Monthly Archives: December 2019

Building a New World

A Sermon for 15 December 2019 – Third Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:46-55. Listen to God’s word to us through a reading of words coming from the lips of a young girl when she found out that God intended to do amazing things through her. Enlisting her to bear a child in the middle of a world taken over by an oppressive empire. The young girl consents proclaiming words known throughout history as the Magnificat. Listen.

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


Have you heard the news? God is building a new world!

Listen to the promise of the prophet. One named Isaiah who it’s believe gave voice to God’s plans when the people found themselves still in Babylonian exile – or possibly just back home in the land of Judah, scholars aren’t sure of the writing’s date so that it’s possible the people not long before Isaiah’s words had walked upon a seemingly miraculous highway of the LORD running far off in the East right back to the crumbled doorposts of Jerusalem. Whichever side of exile, the prophet proclaims: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly. . . . (For) the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; . . . the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. . . . Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isaiah 35:1-2a, 5-7). No one expects deserts to burst with beautiful blossoms of wildflowers for as far as the eye can see. Blind eyes don’t become open again, do they? Do ears unable to hear suddenly find release? People unable to walk all at once hopping and leaping and bounding all about? Those silenced, tongues unable to speak, don’t all of a sudden sing for joy, do they?

Listen to another prophet who finds herself at her aunt’s house shortly after a messenger of God interrupts her typical teenage afternoon. Gabriel, the one known by her people as God’s messenger – one standing in for God’s presence. This angel appears in a way in which she actually can communion, and the young girl known as Mary – the one already engaged, though not yet living with the man to whom she’d been given. Mary receives world-shaking news. A life-altering message that despite appearances, God is with her and her people. It wasn’t the first time such notice had been given in the most unlikely of ways to ones who traced their history through the likes of the great King David – who didn’t exactly come from the proper lineage what with his foreign great-grandmother Ruth uniting herself to Boaz. Don’t forget Moses, a salvific figure for the people, whose dicey past as a murderer, after being raised in the palace of the Pharaoh due to his mother’s shrewdness, drives him away into hiding only at last to return to a nation in need when a voice amid a flaming bush set his life upon a different path. And what about Abram and Sarai – the father and mother of them all –who doubted promises given – even laughed at God’s audacious plan? In a long line of questionable ancestors such as these; legend says, a young girl went forth one ordinary day to draw water at Nazareth’s well. She came home a completely different woman. Perplexed by how it all could be but willing to open her life and her womb to how God was building a new world.

The prophet Mary proclaims: “My soul magnifies the LORD! For God has done great things! God has scattered the proud. And brought down the powerful. God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry. God has helped servant Israel,” (paraphrase of Luke 1:46-55, various verses) the ones classically known as wrestlers with God – as was their namesake Jacob who would not relent until a blessing was given and his name, at dawn, turned to Israel, or: he who wrestles with God. So we can too! Make no mistake about it. For eons, God has been busy building a new world! One biblical commentator, brilliantly puts it like this: Mary’s “song is not a halfhearted praise; this is more than ‘my soul thanks the LORD and I trust that (God’ll) get me through this mess and things will turn out okay’” (Connections, Yr. A, Vol. 1, Marci Auld Glass, p. 40). Mary does, after all, find herself in quite a pickle as a pregnant, yet-unwed mother who could not only get turned away by the man to whom she had been promised for marriage. But also, according to their nation’s laws, Joseph could have her stoned for such a presumed betrayal of the bridal bed. Nonetheless, the biblical commentator reminds that Mary’s “song is much bigger” than a simple thank you, God. Her proclamation “shows that she, correctly, connects the details of her life to God’s bigger plan for the world” (Ibid.). ‘Cuz let’s face it: “If God can use a teenaged girl from a backwater town, then surely God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away hungry. Surely God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly” (Ibid.). Mary’s song, it is written: “becomes not a prophesy or prediction, but a description of reality” (Ibid.). And you know how we know: because in her singing, Mary “does not even bother to use future tense. She does not sing, ‘God will . . .’ She sings, ‘God HAS . . .’” (Ibid.). Thus, with the mother-to-be we too can proclaim: God is building a new world!

You know how else we can know? We can look to see all around us. While the national news continues to show leaders at each other’s throats. While they want us again and again to see divisions between people and nations and those perceived to be so very different from one another. You know what I’ve seen? Let’s just start with last Sunday when children of a father whose mind slipped far away came back here. Believing they would find solace in their loss – welcome in their grief and proclamation of God’s work even over death no matter that it had been a while since their family had been able to be a part of this church. Monday all sorts of interesting conversations began! I saw leaders of this congregation meet with young people to see how their gifts might undergird our own efforts in community renewal. I heard leaders among our community partners tell how new efforts could bring greater good! Tuesday – well, so many of you were here then! I saw a parlor transformed to a banquet where all could sit down to feast! Women whose wounds seem obvious and others who more easily have been able to keep things together. Felons laughing with new friends – some struggling still from the effects of addiction and the pain the disease has caused in their families – and others able just to listen. Hearts open wide because we know we need each other. And while it got a bit chaotic when about a dozen high schooler girls and boys descended upon the doorstep, did you see how God was building a new world when Trina Frierson, the founder of Mending Hearts, spoke? She told her cautionary story so they might now make positive decisions. All the while, even some macho teenage boys listened. Which reminds that we cannot know how something as simple as stories shared and encouragement given and hope of a different way allows God to build anew. When Thursday rolled round, this place was packed! Every pew full of parents and grandparents and family friends – cameras on the ready – as little children of every shade stood up here. Absolutely adorable! Have you ever heard about 80 wee voices sing things like “Up on the rooftop, click, click, click!” From Frosty the magically-come-to-life snowman to holiday songs about dreidels to joyous little mouths belting out: “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” At such young age the gift of music and art and play is a part of the lives of Playcare’s children. So maybe when they are older, they’ll recognize creativity keeps them connected to the Source, who Creates us all! Another way I’ve been noticing that same One at work is through this Trader Joe’s pick-up and delivery process we’ve gotten ourselves into! Every time others hear about these Neighborhood Shares efforts, it’s like hope in humanity’s kindness gets restored. Trust in generosity and abundance and the simple gift of caring no matter the circumstance or age. So many new relationships are being forged through simple things like flowers – lives are getting impacted positively and other opportunities for connection are unfolding! It’s so cool! Yes, God is busy building a new world – re-weaving the fabric of community every time a flower is passed along, or a random stalk of brussels sprouts shows up in our narthex. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the joy of such grace – such gift is making a deep impact this Advent.

Mother-to-be Mary knew it was so. Some might say she sang it out ahead of time because she could see. It is through every act of compassion. Every courageous step. Each YES to Spirit’s invitation adds one more brick to the new world God is building! Don’t you ever doubt it; for the work is still the same. Through ordinary folks like Mary and Joseph and us, God is building a new world!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Known & Unknown

A Sermon for 1 December 2019 – 1st Advent

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 24:3-5, 32-44. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. . . . 32 From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Today we enter again into this four-week season of Advent. The church year begins with Advent as a time to return to waiting. A time to prepare. A time to get back in touch with our ancestors in the faith who watched and hoped and anticipated with great joy the day when God would bring peace on all the earth! When at last, the prophesy of old would be fulfilled. For a child would be born! A new kind of king who would reign over all. Establishing peace through justice. Ushering in a new day. The favor of the LORD, the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, resting on the Anointed One so that no more would oppressive empires rule over the people. No more would distress cover the land. No more would despair break backs; but the dawn of the Light would rise for love, joy, peace, hope to rule in every heart! Advent is the season that returns us to God’s promise as we join ancient echoes to come, Come Lord Jesus! Dwell among us. Be for us the Way!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And the gospel of Matthew turns us almost to the end of the story. To a day – shortly before the crucifixion – when Jesus sat among his disciples in the Temple. Teaching them to guard themselves. Though the establishment stood powerfully in their midst; no matter what happened, Jesus did not want his followers to be led astray. For the path of the Anointed was not streets paved in gold. But the way of the cross. A giving of Life for True Life to flourish. Jesus might as well have recited the words of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. For when their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4). Rather, the Psalmist would say – and Christ Jesus would display it throughout his life: Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free, the Psalmist and prophets and Jesus would proclaim. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. The LORD loves the righteous and watches over the strangers. God upholds the orphan and the widow and will reign forever. Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Amen! (paraphrase of Psalm 146:5-10).

Some look upon the 24 chapter of Matthew’s gospel and read it literally. Using the catastrophic images to search the skies. To seek to read the times. The verses of this part of the gospel are how we get things like ideas of an eventual rapture – when some (the faithful) will be taken. And others will be left behind. Texts like Matthew 24 are one way we’ve historically gotten elaborate notions of what’s called Millennialism – Post and Pre, which has nothing at all to do with the youngsters running around today as a generation o so very different from the ones that have come before. Millennialism is a religious belief – especially popular among American Evangelicals – that is dependent upon a literal understanding of a Second Coming of Jesus that includes a final tribulation-like judgement – with a golden age before or after it, depending on which religious flavor you ask. That will lead to a world yet to come. This is how we get things like a biblical proof-texting, literal-seeking left behind idea. Torment for some. Release for a handful. The kind of Christianity that turns a lot of people away today as it’s based on eschatological ideas that fail to read the gospels in context to see how the second and final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE dramatically influenced the way early Christian writers told the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call the Christ.

One biblical commentator calls us to another way of mining the wisdom from Jesus’ words in the portion of the gospel before us in this season of Advent. The commentator writes: “What we might focus on here . . . quite apart from the end of the world, is Jesus’ depiction of normal human life. Forget for now,” the commentator encourages, “about the end of time. Forget about the return of Christ, whatever that might mean. What we have here is a picture of the world as it is, all too familiar to us” (Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2. Lance Stone, p. 245). A world of knowns and unknowns which Jesus wants to make sure his followers understand. The commentator explains that “There are things in the world, Jesus says, that are known and that can be anticipated. Look at the fig tree” (Ibid.). Which Jesus points out to his followers in another portion of this lengthy lesson that Jesus was giving when his disciples were terrified and wanted to hold some certainty that would allow them to be prepared. Fig trees reminds us: winter gives way to spring. Summer sunshine ripens the fruit on the branch which brings about the harvest of autumn. The earth’s bountiful yield. All of nature reminds us what the commentator states: “there is a pattern and order and regularity in the world, the very basis of science and technology, and it means that we have a measure of control, without which life would not be viable” (Ibid.). The very world around us teaches that there are some things upon which we typically can rely. At the same time, the words of Jesus also offer the other half of that lesson. Something wise ones never take for granted – not so we live with a sense of dread about the other shoe always about to drop. But so we do not find ourselves feeling robbed by life – or worse yet, blaming such troubles upon ourselves or God or others when in fact difficulties arise in life. For, as that same biblical commentator reminds: life is ordered and reliable AND it is precarious. Unpredictable. “However much we may feel in control, we always are vulnerable. We know that we always are susceptible to the unexpected and the unplanned that suddenly throws our routine lives into turmoil and confusion” (Ibid.).

Does it seem like good news? Maybe not if you’re riding on top of a beautiful wave. Feeling all-powerful and totally in charge. But remember the setting of this gospel. Likely written shortly after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed forever – all but that still-standing Western Wall. It is good news to hear from the Anointed – the One crucified, yet resurrected. It is good news to hear that sometimes life will feel like the thief in the night. The mysterious disappearance while harvesting the fields. The random occurrence of one seemingly being struck by lightning while the next is left totally fine. The truth is: life – like God – is knowns and unknows. The agency of our own life control. And the inexplicable action of other forces upon us. In the season of Advent, our surest comfort is to remember the story of the God who lives among us. Born a vulnerable baby. Hell-bent on loving us that our own flesh and blood would become the instruments through which God chooses to work. In all of life’s knowns. In all the unknowns, may we trust in full in that!

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


© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)