Sunday, March 19, 2023

How Jesus Encounters Us

 Who is this God?  And what is God up to?   

We’re journeying through Lent with three guides, well, five if you count the siblings.  Mary and Martha with their anger and grief, Lazarus with his pesky deadness, Nicodemus with his questions and fear; today this woman who doesn’t get named, with her baggage and her boldness, and actually, the disciples too in this one, all of these faith relatives of ours have their worlds blown open and their imaginations completely rewired for who God actually is and what God might actually be up to.

So let’s jump in with today’s guide, The Samaritan Woman.

I suspect the reason she’s not named is because the division and tension between Judeans and Samaritans before and beyond this story crept into the telling too. What’s most important to know is what’s most shocking and hardest to get over: she’s a Samaritan. Woman.  

Judeans and Samaritans were all Jews, they had the same ancestors- but they had different practices, different scriptures, different worship.  

Each one was right; each one knew the other was wrong. With so much scorn and disdain, they avoided each other whenever possible. Which was often possible. This meant that despite the shortest route from Judea to Galilee being through Samaria, it wasn’t often used by Judeans.  And if Jesus had taken the regular route, this conversation its consequences would never happened.  Jesus and the Samaritan Woman might never have met.  

But God so loved the world.  And Jesus went through Samaria.  

So the conversation happened.


The writer of this story wants us to infer a few things about her right away from details we might not pick up being 21st century readers: she is coming to the well at the hottest time of day, when nobody comes to the well, and she is coming alone. Probably she has stopped trying to come in the early morning with the other women and children, when nobody really talked to her anyway, and it was too painful to see them surrounded by their big, loud families, discussing their sons, and husbands, while she trudged along behind them with her water jug on her shoulders, no one to share her load. So even though it’s a miserable, scorching walk in the middle of the day, it’s easier to come alone.


But today there is someone at the well.  A man. Judean, clearly not Samaritan.  She ignores him and goes about her business, until he clears his throat and addresses her, Excuse me, can I have a drink of that water?


And the conversation begins.   

Encountering God, seeing Jesus, this life of faith and following, is not about answers handed down from heaven, not about good behavior or earned right or accumulated knowledge or perfect piety.  It’s a conversation– it’s a back and forth with doubt and insight, frustration and challenge, with breakthroughs and mysteries that remain unsolved. And most often, we meets Jesus in places of need -  sometimes our own, sometimes someone else’s. God comes to us in the real stuff of life, when we’re open and available to be encountered.  


Here, encounter with God looks like two people from opposite sides of the fence, one with sweaty, dusty thirst, the other, a lonely, isolated person with a complicated living situation doing an arduous daily task with no support or companionship. Their religions forbid men and women from interacting, forbid Judeans and Samaritans from interacting and yet, in the glaring differences and walls that separate absolutely, a moment of connection happens anyway, and astonishingly, in their shared need there is dignity, generosity and humanity.


So the conversation happens. Jesus and Samaritan Woman. 

He knows all about her tragedy.  She has no people; five times she’s been divorced, abandoned, or widowed.  A man could cast off a woman for nearly any reason, and if a husband dies and she has no sons, she has no protection, security, food or home. So she survives however she can, and probably has come to see herself the way the world sees her. She’s the disposable person, belonging to nobody. That’s her identity; that’s her lot; that’s her role.


But the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone, is with her. He sees her.   He engages her like an equal, addresses her intelligence, listens to her, recognizes the totality of her story – the painful parts and the parts before and beyond those. He treats her like she already belongs, and in so doing, he gives her a new role and identity. 


When Jesus offers the woman living water, springing up from within; water of life as they are sitting here in this barren place where lack of water means sure and certain death, here at the ancient well of their shared ancestor, the place of God’s provision and protection, the well that sustains them, to which the whole village must arduously trek and laboriously draw water to stay alive, she is mystified, and feels the yearning within her rise up, and at the same time as she feels the tamped down longing come to live she is right at this moment being quenched, being giving this living water he speaks of. 


Jesus doesn’t see her as a tragedy or a reputation or a burden or a cipher. When he sees her personhood the life within her so long dead, like Lazarus, wakes up. He treats her like she participates and so she does. 


She recognizes him as a prophet, poses to him the question that divides their people, right out in the open, she names it. Just like Nicodemus great teacher of the law, who wrestled and pushed back with his questions, just like Martha and Martha who confronted him and demanded an answer, she lays the difficulty right at his feet.  Your people, say the temple in Jerusalem is where God is found and only if you worship there are you truly seeking God. Our people say this mountain before us is where God meets people. Which is it then?


And he responds with those words we’ve just heard in a previous conversation – spirit and truth – trust me, he answers, the time is coming when it won’t matter where people worship. Those who seek God do so in spirit and truth. God will meet people in that place. 


And like Nicodemus, she ventures a statement loaded with question, I know the Messiah is coming…. 

And he responds with the timeless words of Yahweh, when the voice of God from the burning bush declared to their shared ancestor Moses, “I AM.”


And the whole world cracks open.

She leaves her jar.  Like James and John left their nets to follow, she walks away from the thing that had brought her there to begin with, and leaves behind who she was at the well beside him. And she runs. Free, fast, unencumbered. She runs back to her town and tells everyone – Come and see!   Come and see this man who knows everything about me.  He can’t be the Messiah, can he?


And they come. 

They listened to her.  And why wouldn’t they?  

Can you imagine what they saw when she flew back into town without her water jug? Confident, luminous, upright and unflinching?  She undoubtedly looked completely different than she did when she skulked out of town in the midday heat. She left an empty shadow of a person, and returned radiant, filled with passion and purpose, her shoulders high, her head, raised, her voice firm and eyes lit up, her face looking straight into the faces of others instead of down at the ground in front of them.  How could they not take in what she was saying?  

The living water he promised, the water she’d so desperately craved when he offered it, they felt it bubbling right up out of her and spilling onto them, drawing them back to the source of the water themselves, and then the whole town encountered Jesus.

 Imagine being the unsuspecting disciples, who left to buy lunch, and returned to a different evangelism strategy? The poor disciples are upset and confused and a little pouty about whether someone else brought him food when that was their job.

Not only is this unnamed Samaritan woman with a sketchy social standing the first person to whom Jesus reveals that he is Messiah, but she is legitimately the first preacher in Christianity. Before the disciples even, she is the first evangelist, and she’s effective! Her whole town signs on quick, and this stop wasn’t even on the tour schedule!  


But Jesus tells them they are part of something that started before them and continues after them – their part is important but this isn’t their show.  The work they do now was begun by others, and these people they dismiss without a thought are the ones who Jesus will be staying with for the next few nights, so just sit back and let it unfold – for God so loves the whole wide world.


And the disciples now must bear witness to the reality that Jesus will always be found in the world, for the whole world, and will not stay confined to our plans or spaces or ideas or tribes. Nobody gets a corner on God, and as soon as we’ve labeled ourselves ‘the temple people,’ or ‘the mountain people,’ or ‘the true followers’ with ‘the correct beliefs,’ we’re about to be surprised by Jesus hanging out with the ones we’ve despised and dismissed.  And then we must ask again, Who is this God and what is God up to? 


I wonder what the first preacher would ask us if she were here? 

Maybe she’d ask about our conversations with Jesus.  

When have we felt seen and known, in the back-and-forth honesty with God? 

When have our ideas of the world or ourselves been overthrown, and instead we’ve found ourselves deeply connected to something we’d been missing and hadn’t even known we needed?  

Have we ever had a moment of ditching our own water jugs, or nets, or tombs, and finding a new identity and purpose inside the love and purposes of God?


Have we tasted the living water? Unexpectedly felt the thrill of coming alive? 

Something in us touching something outside of us and discovered quite unpredictably that life we did not make happen bubbled up within us and end up blessing others? 

When have we felt the life within us joining miraculously in the life in the world? 

When have we found, in our need or in someone else’s need, the presence of God meeting us in the giving and receiving? 

God comes to us in the real stuff of life, when we’re open and available to be encountered.  

 Like the Samaritan Woman, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, the whole town of Samaritans and the baffled disciples, Jesus encounters us in the ways we’re least suspecting and most needing. 






Monday, March 6, 2023

Born Again (and again and again...)


The Deposition, by Michaelangelo, 1550. Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus, removing Jesus from the cross. Michaelangelo was carving it for his own tomb. His face is the face of Nicodemus. Unfinished. In frustration he destroyed part of it, and was never able to complete it.
(read more HERE)

John 3:1-17

There is no bible passage more recognized, memorized, beloved, despised and exhausted than John 3:16, known as “the gospel in a nutshell.”It used to be when I heard this story what I heard was John 3:16. And I had all sorts of opinions and experiences related to this bite-sized good news – from the scary teenagers that tried to evangelize me with it in a pizza place when I was 12, to the first time I saw it on the bottom of an In-and-Out Burger cup. It’s a little American shorthand instructional for how to have a good life, or at least, how not go to hell. Believe in Jesus and you’ll have eternal life! Easy-peasy! 

But life changes things; it changes us. And this time what utterly stood me still was a verse I didn’t even know came from this same conversation, something that for most of a lifetime of being a Christian has meant nothing to me, but now, unexpectedly, does. It is this line: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’


That’s because for nearly a year and a half, a few of us, one with terminal cancer, gathered online for morning and evening prayer, and once a week we read these words aloud together as part of our evening prayer. And every Monday, when we would get to these words, they irritated me. (I even admitted this to the others once). Because I didn’t get it. And I still don’t. How are people like wind you hear but don’t know where or how or why?  What does that even mean?  What is this “being born of Spirit" business? Why does it all have to be vague and confusing and difficult? Why can’t it be a simple formula, pray this prayer, take these steps, be saved from death; believe in Jesus and everything will work out?

And so, I first want to say, I feel you, Nicodemus.  

Nicodemus is our second guide through Lent. First we had Lazarus, who dies and comes back to life, both through no fault or accomplishment of his own, by the way.  In love, the love between Lazarus, his sisters, and Jesus, they all feel their way through death and resurrection, and life after resurrection.


Now we have Nicodemus, dear Nicodemus, this wise leader, respected teacher, sneaking out of his house hoping his neighbors don’t see him slink off into the darkness, searching out a slightly suspect, intriguing and dangerous, radical street-preacher, Jesus, about whom the rumors are swirling and whose words won’t leave Nicodemus alone. 


I imagine him moving through the shadows, driven by a yearning he can’t understand or articulate. Feeling his way through the darkness, with that tangled ball of question pressing in on his heart, pondering the realities of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real. 


And when he does get to Jesus, (the one John has introduced to us as the light that shines in the darkness, the light that no darkness can extinguish), he can’t even form a question. His questions and longings built up under the surface, he says, “Some of us think that you are from God...” hoping Jesus will pick it up from there. Jesus does, but infuriatingly, by introducing more confusing concepts, when he answers, No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

So now Nicodemus can ask outright, What does that mean?? How is that even possible?


Speaking as though God’s kingdom is so foreign it cannot be recognized by us as we are, in this world as it is, and also as though God’s kingdom is somehow happening right here and now and when something happens to us that we don’t control, we can actually glimpse it and experience it, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a strange time way back when the people were wandering in the wilderness, waiting for God’s deliverance and they were dying from snake bites. God saved them in a weird and inexplicable way-  they needed only to look on a snake God had told Moses to create from bronze and lift before them, and they would live.

And then Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish...”


But we are perishing, actually.  All the time. Anxiety and hidden sadness plague us. Injustice and cruelty prevail. Marriages disintegrate; friendships break down, our dreams fall apart, our bodies fall apart. Catastrophes strike, inconveniences disrupt, sorrow and terror have their way all the time, and we feel life slipping away: in the words we cannot take back, and the choices we cannot have back, and the clock we cannot turn back.  We know all about perishing.  And we are quite accustomed to doing things, saying things, buying things, and sacrificing things, striving in the frantic attempt to keep from perishing. We’ve even turned the very words of Jesus in this story into one our strategies! Because what would be better than a religion that gave us a simple one, two, three steps to guaranteed eternal salvation and earthly happiness! 


But instead of clarity, answers and tactics, Jesus talks of wind and water and spirit and not knowing where things come from or where they are going. He describes unpredictable, unimaginable realities that require we give up our security and control. And then he talks not of what we should do, but of what God does, what God did, what God is already and always doing. For God so deeply and fully loves this perishing world that God gave the only son…and whoever relaxes their being into the being of God will know real and abiding life.


In John, remember, believing is trusting. It’s not accepting a set of facts you can argue with or slapping an admissions-paid entrance sticker on your chest.  Believing in Christ means opening up and leaning your whole self in, Trust in me and you will find life indestructible, Jesus says.

He isn’t giving Nicodemus a foolproof, comprehensible approach to cheating death. He is inviting him into a life so pervasive it encompasses even death.


God so loves this world that God came into this world and is saving it. God Is bringing life out of death, and hope from despair, and joy from sorrow, and healing from brokenness, and leading everything toward a time when perishing itself will perish. This is wind-you-hear-but-can’t-grab-hold-of, born-not-of-logic-and-understanding-but-of-water-and-spirit, mystery-and-firmament, God-breathed, word-spoken life-out-of the-void-of-nothingness, resurrection-from-death’s-finality, Holy Spirit-transformation, unquenchable-light-shining-in darkness, sit-back-and-take-it-in-because-you-didn’t-make-any-of-it-happen kind of salvation. 


Being born at all was not our doing, how silly of us to toss around “born again” like it's something we achieve!  How dare we use belief in Jesus as a label, a guarantee of our eternal destination that we individually acquire by following some back of the box directions?


Maybe we should let ourselves be with Nicodemus on this one. Admit we can’t grab hold of this, can’t make this make sense. Because maybe that’s Jesus’ point. The Kingdom of God is not something we grab hold of; it grabs hold of us. It’s invading the whole world, and we don’t get to decide how that happens. We can be caught up in it, swept up in the transformation of the whole cosmos, or we can be oblivious to it. We can trust in it, or we can miss it.  But we don’t control it.  We don’t make it happen. We don’t avoid pain or perishing by applying some eternal life conversion formula. We listen for the sound of the thing we can’t explain. We let it move through us and take us where it will.  


The teacher must let go everything he thinks he knows to be brought into the world—this tired old, wounded world, this gorgeous, poignant, precious world—all over again, like a vulnerable newborn, ready to receive the mystery and be swept up like the wind. He must be born from above, born anew. And Jesus has implied back to him that the reason he’s there at all, with his questions and his longing, is because he has been. He’s glimpsing the Kingdom of God.


We are all feeling our way through the darkness, with our own tangled balls of questions pressing in on our hearts, pondering the realities of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real. And so, we are invited, especially during Lent, to ponder, How might I be being “born again”? What competence or sureness am I letting go of to receive God’s care, and to trust I am held like an infant? What keeps me from experiencing the uncontrollable salvation of God in the world?  


Nicodemus disappears back into the shadows after this encounter, and we will briefly see him just twice more in the gospel of John and in no other gospel. The next time we see him he is subtly advocating for Jesus to the council by reminding them that the law gives people a chance to defend themselves against charges.  And the last time is after Jesus has died.  

John 19:39-42 says, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came,” (implied is in broad daylight, where he could be seen by any and all) “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation [for the Sabbath to begin that evening], and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”


So we never really know what Nicodemus thought about what Jesus said, where it took him or what it did inside him.  But that’s not ours to know – not of him or of each other, or even, perhaps, of ourselves. God knows what God is doing – in us, in the world. God knows where it is going and how it will get there. For our part, we get to ‘assume the stance of least resistance’ to being swept up in the love and salvation of God. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. May we continue being born anew.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Ordinary Miracles and Ongoing Epiphany


Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, c. 1495-1505.

When Epiphany dawns, the swaddling clothes have long been packed away in the attic of the peaceful little home, with room for a workshop that Joseph had rented them in Bethlehem, not too far from THE stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table. 

And to be honest, since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, life has been kind of quiet. Mary and Joseph are far from the people and place they’d call home, no grandparents pitching in or aunties around offering advice through Jesus’ first fever, first tooth, first words, first steps. Leaning on their new community for connection and support.  This was not how they imagined their family life would start- not even once they rearranged their imaginings to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.  Other than that one time Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah came to visit, commiserating over sleepless nights and nursing woes while the babies gurgled together on a blanket on the floor, it has mostly been just the three of them, mama, dada and Jesus, getting to know each other, gently becoming a family.  Week to week, season to season, it’s an ordinary life. 


Until the pagans show up and call their kid the king of the Jews.  


Just when the story begins to lose its hard edges, when the nostalgia starts to descend and the lens begins to soften, when this baby has begun to feel like he is theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, scientist mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.  

Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story generational anticipation of a Messiah, or claim to Yahweh’s promises to the people claimed by Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh involves next. Their arrival bursts the domestic bubble and exposes the light to all the world.  


Epiphany, we call this day. Enlightenment. Aha!  When the scene is illuminated what was familiar and known one second look completely other and utterly amazing the next, often because you suddenly see things with a broader perspective, or through the eyes of another. 

The Christmas moment speaks God WITH US, Epiphany says GOD with us.  

Attention! Sweet and cuddly though he is, folks, this isn’t your own private Messiah.  He belongs to the whole earth! And all who live upon it belong to this little one who has settled himself contentedly here in your lap.  You are recipients of this miracle as much as the next person, of course, but with just as little sense of what it all means as the rest of us, maybe even less, actually, than these astonishing strangers who have arrived on your doorstep seem to grasp.


After this great entourage of exotic travelers that have flooded this quiet, provincial town exchange greetings with his parents and bestow their gifts on the child (and there were certainly many of them, of course; what a silly modern assumption that there were just three, because one gift a piece), after the camels have been tended to and bedded down, the tents erected and the strangers washed up and unpacked, I love the crazy, cozy image of lamps lit, table set, Mary and Joseph and their surprise visitors all crowded around an unexpected potluck of fragrant dishes. Wall to wall humans, who look different and smell different and wear different clothing and speak different languages, and whose paths never, ever should have crossed on this planet in any conceivable way, breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to. Perhaps tomorrow they’ll invite the shepherds back over for breakfast.


These travelers, who have journeyed over desert and mountains, through seasons and struggles, countless freezing nights and endless scortching day, driven by a quest through unknown to arrive at the very source. And then, from the moment they lay eyes on the child, and Mary and Joseph lay eyes on them, the cosmic cat is out of the bag, so to speak.


The ego-maniacal King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy and strangers from a strange land are visiting that nice couple down the street, normal as you please.  And it’s as though that one lone star now shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with bright mess, scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.


Of course they stayed a while, these unexpected guests.  After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there, they’re not just spending one night and leaving.  So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?  Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? 

How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who threw bawling toddler tantrums when he needed a nap, smeared hummus on the dog, and belly-laughed when daddy tickled him with his beard?  

Because here’s a truth, miracles are almost never as sexy in person as they’re built up to be.  


What was it like for Mary and the strangers from the East to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a cellular level, sharing in a reality nobody else on earth yet sees, representing to each other by their presence that this really is realGod has really come; the world is being redeemed.  This wonky little collection of folk are now church, if church means, and I think it does, the people gathered around Jesus wondering together who God is, and watching together what ,God is up to. But also, maybe, getting annoyed because they load the dishwasher wrong and forget to take their shoes off in the house?


And then after the long visit, and the dreamt warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi bypassing Jerusalem to return home by another road - (Oh, wasn’t Herod steaming mad when then never swung back by the palace! Didn’t he pace on his balcony with his eyes on the horizon day after day, the realization slowing dawning after one week, two, three, that they were NOT coming back, and there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it!) - Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turns back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might return to normal: normal is redefined again. 

Epiphany keeps going, you see.  It doesn’t actually let you turn back. 

By its very nature Epiphany’s path is almost always that of another road.


The new road is revealed when, three years after the one who told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams, saying, Take the child and his mother and flea, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.  And it’s your turn, Joseph, to be the strangers from a foreign land.

God-with-us, who was born in a stable is now transient and homeless, and you along with him, foreigners in a foreign land.  


Some traditions hold that the little family settled in Egypt with the Ishmaelites, that they were received warmly by the way other side of the family tree, way back before Egypt became the land of captivity, the place from which Yahweh delivered the Israelites from slavery, back from the time when it was all the same trunk, the roots, the beginning. Father Abraham - father of us all, descendants as numerous as the stars.


It’s like baby God is on a sightseeing tour of the greatest hits. 

I have been at this project for quite some time, you see…


So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are all part of the whole great story anyway, while back home among the children of Israel, the so-called “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear ordered the deaths of all male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.


Then it was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’


And I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us, coming as a homeless, transient peasant child, whose identity is revealed to nameless sheep-herders and pagan foreigners and NOT to the powers that be, no matter how loudly they rattle their sabers and fiercely they demand to be in on the secret, and also that as sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project. And while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily, and every single day God-with-us is with us, transforming our shared life, bringing belonging and hope, redemptive kindness and healing care, and continuing to break through the darkness with light, every moment of every day.

After Herod’s death the little family finally journeys to Galilee, where they settle down at home amid grandparents and lifelong neighbors, to raise their first-grader in Nazareth, where he will run through the same streets, swim in the same streams, sit in the same school and participate in the same synagogue they did, in the tiny familiar world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.  


How was little Jesus shaped by those early wanderings, I wonder? 

What did he absorb from the Magi and the Egyptians, from the journeys and the dreams, and then from those who shaped his sense of home?  How did Epiphany bend his path?


And what about those Magi? The journeyers, soul friends and miracle sharers who brought epiphany onto the scene as much as they received it themselves?  What became of their lives after their encounter with the light of the world? How were they drawn into a lifetime of attunement to epiphany?


Epiphany keeps going, friends. The light of the world shimmers in our very own lives. And nobody gets to own this story – this story holds us all. It can’t be domesticated. What God is doing is always bigger, always more, always beyond us, and also right here next to us, in the minutia of our very ordinary lives. It pierces the darkness, the horrors, the loneliness, the wandering. It shares the awkward and unknown, the familiar and the comforting, the strange and the new, the death and the life, drawing us out into worlds we can’t imagine, bringing us home by roads we can’t foresee. 


Today we get star words. They are not magic. But they are a chance to lift our heads and look beyond ourselves with hearts open to however Christ might encounter us, attentive to wherever God might lead us this year. God is with us, transforming the world. 

So, arise, shine, beloved, your light has come. 

Happy Epiphany.



Saturday, December 24, 2022

God completely With Us


Luke 2:1-20

Would it be utterly tactless to admit on Christmas Eve that I am a teensy bit sick of Christmas? For the past month the soundtrack in our house, and car, and on vacation, and during dinner, has been Christmas classics. And while Bing and Ella and Frank and Mariah and are great, there’s a point when it all turns stale. 


And because Christmas classics are playing all the time, we’ve naturally had many conversations picking apart the origins and meaning of everything from the culturally shifting read of “Baby, it’s cold outside,” to the weirdly morbid lyrics of “Frosty the Snowman,” to the sketchy relationship dynamics in “last Christmas I gave you my heart but the very next day you gave it away” to the debatably patronizing misunderstanding in “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.”  Interspersed among these empty, sugary treats are the delicious and filling songs we’re singing here tonight, telling a story of mystery and wonder, of love and joy. But it’s all mixed up together, the deep and the stupid, and it’s relentless. 


But I am not here to rail against the commercialization of Christmas, which I happily join in every year. Instead, I want to invite us into that story of mystery and wonder by being here in the presence of God and each other.


The truth is, I am not really sick of Christmas, so much as I am craving to know the truth of it, to feel the real of it, to be drawn back to the hope of it. I want to peel back the shiny paper and see Christmas for what it is, not a dreamy, cheery, fix-everything event that makes us feel all warm and cozy and ends all strife and strain. 


The birth of Christ is untidy and uncomfortable, and at least here, tonight, we need not pretend it’s anything else. The actual Christmas moment is just like the rest of life: it’s awkward and messy, tiring and scary, a little exciting, a little confusing.  


And that’s how God wanted it. God wanted to be human, so God came human -  vulnerable, needy, loveable and infuriating – to humans, into the arms of ordinary, conflicted people struggling to do the right thing and wondering even what that is.  


God trusted ordinary people to welcome him in and care for him like one of our own. Love came in to be loved. This is the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ, and it’s the new beginning for the whole earth and everyone in it.   


God chooses to be with us, as we are, in this life, as it is.  And so this Christmas, like every day, our sadness is as welcome as our happiness, our anger is a gift that points us to truth, and no matter what we do, even when we lose sight of what’s real and bury it in layers of false cheer, even when we hurt others or ourselves, even when we’re drowning in regret, desperate for forgiveness, or numb with fatigue, nothing can separate us from the love of God, who heals what’s sick and mends what’s broken and welcomes home what’s lost.  


This little baby Jesus will die, that guaranteed when he draws his first human breath and cries his first tiny tear. God takes all suffering and death into God’s own self. Addiction, estrangement, illness, pain, injustice, cruelty and loneliness, there is nothing God does not bear with us, nothing can be greater than divine love coming in. The cross is there, in the manger. So is the empty tomb, so that, even now as we celebrate his birth, we can say with confidence, No death, no matter how big or small, gets to define who we are, or decide where all this is going. In Christ Jesus, we are forgiven, connected and made whole. You and I, the earth and everything in it, this whole story from beginning to end, belongs to God. 


No wonder the angels busted the sky open with joy, and the shepherds’ fervent words caused awe and amazement in all who heard them, and Mary eternally ponders these things in her heart.  


God took on flesh and God crept in beside us. Suddenly the ordinary is miraculous. This human living, astonishing. Every breath we take, a gift.  Bodies that grow, and learn, and smell, and taste, and sweat, and break down and need tending, minds that solve complex problems, imaginations that conceive breathtaking art, hearts that discover little ways to make each other laugh, and uncover just what will comfort another, all of it, miraculous. All things God is utterly delighted by. All things God wanted to know from the inside. 


Christmas invites us to be present, then.  Not to have answers, or have it all together, or to be cheerful or even introspective. Simply to receive the presence of God, right here, in these ordinary, miraculous lives we’re given, and to receive these lives too, with all our limitations and misdirections and all our mystery and wonder, love and joy, our beloved, holy, ordinary lives as conflicted people struggling to do the right thing and wondering even what that is, called to be here in this gorgeous world God is always making new.


And honestly, God loves us so much, I think God probably finds it cute when we make such a big, fancy, obnoxious to-do out of stuff, inevitably mixing up together the deep and the stupid,even so much that we sometimes lose sight of the treasure underneath. No matter, because when this turbo-charged season ends we remain forever inside the story of Christmas, of God-with-us nevertheless, fully, always leading everything eternally toward life and love.  



Sunday, December 18, 2022

Advent in 300 Words: The Prophets, Joseph, Mary, The Angels


THE PROPHETS (11/26) - by Kara K Root

The prophets, with their vivid eschatological imaginations, lead us into Advent.  Off the grid, out of the empire folks with fantastic stories, absurd confrontations and wild encounters, the prophets criticize and energize. They shake the façade keeping everyone content and accepting the unacceptable. God uses prophets to hold before God’s people a vision of who they really are and who God really is, because they keep forgetting. 
The prophets reveal God’s future breaking in now. They anticipate God’s coming, teach us how to watch for it, and show us how to live now from what will be.  In their own lives, they didn’t get to taste the fulfillment they spent their lives promising.  But their holy imagination, ruthless honesty and deep trust shaped our ancestors, our faith, and continue to stir us today.  
The prophet Isaiah speaks to a people living in exile, whose imaginations have shrunk to their captivity. Terrible things have happened to them, and they’ve made terrible choices. They’re stuck. Their life is small, their hope is dead. The end.
But if it’s not ok, then it’s not the end.  
Isaiah paints a poetic image of a new beginning, tender green shoot from the dead ground. Like a whisper, a stirring, a savior comes. Instead of division and striving, self-protection and fear, the savior ushers in a new reality: In the reign of God, all people, all creatures in all the world will live freely, fully, unafraid, connected in peace. Hope is the energy of peace, the anticipation of what is coming, the fuel of our faithful living now.  

May hope grow our eschatological imaginations. With holy imagination, ruthless honesty, and deep trust we wait, with and for each other and for the world, for the coming of Christ.  

We hope with the anticipation of the prophets.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

The kind of people who participate

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a Dream

 Matthew 1:18-25

His fiancé is pregnant with someone else’s baby. Joseph’s been made to look a fool. A righteous man, we’re told, with an impressive pedigree, Joseph seems a worthy candidate to parent the Messiah. And let’s be clear. God could’ve easily waited a few months until Mary and Joseph were properly married and saved everyone a lot of trouble.
Instead, God puts Joseph in a moral quandary. Heartbroken and betrayed, good guy Joseph will do the right thing – he’ll dismiss Mary quietly, cause as little embarrassment for her as possible, while preserving his own dignity and honor. 
Have you noticed how none of our ancestors in faith are ideal applicants for the job descriptions they end up filling?  And the ones who start out looking promising, like Joseph, end up losing something, or everything, for their role.
But if our biblical siblings appeared beyond reproach, we might think it was their inherent goodness that qualified them to participate in God’s plans. We might believe God prefers exemplary, upright, heroic types that make God look good.  
And if that were true, then we might presume that humanity is a graded on a scale, and one’s place in God’s good graces can be earned or lost. We might strive instead of rest, compare instead of cooperate, worry more about the virtue of our own souls than the well-being of others, and be tempted to take on God’s role by assuming it’s our job to fix what’s broken in the world. 
So, because the way of God is not about us and what we do but about who God is and what God is up to, the cast of characters that populate our scriptures and the great cloud of witnesses watching over us is necessarily comprised mostly of misfits, screw-ups, and the impossibly unqualified – like overlooked youngest sons and ignored foreign women and those with barren, ancient or virgin wombs, incapacitating stutters and colorful rap sheets, all of whom find in their brokenness a new identity as participants with God in healing and redeeming the world. 
Gone is Joseph the upstanding, competent, ethical exemplar who holds the reins of his life. This little crisis has ended that guy.  His good-person-ness torn away, Joseph will receive instead the grace of God who claims us nevertheless. When he awakens from his dream, he will be Joseph, misunderstood and misjudged, unable to control his own life or narrative, but claimed by grace, guided by love, brave to trust, and faithful—right up against his doubt, close to his fears, ready to accept what God is giving him and follow where God is leading him.  Joseph will agree to appear to be something that he is not – this child’s father, but he will claim him nevertheless, and in so doing, he will become his father after all.  
And so Joseph trades what was for what will be; he will anticipate the future of God by accepting his role in it now.  And Joseph will live a life characterized by grace unearned and forgiveness unmerited, where everybody belongs and nobody is dismissed, quietly or otherwise. 
The savior of the world belongs to us all, and first, Joseph, he will belong to you. The angel whispers in his dream. So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Love her. Name the child Jesus. Love him.  
And the child Joseph will raise will not become an upstanding, good citizen, respected in society and honored in the community, upholding his father’s good name and bolstering the commendable, but a vagabond and a subversive, who dines with sinners, prostitutes and outcasts, confronts corruption and evil, and refuses to totalize or dismiss anyone.  He will be a Savior who rests, and trusts, and lives fully connected to God and to every other human.  And Jesus will open up to us all a reality of redemption, forgiveness and freedom, everlasting belonging that will set the world free.
Dear little Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church: for 100 years now, people have been gathering on this spot in the name and presence of Christ, to worship God together, to seek the way of Jesus and be guided by the Holy Spirit, to pray and sing, and listen and respond. To grieve and to celebrate. To raise each other’s kids in love, and bury each other’s loved ones with gentleness. To pour love into the community and welcome in the world’s pain and joy. To learn and to change alongside one another, to mess up and practicing forgiving, to reach out and practice receiving, to take the baton from those gone before and pass it on to those who come next. 

And so for 100 years this little congregation has had our own rotating cast of unlikely characters, misfits and oddballs, flawed people living broken, honest and real lives, trusting right up against our doubt, watching for the in-breaking of God around us, sharing the presence of Christ by being with and for others, faithfully accepting what God is giving us and following where God is leading us.  
That is something to celebrate.
Today we lit an Advent Candle for Peace. So this week, we will be watching for, praying for, and living toward peace. The Hebrew word for Peace, Shalom, means “fullness” or “completion.”  So when people greet one another or say goodbye, with Shalom, what they are really saying is, “May you be completed.”  Whenever we join in God’s bringing wholeness and fullness for others, whenever our words or actions say, “May you be completed,” we are making peace. We can literally share in the substance of God’s life, here and now.  We can contribute to others’ fullness, fullness in the world around us, and fullness between us.  
We can trade what is for what will be. 

But only if we have our ideas about what it means to live a good life torn away, and receive instead the grace of God who claims us nevertheless.  

God’s love comes to and through imperfect people in ordinary ways, and we are drawn in by God’s mercy and grace, to receive the love of God without qualifications or preconditions. God plunges into this world in the person of Christ Jesus, and by the Spirit pours grace and love through us that feels like courage to forgive, and willingness to listen, and an inclination toward wonder, joy, gratitude and generosity.

 This savior ruins people for respectable, mind-your-own-business living, and pulls us head over heels into a life of trusting, and resting, and hoping, that practices our unbreakable belonging to God and each other, and join in the healing and shalom that God is always bringing into the world. So, like those gone before us, both our predecessors here, and all the faithful from every place and time, we too anticipate the future of God by accepting our role in it now.  

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Present and Thankful

 "Rejoice" is a pretty churchy, peppy word. When you google “rejoice” you mostly get silhouette images of people with their arms raised to the sky against a sunset or mountain backdrop. If you were an alien doing research on our planet you would think that rejoice meant walking around at dusk with your hands up.  But we Christians know it means just feeling enthusiastically cheerful and thankful all the time, with the hands of our hearts raised in permanent gratefulness. Just kidding. Paul wrote this in prison. Sitting on a filthy floor in chains is the image you don’t see when you google “rejoice!”   

I’m not going to lie, I have my own photo of my 23 year old self silhouetted against a spectacular Fijian sunset with my arms raised.  But even so, when the Sunday school poster or Christian bookmark tells me to Rejoice! I recoil.  I don’t like being told what to do or how to feel.  And that’s pretty much how this verse has been used.  When this passage says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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.” I can remember the exact place I was sitting in my cousins’ living room, when my aunt walked in, turned off whatever spicy scene was on the TV, and quoted that verse at us.
Being told to rejoice, be thankful, have gratitude, focus your mind on what’s true, can feel like some kind of Miss Manners advice, Christian behavior modification, or politeness training.  
Apologize for hitting your brother. 
Tell your sister you forgive her.  
Count your blessings.
Say Thank you to Grandma for the present.  
Leave a generous tip.
Rejoice and give thanks to God always.
And it’s too bad. Because while things like apologies, confessions and gratitude can be coerced or disingenuous, they are also some of the most authentic and important stuff of relationships. When we genuinely apologize, or truthfully confess, or say Thank you and actually mean it, we are at our most honest, present, vulnerable and aware. We are living our humanity and interconnectedness. We are receiving the gift of this life, the gift of the other person, and the gift of our own living and breathing self.
God made the world good. Goodness is all around us, even in the midst of what’s bad, and gratitude invites us to notice.  To rejoice in the good doesn't deny the evil or the brokenness, it doesn’t ignore struggle or suffering. Giving thanks acknowledge the goodness that is also, always here, because in Christ God is always here. Gratitude stills and quiets us us to pay attention with wonder and reverence, and then points that awe right to its source. And so gratitude is one of the shortcuts out of the way of fear and back to the way of God, whereas cheerfulness, platitudes and politeness are not.
When Paul writes “rejoice always!” from his prison cell, he is not giving the Philippians an attitude pep talk or a lesson in etiquette. He’s touching something really deep that can’t be captured on the front of a greeting card and can’t be crushed by chains or hardship either.
At all times, rejoice in union with God, Paul says. The Lord is here. Don’t be anxious about anything, but let God know everything that is on your heart, with both longing and thanksgiving, tell God know what you need. And God’s peace, which defeats all human logic and comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
That’s something. 
Gratitude is powerful. And it is prayer -whether we acknowledge it or not. When thanksgiving rises up within us, we are enacting our connection to God, even if we aren’t aware in the moment that’s what we’re doing, even if we are not believers in God. We are praying. To be grateful we must be present. We are constantly departing the present moment by actively regretting the past or persistently anticipating future. Gratitude overrides this. In the moment of gratefulness we are present in the very presence of God who is always here with us. And that is prayer.
The truth is, while we need reminders sometimes, and structure too, we don’t actually have to work that hard at feeling thankful.  Because we’re hardwired for this. Gratitude is a basic human need, a natural human and deeply spiritual response that arises, unprompted, when we are paying attention.

And Paul gives us a way to pay attention.  
Whatever is good, he says, whatever is true and just and honorable and pure, think on these things.  What we look for, we will find. If we look for division and hate, injustice and pain, we will find it. It is there. We spend a lot of time and energy practicing looking for what’s wrong.  
And if we look for hope and love and sacrifice and generosity we will find it. Because that’s here too.  If we live open to delight and wonder, beauty and awe, that is what we will receive.  Even in the midst of what is broken, redemption is breaking forth.  We can practice looking for life.
Someday time will be wiped away, and we will exist in the suspended joy of being alive, of being in God’s full presence and being wholly, truly, fully alive.  Gratitude lets us see the kingdom of God now.  When we pause in gratitude, we live in a moment out of time. We get a sample-sized taste, a foreshadowing of God’s future, a future that comes not from the present but from the promise. Instead of a future filled with the consequences of past choices or the impossibilities of human limitations, gratefulness dips us into the future beyond time, when what remains is the eternal moment of gratitude.
We don’t come together in worship to be polite to God, we come to be reoriented again to the Kingdom of God breaking into this world. We are not here to get a lesson on saying thank you, or pressure about how grateful we should all be.  We come to be awakened to what’s real – to be reminded of our belonging to God and each other because we are practicing it together and that will help us practice when we are apart.
So today, instead of any more discussing gratitude, we are going to experience it. This is not going to be a dress rehearsal for the “What are you thankful for?” conversations around the table on Thursday.  (Though, it may help). We are going to practice paying attention to what is good and true and beautiful and wonderful. We are going to let ourselves be present, in this moment, with God.
Reader - you are invited to do this practice we did in worship. Set aside 10 minutes. Grab a pen and paper. You won't regret it.

For the next few minutes, you are invited to simply be present here, and be willing to notice. Read each phrase and you're invited to write down the first things that come to mind. Don’t edit or force or direct – just let whatever wants to come spill out.
Begin with a moment of silence. 
In this moment, in this place, with these people, I am thankful for…
When I think of the people I call mine, I am thankful for… 
When I consider the connections I have in the world, friends, neighbors, coworkers, I am thankful for…
When I think of my body, I am thankful for…
When I reflect on my life in the past few months, I am thankful for… 
When I think of things this year that have been painful or challenging, I am thankful for…
When I think of this world, I am thankful for…
When I think of God, I am thankful for…

Is there a category you wished would’ve been mentioned? Something that you felt gratitude for during this time? Take a moment now to jot down anything else you would like to express thanks for…
Now read back over your list. 
 Let yourself feel what you’ve written down.  
Let yourself receive the gratitude. 


How Jesus Encounters Us

  Who is this God?  And what is God up to?    We’re journeying through Lent with three guides, well, five if you count the siblings.     Mar...