“Alan, would you mind coming by my house today? And if you can, you might want to bring Morgan. This is important.” Those were the words I heard on a late March Saturday morning from Larry Davies, my District Superintendent. Morgan was at work. I texted her to tell her Larry had asked me to come over, but he hadn’t told me what it was about. Larry didn’t say why he wanted to talk to me, but every United Methodist pastor knows what a call like this between the months of February and April means. It means a potential move. I texted Morgan to let her know what was going on, and I got into the car. As I drove over to Larry’s house, a million things were running through my head. “Where in the world is Larry going to try to send me?” “Morgan is 8 weeks pregnant, and no one knows but us. How is this going to affect whatever I’m about to hear?” And, one other question loomed large in my mind, “What is this going to mean about going back to school?”

All along, even when I was attending seminary having admitted that I was called to ordained ministry, I have always felt a tension. When I was working in the local church, I felt the tug of the academy, and when I was in school I felt the tug of the local church. I lived in that tension, thinking I would eventually end up back in school. When Morgan and I found out we were headed to Heritage in Lynchburg, I told God and myself, I’ll serve in the local church, get some experience to ground the academic work I might do later, get ordained, and THEN perhaps I will be able to go back to school. That was the plan. It seemed to be going well. By the time Larry was talking to me I knew I was going to be ordained. So, I had been at Heritage for three years, and in the next year I could start applying to programs. Then it would be time to go back to school.

Larry offered me a soda, and we sat down in his living room. I’ve shared this part of the story with some of you before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t know where Larry was going to say or where he was going to send me, except I knew where he wasn’t going to send me. I KNEW he wasn’t going to say Lane Memorial United Methodist Church. I knew he wasn’t going to. I knew this because I had already talked to some people about it, and I had explained to them why this wasn’t possible. (I guess it’s not so impossible). Just three weeks earlier, I had been having dinner with a colleague of mine named Dori Baker. And she said, “Alan, I think you’d be great at Lane, I wish we could get you there.” I explained to her all the reasons why that was impossible. I didn’t have experience. The Sr. Pastor at Heritage was retiring. I was planning being there for another year or two and then going back to school. These were all the reasons I knew it was impossible that I would be sent to Lane Memorial United Methodist Church.

Further, I just knew Larry wasn’t going to say Lane Memorial United Methodist Church because several times over the previous three years I had told my friend Shawn Kiger that it was impossible when he told me that he thought my gifts would match up well with Lane. I told him it wasn’t going to happen. You know how these things work. The appointment process, like it or not, is often treated like a ladder that one climbs. In my mind (and in the mind of many other folks), to come to Lane wouldn’t make sense because it would feel like skipping a couple of rungs. I knew for a fact that Larry Davies was not going to send me to Lane Memorial United Methodist Church!

And so after Larry offered me that soda, he said, “How would you feel about going to Lane Memorial?” And then he gave me about 18 hours for Morgan and me to think about it. Needless to say, neither of us slept much that night. We were wrestling with all those things I had been thinking about on the way to Larry’s house: I hold told Larry about the pregnancy and made him swear not to put it in an email or post it on Facebook. How would this move affect the new member of our family? What would the folks at Heritage say when they found out both of their pastors would be changing? And, what about going back to school? In my mind, I knew that to move churches would be to put that dream on hold for a long time. While there are no guarantees in the appointment process, in my mind, a new appointment would mean at least five, if not more, years of serving the local church. It meant indefinitely, the dream of going back to school would be deferred.

Last week, when we looked at Samuel, we asked the question, “How do we know when it is God speaking, and how to do we know it is just ourselves?” We answered that question with the baptized community’s reflection and discernment. So, when Morgan looked back on those conversations with friends, and the words Larry and I exchanged in his living room, it was clear that God was present in this. God had been present in what Shawn was saying to me. God had been present in my conversation with Dor. It was clear that God was calling me to continue in the local church, specifically Lane Memorial United Methodist Church. God was preparing the way and making it possible for me to stand here before you today. My appointment here to be in ministry with you is not some haphazard accident of the appointment system, but it is a calling. I am called to be here.

A couple of months later I was at the ordinands retreat where we go to reflect on our call to ministry before we are ordained at Annual Conference. At that retreat they get you to sit down and tell each other your call story over again. It’s a really excellent thing to do because we get so used to telling that story, that sometimes we forget how powerful it is to experience God’s calling, and to see the way that God has led us into our vocations. As I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a professor at Candler School of Theology, he was telling me about how he always knew he was called into the local church. Except that God kept opening up all these doors for him to be in the academy. So he said that as long as God kept opening the doors, he would keep stepping through them.

As I listened to what he said, I realized that I was experiencing something of the opposite. I had convinced myself that I needed to be back in school, but God was opening these doors, one after another, for me to remain in the local church. What I realized I had been doing all along, what many of us do throughout our lives, is that I was constantly trying to renegotiate the terms of my calling. I was trying to say to God, “Yes, that sounds good, but I have a better idea.” Except that it wasn’t a better idea because God was calling to right where I am. God calls us where God wants us.

And so, as I read Jonah, I realized I could identify with him. The thing about Jonah is, is that he isn’t unfaithful. Jonah is not an unfaithful prophet. He’s a good prophet. He hears what God says; he knows what God wants him to do. He just doesn’t like it very much. Even as he flees to Tarshish, he probably has a good idea that he’s not going to be able to get away. Jonah’s resistance can even be construed as heroism. Jonah likes the idea of what God is going to do to Nineveh. Nineveh is this huge city in the Assyrian empires, the great enemy and oppressor of the Israelites. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites could use some smiting. Jonah wanted to be one of those old school prophets who prophesy some fire raining down on some evil people.[1] He doesn’t want to be one of those prophets who speak about God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s forgiveness. He wants the Ninevites taken out. He has a better idea than what God is suggesting. And so he runs. He runs because he would rather sacrifice himself rather than see the Ninevites survive. Nineveh was famous for their unholiness.[2] They did horrible things to people when they conquered them. Unspeakable acts. So Jonah, sort of has a point.

We know how the story goes. Jonah runs away, he’s on the boat, the storm begins, they cast lots to find out whose fault it is, they throw him overboard, and as he is in the sea, the Scripture says that God “provided” a fish to eat him. That’s what the fish did, by the way. It ate him. It’s not like Pinocchio hanging in the belly of a whale. The fish ate him. He’s being eaten, and all the things that come along with eating and being eaten. Yet, even inside this fish Jonah is faithful. He cries out. And he thanks God for delivering him from death. The implication of Jonah and this big fish is that the fish has eaten him, and he is dying. When the fish spits Jonah back up on a land, the Hebrew indicates that it literally vomits him back on to land. Jonah’s delivery from death in the fish is an image of resurrection. Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah. This is what he means.

Finally, after all this time of trying to renegotiate the terms of his call, Jonah finally does what God asks. Jonah listens to God, but one can imagine that as he walked through Nineveh proclaiming the word of the Lord, that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days, he probably wasn’t going out of his way to make sure people heard him. One can imagine him grumbling through the streets, hopeful that that he would be ignored, so that destruction might fall upon these enemies of Israel. But something happens. The Ninevites not only hear him, but they go crazy with repentance. Not only does every person, great and small in Nineveh put on sackcloth and begin fasting, but also the king goes so far as to declare that animals are included in this act of repentance. Make them fast as well, and make them put on sackcloth. A bunch of animals were repenting along with the people in the face of the coming destruction.

Jonah of course, is furious. He goes and he pouts his way out of town, and he makes a booth for himself. And he sits by himself. God makes a little tree for him, and the Scripture says Jonah was very happy about that. But then, of course, God sends a worm to destroy the tree. This makes Jonah very angry. God says, “Jonah, are you angry about that tree getting destroyed?” And Jonah replies, “YES! Angry enough to die!” And says, “You didn’t have anything to do with that tree getting created. You didn’t make. You didn’t grow it. Yet you’re furious about it being destroyed. How am I supposed to feel? I created all those people in Nineveh, Israelite or not, I created them. Am I not supposed to care about them?” I love what God says last. “This is a city of over one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants, and also many animals.” God remembered the repentance of the animals, which I love. I don’t know what to do with it, but I love it. God remembers that the animals joined in the repentance along with all the people.

And Jonah is furious about all of it! He hates the Ninevites. But the reality is that God wanted to used Jonah to be an instrument, a voice, a vessel of God’s love, and forgiveness, and mercy in the world, but Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with it because Jonah had a better idea. Jonah wanted to renegotiate the terms of his calling. I wanted to renegotiate the terms of my calling. I thought I had a better idea. I’m a nerd. I like to read. Big deal. It doesn’t mean I need to be in school for the rest of my life. It also doesn’t mean that it won’t happen one day, but what I did learn is that we cannot renegotiate the terms of our contract because we are always acting in response to God’s promptings. I don’t want to talk in simple terms of a “plan” in which you’re headed in one direction, and if you deviate from it you’ll fall off a cliff. It is more like we’re walking on that line, making choices that God is able to work with our choices, but also able to put up gentle dividers to direct us towards God’s calling for us. Almost like a maze perhaps.

The reality is that we can be very faithful people. We can be in church every week, worshiping and serving God, and we can still be trying to wiggle our way, squirm our way, talk our way, worm our way, renegotiate our way out of what God would have us do. But we know that at the font, we receive God’s calling. And often our vocation is various, including both those things we do for our jobs as well as perhaps being part of a family. What it comes down to is God is intent on using us, and God is faithful in that calling. God pursues us, so that we might be vessels of God’s love, vessels of God’s mercy, and vessels of God’s forgiveness in the world. We can try to renegotiate this, but if we are attentive, we will begin to see that God is preparing the way for these things. God is present in them. That no matter how good our ideas are for ourselves, that God’s ideas are bigger. God’s ideas are better. God’s ideas match up with exactly what we need and what the world needs.

We are called, each and every one of us to be vessels of mercy. Each and every one of us, we are called to receive mercy. To receive forgiveness. To receive love. And to take it and to pour it out wherever we may find ourselves. We are called to pour that mercy out. To pour that healing out. That is who we are called to be. We can try as hard as we want to suggest otherwise. But God knows us. God knew Jonah, and Jonah knew God. Jonah never pretends that he doesn’t know God. When the storm begins, and the lots falls on him, they ask him who he is, and he rightly confesses that he worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t try to avoid the truth. He knows who God is, and he knows that God, who made both the sea and the dry land has a hand in what is happening to this boat. He knew who God is, and he knew he wasn’t getting away, even though he tried. But God used him to be a vessel of mercy. Even though Jonah had good reason not to want to. Even though I might enjoy going back to school, God had a better idea.

I share that story about me today for two reasons. One, I think it illustrates some ways to identify with the Scripture for today. Two, I tell it as a reminder to me, and as a reminder to you, that I believe that we are called to be right where we are right in this moment. WE are called to be here together. The stories we are following in the lectionary during these weeks are about calling. Last week we heard about Samuel. The week we heard about Jonah. The Gospel lessons for the last two weeks have been about Jesus calling disciples. We are being called. This is a time to reflect on our calling. How? Where? In what ways is God going to use us here at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church, the church to which I had decided it would be impossible for me to be appoint to, how is God going to us? It is abundantly clear that nothing is impossible with God because God will send us where God wants us to be. Thanks be to God.

[1] Russel Rathbun, “Prophet or Loss,” on The Hardest Question, Online:, cited January 22, 2012.

[2] Rathbun, “Prophet or Loss,” The Hardest Question.

The books of Samuel are the beginning of a time of great transition in the life of Israel.  Most crucially it is a time of transition from Judges to a King.  We remember the Judges like Deborah and Samson.  These Judges arose as charismatic, divinely appointed leaders that rise up in response to trouble in the life of the Israelites, which is normally caused by their turning away from God. Yet, we see in the books of Samuel that God’s people are no longer satisfied with the Judges.[1]  The people want a king.  They want to be like the other nations (1Sam. 8).  Even though this leads us into some of the great figures of the Old Testament, such as David and Solomon, it is clear that the author is mistrustful of the monarchy.  After all, if the Israelites have God, why do they need a king?  Further, it is always a sign of trouble when God’s people seek to be like the other nations.  God’s people are called to be distinct, to live differently.  When we start wanting to fit in with everything around us, problems and idolatry are not far away.

In addition to a transition in leadership from Judges to Kings, there is also a priestly transition.  It is the transition of the lineage of Eli to the lineage of Samuel.  Eli’s family has squandered their role as God’s priests because his sons are as corrupt as can be.  They would come by while people were offering sacrifices, and they would thrust their fork into the container, and pull out as much as they could.  It wasn’t that they weren’t supposed to have any at all.  It was customary for them to receive a portion of the sacrifice, they were abusing their power and responsibility.  Even worse, they would take advantage of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  In our era, where we see pastors regularly abusing their power and position, we can identify with the deep violations committed by Eli’s family.

Eli tries to reason with them, but they don’t care.  Not long after this, a “man of God” delivers the bad news to the Eli.  Even though God chose Eli’s family to be God’s priests, now as God looks at the abuses of Eli’s his sons, the sentence is that Eli’s sons will both die on the same day, and the rest of Eli’s family will die by the sword.  God promises to raise up a new “faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in [God’s] heart and [God’s] mind.” (1 Sam. 2.12-36).  This faithful priest will be Samuel.

Our Old Testament lesson today is that familiar story of Samuel’s call.  It is one we know well.  Because God granted her a son in Samuel, Hannah has turned over Samuel to be trained by Eli.  God calls out to Samuel in the night, “Samuel!” which literally means, “God has heard.”  Samuel mistakes God’s call for Eli.  Eli tells Samuel it wasn’t him and sends Samuel back to bed.  It happens again.  Then Samuel turns up again.  The third time, Eli, this priest who has lived a life of service to God, full of experience, though his eyesight is dimming, perceives that it may be God calling out to Samuel.  He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  When Samuel does this, God reveals to Samuel what will happen to Eli’s lineage.  I love that the author describes Samuel lying there until morning.  I don’t imagine it is easy to sleep after hearing such a Word?  And imagine what Samuel must have felt when Eli wants to know what God has said. Yet, Samuel trusts Eli, and Eli knows what his sons have done, and Eli knows and is known by God well.  Eli still trusts in God, even though Samuel has bad news for him.

This story of Samuel has a lot to teach us.  Yes, it is a story about calling.  Yet, the character of this story about calling is different than the ones we usually hear.  Samuel isn’t like Isaiah being caught up in a blazing flash of heavenly worship and given a specific charge.  Isaiah’s call is unmistakable.  Samuel, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that God is even speaking to him at first.  He thinks it is Eli.  In fact, it takes the suggestion of Eli, with Eli’s “knowledge of the Lord, and his experience of the revelation of God’s word” to alert Samuel that the voice he hears is God’s.[2]  The young Samuel needs the experience of the one who has gone before him to help him see that he is being called.

The other thing that is striking about Samuel’s call story is that it is not instantaneous like many of the ones we hear.   There is no blazing bush calling out to Samuel here.  Instead, Samuel’s call emerges over time.  Samuel is in Eli’s care, and Eli helps him to grow, to learn the ways of God, and to learn how to serve God. He grows up in the Lord.  Even after the call, Samuel’s trajectory doesn’t change a great deal.  Instead, he continues to grow in the role to which God has called him as one of the last judges over Israel, bringing God’s word to the people.  All of this comes with Eli’s guidance and support.  Eli is incredible here.  How many of us would keep going when we heard that bad news from Samuel?  We spend our whole lives as a priest of God, and suddenly we hear that it is all going to be taken away?  Not only that, but it isn’t because of anything we did.  Rather it comes as a result of what our children have done?  Yet Eli remains in his role of priest.  Just as importantly, Eli remains in his role as Samuel’s mentor.  He assists Samuel in hearing God’s call, and when Samuel hears God call, Eli helps him live into the role to which God is calling him.

What we see in the relationship of Eli and Samuel is a model of who we are called to be as a community of baptized persons.  We noted last week the promises that we make when someone is baptized.  We promise to embody a community of love and forgiveness with the guidance and support of the Holy Spirit.  We promise to pray for one another that we might be found faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  In essence, we are promising to be a community where older priests help younger disciples pay attention to and hear God’s call in their lives.  We are promising to be a community where younger disciples find themselves apprenticed to older priests, so that as they grow up, they will be able to rely on the knowledge and experience of God of the older priests.

Why priests?  As I pointed out last week and at other times, baptism is the ordination of all Christians into the priesthood of all believers.  We are all called. We are all holy priests. Though we as priests may not share Eli’s curse, it is true is that none of us will always be here.  It is true that one day our lineage will run out.  The lineage that God creates comes not through flesh, but through water and the Spirit.  There will be a new generation that God will call to be priests when we are God.  The older priests are called to be Elis for the Samuels among us.  The older folks are responsible for helping take care of, guide, and mentor the younger ones among us.  I’m not going to tell you who the older priests and younger disciples are because at one time or another, all of us have, still do, and will fall into both categories.  We’ve all been younger disciples, and we’ve all been older priests.  God calls each and every one of us to be older priests to those younger disciples no matter our age.  It points to God’s call on all of us as younger disciples to rely on the wisdom of those who have come before us.

In a time of radical change, where the Word of the Lord is rare, the older priests must be willing to mentor those who will maintain the faith and traditions of the Church.  To do this doesn’t mean that older folks hold on to the church and give to the young when they are finished with it.  It means that we are called to look for, to listen for, and to help younger folks to recognize when God might be calling out to them.  It is our responsibility to be present with disciples who are younger than us to help them hear God’s voice.  They might not know it is God.  It might sound like just a friend.  Or it might sound like just a teacher.  Surprisingly, it might even sound like just a parent!  But it could be God.

If Samuel’s story tells us anything, it is that younger disciples might not recognize God’s voice.  It might take an older priest asking the question, “What if that deep passion you feel, that deep inclination towards this or that vocation…what if that is what God wants for you?  What if in your baptism, God’s grace is drawing you towards this?”  A younger disciple might not realize that what is going on deep in their heart and keeping them up at night is God’s voice until they have that holy conversation with an older priest.

When it comes down to it, how do we know when it is God, and when we might just be talking to ourselves?[3]  We hear lots of pastors, politicians, and other people suggesting that God is telling them things.  That God is speaking directly to them?  How do we know when it is God and how do we know when it is just us trying to make God want what we want?  How do we know? Some of us lamented this difficultly during the youth lectionary bible study.  One youth wanted to know why there aren’t burning bushes anymore.  Yet the reality is that Samuel and Eli shows us that God still speaks, but we need ears to hear.  We need older priests who have heard God longer to help our younger disciples to perceive when it is God and when it isn’t.

The younger disciples in turn will also find themselves sharing their visions and dreams with us.

We need each other.  We need the community of the baptized to help us realize when it is God talking and when we are just talking to ourselves.  It takes the faithful, experienced, Elis of the church being willing to take the time to listen to the stories, the desires, and experiences of the Samuels among us.  That might mean you are a senior adult, and you are called to be an Eli to a youth.  It might mean you are a youth and you are called to be an Eli to child.  And though I have broken it down by ages, there may even be times when younger persons are called to be priests to older persons.  After all, once Samuel perceives that it is God, he shares that Word with Eli. The fact is, each of us are Elis called to help Samuels hear God’s voice, so that as they mature and develop they might connect their deepest to desires to the needs of the world, the needs that God is calling them to meet.

We are, as Peter says, “ a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2.9).  We are called to show that goodness to our younger disciples, so that all of us might able to show God’s light to a world full of darkness.  And to be clear, this need not just be a male model.  We see it throughout the Scriptures the same mentoring relationships developing between holy women as well.  Consider that the bridge between Judges and 1 Samuel is Ruth, who bound herself to Naomi in a holy friendship.  You can even argue that we see in Ruth and Naomi and Eli and Samuel a holy adoption, created by bonds God created, not the bonds of flesh.  We know our own holy adoption because God adopts us in baptism, and we adopt one another.  We become God’s children, and we adopt one another.

This is an incredible responsibility.  Yet, it is also an unimaginable gift.  And when we open ourselves up to that responsibility God is able now, just as God was able in Samuel’s time, to do something that will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam. 3.10).

Are your ears tingling yet?

The Title for this Sermon came from a comment from Richard Boyce in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 247.

[1] Richard Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 243.

[2] Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 245.

[3] Unvirtuous Abbey, “Do You Hear what I Hear?” on The Hardest Question, Online:, cited January 14, 2012.

“Who invented baptism?”  This was a question I received in an email from Shawn Kiger about 3 years ago.  I was still serving in Lynchburg at Heritage, and I had just spoken at the District Youth Retreat, focusing my conversation on Baptism and Communion.  Shawn was not asking the question.  Rahter, he was asking on behalf of one of the youth from Lane Memorial United Methodist Church who attended the retreat.  They were discussing the retreat at youth group the next week.

One young man in particular, in the way only a youth can, wanted to know who invented baptism.  I had touched on most everything else regarding Baptism and its significance for our lives as Christians:  receiving the Holy Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, forgiveness of sins, new life, and the grace the follows us throughout our years growing in us and helping to direct us towards the person God is calling us to be.  Yet in this young man’s mind I had left out a critical detail.  Who invented it?  The great part about the answer to this question is that the answer is less than clear.   Sometimes, now that I find myself serving at Lane Memorial, I wonder to myself who it was that asked this question!

It is one of the things I love about the beginning of the Gospel text for today.  John the Baptist suddenly appears.  This figure in the wilderness suddenly comes on to the scene.  He speaks a word of judgment, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He is not the one we would expect to be saying such things.  He appears not in courts of Herod.  Rather, he appears in the wilderness as far from the centers of powers as possible.

He is a rugged character, complete with camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist.  He is eating bugs.  And perhaps most surprisingly, people are responding to his message.  They are coming from all over the place to receive this baptism and confess their sins.  Mark gives us nothing more than he thinks we need to know.  We receive no back-story except that in Mark’s opinion all we need to know is that people have been expecting this unexpected character to turn up for a long time:

“‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Karl Barth, the famous 20th century Swiss theologian, had a reproduction of a famous altar piece painted between 1510 and 1515 by Matthias Grünewald for the monastery of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim.  This painting hung over the desk at which he worked.  Barth because he referred to this altar piece at least 50 times in his speaking and writing.[1]  

Barth’s imagination was captured by Gruënewald’s depiction of John the Baptist’s hand.  John the Baptist extends a skinny small finger, and he points.  He is pointing at Christ.  But not just Christ, Christ crucified.  He points to the wound in Christ’s side, from which bright red blood flows.  It is, as we see today, John’s job always to point. He points not to himself, but to another.

John says in our passage today, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”  He points to the one who comes after him.  Barth understood this to be at the heart of our identity as Christians.  He says, “Shall we dare turn our eyes in the direction of the pointing hand of Gruënewald’s John? We know whither it points. It points to Christ. But to Christ the crucified, we must immediately add. That is your direction, says the hand.”[2]

John appears.  He points.  But it doesn’t tell us who invited baptism.  I could go on and talk about the history of ritual cleansing in Israel, and I could expand and describe on the outsider community of fringe Jews called the Essenes of which many people believe John the Baptist was a part.  Yet, it still doesn’t answer the question.  It doesn’t answer it because while it is a good question and one worth thinking through, when we look at John’s finger pointing at Christ we begin to ask different questions.  He points at Christ.  Baptism is important because Christ underwent Baptism, and he invites us to do the same.  It is interesting that Jesus chose to undergo Baptism, considering it was for forgiveness and repentance, which he did not need.  Yet, he insists that John baptize him.  Why?  The youth and I wrestled with this for a while on Wednesday in our Lectionary Bible Study.

It’s a pretty good question, yet Mark’s matter of fact style seems to circumvent the question to hurry up and get to the good part.  Mark doesn’t care why, he cares that it happened.  More importantly, he cares about what is revealed in the Baptism of the Lord.  The heavens are torn apart.  It’s funny.  When I read these words, I thought back to our conversation during Advent where Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  It appears that is exactly what is happening.  The heavens are torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.  Then we hear a voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What we see in Jesus’ baptism is nothing short than a revelation of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit descends on the one the Father identifies as the Son.  In this revelation the church was able to look back and see glimpses and hints of God’s Triune nature from the very beginning.  The Old Testament Lesson comes from the beginning of Genesis today because in it we see God in the beginning.  We see God’s Spirit moving across the waters.  And then God speaks.  The Word of God.  It has been there from the very beginning, yet only in Jesus Baptism do we have eyes to see that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune name in which we baptize.

Jesus, though he did not need John’s baptism, sanctified it, so, as John himself points out, John’s baptism is with water; but Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. We are baptized by water and the Spirit.  This means that while our baptism includes repentance and forgiveness, it is deeper than that.  It is an entry point because God is choosing us.  Jesus has been baptized, and he invites us to join with him and swim in the waters.

As we join him in the waters, he invites us into himself.  We become a member of his body.  He begins to work us more and more deeply into being a part of him, and we are re-born…we receive and live a life that is new, a life that wades into life that is eternal.  Today as we celebrate Christ’s baptism it is also a celebration of baptizing Mary Alex.  Yet, in this act there is also a solemnity present here.  Today, Mary Alex undergoes a death and a resurrection.  This is made possible because Christ invites us to baptism.  We are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we may share in his resurrection.

As we wade into this life, and he lives us in us and we live for him, we experience the working of a grace that comes not to us just one time when the waters pass over us and the Triune name is spoken.  Rather, it is a grace that grows within us, that follows us.  It is the place in which God begins to call out to us, and it is that grace that allows us to recognize within ourselves who we authentically are created to be.  It is, as I have said before, the ordination of all people who follow Christ to be ministers of the Gospel in the world.

Or, perhaps, Barth might say, Baptism is our initiation to pointing.

Mary Alex cannot point yet, as far as Morgan and I know.  Yet, God is choosing her today in baptism to be God’s very own.  Not because she is a preacher’s daughter.  Not because she is somehow more special than everyone else, but because God loves her and wants her to be a part of the body of Christ.  The promises that Morgan and I make today point not to ourselves, nor to Mary Alex as cute as she may be.  They point to Christ and Christ crucified.  And the promises her Godparents make point not to themselves, but to Christ and Christ crucified.

We are reaffirming our promises, and we are promising to direct Mary Alex’s attention towards Christ and Christ crucified.  So that one day, through God’s grace operating in her through the power of the Holy Spirit, hopefully she will decide she wants to take responsibility to point to Christ with her own life.  This is not an individual endeavor; it is a community endeavor.  We make promises today, and so do you.  You promise “with God’s help,” to

proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her trust of God, and be found faithful in her service to others.  We will pray for her, that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[3]

We are all in this together.  As theologian Laurence  Hull Stookey says, when we receive baptism, “we renounce the popular notion that “I can be a committed Christian without being a member of the church. “[4]  We need each other, and we are drawn toward one another into Christ’s body when we are baptized.  We point together.  We don’t just point for people who aren’t Christians yet.  We point for each other.  We remind each other of who Christ is and that we belong to him.  We point for each other.  God chooses us so we can choose him and each other. In those moment where perhaps we have trouble saying part of the creed, the rest of us can say the creed together and we can speak those words for each other.  We can point.  We can be reminded of who and whose we are.  It is true that right now Mary Alex cannot point.  Yet as she prepares to undergo the waters of baptism in just a few moments, I think of the hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

[1] James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 2.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 112. Cited in James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 3.

[3] “Baptismal Covenant I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, TN:  United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 35.

[4] Laurence Hull Stookey, Baptism:  Christ’s Action in the Church, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 45.

God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.

[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question,, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.

This post is coming out of order because I have a backlog of sermons to get posted.  I was away for three weeks on paternity leave, and this sermon is from my first Sunday back in the pulpit.  I’ll get the sermon from November 20 posted soon.

This story we hear about the parable of talents comes in the midst of us ramping up towards the end of the Christian year.  Next week is the Sunday where we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  We celebrate the reign of Christ.  It is the last Sunday of our year, when we look forward to that full consummation of the kingdom of God, of which now we only receive glimpses.  Our Gospel for this morning is the third in a part four story series Matthew puts together when Jesus tells of the master or the bridegroom’s return, and what the servants or the bridesmaids have been up to in the mean time. [1]  The first story is of the faithful or unfaithful slave.  Then we hear the parable of the ten bridesmaids, where only five of the bridesmaids fill their lamps with oil and five do not, so that only five are ready when the bridegroom comes.  Then we have our passage for this morning, the parable of the talents.  The last story is the familiar reminder that whatever we do to the least of these, we do the same to Christ.

In each of these stories as we ramp up towards next Sunday, we are in the midst of the tension between the need to have an urgency about Christ’s return while at the same time recognizing that his return may not be for quite some time.  I imagine that Matthew would have been writing to some people who would have expected Jesus to come back by now.  Yet, here we sit two thousand years later still waiting.  We feel the tension between in the declaration that Christ has already triumphed over sin, even as we have not experienced fully the consummation of that victory.  We are a people who are caught in the middle.  These passages that we see put together by Matthew are all about what we should be up to in the midst of waiting.  Notice that Jesus says that the master comes back “after a long time.”

In this story, the parable of the talents, the master provides each of his slaves varying amounts of money.  A talent is a huge amount of money.  It was about fifteen years of earnings by a day laborer.[2]  Thus, to receive five talents was a crazy amount of money.  To receive two talents was still an unimaginable amount of money.  Even just one talent was an incredible sum.  Usually this is told as a parable about stewardship, which is not entirely incorrect.  The first two slaves are found faithful by their master because they took the money with which he entrusted them and doubled it.  Yet, the punishment of this last slave often seems to be especially harsh.

It’s not as if he blew his money on useless things.  It’s not as if he used the money on evil things.  He just didn’t do anything with it but bury it in the ground.  This probably seems wild to us to do this.  However, I found it even more troubling when I learned that to take your money and bury in the ground was actually regarded as a good security measure in the first century![3]  Yet, this slave is punished for what many would have regarded as a good idea.  Burying money in a hole certainly seems foolish to us now, yet to those who heard this parable it would not have struck them as so odd.  Why, then, does the master call this servant “wicked” and “lazy” for a practice that many would have considered good sense?

To make the story even more perplexing, we hear Jesus say that to “those who have much, more will be given, but to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  This seems to go against all we have heard Jesus say previously about those with the least going first into the kingdom of God.  We know that just in the next few verses we will hear about “the least of these.”  Clearly, these words cannot simply be about money.  That would make Jesus contradict himself.  Rather, what we learned in the exchange between master and slave helps us interpret what Jesus means.

Perhaps the key comes in the way that the third slave views his master.  The slave describes his master as a “harsh man, reaping where you did not so, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.”  This slave is motivated primarily by fear.[4] Is it the sign of a harsh master to entrust the slave with more than fifteen years of wages?  Rather than taking the one talent that the master has provided him and risking it, he figures it is better just to make sure that he holds on to what he already has. After, wouldn’t the master certainly be angrier if he had risked that one talent and he had lost it all?  Don’t forget that even one talent is still a lot of money!  His view of the master constricts and paralyzes this slave’s ability to act.  This master has clearly provided these different amounts of talents with the expectation that they will be risked.  He expects that they will be used, and that they will not remain with those to whom they are entrusted.

If this is true, then this parable is much more than a stewardship parable.  Stewardship tends to look back at what we have received, so that we can make sure that we take care of what has been provided.[5]  Yet, as we have seen, the placement of this story comes in the midst of Matthew directing our attention forward to the return of the master or bridegroom and what we have been up while he has been away.[6]  This is not just about what God has done for us and what we will do with it.  This is about what God has done for us and what God will do with us.  This not simply about taking care of what we have, this is about taking the abundance of God and risking it, sharing it, and realizing that our call is not simply to hold on to what we have been given, but because God’s gifts and God’s love is inexhaustible, that we are called to the kind of faithful living that might even appear reckless at times.  What it means is that our God is not a God who is about playing it safe.

When I think of this, I think of Mary, the sister of Martha, anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume.  Mary lavishes this perfume on Jesus’ feet, and Judas says, “what a waste of money!  We could have sold that perfume, and we could have given the money to the poor!”  Judas was not thinking that Mary had been a very good steward of that perfume.  Little did Judas realize that Jesus was receiving that perfume as anointing for his death.  Jesus blesses Mary’s lavishing.  He even blesses what seems like a waste to those who aren’t paying attention.

In the same way we are called to lavish God’s abundance out in the world.  As I have said many times before, to bring this abundance of God into the world and to risk it is against everything that we hear all the time because fear rules the day.  Fear rules in the market.  Fear even rules in many of our churches.   We find ourselves circling the wagons in order to protect what we have, when in fact such activity runs the risk of finding us burying our gifts in the ground instead of sharing them.  I don’t just mean this financially, though that is included.  As fears rise about the church’s supposed loss of “relevance,” there is a mentality to pull away from engagement with the world around us, circle our theological wagons, and to put all of our stock in the “pie in the sky.”

This parable, while directed to Jesus’ return is anything but pie in the sky.  It is focused on a life of sharing God’s love and gifts with the world right now while we await his return.  This parable, while directed to Christ’s return, is not about things getting worse and worse until Christ finally returns and destroys this wicked place.  It is about our work in the mean time showing glimpses of the fullness of a new heaven and a new earth. When Jesus invites those two slaves “into his joy” and in the previous parable when the bridesmaids are invited into the “wedding banquet,” these are all images of the new and new earth.  They are all images of the banquet we anticipate together when we come to the table for Holy Communion.

So when Jesus says those who have much, more will be given, what he is gesturing towards is the reality that God’s love and gifts, when shared, have the character of exploding and expanding.  When they are hoarded, when they are not risked, you might as well have less than nothing.  God has shared God’s love with us in such a way that are called to spill out into the world in worship and service.  If we hold that in, if we circle our wagons, if we get so concerned with taking care of what we already have, we’re burying it in the ground.  When that happens, the gifts don’t just sit dormant; rather, the life is actually choked out of them in our midst.  God’s love and God’s gifts are inexhaustible.  As one commentator suggests, “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.”[7]

The master calls the slave “lazy.”  Another way to translate that is slothful.  Typically we think of sloth as mere laziness.  However, sloth is something much deeper.  It’s not caring enough to do anything.  It’s being so paralyzed by not being able to engage anything fully that we don’t do anything.  The desert monks called it a “spiritual sadness,” the “noonday demon.”[8]  An example they gave was that a monk would be praying in his room, and he would suddenly feel the urge to go and visit his family.  Of course, visiting family is a good thing, except they are supposed to be praying.  To be slothful can be to be so engaged in so many different things or to be so be so reserved from doing anything fully that we don’t care deeply about anything.[9]  It is to be so paralyzed by fear and sadness that we don’t do anything at all.  That is the character of this slave, and it is in many ways the character of the world in which we live.

We are so distracted and pulled in so many different directions or so paralyzed by fear that we are unable to fully give ourselves and risk ourselves and our hearts in anything.  We are so busy going from iphone to ipad to computer to television to any other sources of media.  When we read an article on the internet there are links in the article that we follow to the point where we have forgotten what we were reading about in the first place.

We are so distracted, we are so fearful, that we won’t risk ourselves in anything.  In fact, I’ve noticed a trend in every church I have been in up to this point.  I haven’t been here long enough to see whether it is an issue at Lane, but in other churches I have served, seminary included, what I have noticed is an unwillingness for sign-up sheets.  People will not sign sign-up sheets anymore.  I don’t think it is a result of folks not wanting to participate.  I think it is good people who want to be conscientious.  We don’t want to say we’re going to be somewhere and then not show up.

I think that emerges out of a paralysis that comes from fear as well from being pulled in too many directions.  I don’t want to commit to this event because I have all of these other events I’m supposed to be at.  I don’t want to sign up now because I have so many things going on, that I may be forgetting something.  This is the sadness, this is the fear, this is what paralyzes us from giving ourselves to anything fully.  We end up burying ourselves in the ground, not risking ourselves.  And our faith, and our life, and our spirituality, and our relationship with Christ and with one another is choked out.

What we hope to do is to begin to draw ourselves back into that tension we have been discussing during Advent.  That is what Advent is.  It is that tension between celebrating and awaiting Christ’s coming the first time, but it is also focused on waiting for and anticipating Jesus’ return.  It is focused on that waiting and what we are supposed to be up to while we are waiting as we hang within the tension.  This parable shows us that we are supposed to be up so some things in the mean time.  That is why we are focusing during Advent on the idea that “Christmas is not your birthday.”

We are considering the question, “If we are anticipating celebrating Christ’s birth, then what would Christ want?”  Thus, each week during Advent we will draw ourselves to be challenged to focus on those whom Christ would have us serve, rather than on ourselves and our accumulation of “stuff” and allegiances and directions.  To focus on the angel tree.  To do a Society of St. Andrew Christmas donation card instead of an item that will just gather dust in a closet.  To bring in food for DAWN.  To do a Stop Hunger Now Event here at church.  To bring our gifts and our talents to be people who risk sharing the abundance of God in a world that is all about scarcity.  I ask you to ask yourself as you leave here today, what are the ways I am ruled by fear or the ways I am pulled in too many directions, so that I am not able to fully give myself to the kind of life to which Christ calls me?

[1] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), pp. 308.

[2] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 311.

[3] Thomas D. Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 311.

[4] Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 313.

[5] Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” pp. 308 and 310.

[6] Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” p. 308.

[7] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 310.

[8] Jeffrey A. Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth:  Reconsidering the Sin of Acedia,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol., 18, No. 1, (Lanham, MD:  Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009), p. 59.

[9] Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth,” p. 54.

The link to the article read, “At Occupy Berkley, Beat Poets Has a New Meaning.”[1]  I was drawn in.  Robert Hass, the former Poet Laureate of the United States and professor at University of California, Berkley was the author of the article.  Hass describes the encounter between police and the students and faculty at UC Berkley who had joined the “Occupy” movement protest.  UC Berkley is usually associated with “liberal hippies.” One conjures images in his or her mind of the flower children placing daisies in the barrel of a soldier’s gun.   The scene Hass describes in article looks very different from this image. Hass had heard from a colleague that earlier in the day the police had moved into to take down the Occupy tents, and that they had been “beaten viciously.”  Hass couldn’t believe this, certainly not at UC Berkely.  So, when he heard the police had returned, he and his wife went to campus.   I read on, and I’ll share with you some of what I read:

My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down….My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines…

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.[2]

I was…I am…horrified.  Regardless of what you may think of the Occupy Movement, this is horrifying.  If you think they are a group of concerned citizens getting together to take action and protest, this is horrifying.  If you think they are a group of riff raff who have no business occupying these places, this is horrifying. What has happened to us, I thought, when peaceful protesters receive beatings?  What has happened to us, I thought, when a Wordsworth scholar is dragged across the grass by her hair?

Robert Hass’ account, and similar accounts and videos, of persons being viciously beaten in the midst of peaceful protest are almost too much to take at times.   It is important as I say this to not demonize all police offers in the midst of this, as many of them are in difficult positions.  Yet, Hass’ account is still frightening and disturbing.  As we struggle with lost jobs, as we struggle with broken families, as we struggle with turmoil and violence in the world, as we struggle with injustice, as we struggle with fear of those who are different than us, it is almost too much to take.  It is overwhelming.  It is often wholly depressing.  And, as people of faith, we begin to wonder, “When is God going to do something about this?”

That is how Isaiah felt, I think, when he wrote the lament we encounter this morning.  Isaiah is in the midst of a lament that began back in chapter 63, verse 7.  Isaiah has been recounting the deeds that God has done in the past, mighty deeds, such as the Exodus, and parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through.   As Isaiah writes, the Israelites are a people who have been conquered by Babylon.  The temple is in ruins.[3]  “Where,” Isaiah asks, “is this Exodus God?”  “Where is this sea-parting God?” And so Isaiah cries out,

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

 Yet, this God seems nowhere to be found. This God who “did awesome deeds we did not expect” is hidden.  Isaiah, and the people of Israel feel abandoned.  God has apparently hidden God’s self from them as a result of their sin.  But Isaiah isn’t going to let God off of the hook that easily.  He goes so far as to say that God’s hiding has actually caused Israel to transgress further!  “Because you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (64.5) Isaiah is essentially saying, “I know that we have sinned, but we are inextricably bound to one another.  We have sinned more because You have hidden Yourself!” This is not to blame God or let Israel off the hook; rather, it is to move God to action for the sake of God’s chosen people.[4]

As I read that article, I got that kind of “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” feeling for which Isaiah cries out.  Such frustration.  Such sadness.  Welcome to Advent.  Advent begins with a lament.  It begins with a cry.  It begins with a sober look at the state of things.   It doesn’t begin with Black Friday.  It doesn’t begin with the easy listening stations playing Christmas music.  It doesn’t even begin with Thanksgiving.  It begins with a cry of lament.  Why, you may ask, Alan do you think it is your job to constantly try to bum us out when we are trying to enjoy the holidays?  I don’t think actually believe that is my job.  My job, rather, is one of pointing.  It is of pointing to where God would direct our hearts during Advent.  And to begin with, God draws us to lament.  To begin with lament is not to begin a long series of Advent bummers.  Rather, to begin with lament is to begin at the beginning.

Lamenting is different than complaining.  If you look at the Psalms of lament, or the laments in the prophets such as the one we encounter this morning they are not simply complaining.  It is not simply a whining for God to solve all of our problems.  As biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann points out, lament is the beginning of hope.[5]  We can only hope when we have a clear sense of what is wrong.  We can only hope when we have properly lamented the brokenness that we see all around us.  We can only be clear about that for which we hope when we are clear about what has broken and hearts and drawn us to lament.

We can only know that for which we are hoping when we have seen so clearly what is wrong that we begin to demand that God do something about it.  A lament that moves towards hope is different that complaining that leads to wishing.  The difference between a wish and a hope is that hope is certain.  This is Isaiah’s disposition.  He recounts the deeds that God has done because he is certain that God is still there.  Indeed, even as Isaiah laments God’s absence, he returns to the sureness that God has not finally abandoned Israel:

There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Even as Isaiah laments God’s hiddenness, notice the intimate imagery he continues to ascribe to God.  He calls God Father.  He calls God the pottery, and Israel are the clay.  The people of Israel and God still belong to each other because they are in a familial relationship.  They are tied to each because God gives them their shape as a people.[6]  While apparently hidden, God is still present.  Even though Isaiah cannot perceive God’s presence, he speaks with hopeful words because he is certain that God will still act.

This is Advent.  Only after have we had perceived the depth of the brokenness, the depth of the sins personal and structural, the depth of our needs, can we perceive clearly the hope we are approaching in Advent.  Christ did not come to make things more awesome in a world that was already awesome.  Christ entered into a world where the poor need good news, captives need release, the blind need sight, and the oppressed need freedom.  And, as we will see, he entered into that world in poverty and a refugee from genocide at the hands of his government.  Christ came into a world that had been crying out for him for hundreds of years to be God’s decisive answer to the brokenness that the has a seeming strangle hold on the cosmos.

And so, in Advent, we enter into the discipline of patience.  We enter into the practice of looking around at the world, at all the places and people that desperately cry out for God to tear open the heavens, and we join them in solidarity.  To wait in this way is not to sit on our hands and do nothing.  Rather, as one commentator says, “It is a tensive waiting charge with the pathos of lament and conjoined with the joy of remembrance and the anticipation of praise.”[7]  To wait during Advent is not to bum ourselves out, but it is let the anticipation of Christ’s coming to swell in our hearts and minds as we prepare the way of the Lord.  It is, a “passionate patience.”[8]  And as we enter into the disciple of passionate patience, we will resist the temptation around us to look at ourselves and what we think we deserve for Christmas, and we will look outward to others, who are feeling that “God would tear open the heavens and help us” kind of feeling.  This week through the angel tree. Next week through Society of St. Andrew alternative gift-giving, the next week through bringing food for DAWN, and the final week of Advent through packing meals with Stop Hunger Now.

The hope, as we move forward in our passionate patience, is that we will encounter more clearly the one through whom God tears open the heavens.  Except that we don’t see lightning and shaking of mountains.[9]   Rather, the tearing of the heavens comes as the God of the universe takes on flesh and blood and becomes one of us.  The God who Isaiah sees as hidden remains hidden because not all recognize the God who has become one of us so that we might become like God.  This one who came, who did not “do something” about was wrong with the world through violence.  Rather, he “did something” by serving and offering himself up to die.

This is the one who reveals God’s power that is made perfect in weakness is the one in whom our hope certainly rests.  This one who invites both police and protesters into one family.  It is this one for whom we wait to come again.  It is this one who we heard about last week who makes it clear what our conduct should look like in the mean time.  It is he who tells us in our Gospel passage to “Stay awake!” as we swell with that passionate patience for the culmination of the kingdom.  And so, regardless of what you think about the Occupy movement, I invite you in these moments to Occupy Advent.

[1] Robert Hass, “Poet-Bashing Police” New York Times Online, cited. Nov. 27, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1,  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 3.

[4] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 7.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1984), p. 52

[6] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 7.

[7] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective, “ Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 5-6.

The Pharisees have realized that they are going to have to do something about Jesus.  Even though Jesus has been speaking in parables, they see that Jesus is clearly pointing to their failure to be good vineyard workers.  He is pointing to the reality that they have declined God’s invitation to the Son’s wedding banquet.  In order to do something about Jesus the Pharisees send some of their disciples along with some Herodians to visit with Jesus.  This is an unlikely alliance.  Jewish folks in Jesus’ time are an occupied people.  They are occupied by Rome.  The Pharisees would not want associate directly with their occupiers.  It would ruin their credibility with their fellow Israelites.

The “Herodians,” on the other hand, are loyal to Herod, who was placed in power by the Romans.  The Herodians are likely to cooperate with Rome.  We would not assume, then, that the Pharisees would have much to do with Herodians.  Perhaps that is why the Pharisees send some of their disciples instead of going themselves.  Like so many who hold religious and political power, the Pharisees are willing to bend their convictions just a little bit in order to do something about Jesus.

The allied Pharisee disciples and Herodians approach Jesus and give him their best dose of flattery.  “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.”  This is, of course, an accurate description of Jesus, even though it comes from the mouth of liars.  It will become clear that they do not really believe this.  After their attempt at buttering up Jesus, they get to their question.  “Tell us then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

What a good trap they have set!  On the one hand, if Jesus tells them not to pay taxes, it will out him as a rebel, a seditionist, someone not to be trusted by the government.  Such words by Jesus would certainly be grounds for an arrest as an enemy of the state.  On the other hand, if Jesus tells them to pay taxes, he will look like he is sympathetic for Rome.  To do this would be to lose all credibility with his fellow occupied Israelites.  What will he do?

Jesus doesn’t buy their flattery, and he makes sure they know he recognizes their hypocrisy.  Jesus asks for a denarius, which is the coin that was used for the tax to the emperor.  “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  Jesus asks. They answer, “The emperor’s.” Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Matthew tells us that the Pharisee disciples and the Herodians are “amazed” and they leave Jesus.  What has Jesus done here, exactly?  Why is this answer amazing to them?  Often, when we hear this answer, we don’t really consider it amazing.[1]  Is this because we are so familiar with the interpretation, or is it that we are inclined to interpret this passage in an unamazing way?  I would lean towards the latter.

Jesus’ response to his interlocutors is brilliant because he answers the question without falling into either of their traps.  In describing the coin’s appearance, he avoids losing credibility with his fellow Jews.  This denarius would have been a silver coin, “bearing on one side an image of the emperor, Tiberius, with an inscription ascribing divinity to him.”[2]  To have such an image, combined with the description of the emperor as divine would have been a clear violation of the first and second commandments barring the worship of any other gods and making idols.[3]

To carry the currency of Rome would have been to potentially commit idolatry.  This would have been a familiar problem to any of Jesus’ fellow Jews, and it would have made it clear that he was not in cahoots with Rome.  Additionally, by recommending that they be given back to Caesar, he is not showing the kind of open resistance to the occupying power that will get him immediately arrested.

Jesus’ answer is often interpreted to suggest that we live with a dual loyalty to God and the state.[4]  God gets what is God’s, and Caesar, which stands for the government, gets what rightly belongs to him.  The problem is that Caesar is not a neutral term here.  As we see from Jesus’ answer, this is not really about paying taxes.  This is not a simple discussion about divided loyalties.  This is not about acting publicly as a citizen and privately as a Christian.  Jesus knows no difference between these two realms.[5]  While Jesus doesn’t say anything to get himself arrested in this moment, we know that later he will be arrested, and that one of the charges against him will be that he is an enemy of the emperor.  To give those coins back to Caesar is to return those false idols to their source.[6]  Caesar’s coin bears his idolatrous image.  Therefore, those who ask Jesus this question and hold coins that bear the emperor’s image show themselves to be more faithful servants of the emperor than of God.[7]

How, then, does this translate into our own context?  We have no emperor, yet we are certain that there are times when our loyalty to God comes into conflict with our loyalty to the state.  We know that to be a good Christian is not always the same thing as to be a good citizen.  When we raise such concerns, we will likely hear that knee-jerk, “Well if you don’t like it here, you can find somewhere else to live!”  But this is to miss the point.  The conflict would exist no matter where we live.  We are fortunate to live in a place where we are allowed to consider this conflict openly.  However, our ability to consider it often dulls our sense of those times when there is truly a conflict.  As Stanley Hauerwas says,

To recognize that we have an insoluble problem is to begin to follow Jesus…Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and Herodians does create an insoluble problem, but that is what it is meant to do.  You know you have a problem, at least if you are a disciple of Jesus, when you do not have a problem. [8]

What Dr. Hauerwas means here is that to see the conflict is a sign that we are taking Jesus seriously.  The next question we run into is, “If we are to see this conflict more clearly, if we are not to come in danger of turning our state into an idol, how are we to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?”

Jesus names clearly that the idolatrous coins should be returned to Caesar because they bear his image.  If we are to give to God what is God’s, what bears God’s image? [9]  We bear God’s image.  We are created in God’s image.  Relationally, this means that we cannot turn others into objects or persons to exploit.  Instead, we treat them as ones in whom God’s image dwells, even when some folks don’t show that image very clearly.  As Christians, we are called to bear God’s image in such a way that those with whom we come into contact will encounter God’s love.  We are not left to this task alone.  If it were simply up to us to bear this image, we would be in deep trouble.  This image was badly damaged at the fall, and sin is still a disease from which we badly suffer.  As we saw last week, God’s grace is required for us even to recognize how sick we are.

We will see this morning the primary place in which we become the image bearers of God. It is the place where those who belong to God begin their return to God.  It is in Baptism.[10]  When we come to these waters, and the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is spoken, God claims us as God’s own.  It is in that moment where we most clearly recognize that we belong to God.  Give to God what is God’s.  In Baptism, we belong to God.

When we seal the baptism with an anointing and prayer to the Holy Spirit, the oil is placed on the forehead of the person being baptized, and we say, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as a faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.”[11]  We are inscribed with God’s claim on us.  We belong to God.  God has claimed us.  The grace that we meet in the sacrament as the waters pass over us are the beginning of a grace that follows us entire lives.  At this font this morning, when Lani is baptized, this is the beginning of a grace that will follow her for her entire life.  Baptism is the place where our story is firmly situated with God’s story.  If we respond to this grace it will lead to recovery of God’s image in in us.   If we respond to this grace, we will grow in our understanding of the ways our story is part of God’s story.

Today is Laity Sunday.  The reason that we have a Laity Sunday is that laity are worth celebrating because much of the work of the church is done by the laity.  You might then wonder why I entitled this sermon “Abolishing the Laity!”  What I have just said about Baptism is the source of the claim that we need to abolish the laity.  There’s nothing wrong with being laity, except for when we start to think that lay folks aren’t called.

As a clergy person I can clearly articulate my calling.  I am ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.   My entire ministry is filtered through those lenses.  I hopefully can articulate my call story as a place where my story fits into God’s story.  But sometimes we think that is only an experience reserved for the clergy.  Clergy are the only people who are called.  It’s not true.  We are all bearers of the divine image.  We are all called.  When we are baptized, “we are incorporated in God’s mighty acts of salvation.”[12]

When we respond to that grace we meet in baptism, we discover who we are called to be in the world.  This font is where we meet our calling.  Before I was an ordained clergyperson, I was baptized.  Baptism is the ordination of the laity.  Each and every one of us here is ordained to be servants of God in the world.  We are all ordained.  There’s nothing wrong with being laity as long as it isn’t a way to suggest that we aren’t all ordained to something.

My baptism happened to lead me to ordination as a clergy person, to this font, this table, this pulpit and out into the world, but yours may call you somewhere else.  That is the beauty of following the baptismal grace we share as members of Christ’s body.  It is in the grace of baptism where we meet God’s claim on us, where we see that we bear the divine image.  Return to God what belongs to God.  It is our very lives, and all that we are.

[1]Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), p. 190.

[2] Susan G. Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective, “ Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 191.

[3] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 190.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 191.

[9] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 190.

[10] Spalding, Feasting, p. 192

[11] “Baptismal Covenant I,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  UM Publishing House, 1989), p. 37.

[12] “Baptismal Covenant I,” UM Hymnal, p. 33.

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