Cleaning the House of The Lord

Mark 1:21-28


21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


A couple of years ago I took some continuing education courses that were taught by a man who was a specialist in the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy. That’s a grand portrayal of a relatively simple concept, which is that current problems are generally the result of previous problems. Whether those problems are happening within institutions or in the lives of individuals there’s usually some form of behavior that was tolerated or even encouraged over previous generations that caused the current problematic situation. Now this isn’t a reason to place all the blame on parents for the unfortunate behavior of their children. We all know life is much more complicated than that, but our instructor wanted us to be aware of the ways in which our own upbringing conditioned us to respond to current situations in certain ways, and that the way our own parents raised us was conditioned by the circumstances that shaped their lives. The same can be said for issues that arise within institutions and organizations.


As you might imagine, this looking backward can get pretty convoluted and difficult to interpret, but I think it’s accurate to say that we are all somehow conditioned to respond to the stresses of life in particular ways, and that the way we are conditioned to react isn’t always the best way to react. This course I took was designed for pastors, and the goal of the course was to help us see how we could react to unhealthy situations in healthier ways. It’s a noble goal, and there’s some truth to it.


Our instructor, Rev. Doug Hester, wanted to help us see our own selves more clearly so that we could interpret the dynamics of our churches more clearly and be less reactionary in our work. Like individuals, churches sort of have personalities, and we all know that the way the personality of a pastor reacts to the personality of a church isn’t always pretty. Situations can develop that feel threatening to pastors and churches and neither institutions nor individuals generally react well to threatening situations.


All this comes to mind in light of the interaction between Jesus and this man who is described as having an unclean spirit. We don’t really know how that spirit manifested itself in the life this man, but we would be more likely to define the man as being terribly unhealthy. This man’s life was torn up in a significant and obvious way. From the way he spoke of himself there was something foreign in control of his life, and Jesus was a threat to that unwelcome invader.


We don’t know if this man regularly attended events at the synagogue of if he happened in that day for the first time. Either situation is plausible to me.


It could be that this synagogue had not only learned to adapt to the unfortunate condition of the man with an unclean spirit, but they had made special accommodations for him. It wouldn’t have been an ideal situation, but they may well have felt threatened by his condition and they accommodated him in order to keep him relatively happy. In fact that might well have become their main objective. We don’t know the relationship between this sick man and the synagogue but it may be that this man with an unclean spirit had been comfortable within that synagogue until Jesus showed up to teach, and what Jesus said was very threatening to the sick man’s circumstances.


Religious institutions can be very accommodating to unhealthy agendas. You might say this is one of the most obvious lessons we can learn from the way Jesus interacted with the religious leaders of his day. The very own son of God was rejected by the elders of Israel. And there’s no end to evil that has been committed in the name of Jesus Christ. Religious institutions can go off the rails. In fact the amazing thing is when a religious organization is able to remain on the rails.


That being said, I want to commend this church for the degree of health that you are able to maintain. I’m not saying you’ve got it all figured out and there’s nothing you need to work on. I’m sure there are things I could point out that you would consider to be more along the lines of meddling instead of preaching, but in all honesty, I consider this to be an unusually healthy church. It may just be that my religious blindness matches up well with your particular pathology, but for what it’s worth I will tell anyone that this is the most functional church I’ve ever served. You have caused me less anxiety than any of my previous appointments. I’m still going to retire, but it’s not because of you.


My first appointment wasn’t so fortunate – for them or for me. Had I been well trained in the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy I might have reacted differently to some things that occurred and we all might have been better off, but I didn’t and we weren’t. It was a rough two and half years.


After I had been there for about a year, the chair of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee, who now rests from her labors, didn’t really want me to leave, but she wanted me to do things differently, and she conducted a phone survey in order to generate further evidence to support her position. She actually presented me with a typed report of her findings. She labelled it as an unbiased report of the complaints and praises that members of that church had expressed to her, and I think she thought I would be glad to get it. I’m hoping I can find that document as I go through my boxes of papers over the next few months. I’ve misplaced it, but it really is one of the most interesting things that was ever presented to me.


That was not a happy period of time for me, but as we say about those difficult times of our lives that we survive – it was a learning experience. And it did prompt a conversation with a man that I’ll always treasure.


I stopped in one day to visit one of the members of the church, and it turned out that he had been the recipient of one of those phone-survey calls. Hobart Simers was his name. He was an elderly man who had worked as a mechanic for the railroad company. A memorable thing about him was that he never owned an automobile. He was able to walk to work, and when he and his wife wanted to go on a trip they would go by train. He was about the last of the generation that could live like that. I enjoyed visiting with him, and when I went by to see him that day he told me that he had gotten a call from a woman in the church who asked him what he thought of the preacher. He said he told her he thought I was doing ok, but she pressed him. He told me that she said there were some people in the church who didn’t really like what I was doing. And he said he told her that there were some people who didn’t like what Jesus Christ was doing, but that didn’t mean he was doing anything wrong.


That comment didn’t show up on the survey, but him telling me that is one of the great gifts that anyone has ever given to me. It’s right up there with my diploma from the Clark School of Lawnmower Repair.


Churches and/or pastors can go off the rails, but the words of Jesus can bring us to our senses. What Hobart Simers said to me was very healing to me – it brought me to my senses. It calmed me down. He spoke words that reminded me of who Jesus was and maybe even how Jesus was with me. I’m not saying there weren’t things I needed to do differently, but the words that came from Hobart were so much more authoritative than the words that were in that survey.



What we have in this lesson from Mark this morning is a portrayal of the healing power of the words of Jesus. Jesus had a level of authority that the world had never seen, and he used his authority to restore life to those who’s lives were possessed by all kinds of disease.


Those of us who seek to follow Jesus don’t have the same kind of authority that he possessed, but I think a story like this can help us understand the source of true authority and how we are to use the authority and power we do have. Jesus was threatening to the unclean spirit that had invaded the man who stepped in to the synagogue, and I think that’s a worthy goal for us all to embrace. We are to be people who are threatening unclean spirits.


I believe Jesus was able to challenge the unclean thing that was in control of that man’s life because Jesus was so clear about who it was that was in control of his life. The authority that Jesus possessed was rooted in the understanding of where he came from and who he represented. Unlike most of us, who are shaped by a multitude of competing authorities that ruled the lives of those who came before us, Jesus was unconflicted about his roots. Jesus knew where he came from and who he came to reveal. Jesus was the man who perfectly represented God, and Jesus can help us understand our own connection with God.


I believe Jesus can help us all become more clear about who it is that rules our lives and who it is we seek to serve. I’m not an authority on the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy, but I’ve got two continuing education credits in the area, and with that I feel authorized to say that we are well served by the exercise of stepping back and looking at the various authorities that continue to shape our lives. I truly believe there are powerful systems at work in our lives that we don’t fully understand but who cause us to do things and to behave in ways that does not bring glory to God and comfort to our neighbors.


But it helps to look at Jesus, and to seek his healing power. I guess we are all in need of a miracle of some kind to help us get over whatever it is that keeps us from being the loving and trusting child of God that we were created to be. We all have our obstacles to overcome, and I believe God wills for us to be healed and to grow in our relationship with God. I don’t know why it’s all so hard and why people suffer the way they do. For whatever reason, our world is full of powers and systems that cause death and destruction instead of peace and harmony. We are all touched by those death-dealing powers that distract us from the presence of God in this world, but the power and authority of Jesus Christ is with us as well, and it’s a beautiful thing when his words and presence touch us and bring us back to life.


That miracle happens every now and then, and when it does it changes everything. It makes life rich and beautiful. We all have our struggles, but we aren’t alone, and thanks be to God for that.


Thanks be to God that the love and authority of Jesus Christ breaks through the complex systems and the random chaos of this world to touch us and to use us. Healing happens. Life prevails.


Thanks be to God.






Snagged by Christ

Mark 1:14-20


14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


I don’t think my father ever wondered what he was going to do when he grew up. He had some interests outside of the car business, but I don’t think he ever wanted to do anything other than to operate the Chevrolet & Oldsmobile dealership that my grandfather started. He loved Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles and he enjoyed being in the business of selling them. There were people who expected me to carry on the family business, but I was not one of those people, and neither was my father. He would have been happy for me to do that, but he knew better than to push me in to something I wasn’t cut-out to do. I agonized over what kind of work I wanted to do, but I was pretty clear about one thing, I was not cut out for the car business.


I worked at my father’s business when I was in high school and even for a summer after my freshman year in college, but my area of expertise was in washing cars not selling them. I took pride in my car-washing ability, and I enjoyed the company of the men who worked in the body shop. The three men who worked in the body shop had been there for decades, and in addition to knowing how to repair damaged cars they were accomplished comedians. They were highly skilled at exploiting any weakness they observed in whoever happened to step in to their domain. Of course I was the unfortunate object of much of their comic attention, but it was worth it because they put on a good show and I wasn’t always the focus of their routine.


Whenever I was back in town from college and then from seminary I would drop by my father’s business and I always made it a point to step in to the body shop and provide them with an opportunity to generate some commentary on something I wouldn’t want to hear. I didn’t get by very often after we came back to Arkansas and I began my work in ministry, but I’ll never forget the conversation I had with one of those men, W.D. Johnson, when I dropped by for one of the last trips I ever made to my father’s business. Daddy had announced his own retirement. The business was going to close and he was going to sell his building to the Ford dealer in town.


W.D. pulled me to the side, he looked straight in to my eyes and asked me why I hadn’t come back and kept the business going. Under circumstances like that I can usually think of what to say about an hour later, but somehow I realized what to say at that very moment. I said W.D., if I had chosen to go in to the car business we probably would have closed about five years ago. And he believed me. A big smile spread across his face and he went on to announce to everyone what I had said. And this was the truth. I think I had sold about three cars in my life up to that point and I had lost money on every one of them.


I don’t believe that working as a professional minister is any holier than any other form of honest work. I think I probably thought that at one time, but I’ve known enough shady pastors and genuine salespeople to understand that it’s not so much what you do that pleases God, but how you do whatever you do.


I think this story of the calling of Simon and Andrew and James and John can give the impression that it’s more important to be an official follower of Jesus than to maintain the family fishing business, but I don’t think that’s the right message. These men were offered the rare opportunity to spend day and night with the man who came to change the world, and they made the right choice. They were touched by his powerful presence, and they didn’t have to wonder what they should do when he made the offer to follow him. There is a higher calling than catching fish, and it’s an offer that Jesus makes to all of us – regardless of what we do for a living.


Just prior to this story, Jesus had spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing himself for the work that was before him, he emerged with a clear sense of ultimate reality, and he was ready to talk about it. Jesus knew God, Jesus knew himself, and he knew what he needed to do. Jesus wasn’t deterred by the arrest of John the Baptist, but it’s not like he thought things would go differently for him. Jesus knew he would experience profound resistance, but he also knew that he was in touch with something that could not be stopped by any level of authority that could be generated on earth. Jesus was the man who understood what it meant to abide in the kingdom of God, and he wanted us to understand how to do that as well.


There’s much that’s left undescribed in this morning’s passage. We don’t know if it was a bad day for fishing or a good day. We don’t know if the weather was beautiful or miserable. We don’t know if these were the first people Jesus saw or if he went looking for fishermen. Mark doesn’t give us many details, and by not telling us much I think he’s telling us a lot about the gravity Jesus possessed. His clarity was overwhelming. His presence was compelling.


Jesus had something to offer that was irresistible. When Jesus asked these men to follow him they couldn’t help but to get up and go. It’s as if they had no choice about what to do. It was an instinctual response.


One of the interesting things about the response of these first disciples to Jesus is the lack of analysis that went in to their decision. It doesn’t appear that they thought about what he said, they just did it. I think this speaks to the way in which this faith that we share is not primarily an exercise of the mind – it’s a disposition of the heart. And we can carry that disposition in to whatever it is we are doing.


Of course there are some pretty smart people who have chosen to follow Jesus, and they have made some interesting observations about these stories of Jesus. When I read about Simon and Andrew and James and John they all look like average fishermen to me. Two of them were casting nets on the edge of the lake and two of them were mending nets in a boat along with their father and the hired men. When I read that story they all look similar to me, but Biblical scholars point out that there was a large socio-economic divide between the men who were standing in the water casting their net and the men who worked from boats along with hired men.


And this is an important message for us. The call of Christ is to all of us, and Jesus knows how to speak to all of us. It doesn’t matter where we came from, and it doesn’t really matter where we go. The work is the same, but there’s no limit to where it will take us.


The contrast between the Kingdom of God and the way the world generally operates is stark. This passage began with the notice that John the Baptist had been put in prison. This wasn’t good news for a person who was about to embark on a very similar mission, but Jesus was undeterred. Immediately after John the Baptist was put in prison for proclaiming a message that challenged the civil and religious leaders of the day, Jesus picked up where he left off and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near. He called for people to repent and believe in the good news.


This doesn’t sound very threatening to us, but Roman rulers weren’t known for their tolerance of rival kingdoms. And the religious leaders of the day weren’t wanting to hear this call for people to repent. We’ve sort of turned that word, repent, in to a call for people to behave, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. The word does mean to turn around, and it can be a call for someone to turn away from their bad behavior, but the call is for us all to change our normal way of seeing and judging and calculating and to embrace the way God sees and judges and evaluates life.


When Jesus made this appeal for people to repent he wasn’t pleading for better behavior. When Jesus called for people to repent he was pressing people to change their allegiance. He wanted people to turn away from serving the little lords of the earth and to live in relationship with the Lord of all Life.


And this is a relevant appeal for us. This Kingdom of God didn’t just come near to those people in that small fishing village of Capernaum on that day that Jesus came by. The Kingdom of God is just as near to us, but it’s also just as far away. This repentance business is hard.


I have no regret about not going in to the car business. I really don’t believe I would have been very good at it, but I don’t believe it’s any easier for a professional minister to be a true follower of Jesus Christ than it is for a person who works in business or any other profession. I’m not saying there aren’t some shady professions and unhelpful operations. Sometimes repentance calls for us to leave behind evil behavior, but the challenge to repent is as real for a pastor as it is for anyone else.


The challenge for us all is to let go of our petty little agendas and to embrace the Kingdom of God. The call of Christ is compelling, but it’s also very threatening. And you see this play out in the lives of Simon and Andrew and James and John. They were quick to follow Jesus, they knew he had something they wanted, but in the days and weeks and months that followed they perpetually failed to grasp what he was saying and teaching.


Those first disciples weren’t perfect in their pursuit of God’s kingdom, but they knew what they wanted because they had experienced what it felt like to be in the presence of the King. And I believe this is true for us as well. None of us have perfect records when it comes to responding to the call of Christ, but sometimes we find the right words to say or the right places to go.


We all have our little worlds to manage and our little rulers to satisfy. Following Jesus doesn’t remove us from the petty demands that this world places upon us, but if we can repent and believe the good news that the Kingdom of God is near we will learn to see what is most essential and what is to be ignored.


I think we all have those moments when we clearly hear the call of Christ and we know what we need to do. This was certainly the case with Simon and Andrew and James and John, but the challenge of faith is fresh every day and the need for repentance never departs. Fortunately the presence of Christ remains as well and his claim upon our lives comes to us in new and fresh ways throughout our lives. Jesus continues to call us and to use us to spread the good news of the nearness of God’s Kingdom. We all are charged to carry out the most important work that anyone has ever done – to share the love of our living God. There’s no retirement from that work, and no end to the blessings that accompany it.


Thanks be to God.


Genesis 32:24-31


24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.



I’m honored to get to share a few thoughts about Van in this celebration of his life. Van was about 6 years older than me, so we weren’t exactly peers during our early years. But like Van, I grew up in Wynne, and we were both nurtured by many of the same people. We were both graduates of Wynne High School, members of this United Methodist Church, and of Boy Scout Troop 126. I remember when Van was injured in that car wreck, and I can recall the way in which it affected the community. If my memory serves me correctly, the car was towed to a lot at my father’s business, Murray Chevrolet Co., where I saw the dreadful sight and heard the deep sighs of adults who knew what was in store for Van and his family.


I would run in to Van on occasion over the next few decades, but we weren’t in touch with each other until we somehow reconnected in Little Rock sometime around the year 2000. I don’t know how or exactly when this came about, but at the time I was the director of the UALR Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist Campus Ministry Center, and that’s where Van and I became reacquainted. I wish I could remember how that came about, but I don’t. All I know is that the Wesley Foundation became a place that Van adopted as a place to go for coffee and conversation, and I was so happy about that. As I say, Van and I shared common roots, and it was nice to revisit our various connections. I also enjoyed the wacky randomness that Van brought to the Wesley Foundation community.


The Wesley Foundation was a bit of a crossroad for students and other people who were somehow connected to somebody around there, and to have Van show up at the Wesley Foundation meant somebody was going to experience something they hadn’t expected to encounter that day. Because you didn’t just meet or visit with Van – you experienced Van.


For one thing, Van had become a bit of a contortion artist. As many of you know, Van generally sat in his chair in the lotus position. He was sort of like a live Buddah statue on wheels. But he could also twist his legs up in a way that enabled him to rest his arms and chin on the bottom of his feet. It really wasn’t a sight that you ever got used to seeing, and it was always interesting to see the reaction of someone who saw him sitting like that for the first time. And you never knew what he was going to say. Encountering Van was an experience that confronted and engaged a variety of your senses.


Van’s body was twisted, and he had the sense of humor to go with it. I guess he could bring out the twistedness in others as well. In fact I’m sharing my thoughts about Van with you today because of a twisted deal. I’m a fan of Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock which provides summer camp experiences for kids with different medical conditions. They have an annual Fish Fry and silent auction fundraising event, and one year I mentioned to a handful of people that were hanging out at the Wesley Foundation that I should offer a glowing eulogy as an auction item. Van was in the room and he immediately said he would buy that. I told him to make a check out to Camp Aldersgate and if I hadn’t previously expired I would make good on the deal – so here we are.


Van would call me every now and then and ask if his glowing eulogy was still in effect or if he needed to make an additional installment. I always assured him it was still intact, and I hope my words will measure up to our agreement.


It’s not hard for me to speak well of Van. Van enriched the community life of the Wesley Foundation, and it was a blessing for me to know him. He was generous in his support of that ministry, and he was sort of a living morality play. Van didn’t lift himself up as a beacon of morality, but he was honest about who he was and what he thought. In his own unique way, Van could help you see who you are and who wanted to be.


There are many wonderful words you could use to describe Van. He was appreciative, clever, funny, compassionate, loyal, resourceful, and certainly intelligent. Neal Raney gave me the word Quixotic, which I think is a good one. I know this is supposed to be a glowing eulogy, but I’m also compelled to be relatively honest, and there are some other words that could be used to describe Van. No need to share that list, but it’s no secret that Van could push buttons you didn’t really know you had.


There was a period of time when Van was feeling aggrieved about something going on between himself and his loved ones, and he couldn’t talk about anything else. I couldn’t even follow his logic on how he had been done wrong in some way, but he wouldn’t quit talking about it. He was like a broken record – he would continually repeat something about something that didn’t make sense to anyone but himself. A handful of us had been eating lunch at the Wesley Foundation one day, and when I got up to start cleaning up the kitchen he started in once again on his litany of grievances. Now I’m not a person known for over-reaction, but I suddenly found myself screaming these words: Van, you are driving me CRAZY!


A person with normal sensibilities would probably have left and never returned, but as we all know, Van wasn’t normal. Van smiled and said, you know, my family took me to court to have me certified as crazy, but I beat the rap. And that did a good job of releasing the tension in the room. It diffused my agitation, and he took no offense at my outburst. As he left he maintained his ritual of checking the bathroom to make sure it met his moderate standard for hygiene, and gratefully he returned.


I loved getting to know Van. He enriched my life with his humor, his insight, his generosity, his raw transparent humanity, and his spirituality. I wish I could remember the way he described his religious affiliation. It was a made-up word that incorporated his expansive view of God. I know it included the phrase Metho-Buddist, but I can’t remember the rest. You would think a man who had pledged to provide a glowing eulogy would have taken a few notes, but I didn’t.


When I considered what Biblical story of faith best represents the way in which Van lived out his relationship with God this story of Jacob instantly came to mind. Like Van, Jacob didn’t live the life of a conventional man of faith, and like Jacob, Van suffered injury in the process. Van did things his own way, and it wasn’t the easy way. This story of Jacob wrestling with a man who may well have been God is a story that could be used to describe the life of Talmage Van Spence. Van was a man of faith in God, but it wasn’t exactly the faith we were taught in Mrs. Cook’s Sunday School Class. It wasn’t contrary to that faith, but it was far more complex.


Van cherished his roots here in Wynne, and in this church. He liked to point out that he received his Boy Scout God and Country Award from Brother John McCormick. He probably has that award squirreled away somewhere in his rich collection of memorabilia.


Van was a rare man who collected more than trinkets throughout his life. He collected friends and he cherished relationships. There’s no end to the stories that could be told of the twists and the turns of our various experiences with Van, and those stories have suddenly become much more valuable. It was a vivid experience to be around Van, and sadly for us that experience is over. But it’s easy for me to be happy for Van. He has shed his twisted body and I trust he is enjoying some new-found freedom.


I don’t know if my words have met the criteria for a glowing eulogy, but he deserved one. I’m grateful to have gotten to know Van and to have experienced his rare presence. Like the rest of you, I was touched by Van, and I’m grateful for the impact.


Thanks be to God for the life of Talmage Van Spence.

Thanks be to God that his suffering is over.

Thanks be to God.


Nathanael’s Journey

John 1:43-51


43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


I like this story of the calling of Nathanael. It’s the portrayal of the way in which a skeptical person became captivated by Jesus. It reveals the way in which our preconceived notions can get in the way of the truth, but it also shows how amazing it can be when we let go of those obstacles and embrace the truth. Nathanael will always be remembered as the person who asked: what good could come from Nazareth when he was told that the messiah was the son of Joseph from Nazareth, but he quickly came to see and to embrace the goodness of Jesus Christ.  I think the civics lesson from last week is that it’s not helpful to berate the place of origin of anyone. That’s a lesson Nathanael probably knew very well — sometimes the unfortunate words we say are the very ones that follow us for years to come.


God doesn’t just have a sense of humor – God seems to have  what we might call a wicked sense of humor. God knows how to dismantle our most cherished false understandings. The way this happens isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny, but I think its sort of amusing to think of the ways in which God often undermines our preconceived notions of the way things aught to be and provides us with opportunities to see the way that things really are.


We don’t know much about Nathanael. He actually doesn’t get named in any of the other Gospels, and there’s only one more reference to him at the end of John’s gospel, but John presents him as a faithful young man. His name gives it away. Nathanael actually means, gift of God. Nathanael had a godly name and he tried to live up to it. Philip knew this about Nathanael and that’s why he went looking for him after he met Jesus and came to believe that Jesus was the one that faithful Israelites were looking for. Nathanael was probably the most religious person Philip knew, so he went and told him what he thought about Jesus.


What we can speculate about Nathanael is that he was a student of scripture. We can guess this because being under the fig tree was the way the work of a rabbi was described. Just as you might hear a preacher described as a man of the cloth, a rabbi was a man under the fig tree. I don’t know why this is the case for preachers or for rabbis, but apparently this reference to Nathanael being under the fig tree is coded language that identifies him as being a person who knew his way around the Torah.


And in this first chapter of John there are a couple of phrases and images that harken back to the book of Genesis – which is the first book of the Torah. John begins his gospel with those same three words that we find in Genesis: In the beginning…”. And at the end of this story about Nathanael we hear Jesus saying to him that people will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – which is a clear reference to the vision Jacob had at Bethel in Chapter 28 of Genesis.


If you don’t know the story you have at least heard the song about climbing Jacob’s ladder. In that story, Jacob has a vision and in his vision he sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth. That vision served as an affirmation to him that he was in a holy land. It would also be the spot where God changed Jacob’s name and Jacob became known as Israel.


I’m convinced John wanted us to connect this story of Nathanael’s experience with Jesus with the story Israel. As I say, John began his gospel with the same words that began the Book of Genesis, Jesus told Nathanael he would have the same vision that Jacob had, and there’s this business of being under the fig tree. We’re told that Jesus was able to know who Nathanael was because of what he saw him doing under the fig tree. Being under the fig tree indicated that he was a student of the Torah, but it may also have meant that Jesus actually saw him under a fig tree. And that conjures up another image from the Book of Genesis – the story of Adam and Eve.


As I’m sure you remember, after disobeying God and coming to realize they were naked in from of God and each other, Adam and Eve did their best not to be seen, and they hid themselves behind fig leaves. It’s not a happy story, but it’s not a story with a graceless ending. Adam and Eve lose their life in the garden of Eden, but God doesn’t destroy them, and God provided a way for them to live. It’s actually a story that describes the familiar difficulty of life pretty well. Life would become a struggle for Adam and Eve, but there’s some comic relief within the story that we modern Americans don’t pick up on very easily, and it has to do with the fig leaves.


Fig leaves are large, so they would have provided good cover for Adam and Eve, but they’re also really prickly. It’s not the kind of material you want to have as your first layer of clothing. Covering yourself with fig leaves would be little bit like wearing underwear made from 36 grit sandpaper. The part about Adam and Eve grabbing fig leaves to cover themselves is probably a line that always provided the ancient Hebrews with a good chuckle when they told that story around the camp fire.


Adam and Eve weren’t able to hide themselves from God, and neither was Nathanael. Jesus told Nathanael that he saw what he was doing under the fig tree, but what Nathanael was doing wasn’t a bad thing. What Jesus was able to see was a good thing about Nathanael, and Nathanael was moved by the words that Jesus said.  It was after seeing what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree that Jesus declared him to him to be an Israelite in whom there was no deceit.


What we’ve got in this story of the call of Nathanael is an account of the remarkable way in which Jesus brought together the holy history of Israel with the radically new way that God would be present in our own history. This story affirms that God was present in Israel’s history, but God chose to do a new thing in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus wasn’t just another messenger reminding people what God had done. Jesus became the very embodiment of God. Jesus wasn’t telling people where to go to find God, Jesus was the means by which people could actually encounter God.


And none of this happened in a manner that people expected. While the arrival of a messiah was universally desired by Israelites, Jesus didn’t meet the most common expectations of those who were most interested in the messiah’s arrival. Clearly Nathanael was not immediately impressed with Phillip’s announcement that he had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets had written, and that it was Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s reaction wasn’t just prejudice against an out of the way place, which Nazareth was. Nathanael’s concern about Nazareth was that it was in an area of Israel that was not known for it’s religious purity.


Nazareth was in the region of the country that was part of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was the part of the country that was first conquered by the Assyrians, and that political disaster was seen as a consequence of their lack of faithfulness to the God of Israel. Nazareth was nearer to the region of Samaria than it was to Jerusalem. It was Nathanael’s religious orientation that led him to believe that nothing good could come from Nazareth. But Jesus demonstrated to Nathanael and the rest of us that our religious expectations can get in our way.


Our faith in God should expand our view of the truth and not restrict it. The practice of our faith should lead us closer to God not create barriers between ourselves and God. Unfortunately, many devout Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t able to see beyond the barriers that their faith had created. Jesus didn’t meet the criteria that the leaders of Israel had established for the messiah, and it took courage for Nathanael to let go of what he had been trained to expect, and to embrace the new understanding of God that Jesus provided.


Jacob had an authentic experience with the presence of God at Bethel. God was present in the history of Israel, but the world was in need of a new understanding of God, and that’s what Jesus provided. God doesn’t just want us to revere our holy history. God wants us to experience holy living. And holy living isn’t just a matter of behaving well. Holy living is what happens when our hearts are filled with the love of Jesus and we allow that love to guide our lives. Jesus told Nathanael that because of his belief he would become a person who would see angels ascending and descending. Nathanael wouldn’t just know about Jacob’s experience – by looking to Jesus he would share Jacob’s experience.


One way I’ve heard Jesus described is as a portal to God. In other words, we can see God by looking at Jesus. I like that way of understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus can do for us. If we will seek to see and to understand who Jesus was and is we can increase our understanding of who God really is..


The story of Nathanael is the story of a person who wanted to see God. He diligently worked to see God, and his efforts were rewarded – he found his way in to the company of Jesus – who provided him with a view to God.


I wouldn’t have known what a portal was before my previous appointment. That was at Quapaw Quarter UMC in Little Rock. You may have seen that church in the news a couple of weeks ago because the congregation recently voted to sell the building. It’s a historic and magnificent building on one level. But on another level it’s an old and problematic structure. I spent six years trying to keep it operational, and I know that building very well.


I’ve crawled around in the sub-basement and I’ve stood on top of the bell tower. It was a little terrifying to get on top of the bell tower, but it was worth it. In order to get up there you have to crawl up an old weathered ladder made from 2 x 4s that’s 16 or 18 feet tall that’s just under the roof of the bell tower. I had never seen anyone go up it. At the top of the ladder there’s a portal – a box you have to lift up and off that opens on to the roof of the bell tower. I wasn’t sure if I could open it or what to expect if I could open it. There was another man with me, so I knew there would be someone to explain what had happened if something went wrong, but going through that portal on to the roof of the bell tower turned out to be a wonderful experience. There was a chest-high wall around me, so I wasn’t afraid of falling off, and I had this panoramic view of the city of Little Rock from maybe 75’ off the ground.


I sort of think this is symbolic of what Jesus offers us – Jesus is the portal through which we gain access to a panoramic view of the truth about God. By looking to Jesus and following Jesus we are able to gain a better view of God and a better understanding of ourselves. It’s a challenging trek. The portal that Jesus provides isn’t in an easily accessible place, and we never know what we’ll find on the other side.


We all have our own forms of misguided expectations and fears that we have to overcome. Trusting Jesus isn’t an easy thing for any of us, but he’s also incredibly captivating. Nathanael didn’t follow Jesus because he wanted to go against the traditions of his faith. He followed Jesus because Jesus captured his attention – he loved what Jesus said to him and he wanted to know more.


Nathanael’s journey in to the presence of Jesus is the journey that’s been offered to us all. It comes to us as a gift and as a challenge. And by the grace of God we will have the wisdom and the courage to follow Jesus and to see what life can truly be!

Thanks be to God. Amen

Spiritual Sensitivity

Luke 2:22-40


22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.


Memory is such a funny thing. It’s possible for me to forget dramatic events and to remember obscure details. I can forget what I was talking about an hour earlier, but I can remember a small detail from a lecture I heard when I was a freshman in college. I can’t remember if I heard it in Biology or Zoology because I had the same professor in both classes, but I remember Dr. Johnson talking about a particular species of tick that could sit dormant on a tree limb for months – possibly even years until it gets a whiff of perspiration, and the moment it senses the presence of sweat it immediately springs into action and hurls itself in the direction from which the scent seems to be coming. I think I remember the lecture because I’m pretty sure Dr. Johnson did his best to show how a tick could go from dormancy to absolute flying commitment.


Actually, I have no idea if there is any truth to what I remember, but whatever it was Dr. Johnson was talking about – this is what I remember, and I like to think about creatures who have that kind of focus and response capabilities. Maybe the truth is that we all have those kinds of senses for certain substances and situations. I know people who hurl themselves out of bed in the middle of the night when the whiff of a duck hunt is in the air. There is probably something that can draw any of us from prolonged dormancy in to full attention. It’s all a matter of what you’re inclined to pursue.


And what we have recorded in scripture today is the story of two people who were totally focused on the gracious initiatives of God to redeem the world. It’s an interesting story. Apparently there were these two people who were well known within the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Simeon was known as a righteous and devout man and Anna was a elderly widow who spent most of her time in the Temple. It’s easy for me imagine that she was what some people might call a fixture at the Temple. A fixture is a person that you just can’t help but associate with a certain place. I remember when I was growing up there was this really large man called Mutt who was at every high school football and basketball home game. I don’t think they would start the games until Mutt appeared on the sidelines, but I don’t ever remember seeing him anywhere else in town. He was a fixture at the Yellowjacket home games.


I would guess that everyone who came to the temple to present their doves or pigeons would see this devout woman, and she would have known who it was that came to the temple and why. Of course just because she was a fixture at the Temple doesn’t automatically qualify her as a spiritually sensitive individual, but Luke made it clear that she wasn’t just someone who loitered at the Temple – she spent her time worshiping and fasting. Luke portrayed her as being someone who worked at serving God – as opposed to those other people who spent a lot of time at the Temple — the priests.


It’s interesting that there isn’t a reference to any of the officially religious people being conscious of the spiritually significant event that occurred when the holy family entered the temple. The priests were certainly familiar figures at the Temple, but their extended contact with that holy place didn’t produce actual holiness in their lives. This illustrates very well the irony of religion. Exposure to religion is never a guarantee of spiritual development. The priests were there all the time but it didn’t seem to help them understand what God was doing.


While Simeon didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time at the Temple, both he and Anna had found the genuine path that existed within Judaism for people to experience connection to God, and because of that it was very clear to them that Jesus was a special child. I don’t take this to mean that spiritual development always manifests itself in extraordinary abilities, and I tend to be skeptical of people who predict the future, but I do believe that there is such a thing a spiritual consciousness. I feel sure that some people are as sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit as those ticks that I was talking about earlier are to perspiration, and the arrival of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus caused Simeon and Anna to spring into action. They could sense that there was something special about this child, and they had to say something.


We don’t know much about Simeon and Anna, but what we know about Anna and can assume about Simeon was that their lives were difficult. We’re told that they both were looking for the consolation of Israel, and anyone who’s looking for consolation is conscious of suffering. I think it’s significant that they weren’t just looking for consolation for themselves – they were looking for the consolation of their community. They had a corporate identity, which means that they had a deep sense of connection with other people.  And this, for me, defines a deeply spiritual person — someone who identifies with other people – particularly with the suffering of other people.


Suffering doesn’t automatically give rise to spiritual sensitivity, but I think we might all agree that there is some connection. Comfort is a wonderful thing, and I do my best to stay in touch with it, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a spiritually significant experience while reclining in a lounge-chair. A nap can feel pretty good, but it’s not where I’ve learned the most about Jesus, and this story of Simeon and Anna further illustrate the close connection that exists between Jesus and hard times. There are people who endure terrible hardships without developing deep spiritual lives, but people who suffer are more likely to turn their hearts to God than are people who have all their appetites met.


This story of Simeon and Anna foretells of the conflict and suffering that would surround Jesus’ life. Both Simeon and Anna make reference to the pain that would be associated with his life, but they were both filled with joy by his presence. They both had the feeling that their prayers had been answered. Anna was still a poor widow and Israel was still occupied by the Romans, but they both were filled with the assurance that God was at hand. They saw something in Jesus that provided them with a deep sense of comfort in their hearts. This wasn’t something everyone could see, but it was obvious to those who had the clearest vision of what God was doing.


I’m currently listening to a book about a woman who is hardly known, but who had an incredible impact on the history of our nation. Her name is Elizabeth Smith Friedman, and she was a pioneer in the field of cryptology. She began working around 1916 for an eccentric millionaire who thought all of Shakespear’s writings were encrypted writings composed by Francis Bacon. She was Elizabeth Smith at the time. She had studied Shakespear in college and she was hired to analyze the writings of Shakespear to decipher the code. She came to believe that theory was ridiculous pretty quickly, but she learned the art of deciphering coded language. She married William Friedman, who worked for the same eccentric millionaire on the deciphering project, and their skills were soon sought out by the US government to crack German coded messages.


They were instrumental in figuring out troop movements and activities all through WWI, and after the war she was employed by the Treasury Department to help track gangster activities. She had an amazing set of skills in a field that hardly anybody else in the country was pursuing. There were some techniques that could be taught to other people, and she did develop a small team of cryptanalysts, but she was the best. Her husband had his own career in the field, and he worked for the army in his own secret project, but she became the most sought after cryptanalyst in the country. She had an uncanny ability to crack codes, and she became instrumental in cracking Nazi codes during WWII.


From what I understand, there’s a bit of a science to cracking codes and machines were developed to help with the tedious work of exploring endless options. These machines were the predecessors of today’s computers, but Elizabeth Friedman had an uncanny ability to see patterns in letters and numbers that other people couldn’t see. She also had a great grasp of several languages that enabled her to decipher secret messages.


It’s an interesting story about some people who aren’t well known, and who are largely uncredited for the amazing work they did that had a powerful impact upon the shape of our nation. But the really interesting thing to me is the way that people can learn to do such amazing things. Human beings are endlessly creative and clever and can develop expertise in the most specific ways. Elizabeth Friedman is an example of a person who trained herself to do something that hardly anyone knew how to do or how important it was, and that’s how I think of these two people who are identified in our scripture this morning.


Simeon and Anna each had become highly sensitized to the way that God was present in our midst. It was their ability to recognize the ways in which God operated that enabled them to see who Jesus was. While the arrival of Jesus into the world was a gift – the value of that gift wasn’t immediately recognized by everyone. (That’s sort of how I felt when our kids opened the gift that contained the framed photograph of their parents this Christmas – their initial response didn’t reflect a sense that they had received something of great value).


Not everyone was capable of seeing what God was doing in the lives of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but Simeon and Anna had worked hard to be open to God, and their effort was rewarded. They had practiced watching for God, and consequently they were aware of the magnificent presence of Jesus.


Now I’m not inclined to believe that we are instrumental in the work of world redemption. I’m pretty sure this is more of a job for God than me, but I do believe we can be active participants in that work, and if we want to be on board we need to pay attention. This story of Anna and Simeon serves to remind us that there is great opportunity for us to experience the joy of knowing how God is going about the work of redeeming the world. Our work is to pay attention, to give thanks, and to do what we can to cooperate.


The world has received a great gift in the birth of Jesus Christ. May we join Simeon, Anna, and all the other people in the world who have seen this wonderful thing and who know to rejoice.


Thanks be to God!




Christmas Eve 2017

December 26, 2017

The Christmas Story

Luke 2:1-20


1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


We all have our favorite shows to watch during the Christmas Season. For a long time my favorite movie was It’s A Wonderful Life, and I still consider it to be one of the best movies ever. But the one movie that I have to see in order to know that Christmas has arrived is: A Christmas Story. And that’s the actual name of the movie – A Christmas Story. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy named Ralphie who is on a quest to get a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. It’s a daunting undertaking because his appeal is discouraged by all adults who tell him that it will put his eye out. TBS runs a 24 hour marathon of the show starting on Christmas Eve evening, and I always watch a few hours of the marathon. I’ve seen it so many times I can start watching it at any point and know what’s happened and what will happen.


It’s a great show. It’s set in post-war mid-America. Life was a little simpler then, but it’s not an overly romanticized version of life. The people in this movie aren’t particularly beautiful or clever or high minded – they are like people we know. They are like us. This is the really clever thing about this movie. It makes you feel like you could be in this movie – and you could just play yourself.


There’s no reference to Christianity in this movie. The story of the birth of Christ never comes up, but in a significant way A Christmas Story reminds me of The Christmas Story – the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds. Because the main characters in The Christmas Story are also pretty average people. I’m not saying Mary and Joseph weren’t beautiful, clever, and high-minded. From what we know about them they were top-notch people, but they were probably pretty indistinguishable in a crowd. Of course there wasn’t anything average about Jesus, but Jesus isn’t the main actor in this story. He arrives, and that’s a glorious thing, but the focus of this story is on the people who surrounded Jesus.


The action of this story was driven by an unfortunate circumstance. This emperor Augustus had decreed that everybody had to go to their ancestral home to get counted. This was not what Mary and Joseph wanted to be doing at the time. They had to leave their home and travel at the very time that Mary was to give birth. This is the story of poor people getting jerked around by an emperor who was trying to figure out how he could extract more taxes. Mary and Joseph travelled because the consequences of being disobedient were worse than being displaced at a critical moment. The authority figure in The Christmas Story is more threatening than the various authority figures in A Christmas Story, but in both cases the drama is sort of driven by bullies and the immediacies of life.


Both of these stories ring true because much of the drama of the world we occupy is generally driven by low-minded edicts and requirements. Jesus wasn’t born in to a world that was organized around high-minded principles and righteous policies – he was born in to a world that was ruled by bullies and filled with trouble. Jesus was born in stable, and his first bed was an animal trough. We’ve sort of romanticized the story, but I don’t think that’s the circumstance any young couple would have chosen to be in.


Things aren’t so bad for the family in A Christmas Story, but they all have their struggles. Between the bullies, the neighbors dogs, household equipment failures, and familiar interpersonal tensions — life isn’t easy for anyone in Ralphie’s family. Unfortunate things happen, but they are overshadowed by unexpected moments of grace, and the movie always leaves my heart warmed by the mysterious power of love.


I don’t want to raise your expectations too high if you haven’t seen A Christmas Story, nor am I saying it’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen – that would be Wonder Woman. But A Christmas Story is my go-to movie when I want to feel the joy of Christmas. It’s so plain, and it’s so wonderful.


That’s how I think of The Christmas Story – which is the story of the way that God used the plainest people to do the most wonderful thing. I particularly love the role the shepherds play in the story. It’s so interesting to me that the shepherds were the first to be told of the birth of Christ. If you don’t think God has a sense of humor you need to do some research on the standing of shepherds during time of Christ. These were men who weren’t allowed in the Temple because they were ritually unclean. One thing I recently read said that the word of a shepherd wasn’t admissible in court. They had the reputation of being chronic liars.


So think about this. The son of God was born to an unwed mother in a stable in a place where they were unknown. His first bed was an animal trough, and the first people who were told of his birth were men who were more familiar with the stars than they were of holy scripture. These men who weren’t allowed in the Temple were the first to be invited to see the baby Jesus, and they who weren’t trusted in a court of law were the first to proclaim the birth of the savior.


God does have a sense of humor, and God’s wit is designed to undermine those who think they are in charge. The Story of Christmas is the story of the way in which God has chosen to be with us, and it’s not in the way any of us would have expected. This is the way it was when Jesus was born, and this is the way it remains. God comes to us in the most unusual ways. Often the worst things that happen to us put us on the path to our greatest blessings. And the least likely people sometimes turn out to be the ones whom God has chosen to bear witness to the truth.


The Christmas Story didn’t just happen one time. The Christmas Story is what happens in our lives when the good news of God’s presence with us somehow breaks through the ugly ordinariness of life and we feel warmed once again by the mysterious power of God’s love in our lives. We are all participating in a Christmas story of some kind, and we all have a role to play. Hopefully we aren’t being the bullies who establish painful policies that cause the hardships that God has to find new ways to undermine, but God always finds a way to work around or to work with all of us.


Perhaps the most poignant detail of The Christmas Story is the place where Jesus was first laid. There in the manger – the place where the animals were fed. This may very well have been the way that God was telling us that Jesus had come to feed us all. Whether we know it or not, we are all being nourished by the love of Jesus Christ.


It’s best to know it and to truly celebrate the great gift that we were given when God chose to present The Christmas Story.


Thanks be to God.





Advent 4b, December 24, 2017

December 26, 2017

Divine Availability

Luke 1:26-38


26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 


Had my father’s family remained in the religious tradition of our Irish Catholic ancestors I would probably have paid more attention to Mary than my Methodist roots have provided me. It was my great-grandfather on my father’s side who somehow fell away from the mother-church. I know he was born a Catholic, but he didn’t raise my grandfather in the Catholic tradition. I’ve often wondered how that came to be. I know the old-school Catholics considered there to be two types of people. You were either a Catholic or you were doomed.


I’m guessing there was some drama in the family over this, but I have no idea what it was, but as a consequence, I’ve never spent much time thinking about Mary. I’ve read these stories about her every year at Christmas for as long as I can remember, and I repeat her role in the birth of Jesus every time I say the Apostle’s Creed, but I’ve never spent much time trying to decide what it was about Mary that made her the proper candidate to bear the savior of the world.


But I’ve remedied that. I’ve thought about her for a few minutes now. I’ve read a few paragraphs about her, and here’s what I’ve come to understand. In the Catholic tradition, Mary is considered to have been a person of extraordinary character. She’s portrayed as being the most pure-hearted person that a normal human being could be. Of course this is basically extrapolated from the one thing we know about her which was that she had never been alone with a man prior to the arrival of the angel Gabriel. She certainly wasn’t the only young woman of the day that had been untouched in that way, but according to Catholic tradition she was a young person of extreme righteousness and that’s why God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.


Of course this played well in to Catholic instruction of how all young people are to behave, and I’m sure this has helped to maintain relatively good behavior among young Catholics to some extent, but we all know it’s a large burden to try to be good enough to qualify for a mission from God. And because we all know this, the fact that Mary was qualified to be the mother of the God-child, she became a bit of a super-human within the Catholic tradition. Mary became a revered saint within the Catholic Church. Many people within the Catholic tradition consider Mary to be a bit of a bridge between us fallen humans and the divine presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many Catholics pray to Mary for her to take their petitions to Almighty God.


So this is my thumbnail sketch of Catholic understanding of Mary, and the Protestants came to see this as a bit of a distortion. A big part of the protestant reformation was to undermine the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Along with the Pope and the priests being knocked off their positions of power, the protestants took Mary off the pedestal as well. I’ve never known of anyone in any Christian tradition speaking poorly of Mary, but Mary has never been as revered within protestant denominations as she was and is to some extent in the Catholic tradition.


John Calvin, one of the most influential early Protestant theologians wrote that Mary wasn’t blessed because of anything she did. He argued that she became blessed when the angel Gabriel came to her and announced that she had received the undeserved love of God. And this sort of illustrates the early conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. In the Catholic Church the love of God was considered to be earned to some extent, while the protestants considered the relationship to be a gift from God. This is an oversimplification of it all. The real nature of the conflict was that the Catholic Church had clear instruction on how everyone was to understand everything, and the Prostestants came along with equal certainty that they were wrong about it all. How they were able to think Jesus wanted them to kill each other is a mystery, but fortunately, we are no longer so intolerant of each other.


I think it’s nice that the Catholics have such adoration of Mary. There are worse things to do in life than to revere the mother of Jesus. If you have an extraordinary amount of love in your heart for the Virgin Mary you are probably going to be a little nicer to people than you might otherwise be. It’s not a bad thing to think that somebody as amazing as the mother of Jesus is keeping an eye on you.


But I’m more inclined to agree with my fellow Protestants that it was Mary’s ordinariness that made her a good candidate to be the mother of Jesus. I don’t think it was Mary’s purity that made her the right person to bear the baby Jesus – it was Mary’s humility that made her the right person for the job. And I’m not talking about false humility. I’m not talking about the kind of person who takes great pride in their humility and who wants everyone to know how humble they really are. That was not the kind of person God sent Gabriel to find. God was looking for the kind of person who was afraid she might not be up for the job, but who was willing to make herself available anyway.


Humility is one of the great gifts that comes to us in life. Some of us have received that gift more often than we might have preferred, but it really is one of those things that sweetens our lives. I’ll never forget one of the people who provided me with that precious gift. I was in seminary at the time. It was at the end of my second semester. Sharla and I hadn’t been married long, and she was working as a new teacher in a school district that was a long way from where we were living. We were actually living as the caretakers of a summer camp that was sort of out in the country and our living situation provided us with an additional set of challenges.


Those were hard days, and we were both grateful when the semester came to an end. But soon after I had finished my classes I got a call from the secretary of the Divinity School Dean who asked if I could come meet with him the next week.


She didn’t say what it was about and I didn’t ask. He wasn’t someone I knew very well, and I was a little anxious about what he might say, but I was also a little excited about it. I didn’t know if he had heard about how well I pontificated on essential matters in the lounge between classes, or maybe he had some kind of project he wanted me to get involved with. Of course I knew there was another matter he might want to address, and sure enough that’s what it was. I showed up at the appointed time and he invited me in to his lovely office, and he very kindly pointed out that I needed to improve my grade point average if I wanted to stay on course to graduate.


Now I wasn’t entirely surprised by that conversation, but it wasn’t what I had been hoping to hear. I’ve never been a very grade conscious person. My ego has always been attached to far less important matters than academic achievement, but it was a humbling experience on some level and it was something I needed to hear. I guess I spent a little less time in the lounge and more time in the library for the next semester or so, and I actually graduated.


Some of my friends didn’t really like our Dean, but I always had a soft spot in my heart for him. I’m sure that wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with me, but he delivered the message in a kind way – it was clear, and it made me want to do better.


When the gift of humility comes to you in the right way it’s actually very motivating – it moves you to do things that you never expected yourself to be doing. I don’t think of Mary as being a person who had done anything wrong or who had failed in a significant way, but she knew to be afraid of the information that the angel had brought to her. She didn’t consider herself to be qualified for the task that was before her, but she listened, and she trusted, and she humbly accepted the mission.


In the comfort of our sanctuary with the safety of distance from the circumstances of Christ’s birth, and in light of history it’s sort of easy for us to simply think of this moment in Mary’s life as being nothing short of a wonderful opportunity. You might say that Mary is the mother of all celebrities, but this visitation from Gabriel is not what any of us would have experienced in the moment as a career boosting break. What Mary was asked to do was to place herself at extreme risk for a mission with an unknown outcome. It’s easy to say that if you can’t trust God who can you trust, but Mary was dealing with a messenger from God, and this was not an easy story to sell. I think we all know that there would have been a lot of men willing to throw stones at an unmarried woman who claimed to be bearing the child of God.


I actually deserved the gift of humility that I was granted, but Mary didn’t deserve the humiliating position that she appeared to be in. She didn’t deserve it because she was extraordinary or because she was at fault. But it did come to her as a gift. For whatever reason, God chose Mary, and Mary accepted it. God interrupted her life, but God didn’t force this upon her. That’s the way God works – God provides us with opportunities, and we have to accept them.


Sometimes those divine opportunities come to us in the form of apparent disasters – as moments when our lives feel turned upside down, our expectations are shattered, and our need for a new direction becomes obvious. Sometimes divine opportunities arise in the course of quiet conversations when nothing significant is being decided but honest affection and caring is being shared. God works in countless ways and in unexpected moments, and our job is simply to be available when those opportunities arise.


Only one person was chosen to bear the baby Jesus – the savior of the world, but all of us are the beneficiaries of her faithful response. We have all been touched by her humble spirit and her courageous act. This ultimately good thing happened because of the way she responded to the opportunity that God provided, and we don’t need to forget this. This isn’t a turn of events that’s going to happen again, but we don’t know what God has in mind for the future. Our task is not to try to figure out what that might be but to be available for whatever comes our way.


I doubt if any of us are hoping to open a big box of humility for Christmas, but if that’s what you find under the tree give thanks to God for it might help you become even sweeter than you already are.


Thanks be to God.


Advent 4b, December 17, 2017

December 19, 2017

The Voice

John 1:6-8, 19-28


6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 


Advent is a hard season for me to get my mind around. The word, Advent, comes from the Latin word, Adventus, which means coming or visit. And I know the season of Advent is an invitation for us to prepare ourselves for the coming celebration of Christ’s birth, but it’s easy for me to overthink this thing. It’s not easy for me to be unaware of the fact that we are preparing for the coming of the one who has already come. And of course we all know this, but we also know that this is a good thing to do. The birth of Christ in to the world changed the world, and the living presence of Christ in the world has a current impact on each of our lives – Christ comes to all of us in new and personal ways. But I still have a hard time getting my mind around the idea of preparing for Christ to come – when I know that Christ has already arrived.


Of course we also talk about Christ coming again, but that’s not an easy thing for me to urgently prepare for. The second coming of Christ may happen this morning, but they might be talking about the second coming of Christ two thousand years from now. So it’s not easy for me to generate any urgency in my heart for that day of all days – the day when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at the ultimate heavenly banquet here on earth. I trust that day will come, but statistically speaking there’s a low probability of that happening soon.


So on one hand it’s literally impossible for me to prepare for the original birth of Christ, and on the other hand I have a psychological barrier to preparing for the second coming of Christ. Fortunately there is this third way for me to prepare to be visited by Christ, and that’s what I want to talk about this morning. We all know we aren’t preparing for the original birth of Christ when we pull out the Christmas lights and arrange our nativity scenes, and most of us aren’t anticipating that the second and ultimate coming of Christ will happen within the next week, but this is a time for us to prepare ourselves for Christ to come in to our hearts and lives in a new way. As I mentioned earlier, Advent means coming or visit, and who isn’t in need of a new encounter with the living presence of God.


As I reflect on this tradition we have of reading scriptures that point to the coming of Christ in to the world it occurs to me that there’s one character that’s missing from our nativity scenes and that is John the Baptist. I know he was only born a few months before Jesus, and he wasn’t making this announcement about Jesus before Jesus was born, but he plays a large role in the work of preparing people for the coming of the one we know as Jesus Christ.


We always read these various texts about John the Baptist during the season of Advent. He played a very significant role in creating an atmosphere of divine expectation. He was an unsettling character for the religious executives of the day, and as today’s text indicates, they sent people out to try to figure out who he was and what he was doing. And I don’t think they got the answers they were looking for. They were hoping they could somehow put John the Baptist in a category that they understood, but they couldn’t. What John the Baptist was doing was to try to prepare people for something that had never occurred before. I don’t even think John the Baptist knew exactly who Jesus was or what he was going to do, but he trusted and expected God to enter the world in a new way and he wanted the rest of us to be ready for this new encounter with God.


John the Baptist spoke of himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. That’s a compelling way to speak of himself – to refer to himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He was listening to a powerful voice, and I think it’s helpful for us to think that what John the Baptist was doing with his voice was to try to get us to pay attention to the voice of the one who was coming.


John the Baptist didn’t refer to Jesus as the voice, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to think of what he was saying in that way. John seemed to think of himself as a voice crying out for us to be prepared for the voice. We don’t have the privilege of encountering Jesus in the flesh, but we do have the opportunity to hear his word. It’s not easy to be prepared to hear the voice of Jesus, but I like to think of that as the nature of our calling as Christians. We are people who aspire to hear the voice of Jesus – the voice of the One who fully embodied the presence of God.


It’s amazing how powerful the sound of a voice can be to us. You can hear a song and be transported back to the place or the period of time in your life when you first heard that song. I participated in the funeral of the mother of one of my childhood friends yesterday. After the service I gave my friend a ride back to his house along with his son. We drove by our old neighborhood and as we passed by my childhood home my friend told his son – that’s the house where I watched the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. That wasn’t something I remembered (I was a mere kindergartner and he was a worldly 1st grader). But he also remembered my father saying, that guy looks like Moe (of the three stooges), and that other guy looks like Moe as well – in fact they all look like Moe. And that sounds exactly like something my father would have said.


Which reminds me of a conversation I had with my father a few months after my mother died. We were driving back to Little Rock from my cousin’s wedding in Dallas (I may have told this story before). But we had been driving for a few hours in relative silence – my father wasn’t very talkative, but out of the blue my father said You know, I’m having a hard time remembering the sound of Martha’s voice. That was a curious thing to hear him say, and then he asked me if I could remember the sound of her voice. As I thought about it for a moment it occurred to me that I could still hear the sound of her laugh, and there was also a phrase I could remember hearing her say. It was a phrase I often heard her say to my father, and I told him what it was. I told him I could still hear her saying to him, Buddy, if you would just listen! Luckily he was sort of amused by what I said, and I think that line rang a bell with him.


I think John the Baptist was a little bit like my mother in that way. He was conscious of the fact that we are often inclined to turn our deaf ear toward essential messages. I know my mother could strike a tone that would call me to attention, and I think that’s what John the Baptist was doing for the people of Israel. John the Baptist didn’t think of himself as the voice, but he was a powerful voice, and he used his voice to call us to attention.


It’s never easy to discern the voice of Christ, but it’s particularly hard when we give an inordinate amount of attention to all the other voices that are trying to get noticed. It’s especially hard when we think the most important voice out there is our own.


Of course it’s important to pay some attention to the various voices that are out in the world exposing various truths that are worth noting, and it’s important to utilize our own voices to express what we see to be true, but without some guidance from the voice of the one who truly speaks for God we can get caught up in a cacophony of voices.


This world is full of many different voices, and it’s easy to get caught up in the sound of the wrong voices. It’s a challenge for us to tune our ears to hear the true voice of the one who came from God and to train our own voices to become powerful instruments of love and peace and justice.


I have a friend who works as an engineer, but he’s always enjoyed singing and he decided to take voice lessons a few years ago. Being the engineer that he is he had become interested in the mechanics of vocal sound, and he gave me a short tutorial one night on his understanding of how the human voice works. He said the lungs function as the the engine of sound, and how well you learn to control the air-flow has a significant impact on the quality of the sound you produce. The vocal chords actually generate the sound, and of course there’s some training that goes in to how tightly or loosely you hold those chords as the air passes through them. Then there’s the shaping of the sound with your throat, mouth, and tongue, but the quality of the sound is also affected by things like sinus cavities, and skull configuration – which we have no control over. He had come to believe that there’s a good amount of control you can have over the resonance of the sound you produce, but of course some people simply have better heads than others when it comes to sound production.


The mechanics of voice is interesting, and I think it reflects the way in which there’s always a relationship between the hardware and the software. There’s a strong connection between what we have and how well we learn to utilize what we have. I think this creative process of generating voice is a reflection of how we can learn to join our own voices with the voice of God.


It’s God’s breath than powers us. Some of us constrict the amount of God’s breath we allow to pass through us, but there’s some divinity in all of us. We can choose to waste God’s breath by choosing to remain silent or by twisting it in to sounds that suit our own purposes. We can make some devious sounds with God’s breath, but as surely as some people learn to create beautiful sounds with their lungs, vocal chords, and mouths, we are all provided the tools we need to become instruments to proclaim the good news of God’s presence with us.


I believe we are all provided the opportunity to hear God’s voice and to become the bearers of God’s voice. It’s a powerful invitation. It’s a beautiful opportunity. It’s a difficult challenge. It’s a mysterious undertaking. It’s a gift. It’s a job. It’s a solo act. It’s to join in a heavenly chorus.


I believe the voice of Christ comes to all of us in ways that we can understand if we will heed the words of those people like John who could see the world for what it is and call for us to pay attention to how God intends for it to be. The voice of God continues to break in to this world, and to speak to us in particular ways. So during this season of Advent, we aren’t just to give thanks for the way in which God once came in to this world in the form of a child in Bethlehem. We aren’t just to long for the day when Christ will come in final victory. We are to pay attention to the way in which God continues to speak and to guide our lives. Listen, learn, sing, speak, pray, and rejoice!


For Christ is alive, we are not alone — thanks be to God!





Eulogy for Jodie Dugan

December 17, 2017

Reflection on Jodie

I guess I knew Jodie Dugan as long as I’ve known anyone. Joe and Jodie probably came to see me in the hospital when I was born, and I guess I became aware of Jodie as soon as I became aware of anyone beyond my immediate family. We all lived on Forest Avenue a few blocks away from each other, and I spent a lot of time at the Dugan’s house. I didn’t really think of Jodie as my second mother. My mother sort of worked overtime at that job, so I didn’t really need another mother. Jodie was more of an older playmate. And it was great because she could drive.

Jodie would take us places and do things that other adults weren’t so willing to go. I guess the best example of this was the time Bill and I convinced her to let us try to dribble basketballs out of the car windows as she drove down the street. We told her it was something we had seen the Harlem Globetrotters do – which was sort of true. We had seen them do it on their cartoon show, and it seemed like something we ought to be able to do. Of course it wasn’t something we could do at all. The undertaking involved a lot of stopping to retrieve errant basketballs. I think she was a little exasperated when we owned up to seeing this feat done on their cartoon show and not in real life, but she sort of enjoyed the comedy of the situation.

Jodie always had a good eye for comedy. I remember her enjoying some of the same shows we liked to watch when we were kids. Jodie could enjoy an episode of The Little Rascals as much as we did, and she was right with us in our appreciation of all the ridiculous television characters of the day: Barney, Eb, Jethro Bodine, and Gilligan. I even think she got the humor of Mad Magazine.

And Jodie never discouraged Bill and I from engaging in our favorite ridiculous childhood pastime – playing with The Britches. It’s hard to remember the scale of things from childhood, but Bill and I had acquired what seemed like giant pants that Joe had cast aside. I don’t know how large those pants really were, but they were big enough for Bill to get in one leg and me to get in the other, and we would try to move through the house in that way. Jodie didn’t discourage that kind of behavior – she enabled it.

It seems like when you’re a kid you generally try to avoid the attention of adults – they’re usually trying to get you to stop doing something you are wanting to do or to do something you don’t want to do, but it wasn’t like that with Jodie. She seemed to appreciate whatever it was we were doing – even if it involved globs of clown paint that no doubt left lots of fingerprints on walls.

Although Jodie had her limits. The only time I ever experienced her wrath was when Bill and I started taking apart a surrey they had recently acquired. The Dugans were the only people I’ve ever known to have had a surrey. I don’t know where it came from, but it was this little four-wheeled cart with a cloth top that you somehow pedaled. I don’t know why Bill and I thought it would be a good idea to take it apart, but that’s what we were attempting to do, and I can tell you, she didn’t think that was very funny. Dismantling something that was fun was a bridge too far for her.

Jodie didn’t just appreciate television comedy, Jodie had an eye for the comedy of everyday life. I had forgotten this, but in a relatively recent conversation with her she reminded me of an incident that had taken place on one of our multi-family trips to Fayetteville for a football weekend. We were actually staying out from Fayetteville at a place called the Coppermine Lodge on Beaver Lake.

I can’t remember all of the things she said went wrong that weekend, but somehow Jodie had been tagged to drive up there with the kids. Bill and Ann and Martha Jane and I were in the car with Jodie, and by the time we got to McCrory we had convinced her that we needed to stop for food. Those were the days when there was a juke box in every dairy bar, and of course we convinced her we needed some coins for the juke box. I don’t know if we picked this song on purpose or by accident, but somehow we started hearing this country song called Girl Gone Wrong. And because of the reaction we got from Jodie from the lyrics and the sound of that song we played it over and over. She remembered a number of ill-fated events of that weekend, and it was all foreshadowed by that horrible song.

I may not be remembering these stories so clearly, but she did. Jodie remembered great details of days gone by, and she cherished them deeply.

I know Jodie had her struggles. I honestly don’t know the extent of her physical and psychological ailments, but I know she had them and that she suffered terribly. I guess I was only around Jodie when she seemed to be feeling ok and ready for a laugh. I knew her to be someone who was quick to laugh and ready for something fun to happen. I knew Jodie as a fishing buddy, and as the mother who was willing to take us to the Mid-South Fair (where apparently I was known to borrow several dollars from her by using the excuse that I didn’t want to break my $5 bill – which is something she enjoyed reminding me of). Jodie was the one who would take us to buy mod clothing down on Highland Ave in Memphis and then to eat at Friday’s on Overton Square.

Jodie contributed mightily to the pleasure of childhood for me, and I’m grateful to her for that. The way our families were woven together is a very special thing to me, and it’s an honor to share a few of my thoughts and memories of a person who brought great joy and love in to my life. Jodie was one of the people who caused me to think this world is a beautiful and wondrous place, and I continue to cling to that fragile thought. This world has lost a dear soul, but it’s a brighter place because she was here.


Advent 2b, December 10, 2017

December 11, 2017

In The Tribe of The Lord

Isaiah 40:1-11


1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. 


Don’t worry. I know we’ve already had a good message from the kids and I don’t have another full dose of a sermon for you, but I wanted to share a simple thought with you on this second Sunday of Advent. This is a beautiful text that we’ve heard this morning. It’s a form of poetry that has rich layers of meaning that’s set in a very particular moment in Israel’s history. It deserves more attention that I intend to give it, but I think we all can appreciate the way in which the political dynamics of the times have powerful implications on our understanding of the way in which God is at work in the world.


Without getting in to the weeds of life in Israel 2600 years ago, the interesting thing to me is the way in which Isaiah interpreted the events of their day. What he seems to identify is the way in which the troubles they faced were the consequences of their own unfaithfulness. What an amazing thing Isaiah was doing! He didn’t blame the troubles Israel had faced on their pagan neighbors or their unfaithful friends. Isaiah believed they had suffered terrible failure and loss because of their own failure to follow the ways of God.


And it was because they recognized their own complicity with ungodly agendas and unholy desires they were in a position to become reconciled with God. The people of Israel had lost their self-defensiveness and that enabled them to experience the most supreme form of security – the kind of comfort that comes from God.


The politics of today are being defined by an old word that’s being used in a new way. There have been a number of people who have described our various allegiances as being tribal. These tribes sort of break down along traditional party lines, but what we used to consider to be different ways of being good Americans have become intolerable ways. And while I believe our allegiance as Christians is to a community much larger than the United States of America, but in some ways our allegiances have become much smaller than our sense of being common citizens of a nation. Our temptation is to become political warriors and to do all that we can to promote our own viewpoint and to destroy our political enemies.


I’m saying this because I understand this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called our senators over the past few weeks because I can’t stand this tax bill. I haven’t said anything a preacher aught not to say, but I’ve recognized some ugly passion within myself. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be politically engaged. God knows our senators and representatives need to hear from people who are seeking to love and serve God, but we also need to remember that we are all flawed and frail creatures. Our love can become focused in really narrow ways, and we need to remember how large God’s tribe really is.


The good news is that we are in a tribe that’s larger than the one we are the most aware of. As members of God’s tribe we are not going to be forgotten and we are going to be redeemed. Unfortunately, what God sometimes provides is a period of exile in a foreign nation, but that’s ok. God’s love can find us wherever we are and will come to us in ways that we would never have expected.


Jesus Christ was born in a barn to an unwed mother. God doesn’t do what we think God needs to do – God provides what we actually need.

Thanks be to God.