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.

The Lord has done great things for us (sermon on Ps. 126)

And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said
I’m lonely
I’ll make me a world

So begins ‘The Creation’, that famous poem by James Weldon Johnson, which ends with the creation of man, which portrays a God who contemplates the vast expanse of interstellar space, and says

I’m lonely
I’ll make me a world

A God who dreams up a world so bright and beautiful and good—too good to last against the perils of temptation. A God who watches in sorrow as Adam and Eve eat the fruit, who walks in the garden at the cool of the day and says

I’ll make me a world

And so outside of the garden, he tells his beloved creation how to live, to be in a world where pain and death exist.

But soon, Abel lies dead, and violence runs rampant until, of those people made from clay, there are only a few who remember God’s dream. And so the waters cover the earth, and recede and a rainbow appears in the sky as God promises

I’ll make me a world

So Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph wrestle with this God and this dream, the dream that will outnumber the stars in the sky and bring rulers to their knees in the face of these wandering nomads, beloved of God, provided for even in drought and plague.

So they go to Egypt. But the Egyptians have forgotten Joseph and his God and this dream, and so God says

Let my people go
so I can make me a world

And in the face of this dream, the waters of the Red Sea part, water gushes from the rock, manna falls from the heavens, the tablets of stone invite God’s beloved into this dream of justice and abundant life.

God beckons an unruly people into the promised land saying

I’m gonna make me a world

It didn’t last for long, by all accounts—whether Deuteronomy was a dream or a short-term reality, soon there were judges and then kings: some glorious, some forgotten. And God’s beloved forgot, again and again, turning to Ba’al and earthly rulers for comfort, peace, security.

And as the tattered shards of God’s dream were carted off to Babylon, God through the prophets, prophesied that the ancient ruins shall be built up, that those who mourn in Zion shall have garlands instead of ashes, and God took the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah by the hand and said

I’ll make me a world.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, they were like those who dream. In this world, this dream of God, the people returned and the temple was rebuilt, the law was reestablished and there was great rejoicing, and then the Bible tells us very little for the next hundreds of years…

until a man clothed in camel’s hair, a man named John, appeared on the banks of the Jordan as a witness to God’s dream. And through this voice crying in the wilderness, God says to these ruled-over and captive people

I’m lonely
So prepare the way
Because I’m gonna make me a world

But God’s dream of beating swords into plowshares and uniting the whole world to himself was not, is not, a world of judges and kings and warfare and poverty. Amidst the joy and repentance and excitement on the banks of the Jordan, the gathered crowd forgot, forgot this dream, and eagerly awaited a Messiah like the earthly kings, like David of old.

And God chuckled, and sent a baby, born in straw and among shepherds, and said

I’ll make me a world

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, the grace and beauty and goodness of God’s dream from that garden so long ago. The Word became flesh and lived and died and rose for each of us because God said

I’m gonna save me a world

Two thousand years of prophets and saints and sinners and God making and remaking this saved world, and we still find ourselves here this Advent, waiting for the coming of Christ. We still find ourselves waiting for, longing for our savior who will turn the world right, who will make this dream of God a perpetual, eternal reality.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we may find ourselves praying ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’, and wondering where God is. Where is this Lord who has done great things for us before? Where is our God now?

If this salvation history, our lineage of faith, is anything to go by, the answer to this question is that God is among us, inside of us, knocking at the door of our homes and hearts, saying

I’m lonely
I’m gonna make me a world

but I can’t do it
without you, my beloved child

The Lord can indeed restore our fortunes and turn tears into songs of joy

And so on this third Sunday of Advent
Christ stands before you
Your home
Your heart
Wherever you may find yourself this year
and says
I’m gonna make me a world.
We’re gonna make this dream real
Will you join me?