Her song is, “Lift every voice and sing, till Earth and Heaven ring…”
Her song is, “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim…”
Her song is the Psalm Jesus uttered from the cross. Her song is the cries of anger and desperation and pain on the streets of Memphis, of Minneapolis, of St. Louis, of the girls in Iran, of children in our schools, of the teenage Mary predicting that the world was about to turn.
Is about to turn. About to turn, turn, turn, to every season turn, turn, turn…
Justice is not the Gospel, but the Gospel calls for justice, forgiveness, and a powerless love triumphing over loveless power.
We are all empowered to sing the Gospel song of powerless love triumphing over loveless power that we hear and know and have written on our heads, our tender hands, our hearts as this Jesus is presented to us over and over again in the face of the stranger, in the face in the mirror, in the face of those the world refuses to look in the face…”
This Sunday many churches will conflate two festivals, and with good reason.
Those without Epiphany services will integrate a migration of the Magi at the beginning, but focus on the Baptism of Christ for the meat of the service.
By the by: If you’ve never done this hybridization, let me know. I’m happy to pass along a worship guide.
But to aid you in your inspiration and sermon writing, even at this late hour, check out what Tamika and Jason have to say on the readings (link below).
And, if you just want a bit of inspiration, remember that the ancient Celts held that water was not only necessary for life, but the lifeblood of all things. Water feeds and destroys, breeds and bears forth in this world.
If the Christ was to do some saving, he needed to be drenched in the source of life we have on earth.
“The writer of the Gospel of Matthew loves a good quote, especially from the Hebrew scriptures. In fact by my arm-chair counting, Matthew will quote the Hebrew scriptures or use an allusion to them over 70 times in his retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He’s big on connecting the story of Jesus to the Hebrew scriptures, and today he attempts to quote the prophet Isaiah.
‘Attempt,’ I say, because he actually misquotes Isaiah…
Matthew has Isaiah saying, ‘A voice cries out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord!’
See, in Isaiah’s 40th chapter the prophet doesn’t write that. Instead, the prophet writes:
‘A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!’
You might not think this matters much, and perhaps it doesn’t for the text…it fits so well, right? Matthew wants John the Baptizer (I refuse to just give him to the Baptists) to be the voice we think of crawling out of the wilderness with his PETA-offending clothes and unusual diet telling us to prepare the way of the Lord.
And that’s all well and good, except Beloved.
Sometimes I think we’re the ones who find ourselves in the wilderness of life, no?
Sometimes I think we’re the ones who find ourselves in the wilderness of church life coming out of a pandemic and the pews are a little emptier than before.
Sometimes we’re the ones who find ourselves in the wilderness of a bed that is empty on one side where it used to be filled.
Or the wilderness of an empty-nester house.
Or the wilderness of a lifeless job, a lifeless marriage, an unwanted singleness, a confused state in between all of those things.
Or perhaps some are in the wilderness time of regret for things done and things left undone, as our Rite of Confession says. The things that weigh on our hearts can sometimes keep us lost in the wilderness of guilt and anxiety, and John the Baptizer speaks clearly to that kind of wilderness today…
And we may think that these sorts of things are some sort of mistakes in our life, a misquote perhaps, or that something we’ve done or not done have made us a misquote in this world, where something is not quite what it should be because it all just doesn’t feel right, and we’re coming up on the holidays and, well, it just might not feel quite right this year.
We may think we’re the mistake, misquote of existence, by God.
And here is John the Baptizer, Beloved, breaking into that noise to remind us that whether we’re in the wilderness or not, it is in the wilderness where the paths of God are made.”
“When you want to get in good with someone,” my father said, “you sometimes talk to their parents. Usually their mom.”
This was the response I got when I asked my father why some Christians speak to Mary or pray to Mary. Now, in my tradition that wasn’t our practice, but it made sense to me. If Jesus wasn’t answering the Divine phone, or if you weren’t sure you even had permission to make the call, his mother may lend you her ear, right?
While my Lutheran tradition doesn’t practice this piety, we have a long, though often hidden, tradition of holding Mary, the Mother of Our Lord in high esteem. Luther himself was known to lift her up as a model of saintliness. The “Theotokos,” the “God-Bearer,” a ship that carried the Christ across the sea of the cosmos…that deserves some reverence and a heartfelt nod, right?
But even apart from her role in history, mothering and motherhood are essential pieces of the fabric of our communal lives.
I’ve had many mothers, by the way. I say that not to dismiss my own biological mother; far from it! I say it more to acknowledge that the ways we mother each other, distinct from giving birth, are essential pieces of care that we extend in this world. The mothers of my friends often watched out for me, provided me with things I needed, tended my wounds and provided care when my own mother was working or not in proximity.
An upper-classman at my university, a young man in the same field of study, would have me over for tea and honey to see how I was doing on a regular basis. He took me under his wing in many ways, mothering me while I was 800 miles away from my biological family.
We are at our best when we mother one another.
And Mary, in her role in the Divine drama, was not only the mother of the Christ, following him all the way to his deathbed (like any parent worth their salt), but also the mother of humanity, on the lips of so many in their hour of need.
When George Floyd called out for his mother, all mothers were summoned. Mary was summoned.
It’s no wonder that St. Paul and St. John of the Beatles noted that “in the hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me…” In our hours of need, we all need mothering.
But not only the comforting mothering, but also the advocate mothering. In John 2 Mary advocates for the power of her son, giving instruction that the wedding attendants should listen to him. This Mary of the scriptures is mirrored in the mothers shaking their fists at the courthouse over their inaction on sensible gun legislation as their babies are murdered in schools and on street corners.
“Listen!” they scream.
Mary is mirrored in mothers shepherding their children across borders into a new life, much like she did when she safeguarded her son in the Gospel of Matthew from that blood-thirsty Herod, fleeing with him across borders from Bethlehem to Egypt to be raised in safety.
Mary is mirrored in the mothers yelling loudly that we must watch out for our children in these days because they are vulnerable to this virus and cannot yet be vaccinated!
Mary was not just tending to her son’s needs, she was fighting for them.
I’m writing all this because this coming Sunday, August 15th, is the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, and if I were in a pulpit I’d ditch the common texts for the day and celebrate the feast of this God-Bearer not because she’s Divine, but because she mirrors Divine action in hard times.
And we’re in hard times, Beloved.
Humanity is at it’s best, Beloved, when we’re mothering one another. Mary reminds us of this.
I’m not sure if the band Everclear is a “one hit wonder.” I’m not really sure what qualifies a band to have that moniker. Like, what are the metrics for that?
Regardless, their most popular song was on heavy rotation when I was a teen. Their rock anthem, “Buy You a New Life” is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about being poor and having unrealized dreams. The song is an ode to the artist’s daughter, a promise that he would “buy her a new life” that looked nothing like the one he had growing up with an absent father and overworked mother.
My favorite lyrics in the song happen right at the beginning where the band takes privileged religious folks to task:
I hate those people who love to tell you Money is the root of all that kills They have never been poor They have never had the joy of A welfare Christmas
Do you know the “joy” of a welfare Christmas?
I remember one time when I was working in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago as a middle school teacher, one of the church members of the parish where the school was located shook their heads as they saw one of our families drive up. It was the early 2000’s.
“An SUV,” they said with contempt, “and this family is on welfare…”
What he didn’t realize, of course, was that if that mom wanted to get a job without white folks like him looking down on her, she had to drive up in a car that worked, looked nice, and didn’t throw off any red flags. What he didn’t take into consideration was that the single mom who worked two jobs to afford that car did so because she wanted her kids to be accepted without question.
And yes, she wore the same dress every time we had a parent-teacher conference. It was her nice dress. Respectable dress. Her power dress for a society that deemed her powerless because she was a woman of color, a single mom, a renter, a…name one of the ways we denigrate people.
He didn’t get the point.
In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, we find Jesus on the run from the crowds. He had just fed them, a story colloquially known as the “feeding of the 5,000,” and they had their hearts set on having him rule them.
But Jesus, kinda knowing that they wanted to make him king (we always are looking for a leader to make things right, right?!), hops on a boat and sails away. So the people give chase, and when they catch up to him, they want him to give them bread again. You know, like he did before.
Jesus, though, says that miracles do not a savior make, and instead claims that he is the bread of life, and that they should seek after him and not some bread that would be moldy in a bit.
When preachers typically talk about this text they usually lift up the spiritual nature of it all, and how those greedy people just wanted a handout from Jesus and didn’t really get his message.
And my question for those preachers, for you, is this: have you ever known the joy of a welfare Christmas?
We are so quick to look down on this crowd for wanting food out of Jesus, but food was not easy to come by in the ancient world.
And, if we’re honest, for many it’s not easy to come by today!
I know why people who can’t afford fancy cars or clothes buy them. They know that nothing lasts in this world, they’ve seen it in their own lives and hearts, and so if you have it you gotta use it, or else it’s gone.
I explained this mindset, explained to me by those students and families who taught me so long ago to reframe my white, middle-class worldview, to a very kind colleague of mine who, without skipping a beat said, “I don’t think that’s true. They could open a savings account. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
And then he sipped his $5.00 latte.
What if this story about Jesus being the bread of life is less about spiritual hunger, and more about the idea that, if you’re following Jesus, you won’t allow your neighbor to go hungry?
I mean, what if the people aren’t misguided and are simply hungry, and their community, a community who had just experienced miraculous generosity, didn’t quite get the picture yet?
Perhaps when Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and will never be thirsty again,” he means that the community that forms around the message of Christ is one that will always, never hesitatingly, never waveringly, feed others and provide good, life-giving water without thought of cost, without an inkling of merit, without ever uttering, “do they deserve it?”
See, I don’t think this text is about the people in the story. I think it’s about most of us reading it who have “never known the joy of a welfare Christmas,” most of whom can’t really contemplate what it might mean to be actually hungry and not just on some Keto diet. Who haven’t given up bread for the carbs, but because we can’t afford it.
And look, I’m not suggesting we start a bunch of feeding programs…I mean, those are good and all…but what if following Jesus meant you looked at why folks are hungry in the first place and start to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening in the world. Like, what if Christians became known for advocating for great employment, wages that are livable, education that is affordable, food that is healthy and shared (not hoarded), and clean water that is a priority not a PR issue?
Geeze, it’s almost like following the one who claims that being next to them will ensure that hunger and thirst are “no more” might lead people to do some very radical things in this world.
That almost seems to be the point…
Anyway, that’s probably where I’d go if I were preaching this week.
And I’m not offended by it one bit because I kind of envy him. He has this practice of leaving his phone in his room when he’s home, at least until the kids are in bed and the house is quiet.
And when he’s at the office? It’s largely on silent mode.
He’s largely mastered the art of being present, mostly because he puts in some long hours on the regular.
I envy that because it’s a practice I have not mastered yet, even with my meditation discipline and my (feeble) attempts at focusing.
This week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 6:1-13) doesn’t look like it’s about being present at first blush, but I think it is, actually.
Jesus is present in his hometown, and the folks are so distracted by the fact that they have known him all his life, know his siblings, know his parents, that they can’t wrap their mind around his gifts and abilities. They aren’t present with his now, they only remember his was.
It reminds me of the time I met Molly Ringwald and was kindly asked not to inquire about any of her film career from the 1980’s (which I can list by heart in year of release). Instead, we were encouraged to ask what she’s up to now.
When Jesus sends his disciples out, he says to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave a place.” (vs 10) It was probably offered as simple lodging instructions because, well, when you don’t have a pillow and someone offers you one, you stay by that pillow until you’re ready to find a new one, right?
But today this verse speaks to my heart differently. I mean, what if we took seriously this idea that we need to stay in the place where we are? That is, when you’re visiting with someone, don’t put the phone on the table, but rather leave it in the car. Or on silent mode.
And when you enter your home at the end of the night, don’t lug that workbag in with you. You’re home, not at work.
Or if you, like me, mostly work from home, the office is off limits after 5:30.
I needed this verse a few weeks ago. On our family vacation I took three separate work calls, and I really shouldn’t have.
I knew I shouldn’t have, and my family predicted I would take them (because they know me much like Jesus’ neighbors thought they “knew” him), and I had the opportunity to prove them wrong and I blew it.
Totally blew it.
But, and here’s the thing: it’s not just about “being present” to be respectful. What if there are insights and spiritual awakenings that are missed out because we’re missing out on the moment?
Like, what if beautiful and wonderful, miraculous even, things are happening in our midst, like they had the potential to when Jesus was in his hometown, but we’re not aware enough to see them?
By staying present our present can change, by God, and even become disconnected from our past…if only we’d stay where we are until we leave there.
Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this week.
I struggle with the miracle stories that the scriptures contain.
I struggle because “miracle” is such a tricky word to define, and so many define it so narrowly, and praying for miracles doesn’t really seem to make them happen very often…
I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for miracles, Beloved. In times of desperation all sorts of prayers escape my earnest lips and I regret none of them. I’m just saying that the cause and effect here doesn’t seem to hold much water.
I know it might be weird for a pastor to say that, but I kind of wish more would with regularity. Religion gives shallow comfort when it encourages people to hang their hope on the almost-impossible.
I’ve sat in hospital rooms where someone given a less than ten percent chance of surviving breathed again on their own. Is that a miracle, or is it just a statistically rare situation? Is it both?
Birth is, in itself, kind of a miraculous event if you ask me. Death can be, too. In fact, I’d say any thing that causes awe to blossom in the heart is quite miraculous.
Miracle is a tricky word to define.
In the ancient world there were lots of miracle workers, by the way. Traveling healers, itinerant preachers and prophets, magicians and sorcerers…they were all making their way through the world, and ancient Palestine, making their case for disciples and followers. That’s all to say: the fact that Jesus healed people and performed so-called miracles didn’t make him unique in the ancient world, and it certainly didn’t “prove” he was divine like so many pastors tell you (who obviously haven’t done their homework).
The thing that set Jesus apart was not the miracles he performed, but rather who was blessed by them: the poor, the marginalized, those who couldn’t pay, the outsider, the outcast, the untouchable, the enemy.
That is Divine.
Take for instance the miracle stories we get this Sunday where Jesus raises the dead daughter of a religious leader and is grabbed by a perpetually bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). In both of these cases the true miracle, in my mind, isn’t them returning back to health, but that he would cross the social, ethical, and religious lines of the times, lines that literally defined you in the ancient world, and did so with abandon.
To touch a dead body would make you ritually unclean. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to become unclean in the eyes of the world to bring new life to someone.
To engage with a woman who was have difficulty with a menstrual cycle that would not stop would make him, as a man, unclean. Jesus doesn’t ostracize her or get angry at her or immediately go and purify himself with the rituals of religion. Instead, he blesses her.
Go another layer into the story, though. Jairus, the man whose daughter was sick and dying, was a religious leader of the day and, if we follow the story, was probably at odds with this wandering prophet preaching radical grace. And yet Jesus doesn’t withhold his presence from this man who probably doesn’t think or believe the same way he does. Instead, he extends his hand to him.
I mean, it’s kind of like it’s meant to be that this story is coming just when the headlines are emblazoned with the story of Roman Catholic Bishops seeking to excommunicate Joe Biden. Have they not heard? Have they not read? The Jesus that they (we?) claim to follow and emulate was not about to let disagreements stand in the way of grace.
I struggle with the miracle stories in the scriptures. Miracles that defy the odds are rare, and they don’t seem to discriminate between those who believe and those who don’t (thank God…everyone deserves to beat the odds sometimes, right?). But, then again, everyday miracles that inspire awe are not so rare, but also show no partiality, which is pretty cool.
At the end of the day, though, the true miracle of this story is that Jesus would break down the walls that prevent people from being gracious to one another, and he’ll do so without batting an eye, apologizing, or worrying about how it will look to the public.
And that, Beloved, is a real miracle in my book.
Anyway, if I were preaching this Sunday, this is probably where I’d go…
The Kingdom of God is like an irresponsible gardener.
The Kingdom of God is like a huge weed that overtakes every other plant.
The Kingdom of God is like a microscopic animal that reacts with the environment in large and explosive ways.
The Kingdom of God is like a hopeful parent on the porch, waiting for their child to drive home long past dark.
These are all examples, in a way, that Jesus uses to describe “the Kingdom of God.” Some of these show in this week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34)
And note: Jesus does not mean some sort of “heaven” when he’s talking here. The Kingdom of God is not heaven in the scriptures, Beloved.
The Kingdom of God in the scriptures is Earth, home, hearth, community that loves each other.
But, why doesn’t Jesus just come out and tell us what the Kingdom of God is? Why this fanciful language?
Lazy theologians will tell you it is because Jesus wants you to figure out a puzzle. That’s a cop out.
But what if the Kingdom of God is, in and of itself, a puzzle? What if it is a paradox of sorts? What if the Kingdom of God is comprised of broken people who, through Divine love, change reality for the better?
Perhaps Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom of God is extraordinarily ordinary. Like, the components are ordinary. But the result? Extraordinary.
Perhaps when people really love each other it takes over all other grievance trying to grow in the soil of community, like a mustard weed in a garden?
Perhaps when people really look out for one another, that takes precedence over every other selfish desire, and the whole community is lifted like a loaf that has some yeast snuck in it?
Perhaps when we throw true affection around like seeds things just start to grow in our lives, and we’re not sure how, but we start to harvest it and share it together?
Perhaps in a world where society will tell you perfection is wealth, and in a religious reality where establishment churches will tell you perfection is obedience, Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God looks nothing like that, and it’s difficult to describe, but when you see it?
Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this Sunday.