Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve, 2019
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
Luke’s infancy narrative is a familiar story, and a great story, if a bit of a mess. Luke’s details are a little suspect. His particular confluence of imperial and local leaders at the time of Jesus’ birth don’t agree with those of Josephus and other first-century historians. And while the Romans apparently had a fondness for census-taking, there’s no evidence to corroborate Luke’s account of a census requiring everyone to return to ancestral homes.1
We can let such things bother us. Or, we can remember that Luke, like all gospel-writers, is telling a faith story, not writing history. Luke understands that faith stories are situated within a much deeper and wider Story which is always populated with real people in real socio-political contexts.
This wider Story is God’s Grand Narrative, and it’s layered deeply and concurrently throughout past, present, and future. Each of the gospels, then, is more complex than one man’s record of another man’s life. They’re creative utterances—collaborations of individuals, communities, the Creation, and God. So, I like to think of this account of Jesus’ nativity as something that finds Luke. And when Luke finds his place within it, the Story tells itself through Luke’s openness to it, his passion for it, and his generosity with it.
Because of all this, Luke takes interest in the timeless and history-saturating truth of that deeper and wider Story over the accuracy of details. Now, Luke doesn’t fabricate characters, so his use of real people seems to acknowledge that we all come and go. We succeed and fail, live and die. But The Story is a different matter. It’s continuous, and it says stunning things like: “Let there be light…Say to them I AM has sent me to you…What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” It also says, “you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” (Genesis 1:3, Exodus 3:14, Micah 6:8, Leviticus 25:10)
I think that in Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, we hear God announce not just a year of jubilee. We hear God announce universal Jubilee. For Christians, Jesus is a kind of fulcrum in history. With his birth, the time—the Kairos—has come for everyone and everything to return to its “family,” its origin. Isaiah calls Jubilee “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), and only in Luke’s gospel do we hear those words on Jesus’ lips. He speaks them when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and he does this when he himself has come home to Nazareth. Theologically speaking, to come home is to return to a primordial, archetypal source, an eternal identity.
Christmas Eve is one of my favorite days of the year. For many of us, it’s a time when we return home. Many of us have treasured traditions that include things like a hike or some other outing, candlelight worship with communion, sharing a meal with family and friends. For me, Christmas Eve has become a time of uncanny wholeness and belonging. The mystic at-home-ness of this day reminds me of words from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Out on a cold parapet, Hamlet’s friend Marcellus says:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad.
The nights are wholesome. Then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.2
One need not be in their own hometown to experience the “wholesome…hallowed and…gracious” Kairos of Christmas Eve. Luke illuminates the point of home when he says that Joseph goes home to Bethlehem, which may or may not have been the town of his birth and childhood. He goes there because, according to Luke, Joseph traces his roots back to King David.
In the context of the deeper and wider Story, home has less to do with some geographic location than it does with our truest identity. Home has to do with belonging at the most primordial depth and the most unrealized height of who we are in God. To return home for God’s Jubilee is to return to our true and eternal Self from which, by grace, none of us can be forever alienated.
John understands that kind of home. The opening of his gospel is brief and dense, but I consider it consistent with Luke’s nativity story. In the beginning was the Word, says John, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…[And] what has come into being in him [is] life. (John 1:1-3a, 3c-4a)
Being is itself home for the one whose birth into human existence we celebrate tonight. The lives we live are expressions of that same life. So, Beingitself, Life itself is home for us, regardless of where we lay down our sweet heads. To me, this means that home, real and everlasting home, can always be found anywhere in the Creation.
In many Christian churches, the words spoken over the Lord’s Supper build a fence around Christ’s table. I used to speak those exclusive and life-diminishing words. I no longer do that, because I can no longer demand that anyone say or do something to secure a place at a table from which, I believe, we have all ultimately come. And while this is the Easter table, a table of remembrance and redemption, it’s also the table of Christmas Jubilee, a table of mystery and reunion.
All of you are welcome at this table. So, I invite you to come, and I pray that you will feel here the welcome of the home from which we have all come, to which we all return, and which, at Christmas, comes to us.
1Lewis Donelson, Feasting on the Word, John Knox Press, 2008, pp,117-118.
2William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 1, lines 157-163.
“Salvation: The Family Business”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)
Over the millennia, few things have dominated the minds of human beings like power and sex. We’re always obsessed with one and fixated on the other. Deuteronomy 22 records a law stating that a woman who marries and fails to prove her virginity must be stoned to death. This biblical law is a perfect example of how intimately we have coupled sex with power, and how we have attributed unspeakable brutality to the will of God.
I wouldn’t even know how to look for reliable data to estimate how many girls in ancient societies have been murdered by their communities—specifically, by their faith communities— because they were, or were simply accused of having been sexually active before marriage. Since pregnancy counts as lack of proof of virginity, imagine the terror that Mary, a first-century teenager, must feel as she considers the news that her body is going to demonstrate the undeniable changes that will give religious leaders the de facto right to subject her to a violent, painful, and public death. Imagine the despair she must feel knowing that she is powerless to fend off the judgments of the powerful.
In a dream, an angel appears to Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, and says, Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Take full responsibility for her child. Name him; call him Jesus. He’s going to be a remarkable man, one who will save his people from their sins.
Joseph listens, and for the sake of a son the story says he has nothing to do with, he enfolds Mary’s life into his life. And in so doing, he defies the judgments of power and the stigma of shame. Joseph’s actions save Mary, but not from her sins. He saves her from the sins of the ones whom the angel calls Jesus’ “people.” At God’s direction, Joseph salvages Mary, and therefore Jesus, from the indignant judgments and the violent outbursts of a male-dominated culture that abused women, children, and outcasts simply because it could.
Who knows if Joseph and Mary ever told their story to Jesus just like Matthew tells it to us? It seems to me, though, that Jesus knew or at least suspected something. Under the influence of nothing more than the deeply subjective authority of a dream, Joseph defies the arrangements that allow, in the name of God, some to prosper and others to suffer. In taking responsibility for Mary and the baby she carries, Joseph not only swallows his pride, he does the kind of thing that we often associate with young adults in our on day. He deliberately flouts long-standing tradition. He throws out the window the institutional practices that older generations take for granted. But he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. As upsetting as Joseph’s actions might be to powerful and privileged people, they reveal the kind of inspirational character that helped to shape Jesus’ own character.
For the most part, Christian tradition forgets Joseph, but salvation seems to be the family business. Jesus emulates Joseph when he takes up the mantle of God’s iconoclastic Christ—the one who comes in the name of the Lord to turn the world upside down with messages of universal welcome, unmerited grace, and non-violent redemption.
You know, for all the positive work done in grateful, generous, and humble love, the Church’s history in missions is still tarnished with considerable embarrassment, even shame for us. Think about it: When missionaries went and told some remote tribe that Jesus saves them from their sins, how many missionaries would have been ready for a moment when the people to whom they preached, people who had watched invaders seize their ancestral lands, desecrate their holy sites, and violate their women and girls turned and said, Ok, but will he save us from YOUR sins?
Jesus does more than simply forgive sins. He saves from sin, and he does so by dismantling the arrangements that addict us to privilege, power, and violence. And the privileged, powerful, and violent seldom want to be saved because they’ve chosen—we’ve chosen—to regard worldly advantage as divine blessing, even when maintaining advantage causes relentless human suffering and degradation of soil, water, air, and climate.
In recent weeks, I’ve heard increasing concern from members of this congregation about the lack of young people in our church. While I’m grateful to hear this conversation, I also feel some uneasiness. I’ve read a little bit about what makes a congregation youth- and young adult-friendly, and I have to wonder if we’re ready for that. Preparedness doesn’t have to do with PowerPoints and praise music. Our mission will have to go full-on Joseph in the world. Some of our familiar ways of being and doing will have to go the way of 8-track tapes and phonebooks. We’ll have to recognize and confess the sins we’ve committed and are committing, then repent and live a new life. We’ll have to step out in faith and make room for the new thing God is doing.
Rachel Held Evans was a gifted Christian writer and speaker who, very tragically, died earlier this year at the tender age of 37. In her brief adult life, she influenced many individuals and congregations with her bold-yet-humble honesty about her own experience growing up in an evangelical household, leaving the church, then returning as one who loved Jesus, loved the Bible, loved Christian community, and who was fearless in challenging the institution’s death grip on the way we’ve always done it. Having said that, Evans let us know, too, that many of the ancient traditions are things that young people value and want—sacraments, spiritual depth, real faith community, and, in the manner of Jesus, social justice. It’s just that so many people, young and otherwise, find contemporary churches more in love with their own buildings and habits than with Jesus and with those whom Jesus loved and served, the poor and the forgotten—those who desperately need saving from the sins of the powerful, the privileged, and the so-called righteous.
This morning’s worship isn’t the time to explore specifics about how we might become more engaged with and relevant to younger generations. That’s the session’s responsibility, and we’ll start trying to do that in the new year. Still, the example of Joseph can be a guiding light for us. How will we recognize that life is pregnant with possibilities we can’t have imagined, possibilities that may even seem not only uncomfortable, but down right illegitimate? And what will we need to let go of so that we might take responsibility for the new thing God is revealing to us, and bringing into the world?
However we answer those questions, we can be confident that as long as that new thing challenges us to love more deeply, to welcome strangers more graciously, and to treat each other with greater kindness than we see and hear around us right now, then God is surely in the midst of it. That transforming new thing is a fresh revelation of, a fresh fulfillment of, a fresh Incarnation of God’s eternal Christ, who is, even now, saving us.
“Preparing for the Visit”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (NRSV)
For many of us, this passage feels out of place during Advent. Indeed, most of us are used to hearing it during Holy Week, the final days of Lent. Let’s remember, though, that Advent and Lent have much in common. Cosmetically, they share purple or blue as the liturgical color. More significantly, they’re both seasons of reflection and preparation, times to look deep within our individual selves and our corporate self to imagine how we might receive and enter the mysteries of Incarnation and Resurrection so that they restore and reorient the totality of our hearts, minds, bodies, and relationships.
During Lent, we tend to focus on our brokenness and our need for repentance. During Advent, in our culture anyway, we tend to focus less on “spiritual things” and more on getting stuff, eating food, wearing bright clothes, and singing happy and familiar songs. While Christians are as guilty as anyone else in helping to secularize Christmas into a shallow-water frenzy of consumption and indulgence, all those happy songs, bright lights, and the artificial smiles of advertisement actors receiving lottery cards as the most treasured of all gifts, push the idea that everyone must feel happy at this time of year. More damaging than the pressure simply to feel happy is the expectation to find fulfillment and satisfaction in receiving things that can only be acquired with money or credit.
I know I’m beating the proverbial dead horse. And while the admonition to celebrate Christmas through less consumeristic means is always warranted, I bring it up today to remind us that the sense of obligation to feel joyful and grateful in the season of joy and gratitude is enough to throw some of us into tailspins of depression, alienation, and cynicism.
Now, I’m not trying to throw a wet blanket on anyone. Far from it. I’m trying to invite us into a posture of readiness to receive and celebrate the peace and the wholeness that God offers through Incarnation and Resurrection. Many of us have been taught that the primary purpose of the Christian faith is personal, individual, and postmortem. It’s about my salvation, about getting to heaven when I die. Christmas and Easter are about so much more than an evacuation plan for anxious sinners. Incarnation and Resurrection call us to new ways of living in community in this world, and that means recognizing the holiness in the Creation as revealed through all that we share and have in common as human beings, through our corporate as well as our individual joys and sorrows, pleasures and pain. And this new way of life includes intentional, purposeful, and ongoing empathy with and compassion for one another.
When pastors visit with parishioners in a home, hospital, rehab center, or nursing home, they spend the bulk of their time simply being present with a person or a family. They chat about the little things. They catch up with everyone there. When appropriate and given permission, they delve into the deep and difficult issues of human frailty and brokenness, of grief, illness, and regret. At the end of these visits, pastors offer prayers for strength, comfort, peace, and wholeness.
Pastoral visits, which are usually made in the midst of some degree of suffering, are meant to be sacred time, even sacramental, so more than the memory of the visit remains. In those face-to-face, incarnate interactions, and through the shared intimacy of prayer, we trust that God is truly, graciously, and immediately present. What lingers, then, is a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit’s abiding and vibrant presence.
When we know that someone is coming to visit us in the midst of some struggle we’re experiencing, don’t we get ready for that visit? If they’re coming to our home, we usually prepare the space in which to meet. We prepare to offer coffee, tea, or water. We prepare ourselves to talk about something in particular—or not to talk about it. We carefully consider the implications of sharing things that may affect that relationship or other relationships. Because those preparations are crucial, I never make cold calls to people’s homes.
Pastors need pastors, too; so, I recently started seeing a spiritual director. Spiritual directors are not therapists—or palm readers. They’re simply people who have prepared themselves to be spiritually present to others. They have been trained in and practiced the art of listening with compassion and responding with honesty and love. I drive over to Mars Hill for these visits, and before I go, I think about what I want to share, what I need to let go of, things on which I need feedback. And when I drive home, I always have more to think about, more to process than when I went. That’s how sacred time works. It doesn’t leave us unchanged. And, ideally, it leaves us feeling reconnected to God, to self, to other human beings, and to the very earth itself. On the way home, I really do look at everything differently—myself, those around me, the traffic, the trees, the mountains, the sky, all of it.
In Advent we prepare ourselves for the Incarnation: God’s pastoral visit to a world that is broken, hurting, angry, suspicious, and in danger each day of becoming ever more hopeless, divided, and violent. Our focus on appearances and parties as preparation can be fun. Just as often, however, those things distract us from the sacred time of Christmas, and we miss its holiness.
In the Gospel of John, as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he prepares them to live in the midst of the same kind of peace that pastors want parishioners to feel after a visit. “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives.” Jesus gives the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift that lingers and continues to bring peace and wholeness to followers who are about to feel more broken and abandoned than they ever imagined when they chose to make the bold claim that they were indeed following God’s long-awaited Christ.
In an ideal world, all Christmas gifts would somehow mirror and proclaim the peace and wholeness promised by God not only in Jesus’ birth, but in his ongoing arrival and return.
For those of us who are hurting today, those of us who do not feel the joy of this season, know that you are not alone. And it’s okay to grieve, to doubt, to weep.
For those of us who feel the energy and joy of the approach of Christmas, may we be as responsive to those who suffer as God in Christ is responsive to a world suffering from fear, loss, alienation, and despair.
May the God of peace and wholeness be with each of you, with all of us, and with this entire broken, suffering, beautiful, resilient, Spirit-marinated Creation.
*This sermon was preached during a “Blue Christmas” service which was held during regular 11:00am worship.
Some of my favorite childhood memories remain with me as gifts from family visits to my maternal grandparents’ home in Montgomery, AL. I will never forget the chaos of cousins running everywhere, the rich, steamy sweetness of Grandmama’s kitchen and the feel of icy air from the window unit in the dining room washing over my face on a hot summer afternoon. The quirky little things that my grandparents used to say are treasures, as well. One of Grandmama’s stock phrases was, “After a while,” which invariably came out as, Afta’while.
“When will John, Doug and Eddie (our cousins) get here?” we would plead.
Afta’while, Grandmama would answer very calmly.
“When will that cake be ready?”
“When will Mom and Aunt Margie be back from shopping?”
“When . . . when . . . when?”
My grandparents grew up in LA (Lower Alabama) in the early 1900’s when most things came about “after a while.” Rushing about was saved for the big things like house fires, escaping snakes and swarms of yellow jackets, and the occasional rabid dog or raccoon. It seems to me that folks in their generation may have been the last who knew how to wait patiently. In today’s world, if it doesn’t happen at the flip of a switch or the click of a mouse, then the wait often feels too long. So, when the language of faith says that God will act in God’s own time – that God will act “after a while” – we chafe and squirm and chomp at the bit.
Peter reminds us that God’s apparent delays are not about making us wait, but evidence of God’s patience with us. “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day…Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.” (2Peter 3:8&14)
This Advent, may we enter this time of waiting grateful that God does not rush us into things. God patiently waits for us to be ready to receive fully the good news of the coming of the Christ. And as the now risen Christ does his work, bit by bit, may we realize and rejoice that it is not because God is slow about saving us, but that God truly seems to want us to experience the kingdom here and now as well as in the age to come.
Yes, Christmas is coming. So is the fullness of God’s kingdom.
So hang on. They’ll be here.
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Reign of Christ Sunday
11For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
17As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. (NRSV)
When most western Christians hear the word shepherd, they conjure up romantic images of being delivered from want and laid down in green pastures, or of “shepherds…keeping watch over their flock by night.” We’ve also been told that shepherds were a grimy and bawdy lot, and there’s probably some truth to that. But who knows? Maybe such ruffian shepherds were the ones Jesus called “hired hands,” men who were apt to abandon a flock in the face of threat.
Old Testament professor Wil Gafney reminds us that shepherds were businessmen who held comprehensive interest in their flocks. Gafney says sheep were “mobile currency and a primary source of nutrition [which shepherds would] regularly breed, sell, and eat.”1
The word “pastor” derives from the Latin word meaning “shepherd,” or “to feed.” So, folks like me are often referred to as shepherds of a flock, aren’t we? What if I brought to the session a detailed program through which I paired up some of you, my flock, for breeding? Then I designated others of you as having either too much or too little value to keep, so I took you to market and traded you away. Finally, some of you, well, a man’s got to eat, right? If the session approved that pastoral initiative, wouldn’t it change your concept of shepherd?
Ezekiel’s description of the way selfish kings treated their subjects was pretty close to what I just detailed. The prophets made it clear to Hebrews and kings alike that Yahweh had no intention of getting fleeced like that.
All, you shepherds of Israel, you slaughter the lambs. You eat the fat. You clothe yourselves with wool, but you’re not feeding the sheep. You’re feeding yourselves!
Ezekiel hammers away at those who abuse, ignore, scatter, and otherwise “consume” God’s beloved flock.
Old Testament scholars argue whether these violent shepherds are Israelite kings or foreign kings.2 It seems to me, though, that trying to make that distinction distracts us from the point: Regardless of one’s nationality, or office, or religion or lack thereof, a leader cannot lead by feeding himself or herself at the expense of those who are led. One cannot maintain credibility, respect, and authority by fouling the sheep’s pastures and waters with his or her filthy feet.
Over time, two ironies come to light. First, the sheep about whom Ezekiel speaks are never stronger than when, by a negligent shepherd’s selfishness, they find themselves lost, scattered, injured, and weak. Having nothing to lose, they will rise up, and they often prevail. Second, when those sheep achieve freedom through the same means by which they were overcome and oppressed, they will, eventually, in spite of all their best intentions, become abusive shepherds themselves.
Through Ezekiel, then, God makes a new promise:
“I will feed [the sheep].”
“I will seek the lost.”
“I will bring back the strayed.”
“I will bind up the injured.”
“I will strengthen the weak.”
“[And] I will feed them with justice.”
There’s the difference: justice. In systems energized by competition, fear, and greed—all of which inevitably become forms of violence—true justice is the scarcest commodity. In violent systems, justice gets reduced to retribution. And while eye-for-an-eye justice was standard under the old law, Jesus—the Good Shepherd, the King of Kings—calls us to a new way of life, a way of life that’s not only changed and transformed, but one that becomes transforming for others, as well. Jesus calls us to and leads us in this new way of life. My dad called it “practical thanksgiving.”
A life of practical thanksgiving is a life lived with and for the sake of others. What makes this life difficult is the fact that it demands us to be continually attentive to, responsive to, and grateful for the particular person in our presence right now, while also living with, and for the sake of, all people, and all Creation, everyone present today and in years yet to come.
The Greek word for these particular and ultimate concerns is eschaton,which is the root word for eschatology. The Church has reduced eschatology to the study of end times, doomsday discussions littered with citations from the book of Revelation and from fire-and-brimstone prophets. But that eschatology limits our understanding of ultimate to the last days. It ignores the ultimate in the particular: the tangible, gloriously God-imaged Creation before us here and now. Biblical eschatology opens the door of the already as well as the not-yetKingdom of God. Living a life of practical thanksgiving, Jesus showed us that the joys and sufferings of the moment are portals into that realm.
He welcomed the stranger.
He fed the hungry.
He restored the outcast to community.
He celebrated the beauty of the lilies of the field.
He embraced the holiness of Creation in all its ordinariness and all its magnificence.
Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrated what is true for all of us: We are both more and less than we imagine. While every one of us is truly, deeply, eternally loved by God, we’re not loved any more than those whom we dislike, fear, and ignore. And to love those folks as we are called to love them—to love them as we are loved—takes more than our own wits and wills. To live with and for one another in lives of practical thanksgiving, is to live under the reign of Christ in this world.
St. Francis of Assisi took seriously Jesus’ call to live a life of practical thanksgiving. Among St. Francis’ compelling wisdom are these simple words: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible…If you have [people] who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion,” says St. Francis, “you will have [people] who will deal likewise with their fellow [human beings].”3
Do you hear the blending of particular and ultimate in those words? We touch eternity, and we live eschatologically by embracing the mundane, by tending and feeding the people beside us right now. Living in the realm of Christ the King means so much more than walking on streets of gold with people who have been “good” and done “right.” It means, in the words of Micah, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. Here. Today. It means, as Jesus says in his last words to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”
God of boundless grace, help us to follow your Good Shepherd into lives of practical thanksgiving, lives of gratitude and generosity, lives that reflect his trust and his willingness to risk living peaceably with and for the sake of all whom you love. Amen.
1 Wil Gafney, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 316.
2Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 319.
“Words, Wisdom, and Worry”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (NRSV)
The date of Luke’s gospel is generally set between 71CE and 80CE. Scholars assign that date to Luke in part because of the reference in Luke 21 to Rome’s demolition of the magnificent Jerusalem temple in 70CE. Temple construction began in 19BCE, and by 70CE, the building had been completed for only a decade.1 The destruction of this essentially brand-new temple was meant to bring the Jewish community to its knees. To those who stood in grateful awe of the temple, its demolition would have felt like a persecution, an apocalyptic event. It was Jerusalem’s blitzkrieg, Hiroshima, and 9/11. It would have brought prophets of doom out of the woodwork declaring God’s judgment and the end of the world.
Next Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Two weeks from today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. Lectionary readings at the end of the cycle—readings such as Luke 21:5-19—tend to focus on prophecies of days to come, usually days that include some measure of chaos and suffering. Religious demagogues frequently use these texts to make already anxious and insecure people feel all the more guilty and fearful. And when given reason to believe that God is fundamentally vindictive and that salvation must be earned, people will do almost anything. People with power will accept and propagate dogmas that terrify and divide instead of inspire and unite. Lonely people will give money to flashy evangelists who consider it personal gain and God’s blessing. Fearful people will exclude or even persecute their neighbors, especially if told that a neighbor is “lost” and destined for some bloodthirsty deity’s eternal wrath, anyway.
Now, Jesus’ ominous teachings seem like pretty safe prophecies to me. To “predict” such things is like the old priest Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that their beautiful baby boy, in addition to doing great things, is going to break his mama’s heart. Any parent will tell you that that prophecy takes no foresight or imagination. The reality in which we live always includes the horrors of war, earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, cancer, poverty, school shootings, the idolatry of the very means of violence, and the false prophets who use all these painful things to draw attention and influence to themselves by sowing division and manipulating fear.
Here’s the thing about worrisome times and the worrisome biblical texts that get lots of attention in the midst of them: For people who are seeking to know and follow Jesus, difficult texts must be read in the broader context of the two essential affirmations of Jesus’ life and of our faith—Incarnation and Resurrection.
Jesus is born into the physical world, and when we proclaim his presence as the unique incarnation of God, we affirm that God loves all that exists because all that has life and being is not only created by God, it reveals God in some way. And while we affirm the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, we also know that as the Incarnate Christ, Jesus is no magic wand. He’s God’s Incarnate Sign, the Living Word, the one through whom God sets loose the holy and steadfast energy of resurrection in the Creation for the sake of the Creation. Incarnation and resurrection proclaim God’s eternal presence with and redeeming love for all that lives and moves and has being—and that suffers, and longs for wholeness.
And yet, says Jesus, in this magnificent and beloved Creation, like the temple, some people will just tear you down. “They will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by [people you love]…they will put some of you to death…[and] you will be hated…because of my name.”
In the next breath Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish.” How can he say that immediately after telling his followers that they’ll be arrested, persecuted, betrayed, and killed? My hair hurts just thinking about it.
The easy way to process Jesus’ teaching is to run straight for the default proclamation: We’re going to heaven when we die! I understand the comfort of that promise. I also think that focusing on a future we can’t comprehend disconnects us from the holiness and the suffering within us and around us right now. As hopeful as it may feel to plan to be present In the Sweet By and By When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, that is not the Christian hope into which Jesus calls us. In one of his many memorable quotations, St. Augustine describes the Christian hope this way: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
I like to imagine Augustine writing this after reading Luke 21. When Jesus promises “words and a wisdom” that will defy opposition, just think about the ways that Jesus incarnated God’s own word and wisdom. Jesus got angry at more than moneychangers. His entire ministry expressed the heartbroken anger of one who saw the injustices and sufferings of a world out of kilter, and the loving wisdom of one encouraging people to choose to live differently. Only when we choose to live gratefully, generously, compassionately, and peaceably do we participate in God’s healing work. And we do that by choosing to follow Jesus in lives of gratitude, generosity, compassion, and peacemaking—even when those who choose greed, violence, and power over others oppose and persecute us. For us, the Christian hope comes not from simply choosing to claim to believe creeds, but choosing to live according to the transforming words and humble wisdom of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the Church’s current irrelevance in the world stems from its general unwillingness to do much more than believe religious stuff.
We do live in a worrisome world. And that’s been true forever. All we can do is engage our own context with words of hopeful anger and the hopeful courage of wisdom. Along that path, we have the example of God’s incarnation in Jesus to follow, and the eternal promise of resurrection to energize us.
When we entrust our lives to the invigorating Mysteries of incarnation and resurrection, God makes us aware of God’s words and wisdom at work around us. In our trust, God empowers us to speak and embody the same words and wisdom spoken and embodied in Jesus.
God, help us to follow your incarnate Christ “deep and in,”2 where he reveals to us the true holiness of our created being. Then help us to follow Jesus’ words and wisdom “far and wide,”3 into the realm of Resurrection where, by grace, you make us newly real and relevant to a Creation in need of faith, hope, and love. Amen.
1Vernon K. Robbins in his article Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 309-313.
2&3Richard Rohr: https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/16AFF7277BECDE622540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A
“Resurrection: It’s Not Just for Dead People Anymore”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (NRSV)
According to Harper’s Bible Dictionary, the Sadducees appeared in Judaism sometime in the second century BCE. The Jewish historian Josephus describes them as a particularly wealthy sect, men obsessed with power and privilege, and who tried to cultivate close relationships with Rome.1 Whether intentional or not, they also developed adversarial relationships with the Pharisees, who—as religious leaders went—were more popular with regular folks. Josephus says that in spite of all their groveling and grasping, the Sadducees “were influential with only a few wealthy families…boorish in their social interaction…encouraged conflict with rather than respect for their teachers, [and] were more stern than the Pharisees in recommending punishments for crimes.” They also deliberately sought to create social and political division in Judea by siding with the Hasmoneans against Herod.2 The Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, tended toward the outwardly rational but thoroughly idolatrous fusion of faith with political ambition and military dominance. Holding to very literal interpretations of the law, the Sadducees also denied the resurrection because they didn’t see it spelled out specifically in scripture.
For untold eons, the seductive cocktail of material wealth, violent power, tribalism, and religious fundamentalism has created illusions of certainty, of being right and pure. And aren’t those the very things Jesus calls fragile foundations? (Mt. 7:26-27) It’s little wonder that after the fall of the temple in 70CE, the Sadducees basically disappeared from history.3 They had built on the sandy soil of selfish interest instead of the spiritual bedrock of compassion, mercy, and love for neighbor.
Luke presents the Sadducees in this same less-than-favorable light. When they approach Jesus with a question about levirate marriage—the practice of handing wives down from brother to brother like last year’s sweatshirt—these men not only try to trap Jesus in a theological quandary, they’re making fun of everyone who disagrees with them on the issue of resurrection. Because the scenario they present is absurd, they demonstrate particular contempt for women, the poor, and the homeless. Jesus doesn’t take the bait; but, in his characteristic with-compassion-for-all way, he does bite.
Jesus begins by distinguishing between “this age” and “that age”—this agebeing the temporal world in which we live, the age in which people “marry and are given in marriage,” and that age being whatever existence lies beyond the life we experience between birth and death. And in that age, he says, there is holiness and wholeness that transcends anything our this-age minds can fully comprehend.
Then, Jesus affirms marriage, calling it one of the key human relationships in which we actually touch the realm of resurrection. He describes marriage as a microcosm of eternal life itself. The NRSV uses the image of family by calling us “children of God” and “children of the resurrection.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way: In the resurrection we’ll “have better things [than marriage] to think about…All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”
“All ecstasies and intimacies…will be with God.” I hear in that somewhat suggestive wording of today’s text the deeper suggestion that the relationships we enjoy in this age do, in truth, hold a measure of the holiness and wholeness that we proclaim awaits us in that age—and probably a greater measure than most of us imagine. So, our relationship with God always and necessarily includes all of our relationships, from marriage and family, to churches and communities, to our wider associations.
When Jesus brings up Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he brings up their stories. He intentionally recalls Abraham’s and Sarah’s fervent desire for the intimacies of parenthood, Isaac’s passionate desire for the ecstasies of bestowing his blessing and birthright on his elder son, Esau, and the ecstasies, intimacies, and agonies of Jacob’s long-suffering love for Rachel. And God mentions all three of these ancestors in the faith while Moses, who is tending Jethro’s flocks in the wilderness-beyond-the-wilderness, stands in ecstatic, barefoot awe before a bush burning with the very presence of God.
Jesus says that God’s declaration to Moses means that God continues to enjoy relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even while in relationship with whoever is currently alive on the earth. The Church calls this “the communion of saints.” By living in communion with God, we live in communion with all who are, with all who have been, and with all who will be. Because resurrection describes the eternal love that precedes us, the eternal love that awaits us, and the eternal love that permeates our death-obsessed present, it’s more than our proclamation. Resurrection is our deepest and truest reality, even here, even now.
Paul says as much in his letter to the Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 2:4-6) Even when we were dead, God made us alive with Christ and seated us with him the heavenly places. Paul speaks of resurrection as a truth which is as fundamental to our current experience of the Creation as gravity and the change of seasons.
Living a resurrection life means, come what may, following Jesus in his ways of compassion, justice, and peace. Living a resurrection life means, come what may, studying and practicing the wisdom of Jesus, the wisdom of spiritual wakefulness, the wisdom that sees through all the angry, fearful, desperate noise around us and continues to bear witness to the sacred presence of God in all things, even, and perhaps especially, in those people who seem to want to create conflict and division.
Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees who try to ambush him illustrates what it can look like when a person seeks union with rather than triumph over. And again, that’s what a resurrection life does. It humbles us and opens us to deeper and wider relationships by revealing to us that God is somehow present, or at least eager to be present, in all people and all things.
God, grant us the courageous vision and the humble gratitude to live resurrection lives so that in all we say and do we recognize, proclaim, and share the great love with which you love us. Amen.
1Harper’s Bible Commentary, Paul J. Achtemeier, Gen. Ed. Harper&Row, Publishers, San Francisco. 1985. pp. 891-892.
2Ibid., pp. 588-592.
3Patrick J. Willson in his article Homiletical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 285-289.