Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What if God Was One of Us? Christmas Eve Meditation on Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve 2013 Photo by Mark DeLap

Scripture can be found here...

This is the hardest story.

Oh, it’s also the most beautiful, and the one we are told “never grows old,” even though it’s the “old, old story.”

But I believe it’s the hardest to hear really fresh. It’s the hardest to honestly open our hearts to, because our hearts actually have these very thick crusts around them, composed, roughly, of the following:

5 cups of exhaustion from cleaning, decorating, shopping, and/ or travel;
3 cups of anxiety from visiting and/or missing loved ones
1-1/2 cups of vague and confusing memories from the Christmas pageant you were in as a child, which seemed to feature a rubber chicken.
1 unwelcome annual visitation of a ghost of Christmas past
¼ cup of true grief
2 months of credit card debt
40 yards of wrapping paper
A sprig of holly
A bag of cranberries
And roughly 4-1/2 lbs of cookie dough.
Ok, and a partridge in a pear tree.

All this is baked in the furnace that is December, until it turns into a nice golden brown, almost impenetrable shell around our hearts. How could the story possibly get through?

Let us try.

Our storyteller, Luke, starts by telling us what the big people, the important people, are up to. These are the days when the Emperor, aka Caesar Augustus, exercises his divine right to move people around from here to there so that he can count them and tax them and figure out just how wealthy and powerful he really is. His minions, like Quirinius, make sure it happens, in hopes he will remember them with a fruitcake this year. Everyone is to be registered, which means, they all head to their hometowns. Because, there’s no place like home for the holidays.

Among the travelers is a couple, Joseph and Mary, and this cannot be an easy trip for them, for lots of reasons. For one thing, Mary is very, very pregnant, and this is a trip most people are taking on foot. Eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem would be four days for someone who was reasonably fit and unencumbered. For a pregnant woman, even if she had the relative luxury of a donkey to ride, it was probably more like a week.  That’s one thing. For another thing, this couple didn’t follow the traditional pattern of dating, then engagement, then marriage, then baby; the timing on things was a little unconventional, and, honestly, for a while it wasn’t clear things were going to work out between them.  So, there’s that.

Once they arrive in Bethlehem, the young woman is in hard labor—the real deal, this baby is definitely coming. But Bethlehem is crowded, all the people have been coming from all over the place, and everyone’s in the same boat as our young couple. Because it’s Joseph’s hometown the usual plan would be to go ahead and stay with relatives, but apparently that is not even an option. What our translation calls “the inn” is really a kind of very basic guest room, probably in the house of one of those relatives. But it’s full. So this young first-time mother has to fend for herself in the area where the animals are kept. She doesn’t have her mother with her, or anyone else, as far as we can tell, except for her husband. And… this is not an era of prenatal classes for spouses. Even with the best of intentions, Joseph’s level of helpfulness is not likely to be high. Though we can always hope.

Are you starting to see what’s going on here? On the one hand, we have Caesar Augustus, waving a royal hand and sending the populace of more than a continent scurrying, because he can, because he has all the military might of the empire behind him. And on the other hand, we have this couple, these poor, road-weary nobodies in need of some hard-to-find hospitality and kindness. And, in the midst of their exhausting and stressful journey, a babe is born.

Where do you think we’ll find God in this story?

You know the answer. God is not with the mighty and powerful. God is not with the guy who has the backing of armies, unless you count armies of angels. God is nestled in the feedbox, swaddled in strips of cloth, the newborn clothes of choice for the poor and unimportant.

What if God was one of us? (In the words of the immortal Joan Osborne...)

This is what our storyteller is getting at.  What if God was one of us… the people who are not carried to royal events on the backs of slaves or in Hummer limos, but who toil along the weary road with painful steps and slow. What if God was one of us… the part of the population, who, rather than sleeping in silken sheets, can’t even manage to find a bed to give birth in? What if God was one of us?

And to put an even finer point on it, God has those armies of angels announce this birth, not to the Emperor, or his governors, or the local mayors or religious leaders… but to shepherds. Guys who are literally living in fields, doing the least prestigious, least lucrative, and most dangerous work there is.

What if God was one of us?

Our storyteller offers an answer to that question. God chose to be one of us. God chose to come, not as the five-star general of an army ready enact a scorched earth campaign, but as a tiny human, utterly dependent on others for his survival, ready to be raised by nobody parents from Nowheresville, Palestine. And Luke has the audacity to describe his birth using words typically appropriated by the Emperor. Words like, “Good news,” and “savior,” and “bringer of peace.” The angels tell the shepherds: You’ll know him by those fancy baby clothes he’s not wearing. He’ll be swaddled in bands of cloth, lying in a cow’s feedbox. Just like one of us might be.

It truly is the hardest story to take in: that God would choose to come among us, not in power, but in weakness; not in triumph, but humility bordering on humiliation; that God would come willing to literally get down in the dirt with humanity, not worried about the stains on the heavenly robes or smudges on halos. Because, yes, God is great, and yes, God is good. So very good, that God chooses to throw in the divine lot with the likes of us.

The heart of the story is clear, if we can get our hearts out from those Christmas-encased shells. It’s about God’s love for us, the ultimate ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ story. The hardest story. The old, old, story. The most beautiful story: the love story of the one who chose not to sit on a throne in the halls of the mighty, but to be enthroned in our loving hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Light in Darkness: A Sermon on John 1:1-18

Scripture can be found here...

Last night was the longest night of the year.

Many of us toke note of it, some didn’t. But in another time, another age, everyone noticed. As winter came on, and the days grew shorter, people were filled with fear and dread that the sun was truly going away, never to return. They determined to woo the unseen forces whose hands ruled the universe by turning all their attention to the shortening days and slowing down, ceasing their work, and allowing daily activities to come to a standstill. They took the wheels off their carts and adorned them with greenery and candles, and brought them indoors (the precursor to our Advent wreath). The whole world held its breath.

Imagine that world. Imagine we are sitting in a very dark place—maybe a room in a house, maybe a field on a starless night, maybe a deep, deep cave, with the sound of drops of water echoing around us. And imagine we are shoulder to shoulder, gathered in a circle instead of spread out among these nice roomy pews. We are huddled together, not so that we feel squeezed or trapped; but so that we know we are not alone.

And imagine we are gathered together around a light. A candle. A campfire. Something which allows us to see one another’s faces, as well as the light itself. Something that kindles warmth, in our hands or in our hearts.

This is the truth. This is where we are. In this place. Around a great light. Hear it again:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  ~John 1:1-4

We’ve spent more than three months engaging with the story of God and God’s people as told in scripture, from the very beginning. And now, we gather together around the story of God’s love come down to earth in the flesh. Today we begin nearly four months of hearing the story of Jesus in the voice of the Gospel according to John.

All four gospels give us stories about the origins of Jesus. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus shows up as a fully-grown man, ready to be commissioned to action by being baptized in the Jordan River. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we hear stories of angel-announcements and Jesus’ birth, an extraordinary coming of God as a tiny, vulnerable baby.

John goes back even further in time, back to the very beginning, not just of Jesus, but of the entire creation. It’s no accident that this passage sounds so very much like those opening verses of Genesis—In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light [Genesis 1:1-3]. John wants us to make this connection. He deliberately sets out to evoke our memory of this story.

The story of Jesus is not just the story of a man. The story of Jesus is not just the story of a family, or even a baby. The story of Jesus is the story of God: of God’s loving acts of creation. In and through the coming of Jesus, God is creating again, something new, a new reality. The story of Jesus is a story as fundamental as darkness and light. It is as elemental as the turning of the planet, away from the sun, and then back again.

Imagine it again with me, the darkness. But this time… there is no light. There are no shoulders to lean against. It is just you, alone.

Full disclosure: I’m the kid whose parents grew accustomed to her knocking on the bedroom door in the middle of the night, who awakened every single night between ages 3 and 8 and found the familiar objects in my room had been transformed by the shadows into unnamable goblins that were out to get me. I’m the one whose mother finally purchased a plastic nightlight in the form of the Blessed Virgin, which, really, was a stroke of genius.  Actually, it was more than that. It was a stroke of Jesus.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ~John 1:3b-5

Now, before we go on, a word about darkness: We need certain kinds of darkness. In the darkness under the cold winter earth, seeds germinate. In the darkness after the factory lights have been extinguished, workers find their rest. In the darkness of the night, tender words and gestures are exchanged between lovers. Darkness can be a sweet and potent and beautiful thing. We 21st century Americans are among the most sleep-deprived people in the world, because we continue to expose our eyes to the light of computer screens and smartphones instead of yielding to the comfort and blessing of darkness and a good night’s sleep. Darkness can be good, in and of itself.

But we also need the light. The seed that has been germinating in the dark needs the sun so that the chlorophyll in its leaves can absorb and transform its energy, for its continued growth above ground. Every human being needs sunlight to boost our vitamin D, so that we can absorb our calcium, and have strong muscles and good immune systems. Even lovers need the clear light of day to shine on their relationships and help them to live and love in the real world of jobs, family obligations, budgets, and good citizenship.

A dance of light and darkness has been going on since the beginning of time, and the light is essential. In Jesus, a kind of light came into our world that can never be fully extinguished: the light of God’s love. The Advent of Jesus is at least a tiny little bit like my Mom’s decision to give me a Blessed Virgin nightlight: a powerful reminder that we are not, in fact, alone, but instead, that we are seen and valued, loved and cared for.

The light is God’s elemental message to us, God’s way of speaking to us on an almost sub-rational level, a level before language. But still: the human species is known as homo sapiens, Latin for “thinking man” or “wise man.” And so we deal in, and John speaks here about, not just our instinctive responses to things like light and dark, but also in words, thoughts, concepts.

And so, the first title given to Jesus in John’s gospel is “the Word.” Here’s what one seminary professor has to say about the Word. 

The term ‘Word’… sounds like a musical chord: you’re not just hearing a single note, you’re hearing multiple dimensions of sound all at once. When you hear the term ‘word’: well, a word is spoken… it’s a form of communication. What we’re doing is getting to the question, “How does God communicate with us?” It is really God’s story. How does God get through to us? How does God get through to [God’s] world? … [Jesus Christ] isn’t just our speculation about God; [in Christ we are] receiving what comes from God. And without God’s communication, there’s no possibility for existence, there’s no possibility for relationship. All that hinges upon God’s ‘Word.’

And you think about the Word, and think about the creation story, ‘Word’ is what brings life into being: God said…[“let there be light”], and there was [light]. And that’s true in John’s gospel as well: the Word is that which creates, that which gives life.

And to hear that term [the Word] is to hear both that sense of communication and that sense of creative power simultaneously, that the power to communicate is the power to give life. And that’s what God is… doing at the dawn of creation. That is emphatically what God is… doing in the story of Jesus.[i]

Jesus Christ is God’s Great Communication to us, God’s communication of light that does not go out, no matter what kind of darkness we find ourselves in. Jesus is God’s continuing act of creating, saying, “Let there be light.” And in Christ we learn what kind of light God wants to shine in God’s world, what kinds of light God continues creating in us, and through us.

Last night was the longest night of the year. The winter solstice took place yesterday afternoon at a few minutes past noon local time: the sun, at midday, was at its lowest point above the horizon. Yesterday was our shortest day, and last night was our longest night.

Many churches hold services on or around the longest night, to offer a place of sanctuary for those who, in this season that so emphasizes joy and merriment, find themselves nevertheless in a spiritual darkness because of grief or loss. Last night at a longest night service in New Jersey, a friend and colleague shared this poem:

Is no respecter of my time
Or my process
It sneaks up on me long after
I thought it was done
And perhaps we were not
Spared madness after all
Although we stumble on
Doing our best
To work around the scars.

On this longest night
I am keenly aware of

I wrap it around me like a blanket
In the cold
And I wait for the Sun

Last night was the longest night of the year. Today is the day when the ancient world let out its breath, in a collective sigh of recognition and relief that the light was returning, the light was coming once again. In that ancient world, as the solstice passed and the days began to grow longer again, the people held festivals and celebrations to mark the return of the sun. The Roman Festival took place on December 25. They called it Sol Invictus, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun (S-U-N).

We Jesus-followers have spent all Advent waiting for the light, pushing back against the darkness by lighting one more candle each week. As the physical world (or even maybe our own internal world) grew darker, still we have been insisting: here comes the Light, the Unvanquished Son of God, the Light of the World. God’s Great Communication that we are seen, we are loved. He is coming. He is nearly here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Craig Koester, in “I Love to Tell the Story”: Narrative Lectionary Podcast 106, “Word Made Flesh,” John 1:1-18.
[ii] Rev. Katie Mulligan, West Jersey Presbytery.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Bloom Where You Are Planted": A Thanksgiving and Reign of Christ Sermon on Jeremiah 29

Scripture can be found here....

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. ~Jeremiah 29:11


There’s no place like home for the holidays.

Home is that place where, when you show up there, they have to take you in.

Feels like home to me, feels like home to me… feels like I’m all the way back where I come from.

But what about when there is no home? Or, there is a home, but you can’t get there. Or, you need to find a new home for financial reasons, or health reasons, or safety reasons.

What about when you are forcibly removed from your home?

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

We are now in a part of the story of God’s people that is so important, so central to their identity, it ranks on a scale with the experience of slavery and Exodus. We are, with this morning’s passage from Jeremiah, at the beginning of that period known as the Babylonian exile.

The history: Assyria is no longer the great superpower of the Ancient Near East; it has been conquered by Babylon. And, just as in a corporate takeover, Babylon has taken to itself all of Assyria’s lands and wealth, including Judah.

Then, somewhere in the vicinity of 597 BCE, during the reign of King Jeconiah, Judah chose to stage a protest against its occupier. It chose not to send its tribute (which is to say, taxes). Babylon responded. You’ve heard the phrase, “using a nuclear bomb to kill a fly”? Babylon did that. The mighty empire invaded Jerusalem, looting the temple and carrying off its many treasures. Babylon also removed the king and his court, replacing him with a puppet-ruler.

King Jeconiah, the royal family, the court officials, the leaders of Judah (including the temple priests), the artisans, and the smiths, were all taken to Babylon. All the leadership, gone.

This is part of a political and military strategy known as “decapitation,” in which all the elites—the learned, the powerful, those who can read, write, strategize, inspire—they are all either killed or removed. This leaves behind only the poorest and the most powerless.

“Home” is no more. “Home” is a distant unreachable land for those who have been carried away. And “home” is forever changed and made unfamiliar for those who are left behind. “Home” is no more for the exiles.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Here’s what God tells the exiles through the voice of this prophet Jeremiah:

Build houses and move in. Plant gardens and eat what you grow. Get married. Settle down. Have a family. When the time comes, encourage your children to do the same.

Live. Don’t just survive. Thrive. Bloom where you are planted.

This is not always what our instincts tell us to do. We can spend a lot of time railing against the present circumstances, and understandably so, whether our sense of exile is about external relocation or internal dislocation. We can feel exiled in the same house we’ve lived in all our lives when we experience a surprising and unwelcome change in our health, or a disruption of an important relationship. When our children leave home—or when, kicked around by a nasty job market, they come back.

Exile is a state of the heart as much as it is a state of the body, and a state of the mind as much as it is the state of the nation. And God’s instructions to the exiles have to do with returning to and embracing those habits of the heart that have always signified God’s care and concern for them. A safe place to live. Good nourishing food to eat and no one going hungry. Smiling faces around a table. Generations gathered together. Making a home where there was no home.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

God throws a little surprise in with the instructions. Did you notice it?

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. ~Jeremiah 29:7

God goes beyond the old habits of the heart to an entirely new one. For anyone who’s ever immersed himself or herself in the history of God’s people, there has not been a whole lot of seeking the welfare of the people who are more often than not described as “the enemy”. The people who have ruined our lives, messed up our government, caused us to lose our homes and leaders and sense of a world we recognize. God has, often, been party to, and cheering on those who, wiped such people out.

Not here. Not now. Seek the welfare of those you are inclined not to trust. Pray to the Lord your God for the very soldiers who came into the temple you were serving and bodily removed you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” [Matthew 5:43-45] Thus says the king we honor today, on the Sunday marking the Reign of Christ.”

How can we read this passage here on Thanksgiving Sunday and not think about our own history as a nation? How can we not wonder about the role of our own ancestors in sending others into exile? How can we read this and not think about the experience of Native Americans, people indigenous to this land, who were forced to walk a trail of tears, and who still live with disproportionate amounts of mental illness, depression, addiction and crime? In the assigned roles of Jeremiah 29, the Native Americans are God’s covenant people. The European settlers are Babylon.

And just as in Jeremiah 29, this is not about blame, or plans for revenge. This is about: what shall we do now? And it occurs to me, why shouldn’t God’s instruction apply to the occupiers as well?

Live in your houses. Plant your gardens and eat what you grow. Cultivate relationships that feel like family. Live fully into the relationships that are God gifts to you. Be grateful for your unique and beautiful reflection of God’s image. Settle down. And seek the welfare of those who are still in exile. For in their welfare, you will find your welfare.

Habits of the heart die hard. God invites us to bloom where we are planted anyway. God invites us to live and thrive. God invites us to trust that there is a future for us, that is even better than we can imagine. God invites us to invest ourselves in the promise that we will learn a new and more expansive definition of “home.”

And God invites us to a life where turn to our neighbors, to see whether they too are blooming. God invites us to see whether others, too, are living and thriving. God invites us to trust that there is a future for all of us, that is even better than we can imagine. God invites us to invest ourselves in the promise that we will learn and live out and share with one another a new and more expansive definition of “home.”

A safe place to live. For all. Good nourishing food to eat and no one going hungry. Smiling faces around a table. Generations gathered together. Home.

Home, that place where, when you show up there, they have to take you in.

There’s no place like home.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.


Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Boots, Blood, and Babies: Sermon on Isaiah 9

Scripture can be found here...

There are some biblical passages it is incredibly hard to hear with fresh ears: this is surely one of them. Sing it with me:

For unto us a child is born!
Unto us… a Son is given!

Georg Friedrich Handel has made it nearly impossible for us to hear these words of Isaiah without also hearing his glorious setting from “Messiah,” surely the greatest oratorio of all time.

And, by extension, has made it nearly impossible for us to hear these words without thinking of Christmas. Not too long after Jesus walked the hills of Galilee, his followers started scouring their scriptures—what we would call the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament—for words to illuminate their experience of his presence among them. They found many, and this was one of them. Again, we could sing it:

Wonderful Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

Since that time, Christians have understood these words to point forward to Jesus—that’s why we normally hear this passage on Christmas Eve. Jews, too, have come to understand these words to point to a some-time-in-the-future Messiah.

Today, however, we are going to try to hear the words of the prophet in their original context. This is going to take some work, because the original context is not an easy one. To help us reframe it, I’d like to share some words from the English poet Wilfred Owen. The poem is called “Dulce et decorum est.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.[i]

In that last line, Owen quotes the Roman poet Horace, who said, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”—“It is sweet and good to die for one’s country.” Owen calls that, “the old Lie.”

I know that was jarring to hear, juxtaposed with that gorgeous passage from Isaiah. Owen was born in Shropshire, England to a working class family and modestly educated. He was a soldier in World War I. “Dulce et decorum est” is typical of the shocking, realistic poetry that gained him the reputation as THE English language poet of that war. The poem describes a poison gas attack. Every war seems to add new and horrifying ways in which human beings can harm one another, and the use of various kinds of poison gas was one of distinguishing features of that war. Owen was killed in action a week—almost to the hour—before the signing of the Armistice. He was 25.

In every age, it is as it ever was. In an 1879 speech to the graduating class at Michigan Military Academy, retired General William Tecumseh Sherman said,

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.

Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell![ii]

This is it—the context of our passage today from the prophet Isaiah—a long and bloody siege of the southern kingdom of Judah by the mighty Assyrian Empire.  It is late in the 8th century BCE, and the northern kingdom has already been swallowed up, and is no more. Just as Owen wrote his poetry, Assyrian artists also worked to preserve memories of war: cities mowed down, as if they’d had Panzers and poison gas at their command instead of Iron Age chariots.

And if you look again, you’ll see that the memory of war is tucked right into this passage. Hear again how the words conjure up the images: walking in darkness…the dividing of plunder… the rods of oppressors… the boots of tramping warriors… the garments rolled in blood…

War is hell.  The prophet Isaiah agrees. It is a particular hell that we human beings seem hell-bent on inflicting on ourselves, over and over again.

And yet, that is not our take-away from this passage. That is not the final word, when God has something to say about it. Isaiah points people to the sign: a baby.

We are accustomed to associating this passage with one particular baby born about eight centuries later, in Bethlehem. The words of prophets are always spoken in a particular time and place, but they also find new meaning in new times. When Isaiah is writing , Ahaz the King of Judah, has his back to the wall. In order to fight a war against the northern kingdom he had allied himself with Assyria. And now Judah is a wholly owned and occupied vassal-state. The king is a king in name only. The glorious era of the Kings of Judah seems to be at an end.

But then, Ahaz becomes a father. Isaiah announces the good news:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.              ~Isaiah 9:6-9

Yes, there has been war. And it has been brutal and bloody. But God is not finished. God has something else to say. God has something else to do.

And Hezekiah, that baby, grows up to be very unlike his father. He undertakes sweeping reforms of the religious practices of the people of Judah, re-establishing worship of the one true God.

For the moment, he is still a baby. But the promise of this baby is enough to open the hearts of the people to other glorious possibilities…

That where there was darkness, there will be light…

That where there was sorrow, there will be joy…

There where there were shoulders bowed down with burden, there will be lightness and freedom…

That where there were warriors’ boots and blood-stained garments, there will be a roaring fire, providing warmth…

That where there was war, there will be peace.

God comes into our most desolate places, the places where we are the most destroyed and hopeless, and plants tiny seeds of hope. For Isaiah and the people of Judah, it was a powerless little baby. For us… what is it?

What is your tiny little seed of hope?  What is your flickering flame, springing up in the darkness?

For me, the SNAP challenge is one such little seed. A handful of people trying to live empathetically for just one week, by living on the typical food stamp allotment.

Another is this: The president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, will camp with the people of Tacloban, the area most devastated by last week’s typhoon, until help arrives.

And another: Hundreds of people in San Francisco turned out this week to help a little boy with Leukemia, Miles Scott, step out of the reality of living with cancer, and instead live his dream of being a superhero crime fighter, BatKid.

And another seed of hope: you. I look out at this congregation, and there is not one person here whose kindness I haven’t seen, whose empathy hasn’t shone in some way, whose love hasn’t been demonstrated—whether for someone else in this community, or for strangers far away, or for me.

God comes into our most desolate places, and plants seeds of hope. I invite you this week to tune your vision, sharpen your hearing, stir your senses to notice seeds of hope. Faces, places, moments, times when…

Where there was darkness someone shone a light…

Where there was sorrow someone brought joy…

Where shoulders were bowed down, someone lightened a load…

Where there were signs of conflict, someone brought peace.

God is busy, zealous, already doing all these things. All we need to do is notice, and to say, all thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et decorum est,”,
[ii] William Tecumseh Sherman, as quoted by Dr. Charles O. Brown in the Battle Creek Enquirer and News, 18 November, 1933.