Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Few Reflections on Nazareth

In March of this year, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Holy Land for a two week pilgrimage.  Never could I imagine how incredible the experience would be — how deeply it would move my spirit and expand my understanding of Jesus, the Christ — and the faith he was about.  Included here are reflections I wrote during quiet moments at various holy sites along with what I tried to capture in photo.  May these thoughts increase your trust in the Holy One, who is Love to all forevermore!


Nazareth: The childhood home of Jesus.


Jesus, we’re stuck in a traffic jam in Upper Nazareth. And down below I can see the house of Mary and the house of Joseph – which of course confirm that Mary and Joseph were neighbors.


The boy next door. It was meaningful to be at the Greek Orthodox Church of Mary’s Well. I like the tradition that she was drawing water from the well the first time the angel visited. Supposedly she was so afraid, she ran all the way home! It was a long way actually as we discovered when we were walking to it in the rain. . . . The Church of Joseph’s house was amazing. Ruins from the house of Joseph, which most probably were where Jesus grew up. How very cool to see what very well was Jesus childhood home.

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A carpenter shop in the front and the home in the back of it, if you have enough money and land. Which they supposedly must have according to the ruins. . . . To imagine the spot in Mary’s house where the angel visited – AGAIN, or for the first time if you don’t go with the tradition of Nazareth’s well. Courage was the word that kept coming to me. That must have been the nature of her trek from the well back to her home: fear turned to courage with every step. . . . Courage overcoming the fear. Courage to say let it be. Courage to go along with God’s big dream for her life – and for the life of the world! . . .



Our visit was a bit rushed, but so incredibly beautiful. I especially loved the family portraits of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. You don’t see all three of them together very often in the art. I love that one that looked Middle Eastern – more true to life. That one was great because it showed a whole family – the importance of each one of them in the story. . . . The importance of each one of us in the story. . . .


It looked to me like such love. Such joy. Such laughter in their family. But such seriousness too. Growth. Learning. That very same courage both Mary and Joseph had: they passed it on to him. I guess for such a big dream, you needed two who were brave, despite their fear. Two who would say “let it be so with me as you desire.” Two who could build a foundation of courage and hope and obedience. . . . God, won’t you increase in me my courage and hope and obedience. . . . Let us all hear the voice of whatever messenger you send. Give us courage not to run away. But to sit. To wait. To listen. To allow a space in each one of us to open up from the fear into singing a song of the praise of God! Let us sing out to glorify the LORD who sets us free!

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ARBEL in Upper Galilee: From Nazareth, the childhood of Jesus, to the Sea of Galilee, the place of his ministry, is just fifteen miles. At 30 years of age, he walks the Valley Road to begin his ministry. What strikes me from Mount Arbel is that this place is so small. Magdala is the city between the two. He walked this short distance from childhood to adulthood. One Galilean town of about 200 people to another small Galilean place. All in an effort to change the world. Three miles from his home, the city of Sepphoris was destroyed by the Romans when he was just four years old. From this mount you can see the Valley Road. He walked right here. Leaving his home. On the way he passed Arbel – where his fellow Jews hid out in caves on the mountain to try to resist the Roman occupation of his land. . . .

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Why did he go to the sea? What called him to walk down the Valley Road to begin to make the effort to try to change the world? . . . Was he drawn to the Living Waters of Galilee? . . .


And how deeply did Arbel and Sepphoris affect him? . . . How deeply did he desire freedom for his people? An end to the violence. Hope. Lives of simple gratitude and freedom and joy instead of the foot of another on your neck telling you no. Holding you down. . . . How much of this was for freedom – not just of our sins for life everlasting; but here and now. For right-relationship together TODAY?!

The Birth of Love

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

24 December 2014 – Christmas Eve

Click here to read scripture first: Luke 2:1-21 (NRS)

Like many of you, I’m a big lover of the classic songs of Christmas: Silent Night and Joy to the World, which we’re going to sing a few minutes later in this service. O Holy Night is a favorite and how very grateful we can be to Karen and Mia both for sharing such a well-done, beautiful rendition of it! . . . These classic songs of Christmas connect us well with God and with the amazing gift of this night. They’re powerful. In fact, it was one hundred years ago on this night during World War I that the Germans and the British who had been fighting each other on the front lines, laid down their weapons and came together to sing with each other: “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.” . . . These classic songs of Christmas are powerful enough to bring to a halt the nastiest of World Wars. So that the prophet’s dream is fulfilled, which was God’s whole point in Christ: for the swords to be beat into tools for farming fields in abundance as all violence at last is brought to an end.

A few years ago I discovered a newer song of Christmas. And if you don’t know it, I wish you would. Feel free to search for it right now on ITunes. In 2011 it was performed by an artist named Mark Schultz and the words go something like this: “Starlight shines, the night is still. Shepherds watching from a hill. . . . A Perfect child gently waits. A mother bends to kiss God’s face. . . . Angels fill the midnight sky and they sing: ‘Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King.’ Emmanuel, Prince of peace, Love come down for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy spark to light the way inside our hearts. Bethlehem, through your small door came the hope we’ve waited for. The world was changed forevermore when love was born. I close my eyes to see the night when love was born” (Mark Schultz, “When Love Was Born”).

I’m not really sure much more needs to be said on this night. Rather, here in this place as others might be rushing out for one last gift or frantically trying to get the kids in bed without peeking at what Santa is going to bring. Tonight we pause for a few minutes to close our eyes and use our imaginations to see if we can see the night when Love was born. . . . We’ve included in our bulletin tonight a few photos I had the great privilege to take this year. Some of you already may have seen the star-gilded site at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where it’s believed Jesus was born. It’s down some steps beneath the massive sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, in what once was a simple cave where animals were kept safe for the night. As you go down the steps, to the right you see this:
To the left you see this:
– Bethlehem’s manger. . . . Most probably the whole place had some hay in it that night instead of marble, gold, and candles all around. In Bethlehem they tell you that it wasn’t that the inn was too crowded. Rather, as the scripture too alludes, there was no place for them (Luke 2:7). For you see, with how full the inn must have been, for Mary to go inside to give birth would have made the whole lot of them ritually unclean. The cave for the animals out back is offered because they already were unclean. Creation is left to cradle the newborn King. It freely sings its praise to God, while we humans let our stuff get in the way. . . . And so it goes that from the start, Love is going to bump up against law. Grace is in conflict with religious shoulds from the very moment he is born into this world.

Maybe it’s not quite the spot you’ve imagined all your life – it wasn’t when I saw it in person either. And some may wonder if it even took place right there. Nonetheless, it is the spot where millions of pilgrims travel every year just for one brief moment to bend in adoration. It really is incredibly overwhelming . . . to see the night when Love was born.

You know, they might as well have named him that: capital L, o, v, e:  Love. For the Holy One willingly taking on the clothes of our flesh and blood is love itself. It’s the message the angels are trying to tell the shepherds: this birth shows definitely the deep, deep favor of God to all. Great news of goodwill! The depths of God’s love for this entire creation that God would become one of us to be our way, our truth, the very path for us to Life here and now and forevermore. . . . Ah: what a marvelous, marvelous night!

For a few moments in the quiet now, I invite you to close your eyes. Imagine in your mind’s eye. See the night when Love was born . . .


© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)

Life from the Shepherds’ Field

In March of this year, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Holy Land for a two week pilgrimage.  Never could I imagine how incredible the experience would be — how deeply it would move my spirit and expand my understanding of Jesus, the Christ — and the faith he was about.  Included here are reflections I wrote during quiet moments at various holy sites along with what I tried to capture in photo.  May these thoughts increase your trust in the Holy One, who is Love to all forevermore!


O God, here I lie in the Shepherds’ Field.
On two big rocks – two of the very rocks they might have rested on as well.
It’s a great place to rest for the night. Overlooking the valley between here and Bethlehem. It’s a great place to ponder life. My hopes. My dreams. My limitations. I expect many a shepherd has rested here too underneath this great expanse of sky, pondering the same of their lives: their hopes. Their dreams. Their limitations.

15891040When suddenly! You amaze! You overwhelm! You SURPRISE!!!

Exceeding joy at such good news! That from this day forward NOTHING ever shall be the same! Of course, I’m terrified, as I’m sure they too were. But grateful. For this spot reminds that life doesn’t just have to be the hum drum of tending, day in and day out. Chilly frightful nights and long hot days. Parched. Longing perhaps for something more . . . The words form: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! . . . This place asks: what gift shall I be because of it? . . . Great and exceeding joy! Hope embodied! Possibility! Hallelujah! Amen!

Writing Later that day:

The Shepherds’ Field was wonder-filled! I could totally imagine being there. Busy with my everyday life and everyday concerns. Perhaps wondering if this was how it’d always be – cold stones underneath. Stinky, needy sheep all around. Tending and watching and just passing time as I learned my family’s trade. . . . Until that fate-filled night. Suddenly my every other day was shattered. Surprised in an instant. I’m sure I’d be terrified! Because nothing again would be the same. I’d been summoned to see something miraculous and the wonder of it all certainly would work upon me. I’m not sure I’d be allowed to leave the same. I’m not sure I’d want to. I think I’d want to believe. Have hope. Trust that it all was true. Gloria en excelsis! Immanuel, the LORD our God is with us! . . .
If I never believed before, I think I’d start. I hope I would. Having been there with that baby, that mother and father in the cave, locked out of everywhere else for fear she’d make them all unclean. And yet with such courage they brought that child into the world. With such bravery they stood together for one another. I’d like to think that all would have had an impact upon me. That that gift: God’s gift to be present to us – to me – would ready me to be a gift in return!

On the eve of that birth, may you reflect upon the gift you will be in return!

Merry Christmas All!



Christmas Story #2

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

21 December 2014 – 4th Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:1-2:40 (included below)

Two weeks ago we heard Christmas Story #1 as told according to the gospel of Matthew and today we’re on to Christmas Story #2: the telling of it all according to the gospel of Luke. While Christmas Story #1 in Matthew begins with that lengthy genealogy of who fathered who from the great father Abraham, to King David, through the deportation to Babylon, and all the way to Joseph, the husband of Mary who gave birth to Jesus, the Christ; at the same time, the gospel of Luke has its own very unique way of beginning to tell of the good news of God coming to live in Jesus as one of us. Listen for God’s word to us in the opening of the gospel of Luke:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

It’s probably important that we know that the gospel of Luke was composed somewhere around 80-90 CE. In other words, some 50-60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. . . . One thing jumps out in this introduction: the one for whom this gospel is written. Theo-philus. While our English versions capitalize the word as if it is a name, history has not proven the existence of one named Theophilus, whom the gospel of Luke sought to address. Theo-philus. Theo, meaning God in Greek. And philus coming from one of the Greek words translated love – like the kind of love between friends or brothers. We know it best in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. So: Theo-philus: God-lover. That’s the one to whom Christmas Story #2 is written: the beloved of God who themselves love God. In other words, regular people like you and me: the faithful who are seeking to love God more. It’s a very different way to begin a gospel and in fact, it seems Luke goes on to tell story after story of God-lovers who ended up knowing more of their beloved status, even as they fall more deeply in love with God – something hoped for everyone who hears this gospel. Listen to the likes of those who will be a part of this telling of Christ’s birth – not terrified Kings and outside seekers, as is emphasized in the gospel of Matthew. Rather lover-of-God after lover-of-God who behold this marvelous birth! Listen – especially to the parts of this story that rarely get read this time of the year:

5 “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. 8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 Zechariah was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; (for) even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” 21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Here we have Luke’s first God-lovers: Two righteous people. A priest of Israel, no less, and his barren wife who just so happens to be a descendant of Israel’s first priest, Aaron. According to the gospel of Luke, Zechariah and Elizabeth are “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). And, at long last – like Sarah and father Abraham before them; like Hannah and her husband Elkanah – their prayers are answered. Too long have they born the shame of being childless among a people who believed your children gave witness to your favored status in the LORD’s eyes. After they’ve given up all hope on account of their old age, these two will be the parents of the one who will get everyone else ready for Jesus. It’s remarkable the way these God-lovers went about their duties. We have to wonder from Zechariah’s reaction if he was expecting much when the lot fell to him to go in and perform the incense offering. Because you see, the ironic thing is that the incense offering he was to carry out was the offering (according to Exodus) that God first commanded Aaron to perform on the altar in the place before the arc of the covenant and the mercy seat where God promised to meet with them (Exodus 30:1-10). It kinda begs the question if we too might be going through the motions. Going through the motions of weekly worship. Going through the motions of our daily prayers. Even going through the motions of these Advent weeks not really expecting God to show up. Though it seemed he no longer anticipated it, Zechariah was in for the most stupendous encounter with God that day as he went through the motions of his priestly duties. . . . It’s one of the beautiful messages of the gospel of Luke’s telling of Christ’s birth. Right after we hear of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke races into the next part of the story, which we all certainly know well: 26 “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

From an elderly man to a young girl not yet a woman, God tears into the ordinary to say: “Greetings! I am about to do something remarkable! And, o, by the way: I need YOU in order to accomplish it!” Like it or not, it’s the way God chooses to work: through God’s people. The conversations between the messenger and Zechariah, and the messenger and Mary go almost exactly alike. Both, in fact, question how this can be. Zechariah will be turned mute for a while in order to finally understand. Perhaps to emphasis that sometimes we do far too much talking to God. How many of us don’t hem and haw around – offering all sorts of excellent excuses why we really can’t be the one to accomplish whatever it might be God wants to accomplish through us. Zechariah’s a good reminder that we need to be quiet to listen and then act. And what of Mary? I read a legend this week that offered the explanation that “Mary was not the first person asked to be the God-bearer, but rather she was the first person to say yes” (Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, Vol. 1; Luke 1:26-38, James R. Luke Jr.). We might not like that idea; perhaps because it strikes a little bit too close to home. Because, as one preacher has said: “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine son takes places unceasingly but does not take place within me? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace?” (Barbara Brown Taylor, ????????) Isn’t it true that we each are the tabernacles, or containers, of the holy – God, in the Holy Spirit, living in us? Which also makes us “pregnant with divine possibilities” in order for God to give birth to what’s needed in our own time (Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, Vol. 1; Luke 1:26-38, James R. Luke Jr.). Mary: the God-bearer, and you and me likewise. Opening our lives to say: “Here we are, God, your daily servants. Let it be according to your desire!”

We’ve already heard this morning the song Mary sings when she joins Elizabeth. Picture those twin round bellies: two willing women, miraculously playing their part in God’s great plan to definitively show the world God’s goodwill towards all! What soul wouldn’t want to rejoice?! Luke moves from that beautiful song of Mary almost immediately into another one. After John’s birth and naming, his father’s tongue sings its second set of first words. Listen:

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve the LORD without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, (my) child (John), will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Angels are going to announce almost the exact same thing at the next birth. And in the gospel of Luke, shepherds are the ones who come running to see: another set of characters Luke lifts up in order to set up the theme, as one commentator has said that: “The main actors in this drama will not be the rich and the powerful but, rather, those overlooked by the world. . . . barren older couples, unwed teenage mothers, and those relegated to caring for animals. The good news is that even they play a part in this drama of salvation. (Which means that) The terrifying news . . . is that even we (must) play a part in this drama of hope” (Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, Vol. 1; Luke 1:5-25, James R. Luke Jr.). But we’ll get to more of that on Christmas Eve!

The gospel of Luke picks up after all the details of that most holy of nights, with eight days later. In Israel faithful God-lovers were waiting and watching. When at last the holy child shows up for his first time in the Temple of Jerusalem, he’s taken from his mother’s arms as one looking forward to the dawning of Israel’s hope proclaims: 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father (Joseph) and mother (Mary) were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Imagine how much that must have hurt the heart of this new mother. He’s not even old enough yet to have gotten to that baby smiling stage when Mary is given a peek into what the future will be for her Son of the Most High, the One who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, whose kingdom shall have no end. How could she have known his miraculous birth would lead to a torturous death that would test her trust in the God for whom that messenger said nothing would be impossible? We can only hope that she can treasure these initial moments in her soul long enough to keep faith throughout all the days of his life, death, and God’s biggest surprise yet to come. It’s like the writer of Luke wants to get us ready from the start. To point out all the details of this amazing in-breaking of God in our world so that we won’t lose hope on the days when hope is not present. There will be days in this life when we will need to cling ever so tightly to the pronouncements made at this birth. For the darkness still surrounds.

The last lover of God to take the stage in Christmas Story #2 knew it well. Listen: 36 “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment (when the Holy Family was there with Simeon) she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (She’s one of the first to fulfill that command as she tells it on Zion’s mount.) Finally Luke records: 39 “When (the Holy Family) had finished everything required by the law of the LORD, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

And so the drama of his life begins – though only that situation in the Temple at the age of his bar mitzvah (12 years old) will be mentioned between his birth and his baptism by John in the Jordan at 30 years of age. . . . With the regular God-lovers of the gospel of Luke’s Christmas Story, we’re invited to fall a little bit deeper in love with the God for whom nothing will be impossible – the God who seeks to ensure that everyone knows God’s favor rests upon us all. Peace is possible; for in Christ’s birth, we no longer have to wonder whether the Sovereign Maker of the universe hears our cries. We no longer have to get in line behind those of the world who think they matter more than any others. Our lives can be filled with the God-of-all-possibility’s hope! . . . Its mighty good news, most excellent God-lovers! Mighty good news! May it prepare our souls too to rejoice!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen!

© Copyright JMN, 2014  (All rights reserved.)

Good News!

It struck me during an amazing performance of Handel’s Messiah last night.  It covers the range of the prophets’ promises, the birth, the death, and life-everlasting.  It’s all beautiful!

Still:  the incarnation itself is THE good news.

(Birth site, The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; March 2014)

We don’t need to wait for the death and resurrection to be impressed. The news of the Holy One desiring to become one of us — to take on our flesh and see what it’s like to be a human being.  From all the strain and struggle — all our best intentions and ever-present limitations.  All the glorious triumphs and incredible pleasures we experience in our bodies, minds, and spirits.  What kind of Divine Being would want to be like us?

IMG_2268(The Manger of Bethlehem, Church of the Nativity; March 2014)

Praises be to that kind of Holy One who would want to be among us as one of us!!!   No need to wait for Easter.  THIS is great love.  This is gift beyond measure!!!


– RevJule

          “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 suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:10b-14)

A Most Beautiful Thing

Today I think that there is nothing more precious in this world than when two people find one another and figure out a way to become one working unit. I’m not necessarily talking about “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” as the second creation story of Genesis does. Rather, I mean the whole diversity of connections that happen in this world. I feel as if I have seen a little bit of it all today. And it does my heart so very good!

I had the opportunity today to meet a 92 year old woman who told me about her husband who has been dead since 1987. She said they met late in life and had just 13 years together. You can do the math and figure out she was a little over 50 when they met and married. (Is that right? If so, how remarkable for such a new beginning at that stage of life!) I had the joy today of being with those who didn’t get it quite right the first-time-around, but seem to be enjoying someone tremendously their second-go-round. I watched two old friends who seem to be almost more important to each other than even their spouses have been to them. I listened to a story of budding romance from a woman who has taken half her life to figure out who she truly is and with whom she wants to share the rest of her path. I heard of those who are together face-to-face on the weekends but share only in spirit throughout the week. Those who have committed to each other since nearly childhood and those who still are seeking to find a person in this world with whom they can journey throughout their days. Those who have side-by-side walk in closets all to themselves; and those who have a little corner of a shared one and give up most of the rest of the space for the other! No two pairings I spent time with today are exactly alike. We all have our unique stories — including the story of those who find strength, support, and love most among sisters, parents, best friends, and self.

I was a young, confused adult many years ago when one of the wisest women I’ve known told me that love always would be a part of my life — no matter what form it took. She said the key was to stop expecting love to look a certain way and just accept the beautiful ways it always is present.

In memory of her and in celebration of all the ways in which I have been pleased to witness love today: PRAISES BE!

Keep your eyes open to it this week! See the most beautiful thing that surrounds each and every day!


Christmas Story #1

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

7 December 2014 – 2nd Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:1-2:23 (included below)

Ordinarily the second Sunday of Advent finds us focusing on John the Baptist. The one crying out in the wilderness in his camel’s hair with his locusts dipped in wild honey. We hear him tell to get ready! Prepare for the coming of the One who will baptize you with the power of the Holy Spirit. Who will make you ready to live the kingdom of God each day! That’s what the second Sunday of Advent typically is about. And in year B of the lectionary, which we just entered last week, it’s always from the gospel of Mark. Which oddly enough is how Mark starts the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In his gospel, we don’t hear of angel annunciations or dreams to keep Mary. No shepherds or wise men or cattle a-lowing in the meager manger stall of Bethlehem. John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to prepare for the way of the Lord is how the gospel of Mark begins; then jumps right into the full-grown Jesus showing up himself to get baptized by John.

Well, a little different Advent path calls this year. It seems the old story might speak to us anew if we approached it from another angle. O, I know that we have our nativity set up in full on the organ. All the beloved pieces already are there – the baby in the feed-trough, Mary and Joseph, the shepherd and wise men, and even a few beasts of the field. It’s all there mushed up together because that’s the way we know the story – all the components of it that we absolutely cherish. But for the next few weeks of this season, we’re going to do our best to pull them apart. See if we can’t hear a fresh message this go around if we listen to how each gospel uniquely tells of the story of Christ’s birth.

As I already said, we won’t have one from the gospel of Mark. We’ll hear from Matthew today and do our best to hold at bay the surprise of the young Mary when the angel comes to her. The trek to Bethlehem. And even the blessed details of that holy night of his birth. We’ll get to that in a few weeks. And even consider the very different way the gospel of John, with that pre-existent Word, tells how Christ came to be. But for now: Matthew. Let’s see if we can hear it as this writer told, so that maybe, just maybe our hearts and minds will be a bit more prepared to celebrate the most amazing gift of God-in-flesh, Emmanuel. Listen now for God’s word to us regarding the coming of Christ, our Lord, according to the unique telling in the gospel of Matthew. And know that this opening part is filled with a whole bunch of names – some of which may stand out to us immediately and some of which we may not know at all – some of which I may not even pronounce very well. Matthew’s first audience, being Jewish, of course would have recognized and known the story of each one. They would have noted the names that are missing and known the details of the women pointed out in this paternal genealogy which typically would list just the fathers; all of which make one wonder just what the writer of Matthew was up to. Listen:

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Matthew 1:1-17).

Ok: just a note here. What an amazing genealogy! If we look back in the biblical records we’d see that it wasn’t quite as rounded out as the gospel writer tells it. But 14 to 14 to 14, or 42 generations from God first coming to father Abraham to God coming in the human clothes of Jesus, the Christ, is kinda cool. Each period is the perfect number 7 times two equaling 14. Many of us can’t trace our own ancestry back much more than 2 or 3 generations. But the writer of the gospel of Matthew wants us to know from the start that this Messiah, this son of David and of Abraham isn’t something new. God long has been working through this human family to arrive at the day when One would appear who would save his people. . . . It’s an impressive list to let us know right away that this One whose story is being told comes from a royal line. Still, there’s some women in there – and some men too – who were not necessarily the most upright. King David’s indiscretion with Bathsheba is mentioned here. As is the foreign woman Ruth who wiggled her way into the story. In fact, all four of the Old Testament women mentioned in this genealogy are foreigners. Righteous king Hezekiah is mentioned right alongside that menacing Manasseh who undid all the good, God-fearing stuff his father had re-started. Not keeping any of the family secrets in the closet here. Even Babylon is mentioned – which still had to sting in the mind of a Jewish listener. Or maybe it was a comforting reminder that like the kingdom of Babylon that fell, Rome – under whom they now were living – would pass away too. All of which is to say that God was breaking into a very human family – not seeking the perfect, spotless lineage by which to come to a hurting world. Rather, recognizing that we humans are far from perfect, which is why we need this baby in the first place. . . . And listen to how it took place, at least according to the gospel of Matthew:

18 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All 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.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (An act that engrafted Jesus into Joseph’s biological lineage.)

Indeed, it is Joseph who is the primary actor here – next to God, working through the Holy Spirit to bring this all to be. Right from the start we learn of dreams and prophesies. Five of each will be in the opening part of this gospel’s telling of the story. He’s beginning to set up this Messiah with Moses of old. That was the first time in Israel’s history that they really needed to know God was with them – when they were slaves in Egypt, wondering if they were of any value to anyone. A savior worked for their benefit then; One would be present again. Which they desperately needed. I don’t believe it was any coincidence that this new beginning was taking place at the time in which it was. The writer of Matthew knows his people’s need; for life had grown nearly intolerable with Rome’s configuration of governing. In fact, near the time of Jesus birth, whole villages were being ransacked at the hands of Rome. In 4 CE, Sepphoris – just four miles from Nazareth – was totally destroyed because the Jews were trying to free themselves from the latest kingdom that had conquered them. Jesus of this royal lineage is born, according to the gospel of Matthew, at a particular time and place, under the rule of a particularly harsh king. Listen:

“In the time of King Herod (Rome’s local leader), after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

We might forget how paranoid this Herod is. He was Rome’s puppet who tried his whole life long to prove to the Jews that he really was one of them – though his lineage was not ethnically pure. He wasn’t born king of the Jews – and presumably he knew of the prophesied Messiah. The gospel of Matthew tells it right from the start that this God-in-flesh is going to be in conflict with the kings of this world. This One’s ways are different. Rome got to peace through victory. This One gets to peace through alternative measures – spelled with the letters l-o-v-e (Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 81; Harper Collins e-books, 2007). Furthermore, this is the Ruler that wants us to know we are not alone; we are with God and God is with us – like a loving shepherd. Not just in terms of physical proximity but also in terms of together – like on one team. God is with us; on our side in this wild ride through the ways of this world. It’s going to be typical for the powers of this world to keep to their old tricks: scheming and scamming. Taking for themselves and turning from the real needs of their people. From the start, the gospel of Matthew sets Herod up as the quintessential example of the ways those who follow God will struggle against. Listen again:

7 “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (Wink, wink.) 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, (kinda like a reverse exodus) 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Kinda like what had happened during the days of Moses’ birth.) 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “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.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee (about a 100 miles north of Jerusalem). 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What a contrast in response to this birth. In the midst of the story about a very threatened king, foreign seekers come from the East. Presumably those outside the Jewish family, they still sought Wisdom. They looked in wonder to the natural world – God’s ever-surrounding mouth-piece. Something must have been in them that knew worship. That knew awe. And whether or not they had the right language yet; they must have trusted that a grand Designer was behind it all. The ones from the East are open to the wisdom that surrounds us in creation each day so that they knew to pay attention to a brand new star that was doing something unlike anything they had seen before. They got themselves ready to encounter One worthy to receive their most precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. . . . Meanwhile, the current King of the Jews goes stark raving mad. Out of fear of what he might lose, he orders dead all the children around Bethlehem who were younger than two years. This cannot endear the Bethlehemites to him and his rule. But he gives no thought to that. And so continues the long line of violence – even to this very day against the city of Bethlehem; the violence continues which the baby in the manger came to stop. He will grow to show a totally different way of being. One that seems well-exemplified, according to the gospel of Matthew, in the earthly father Joseph. In that long genealogy, we hear of father after father in Joseph’s family – some of whom were great role models for him of how to be the most amazing dad. And wasn’t he?! It wasn’t even his biological son and look what Joseph does. First he believes – he trusts that God is up to something new in the woman he loves. Next, he pays attention to a classic way God gets into our hearts and our minds: he seeks to discern his dreams to know what God wants from him next. Then, more than once, he protects this precious gift given to his care. Such love! Such wisdom! What an amazing father! What a faithful servant of the Savior of the world!

And so the little one is born into this world, according to the unique telling of the gospel of Matthew. We’re given much to ponder about who this baby is who is named from the start the Messiah. We’re encouraged to pay attention too to the dreams God gives us in God’s continuing work to save this world. We’re warned these ways will not be like the ways undertaken for gain among so many in this world. We’re painted three distinct portraits of response to God’s great gift. And we’re left to wonder as we continue our trek to the celebration of his birth: just how might we live as a result of this new life.
May Christmas Story #1, the telling of the tale according to the gospel of Matthew, leave us a bit more prepared to rejoice!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

A Compelling Vision

If I understood the commas correctly in a post today on, then over $26 million was given to 4000 nonprofits in one day last week. It was called Giving Tuesday. I had never heard of it, until I received an email that morning from a nonprofit urging me to get in on the excitement. I guess it’s a take off from Black Friday, followed by Cyber Monday, followed by Green Monday which I received information about this morning. When will it all end???!!! The advertising world is doing a phenomenal job at getting our attention. At reminding us that we must have this one perfect thing at this amazing, great deal. Hurry don’t let this discount pass you by! Today is the day, so: charge! Charge! Charge! (And free shipping too!)

It’s really more than ironic this week when the Advent gospel text turns us to John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness to get ready for a whole different way. He’s trying to get our attention. To get us ready for something more than just buying and selling. Buying that which too often goes forgotten the day after it finally arrives. And selling our souls to that which will never satisfy.

The blog post I read this morning spoke of a compelling vision. It asked the question: does the organization which you represent present a compelling vision? As the author quoted the statistical figures from Giving Tuesday, she concluded that people obviously want to give. I realize that it may not be everybody in this world. I’m guessing we all can tell stories of some very selfish people. Still, I think about people I’ve observed in the past few months alone. I truly can say I often have been amazed by remarkable generosity. Just today I was sent from the church among whom I serve with four large bundles full of goodies and comforts. I was to deliver this amazingly thoughtful, unexpected gift to a husband who faithfully is caring for his dying wife of 68 years while she continues under hospice care. Is there a more compelling vision than being part of a community that seeks to be present to the dying and those whose hearts are breaking as they tend the failing body of their loved one? This is the same community that showed up last week for ones they just are beginning to know whose father died suddenly. The same community that gathers together to worship and learn and enjoy one another each week. All the while waiting for local folks to appear who might be in need of financial assistance or a bag of groceries from the food pantry. If you ask me that’s a pretty compelling vision!

It’s actually called the church – one representation of a body that too often gaines very bad press these days. Don’t get me wrong: in many ways, we’ve earned what we’ve gotten. I think a wise One once said that you reap what you sow. But in so many other ways, we have gone about amazing work. It’s time that we better market our compelling vision: we are the community that does our best to embody the One that is Pure Love. If you’re looking for somewhere to give, I urge you to start there.

Wishing you wonderfully nourishing bread on your journey!