Have you not known? (sermon)

You know how you remember movies—from your childhood, or perhaps other important moments in your life? Perhaps it’s your favorite childhood movie, or a movie from a date, or something you watched with a loved one. One of the movies that lives in my head from my own childhood is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was an old video cassette, recorded straight from television sometime during the 90s, so every viewing would mean fastforwarding through the same ads, all Christmas-themed, from years past. Perhaps you know this beloved Narnia story—four children accidently stumble into a wardrobe, into a new, magical country. Narnia is under enchantment, an enchantment that can only be broken by the return of the lion Aslan, and the fulfillment of prophesy.

One of my favorite moments in this movie is when the four children are sitting in the beaver’s dam. It’s the first time they hear the full story of all that’s going wrong in Narnia, and the first time that they hear that they have a role to play in fixing it. Their first response is fear—how are they ever going to save Narnia from the white witch, and become kings and queens? But there’s another important piece of information: Aslan is on the move. The children don’t know who Aslan is, but in this 1988 film, the moment when they hear his name, something happens. When the name Aslan is spoken, each child begins to imagine a world where there are flowers, and greenery, and summer parties in the woods—no longer winter. The movie shows this in a montage, before returning to the plot at hand. When the name of Aslan is spoken, for a brief moment, the children see Narnia as it should be—full of life, and growth and beauty.

Of course, we are not in Narnia on this winter day. We are here on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—a moment in our church calendar that is beginning to feel quite exciting. The season after the epiphany spans from the Star in the East on January 6th, to next Sunday—the Transfiguration, and we have been building up to that moment on the mountaintop for quite some time. Today is the penultimate Sunday—Moses and Elijah haven’t appeared beside Jesus yet, but there’s excitement in our lections: something is about to happen. There’s a buzz about Jesus: ‘everyone is searching for you!’ Who is this guy? Why do we feel like there’s something different about this wandering prophet? We also encounter Paul, who says he’ll do anything for the sake of the Gospel. Tangible excitement… all of this good news really matters, somehow.

The lectionary choices for today pull us toward the questions found in Isaiah: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Isaiah gives voice to the excitement and escalation of this Epiphanytide. Have you not known, that Jesus is more than just a prophet? Have you not heard, that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”?

The writer of this portion of Isaiah is addressing a particular audience—likely those who returned from exile in Babylon, to resettle in a new and strange Israel… to do the hard work of community-building, and remembering their history as a people chosen by God. For the writer of Deutero-Isaiah, remembering history is all about remembering where we as humans stand in an enchanted universe—a universe which God has created and maintains and recreates. Their particular audience are people who, as Paul Hanson writes, “are looking for magic, not for miracle; for a genie, not for the Creator of the universe.” The writer of Isaiah 40 begs the people of Israel, and maybe even us, to remember that their history does not begin with them as individuals, or with rulers and nations, but begins… with God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. 

This invitation to think differently, is the core of our lectionary readings today… but it is not an easy invitation. If you’re anything like me, you might feel a bit called out by verse 27 of Isaiah, which critiques people who say “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”. I can’t tell you the number of times I have basically prayed this same set of words to God—“tell me what I’m supposed to do” or “seriously, God, what have you gotten me into?”. Or, perhaps, like me, you feel vaguely discomforted by our reading from 1 Corinthians, where for the sake of the gospel, Paul has “made himself a slave to all”, and become “all things to all people”. That seems like a LOT—if I did the same, would I still be me? Is there any part of myself I can keep separate from this all-encompassing job of evangelism?

The invitation to imagine ourselves in a great big story—the one that the writers of Isaiah, and Psalm 147, and Paul both try to paint—is incredibly difficult, once we begin to think about it. How do we even begin to give up so much of ourselves, our individualism, our ‘rights’, our autonomy? We don’t like to think we are in a great big story—it’s easier to just do church one day a week, or examine the context of the Bible instead of reading the words of the Bible itself, or to think that Paul might need some vacation time, and a little self-care.

But where, at least, my own bravery and imagination fails, is where Isaiah begins. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? The task of Deutero-Isaiah is this great big story… as Hanson again writes, “the construction in words of a universe renewed and restored around its life-giving, loving Center”.

“’It’s no good, Son of Adam,” said Mr. Beaver, “no good your trying, of all people. But now that Aslan is on the move—’

‘Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!’ said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling—like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.

‘Who is Aslan?’ asked Susan.

I have read, and watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, hundreds of times, and this moment still gives me chills and goosebumps. Each child, in this moment in the book and on screen, saw a vision of springtime, and a flash of the world made right. “Like the first signs of spring, like good news”, like a snatch of an old song that you loved but had forgotten about, like a memory of home and belonging—wherever that is or was—that makes your heart ache, like a world that could be, hovering just around the corner… If you know that feeling of anticipation of something that is unimaginably good, then what you know is the invitation of Isaiah. Have you not known? Have you not heard?

And perhaps, for all our fears, and doubts, and worries, seeing ourselves as part of this great big story—God’s story, is the thing we are being called into right now. Perhaps, on the cusp of experiencing the Transfiguration afresh and entering Lent yet again, we are being invited to be brave, to take a step or five, to imagine our world with God at the center, “he who sits above the circle of the earth”, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”.

The story of the Gospel—God’s story of salvation and redemption—is powerful, and as Christians, we believe it is good beyond any kind of good that we can even imagine. It is a great big story that rivals the likes of Harry Potter, and Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and even Narnia, that it is possible for us to be a part of. It is a great big story that asks us to imagine a better world for all people, and to invite others into that great big story. This is the story that Jesus came to show us, that Paul believes is worth everything. THIS is the story that enables us to look at this world with confidence and hope and dreams of a better future. THIS is the story that makes other people look at us and wonder: what do they have? What do they know that I’m missing out on? Maybe I want to be a part of that.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth”, that this is the great big story of our salvation?

happy are those whose hearts are set (sermon)

In the fall of 2013, I took a travel-writing class, and as part of that class, went on my first walking pilgrimage. A bunch of unruly and excited young adults—IT majors and business majors and fashion majors—laced up our hiking books and grabbed our notebooks and boarded a plan to Madrid for spring break. We wound our way north to the city of Léon, and then pulled on our backpacks and headed out to hike parts of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Originally a pilgrimage route dating from the 9th century, or even earlier, people of all classes and ages and genders walked these 800 kilometers, seeking greater faith, seeking forgiveness and years off of purgatory, seeking to venerate St. James the Apostle at the Compostela.

Nowadays, the Camino has as many secular hiking enthusiasts as religious pilgrims, and routes that once took months, or years, can now be undertaken in a month. But regardless of why people choose to walk the Camino, they all find themselves following an ancient route through the towns and cities of Galicia, a route marked with a scalloped shell.

As college students there for just a few days, just barely familiar with Spanish geography, we knew that eventually, we’d walk the several kilometers into Santiago de Compostela, but for the most part, we just walked, taking in each new sight, each new village, and enjoying each others company.

There’s a saying that it’s not the destination, but the journey, but that’s too simple, too saccharine to describe what was happening to me, as a sort of pilgrim on the Way. There was, of course, an overarching goal, a destination of special magnificence, which was our focus at the beginning. But as we progressed on, our goals became smaller. When your feet are achingly tired from a 20km day of rough terrain, it’s not Santiago, so many kilometers away, that you think about to keep going. Your goals become smaller: finding the next trail marker, waving and saying ‘buen Camino’ to the next person you meet, reaching a new town, or your next meal.

Today, on this second Sunday of Christmas, we read about some pilgrims. Tradition says there are three pilgrims, but Matthew is the only gospel writer which records this story, and he never actually specifies. Three? Six? Ten?, who bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We don’t know much about them—they are described as wise men from the East. What makes them wise? Were they renowned as wise rulers or judges in their own countries? Or were they wise simply because they saw the star and knew the prophesy, and started on a journey? Their words are few, but poignant all the same: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

We may not know very much about these pilgrims, but they are very clear about what they know, and why they are searching. In this year’s virtual Christmas pageant, our three wise pilgrims are brilliantly depicted by Laura Jane, Emma, and Daniel. They are on the way to find Jesus, camel and all. In the pageant, they make a quick stop by Herod, and when Herod says “what king?”, they almost literally shrug, and continue onwards, following the star. Herod is not an essential part of this journey for the wise men—just a bystander, someone who might know something about the route. While the conversation with Herod takes up a significant portion of this morning’s Gospel, the only thing it tells us is that the wise men know what they are looking for. The pilgrims know the path they are on, and are just looking for the trail marker and maybe a good meal.

They have one stated question: Where is he?

And they have one stated goal: We have come to…

When Herod can’t answer their question, they shrug and move on. Where is he? For this is why we have come.

The wise men are often categorized as an essentially Christmas story. They’re part of the nativity, and after Epiphany, and these twelve days of Christmas have gone by, we pack up our creches and say goodbye to them for another year.

This Christmas, perhaps some of us feel particularly disjointed—that Christ has come, that Love has come down, and yet, we’re still waiting for joy, for healing, for the world to be set to rights. There’s a sense of unfinished business, knowing that we celebrate the birth of our Savior while waiting for Christ to come again. It’s the same in-between times that Christians have always lived in, but perhaps we feel it more this year, in a year of waiting and hoping for better things.

If this feeling resonates with you, then I invite you to do something: don’t pack up your wise men this year.

Because these intrepid travelers and wise pilgrims are more than just a sweet story. We may not know much about them, but we call them wise because they know what they are looking for. We have come to pay him homage. Where is he?

We may not know much about them, but we know that they took this journey seriously, examining every trail marker, watching the stars, and asking everyone, where is he? For we have come.

In John’s gospel, Jesus, some thirty years later, says that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light”. These wise pilgrims were the first to set out to find this Way—not through some lofty ideal, but through the slow, hard, and tedious journey—full of elusive trail markers and aching feet.

Our psalmist writes in Psalm 84 that

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

As Christians, we know that Christ has come to us, God Incarnate. We know that this Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Light. And Christ is the Way that we embark on again this Christmas, putting one foot in front of the other, waiting for the next trail marker.

Because ultimately, while we know that Christ will come again, that is a destination which feels impossibly far off, most days. So far off, that we must make our goals smaller, like my classmates and I did on the Camino de Santiago. Our work, our life of faith becomes reliant upon these trail markers and rest stops, for confirmation that we are in fact, following Jesus our Way.

As Christians, our life of faith imagines a destination that is not dependent on how fast we walk or run. Instead, what matters about being faithful pilgrims on the Way, is that we keep moving.

Our hearts are set on the pilgrims way.

We know what our guiding question is: where is he? Where is this king, whose star we have seen and followed from our own homes and lands? Where is God acting the world right now? Where do I need to show up, to partner with God in works of justice and mercy?

We also know why we have come. Just as the wise men knew that they had come to pay homage, to worship, to be overwhelmed with joy, each of us, I hope, knows even a little bit about why we have come. What keeps you coming back to church, or logging into online worship? What keeps you praying, or studying Scripture? What have you come for?

So as you think about putting the ornaments back in their boxes, and putting away your holiday baking supplies, and folding the tree skirt, I invite you to leave your wise men out, if you have them, for a little while. 

Let them be a reminder to you to look for the trail markers in your life of faith,

To know what your guiding quest is: where is He?
To know what keeps you coming back to God: I have come for—
Let these wise pilgrims be a reminder to you, that
Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Sermon begins at about 23:00.

Love came down at Christmas (sermon)

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”

In the name of…

Seeing is believing—that’s the expression you’ve heard before, the expression my mother used when I didn’t quite manage to clean my room, or, in the face of empty promises over half-finished homework, or, when she was hoping for something slightly too far removed from reality.

Seeing is believing. But that’s not the whole quote. The 17th century English writer Thomas Fuller penned this expression in a collection of proverbs and folk sayings, writing that “Words are but Wind; but seeing is believing”. For Fuller, words are ephemeral, in one ear and out the other, transient, a moving target. “Words are but Wind; but seeing is believing” Seeing is believing because seeing feels somehow more truthful, more evidence-based, more real.

We are surrounded by words. Words that are beautiful or moving. Words that are false, or deceptive. Words, words, words, that surround and overwhelm us as we spend our days reading emails, news, and books… listening to podcasts and music lyrics and television… our world is filled with words that we must listen to, and weigh their truth. Is it real, or is it fake news? Are these words to believe in, or words that deceive? Words are wind, but seeing is believing.

On this Christmas morning, we read this famous passage from the first chapter of John: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. You’ve probably heard it before, or perhaps hundreds of times. And in talking about the Incarnation—the birth of Jesus Christ—John, or the person from the Johannine community who wrote the text, weighs in on an important debate in the New Testament: whether seeing is in fact believing. We see this debate happening in the famous story of Thomas from the Gospel of John, who refuses to believe in the resurrection until he can see Jesus himself. Jesus says that “blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe”. The writer of Hebrews says something similar in that famous verse, that “faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what you do not see”.

Words are wind, but seeing is believing. Because regardless of the lesson of Thomas, and the writer of Hebrews, I think we humans know that seeing still matters, even though we’d like to have enough faith to believe without seeing. Seeing matters.  Knowing with certainty still matters. At the end of the day, words—as important as they are—don’t hold up in comparison with seeing in real life.

And so John’s story of our salvation begins with an impossible, astounding declaration: “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. The transient, the negotiable, the promises of prophets, the word spoken into the dark at the beginning of creation: finally visible. Seeing is believing, and “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”. The Word became flesh, so that we could see, and believe.

This glorious contradiction then begs the question: if the Word has become flesh… if Christ has truly come among us, what do we see? What drives us to belief? Perhaps it seems like a simple question: well, we see Jesus, as human, living, dying, raised from the dead, and that’s our proof. But as a person living in the 21st century, I don’t literally see Jesus standing in front of me. It has been two millennia since Christ ascended to heaven, and I still wonder: if I can’t see Jesus in-person, what is left for me to see, so that I may believe?

This first chapter of John may seem like an odd choice for Christmas Day: there is no manager, no angels or shepherds, none of the familiarity of Christmas Eve. Instead, the lectionary assigns us this meditation on the Word becoming flesh, a reflection on the cosmic implications of the Son of God coming to earth as a human child. What is clear here is that the Word become flesh is a direct result of love. From another part of John’s gospel: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life”. God coming to earth, God’s glory revealed in the lowliest of mangers, was all for love.

Here, I am reminded of a famous poem by Christina Rossetti, the Victorian poet, who describes the Incarnation as an act of love. Rossetti writes that

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

She asks later in the piece the same kind of question we’re asking today: “But wherewith for sacred sign?”. Where is our sign? What is the glory that we see? Rossetti answers quite simply, that “Love shall be our token”. Love is our sign of the Incarnation. Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again two millennia ago, but Love continues, to this day, to be our token, to be our evidence of this glory.  

Love came down at Christmas. Friends, the truth of the matter is this: that the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. We, you and I, have seen his glory. We have seen his glory, because we have seen love.

We have seen Love every time we realize the truth that God wants to save the whole human family—you and me and the world, even when we seem completely unworthy of love.

We have seen Love in the care and goodwill of others, in the seeking and serving of Christ in all persons, in loving your neighbor as yourself.

We have seen Love at Chapel of the Cross this fall as we explore what it means for love to dwell among us—in our homes, in our worship and formation and fellowship and service.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. We have seen his glory, even in the year 2020, because we have seen Love.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all [of us]
Love for plea and gift and sign.

We have seen Love, and so we believe—we believe in a God who loves us so deeply and desperately that God’s majesty and glory would be made known through a tiny baby: Love Incarnate. Love Divine. Love which dwells among us.

And the Word became flesh, became Love in the most unlikely of places. Love came down at Christmas. Love dwells here.