here is a picture
One of the things that pains me as a pastor is how manipulative certain theological ideas can be.
For example, I grew up with a great fascination of the Book of Revelation. For one, there is no part of the Bible that is more “heavy metal.” Blood and moons and battles and demons and angels and epic stuff. It’s amazing imagery. At church camp, I told my counselor that my favorite verse was from Revelation.
But here is the reality, especially as conservative evangelical Christians latched on to it – the end times is pure symbolism. Even when Jesus is asked about the end times, he says only God knows.
But that doesn’t stop many pastors from claiming that it is coming soon.
It’s not coming soon.
I mean, it could be – but no average pastor is going to know.
Jesus didn’t know and didn’t speculate, so if you find yourself in a church where a pastor claims to know it is on the way, find a new church.
End Times theology is all about marketing – it’s all about getting butts in the seats. It’s all about donations. It’s all about fattening the coffers of that particular institution and using the fear of the end of the world to mask your other biases and fears which you should be working on.
A good pastor will love to talk about the metaphors and symbolism in the end times discourse throughout scripture, but they will say “I don’t know.” They will offer no predictions. They will encourage you to live your life now and embrace your neighbor and work for justice.
In the present moment.
As part of my journey of self-care, I sat down a couple of months ago with a therapist, sharing some of my story and journey dealing with anxiety, walking with grief, and trying to find balance.
It was an honest and frank conversation, and she relieved some of my burden by acknowledging that while I may be out of balance in areas, I can improve. I can grow.
And then at the end, just as we were wrapping up, she asked me about work balance and if the church respects my day off – which is Mondays. I said yes. For the most part, my congregation is doing a great job of helping me honor my rest day, but – and it was I who added the but – I kind of prefer answering emails on my day off just so I don’t forget or have a deluge the next day. It’s just easier that day.
And she said, Ahh, working on your day off? So you do have problems.
I don’t know if a workaholics anonymous group exists, but maybe we need to start one in our anxious, fast-paced, 24/7 consumer culture. Maybe I am not alone in finding it difficult to rest, to set boundaries that preserve my health and my family’s health.
During my first sabbatical experience when I took extended time away from my ministry role, I remember bouts of feeling guilty of not being at work.
Truth is we are all misshaped by a capitalist society around us that has a lot to offer but continues to make increasing demands on our lives – everything should run 24/7, replies to our support emails to come back instantaneously, our prices must be cheap and getting cheaper, our home renovations should come under budget, our interest rates
Beneath all of it in our society is what Hebrew Bible professor Dr. Walter Brueggemann might call a predatory economy, a theme he argues is core to understanding the sweep of the Bible.
In his words, a “predatory economy” is one that depends on constant production that flows upwards, where the gap between the haves and the have nots keeps growing, when profits require expendable cheap labor at the bottom, when people become a means to an end, when we forget that we are more than just laborers by children of God.
Dr. Brueggemann’s example of a predatory economy in the Bible is that of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, the tyrant who deemed himself a god and inflicted torture, murder, genocide, oppression, and dehumanization on the Hebrew people… until God liberated the people.
The way of Pharaoh is a way of anxiety – fear that there is not enough, fear that others will steal from us, fear that our neighbor wants what is ours, fear that we are not keeping up with the Jones, fear that it could all disappear.
Pharaoh crushed those beneath him in order to become rich, to fill his storehouses and his greed and his desire for control.
This morning, and throughout this month, we will embark on a series based on the short book from Dr. Walter Bruggemann that focuses on this practice of Sabbath as a core resister to this relentless rush of anxiety.
Walter Brueggeman suggests that “Sabbath is a bodily act of testimony to alternative and resistance to pervading values and the assumptions behind those values.”
Brueggeman in his book Sabbath as Resistance reminds us that the grounding of the Ten Commandments, rather than a universal set of rules that simply exist and we are to follow or face damnation, are rooted in the story of Exodus, in the story of liberation, in the act of God’s movement of freedom among enslaved Hebrews at a particular time and place.
In other words, God doesn’t command us to murder just because God decided it was bad.
Rather, God delivers these particular commandments as a contrast to the way of Pharaoh, the way of back-breaking enslavement and labor trafficking, the way of oppression and silencing, that characterized the Hebrew’s life in Egypt and upheld the empire of Pharaoh.
This deep anxiety did more than just deny the people freedom, but it tore at their identities, their family structures.
There was no opportunity for freedom. The people were trapped, forced to Labor Day after day without rest even though their Creator commanded everyone to rest at least one day.
Brueggemann suggests that the Ten Commandments are ordered specifically against those ways of death-dealing, anxiety-centered theology, for at the heart, Pharaoh always needed more. And the way to get more was to abuse and use the Hebrew people, grinding them into dust to fill his storehouses with wealth and food and power.
At the beginning of our scripture this morning, God reminds the people who God is:
Then God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Like Pharaoh, God is jealous, which made our Thursday night discussion group think about how God sounded very human. God demands the people reorder the lives around these divine commands, to treat God with respect and dignity, but what is different is that where Pharaoh enslaved and oppressed the people, God frees them for new life. That new life cannot come through something we humans control – something that we make and fashion into an idol, whether we call it a god or worship it like we do little green pieces of paper or radioactive
Much early in the ten commandments, emphasizing its importance though many of us Christians push it down the list, we are told to rest:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
What should always surprise us about hearing these passages is that Sabbath is holy and set apart, and it applies not just to humans or those who are in a supervisory role. It applies to all living things – livestock, the immigrants and migrant workers, your children, even those at the very bottom of the social order, those who might be enslaved. (I always find these texts fascinating as a people who are coming out of slavery are expected at some point to enslave others.)
Just as God rested on the seventh day, so we too should rest.
And then Brueggemann suggests that the following commandments shift the conversation even further – they are not simply absolute objective standards of behavior but they help initiate a new “neighborly” way of life:
Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Each of these commandments invites a practice that resists anxiety, that offers a compelling no to the way of Pharaoh. We don’t need to disrespect our family members or see them as our competitors in the game of life. We don’t need to take from others. We don’t need to destroy our rivals. We don’t need to steal the wives of spouses, breaking down families. We do not need to destroy the lives of our neighbors through words. We do not need to take, take, take from those around us.
On a larger scale, the last commandment, Dr. Brueggemann writes that this is not simply about “petty acts of envy” like when we see our neighbor in that new Tesla. Rather, “it is about predatory practices and aggressive policies that make the little ones vulnerable to the ambitions of the big ones.”
Sabbath is a practice that pushes back hard against the desire to produce, to take, to store up. Divine rest says we do not have to work every day. Rest says we do not have to participate in a world where which never sleeps. Rest says there is time for us, reserved by God, where all the parts of our household, even the livestock, even the land itself, deserve a break from relentless anxiety and production.
What does this look like for us?
For one, it invites us as a church and as individuals to practice the sacred gift of saying “no” to the anxiety of the world. For those of us with kids, we should teach all of our young ones that a “no” is to be respected. It offers dignity and care, a reminder that we are all not the same and that we all deserve boundaries that are respected. I so value when one of you says “no” to an invitation to serve in some capacity. We may need someone to fill that position, but no organization is worth anything if it has to twist everyone’s arms to share their gifts.
What are the things you need to say no to in your life to resist anxiety? How can that no lead to you saying yes to things that bring life and care and healing… or even rest?
Our bodies often tell us no. Do we listen?
Our souls often tell us no. Do we listen?
Our careers often tell us no. Do we listen?
Church does not exist so that we all run ourselves ragged. Church should be a community where we know joy, balance, and love, an alternative to what we experience so often in our world.
Perhaps that means joining with our Jewish siblings and restoring the practice of Sabbath and rest as a divine boundary that we will not cross so that we may thrive.
And it may also mean as a church exploring ways we can be neighborly to others, lifting burdens of debt and anxiety that are crushing people in our communities right now. I love how some churches and denominations have spent a small amount of money to purchase the medical debt of strangers and then cancel it. Are we called to that kind of Sabbath work?
But on a larger scale, as we discussed on Thursday night, the imperative in this vision of Sabbath is not just about individual action or our community. It is big picture. It envisions a world of course where everyone has an opportunity to work and to rest. It envisions a society ordered around neighborliness, not classifications of hourly wage, pay scales, bank accounts, and accumulated wealth. It envisions a society where all workers have rights and protections to rest, to honor themselves, and to care for their families.
What does Sabbath look like to neighbors in communities that we work with who might not have legal status and can be exploited by little Pharaoh’s who demand their profits rise at their workers expense?
What does Sabbath look like to those who cannot find regular and meaningful work at all because their communities don’t have investments?
What does Sabbath look like in a society where some people are afraid of being fired if they take off work or care for their newborn?
Brueggemann writes, “God is not a workaholic. God is not a Pharaoh. God’s rest bestows upon us a rest that counterattacks the predatory economy.” May we say no to anxiety and receive that precious gift. Thanks be to God.
Do you know that pastors have nightmares?
A repeat nightmare I have as a pastor is this every dream where I come into a church setting on Sunday morning and learn at the last minute that is my turn to preach. And I look down and realize that I am under-dressed for the occasion, nothing but a pair of swimming shorts and sandals.
In some of those dreams, I try to go on – try to be brave and just fake it til you make it.
But in other dreams, I run around the church looking for an alternative wardrobe, afraid that I will embarrass myself, my family, and the church.
I imagine we all have experienced those kinds of dreams. They are our subconscious working out the anxiety and pressure we all have lived with at some point or another. Maybe it’s not forgetting that it is your turn to preach. Maybe it’s forgetting about a test in school or a crucial meeting or experiencing a wardrobe mishap in front of millions.
According to Dr. Bethany Jubsy, these are called “anxiety dreams” and they “are often metaphoric for needing to perform and feeling unprepared, feeling embarrassed, or sensing danger.”
Indeed, deep down in my own dream, I recognize that the dream echoes with all of those moments in my life when I felt unworthy, like I did not belong, like if people knew who I really was beyond these fancy robes and clergy attire, I wouldn’t be welcome in that pulpit.
I wonder if you know what that is like.
This morning, in this unsetting parable from Jesus, I want to focus most on the end of the parable where kind of like my nightmare, a party guest is kicked out for being dressed inappropriately, for showing up in the wrong attire. Of course, to get there, we need to step back and think about this moment in Jesus’ ministry and how this parable fits.
First recognize in the Gospel of Matthew that we are near the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is in Jerusalem with his disciples. Things are about to go bad quickly. Jesus will be arrested, tortured, and convicted on sham charges. His disciples will abandon him. The same crowds who loved him when he did an all you can eat fish taco party in the wilderness demand that he be crucified.
In the passages before this parablee, Jesus is sparring with the Pharisees, riling them up and being point blank with them. He even says to them, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the Reign of God before you do.”
He weaves this story in the midst of this mesmerized crowd about a king who prepares a wedding banquet to celebrate his son’s wedding. In Jewish culture, even for a poor family, weddings would last days, so this was going to be an incredible event. Invitations are sent by the King’s slaves far and wide, but to the surprsie of the hearers, the invitation to this exclusive Red Carpet/Oscar level event is ignored.
The King sends a second invitation and preview of the five star menu and the festivities, and to shock and amazement, not only do some ignore the invite, others grab the slaves and murder them.
The Gospel of Luke has a similar parable but without the violence – but it’s important to note that scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was compiled after the destruction of the Temple and in the midst of many faithful Jewish Christians being kicked out of their synagogues and communities for following Jesus. It was a tense and painful time.
Jesus in this first part of the parable echoes his people’s history and in some sense all of human history – of God sending prophets to warn the people and those people ignoring or persecuting those messengers rather than heed God’s direction into fuller lives.
What does the King in the parable do? First, he goes on a revenge tour, ordering the city destroyed (again a shade to the destruction of the temple). Then he orders everyone else in to the party, the good and the bad, without judgment – anyone and everyone off the street, the out-of-town tourist, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the merchants, the sick, the curious, the poor, the foreigner, the migrant worker, the refugee, the drag show performer, the death row inmate, the thief, the gangster, and even the pastor wearing nothing but swimming trunks.
And the party begins without the invited guests.
This seems like a clear parable at this point – God’s plan of salvation extends far beyond the imaginations of many who follow the Creator. God is setting a feast – and this feast will be inclusive, gracious, generous. A true celebration. How could anyone dare reject it? We got the point, Jesus. When you invite us to the party, click on the RSVP link, right?
And now we come to the part that has puzzled me all week.
The King is walking through observing all of the festivities and notices one partygoer who is out of place, one who is not dressed appropriately for the occasion, which we aren’t told exactly why. Over-dressed? Under-dressed? The King questions this guest and tosses him out on the street, using this metaphor of an outer darkness to signify one who is cast out and away from God’s presence.
Now, is Jesus telling us God’s reign will have a dress code?
No, no, no.
Here are two, just two since there may be more, possibilities:
Dr. Kimberly Wagner of Princeton says that this strange moment in the parable indicates those who may have said “yes” to the way of Jesus and yet never fully put the holy clothes on. These are those who cry out “Lord, Lord” but do not live the way of Jesus. These are those who fake the life of faith perhaps or never quite grasp it. Remember our past two weeks of scripture – these are those who claim to know Christ but do not practice and embody forgiveness, who do not share generously with what God has blessed them with.
Indeed, Jesus often reminds his disciples that the way of the cross is difficult.
I think about Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail where he chides the moderate Christians. I only learned a few years back that the letter was a response to a statement released by a group of “moderate” and “reasonable” churches in Birmingham who tried to encourage Dr. King, that though they were on his side, urged him not to come to their city, not to cause too much of a ruckus. How many Christians have pursued Jesus through their life but in the end shirk away or hide their heavenly wardrobe in a moment of crisis?
When have we Christians chosen to be quiet rather than proclaim who we are? Are those the ones getting kicked out of the party?
But the other lens to think about this story that really energizes me comes from Brite Divinity professor Dr. Lance Pape who suggests maybe it's more than discipleship. This party that the King is throwing for his son is literally the biggest party in human history. The food is the best. The music is incredible. The atmosphere is joyous.
And here comes one wandering through the crowd with attire that insults God and God’s people.
How dare you be invited to this party that turns the world upside down… and act like it’s the worst thing ever to happen to you.
Here the invitation is not so much to think and dwell on all the ways that we do not measure up, giving in to the anxiety-centered world in which we live, but celebrate that we were invited in the first place. Celebrate that God’s graciousness have flung open the doors to this festival – celebrate that the abundance of God includes you and me and each of us. How could we show up in anything less than our flashiest, silliest party attire? How else could we not shout with joy and cut a rug like there is no one watching?
This is challenging to as we think about the laws being debated across our country in various locations that would ban “drag shows” or “police” what people wear, often by folks who self-proclaim as followers of Jesus. Yet note that in this parable, those invited off the street may have had no idea or no wardrobe to change into. In some way, then, dressing as who we really are, vulnerable and open, is part of what it means to celebrate alongside God in the fullness of Creation.
Indeed, to be part of this heavenly community Jesus is creating is not an invitation to more worry, fear, judgment, and anxiety – it opens us to a joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. Our invitation is to live it – to walk it – to embody it in, not hide it.
Dr. Pape goes on to say, “The doors of the kin-dom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all. But once you come in, there are standards. You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”
In other words, maybe a swimming suit and beach clothes is the right kind of clothes to wear to worship, because there is a party unfolding in God's reign, and we are invited.
When I was in college, I had the privilege to serve with a praise team on a ministry called Torch, which serves juveniles who are locked up for crimes, for getting in trouble, in detention centers. We would go out for a weekend once or twice a year and invite these young people to experience an inter-generational community that cared for them and loved them. One of those highlights and climaxes of the event was on the second day. A speaker would get up and share some of their faith journey and tell these young people about the abundant, gracious, inclusive love of Jesus, even to those who may have messed up, who may have fallen prey to this anxiety-induced world. And then we dim the lights and sing a simple song, “You are loved, you are beautiful. You’re a gift of God, God’s own Creation.” And then volunteers would come out with small cakes lit with birthday candles for each of these young men.
Their faces, wrapped in the glow of those flickering candles, were something else. Some of them had never even had a birthday cake before. When the lights came on, most wiped away tears and began to dig in with a big smile on their face. The party was on. But others just sat there, refusing to blow out the candle, basking in this precious moment when they felt truly and wholly loved.
They had received an invitation and said yes.
Beloved, have you received the invitation? How will you respond? How will you live your life differently? And doesn't that make it a little more interesting when we invite others to know they are loved or welcome them alongside us to worship in this sacred space and hour? We aren't inviting them to any old celebration – we are inviting them to the greatest celebration of all.
What are the ways Church of the Foothills is called to continue to create those kinds of moments in the lives of each other and our neighbors, to remind each other that life is a gift and God invites each of us into the celebration of abundance?
Thanks be to God.
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
When I come to a new place to share in ministry, I like to do some research – so of course, I was reading up on how water got to Los Angeles, snippets of the lives of powerful and influential people, and, believe it or not, a bit more about the history of Disney.
On Youtube, I was linked to a channel called Defunctland which covers different facets of the history of DisneyLand and other theme parks, and there it was that I discovered something fascinating.
Disney is the single company we have to thank for switchback lines – you know, the lines when we wait to go through security at the airport, like a snake, zig zagging. Disney came up with that concept to deal with the immense crowds gathering and waiting to ride their popular attractions. (FYI – even Costco uses them at their outdoor food courts.)
In the 90 documentary – kind of a nerd – called History of Fast Pass, the video dives into the evolution of lines at DisneyLand and other parks.
- At first, it was a long line of people as people waited for hours, but eventually, engineers started trying to design ways to make the lines trick you into thinking you were getting closer to the ride and entertaining you with your surroundings – like talking robots and visuals.
- Eventually, they came up with the concept of FastPass, where you could grab a ticket and return at a different time. What was great was that this meant more people were spending money in the park and experiencing other attractions rather than just waiting in line. Everyone was happy.
- But then Fastpass started getting tweaked, not by engineers, but by the financial department. Suddenly, you had to register in advance, up to 60 days, to reserve your spot – and to the present, you have to pay for the privilege of being able to go through the lines quicker. And now, some attractions are sold out or at capacity before they open.
- Ultimately, the documentary claims – FastPass has evolved so that it favors the super Disney Nerd who knows all the ins and outs, when to login, how to make the best use of it, and it favors those without a lot of money to spend.
What is fascinating to me is how so much of our culture and our world so often runs on the same pattern. If you have knowledge, you can work the system to your advantage. If you have money, you can move to the front of the line.
In a community and county and country like our own, where those working with the most vulnerable are seeing a spike in deaths among unhoused neighbors, when so many people feel locked out of opportunity, when laws are being passed to “exclude” people based on who they are and who they love, and where those with money and knowledge seem to have a FastPass to skip the long waits, I wonder – is this the kind of society God desires from us? What is God’s vision and imagination for how we might live together?
In this season of Lent as we often think about letting go of things, maybe this is a season to imagine something more than what we have.
In our scripture this morning, I think we are challenged as we think about our world and even how we understand God's heart – its a parable with many quirks. But as Jesus begins telling the story, we learn that this story is about the Reign of God. It is about the kind of community God wants to create – on earth as in heaven. And it challenges us as we think about our world.
You could rename this as the extravagant vineyard owner, because of his peculiar traits in this story. For one, he has no middle manager whose job it would be to actually go out and hire the laborers. Instead, he does it himself. (take that Jeff Bezos!)
And he continues to hire people throughout the day – maybe the work is that much needed in his vineyard. There are grapes to harvest and plant and tend – and they need hands to get it done. Or maybe the owner has no idea how much work needs to be done, but just hates seeing people not working, milling around the community square.
And finally, when it comes to pay day – we get the most extravagant decision of all. The vineyard owner pays everybody the same, starting with those who came at five o’clock until those who sweated most of the day, leaving those who were there for a full day’s shift grumbling under their breath.
But the owner is puzzled. It’s his money. It’s his poor business sense. It’s his extravagance.
Jesus leaves us pondering this by saying, “And the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
It can be easy to listen to any of Jesus’ parables and think there is one answer, but that is always the wrong way to think about the peculiar stories. In Godly Play, a children’s worship model that my wife and I are fond of, parables are described as stories that need to be unwrapped. And you unwrap them every time you hear them, encountering something new or experiencing the story from a different vantage point.
A pastor I heard once said, “Scripture, like these parables, are like diamonds – they sparkle from every direction as you look at them.”
Part of the way we must challenge ourselves to think about this parable is to do what Jesus asks – to expand our imagination, to think outside the lines. I don’t think this parable is giving us business advice or how we should pay people – but it does challenge us to live into a more expansive vision of faith than following Jesus just so we can get our FastPass into heaven. Rather, we follow Jesus because Jesus turns upside down the ways of the world, inviting us to imagine a world where generosity and love and grace extend to all in surprising ways.
The vineyard owner in this story has power – we have power too as a church.
We have power in the way we use our resources to lift up others or make spaces of welcome and inclusion. We have power in the message we share on our signs and in our lives. We have power in the choices we make of where to spend our energy and what to imagine is possible here in the foothills.
I give thanks then that I get to be a pastor of a church that has a history of just doing that – of extending a fierce and courageous welcome to through our open and affirming identity, who creates a safe space for littles on in our preschool, who welcomes Western Service Workers for resources, food, and support, who opens up the table for those who are in the midst of transition and deconstruction and transformation.
Theologian NT Wright comments on this parable that there is a particular message to Jesus’ disciples – don’t think just because you’ve been around Jesus for a long time that you get special favors. That you get to skip to the front of the line. Following Jesus and pursuing this way of grace is not about getting paid commensurate with experience – rather it is always about those workers who were neglected at the end of the day, folks in Jesus’ day and our own who may not have had the best grades, who may not fit into the acceptable categories, who may stick out.
But in Jesus’ vision – and perhaps in our own work as the church – those are precisely who God is reaching out to and calling to be central to the Reign of God on earth.
Perhaps that challenges us a church, especially those of us who have poured in hours of hard work in our faith community, to always remember that Jesus is among those at the edge of our society, those we pass by, those who society is working to exclude.
I believe people are hungry for a church that gets rid of the Fastpasses of our world and helps us imagine and live into something new, where those on the margins get the richest of blessings.
Close with my parents, including those people staying in their homes and treating them like family. With birthday cakes and birthday presents. And how I would grumble, until I got older and my faith and understanding of Jesus deepened.
And I knew my parents would say to me, “Nathan, this is our home – we can share it with whoever we want. This is our love – we can share it with whoever we want.”
That’s a lesson I am still learning.
And that is the lesson of Jesus – and the table which we are about to gather – the love of God to all. Praise be to God!
The month of January was a strange one for me.
Back in December, after ten years of serving an incredible community and congregation, I said “yes” to another opportunity. My family and I are moving out to the west coast. It’s a completely new adventure for us, fraught with challenge and change and possibility.
What breaks my heart is the relationships and opportunities that I am leaving behind. In ten years, I have built up some trust with a variety of partners. That trust is hard to earn in some settings. Ministry is really slow most days, but when you can build that trust and buy-in, it is amazing what can be done to support neighbors and your larger community.
You have to show up.
You have to listen.
You have to wait a bit.
To start over… well, it’s frightening, but it is also an opportunity we couldn’t say no to. So you mix all that up and there you end up in a sense of “call” – what you cannot not do, as a mentor of mine once said.
Trust will take time to earn in the new setting. It may not come. And it may.
January was emotionally draining. My body responded by telling me I needed to rest. I pay attention to my body a lot these days. There is wisdom there.
And suddenly, I feel an openness to connecting with these new folks and learning their stories. I am open. What a gift.
Such is the gift of transition. God is in it. Thanks be to God.
Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17
This past year, I signed up for one of the Ancestry services to learn more about my ancestral roots.
Some of it was surprising – I did not know that I had Prince George’s County history, but I did. Several of my family members emigrated to Maryland from England and resided and died and were born here, with the record saying Upper Marlboro.
Some of it was not – for example, way back when – I have an ancestor who is a Baron, which helps me understand why it comes naturally to me to want the finer things in life. I’ve always felt set apart from you common people – and my family tree proved it.
But there are parts of my family tree that little information exists about. You can go back a few generations, but it either becomes confusing or it ends. Sometimes, that is on purpose – there are people in our family histories who we are not proud of, the cousins, uncles and aunts, who we do not talk about because of what they did.
All of us have complicated history. All of us, especially in the history of North America, have family trees full of drama, no matter when we got here. So often, the drama and the stories and the faithful decisions has shaped us in ways we may not even be aware.
And so it is in that mindset that we begin the Gospel of Matthew with Jesus’ genealogy, to understand where he came from.
Jesus’ family tree is mapped out beautifully, even if we aren’t 100% sure of its historical detail. We have three sections of 14 generations each – from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and from the Exile to Jesus. But the historical detail is not the point.
The point is that Jesus has royal blood in him – Jesus is of the House of King David, promised to rule for eternity. As Dr. Mitzi Minor points out, there is a political message here – but it will became apart that the political message is more than Jesus is here to overthrow Rome. The bigger point is that Jesus’ story is a culmination of the story of what God was doing in his people over many, many generations, from Abraham to David and now to Jesus.
And like us, Jesus’ family tree is full of drama too.
There are all the familiar names:
Abraham, father of nations, promised by God to have numerous descendants – and the same guy who mistreated his wife, took advantage of his servant, Hagar, and shipped one son of into the desert
We remember King David who was a man after God’s own heart and yet murdered and plotted to steal a woman from one of his soldiers and whose son Solomon, a result of that relationship, took the throne and seized power by murdering his brothers who threatened his power.
We remember King Josaiah who may have compiled the first manuscripts of the Bible that come passed down to us today
And of course, there are names here that little is known about – did they live quiet lives? Did they keep their heads down and survive? Did they not have the money and power their ancestors had because their lives had been uprooted and Jerusalem had been swarmed with enemies during the Exile?
In Jewish families, the family trees were largely routed through the men, the patriarchs of the family. And so what is surprising here is that women appear. And when the women appear, it signifies something incredibly important.
Some of the women – Rahab and Ruth – were foreigners who married into God’s royal family. Rahab may have been a prostitute, saved when the Hebrew people attacked Jericho, and Ruth left her home lands to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, and kindled a new family with Boaz. Tamar suffered when her husband, Er, did evil in the sight of God and was killed – but Tamar was promised to carry on the family line but denied time and time again by her husband’s brothers… until she deceived the youngest brother and conceived a child with him. Bathsheba, not mentioned by name, ends up playing a significant part in her son Solomon gaining the throne.
And finally, of course, Mary at the end – Jesus’ mother who would also not disappear once she had given birth but serve as one of Jesus’ followers during his ministry.
Again, this is a tree filled with royalty and filled with drama.
What can we learn from such a genealogy? And what does speak to our New Year focus and our sharing in this season of Christmas?
First, God works in the messy reality of our lives and our own family trees. This is a Christmas message of good news. This is what it means to be present with us, Emmanuel.
Imagine if Jesus had come from a family tree that never experienced a late payment on rent, never had a messy argument, never made a mistake, never skirted with the law, never spent time locked up, never doubted or struggled or felt like an outsider looking in.
Jesus would be unattainable to us. How could we understand him?
Jesus would have been God in flesh, so holy and perfect as to be foreign to us.
But Jesus didn’t come through such a family – Jesus came in a family tree that was filled with as much drama as our own, as much grief, as much risk and change. God did not show up in the goody two shoes of our world but in a human family that could be remarkable and boring and downright dirty.
As we begin this New Year then, I challenge you to this – let’s put aside our pursuit of perfection this year.
There is a narrative in our Christian theology that often replaces God – and it is the pursuit of perfection. That Jesus came that we might have life and life abundant so that we will never mess up or never make mistakes.
My colleague, Rev. Joseph Yoo, did a Tik Tok video where he said, “If Jesus died for you sins, you better sin – otherwise, Jesus died for nothing.”
His point was to make clear that if we read and understand the work of God through Jesus best, Jesus did not come that we might be perfect. Otherwise, God would not need to come at all. Jesus came to save all of us and all the human family. And Jesus came to save even those we don’t like or don’t understand or find ourselves at odds with.
“This genealogy can call to us to ask ourselves if our understanding of salvation is large enough to receive the renewal which God has launched.” – Mitzi Minor
Perhaps our New Year resolution should be to exhibit more grace in all we do – more understanding and compassion for all kinds of families in this world – for all who are suffering – for all who have done wrong – especially ourselves – and share the birth of Jesus as one who came not that we might forever feel less than or unable – but that even in our broken states, God loves us enough to come and walk with us and show us the way to life.
Because God could use a broken and messy family over a period of time to bring about salvation – to shake up the world. God can use our lives and our messy family trees for the same.
Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19
Today, millions of people all around the world are waking up to face the day with hushed anticipation and expectation.
Some are staying up late into the evening, and others are rising in the wee hours of the morn.
All are gathered in front of flickering lights, poised on the edge of their seats, living moment to moment, prepared for something remarkable, something special to unfold right in front of their eyes. Many are prepared to shout in victory, clasping hands of their neighbors, embracing strangers, and celebrating a moment they have been waiting for with baited breath. Some are singing familiar tunes and chanting, compelling the impossible to made real.
Now, of course, I am not talking about Advent, our 40 day season of waiting and anticipation for the coming of Christ – no, I’m talking about the World Cup, the biggest, grandest sports event that captivates the sports world every four years.
Your pastor has been one of those rising up early, not to begin my Advent prayers but to check the latest scores from early morning’s first games and refreshing my phone wherever I am to see the latest bits of controversy, drama, and excitement. Just last week, I grabbed a seat at Franklin’s Restaurant here in Hyattsville and, without even knowing the names of the people around me, suddenly became part of a tight knight family, groaning at every missed pass, praying to God with the depths of my soul, and cheering when Tim Weah slotted home a beautiful goal to put the US ahead.
The World Cup is the largest sports event in the globe, when countries send their best athletes to face in a drama requiring skill, courage, and tactical acumen, when the viewership dwarfs that of the SuperBowl, when people whose nations did not even make it follow every gripping moment – and it is a time when a huge portion of the world hopes with expectation for their nation to do the unthinkable and win the whole darn thing.
On this first Sunday of Advent, then, I invite us to think about our Advent journey – and what it might look like if we began with the same passion and expectation as soccer fans are experiencing right now? What if we practiced an active hope of our own, chanting and singing, sitting at the edges of our seat, and watched and waited for God to do the impossible in our midst? How might we live?
In our scripture today, we hear the words of the Prophet Habakkuk. We don’t know much about the person behind the words, but it is believed he delivered his oracles and visions at a time when people were unsure about God’s righteousness. It was a time of injustice – a time when hope seemed a privilege – when faith seemed ill-suited to a world of war and judgment and violence.
In the first chapter, Habakkuk asks questions of God. You can hear him wailing, crying out, asking God, “Is it time yet?”
He says, “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”
The prophet here speaks for all of us who see a world around us in disarray. Advent, though our culture may suggest otherwise with silly holiday music, photos with Santa, and shopping sales everywhere we turn, is a perfect time for us to ask hard questions of God. Advent approaches the longest night of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Light dwindles around us. The chill begins to sap at our bones. We see the shootings that take the lives of Wal-Mart employees, LGBTQ+ neighbors, college students, and innocents on our city streets. Even in the backdrop of a World Cup which has sometimes forget about the war in Ukraine, we are reminded of the migrant works mistreated and abused in the building of palace-like stadiums. We grieve alongside numerous families the loss of our loved ones who will not share the festivities with them. And we say with Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” How long until justice comes? How long until we can peak at a better future as a people?
It is as if Habakkuk, venting and groaning, asks what we are asking this Advent – “Is it time yet?” Is it time for God to show up?
At the beginning of Chapter Two, the prophet climbs to the top of a watchtower, promising to wait, actively and in anticipation, long into the night, early in the morning for God’s reply. What an image for our Advent together, isn’t it? The prophet sitting up and listening, asking – “Is it time yet?”
God does not keep Habakkuk waiting, responding by saying:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
God speaks a proclamation of hope. God isn’t done, and it is time. Or just about time. God’s vision is on the way. And while it might not arrive on two day free shipping like Amazon does, the Creator calls on the prophet and his people to wait for it – wait for what will come.
Here is our model too – for what Advent can be – especially in a world marked by suffering and despair.
The prophet exhibits faithfulness in a world gone awry. Habakkuk will wait – will continue to watch – for the movement of God, trusting that God’s vision is on the way, even if the harvest hasn’t arrived yet. Even in the midst of hunger and despair and barren fields and confusion. The prophet says this with a simple prayer of affirmation that might be our prayer in this Advent season:
God, the Lord, is my strength
The prophet will hope, despite all of the odds, despite what the pundits may say – hope for the impossible, home for the improbable, hope for the unthinkable.
This is a prophetic hope – the kind of hope that has marked Christians through generations, even stubbornly when the world around us wants us to be weighted down by cynicism. It’s why, even as our lives in a local congregation change, as we experience transitions – we continue to hope, continue to look ahead, continue to watch in expectation for what God has yet to do.
Habakkuk in a way models for us the reality that hope is active – hope is not a passive reality. As followers of Jesus, as those deepening our connection with God, our faith is a way of life for us to navigate this world, to make sense of what we experience, and to continue to trust that more is on the way. We believe that the unthinkable, something greater than a mere winning goal in the World Cup, might be right around the corner in fragmented communities and lives like our own.
Just as the prophet did, we are to climb to our watchtowers and look with expectation for what God is about to do and say in our lives and in this world. We are to rise early in the morning and stay up late into the night, refreshing our screens, singing our songs, and living at the edge of our seats.
For Advent is a story of the greatest upset of all – of a God who would not stay distant from us but step into our lives and into our world to deliver us from the violence and pain that holds us captive.
How then might we live into an active hope in this season?
At the beginning of our service, we did invite you to be aware of some special resources made available to you – a devotional booklet with prayers and readings, study groups on Sunday morning and Thursday evening to gather with others and listen and act, and activities for children. That may be a place to start.
Or it may be that you have a question for God. Perhaps these next 40 days is a time for you to take a real risk. Write down that prayer on an index card. And wait and see if God answers your question.
Sarah Augustine writes in her book about her first trip as an indigenous woman to visit indigenous communities down in South and Central America, communities that were being pushed off their ancestral lands in favor of mining companies and international deals that left them without rights and well-being. These communities, though up against odds that seemed insurmountable, organized and began to fought, using all the tools they could muster to protect the place they called home.
Sarah visited with them, and in one meeting with elders, as they shared stories and listened, one of the eldest women turned to her and asked, “Why have you come here?”
Sarah was caught off guard by the message – and she started to mumble a response about learning and listening.
And the elder asked again, cutting her off. “No, why have you come here?”
And Sarah said she felt a call from God in that moment, that those who were waiting on the edge of their seats for justice to be done, were tired of those who came to listen. They were ready for those who came to live an active hope, who wanted to climb the watchtowers and cry out to God, and then work and look for the world we wished it could become. Sarah began a relationship that day, as a lawyer, to help those people fight – with hope – for the restoration of their land and their dignity.
Today, millions of people have risen with hushed anticipation and expectation – not just for soccer – but for how this world might be. May we sing and shout louder than a soccer match. May our prayers lift to the heavens. May we move in action to care for those who are working for hope right here and now. Is it time yet?
Know, beloved ones, it is – hope is on the way! Thanks be to God!
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
My first encounter with Betsy Hall-Wallace came from an email.
When I was called to be a pastor of this incredible congregation and officially voted in about ten years ago and before I began my first day officially on the job, I got a three page long email from Betsy on September 21, 2012. In this long email, she noted that we were already Facebook friends and that she wanted to tell me all about the liturgical arts ministry that she was invested in here at UCC. I don’t think I responded, even though I was very intrigued and could tell her enthusiasm to meet me and to engage our church with sight and sound.
What is the Liturgical Arts ministry?
Well, if you were lucky enough to be here for worship, especially during one of our holy seasons like Lent, Christmas, Easter, you would walk into a sanctuary that would be transformed – sometimes into radical spaces, like a first century stable, a bus stop as we waited on God to show up, a garden with a stone over a tomb, or a path of railroad ties during Black History month.
Liturgical arts is our ministry in the church focused on grounding worship in a celebration of more than vocal words and music – but in color, shape, symbol, and texture.
Carole Windham, Betsy's dear friend and compatriot in this ministry, said that Betsy was at the heart of this effort because “she could see possibilities in the strangest things.”
She might see a rock – and to us it looks like a rock, but to Betsy it became an elaborate centerpiece to witness to God's beauty and good news. What we might discard as junk at a local yard sale, Betsy would see it from the right angle and think – I can use this at Christmas!
When I came as pastor, I made a bit of a risky decision to say yes to Liturgical Arts. Previous pastors had celebrated this ministry, but I remember Betsy saying that one of them said... don't tell me what you are planning. Just surprise me! Plausible deniability.
But I took the risk to say – let's sync up. Let's work together. And our conversations were always surprising. I might offer a theme and a few images – and somehow, Betsy would take those things and deliver something that helped our scripture and our worship come alive.
In all of that work, and in her roles as an elder and leader, we saw Betsy's heart and enthusiasm – her love of people, her openness, her broad theology of welcome and inclusion, her vibrancy.
Church was not a program or a commitment – participating in church meant building relationships of care to share God's love.
God says through Isaiah – I am about to do a new thing.
To know Betsy was to experience a spirituality and way of seeing life that burst with newness and possibilities.
Betsy saw possibilities in Bill when she met him. She changed his life, and no doubt, he changed her’s. She saw those possibilities in her son, Ian, and his wife, Katie. She saw possibilities in dance students and co-workers and church members. She loved them all.
Just like the people of the Old Testament who wandered through dry wilderness in the desert, Betsy had this way of bringing out abundance on tough days when she asked us to carry boxes up and down, bring out the lift, and move stuff around. On one of those long work days, she would pull out a bag of goodies – it might include scotch eggs, shortbread cookies, olives, chips and salsa, cookies, cheese, sausage, crackers, fresh veggies, on and on. There was always some cold lemonade on hand. You didn’t go away hungry in Betsy’s presence – she made sure you were fed and watered. And sometimes, you needed it – because some of those days were LONG.
And even when her health began to deteriorate, she didn't let that stop her. She continued to work on a chalice of seashells in collaboration with our youth, though her hands didn't move with quite the agility she was used to. She continued to love those around her with those long emails and encouraging messages – her last message in my inbox after Easter this year said, “You all did an amazing job!” She fought hard – even a condition like ALS was not an invitation to give up. Even when she could not communicate verbally, her eyes sparkled with the newness of her abiding love.
She saw in a space like this sanctuary and in human beings a way to convey God's love through a medium far bigger than a painting canvas.
The story of our faith is one of a God, a Creator, who loves us enough to see things possible with our lives that we do not see. God saw that rich possibility in Betsy to help her leave a legacy that will echo on for years to come through the lives of her loved ones and through the worship ministry of our church... and beyond.
God sees possibilities in each of us too. We are invited to respond to that love by sharing our love with others. We are invited to see God doing a new thing and live in such a way that our praise of our Creator echoes through the beauty we create and share.
That is a story that Betsy believed in with all of her heart, and it is that story that she sought to communicate to all of our senses every time we gathered for worship. It speaks to her heart – that of a mother, wife, friend, instructor, and witness that life is an incredible gift to be shared.
Bill and Ian, you did great work in this past year caring for Betsy, providing her with the best that you could in very difficult circumstances. Thank you for witnessing to us what loving attentiveness looks like. I know Betsy felt your love and care to the end.
Betsy, we love you. We will miss you. But your ministry continues. We give thanks that God gave us such a wonderful witness to what is possible. Thanks be to God!
O God Who Reigns Over Death O God Who Shows Us How to Live,
We honor your sacrifice and your love poured out. We honor the way you show up and lead us even when our lives are a mess.
Help us survive, week to week, day to day.
Help us survive in a world that is groaning and aching from violence, climate change, division, and inequality.
Bless the survivors. Bless those who continue to love.
Bless those who share of their lives though they sit with great trauma.
And more than help us survive, empower us to witness to your good news - that proclaim freedom for those bound up, new relationships for those who are alone, inclusion for those pushed to the edges, rest and healing for those walking wounded.
We ask your healing mercies on those recovering from COVID,
and for family members recovering from surgery,
Hold close those who are called to give care, for the worry and exhaustion in their bodies.
Remind your church that we have much love to give, though we are changing, though things are difficult.
May we ever look to you.
We pray this in the name of Jesus, Our Risen One, the Suffering Servant, amen.