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?

Do not forget (thanksgiving sermon)

Thanksgiving 2020—a Thanksgiving, perhaps unlike any in our recent memory. And however you’re spending this holiday, I think we all feel a sense of loss this year. Traditions with friends and family that must be canceled, or changed and adapted. New conversations where we discuss risk, where we admit our own vulnerability to forces of nature beyond our control.

Perhaps today, we find ourselves standing at a border, a boundary. Standing in the unknown—the winter holidays in a pandemic, thinking about the past, and looking into an uncertain, but hopeful, future.

And so this year, if that is indeed where we find ourselves, we are in the exact same place as the Israelites. Despite what it sounds like in today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy, we, they, are not in the promised land yet. The whole book of Deuteronomy is them standing on the shore of the Jordon, listening to Moses speak. Almost there, but not there yet. So close, but not yet.

In this passage, Moses speaks of the goodness of the land before them, a land with flowing streams, a land where you will lack nothing. It is a mental picture sketched before a hungry, tired people, a tantalizing picture of what might be. But there is an underlying warning, if you’re looking for it: do not forget. Do not forget the Lord your God, do not forget the years of the desert, do not forget. Remember it is God who brings you to the goodness of the land. Do not forget.

After generations of slavery, years of wandering in the wilderness, how could they possibly forget? After so many hard lessons, and witnessing God’s provision, how could they forget this wilderness experience? Walter Brueggemann writes that this experience permitted “Israel to recognize that it was not self-sufficient, could not manage its own way, and therefore could not pretend that it was in charge of its own life.” For Brueggemann, “The wilderness memory is one of vulnerable dependence, the shattering of all illusions of adequacy.”

And yet, it’s so easy to forget, when things get better, when the hope-for future finally arrives. As people, we want to put aside our vulnerability, banish the memory of a time that is so far out of our control. But God says, do not forget. Remember.

Remember the time when you needed me, God says, and I showed up. Remember the manna in the wilderness, the Zoom and phone calls with friends and family and church family, the dedicated work of so many making sure the poor have access to housing, food, clothing, medicine. Remember the new furry friend you brought home from the shelter, the extra time with kids (as challenging as it may sometimes be), the delight of seeing the seasons change at a slower pace of life.

Remember, God says, that even in the wilderness, there can be sufficiency. There will be brighter days—after all, we haven’t crossed the Jordan yet. Don’t forget. Don’t forget the homebound, and those who live far away, who we welcome to our Sunday services week after week. Don’t forget the creativity and ingenuity springing from the children and family website, from youth leaders taking charge of small groups and figuring out new, safe ways of being in community. Don’t forget the partnership of faith leaders, who worked tirelessly to create and fund the learning site, to help children in our community amidst the challenges of learning during a pandemic. Don’t forget, that we know now more than ever, that we can still be the church, the Body of Christ, from our own homes, or from wherever you’re worshiping with us today.

Do not forget, that this is the God who brought you out of Egypt. Remember the manna in the wilderness, new every morning. Do not forget the water from the rock, the mercy of God, the laws that bind us together as a community. Remember the covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

So on this Thanksgiving, a Thanksgiving in the wilderness, I hope that amidst whatever is happening in your life today, I hope we can remember. As we remember the past, and hope for the future, I hope we can remember to give thanks for the blessing of today: for a God who is cultivating this field as his own, who is still at work in the wilderness of our lives.

So we give thanks, and wait on this side of the Jordan. And as we wait, we remember the works of God in this wilderness and all the goodness that is yet to be, remembering with hymn-writer Henry Alford that “all the world is God’s own field”. And so we pray, and sing:

“Even so, Lord, quickly come,

bring thy final harvest home;

gather thou thy people in,

free from sorrow, free from sin,

there, forever purified,

in thy presence to abide;

come, with all thine angels, come,

raise the glorious harvest home.”

three things {3}

Another three things post, though I think this might be slightly more than three things. I’m catching up on last week, when I’d just gotten back from traveling and ended up working much of the day instead. So this week, I’m enjoying a slightly more relaxed pace for my Monday… and am glad to be back to the blog.

This morning started off with a puzzle and tea (and Opal, who enjoys sunbathing nearby). My dining room table has become a puzzle table, since it’s not as if it’s being used for large gatherings during COVIDtide. I haven’t done puzzles regularly for a while, but I’m finding they’re a really helpful, non-digital form of entertainment during a time when everything is digital. My next non-digital exploration will be getting back into a reading-for-pleasure rhythm… but probably only when I’ve finished watching all the Miss Marple series that exist on Britbox (Hickson down, halfway through McEwan… and now eying Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie on Acorn).

Two things I’m really loving at the moment: this gorgeous map from Lord of Maps that is part of my (very gradual) transformation of my living room walls. As a Tolkien aficionado, having a map of my favorite country done in that Middle Earth style is, quite frankly, the best. This cookbook from Hetty McKinnon, which is keeping my cooking life from being very dull indeed. I’m not vegetarian, but I do tend to eat like one, and I’ve recently run out of inspiration for coming up with interesting things to make on my own. So I’m committing to more cooking from recipes to broaden both my palate and kitchen knowledge. Today I’m embarking on the Maltese ricotta pie, along with a mazo ball soup from Smitten Kitchen.

Despite me having been gone for a week, and despite almost constant battle with the leaves descending from the trees above, the planter boxes have begun to move from tiny seedlings to larger leaves. The spinach has taken the worst of the leaf assault, but I’m pleased to say that the kale is looking quite beautiful. I really hate buying winter greens, even though I love eating them, so I’m hoping to keep these beds up for as long as a (mild?) NC winter may allow.

Keep Awake

Over the spring and summer, a series of morning prayer videos went viral, being shared thousands of times across the internet and social media sites by organizations and people of all religions and nationalities. Morning prayer, going viral! Each of these videos showed a fairly normal morning prayer, led by the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in England, in a black cassock, seated outside in his garden with a tea tray. In one of them, a cat walks across the screen, and disappears into Dean Willis’ cassock, apparently hoping for a few pets or scratches. In another video, a second cat climbs up on the table and sits there in front of the tea tray. This cat, named Tiger, spends the next several minutes scooping milk out of the cream pitcher with his paw, and lapping it up.

As a cat lover myself, I think these videos are adorable. And as I watch these cats frolic around the screen, I realize that I’ve completely lost track of what Dean Willis is saying about the gospel, because I’m so focus on these mischievous interlopers. As soon as these cats enter the screen, I immediately acquire tunnel-vision, and am only really interested in seeing what the cat is going to do next.

It’s easy, isn’t it, to get sidelined by tunnel-vision? To be so distracted by one thing, and one thing only, no matter how cute, or good it might be, that we lose sight of everything else that’s going on, everything else that’s important.

And I want to suggest that this tunnel vision, this distraction, is what happens whenever we read this week’s gospel lesson. It’s a bit confusing, this week’s parable. Ten bridesmaids—five who were slightly more prepared than the others. Ten bridesmaids wait, for the bridegroom is delayed. We’re told that all of them sleep, and all of them wake when the shout comes that the bridegroom is returning. Five bridesmaids have more oil with which to replenish their lamps. Five bridesmaids request more, and are rebuffed by their friends, who tell them that there won’t be enough for everyone, that they’d better go buy more.

Five bridesmaids go to buy more oil, and while they’re doing this, the bridegroom suddenly returns, and takes the other five into the wedding feast. The five who have gone to buy oil then come back, and say wait, let us in too! And they are rebuffed: “I do not know you”. The parable ends with a confusing moral: to “keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.

Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. This is one of a series of rather apocalyptic parables found in Matthew and Luke, focusing on the coming of the kingdom of God, and more importantly, who will be a part of that coming kingdom. This is where you find the parable of the sheep and the goats, the wealthy landowner, and other stories that don’t always seem like good news, even when we can understand what they mean.

The ten bridesmaids’ division into being either wise or foolish seems to be based purely on whether they brought enough oil, or were wise enough to prepare for the delay of the bridegroom. And on the face of it, that seems to make sense. Except for this brief cautionary moral at the end: keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Wait. Hold on a minute. In the parable, all the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish fell asleep. What about the oil? Shouldn’t the oil be part of the moral for this tale—it is, after all, the only distinction between the wise and foolish?

The oil. Everybody has an explanation of what it is. For Augustine, it is the oil of charity. For Epiphanius, it is the oil of compassion, of thinking about the future. And more than one Christian writer has expounded on the oil as a symbol of purity or virginity. All that is to say, is that there’s as many different interpretations of the oil as there are theologians.

Thinking about all of these different interpretations of the oil, this week, made me think about Tiger, our feline friend who captivated so the world’s attention when he strolled into a prayer livestream.

This is a parable about the Bridegroom’s return, and the bridesmaids waiting for him. As soon as the oil appears in the parable, we’re captivated by it. Just as we get tunnel-vision the moment that Tiger appears on-screen, we’re also prone to get a bit of tunnel-vision around the oil, as the key to interpreting this parable.

We can spend so much time wondering what it is, and why it made a difference, that we begin to loose track of we’re waiting at all. If we’re too focused on it, we wander off in search of more, like the foolish bridesmaids.

But in the end, it wasn’t really about the oil, was it?

The wise bridesmaids thought it was. So did the foolish—they ran off to get more, thinking that would be the thing to get them in the door. Through a lamp lit with oil, they would be seen, and known when the bridegroom finally, after years and years and years, made an appearance.

But the oil wasn’t it, was it? We want it to be the oil, yes.

We want it to be this leader, or that leader, or this power or principality, someone who will finally bring about justice and make our lives better. We want it to be the oil, because that will allow us to be certain. It will allow us to be certain that we’ve made the right decision. We can settle back into our complacency that the world is alright. That we don’t need a savior coming in upon the clouds, that we don’t need justice, true, true justice for the poor and the oppressed, the kind of justice that will never happen under any president, any king, any ruler. If we have the oil, we can forget that there’s supposed to be something more—a shout, a cry, a sudden light around the edges of the doorframe.

It wasn’t the oil, was it? The wise bridesmaids, they just got lucky. They didn’t need the oil, though it made the last few days, moments, years, more comfortable, more light-filled. But the Bridegroom didn’t know these bridesmaids by the oil. He didn’t know their faces better because lamp-light illuminated them. The Bridegroom didn’t need more light, because the light streaming out from the open doorway was plenty to see by, dazzling the eyes of those who had been waiting, and those who were still there when the Bridegroom came.

It wasn’t the oil, you see, but the waiting. It was the waiting, the waiting on the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. The Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, the Alpha and the Omega.  

Perhaps this week more than ever, we’ve felt like we’re in a time of waiting, on high alert, when at every moment, there could be a change that changes our lives, or at least our national lives,. And just as the wait of this particular week in time is over, we as a church enter into a season where we reflect on what it means to wait for our whole lives, for our ancestors’ lives, for our children’s lives, for the coming of the kingdom of God.

In orthodox traditions, the season of Advent actually begins next week: forty days of Advent to match the forty days of Lent. Forty days of waiting to match forty days of penance. And although in the Western church we are not yet in Advent, not until November 29th, the readings for these next weeks feel different, somehow. They remind us that we are still waiting. Still hoping beyond all hope. Still waiting for the Bridegroom to appear, for the light around the doorframe to dissolve into a new sunrise. Thy Kingdom Come. We are waiting because there is so much more work to do. Because there are those who hunger, who weep. Because there are those who are homeless, are forgotten. Because there are those who need justice and love and mercy that no earthly leader or power or principality can ever give.

We keep working, and waiting for this justice, this image of a world made right, captured powerfully by the Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti

BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out

With lighted lamps and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,

Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.

It may be at the crowing of the cock

Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.

For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:…

So keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.