grief and sadness and a
moment pregnant for God’s healing touch will emerge, and if we’re not paying attention and
holding too tightly to our feelings on the matter, we might miss it.


For two will be washing dishes, and all of a sudden one will be gone to illness, and we may miss
the opportunity to say the truths that God has placed on our hearts to them if we hold on to
our resentments or anger too tightly.

For two will be at war with one another in a friendship, or in a marriage, and there will be a
break in the fighting and one must hear God pleading them from the temple of their soul to
beat their sword into a farming tool, cultivate love rather than hate…but like a thief in the night
that moment comes, so you must be ready, or else time will be stolen from you.


We don’t wait passively in these days…while we’re waiting we must pay attention.


Because waiting always comes to an end, and we must be prepared to welcome whatever it is
we’re waiting for and act on it, by God.


You know, there’s a great Advent song I love that’s all about waiting and while it’s not found in
any hymnbook anywhere (though, had I written our hymnal I would have included it because
it’s wonderful) I play it every December.


You won’t be surprised to know I have it on vinyl and while it’s not found in the Christmas
section of my collection, it is filed under C for the band Creedence Clearwater Revival.


Are any of you familiar?


I’ll sing some for you, if that’s ok…


Put a candle in the window
Cause I feel I’ve got to move…
I’m gone, gone, though I’ll be comin’ home soon
Long as I can see the light…


John Fogerty’s gravely voice reminds me every year that the ancient practice, a practice my
Celtic ancestors used, was to put a candle in one of their front windows as a sign that they were
waiting for a night traveler who happened to find themselves without a bed in the middle of a
long journey, and that if you knocked on that door with the candle in the window you could
find a warm bed, food, and rest.


A candle in the window is a sign of waiting…and here you all thought it was just a pretty
Christmas decoration, didn’t you?


But why do you think, Beloved, that we painstakingly light one candle on the Advent wreath at
a time? It’s not because it’s pretty, it’s because it reminds us that waiting often times happens
slowly if not patiently, and you can’t rush the waiting.


Divine time can’t be sped up.


Instead it must be attended to. Watched. Perceived.


What time is it in your life, Beloved? What are you waiting for?


What time is it in Ascension’s life, Beloved? What are you waiting for?

We don’t know the day nor hour when that stranger wandering the cosmos, that Jesus, will
knock on the door and invite us into something new, both in our personal lives and in our
collective lives, and so we must wait with our eyes open, looking for that moment, that knock
when something moves, shifts, and changes.


Advent is a time when we practice this waiting by lighting candles and singing songs about
expectation, but I have a feeling, Beloved, that some of us, maybe even all of us, are not
practicing waiting this year, this year of our Lord two thousand and twenty-two.


Some of us, maybe all of us, are actually waiting.


And so, we light these candles expecting, knowing, hoping against hope that Jesus will show up,
that something will shift, let me tell you, as you reach your hands out at this table of grace by
these lit candles in the windows of our hearts, Jesus will find rest in the manger of your hands
in a piece of bread and a sip of wine, a little food for us, a Divine blessing, a bit of grace, even as
we wait.


And this is good news. Welcome news. God doesn’t leave us waiting all alone, even the angels
wait with us as we’re reminded in this season of angel songs and angel visits.


But I still wonder, Beloved: what are you waiting for?


Or, perhaps because it is just true that Jesus is with us today in bread and wine and one another, I might say it like this, Ascension,
Beloveds: what are you waiting for?!


We’ll leave the candles lit for a bit as we think about that, sing about that, pray about that…


As we watch and wait for whatever that is.


Amen.

On Rolling Over in the Grave Right Now: Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

On Rolling Over in the Grave Right Now

Batman and Robin.

Siskel and Ebert.

Laverne and Shirley.

Bert and Ernie.

Starsky and Hutch.

Peter and Paul, right?

We hear it all the time.  We rob Peter to pay Paul. Josh Ritter, that fanciful folk singer that has my rock heart has a whole song of dialogue between the two,

Peter said to Paul
“All those words that we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go”

Paul said to Petey
“You gotta rock yourself a little harder,
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire”

But perhaps the only famous namesakes of these saints that ever got along would be those other folky folks, Sts. Peter, Paul, and Mary…and Mary was obviously the glue that even held that group together.

For as much as these two saints end up in the same sentence, even as they often do in the Book of Acts, we should not forget an important truth about these two pillars, this one they call the Rock and this other who would be a Renegade: they didn’t like each other very much.

I can imagine them arguing right now. In fact, they pretty much disagreed about most everything. 

Everything…except for one thing.

And in fact, if Peter or Paul knew that they were put on the same saint day, they’d probably roll over in their grave…

I think it’s highly interesting that the church, in its infinite wisdom, chose to put Peter and Paul on the same saint day, knowing what they do about them.  And the church stuck it right after the summer solstice, just slightly after the day when we celebrate the birth of John the Baptizer who famously said, “I must decrease, so that he might increase…”

And, true to form, the sun will slowly decrease in this hemisphere, a little every day, until we end up at the natal day of Jesus the Christ, where the light has dimmed to its lowest, but never fully goes out.

In effect putting their saint day together on the same day just past the peak brightness of the year is a reminder to everyone paying attention (and we need to pay attention, by God), that whether you fall into the legalistic school of Peter or the rambunctiously erratic school of Paul, neither are the Christ.

Neither the rules, nor the bending of the rules, will provide the kind of redemption you’re after, Beloved.

And not only that, but that in Christ everything can be reconciled and redeemed. Even these two scalywags. They may take their disagreements to the grave, but they take them no further. Because in Christ everything can be reconciled and redeemed, even these premier activist theologians who couldn’t get along in life…

And that’s a Gospel word for today, when so much seems to need redeeming in this world, when it feels like things are being ripped apart at the seams, where day after day it feels like a blow to the heart, and years of work and protest unravel with the slam of a gavel hitting the backs of those with the least already and, well, we’re not even talking about laws and rights, though there is that.

We’re talking about how we see one another.  How we are with one another.  How we trust and don’t trust one another, Beloved.

That’s the underside of every piece of turmoil going on in the world, and despite any anger, frustration, elation, or celebration that you might have no matter what side of the aisle (or not in any particular aisle), we must remember that Peter and Paul did not get along and yet both, Beloved, both were Beloved by a God who has a tender place for torn people, torn places, torn worlds.

Just like the cosmos were torn land from water on that early day, and that temple curtain was torn in two on that fateful day, even in those torn moments when chaos felt like it had its way, you know what Jesus did?

He rolled over in his grave.

And walked out.

Proving everything. Everything. Everything can be redeemed, by God.

Even death.

So, here’s the thing, Beloved.  Peter and Paul didn’t agree on most anything, except for this one thing.

In Galatians 2:10 we read that after a contentious meeting when basically very little was settled…like most church meetings, which should give us some good comfort to know that those were rough things even from the start…they shook hands and asked one another to remember the poor. Those who go without.  And they both agreed to do so, despite their differences and disagreements.

Thanks be to God for them because, no matter how you feel about their legacies…and there are feelings and opinions and libraries and slack lines full of thoughts…this agreement to look out for the poor and the marginal despite their disagreements is the legacy I’m giving thanks for right now.

Because, while that might not feel like much right now, it’s a start of that redeeming work that we’re invited into, right now. And something we can do right now, even torn up and torn through as we and this world are.

And, I believe, it’s exactly the kind of salvation work that caused Jesus to roll over in that grave.

And walk out as he does even now. Right now.

On Not Being Satisfied

8Philip said to [Jesus,] “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

On Not Being Satisfied

“Show us the Divine,” Philip says, “and we shall be satisfied.”

Oh, is that all, Philip?

You know, I wonder how satisfied Philip would be with how his legacy turned out.  We’re honoring his feast day today, a day he shares with another disciple, James.  But do you know anything about Philip?

Probably not. He shows up a scant few times in the Jesus stories, most notably in this part today and in the feeding of the 5,000.  He has a few lines here and there, but nothing super memorable…would he be satisfied?

And what about that other disciple we honor today, James.  And not even the James you’re thinking about…apparently they had a shortage of names in Biblical days, which is why everyone is named Mary or James.  This James is usually called “James the Less,” to differentiate himself from James the brother of John.  Which makes that other James, “James the Greater?”

I wonder if that’s satisfying for his memory.

I wonder if satisfaction is even something we should be striving for, honestly.  As that other saint, Saint Mick of the Jaggers reminds us, “We can’t get no, satisfaction…”

Because, honestly, how can we be satisfied these days?

How can we be satisfied when we’re in year two of a pandemic where my partner, just this morning, has tested positive again because she’s a teacher and can’t not be with her students and, well, that’s some close proximity?

How can we be satisfied when response to a public health crisis has been turned into a political litmus test, and the most vulnerable amongst us pay the price for our political games?  When our pastors in our parishes take the brunt of the anger even as they’re still having to juggle responsibility to the least of these with response to the loudest voices?

How can we be satisfied when once again women’s bodies and queer kids are the front lines of legislative power grabs in this country?  Why can’t poverty be the front line?  Why can’t access to healthcare, clean water, good schools, healthy food be the front line? 

How can we be satisfied when war rages in Ukraine? And how can we be satisfied when black and brown bodies will once again pay the price for a global food shortage caused by powerful people who decide on a Tuesday to invade their neighbor’s land?

Beloved, I think Philip is wanting the wrong thing.  I don’t think following Jesus is about being satisfied.

Maybe it’s about not being satisfied.

I think a lot of folks do believe following Jesus is about some sort of satisfaction.  Like, good religion is the icing on the cake of a well-lived life.

But I’ve found that if you follow the crucified and risen one you’re going to find yourself in the valley of the shadow of unmet expectations about just as often as you find yourself in awe of transfiguration moments.

And so following Jesus, then, isn’t about satisfaction Philip…it’s about trust.

It’s about trusting that, despite this unsatisfying world, this place does “have good bones,” as the poet Maggie Smith says when she’s trying to sell the world on her children.

Something I try to do every day, too, to my babies.

It’s about trusting that when we look at the person of Jesus we have a clear-eyed glimpse of the Divine who stands in solidarity with the unsatisfied, who is working behind the scenes to force resurrection moments out of the harshest realities, and who won’t let loveless power stop powerful love.

In other words: we trust that God is at work in the world, and Jesus is the lens, and God isn’t satisfied with how everything is, and continues to work hard to eek out new life from this old wine skin of existence.

God is at work, and Jesus reminds us of that today.

Which gives we who are unsatisfied a little bit of direction, honestly.  Because we then do what Jesus did, embodying the Divine ourselves:

Seek out the poor and the lost.

Stand with the vulnerable.

Speak truth to powerful.

Eat with sinners, sleep on boats, go into the wilderness to pray regularly.

And give up our lives for the sake of deep, Divine love, remembering that resurrection always waits on the other side of unsatisfying circumstances.

So, here’s the thing: I think that Philip (and poor Saint James the Less) got in the end that satisfaction wasn’t the goal of following Jesus.  They ended up as Easter people, after all, and we remember them as ones who walked the way.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I bet they eventually understood that the way of Jesus may not be satisfying, but it is holy and sacred, by God, despite it all.

And that’s worth remembering today.

Amen.

At My Wit’s End

Are you ready?

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

  12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

  14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

At Wit’s End

Good morning, Beloved.

My name is Pr. Tim Brown, and I’m a pastor in the North Carolina Synod, serving in Raleigh.  I was a parish pastor for ten years, but these days I work across the denominational aisle for an organization that serves children and families from foster care and adoption to alternatives to juvenile detention and family reunification.  At Methodist Home for Children I’m their Director of Special Gifts, though I continue to do pulpit supply and preach and teach in the North Carolina Synod.

Your pastor, the Right Reverend Niketh, and I have been friends for over 20 years now…which is amazing to believe.  I’m grateful he asked me to supply the homily today. If there’s one thing this pandemic has allowed us to do, even with all it’s frustrating and maddening harm, is reach across distances previously gapping differences, if just for a bit.

I’ll be quite honest with you, though. 

I’m at my wit’s end.

Fundraising virtually is not easy (it’s not easy when it’s in person), even when the cause is so good, and I have two little boys who have been doing Zoom school and, though I was a teacher in my twenties, when you are trying to teach your own young children…well…let’s just say they’ve learned some new words, but not in Phonics.

I’m at my wit’s end.

Which, is exactly where we find Jesus today, actually.

Mirroring that reluctant seafarer Noah in his ark of animals, and mimicking ancient Israel as they wandered the desert, we find Jesus today being driven out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Now, if you were all my parishioners you’d have heard a few times how I’m big on reminding folks that the number, 40, is not literal.  It’s meant to clue you in to a deep truth.  Because, see, in the Scriptures, 40 days is meant to remind you of that story of Noah, it’s been to bring you back to that story of Israel wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land, because 40 days is that numerical sign post that indicates the person wandering is at their breaking point.

40 days and 40 nights stands for that moment when you’re at your wit’s end.

And with this pandemic and, no, not just with the pandemic, with the political posturing and with these four walls and the four people in this house (c’mon, we’re talking about the Gospel here so let’s get real: we’re all tired of our families many days) and not being able to travel and, that mess in Texas?!  And all that snow piled high in your driveway which just sits there because we don’t have anywhere to go anyway, right?!

I mean, it may not be you (but I have a hunch it is), I am at my wit’s end.

11 pandemic months is 40 days and 40 nights, it feels like 40 years of wandering in our heads and hearts because we can’t wander with our feet.

And the temptation here, Beloved, is to just give in.

It’s tempting to give in to all the political posturing and paint everyone on this side or that side as bad (or good, depending on where you sit in the stands).

It’s tempting to give in to the cynicism so pervasive in all of this that says, “Why even bother wearing a mask and social distancing anymore because we’re past the point of no return.”  We’re not, Beloved…but it is tempting sometimes to behave as if we are, especially if we don’t happen to have co-morbidities or find ourselves in the third act of life.

Oh, spoiler alert: we all have co-morbidities.  It’s called being mortal. We just remembered that a few days ago on Ash Wednesday.

It’s tempting to play into power grabs in our communities that are trying to do things virtually, but it just doesn’t feel the same, you know?  So you stop connecting and stop engaging and you stop supporting and you…

It’s all so tempting.

I far prefer Mark’s telling of the temptation of Jesus to Matthew and Luke’s more elaborate and detailed version.  Matthew and Luke talk about what the Satan tempted Jesus with, but Mark just said, “In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted for 40 days,” which means that maybe Jesus had some of those same temptations that I have in these days.

Maybe he was tempted to turn his back on his calling in life?

Maybe he was tempted to be a revolutionary leader, and not the Prince of Peace?

Maybe he was tempted to deny his baptism, hike up his robe, and head back to Galilee to live out his days in quiet silence.

Maybe he was tempted to just call it quits.

When you’re in the 40 days of life, Beloved, when you’re at your breaking point, temptation is so so, well, tempting. 

The bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City, now sainted, once said that, “Evil is so enticing, and good is so demanding.”

And while I don’t think that temptation is always evil, when it’s the temptation to give up on life, to give up on the neighbor that we’re called to love, to give up seeking out the God who calls out to us in love…well, at our breaking point it’s enticing, but in our baptism we’re reminded that no matter if we’re comfortable in our life or at our breaking point, whether we’re one day old or at our 40 days of existence, we are a Beloved child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, who is given the graceful burden of a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and love of the Lord, joy, and a call to work for justice in all the world.

It’s no wonder that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the temptation of Jesus comes directly after his baptism, because it is in the moments of our 40 days of life where we truly get to witness the truth of those baptismal waters and we’re reminded that, like Noah, they won’t overcome us.  We are reminded, like Israel, that God makes a way out of no way and the Promised Land will appear.  We’re reminded, Beloved, like Jesus, that the 40 days always come to an end in time and angels wait to take care of us.

Angels with vaccine vials.  Angels with hot dishes.  Angels with postcards of love and Zoom meeting happy hours and…it’s 40 days, but there have been angels all along the way if we’re looking, and I have a feeling that won’t stop.

Because here’s the thing about God: God would rather die than let you feel as if you’re alone forever, you hear me? 

God would rather die and be buried than let the 40 days bury you. 

And we know that because, in Jesus, that’s exactly what God did.

And in that resurrection moment the world saw that no 40 days, no flood, no desert wandering, no temptation will ever, ever separate us from the love of God…at least not for longer than three days.

I may be at my wit’s end, but hear me, First Lutheran, know this my siblings in Christ: the Kingdom of God has come near so don’t give into the temptation in these desert days, the angels are on their way and some have even arrived, Beloved.  The inbreaking of God is in process, the promise still remains, and as we’ll see in six short weeks, our God would rather die than have you trust otherwise.

Amen.

In the Divine Zoom the Demons Get Put on Mute

Man with duct tape over his mouth

<Preached for Lutheran Church of the Epiphany for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany>

Are you ready?

29As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
  32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
  35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In the Divine Zoom the Demons Get Put on Mute

My name is Pr. Tim Brown.  I’m a pastor in the North Carolina Synod, and though I’ve been a parish pastor for over ten years, I more recently accepted a position as Director of Special Gifts for Methodist Home for Children.  We work with children and families, cradle to career, on everything from foster care and adoption to alternatives to juvenile detention and family reunification.

And, yes, they let me work with them even though I’m not Methodist…after all, Methodists and Lutherans are, as we say here in the South, kissing cousins.

Part of my ministry these days, too, is supply preaching here in the Synod, and I’m grateful Pr. Russell asked me to be with you all at Epiphany, even if it’s virtually.  I think we’re all finding out that virtual is a bit more real than most of us ever imagined, though I know we’re longing for the days of movies in theaters and sports in stadiums and, yes, church in a sanctuary.

But I want to point something out to you, Beloved, right here at the outset, a little note in our Gospel text today that I think is worth lifting up in our Covid days: Jesus does his work today not in the temple, but in the house.

We’re tired of our houses.  I’m tired of my four walls.  But if we thought we needed a church building to meet Jesus, this pandemic is just reinforcing what the Gospel is already showing us.  We need a community, yes, we need one another. 

But Jesus shows up in the house, too.  That’s something I think we’ve forgotten that, if anything, these days can re-teach us, by God.

One of the things I’m missing most about church, Beloved, is the singing.  Yes, we can sing at home, and we’re about to (you didn’t know I sing in sermons, did you?) but I miss the singing because this Gospel text is a perfect one for a song. 

Did you hear it?  Jesus arrives at Peter and Andrew’s home and, immediately…everything in the Gospel of Mark is immediate, by the way…Jesus reaches out and takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand.  And, all I could think of when I read that, was that old Gospel favorite, sing with me:

Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Let me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn…

We would all pray that Jesus would take our sick by the hand these days and break their fevers.

We would all do with Jesus taking our hand in these days where we’re tired of isolation, we’re weak from inactivity, we’re worn down by political vitriol…

It’s just true.

But let me point out another true moment in this passage, one that you may have glossed over, Beloved.

Did you catch the part where the Gospel writer says that Jesus “wouldn’t let the demons speak?”

Yeah, so Jesus is healing diseases and casting out demons (and notice that diseases aren’t demons) and Mark throws this lovely little aside in there: and (Jesus) “wouldn’t let the demons speak.”

In the Divine Zoom meeting, Jesus has the demons on mute.  Because Jesus knew them. He’d wrestled with them in the wilderness, you’ll hear that story in a few weeks.

I mention it because one of the things I’m continually struck by is how, whenever they come in contact with Jesus, he puts the demons on mute.

I’m struck by it because I still think it’s true today.

Because I’ve seen the demons of spousal abuse be put on mute when the partner is reminded that they are a beloved child of God and are not meant to be hit or slandered.  I’ve seen them do the brave thing, get help, and leave that relationship when they’re reminded of who God calls them and not the terrible names that sick partner calls them.

I’ve seen the demons of fear become mute and flee in the face of difficulty when a person remembers that God walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death and they make that tough decision to enter treatment, to end treatment, to make that move that they know will be life-giving but they’re stuck in their ways…

I’ve seen the demon of neglect put on mute when someone who was convince they were unlovable is embrace by a family, or by a community, spurred on by the Gospel call to bind ourselves to one another in love.

One time I heard of a pastor who got a call from a church member.  They had been letting some youth in the community use their indoor gym to play basketball on weekends because the neighborhood courts were full of gangs and dealers.  The kids, one Sunday, left some dirt on the floor because it had been raining all week.

The church member said, “Pastor, we can’t let those kids in anymore. They left a mess.”  The pastor said, “Yes, I saw.  I’ll clean it up. But we have to let them use our space. Afterall, Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me’” and the church member interrupted, saying tersely, “Don’t bring Jesus into this!”

Don’t bring Jesus into this.  Why?

Because in the presence of Jesus those frustrations motivated by convenience, not love, are put on mute.

Love. 

The bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the late pastor of Riverside Church in New York City said, “Love is visionary.”  It sees past the limited and limiting ideas that the loudest voices in our world, and in our head, offer us.

The letter of 1 John reminds us that “God is love,” God is visionary, and therefore I would call Jesus God’s love letter, God’s vision in action.  Jesus is God’s love letter who attends to us, even in our houses (after all, where else would we regularly get our mail), and silences the demons that fill our heads and our hearts.

The demons that say, “you’re worthless.”

The demons that say, “this will never end.”

The demons that say, “go ahead and hate them for their political beliefs.”

The demons that say, “go ahead and hate them because they’re queer.”

Or different.  Or from Mexico. Or undocumented.

Demons say a lot of things, Beloved, and in the face of Jesus, in the face of God’s love letter, they are put on mute.  Silent.

Because, as Jesus shows us today, God is about giving life, not taking it…and those voices take our lives.

And those voices can show up anywhere, right?  Even in our own homes. In our own heads. In our own hearts.

But, as we’ve seen today, that’s exactly where you’re likely to find Jesus, by God, just hanging out, healing, eating, praying, putting those voices on mute so that we might live, and live abundantly.  The love letter we see in Jesus is one where God will go to death and back to silence those demons who stand no chance in the light of such love.

In this world God’s love letter silences those life-taking voices, those screaming demons of abuse, neglect, of prejudice, of racism, sexism, which means we can’t be afraid to bring Jesus into the tough moments, the tough conversations, with our neighbors, and within ourselves.

Who knows?  Maybe one of those voices that has been plaguing you has now fallen silent.  And now that it’s silent, we can sing the next hymn together more clearly, right?

Thank God.

Amen.

You Can’t Explain It

Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering, 
 the sun will be darkened,
  and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
  28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
  32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

You Can’t Explain It

We approach this text with some fear and trembling, and the verbiage here seems at odds with how the world is reacting.  Because we’re all singing,

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”

And not,

It’s beginning to look a lot like the apocalypse…

But what does apocalyptic language do?  It attempts to explain something that defies explanation, that goes deeper than just the surface, that is more than what it appears.

I remember seeing a father hug his adult son and, to any onlooker it probably appeared as if it was just a simple hug, but I knew the story, Beloved.  I knew the story of how that father never once even told his son he was proud of him, let along showed him any physical affection.

That hug was not just a hug, you know?

Or, like, I remember waiting in the hallway and hearing that cry come out of that hospital room.  New lungs expanding for the first time, smiles and cheers all around. 

Because even though every birth is amazing, this birth…oh, this family had waited through miscarriage after miscarriage, had long had a nursery decorated that laid dormant for years, the stars on the ceiling awaiting a little face waited for so long they were falling to the floor.  That birth was not just any birth, Beloved…

Sometimes things are more than they seem and you have to look deeper to see what’s there, but hidden.  You have to pay attention.  Or, as Jesus says, you have to “keep awake!”

And Advent is this season of the church year where we practice waiting, being attentive, where we practice clinging on to bits and pieces of hope when hope is hard to find, when we practice lighting candles in the long night as a way to remind ourselves that the shadows will not win the day in this life, that things are not always how they appear.

Advent begins in the shadows with these readings because, Beloved, so much of our time, and indeed so much of this pandemic time, has felt like it’s been lost in the shadows of the four walls we’re all too acquainted with, in the fuzzy shadowed screens of zoom meetings and election-night waiting.

Advent is intended, Beloved, to be practice for those times in our lives, those night times in our lives, when we just wish we could go to sleep and may not care if we wake up, where it seems like there are only shadows and no light,

in the deep depressions of our lives,

the failed marriages,

the miscarriages,

when black and brown bodies die in our streets, gasping for breath as we gasp at the images,

the addictions that we think we can handle but secretly know we cannot,

the family strife, the lonely nights with no one to love or love us,

the troubled children, and the troubled parents,

the lost jobs

the pandemics…;

Advent reminds us that even in those night times of our lives when it feels like everything is falling apart, like the sun won’t shine, like the stars in our eyes have gone, like we’re lost in the middle of a wilderness journey with no map,

when it feels like everyone else is Christmas happy and we’re in the middle of a personal apocalypse,

that even then, and most especially then, God is present, and active, and working.  We light a candle to help brighten the room, enlighten the moment, and remind ourselves that things are more than they seem, by God.  God’s promises are more than any promises seem.

And remember that God never promises everything will “turn out Ok,” and God doesn’t promise that everything will be hunky dory or easy or any of the trite moralisms we’ve come to rely on in our social media soundbite culture.

God’s promises are so much more.

The promises of God that say, “I love you and you are mine.”  The promises of God that say, “when you pass through the waters, they will not overcome you.”  The promises of God that say, “I am with you always, even until the end of the ages.”

The promises of God that will ring truer than ever in this pandemic season when we will hear it said, “Unto all humanity a child is born, unto you all a child is given, and the government will cause him trouble, and may kneel on his neck, and may intimidate him, and may lie to him, but he will be a wonderful counselor, a mighty one, an everlasting authority, the prince of peace.”

You know, one of the cool things about this text is that Jesus hauls the cosmos into it.  The sun is darkened, the moon won’t shine, the stars fall…he’s quoting the Hebrew prophets here, but one thing we miss with our post-modern Western eyes (because we’re looking but not seeing, you know?) is that those celestial bodies in ancient days were often thought of as gods and governors themselves.

And so Jesus is saying that, when everything falls apart, even those stable and staple things that you’ve relied on just like you’ve relied on the sun, those mini-gods you think are reliable…in modern terms perhaps he’d have said, “When your job refuses to produce, when your health won’t shine, when your stocks fall, when the electoral system is called into question, when there is a global health crisis on our hands, when there is no justice and for so many it feels like it’s “just us…”

When all those things pass away, God’s word, God’s presence, will not pass away.

We need apocalyptic language to describe how powerful God’s promises are, and so we look back through scripture to find that God’s promises are best described in ways that aren’t words at all:

by Sarah’s laugh,

by the crackling of a burning bush,

by the creaking of an ark that won’t sink,

by the swishing of oil in a lamp that won’t go out,

by a baby’s cry in a stable in Bethlehem,

by the sighing of a God stretched out on an instrument of torture who loves us to death, even death on a cross, and one step beyond.


Stay awake, then. Pay attention. You’ll hear it.

Even in these shadowy pandemic days that defy explanation there are promises being kept even now, Beloved, because, as theologian and author Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “…new life starts in the dark.” Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts with the dark.

It may see hidden, it may be hard to explain…but that’s how it is, by God.

On Fire

mary_at_pentecostAnd there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them.  Acts of the Apostles, 2:3

So, I wrote yesterday a bit about how anger got the best of me recently, and I’ve decided to try not to let that happen again.

I still stand by that.  But…

But then the news about George Floyd’s death came out.  And I found myself consumed by anger, again.

So I’m going to amend my statement to say: I resolve to be appropriately angry about the right things.  And this, Beloved, is a right thing.

You know, Fr. Richard Rohr, that bald and beautiful Christian mystic, notes that we don’t understand the metaphor of hell that is used in scripture because we don’t understand the purifying work that fire is in the world.

Foresters understand it.  Welders get it.  But your average Jane and Joe?  We’d rather stick with a literal idea of hell instead of wrestle with the metaphor…it’s easier that way.

But in a world where we see people rail against a kneeling football player, but aren’t outraged by a police officer kneeling on the neck of an already handcuffed man over a supposedly forged greenback…well…we can’t take the easy way out anymore.

Because the first kneeling was because of the second kind of kneeling.

Get it?  Do you see now?  Are your eyes adjusted to the most concrete analogy there is, now?!

If we burn it down to the core value at stake here, the outrage is over just this kind of thing: it’s still not safe to be black and brown in America.

I was talking to my friend who is a doctor the other day, and he noted that the whole Covid ward of his hospital is, right now, 25-60 year old males, “essential workers” (aka factories) who are black and brown. Proportionally, as far as race goes, this shouldn’t be the case…and yet, here we are.

And guess what?

They. Can’t. Breathe.

It’s what the pandemic does.  And if the pandemic doesn’t kill you, well…looks like the streets of America will still do the job.  Because what did Eric Garner choke out before his death?  What did George Floyd yell out before his death?

The breath of God which blew on the disciples at the Pentecost was snuffed in that moment as they all say, in a chorus that echoes across this land right now: “I CAN’T BREATHE!”

Can you hear them now?

In the Acts of the Apostles the first scene, after Jesus ascends into heaven, has the Holy Spirit alighting as tongues of fire on the brown bodies of the gathered disciples.  And in that moment they are able to speak in such a way that everyone, no matter their background, nationality, or even religion, can understand what they’re saying.

We need a Pentecost today, Beloved.  We need to listen to the distilling fire dancing on black and brown bodies that is burning away any misconception that we might have about the dangers that still face our sisters and brothers of color today.

The hell our brothers and sisters are living in is real, more real than some eternal hell, and we must listen!  We must let it burn away at our tendency to dismiss these experiences as some sort of aberration in America.  We have the pandemic of racism and unequal treatment, and it started long before this current virus, and it continues even now to take its toll.

The fire of anger is absolutely appropriate in some instances, and this is one of them.

“But,” you might contend, “they were on fire for the Gospel!”

True.  But who needs a savior if you’re not allowed to be alive in the first place?  If you’re not allowed to jog in your neighborhood?  If you’re not allowed to bird-watch?  If you’re assumed dangerous just because of the color of your skin?

Jesus, after all, was killed by assumption, Beloved.  We forget that.  And he died by crucifixion which, ultimately, meant that he. couldn’t. breathe.

We forget that.

We need a Pentecost moment where, with tongues upon their heads, we listen to the black and brown bodies of the disciples around us as they tell us the truth about their experience.  We need to listen and hear: cutting through the barriers of language, race, experience, politics, and every other obstacle we set up to insulate ourselves from having to be moved by a reality we don’t want to consider.

We can be on fire with anger, Beloved, about the right things.

This is one of them.

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