Tuesday, December 26, 2023

A Christmas sermon about living nativities, piano players, and our purpose in it all

A Christmas Message based on Luke 2:1-20 with reference to Maya Angelou's poem, "Caged Bird."

My grandfather was an exquisite pianist. His favorite was Chopin and we had a leather bag full of his music in our house.  While I took piano lessons and learned to play some simple music years ago, Chopin was obviously a whole other level. As a child, I would open the books of music and flip through the pages, but to me, the lines and dots and notations on the page didn’t mean much.  

I never did hear my Gramps play, he died before I was born. However, years later, I heard Chopin played in a recital I attended while in college. Though I had heard recordings in the past, they didn’t compare with sitting in the recital hall and hearing my friend play the music.  Without my friend, all that music was a bunch of dots and squiggles and lines on a page.  Add a musician to those sheets of music and all of those mysterious markings were brought to life.  Suddenly, a musician--a person--gave it all form.  

Year after year, we flip through our bible to the second chapter of Luke and we read this old, old story of shepherds and starry skies, of donkeys and mangers, of a little holy family looking for shelter.  It is a story of letters and words and verse and chapter numbers all strung together on the page.  But it is also something more than that. 

Certainly, it is a story worth treasuring for so many reasons--most of all because it is the story of God’s love for us made human in the person of Jesus. 

The greatest stories connect powerfully with a place in our heart.  The Christmas story has a lot of angles that touch our hearts.  

Sometimes, the thing in the story that we tap into most keenly is nostalgia. It’s a story that brings up memories of childhood magic or closeness with the ones we love.  But, the story also connects us with a place in our heart much bigger than the nostalgia. 


There is a beautiful little line from the Christmas story that reads “the time came” for Mary to deliver her child. “The time came” is a translation of the phrase that could also be read as “the days were fulfilled.” As in: the days were fulfilled as Mary gave birth.

To fulfill something means to bring something to life. If we fulfill a certainly responsibility, we follow through. We make it happen, we bring it to life. We live up to it and give it form, almost like fitting into a perfectly tailored pair of pants that are lifeless on the hanger but “filled out” when a person wears them. Almost like bringing to life a gorgeous piece of music which as a score is a lifeless sheet of dots and lines but in the hands of a musician, is a whole new creation. 

The Christmas story brings to life our hopes of a different world. A world where vulnerable families like the Holy family are taken care of and where forgotten people are noticed. A world where the tyrant kings are cast down from their thrones while heaven comes down to peasants. A worlds where loved ones persist and strong and gentle people win. A worlds where strangers show extravagant hospitality. A world where all will be well.

This connection between the story and our hearts is so strong that it cannot help but burst into life. 

Look at Mary herself, who after visiting her cousin Elizabeth and sharing the miraculous news of her pregnancy, burst into song and gave form and verve to an ancient foremother’s poem. Her Magnificat was a remake of Hannah’s age-old song.  Before Mary sang it, Hannah’s song about her son, Samuel, had just been letters and numbers on a page. Mary took that ancient piece of musical scripture that was sung by a joyous woman in praise of God and added her voice to it. She brought the lines of poetry to life in real time. She gave it form. 

We hear a lot about fulfillment in the gospels and how scripture is fulfilled through things that were happening in the ancient world at that time. It was as if the ancient world were crackling with God’s life and spirit around them.  The stories from Isaiah, Leviticus and Jeremiah shimmered with their timeliness as Jesus drew them into real time.

The practice of bringing the story to life continues today.


Centuries ago, St. Francis of Assisi was on his way home from a visit to the Holy Land and he passed through a little Italian town in Greccio around Christmas time. 

The rocky landscape reminded him of the Holy Land and an idea struck him. What if the townspeople played the parts of the shepherd and the angels and the Holy family?  And then, what if they found some animals--like an ox or some sheep--to bring to the little barn?  And then, what if they invited some people to come and experience the wonder and delight of this re-creation of the Christmas story? 

St. Francis did just this. And, in the year 1223, the first living nativity was acted out, exactly 800 years ago this Christmas.

Without the actors giving life to the letters and words and verses and chapter numbers of the nativity story all strung together on the page, the story is flat and neatly tucked away on the shelf. 

The hope was, and is, that if people saw and heard this story acted out, they might be able to see and experience this in their own lives too.   

The Christmas story needs a third party. There is an ancient story, and a holy spirit, and there is you.  

These stories were never meant to just be words on a page. They are meant to be filled out, brought to life, fulfilled and made flesh among us. We’re never quite sure when we will be instructed to play our part in the symphony spinning around us and so very often, it is an ordinary moment in everyday life.

Sometimes, you are Joseph, doggedly persistent and knocking on door after door, barely hopeful, but determined to fight for the ones you love.

Sometimes, you are the innkeeper when suddenly someone knocks on your door and needs help and you extend it.

Sometimes you feel forgotten, unimportant, lonely, like shepherds when unexpectedly a choir of angels appears to you in the starry sky (or maybe it’s just an angelic friend who met you for coffee, but however it turns out) they remind you that you are beloved to God. 

Christmas is a story that we bring to life--God brings to life!--through the way that we carry ourselves, through how we show up in the world, through the projects we get involved in, the places we pour our heart into, through the wild energy of the Holy Spirit that nudges us towards holy spaces.

It’s a song that begins in the shadows, it’s a cry of the caged bird singing of Good News. It’s a song of freedom that sings out persistently, even in the hardest of times.

This ancient song is meant for us.  It’s meant for our neighbors.  The call is to listen carefully, as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds did, to pay attention to God’s music, to fulfill our call, to pick up our instruments and play our part in the symphony.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Searching for a sign

I think it’s pretty normal to want a sign that we’re on the right path. I’m not talking about a street sign or neon flashing sign, but—especially when things seem confusing or stressful—some sort of symbol or indication that we’re headed in the right direction. Thankfully, God is big on signs, sort of like little love notes sent to people that are in a bind or walking through tough moments.  

For Abraham when he was feeling pretty stressed out, God somehow illuminated the twinkling stars of the heavens and said, “there you go, there is your sign that you will have many descendants.”

For Moses, there was a burning bush that he stumbles upon in the desert which is so overwhelmingly holy that he immediately takes off his shoes.  (Then, lucky him, he gets to dole out 10 signs or plagues to Pharoah that carry their own potent message). 

In the case of Mary of Nazareth, she gets a whole conversation with an angel named Gabriel. Each of these people needed these signs because each of them was facing some sort of big life challenge. They needed a little extra reassurance of God’s presence with them as they stepped into the unknown that was before them. 

In the case of Mary, she had received life-changing news from the angel.  Her initial response was dramatic as she tried to get her head in the game.  She immediately took off “with haste” scripture says to visit someone she could trust. Mary’s village was not going to be okay with this news. Joseph was certainly reeling. So she treks about 60 miles out into the hill country to visit her elder cousin, Elizabeth.  

Elizabeth is so much older than Mary that she is probably more of what we might think of as an auntie figure.  Elizabeth has known her fair share of hard knocks along the way of life, the smile lines run deep into her face, and when Mary comes rushing into her house with news about an angel and a pregnancy tumbling out of her, Elizabeth opens her heart and arms wide and wraps her in love.   

After time with Elizabeth,who is grappling with her own miraculous pregnancy with John the Baptist, Mary is able to face this enormous challenge before her.  Something in her changed while she was with Elizabeth. She made sense of this sign, this visit from Gabriel and she prepared herself for the task ahead.

While Mary responded faithfully to God, this isn’t always the case. Signs can be great and reassuring. The tricky thing is that they can also be misinterpreted.  

Harriet Powers was a 19th century African American quilter.  One of her two surviving quilts now hangs in the Smithsonian.  This particular quilt in the Smithsonian shows different scenes from the bible where signs from God were misinterpreted or even ignored.  In one scene, you see Noah’s neighbors making light of his ark and then refusing to join him—we all know how that turned out.   In another panel, you see Jonah ignoring a sign from God and then ending up in the belly of a whale. Then, in another square, you see the dove descending on Christ in his baptism which all of humanity later ignores when he is crucified.  

I first learned about Harriet Powers’ quilts from African American theologian, Dr. Donyelle McCray. In the bible quilt about the signs, Dr. McCray thinks that, Ms. Powers also quilted the stories of contemporary signs from her time that showed God’s judgement.  

For example, on one day in 1780 there was a creepy dark, dark day where you couldn’t see the sun (this was later attributed to pollution) and she quilted a scene about it. 

She also quilted a panel about a particularly spectacular meteor shower from her lifetime. On that night of the meteor shower in 1833, maybe God had hoped the people with respond with awe that would open their hearts, but instead, animals, horses and cows galloped and ran like wild all over the place. People screamed and hid, they thought the world was ending.  

Ms. Powers' quilt, which is a sermon in its’ own way, might be showing us that, yep, there are signs that appear to us, but what we do or how we respond when we receive these signs is key.  Some people respond to these signs from God in faithfulness, and some people, as Ms. Powers showed us in her quilt, don’t. 

 So what about us today? Have you ever sought some sort of sign you’re on the right path? Do you seek one now? When she was reflecting on Harriet Power’s quilt, Dr. McCray observed that there comes a point where we must stop seeking signs and act on the ones we’ve been given. And, she went on to explain, we have all been given the sign of all signs, man of sorrow, wonderful counselor, prince of peace in the person of Jesus.  While the cross is certainly important, the whole life of Jesus including the way he lived, and healed and blessed and prayed, is a sign to us today that requires a faithful response from us. It calls for a certain way of living from us, that centers grace, compassion, generosity and hope in the midst of a weary world.

Eventually, Dr. McCray explains, something amazing happens to us when we live our lives in response to Jesus this way. When we tune our lives to the life of Jesus, we no longer seek signs, we become them.

Look at Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin: In her gracious and accepting hospitality, she became a sign to Mary of God’s gracious love.

I’m sure many of us can think of people in our lives who have been signs to us and assured us that we are on the right path, especially in those moments of stress or challenge.

Becoming a sign of God’s love might seem like a tall order. Believe me: No one does this perfectly—unless you know how to walk on water—but, God uses the ordinary stuff of our lives to make signs of holy love, justice and joy in the world. 

Even in times of great trial, when we are completely unraveled and barely holding on, even then, God still somehow uses us as signs to reflect a holy light to those around us. 

Today, we will baptize Florence Dahlia into the life of Christ.  Florence already is a sign of God’s gracious love in the world. It’s easy to see this in her as a beautiful baby. But in time, as she fixes her eyes on Jesus, she will deepen in her ability to become a sign of God’s gracious love in the world she will learn this through her loved ones and through you all. Any number of us in here today can assure her that she will certainly mess this up and fail at being God’s light at some point. Any number of us could tell her that this broken world is imperfect: sometimes systems fail and people are cruel and stingy.  Sometimes, the shadows seem overpowering. And any number of us will come around her in precisely those moments of shadow and pain as signs of God’s gracious love. 

Our lives with God are a conversation of listening and responding, of living and dying and rising again. For everywhere that Jesus went—that Love went—the world was not just reimagined, but remade. Just when we least expect it, God will use us as signs that remake the world one moment at a time.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Lift your voice, even if it's a little rusty at first (we all feel like dead grass sometimes)

On the corner of Halstead and Polk not far from UIC sits an old mansion. In the spring of 1898, two friends stood in front of it discussing their plan: it was in such decrepit state that the owner had agreed to let them lease it for free.  They would start small: they would move in to the house and offer some classes on basic life skills for folks from the surrounding neighborhood. This was the turn of the 19th century and Chicago was rapidly industrializing. Thousands of people were flocking to cities from the countryside and along with them, a steady stream of migrants was flooding in. There were Greeks, Italians, Russian Jews, Bohemians, Irish, and Poles.  This was the first time cities had seen so many people living together in crowded spaces like these ethnic enclaves. Most houses didn’t even have running water let alone plumbing—my great-great grandparents immigrated around this time to this part of the city from Poland and this was their story.

The two women, who stood there that day, eventually moved into the house on the corner of Polk and Halstead and the project quickly took off.  One of the women’s father had died and left her a little money.  She set to work. 

By the second year, they were serving 2,000 people a week. There was a kindergarten, a day care, English classes, social clubs and art classes. There was legal aid, employment counseling and momentum continued building. Within 10 years, there were 13 buildings with a coffee house, a theater, Chicago’s very first public playground and a kitchen.  The complex even included a space for 20 women to live. 

Jane Addams had started a settlement house in Mr. Hull’s old mansion, but she had also started a movement. 

In the coming decades, living and working conditions in Chicago would improve. Chicago had led the way with this groundbreaking idea of settlement houses for migrants. In the coming years, Ida B. Wells would begin the famous settlement house a few miles away in Bronzeville called the Negro Fellowship League which served African Americans migrating north in the early 20th century. 

Eventually, the social work movement would grow out of these seeds of Jane Addams work through the Hull House.


Hopeful movements begin with just a few small sparks: with two friends standing outside an old house at the corner of Halstead and Polk dreaming of what could be. 

In today’s scripture, we meet Jesus’ advance man, John the Baptist. His role was to “prepare the way” for Jesus and call other people to prepare it with him. God had a dream that John had caught on to. But that dream wasn’t John’s to fulfill. It was God’s dream to fulfill.


A few days ago in our council meeting, we were discussing how we pass hope on to each other. Who were those people who came before us and brought hope when we couldn’t see the road in front of us? Who taught us how to hope?

For John, his parents, Elizabeth and Zachariah were certainly two of those people, but also in that mix was the prophet Isaiah.

In the scripture reading from the book of Isaiah the people are hopeless. Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians and the people were enslaved and carted off where they had lived for decades in exile far from their homeland, their traditions, and their their temple. The prophet Isaiah is one of these Jewish people sitting by the waters in Babylon far from home. He is an unlikely person to launch a period of change and transition, but one day, he happens to overhear a conversation between God and some heavenly host in the divine council up there.

Comfort, O comfort my people,” God is saying
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem 
and cry to her that she has served her term.” 
(Is. 40:1-2)

Tell them that their war is over, God will reign in peace forever.

Isaiah’s ears perk up—is change on the horizon? God goes on:
A voice cries out:
 “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God…
(Is. 40:3)

God pauses in the conversation with the heavenly host: “Isaiah!” She claps her divine hands!

“Are you listening down there!?”

Isaiah snaps to attention: "Who me?!" He croaks. 

Cry out!” says God.

Isaiah’s voice is rusty, creaky, way out of practice (it has been decades since he last used it). He clears throat: “Oh, God, what shall I say??” (Is.40:6)

What?--I imagine him thinking--could I ever say, Oh Holy One? have you seen what it’s like down here?! The people are like grass, actual dried, dead grass, Oh God! We are like withered flowers, despondent, depressed. There is no sparkle, no joy! (ref. Is. 40:6-8)

As Isaiah goes on, this funny thing happens: his voice seems to grow steadier, stronger, and more confident. (I don’t know if that has ever happened to you: once you get the words out about what you hope for, or what you long for, something in you starts warming. Something in you starts to wake up. Like Hull House that slowly added a kindergarten, and then art classes, and then a shelter, and then, and then, and then…the flame quietly grew brighter.)

Isaiah lifts his head. He straightens up.  “…the word….” He says slowly “The word of the Lord… will stand… forever…” (Is. 40:8) It’s like the very act of speaking is awakening the spirit and something in him starts to stir and gain momentum. His voice strengthens! The candle in his hand brightens! And before you know it, he calls out to the city: 

Everyone!: "Get ye up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings!; (Is: 40:9) 

His flame roars as he tips his candle outward to light those candles around him. And now you!: 

 ”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!”

For as it turns out, change is on the horizon. Those people in exile will soon head home to Jerusalem.  And this time, the path will not be winding and confusing like the last time they were stuck in the wilderness searching for the promised land. This time, every mountain and hill shall be made low and every valley shall be lifted up.


Christmas begins with hope against hope.  

We stand at the edge and look out to what could be: 

A neighborhood in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century full of migrants hoping to make a new life for themselves.

An ancient people in exile longing for a way home.

A group of early church Jesus-followers—who had been persecuted by the Emperor Nero and were despondent, hopeless, like scorched grass and faded flowers—who  wait for the Prince of Peace who will soon come to be with them.

John the Baptist holding a single candle of hope, lighting the flame of each person who came to him seeking baptism, all the while crying out to prepare the way for Jesus, Light of the World, who would soon come to be with them.

Isaiah passed hope on to John and the people in the early church and that hope grew into a blaze as God sent Jesus to come to be among them.


Who holds out that hope to you when you can’t see the road in front of you? How do you receive that light of God when your own candle is barely burning or even burnt out?  

Who is God pointing you towards and encouraging you to pass your own flame to in your life? 
Maybe it’s a friend or a family member. Maybe it’s a whole people or a land that is faded and dried out that yearns for the love of God.

The long arc of God’s love stretches towards justice and will redeem and remake the whole world—and us in it.  As the psalmist said, one day, righteousness and peace will kiss. (Ps. 85:10) 

But we’re not there yet. 


This season is not always the easiest. So many times, right along side of the razzle-dazzle of Christmas is some sort of pain or regret.  It could be grief for someone who has died, pain for some broken situation in our own lives, or sorrow for some place in our shattered world. 

That is exactly where Christmas begins.

This voice cries out—maybe it’s rusty at first, maybe it’s crying out from deep loss—but there in the night or even in the tomb, something stirs. This hope flickers bravely out from the profound shadow. This story of hope against hope is part of our heritage and even our DNA as people of faith. Generation after generation remembers this story that longs for a different world and for the promise of healing where all will be made well. This is the story of the One who will come to mend us and be with us in the midst of it all.

If you are one of the ones who is hurting and searching for the path forward right now, you are not alone. 

If you are one of the ones full of hope and assurance, and wondering where you can tip your candle outward and wish “comfort, comfort o, my people,” you are called.

This glowing good news of God’s gracious love sings in us and, to riff off of the Maya Angelou, poem we just heard, we lift our voice and share the good news 

with our brother, 
with our sister, 
with our city, 
with our soul. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

A pattern of life, a pattern of God (a message from 5.7.23)

John 14:1-14

"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way’" John 14:6

The dance known as Salsa (which is awfully easier to demonstrate than write about) is a pattern of stepping forward for three steps and back for three steps. This pattern repeats itself over and over, often in tandem with another person moving the same way. When you’ve got the pattern down, you can make the dance fancy by adding twirls and fun arm movements on top of it.  But, however you spice it up, underneath it there is always this steady foot pattern. 

I’d compare it to a heartbeat in our chest that is always underneath whatever we’re doing: walking down the street, scrolling on our phones, or eating lunch, it’s always there underneath us as a pattern thumping away. If you put your hand on your chest, you can feel it: Lub-dub, lub-dub…

In the gospel of John, there is no traditional Christmas story. There’s no stable and manger or shepherds and Magi.  Instead, in the beginning was a pattern. The scripture verses say in English in the “beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Word is how we translate the Greek word Logos into English. But, Word does not explain the breadth of what Logos means. The Greek word is so big and broad and evocative that we have to toss all these little words in English at it trying to shine a light on its’ significance.  

In the beginning was the word 
The thought
The reason
In the beginning was the pattern
The way

The disciple Thomas is worried in our bible story today.  Actually, all the disciples probably are. Jesus has just explained that he is preparing to leave. They’ve really attached a lot of hope to him that he’s going to be the one to shake things up and even turn this world upside down. Now, it turns out, he’s going to die and his death will be ugly and heartbreaking. They’re confused. 

In their defense, Jesus can be a little obtuse in the gospel of John. Everything he says seems to have some other poetic significance behind it.  For example, there’s all this talk about abiding with each other which I’d liken to being on the same wave, or in this magnetic, soul-searching relationship with God. It’s deep. The disciples, always seem to be a more concrete in their understanding of Jesus’ poetry.

When Jesus says to them in today’s story with heartfelt intensity, “you know where I’m going,” I imagine them all looking at each other quizzically and whispering: “what’s he talking about? he didn’t mention anything to me about going somewhere, did he tell you?” 

It’s Thomas, ever the straightforward one among them who says, “um, Lord, we don’t know where you’re going.  We don’t know the way.” 

Jesus replies with that same sage sincerity: “I am the way…if you know me you know the Father.”   

His explanation doesn’t seem to land with them and Phillip replies, “Okay, I’m still not totally tracking here. Could you give us some coordinates, or draw us some sort of map, so we’re sure to get to the Father’s house…you know, the one with all the many rooms?”

And Jesus tenderly replies: You already know the Way. I’m not a guide on the path, “I am the way.” Keep walking the way. 

I am the way, 
the pattern.
The way we’ve been walking
The truth we’ve been absorbing
The life we’ve been breathing and living together,
I am the way the truth the life
The pattern

This is the point in our gospel story where God is about to kick it up a notch and take the church to another level.  We think sometimes, that it can’t get much bigger than Easter Sunday, but this is the point in the story where Jesus is headed out to God just as the Holy Spirit is on her way in to us. Remember: soon, Jesus will die, then he’ll be resurrected. After his resurrection, he’ll ascend to be with God. As Jesus ascends and leaves his beloved disciples he will pass the baton to them—to us!—to the Church. The Church is about to be born and we’ll hear this awesome story on Pentecost in a few weeks. 

This Church that will be born, Jesus explains, shall do even greater things than He has done. (v. 12)

How will the Church accomplish this? By following the pattern and by walking the way.  By abiding in Jesus, vibing with him, learning from him and working to become one with him.  Jesus’ disciples are worried about what the future holds and Jesus speaks to that concern and explains they must stay on this path. Dwell with me, he invites them, in one of these magnificent rooms in my Father’s house. Dance to this pattern. Follow the way. And our connection will grow and deepen.

This Way or pattern of living flows like living water under how we live our lives (John 4) It’s like the heartbeat beneath us that guides us in how we show up in the world, how we make decisions and how treat people. It directs us in how we spend and give our money. It pulls us to love people and to question worldly ways of power and status.  This Way thumping beneath us influences how we live our lives. 

Annie Dillard writes about the importance of a pattern like a schedule. Every day, she explains, we count on waking and sleeping at certain hours. We count on 3 meals a day. Perhaps we read a the news or a devotional at a certain time. Whatever you’re schedule is, Dillard writes, we use it as a base or a scaffolding to build our lives on.  (1)

This way or pattern that God Is to us is the scaffolding that we that we build our lives into. We build our families, friendships and careers into this scaffolding. We build our hopes and activism into this design. Giving structure, support and life-animating essence to each thing we do is this pattern underneath. When we’ve got the pattern down, we add twirls and flair on top of it. We adjust the tempo and add our personality.  When we trip, we listen for that sacred rhythm and we sync up to again. 

Today, we celebrate the baptisms of Bernadette and Miles.  When we talk about baptism, picture this Way that we walk with God.  Baptism is a mile marker or, perhaps, an on-ramp into a relationship with God.  (Mind you, it’s not the only on-ramp, Jesus cautions us against excluding people when he says things like “I have other sheep that are not from this fold”).

The experience of faith is a journey of a curiosity around who Jesus is, how God moves around us, how we live our lives, and how we walk through this world as people of the Way.  With baptism, that living water and that essence of God flows through us like a heartbeat. In baptism, we’re called to live our lives in sync with God and abide with the Pattern of Love.

We sync up with God’s pattern when we do things like showing up for friends or people in need, through exploring the curiosities and questions of our faith, and through worship.

In our own congregation, I see us syncing up with the pattern of God’s love as we’ve helped the migrants who are sheltered police stations this last week.  We walk to this rhythm of God’s love through making meals, through offering our loving presence, and, for example, through giving haircuts to all the little boys living at the 17th precinct police station a few days ago and even bringing hair gel so they can feel just a little more normal. (Somehow, I think the gift of hair gel for these little boys who have had such a hard go of it is particularly a part of the pattern of God’s love). 

I will head to my sabbatical at the end of this church service and I will be resting in God’s love this summer which is also part of this pattern and Way.


Now, in case you are one of the people who heard me mention salsa dancing at the beginning of this message and said “oh, that is not me, I am nothing close to a salsa dancer,” maybe the dancing metaphor isn’t for you; but I notice that the life of faith is the same as learning to dance: It asks us to participate and practice. It challenges us to learn to walk to a distinctive pattern and in a particular the way. And, with time, steady as our own heart beat we realize—wow—we’re in sync with God. 

In fact, we’ve been held in God’s love all along.

(1) "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order -- willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."   --From "The Writing Life," by Annie Dillard

Friday, May 5, 2023

A spark of glory and hearts ablaze in connection (an Emmaus message about despair and hope)

 Luke 24:13-35

Last weekend, I drove with my family down to southern Illinois. I am originally from Springfield and when I was a kid, my family used to camp down at Giant City state park.  We were on the lookout for spring and as we drove south, you could see the green starting to creep up the trees. Everything was in full bloom.  This meant that, poor Omar sneezed his way through the woods while the kids and I skipped.  
It was a really simple beautiful weekend where we hiked and ate sandwiches and connected with an old friends. But enough of a reprieve to shake the dust out of my head and feel refreshed.  

Not long after returning back to Chicago, the news cycle did a number on me when I heard about the teenager Ralph, who is Black who went to pick his brother up at the wrong house and was shot on the doorstep by the man who was White inside.  Thankfully, he lived. The rush of other news articles to take in this week didn’t help. 

I felt indignant. It was madness. I experienced that flood of frustration that flows in from the overwhelm of everything that’s wrong in the world. Will things every change? It was despair. 

Our bible story today tells of two friends walking together on the road to the town called Emmaus.  They are talking about all of the things that have happened in the last few days: Jesus’ arrest, his torture, his crucifixion at the hands of the state and now the fact that, although he was buried, the tomb now appears to be empty and people are saying he was raised from the dead which is just about more than they can bear.  

Unbeknownst to them, Jesus appears as a stranger walking along side of them. He asks them what they’re talking about so emphatically and they tell him about everything. "We had hoped," they said, “that he would be the one to redeem us, to fix this mess of a world we live in, to make all things right.” Jesus walks there with them for a while listening to them as they explain.  We had hoped. They are despairing. 

Researchers say that a lot of people are feeling despair right now. Theologian Rob Bell defines despair as “the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.” While it's stronger for some than others, there’s this pervading sense of worry or anxiousness or pessimism about the future that a lot of us have. Some people point to current trends to explain this. They blame it on the state of our economy or how the pandemic did a number on us or things about the way society is structured. But, research shows that people were feeling this way before the pandemic and when the economy seemed to be doing well so those reasons can’t explain the whole story for the despair. 

Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General names a couple of reasons that he thinks feed this feeling of despair. He mentions four things: 

1. The extraordinary pace of change we’re living in.  The ways communicate are changing, how we think about ourselves is evolving. How we think about our work or happiness or retirement or success is changing. And things are changing fast. It’s hard to keep up.

2.  The environment around us where we get our information is profoundly negative. What we see or hear or read in news stokes these feelings of upset. Sometimes, it can seem like just about everything is broken in the world. (This is the one that particularly hit me when we came back from our magical little weekend away.) 

3. Our ability to talk to one another is broken. Unless we’re with like minded folks, we hesitate to bring things up because we don’t know how people will react. We get hung up on people’s words instead of their intentions. That gets tricky because how we work things out when times are stressful is to talk it through. So, we’re not talking about stuff.

4. Loneliness and isolation and in that, more than ½ of Americans feel lonely. More than ½ young people feel lonely. 

All of these factors combine together to create a recipe for despair. 

I can’t say what the specific factors were for those disciples on the road to Emmaus 2000 years ago, but I know that wrapped up in there was a strong sense of hopelessness for the future. 

I find it curious that in this bible story, God comes up along side of these friends walking on the road to be close to them and accompany them in their time of distress.  They don’t sense Jesus there, but he is there in the form of a stranger.  He asks questions about their anguish, he listens closely. He walks, he waits. He connects with them and shares words of hope with them. As this mysterious stranger talks with them, their hearts begin to burn with the promise of what could be.

 Ukranian artist, Ivanka Demchuk painted this scene with the two disciples as these brown figures on the road with their hearts blazing gold and radiating out from their chest.  

As the story continues, after they all have arrived in the village of Emmaus they convince the mysterious stranger to stay with them. Only later, when the stranger breaks bread with them in the house are their eyes opened and they recognize Jesus Emmanuel is with them.

Jesus then dramatically vanishes, off then they head to Jerusalem, to tell people that they have seen the Lord and build a new world. 

Today we will baptize little Sebastian Jude into the life of faith which is such great reason to celebrate! I wish...

I wish I could promise sweet Sebastian, and all of our children here this morning, 
    that they will not despair on the road that life sets out before them.   
I wish I could quell anything that might cause him to feel hopeless. 
I wish I could make the kids that will be mean to him kind.  
I wish I could make sure that his friends will never betray him. 
I wish I could assure his safety 
    and make certain that any of his friends that ring a stranger’s doorbell will be safe.  
I wish I could tell all the kid that everyone’s family and marriage will be harmonious 
    and that our society will always work together to seek out the collective good. 
I wish I could re-freeze the polar ice sheets 
    and desegregate the cities 
    and eliminate the machines of war with the snap of my fingers. 
I wish I could tell him that all of his friends 
    that might be the nerd kids, or the trans kids, or the lonely kids, that they’re going to be okay. 

But I can’t promise that. I cannot promise that his heart will not break on this mysterious journey of life that we are on. 

But I can promise, as Jesus showed us, that the antidote to despair is connection and when we connect with one another, that spark that God ignites in us can set the whole world ablaze in glory.

Now, about connection: We are so often told that we can go it alone. We’re told that it’s each individual’s responsibility to manage their own despair and pain, but we are social, communal creatures and we depend on each other for healing.  Jesus shows us this in how he continually reaches out and sparks connection with people. The very act of getting out of ourselves and gathering, for example, in a church on a Sunday morning with people that are different from us, and talking about how we care about this other world that God is calling us to is counter cultural.  

God creates culture here through us and through our worship. Then, this culture ripples outward to all the people folks interact with when they leave this church.  Connection is powerful.

We have a world to rebuild and what can get in our way is despair. We’re called to be much more than spectators to suffering. While we can’t always eliminate that despair completely, God does open a way through it by guiding us to rebuild our connection to each other.

What does that connection do?  

Well, in the bible story, this spark of intimacy deepens that blaze of glory the disciples feel in their chests and gives them courage to go back to Jerusalem--to the place that seemed dangerous--right to the pain points to connect with their community. There, they will about God’s love and to build a new world together with those around them.

In just a short while, we will baptize Sebastian Jude.  When we gather around the baptismal font, we will renounce the powers of this world that would try to divide and demean us.  We will renounce powers that justify mass shootings and ideologies of supremacy and inferiority based on race or gender. We will commit to living in a such a way that brings about this radical kingdom of God even when it feels like the world is on fire around us.

Death will not prevail, for God will strike it down, and new life will rise.

Because we are beloved, forgiven, cherished, we participate in this building of a new world, even when our hearts are breaking.  

Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 24, 2023

An Easter message: When fear and joy hold hands and walk us to courage

A blessed and joyous Easter to you! Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, Alleluia! 

After our Maundy Thursday service as we were driving home, I said to Omar, look at the moon!  It was a glorious and full moon glowing down through the trees at Horner park.  Easter is the only church holiday dependent on the moon. We celebrate Easter the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.  Turns out our Muslim and Jewish siblings also observe Ramadan and Passover dependent on the moon and this year we have this rare convergence of Holy days. While it seems a little complicated and unpredictable to determine our religious festivals by the moon, there is some reason for it.  In the case of Christianity, Holy Week and Easter coincide with spring.  All around us everything is coming to life.  Tiny buds are appearing on trees, the parsley is starting to come back in my garden, flowers are pushing up through the ground. God’s creative power is on full display all around us. While this natural waking up of the earth makes sense and is predictable, resurrection on the other hand is natural.  

When someone is buried, they stay buried and, at least in this life, we don’t expect to see them again in any tangible way. While the gardens in the cemeteries come back to life in the springtime with flowers and grass, that’s about it and the best we can do is visit the graves of those we have loved and continue on. This is what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did that early, early morning when then went to visit Jesus’ grave. But, what they encountered was anything but natural and predictable.

The way St. Matthew tells it, that quiet morning that they went to the tomb, as soon as they get there, an angel flutters in and makes such a thump of a landing that it causes an earthquake.  The angel then rolls back the massive stone and plunks down on top of the boulder. You can almost see that angel sitting there and grinning with their arms crossed while the guards tremble and then pass out. The two Marys are standing there stunned--taking it in. What in the world. 

You see, it had been a terrible last few days.  The entire city had been up in arms about Jesus.  The Romans and leaders of the day had done everything they could to get rid of him, smearing him, condemning his followers, launching a highly successful PR campaign against the charismatic, gentle teacher, and then publicly executing him. The governor, Pilate, was eager to quiet the uproar in the city, and he washed his hands of the whole debacle. Then he sent a couple of guards to the tomb to make sure no one tried to pull any monkey business with the body after Jesus was buried. The two women probably crept to the tomb that dawn still terribly afraid and now this! An angel!?  They must have been trembling or quaking in their boots because the angel says to them “do not be afraid.”  

That feeling of fear they’re channeling is right on par with how all the great biblical characters respond when there is big news to manage.  Remember Mary the mother of Jesus? “Fear not” the angel said to her, you’re pregnant (with the son of God) and unmarried which is about to get real fun to explain but God is with you, fear not.

Not only is fear the right response for ancient biblical people confronting big news, fear also happens to be the way that everyday people like us respond when we’re looking straight at something—at a new truth or a new reality that we know is going to change us forever. We feel fear when we’re standing on the edge of something new. It’s the fear you feel after the phone call you didn’t expect or the news you didn’t see coming that leaves a pit in your stomach.  But the odd thing is that right there with that pit in your stomach, somehow your priorities become clear and you sense that sitting right there next to fear is gratitude or even, joy.

It happened to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary: they were terrified, but at the same time they were overjoyed with the news that Jesus was alive.  And we know that feeling too: We feel fear of what might happen to our children when the world seems dangerous and then we feel joy when we think of that blessing they are in our lives.  There’s fear when someone we love is sick, and joy in registering what they mean to us and the gift they are to us.  There’s fear in leaving an old job, but joy in coworkers we love and the possibility of what could be. There’s fear when the end of life draws near, but joy remembering the life we’ve lived! There’s fear as we look at all the problems in our nation, world, neighborhood, and then joy to be here in this moment and with the ones that we love.  Fear and joy so often hold hands.

As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary process those twin feelings of feelings of fear and joy, the angel invites them into the tomb to have a look around and see for themselves that Jesus is not there. They poke around in that cold, damp cave looking at each other in wide eyed wonder and terror and then, angel, pipes up and tells them to, “go now quickly and tell the disciples, he has been raised from the dead and is on his way to Galilee” This show is on the road!”

I wonder if, before they took off running, they thought about it for a moment—grasping each other’s hands, leaning against each other trying to catch their breath--but then they run with  their hearts pounding. No sooner had they taken off when Jesus shows up there on the road.  “Greetings” he says and it’s just about more than they can bear and they grab onto his feet, beside themselves.  He also tells them not to be afraid—probably because new life is frightening.  

When you expect a sealed rock in front of the tomb and instead you find a big angel sitting on the boulder grinning down at you, when you’re spinning your wheels in the past and then suddenly, someone stops you points you forward and says look what’s coming in the future--when you’re searching around the tomb for something dead to hang on to and instead you find the risen Christ—the possibility of what could be is stunning and even frightening. It certainly isn’t natural or predictable.

What happens next is the stuff miracles are made of.  You see, something about that joy they feel pushes them through to courage and off the go to tell the disciples what had happened. Off they go to build a new world. 

And isn’t that the way with us too? The joy and hope we feel for what could be pushes us through to courage.

We are living in extraordinary times.  Sometimes it feels like the very world is shifting and quaking beneath our feet. And yet we hope for a new world.

What I know is that God is always pushing us to the edge of what’s comfortable or what feels predictable in our own lives and in society and asking us to imagine what could be. Right now, we have the opportunity to be a part of shaping the world into something new.  It is the honest truth that new life is frightening. It’s not predictable like the moon cycles, it’s not smooth like butter, but we must imagine what God is calling us to grow into.  We cannot stay looking at the cold, gray walls of the tomb. Sometimes, love will ask us to take a stand, to step out onto the road, and it will take us where we don’t think we can go. Real conversations about justice or equity or love or change in our selves or in the wider world cannot happen while we sit in our comfort zone. 

Just as God pointed those women and set them on the way we are sent to go and seek the love of God alive around us and to share the story of how we know God’s love is alive in our lives even while the very ground shifts and quakes beneath our feet.

For Christ is alive, he is risen!
He is risen indeed alleluia!

A message about goosebumps, neuroscience and the power of being known by God (from 4.9.23)

John 4:5-42

 Last week, I looked in my files in my computer curious about what I had preached on this gospel text three years ago when it came up.  I knew that three years ago around this time, we had gone into the lockdown and, sure enough, this was the last Sunday we met in person in the sanctuary.  As I skimmed what I had written, I was transported back to that time and felt a tingle in my spine: "We had hoped," I reflected, "that the kids would only be out of school a few weeks. We had hoped that we would be back to church by Easter." None of us had any idea what was before us on that Sunday three years ago.  And as I thought about that for a moment I had goosebumps.

There are studies that show that when you feel goosebumps or a tingle the chills that they come when you feel this heightened sense that you are joined with others in community or that you share a common experience. Evolutionarily, there are some essentials we have as mammals. Right alongside of the need to eat and keep our oxygen at the correct level, we have to keep our body temperature in the right range in order to survive. Not to hot or cold.  There are some mammals that are highly social, like some dogs or wolves or primates and humans that, when they get too cold: they huddle. The very first physical response social mammals have when it gets very cold is that our hair stands up so that our skin bunches up so it’s less porous to the cold. This, then, signals to others to draw near and even embrace, which releases oxytocin, a neurochemical that rushes through the body and makes us more open to others. Neuroscientists say that the sensation of goosebumps unite or connect us with others as we try to make sense of these big unknown things before us. 

When our ancient mammal relatives came up in front of vast mysteries, and even dangerous ones: their hair stood up and they found this warmth and strength in drawing closer to each other.  What were vast unknowns or mysteries for these ancient relatives? a roaring waterfall, a powerful thunderstorm, a massive canyon, wild gusts of wind. 

Our bible doesn’t talk specifically about chills or goosebumps. It also wasn’t written in the verbose times we live in now where we record every minute detail.  There is so much left to imagination and interpretation. But the bible does have some stories of people who, in the face of vast mysteries open up to each other and this fits with the neuroscience like a glove.  There are a lot of stories about mysteries and epiphanies and how they change us, but today’s is about a Samaritan woman that Jesus encountered at a well.

In this bible story of The Other Good Samaritan Jesus and the woman have a taboo conversation it’s taboo for a lot of reasons.  Not only is there the male/female thing happening, Jesus and the Samaritan woman are also on two sides of a deep divide.  In their day, the Israelites and Samaritans were enemies, but not distant, “out there” kind of enemies.  More like “in my back yard, looks a lot like me but is different in all the wrong ways kind of enemy.”  Their religion agreed on some key points but diverged around a couple of details that were significant enough to make them hate each other. The set up of this encounter between Jesus and this woman is immediately tense in the minds of ancient people. These two have no reason to interact or get to know one another, but Jesus asks something of her anyway.  That’s the first mysterious thing. 

The scripture does not say this, but I have to wonder if she had chills when Jesus asked her for a drink of water.  We don’t know this, but again, neuroscience tells us that when people feel that profound human connection that causes a tingle in the spine or goosebumps, it releases oxytocin and it makes us more open to others.

With that question that reached across the breach, they were immediately stepping out onto a limb. The conversation continues. 

History has not been kind to the Samaritan woman around the issue of her five husbands. We have no idea what her story is, but there are a number of choice words and phrases that have been tagged to her over the centuries.  Folks say she was “no angel” had a “checkered past” was a prostitute and was “living in sin.” There’s no biblical basis for any of this.  Just cultural…

Honestly?  We could easily guess she had been widowed. Or maybe she had been divorced because she couldn’t conceive a child and her husbands divorced her because of it. We don’t know why she had been married so many times. But husband after husband divorced her or died until she was finally left with the brother of her late husband who basically took her as a pity-wife because the law said he had to.  
In their conversation, this woman shares her truth with Jesus and admits that she has no husband. That's bold. She could have just ignored him. It was a moment of taking off the mask and sheer honesty.  She meets him halfway. Mysteriously, Jesus fills in the gaps of her story and then meets her at the other half tells her his truth. He is the great I Am. In that mysterious moment, it was like goosebumps radiated up and down their arms and they drew close to one another.  You can see this image of the two of them on the front of your bulletin meeting each other in the middle with true honesty. She shows us how to be completely and fully honest and known before God.  

Face to face with the messiah, you really know who you are: the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the hopeful, all of it. It is the mystery of being fully known, seen and understood. There is no hiding here, no hiding the parts of ourselves or the parts of our lives that we would just as soon forget.  

In the gospel of John, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in relationship with God. It doesn’t necessarily mean “to follow” the way it does in our other gospels. And that’s okay, Sometimes, I think this idea of “following” makes it seem like we can’t question anything or interrogate anything.  It is an image of sitting, like this cover shows eye to eye, heart to heart with Jesus. 

What does it look like to be in relationship with God? Last week, I met with an old friend who was in town for breakfast.  He has a current mantra He’s working on, he told me. “Don’t criticize, complain, or condemn.”  Apparently, it’s loosely related to the philosophies of addition and recovery that he’s involved with.

This is good solid advice, but I happen to know that this person periodically changes their mantras, breathes them, repeats them throughout the day, writes them on the corner of pieces of paper laying around, and I’d say prays them, until they weave themselves into his being.  

What would be the mantra that you need to pray continually? What is your honest truth that only God knows and the prayer that lifts out of it. What is it that you must cultivate more of in your heart? More grace or mercy towards people who “aren’t getting it right?”Less cynicsm? More tenacity? Less knee jerk judgement and more openness? More generosity towards people who have less than you? More compassion for our bodies that are thankfully less than perfect? Less-self doubt?  More appreciation of the beauty you run across in your daily life?

The spiritual growth that we crave and long for must be cultivated beyond a visit to church on Sunday morning.

If believing in the gospel of John means to be in relationship with God: to let ourselves be fully and honestly known. We must be honest about where we’re cracked and crumbling and to quietly, slowly let God work on us. Sometimes it is these daily quotidian habits that slowly deepen our connection to God over time. 

Lent is a time where we open our hearts so that God can prune away the old habits and patterns that should be cut back.  Then, we fertilize and cultivate the areas that need to grow.  God does this all with the aim of greening our souls. In the profound gift of being truthful and being known by God, may we draw closer to and be shaped by the one, who is, who was and who will be.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

An Ash Wednesday message about truth, courage and us.

Remember “you are dust and to dust you shall return” Genesis 3:19 

I started off Ash Wednesday much like the past few years: on the corner outside the church building braving the elements and offering ashes to folks on their way to drop their kids off at Waters school across the street in the morning.  This year I was joined by C.  C and I stood at the corner in the rain, a little like wet cats, offering ashes to folks who passed by.  We didn’t have as many takers as past years, but we had a few:  There was the woman with the white haired pixie cut who pulled over: 

“Wait, are you giving out ashes?” I drew the cross on her forehead and she ran back to her car.

As I went through the day, I saw a few people marked with ashes.  It always kind of takes me by surprise to run into someone with the ashes on their face.  You would think it wouldn’t given my line of work, but it does. There was the woman driving her car who waited for me to cross at the stop sign, the school crossing guard, the other parent at the school waiting with me in the rain for our kids to be dismissed.

Usually we start off our days dirt free and well groomed—or at least we do our best.  I for one, trust that someone will at least give me the heads up if something is off when I’m walking out of the house.  There was the time that, as I was rushing to get out the door, one of my younger family members informed me that I had my shirt on inside out.  (I quickly fixed that one—lest someone be let in on the secret that I don’t always have it 100% together.)

Somedays, it’s worse than having the shirt on inside out. Somedays, we’re not sleeping well, or someone we love is sick, or we’re worried about a decision we’ve made, or about the state of the world. Somedays we’re uncomfortable in our own skin for all kinds of reasons.

Most days, we keep up the facade. We go about our business, work hard, go to school, go to the store, blend into the crowd and attempt to appear that we’re either holding it together, optimistic, upbeat, or whatever vibe de jour is most acceptable that day. 

But today—today, we come for the ashes. 

In just a short while, we’ll invite you to come forward and you’ll be marked by dust.  It’s this visible acknowledgement that sometimes things in our lives—which we try to keep running smoothly—crack, crumble, or even break.  When the dust settles, we’re left with a little pile of dirt, or rubble or sand that slips right through our fingers when we scoop into our hands.  

Usually, we try to sweep this dusty reality under the rug a little like it doesn’t matter.  We pretend that we’re not really anxious or lonely or overworked or harried or upset.

But not today.  

Today, we acknowledge that the air is full of ashes, hearts around the world are full of ashes. Today we remember we are human, mortal and, as scripture says, “that we are dust.”

It’s a little strange: this practice of remembering like this. Why do we do this?

We are certainly surrounded by enough worry and pain, disappointment, stress and despair already: What if I don’t get into the right high school or college? What if my marriage doesn’t make it? What if getting old is worse than I thought? Why am I still alone? How could I have messed this up? Failed again? What if… 

What good does it do to go over it again here on Ash Wednesday? Why focus on the dust? Why not just keep our chins up and march forward bright and shiny and perfect so we can rise up and shine and succeed? (We really do put a lot of effort into having it all together…)

Sara Miles is a pastor who writes that “It’s rare in our culture to admit, in public, that you’re not in control—that you, basically, are not God. And, given the din of advertising and political polemic and hype and doublespeak surrounding us, it’s rare to escape the fantasy that money or science, fame or violence or shiny objects will somehow save us from death.”

Ash Wednesday is the most honest day of the year.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Its the day where we admit that we don’t entirely have it all together. That we are not actually in control and the gods of our own lives.

Last year, we had two high schoolers who gave out ashes during the service. I was standing at the side watching until Tom came up as one of the very last people in the line with baby M.  M was very, very tiny—just three weeks old.  

One of the youth made the cross on Tom’s forehead. As Tom turned to walk back to his bench, I locked eyes with him: 

“Did you want her to receive ashes?” I whispered, touching M’s back.

“Yeah—“ he said.  

I’ve never given ashes to such a tiny baby and it seemed almost wrong to remind such a tiny, precious creature of her humanness and mortality, but Tom’s courage was unflinching and contagious and gave me courage. 

I lifted up the front of her tiny hat and made the cross on her soft forehead: Remember, sweet child, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I’m sure there will be more moments of honesty in little M’s life—moments of heartbreak and challenge—but that was a start. 

The truth is that as human beings, we all crack and crumble sometimes. We break. We are all fallible and imperfect.  Tonight we admit that together.  

It is “profoundly countercultural” as Pastor Miles wrote, to publicly admit this. When we admit this together, and when we visibly see this on each other, we realize that we are human together and we give each other courage and hope.

You, high schoolers, so many of you who are leading the service tonight, give me courage and hope with your bravery towards the way you look challenges in the face, bravely manage your own dusty pain, and call us not to turn away from the ashen places in this world. 

You church grandparents, give us hope and courage with your ever present reminders of God’s faithful presence in our lives, even when you waiver.

God, who is that undeniable essence of love, cherished Comforter, and animating life force is stronger than we are and will ever be. For even in the ash of this world, we are kept safe in the promise of God’s eternal love.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Working out theology Jesus-style

Matthew 5:21-37

Shortly after my mom died, I took a couple of her dresses that I had loved and had them tailored to fit me.  I was three inches taller than her, have broader shoulders than she did, and the dresses didn’t fit quite right.  I went to the seamstress who had tailored my wedding dress. This woman had a masters degree in textiles and was an exquisite seamstress.  When I picked up the dresses from her a month later, I zipped them up and they fit perfectly.  I remember looking at myself in the mirror in her studio and feeling a little stunned. I hadn’t expected such a perfect fit.

If you’ve ever had a piece of clothing well tailored, or if a piece of clothing just fits you really well, it’s a remarkable feeling to put your arm into that sleeve or zip it up and feel that perfect fit. The garment on a hanger just hangs there. You might not even be able to tell from glancing at it what piece of clothing it is.  But when you slide your arms into the blazer, when you fill it, with yourself, you bring it to life.  

In the gospels, Jesus explains that he has come to “fulfill” the law. When we think of fulfillment, just like an arm reaching into a sleeve, we think of something that is brought to life, filled out, even embodied (or incarnated).  If you fulfill a certain responsibility, you follow through. You make it happen, you bring it to life, You live up to it. You give it form, just like fitting into a perfectly tailored pair of pants that are lifeless on the hanger but “filled out” when a person wears them. 

We hear a lot about “fulfillment” in the gospels. The authors of the gospels, particularly Matthew, talk about how scripture is fulfilled through things that were happening in their world at the time. Jesus talks about fulfillment regarding Jewish law.  

One way of looking at this (and there are several) is that the social-religious law, when it’s just written out, is a little like the garment on the hanger: potentially beautiful, exquisite work, gorgeous beading, embroidery or texture, but just hanging there. How we fill this religious law, or how Jesus did, is by living it; and actually living it brings the heart or the spirit of the law to life.

What is the point of religious law? If it helps, I once heard MLK’s “I have a dream” speech compared to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus had a dream, (God has a dream) of a thriving, flourishing, righteous, healthy community. That dream always seems to be a little illusive or even at risk but the vision is magnetic.  Religious law is a sort of compass or pathway or sheepdog herder to help us all walk in the right direction toward that dream.  

I will be the first to say that I don’t love a lot of individual religious laws we find in our scriptures. Some of the laws are hyper-contextual to the context they were written about more than 2000 years ago. There are laws about food or purification that we truly don’t have a contemporary context for understanding.  But the point, the dream and the vision of the laws is the endgame of a healthy world. No single law stands alone. They’re not meant to be taken individually. They are part of a larger vision of how we create a healthy, just, flourishing community.

Inevitably, this is a little complicated.  Life is complicated.  For example, we’re instructed to pray without ceasing. But if we pray, “Oh God, bless these dumb people I can’t stand make them more like me,” yes, we are indeed praying for our neighbor and making good on that commandment. We are also following the instruction to pray. But, we’re missing the heart of the matter.  

In today’s snippet of scripture, Jesus is still sitting on the top of the mountain with his disciples. He’s laying out the vision. He has just taught them the beatitudes, that people who are meek and lonely and mourning are blessed (which probably seems a little backwards to them.) Jesus has just told them that they are the salt and light of the world and that their very being brings flavor, joy, peace and color to life. And now, he’s teaching them how to work out their theology.  He chooses four issues to comment on: Murder and judgement, adultery, divorce and the integrity of our word. 

A couple of the issues like divorce and adultery are real hot button issues of the day. There was a lot of debate and controversy and very strong opinions.  (This would be like Jesus choosing to discuss a contemporary hot-button issue like abortion with really thought out opinions and arguments). 

I don’t know that divorce is such a hot-button issue for us these days, but I do know it’s painful and, while Jesus’ comments about divorce seem straightforward, there is a whole lot of context it. (Please seek me out if you’d like to connect more about this.) About divorce, I’ll simply say that Jesus is always asking hard questions around how people can be liberated by the things that enchain them.  

These four particular issues that Jesus brings up share a common thread of how we keep trust and compassion alive in a community. Trust and compassion are essential to healthy society. Jesus starts off: “you have heard it said you should not murder.”  If I stand up here as your pastor and say, “don’t murder,” you’re all going to be 100% on board.  But, Jesus is asking us to think more widely about how we relate to other people. 

He goes on to say, but I say to you, if you’re angry with a brother or sister, that’s a problem.  If you’re coming to the temple and offering sacrifices and going through all the right movements, but holding a quiet grudge that you’re not dealing with, that’s a problem.  

Murder is one thing, but grudge-holding? Anger with someone we disagree with? Resentment, spitefulness, gossip? I’m guessing we can all find our way into that one.

Jesus is showing us how to engage with religious law and how to do theology and think about God.This involves Reflecting. and keeping that anchor of a just and flourishing community at the center. Jesus says: You have heard one thing said, but I say to you, Crack the idea open. Think deeper about it. 

You have heard it said to you that you shall not murder. But God says to you, you must think about how you’re killing life by holding a grudge, gossiping about people that make you angry, and damaging healthy community.

You have heard it said that you must forgive your enemies, 

But God says to you,  you must honor your enemies’ humanity, Ask better questions, speak truth with love and grace, and remain open hearted before them.

You have heard it said that the problems of our world, the earthquakes, the racism, the poverty, the violence, are too great for us to make an impact on, but God says to you how are you transforming the wounded places within your reach? How are you participating as salt and light or with our simple two coins to bring healing?  

You have heard it said that gender and sexuality must fit into ancient classifications, but God says to you in the face of a changing world of changing categories, how are you loving your neighbor, letting defining labels slip away, and blessing the essence of who they are simply created as.

You have heard it said, that the church is dying, but God says to us, how are we engaging in the mystery of what it means to be a community of faith? How are we letting God reinvent us in spaces outside the four walls of the traditional church and re-make us.

You have heard it said…

but I say to you…

We have to think about these teachings, 

learn from them, 

slip our arms into their sleeves, 

talk them through with folks, 

put them into practice together, 

make them happen, 

bring them to life,

fulfill them, 

fail them, 


and try again.  

Jesus didn’t come to replace an ancient religious law, but to embody it, to give it form and substance and meaning. He came to flesh it out and bring it to life. This is our call too. It is a path that we walk together. 

What does this process look like in your own life? What does it look like for you to slip into that jacket or zip up that dress? How is God challenging you to forgive, or listen more carefully, or be more generous or compassionate, or to advocate to serve people. How do you participate in what God is up to around us? 

How will you fulfill this vision?