“Plaque with the Baptism of Jesus” South Netherlandish, ca. 1150-1175. Currently on display at the Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 304. Public Domain.
Mark 1:4-11 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Mark 1:4-11 As your custom and faith dictated, you traveled from your little town in the rural countryside of Galilee to the big city, Jerusalem, three times a year. These pilgrimages celebrated important holy festivals for your people and took place after a regional harvest, where farmers and landowners could bring offerings to the temple and food to the market.
You’ve made these trips for as long as you could remember. The journey was long, taking as much as a week by foot. Usually, you traveled with your family and people from your town, sleeping out along the road by night. Once, when you were twelve, your parents even began the journey back to Nazareth without you, figuring you were with another family. They were pretty upset with you when they had to return to Jerusalem because you had snuck away to the temple to argue with the priests. There was a lot of silence on that trip back. But most of the time, these trips brought you joy. You caught up with neighbors and extended family, learned about current events, and laughed and sang together.
Times have changed, though. Maybe everything was getting worse, or perhaps you notice more now that you’re older. You see that the first fruits of the harvest are smaller, a sign of poverty in the region. Fewer people are making the pilgrimage too, and folks say it’s become the roads have become more dangerous. People talk less openly, worried about Roman interlopers. And as you enter the city, the roads are lined with crosses: so many crosses, so many people, your people, condemned to death by the empire.
You reflect on the journey to Jerusalem during the festivities. You perform your sacrifices in the temple and join your friends and family in singing and conversing around luscious meals. But you notice more this week. You notice poverty in the streets. You notice ill and injured people calling out for help. You see the way everyone walks by them as if they aren’t there. And you notice Rome. It’s standard in the temple; an eagle, a bird of war, stands over the house of worship. Its soldiers are everywhere, scuffling with the locals. Its leaders share a table with city leaders. You feel the joy of this harvest festival, but that joy is damped by the feeling that all is not right.
As the festival ends, you leave the city but take a detour into the wilderness, down to the Jordan River. In the last few years, after each festival, you visit your cousin John and stay with him and his followers for a few days. John lived in the middle of nowhere and was, by far, your strangest relative. He dressed like a wild man or an ancient prophet, and you always made sure to bring your own food because his food was pretty gross. But you looked up to your cousin. He had committed himself to help people and made no distinction between city dwellers and poor rural folks like yourself. He preached the same message to everyone, calling on folks to return to God. He contended that God’s people did not need to live lives of political, economic, and spiritual oppression. He called out the corruption of local leaders. He stated that Rome’s occupation of this God-given land was illegitimate. He talked about how people can repent and not go along with the awful things in this world. They could resist, peacefully even, by returning to devotion to God and the virtues of a loving and just life. He gave people hope, and direction, a little light in a bleak world.
This year, as you made your way down to John, you traveled with an enormous crowd. John’s message was being heard by people in the city and folks from all over the region, but clearly, his popularity had grown since you saw him last.
As you entered the clearing, you saw a familiar sight, John, wearing his characteristic camel’s hair attire and thick leather belt, preaching on the banks of the River. Some of his followers sang ancient hymns from the Psalms and the Prophets, songs of lament, joy, and trust in God. And people responded to his message by entering the water, confessing their sins, and being dipped under the water and raised back up, a symbol of forgiveness, renewal, and a new start.
You had responded in this way too in previous trips. Like the others, you felt compelled to confess those terrible thoughts, feelings of despair, and social injustices you’ve witnessed recently. You felt that each time you were dipped in the water, you have a chance to begin again, to do something meaningful moving forward, something that could help your people who struggled to survive.
And so, this time, you entered the River again. One of John’s attendants came to you and heard your confession, and saw your tears, and held your hand as you plunged underneath the waters. But, when you came back up, something was different. It was like the sky was on fire, ripping with a bolt of lightning. And it felt like the lightning struck you, entering into you, and you imagined a dove, a symbol of God’s spirit of peace. And you heard a voice saying, “You are my child, and I love you, and I am pleased with you, and I choose you.”
You turn to the attendant and ask if they saw or heard anything. They answered only with a blessing.
You stick around on the bank of the River into the evening, considering what just happened. As the crowds disperse, your cousin comes over, greets you warmly, and invites you to stay with him and his followers for a few days.
At dinner, you catch up. John mentions that he’s been approached by local authorities recently and that he fears arrest. His followers are uneasy, too, wondering what will happen if their leader is taken into custody.
Then share your starling experience in the water. John is thoughtful, listening quietly, and intently. After a prolonged silence, John begins to tell you stories about other people who were anointed to do God’s work in the world, how they had similar experiences. He talks about Moses and Elijah about the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. He laughs and jokes about your carpentry skills and wonders if a new line of work would suit you better. More seriously, he talks about the harvest that everyone just celebrated. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. And then he offers advice: “Go deep into the wilderness and fast and pray. Stay there as long as necessary and discover what God will have you do.”
You set out that very night into the wilderness, leaving everything behind to find answers.
This Sunday commemorates the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Mark’s telling of the story is sparse and based on action. Jesus comes to John, is baptized, receives a vision, and is led into the wilderness. Immediately after, John is arrested. Only then does Jesus begin his public ministry.
We can fill in the story a bit by the baptism stories in our other gospels and other literature from the first century CE. John and Jesus were cousins. John preached and baptized in the wilderness for a while before Jesus came on the scene. John’s popularity grew over the years, and people visited him regularly for messages of hope and ritual purification. Jesus knew John well and also knew his followers. When John was arrested, some of John’s followers began to follow Jesus around the Galilean countryside as he embarked on his own work.
This is how everything gets started in Mark. This gospel is not concerned with annunciations, genealogies, and nativity scenes. There are no shepherds, wise men, and angelic choirs. Everything begins at this particular instance of Jesus’ baptism, a ritual he likely experienced many times before.
The difference lies in what Jesus experienced this time. The skies open up, and the spirit of God descends on him, like a dove. And a voice speaks directly to Jesus here, saying, “You are my son, my beloved. In you, I am well pleased.” A better translation of the phrase, “In you, I am well pleased,” is “I have chosen or selected you.” At this moment, God selects Jesus to carry out God’s purposes.
I wonder if telling the context of this familiar passage and telling it as a story helps us to enter into it. Otherwise, I find the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan River to be a little too abstract. Theologians have debated for centuries over the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, whether or not it was necessary, and whether it changed Jesus in any substantial way. The debates weren’t terribly helpful, led to a great deal of division, and left almost everyone else disinterested or confused.
But I think something more accessible is happening here.
Have you ever been stuck? I mean, really stuck? Stuck in an awful job, a toxic relationship, a compiled and collected set of harmful habits and practices? Have you looked closely at big issues like poverty, racism, political corruption, fake news, or climate change, and instead of feeling inspired to act, you mostly feel horrible inside and don’t even know where to start? That’s being stuck.
I wonder how long Jesus had been stuck before that day at the Jordan River. I wonder how he processed his faith’s reminder to be thankful to God for all good things while interacting with a world that seemed utterly broken. God’s will for this world and the world as it is stand so far apart. Where do you even start?
But you know how our best ideas and inspirations come to us in our modern-day rituals? That new insight that seems to come from nowhere over morning coffee or in the shower; the unique perspective we gain while our hands are busy knitting or sewing; that inspiration we gathered chopping wood in the spring or during the yearly trip to the beach in the summer. Likely, our minds have been hard at work on these complex issues for a long time, but our rituals allow us to think and feel differently. They provide space in us to hear what we really need to hear.
During the ritual of confession and being dipped in water, Jesus heard what he needed to hear. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.”
I wish our insights were so clear. Maybe that’s what made Jesus so unique: That he felt such a close bond with God; That he felt so loved by God; That he felt truly affirmed by God as is; And that he felt so chosen by God to go out and work in loving and just ways.
I wonder what we might do if we ever heard these words. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.” I wonder how we might shape our lives differently if we heard these words and used them to make our decisions. Would we feel less stuck? Would the most significant problems of the world feel more conquerable? Would we feel secure enough to reach out and take risks?
I pray that we hear these words this week. Or that we consider them. I pray that we are comforted by them during this difficult time. And I pray that these words heard by Jesus, but also meant for us, challenge us to take on some new task for God’s good work in the world. Amen.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 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. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
John 1:1-18 We are still in the season of Christmastide, the 12-days in the Christian Year that celebrates the Birth of Jesus. This season is pretty short, running from December 25th to January 5th every year. But by today, the Second Sunday in the Christmas season, most of us have already moved on from Christmas reflections. We’ve begun taking down Christmas decorations. We’re no longer listening to Christmas Carols. With New Year Day taking place just a few days ago, we’re ready to move into a new year, set some resolutions, make changes, get moving.
It seems like today’s confounding gospel lesson from the book of John has moved on as well. Gone are the mangers, shepherds, and angels. They are replaced by the complicated prologue to John’s gospel. Divine, pre-existing Word, the means of all creation, Wisdom, rejection, incarnation, divine grace, and the concept of mediation are just a few of the theological concepts that are densely packed into these verses. This passage is really thick, and it seems to be better suited for the ivory towers of abstract theological debate in far off seminaries than the stuff of Sunday morning worship and reflection.
But that’s not what the writer of this gospel intended. In fact, these verses are an early Church hymn whose form and content come from even older sources. It is styled as a hymn, so everyone could learn its message, even those who could not read. Its purpose was to convey a worldview that sets the foundation of the gospel and the story that follows.
Within the gospel’s community and other parts of the ancient Near East, there was a myth regarding Wisdom. Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, existed at the beginning with God and was the means by which God created all things. Three hundred years before our gospel’s writing, the Books of Sirach and Enoch tell a melancholy story about Wisdom. The German theologian Ernst Haenchen summarizes this story well:
The world in which we live was created by divine Wisdom. Wisdom was at the side of God from the beginning, and when he began to create, Wisdom served him as supervising architect. For that reason, everything could and would be truly good. [However] humanity shuts itself up against divine Wisdom. No one anywhere wants to know anything of Wisdom. So, Wisdom has to wander always further since no one wants to accept her. The outcome of all this was that Wisdom returns to heaven.
It’s a sad story that was told over and over long ago. Likely, Mary told Jesus this story growing up or sang it to him as a hushed lullaby when he slept. Like all folk songs, it conveyed a strong message:
The world was made to be virtuous and loving, filled with wise people making wise decisions for the good of all creation. But humanity either rejected wisdom’s tenets or forgot about them. Violence, and war, oppression, and corruption reign because people have forgotten to look for the wisdom that’s woven into the cosmos. Sure, Wisdom shows up and prompts thoughtful action and loving-kindness every once in a while, but those places are fewer and farther between these days. Continued rejection has caused Wisdom to retreat to heaven. And that’s why the world is so hard these days.
This story is always on our gospel author's mind as he writes his account of the story of Jesus Christ. Generally, he’s less interested in the who’s and what’s and when’s of Jesus’ life and more interested in exploring what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal to people about God. He wants to think through why all of these stories of a Galilean holy man matter and what good they might do if told once more. So, he takes this sad story about Wisdom, swaps out Sophia for logos, or “wisdom” for “word,” and makes the ending a little happier.
When humanity failed to follow the virtuous principles revealed to all people throughout the centuries, the virtues took human form in Jesus Christ, and witnesses experienced God’s grace and truth by experiencing this person.
In its way, then, John chapter 1 is a nativity story, a story about something new taking place in a hostile world. God loves this world and wishes to impart on it grace and truth, wisdom and love. Thus far, God’s been a little too abstract with these lessons, so God restructures the curriculum, appearing to humanity in another form, one more recognizable, more personable, one more tangible.
There is a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though, like John’s prologue, it likely comes from more ancient sources. It’s found in Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack”:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
I’ll repeat it:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
If I could take today’s gospel passage and all of its language traps and theological prepositions and boil it down to something short, it would be this:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
John’s gospel adds something valuable to the story of Christmas. It reminds us that we are involved in it. All of us. We are involved in an incredible and still unfolding story, one that’s authored by a God that loves us and is willing to meet us where we are as we are in tangible ways. Our faith is not some abstract set of dogmas or a list of seventeen virtues that we either follow or rebel against. We can read about faith without having it, and watch Youtube videos about Christian charity without practicing this virtue. But when we are involved in our faith, when we are invited into the work, and when our teacher is gentle and wise, guiding us as we try our best, then, maybe, we learn. When God, our teacher, is present with us as we try to better ourselves, as we try to recover from 2020, and plan for a better world in 2021, we become involved in this great story.
May you feel the presence of God dwelling among you and those around you in 2021. May you hear in this year's Christmas story God’s invitation to get involved in this developing story of redemption. And may we seek wisdom, and virtue, grace, and truth this year as we place awfully high expectations and hopes on what 2021 has in store for us and the world. Amen.
The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple – from the Menologion of Basil II,
an eleventh century illuminated manuscript. Byzantium. Public Domain.
Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him
Luke 2:22-40 It’s been some time since your child was born, perhaps a month or so. After the whirlwind evening in the stable, some extended family in Bethlehem set you up with better accommodations for awhile while everyone got used to the new addition. The boy was circumcised on the eighth day in the local house of worship. This was your custom. And while there, a local priest talked about the unique role of first-born sons.
He reads from the Torah – from the book of Exodus:
“Every first-born male among your children you shall redeem (buyback). When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘This reminds us that by the strength of hand the LORD we were brought out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
This ritual should be performed in Jerusalem, at the temple, where an offering can be made. Maybe we can stop in Jerusalem on our way back to Nazareth, you think. So, when everyone is okay to travel, you and your little family head up to Jerusalem to present your son to God.
The city is a busy place, of course. You are a bit of a country bumpkin, growing up in more pastoral settings, but you’ve been to Jerusalem enough times to know what to expect. The roads are heavy with people as you get closer. A few crucified bodies along the road – reminders of Rome’s presence, signs that insurrection will be met with brutal violence. You shield the eyes of your infant instinctively as you walk by.
You make your way through the winding streets to the temple area. It’s a prominent place and was renovated about 20 years ago by Herod. In the outer courtyard stand countless people – some talking business, others begging, some selling offerings, others exchanging money. You overhear two older men talking about a recent attack by a group of zealots and the swift action of Rome. One of the older men leans close to the other and whispers something about Herod. He’s power-hungry and self-indulgent, and he maintains his power by doing whatever Rome wants. The other man tells him to keep his voice down.
As you head toward the tables, an old man stops you. He greets you warmly and is excited to see your newborn son. He talks to you about God’s faithfulness to God’s people – how God has always been faithful and will soon bring about salvation and comfort to all people.
He asks to hold the child. He seems like a devout man, and given the last month, you’ve become accustomed to folks doting on this child.
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” he says, looking to the sky. “For today, I’ve seen your salvation in the face of this child. You’ve prepared this salvation in the presence of your people – like a light revealed to all people for the glory of Israel.”
He then turns to you and offers a sincere blessing. Maybe it was something like:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”’
But he also offers a prophecy:
“Listen closely – this child will bring about the falling and rising of many in this land. He will be like a walking irony, a contradiction of power and might, and you will not go unscathed from his work. For a sword will pierce your soul as well – and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
He hands your child back, and you feel a little rattled by this moment. You look at your spouse and wonder what to do with this encounter. The two of you talk about it and all the strange happenings since your son’s birth as you head toward the table where vendors are selling animals for sacrifice. You cannot afford the lamb, so you purchase two turtledoves and take them to the priests. In the distance, you hear a woman praising God for bringing about the consolation of Jerusalem.
The ceremony is done rather quickly. The animals are dispatched, a Scripture read, and a prayer said. You pack everything up and begin the journey back to Nazareth, where the boy will be raised.
There’s a lot to the story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple. I’d like to offer three insights that might help us gather some meaning from it. First, Jesus was raised in occupied territory under Roman rule. Jesus’ people resisted occupation and hoped for freedom. The importance of this context cannot be understated. One of the founding stories of the Jewish people was the exodus from Egypt. In this story, an entire people, held by slavery, were liberated by their God. The story was told over and over in many different ways. One of the ways this story was told was through the ransoming of the first-born son.
If you remember your Hebrew Bible, the last plague on Egypt was the slaying of the first-born. In this plague, the angel of the Lord visited the land of Egypt and killed the first-born males – both human and animal. The ancient Hebrew people were protected if they killed a lamb, painted their doorposts with its blood, and ate the Passover meal together.
The ceremony that Jesus’ parents undertake early in his life is a retelling of that story. Usually, a lamb would be sacrificed, the stories would be read, and prayers would be said. If you were poor and could not afford a lamb, you could give a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons. Regardless, Jesus grew up in a society that believed in a God that liberated the oppressed. Jesus also grew up as one of the countless oppressed, longing for God’s liberating work in the world.
Second, two unique characters in this story, Simeon and Anna, serve essential roles in our story as prophets of God’s coming liberation told in Luke’s gospel. There’s a cross-generational encounter here. Both prophets are advanced in years and serve as meaningful connections to Israel’s past – noting that the coming Messiah figure has deep roots in the history of God’s people. Both are also lay-folks devout but not authorities of people in power. Likely this highlights Jesus’ outsider status even more and places him on the side of the devout oppressed and not the powerful but complicit. Finally, both are considered prophets. Luke likes to make a distinction between prophets and witnesses. Prophets wait for the coming of God’s salvation. Witnesses experience God’s salvation. Prophets hope for the day of the Lord. Witnesses partake in the Day of the Lord. Moving from the season of Advent to the season of Christmas, the church experiences both roles in some form or fashion. For most of December, we’ve waited. We’ve hoped. Images of light and darkness are prevalent with the idea that the light of salvation is coming in the many different ways we define it. But after Christmas, the church moves from waiting for Jesus to proclaiming Jesus – from prophetic hope to earnest witness.
Third, three words are really full of meaning in this passage: “Salvation,” “Revelation,” and “Redemption.” Simeon has seen God’s salvation in this child brought to the temple. This child, he declares, will be a revelation of light to all people (Jews and Gentiles). Anna sees the child as part of the story in the redemption or consolation of Jerusalem.
Salvation longs for a day where evil is no more. Where individuals, communities, and the entire world are set free from bondage and oppression. Salvation happens when justice is levied yet is mixed with contradictory elements of grace and forgiveness. It longs for a world set just right, and in this gospel context, it longs for a world where God rules in place of a foreign power or the devil or Herod or whatever personification of evil we might conjure.
Often, and especially in religious expressions in the US, salvation is associated with the saving of personal souls, conversion experiences, and eternal life. “Are you saved?” is a question echoed across the centuries by many firebrand preachers and evangelists before altar calls, confession, and baptisms. In some ways, it provided the hearer with direct agency to affect their eternal destiny. To the historically marginalized, this is empowerment. But the salvation found in our Scriptures is probably something more than this. For Simeon, salvation has nothing to do with accepting Jesus into your heart or being with God when you die. It’s also not just for a chosen people, God’s holy elect. Instead, this salvation is inclusive, something available to gentiles – our Scripture’s way of saying that it was for everyone. In these words, Simeon envisions an entire world set free from the things that hurt people and harm creation.
Unfortunately, Anna is not given any lines, but we read that she speaks a lot, spreading the news of this child to all who looked for the consolation of Jerusalem. While Simeon sees God’s salvation on the world stage, Anna sees God’s work in the world in the streets of her city. Salvation is not an abstract notion – it’s not just a lovely thought we have about life after death, or justice, or lasting peace. God’s saving work happens in the streets of a city that has seen its share of loss and disaster.
I love this story. And, although the text doesn’t allow for this reading, I’d love to think that Simeon and Anna do this for all the babies and their tired parents as they enter the temple to present their child to God. What a way to mark life as sacred. To say something like:
I can die in peace, knowing that your child is in this world. Because your child is so important and the world will never be the same. In fact, it will be a lot better because of this child.
And while it might have been Simeon and Anna’s role to praise and bless Jesus, to mark him as special and unique, perhaps it’s the role of the church to do the same for all of our young people, to greet them and their parents with a blessing and sense of relief, knowing that the world will be better because they are in it.
The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways. Some have carried the brunt of insecurity, being laid off, or furloughed, wondering where the money for rent, bills, and food will come from. Some have had to carry the brunt of loneliness, vulnerable populations that can’t get out as usual because catching COVID could do serious damage. Others bear the brunt of being overwhelmed. Many parents have continued to work full-time while educating their children at home with limited time and resources for essential self-care.
As we enter this new year, we’ve got a few more months of this pandemic, maybe a little more. It would be a good practice to remember our parents with small children these days in our prayers and actions. They are working hard to make life safe and semi-normal for their children with limited tools in this unprecedented time. We can play that role of Simeon or Anna for these parents in our lives, offering reassurance, pointing to a better future, doing a little bit of the leg work to make the days go just a little smoother.
May God bless you and keep you this New Year. May God give you hope and comfort in 2021. And may God bring salvation to this world for us, through us, and for the sake of all creation. Amen.
Luke 2:1-20 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:1-20 Likely, under normal circumstances, we set some pretty lofty expectations for Christmas. We plan to get our Christmas Cards out early in December. We make lists of gifts to purchase and take some time off work. We plan to attend Christmas tree lightings, and gatherings with extended family, and work parties. Some plan vacations during this time as kiddos are out of school. We do a lot of extra baking and coordinate an extensive holiday menu for the big day.
But while Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of the Festival of Christmas in many Christian traditions, this year, we might contend that Clark W. Griswold is a more appropriate one.
In the classic Christmas movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the Griswold patriarch sets high expectations for the Holiday season. This year, everyone is going to experience “a good old-fashioned Griswold family Christmas.” But these expectations are met with mishap after mishap. Technical issues with his exterior illumination project, animal hijinks, an unexpected visit from Cousin Eddy, house fires, sewer explosions, and financial problems hijack the carefully planned Christmas season, and we get to watch as Clark unravels.
This is not the Christmas season we planned. The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic has changed all of us this year. Perhaps at first, when things began to change in mid-March, we thought we would have to forgo Easter gatherings or put off a conference or spring vacation. By summer, we talked about how our children may or may not be returning to in-person schooling in the fall. When the surge hit in November, many of us returned to strict, pre-summer precautions. And this evening, we gather on our own and can’t but help but feel that this Christmas is somehow diminished, somehow broken by the cousin Eddy’s and tree fires of this pandemic year.
At first glance, we might have heightened expectations about the scene that takes place in our gospel reading. We picture Jesus’ birth as it's been represented on thousands of Christmas Cards, Nativity arrangements, and classic works of art. A child lies in a comfortable looking manager after the work of labor is over. Gathered around him in the cleanest barn ever depicted are doting parents, friendly animals, and well-dressed shepherds, or Magi. The sky is clear, except for a single bright star hovering over the scene. It’s beautiful, perfect, and just as we wish it.
But Luke’s telling defies those expectations of perfection. During winter, Joseph and his pregnant fiancé have to travel for a census so the Roman Empire can impose higher taxes in the region. The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only 90 miles, an hour in a half for us by car, but several days of walking for this couple back then. When they finally get there, Mary has gone into labor. Lodging is hard to come by. Our story says that there was no room “for them” at the inn, not no room "at the inn." Were they not permitted entry because of the couple’s marital status or the baby’s questionable paternity? So they find a barn, where animals eat and sleep and poop and stink, and there, Mary, after hours of labor, gives birth to a baby. They have nothing to wrap him in, so they tear strips of cloth from their own garments and tightly wrap Jesus to keep him warm enough to survive the elements.
We can imagine the holy family that first night: concerned parents worried about a baby’s survival; plans made about completing their census requirements and how to travel back with a post-labor mom and infant child; a shared fear that their presence and non-traditional family structure might cause a problem in the little town.
At some point, a band of wild-eyed shepherds arrives, young men dressed for sleeping outside, among their flocks. They looked rough and probably smelled as good as that stable. And they want to see the child. Is this safe? They are invited in or force themselves in. Unexpectedly, they are overjoyed. They shared the strange vision they had about a child born in Bethlehem and a choir of heavenly angels singing about a coming peace. And Mary, who was still in pain from labor, and worried about her future, heard the words of the shepherds and, as the original Greek “compared” these words to her present reality, and treasured them in her heart. Somehow, in that smelly barn, God was there.
Our Christmas story is not about creating high expectations and pulling off the plan to perfection. Instead, our Christmas story is about how God showed up in the unlikeliest of places and was present with a couple of outcasts and their newborn child.
And I wonder if our greatest moments and memories of Christmas are not about how a family gathering was pulled off to perfection; rather, everything did not go as it should, and still, the presence of God was felt, and the spirit of Christmas was shared.
My favorite memory of celebrating the Christmas season here at the United Church of Hinesburg happened a few years ago at the Holiday breakfast. As is our custom, we have a gift exchange. We match gifts to their recipients by matching the first line of a Christmas Carol to the second. A host sings the first line, and everyone joins in the second. But our regular host, Judy Parker, has a previous engagement and asked Mary Eddy Stewart and me if we could take over. Mary can sing. I cannot. But I’m the pastor of the church and can’t really say no to such requests. So, Mary and I sang the first lines to many of our favorite Christmas carols together. A train wreck ensued. Somewhere between not knowing the tune, starting in different keys, and a lot of mumbling by me, we painfully performed our hosting duty, singing the worst renditions of Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, and Frosty the Snowman you can imagine. Peg Pratt, a long-time member of the church, heckled us the entire time for good measure. And it was a blast. Those who were there remember it well, I guarantee. And the joy of Christmas was there too, not because it was perfect, but because it wasn’t.
If God showed up in a backward, backwater, poverty-stricken town 2000 years ago to give Mary and Joseph a little hope and peace and love during a difficult and challenging time, why wouldn't God show up, in the same way, today to all of us?
2020 has not gone as we’d hoped. And this Christmas season has defied expectations in many challenging ways. None of this was in the plans. But maybe God likes to show up when our worlds seem lost, when we face challenges from every side, when hope is had to come by. Maybe God’s presence, which provides comfort and love, justice, and hope, can feel even closer this year because we need it more.
We know that a vaccination to combat the virus is here and close to us. We know that at some point in 2021, we will be able to gather again, sing together again (for better or worse), and laugh together again. We know that soon, and very soon, we will be able to visit our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, and all those COVID babies in our lives, born during the pandemic. We have some hope this Christmas that the world will get better.
May God be present with us this Christmas. May the God of hope, peace, joy, and love comfort us during this challenging year. And may we take time to treasure these moments in our hearts, with all their joys and troubles, and imagine what good God has for us, for the entire world, in the coming year. Amen.
“The Annunciation Window in the UCH Sanctuary” by Guido Nincheri.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
7:2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."
7:3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."
7:4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:
7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
7:7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"
7:8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
7:10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
7:11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
7:16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 1. The Hook: Family at our Fingertips
Many of you already know that I grew up on a dairy farm in central Ohio. The 100-acre farm has been in the Hamilton family for three generations.
I have very fond memories of my time there, and before the pandemic set in, I would return to the farm with my family once or twice a year to visit my parents, brothers and sister, and extended family.
My mother is a frequent traveler and has come to visit us when we lived in Massachusetts or here in Vermont several times. Like many farmers and perhaps especially dairy farmers, however, my father does not get out much.
As kids, we joked that Dad was a hermit, a designation that he fully embraced over the years. I wonder if he was simply preparing the 2020 pandemic, practicing social distancing all those years.
But even though my Dad is a homebody, and I’ve lived several hundred miles away from the farm for nearly 20 years, we are close.
We usually speak by phone about once a week. Sometimes the conversations are mundane: we talk about the weather, our football teams, or some piece of broken farm equipment he is currently working on. Sometimes we talk about our jobs, family news, or some new homesteading idea we’ve recently read about. Sometimes the conversations are hard: a health scare, politics, difficulties in life.
And recently, my Dad turned in his 14-year-old flip phone for a brand-new smartphone that has video calling. The first time I called him on his new phone, he was out at the barn and didn’t even know his phone could make a video call, remarking, “If I knew me and the mess here, I would have cleaned up first.” Now I see him about every week, get a tour of what he’s working on, joke about how gray his hair has gotten since the pandemic began.
It’s rather incredible that the first transcontinental video call took place over fifty years ago. In 1964, the Bell Picturephone was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. There, Fair visitors could talk to and see Disneyland visitors in Anaheim, California. While the concept was met with great fanfare, the role out of this new technology fizzled out.
Commercial service started in June of that year with calling booths in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Customers needed to schedule their allotted 15 minutes of screen time in advance and had to pay $16 per call, equivalent to $120 in today’s money. The high price, limited coverage, and scheduling issues sunk the Picturephone, and by early 1968, the company abandoned the endeavor altogether.
Today, many of us rely on video conferencing. We chat with family in other parts of the world. Our children go to school using video conferences, and company meetings are held on platforms like Facebook Messenger, GotoMeeting, and Google Hangouts. Today’s worship service is presented over Zoom, which has seen its shares jump by over 500% since the beginning of the year.
While it cannot replace being physically present with those we love, work with, and worship with, seeing other faces can make us feel more present and connected than an old-fashioned phone call. And, no matter where we are, video calls have allowed many of us to be present this year as grandkids celebrate birthdays, as loved ones pass on, and as couples get married.
2. The Text:
Our story from 2 Samuel is not talking about the value of video calling, but maybe something adjacent. The story describes an interaction between David and God about the importance of place, presence, and divine care.
We might remember David as the young man, a shepherd, who was brave enough to take on Goliath. We might remember his close friendship with King Saul’s son, Jonathan. We might remember that he was musically gifted and that he was the most important King in Israel’s history.
In today’s lesson, David has come to power, and finally, after years of fighting, there’s peace in the land. David sits in his palace and reflects on how he has a permanent residence, but God does not.
The Ark of the Covenant, the physical representation of God at the time, dwells in a moveable tent. It has done so for generations, ever since the Hebrew people were liberated from Egypt in the stories of our Scriptures.
This tent, called the Tabernacle, traveled with God’s people as they wandered in the wilderness, faced war and famine, and gained land of their own. It went where the people went, so in a very physical way, God was always present.
But David, now no longer a wandering shepherd, has gained experience in the world. He’s traveled to other parts of the ancient Near East and has seen how other local deities have extravagant temples built in their honor.
Why shouldn’t God finally get a permanent abode as well?
The other character in our story is Nathan, a prophet of God, and likely the only one in David’s powerful circle that can challenge David’s intentions and actions.
Here, he speaks for God, reminding David that God provides for him, and not the other way around.
He reminds David of his pastoral upbringing and the nomadic nature of God’s people with this beautiful line:
I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people, and I have been with you wherever you went.
God’s place, Nathan reminds David, is with God’s people, wherever they roam.
3. The Point: God is present wherever God people are
This story from 2 Samuel is handed down to us by David’s descendants who were exiled from their homes and living in a foreign land sometime after these events. The Temple, later built by David’s son, Solomon, has been destroyed, and all that’s left are the stories and practices of a people with a common heritage.
I can imagine then how this story might come to mind when those religious scholars sat down to record the story of their most famous king.
The idea of place is really confusing these days. I’ve been in one place, my home, more this year than I’ve been home at any other time in my life. Because of the pandemic, I either see less of or none of my usual places: a movie theater, family farm, store, a friend’s home, a restaurant. Like most, the novelty of being home alone, tied to one place, has already worn off, and I miss those other places. I miss the people of those places. I miss the experiences those places seemed to generate.
4. The Word in the words:
It will be pretty weird this week on Christmas Eve when, instead of preparing for two or three Christmas Eve services with full crowds, I will come into the Sanctuary, sit by myself, and share a worship service over Zoom. Likely, you will realize the weirdness of this all too because you will not be able to drive down to the church for worship and caroling either.
And Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as we’ve always experienced them, will be different too. Even if we host Christmas gatherings in our homes and are in our usual places, the place is missing the right people, our people, the ones we choose to share this special time of year.
5. The Comfort/Challenge: God with Us
But I remain hopeful this Christmas season. Stories like the ones from 2 Samuel and today’s gospel lesson, the Annunciation, remind me that we can still be present with one another, even when we are not in the same place.
More than that, though. God is present with us wherever we are these days.
In fact, it seems that God prefers not to be pinned down at all, stuck in a specific place like a temple, worship hall, or church sanctuary.
And God doesn’t really need you to clean up your house or shovel the sidewalk before God showing up. God’s not picky. God lived in a dirty tent for years and seemed completely content in doing so.
God goes with us where we go.
We get a similar message about God in the story of the Annunciation. Certainly, God, the creator and sustainer of all things can only be accessed by esoteric mystical experiences, or in heaven, beyond the boundary of death.
Not really. In the Annunciation, God is present in a powerful but completely normal young woman and a baby born to modest means during a time of great conflict.
If God shows up to a little stable in the backwoods of the world, two-thousand years ago, why wouldn’t God also show up now in all of our lives, and homes, and Zoom calls, and home offices, and messy living rooms?
God is at home where you are right now.
And maybe in some small way, those that we love and miss this time of year are too.
While we are apart for this brief time, may we find ways to be present with one another this Christmas season. May we use all the resources at our disposal and remember to call, write, text, videoconference, wave, yell, or send smoke signals to those we love. And may we feel the presence of an ever-loving and close God, a God that prefers to travel with us, wherever we are. Amen.
Gentile, da Fabriano, ca. 1370-1427. John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46774 [retrieved December 5, 2020]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said,
"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'"
as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin. And that’s why today’s Advent candle is pink. Pink symbolizes joy.
It marks the point in Advent when we turn towards the joy of Christmas. And joy is a wonderful thing, to be sure.
And also, it feels a little strange to be talking about joy as this wrecking ball of a year keeps on swinging.
It feels strange to be talking about joy in the midst of grief-struck times.
It’s easy to worry that feeling joy means we’re not taking all the heartbreak of this world seriously enough.
And it also feels strange to be talking about joy with John the Baptist as our trusty companion.
Joy is not the first word that comes to mind when I think about him: the guy who roamed the desert, clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts, calling those in power a “brood of vipers.”
But maybe this time we’re in, when joy itself feels unlikely is just the time to have an unlikely companion on a journey into joy. —-- And the thing is, joy is strange. It’s not quite what we superficially think it is.
If you look up joy in the dictionary you’re likely to get a ho-hum, superficial definition.
Like this, from Merriam-Webster: joy is “an emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
It’s not that that definition is wrong, but it doesn’t capture the inexplicability of joy.
If we were all together, in the sanctuary, I’d be really tempted right here to ask you to share the last time you felt a jolt of pure joy.
I think we’d see pretty quickly that joy doesn’t always make sense.
That it comes unbidden.
It surprises us, and it leaves us seeing things differently.
I think we need poets to help us understand joy. Poets like Christian Wiman, who says this about joy.
If you’re musing on the general meaning of joy or sitting down to write an article on the subject, [the dictionary definition] might be of some use as a place to start. But if you are trying to understand why a moment of joy can blast you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached, or why this lift into pure bliss might also entail a steep drop of concomitant loss, or how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might, like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom - well, in these cases the dictionary is useless.
Or poets like David Whyte, who defines joy like this.
Joy is a meeting place of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside.
C.S. Lewis, whose spiritual autobiography is titled “Surprised by Joy,” takes us to a similar place.
Joy, as Lewis understands it, is an emotion shot-through with yearning. Unlike pleasure, he writes: joy “must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Joy, he says, “is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.”
Joy is “a pointer to something other and outer.”
All of them, and many more, talk about joy as an experience that brings us out of ourselves.
An experience that yearns us towards something our hearts truly desire and in so doing moves us, not just emotionally, but in how we live.
That kind of joy, inexplicable, unbidden, lifts us out of ourselves, yes. But it doesn’t put us back down in the same place where it found us.
Joy transforms us.
And this makes sense if joy is our hearts sensing that that - that thing I feel or sense that is what I desire more than anything.
That kind of joy will have the power to turn us, towards that place where our hearts sense they will find home.
And so I find myself wondering, what if we read John the Baptist’s story as a story of that kind of joy?
Where might such a reading take us? It’s not as strange an idea as it might sound. Luke’s Gospel tells us that John’s life began with joy.
Just before the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, which you heard last week, there is a moment when Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, first greets Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus.
Elizabeth reports that as Mary drew near, as Jesus drew near, John leapt for joy in her womb.
“A lift into pure bliss,” as Christian Wiman put it. Communion. An encounter with his heart’s truest desire.
And I think that what happened next in John’s life is a good example of how joy transforms us.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.”
John is the one who says I have seen this. I have felt this. That’s what it means to testify. It is to say aloud what you’ve experienced.
John’s life was testimony from the beginning. Starting with that leap of joy that Luke’s Gospel records.
And in a way, testimony is what joy is all about.
Joy doesn’t stay safely put inside of our hearts.
I think, if we listen, we can hear that overflowing in John’s story.
His life testifies: I have seen this. I have felt this. My heart will yearn ever towards this.
Join me in this place of joyful encounter with the One who comes to bring light into these dark and challenging times.
Seen that way? His is a ministry of joy.
A ministry of joy that we are invited to join.
John invites us, even as he invited his contemporaries, to surrender to that very same joy that made him leap and that moved him to help others see what he saw.
Which was Christ. God-with-us. Here, now.
Good reason for joy.
The invitation that this story extends to us is maybe most clearly visible in John’s answer to the question: “Who are you?”
He answers the authorities with a series of statements about who he is not.
I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.
You can almost hear him adding I’m just John. Just me.
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
It’s a stunningly humble answer to the authorities’ question.
And it’s one that makes space for us to join this story, to join John in what one commentator calls his not-ness.
We are also not those things. We are also just ourselves. Each of us, one voice. —-- So the question for us is: will we? Will we say yes to that invitation? Will we say yes to that joy?
Will we risk letting that joy that is our hearts’ encounter with Christ transform us?
Lift us out of our lives and put us down somewhere new?
Will we let our hearts’ yearnings towards that place they recognize as home, bend the paths we walk in these lives of ours?
And here’s the thing to remember as we ponder that invitation.
John’s lived response to his joyful recognition of Christ in our midst doesn’t need to be our response.
We don’t need to wander the desert, wearing camel-hair clothing, eating locusts.
What this text asks of us is simply that we participate in this unfolding story.
If we let it, the particular joy that each of our hearts feels on recognizing the One in whom we find our home will overflow from our lives.
We will bear our own witness, each in our own way, to the light that came into the world, to Emmanuel, who is God-with-us. Like the mirrors in a lighthouse, reflecting and sharing the light that is not their own.
John bore witness by baptizing and preaching.
Others in history have born witness to that light by working for social justice, through acts of kindness, by planting hope in times of despair.
If we say yes to entering it, we each write our own version of this story.
And that feels like a good project for Advent.
It feels like a good project for this particular Advent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for resisting the Nazi regime, wrote that joy is from God.
It’s something given, not something made or forced.
Joy seizes us, he says. If we let it, I’d add.
And when it does, he writes, joy reaches around itself, it pulls others along, it bursts through closed doors.
Joy, in Bonhoeffer’s hands, and in John the Baptist’s, and if we let it, in ours, is no frivolous emotion.
It’s not self-satisfied pleasure. It’s not ignorant of the world’s suffering. As yearns us forward towards the One in whom we live and move and have our being, so joy bears us in the work of enacting the good news He proclaimed.
We need that kind of joy write about now.
As we leave here and contemplate our own living of the story John’s telling, I offer this prayer written for this day by Rev. Anna Blaedel at the organization enfleshed.
The Joy of God-With-Us does not come as naïve optimism, or surface level feel-good-ness.
Joy cannot be imposed from on high. Joy cannot be commanded. The Joy of God-With-Us is mingled with grief, exists side by side with mourning, knows that pain and death are all too real, but do not have the final word.
This joy tends tenderly to beauty, and softness, and the gladness that comes from paying attention to what matters.
The Joy of God-With-Us is collective, liberating us from deadly despair.
Joy is gestating in darkness; it comes unexpectedly.
Joy invites our expectation, and demands our participation.
Prepare the way, for joy with sorrow.
May Joy be birthed among, within, and through us, this Advent.
“The Visitation” attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, ca. 1310-20.
Paint and gilding on Walnut. This scene depicts Mary’s visit to Elizabeth from Luke’s gospel.
Luke 1:39-55 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his humble servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.
Luke 1:39-55 The human dynamics in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke are quite incredible. Perhaps, they are easy to overlook because we hear the stories from this chapter so often, always around this time of the year. In it, an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are told that they will have a baby who will become John the Baptist. A young woman named Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and tells her that she will bear a son, whose name will be Jesus. Later, Mary goes and visits Elizabeth, who is a relative, perhaps an aunt.
There are many people, not in today’s story. There are no men present; neither Zachariah nor Joseph make an appearance. Perhaps we should be wondering where Mary’s parents are. It is challenging to read specifics, but the reality that her parents do not make an appearance here or anywhere else in the gospel stories, tells us that something has happened. Perhaps they have both passed away. Or maybe Mary is indentured, a servant in another person’s home and no longer their responsibility. Or perhaps, having become pregnant out of wedlock, her parents threw her out, which would have been the least violent way a situation like this would have been handled back then.
Regardless, here’s the setup for our scene:
One way or another, Mary, a young, unmarried woman, is told that she is pregnant. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary in this encounter. But of course, she is deeply afraid, perplexed, and worried. “How can this be?” Mary asks the angel, but the real questions in her heart are, “What am I going to tell everyone, my relatives, my neighbors? Most frightening of all, what am I going to tell my fiancé?”
She rushes to Elizabeth’s house right away, afraid. There Elizabeth opens her home and her arms and her heart. She thinks Mary’s embarrassing, awkward, even scandalous condition is just wonderful. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth says to the frightened, marginalized young woman. Everyone needs an aunt or an uncle or a person in their lives like Elizabeth, someone that can turn fear into hope, worry into power.
And with this hope and power, Mary proclaims a radical message: And Mary said, I praise the Lord God, Because God has blessed this humble servant. And because of this, I will be called blessed now and forever.
For the God of Mercy has done great things for me And is forever merciful to those that believe.
Almighty God is strong, scattering the proud and overthrowing the powerful.
The God of Justice raises up the poor and oppressed And fills the bellies of the hungry with healthy food, While the rich are sent away empty.
God has remembered and fulfilled the promise of mercy made long ago to our ancestors and we will be blessed forever because of it.
Folks could get into trouble talking like that, and even today, there are places in the world where the Magnificat, Mary’s song, is not translated from Latin or Greek because of its troublesome political and economic ideas. The young, poor, vulnerable Mary tells us that God comes into the world in unexpected ways, through the lives of humble and often marginalized people. Further, God cares about how people live and cares deeply about the poor, the lowly, the forgotten, the exploited. Meanwhile, the powerful and the wealthy are brought low in the new world that Mary imagines.
This type of role reversal is prevalent in the words of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and the words of Jesus, Mary’s son. Judgment on the wealthy and powerful often accompanies these role reversal sayings. Usually, the wealthy are condemned because their wealth was gained by exploiting the poor or other dishonest ways. The powerful are condemned because they used their influence to oppress, commit violence, harm, and turn away those in need. Wealth gained in unjust ways and power without justice.
We see Jesus here too. In stories about religious leaders and parables about wealthy landowners. In actions of healing and chasing the money changers out of the temple.
I think too often we characterize Jesus as something entirely other; that his ideas about God and humanity were new and were divinely preloaded into his operating system before arrival. And perhaps we get this notion when we see a nativity scene and that the newborn Jesus already has his halo. Maybe we get this because of the story of Jesus in the temple where he instructs the instructors at the tender age of 12. What’s more likely in our gospel stories is that Jesus listened to the wisdom and radical message of his mother and learned from it.
She taught him to love others and resist tyranny.
She taught him to share a meal with anyone, regardless of social standing.
She was the one who first brought him into the presence of outcasts like people with leprosy and those haunted by their demons and taught him that above all, they were people in need of caring and healing.
And she instilled in him a devotion to God’s vision of the world, one that honors the dignity of all thing things, bringing together all creatures under the loving care of the merciful Lord.
With all of this, I wonder, what if fear had gotten the better of Mary when she found out she was going to have a child? Indeed, we would give her a pass: a pregnant, unwed teenager in a world that crushed pregnant, unwed teenagers regardless of the circumstances. What if fear had caused her to go into hiding? To avoid those places and people that could be harsh?
Instead, she traveled to someone that loved her, someone who was able to lift her out of that fear. But more than that. Mary isn’t only lifted out of her fear. With hope for the future and with great power, she proclaims God's mighty works and her position as beloved by God. This world is important, and so is she.
So, what about our fears? We have them, many of them. We’ve probably gained a few more this year. There are the classics. We fear death. We fear most losses: the loss of a job or a relationship, loss of control over our time, loss of function or health as we get older, loss of our children as they begin their own lives, loss of status in our community, loss of community. We fear violence; we fear change; we fear being embarrassed in front of others. We fear others. We fear that we are not smart enough or good looking enough or healthy enough or balanced enough or resourceful enough or strong enough. We fear black ice and bad news, unexpected bills, and food poisoning. We fear the future, the past, many parts of the present, and all of the unknown. And in 2020, we fear a virus, an election, a lack of toilet paper, and a bumpy transition in political power. Just to name a few of our fears…
Fear is actually a good thing, a necessary reaction that tells our body to be alert and act accordingly. But we know that fear can also snowball, and a once reasonable fear can turn into a lifetime of fearful living.
One of my favorite thinkers, the Romanian essayist Emil Cioran writes:
In normal doses, fear, indispensable to action and thought, stimulates our senses and our mind; without it, no action at all. But when it is excessive, when it invades and overwhelms us, fear is transformed into a harmful principle, into cruelty. A man who trembles, dreams of making others tremble, a man who lives in terror ends his days in ferocity. Hence, the case of the Roman emperors. Anticipating their own murders, they consoled themselves by massacres… The discovery of a first conspiracy awakened and released in them the monster. And it was into cruelty that they withdrew in order to forget fear.
But we, ordinary mortals who cannot permit ourselves the luxury of being cruel to others—it is upon ourselves, upon our flesh and our mind that we must exercise and indeed exorcise our terrors. The tyrant in us trembles; he must act, discharge his rage, take revenge; and it is upon ourselves that he does so. So decides the modesty of our condition. Amid our terrors, more than one of us evokes a Nero who, lacking an empire, would have had only his own conscience to persecute.
O, what cruelties we visit upon ourselves and others when we act out of fear.
And it makes me wonder, how many other times and in how many different ways has God tried to enter into this world, only to be rebuffed by our fears? Think of all those times we decide not to act because of fear. When we avoid taking risks because we are protecting this or that part of our lives. When we avoid getting to know others because we imagine they are different than us. When we decide not to act when bad things happen because we don’t want to ruffle feathers, be in uncomfortable situations, or risk conflict.
But God, who in our Scriptures tells us, "Do not fear" more than any other commandment, challenges us to step out. So, every year during Advent, we read the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, and hear a story about a young, unprotected, pregnant woman who did not give in to her fears. She had help. When a great difficulty arose, she sought the counsel of a loving and supporting ally, someone who could find hope in a world of unknowns.
And we gather as a church, as millions of other people of faith gather around the world because, as a mother, Mary inspired in Jesus a loving care for all in his midst and a deep desire to lift up those on the bottom.
My prayer for us, then, as we consider this Scripture, is that we find ourselves somewhere in this story. May we identify our fears and not give in to them. Like Elizabeth, may we bring hope and power to those around us who seek our counsel in times of distress. And may we be courageous, like Mary, so we can inspire the next generation of healers and teachers to be faithful to God’s vision for a better, more just, more peaceful world. Amen. Blessings, Pastor Jared
“The Annunciation to Mary” from an Illuminated Gospel, Amhara Peoples (Ethiopia), ca. late 14th century.
Mark 13:24-37 24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
There is something truly remarkable about the Christian calendar year. Beginning on the First Sunday in Advent, today, it moves us through our Scriptures in a dramatic fashion. There are times when we can acknowledge our gifts and be thankful. There are times to remember those who have passed on. There are times to celebrate births and resurrections. There are also confessional times when we approach God, acknowledging that all is not right with ourselves and the world.
When we think of Advent, we might remember only the fun, celebratory stuff. It’s a season of hope, joy, love, and peace. It’s a time when we decorate the church and our homes and make our dogs wear little elf costumes. It’s a time when we sing carols like “Joy to the World” and get a bit winded during the “Glorias” in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” And given the way 2020 has gone, who couldn’t use a little light-hearted cheer right about now?
So why does Advent, our Christian New Year, begin with Scripture passages about God not showing up, God showing up angry, and God showing up only after a lot of suffering?
In Isaiah 64, the prophet wishes that God would just show up like he has done in ages past as he did in the stories of the prophet’s ancestors. God arriving with terrible earthquakes or forest fires is preferable to the God the prophet is experiencing, a hidden God, a silent God.
Our Psalmist cries out for God to show up and save everyone, to be present during a time of calamity. “Let your face shine, that we may be saved” is the refrain in this musical Psalm. But the writer of this Psalm asks that God come as an ally, not as a foe, and remember that God and God’s people are meant to be close, like those standing side-by-side.
It gets worse. We’ve been in Jerusalem during the last few days of Jesus’ life on earth for several weeks now in Matthew’s gospel. Week after week, we’ve heard difficult and challenging parables about wealth and privilege, injustice, and fear. You’d think after changing to the gospel of Mark in the New Year and it being Advent, we might be able to move on. Nope. Jesus is still stuck in Jerusalem, talking about the end of the world with his last remaining breaths. Here, he describes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the city’s inhabitants' suffering in cosmic language. After all that suffering and destruction, the divine leader, the “Song of Man,” will return and restore order. But maybe not right away, who knows. Nobody knows, Jesus exclaims, except God.
Why can’t things be like they used to be?
Why does the world feel so harsh?
Where’s God in the midst of all this suffering and chaos?
These questions concerned the ancient writers of today’s Scriptures.
Why can’t things be like they used to be?
Why does the world feel so harsh?
Where’s God in the midst of all this suffering and chaos?
Have we asked these questions in 2020? Why can’t things be like they used to be? Remember what it was like to be around people, anybody really, even someone we didn’t really like being around? Wouldn’t it have been better to share this year’s Thanksgiving with our annoying cousin or smelly uncle than having to cook a Thanksgiving meal for two?
Why does the world feel so harsh? Sure, everything in the US has always been polarized; it’s the heritage we carry in a two-party system with a history of slavery and white privilege. From a divided nation to the constant post-truth narrative, to the realities facing real people on the margins that have lost loved ones, jobs, health, homes, and other basic securities during the pandemic, the world is rough these days. No wonder we might want to skip over the thumping language in our Scriptures for the idyllic angelic announcements and manger scenes.
And where is God in all of this? Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew’s gospel that “where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst.” Yet gathering is the most challenging thing to do these days. We do our best to meet by Zoom and Facebook and through emails and on the phone. We might see each other masked up in Lantman’s or at the hardware store, but we cannot gather in-person as the body of Christ. The recent surge in the pandemic has the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ recommending that local churches forgo any in-person gatherings for the rest of 2020. How are we supposed to keep the faith these days when our rituals, practices, and communities of support are so disrupted?
While the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is a novel experience in human history, we’re not the first people to face adversity and wonder how to keep the faith. And the season of Advent doesn’t try to gloss over the difficulties and challenges of this time or any time. In fact, the first two weeks of Advent are penitential times, weeks where the scriptures and hymns and liturgies call on us to frame the issues we are facing.
We cannot be physically close to our families right now. People we know are getting sick. Some are dying. This year has been very isolating and lonely. We have darker thoughts these days, and we struggle to get out of bed. We worry our family members are becoming radicalized because of our nation’s political polarization and false claims of voter fraud. We know that this pandemic is a season and will lift at some point, but it feels like we’re stuck in winter in mid-February, it’s been cold and dreary for a long time, and there’s still plenty more to come.
Why does our faith do this, make us tell the truth, calling on us to confess the current state of affairs, acknowledging where we hurt most?
Perhaps the story of Christmas with all its hope and light and cheer has to be rewritten every year. We hear the story of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds and angels and Magi and animals in the stable and the birth of one baby born in a far-off land 2,000 years ago. This story can feel pretty distant and inconsequential, but these early Advent Scriptures remind us of our need to experience God’s presence again, to hope for a world that is a little better, a little lighter, a lot more peaceful. We can resonate with the Isaiah passage that just wants things to be like they used to be. We can internalize the words of our Psalm, that wishes for a more peaceful world. And we can read our gospel message and see ourselves longing for God’s presence and victory during uncertain times of chaos and calamity.
Then, we can imagine that in 2020 Jesus will be born into this world that is undergoing a pandemic. Many have died, and many more have become sick. Most human life on this planet has been affected by the pandemic in negative ways. Generally speaking, people feel more lonely, more on edge, more depressed, and more anxious. Some have lost the basic securities of life, enough food, work, family, health, emotional support, and purpose. We need hope right now. We need a story that reminds us that God is with us, that goodness is coming, that we aren’t experiencing this difficult year on our own.
Do your best in the coming week to consider where you are hurting. Offer these confessions to God through prayer. Share them with others close to you if they are too heavy to manage on your own. Consider also the wider world and the pain others are experiencing. Don’t try to figure out how to fix things yet; just work on understanding.
I imagine that when we do this, we will have a better appreciation of our Christmas story, when, in a few short weeks, Jesus Christ is born again into our world.
If you are struggling during the pandemic and especially now during this holiday season, reach out. Call the church and speak with Andi Lloyd or with me or connect with us through email. Join the Closed Facebook Group that offers folks a safe place to share prayer concerns and interact with one another. Consider joining us for our Advent Vespers every Wednesday at 7 pm beginning December 2nd on Zoom.
May we take an honest account of the world as it is, so we can better appreciate the importance of our Christmas Story. Amen.
Lambs at Duclos & Thompson Farm on Sheep Farm Road, Middlebury VT
Photo Credit: Andy Nagy-Benson
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
To read Pastor Lloyd's sermon, click the button below.
Fan Mount: “The Cabbage Gatherers” by Camille Pissarro ca. 1878-79.
Matthew 25:14-30 14-18 “It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
26-27 “The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’
Harland Sanders came from very little. Born in a four-room house in rural Indiana in 1890, he was the oldest of three children that had to grow up quickly. His father died when Harland was just five, and his mother took a job at a tomato cannery in a nearby town to make ends meet. Harland became the family caregiver for his younger siblings and the family’s cook early on.
When his mother remarried, Harland sought work on local farms, painted horse carriages, and dropped out of the seventh grade to support his family.
When he was old enough, more or less, he entered military service and worked all over the country as a fireman, blacksmith, lawyer, railroad laborer, life insurance salesman, and steamboat operator.
His latest venture kept him in one place longer than any other. He operated a service station and diner in North Corbin, Kentucky.
The business had done alright, and local food critics praised his folksy menu consisting of southern favorites like country ham and biscuits, steaks and greens, and various chicken dishes. After a fire destroyed the gas station and restaurant, Sanders built a motel and 140-seat restaurant based on his reputation as a cook.
But then the interstate was built through Kentucky, and while it went through North Corbin, it changed the flow of traffic, and folks went elsewhere to eat, and stay, and get their gas. Harland Sanders was forced to close the service station, motel, and restaurant essentially broke.
Nearing retirement, he worried that his meager $105 monthly pension would not cover even the most stripped-down life for him and his family.
Then he remembered the praise he received from local food critics all those years back. Specifically, he remembered how they and many locals came to his restaurant for his fried chicken. After perfecting his “Secret Recipe” and special cooking method, Sanders hit the road, hoping to find a few restaurants that would franchise his fried chicken recipe and cooking method. He drove around the country, sleeping in his car, and was rejected more than 1,000 times, as the story goes, before a little restaurant in South Salt Lake, Utah took the offer to pay him .04 cents per piece of chicken sold.
By this time, he was known as Colonel Sanders, an honorary title given to him by Kentucky’s governor and friend, Lawrence Wetherby. When sales at the South Salt Lake restaurant skyrocketed in the first year, Colonel Sanders sought out more restaurants to carry his signature dish. Within a handful of years, Kentucky Fried Chicken had over 600 locations and was one of the first food franchises to expand internationally.
This type of story is the one we often associate with the parable of the talents, our gospel reading today.
A wealthy landowner goes on a trip and leaves his three servants with property to manage. The one who was given five talents, or $5,000 in our translation, quickly goes out, does some trading, and doubles the investment. The second one, who was given $2,000, goes off and doubles his investment as well. The third servant receives $1,000, and digs a hole and hides it.
When the master returns, the first two are praised for their financial aptitude and are invited into the land owner’s house to celebrate. Meanwhile, the third servant is reproved for burying his money instead of making an income. The servant is fired from the landowner's employment and, as Matthew does to most of Jesus’ parables, is thrown out into a hell-like scene with darkness and gnashing of teeth.
Historically, Christians in the west have read this parable and reflected on the importance of production. Those that are praised in this story are the two servants that took a little and made something of it, by whatever means. Likewise, God gives us gifts and talents in our lives, and we ought to use them. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says something similar when he tells his disciples that,
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
In this reading, God’s people are given gifts, talents, and graces, and the faithful response of those blessings is to use those gifts, talents, and graces to produce good in the world.
We can then imagine stories like Colonel Sanders as our modern-day parables. These are folks that were given little, but through hard work, ingenuity, and a little luck, that made big gains with what they had.
This is a common Stewardship Sunday passage because it talks about being faithful with what’s been given and making a strong return on God’s investment in us.
I’ve also heard this passage as a call for folks not to be shy about their gifts. We might like to sing, but worry that we aren’t good enough for the choir. We think we might be helpful by working in the church in this or that way, but feel we aren’t faithful enough, or know our Bible enough, or pray enough, or been at the church long enough to take on a leadership role. Don’t let fear guide your actions to the point that you hide your talents, a pastor might proclaim. But be courageous and share the gifts you have with others.
In many ways, I enjoy this reading, and it fits well within the stories of our Christian faith and our current situation. Today, during this pandemic, it is so easy to hide our gifts, talents, and graces because we cannot exercise them in the same ways we’ve always done. Singers cannot sing together, those that give generously may be furloughed, and folks that care for others cannot work in usual ways because of social distancing.
We might notice, then, that the master in our story does not micromanage or even give instructions, just resources. And while we do not have an instruction manual on how to pandemic correctly, likely we’ve been given all we need to continue to show love, worship, and work for a more just world today.
More recently, however, Biblical scholars have come back to this parable and other master/servant parables in Matthew. They wonder if the traditional reading of God or Jesus as Master and good Christ-followers as servants is the correct one, or if Jesus was trying to do something else.
By looking at economic practices during Jesus’ time, these scholars have pointed out that a 100 fold gain made so quickly would likely be made through the exploitation of workers, like hiring day laborers and then refusing to pay them at the end of the day. A more literal translation of the third servant’s conversation with the master goes like this:
24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest.
Here the servant accuses the master of theft by reaping where he did not sow, and the master remarks that he should have lent the money away so he could at least receive interest. Lending money at interest or usury when against the Laws of Moses.
By not using the money to exploit workers or collect interest, the third servant chooses not to participate in an economic system that hurts the poorest of the poor. In this reading, the master is not God, but earthly leaders that bestow opportunities capaciously and reward only the highest earners, regardless of the ways their money was made. When the third servant is thrown out into the cold, he joins all the other people that have been thrown out, thrown away, and disregarded by a wealthy few any their minions. Through this series of parables, Jesus describes the way his audience is oppressed by the unethical practices of the ruling elite and identifies with those that are thrown out, kept out, or let down by a broken economic system that values profit over people.
Today, we might consider how we participate in economic oppression systems and what we might do as people of faith.
On election day, November 2nd, the US Department of Labor announced a new regulation under the H-2A agricultural guest worker program that freezes wages for farmworkers for at least the next two years. These workers are folks from many other parts of the world, but mostly Central and South America, people who do not hold citizenship but are here legally, and who are primarily brown and black-skinned. Especially during this pandemic, these workers are essential in keeping food in the grocery stores. They cannot plant, weed, grow and harvest fields of tomatoes, avocados, olives, and lettuce by making phone calls or through ZOOM. Instead, their work is hard and physical, and a combination of low pay and working conditions makes visiting farmworkers more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and most other professions.
We can imagine the outcry if wages for other essential workers like nurses and doctors, or teachers and truckers, folks that must risk exposure to keep us all safe and healthy, were frozen for the next two years.
A faithful response to this unjust regulation might be to write our congressional delegation. Another might be to thank our local farmers or leave extra money in the till at local farms stands with a note that earmarks the money for the farm’s migrant farmworkers. We might also get involved in a national organization like Farmworker Justice or a local one like Vermont’s own Migrant Justice.
I guess we land with a pick you adventure ending with this troubling and challenging parable from Matthew. In it, we might be encouraged and challenged to find new ways to use our gifts, even though the pandemic makes this a little more challenging. Or we might find a way that our faith speaks to unjust economic practices and chose to spend some time or money on making life better for our fellow human beings, visiting farmworkers, who serve on the front lines as essential workers right now and are getting the short end of the stick.
Regardless, may you find something encouraging and challenging in these words of Jesus. And may you consider how this gospel story provokes you into action. Amen.