The Rev. Suzi Holding

An Idle Tale

That’s what Jesus’ disciples thought when they heard what the women had to say when they returned from Jesus’ tomb…their story seemed to them an idle tale, nonsense, foolishness…and they did not believe a word of it.

Yes, this was just a silly story spun by the sorrow and wishful thinking of these grief stricken women.

Seriously, the stone rolled away from the tomb, no body inside, two men appearing in dazzling clothes, saying Jesus was raised from the dead…why the women didn’t even see Jesus… An idle tale indeed!

When I was 4 years old, I told my mother about a new friend I had. We had just moved to Dayton, Ohio and I was lonely. I told my mom that he was coming over for lunch so she fixed a couple of peanut butter sandwiches for us, and I sat down at our picnic table outside. After a while she came outside and saw that the sandwiches were gone.

She asked where my new friend was...I said he had just left…she asked his name, I said it was Casper the friendly ghost, as serious as anything. Well she gave me a look, rolled her eyes, and shook her head as if to say “what nonsense, what utter foolishness”…truly an idle tale.

I imagine that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the other women got a similar look when they told the other disciples what they had seen….the men didn’t believe them.

But these women knew that they were telling the truth, the living gospel truth.

When the two men in the dazzling clothes told them to remember what Jesus had said to them, while he was still in Galilee...that he must be handed over to sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise again…

They remembered.

Of course they remembered. These were the same women who had traveled with him from Galilee, they had heard his teachings, witnessed the healings, they had been with him those last days in Jerusalem, they had seen him arrested by the soldiers, they had stood at the foot of that cross and watched him die, they had gone to the tomb and seen him buried and the stone rolled across the entrance to the tomb.

All those strange things he had said now made sense

Yes, they remembered….not in the way of nostalgia….but in the way of bringing the past into the present, the meaning of his past words and action made real. They remembered with power and deep insight, understanding his words now through the eyes of faith.

So why did this seem like an “idle tale” to the men? They had heard Jesus say the same things.

I wonder…Perhaps they had thought that Jesus’ language about his own dying and rising again might be a metaphor like all those parables he told.

They often did not fully understand what Jesus was saying.

They never thought, or even considered that what he was talking about was the battle being waged with the enemy, with death itself.

When Peter heard the women’s story, he didn’t believe them and I imagine thought them silly women. He had to see for himself.

So Peter got up and ran…ran to the tomb, stooped and looked inside and saw just the linen clothes…nothing else. He walked away…stunned, amazed, bewildered, wondering…and went home.

But there came a time when he wondered no more…..the idle tale became living truth for him, emboldening him, changing his life forever.

As the events of the next few days unfolded, the story was told again and again, no longer an idle tale, but a story of hope, a story of God’s saving grace and love.

This evening we have heard stories of hope, stories of God’s saving grace and love…some might say the Creation story is an idle tale, or the great flood is nonsense….or the dry bones coming to life is foolishness.

Yet these stories, and others, have been told time and again by God’s people as part of the amazing story of God’s love for God’s people.

For those of us baptized we are grafted into this story, and our story connects with each other and that connects to an even greater story….that story of God’s love for each of us.

Our stories connect with the stories of those early disciples, with martyrs and saints, past present and yet to come, and with redeemed sinners here, there and everywhere.

We are a people of story… our stories give us identity, a sense of who we are, and shape us into who we become. And this story is not an idle tale, but a story that has the power to transform our lives, just like it did for those early disciples, just as it has done for the faithful through the generations …. their lives have been transformed, they have been emboldened to live anew.

If the resurrection was truly just an idle tale, we wouldn’t be too interested in a baby born in a manger…

without the story of the resurrection, Jesus would have been just another innocent victim executed by Rome,

without the resurrection, bread and wine would simply be bread and wine,

without the resurrection we would be sleeping in every Sunday morning.

The story makes a difference…..for many this idle tale has become the story of life ….the story where we find courage, strength, justice, mercy and ultimately, foundationally Love...

the story that confirms death does not have the final word and assures us that there is something more beyond our earthly horizons….

In this Post modern post Christian secular world this may sound like an idle tale.

But for those of us who have experienced the risen Christ, we gather here because the story is not just an idle tale. We gather here because the resurrection of Jesus is what gives us life.

“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15: 57

Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24: 1-12


The Rev. Suzi Holding

I remember that evening….spring was in the air…there were signs of new growth, new life everywhere. Flowers were beginning to push their green stems out of the ground, their buds just emerging. There was just a hint of a fresh, sweet fragrance in the air…the long gray winter was finally over.

We had just finished dinner. Jesus had once again regaled us with stories…what an amazing story teller he was. But his stories were not just fanciful imaginings…there was always some nugget of truth, something that caught your attention and you started to see things in a different way, your perceptions challenged and then changed…..

My brother Lazarus was with us….now there was a truth that some found hard to believe…just a few weeks earlier we thought we had lost him forever. I still have trouble believing what I saw…that he came out of that tomb, after being in it for four days…still wrapped in the grave cloths…I could not believe my eyes!

We had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus had taken ill…and I was so disappointed when he didn’t come immediately. Jesus was like family…Lazarus had been like a brother to him. Our own parents had died years before and we cherished that sense of extended family with him. He had stayed in our home, broke bread with us many times over the past three years. I thought  he would drop everything and come to be with us and with Lazarus. But he didn’t. I know it wasn’t safe for him to come. People in power and positions of influence were disturbed by things he was saying and how more and more people were gathering to hear him. Already some had tried to stone him at one of these gathering. His disciples told him not to come….

and then he came.  But it was too late. Lazarus was already dead. So many people had come to our house to mourn with us. When my sister Martha heard that Jesus was coming she ran out to greet him…I stayed back with our friends…that is until Martha came back telling me Jesus was asking for me…I rushed out, and everybody at the house followed me.  When I saw him I knelt at his feet….crying…and he asked where Lazarus had been laid... there were tears in his eyes…

When he saw the cave where Lazarus has been laid, he told some people to move the stone that was in front of it…Martha looked at him and said, it is really going to stink if you do that….he has been dead four days…he looked at her and said…Believe,…Trust me…

As they moved away the stone, Jesus looked up and prayed…Father…and then he looked at the cave, raise his voice and said “Lazarus come out!”……and he did!

I can still hardy believe it happened…Lazarus was alive again…and there he was, sitting with us that night having dinner… I reached over to pinch him just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it…he laughed at me. And rolled his eyes. Typical big brother!

When dinner was over, Martha was busy as usual cleaning up after the meal…there had been quite a few of us at dinner that evening so there was much to do.

I had taken my usual spot at Jesus feet, listening and hanging on his every word…and Martha gave me the side eye, as usual! Women were not supposed to be with the men when they were having their important after dinner conversations. Jesus didn’t mind though.

Those days things seemed so tense…having known Jesus and going around with him…the things he said and did.…he was making some people very nervous…even within our own cohort…Judas was not happy,  He grumbled and complained.  Judas was so tightly wound….like energy contained, ready to burst forth at any moment….like a bomb ready to explode… he had such a fervor for the resistance, a zeal, to get rid of the Roman Occupiers by any means possible, to call to account the religious authorities that collaborated with them….he was so impatient and agitated.

The men were talking about men things…and then conversation shifted. The disciples were worried. Hostility had been mounting since Jesus spoke Lazarus back to life. The intensity of the danger to him had increased. There were rumors that the authorities were plotting against him

The men were saying he shouldn’t go into nearby Jerusalem,…the leaders in the city were after him.

Judas and the others were trying to tell Jesus what to do….Jesus  was unwavering. His face was set…

and then I knew…he was well aware of what awaited him in Jerusalem and he was bound and determined to walk right into it. My heart began to break…because I knew he wasn’t coming back.

And I thought about that special oil in the alabaster jar that I kept in the other room…a very exceptional and expensive oil from the East, a dark golden oil…with healing properties…some people used it to anoint the dead. We had a goodly amount.

I got up and got it and sat once again by him.

I remember pouring the oil on his feet. I did not want to hold back. Jesus had taught us about God’s generosity, about God’s love and grace poured out lavishly on us, God’s beloved…and so I poured out that exceptional oil on those feet…those worn and calloused feet as I held them tenderly in my hand. 

And I looked up and saw he was looking at me…the way that only he could look at you…as if he knew you to the very core of your being… warts and all, and yet loved you fully, deeply, without restraint. I looked into those eyes of his…oh my they were the color of rich amber honey…

And I started to cry…my tears falling on those feet,…I used my hair to wipe them away…and it felt like time stood still…and the future and all that would happen to Jesus would be kept at bay.

Judas broke the moment…ranted…by saying “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denari and the money given to the poor?”  Well he was right …that oil would fetch a high price on the market…well over a year’s worth of wages….and yes, that money could be given to help the poor. For a moment I felt ashamed, that I had stupidly wasted that precious oil…Judas was good at saying things that could make you feel like you were never doing enough…that whatever you did, no matter how much you tried…it wasn’t enough.

There were those among us who were beginning to distrust Judas…he kept the common purse…and money seemed to be missing from it more and more…it was easy to suspect him.

And then Jesus told him to leave me alone….to just back off…Jesus knew what I had done and why…he knew what it cost me…not just the oil, but the aching in my heart, my grief and my tears.

The scent of that oil lingered in the house well after everyone had left for the evening…a wonderful earthy, musky fragrance, a wonderful reminder of love.

The following week is still a blur…the treachery and the betrayal, the way he was taken and executed…I am still in shock.

I remember the way he looked at me…the way he looked at all of us, even Judas….with such love…for it all to end in such horror is inconceivable….I will remember him by loving…as he loved us….fully, deeply, without restraint.

Some are saying that they have seen him…could it be???

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12: 1-8


Pastor Frank C. Senn

Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Promise and expectation are not necessarily the same thing. What is promised is one thing. How that promise is imagined is something else. We’ve all experienced situations in which our expectations of what is promised are disappointed. This might happens when we’re going to a place we haven’t been to before. We pick out a resort in the Caribbean to get a break from Chicago’s winter. But there’s no guarantee that it will be as luxurious as advertised or that it won’t rain all week.  

Surely immigrants coming to this land of promise expect a better life than they left behind. Today on Saint Patrick’s Day we think of all the Irish who escape the potato famine to come to America, only to be greeted by a hostile reception. The American or “Know Nothing” political party was formed to push back on “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” which was associated with the Irish. Americans have been generally hostile to each wave of immigrants since the founding of the republic. Yet each group of immigrants has eventually found a place in American society.

One wonders if Abraham found life better in the land of Canaan than in Iraq (ancient Chaldea). Nowhere in the Bible is the discrepancy between promise and expectation truer than in the story of Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation with descendants and land. Yet here he is in today’s reading, aging and with no heir or land of his own. The Lord God reiterates his promises. Abraham will indeed have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and his own heir, not his steward. Moreover, the Lord authorizes the possession of the land of Canaan. It is ratified by a strange nocturnal vision of a sacrifice in which God as a blazing fire seals the covenant between his promises and Abraham’s faith, which is accounted to him as righteousness.

Abraham himself, of course, never possessed the land.  Neither did his immediate descendants.  It took generations before the children of Israel came out of Egypt and crossed the Jordan under Joshua to take possession of Canaan by a holy war that lasted several centuries.

Revising expectations of what is promised is something we do all through life. Experience teaches us to have a plan B as well as a plan A.  The people of Israel also had to revise their expectations of what God had promised.

God promised descendants and land to Abraham. The expectations of Israel became bound up with geography and political rule. Mt. Zion and the city of Jerusalem became not just David’s, but God’s capital on earth. Yet God allowed foreign kings and armies to overrun the land and take Israelites into captivity. After the Persian king Cyrus released the Jews from their Babylonian exile, those who returned to the land seldom regained sovereignty over it. Some Jews got used to living in the diaspora and returned to the land only as pilgrims.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus – the Son of the God of Abraham and the descendant of David on his human side – laments over Jerusalem as the place that kills God’s prophets. We don’t know what prophets Jesus was referring to. None of the Old Testament literary prophets were killed in Jerusalem. Jesus may have been referring to other prophets, or maybe even to later Christian martyrs like Stephen and James the Just. But Jesus is determined to go there.

He is advised by the Pharisees that King Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is out to get him, as he got Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Jesus says he is not afraid of that fox. He will not be deterred in his mission by a crafty provincial politician. He will face the real powers-that-be in the place where prophets are killed by their own audience-turned-jury.

He expresses a disappointment that he has not been able to gather the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks. It’s the strongest feminine image Jesus uses of himself. But it’s not an image of strength. If there’s a contest between a fox and a hen, the hen loses. The most the hen can do is offer herself in the hope that if the fox gets her, the chicks under her wings will escape to safety. It’s really an image suggesting that Jesus is offering himself for the salvation of the people, if the people will accept the shield he provides and come under his wings.

Not surprisingly, the followers of that Son of God and son of David who was killed in Jerusalem lost interest in the earthly Jerusalem, or even in the land promised to the descendants of Abraham.  Expectations change.  We followers of Jesus look to a heavenly Jerusalem. We expect to go to heaven. 

But perhaps our expectations need to change again. The vision in Revelation is of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. It was Origen, the greatest biblical scholar and theologian of antiquity, who convinced Christians that the promise to Abraham had to be realized spiritually.  He thought he had St. Paul on his side, for the apostle wrote to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  But this doesn’t say we’re going to heaven, any more than the citizens of Philippi were going to Rome. Philippi was a town of military retirees who were Roman citizens living there on their pensions. Paul uses this image to compare his Philippian congregation with those believers who are “enemies of the cross.” These “enemies” are not persecutors of the church but Christians who reject the idea that the life of faith entails suffering. They want a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross. Paul, who knows quite a bit about suffering doesn’t expect worldly glory with earthly triumphs. “We are citizens of heaven,” Paul tells them, just as the residents of Philippi are citizens of Rome. We expect Christ to come to us from heaven, just as the emperor might come from Rome to visit Philippi.

We Christians, who hold to the Old Testament also as our sacred scriptures, have come to see in the Bible a long epic story that goes through many twists and turns as God makes delivery on his promises. We have come to see Jesus in his person and work as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and to David. The faith of Abraham is passed on to all the nations of the earth through the apostolic mission of the church of Christ. As the descendant of David according to the flesh Christ has secured for the house of David an eternal throne in heaven.

Yet even on earth, Jesus could not escape the political ramifications of being an heir to the throne of David when there were already emperors and kings sitting on thrones that claimed the land David once ruled.  These ramifications dogged him his entire life.  His birth had threatened one King Herod.  In our Gospel today we see that his ministry was threatening another King Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee, who had his own political ambitions.

Luke wanted his readers to sense the underlying direction and purpose of events in history. He reminds them and us that the God of the covenant is at work in our midst, seeking to move human life toward the kingdom so eloquently proclaimed by Jesus and so thoroughly inaugurated by his life, death, and resurrection.  Even the recalcitrance of the holy city in rejecting the Messiah sent to them seems to have played into God's plans. 

Of what can we be certain if expectation does not always match promise? The antidote to uncertainty is to develop an awareness of the purpose of God in the course of human events. God is leading us toward his future, just as he led Abraham. It is from the perspective of that future, revealed with finality in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, that we can understand how God's purposes have been worked out in the things that have taken place (even if they are contrary to our expectations!).

Like Abraham and his descendants, like Paul and his Philippians, we must sort out how God is moving us toward his goal amid conflicts and in the face of well-intended or duplicitous adversaries. How is God keeping his promises?  In what ways do our expectations cloud our perception of what God intends by his promises? Sorting things out is one of the purposes of Lent.  And one of the things we have to sort out is our relationship to place.

The link between faith and place still lingers, and in the wake of the chilling murders of Muslims praying in their mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist the issue takes on new urgency. Faith and place have a way of getting mixed up, sometimes in deadly ways when some extremist concludes that you and your kind don’t belong here. 

Let us be clear that the God of Abraham is not a god of the place, like the other Middle Eastern deities.  This is the God of people: the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the God of Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, the God of Gideon and Deborah and Ruth, the God of Samuel, David, and Solomon, the God of Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, the God of Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah, the God of Mary and Joseph and the Father of our Lord Jesus the Christ.

In last week’s First Reading, the Israelites who took possession of the land promised to Abraham were given a confession of faith that began, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  The Christians to whom the Book of Hebrews was written were reminded, “We have here no abiding city.”  Christians have no holy city or holy land other than the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth in which God will dwell with all tribes and nations. As for the prophets God sends, are they not in harm’s way in whatever city they show up? Is not every city both a place of crucifixion and---incongruously---also a place of promise?

Jesus marched into Jerusalem and ended up on a cross. But the story doesn’t end there. The condemned city became a city of hope and a place of new beginnings for the mission of God. So can all cities be places of hope and new beginning, for the Messiah who fears not the foxes of this world still marches boldly into them whether they bless him or not.

The question for us, especially asked of us in Lent, is whether we will be in his parade and follow him all the way to his execution, to his grave, and beyond…to whatever our Lord has in store for his earthly followers. Amen.


Deacon Sue Nebel

On Tuesday evening, like many of you I came to St. A’s for pancakes. I showed up right at 5:30 as things were getting started. I had my plate of pancakes (they were really good!) and some conversation but, sadly, I couldn’t stay long enough to watch the burning of the palms. I had to leave to fulfill one of my duties as a deacon: serving with Bishop Lee on a visit to a parish. Most of his visits are on Sundays, but occasionally he has one during the week. This time it was St. David’s in Glenview. It was a celebration. They had moved the Feast Day of their patron saint, David of Wales, to that night. But the main celebration, the central focus of the evening, was Confirmation. Five young adults affirming promises made at their baptism. Commitments made on their behalf when they were too young to speak for themselves. 

At the beginning of the Confirmation rite, after the five were formally presented to the bishop, he asked them two questions:

·         Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?

·         Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?

I am quite sure the five teenagers knew that those two questions were a condensed version, a summing up, of the six questions asked at the beginning of the rite of Holy Baptism. They had  completed a 10-week course of preparation for their Confirmation and the baptismal liturgy was a core part of that. Six questions, now two. Two questions. Two decisions. Two actions. Renunciation, turning away. Affirmation, turning toward. Two powers. Evil and God. In Baptism and in Confirmation, we choose Jesus, God.

In today’s Gospel lesson we encounter those two powers face to face in the figures of the devil and Jesus. As we journeyed through the season of Epiphany, we traced Jesus’s developing ministry. We started at the beginning with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Then we heard how Jesus could perform miracles. Turning water into wine at Cana. His ministries of healing and teaching. Ministries that drew people to him, often in large numbers. Today we go back to the beginning of the story. The events in today’s Gospel take place right after Jesus’s baptism, when he heads off into the wilderness for a period of forty days. The pattern of going off by himself for prayer and renewal is a familiar one in the story of Jesus’s ministry. This is different. Jesus is not alone. The devil is there in the wilderness with him, ready to test him.

There is a lot at stake for the devil here. He has undoubtedly heard of Jesus. Perhaps he was lurking around the edges of the crowd at his baptism. He heard the voice of God saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” God is up to something; God is doing something different. This Jesus, whom God calls Gods’ Son of God, could be a threat to the devil’s power. He wants to stop Jesus before he gets started on his mission. He wastes no time; he gets right to work. First, sensing that Jesus is in a weakened state after forty days of fasting, the devil says to him: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.  Jesus responds: “It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Well, that didn’t work. So the devil, acting on his operating principle that all human beings want power, takes Jesus to a place where he can see the kingdoms of the world. He offers Jesus authority over all of them. The only condition is that Jesus must worship the devil. Jesus refuses, saying: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Well, if Jesus is going to respond to these temptations by quoting Hebrew Scripture, then let’s go the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place of the Jewish faith. There, high up on the pinnacle of the Temple, the devil says to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here . . .”  This time the devil uses Scripture himself, saying: “. . .for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up. . .”  Jesus comes right back at him with another passage from Scripture: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

This is a remarkable encounter between Jesus and the devil. Three challenges. Three  responses.  The devil uses his best weapons. He goes after Jesus in his vulnerability due to physical weakness and then targets the human desire for power. Finally, he tests Jesus’s faith and trust in God. Each time the devil fails.  Jesus is unshaken. He holds firm. It is worth noting that Jesus responds each time, not with his own words but with words from Hebrew Scripture. He is at the very beginning of his ministry. He has not yet developed his own voice or his sense of authority as the Son of God. So he turns to Scripture. Words and teachings that have shaped him, teachings that are the foundation of his faith in God. It is worth noting too that each time Jesus responds in this way, the devil stops right there. He does not criticize. He does not try to engage Jesus in debate. Those words stop him cold. The devil knows that God is stronger, more powerful than he is. He isn’t going to get anywhere with this Jesus. There is no point in getting into arguments with him. His faith is steadfast. He is solidly grounded in God. The devil may be defeated here, but the struggle doesn’t end. He will keep trying to bring Jesus down. The final sentence of the Gospel passage sounds a warning: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” We know where the story of Jesus is headed: to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. To the Cross. Powerful political leaders and those with high social status will try to destroy Jesus and put an end to his mission by killing him. They will fail.

Jesus and the devil in the wilderness. This is more than a story about Jesus. This is our story, the pattern of our lives as Christians. In our baptism we turn away from evil and choose God. We make commitments and promises: to accept and affirm Jesus as our Lord, to follow him. We renew our promises every time we join together in repeating the Baptismal Covenant. We are resolved to keep those commitments. To live in closeness to God. To follow Jesus’s teachings. But we fail. The barrage of messages of the world around us, valuing power and possessions. The stress and pressures in our lives. Our own selfishness. They all draw us back, away from God. We feel cut off from God, wandering in our own wilderness. We acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness. We draw close to God again. Back and forth we go. Pulling away from God and then coming back. Again and again. The good news is God is always there, ready to welcome us.

In Lent, we pay special attention to this back and forth pattern and our desire to be close to God. We simplify our lives, stripping away things that distract us. We may take on a new spiritual discipline or participate in one of the formation offerings for this season. In church, we change the liturgy. We began this morning in silence and then joined together in the Litany of Repentance, reciting in detail the forces and actions that separate us from God. Then the Confession, brought forward from its usual place. We named ourselves as sinners. We owned up to our failure to keep the commandments Jesus gave us. We repented and asked for forgiveness. To be restored to God once again. To be restored once again to God. To reclaim our baptismal selves, our best selves. 

We have set out on our Lenten journey. May it be a holy one.

 First Sunday in Lent; Year C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2,9-16;

Romans:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Epiphany 6C, Sunday, February 17, 2019

Deacon Sue Nebel 

It has happened again. The words you never want to hear again, but you are afraid you will: There has been a shooting. This time it was close to home, in Aurora, a suburb west of us. Five people killed. Six first responders and several others injured. A nearby school on soft lockdown. Once again, names and faces. Stories of lives cut short. The pain and grief of loved ones of those who died. All this happening in a week when we remembered the shooting one year ago at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. And on the same date, February 14 in 2008, shootings at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. 

It is all too familiar. TV images of the building where the shootings happened, surrounded by police cars. Reporters repeating over and over again the scant information they have.  Parents at the school, picking up their children and holding them tight. I found myself thinking of and praying for the people who had loved ones working in that warehouse. The anxiety of not knowing. Waiting for news, whether good or bad. Then, a press conference where the Aurora Chief of Police calmly and stoically gave a chronology of the events of the afternoon. She confirmed the number of people killed and police officers injured. She also announced that the shooter had been killed. Governor Pritzker, only in office a short time and facing his first major tragedy, spoke. Clearly he was struggling to address the event. He said, “There are no words for the kind of evil that robs our neighbors of their hopes, their dreams, and their futures. There are no words to express our gratitude to the officers who were wounded in the line of duty as they responded to the gravest kind of danger they could face.” Despite the governor’s claim of having no words for the mass shooting in Aurora, he managed to find some eloquent and heartfelt ones.

Yes, words seem to be inadequate. They may fail to express what we are thinking and feeling in the face of such tragedy.  Yet, words are what we have. Words are what we search for in the chaos of confusion and strong emotion. Words help us to wrap our minds around events that overwhelm us. They may be the words of someone else, like a news reporter or a police chief. Or they may be our own words. The first thing crisis response professionals do in tragic events like accidents, destruction, or loss of life is to say to the people who were present: “Tell me what happened.” Thus begins a process of shaping of containing the event. A process of healing. Gradually, step by step, moving from a place where one is part of an external event to a place where that event has become part of oneself. The memories and the emotional scars are still there. Things like a car backfiring or the sound of fireworks can cause the memories to surface, but they no longer overwhelm.

On Thursday, I heard an interview with a woman who was a student at Columbine High School in Colorado at the time of the mass shooting there twenty years ago. The interview was part of National Public Radio’s marking of the anniversary of the Parkland shootings. Now 38 years old and the mother of a teenage daughter, she was able to clearly recount the events of that day as she had experienced them. She also talked about her own healing process. She experienced panic and painful memories. She needed professional help, as well as loving support from family and others. She acknowledged that other school shootings since then often sparked strong emotional reactions,  but she had reached a point where she could handle them. She related how, when she judged that her daughter was old enough to understand, she told her about what she had experienced. She wanted her daughter to know, so that in the moments when her mother seemed overly anxious about her when she was away from home, she could understand the source of that feeling. The memories and the pain never go away completely, she said. They are part of her.

In face of events like the shootings in Aurora, we search for words. We also search for understanding. Almost immediately the questions begin. Who did it? Why? The name of the shooter was revealed quickly: Gary Martin. Because he died in a gunfire exchange with police, we may never have clear answers. Sadly, a familiar profile has begun to emerge. A angry employee, upset because he had been told he was fired. A troubled past. A gun he should not have owned. But lapses or errors in background checks and follow-up procedures let him have it—and keep it. Once again, the issue of gun control and licensing comes to the forefront of our attention, crying for action. 

In the midst of our deep shock and sadness, we search for something positive. Some beacon of light in the darkness. We search for hope. Today’s Gospel lesson gives us the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. The Beatitudes. Blessings. Jesus says to the people gathered around him:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Comfort for those who are suffering, in need. A promise of something better. Hope. The third Beatitude, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” is so poignant. The loved ones with a huge whole in their hearts and their lives. The employees in the warehouse who witnessed the shootings but escaped harm. The possibility of laughter, of joy seem a long way off, perhaps impossible, to them at this point in time. But that is my hope for them: that they will heal and experience joy again.

What can we do in the face of these tragic events? Aurora is some distance away from here, but the victims, their loved ones, and the people of the city of Aurora are our sisters and brothers. They are children of God, part of the human family.  There is another one of the Beatitudes that has kept repeating in my mind since the events of Friday. It is found in the version of the Beatitudes found in Matthew. It says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” What can we do? We can give comfort. We have sent messages of support to the two Episcopal parishes in Aurora. We can do what we always do. We can pray. We can pray as a community for those who have died and their loved ones. We can carry the families and friends in our hearts in the week ahead, as they bury the dead.   

Tonight people in the city of Aurora will gather for a vigil. Candles will be lit. Names will be read. Prayers will be offered. Because of distance and weather, we cannot be there.  But in solidarity with them, we can read the names of those who died. Right here, right now. I will read six names: the names of the victims and the shooter. Yes, even the shooter.  Although he committed an evil act, Gary Martin is a child of God, loved by God. As I read the each name I ask you to remember. Remember that person had a life, a life that was cut short. Remember that person has a story. Remember that person will be missed.

[Note: There were six unlit votive candles on the altar.  As each name was read, a candle was lit.]

Let us honor and remember: Russell Beyer, Vincente Juarez, Clayton Parks, Josh Pinkard, Trevor Wehner, Gary Martin.

May God enfold them in love and give them peace. Amen.

Epiphany 6; Year C

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26


Clergy in Cars

Suzi and Andrew are driving to a meeting on the Tuesday before the Annual meeting

SUZI:  You wanna preach this Sunday?

ANDREW:  You know I think people have heard my voice a lot lately, so I’ll pass.

SUZI:  Well, from what I understand you have preached a mighty good word! But Sunday is the annual meeting…it has been my practice to weave the rector’s report into the sermon on the Sunday of the annual meeting….and it is going to be hard for me to do an annual report because I haven’t been here that long.

ANDREW:  Oh, I see. Well, what would be helpful? What do you need to know?

SUZI:  My preference on these Sundays is to connect the scripture to the work of the congregation; so the gospel for that Sunday is Jesus saying…"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Etc., etc. Then Jesus says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

ANDREW:  Oh, right. Yes. And Corinthians talks about being individual members of one body and all the gifts of the spirit, and each is a major part.

SUZI:  Yes, exactly.

ANDREW:  I think its best summarized by the Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila. She says, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.”

SUZI:  Well, maybe this is how we fulfill what we hear. For me, this means WE are the BODY of CHRIST in the World. So, tell me, get me up to speed, how has St. A’s done this?

ANDREW:  Oh, Suzi. You’re asking me to gush about a church I adore, right?

SUZI:  Maybe? I am just so curious, so…gush on!

ANDREW:  Well, I’ll say this. In today’s lesson, we hear Jesus reminding us of the Holy Spirit upon his life and work; and Christian people have come to see that it is this same spirit that leads us in our work. And, with a simple pronoun modification, we find our own place in this story: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because God has anointed us to bring good news…”

And Suzi, this place has brought Good News to the world this year in everything that we have done. So many people here have the gifts that Paul speaks about in Corinthians, and as their pastor, it is my joy to see them move in their gifts and talents. St. Augustine’s is a parish that looks for the spirit of God at work in the world—and they go in and join that work. St. Augustine’s is a community that values one another, that embraces change and really believes that our loving actions in the world, change the world. St. Augustine’s is a place that is deeply committed to sharing their gifts of time, talents and treasures—as well as their leadership, hospitality, and prayers.

SUZI:  Well, it seems like the church both practices action in the world, and spends time developing their own spirituality and the relationships around them. 

ANDREW:  Yes, that’s right. We have a church that values being together, even with differences, and they are used to doing this so beautifully. We gather to do fantastic ministry here and in the world together, and to break bread and celebrate life.

We gathered to celebrate new births, and marriages, as well as we gathered to grieve—Bill and Dee Doughty—pillars of this church—and other saints in light, too. As you know, this church has also sent off a well-loved pastor and her family, and so church transitions—both joyful and sad—have been huge this year.

SUZI:  Tell me about some of the things St. A’s did together this year.

ANDREW:  Well, this past year, we met nearly 45 new people, many of which have made St. Augustine’s their new home. We saw 2 members Confirmed, 7 received into the Episcopal Church, 1 reaffirmation of faith, and 2 had their very first Communion at Bishop Lee’s visit. We also baptized 4 people into the Household of God in 2018. Many of our newcomers come to know Carol Telling, or Mary Whiteley, or Kathleen Todd as they leave bread on their doorstep to welcome them, and plan beautiful receptions to recognize the new members among us.

SUZI:  Tell me about what has happened on Sundays.

ANDREW:  Oh, so much. I will probably miss some things, (for which I am sorry) that I will remember tonight at 3 am, but here is what comes to mind.

First of all, it takes the hands of many people using their talents and gifts to bring us into worship on Sunday. We have a master of ceremony, Mary Senn, who helps to train and coordinate all these rock-star people who lead on our altar. We have acolytes, book bearers, chalice bearers, readers, Eucharistic ministers, an incredible altar guild, talented ushers, and so many others. And who can forget our choir and musicians, and Martin, who lead us to worship every week? We celebrated 52 Sunday services in the Nave, as well as 13 Beach Church services. We sang songs about the great community of saints in the faith who have gone on before us, as well as we have been challenged in our faith to realize how loved we are, and how much God loves this world—and how we are called to serve this world.

SUZI:  Well, it is clear that a lot happens in worship and it takes many hands.

ANDREW:  That’s right—and I hope people know that we are always looking for more people to help with various tasks, too. We will put something in the PLC soon. 

 SUZI:  So, what do you do for Formation on Sundays?

ANDREW:  Let me tell you, we have such talented people behind the wheel of our children’s formation. I know that they are committed to their work, to our children, and it’s incredible—and not to mention—our parents are so helpful and involved, too.

Charley Bowe agreed to oversee our Godly Play and Godly Quest programs after John White relocated to Indianapolis. Charley has done a great job of getting leaders trained and recruiting volunteers and parents. Of course these programs are Montessori based, and are tailored for children ages 4-12. Their lessons are the same or similar to those used in church, there are snacks, and it is a huge attraction for some of our families. These two groups meet every week during Coffee Hour—except on the first Sunday of the month—and on major holidays. 

SUZI:  I noticed the younger children being led out right before the sermon.

ANDREW:  Yes, they are headed to Children’s Chapel, which is led by Linda Moser. Children’s Chapel is during a portion of the service and is for those who might need room to wiggle and learn in a different way than in regular church. Linda has served in this beautiful way for many years, and she is so very talented at it.

Stacy and Mike Shedivy, as well as Sarah Fields, make themselves available to our tweens and teens leading the Feasting on the Word group, and offer a safe platform for open discussion on all matters as they relate to growing up and figuring things out. And they bring donuts.

Suzi, I can’t wait for you to see our Christmas Pageant! This is overseen by Janice Hurley, and she also helps with our Children’s Journey to the Cross as well.

And this summer you will see the churches of Wilmette come together for an ecumenical VBS, and Jen Curchin and some others from this parish lead this for our children. Jen also oversees our nursey staff.

SUZI:  That sounds like a lot, Andrew. What does it look like for Adults on Sunday or otherwise?

ANDREW:  This past year the Rev. Dr. Frank Senn led a beautiful study on the history of the Prayer Book; and Frank also led a study on Motoricity and our senses in worship. I led an interesting series on the Enneagram.

SUZI:  Oh, how fascinating, I am interested in the Enneagram.

ANDREW:  It is a great tool to have as we seek to better understand ourselves and those we love and see God at work in our strengths and weaknesses. Our Equipping the Saints group, as led by Sam Love and Sue Carlson also meets on Sundays. This group continually invites us to examine the ways in which we engage our world on matters of race and culture divisions in our society. And then of course, there is Coffee Hour.

SUZI:  My goodness, I had no idea so much happened on Sundays. What happens outside of Sundays?

ANDREW:  Well, this year we revisited home groups again and formed Cottage Groups. We found a wonderful crew of volunteers who agreed to open their homes for gatherings every 4-8 weeks during the program year with the objective to get to know others from the church in a more comfortable setting.

But before summer, way back in January, we kicked off the year with a weekday Christian Formation and Confirmation Prep program called Canterbury Consciousness where we spent six moths talking about types of prayer, spiritual disciplines, the faith, the Eucharist, and the history and traditions of the Episcopal Church. We made healing oil, prayed Compline, baked communion bread, and made faith formation fun.

SUZI:  That does sound like fun. Anything else?

ANDREW:  In February, we welcomed the Rev. Kathie Adams-Shepherd, former Rector of Trinity Church in Newtown CT, a parish directly affected by the school shootings at Sandy Hook. Kathie helped us unpack how we can be a resource for one another and our surrounding neighbors in such tragedies. This led to our reaching out a week later to St. Mary Magdalene Church in Coral Springs, FL the day of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Shootings. When they found out that one of their own was killed in the shooting, this community gathered to write cards, send prayer shawls and candles, and walked with them through this first year.

SUZI:  What a beautiful connection to that parish and share their grief.

ANDREW:  This was the impetus for the congregation and clergy becoming involved with the Washington DC and Chicago marches advocating for greater gun safety. They have been in our prayers all year.

SUZI:  I was talking with Sam Love about Education for Ministry. As a graduate of that program, I was delighted to hear that St. A’s has a branch here.

ANDREW:  Absolutely, Sam Love and Debbie Buesing do an amazing job of growing and leading this faithful group. It is an incredible 4-year platform for spiritual formation, biblical education, and fellowship. My experience in EfM led me to go to divinity school—I really enjoyed it.

SUZI:  Andrew, tell me about some more ways that St. Augustine’s reaches out to the community and the world.

ANDREW:  For years now, St. A’s has had a presence at the Chicago Pride Parade, and this summer was no different. I have told the congregation what a joy it is to see people surprised and caught off guard that the church shows up with love and support—and how much that reflects their love of the LGBT community. I am so thankful. Sarah Fields made a beautiful banner for us to carry and it was a beautiful day just hugging people and telling them God loves them.

SUZI:  What an important message to share. How else does St. A’s show their love?

ANDREW:  The Good Samaritans keeps tabs on situations in the life of the church and community where some kind of extra support might be needed. Whether it is a ride to an appointment, a casserole, groceries, anything really. These people take great care of anybody who is referred to them. Julia Joehl oversees this group of hospitable volunteers.

The Prayer Shawl Guild gathers periodically to have fellowship and to knit or crochet the beautiful shawls that we bless and send to people. It is a beautiful outreach that has touched so many. Mary Ellen Davis, Carolyn Eby, and Kristie Webber oversee this ministry.

Family Promise is a North Shore based ministry that partners with churches in the area to house families in transition from being homeless to being housed. Guests come and stay a week with us on cots, and volunteers stay the night to offer care, and meals. We host 5-6 times a year, and Julia Joehl and Kathy Gander coordinate this with other faithful volunteers.    

The Christmas Basket ministry, as led by Hilary Kennedy, brings families in need to our attention and the chance to adopt them for Christmas.

St. Leonard’s is a comprehensive ministry for released prisoners that we have supported for some time; and just recently our parishioner Katie Gonzalez began working there. This season, Katie asked the church to help out with an urgent need for blankets—and per usual St. A’s style—people went above and beyond and brought maybe 4 carloads of blankets and coats and more to help this ministry.

And, perhaps what we have come to be so excited about, is all the ways in which we give money to various organizations around Chicago through our grant program—but I will save that for Sunday’s meeting.

SUZI:  Unbelievable. What time, talent and resources this takes.

ANDREW:  Oh, absolutely. We have an incredible team of faithful stewards who help us manage everything from funds to our buildings and grounds.

We have three co-treasurers, Gray Curchin, Bruce Caris, and Tina Janetzko, as well as a fantastic Bookkeeper, Athina Sato, who keep us in good shape. This past year our endowment committee was led by Gray Curchin, Chris LaRosa, and Dan Shedivy. Ever faithfully, our counters: Mary Jacobson, Jerry Todd, John Whiteley, Hilary Kennedy, and Anthony Green come every Monday to count the collection plates and make deposits. We had a fabulous stewardship team this year, chaired by Meghan Murphy Gill, and included Karl Anderson, Gray Curchin, Bruce Caris, and myself. I can’t forget Theresa who has knowledge of all these things and keeps us so very well organized. And, this year a Buildings & Grounds Committee came together, as chaired by Mark Farrell and Greg Witt. Faithful stewardship of all resources—including our building—are of tremendous importance here.

SUZI:  Now I know why I am so excited to be here.

ANDREW:  Suzi, its an amazing place, and I couldn’t be happier here.

SUZI:  So Andrew, are you preaching this Sunday?

Epiphany, Sunday January 6, 2019

I speak to you in the name of the living God, the father the son and the holy spirit. Amen. Welcome to Epiphany! The time in the church year where we recognize the light of God born among us… and celebrate the first gentiles, people outside of Judaism, to recognize Christ as the messiah which the prophets of old foretold…and took great risk to visit and proclaim. Epiphany is always 12 days after Christmas, and the old Greek word, epiphania, literally means, “God visits earth.” However, the take that we are perhaps most familiar with is when someone says “they’ve had an epiphany!” You know the moments. Those times when a pathway to somewhere seems possible maybe for the first time. Those times when God seems to break through a wall in our heart and it changes the course of our life. Those moments when we have a break-through on how we can love ourselves or someone else better; those times when there is no way to explain a change of heart, mind, or spirit. These are powerful moments—and they often come after times of prayer, searching, study, or meditation; and the magi in today’s lesson are no exception.

History tells us that these magi were likely not Kings as we know it—but priests in a religion called Zoroastrianism. At the time, Zoroastrianism was a very popular religion—and it is perhaps one of the oldest religions of the world. It is a monotheistic religion common throughout the middle east and parts of Asia, whose God is called Ahura Mazda, or Wise Lord.[1] The God for whom the car company is named.

In her commentary on this matter, Lutheran pastor, Niveen Sarras, talks about these priests. In her work, she has found that these scholar priests, or magi, were known for their ability to make horoscopes, to interpret dreams, and for their ability to use astrology in everyday life. Zoraster, the religion’s prophet, was, like Jesus, said to have been miraculously conceived as well. Zoroaster believed that other virgins would also conceive and that prophets throughout the ages would declare them. “Zoroastrian priests [also] believe[d] that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.[2] And so, when the stars lined up with the religious texts they were reading; and when the stars lined up with the world as they knew it under the fury of Herod, they believed that something miraculous, and worthy of exploration, was about to happen; something that could change the world; and at all costs they made a pilgrimage to the holy child.

In fact, in Bethlehem, stands The Church of the Nativity. This church was built around 330 by Rome’s first Christian Emperor, Constantine, and while much of it was destroyed in 529—parts of the original mosaic tile floor remain. However, in 614, the Persians who were largely Zoroastrian, spared the church in another war because they recognized the magi in the art as looking like them! They recognized the beards and wardrobes in the artwork depicting the magi visiting the Christ, and so it was preserved.[3] Perhaps they had such an epiphany at seeing images of themselves at the nativity of our Lord.

There is a world-renown band leader of Persian descent, who died in 1991, and was a follower of Zoroastrianism. Right now, there is a new film out about his life and music.  Any guesses who this might be?

This is the lead singer of the band, Queen, Freddie Mercury. And in their song, entitled Jesus, he sings these lines.

 And then I saw Him in the crowd; A lot of people had gathered 'round Him;

The beggars shouted, the lepers called Him; The old man said nothing, he just stared about Him.

[Chorus] All going down to see the Lord Jesus; All going down to see the Lord Jesus; All going down

Then came a man before his feet he fell; Unclean, said the leper and rang his bell
Felt the palm of a hand touch his head; Go now, go now, you’re a new man instead. [Chorus]

It all began with the three wise men; Followed a star, took them to Bethlehem
And made it heard throughout the land; Born was a leader of man[4]

These Zoroastrian priests recognized the passages from the prophets and from the psalms that we heard today. They sensed that a light had come—that nations would soon rise to this light—and that this child would grow to defend the needy; that he would have pity on the lowly; that he would redeem our lives from oppression and violence. These magi knew the power that this messiah was to be born with, and the ways in which his birth would change this world forever. And so when they arrived, they knelt and adored him—amidst the Epiphany of their own hearts—they worshiped him. They knew, as Mercury sang, there was Born a Leader of Man.

The epiphany of their hearts—with what they found at the end of their journey—was God.  And the hope that this inspired in them stood in stark contrast to the political world that they were living in with Herod as their king. Herod ruled with a power that destroyed. He ruled with a power that was so harsh and divisive, that the idea of another King—particularly a King of the Jews—threatened him and it threatened all he stood for and the vision he had for a kingdom made unto himself. It was no wonder that he ordered all male babies to be killed. A king who was set up to rule with justice and righteousness; a King who was set up to rule with kindness and mercy—stood in the way of Herod. The magi are the first to convert to a belief in Christ as the foretold savior of the world. They understood the history and prophetic words of ages past, and they saw the hope of the world as his crown. They embodied the idea that all people regardless of their background, could turn to Christ and see him as the hope of the world—the messiah spoken of by the prophets. They were hungry for a world where Herod, or Herod like leaders, would not be in charge.

 Some weeks, when I listen to radio or read headlines on my newsfeeds, I too become full of despair and I wonder what kind of world we live in. I am angry about the ways in which children are victimized by civil and religious people and authorities. I am angry at the economic disparities that force poor and often minority communities, into illegal drug and sex trades because there are no suitable opportunities in the food deserts that have borne them. I am saddened by the ways in which civil discourse in this country has turned from our being able to break bread together—to drawing wide lines in the sand and harming one another. I am sad that we live in a world where a government can be shut down all for the sake of power and short-sighted action.

This week has been especially hard; and I have to believe that many of us experience this slump, the post-Christmas back-to-normal-blues. The magic of the Christmas season has worn off; we go back to our normal routines, many of us on sugar and carbohydrate restrictions and moody as ever; and the despair of loneliness begins to set in. We look for signs in the sky that everything is going to be okay. We remember those seeds of hope, those songs of our faith that we have picked up along this journey, and we walk the path that is laid bare before us, illumined by the star in the night sky—and we walk as best we can. Sometimes we stumble, and the words and hopes of those who love us serve to guide us to the next stop. Sometimes we stumble, and the arms of another lift us up and they remain to walk with us for a stretch of the path and they help us unpack what we have seen, what we know to be true, and what we hope for on this way to God.

Theologian Caroline Lewis says that “If the magi teach us anything about this journey to God in the midst of a chaotic world, they teach us that our witness to living a life that seeks to unite, heal, and redeem, is an act of resistance in itself.[5] These magi “insist that their witness testifies to a truth that will challenge power [and] defy authority because they believe their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany.”[6] The magi believe that an honest walking out of these signs of God, brings us to God, and this kind of journey is at the very center of our faith.[7] The magi inspire us to walk with God, to stand in resistance to the Herod’s around us, even the Herod-like side of ourselves—and walk toward the star whose light is our guide.

You are the beloved, dear ones. May the light of epiphany surround you, captivate you, and draw you in through body, mind and spirit as we resist, and walk this pathway to our God, together, stronger than we were before. And may we recognize the holy moments—the epiphanies—that are waiting on the path. Amen.

[1] Niveen Sarras, Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, referencing the work of: Courtney Roberts, The Star of the Magi: the Mystery That Heralded the Coming of Christ (Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2007), 19.

[2] Niveen Sarras, Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, referencing the work of: Paul Fink, Comparing and Evaluating the Scriptures (Lompoc: Summerland Publishing, 2011), 30.

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/endangered-site-church-of-the-nativity-bethlehem-51647344/#CjQc4S4OXdW27k01.99

[4] https://genius.com/Queen-jesus-lyrics

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271

[6] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271, Caroline Lewis.

[7] Ibid, Lewis

Christmas Eve, 2018

Merry Christmas, everyone! It is a joy to welcome you all to the Inn—a safe place of joy and hope—a place that is yours no matter the journey you are coming off of to be here in this moment tonight. Whether you are here because this is your church home, whether you are here because someone said what a gift it would be if you would come with them; whether you are here because you are home with family and friends and this is the place where you grew up; whether you are new and looking for a church; or whether you are here because this community is your family—welcome, welcome, welcome, and it is a joy to celebrate the birth of our savior with you.

Coming to church today is a choice—just as it is a choice to be with family and friends on Christmas. And like so many things in life, we chose them. However—there are a great many things we do not chose in this life—things that chose us—that just happen. Things that can attempt to divide us, things that can take people away from us, things we must face head on.

In our biblical narrative today, we see a family who ready or not, had no real choice in the matter of their story. The government of the time had a policy of registration and Joseph had no choice but to gather his pregnant fiancé, load up their belongings, and the baby bag in case Mary delivered on their trip, and go.

Can you see it—This vulnerable family of 2.5 making the journey to Joseph’s homeland to be counted in a tax survey. Mary is tired, she is on top of this donkey and the walking pattern is enough to make her both nauseous and uncomfortable. And then there is Joseph. Joseph trusts his fiancé, he trusts the messengers of God who have come to say—be not afraid—and he is contemplating what it will be to raise a baby that is not his own—to marry after having children—to register a family that is not exactly as he had planned even months before. It is hard for them both to not be afraid and they’re doing the best they can.

If their journey together was not already difficult enough and did not already place them in a pretty vulnerable position, I am sure that when Mary’s contractions began, the anxiety became even more pronounced. No one would give them a room—and neither could they quell these labor pains—and so they made do as parents have done for millennia—and they took refuge in a barn, among the animals, and prepared to have this baby. They had no choice.

In this life, we experience many things that we do not have much control over—the diagnoses of a loved one, a lost job, a sudden death—and like a blow to the gut these situations take over and they can paralyze us. And yet—life continues to forge ahead—the world doesn’t stop—we continue to show up and we do the best that we can.

Can you think of something like this in your life?

Christmas offers us a choice—and that choice is to welcome this little baby into the areas of this world—of our life—that feel like a mess. Those places where we feel we have no control, those places where an outcome is grim, those places that have the power to bring us to our knees.

This my beloveds, is the magic of Christmas. It is God coming into our flesh, into our life and into all our situations—the good ones but particularly the messes—and it is our choice to let Him in to be our joy, to be our hope.

When we allow this baby to be born into our darkness, into our vulnerability, we find hope. We find hope in that our hearts become larger, and this light of the world is born into our darkest night.

Choosing to let God be born into our own world, invites us to open our hearts. It invites us to be vulnerable even but for a moment to the light that could pierce our darkness, and it invites us to experience hope. It invites us to embrace the tenderness of a baby—of a God who has joined us in our suffering and in our joys—as one of us.

To live into joy and hope is to step further into our vulnerability—to lay aside the power we have, or do not have, and be in the moment—even in the midst of the pain—even in the midst of Mary’s labor of love—and wait for God’s light to break the darkness. God comes to us at Christmas in the most humble and vulnerable of positions—a baby—susceptible to the problems of this world, to illumine a pathway that invites us to hope.

When we set aside our need to control every bit of this world we share, and we can be present to the Holy One in our midst, we are choosing to open our hearts. We are choosing to put down the world of our making even but for a moment and breath in the holy that surrounds us. To center ourselves in the God who joins us as an infant—even into the chaos of this world. This is our light and our salvation—that we might find him swaddled and laying in a manger—

This new hope is the foundation of a life that rebuilds our hearts. This new hope, this baby, is the enduring strength to our world that when all else seems lost, there God remains, wrapped most humbly and cooing in the manger.

Silent night! holy night! Son of God love's pure light. Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace, the well-loved song goes. It is our choice to let God in, to let down our guard and be at ease, to pick up this baby and be changed by its love—by its radiant beams of his holy face, in the dawn of redeeming grace.

And it is okay to do this, any of it, with some resistance--the faithful can be bored and irritated; the faithful can be grieved and worried. But it is taking these small steps toward this radiant light, toward this baby, that helps us build hope and to see a way out of no way.

This drew in the shepherds, and the wisemen; it certainly drew in Joseph, it drew in pregnant cousin Elizabeth—to behold the radiant child—and it changed all of them—and it can change us, too.

The prophets of old have declared that the one to come will reign with love, that justice will prevail, that rights will be made wrong, that the lowly will be raised high, that oppression will cease, and that abusive power will be toppled—all through the life and death of a baby born in a barn and contained in a feeding trough.

A most humble beginning for the salvation of the world. A most humble beginning for us to grapple with and to behold.

God becoming human invites us to reconsider what we work for in this life. It invites us to consider those things that give us life and sustain us—and lead us on the path of hope. God becoming human and beginning his life in the lowliest and most vulnerable of ways, stands against any idea that the systems of our own making can save us. Jesus being born into a feeding troth reimagines a faith in the God of love who calls us, each of us, to the margins of this world where nativities of hope are coming to fruition all the time, and it is in these nativities we will see our Lord. The steps we take toward this manger, toward this babe wrapped in rags, is the incarnation of hope. It is the journey back to us, back to the beginning of our faith, to the place where God awaits us.

Planting seeds of hope inspire us on this path to God, as much as they enable us to show the love of God to those in our lives. Hope is moot if it isn’t experienced in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds in this world. Hope is our confession, it is our prayer, it is our need, and it is the very feeling our souls long for when the dark nights of this world seem too much for our minds and our hearts to bear.

All these things, the scriptures tell us, Mary pondered in her heart. In this season, love is offered to us through a tender baby laying in a trough, and we are invited to pick it up. We are invited to hold it, to meditate upon it, and pass this hope along knowing that it will never end. Behold the Christ in the manger—and love those who surround your life and carry you in your darkest hour. This mystery changes us, my beloveds, and Christmas invites us to behold this hope, and to ponder it in our hearts.

Merry Christmas, one and all, even in our grief.
Merry Christmas, one and all, even in our doubt.
Merry Christmas, one and all, even as hope begins to take form.

Joy has come, and our hope is refreshed through the act God joining our world—struggles and all—and inviting us to behold him in the manger this and every day. Yes, my beloveds, it is indeed a Merry Christmas.