Two Religious Words Worth Saving: Covenant and Sacrament

So in many ways the project of Reservoir Church – or at least the preaching of Reservoir – is to communicate profound spiritual perspective and truth and stories in practical language that’s at home in our culture. We used to have a little marketing tagline – Practical. Spiritual. Fun. And we used to belong to a group of churches in this country that liked to use the phrase “naturally supernatural.” Connected to the divine, experiencing God and transcendence and the mystical and all that without being freakishly out of this world or something. This church makes a promise to our members and our community to be resolutely Jesus-centered and spiritually vibrant in ways that are really accessible to our not very churchgoing, not very religious city. And this means a lot of things, including not using super-preachy, old school religious language in our teaching. Even for those of us like me that have been churchgoers now for decades, this has been fresh and helpful. And we plan on keeping up with this habit.

The thing is, though, to be spiritual, to try to connect more and more with an unseen God is these days a little weird. And to talk about that experience sometimes requires ideas and words we don’t use a lot anymore. The journalist Jonathan Merritt published a book about this a couple of years ago. It’s called Learning to Speak God from Scratch. It’s about how a lot of religious language in the Christian tradition has become out of date or even kind of toxic. So a word like “gospel” is kind of unknown culturally and other words like “sin” are laden with a lot of distracting and frankly off-putting associations. And Merritt wonders, like I do, what words need keeping and what ideas can find expression in new words. Another author I like, sadly dead now, tried this out a bit. His name was Frederick Beuchner, and in the 70s, he wrote a book where he muses on important, old words to do with God and the spiritual life. He wrote: “All the great religious words point to ways in which we variously experience the Holy – such as faith and grace – or hold it at arms’ length – such as sin. These words … have grown musty and shopworn over the centuries, but the experiences to which they point are as basic to the human condition as they ever were.”

I like that. And in that spirit, I want today to end our Christmas season talking about an experience that is basic to the human condition – how we find and remain in a sense of God in the world, a sense of God with us. And to help us out today, I’m going to do that by talking about two very religious words in our tradition that we don’t use a lot these days. Those words being “covenant” and “sacrament.” 

Next week we’ll go back to normal, using our everyday language to get at deep and important things. I’ll start a winter series where we’ll look at six of the not so great stories we use to organize our lives and world and thinking and with each, ask how Jesus’ story of reconciliation and liberation can be really good news. But today, we’ll look at these two old-school religious words that I think are worth saving. 

We’ll be in the beginning and end of the New Testament’s first book, the good news of Jesus according to Matthew. And these two words – covenant and sacrament – help us understand some of what’s going on in this little book, and some of how it can help us connect with and experience a living God. 

Matthew starts with a family history, a genealogy. Which is pretty boring for most of us, except when it isn’t, like here. It starts:

Matthew 1:1, 5-6  (CEB)

1 A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:

And then in the middle of the list, there’s this really important and surprising bit:

5 Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.

Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.

Obed was the father of Jesse.

6 Jesse was the father of David the king.

David was the father of Solomon,

whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.

So Matthew is positioning Jesus as the peak of ancient Judaism, the culmination of that culture and that faith’s story to that point in time. There was Abraham and then David and then Jesus. And just as he’s getting to the really important part in the family history – the part around the great king David – these three women are mentioned: Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (here not mentioned by name but called the ex-wife of Uriah.) Lots that’s interesting here. All three of these women are to some degree associated with questionable sexual behavior – by them, or more likely, by men with them. And in a culture that associated questionable sexual history – particularly women’s questionable sexual history – with shame or disgrace, Matthew centering these women is really radical stuff. No matter what your parents say, no matter what your culture says, there is nothing in any of your lives, or in any of your pasts, that disqualifies you from a big and beautiful part in God’s story. 

But it’s not just that. More to our point today, in the middle of this very male, very Jewish family history, these three women aren’t just men, they also aren’t Jewish. They’re all outsiders. 

It’s like Matthew is committed to telling this family history, but he can’t help but start hinting from the very beginning that the story is bigger than this family. To use one of our big words of the day, Jesus is the center of a particular covenant, which I’ll define more in a minute, but at the same time, there’s also a bigger covenant going on. 

This continues in the next chapter when we meet the Magi, who we usually call the three wise men, even though in Matthew, they’re not called wise or men, and there may have been more than three. Whatever. 

In the traditional church calendar, this Sunday is called Epiphany – the revelation of God in Christ to the Gentiles. In many Latino cultures, it’s Three Kings Day. And we’re encouraged to remember the story of these Magi, these Persian astrologers who visit the baby or toddler Jesus and bring gifts. One little excerpt from that bit:

Matthew 2:1-2,10-11  (CEB)

2 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.”

10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Same thing going on here. It’s a story about the king of the Jews. And yet these non-Jews are here to celebrate and worship. The Magi aren’t just outsiders to this story, you could argue they represent enemies. Then and in our context, now. They’re Persian – that’s modern day Iran and the border areas of Iraq and Iran. This is a region which for decades in American politics and it looks like now for decades more to come has been defined by our hostility to them, and them to us. In the Jesus story, though, it’s a region defined by friendship, by shared humanity. Please keep that in your minds and prayers. 

In the Bible’s backstory, there’s a mixed record. On the one hand, a Persian king had given Jews blessing to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. It’s a story of religious tolerance, religious pluralism in the Bible. But Magi in particular are kind of reminiscent of these characters in the Bible’s book of Daniel – the Persian court magicians and bureaucrats who were hostile to the Jewish heroes of the story. 

But here the Magi come to worship, to be part of the story of Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews, as they call him. 

Here’s what I see going on? 

Matthew celebrates what he sees as a covenant between God and the Jewish people. But other people are getting in on the story, because it’s actually a covenant between God and all people, in disguise. 

What’s this word covenant I keep using?

A covenant is like a contract, but deeper and less legal, more personal. A promise is made, and the other party welcomes it or not, doesn’t really negotiate it. If you hear this word still, it might be in contract law. A landlord promises to make repairs – this might be called a covenant the landlord makes. More commonly, though, you hear this at a wedding. I officiated a wedding most recently last month. It was a Christmas wedding, in all the ways. Lots of red, a big Christmas tree behind us, the newly wed couple being taken away in a sleigh. Really fun.

And the old school word we used in the ceremony to describe what was happening was covenant. A set of promises were being made by each person to the other. They weren’t negotiating the terms. They were promising love and faithfulness, no matter what. Making a covenant. 

And I think that to experience and connect with God in the world, it helps to consider the covenant we might be part of. 

The story in the Bible begins with God in covenant to all people. God makes a good earth for us, with more than enough for everyone. God makes this world with more than enough food, with people to be in relationship with. God makes a world that has room for good, hard, satisfying work, and for delightful, restorative rest. There’s this sense that people are made for relationship and for work and for rest and for worship, and this earth has everything we need for all of this. God says the earth will do what it’s supposed to. God makes people — all people — in God’s image. 

And God says, you’re part of the deal, your responsibility in this covenant is to live as if you’re all made in God’s image. Love and honor the God you look like. Treat each other well – don’t hurt each other. And take care of this earth. Cultivate it, fill it up. Enjoy it and treat the earth well too. 

The Bible says that’s the covenant we’re all under. All people. We’re all children of this promise, this relationship, this covenant. And to be honest, this is the covenant that’s sort of most important to us. It’s the first one. That we’re all part of one human family. We’re all related. Prisoners, free. Iranians, Americans. Documented, not. Straight, gay, other. Professor, custodian, CEO, security guard. Or as the Bible puts it – Jew, Gentile, man, woman, slave, free. There’s no less valuable person, or class of people. And good work, good relationships, good rest, good worship is everyone’s birthright. There’s a lifetime to keep finding all this. And the earth is ours to cultivate and fill, but also to take care of – a message our generation better take seriously. 

These are God’s promises and responsibilities for all of us in the human family.

But then in Matthew, and in the whole New Testament, there’s a particular covenant we can be part of as well. It’s what Jesus calls the new covenant, in which the human family is invited into a particular relationship with God and with one another, a relationship that is mediated, that is brought together through Jesus Christ. 

This covenant, this promise from God, is more particular than the covenant with the whole human family. In this new covenant, we’re promised much by God. We’re promised the unconditional acceptance Jesus offered people. We’re promised the forgiveness that Jesus announced to people – our worst qualities and worst actions not defining us, not disqualifying us. We’re promised the personal presence of God with us – in all times, in all places. We’re promised that the life and vitality of God will become part of us, in this life and for new life beyond our deaths. And in all this kindness, all this grace, we’re asked to shape our lives according to the teaching and life of Jesus – radical non-violence, radical love and inclusion, radical trust in God, radical hospitality and peace and generosity. 

I mentioned that God’s covenant with the whole human family is in some ways the most important thing we teach and practice at Reservoir. But I rather like this particular covenant with God in Christ. It’s been good news to me, and it’s at the heart of who we are and what we teach here too. 

I was explaining the other day to a friend of mine. 

I worked out all last year at a tiny little gym, where you spend a lot of time on these rowing machines. A guy that went to my high school owns the place, and it’s that connection – and how I appreciate so much of what he’s about – that was why I was working out there.

And one day last month, it was just the two of us, and knowing I was involved with this church as a pastor, my friend asked me more about this place, which got us talking about what we think about faith and religion.

And we were talking about people like my friend that don’t really practice any particular faith tradition, but just try to live well and to cultivate a respect for all human diversity.

And my friend was like: you could do worse than that, couldn’t you? And I was like absolutely. This is that big covenant with God and the whole human family I was talking about. And we should always respect people and communities trying to live well by that covenant. 

But I told him, yeah, that would be good enough for me, but I love Jesus too much. The teaching and practice of Jesus has reshaped my life. It’s made me a bigger hearted and better and happier person. So I pastor a church that’s not just about God or the good life in general but about Jesus in particular. 

And he asked, where did that start for you? 

And I’m pulling on the erg in my workout, going harder and harder, and so I’m breathing heavier and thinking: where do I start this story? 

Because I’m thinking about the church my parents were going to that I skipped to watch TV and drink sodas with my nana and popop, but where a pastor led a class for high school kids and convinced me smart people could believe in God. 

And I’m thinking about the story I told you all a few weeks ago when I did this horrible thing to a friend of mine, and my friend called me out on it, but with this crazy acceptance and forgiveness I was not expecting, and how I knew that’s what Jesus was like and that’s the kind of God I wanted to know, and that’s the kind of person I wanted to be. 

Then I’m thinking about this hoaky, older couple that taught a middle school Sunday school class my parents made me go to for a while. And how I didn’t like the other kids, and I thought the songs they sang were horribly corny. But I remembered them saying every week that if you invite Jesus into your life, Jesus will always accept you and always love you and always be with you.

I was terribly lonely as a young teenager, and ashamed of myself a lot of the time. And I was broken up inside, and I was thinking about how if God wanted to love me and like me and be with me, that seemed like really, really good news.

All of this was important enough to me that I asked to be baptized when my church was offering it. I stood in front of the whole church on a Sunday morning during worship, a pastor poured water over my head, and I said I welcome this washing, and I welcome this presence of Jesus with me by the Holy Spirit being poured over and into me like this water. And I welcome a life in this covenant God has with people in Jesus. 

And I’m thinking about how I didn’t really know what to do next, but I was told that I could read the Bible and pray every day and that would help me follow Jesus. And so every night before I went to bed, I listened to the high five at 9 on the pop station on the radio – the top five songs of the day. And around 9:30 or so, when that was over, I’d read a chapter or two of the Bible and say a few things to God. And that was kind of confusing, but pretty interesting too. 

And I’m thinking about this one night in room, after I’d watched the third Indiana Jones movie that came out when I was a teenager. And there was this scene where the agnostic Indiana Jones has to make a literal leap of faith across this canyon, and he remembers his devout, God-loving father’s words about walking by faith, not by sight, and he closes his eyes, and trusts God, and then things are miraculously OK. And something about that scene got to me, and I wanted to live that way – less afraid, more trusting – and so one night in my prayer time, I stood up and closed my eyes and started walking across the room, telling God I wanted to learn to trust God in everything. And I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but it felt like something important was happening. Like I was making an important promise to God, and it seemed kind of intense, and it seemed like God was with me, and was always going to be with me, and that was going to matter. 

I know I didn’t tell my friend all these things because I was rowing and out of breath, and there wasn’t time, but I told him a little bit of this. And I said, sorry, it’s weird and it probably sounds corny.

And he was like: don’t worry about it. You’re talking to someone who sold all his possessions to start a rowing gym. That’s pretty corny. Corny and weird I can appreciate. 

That felt good to hear. I guess most of the things in life that are really big and important, that involve our whole selves, that are whole-hearted – most of those things  have something weird, something corny about them. 

I guess what all that story of my teenage years adds up to for me, though, is that I found my way into not just a general approach to being a more spiritual person and living a better life – part of the whole human family. Which would’ve been great.

But I found myself into a more particular version of that, into the family of Christ, into the new covenant, God’s connection with people in and through Jesus Christ. All the particulars of that are what spoke to me, and what speak to me still. 

More and more, Jesus seems to me the wisest and most beautiful and most compelling person who ever lived, a person I want to know and want to be like. 

And more and more, Jesus shows to me a more beautiful and more compelling picture of God than anything I hear about or can imagine, and that’s one that seems to draw something out of me, seems to keep tugging at me. 

This is kind of what it means to be part of a covenant community with God in Christ – it’s a really beautiful thing.

And the way we find our way into that covenant, and the way we keep it going, that it stays potent and fresh for us is through something called sacrament. Sacrament us our second word of the day. 

A sacrament is a sign or symbol that points us to something sacred. It’s an embodied, physical experience that speaks to something profoundly spiritual. A visible form of an invisible spiritual experience. An outward sign of an inward grace. 

Sacraments are part of the way in to a covenantal life with God, and they are part of the way to keep going in that life as well. 

Some people say there are seven sacraments, other people just two, other people say these two, or these seven are just the beginnings of experiencing all of our physical life as sacrament. 

But everyone agrees on the first two. Baptism as an experience where water is poured on you or where you’re immersed in water, as a sign of union with Jesus, and the pouring out of God’s love and presence into you. And communion – the little meal of bread and wine that represents Jesus’ body and blood, and is an opportunity to come to God as we are and be filled with God as God is. 

Both of these sacraments are important in Matthew. Jesus announces the new covenant during the communion meal before his death, and when he’s saying goodbye to his closest students, he commissions them to help others be part of the Jesus covenant, and to baptize them as a way of welcoming them in.

Matthew 28:18-20  (CEB)

18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

Teach other people to be my students, Jesus says. Baptize them into this covenant God has for them. Teach them to do what I’ve said. And I’ll always be with y’all. 

The baptism is a central way, maybe the central way that people from the human family will join into this particular covenant family God has in Christ. 

That was true for me. Baptism was part of that season where I got started with Jesus – intrigued by Jesus, wanting to be like Jesus, thinking Jesus showed me who God is, trying to learn to do what Jesus says and see how good that could be. The pouring of the waters on me, the profession of faith I made was part of how I became part of this community of promise. 

But it didn’t end there. Things like baptism and communion pointed me to other ways to see and experience the invisible Christ in the world as well. I saw the invisible Jesus in the face of my friend’s love and grief and forgiveness. I saw Jesus in the pages of my Bible as I read the gospels and the letters that talk about Jesus. I started to hear and see and feel things that seemed like Jesus all over the place, and even inside myself. 

Holiness, presence of God, images of Jesus Christ everywhere. The whole world becoming sign and symbol that points to the sacred. Spiritual experience, outward signs of invisible grace all over the place. 

So we can look back and see the prostitute Rahab – great, great, great, great grandmother of Jesus made sacrament when she welcomed the Hebrew spies into her home and her homeland. The Magi made sacrament when they gave their gifts to Jesus, who never treasured money or wealth, but saw these kind of gifts when he grew up as marks of people’s beautiful faith – outward signs of inward works of God. Holy and beautiful gestures everywhere. 

I’m saying a whole bunch of things in this sermon, so let me make just a few of them specific. 

One is to look for:

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Covenant and sacrament – sacred promises and sacred symbols: honor them wherever you find them, and watch life grow deeper. 

Notice ordinary things that move you, that evoke something holy like God’s presence. Notice the people and places and practices that stir that in you. Notice, honor covenants – generous promises made in good faith. And keep them, honor them. 

One that’s not in the program is be aware that God has extended to all of us this amazing opportunity to be part of a covenant in Christ – to know God in and through the person of Jesus, and be part of all the amazing stuff that comes with that. And if that’s for you, treasure this community that is your covenant community home. Give yourself to it. And give yourself to the faith. Learn to do all the things that Jesus says. Say I will follow Jesus whole-heartedly this year.

But know that’s also not God’s only covenant. Respect all your friends and neighbors – near and far – that aren’t part of the Christ-centered covenant but are part of God’s covenantal family of all people. Respect friends and neighbors who are part of other religious traditions. Honor their dignity and their faith and their rights. Respect, pray for, love your Iranian cousins in the family of God who you have never met, the whole human family.

And one more thing:

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Take communion and remember your baptism each week. Let a pastor know if you haven’t been baptized and would like to consider it. 

Communion is this amazing weekly opportunity to remember your connection to Jesus Christ – God’s love poured out to you in Jesus and your part of the family learning to follow Jesus. 

And we’ll be offering baptisms this spring likely just after Easter – to both children and adults. More info to come on that this winter, but it’s never too soon to late a one of us know you’re interested. 

The Legend of Mary

Kids say the darndest things. My first Christmas as a youth pastor, I had a kid say in our group time, “You know Christmas was stolen from a pagan holiday.” As they do. And there it unraveled the myths of christmas and our Bible study debunked in the face of good education and intelligent self thinking kids.

Turns out, she was right. Jesus’ birthday, known as Christmas, on December 25th is not in the Bible. Turns out, there has been celebration of hope and light in the midst of the darkest of winter solstice, in various cultures and time in history before Jesus, where they cut evergreen trees and bring it inside or have big extravagant parties to celebrate the sun god. These stories, these histories, these myths – what are we to do with them? And in light of them, then, what is the significance of the Christmas story? How do we unpack the religiosity and the politics that wrap the story of the birth of Jesus by co-opting other traditions with their power? If Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, what are we even celebrating? Are these all just lies? 

That’s what my youth group kids were alluding to when they asserted their knowledge. And my kids, oh they loved seeing me try to make sense of it and do cartwheels around their smarts. And I didn’t want just smooth over them. I wanted to engage them. It’s not like I could only tell the Christian tradition and not expect them to be challenged with other traditions. In fact, in a pluralistic world as today, we can’t be ignorantly covering our ears and belly gazing our own well known story of Jesus. It is, and it must be comparable with the respect and dignity of other traditions. It should be investigated and humbly engaged with BOTH the miraculousness and as some would claim the ridiculousness of the story. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a church, it would be a cult, where questions or critical thinking are not welcome. The Christmas story also must come to terms with the colonized history that retells the story, knowing that the story does not come to us in a vacuum. It comes within the confines of certain theologies. Certain worldviews. Certain perspectives. Stories come in containers. You’ve heard “medium is the message.” And if we know that, we must be sophisticated enough to pull apart the medium from the message. 

Why bother? Why bother thinking about the context of the biblical writers? The Bible says it, so I believe it? Why bother considering the cultural context of the tradition that’s been passed down to us? Because I believe that the message behind the medium, is at core, the message of Good News. A message of promise. What is the promise? I’ll get to that in a few minutes. 

Here’s what I mean. 

One of my favorite movies is “Big Fish.” It’s a Tim Burton film with Ewan McGregor. It’s a telling of the story of the father’s life, but in a fantastical beautiful exaggerated way, as it says, “the way he told me”. The movie is definitely a very much like a fairy tale with witches, giants, siamese twins and all. The son, Will decides to try to get to the truth of the stories, traveling back to their hometown. Now, Will’s disappointment in his father and frustration of having been lied to about the details of his life, takes the backseat when he realizes the beauty and the actual capturing of its grandeur of the “truth” behind the story. Sorry for the spoiler. It’s still worth checking out if you haven’t seen it, as Tim Burton does capture it magically. In fact, isn’t it sometimes that poetry is closer to truth than facts. Fiction brings about real human experiences alive and makes us enter the story and feel, embody, with empathy through our imagination. Myths include more meat than mere historical accounts. Well, I mean even historical accounts are…. Well, just an account. 

Theologian Frederick Buechner in his book called Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, says, “The preaching of the Gospel is a telling of the truth or the putting of a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth in the sense of fullness, of the way things are, can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry–of metaphor, image, symbol–as it is used in the prophets of the Old Testament and elsewhere.” Let’s let the silence of truth ring as we take a look at the image of Mary today.

The Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, we have only 2 accounts of it in the Bible, Matthew and Luke. Mark, he actually doesn’t even mention it. The book of Mark starts instead with the baptism of Jesus. Which is interesting point about what baptism is, the moment in which God claimed Jesus through a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” a very particular set of words, a formulaic words of the ceremony of adoption from that time and culture actually. But I digress. So, Matthew has the birth story, more from the angle of Joseph and Luke more from the perspective of Mary. Here at Reservoir, we’ve been in the Advent Series of pilgrimages. We’ve been following the various journeys of different characters in the Christmas story. I’d like to take a look at the pilgrimage of Mary today. Receiving the story as is, like Will in Big Fish trying to excavate the truth behind the story, let’s see if we might be able to enter the story in all of its fullness of miracles. It’s Christmas week. Let us enter into the magic of Christmas with a sober mind and open hearts. Let me read the text for us. 

Luke 1:26-56 New International Version (NIV)

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

46 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

    of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

    holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

    from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

    but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

    but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

    remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

    just as he promised our ancestors.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Every good story starts with an origin story. Startup stories like How I built this podcast. Or how two people met and fell in love. In the ancient world, all heros, important figures had an origin story. It’s a way of meaning making and connection building people groups have been doing for ages. This story is at face value a joyful, hopeful story. But it’s not without a pang of tragedy. It’s a bit glazed over but it’s there. 

When my little girl Sophia who’s 14 months old now, grows up, I will tell her, that…

On the morning of her delivery, after I was induced at Mt Auburn hospital, your Dad and I went on a walk along the Charles River as we waited for you to come pushing out of me into the world. I was scared. It was good to walk and get out of the hospital room, hooked up to machines to monitor your heart rate. There had been this song Umma made up for you. Jagabee, Jagabee, Umma loves you Jagabee (the in utero name we had been calling her, named after our favorite asian snack). It was in a minor key, as I’m often drawn to a little blues, a little dissonance, a little smudge in life that makes things unique and beautiful. We were singing it for you. And Dad was trying to rewrite the song into a major key. Jagabee! Jagabee! Umma loves you Jagabee! Now, neither of us are musicians. Eugene’s an actuary. Despite Umma’s disposition toward minor keys, we wanted you to know and experience joy, happiness, an ending without a hanging sad note but with a nice resolution. We sang the song in variations until we forgot how the original song went. And I hope that that’s always true for you. That no matter what happens in life. If it plays for you minor notes, may you re-sing and reclaim your song majorly. 

Fredrick Beuchner also said, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” The reality of Mary’s story is that… this is not just a happy story. It actually starts with bad news. On a minor key. Getting pregnant out of wedlock was bad news. It would’ve been a death sentence for the girl in that culture where attachment to a man through proper manner was everything. I mean, it still is in some circles today. 

The writer, Luke wanted to pass down Mary’s origin story of Jesus to the next generation. Around 80 CE, as the community of Jesus followers were beginning to form its own unique identity, it was probably important for them to start getting it down in writing. The eye witnesses, the various versions of the stories that were passed on orally. Which is why we have the 4 gospels, with some of the events with varying details. The “discrepancies” between the stories do not make them unreliable but adds to the truth of the fact that multiple people experienced Jesus in different ways. If my sister and I each wrote letters about my mom, it would be very different stories. Neither are untrue.   And if my brother wrote about my mom, well it would be songs not letters. Similarly, Matthew had an approach to the Jewish audience where he incorporates much of the Jewish texts to tell the story of Jesus, fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures. Mark has a very swift way of telling the story, shortest of the 4, often just quickly capture what happened. Luke is a bit more elaborate. He’s educated, known to us as to be a physician from other sources. He has intent and a theological focus in the retelling of his stories. And John, much like my brother Johan, which by the way is John in Korean, John is so poetic. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. Like you gotta snap through reading John like a spoken word poetry slam. 

How did Luke come to capture this account of Mary’s pregnancy? Biblical scholars point to a possible earlier source that Matthew and Luke probably utilized in each of their own accounts. Luke wasn’t there, with Elizabeth or Gabriel. Mary and Elizabeth must’ve told their husbands, their friends, their community. They probably posted on their wall and people liked and loved it. But they probably didn’t record it. The text we have today is a piecing together from the best of their ability, with their most reliable sources, a narrative that Luke wrote, as he says at the beginning of his book, “Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus…” It’s not a transcript. The Bible is not a history or a science book. It could be said that it’s actually closer to investigative journalism. Luke was likely commissioned by Theophilus, to get it right. He wanted to set the record straight. So he says the story went like this,

Mary was greatly troubled.

And the angel said, don’t be afraid.

And Mary was like, but how?

And the angel said, the Holy Spirit will take care of it. 

And Mary said, may it be so!

I genuinely believe that Luke did his best in trying to capture the glory and honor of Jesus’ birth story. But I think it moved too quickly to Mary’s properly mannered obedience, as is a model woman’s role to be of such nature. And in doing so we miss out on the pain of Mary. Her struggles. Mary’s darkened soul in the face of the realities of her world. Maybe it would’ve been too scandalous to keep it too accurate to her experience. Maybe Luke wanted to highlight the hope part more than the tragic part. And maybe in a sense, that’s why the Christmas story sounds a bit more like a fairy tale. I excavate the story to find the wedge in the joy. Because I personally find the wedge in joy often in life. I don’t know about you, but in the midst of this supposedly joyful season, I find the wedge actually widening and taking up even bigger space amidst the jolly holly. The cold air of those who are not with me are more chilling. The loneliness of being estranged from some family members more painful. Amazon prime orders made to their houses fall short of the embrace I want to give them. All the celebration, the warmth, the love in the air contrast too starkly to the sadness I feel. And I think Luke preserved that wedge for me in Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat.  In it, it peers deeper into darkened world of Mary’s. Juxtaposed by her hope and victory, she shed light onto the world in which Jesus is born into. This is her reality, hope she made sense of what was happening, and her theology. What is God doing by coming into this world? She says, 

 God as scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

God has brought down rulers from their thrones

    but has lifted up the humble.

God has filled the hungry with good things

    but has sent the rich away empty.

There is this cry of petition, of resistance in this song. A proclamation not of only praise but a preaching, a speaking into the future of how things better be in the future. The proud scattered. The rulers brought down. How the humble shall be lifted up. How the hungry will be fed and the rich left empty. There is a switching of order. And she knows this order because she herself has been the back end of this order. She knows humiliation. She knows rejection. She knows what it’s like to be marginalized. For her, this is personal. 

I don’t know exactly how it all went down. I believe that Luke capture the legend of Mary in a way that tries to honor her. But the reality is, Mary was not that honorable at first. Let us not white wash her trauma. This is a tragic moment for her before it was a divine revelation. She was freaked out. She was mortified that her parents would find out or people would gossip about her. Her sexuality in questions. She was ashamed. She was heartbroken with the possibility of her fiance breaking the engagement. She needed Elizabeth to talk to and calm her down, for 3 months! Heck she needed an angel! All I’m saying that it probably didn’t exactly happen the way Luke captured it. Many parts of it corroborate with Matthew’s account. Many other parts do not. Maybe she didn’t agree to it so quickly at first. Maybe she retold the story after Jesus grew up, realizing what God had done with her story, with her shame. Maybe people retold and retold the story mixing their growing hope into it more than their fears. Quoting Beuchner again, “It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world one carries on one’s back like a snail, but for God all things are possible. That is the fairy tale.” Maybe Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. 

Accurate factual stories are too small to hold the miracles of God. When a smart person asks you questions about your faith, poking holes into the Bible stories, Do not be afraid. I was afraid when my youth group kid asked me. Teenagers can be scary! We all know how the Bible was written. If not, you can google it. It’s not a secret and it’s a part of human history, passed through many tainted hands. I’m okay with saying that there are many variations of these stories, edited by multiple people and generations over time, written with a theological agenda, intent, and purpose, to preserve the message, the promise. Then, how can it be true? How does the Christmas story hold up? Why should it even matter? The Legend behind the Myth. The truth behind the history. The Promise behind the story. What’s it to me? 

What is truth? Truth is what we deem to be important enough to say again and again, in community, and pass down to the next generation. Whether it’s true or not, is for the each generation to decide. If it is compelling enough, it will speak for itself. Truth need not be forced or manipulated. Truth, even if threatened does not shrivel, when shed of its complexity is not muddled, but continues to reveal in new ways, growing deeper wider web of roots in which it stands. Through it all, the myth, the legend, the history – the promise is clear. 

And the Promise is that, the illegitimate is made legitimate. The Illegitimate is made legitimate. Not only so but beautiful, miraculous, and holy. The promise is that God forsaken situations are covered by God’s mercy and purpose. The sidelines become the center. That shattered dreams are mended with gold. Tricky situations are turned into defining moments. The disgraced are lifted. 

Not just a once upon a time but right now, right here, that’s the promise. God is brewing, in the belly of Mary and at the core of you. This is what Mary proclaimed in her song, that God uses the foolish to humble the proud.

If your heart is broken. If you’re despairing. God sits with you. If you’re down and out, feeling cast out. God is on your side.  If you are depressed, anxious, worried, deflated. God stands with you. If you are suffering, oppressed, and enemies stand against you. God moves toward you. Not only so, God sees to it that you are brought back to the center, made whole, loved and claimed as God’s own, and reinstated back into a righteous justice realm where God reigns. This is the miracle work of Christmas that God is doing, through the marginalization of Jesus in a broken world. In the face of a life tragedies, which there are many, may The Holy Spirit come on you, and the power of the Most High overshadow you. Amen. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Move in towards the messes of your life. Or the messes of others. See if you can find it to be a place that can be fertile soil to something miraculous, beautiful, holy. 

Don’t see it with the world’s eyes, as failure or a mistake. See if you can recognize the divine manifestation through the ugly, the shamed, the illegitimate. 

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Close your eyes and imagine Mary’s experience. Visualize looking into the room where Mary first found out that she was pregnant. Try to sit with her emotions that she might be having. Notice and simply witness both the natural fear and the supernatural strength. After, journal how that experience made you feel. What did it bring up for you?

Faith Reflection: My Life with Jesus (with thoughts from Steve, Ivy, and Lydia)

Members received a real treat on the last Sunday of the year. We heard from all three pastors, and reflected on the past year and our hopes for the new.

Thomas said to him,

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

-John 14

Growing a Life of Wonder

Well, did you all like the first snow of the year this past week? 

I have a lot of reasons to not like the snow. I’m the main shoveller where we live, and it’s heavy. Our church has a big property here, and we pay for plowing and I wonder if all the snow melt is going to seep into our buildings somewhere. I mainly get around by bicycle throughout the year, and the snowy, icy season is by far the trickiest time for that. 

But still, there’s something that happens in me with that first real snow of the year. I was running home from our members meeting last Sunday afternoon with my daughter, and we saw just a few flakes in air, here and there, and my eyes widened just a little bit, as we ran, and I huffed and puffed. My daughter’s not so easy to keep up with any more.

And then later, at home, I looked out the window, and there it was – snow falling from the sky, piling up white on the trees and sidewalk and streets, just falling and falling and falling. Something in me just kept expanding, as time stopped for  a moment, with me starting out the window, transfixed, thinking nothing at all really except: This is so beautiful. 

That experience of being stopped in our tracks, surprised by beauty, arrested by something so new or unexpected or stunning or larger than ourselves, we call that wonder. Sometimes we think of wonder as childlike because kids are frankly best at it – they experience wonder most often, maybe most deeply.

Sometimes when we think we understand more, we are overjoyed and mystified by less. Sometimes when we’ve experienced more, there’s less that still arrests us. 

But the first snow of the year is one experience that always still does it for me and helps me remember that wonder is not just the stuff of children, it’s some of the more important stuff of life. 

The great Jewish thinker Abraham Heschel had a lot to say about wonder. Heschel was a scholar and a mystic. He was born in Poland, became a rabbi and a professor. He barely escaped the Nazi invasion and the Holocaust, and spent the rest of his years in this country, where he wrote, taught, was active with King and others in the Civil Rights and anti-war movments. And he happened to die less than a year before I was born. 

In his book God in Search of Man, Heschel wrote: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living . What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.” Wonder for Heschel was foundational to a good life, a joyful life, and it was also bound up with the possibility of encountering God. 

So Heschel also wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” 

Christmas used to do this for me. Partly it was the presents. My parents didn’t have much cash, but they went broke at Christmastime, and one set of my grandparents piled on as well. So I knew that every year, our Christmas tree would be piled with mounds of stuff that would at least for a while surprise and delight me. 

It wasn’t just that, though. It had to do with school vacation, and first snows, and Christmas music, and chocolate appearing everywhere – it seemed – and family seeming a little more present, a little more happy than normal. So much that gave me wonder as a kid this time of year. 

I said last week that Advent – this season of waiting and expectancy before Christmas – is a time making for room, a time for shifting our attention, from turning away from what chokes out joy. Similarly, Advent can be a great time to lift up our gaze, to be surprised and delighted again, and to start growing a life of wonder. 

With talk of childhood and Christmas and first snows, if you’re thinking this will be a sentimental sermon, well it may be that. But I can assure you it will not only be that. Wonder is far deeper and more important than nostalgia or warm feelings. As Heschel wrote, wonder is at the beginning of happiness; wonder is essential to our search for God. To be spiritual is to be amazed. 

With this in mind, let’s travel back in time to our text from the Bible for today. It’s an old, old story in the memory of the Jewish people, and so of the church as well. And it’s a weird story, one chock full of wonder .

It begins after a battle scene in the life of the famous father of faith – for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Abraham – then Abram is returning from a violent rescue mission, when he and his little rag tag army had gone to save his cousin Lot from kidnapping. At the same time, he’d managed to help another local warlord – called the king of Sodom here. But in the middle of their encounter, the story gets super weird. Here we go:

Genesis 14:17-24  (CEB)

17 After Abram returned from his attack on Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom came out to the Shaveh Valley (that is, the King’s Valley) to meet him. 18 Now Melchizedek the king of Salem and the priest of El Elyon had brought bread and wine, 19 and he blessed him,

“Bless Abram by El Elyon,
        creator of heaven and earth;
20 bless El Elyon,
        who gave you the victory over your enemies.”

Abram gave Melchizedek one-tenth of everything. 21 Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and take the property for yourself.”

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I promised the Lord, El Elyon, creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I wouldn’t take even a thread or a sandal strap from anything that was yours so that you couldn’t say, ‘I’m the one who made Abram rich.’ 24 The only exception is that the young men may keep whatever they have taken to eat, and the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre—may keep their share.”

What in the world is happening here?!?

Abram’s returning from battle, and there’s this scene of post-war booty negotiation that is perfectly at home in an epic royal tale from the ancient near east. But right in the middle of all that, with no warning, no explanation, this other king Melchizedek – or is he a priest? – shows up with his bread and wine picnic basket and his basket of praise and prayers as well. 

And then before you know it, before we – or maybe before Abram too – can really figure out what is going on, Melchizedek is gone. And it’s just Abram and his business with the king of Sodom again.

Reading this always reminds me of this other story reading experience I had. When our daughter Julianna was in preschool or kindergarten, I believe, her teacher had kids pair up and tell stories together. The two children would each narrate part of a story, which the teacher would write down, and the child would provide the artwork. Totally charming. And the interesting part of this version of that is that each of two children would provide a page at a time, back and forth, back and forth.

And Julianna was paired up with this boy in her class, I think Jackson was his name. And Julianna began her part of the story with a beautiful princess in a faraway castle. And then we shifted to Jackson, who continued by mentioning a fiery dragon, and a big monster. And then Julianna would pick up her story on the next page, with the princess’ beautiful dress and hair, and then Jackson would go and the dragon and the monster were battling out with swords and fire. 

Back and forth the story would go, not apparent that there was any particular throughline or connection between the two alternating halves of this wild, disconnected plot. 

So delightful, ever surprising.

Who is Melchizedek?

Well, we don’t know – he’s mostly the stuff of legends. But he appears to be another Cananaanite king – like Abram, the head of a small tribal band of folks in this region. But present there first. His name may mean: “king of righteousness.” Melk-zedek – a compound name. 

But his name might also mean “My king is Zedek.” Because in ages past, there was a local Canaanite deity named Zedek. And if this is the case, Melchizedek is a worshipper or priest of Zedek. 

So there’s this king/priest thing going on. Is he one? Is he the other is he both? And if he’s a priest, who is his God? Because he may be named after the local god Zedek, but he seems to worship and offer blessing in the name of a different god, whom he calls El Elyon. El Elyon means God Most High, and in the local Canaanite religions which preceded Jewish religion, El Eyon was the chief Canaanite deity – the head honcho amongst the pantheon of gods. 

When you dig into the Scriptures, by the way, particularly the ones like Genesis whose roots are very old, you always get stuff like this, by the way – weird, surprising mash-ups of many ancient stories and ideas. 

It’s not entirely unparalleled here – this mixing in of ancient Canaanite religion with the newer Jewish worship of the one they call the most high God. In the Psalms too, you get these worship songs to Baal – another important Canaanite god, basically the son of El Eyon. And the Hebrew worship songs appropriate these Baal praises songs a couple times, just changing the name of the god in them, so that they can use this music. 

There’s a lesson here, I guess. Which is that people have been stealing good music  and good poetry forever. And more to our point today, that God can not be contained. God is so much bigger and wilder than our expectations. No person or place or culture, no religion even, can fully contain God. 

So Melchizedek is some Canaanite mystic or royal figure who shows up on the scene.

In the rabbinic, Jewish tradition, Mechizedek is all kinds of other things too. Some rabbis saw the past in Mechizedek, that he represents a mythic or mystic ancestor. That he was Noah of Noah’s ark son Shem, still alive by a different name, now bequeathing the land to Noah’s other distant ancestor Abram. 

Some rabbis saw the future in Melchizedek, that he was a prefiguring of the great Jewish King of Jerusalem, King David, who was a kind of priest as well on the side. Some saw politics in him. Where most priests of Israel were descended from Moses’ brother Aaron, there were a group of priests in Jerusalem, that that party thought Melchizedek legitimized. Others are content to not really know who Melchizedek was or is, but to simply see in him a messenger of God, blessing Abram as he does and giving him the land.

In our translation, Abram gives a tithe, a tenth, of all his war booty to Melchizedek, the priest. But some translation traditions read this old language and flipped it, like Melchizedek was giving a tithe to Abram – adding land rights to his legacy, maybe even adding letters to his name in the balance. 

No matter what, though, Melchizedek is an utter surprise. And in his larger than life authority and spectacle, he evokes wonder. 

This is what Melchizedek does when he shows up in the popular imagination too. 

When I taught writing and speaking and literature to ninth graders, Paulo Coehlo’s little mythic novel The Alchemist was almost always a text we read together. And The Alchemist is a beautiful little parable about a shepherd boy in search of a treasure, and in search of a dream, and in search of himself all at the same time. 

And very early in his search, early in his wanderings, his pilgrimage to the Middle East – in his case the pyramids of Egypt – Santiago, the shepherd boy meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who appears to him. And Melchizedek, in his priestly role, blesses Santiago with encouragement, with motivation, and also with a kind of ancient Magic 8-ball to help him make decisions along the way. 

Melchizedek says that when people are searching, as a priest, he always appears to people in one form or another, to encourage them on their search. He lifts their gaze, helps them believe in the impossible, in part through his very appearing, through evoking wonder again. 

Abraham Heschel, again in that same book, God in Search of Man, asked

“How does a (hu)man lift up (one’s) eyes to see a little higher than (one)self? The grand premise of religion is that (hu)man(s) (are) able to surpass (our)sel(ves); that (hu)man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with (God) who is greater than the world; that (hu)mans may lift up (our) minds and be attached to the absolute; that (hu)man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned. How does one rise above the horizon of the mind? How does one free oneself from the perspectives of ego, group, earth, and age? How does one find a way in this world that would lead to an awareness of Him who is beyond this world?”

These questions lead Heschel to wonder. Wonder surprises us, arrests us, delights us, so it takes us outside of ourselves, outside of our narrow gaze, outside of our ego, outside of the narrow confines of our horizons, our identity as we see it, our group as we construct it. Wonder starts to lift our eyes to more. 

After the falling of the snow this week, I began to remember the experiences that have given me wonder. I wrote in my journal, stream of consciousness list-making, of times of wonder I remember. 

The views atop the White Mountains, above treeline. My first time standing on the Great Wall of China. Holding my sons and daughter as babies. Listening to them breathe, watching them sleep. Singing in worship in this place, and feeling the room somehow shrink and expand all at once, with the sense that unseen Spirit of God is with us, upon us, within me and on top of me, all at once. Experiences of delight, of hospitality, of love, or grace that beyond my expectations. 

What I noticed in all this remembrance of wonder is that wonder seems to always come from interruption. Wonder is rarely evoked through our plans or execution, through that which we prepare and make happen. Wonder is an internal sensation – a thought and a feeling, a lived experience – but wonder always comes to us from without. 

Something or someone in this world, or sometimes it seems some presence or person or force from beyond this world makes itself known, and we are arrested, surprised, delighted, and sometimes transformed.  

Because wonder always gives to us. And wonder always asks of us as well. We see this in the story of Abram and Melchizedek, bound up with the blessing and the tithe. 

Melchizedek is giving to Abram – at the very least giving him encouragement. You got this, Abram. This is yours – this victory, to be sure, but maybe this land, maybe this favor of the Most High God. Wonder is the giving and the welcoming of a gift, always.

But wonder asks something of us as well. Read in our translation and in most, Abram is compelled internally to give to Melchizedek – to give a lot, a tenth of all he’s just won. This is one of many places in the Hebrew scriptures that indicate that to find ways to give to God at least a tenth of all we have – income, land, wealth, time – that’s a normal, functional response to wonder. It’s a recognition that all we have is gift; it’s ours to receive and always right then to release as well, as Abram does.

At the very least, wonder costs us our attention. Wonder gently, sometimes loudly insists: notice. Look. Pay attention. There’s something important to behold here, something that will shape you, that will draw something good out of you, make someone good of you perhaps. 


I began this sermon talking about snowfall and Christmas, and we’re anchored in a strange old, mythic feeling text. But to be clear that we’re not just talking rainbows and sunsets, let me tell you one more story, a story I rarely share, but one that is at the center of how I first began to know God.

It’s a story that reminds me that wonder is at the heart of the good life. And wonder can be found not just in what first most obviously delights us but also at the heart of pain, in the midst of grief, even in the depths of our sin and foolishness. 

I dated a lot when I was a teenager, and my record in these relationships by any measure was pretty up and down. I was not always a great friend. In one of these relationships in particular, the harm I did to someone I genuinely treasured was immense. I tend to keep most of the details of this story private, but I’ll just say that due to problems of my own that I didn’t yet understand, certainly in places I hadn’t yet sought healing, I caused profound hurt. 

At a point when I least expected it, my friend confronted me about the hurt I caused and let me know that I had been wrong, that I had betrayed trust, that I had been a source of harm. And after saying these things, my friend looked me in the eye and said: I also want you to know that I forgive you. My forgiveness doesn’t remove what happened, but I am still setting you free.

Years later, when as an adult, I returned to this person to again apologize and to see if I could make amends, that was appreciated. But I was also assured that forgiveness was real and had continued.

When my friend confronted me, and when that confrontation was accompanied by that forgiveness, I was seared with pain as I’ve been very few times in my life. In some ancient cultures, when people are struck with pain or grief, they tear their own clothes in lament. I didn’t know about that back then, but on instinct, without thinking, I tore my clothes, ripped up my outer shirt I was wearing. 

My folly, my sin, the harm I could do to someone I wouldn’t want to harm, the consequences of my own unhealed, ungoverned wounds — all that hit me with a shock of heavy, overwhelming pain. This was the arresting force not of beauty and delight, but of grief, and guilt, and shame.

But at the same time, to hear truth and love bound together, to see both grief and grace on the face of my friend, and in the tone and content of her words to me, I knew then that I was seeing the face of Christ. I knew then and more as I reflected upon it, that this was my friend, and this was a revelation of the love of God for me in Jesus Christ.

Honest, truthful, utterly non-delusional about everything good and bad in me, all seeing, all knowing – holding grief for my pain and for the pain I could inflict, and holding all that while offering grace. Saying I forgive you. Extending peace and love to me still. 

This too was the force of wonder. Of God’s truth and love, grief and grace meeting me in the face and words of one I’d wronged. 

This gave me a vision of the holy goodness of the living God. This gave me an emotionally, cognitively, deep soul unforgettable experience of God’s disposition toward me. It gave me my deepest yet taste of love and grace.

And yet, wonder asked of me too. This experience was like a giant knocking on the door of my life. How will I respond to this friend? Will I ever hurt someone in this way again, or will this encounter – colored by grace – push me to be a better man? A freer man? A person who is safer? Who does less harm? 

This encounter was certainly part of that journey in me.

And will this love I’d tasted, will this grief and grace I’d seen, shape me, or not? How would I respond to what I’d seen of God?

I’ve heard other stories like this from friends, and from some of you I serve and love as a pastor. I think of them as Jean Valjean moments, after that time early in Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean – an angry, unhealed, bitter man – steals the treasures of a priest, and when confronted is offered mercy, a way forward without carrying the weight of blame for what he’d done. In that moment when the priest gives him freedom, the priest says, “I have bought your soul for God.” He doesn’t need to give the priest anything, no repayment. But there’s a sense in which he’s now asked to see his life – all he is and all he has – as God’s, to let that gift and that obligation echo down through the rest of his life.

And in the story, echo it does, shaping Valjean into a person of justice and mercy and humble walking with God and his fellow humans. As in my own way, my encounter with Jesus is doing in me still. 

Some of you may have be aware that in the Christian mystical tradition, Melchizedek is a version of, a prefiguring of, Jesus Christ himself. In the Bible’s Jesus material, the New Testament, the letter called Hebrews spends a good bit of ink remembering the legend of Melchizedek. And we’re told that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. 

That Jesus has appeared to us from God, that Jesus has no beginning or end, that Jesus blesses us and mediates a covenant with us and God. A promise, a kind of holy contract, a new deal. One in which God is in solidarity with us in all our mortality, in which we are known and loved by God, in which our folly is overlooked and our sins are forgiven, in which we are prayed for, welcomed into the family, set free to live with peace and confidence and hope and joy. 

When Melchizedek shows up to Abraham with bread and wine, the Christian mystics heard echoes of communion, saw Jesus showing up to us all, sent from God with his body and his blood, his very self to give. 

To be mortal humans, and to be met in the flesh by a self-sacrificing, all-giving, fully knowing and fully loving God is the great surprise of history. It is the central wonder of the human story. 

The great interruption of our life, to arrest us with surprise, and evoke wonder. 

Jesus’ whole life story pointed to this great surprise, this central wonder-evoking union of humanity and God.

Almost everything that Jesus said and did was utterly surprising. More full of life and wisdom and gentleness and provocation all at once. The only normal responses people ever have to Jesus is when it says people did not understand him, or when they apprehended just a bit and it says: they were filled with awe and wonder. 

And Jesus actually received life on these terms himself. Everything meaningful in Jesus’ life begins as an interruption. 

A tax collector stares at him from a tree, and he engages.

A woman pours her treasured perfume over his feet and wipes them with his hair, and he in turn honors her loving gesture.

Friends break open the ceiling where he’s teaching, to get their buddy some help, and Jesus tends to their need and honors their ingenuity.

A Roman soldier – a representation of his colonizing, oppressive enemies – begs for help for his child, and Jesus heals the child and praises his faith. 

People with points to make, axes to grind, grudges to nurse use people and words to trap and trick Jesus, and he sighs or smiles or says: how dare you? And he uses words and action to liberate, to question, and to love and set free. 

Jesus welcomes every interruption as a container of possibility, as an opportunity for God, as the beginning of something wonder-ful. 

In the Christmas story, it’s much the same. At every turn, if people don’t notice interruptions, God isn’t revealed to them. Joseph could have brushed off his dream that told him Mary’s pregnancy was God’s. Mary could have ignored her dream that her baby was God’s great liberator come to earth. All the witnesses – the magi could have doubted their astrology, the shepherds chalked their nighttime vision up to sleepiness, the elders who blessed baby Jesus in the temple could have marked their wonder at the sight of the child as senility or nostalgia for the days when they had children of their own. 

Every part of the gift of God in Christ was easy to miss, if interruptions weren’t welcomed. 

To find God, we need to look a little higher than ourselves To be spiritual is to allow ourselves again to be amazed.

So friends, sisters, brothers, 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Make room for interruptions. Treasure them as containers for God’s gift of wonder.

Can you treat every interruption in your life, or even some small portion of them – and I mean our actual interruptions (surprise encounters, waking children, stuff that unexpectedly goes well or badly – for real, all of them) not as irritants or obstacles, but as vessels for God’s work and presence, as the beginnings of holy moments, as means to wonder. 


Spiritual Practice of the Week

When you experience wonder, notice the gift God is giving you, and try to notice what God is asking of you as well.


Making Room for Joy

So the other week, I go to the doctor’s office with one of my kids for their annual physical. And before the exam, the doctor makes small talk for a while, as he does, to talk about a healthy life and all that. And he asks my kid what he does after school. And my kid, being a normal and honest kid, starts saying stuff like: I like to hang out with my friends and play video games. And then the doctor interrupts him. He leans forward, sticks his finger up in the air, and says: Hold on, you’re going to this amazing high school, with hundreds and hundreds of activities. When colleges look at you, I can guarantee they don’t want to know how much time you spent playing video games or hanging out with your friends. 

I was thinking: what is happening here? And I interrupt him back now and say, you know you interrupted him, he wasn’t finished. And my kid, realizing what the man wants to hear, tells his doctor/inquisitor about his more adult-approved, official, you can put them on a college application-someday activities. And the doctor lightens up after this, sends him into the other room to take off some of his clothes, and proceeds to give him his physical, which I guess goes better from there. 

But the more I thought about this moment, the more incensed I became. Because I wondered when did every interaction my teenagers have with an adult turn into a precursor for a college acceptance interview, years away from that being an actual possibility? Who decided that this interrogation should be part of the assessment of my child’s health? When did childhood become a race toward the achievement of a goal that somebody else sets for you? A goal that may or may not be part of your best life.

To me, this moment in the doctor’s office for my child was not a weird, outlying experience, but a symptom of the world as it is, but not as it is meant to be. I think all times and places and cultures have their own plusses and minuses. But here in our 21st century, urban, blue state, university-town America, I think we have some of our own frankly weird habits and dysfunctions that choke out the best of what we want in life in general, and maybe in the holiday season in particular. 

Today of course is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and it’s also in the church world the first Sunday of the Christmas season called Advent. Advent is a season of remembering the birth of Jesus, and the longings and hopes and expectations associated with his life. And it’s a time to long for Jesus to come again, to be centered more fully both in our lives and in history, and to do God’s good work there. 

In this year’s Advent season, we’re thinking about pilgrimage, walks people make, journeys we take, that have something to do with the Christmas story and the movement Jesus provokes. 

At its best, the holiday season can be a time for gratitude, wonder, joy, and connection. But to welcome something good, we need to make room for it. So today, on this first week of our Christmas season, I want to take a moment to notice some of the stress and other issues that can choke out our joy, and look at some ways we might need to walk away from things to make room for the gifts of Jesus. 

The first of the Bible’s biographies of Jesus opens with a lot of comings and goings, people – including Jesus – on pilgrimage. Let me read you one little bit. 

Matthew 2:13-15  (CEB)

13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

This is just a tiny excerpt from Matthew’s account of the first Christmas, which isn’t a winter wonderland, but a tale of international intrigue, violence, and dramatic escape. Here the magi – astrologers from Persia – have just wrapped up their visit to worship the newborn king they thought was born in Bethlehem. 

But a messenger tells Joseph he can’t bask in the wonder of that experience. His family needs to flee the country because the big bad king of their nation, the Roman collaborator Herod, doesn’t like hearing rumors of other kinds in his land and is coming after them. From here on out, Matthew turns the Christmas story into a retelling of the Exodus – the founding rescue story of the Jewish people, where Moses leads the people out of slavery in Egypt, barely rescuing them from the violent, maniachal Pharoah. 

This time, King Herod plays the part of Pharaoh. 

And Jesus plays the part of both the Jewish people and of Moses. First, he and his family have to find refuge in Egypt, as Joseph and his brothers do in a famine in the end of the book of Genesis. 

And then, like Moses, Jesus will be called out of Egypt and to the promised land. Off and on throughout Matthew, Jesus will be the new Moses, God’s great leader chosen to teach people how to live and to liberate people, to guide us out of bondage and into freedom. 

For people living under profound suffering, Jesus has always been the new Moses, the great hope of liberation. Just as the Exodus is the central backstory for Jewish believers, so has the Exodus and Jesus as the new Moses been central to the theology and hopes and worship of African-American Christianity. 

The great American theologian James Cone and others have helped us see again that Jesus was a person of color born under the power of a violent empire and he began his public ministry at age 30 proclaiming freedom for the captives. 

Boston’s own theological legend Howard Thurman put it simply, that the good news of Jesus – and in fact all of the Bible – was to people whose backs were against the wall. 

We had a little service here Monday evening to remember and voice the ways that some of us have our backs against the wall. We held a service of lament that was planned and led by a number of women in our community. Lament is where we voice our anger and disappointment and frustration to God and ask God: How Long? And demand that God act. This beautiful wooden tree crafted by our own Phil Reavis for the occasion began the evening barren, but it was filled up with these leaves that have some of the laments of our community written on them. 

We wrote down our laments of violence, of loss, of injustices big and small, of things personal, things global and political. 

Matthew begins his biography with Jesus’ daddy dreaming that Jesus is named Immanuel – God with us. And then when Jesus is a toddler, Joseph finds out they have to flee to Egypt and then come back up from that land, and now to Joseph and all the rest of us, Jesus is our liberator Moses as well. 

What that says to us is that God is with us in our suffering and disappointment and anger – that God is with us when we’ve been done wrong, that God is with us as we wait and struggle for justice, that God is with people of the earth – near and far – who are bullied or oppressed or harmed. 

This is obviously not a story just about us. When we remember the Christmas story, we’re called to remember and pray for people like my Uyghur friends suffering a kind of genocide. We’re called to remember and pray for and stand with the bullied, the diminished, the hated, the outcast; the people run out of their homes and their homelands and driven out of their minds with hurt. 

But I think Jesus the Liberator even speaks to us in our everyday Greater Cambridge lives, even places like my son’s visit in the doctor’s office the other week. 

See, I think Jesus is interested in leading people out of all the things – external and internal – that trap us, that crush us, that choke out joy and wonder and connection. 

Teens and preteens and kids in the room know like nobody else that when you’re measured and compared by others – when other people use their voice to tell you how you measure up to other kids or their picture of what a successful kid should be like at your age, it’s hard to be happy. It’s hard to have peace and freedom when you’re being judged and evaluated. Actually, a lot of us in this room know about this. Grad students, moms, people with harsh bosses, anybody here who’s been on a dating app this past year – how much freedom do you experience when you’re being subjected to other people’s judgment and evaluation? When you’re being measured by a standard that you didn’t choose and that might not be fair or realistic? 

Maybe in this season before Christmas, we need to ask some questions about the exodus that Jesus will lead us on, about what we might need to walk away from, if we’re going to make room for freedom. 

With my kid, that hasn’t meant walking away from that doctor and finding a different one, although it could if it had to, I suppose. But it did mean a few different conversations about how that doctor is not the boss of him, how our kid’s doctor doesn’t get to define success for our son. That what college you to go, or whether you ever go to college or not, is not the measure of your worth. It’s not the goal of your childhood. 

It’s a weird thing that in our city these days, to tell a teenager you love them and you’re proud of them, regardless of their grades or test scores or resume, that feels like a subversive act. And don’t be fooled, the kids who have all the best of all those things need to hear this liberating truth as much as the kids who don’t. 

I’m suggesting today that there might be ways we all need Jesus as a Liberator – I know that I do. 

I’ve been in a season of midlife where for months, years really, I’ve been asking what it means to live a less pressurized life, a less stressed-out life, and a life with more room for joy and gratitude and wonder and connection. And as I’ve explored this, I’ve learned that when I settle into the stressed out life, the pressured life, the joyless life, the lonely, disconnected life, I’m getting the results the system we’re living in was designed to create for me. 

This past week, we published a Thanksgiving blog I wrote, where I thoughts about some of the roots of our current economy, and some of the havoc our economy and culture wreaks in many of our lives. 

And I made up a game I encouraged us to try playing. I called it the Not My Fault Game. Because it’s healthy to take responsibility for our lives. But our economy, our culture, and our inner critics also tend to shame us when we have problems, even when they’re not our fault. And, because shame tends to choke our joy and wonder, and because shame is also often not a really great motivator or change agent, it can be liberating to discover the  problems we blame ourselves for that aren’t really our fault. 

This game is better when you play it with a friend, but I played it by myself this year. The way it works is you write down five or ten problems that stress you out. I think I had eight. And then next to each problem, you write down if it’s mainly your fault or mainly not your fault. I had four not my faults, three my faults, and one on which I cheated – I thought half and half. 

And you know what, there was more that was liberating about this game than I even thought would be. 

First off, there was this thing I had forgotten about when I wrote the blog. When you write your problems down, this weird thing happens. You think it’s going to get worse, like writing them down is going to depress you or get you fixated on what’s wrong. But for most of us, the opposite happens. I write down my biggest problems and I’m like: hey, there are only 8. Two pages worth, that’s all. And really, they could be much, much worse. 

There’s science behind this, I gather. That externalizing our problems, our stresses, writing them down helps us see their true size and scope, which most of the time, for  most of us, is smaller than we think. 

Secondly, noticing that many of these problems aren’t primarily my fault is liberating too. It doesn’t take them away, but it does lift shame and it makes room for me to not take them so personally. Like lots of people alive today have these problems because the system we live in is creating them. 

And then lastly, there was this way that Jesus seemed to show up for me in the naming of the problems. Whether I wrote “my fault” or “not my fault” next to them; in many cases, certainly in some of the problems that bothered me most, there was the beginnings of a whisper, a nudge, about where to go from here. 

It seems like in some cases, there were ways out. Ways to walk away, ways to shift my attention, shift my habits. Because I was noticing the river I’m swimming in – some of the negative forces of our culture’s impact on me, and some of the negative impacts of my own habits and choices on myself as well. 

But I felt Jesus with me, reminding me that God is with me, and that Jesus has taught me before how to swim upstream. 

So it was liberating to get my problems out of my head, and it was liberating to realize that many of them are not my fault. And it was liberating to see that at least in some cases, with the help of God, and the direction of Jesus, there were ways out. 

There’s a religious word for this last kind of liberation, a word that’s often been associated with this first week of advent, and that word is repentance. 

Repentance means turning, or changing direction. A psychologist named Dan Allender was doing some teaching about the dynamics of repentance recently, and he says repentance starts in the belly. Repentance is that awareness in our gut of the distance between our current experience and the deep desires of our heart. That sense deep within that the way I’m engaged in the world is not the way I long for, it’s not the way it’s meant to be. Repentance begins when this longing stirs, the longing to live with the freedom and delight of children of the living God. 

And for me, that’s where the “Not My Fault” game led – fault or not, there were at least some areas of my life where it stirred a longing for a different way, and an awareness of at least some shifts God could give me power to make that would bring greater freedom, that would lead me away from stress and compulsion and loneliness and misery and open up space for greater joy and wonder and connection. 

I’m a little hesitant to use some of the religious tradition’s words for this journey of freedom – words like sin, repentance, or idolatry. But I want to name them so that those of us who come from a religious heritage or that any of us who will read the Bible, for instance, will recognize some of what it’s talking about at its best here. 

Because Matthew’s Christmas story of liberation has this in mind as well. For Matthew, Jesus as the new Moses first calls to mind the Exodus, as I said. Jesus is born for those whose backs are against the wall, to accompany those who are bullied or oppressed or victimized or diminished – to give us hope and resources, and love and power and freedom in desperate places.  But there’s a second context of liberation that Matthew evokes as well, with this line “I have called my son out of Egypt.” 

Because that line is the first verse in the eleventh chapter of a little book of prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, where the stakes for liberation aren’t crushing, unpaid labor, but idolatry. 

Hosea 11 begins,

“When Israel was a child, I loved him. And out of Egypt, I called my son.” 

Now I like to remind people when they’re trying make sense of the Bible that there’s a lot of stuff that’s been added in there over the years that doesn’t always serve us. The chapter breaks, the verse numbers, certainly all the little titles and notes and sub-headings – those have all been added by editors over the years, and sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. 

But in this case, the headings the editors put in my Bible, I think, capture the drift of the chapter pretty well. The sub-headings for this chapter are “Divine Love”, “Divine Frustration”, “Divine Compassion”, and people’s collective “Responses.” 

Divine love is the starting place. God loves us and made us to live in freedom, with gratitude, with the gift of wonder, with abundant joy and connection. 

But there’s a divine frustration that our human systems and cultures and choices tend to trap us, to bind us, to narrow us – to long for certainty and control instead of wonder. To find fault and complaint instead of gratitude. To compound our own and other’s misery and loneliness, rather than welcoming joy and connection. And that’s frustrating for God – not because God’s random or annoying but again, because God loves us.

But divine frustration is born out of and accompanied by divine compassion. Hosea has God saying, “How could I ever give you up? … My heart winces within me… my compassion grows warm and tender.” I see you, I suffer with you, I am so warmed with love and attention when I think of you, are the thoughts of God toward us. 

And then we’re invited to respond – to welcome compassion and this kindly disposition and this longing for our freedom, to turn toward the ways for our own and others’ liberation. 

Some of the words of passages like this – sin, idolatry, repentance – have admittedly gone south for many of us. These are words and concepts that have become associated with a singularly privatized, very moralistic religious practice. And yet they weren’t meant to be at one time, or they don’t have to be. 

At best, these are words that are trying to tell this story of liberation, of freedom. Idolatry has to do with fixing our attention on false promises, on latching on to things that are supposed to help and protect us but don’t. So maybe for our culture, idolatries would include my kids’ doctor’s message to him. That more supposed success always equals more freedom. That attending higher ranked schools, or landing higher paying jobs, or living in wealthier zip codes, or winning status prizes is the ticket to the promised land. When it turns out that more often than not, the chase of those things wears us down, stresses us out, diminishes our happiness and our soul, cuts other people out of the dream – the people we need to beat to get those things, doesn’t in the end deliver on the goods it promised in the first place. We get stress, we get debt, we get loneliness, we sometimes get a smug sense of superiority, but we don’t always get freedom.

Or maybe our idolatries look something like how we’re told a thousand times a day – especially this time of year – that more consumption is going to give us more joy. When consuming more is really going to trash our struggling earth, grow our debts and stress, and transfer our peace of mind and wonder and wealth to other people. 

One of the most universally beloved figures of the Jesus-tradition’s history, other than Jesus himself, is Saint Francis of Assisi, that 12th century privileged kid who felt a call to literally sell everything he had and give it away, to rebuild a church, and to kiss lepers, and talk with animals, and write poems and sing songs about God’s love, and make friends with enemies, and try to bring peace in the Middle East. 

Last week I reread the poet Abigail Carroll’s collection of letters to Saint Francis, called A Gathering of Larks. She has this poem/letter about freedom that begins Dear Dreamer…

She writes to Francis:

“If we had possessions, we would need weapons and laws to defend them,” you told the bishop, who must have thought you mad to give up armor, clothing, horses, furniture, clocks. But you had a point. Me, I’m not so rich as to need fancy locks, alarms, or — God forbid — a gun to protect my goods. Most all i have is passed down or a thrift-store find. If there’s anything I have a lot of, it’s books, and who wants those? But here’s the thing: the stove needs scrubbing, and the oven sometimes too. Whenever I look, the counters and sinks are crying out for bleach. Laundry ounts, mirrors streak: I need an arsenal of weapons to defend against dust, oil stains, odors, grime. Detergent, for one – a vaccuum, a dustpan, a broom, sponges and rags, a soap to remove spots, a spray to clean glass, a special cloth to polish jewelry and another to polish shoes. Francis, it’s a maddening game I play and almost always lose. You, on the other hand, had the sky for a house – trees a field, a cave. You owned the wind and the sun: your prize possessions were a song and a dream. These you have had to defend, never had to clean.

Does more stuff really make for a better life? Francis would certainly say quite the opposite became true for him.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The point of this sermon is not some counter-culture fist in the air about consumerism or achievement. Really, who am I to judge? Buy what you want in this season. And go after the achievements or the so-called successes of your dreams. 

The real questions I want to raise today are the questions of liberation – the questions that Hosea’s prophecy about divine frustration and divine compassion provoke. I’m really looking for the invitations that Jesus the Liberator may be extending as well this Advent.

What if the economy and the culture we live in are in part crushing us? What if the peculiar idolatries of our time and place are choking us – leaving us stressed, disconnected, indebted, and alone? 

What if Jesus has more freedom for us? What if Jesus could start to liberate us? 

What’s the distance between our current experience of life, and the life we dream we are collectively meant for, the life that together we long for? 

How might we start to walk away from one, and walk toward the other – to be on exodus with Jesus toward our own and our collective liberation.

Yvonne Abraham, a columnist in The Boston Globe, had a cool Thanksgiving piece up this week called: For this reformed shopaholic, a new take on Black Friday. She celebrated in this column a year of buying less, way less. And it was a bold and for me fun piece of journalism, because it wasn’t judgy at all. It was simply a story of her own liberation – of shifting her engagement with our consumer economy in a way that gained her freedom, and that also left her with a better impact on the people and environment of our world. It was her picture of walking away, making room for real joy, and participating in her liberation.

That’s where I got today’s Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing, which is this:

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Buy less this month. Or choose particular days where you spend no money. Use some energy to do things that add freedom or joy to your life but cost nothing.

Unlike Abraham, for me this hasn’t been about shopping for more stuff. For me, this has meant other ways – rethinking, for instance, distractions on the internet that are supposedly free but cost my time and colonize my imagination – that don’t bring me joy or connection or freedom. Still, though, it’s a walking away from some of the habits and assumptions that aren’t serving. And this is the broader spiritual practice I’m inviting you to consider at the start of the Christmas season….

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Either daily or weekly, ask Jesus what you need to walk away from in order to make space for wonder, joy, and connection. 

It’s my experience and my trust that as Jesus speaks to you, gives you direction, it will be for your personal and our collective liberation – to make more room for the great gifts of this season and the great gifts of God.