Refugees (Sermon for January 6, 2019)

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

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children.

You see, a long time ago, there was a man named Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. And Jacob fell in love with Rachel. He was so in love with her that he agreed to work for her father for seven years in order to win her hand in marriage. And, after seven years, he was tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, instead. And Rachel’s father explained that Leah was the older sister, and that it was only right that she marry first.

So Jacob worked another seven years in order to win Rachel’s hand. And she bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. And, through them, she was the ancestor of three of the tribes of Israel: Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin.

And, much later, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem… and they assembled the people in Ramah… and they sent them into exile in Babylon, cut off from the land that God had promised them.

And Jeremiah writes about this, the destruction of the people, the exile in Babylon:

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

Last week, I heard this story.

A woman from Honduras left that country to escape an abusive relationship. She left her home and her friends, and she hitchhiked and rode buses and walked thousands of miles to Tijuana, Mexico. And she carried her five-month-old daughter the whole way.

When she got to Tijuana, she put her name on a list to be allowed to ask for asylum in the United States. She did not ask for asylum; she put her name on a list that would eventually allow her to ask for asylum. But… the list had a four month wait. So she hopped a fence. And she was caught. And she was taken into custody.

Now, her daughter was sick. And she had been treating her with antibiotics. But Customs and Border Protection took the antibiotics away. And when she asked for a doctor, she was called an invader and told that she wasn’t in a position to ask for anything. And she and her daughter were kept in a freezing cell; what other migrants call una hielera, an icebox.

Later, they were released. And they got to some family and they went to the hospital. Her daughter’s health deteriorated, she stopped breathing, and the woman was told to… to prepare for her daughter to die. She had pneumonia. What could they do?

The story has a happy-ish ending. The baby lived. Others haven’t been so lucky. A couple of migrant children have died. A few adults have died. Others have come close.

And I know that there are people in this sanctuary who disagree with what that mother did. I know that there are people who will say that she shouldn’t have travelled all those miles and that she shouldn’t have jumped that fence.

But no matter how we feel about what she did, I cannot imagine how it must feel for someone to be so frightened that she picks up her daughter and travels thousands of risky miles for nothing more than the hope that her family could start a new life in a distant country. And I cannot image how it must feel for her to do all of that… and then be called an invader… and have medicine taken away… and watch her daughter almost die.

But Jeremiah gives me the words:

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

And Mary might know how it feels.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children… and we meet these wise men.

You see, there are these wise men from the east. And they see a star rising in the west, over the country of Judea, a backwater province in a great empire. They are the kind of wise men who know what stars mean, and they say, “That star means that a child has been born; the king of the Jews.”

So they go to Judea. They go to Herod, who is already king of the Jews. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews according to the will of Rome.

And they say to him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

And when Herod hears this, he is afraid.

Herod is powerful. And he likes his power. And he knows who he owes his power to.

This is the king of the Jews who built the Temple Mount, and then installed a golden eagle—a symbol of Rome—at its gate. He built fortresses to protect himself during an insurrection. He taxed his people relentlessly, used secret police to monitor the people, tried to suppress protests, and had opponents removed by force. He is a despot and a tyrant.

He has to be thinking, “No child has been born in my house… But there is a Messiah to come, who will overturn the order that made me king and gave the throne of Judea to my house. And that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.”

So he sends the wise men to Bethlehem. And he tells them, “When you have found the child, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

The wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find Jesus and his family. And they pay him homage and give him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. On the one hand, these are practical gifts. Money and—in a time before daily bathing—perfumes. On the other hand, these are symbolic gifts. Gold for a king, frankincense for the worship of a God, myrrh as a perfume used in burial.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes: “Do not return to Herod. He isn’t planning on paying homage.” So they go home by a different route.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes to Joseph: “Herod knows. He will search for the child and he will kill him. Take the child and his mother. Flee to Egypt and start there until I tell you. Now! Run!”

And Herod sends his troops to Bethlehem. He knows when that star rose, so he knows when the child was born. And his troops kill every child in and around Bethlehem who is two years old or younger.

And if you listen closely, you can hear it: a voice in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jesus was Lord at his birth. And then he was a refugee.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to be so frightened that she picked up her son—Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace—and walked hundreds of miles to start a new life in a distant land.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to think about her friends and family in Bethlehem, who did not receive a warning, who did not make it out, and who wailed and wept because their children were no more.

But I do know this: we have a choice.

We can stand with Herod, secure in our power and our comfort, building monuments and fortresses… but knowing that if we do that, we can only do that because of the violence being done in our name: because someone, somewhere, is taking medicine away from a five-month-old.

Or we can stand beside Mary. 

Mary, who is pregnant and scared and far from home, looking for a place to stay, and being told that there is no room left at the inn.

Mary, who is fleeing the slaughter of the innocents. 

Mary, who is sitting at the border in una hielera, scared to death because her child is sick and she has no medicine.

And that doesn’t mean that, as a country, we have to let everyone who shows up at our borders in.

But it does mean that, as a church, as Christians, as a little consulate of the Kingdom of God, we do have to take responsibility for everyone who is so afraid that they will pick of their child and walk God-only-knows-how-far in the hope of starting a new life in a new land.

And we have to do that because when we welcome that child—when we take responsibility for that refugee—we are welcoming Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. 

And by welcoming him into our home, we step into his kingdom.

And when we do that… when we do that, Rachel will cease her weeping and be consoled, because she will know that her children are safe.

Astonished and Amazed (Sermon for December 30, 2018)

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I don’t mean that someone had a question or wanted to have a conversation about something that they disagreed with. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I mean that I was pulled aside after the service and given a lecture about how what I preached was dangerous and wrong. 

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. And it was a children’ssermon.

Now, what I had saidto the kids was that you don’t need permission to do good. You don’t need permission to love someone, or be kind to someone, or to stand up for someone.

And what this particular parent heardwas, “You don’t ever need permission to do anything… you can do whatever your want.”

I don’t have any children of my own, but I can understand how that might not be a message that you want your child to hear. Sometimes, it’s important to get permission. And, when it comes to children and their parents, it’s important to be clear about what sorts of things need a parent’s permission and what sorts of things don’t.

So… I stand by the message of that children’s sermon. You do not need permission to do good. You do need permission to do other things. And one of the things that you probably should get permission for is staying in Jerusalem after the Passover festival when your parents are heading home.

Let me back up a little bit.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus is twelve years old.

We don’t get many stories about Jesus as a child. The gospels tend to jump from the nativity story—if they have one at all—straight to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he’s around thirty years old. 

That’s a big chunk of time to skip. And there are countless theories about what Jesus was doing during that time. There are people who think that he was a carpenter with his dad. There are people who think that he traveled to India to learn the wisdom of Eastern sages. There are people who think any number of other things.

But when it comes to the stories that we have in the Bible,this is the one that we hear about Jesus being a kid.

Every year, his family would go from their home in Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. According to ancient sources, there would have been a huge number of people—millions of Jews—from all over the area in Jerusalem for the Passover. They would made their sacrifices at the temple, celebrate for about a week, and then head home.

And this year, like every other year, when Passover ended, Mary and Joseph joined up with the other travelers heading in the direction of Nazareth and started their journey home. And they assumed that the twelve-year-old Jesus was somewhere in the group.

And, after about a day, they realized that Jesus was… not so much in the group.

So they went back to Jerusalem and looked for him. And, after three days, they found him at the temple… listening to teachers and scholars, and asking questions, and answering their questions. And everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

It is easy to believe that, in this moment, with Jesus surrounded by teachers and scholars, questioning and answering with the best of them… it is easy to believe that, in this moment, Jesus is special.

And of course Jesus is special. He is the Word become flesh. He is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made. Of course he is special.

But he is also not the only young person to sit around a group of adults and amaze them. I know that because I have met the young people in this church: the kids who come forward during our Time with Young Worshippers, the young people in our confirmation class, and youth who were part of our Christmas program. 

Week in and week out, I am blessed to see our young people do amazing things.

And it isn’t just our young people.

It’s Malala Yousafzai, who was blogging about her life in Taliban-occupied Pakistan for the BBC; who was shot for her activism; and who went on to found a nonprofit organization, write a book, win a Nobel Peace Prize, and become a tireless advocate for the right to education.

It’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, who endured unimaginable tragedy. And who responded to that tragedy by organizing rallies, giving interviews to magazines, appearing on television, and becoming tireless advocates for better gun control. And who have done that while making sure to include voices from other, less privileged, communities.

It’s Sophie Cruz, an eight year old American citizen whose parents are undocumented. And who has passed notes to the Pope, spoken to President Obama, and given speeches at rallies in support of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

And, so many years ago, it’s Ruby Bridges, being escorted to William Frantz Elementary School by U.S. Marshalls. The first black student at an all-white school in New Orleans.

And it’s so many others. I won’t even try to list names. While people my age (and older) are complaining about the kids being on their phones all the time, and constantly playing Fortnite, and listening to Dear Even Hansenall the time; actualyoung people—ordinary young people—are changing the world.

Young people are in the temple… listening to teachers and scholars… asking and answering questions… and being amazing.

When Mary and Joseph find Jesus at the temple, they are astonished. And Mary says to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

And Jesus answers her, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus is no baby meek and mild. He is a soon-to-be-teenager.

“Where did you think I would be?” he asks, “What did you think I would be doing?”

And he’s right. Almost thirteen years earlier an angel had visited Mary and said to her,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

She knew what kind of son she would be raising. Where did she think he would be? What did she think he would be doing?

Every young person who has tried to change the world has been asked that question: why are you treating us like this? Why are you adding to our anxiety? 

And some have faced much worse. Malala was shot. I’ve read the things that have been written about the kids from Parkland. People threatened to kill Ruby Bridges… to her face… every day… while she walked to that elementary school in New Orleans.

“Why are you treating us like this?” people ask, “Why are you adding to our anxiety?”

And we know the answer. If we raise our youth up right…

If we teach the the lessons that the author of Colossians asks us all to learn. Be clothed with compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience. Be clothed with love. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Teach and admonish with all wisdom. Sing with gratitude.

Let the peace and word of Jesus Christ, son of the Most High, who was once a twelve year old, at the temple, amazing the teachers and scholars, live in you.

If we raise our youth up right… what else do we think they would be doing than making the world a place of greater compassion and mercy and justice and love? If we raise our youth up right… where else do we think they would be than on the front lines of the issues that will affect them for the rest of their lives?

What else would be expect them to do… than be Christ-like?

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus at the temple, they were astonished.

And—the scripture goes on—after Jesus answered them, they did not understand what he said to them.

And—the scripture goes on—after they took him by the hand, and they all went home to Nazareth together, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

There are going to be times when our youth ask permission for the things they should ask permission for. And there are going to be times when they don’t. And there are going to be times when we think they should have asked permission, but when they really shouldn’t have had to.

There are going to be times when we can give wisdom to our youth. And there are going to be times when those of us who are a little bit older need to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience… and listen to the wisdom of our youth. They are, after all, learning much more than we’ll ever know.

And we will have the chance to be amazed at their understanding and their answers; to watch them grow in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor; and and to treasure all of these things in our hearts.

We’ll have the chance to let a child lead the way. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Christmas Story (Sermon for December 24, 2018)


God loved the world like this:

In the days when Israel was ruled by Rome, God sent an angel to a young woman named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, and that angel said,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And when it was time for Mary to have her son, she and Joseph was in the town of Bethlehem. And because there was no room at the inn, they stayed in a stable. And Mary gave birth to the her son. And because they were in a stable, she took that Son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. And the Son of the Most High was made low.

And in that same region there were shepherds: dirty, and smelly, and hanging out with sheep all the time. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said,

Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

And that angel and a host of angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

And the shepherds went to Bethlehem, and found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And they ran around telling everyone. The lowly telling the world about the Son of the Most High… made low.

And that is how the Word of God, who is with God and who is God, a light in the darkness through whom all things were made, came into the world to be one of us.

God loved the world like this: He made himself low for our sake. He made herself low… for us.

For the last four Sundays, we have been in the season of Advent. We have lit candles for hope and peace and joy and love. We have prepared for Jesus Christ to come into the world.

And now, on Christmas Eve, we stand on the threshold. We wait in holy anticipation for God to enter this world. Not as a conquering supernatural creature, but as a baby. Not in a palace in the capital of an empire, but in a manger in a small town in a backwater province. Not welcomed by kings and potentates, but by shepherds.

And we light a candle for Christ… our light in the darkness.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And we tell this story: that God came into the world as one of us, that God came into the world among the poor, and that if we want to find God we look among the least of us.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And this is a story that you’ve heard before. You’ve heard it on its own.

You’ve heard it mashed together with other stories in a Christmas pageant. You’ve heard Linus tell it, standing in a spotlight on a stage in a school auditorium, near a sad and small Christmas tree sitting on Schroeder’s little piano.

It’s a story that we hear every year. And we can get so used to it that it can fade into the background. It can become just this story that we tell amid all of the other things that happen during the Christmas season.

A few years ago, in my last job, I was flying home from Biloxi. I had been there for a board meeting or a staff development event or something. And I was at my usual layover in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth. And I had done that thing where you wait for a couple of hours at the gate… and then you get on the plane… and then they discover a problem… and then you get off the plane… and then you go to another gate and wait there.

And I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home. And this guy started talking to me. And, somewhere in there he asked me what I did. And most of you know that I was a fundraiser for an organization that helps people living in poverty. So I slipped into fundraiser mode and told him what I did and what my employer did… and I think I stopped just short of asking him for money.

And then he asked me how I liked it. And—because I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home—I said something like this: “It’s okay. I get to eat food and live indoors.”

And a guy who was standing a little bit ahead of us in line looked back and said, “So you’re better off than the people you’re serving.”

I had gotten so wrapped up in my life and my work and my stress that I had forgotten why I did it. I was so tired that I had forgotten that there are people who drink so that it’s easier to sleep on the concrete under a bridge. I was so crabby that I had forgotten that there are people who are at the end of their ropes. I wanted to get home so badly that I had forgotten that there were people with no home to go to.

And I know that Christ was among them.

I know that it is Christmas Eve. This is a night of celebration and family and community and love. Christ is coming into the world! As a baby… in a small town in a backwater province… wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… visited by shepherds.
But I can tell you that Christ has been here all along. He stays out of the way during the day, and sleeps on a bench in Lincoln Park at night, and goes to the Referral Center when he can.

She is sitting in a detention center at the border… and in a refugee camp in Jordan… and in a prison cell in Fort Madison.

They are walking out of their house because their parents didn’t accept them, and they are desperately seeking a community that will welcome them in, and give them a hug, and tell them that they are the precious child of a loving God.
Christ has been here all along. And we meet him in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. And we tell this story—about a baby wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger—so that we can remember that.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And the Christmas story is about a poor and vulnerable God, who we meet among poor and vulnerable people, and who we serve through love and generosity.

It is, as G.K. Chesterton said, a story “built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

It can be hard to remember that. It can be hard to remember that when we’re dealing with all of the stresses of our lives, like when we’re in an airport and we’re tired and we’re crabby and we just want to go home.

And it can be hard to remember during the holidays, when we have families to entertain, and parties to attend, and decorations to put up, and presents to buy, and food to cook.

So we light a candle. We light a candle for Christ.

We light a candle for a little baby who was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… and for every baby who needs love… which means, for every baby.

We light a candle for a man who ended up on the wrong side of power… and for everyone who is marginalized and threatened and hurt.

We light a candle for a God who loved the world like this: She made herself low for our sake… she became a light in the darkness, for us.

We light a candle… for Christ.

And we don’t just do that this week. We don’t just do that tonight.

Every week, someone carries a light into this sanctuary and places it on these candles on this table. They are symbols of the light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome, the true light that enlightens everyone.

And every week, someone takes this these symbolic lights out of this sanctuary.

And, it’s true, all of us carry the light of Christ… in our hearts… out into the world.

And, it’s also true, all of us go into the world to look for that light, to look for Jesus in the places where he hangs out today… in the mangers of our world… among the shepherds of our world.

And every week, every day, every hour, we have the chance to bring good news of great joy to all people, to share good will with all of our neighbors, and, through our actions, to praise God.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest!

Love (Sermon for December 23, 2018)

Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.

And if you’ve never had to preach a sermon every week, then you might not know that preparing a sermon is a lot of work. You have to read the scripture, and think about it, and maybe do some research on it. You have to come up with stories and examples, which can mean more research. You have to figure out what jokes you’re going to tell and who you’re going to steal them from.

You have to check Facebook and Twitter, do a couple of crossword puzzles, see what’s new on Kickstarter, clean your house, plan dinners for the next couple of weeks. It’s work.

And, eventually, Saturday night rolls around and you’re left staring at a blank page.

Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach every week. And that meant that on Saturday night there was always at least one person posting on Facebook, “Does anyone have an idea about how to preach on, say, Luke 1:39-55?”

There is always the temptation to wait for inspiration to strike. Which is why, as some of you know, I write my sermons on Mondays. By the end of the day on Monday—by the time of an evening meeting or hanging out with friends—I try to have a sermon done, or a solid first draft, or a good start.

Because “inspiration is for amateurs,” said the painter Chuck Close, “the rest of us show up and get to work.”

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer. And, in today’s reading, we hear that when Elizabeth was pregnant with John, her relative Mary came to visit. Mary is also pregnant, and John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and proclaims Mary blessed.

And Mary responds with poem that has become famous. It has become a prayer and a song and something that people in churches around the world and across time recite:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s a little bit of a love song to God. And today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for love.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that God has for this world. And God loves the world in this way: she sent her son into it to live fully and completely as one of us.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that we, like Mary, have for God; to remember that we come together to magnify the Lord who has looked on us with favor.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that we are called to have for each other and for all creation; even though we don’t always love as we should.

We light a candle for love.

And it is easy to think that this love is a feeling… that it’s like inspiration.

And, sometimes, it is. Some of us can remember back to our early days with our spouse or partner and how quickly that feeling of love came up. Some of us can remember back to our youth, and how love—or, at least ‘like like’—lurked around every corner. 

And some of you can remember the first time you held your child in your arms, and the feelings of love that overwhelmed you. I imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth felt that love when they first saw their son John. And I imagine that Joseph and Mary felt that love when they first saw their son Jesus.

Sometimes, love is a feeling. And it can be an overwhelming feeling. It can turn us into heroes and fools. We do amazing things—and, sometimes, incredibly stupid things—for love.

But love is more than a feeling. Love is an action.

Now, don’t get me wrong, how we feel matters… a little bit. We can love and do it badly. We can love and make mistakes.

But love is still an action. Love is lived out. Love is giving food to someone who is hungry and drink to someone who is thirsty and clothing to someone who is naked; it is welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner. Love is patience and kindness and forbearance and belief and hope and endurance.

Love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.

And the fact is that love can be hard. It can be hard to love our families and our friends. That’s true in the everydayness of the year. It’s especially true around the holidays.

Right now, we are surrounded by images and movies showing meticulously decorated houses and home-cooked gourmet meals that meet every expectation of diet and taste. We are busily picking out gifts that say, “I spent enough to show that I care, but not so much that you, the recipient, feel bad about what you’re about to give me.”

We measure ourselves against impossible standards of togetherness. And, sometimes, get a little resentful towards all those people who aren’t helping us meet the Hallmark ideal.

It can be hard to love our families and our friends. But it can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know; who we’ve never met; who we’ve only seen out of the corner of our eye, if at all.

We can see that in our rhetoric around things like poverty and immigration. A simple phrase like ‘undeserving poor’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ can show us how hard it can be to love our neighbors who are also strangers, whether they are walking into the Referral Center, or waiting in line at an immigration checkpoint in Tijuana, or sitting in a refugee camp in the Middle East.

It can be hard to love our families and our friends. It can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know. It can be almost impossible to love our enemies.

Love can be hard.

And when something is hard, it can be easy to set it aside. It can be easy to say, “I don’t have what it takes to love my family and friends right now. I don’t have what it takes to love those strangers right now. I don’t have what it takes to love my enemies right now.”

It can be easy to set the hard things aside and wait for inspiration to strike.

But inspiration is for amateurs. Professionals show up and get to work. And we are Christians. And, as Christians, we are called to be professionals at love. We are called to show up and get to work.

And that’s why it is so important that love isn’t just a feeling. That’s why it’s so important that love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.

Because, even if we’re not feeling it… we can do it.

When that painter, Chuck Close, said that inspiration is for amateurs, what he meant was this. Sometimes, when you are painting—or playing an instrument or writing a sermon—you don’t have anything.

And so you take a color and you paint a line. Or you play a few notes. Or you write, “Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.”

And then you paint another line and another and another. Or you play another note or a phrase or a snippet of melody. Or you write a few more words, and then a sentence, and then a paragraph.

And, gradually, something comes out of the work. And, gradually, you start to feel the thing coming out of the work.

Being inspired just means getting filled with the spirit. And by doing the work, we make room for the spirit to get in the mix. And, before too long, we are inspired to do the thing we were already doing.

If you want to love… go out and love. If you want to be filled with the spirit of love… go out and love.

Love can be hard. We do not love as we should. I am not always good at love.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a reminder that I don’t have to feel love to give love.

I light a candle as a reminder that the work of loving is what makes room for the spirit of love.

I light a candle as a little light in the darkness that I can follow in love. A little light in the darkness that tells me that I can love my way into… well, that I can love my way into greater love.

I light a candle to say, let my soul magnify the Lord, let my spirit rejoice, and let God, in her mercy, make me an instrument of her love.

I light a candle… for love.

The Big Peace (Sermon for December 9, 2018)

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And today, we hear a part of a story that we don’t hear very often.

There was this priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were righteous before the Lord. And, like so many people in the Bible, they were old and they were childless.

And, one day, an angel appeared before Zechariah and said to him, “Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John… and he will prepare the people for the Lord.”

And, like so many people in the Bible who are old and childless, when they hear that they will have a child, Zechariah said, “That… seems unlikely.” And the angel struck him mute. And Elizabeth conceived.

Later, Elizabeth bore a son. They took him to be circumcised, and their friends and family wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” And, like so many people do when a woman contradicts the crowd, they say, “Let’s check with your husband.”

So they hand Zechariah a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And right at that moment, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak again.

And he does what all new dads do when they are able to speak to their newborn son for the first time: he prophesies.

He praises God. And he says that God has remembered her covenant with Abraham, and raised up a savior from the house of David, who will rescue God’s people from the hands of their enemies.

And he says to John, his son, “You will be a prophet. You will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

And he says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Dawn will break… there will be light for those who live in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today, we light a candle—a light in the darkness to guide our feet—for peace. And God knows that we need it. We do not have peace.

Peace is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a word that has many meanings.

On the one hand, there is the little peace: the absence of conflict. Or, sometimes, even less. “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” said Ronald Reagan, “but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

And God knows that we need that little peace. We do not have it.

Some of the conflicts that we face, and that we cannot resolve, are huge. There is a generation in America that only knows a nation at war. There are people in high school—there are people in this sanctuary—who are younger than the war in Afghanistan.

And the truth is that most of us only know a nation at war in one way or another. In its two hundred forty-two year history, the United States has only been not-at-war for about seventeen years. There are people about to graduate from high school who have lived longer on this earth than our nation has lived in relative peace.

We can all name some of the famous wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there have been so many others: against Native peoples and in far-off lands. Official and unofficial. Hot and cold.

And it isn’t just us. War is a living reality for countless people around the world. There are big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mexico and Syria and Yemen. And there are dozens of other wars and conflicts and skirmishes and clashes that don’t make the news.

And it isn’t just war. Communities across our nation and around the world face police brutality, mass shootings, gang wars, and other forms of violence. For too many of us—which is to say, for any of us—violence is part of life.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

Some of those conflicts of huge. But some of them are small and intimate.

Some of us are in conflict with our families: our spouses or partners, our parents or children, our siblings or cousins or nieces or nephews.

Some of us are in conflict with someone at work: a supervisor or an employee, a client or a vendor, a coworker.

Some of us are in conflict with a friend, or someone who we go to church with, or a complete stranger who blocked the aisle with the grocery cart while looking at spices.

Some of us are in conflict with ourselves. Some of us have inventories of our faults—real or imagined—and fight against ourselves mercilessly.

And sometimes those conflicts turn to physical violence. And sometimes they are verbally or emotionally violent. And sometimes they just just are.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

But the absence of conflict is just a little peace; it’s an imitation peace.

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” said the Rev. Dr. King, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he went on. He recalled a conversation with a man who was upset about… ‘the bus situation’.

“Yes, there is more tension now,” King said, “but even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have real peace.”

“If Black folk accepted their place,” he said, “their place of exploitation and injustice, there would be peace. But it would be obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.”

“I do not want a peace,” he said, “if that means that I have to accept second class citizenship; or keep my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil; or be well-adjusted to a deadening status quo; or be willing to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated.”

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” he said, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he was right. The absence of conflict is a little peace; it’s an imitation peace. Real peace comes when there is also justice. And there is not enough justice. And it is often the same people who face violence who are denied their share of justice.

God knows that we need the little peace; the imitation peace. We do not have it.

And God knows that we need the big peace; the real peace that comes alongside the presence of justice. We do not have it.

But we do have Zechariah—a priest serving in a land occupied by an empire—prophesying to his son.

“You, my child, will be a prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to his people. And by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

His name is John. And he will become John the Baptizer, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He will become John the Baptizer, who will proclaim the good news to the people. He will become John the Baptizer, who will baptize the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Think about that for just a minute.

It is tempting to imagine that peace—whether it’s the little imitation peace as the absence of conflict, or the big real peace as the presence of justice—is a big systemic thing that is… out there. And that’s a little bit true. Peace is a big systemic thing. And reaching it will take big systemic steps like the tender mercy of God and the dawn from on high.

But it is also true that big systemic things have their roots in individual acts of every day life. It is true that when I—or you, or anyone—stand up for peace and against not-peace, there ends up being a little more peace in the world.

John was not the Messiah. He baptized people. He told them to repent. He told people who had extra to share with those who didn’t have enough. He told tax collectors to only collect the amount they were supposed to. He told soldiers not to extort money.

I can do that. You can do that. Anyone can do that.

When we see injustice, we can say, “There is injustice.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is just.

When we see violence, we can say, “There is violence.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is love.

When we see not-peace, we can say, “There is not-peace.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the Prince of Peace.

John did that. And so I can do that, and you can do that, and anyone can do that.

And I know that’s hard. I know that’s scary. I know that I fail at it.

I know that I don’t like conflict. And I know that, among my many privileges, is the privilege to avoid conflict. And I know that sometimes—often, maybe even usually—my desire to avoid conflict is so much greater than my desire to work for peace.

I know that I stay silent when I should speak. I know that I stay still when I should act.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a light in the darkness.

I light a candle to remind myself that there is always a light in the darkness, a dawn from on high, a light that can guide my feet into the way of peace.

I light a candle to remind myself that I—and you, and everyone—am called to be the light of the world, preparing the way of the Lord, and calling others to the big peace that comes alongside the presence of justice.

I light a candle… for peace.

World-Ending Hope (Sermon for December 2, 2018)

It is the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand, we’re looking forward to Christmas. In the church, we decorate the building, we make cookies for people who can’t be with us regularly, we prepare for the children’s Christmas program, we sing a handful of carols, and we give to the Referral Center. We are getting ready for the birth of our savior… in a stable… two thousand years ago.

And, of course, outside of the church, we’re really looking forward to Christmas. People put up decorations everywhere: wreaths on city lampposts, lights on roofs, trees in homes, and window displays in stores. We wish each other a Merry Christmas, or—if we’re respectful of the many other holidays at this time of year—Happy Holidays. A Christmas Story plays on the TV. All I Want for Christmas is You and Last Christmas play on a loop on the radio.

On the other hand, though, we’re looking forward to Christ’s return. Not as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, but as a king… and a judge… and a redeemer. For the days are surely coming when God will keep her promise to the world, when a righteous branch will spring up, and when there will be justice and righteousness in the land.

And we look to the past and to the future… in hope.

We are good mainline Protestants. And one of the things about good mainline Protestants is our relationship with time.

On the one hand, we remember the past. We remember the days when everything was better. When the sanctuary was full. When the Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams. When the committees were fully staffed and the money was rolling in and no one had anything to do but go to church on Sunday morning and participate in activities on Wednesday nights.

And, to be fair, we probably misremember the past. But we misremember it fondly.

On the other hand, we work in the present. We do the work of justice and righteousness and mercy by giving to charity, and going on mission trips, and leaving non-perishable food items under the coatrack in the narthex, and putting gloves and hats under the little Christmas tree, and calling our congress-critters on a host of issues.

We even think about the future in concrete terms, in terms of budgets and committee assignments and maybe a program or two. We talk about a future that is a lot like today.

We don’t usually talk about the end of things.

There are churches that do. There are churches that talk about the last days and how we are living in them. There are churches that talk about raptures and antichrists and tribulations. There are churches who will tell you that Jesus is coming back this year, or next year, or by the end of the decade for sure.

But we usually don’t.

So today’s reading from Luke can be a little uncomfortable for us. God knows it’s a little uncomfortable for me.

In today’s reading, we get a little slice of an extended monologue… where Jesus is very definitely talking about the end of things.

He talks about the people who will come and claim to be the Messiah, and how they we lead people astray, and how we shouldn’t follow them.

He talks about wars and insurrections and nation rising against nation. He talks about earthquakes and famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs; and persecutions and armies and the destruction of Jerusalem.

And he doesn’t say this, but still: dogs and cats… living together… mass hysteria!

This kind of talk can be uncomfortable for us. But if we’re going to talk about hope, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about the end of things.

Because hope for me—a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America—is one thing.

And hope for some other people… is different.

Earlier in the story—before he started talking about the end of things—Jesus was teaching near the Temple.

And he said, “Beware of the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect when they’re out and about, and to have the best seats in synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. But they devour widows’ houses, and they say long prayers just to show off how religious they are. They will have the greater condemnation.”

And then he saw rich people putting their offerings in the plate. And he saw a widow drop in her two copper coins. And he said, “She’s put in more than all of them. They gave a little bit of their abundance. She gave her whole life.”

And then he heard some people talking about the beauty of the Temple, and he started talking about the end of things.

Because Jesus knows his world. He knows that widow has no power. He knows that she cannot hope that the next Emperor will propose a set of policies that are better for poor widows, because Emperors don’t do that sort of thing. He knows that she cannot hope for a slightly better job, because widows don’t get good paying jobs.

He knows that all she can hope for is for the way that the world works to change. All she can hope for is the end of the world as she—and as those scribes—know it. For the coming of the Son of Man. For her redemption to draw near.

There are people in this world who are that widow, whose homes are being devoured, who have nothing more than two copper coins. There are people who live in countries and neighborhoods where violence is rampant. There are people who do not have enough food, or adequate housing, or access to clean water.

There are people who will walk twenty-six hundred miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Tijuana, Mexico, in the hope—in the HOPE—of coming to the United States and no longer living in one of the poorest and deadliest cities in the world.

I cannot imagine what that hope is like. I cannot imagine what it means to walk twenty-six hundred miles, through dangerous terrain, with nothing more than hope.

But I can tell you that that hope is a world-ending hope. Because someone who is hoping with that hope is hoping for such a radical change in their life, for such a tremendous alteration to their circumstances, that it can only be described as the END. OF. THEIR. WORLD.

And there are people who are still living in San Pedro Sula—or somewhere else—in fear and hunger and poverty and worry.

And some of them hoping for change. And not just for change, but for change that can only be described as the end of the world.

But, of course… there’s the other side to that. When the widow’s world ends, so does the scribes’. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

I get it.

I’ve only been with you for… not quite a year. So you don’t know this about me yet, but there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change. I’m trying to get better at that. But…

Before this November, I had the same goatee since my sophomore year in college.

Before last year, I had bought the same brand and design of tennis shoes three or four times. And it was only that few because they discontinued the design I was buying before that.

Mariah and I were talking recently, and she said that she didn’t realize, when she suggested a short hair cut, that I would just have this hair cut for the rest of my life.

I’m trying to get better. But there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change.

So you can imagine what it’s like when I think about big changes; about world-ending changes.

I am a firm believer that we need radical change in this world. I believe that we could make sure that everyone on this planet had enough to eat and to drink, and a safe place to live, and a good education, and a fulfilling life. And I believe that we could do all of that while protecting our forests and our waterways and our glaciers; and our red pandas and our black rhinos, and the little creepy crawly things. And I believe all of that with a burning belief.

And I know that all of that would require huge changes in my life. And I do not want to change.

So I get it. A little bit.

I get wanting to keep things the way they have been And I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with yelling and screaming and hateful invective. I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with armies and tear gas and rubber bullets.

I might not get it completely. But I get it… a little bit.

I am a scribe. I’ve got my long robe. I like being greeted with honor. I like the good seats. I have been known to say long prayers. I do not want my world to end. Even if the world to come would be better.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle in the hope that my world will change, and that I will change with it.

I light a candle in the hope that redemption will come for the widows of the world, and that, somehow, it will come for me, too.

I light a candle in the hope that I will not be afraid; that I will not faint.

I light a candle in the hope that I will have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

I light a candle… in hope.

Where Are You From? (Sermon for November 25, 2018)

(I apologize for mispronouncing Wampanoag right off the bat. I think that I do know how to pronounce the word, but in the moment I got a little tongue-tied)

Where are you from?

It’s one of those questions that seems important… and it’s a question that’s worth pondering on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Just a few days ago, you might have thought about the old story. A group of people from across the sea, our Congregationalist ancestors, arrived on this continent. They met the Wampanoag who already lived here, and those Wampanoag taught them how to survive in this land.

And, as winter and harvest festivals approached, the settlers and the Wampanoag celebrated together.

There’s more to the story, of course. And our ancestors are not the heroes of that story.

Where are you from? Part of our history is bound up with a band of pilgrims who went from England to Holland to here. We aren’t from here.

Where are you from?

Last Christmas, I got an AncestryDNA kit as a gift. You might have used one, or another kit that’s like it. If you haven’t, you probably know someone who has, or you’ve seen the commercials. Either way, you know the idea: you send a vial of spit to a large corporation and they tell you… where you’re from.

And I don’t mean “where you’re from” like “you grew up in Wisconsin” or “you moved here from Ohio”. I mean “where you’re from” like “your ancestors lived here”.

It turns out that my ancestors lived more-or-less where I thought they did. A lot of me is from England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and ‘Northwestern Europe’ (also known as France). The rest of me is from ‘Germanic Europe’ (also known as Germany).

So I’m very British and a little German.

But it’s not like I’m from those places. I’m not from England or Wales or wherever. And I’m not from Germany or Prussia or wherever.

I don’t know enough of my mom’s family history to tell you their story; I think my mom’s dad’s dad’s dad—or something like that—came here from Prussia.

But I know more of my dad’s family’s story. And if you trace back through my dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s dad—and so on—I am part of something like the 13th generation of Warfields to live in what is now the United States.

And you would think that would make me pretty American. But there’s this weird thing about America. There are people who are from here, and they are called the Wampanoag, and the Apache, and the Chickasaw, and the Seneca, and the Potawatomi.

They are many nations called by many names. And there are millions of them.

And the rest of us are from somewhere else. Whether we know where that is or not. We are Irish and German and Swedish and African and a thousand other things. America is a place that you’re probably not from… even if you’re not really from anywhere else.

In today’s readings, we hear from two kings. And there’s nothing that tells you where you’re from like a king.

On the one hand, we hear the last words of David, the king of Israel. And not just the king of Israel, but the king of Israel. He is George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and King Arthur.

And it’s important to remember that, even though he is the king of Israel (the people) and king of Israel (the land), he isn’t from there. David’s ancestor Abraham came from Ur and lived in the land that would become Israel. And his descendants moved to Egypt and were enslaved. And their descendants were led out of Egypt and conquered the land that would be Israel. And the people who already lived there were killed or enslaved or pushed aside.

But David’s last words establish him and his house as kings of Israel forever. This is what he says: God says that a king who rules over his people justly, ruling in fear of the LORD, is like the light of the morning. And my house has been like that. God has made an everlasting covenant with me and my house. My help and my desire will prosper.

David is setting up an expectation: no matter what trials and tribulations come, someone from the house of David will sit on the throne. If everything falls apart—if there is exile or occupation—eventually, someone from the house of David will rise up and take that throne back. As long as there is a king of Israel (the people) and a king of Israel (the land), that king will be from the house of David.

On the other hand, we hear a conversation between Jesus and a man named Pontius Pilate. Jesus has been arrested and summoned before Pilate. And Pilate is the ruler of Israel and a representative of the ruler of Israel. He is the prefect of Judea, representing the Emperor of the Roman Empire, in charge of a little backwater province of the most powerful Empire in the world.

And he asks Jesus, this preacher and teacher and healer from this little backwater province, “People have told me things about you… are you the king of the Jews?”

And I’ve told you this before: if you were alive at that time, and you were Jewish, and you thought that Jesus was the Messiah, then you would expect an answer. You would expect Jesus to say, “Yes. I am from David’s house, and this is Israel, and these are my people. And I am the rightful king here… and we are taking back this land.”

But that’s not what he says.

Instead, he says this: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Instead, he says this: “I’m not from here. My kingdom is not of this world.”

On the one hand, there is David, establishing his kingdom in one land… forever.

On the other hand, there is Christ, who isn’t from here and whose kingdom is not of this world.

I don’t like to set up choices between the stories in the Old Testament and the stories in the New Testament… but these two readings set up a choice.

Where are you from?

As Iowans, we are from Iowa. And as Americans, we are from the United States. But most of us aren’t really from here. We are immigrants, and children of immigrants, and grandchildren of immigrants, and—and let’s see if I get this right—great great great great great great great great great great grandchildren of immigrants.

And we mark that by saying we’re English or German or African or Japanese or whatever. We have a list of identities—a list of places we’re from and places we’ve been and what it means to be from somewhere else and living here—and… it’s complicated.

But as Christians…

As Christians, we are not from here. We are not from Iowa or America or Britain or Germany or wherever.

We have given up our from-here-ness to be from a kingdom we have never visited and of which we have seen only glimpses.

We have given up our from-here-ness to be pilgrims and sojourners in this world.

We have given up our from-here-ness to be residents of this little consulate of the Kingdom of God.

We are immigrants to the church. And that means that we are now from another place. We are from truth. We are from mercy. We are from love.

And there is something powerful there. Because once we know that we are sojourners and pilgrims, we can welcome those other sojourners and pilgrims. We can welcome people who are coming to this land—this Iowa, this America—looking for a better life. And we can welcome people who are coming to this church, looking for hospitality and hope.

We can be representatives of truth because we are from truth. We can be ambassadors of mercy because we are from mercy. We can be a people of love because we are from love. And we can tell everyone that no matter where you are from, you can be from here—from the Kingdom of God, from the church of Jesus Christ—too.

Where are you from?

It’s one of those questions that seems important. And it’s a question that is important, but not in the way that the fine folks at AncestryDNA try to tell us it is.

It really doesn’t matter if I’m Iowan or Wisconsinite. It really doesn’t matter if I’m American or English or Welsh or Irish or German or whatever.

It matters that I give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger. It matters that I give clothing to the naked and care to the sick and company to the prisoner. It matters… it matters that I love.

That is where I want to be from.

Nothing Standing Between You (Sermon for November 18, 2018)

I’ve told you this before: before I was your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. In fact, I worked for the Mission when I was ordained. And not long after I was ordained, something amazing happened.

I was visiting the Mission—I spent most of my time working from my home here in Iowa and from the road—when the woman who directed our food pantry and emergency assistance program came to my office. She had a client in her office who was distraught. And she wanted to know if I would come to her office and pray with that client.

And that struck me as strange. It struck me as strange for a couple of reasons.

First, no one at the Mission had ever asked me to come and pray with a client before. I know that they had clients who wanted to pray. They had simply never asked me to pray with them.

Second, and I said this to my colleague, there was nothing that was keeping her from praying with her client. God doesn’t see a difference between her prayers and my prayers.

But I also knew why she had asked me. And I knew why she had asked me then, but never before. I was now ordained. And despite the fact that she knew that God could hear her prayer just as clearly as he could hear mine, there was a part of her that saw me as someone with more authority. There was a part of her that saw me as someone who God would listen to.

There was a part of her that saw me as a kind of mediator between her and God. There was a part of her that saw me as a priest.

And that’s weird. Because we’re protestants and congregationalists and we don’t have priests. We left them behind with the Protestant Reformation. We said that we were democratic and that everyone had equal access to God.

But it turns out that it is hard to let priests go.

In today’s reading from First Samuel, we are in the days before there was a king in Israel. We are in the days before there was a great temple in Jerusalem. We are in the days when the people did what was right in their own eyes, families made their own sacrifices to the LORD, and there were different temples in different cities. And one of those temples was in Shiloh.

And in today’s reading from First Samuel, we hear two stories… intertwined.

On the one hand, we have Eli, the high priest of the temple in Shiloh. Now, the high priest has many responsibilities. But this is a time when all proper worship included sacrifices. And if Eli had a nice, printed-out, bullet-pointed list of his responsibilities, ‘oversee sacrifices at the temple’ would be right there… at the top… in bold letters.

On the other hand, we have Hannah… who is nobody. You see, there’s this man named Elkanah, who has two wives. Hannah is one of them, and Elkanah loves her, but she hasn’t had any children. And Peninnah is the other wife, and she has had children. And Peninnah mocks Hannah relentlessly. And Hannah is distraught.

Watch how the stories loop around each other.

Eli is sitting on his seat near the temple door when Hannah, fresh from Peninnah making fun of her, comes storming in. And she kneels and breaks down and rocks and sobs and prays to the LORD.

“O LORD of hosts,” she says, “if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazarite until the day of his death.”

And a nazarite is a person who has made a vow to God and set themselves apart. They do not drink alcohol, or eat anything with grapes, or cut their hair, or go near corpses or graves. And while this is usually for a set length of time—like a month or a year—Hannah is promising to set her son aside as a nazarite until his death.

She is saying, “If you give me a son, O LORD, I will make him a living sacrifice to you.”

But Eli doesn’t hear this. He’s just sitting on his seat near the temple door when this woman comes storming in. He sees her fall to the floor, kneeling and rocking and sobbing. And he sees her lips move, but he doesn’t hear what she is saying.

And at the top of his list of job responsibilities—in bold letters—is ‘oversee sacrifices at the temple’. And nowhere on that list does it say, ‘console clearly distressed woman who stormed into the temple and fell to the floor and started kneeling and rocking and sobbing.’ And I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even think it fits under ‘other duties as assigned’.

So he assumes she’s drunk. And he interrupts her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”

And she replies, “I am not drunk. I am troubled. I am pouring my soul out before the LORD.”

And Eli answers her, “Then go in peace; and the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And he doesn’t know it, because he didn’t hear her, but what he is saying is, “May God accept the sacrifice you have promised.”

And what is happening here is so important. Hannah is not a priest. She is not the head of her household. She has no right to offer this sacrifice. But she does offer her sacrifice, and the high priest of Shiloh blesses her sacrifice, and God accepts her sacrifice, and she bears a son to her husband, and she names him Samuel.

And I won’t tell you Samuel’s story here. But it’s a good story and he becomes an important man. And he only shows up in the story because Hannah stormed into that temple in Shiloh… and prayed… and made her living sacrifice.

And that matters. It matters because it shows us that even in those days when there was no king in Israel, even in those days when there was no great temple in Jerusalem, there was no barrier between God and God’s people. A woman in distress could walk into a temple and pray… and God would hear her and answer her.

Our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews takes it even further. In this reading, we are in the days when there was a ruler in Israel, and it was an occupying empire. And we are in the days when there was a great temple in Jerusalem, and priests made sacrifices to God there. We are in the days when there were priests to serve as mediators between God and God’s people.

And earlier in the epistle, the author of Hebrews gives us that priestly job description, with the words right at the top, in bold letters: “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

But in today’s reading, writing to the early Christian community, the author of Hebrews wants us to know that there is only one mediator between God and humanity: Jesus Christ. And he wants us to know that Christ has made the sacrifice that ends sacrifices.

And that can be hard for us to understand. It can be hard for us to get, because we do not live in a world of temples and sacrifices. We aren’t used to taking a portion of our livestock or our crop to a great temple in a big city and watching a priest burn it on an altar.

But today is Stewardship Sunday, so maybe we can get it a little bit.

There are people who talk about giving to the church like those gifts are sacrifices. There are people who will tell us to take a tenth of what we make—gross, off the top, before taxes and debt—and hand it to the church as a way of returning the first fruits of our labor to God. And there are people who will tell us that, somehow, that transaction, that payment, makes up for our sins.

And what the author of Hebrews wants us to know is that Christ has made the sacrifice that ends sacrifices. The good news of Jesus Christ is that any payment for our sins has already been made; that we are free from the burden of sin.

And the author of Hebrews wants us to have all of the confidence of Hannah… and more. He wants us to know that we can walk right into the temple, through the way that Christ has opened, and stand before God in faith and hope. And that God will hear us and answer us.

And that the gifts we give are gifts of joy and gratitude and thanksgiving.

Now, I need to be clear about something. I am not saying this to demean my friends and neighbors who are Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican. We have priests in this world and in our religion, and they are doing amazing things.

And I am not saying this to put my own job at risk. I am not the mediator between you and God, but I do useful things. And one of those things is this:

I stand here at this pulpit and tell you that you can have all of the confidence of Hannah and more. No matter where you are, you can walk into the temple of God. You can stand before God in faith and hope. You can kneel before God in desperation. You can weep before God in distress. And God will hear you and answer you.

If you want me to pray with you, I will pray with you. But my prayers are no weightier than yours. Yours carry the weight of the world.

If you want me to serve you a meal at this table, I will serve you that meal. But the words I say are no different than yours. You can eat every meal in remembrance of the one mediator between God and humanity.

This is, perhaps, the best news of all: that there is nothing standing between you and God. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Seeds They Planted (Sermon for November 11, 2018)

Today is All Souls’ Sunday. It’s a day when we remember those who have gone before us. We’ll take some time to read their names and ring a chime and light a candle for them. And, if we have a photo of them, we’ll show that, too.

And, as part of that, you’ll see a photo of my dad. You’ll see the official photo. The photo we used for his obituary. And, while that’s a good photo, I wanted you to see this one, too. Because, while the official photo is definitely a picture of my dad, this one is—somehow—more a picture of my dad.

He’s got a hat. He’s wearing shorts and a tucked in button down shirt. He’s carrying a camera and a zoom lens and a camera bag. Thatis my dad.

And some of that rubbed off on me. Not the shorts with a tucked in button down shirt. But the camera.

I own that camera now. It’s broken. I need to take it in and have it fixed, but I keep not doing that. And I keep not doing that because I always have a camera in my pocket. And if you follow my Instagram you know that I don’t post very often. But, when I do, it’s usually a mouse or a bunny or a spider or a bird or some other piece of nature that I thought was cool.

Doing that sort of thing is… a piece of my dad that I carry with me. Not because I remember my dad with a camera and try to honor him, but because part my dad is part of me. That part of who he was is just as much a part of who I am. It is a tether that ties us together.

And it probably ties a line of Warfields together. There was probably a prehistoric Warfield somewhere on a paleolithic plain who said, “Hey, look at that neat mammoth,” before drawing it on a cave wall.

There are people who have gone before us. I am a Christian and I believe that there is something beyond the veil of death, and that those who have gone before us have gone to glory. But I also know that we we carry pieces of them with us. Some of those pieces are memories. And some of those pieces are who we are.

And, I think, that might be what it means to love them… carrying pieces of them as part of ourselves.

In today’s reading, an expert in the law overhears Jesus arguing with a group from a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. Hearing Jesus answer the Sadducees well, he asks his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

And Jesus responds, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

And then Jesus keeps going, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And the expert in the law says, basically, “Yes. That’s right.” And Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And Mark moves along with his story.

And those of us who hear the story are left to ask… what does that mean? How are we supposed to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we get closer to that Kingdom of God?

And, let me tell you, I wish there was an easy answer to those questions. I know that there are people who will tell you that there is an easy answer to those questions. I know that there are people who will present you with a list of rules and who will say, “Do these things, and don’t dothese things, and that’s what loving God and your neighbor is. And then you’ll be in the Kingdom of God.”

But I can tell you that I’ve tried that. I’ve tried doing these things and not doingthese things. I didn’t feel any closer to God or to God’s kingdom. I felt guilty and I felt shameful because I could not satisfy the rules. I could not find room for grace in the rules.

Rules are the wrong way to think about love. Love isn’t about rules. Love is about carrying a piece of someone else as part of ourselves.

Loving God is, at least a little bit, knowing that God made us and planted a seed in us. Loving God is, at least a little bit, about nurturing what God put within us.

Loving our neighbor is, at least a little bit, knowing that God made them and that we are bound together by the seeds that God planted. Loving our neighbor is, at least a little bit, about nurturing the seeds that God planted in our neighbors and letting them help nurture ours.

And believe me, I know that doesn’t give us clear instructions on what to do and what not to do. But it might just be that faith is, at least a little bit, about trusting that God will show us what to do; that, in Christ, God has shown us how to care for the great forest that God has planted all around us.

Today is All Souls’ Sunday, when we remember those who went to glory before us. Many of the people we are remembering today were a part of this congregation when they were alive. And all of them area part of this congregation today because we carry pieces of them with us: in stories… and mannerisms… and turns of phrase… and memories.

And while today is All Souls’ Sunday, it is also stewardship season. So there’s a question in front of us: as we remember those who came before us, how do we take the seeds that they planted and grow them?

You see, we don’t remember those who went before us just by saying their name and ringing a chime and lighting a candle. We remember those who went before us by continuing their work in this world.

And part of that work is this congregation. We don’t just give to the church because we need to pay utility bills and buy printer paper and pay our, let’s face it, really pretty incredible pastor. We give because we see the amazing ministries that others planted here, and we want to nurture them and care for them and grow them.

We want to revitalize and transform old ministries. We want to discover new ministries within us.

And part of how we do that is through our giving. So I want you to do three things with me.

First, I want you to look around and see all of the amazing things that have grown in this community. This building and all of the things that are in it, the tress and gardens outside, the ministries and traditions among us, the stories of our faith that each of us carry. Those things exist because of the people who came before us and the people who are here with us.

Second, I want you to imagine all of the ways that we can nurture and grow those things, whether that means pruning away an old ministry, revitalizing or growing an existing ministry, or planting a new ministry. And I want you to ask yourself what it would take to do those things. And I will tell you that it is almost certain that it will take more money.

Third, I want you to think, carefully, about your place in making those things happen. I want you to think about how you will give your time, your talent, and, yes, your money, to care for what has been planted here, to nurture what is growing here, and to create new things in this community.

And I want you to know that you aren’t doing this alone. We are in this together. Our friends and neighbors in this church are with us. Those people who we are remembering today are with us. And I pray that God is with us as we use the gifts that he has entrusted to our care to love him with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves.

This is a picture of my dad. He’s got a hat. He’s wearing shorts and a tucked in button down shirt. And he’s carrying a camera. And I can imagine him taking pictures of birds and flowers and everything else he can see through the viewfinder.

Somewhere along the way, he planted that seed in me. And now, part of who I am is a guy who takes pictures of the neat caterpillar that was on my back door, or the spider who built a web between my neighbor’s house and mine, or the killdeer who nested in the church parking lot.

And part of how I love him is by being that person.

There are people who came before us. And somewhere along the way, they planted their seeds in this church. And now we are people who host mental health first aid trainings, and have beef dinners, and show up for a church member who needs help staining their deck, and make shorts for kids in Jamaica.

And part of how we love them is by being that church, that community, that little consulate of the Kingdom of God.

Let us be everything that they dreamed we would be… and even more, let us be everything that God wants us to be. Amen.

The Little Things (Sermon for October 28, 2018)

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a weird little holiday in Protestant churches. There are no greeting cards or mattress sales or big family dinners. But some Lutherans make a big deal out of it. And some Reformed churches make a big deal out of it. And some Anglicans make a big deal out of it.

And some congregations of the United Church of Christ—being, as we are, heirs to many of the traditions that came out of the Reformation—dress the altar in red and take a Sunday to acknowledge that five-hundred-and-one years ago, on October 31st, a thirty-odd-year-old monk and priest named Martin Luther nailed an invitation to a discussion to a church door and started a revolution.

Sometimes, it’s the little things—an invitation posted on a door—that change the world.

Today’s reading is not a reading about reformation. The story that Mark tells us isn’t about changing the world. Except that it is, a little bit.

And the thing about this story is that it shows up again and again. Jesus sees someone who needs healing and he heals them. And he tells them, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” There are a hundred variations on that story. Jesus had a habit of doing this sort of thing.

In this variation, Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are leaving Jericho. And, as they’re leaving, the camera pans over to a man with an unusual name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Now, that’s a weird name because Bartimaeus means ‘son of Timaeus’. So, maybe Mark is telling us that this guy is named ‘Son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus,’ like Timaeus really needed to make a point. Or maybe Mark is translating for us, which he sometimes does: this guy is called Bartimaeus, which means ‘son of Timaeus.’

And that’s not important to the story, but it is why I’m going to call this guy Bart.

Now, Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… and Bart has heard of Jesus. Maybe he had heard about the time that Jesus healed the paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of a house that Jesus was preaching at in Capernaum. 

Or maybe he had heard about the time that Jesus had met a man with a withered hand and restored it. 

Or maybe he had heard about the time that a woman who had hemorrhages for twelve years, and who had spent all of her money on doctors, touched the hem of his Jesus’s cloak and been healed.

The fact is that Jesus has been healing people and exorcising demons. And his name has gotten around. And Bart has heard of him. And Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… and Bart has faith that Jesus can change all of that.

So, as Jesus and his disciples and the large crowd pass by on their way out of Jericho, he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And people turn to him… and shush him. “Be quiet,” they say, “don’t bother him. That’s Jesus.”

So Bart shouts louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And in that moment, Jesus stops, and looks over, and says to some people in the crowd, “Tell that man to come here.”

And when Bart hears this, he jumps up and runs to Jesus. And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bart answers, “I want you to let me see again.” And Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And, suddenly, Bart’s sight is restored!

Now, there are people who will tell you that faith can cure everything. If you just pray, God will cure your cold. If you just believe, God will send your cancer into remission. If you just send $29.95 to a PO Box in Delaware, someone will send you some healing oil straight from the Holy Land that has been blessed by your favorite televangelist right there on TV, and that oil will cure your depression and your anxiety. And those people are wrong.

I’m not going to say that it never happens. But I will tell you that I’ve never seen it happen. And I know that an ancient Jewish scholar named Sirach wrote that God had made physicians and pharmacists and medicines. And while his book isn’t part of the Jewish Bible or our Bible, it is part of the Catholic Bible and the Eastern Orthodox Bible and the Oriental Orthodox Bible. So, maybe we should take it seriously.

So, have faith. And pray. And listen to your healthcare professionals.

And pay attention to the story. Because Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… but Bart can already see something that too many people cannot. He has heard the stories, and he can see that Jesus can change his life.

And that change started with Bart shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Sometimes, it’s the little things—a shout coming out of a crowd—that change the world.

Now, I’ll be honest, it hardly seems like the world changes when Bart regains his sight. The foundations of the world don’t shift, oceans don’t rise, empires don’t fall. It seems like almost everything is exactly the same as it was a few minutes earlier.

But the fact is that Bart’s world has changed. He can see. He has added a whole sense to his life: the sun shines, a friend smiles, colors exist, in a way that none of them did before.

And, I’ll be honest, it hardly seemed like the world changed when Martin Luther nailed an invitation to a church door. The foundations of the world didn’t shift, oceans didn’t rise, empires didn’t fall. It seemed like almost everything was exactly the same as it was a few minutes earlier.

But the fact is that Martin’s world had changed. He had an argument to make. And, little by little, that argument went out into the world. One person heard it, and then another, and then another, and the whole world changed.

And it doesn’t end there.

When Bart regains his sight, he doesn’t walk away. He regains his sight and he joins the crowd that follows Jesus on the way. When Martin nails an invitation to that church door, he cannot walk away. He is now part of a debate that will see him excommunicated, that will see new churches rise up, and that will see important reforms in the Catholic church.

You see, the foundations of the world almost never shift all at once, oceans almost never rise all at once, and empires almost never fall all at once. What happens is one little thing after another. One act of hate or anger or greed making the world a little worse and rippling out into the world. One act of love or mercy or generosity making the world a little better and rippling out into the world.

It’s the little things that change the world.

Bart’s shout from the crowd–“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”–changed his world. And it changed his world so much that he could not live the way he had been living. He had to follow Jesus into a new world. And someone saw that, and someone told the story, and someone wrote it down.

And people read that story. And they saw the world in a new way. And they built a community around the Jesus who had mercy. And the world changed. One person at a time.

And when a thirty-odd-year-old monk and priest thought that community had gotten a bit off tack, he nailed an invitation to a church door. And people talked. And people argued. And the world changed. One person at a time.

It’s the little things that change the world.

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a weird little holiday in Protestant churches. There are no greeting cards or mattress sales or big family dinners. But some congregations in the United Church of Christ dress the altar in red and take a Sunday to acknowledge that five-hundred-and-one years ago, a little thing changed the world.

And the beauty of it is that it didn’t stop there. There was not a single moment when things changed and then stopped. The world kept moving and changing. The church reformed and kept reforming. And we are part of that.

You see, we are Bart. We cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus calls us to him. And our eyes are opened. We see the world in a new way. And we follow Jesus on his way into the future.

And when we get tired, when we get off track, when we grow weary, when we lose our way… we can cry out again, “Jesus, have mercy on us.” And Jesus will call us to him, and open our eyes so that we can see the world in a new way. And we will follow him further… one step at a time, one day at a time.

One kind word at a time. One act of compassion at a time. One outstretched hand at a time.

And by the grace of God, one little thing at a time, we will make the world a place of justice and mercy and abundance. Amen.

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