Steady Hope

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s Spiritual Practice “For the Sake of Old Times” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.

Hi everyone, happy January and happy New Year. I’m Cate, I’m on staff here at Reservoir Church. Look at us! We have made it — to a New Year. We are alive. A daily miracle, and a particular miracle in a year of visible and invisible death. God, how we give thanks that we are here today, together. 


Today is the last day of our Christmas season at Reservoir (Western church calendar “Christmas” ends with the arrival of the Magi, a day called Epiphany, on January 5). We have called our Advent and Christmas season “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room.” In many ways, I can’t think of a better way to enter into a New Year than by preparing our hearts room for Jesus — for all he is, for the ways he longs to be with us — to receive his presence, his nearness, his love, his liberation, his commitment to making the wrong things right. We prepare our hearts room, in a new year — to receive of Jesus.


As we stand here at the brink of a new year, I have wavered between “What is the point of celebrating a new year? Won’t this pandemic winter be more of the hard, harsh same?” and, on the other hand, flickers of what Ivy mentioned, the temptation to put 2020 in the shade.


But I wonder if, like the choir we just heard, like the space we just reflected on, if the praying, prophetic ones we are about to meet, Anna and Simeon, in their watching and waiting, might help us into a better way of welcoming something new, something long-awaited. 


At the tail end of the story of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Luke chapter two, Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to be presented in the temple following the Jewish custom of the day. There the author introduces us to Anna and Simeon who encounter the baby in the temple.


Luke 2:22, 25-32, 36-38

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.


25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,


29 “Lord, 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.”


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,  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 [that Jesus was in the temple] she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child, to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.


Let me pray for us:

Jesus, our consolation, our hope, and long-awaited redemption, we give thanks for your presence birthed anew in us, in our world. We thank you for the way you come near to us, to the very places of our hearts and our lives. We welcome you this new year, as you welcome us. Amen.


anna & simeon: watching and waiting in resistance and hope


Anna and Simeon have been waiting for no small thing. They have been waiting for something big: the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem. Israel was under the occupation of the Roman Empire, and these two in the temple had been waiting, watching, and praying for deliverance. This was a radical hope, a hope of resistance and rebellion from the mighty weight of the oppression of empire. The scripture says that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, and I wonder if where hope is big and at times dangerous, as our bodies and lives push against systems and structures of power and oppression, that we need the strength, the rest, and the sustaining presence of the Spirit with us.


I’m also drawn to Anna and Simeon as elder characters in the story of Jesus’ birth. The text says that Anna is 84, and even though Simeon’s age is not named, much of Christian tradition holds him as an older man too. I’ve been thinking about the quiet hope and steadiness of elders, who have known enough of life to know that sometimes we just keep keeping on, holding on to prayer and hope in a faithful God, in the cycles of the seasons, in the generational work, where nothing is final and we are not alone. 


I’ll say something more about elders here, before we come back to Anna and Simeon. On my mind are the elders for whom pandemic life has been terribly hard: the isolation, the fear, the physical, social, and emotional vulnerability. I have missed the presence of elders in my life this past year, as physical distance has been the safest option, but it has also meant absence. I think of my grandfather’s steady rituals, even as his mind fades, of meals and walks and phone calls and naps. His own waiting for consolation, for redemption, for the long-awaited Jesus. I think of the elders who have weathered these days with strength, carrying what one writer calls “crisis competence,” formed by a lifetime of responding to the social and personal trials of life. And then I think of the chaos I have seen other elders caught in, as their lives have been disrupted and unmoored and their anxiety and desolation have at the surface. I think of just how many elders we have lost in the chaos of COVID, the ones who died alone, the ones who were afraid. I ache for the loss of the older generation to our world, to our nation, and how with a different response they might have been spared.


Let us take a moment to remember our elders, the ones in our midst and the ones we have lost. 


I’ll come back now to Anna and Simeon and a few thoughts about hope, prayer, watching, and waiting. I’ll name a frustration with this passage up front. Anna and Simeon are both idealized characters in their holiness and devotion (the author of Luke loves idealized pairs). Simeon is “righteous and devout,” and Anna has been the model widow who, for decades, has been worshiping in the temple. Okay, okay, these holy ideas are lovely, don’t particularly capture how I experience life. I want to know the grittiness of their lives, their deep joys and their angst. I want to know about the days they didn’t want to go to the temple, or the years and the decades where they wondered if they would ever be free from the oppressions of empire and patriarchy. I want to know about their humanness, and not just their holiness. 


And yet in these two, we see something of what it is to live with long-awaited hope — and hope for something big, like redemption, like salvation. Despite all the odds, they have held a quiet, steady hope. They have been active in their watching and waiting; their prayer is no passive pastime. And then they catch a glimpse of things, of the thing, of the one they have been waiting for. The great Messiah, their liberator, their deliverer. It is not him in his fullness, but it is enough to recognize. The baby, the child, the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things unseen. And yet it is in process — he is only a baby. They are old and will not see what his life will come to. Their hope is touched, and yet it is still in process. 


Anna is called a prophet. I am frustrated too that the text does not let us hear her voice, but I imagine her song of recognition at the sight of Jesus — of the praises she rings and sings to all who hear, of her prophetic witness to the one who has come to make people free. The youngest of our Reservoir community say this about the prophets during Advent in Kids Church: “Prophets are people who come so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important. The prophets point the way to Jesus. They say: Stop. Watch. Pay attention. Something incredible is going to happen.” 


Stop. Watch. Pay attention. Anna has been watching her whole life, and her prophetic gesture is to point to the Messiah who has come.  This tiny Christ Child. In process. A glimpse of her long awaited hope.


watch night, freedom, prayer

Stop. Watch. Pay attention. This spiritual practice of watching is part of the tradition of Watch Night. Watch Night is a prayer service held on New Year’s Eve, where communities gather to remember and give thanks for the year that has happened, and pray, sing, and worship as the new year comes in — to thank God for getting us this far and asking God to carry us still. Its historic roots cross a number of denominations, but it has a particularly potent expression in the Black church in the United States, in its connection to a historic night of watching and waiting.


On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that three months later on January 1, 1863, enslaved people in the rebellion states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” On New Years Eve, the last night of 1862, Black folks — free and enslaved — gathered in churches, homes, and slave quarters, praying and singing, watching and waiting for the Proclamation to go into effect. A Watch Night of looking toward the consolation and redemption of their bodies, their freedom, their lives from the chains and chattel of a racist empire and the oppression of slavery. This Watch Night was a hope of resistance. It was a radical, dangerous hope. The ones who were enslaved were not yet free. There were laws, codes, and restrictions about gathering. Who was watching the door? What courage was it to lean into this hope that maybe, at last, this long awaited, sung for, prayed for, pleaded for hope of freedom might be coming close? What power of the Holy Spirit was needed to hold such a long and mighty hope, that had passed from one generation to the next?


As it goes in this country, the proclamation did not mean immediate freedom for enslaved people. It was contingent on the Union army actually advancing into the rebellion states and enforcing the proclamation. It would be another three years until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery (though even in there, there were exceptions baked in), and it would still be and still is the daily struggle and fight for social, political, economic, health, and housing equality and reparation that continues to be our work this day.


I had an opportunity to join a virtual Watch Night service this New Years Eve, I was struck that the spirals, gradations, and continuums of freedom and hope lure us to a place of prayer. To give thanks for something as big as making it through a year, to hold before God and others the long-held, the long awaited desires of communities and generations — there are some things too big to hold on our own, and in those places, prayer becomes an articulation of our longings, and a place to conspire with God and community for what we can do together. The Rev. Carrington Moore, a pastor at Bethel AME Church in Boston, who will be joining us here on Virch later this month, talks about the way that prayer re-members and re-calls us to God. I am struck that prayer re-members us to the God who makes a way out of no way. I think of Anna’s prayers, Simeon’s prayers, Watch Night prayers through the ages and three nights ago — that these prayers for consolation, for redemption, for liberation, for salvation are a powerful resistance, a powerful hope.


Here at the start of a new year, where it might just be that we are hoping for so much, or wondering how to hold our discouraged hopes: what if prayer is part of our active watching and waiting? Prayer for things to be made new, for long-held hopes that are in process, where we’ve maybe gotten a glimpse or maybe there was no glimpse but there is so much more we long to see. Prayer that, as we heard last week, conspires with God’s imagination and ours. Or prayer that is simple as our breath, a groan, or a word. Mercy. Help. Jesus. Thank You. Prayer that steadies our hopes, steadies our hearts. 


A couple days ago, I remembered that my favorite prayer of 2020 has been lying on the floor. I get on by back and I remember that I held on steady ground, even on my least steady days. In the movement of Christmas I hadn’t laid on my back in a while, and over the last few days, I have been coming back to this place of prayer. It doesn’t even have words — but it is a way to re-member to myself, to God, to the support all around, and to the longings within and around.



I’ll confess, in all this hope talk, there are parts of 2020 I look back on and it seems like any hope I had is under a heaping pile of dirt. So I want to say something to any of you who feel like your hopes may seem buried, dashed, broken, lost in a pile of disappointment, despair or shame. I imagine Jesus’ tenderness in these words from Isaiah 42:3 — A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice. God would you bless all that is hurting, tender, and in need of healing and justice.


I picture, too, those who are carrying hope into this new year, like a tiny shoot coming up from the dirt, or a plant that is growing, or maybe like one that is thriving. I think of the Spirit within us and among us, the gardener of our souls and our world who keeps at the holy work of love, beckoning us into the holy work of tending to the gardens we have chosen, the gardens entrusted to us, the gardens of our communities and the work of generations. Holy One, bless all that is that you and we are conspiring to grow in us, in our world. 


And through it all, I take heart that Jesus is steady in his hope. And where we are steady and where are not, we can lean on his strength and his tenderness in our weakness. Jesus is here to strengthen us, by the Spirit, in our watching and our waiting. That long-awaited baby is our Emmanuel, and he is glad to be with us in all things. 


Let me pray for us… Oh Jesus, we prepare our hearts room to receive your presence, to receive your companioning, to be strengthened in hope by your love, trusting that you will see us through this New Year ahead, come all that will. Amen.




The poet Lucille Clifton writes: 


nothing so certain as justice.

nothing so certain as time.

nothing so patient as truth. 

nothing so faithful as now.


february 11, 1990

for Nelson Mendela and Winnie.


nothing so certain as justice.

nothing so certain as time.

so he would wait seven days, or years

or twenty-seven even, 

firm in his certainty.

nothing so patient as truth. 

nothing so faithful as now.

walk out old chief, old husband, 

enter again your own wife.


–Lucille Clifton

God With Us: Our Partner in Beautiful and Terrible Things

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s spiritual practice “Grief” led by Ivy Anthony, click CLICK HERE.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. 


I love these words by the late author Frederick Buechner. 


Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. 


Today, this Sunday after Christmas, we’ll look at how beautiful and terrible things alike are part of the first Christmas, and all our Christmases, and all our lives. 


We know that in these lives, fear – and the shutting down emotionally that comes with fear, and the paralysis that comes with fear – can be our default reaction to all this. 


But on this Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, I want us to see how the Spirit of God, through the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and its account of beautiful and terrible things surrounding the birth of Jesus, gives us an invitation to a particular way of being with God in the world that is so much stronger, so much more wonderful than our fear. And I want to teach you a way of practicing God with us in beautiful and terrible things, a way of being with God that I’ve recently heard called conspiring prayer. 


Let’s begin with the start of Matthew 2. These opening couple of verses I just decided to read yesterday, so they aren’t on the slides. 


Matthew 2:1-2 (CEB)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

I love the account of the Magi. Sometimes they’re called the three kings, sometimes wise men. But really they’re magi – astronomers, sorcerers, priests in the Zoroastrean religion of ancient Persia. I’ve always been fascinated by them. I like their taste for adventure and travel, their grand gestures of giving, and their sense of wonder.


It’s with the magi in mind that I’ve been doing a bit of star-gazing myself this week, planet-gazing really. I wonder if any of you have too. I’d read that Jupiter and Saturn were going to be closer in the sky than they’ve been in 800 years. And that if the sky wasn’t cloudy, we’d be able to see them, even near city lights. People were even calling this Juptier/Saturn alignment, when they’d be so close they’d almost look like a single star, the Christmas star. A unique celestial event like the Magi saw in their day.


So it’s been my Christmas quest this week to see this. It’s not been easy for me. There’s a short window when this happen at night, and I can easily lose track of time. The sky’s also been cloudy on the Southwest horizon when I remembered to look. And that’s the very spot these planets appear.


So my first couple evenings looking, I couldn’t see them – too many clouds, at least from the hilltop where I live. But I could see Mars. This week, Mars has been this reddish looking dot not far from the moon. And it’s been beautiful to look up, and see the moon 239,000 miles away, but then look just a few degrees away, and see what looks like a red star that’s actually another planet, and know I’m looking at an enormous something that is 80,000,000 miles away. Amazing.  


But then last night, just when I was about to make dinner, I saw a friend post on facebook that you can see the Juptier/Saturn thing, so I ran out – running the ½ mile or so from where I live to this little hilltop lookout spot where you can see clearly to the Southwest. And there it was, the planet of Jupiter, looking like a bright white circular star above the horizon. And if I sort of squinted hard enough, I could also see, just to its right and a little lower, something I was pretty sure was Saturn as well. 


And so there I was, looking at four different planets with my own eyes – the earth on which I stood, Mars up by the moon, and off on the horizon, over 500 million miles away, Jupiter, and just next to it, over a billion miles away, Saturn. 


It was pretty great. I mean, it didn’t launch me on an epic quest like the magi – not yet at least – but it was pretty great. 


Beautiful things will happen. And on some other Christmas, some other year, there’s a whole sermon that stays here – on why we need wonder, what it does for us, how faith in God can grow our capacity for wonder. 


But listen, we’re putting 2020 in the bag this week, and for most of us, this has not been a wonderful year. Beautiful and terrible things have happened. And I think it’s something about the experience of year-end that I find myself continuing to think about them this week. The terrible ones in particular.


So it’s helped me again to remember that this is all part of Christmas too. God invests in our world eyes-wide open to its mess and pain and terror. Let me read for us the end of Matthew chapter two. It’s after the magi have given their gifts and gone home, without reporting on Jesus’ whereabouts to King Herod, who ruled over Judea. 


Matthew 2:16-23 (CEB)

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

18 A voice was heard in Ramah,

    weeping and much grieving.

        Rachel weeping for her children,

            and she did not want to be comforted,

                because they were no more.

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.

Matthew chapter two isn’t really about the magi at all. They’re supporting cast in the scene. The chapter is really about Jesus being born under the reign of a powerful, violent, nationalist ruler named Herod. We think we have problems with transfer of power. Herod didn’t just never transfer power – he murdered his own family members – wife, children – who he saw as threats to his reign. And here, we’re told he is so threatened by a rumor of a baby destined to be a charismatic leader of the people, that he butchers infants in a quest to stamp him out. 


This can’t be what Mary and Joseph expected for the start of their parenthood of the son of God. 


In chapter one of Matthew we read that Joseph, afraid of his fiancee Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, had thought about abandoning her. But he had a dream so powerful that he changed his plans. He dreams that Mary’s baby will save his people, and that this baby will grow up to be known as Immanuel, which means God with us. 


And Joseph and Mary’s first year with Jesus had its wonders. There was this visit from the magi, and their luxurious gifts, the hospitality of strangers and distant relatives in Bethlehem. There were first smiles, first crawls, maybe first steps. Beautiful things happened.


But when Joseph had this dream, and Mary had her own vision of all the promise of this child, all the ways God had favored them, had come to them, I do not think they would have expected to spend Jesus’ first birthday on the run, as refugees in Egypt.


What has happened, they would ask? Where are you, God? What are you doing? And what has become of your promises? 


Have you asked questions like that this year? 


I remember one of the days I was most excited about this fall. I was driving to Philadelphia to pick up our daughter from college. I hadn’t seen her in months, way longer than we’d ever gone not seeing one of our kiddos. And to be honest, I also just hadn’t gone anywhere in months. I crave variety, and I’m not sure if I’d been outside our city’s 128/Rt. 95 perimeter in months either. 


So I was like, this is going to be a great day. Beautiful things are going to happen. 


But as I’m rushing out the door, I get a call on my cell phone from a number I don’t recognize. I pick it up, and the person on the other line identifies themselves as an ICE agent, calling from a detention center. They were calling me to tell me that the newest participant in our congregation was picked up by them and was being processed for deportation.


How could this be, I thought? See, we were part of a team of people that had conspired together to arrange this person’s freedom. Members of a law clinic knew about our church, and with the help of an immigration justice network we’re connected to, and some generous members of our community, and some other folks in people’s social networks, a number of supports were coming together to support the freedom of an asylum seeker among us. 


But as I began my drive to Philadelphia, making and receiving calls the first hour of that trip, I started learning how it looked like all this was falling apart. And obviously, the pain of this story was not primarily mine, but the dear person at its center. But something about it tapped all the disappointment and even moments of despair I’d seen this year, and I found myself swearing at God. This is so terrible.


I don’t know if you’ve seen that video the ad agency Public made with people telling off this horrible year we’ve just had – I’m not showing it here, it’s pretty much all curses – but I was having one of those moments. Forget you, 2020, but with some other ways of saying it. And me being the Jesus-loving person that I am, I was spiritualizing that moment by including God in my fed up, cursing anger too. 


Terrible things happen. For Joseph, Mary, and Jesus too. 


The God with us story begins with Jesus born into a funeral of Rachel’s children. This is a scripture about the great destruction of Jerusalem in 587 AD, and the Jewish people off to exile in Babylon. Poetically, Rachel, one of the people’s founding mother’s weeps for her descendants. It’s a scripture that has been cited in the context of the Shoah, what we often call the Holocaust as well. It’s a weeping of death and calamity. Terrible things are happening.


Jesus will emerge from Matthew 2, and really in the whole gospel of Matthew, as a kind of new Moses – liberator of the people, a great teacher and leader to guide us all – first the Jews, and then all the peoples of the earth – into freedom and life. 


But here, first, there’s a kind of undoing of the Exodus. Fleeing in terror from a tyrannical Pharoah reborn, Jesus heads back into Egypt. Terrible things are happening. 


How is God with them? How is this part of the story of salvation? When terrible things happen with us, how is God with us? And where can we find God? 


Well, how Gow is with us is the same as how God was with Mary and Joseph, and how God is with all of us. It’s the whole way that the Immanuel  God-with-us thing works. 


God is with them in a partnership, in which God is very much present, but which requires our consent and collaboration for God’s good to move forward.


It began even with Mary’s conception. The way the story sometimes is told it’s like God overwhelmed Mary and made her pregnant whether she liked it or not. Which sounds scary – does God just do what God wants, regardless of whether we want it? But no, Mary very much first gives consent. She is not going to bear the Savior, no pregnancy from God until she says, Let it be with me. 


This continues in Jesus’ childhood as well. God is joining humanity for our collective healing and liberation, but God needs our collaboration for the whole thing to move forward. We need to partner with God for God’s hopes to advance.


There’s risk for God too. In investing Godself in an infant child, God is strangely vulnerable as all infants are. 


God woos, God speaks – like when God speaks to Joseph in this second dream, this time prompting Joseph to flee danger with the family. But God needs Joseph and Mary to get moving, or God incarnate, will die before Jesus ever utters a word. God’s plans invite and require our participation if they are to work out. 


The same continues through the life of Jesus, when some people cooperate with Jesus in their own healing and others do not or can not. And when some people welcome and respond to Jesus’ teaching and others do not or can not.


And this continues for us today. 


Beautiful and terrible things will happen. And God will be with us, as an encouraging, healing, inviting presence, that we can pay attention to or not, that we can respond to or not, that we can collaborate and conspire with or not.


Let me tell you how that worked out for me on that trip to Philadelphia, and let me tell you a way you can do this in any beautiful or terrible time in your life as well. 


When we struggle with our faith because of the terrible things that happen, God isn’t angry or offended. God knows what it’s like to be a person and knows how hard it can be. 


In my case, on that day in mid-November, I think God knew I needed encouragement. Because it started to come in buckets. I had a lot of extra time to pick up my daughter, and so I had chance the way down to visit the Palisades – the green space between the Hudson River and the Palisade cliffs in New Jersey, just north of New York City. My grandparents spent time there as kids a century ago, and there I was, walking, exploring, in all that beauty.


And I had time for two conversations on that trip as well. One more of a mentoring conversation with one of you, where we were imagining together God’s paths for your future, how you might come more fully into your calling for good work in the world. And the other was with one of our church Board members, where we were imagining together some long-term planning for the church on how Reservoir as a community might come more fully into our calling for good work in the world. 


Maybe because I was refreshed by all that. Or maybe because I was in the  mode of collaboration with God – remembering that good things happen when we ask God what God is doing among us and how we can participate. But some energy opened up to do that with this ICE situation. I prayed for my new friend. And the thought that came to mind was: I should send an email to the team of people in our church who were supporting them and let them know they were being deported. And then a couple days later, I had the thought: you know, I bet if I just cold call this prison up in Maine where ICE told me they had transferred my friend, and if I introduce myself as a reverend, I bet someone will open up to me with information. And my Jewish colleague in the immigration justice network was like: well, hour housing for this person fell through, but I’ll ask around about other people who might provide temporary housing. 


And I said to God: you know, we’re doing all we can. If more freedom is in the cards here, we need you to do things we can not do. And lo and behold, a couple days later, we hear that ICE is not going to deport our friend, but plans on releasing them again. And while all this is happening, one of you reads my email about this person’s lack of housing and pending deportation and something of God comes awake in you, and you think: we have an extra room where I live. There’s no way we shouldn’t be using that for hospitality right now. It’s Christmas after all: how can we not be open to the vulnerable stranger? 


And so, with the movement and power of the Spirit of God, and with the creative, collaborative conspiring of people seeking to follow God, this little story of healing and freedom moves forward. 


God is always with us, friends, even in terrible things. The question isn’t: are you here, God? Or are you good, God? The question is: what are you doing, God? What good ideas do you have? And how can I participate in them?


Mark Karris calls this conspiring prayer. When we recognize that God answers prayer both through what God does, and also through what God’s creation does with God. So we pray for what we would like God to do. And we let God we are willing to participate in what God wants to do. And we ask God for ideas on how we can participate in what God wants to do. 


Conspiring prayer is more work that just telling God what we want God to do. It take our willingness to participate in what God might want to do. But it engages our heart and mind more, and it’s also more likely to get more results. 


There’s an old cliche that says we should pray like it all depends on God and act like it all depends on us. But I don’t think either of those things are true. When we do what we care about in life, it never all depends on us. And when we pray, it also never only depends on God. God is looking for God’s creation to participate in God’s healing, loving, freedom work among us. 


So we can act like things depend on God and us and others, and we can pray like it depends on God and us and others as well.


That’s what Mary and Joseph did. That’s what Jesus did. And that’s how the work of God with us moves forward as well. 


Let me close with that whole quote from Buechner about the beautiful and terrible things. 


“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it..”

Beautiful and terrible things have happened this past year. In the year to come, I expect more of the same. But here is your life, and here is the world. We wouldn’t be complete without you. Don’t be afraid. God is with you. God loves you. There’s only one catch. God is your partner, and all God’s presence and gifts will only be ours if we reach out and take it.


Let’s pray.

Comfort, For All God’s Favorites

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s spiritual practice led by Trecia Reavis, CLICK HERE.

As I get started, I’m going to light our Advent candles as we welcome Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us to our memories and hearts and worship today. And as we prepare room for the joy, the peace, and the comfort of God with us.

Jesus, our joy, our peace, our comfort, bring us into awareness of your light shining upon us, shining within us. Give us eyes to see that you have shown us what God is like. And give us the power to know that you are with us always, to sustain and comfort us, and to guide us into lives of meaning and purpose and great joy, for all people. Amen.


I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when school year afternoons, and whole summer days were unscheduled, unstructured, unsupervised. As kids, we often met up for games of pickup basketball, whiffleball, kick the can, capture the flag, all kinds of other competitions. There was a lot of fun.


But one of the least comfortable memories of all this was the way these games just about always began. In any group, the older, alpha male boy, and the guy who was the closest thing he had to a rival, would be anointed as captains, lords of our playtime, and they would one by one pick their teams. 


Sometimes they’d choose the strongest first, sometimes the fastest, sometimes the oldest, sometimes their little brother or best friend. In my memories, I was often one of the younger ones. And I wasn’t a really athletic kid, so I was never near the fastest or strongest or best, and so never amongst those favored with the highest choice. 


So as other kids were picked first, I remember looking around my fellow unfavored ones, and sizing up their degree of disfavor, as I’d wait, hoping, just hoping I wouldn’t be chosen last. 


Now this was not the end of the world, of course. Most of us experience being unfavored, left out, inadequate at some point as children. For me, eventually, there were games besides neighborhood sports, and I could find places in my life where I’d feel more successful, more desirable, more favored. 


But I’m aware that these life questions of status and favor can run much deeper and longer. Last week I read Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste. I’d requested it from my library when it came out earlier this year, and it finally got to me last weekend, and I tore through it this week. It’s really good. 


Wilkerson illuminates the history and presence of racial injustice in our country by placing it alongside the genocidal regime of the Nazis, and the ancient caste system of India. All three societies – ours, Nazis, India – were built around strictly reinforced hierarchies of status and favor.


Wilkerson writes: “Through no fault of any individual born to it, a caste system centers the dominant caste as the sun around which all other castes revolve and defines it as the default-setting standard of normalcy, or intellect, or beauty, against which all others are measured, ranking in descending order by their physiological proximity to the dominant caste. 


They are surrounded by images of themselves, from cereal commercials to sitcoms, as deserving, hardworking, and superior in most aspects of American life, and it would be the rare person who would not absorb the constructed centrality of the dominant group.”


Wilkerson writes about the racial apartheid of American history that has favored white Americans and disfavored, disfranchised, and discriminated against Black Americans. 


But our own culture of unequal favor encompasses us all, in all aspects of our identities. 

So, as a little white boy born to English speaking parents in 1970s America, I could turn on any TV channel, any time of day, and find my culture centered, normalized, favored. My wife, a child of immigrants from China, same era, could hunt and hunt to find her culture anywhere in media, and usually it was invisible, except maybe for a racist portrayal of an animated cartoon Chinese dog named – I kid you not – Hong Kong Fuey – who lived in a file cabinet. 


Who among us is seen? Who has good news? Who is favored? 


As we approach Christmas, I want to take a fresh look at a familiar Christmas story. Today, we greet the shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.


And we ask: say God wanted to to be present to us in human form, to resuscitate an ancient royal lineage, and then to expand it to encompass the whole human family in a great big community of good news renewal? With whom would God begin? Who would first welcome God’s comfort? Who would get to tell the story? Who would be God’s favorites? 


And what is that comfort now so many years later for you and me, and our neighbors near and far? What does it mean to us to be God’s favorites? 


Let’s read, from Luke’s second chapter. 


Luke 2:8-20 (CEB)

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

My Saturday morning Bible study was reading this passage last week. We were curious about this city of Bethlehem, the ancient city of the famous King David. And about the parents Mary and Joseph, and what it was like to make an improvised crib for your child out of a feeding trough, a manger. 

One person had a great question about the message this army of angels has for the night-shift shepherds. They praise God in heaven, and then for earth, they say: peace among those whom he favors. Peace, if you remember last week – shalom, salaam, justice, wholeness, wellness – peace among those whom he favors. And she was a little uncomfortable: what does this mean? Does God play favorites? And if so, who are they? Who is included? And who aren’t they? Who is excluded? 

Great questions. 

Now first, there are some translation issues. There’s a reason that different Bibles say somewhat different things here: good will to all people, peace to the ones with whom God is pleased, or as we read today, peace among those God favors. 

The Greek words here that speak to pleasure, delight, and choice have some ambiguity, and even they are translated whatever the shepherds heard and thought in their old Aramaic language, which wasn’t recorded. 

So we don’t know precisely how to state this phrase. But it does beg the question: these beloved ones, these chosen that delight God, these favorites that are comforted with the blessing of God’s peace?

Let’s start with the shepherds. It’s been overstated over the years just how outcast shepherds were in this culture. Still, though, find me a culture where the people who labor with the animals and the land are at the top of the pyramid.  Find me a culture where the night-shift workers are the ones who are favored.

I’ve wondered: where would these shepherds fall on our society’s scale of favor? Are they the underpaid construction workers laboring on the big building project in my neighborhood? Or are they the unemployed union laborers picketing that siame site? I don’t think either really. They’re more like Achut (a-choot) Deng, a Sudanese refugee who made her way to the US some twenty years ago. She got a job in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at a Smithfield pork processing factory, starting wage of $12.85 an hour. By this year, she’d made her way up to a job as supervisor in a division that uses knives to cut the fat off pork loins as they fly by on a conveyor belt. Earning $18 an hour now, she supported nine people: herself, a single mom to four boys, as well as a family of five relatives in Sudan. This year, though, as an essential worker in a company that gave no protections to their employees, she got COVID at work, got very sick, was worried she’d die and leave her children orphaned. She was out of work for weeks, lost a lot of income – first from being sick, then when the plant shut down.

Like the shepherds of the gospel of Luke, I think Achut Deng is acutely clear that she is not among those most highly favored among us. 

And yet, it’s to shepherds that this army of angels appears, however that works. The night sky brightens, and one who has appeared to them says: Don’t’ be afraid. I have a proclamation of good news!

Now listen, these shepherds, just like us, knew a pile of bull when they heard one. They were used to the propaganda of the Roman Empire that would announce their victories and the expansion of their imperial might with proclamations that were called “Gospel – good news” The content of this supposed good news was attached to this empire’s glory of Rome, which offered residents of their empire the pax Romana – the peace of Rome. But since Rome had conquered their region some sixty-five years earlier, established the province of Syria in which they lived, they had begun to be heavily taxed and saw their countrymen kept in line with a hideous form of torture and capital punishment called crucifixion. 

Like a contemporary advertisement – we treat our workers right, as they bring you Smithfiled marinated pork – it’s what’s for dinner! These shepherds would have recognized the empty promises and lies of commercial and political propaganda. 

So what separated this message? Why did they listen? 

I think it was in the details. The big news here isn’t coming out of Rome, but out of a nearby town of significance in their culture, Bethlehem. And this baby to be called “Lord” – well, the only birth announcement of a Lord in this time was if an emperor had a child who would succeed him as Caesar. But Caesar Augustus still lived, and this baby was a Jew like them, one of their own colonized, conquered, low caste people. And the place of this birth wasn’t a palace with a throne, but a tiny two-room village house nearby, with a crib fashioned out of an animal’s feeding trough. 

This message was different. This good news got their attention. 

But maybe it wasn’t just the content of this message, maybe it was that someone was taking the time to bring this message to them.

Maybe they’re comforted, by knowing for the first time in their life, that they are God’s favorites. After all, this good news for all people, came first to them, nightshift, low wage, vulnerable, essential working shepherds. 

Maybe they are God’s favorites, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.

Next, they go to Mary and Joseph – a teen mother and a village carpenter, unwed, as well as unimportant, unknown, unexceptional. Not prominent people, not beautiful people, and – in some tricky circumstances at the moment – what seem to be some very unlucky people. 

But they are at the center of this story, parents to this God-with-us child king. Maybe they are also God’s favorites, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.

There’s a pattern here. As Jesus grows up, and the gospels tell the story, the next messengers of good news are a dozen or so young fish catchers and tax collectors. Maybe they are also God’s favorites, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.


But while these trainees of Jesus are still getting their act together, there are two other messengers of good news sent out by Jesus. These are the first two who effectively spread this new good news, an empowering good news, very different than the extractive, exploitive message of Rome.


One of these messengers is a formerly homeless man, who’d been living in a graveyard. With a complicated mental health history, and years of self-injurious behavior, he’d eked out a life on the edges of society, until Jesus made him his friend and guided him to recovery. This man also appeared to be God’s favorite, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.


The other of these early messengers was a young widow who’d been serially abandoned by men, who’d left her broke and alone. Though she had a natural genius for religion and theology, she wasn’t a teacher or pastor or really known for anything professionally. She was mainly known by her string of failed relationships. Until Jesus engaged her keen spiritual mind and empowered her to teach her whole community. This woman also appeared to be God’s favorite, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness. 


These two are both cultural and economic outsiders, aware of their disrepute and disfavor. The gospel writers don’t even dignify them with names, but Jesus favors them with the power of ambassadorship. 


Here’s the upshot. God’s first favorites in the gospels, all God’s first favorites, are people accounted as nobodies. Low-wage, low-caste, low-status, low rights, low named ordinary people.

The way this world counts and measures you as big or small, high or low, worthy or not – these are not God’s terms. God counts, measures, and favors differently. God starts God’s stories with hidden treasures, worthy beauties unnoticed, undervalued by others. 


Good news of great joy can find all of us, just as all of us can miss it too.


So this Christmas, how do we welcome God’s news of great joy? How do we welcome peace on earth among God’s favorites? How do we favor as God does, and find ourselves with the comfort of being among God’s favorites? 


There’s a social element and a personal element to this. 


Socially, the path to peace on earth comes through learning we are all God’s favorites. 


Practice favoring as God favors. I’ve been stewing on these words for weeks now: Words of affirmation can drive out demons and diseases. Affirm others more. And in situations where you have power or privilege – in your family, in your workplace, in your community: take on God’s dedication to honor and empower those who have been ranked and favored lower by others. 


And when you are intimidated or dismissed in your own eyes or others, hold your head high and walk with the dignity that is yours. I remember a couple years ago preparing for a meeting with one of the most powerful politicians in our state. I was leading a team in this meeting, and knew I’d be sitting across a table of high-skill lawyers and public officials, leading a team of some of the more prominent clergy in our city. And I was so nervous. What was I? And a Muslim friend and brother on the team turned to me and said: Steve, remember what we believe. No one is higher or lower than any other human. We are all the same under God, all in God’s image. 


And that gave me the power I needed, remembering that at some level, we are all God’s favorites. 


And lastly, personally. Endeavor to see and treat yourself as you are seen by God, no higher than any human, no more favored, but also no lower, no less favored. No matter your failings, no matter your age, no matter your education, no matter your ranking in the racist, classist, sexist order of this world, you are seen and loved by God. Ultimately, the path to peace within comes through God’s favor as well – we are loved not because of what we accomplish or how we are valued by others. We are loved because we are. 

Preparing the Way for Wholeness

For this week’s Events and Happenings at Reservoir, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s spiritual practice led by Vernee Wilkerson, click HERE.


As I get started, I’m going to light our Advent candles – last week, we lit the first candle for joy – Jesus, we welcome you, bringer of joy to our world. And today we light the second candle, which for us this year, is the candle of peace – Jesus, we welcome you, maker, restorer, presence of peace.


Last weekend, I hope many of you had a chance to pick up a Christmas present from Reservoir Church to you. Since I had nothing to do with those, I’m really proud of our team for doing that for us all. It was a “while supplies last” kind of thing and they’re gone now, but if you didn’t pick one up, it was sweets and a beautiful Howard Thurman prayer on a card, a candle, flower seeds to hope for spring, a scratch ticket style self-care advent calendar: all totally delightful. Thank you, Reservoir staff team. Totally delightful. 


That whole self-care theme had me thinking about a little experiment I’m running in my life this Advent season.


And here it is: ice cream and a grapefruit.


Which of these would you rather eat today? The grapefruit, or the pint of Ben and Jerry’s? I’m gonna tell you: I’m sure I have eaten way more pints of ice cream in my life than I have grapefruits. Not even close.


Way back when I turned 40, two of you gave me 40 pints of Ben and Jerry’s for my birthday. 40 pints, maybe more. I think the idea was that it was a year’s supply. It lasted me like 2 or 3 months. I love ice cream. I eat a lot of it. 


But you know, I’m not getting younger, and I don’t always sleep quite as well as I used to. And I had some bloodwork done at the doctor the other year, and you know some of those numbers you don’t want to get too high were creeping up a bit.


And I noticed, I eat a lot of ice cream in the evening. Sometimes 1 bowl, two bowls, then maybe another sweet. A lot. And now and then, fine. But as often as I do. Well, I realized I didn’t always feel very great in the evening. And I knew this wasn’t a great way to preserve my health as I age.


So this year, I thought, I’m going to try something for Advent. After dinner every night, I will not eat any ice cream. And instead, I’ll do the same thing every evening. I’ll have a cup of tea, one small chocolate or cookie with that if we have any around. And a grapefruit. 


Why a grapefruit? I don’t know, we had some in our house no one was eating. And I ate one and remembered, I kind of like grapefruit. I mean, not like I like ice cream. It’s a whole different category. But it’s clean, juicy, and I sort of like how long it takes me to peel and eat a grapefruit – honestly, I can eat a pint of ice cream way faster than it takes me to eat a grapefruit, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I could go on.


But this is what I’m doing. And now and then I miss the ice cream, but I find on the whole, I like this experiment in real self-care. In the short run, it doesn’t delight me quite like that pint, but I feel better afterwards. Maybe a lot better sometimes. 


Now obviously I’m not focusing on diets or fat shaming or anything like that. Eat what you want, friends. This is just my story about preparing the way for a little more wellness in my life. 


But for all of us, this whole question about what is or isn’t good for us has me thinking about Advent and Christmas and making room for God with us. 


What do we need from God? What soothes and calms? How do we live in the kindness to ourselves that God has for us in the heart of God? How do we move toward greater peace? And what is peace anyway?


Is peace calmness? Or is it wellness? 


Peace is one of the words of Christmas time. But when the stories talk about peace, we mostly get stuff like this that doesn’t sound very peaceful: 


Luke 1:13-20 (NRSV)

13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”

19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”

Unexpected pregnancy when you’re getting along in age. Rules and regulations that will make your kid God’s messenger but also really weird. Being struck silent for months, because you were unable to imagine God’s wonders. This sounds like a lot of things, but the first word that comes to mind for me would not be “peace.” This is disruption,  


Our Saturday morning community group Bible study was studying this passage the other week, and was great. We were wondering: was Zechariah high on the incense he was sniffing all by himself in that temple? Did that have something to do with this angelic encounter? 


And we were talking about all sorts of other things, like for instance, Mary, we heard last week, had a very similar reaction to stunning news from God. She was like: how can this be? And God was like: Mary, you’re the greatest, here’s how! 


But with Zechariah, the priest, he’s like: God, how can this be? And God is like: you are not going to be able to speak for the better part of nine months, because you doubted me. 


Why the difference? 


We don’t know. Privately, did Mary believe and Zechariah doubt? Maybe.


I kind of don’t think so, though. They’re both surprised, maybe a little bit believing, and a little bit incredulous, just like most of us when it comes to the Christmas story and just about everything else to do with God. We kind of want to believe, but we’re not always sure if we fully do.


How can it be, God?


But Mary, with the very low standing she had in her society, is ready to embrace the world being turned upside down. She prays with gusto and  joy this radical prayer of all the upending that Jesus will bring in his life.


Zechariah, he’s older. He’s a priest, a leader. He’s more established in life. Maybe he doesn’t want the world turned upside down. Maybe, like most of us, the older he gets, the less open he is to change.


For whatever reason, though, Zechariah, a person of significant standing and voice, needs longer to ponder before he can pray his prayer of the great disruption Jesus will bring into the world. His prayer is a lot like Mary’s – God will turn things upside down, deliver God’s people, help them not be so afraid anymore, defeat the enemies, show us all how to find forgiveness, and so forth. 


But then, at the end of that prayer, there it is again, peace.


Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,

    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,

79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness

    and in the shadow of death,

        to guide us on the path of peace.”


Zechariah’s kid John is going to be a special boy, a special man, but he’s just the warm up act. He’s going to prepare the way for God to do something even more special through Jesus, to break out in compassion, like the sun breaks forth at dawn, and to guide us on the path of peace. 


It’s beautiful. But what is this breaking dawn born of God’s compassion? What is this light? It seems to speak of direction from God, maybe even of modelling. These are both means of guidance, of revealing a path that otherwise wasn’t found and walked upon. God isn’t planning on using brute, controlling force to achieve God’s goals in the world. Never has, never will. 


But this direction, this guidance, this picture of where and how to walk that God will provide in Jesus. To what end is this path? What is this path of peace Jesus is to give us all?


Is peace a settled bliss? Is peace an absence of conflict? Or is peace the presence of justice? 


Is peace relief and calmness? Or is peace wellness and wholeness? 


This Hebrew word for peace that underlies the concept in the Bible is shalom. It’s the Hebrew word you wish to one upon a sabbath – shabbat shalom. A peaceful sabbath. It’s the Arabic word, salaam, you wish in greeting. A salaam aleykum. Peace be upon you.


But in both of these examples, as with peace throughout the scriptures and the good news of Jesus, shalom is wholeness and wellness, more than simply stillness or calmness. Shalom is things set right, it is the presence of justice more than merely the absence of conflict.


May your life be made whole again in your day of rest. 


Wholeness, wellness, be upon you, my friends. 


Jesus is like the light breaking at dawn, the one who has guided, who can guide us still away from death, to walk in the paths of wholeness. 


There are a lot of ways to avoid conflict, not all of them whole or healthy, right? But to achieve justice – shalom – takes disruption of injustice. It takes truth telling, it takes undoing, saying no, to some ways of being and doing, and it takes saying yes to new ways of being and doing.


There are a lot of ways to find stillness. You just stop what you’re doing. But to find wholeness, wellness involves seeing the truth about illness. Wellness, wholeness takes negation of what’s causing illness, and it takes words of affirmation to say yes to what will make us whole. 


Getting to wellness and wholeness takes disruption of the way things are. Getting to wellness takes telling the truth about the way things are. It takes removal of poisons that are doing us harm. 


Jesus makes us whole. Love makes us whole. But it doesn’t just happen to us. We partner with God with how we help, with how we welcome, with how we prepare the way.


This was exactly what Zechariah’s boy John grew up to do: to prepare the way for Jesus to lead them into the paths of shalom, wholeness-peace. 


Luke picks up the story when John grows up a bit, saying:


Luke 3:4 (NRSV)

4 This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

A voice crying out in the wilderness:

    Prepare the way for the Lord;

        make his paths straight.

John, for his part, would be a truth teller, a disruptive presence, to encourage people to do justice and make way for a new way of life. This type of peace-making work wasn’t stillness and calm for John; in fact, it got him killed. 


We too live amidst times of disruption. Most of us don’t get to choose idyllic stillness and luxury, counterfeit peace this year, even if we want to. 


What’s left for us is to wrestle with Zechariah, with the possibility of good news, and to listen to his son, John, and prepare the way for Jesus’ paths of wholeness, of shalom peace. 


In his column last week, Michael Gerson – an old speech writer for George Bush, wrote, “The Advent narratives are filled with waiting people: Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, more. They lived in patient expectation and were receptive to the Good News when it arrived. Their hope did not come as the result of a battle. It came like a seed planted in the ground. Like the sun rising in defiance of night. Like a child growing within his mother.


We are not the heroes of the story. Our contribution is to be watchful and open. But hope arrives in awesome humility. God is with us. Jesus is with us. This is everything.

I love that line: we are not the heroes of the story. Our contribution is to be watchful and open. To welcome, to prepare the way.


For me, this year, that whole choosing grapefruit over ice cream is really just the tip of the iceberg in the preparation I’m making for Jesus to birth more wholeness in me. 


Deep wholeness doesn’t grow in us just through what we eat, of course. I shared earlier that getting to wholeness takes disruption. It takes words of negation to what’s ill and words of affirmation for what’s healthy. It takes uncovering, and revealing, and truth telling to get whole. 


For various reasons, this Advent, as part of my morning prayers each day, I’m asking God: what truth do you want me to see about myself? What truths do you want me to see around me? And what truths do you want me to say to others? What words of truth, what words of affirmation do I have to say? 


I’ll close with a little story from a theologian I love and have been reading again this fall, Kosuke Koyama. He’s where I got the 3-mile-per-hour-God bit, if you remember that. He tells this Burmese story about truth, healing, and wholeness.


“A young boy was bitten by a cobra and was taken by his parents to a monk to be cured. The monk said no medicine would work, but he would attempt a cure by an act of truth. He said that in his fifty years as a monk he had been happy only during the first seven following his ordination, and ‘If I am telling the truth, let the poison flow out of this child’s body.” When he uttered these words, the poison flowed from the boy’s head to his chest. Then, the father, saying he would tell a truth, said that he did not like giving to the temple, although he had been doing it all his life. At this, the poison flowed from the boy’s chest to his waist. Then the other said she would tell a truth. She said that she had not been happy with her husband during their entire married life. At this  the poison flowed completely out of the boy’s body.”


The un-concealing of the truth we must face has healing power. 


Sometimes it is words of affirmation that drive out demons and diseases.  Sometimes it is other kinds of truth that make us whole. Either way, the truth does set us free. 


If you find your life disrupted, then good news, friends, you’re ready for Advent. You might just be ready for God, in great compassion, to shine in you with the light of dawn, and to guide you in the paths of peace. 


Let’s pray.

Let it Be Scandalous Joy that We Birth: The Song of Mary

For this week’s Events and Happenings at Reservoir, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s spiritual practice “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room” led by Cate Nelson, click HERE.


Good morning everyone! As always it is a pleasure to be with you today. 

As Cate mentioned we are entering Advent today…this season of waiting and longing (and remembering and dreaming) for the coming of Jesus and all that it meant, and still means for us and the world around us today. Throughout the weeks to come- here at Virch – we will be looking at different characters of the Christmas story – and how they prepared their hearts room for Jesus and what unexpected things were birthed as they did – like joy, hope, peace, and wonder – even in the midst of harsh reality.  And after each sermon we’ll have a short intentional time of reflection – which you’ll be led through –  to let the words and character settle into your own story. Today, I’ll invite us to enter the story of Mary, particularly through her song, called the Magnificat and see what joy we can uncover.


For many of you it might be hard to imagine as we enter this Advent season – that you have any waiting or longing left in you…  For me, every day feels the same kind of hard….and so the waiting and longing for things to change – feels pretty weary-ing.

And yet part of Advent is to in tandem look for the light – and also be acquainted with the darkness.  A seemingly scandalous birth place for joy.


Advent makes space for a different type of waiting – and longing… one that isn’t just empty sameness…but one that asks us to expectantly go to the edges of our same hard days, the same melancholy mood we might wake up with, – and speak out a prayer,  into what might feel like an abyss, “Come! Come, Jesus! Come close to me – be real to me.” You see, Advent is a time of preparing our hearts room to receive – not the vacant echo of our own voice – but to receive, with welcome, what might be birthed in us, when we hear God’s voice echo back. 


We need to prepare our hearts and we need room because the story of Jesus’ birth – is a scandalous story – one that is born out of an imperfect partnership of humanity and the Divine. It’s a big story – born in  “tiny” places – like fields, and a house in Nazareth, in a manger, in the hills…  And a story told by unlikely form – coming through bodies and wombs -blood and sweat, hearts – leaping and singing….Intersecting with curious characters – like lowly shepherds, astrologers, teenagers and… women. 

It’s a story told that …”This baby will be great. The son of the Most High. The son of God,” 


Jesus’ coming disrupts the ordinary, and turns this world upside down, a world that needed and still needs to be changed. 


So much scandalous-ness.  


And yet the real scandal is that:
God came to the edge of God’s own divinity and knocked on our human hearts – and said “May I come in?”

And our vulnerable hearts now are the birthplace of where and how, we & God, continue to change the world.

This is why we take time in Advent – to ’enwomb’ these central elements of our, hope, wonder, peace and comfort .. Because likely they are not rolling off our tongues these days … yet they are the FUEL of all the work we hope to do in our time – and in our culture.

For the work it takes to continue the Christmas story  – that is indeed revolutionary, scandalous and greatly needed – especially in our dark…. same ….days.


I invite you to open your hearts to Mary’s story, and to the wisdom she sings to us ..let me pray.

  • Prayer – Open Unto Me – Remix
    Oh God, the one who comes to open our hearts.

Open unto us this morning.

Open unto us the story of Mary, her song, her love, her power.

Open unto us our story, our song, our love and our power.

And may you unfold the gifts of your presence, your mystery and joy to us today.


My Story: 

As I mentioned it’s been hard for me to really feel much joy or hope these days… But just about a month ago – the day after the election – I had a moment of IMAGINING JOY.  I woke up that morning and promptly checked my phone in bed (intending of course to look for updated results), but my attention was caught by an Ad by National Geographic.  


The ad was for this raft.. But.. tent… thing… that you can use on bodies of water, rivers.

The tagline in the ad said, “This Tent-Raft Mashup Lets You Drift Off to Sleep on the Waves.”

I… truly spent several minutes imagining how much joy this tent-raft could bring to my life. 

How I absolutely could become a “person of the river” – or “river person”,  whatever that entails…(covid safe!)

And just “drift off” as the Ad promised. Drift off, drift off, away – away  – away from reality. A way to bypass the waiting/ longing.

What joy.



Now, if Mother Mary speaks to me today – I’m pretty sure she’s saying something to me about this version of “joy” I was trying to formulate from a river tent. 

*And let me say, before we really get going with mary’s story – that Mary’s voice – and Mary’s invitation to joy should be heard, repeated, remembered and spoken in our churches and in the Christmas story more than they are.

My faith background,in the evangelical tradition – silenced Mary.

As best I can remember Mary’s appearance was only as a mute figure in the yearly Christmas pageant. 

Demure. Submissive. 

A mere vehicle for Jesus. 

And the silencing was intentional because too much direct attention or reverence for Mary would compromise the patriarchal theology I was taught.


But lo and behold, Mary speaks (!) and shares the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.  


Her feminine voice begins the Jesus story.

Which I invite you to follow along with the scripture here from Luke 1, on the slides: *I’ll pause a little bit as we make our way through the whole story, but we’ll enter here – where the angel has appeared to Mary – and we learn a bit about their conversation. 


Luke 1:28, 35-38, 46-55

28 When the angel came to Mary, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

Rejoice! I have a message of “Joy” for you….


ANd then we have a few verses of back and forth with Angel and Mary – where we kind of get the sense that Mary’s top emotion is not immediate joy.


The scripture says that she’s confused at the greeting of this angel? And wondering what the angel is actually saying?

And the angel of course goes on with “angel-like” things to say such as “fear not!”

you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great  –  the Son of the Most High.  He’ll rule forever and ever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”  JOY!


Mary though still is not effervescent with joy – and moves to practical questions like how 

HOW will this happen? – “I haven’t had any sexual relations.” (and then we pick up the scripture on the slides again):

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
Then the angel left her.

So let’s stop here for a minute:

After all of this back and forth between the angel and Mary – Mary trying to take in all of this wild, and scandalous message that’s coming to her, we hear her say this pivotal thing – I think – in this last verse, “Let it be.”  “Let it be with me just as you have said.”  

“Ok – yes.”

“Yes, God.”

“I’m not bubbling with ‘JOY’ right now – but I will “OPEN” unto you nevertheless.”  

You see, Mary’s “let it be”, is the move that opens the door to change everything – This opening – is the crack where God implants God’s self .  God’s divinity and LOVE takes up residence in our human hearts – and births something new (perhaps joy)…. Mysteriously..Unexplainably… miraculously – within us.  EVEN AS WE STAND IN places/a reality that we are all done with – that we have no patience for anymore. Where we feel no joy. 


Mary’s reality is somewhat akin to our reality too, – hers is not a blissful, copacetic existence. She is disadvantaged in a world that would neither notice nor protect her.  Women and babies – were definitely not at the top of the societal power structure.

She lived in  the time of Herod the Great – full  of terror – “innocents were being killed”.  A census was devised to document the undocumented for governemtal control .. and there were burdensome taxes that cost the poor their land – and left the masses impoverished.
People were hungry, shelter was scarce and people lived in fear for their lives and their children’s lives. 

Mary’s setting is not a roadmap to quick joy.

But it is a birthplace of what I would call, “scandalous joy” … 


TENT – Part 2:

It’s probably pretty obvious – but the tentraft I pined for … isn’t particularly designed to take on much, if any of the forces of nature (like rapids or waterfalls – or currents). In fact as I read reviewers comments, that was the primary critique. Reviews ranged from, “Oh yay, now I can peacefully drown while I’m in bed.” TO “bravo! Everyday people invent a new way to die”, or “ If you go to bed at the right part of the river, the plummet over the waterfall can be Nature’s alarm clock”, and on – and – on. 


So basically this raft-tent is good for sitting on a stagnant small pond, barely moving. Infact the given name of this tent is “Shoal Tent” – shoal means shallow, or of little depth.


My fantasy of finding joy – removed from the rapids of life, zipped up in my own bubble – creates a shallow external joy….. Not this deep joy – like Mary’s that is birthed within her, that becomes a source of strength and the fuel of resilience and of change – CHANGE that she inspires – and spearheads… that she delivers to the world around her…AND not by violence or by weapon – but by song.

Mary after receiving the message of the angel – goes and visits her older cousin, Elizabeth who is also miraculously expecting a child, after decades of barrenness.  And Mary starts to sing, as she and Elizabeth share … and here’s her song:

(and we’ll pick up the scripture on the slides here:)


46 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored

because the mighty one has done great things for me.

Holy is his name.

50 He shows mercy to everyone,

        from one generation to the next,

        who honors him as God.


The beginning of this song –  is a song for all of us… and especially for those who like Mary – are discounted by society, pushed to the edges,  invisible …It’s a song  for when we think God has forgotten just how long we’ve been waiting and longing! It’s a song that invites us to join in the ancient chorus – that God’s promise is to be with us forever, that God loves us forever, that God will never leave, or forsake us. 


This song was birthed long before Mary – sung by Deborah, Miriam, Hannah who sang of their own struggles and God’s love – a song breathed into Mary’s DNA 

She says, and in those depths – ‘the depths of who I am…that’s where the joy is…. I rejoice in God my savior.”
I say, “let it be” – and I open unto the love and long-standing favor of God. 


JOY is the gift of knowing God’s deep LOVE.

ANd from here …from the foundation of love and joy – that Mary gets in touch with – Mary’s “power and willingness to disrupt, intervene and invert the world”….takes off, we hear this as her song continues:

(we’ll pick up this last bit of scripture on the slides:)


51 He has shown strength with his arm.

      He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

52  He has pulled the powerful – taken princes – down from their thrones

        and lifted up the lowly.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,

        remembering his mercy,

55     just as he promised to our ancestors,

        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”



This is not a soft, dreamy, understated Mary song.  This is a revolutionary, a wild, vehement protest song! IT is in direct contrast to the Empire and powers of the day.. And it is laying out Jesus’ kingdom and ministry to come.

Priest Barbara Brown Taylor says, this “was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time—not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. She says, prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it.”


And some days this is all we can do, to keep trying to see the world as God sees it – even if our reality defies it at every turn. Even if the powerful are still on their thrones, and have their hands full of riches – and even as the poor and powerless are still in the trenches – hungry and suffering.  Some days all we have is the mystery and promises of God’s love and presence – that reside deep within us…


We might not have the vaccine we all wish for yet, or the return to hugs, or the justice we want to see rise up in our structures and institutions… 


Mary too, doesn’t have the things that would make this an easier go of it for her….Barbara Taylor says, “she doesn’t have a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, “The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.” (Priest Barbara Brown Taylor) All she has is her scandalous willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next—and this apparently, is enough to birth joy and to make her burst into song.” – and to give her wisdom and focus on where it is her work will be to come.

She does not wait to see how things will turn out first, she prepares her heart room for God no matter what the outcome.. and she doesn’t jump onto a raft in the Jordan River and drift away- she remains actively engaged and grounded in her reality.



Mary’s song – has been controversial throughout time. It has enlivened prophetic imaginations, beyond the walls of the church, into the real lives of people…..and it also has threatened and enraged the powerful elite. 

During British colonial rule of India, Mary’s song was banned.  The British East India company prohibited this song as part of any church liturgy.  Finally when British rule was over, Gandhi asked that the Magnificat be recited at each site where English flags came down.


In Argentina, in the 1970’s the mothers of people who disappeared organized protests at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with the Magnificat written on their protest signs.  


The military junta in response ….banned the Magnificat.


In the 1980’s when hundreds of thousands of citizens were disappearing in Guatemala, the government banned Mary’s song –  9 verses from the Bible –  because it was considered politically dangerous, subversive, revolutionary.   


Oscar Romero, a martyr, priest and saint –  whose ministry was distinguished by his particular attention to the most poor and marginalized – prayed Mary’s song every day of his priestly life.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and one who fought against and yet was executed by the Nazi’s – called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.” 


And white evangelicals have devalued the role of Mary, her song, her voice, her message (her gender) – to the point that she’s nearly been erased.


You see – those who impale others as a way of shirring up their authority and power – are threatened by those,  (like Mary), who enwomb the treasures of faith –  hope, wonder, peace – because they can not be conquered, claimed or secured by might….. but if given room, in a heart that has been prepared and opened, by voices and song, and history and the promises of God, our hearts will prove to make way for the scandalous story of a tiny baby to rule and overturn the world by love. 


Mary teaches this tiny baby Jesus – about God.  And I imagine Mary doing this in part, through her song. Jesus first heard this song in the womb, his ear already tuning to this melody.. And maybe it was the song sung throughout their home while Jesus, as a toddler, scurried under Mary’s foot …perhaps it was the lullaby she sang to him each night … and maybe this song, was the clarion call that Mary sang through the streets when Jesus went missing for 3 days in the temple.   . . Maybe it was the song that inspired his first words of his public ministry to be,

The Spirit of the Lord  has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed”, (Luke 4:18-19). 

Maybe it was the ravaged, sobbing song he heard his mom sing – or the one he hummed himself – as he died on the cross… It is a song he heard again and again throughout his life.


Mother Mary’s song continues to be sung to us this Advent, and beyond. It is a daily song that we get to make our own. With old lyrics and with new lyrics ….of our longings, our protests, and our bodies.  Advent prepares our heart room for a revolutionary Christmas Story that is to be delivered to the world, by us – one that is meant to shake this world free of violence and injustice – and to also shake our faith down to the central, ancient promise of God’s love … that births unexpected gifts in us, like joy and song.


I stand in solidarity with Mary today – with her longing for a new and just re-ordering of society – and I pray with her “let it be, God” – “COME, open unto me”.  For to follow in Mary’s footsteps is to be a mother of God ourselves. 



Meister Eckhart, a mystic and theologian said that,

“We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself.  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to a Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? (Meditation with Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, 74, 81.)


Today in our time and in our culture, we get to birth the disrupting, upending, reckless love of God into this world. … and this is deep, scandalous joy. 


So may we repeat, 

And repeat, and repeat,

This sounding joy.


Let me pray for us: 

“Mother God, come close to us now. Keep singing to us. Show us how to love. Show us how to wait, to long, to push, to deliver you into this world.” Amen.



Singing Ahead of Time, by Barbara Brown Taylor