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.
“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” William Blake ca. 1800. Public Domain.
Matthew 25:1-13 1‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In general, humans are not very good at waiting. If you have had children or been around children, you’ve noticed that we do not come preloaded with patience or calmness when we need something.
Some of us have been taught or learned to be more patient over the years, and some of us have not. Regardless, the idea of waiting probably makes us feel a little squeamish and evokes images of standing in a line at the DMV or watching the coffee maker take it’s good old time as it slowly percolates this morning’s coffee.
The great theologian Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers tell us that:
The waiting is the hardest part Every day you see one more card You take it on faith, you take it to the heart The waiting is the hardest part
In many ways, 2020 has been a lesson or ordeal on waiting, as we’ve longed for better news about the pandemic, have waited to see family and friends, or have waited to return to work. We’ve entered the bonus round this last week as the election took place, but several states are still counting ballots. And even when all the votes are counted, there is a strong chance that we will endure recounts, and court hearings before it’s all sorted.
What makes waiting so tricky is that it can make us feel powerless. We wait for the results of a medical test and can’t do anything to ensure a positive outcome. We wait as the mechanic diagnoses the problem with our car, knowing that the fix could be expensive. We wait for the healing of a relationship, knowing that such things are not in our control.
Our gospel passage for this Sunday is another of Jesus’ parables. This one deals with waiting.
If you remember, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employed parables or stories to teach an important lesson about the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s new way. The early readers of this gospel believed that Jesus Christ would return soon once and for all, overthrowing the foreign occupation and righting all wrongs. But now, near the end of the first century, the gospel’s earliest audience has begun questioning that belief. It’s been a generation or more since these stories took place, and the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better. What is Jesus waiting for? Why are people still suffering? Were we wrong about Jesus altogether?
So, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding. The bridegroom is set to arrive at some time in the evening, but the exact time is unknown. Friends of the bride have been commissioned to keep watch and keep their lamps on so they can both recognize the bridegroom and his party when they arrive and so they can bring the bridegroom to the place of celebration.
Some of the bridesmaids come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event the groom doesn’t arrive until early in the morning. Others do not bring extra oil, so when the wedding party comes at midnight, they have to run out to buy more fuel for their lamps. In doing so, they miss the arrival and the festivities altogether.
Waiting on Jesus was a serious issue among the early Christ-followers all over the Mediterranean world in the mid to late first century. Several of Paul’s letters address this issue, and it is apparent in the book of Acts that this issue divided some of the church’s early leaders.
It appears that some of these early followers were so convinced that Jesus would return and fix the world soon and very soon, that they sold all they had, and simply waited, in ideal. As time wore on, and Jesus did not return in the way they imagined, communities of faith were stretched thin to support their brothers and sisters who were now destitute. Those that were so sure of Jesus’ return had become a financial burden to their communities.
Matthew still believes that Jesus will return triumphantly, but he sees waiting as an activity, something that does more than standing around, waiting for Jesus to return and fix a broken world. Jesus’ message in this parable, then, is to remain prepared by doing those things that you’ve been commissioned to do. Just as the wise bridesmaids prepared for the possibility of a long night and then got to participate in the festivities, early Christians were to prepare themselves for a late-arriving savior, knowing that their work would be essential and allow them to participate in a better world.
I wonder if this parable gives us some insight into our hopes and desires as we wait for a better world. Are we wasting time, holding on to the hope that the pandemic will simply lift, and everything will be back to normal soon and very soon? Or are we finding ways to remain healthy and still connected, busy by caring for ourselves and others in gracious and hard-working ways? Because what we do now matters, and it is essential to be good to yourself and gracious with others right now.
What about the election? Did we were doing our part simply by casting our vote? Did we drive ourselves a little crazy this week pressing the refresh button over and over on the CNN website, or have Fox News on 24 hours a day? Or did we go about our lives, offering prayers and kindness, love, and goodness, as we brought a little light to those in our grasp?
Are we waiting on the world to change, to be more loving and just, more peaceful and civil, more sustainable and inclusive, or are we actually participants in the changing of a world that cries out for something better?
As we wait, for the end of a pandemic, for election results, for a better world, may we wait actively. There’s work to do, essential work, and no reason to be ideal. For the love of God and all of God’s creation. Amen.
“The Supper at Emmaus” Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1622-23). Public Domain.
5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Beatitudes “Everyone sometime has somebody close die,” writes my favorite poet, Wisława Szymborska. Between to be or not to be He’s forced to choose the latter.
We can’t admit that it’s a mundane fact, Subsumed in the course of events, In accordance with procedure:
Sooner or later on the daily docket, The evening, late night, or first dawn docket;
And explicit as an entry in an index, As a statute in a codex, As any hance date on a calendar.
But such is the right and left of nature. Such, willy-nilly, is her omen and her amen. Such are her instruments and omnipotence.
And only on occasion A small favor on her part-- She tosses our dead loved ones Into dreams.
There are some whose memory lives on well beyond their passing. By invention, military conquest, power, fame, wealth, monuments, and mausoleums are erected to only a select few in human history.
Two famous buildings, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Taj Mahal in India, were built centuries ago as places of remembrance to important people. The second pharaoh of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, Khufu, commissioned the great pyramid while still alive so he could be worshiped after his death. The Taj Mahal was commissioned in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to memorialize his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to the couple’s 14th child.
We also remember those whose inventions carry their name: Samuel Colt’s Colt revolver, Rudolph Diesel’s Diesel engine, George Washington Gale Ferris’s Ferris wheel, and Hans Geiger’s Geiger Counter. But what about the rest of us, the rest of humanity? What about all those people who lived and died through the centuries that did not discover some distant land, invent some new contraption, or have the wealth to donate to an institution and receive a hall named after them?
What about the people, those who we loved and were good to us, whose only lasting memory is the one we hold, when, as Szymborska puts it, “[nature] tosses our dead loved ones into dreams.”
All Saint’s Day is a Christian feast day celebrated by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant churches worldwide. The day commemorates all the saints, known and unknown, and is part of a Christian season that includes Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day.
This short season calls on the faithful to remember those that have gone before them, specifically those this world might forget.
In this way, our gospel reading from the Beatitudes makes sense. Here Jesus describes an alternative reality, one in which those that are most harmed by human evils are comforted and vindicated by God. Jesus does not count the wealthy, privileged, powerful, violent, conquering, and corrupt as receiving God’s favor. Instead, God’s blessing resides with the humans who are at the end of their rope, who are grieving, and who do not have enough, not because of their difficult circumstances, but because God prefers to show up during difficult circumstances. God can also be found in those that have searched for the good in this world and been severely let down, and in the caretakers of those that are forgotten. God abides in those that set their hearts and minds on good and noble things and in those who show people how to work differences out peacefully.
These are not special people, as our world measures specialness. Likely, these folks do not have a great wonder of the world to mark their burial place, a lasting invention that bears their name, or a place in our children’s textbooks.
But we know them. Those faces from our past that show up in our good dreams because they were good people. They can be mothers and fathers, or not. Siblings and other family members sometimes. A teacher, professor, or coach or maybe a really good friend or mentor. And despite not being wealthy, or powerful, forceful, or connected, you remember them as blessed. Because they persisted. Because they were truthful. Because they were kind and sincere and filled with a loving grace. They were not perfect, but no saint is. And even after they are gone, they still give us power and strength today. Because God was with them, was present in their lives in some explicit way or otherwise.
How we are to other people matters. All Saint’s Day reminds us of that because we are asked to remember those blessed people in our lives that graced us with their good presence and have since moved on. So, remember the good ones, and consider what part of them lives on in you.
And remember, you too, are blessed by God. Reflect that. Live as a blessing to those around you. Measure success the way Jesus measured success. If you do, you will need no monument, mausoleum, or hall named after you. You will be remembered when it matters by those that matter most. Amen.
Matthew 22:34-46 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
This week, Pastor Intern Andi Lloyd gave the sermon, Love in Action. To read the sermon, click the button below.
Silver Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny. Early First Century, CE. Public Domain.
Matthew 22:15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Sometimes I wonder if we lose something when we read our gospels as Scripture. Granted, they are, and as such, the gospels have been mined through the centuries to help us humans figure out how the world works, how to be good to one another, and how to connect with God. As Scripture, though, our gospels are usually read one short section at a time in our personal or group studies, or during worship services. Often, we return to our favorite parts and sometimes disregard the more difficult parts.
But what if we read the gospels more like stories, with beginnings, middles, and endings, with villains and heroes, allies, and conspirators? What if the main character showed development and growth throughout the story and faced down some great evil in some climatic series of pages that, like a really good novel, we aren’t able to put down until we figure out what happened? What if seeing the entire story was part of the gospel experience? What if, by reading more broadly, we might challenge the way we read and apply those gospel nuggets we learned in Sunday School growing up or saw on a bumper sticker or road sign?
Today’s gospel reading, where Jesus is asked to give his opinion on paying taxes, really doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it takes place in the latter part of a story, as the conflict between Jesus and the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem is escalating. If this story was a modern novel, we might notice ourselves reading a little faster right now, connecting earlier elements with these climatic events. We might be closer to the culture and society that our story was written and understand the context of these events without any explanation. And we might come to different conclusions about what it means to be faithful to God when we think about our own politics because this story is a political thriller of sorts. But, because it’s also Scripture, it informs how people of faith might think and act politically.
So, to get us caught up, here are the notes we need to help is today.
From the very beginning of our gospel story, we know that Jesus is special. As an infant, he was visited by foreign dignitaries who offered him royal gifts. The local ruler, King Herod, hears of this, and, fearing that his rule will be usurped, murders infants in the town of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Jesus and his parents escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until King Herod passes away.
At some point after Herod’s death, either at Jesus’ birth, according to Luke’s gospel, or when Jesus was a child, a census was held in the region so the Roman Empire could count everyone and tax them accordingly. While not mentioned in our gospels, but written about in other Jewish and early Christian writings, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome because of this census, arguing that by submitting to being counted and paying taxes to Caesar, the Jewish people were submitting to another master, other than God, which was forbidden. And as this movement grew, Galilean Jews who submitted to the census were attacked, a Roman armory was captured, and political assassinations became common. To add fuel to the fire, Emperor Tiberius had coins minted with his image and the words, “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus, and High Priest.” These coins, which bore the image of the emperor who declared himself the son of a god and the religious leader of the Jews, were to be used to pay taxes. The Galilean countryside where Jesus grew up flared with regular fighting between the empire and rebel leaders. This backstory was common knowledge to the early readers of our gospel story.
As Jesus reached adulthood, a prophet named John began gathering a crowd of dissenters in the neighboring region of Judea, just outside of Jerusalem. People, a lot of people, were attracted to John’s message because he’s naming the abuses, corruption, and violence they face in their everyday lives because of their leader’s greed, quest for power, and authoritarian control. Further, he offered a story of hope, proclaiming that God is about to do something good, and the corrupt rulers will be held accountable.
Inspired by John’s message, and having been baptized by John in a miraculous event, Jesus returned to Galilee and began working as an itinerant sage, healer, and leader. Mostly, he attracted the disenfranchised, local peasant fishermen, a couple of loud and brawling brothers, a recalcitrant guy named Judas with his own revolutionary ideas, and a reformed tax official named Matthew, the gospel’s namesake. And he spent a great deal of time with these guys, teaching them a different way to live with greater generosity, love, and faith. Above all, he argued that ordinary people like them could make change possible through direct action. He then sent them out to spread the good news and help those in need.
Sending the twelve apostles out is a turning point in our story. The success of their mission brought a lot of attention to Jesus, and folks came in the thousands to hear Jesus speak. The size of these crowds had the attention of local leaders. Soon after the apostles return from their travels, Jesus is confronted by those same religious and political leaders John spoke about in Judea. And then Jesus receives news that John has been arrested and then killed by a local governor during a drunken birthday bash. Jesus inherits John’s followers, many of which are angry at the needless death of their leader and are ready for open revolt.
At this point, Jesus’ message, and the way he tells it, change. He’s no longer a wandering holy man with a handful of non-descript followers who performs miracles for a few individuals. He gathers large crowds wherever he goes. And some in the crowds are ready for a fight. He’s become a popular leader to the disenfranchised, the poor, and all those treated poorly by those in power.
So, knowing that his crowds are on edge, and seeing representatives from local leaders watching his every move, Jesus begins to teach in parables. These parables are stories Jesus tells to make a point about the corruption of the system, or God’s alternative way, called the kingdom of heaven. These stories serve as a buffer of ambiguity, so those watching Jesus, and hoping to nab him like they did John, have nothing of substance to report. These parables also calm the crowds, as most stories do, and give Jesus time to teach a message of hope that doesn’t include a violent uprising.
But this new style only buys Jesus so much time. Conflicts and disputes with authorities are now commonplace by the time Jesus gets to Jerusalem for Passover. There, folks in the city usher him in like a victorious king, or a conquering one. He goes to the temple and, using the power of his gathered crowd, chases out the officials who were running a racketeering scheme. The next day, he issues a threat, telling the angry officials that their power is about to be taken away.
So now, in chapter 22, Jesus gets three trap questions, one about taxes, one about life after death, and one about the greatest commandment. These are all questions posed by religious leaders who hope to get Jesus to say something they can arrest him for, either against the Roman occupation, or blasphemy against God.
Jesus knows they are feigning genuine appreciation when they begin by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. So tell us, is it appropriate to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
These folks know that Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, an alternative way to order life that challenges both Roman occupation and religious corruption and complicity. Perhaps they thought that Jesus was like Judas the Galilean, another ruffian from the sticks that opposed Roman rule and taxation. If they can get Jesus to say “don’t pay the tax,” the case is open and shut. Anyone aligned with Judas’s movement was arrested by Roman authorities and summarily executed.
But, if he says “pay the tax,” then Jesus loses some of his most devoted followers, folks who agree with Judas the Galilean but seek a more peaceful way of sluffing off foreign rule.
It’s wonderfully calculated. Either Jesus is arrested for sedition, or he loses his audience.
Calmly, Jesus asks to see a coin used for the tax. And someone pulls out a silver coin.
And Jesus asks, “Whose image is this, and whose title?”
And his opponents say, “Caesar’s.”
“Give to Caesar, what is the Caesar’s,” Jesus says. “And give to God, what is God’s.”
It’s a mic drop moment. Even his opponents are amazed at his answer.
But why are they amazed? And while this has been a fun summary of the gospel of Matthew so far, what does any of this matter to us today?
So, there’s an election coming up in two weeks. And here in the US, it’s an important one. And a divisive one. And the outcomes will affect how our country recovers from the pandemic, practices health care, works with other countries, and funds education. This election will affect our economy, our use of energy, and how we care for the environment.
And for some, faith leaders and faith communities should stay quiet and never talk politics. In fact, this passage, the “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” passage was used by Martin Luther in the 16th century to argue for his “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” In it, politics and religion are two separate kingdoms that should not meddle one with the other. Jesus was in charge of the Heavenly Kingdom, and Earthly monarchs in Luther’s time were thought to be ordained by God and rightful leaders of their servants, regardless of competence. While Luther does this, in part, to discourage 16th-century monarchies from interfering with church life, the inheritors of Luther’s “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine” have often described the life of faith and political life as two self-contained worlds that can be separated from one another. In this way, the words of Jesus about peacemaking, healing the sick, or holding leaders accountable can be applied only as spiritual or religious ideals, and do not carry weight when it comes to our politics.
But I offer one observation about this position and one word of encouragement. The gospel story of Jesus Christ is a political thriller. It’s other things too, but it is also a story about a man whose life was affected by the politics of his day. When leaders behaved in abusive and self-serving ways, Jesus drew attention to it. More importantly, when Jesus met with people who had no healthcare, who had been discriminated against, and who had experienced injustice at the hands of a corrupt and unstable administration, he felt it. He felt pity and compassion and frustration, and anger for the people that were hurting. And he taught a new way, a different kingdom option, one that confronted the powers that be. When he challenged this system, he was arrested, tortured, and put to death on charges of sedition, a political charge. To dismiss the political story of our gospels, as some do, leave us with some really cool sayings about being nice to our neighbors and being loved by God, but skirt any political responsibilities we might have to make the world a better place by voting, lobbying, and advocating for politicians who tell the truth, work for the common good of all people, and place the health and wellbeing of a diverse nation above quarterly profits.
And I think all of this because of the zinger in today’s story, “Give to God, what is God’s.” What isn’t God’s? That’s Jesus’ entire point, and the reason his opponents left awestruck. Jesus isn’t describing two separate kingdoms, one run by an earthly emperor and one by himself, but an entire cosmos that belongs to and is sustained by a gracious creator God. If we believe in a God like this one, and if we turn to this God when a loved one is ill when we lack discernment and direction in our personal lives, and when our own broken moments need divine reconciliation, why wouldn’t we consider the teachings of our faith as we cast our ballots this November? How might our faith remind us to be less cynical, more trusting, and mindful of our political responsibilities? How might we act more like Jesus when it comes to the politics we practice?
Folks, we are created in the image of a loving, compassionate, and faithful God. As image-bearers, we work to make this world more loving, compassionate, and faithful with all of our powers, including our political power. May we prayerfully consider the votes we cast in the coming weeks. May we pray for those officials responsible for our voting system. May we pray for peace and clarity at the polls. And may we vote faithfully, doing our part to make this world better for all God’s creation. Amen.
“The Shepherd’s Song” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1891). Public Domain.
Philippians 4:1-9 1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?” This question was my favorite professor’s refrain every time our class stumbled across some great insight about faith, community, or doing good.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?”
So, we are about six months into the 2020 pandemic. As of today, about 35 million people have contracted COVID-19, and over 1 million have died from it. Millions upon millions have faced insecurity in housing, food, employment, and child care.
In the United States, communities struggle to address the embedded inequalities and violence aimed at people of color. Statues of slave-holders have come down, bigoted CEO’s have stepped down, and protests have continued. Violence and property damage have occurred in some places, carried out by a few opportunists or right-winged extremists.
Wildfires on the West Coast have displaced over 200,000 people and thanks to the second most active hurricane season on record, thousands more in the Gulf Coast.
We cannot forget, of course, that 2020 is an election year.
2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, and it’s not over. No wonder some of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters of faith have seen apocalyptic overtones in 2020, hailing these days to be the last days.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
But there’s an additional problem.
A few weeks ago, my sons Simon and Miles brought home information about town soccer. But the problem was, the K-2 soccer team in Starksboro did not have a coach. I got a call that very night by another parent asking if I would co-coach with him. K-2 soccer.
Now I’ve never played soccer or coached, but that’s why we have Youtube. And wanting my boys to participate in a fall sport after spring sports were canceled, I said yes and then went to my computer and googled “How to coach soccer.”
Luckily the other coach didn’t know a thing about soccer either, so, at our first practice, one of our drills was an army crawl, a technique I have yet to see us use in a game. We did study up on the pandemic precautions for youth soccer, and now have a good set of drills to keep us busy. But it was good to hear from a more veteran coach that this age group is a lot of fun, and coaching kids this age is a combination of keeping a positive attitude and herding cats.
And I’ve had a blast doing it.
And then, last Friday, at our game in Bristol, I realized that I was full of joy. If you haven’t been to a K-2 soccer game before, imagine a small field with one ball and 47 legs trying to kick that one ball all at the same time. Goals are being scored mostly by accident while defenders find worms, throw grass at each other, or catch bugs. There’s a lot of little boy energy on the team, so kids waiting to go in on the sidelines mostly practice karate or talk about Minecraft.
But because my brain never seems to stop these days, sometime toward the end of the game, I was reminded that we are in the middle of a pandemic, social unrest, political distrust, wild fire-y and hurricane season. Am I even allowed to feel joyful these days?
“What do we do, knowing what we know?”
In some ways, Philippians attempts to answer this question.
In the early 60’s CE, the Apostle Paul writes to the first church he founded in Europe at Philippi in modern-day Greece. Paul has spent time among the community, and there is evidence of mutual support. We also know that Paul is writing this letter from prison, awaiting sentencing in Rome. He has likely been held in confinement for over two years. And yet, the tone of the message is overwhelmingly positive. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is attempting to mend a fracture in the community. Two leaders – Euodia [U – O – DEE – A] and Syntyche [SIN – TIE – KEY] have been disputing, either with each other or with Paul. Paul reminds these two leaders that they are on the same team and encourages the congregation to support these women through whatever rift there is.
Then Paul does something interesting; it seems as if he changes the subject. He calls on this faith community to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Further, he calls on the community to “Not be anxious, but to go to God in prayer and be thankful.” These practices will, he claims, bring this community peace.
Finally, Paul drives home his point by calling upon the community to think about those things that are beneficial for living together, being truthful, honorable, justice-oriented, pure, beauty-seeking, worshipful, and excellent in a Bill and Ted sort of way, I imagine. This, too, focusing one’s thinking on good things, also brings peace to the community and everyone in it.
Are we allowed to feel joyful during 2020?
There is so much illness, disaster, and distrust in the world right now.
And yet, for the Apostle Paul, as he sits in prison and pens a letter to one of his struggling faith communities, he writes about joy. He calls the Philippians his joy, even when all is not well. He’s even optimistic, hoping to be released soon, excited to send his partner Timothy to help them, and expecting to visit soon.
It seems to me that the Apostle Paul’s position on the matter is that joy is something we choose and practice. It does not dismiss the problems and conflicts people of faith encounter. Instead, it fully acknowledges them, openly and also prayerfully. In fact, practicing joy looks something like taking our deepest concerns to God, trusting that God is working in our lives and in this world for good things.
Being joyful then has something to do with trusting God. As we know, trust is a practice, something that takes time and energy, and devotion. This type of joy perceives that even in the challenges and turmoil that this world has to offer, God is actively working in concrete ways to change the story. Joy is our response to this reality. To have joy is to practice imagining what good is possible, over and above what is, to focus your attention on what God is going through us and through others throughout the world.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
The poet Rumi writes that “sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Even in 2020, we can be joyful. We can see our children and grandchildren grow leaps and bounds. We can be thankful for victories in our lives and in this world, both big and small. We can imagine all those that continue to work hard to find a vaccine, officials, and community leaders that have worked together for social equality. We can also be thankful for firefighters who risk their lives to contain wildfires and the countless workers and volunteers that help those displaced by the recent hurricanes.
And we can be hopeful that regardless of judicial appointments and election outcomes, good people are working in our communities and states and nation to make life more tolerable for everyone. They tell the truth. They fight corruption. They promote freedom and responsibility. They use their words wisely, decline the photo op, and stand up for those on the margins.
And most importantly, we can trust that God continues to bend the history of our human race toward something loving, and caring, and just. Our God hasn’t taken 2020 off or walked away from this mess. Rather, our God is more active, present, and available to us now than many of us have ever experienced.
We are allowed to be joyful in 2020. Practicing joy would probably make us a little healthier, inside and out, and would bless those around us during this troubling time. So, consider the good around you. Take your concerns always to God. Watch a little kid’s soccer game. And practice trusting in our good, loving, and always active God. Amen.