nathanjhill.com

writing, reflecting, and hoping for a transformed world

I've been on a strange journey – one of grief, lack of self-confidence, internal turmoil, and doubts.

One of the painful losses was my love for singing praise music. I use that term loosely – praise music can be a lot of things for me, from Bob Marley to Bon Iver to actual “christian worship music”.

I just didn't feel the passion to pick up my guitar and try to make something beautiful.

For me, that's unusual. Music has always been a entrance into faith for me. Music is an opening to something larger and spacious, a way to communicate emotions and experiences that defy logic and reason and rest in beauty. I love music of all kinds and learned to be unashamed of that passion. Using my guitar and singing has been a big part of my ministry for many years.

If it wasn't for music, I wouldn't be a pastor.

So for at least two to three years, I let it go. Some of it was stress and just needing to focus on other things in my ministry, but I think too it was a reconfiguration of my life of faith. I needed to confront things, change things, and reassess where I wanted to be.

I just needed to be okay with where I was.

After a long time, I picked up my guitar again.

After a long season, I am leading worship again.

It's fun. I'm easing back into it.

Last Sunday, I led a song in front of a small crowd of returning church members and friends, and... yeah, it was good. It felt beautiful. I could hear their voices encouraging my own. It was okay to be not okay, and it was okay to sing anyway.

So, yeah, I feel like making music again.

John 15:1-8 I decided to come to church this morning in my gardening clothes as we ponder our scripture today. I’ve got some weather resistant pants, a shirt I don’t mind getting dirty, some gloves, and, of course, some handy tools for getting down and dirty in God’s Creation. Truth is, you’ve heard it before, I was not born with a green thumb – I do not have a natural gift at gardening like so many seem. I admire those of you who love gardening. I am almost always concerned that when I mess with my plants, I do far more harm than good. Just a year and a half ago or so during one of our church cleanup days, I was tasked with trimming or pruning the bushes that line the sidewalk in front of our church building’s main entrance. That is all the instructions I was given. So with shears in my hand, I went to work. And like a first time hair stylist, I gave the bushes a classic hack job. When I was done with them, I was kind of embarrassed – it looked like I had killed those bushes I had taken so many branches off, leaving just a few stumps behind. But just this week, I paused to notice in the midst of this amazing spring – how those bushes have bounced back. Not only are they teeming with green and purple blooms, their branches are sticking back out over the sidewalk, bursting forth in color and praise anytime we make our way into our church building. I wish you could see them this morning. Pruning, the act of cutting back portions of plants, surprisingly has the opposite effect than what we think on the surface. While we are snipping off ends and clearing away dead or overgrown branches, we are actually creating the possibility for growth, for fullness, for the plant to bounce back even stronger than before. It’s kind of counter intuitive – and it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I wonder – have you had moments in your life when it seemed like God was pruning you? These might have been times of intense change, transformation, and transition. They might have been moments of loss – the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a beloved person in your life. It might have been a rude awakening of truth, when something you thought was working suddenly falls apart. It might have even be a confrontation with addiction or a habit that you learned you must confront and overcome to move forward in life. We all have these moments – sometimes, we don’t even know they are God at work until we can look back and remember how that thing we thought was blooming was actually killing us. But what is true – what we know and what we may learn someday – pruning is painful. Just like the bush I thought I hacked to death, it doesn’t feel good, especially in the moment. But if we can hold on, if we can endure, something better, as hard as it is to see, may be on the way. Maybe this entire year of pandemic has begun a season of pruning – for our lives as individuals and as families, for our lives as a church, for our lives as community. Could something too be better on the way? — Jesus uses this image of pruning in our passage today to make clear that being a disciple is about transformation. He begins, just like we heard last week in his teaching about being the good shepherds, by proclaiming that he is the True Vine. The image he paints is one of connectedness – Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. As branches, our role is to bear fruit – delicious fruit that reflect Jesus’ commandment that he gives to his disciples later in this Gospel – “love one another as I have loved you”. Love is our fruit – love is the fruit this world full of injustice, violence, inequality, and hurt needs. Bearing fruit is not about success – it’s not about fame – it’s not about having a big bank account – it’s not about being perfect – it’s not even about having a big church with lots of members. Bearing fruit is about exhibiting the radical transforming love of God in this world. God’s role, as Jesus describes, is the vinegrower – the farmer – who cultivates the soil, provides the wind, sun, and water to nourish the vine. And therefore, if we want to grow, as disciples – in fact, the only way to grow is to remain connected to the vine. Can you imagine the audacity of a branch that decides it can detach and bear fruit? Sometimes, we hear about big pop bands who at some point break up – and some of the singers go solo, releasing their own albums. In Jesus’ teaching this morning, there is no going solo. Apart from God, there is simply no possibility to bear fruit – to exhibit the true, deep, radical love of God. And so like any good gardener, God will prune those branches that are not bearing fruit. This word prune is actually used interchangeably with the word “cleanse”. God, as the vineyard grower, will cleanse the vine of those branches who are decaying, who are lacking of life, who are failing to stay rooted and connected and exhibit the love of God. We will be snipped and shaped so we can fulfill our purpose – and if worst comes to worst and we fail to live our purpose, we will be tossed into the fire like kindling. It is a real image – an image real to anyone who has gardened a day in their life – but also real as we think about all in this world who are blessed with life and choose to use it to do anything but bear witness to the love which gave them breath. Being pruned, as Jesus knew quite well, was not a pleasant experience – it could seem frightening. It could seem to ask too much of us – to strip away those parts of ourselves that we are convinced define who we are – like our stature, our education, our salary, our stability. And yet if we go over to the other side of this process, letting God remove the lifeless bits of us, we discover something we may not have ever thought possible – growth, fullness, purpose. Just like the bushes on the walkway to our church building, sometimes, we must let go to bear fruit. Sometimes, to do something good and well, we must do drop other things in our lives. — Friends, in my own life, I can point to this truth in me. I continue to be pruned by God. Over a year ago, I was experiencing days of intense high blood pressure. I was not well. The pandemic was hitting, no doubt adding to my stress, but I was able to get in and see the doctor just before everything got locked down. Luckily, she was blunt and truthful with me – she was the voice of God in my life. She said, “Nathan, you need to make some changes.” I began medication. I began to exercise more. I began trying (most days) to eat better. In a year, I have lost weight, I feel better, and my blood pressure is normal. It has not been easy. I miss eating Five Guys burgers. Heck, I used to go to Five Guys and get the regular Cheeseburger with two big old patties. But as I sat in the doctor’s room, I thought about all the times I have told you, church, to do what your doctor says and to take care of yourself. How can I say I love you when I am not willing to love my body and care for my soul in the same way? How can I witness to God’s power over racism, death, and division in this time if I am not rooted in the oneness of the one who offers another way? My pruning, truth be told, is still in process. I have much yet to do. Maybe you do too. Are you in a season of pruning? Are you aware of something you need to release or let go of? Are you afraid of the pain and change that is going to come? If so, I know and share in that. — Church, in our life, we can point to this truth too. In 1959, on the first Sunday in May, University Christian Church was born, a product of the thoughtful, prayerful pruning of our mother church, Mt Rainier Christian Church. Mt Rainier sent over 100 of its members to help create and birth this “mission church”, a church that was envisioned to be cutting edge, to serve its community, to try something new. 62 years later today, we celebrate fruitful ministry, resulting in baptisms, spiritual growth, laughter, celebration, transformation, service, and the witness of God’s love at our intersection. How painful it was for one church to let itself be pruned and cut back – and yet all in order to bear fruit and expand God’s community. How many other stories are there like that in our church throughout our history? Moments when something seemed to lie fallow for a season and then God used that opening to bring life. — And so church, I think we are in such a season again. In this past year of the pandemic, we have witnessed to God’s love in so many ways – nimbly moving our worship services online to global impact, turning our busy intersection into a sacred ground for support of black lives, transforming Zoom sessions into Bible Study and Bible Bingo hours, using our emails and texts and phone calls to stay safe and yet remain connected through prayer, love, and care. We have launched new ministries that are bearing fruit, like our Blessing Box ministry, like a redesigned kitchen. And yet we have lost too – we have lost some beloved church members, saints who will not be replaced. We have had some members of our community who have gone to look for another place, another community, where they feel called to bear fruit. We have experienced disruption in some of our practices and traditions which we believe will continue to bear fruit. And we have learned the hard lessons that some things that we do are simply not bearing fruit as a church. In this coming mission year, as we take steps to implement our Future Story of where we feel God is calling us to move as a community, we are entering a season of pruning, asking God to remove the dead branches so that once again we might burst into fullness and wholeness, reflecting God’s love in this hurting world. How do we do this? Jesus’ command is to abide in him. Abide sounds passive and active to me – like sit with Jesus, hang out with Jesus, linger with Jesus – but it also sounds like sometimes we have to go find Jesus, whereever he is. We abide through prayer and study of scripture. We abide through active listening to each other. We abide through difficult conversations. We abide by trusting in God. We abide by showing up for our neighbors. We abide by waiting and watching and learning. We abide by letting go and letting God do the painful work of changing who we are. In this coming mission year, beginning in July, I propose then a vision for us as a faith community – to grow inward so that we might grow outward. In short, grow inward to grow outward. Kind of easy to say, right? Our Future Story, which is on our website, describes a vision of our church where we are engaged afresh in our community through mentorship, relationship, through the sharing and cultivating of fruit at this intersection, describes one scene where a young girl swings back so she can swing forward. I think our coming mission year is such a year – where we must begin to cultivate the soul inwards so we can swing forward into God’s vibrant fruit-bearing future for our lives and our community. Say it with me: Grow inward to grow outward. May we abide in Christ, the true vine, who roots us in God’s love and vision of wholeness for our world – so that we might bear the kind of fruit that makes a difference for another 62 years. Thanks be to God.

#sermon from March 21, 2021

Scripture: Matthew 8:18-27

This morning, I want to begin by reading the eight names, including six who were Asian American, lives snatched away in an act of terror and horror.

Xiaojie Tan Delaina Yaun Paul Andre Michels Daoyou Feng Yong Ae Yue Hyun Jung Grant Soon Chung Park Suncha Kim

If you wanted an image for how messed up and broken our world is, I invite you to ponder these eights names – grandmothers, mothers, Army veteran, wives, friends, business owners, and ultimately children of God – taken from us by another white man with a gun. I ask God to hold their families close as they grieve and as they wait for answers – and as we stand with our Asian American siblings who have experienced a rise in violence and rhetoric in these past several weeks.

While I understand the investigation is ongoing and we will learn more in the coming weeks, there is much about what happened that echoes throughout our history as a nation.

In fact, it is reported that the white gunman had something posted to the effect of – “I love God and guns” – on his social media page, a refrain we hear way too often in the country.

I’ve been reading a book by David Abulafia called the Discovery of Mankind which follows the journey of Columbus and other Spanish, Portuguese, and English sailors who came west looking for a trade route to India and stumbled upon lands they were not aware existed. And more importantly, people in those lands.

When these folks like Columbus spread out across the world often in the name of Jesus, they brought crosses and bibles with them to share the good news… and they also brought cannons and guns, weapons of war. If there were people that were willing to trade and receive the good news, things were less violent at least initially. But if those people resisted and tried to protect their communities and resources, the guns became a tool to subdue the people, to steal resources and plunder the earth.

Abulafia quotes Bartolome de la Casas who says that the Spaniards would come to the islands and eat in one day what the indigenous people would eat in a week. They brought a hunger and greed for more.

This cycle has continued to repeat throughout our history – God and guns, hand in hand. It is one of the hallmarks of the white supremacist narratives in which we live, believing that we are justified turning to violence to bring order to the chaos around us. The problem is not us – the problem is always them, always someone else, whether it is those who tempt us, those who disagree with us, those coming across our border. And the way to solve it is subdue the land and the people around us.

How does Jesus break our destructive narrative that has harmed our planet and people like the eight killed this past week and so many others?

How does Jesus offer an alternative to deal with the chaos around us?

Our scripture today begins with Jesus reminding his disciples that following him is an all or nothing proposition.

Two men come up to him – a scribe and one of his disciples. The scribe professes to go with Jesus wherever he will, but Jesus reminds him that the Son of Man has no home. Following Jesus will require a deep stretching and willingness to change ourselves, to risk, to be vulnerable.

The disciple asks for permission to go bury his father, and Jesus does not mince words. He gives him no out. “Let the dead bury the dead.”

One of the commentators I read this week invited us to not spiritualize Jesus’ words, but challenged us to know that following Jesus asks much of us. We may be asked to give up family and friends and cultural comforts and the things we think we know are true by saying yes to the Way. We must place our trust in Jesus and open to a new Way.

And then Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to go “to the other side”, already testing his would-be disciples if they would dare follow to the other side of their worlds, places they may not feel comfortable.

Out on the boat in the middle of the lake, a storm hits, and the boat begins to sink. The disciples panic and they cry out to Jesus just as many of those who were healed cried out to him – “Lord, save us!”

One commentator that I read suggested that the boat is reflective of God’s church – God’s community on earth – anytime we sail into the unknown, anytime we chart ourselves into a Future Story that looks different than our past. Water represents chaos through the Bible, and it’s a common thing to note that the Israelite people were never considered a seafaring people in the Bible. Out there, far from land, chaos hits. Their plans are disrupted. They lose a sense of order. This is not their comfort zone.

But notice something fascinating – Jesus is fast asleep.

While the disciples panic because it seems like their world is falling apart, Jesus knows better.

Jesus knows that storms hit us. Jesus knows that going to the other side means facing our own discomfort, our own fears, our own brokenness. Jesus does not succumb to motion sickness, and yet here we see these disciples get a little motion sickness the first time the waters get choppy.

Jesus wakes and calms the wind with a word. Balance is restored. Even the waters of chaos obey Jesus.

The invitation for us is to place ourselves in the panic stricken hearts of those disciples and to think what they saw and experienced in Jesus that day. When the storms of life hit, are we going to turn to our guns, our desire to fashion order and control, or whatever other idols that we might put our trust in?

Or are we willing to turn to Jesus, to another way, when our waters get choppy?

The church God is calling us to be in this most unusual time in which we live, where we worship together over the internet, where we can broadcast our signals halfway around the world, is a church that is prepared and courageous to leave the life we knew behind and embrace the other side to which God calls.

For too long, friends, evident in all that we saw this week and in recent years, our country chooses the comfort of white supremacy, guns… If we want to be a church that simply makes people comfortable on the boat, then we should never dare push out into the deep. We should seek to make ourselves comfortable, make our worship comfortable, make our statements of faith comfortable.

But if we follow Jesus, we will be called out to the other side.

As Jesus said in Luke 9, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And still there is grace – for we can turn to Jesus. We can turn to Jesus and turn our lives around. We can turn not to guns or other gods – but we can turn to the God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, who promises restoration for our lives and for all who have been shattered by years and years of violence and devastation to our planet and to our communities. We can turn to God who in Genesis created this beautiful creation and created all the people in – people of every race and nationality and ethnicity – created beautiful and whole. We can turn to a God who weeps alongside the families and moves in solidarity with our Asian siblings and all others who fear and feel alone. We can turn to a God who challenges to be peacemakers in this world.

To be that kind of church is incredibly hard. As your pastor, I long to lead you in that journey, but I confess I am still dealing with my own greed and my own stubbornness to cling to gods that cannot save me.

Maybe you are too.

Maybe together we can deal with our motion sickness.

Maybe it begins by crying out in lament, “Lord, save us.”

Dr. Soong Chan Rah reminds us that the most appropriate act for the church in times of violence and chaos is lament. We lament – not that we personally hurt those people – we lament that we are part of a system which is out of control, which greedily eats up the abundance God has blessed us with, which claims lives each and everyday, which makes people feel Othered because of the color of their skin.

Our lament has the potential to turn us to Jesus and say, “Lord, save us.”

Save us from racism.

Save us from discrimination.

Save us from our greed.

Save us from trying to control everything.

Save us from poisoning this planet.

In the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, this means putting our trust in a higher power, giving up the myth that we are god and that we can control our lives and its many details. And let me tell you – it is freeing to take that step and let go. Begin to find ways to be and honor our bodies as a part of this planet and not ones sent to subdue it.

What might that look like for you?

Jesus’ invitation is the kind of life where we can sleep through storms – not because we are irresponsible – but because we know storms are part of life. We will endure. We will get through – without guns. For Jesus is with us.

Thanks be to God.

I go through lulls in my reading. As I have gotten older, I've gotten pickier. Sometimes, I know within a chapter or two if something is going to grab my attention and keep me. (Same is true of Netflix series, FYI.) A wide variety of books have challenged me in this way – I am interested in the topic, but if it doesn't grab me, I wander off to something that will. Such is life.

But really, it's been a rich reading season as of late due to excellent book lists for Doctor of Ministry coursework as well as some reading groups.

Here are a few suggestions if you are looking:

David Abulafia's The Discovery of Mankind As part of an intentional reading group around indigenous justice and the Doctrine of Discovery, this book is dense, historical, and fascinating. What the book does well is describe the threads that created this white supremacist reality in which we live, sometimes by accident, sometime with intentionality, and almost always to devastating effect. Abulafia first sets the stage for Christopher Columbus' voyage into the “New World” by exploring the imagination of Europeans and their speculation with the creatures at the edge of their maps and bizarre tales of lands with dog-like humans and other oddities. Then, we dive into the Canary Islands and the encounter with indigenous people there who had never heard about Christ and lived in ways that didn't fit into the neat categories of religious or cultural classification. The book definitely complicates our understanding of Columbus too – he was at times respectful and enamored by the Taino people he engaged with early on but was ultimately constrained by his greed for wealth and fame, his apocalyptic beliefs, his European lens, and his absolute ineptitude and brutality. Fascinating book!

James McBride' The Good Lord Bird I read this in my last formal Doctor of Ministry course, and it was one of those books that was moving, confusing, poetic, and hilarious. I don't know how else to describe it, but it made sense that Ethan Hawke wanted to turn it into a Showtime series. From the vantage point of a black boy affectionately called “Onion”, freed from slavery by a twist of fate, the book offers a somewhat historic and fantastic perspective of John Brown, the legendary abolitionist and his raid on Harper's Ferry. The heroes of history turn out to be far more human and messy in this book, and John Brown teeters between madness, righteousness, and clarity all at once. It's a moving book and definitely very unusual to read. I will be reading it again this summer.

Munther Isaac's From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth I actually got to hear Munther, a Palestinian pastor and theologian, in Bethlehem last year before the pandemic hit. His book was an impulse buy, and it has been so helpful to deeper understand the theological lens of land throughout scripture. It's a well laid out book, thorough in its approach, citing and quoting the many great theologians who have wrestled with some of these questions and themes. Ultimately, it offers a very compelling return to a fuller integration of our care for land as people of faith. Covenant is not just between God and people – covenant is between God, people, and land. Munther closes the book with a personal reflection on what this framework means for Palestine and Israel and the apartheid reality there. So moving.

Douglas Foster's A Life of Alexander Campbell I think you need to be a Stone-Campbell junkie to read this, but it is one of the better Alexander Campbell books I have dug into. Most treatments of Campbell in this tradition are a bit enamored with his brilliance, and let's be clear – he was a smart guy, writing prolifically and debating with vigor. This book traces some of his theological disagreements and issues and paints a fuller picture of his eccentric personality, his contradictions, and the ways he would turn against even his friends in pursuit of his theological vision. What I like is at least some naming of the white supremacist underpinnings that framed a lot of his theology in various ways. I would have liked more of this, but it's a start.

Karen Field's Racecraft This is a tough and brilliant read, unpacking the ways science has gone about reinforcing the construct of race and legitimizing its destructive havoc among communities. Admittedly, I am still working my way through this one, but this is a fantastic read. It's one I have to put down every section or chapter or so to process.

Take these recommendations for what they are, and enjoy!

Cobra Kai - Johnny Lawrence

I have a thing I tell my kids especially as it relates to movies:

If it’s from the 80s, it is objectively good.

Of course, I’m not really serious, because there were a ton of bad movies from the 80s.

And yet, I am serious.

In recent weeks, my family and I have been enjoying Cobra Kai, the throwback Netflix series (originally on Youtube) that imagines life for the characters 30 years after the events of the original Karate Kid movie.

Karate Kid was a beloved childhood movie of mine and many. I remember at least one or two Halloweens dressed up as the Karate Kid, complete with white pajamas and black belt. The movie ages as well as most 80s movies do, even though it sticks deeply to sports movie-isms and reinforces racial stereotypes about Asian Americans. How could Mr. Miyagi, a World War II veteran, still speak with broken English? Do a lot of Asian people secretly know martial arts?

But it also has heart and depth, fleshing out Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita who got an Academy Award nomination for the role, as more than a magical and mysterious Japanese American who can catch flies with his chopsticks and rub his hands together for some kind of healing effect but as a man, like so many people “othered” in this country, who carries a complex story of survival, loss, and wisdom, an embodiment of a nation that could send young men to fight in war while family members died in an internment camp.

During a recent rewatch with my son, Karate Kid resonated with other themes, like class and untreated PTSD.

Behind Mr. Miyagi’s wise old man shtick is one who is grieving the things he has lost, his family a casualty of America’s long obsession with fear of foreigners. He is a man who is capable of defending himself and others, including his country, but refuses to parade his medals around, suggesting he might have mixed feelings about his service or experienced a side of war that left him scarred in deep ways. On a lighter note, maybe there is even some subtle flipping of tables in the way he trades his karate lessons to the young white kid from Jersey in exchange for free labor, remembering all of the odd jobs he did for ungrateful white families over the years who never bothered to pronounce his name right. How many times were his incredible gifts overlooked? How many times was he just seen as the apartment handyman?

Daniel is a poor white kid in a single parent family moving into a new city and coming face to face with wealthy elites who bully him for stepping out of his place. While the movie doesn’t dive into it, there is grief in Daniel’s life, more than moving to a different part of the country but needing someone else to notice the pressures and troubles he is having and offer him some way to navigate it. He needs to be seen and affirmed, not just by the pretty cheerleader, but adults who value him for who he is.

Cobra Kai is run by a white veteran named John Kreese whose tattoos and proudly framed photo wielding an assault rifle reinforce that he is a badass who has tasted war, but as you watch his character unfold and command his students to do anything to win, suggests he has never stopped fighting in the first place. He wants to bring order to the world, and the only way to do that is to strike first and strike hard. Weakness has no place in Kreese’s dojo or way of life.

And then there is Johnny Lawrence, depicted in the movie as nothing more than a pompous white bully. He is aggressive. He strikes first to get what he wants. He found something in Cobra Kai that gives him purpose and identity. He wants to compete. He has discovered something he is good at, and it defines him.

In Cobra Kai, the same stories of grief and broken narratives define the characters. Daniel LaRusso is successful now, but his success seems comical. He’s a car dealer who promises to “chop” the prices and still lives off the legacy of a single famous kick to win the All Valley championship. I mean, seriously dude, move on. He gives out bonsai trees to customers. It’s like he’s still living in the Karate Kid narrative, even talking about the high school crush who didn’t work out.

Johnny Lawrence, the wealthy bully, has his story flipped. Now he’s the handyman who ends up befriending a kid looking for a father figure and needs help defending himself against rich bullies. Johnny is a mess, divorced with a child that he is too ashamed to know. Johnny relaunches Cobra Kai to give purpose to his life but begins to find out times have changed. The message of “no mercy” takes extra resonance in a world of cyber bullying and strict boundaries between the wealthy and the poor, where there often is little mercy for the kids on the bottom of this mess. His All Valley loss back in the day still haunts him but so does a wealthy stepdad who was cruel, a family life lacking in love and support.

In one incredible scene, Johnny recasts the original Karate Kid film with Daniel as the villain of the story, the new kid who butted into his relationships, picked on him, and ultimately ruined his life. Johnny is haunted by his mistakes and his failures throughout the movie, including his long neglected relationship with his son. It’s only by restarting the one thing that gave him purpose that he begins to confront those narratives and figure out who he can be from that point moving forward, even if his trajectory of personal growth is incredibly slow.

Ultimately, Cobra Kai is fun, clever, and silly, like a good 80s movie, but it reinforces the reality that many of us are still living out of the narratives that shaped us when we were young – the narratives of our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. Sometimes, those narratives are good – they are ones of survival and resistance and wholeness. Other times, they are not – they are narratives of dominance and comfort and lies. We have seen these narratives on display in recent weeks as white supremacists violently stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, claiming that they want their country back. We have witnessed narcissism on display when leaders who claim that they can’t lose…. lose anyway.

Somehow, each of us must come to grips with the narratives that shaped us, whether they were good or bad or somewhere in between.

And we must have the courage to claim the stuff that is good and write new narratives, or we’ll find ourselves fighting the same battles, like a sequel to an 80s movie, in 30 years time.

a #sermon from January 10, 2021 at University Christian Church from Jonah 2:2-9

Dear church,

It is Sunday after another long and painful week in our country, another low point for our nation in a string of low points. What happened on Wednesday may still have us stunned – because we are so close to Washington DC and have walked and worked and advocated on those grounds before and because we saw in the image of a Confederate flag, in the anti-semitic symbols by white supremacist groups, in the racist conspiracy-fueled madness on display, a continuation of an American history that worships violence, that celebrates us versus them.

Whether we want to call it insurrection, sedition, or a violent mob, those kinds of images are deep-seated in American history.

This year, for example, marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre of the wealthy black community called Greenwood in Tulsa, OK, where violent white mobs gunned down black citizens and set fire to businesses and homes, with the help of the National Guard.

Sometimes, we are not told that history – including those of us who grew up in lily white school systems – but that trauma and that violent mob look very familiar to those who study American history and recognize such low points.

Wednesday reminded us of this refrain: America is capable of being something special, and we are capable of being something awful.

Like you, I am still sorting through it all, trying to hold my tongue and my tweets, trying to be careful in what I say and process the loss of life, including 42 year old Capitol Hill police officer, Brian Sicknick, same age as me, who was beaten to death by the mob, and recognize acts of courage and integrity all around.

And I am listening for God, seeking to craft a prayer that will capture how I feel.

Maybe you are too.

What does it mean to pray when we are at a low point, swallowed up in the depths of the deep brought on by violence, division, and injustice? What words can we choose when we are angry and afraid, when we are at risk to lose any hope?

In our scripture today, Jonah the prophet delivers a powerful prayer of repentance from a low point – quite imaginatively from the belly of a fish at the bottom of the churning, chaotic sea.

Can you imagine what it might have been like?

The smell. The damp. The cramped space.

Of course, the Book of Jonah is more like a parable than an actual scientific blow by blow.

In all likelihood, if any of us were swallowed by a fish while visiting Bethany Beach, we probably wouldn’t have much time to pray.

First, how did Jonah get there?

At the beginning of this prophetic and powerful account, God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah refuses – he resists God’s call. He gets the first plane ticket – or boat ticket – and leaves town.

Later, we would discover why – Jonah hated the Ninevites.

He didn’t want them to experience grace or generosity from his God, because he knew if the people heard his call and responded, God would spare them destruction. Jonah believed that those stinking Ninevites were scum of the earth. They deserved destruction. They deserved an angry mob. He had read about all the bad things they did on Facebook and decided that these people were irredeemable.

But God wasn’t having it.

A storm hits the sea, and the sailors freak out. As a last ditch effort to save their lives, they toss Jonah overboard into the churning water.

And scripture says, “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”

You can understand that Jonah was miserable.

He says to God,

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever

Jonah could have made one heck of a blues singer. His words echo with desperation, shame, sorrow, and loss. His life is practically over.

The irony of this situation was that he was in that fish because of his own choices. He made his own bed and now he was lying in it. By turning away from God’s call to share expansive grace to his enemies, Jonah was in the pits, literally. And now he longed just to go back to the temple, to sacrifice to God, to make things right.

I suggest then there are two ways to hear Jonah’s prayer.

First, we can read it as a genuine turning point in Jonah’s life. He is now in an unimaginable situation in the stinky, watery belly of a fish, deep and distant from the life he used to know. He knows he messed up. And he is ready to change, to be someone different, to pursue God’s way. His prayer wells deep from his heart, representing a U-turn, what we call repentance.

But there is another way to hear these words, because as Jonah’s story continues, we discover this prophet has work to do.

When Ninevah hears to Jonah’s message of judgment, the people of the city, to his surprise, make a U-turn. They grieve, pouring ashes on their heads and dressing in sackcloth. They change their behaviors, even the people at the top. They cut off the conspiracy-fueled social medial channels. They refuse to hate their neighbors, even ones they disagree with. They care for the immigrant, the poor, and the widow. They honor God and turn away from their wickedness.

But Jonah, when he sees this, goes off, pouts, and wishes he was dead. He is disappointed that his enemies received grace rather than judgment. He is distraught, when just moments before, he was talking about all holy he wanted to be in the temple.

So we must wonder – is Jonah saying the right things to get out of his situation without actually going through any transformation? Is this prayer authentic or empty?

Jesus had something to say about religious leaders like this in Matthew 23:27:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

Last week, hours after being evacuated and threatened by a raging mob, many of our leaders in the Senate and House took to their podiums and apparently found God. Their words and their tune changed with the world watching. All of a sudden, they spoke somberly about unity, coming together, and debate, when moments before some of them fundraised off of the riot.

Certainly, their words were needed to cool tensions.

Maybe their words reflected a real repentance and change in their hearts.

Or maybe in a few weeks, everything will go back to the way it was.

Jonah’s prayer in the belly of that fish gives us permission to speak to God in our low points.

To cry out. To lament.

To long for something different.

To seek repentance and return.

To speak to God when we are at our rock bottom.

And trust that God that hears us – whatever our rock bottom is right now.

But just like Jonah, we will be judged for whether our prayer means something.

Some of us, therefore, need to practice holding our tongues and let a few angry tweets/posts simmer for a bit before pressing post. Some of us need to be sure that our elected leaders are on speed dial. Some of us need to do a lot more listening to those who warned us that the threat of violence and destruction was real.

Some of us simply need to hear the truth – not conspiracy theories – the truth, and understand that hearing the truth is an incredible act of love.

But most importantly, we, as faithful Christians, must offer an alternative, however imperfect and messy it is than what we saw this week, a way that leads to abundant life and liberation from the sin and injustices of this world, a way that actively rejects racism and hatred, a way that seeks to hold one another accountable, a way that seeks to serve with humility and love, a way that ends the narrative of us versus them.

Or will our thoughts and prayers and Facebook posts end up being nothing more than hot air?

After Jonah finishes his prayer, the fish literally vomits Jonah up on to the beach.

Many churches this week are reflecting on the story of Jesus’ baptism, where he too was immersed in the chaotic raging water of the Jordan River and emerged with affirmation for his ministry to liberate God’s people.

When we are baptized, we too die to the fake narratives of sin and death and are vomited up to live into the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.

Today, we are given another opportunity to show the world that our baptism means something.

God is vomiting us out after one more low point in our nation’s history.

Our call, like Jonah’s, continues.

In the words of St. Ignatius:

Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.

Thanks be to God.

a #sermon from January 10, 2021 at University Christian Church from Jonah 2:2-9

Dear church,

It is Sunday after another long and painful week in our country, another low point for our nation in a string of low points. What happened on Wednesday may still have us stunned – because we are so close to Washington DC and have walked and worked and advocated on those grounds before and because we saw in the image of a Confederate flag, in the anti-semitic symbols by white supremacist groups, in the racist conspiracy-fueled madness on display, a continuation of an American history that worships violence, that celebrates us versus them.

Whether we want to call it insurrection, sedition, or a violent mob, those kinds of images are deep-seated in American history.

This year, for example, marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre of the wealthy black community called Greenwood in Tulsa, OK, where violent white mobs gunned down black citizens and set fire to businesses and homes, with the help of the National Guard.

Sometimes, we are not told that history – including those of us who grew up in lily white school systems – but that trauma and that violent mob look very familiar to those who study American history and recognize such low points.

Wednesday reminded us of this refrain: America is capable of being something special, and we are capable of being something awful.

Like you, I am still sorting through it all, trying to hold my tongue and my tweets, trying to be careful in what I say and process the loss of life, including 42 year old Capitol Hill police officer, Brian Sicknick, same age as me, who was beaten to death by the mob, and recognize acts of courage and integrity all around.

And I am listening for God, seeking to craft a prayer that will capture how I feel.

Maybe you are too.

What does it mean to pray when we are at a low point, swallowed up in the depths of the deep brought on by violence, division, and injustice? What words can we choose when we are angry and afraid, when we are at risk to lose any hope?

In our scripture today, Jonah the prophet delivers a powerful prayer of repentance from a low point – quite imaginatively from the belly of a fish at the bottom of the churning, chaotic sea.

Can you imagine what it might have been like?

The smell. The damp. The cramped space.

Of course, the Book of Jonah is more like a parable than an actual scientific blow by blow.

In all likelihood, if any of us were swallowed by a fish while visiting Bethany Beach, we probably wouldn’t have much time to pray.

First, how did Jonah get there?

At the beginning of this prophetic and powerful account, God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah refuses – he resists God’s call. He gets the first plane ticket – or boat ticket – and leaves town.

Later, we would discover why – Jonah hated the Ninevites.

He didn’t want them to experience grace or generosity from his God, because he knew if the people heard his call and responded, God would spare them destruction. Jonah believed that those stinking Ninevites were scum of the earth. They deserved destruction. They deserved an angry mob. He had read about all the bad things they did on Facebook and decided that these people were irredeemable.

But God wasn’t having it.

A storm hits the sea, and the sailors freak out. As a last ditch effort to save their lives, they toss Jonah overboard into the churning water.

And scripture says, “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”

You can understand that Jonah was miserable.

He says to God,

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever

Jonah could have made one heck of a blues singer. His words echo with desperation, shame, sorrow, and loss. His life is practically over.

The irony of this situation was that he was in that fish because of his own choices. He made his own bed and now he was lying in it. By turning away from God’s call to share expansive grace to his enemies, Jonah was in the pits, literally. And now he longed just to go back to the temple, to sacrifice to God, to make things right.

I suggest then there are two ways to hear Jonah’s prayer.

First, we can read it as a genuine turning point in Jonah’s life. He is now in an unimaginable situation in the stinky, watery belly of a fish, deep and distant from the life he used to know. He knows he messed up. And he is ready to change, to be someone different, to pursue God’s way. His prayer wells deep from his heart, representing a U-turn, what we call repentance.

But there is another way to hear these words, because as Jonah’s story continues, we discover this prophet has work to do.

When Ninevah hears to Jonah’s message of judgment, the people of the city, to his surprise, make a U-turn. They grieve, pouring ashes on their heads and dressing in sackcloth. They change their behaviors, even the people at the top. They cut off the conspiracy-fueled social medial channels. They refuse to hate their neighbors, even ones they disagree with. They care for the immigrant, the poor, and the widow. They honor God and turn away from their wickedness.

But Jonah, when he sees this, goes off, pouts, and wishes he was dead. He is disappointed that his enemies received grace rather than judgment. He is distraught, when just moments before, he was talking about all holy he wanted to be in the temple.

So we must wonder – is Jonah saying the right things to get out of his situation without actually going through any transformation? Is this prayer authentic or empty?

Jesus had something to say about religious leaders like this in Matthew 23:27:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

Last week, hours after being evacuated and threatened by a raging mob, many of our leaders in the Senate and House took to their podiums and apparently found God. Their words and their tune changed with the world watching. All of a sudden, they spoke somberly about unity, coming together, and debate, when moments before some of them fundraised off of the riot.

Certainly, their words were needed to cool tensions.

Maybe their words reflected a real repentance and change in their hearts.

Or maybe in a few weeks, everything will go back to the way it was.

Jonah’s prayer in the belly of that fish gives us permission to speak to God in our low points.

To cry out. To lament.

To long for something different.

To seek repentance and return.

To speak to God when we are at our rock bottom.

And trust that God that hears us – whatever our rock bottom is right now.

But just like Jonah, we will be judged for whether our prayer means something.

Some of us, therefore, need to practice holding our tongues and let a few angry tweets/posts simmer for a bit before pressing post. Some of us need to be sure that our elected leaders are on speed dial. Some of us need to do a lot more listening to those who warned us that the threat of violence and destruction was real.

Some of us simply need to hear the truth – not conspiracy theories – the truth, and understand that hearing the truth is an incredible act of love.

But most importantly, we, as faithful Christians, must offer an alternative, however imperfect and messy it is than what we saw this week, a way that leads to abundant life and liberation from the sin and injustices of this world, a way that actively rejects racism and hatred, a way that seeks to hold one another accountable, a way that seeks to serve with humility and love, a way that ends the narrative of us versus them.

Or will our thoughts and prayers and Facebook posts end up being nothing more than hot air?

After Jonah finishes his prayer, the fish literally vomits Jonah up on to the beach. Many churches this week are reflecting on the story of Jesus’ baptism, where he too was immersed in the chaotic raging water of the Jordan River and emerged with affirmation for his ministry to liberate God’s people.

When we are baptized, we too die to the fake narratives of sin and death and are vomited up to live into the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.

Today, we are given another opportunity to show the world that our baptism means something.

God is vomiting us out after one more low point in our nation’s history.

Our call, like Jonah’s, continues.

In the words of St. Ignatius:

Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.

Thanks be to God.

a #sermon from January 10, 2021 at University Christian Church from Jonah 2:2-9

Dear church,

It is Sunday after another long and painful week in our country, another low point for our nation in a string of low points. What happened on Wednesday may still have us stunned – because we are so close to Washington DC and have walked and worked and advocated on those grounds before and because we saw in the image of a Confederate flag, in the anti-semitic symbols by white supremacist groups, in the racist conspiracy-fueled madness on display, a continuation of an American history that worships violence, that celebrates us versus them.

Whether we want to call it insurrection, sedition, or a violent mob, those kinds of images are deep-seated in American history.

This year, for example, marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre of the wealthy black community called Greenwood in Tulsa, OK, where violent white mobs gunned down black citizens and set fire to businesses and homes, with the help of the National Guard.

Sometimes, we are not told that history – including those of us who grew up in lily white school systems – but that trauma and that violent mob look very familiar to those who study American history and recognize such low points.

Wednesday reminded us of this refrain: America is capable of being something special, and we are capable of being something awful.

Like you, I am still sorting through it all, trying to hold my tongue and my tweets, trying to be careful in what I say and process the loss of life, including 42 year old Capitol Hill police officer, Brian Sicknick, same age as me, who was beaten to death by the mob, and recognize acts of courage and integrity all around.

And I am listening for God, seeking to craft a prayer that will capture how I feel.

Maybe you are too.

What does it mean to pray when we are at a low point, swallowed up in the depths of the deep brought on by violence, division, and injustice? What words can we choose when we are angry and afraid, when we are at risk to lose any hope?

In our scripture today, Jonah the prophet delivers a powerful prayer of repentance from a low point – quite imaginatively from the belly of a fish at the bottom of the churning, chaotic sea.

Can you imagine what it might have been like?

The smell. The damp. The cramped space.

Of course, the Book of Jonah is more like a parable than an actual scientific blow by blow.

In all likelihood, if any of us were swallowed by a fish while visiting Bethany Beach, we probably wouldn’t have much time to pray.

First, how did Jonah get there?

At the beginning of this prophetic and powerful account, God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah refuses – he resists God’s call. He gets the first plane ticket – or boat ticket – and leaves town.

Later, we would discover why – Jonah hated the Ninevites.

He didn’t want them to experience grace or generosity from his God, because he knew if the people heard his call and responded, God would spare them destruction. Jonah believed that those stinking Ninevites were scum of the earth. They deserved destruction. They deserved an angry mob. He had read about all the bad things they did on Facebook and decided that these people were irredeemable.

But God wasn’t having it.

A storm hits the sea, and the sailors freak out. As a last ditch effort to save their lives, they toss Jonah overboard into the churning water.

And scripture says, “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”

You can understand that Jonah was miserable.

He says to God,

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever

Jonah could have made one heck of a blues singer. His words echo with desperation, shame, sorrow, and loss. His life is practically over.

The irony of this situation was that he was in that fish because of his own choices. He made his own bed and now he was lying in it. By turning away from God’s call to share expansive grace to his enemies, Jonah was in the pits, literally. And now he longed just to go back to the temple, to sacrifice to God, to make things right.

I suggest then there are two ways to hear Jonah’s prayer.

First, we can read it as a genuine turning point in Jonah’s life. He is now in an unimaginable situation in the stinky, watery belly of a fish, deep and distant from the life he used to know. He knows he messed up. And he is ready to change, to be someone different, to pursue God’s way. His prayer wells deep from his heart, representing a U-turn, what we call repentance.

But there is another way to hear these words, because as Jonah’s story continues, we discover this prophet has work to do.

When Ninevah hears to Jonah’s message of judgment, the people of the city, to his surprise, make a U-turn. They grieve, pouring ashes on their heads and dressing in sackcloth. They change their behaviors, even the people at the top. They cut off the conspiracy-fueled social medial channels. They refuse to hate their neighbors, even ones they disagree with. They care for the immigrant, the poor, and the widow. They honor God and turn away from their wickedness.

But Jonah, when he sees this, goes off, pouts, and wishes he was dead. He is disappointed that his enemies received grace rather than judgment. He is distraught, when just moments before, he was talking about all holy he wanted to be in the temple.

So we must wonder – is Jonah saying the right things to get out of his situation without actually going through any transformation? Is this prayer authentic or empty?

Jesus had something to say about religious leaders like this in Matthew 23:27:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

Last week, hours after being evacuated and threatened by a raging mob, many of our leaders in the Senate and House took to their podiums and apparently found God. Their words and their tune changed with the world watching. All of a sudden, they spoke somberly about unity, coming together, and debate, when moments before some of them fundraised off of the riot.

Certainly, their words were needed to cool tensions.

Maybe their words reflected a real repentance and change in their hearts.

Or maybe in a few weeks, everything will go back to the way it was.

Jonah’s prayer in the belly of that fish gives us permission to speak to God in our low points.

To cry out. To lament.

To long for something different.

To seek repentance and return.

To speak to God when we are at our rock bottom.

And trust that God that hears us – whatever our rock bottom is right now.

But just like Jonah, we will be judged for whether our prayer means something.

Some of us, therefore, need to practice holding our tongues and let a few angry tweets/posts simmer for a bit before pressing post. Some of us need to be sure that our elected leaders are on speed dial. Some of us need to do a lot more listening to those who warned us that the threat of violence and destruction was real.

Some of us simply need to hear the truth – not conspiracy theories – the truth, and understand that hearing the truth is an incredible act of love.

But most importantly, we, as faithful Christians, must offer an alternative, however imperfect and messy it is than what we saw this week, a way that leads to abundant life and liberation from the sin and injustices of this world, a way that actively rejects racism and hatred, a way that seeks to hold one another accountable, a way that seeks to serve with humility and love, a way that ends the narrative of us versus them.

Or will our thoughts and prayers and Facebook posts end up being nothing more than hot air?

After Jonah finishes his prayer, the fish literally vomits Jonah up on to the beach. Many churches this week are reflecting on the story of Jesus’ baptism, where he too was immersed in the chaotic raging water of the Jordan River and emerged with affirmation for his ministry to liberate God’s people.

When we are baptized, we too die to the fake narratives of sin and death and are vomited up to live into the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.

Today, we are given another opportunity to show the world that our baptism means something.

God is vomiting us out after one more low point in our nation’s history.

Our call, like Jonah’s, continues.

In the words of St. Ignatius:

Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.

Thanks be to God.

a #sermon from January 10, 2021 at University Christian Church from Jonah 2:2-9

Dear church,

It is Sunday after another long and painful week in our country, another low point for our nation in a string of low points. What happened on Wednesday may still have us stunned – because we are so close to Washington DC and have walked and worked and advocated on those grounds before and because we saw in the image of a Confederate flag, in the anti-semitic symbols by white supremacist groups, in the racist conspiracy-fueled madness on display, a continuation of an American history that worships violence, that celebrates us versus them.

Whether we want to call it insurrection, sedition, or a violent mob, those kinds of images are deep-seated in American history.

This year, for example, marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre of the wealthy black community called Greenwood in Tulsa, OK, where violent white mobs gunned down black citizens and set fire to businesses and homes, with the help of the National Guard.

Sometimes, we are not told that history – including those of us who grew up in lily white school systems – but that trauma and that violent mob look very familiar to those who study American history and recognize such low points. Wednesday reminded us of this refrain: America is capable of being something special, and we are capable of being something awful.

Like you, I am still sorting through it all, trying to hold my tongue and my tweets, trying to be careful in what I say and process the loss of life, including 42 year old Capitol Hill police officer, Brian Sicknick, same age as me, who was beaten to death by the mob, and recognize acts of courage and integrity all around.

And I am listening for God, seeking to craft a prayer that will capture how I feel.

Maybe you are too.

What does it mean to pray when we are at a low point, swallowed up in the depths of the deep brought on by violence, division, and injustice? What words can we choose when we are angry and afraid, when we are at risk to lose any hope?

In our scripture today, Jonah the prophet delivers a powerful prayer of repentance from a low point – quite imaginatively from the belly of a fish at the bottom of the churning, chaotic sea.

Can you imagine what it might have been like?

The smell. The damp. The cramped space.

Of course, the Book of Jonah is more like a parable than an actual scientific blow by blow.

In all likelihood, if any of us were swallowed by a fish while visiting Bethany Beach, we probably wouldn’t have much time to pray.

First, how did Jonah get there?

At the beginning of this prophetic and powerful account, God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah refuses – he resists God’s call. He gets the first plane ticket – or boat ticket – and leaves town.

Later, we would discover why – Jonah hated the Ninevites.

He didn’t want them to experience grace or generosity from his God, because he knew if the people heard his call and responded, God would spare them destruction. Jonah believed that those stinking Ninevites were scum of the earth. They deserved destruction. They deserved an angry mob. He had read about all the bad things they did on Facebook and decided that these people were irredeemable.

But God wasn’t having it.

A storm hits the sea, and the sailors freak out. As a last ditch effort to save their lives, they toss Jonah overboard into the churning water.

And scripture says, “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”

You can understand that Jonah was miserable.

He says to God,

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever

Jonah could have made one heck of a blues singer. His words echo with desperation, shame, sorrow, and loss. His life is practically over.

The irony of this situation was that he was in that fish because of his own choices. He made his own bed and now he was lying in it. By turning away from God’s call to share expansive grace to his enemies, Jonah was in the pits, literally. And now he longed just to go back to the temple, to sacrifice to God, to make things right.

I suggest then there are two ways to hear Jonah’s prayer.

First, we can read it as a genuine turning point in Jonah’s life. He is now in an unimaginable situation in the stinky, watery belly of a fish, deep and distant from the life he used to know. He knows he messed up. And he is ready to change, to be someone different, to pursue God’s way. His prayer wells deep from his heart, representing a U-turn, what we call repentance.

But there is another way to hear these words, because as Jonah’s story continues, we discover this prophet has work to do.

When Ninevah hears to Jonah’s message of judgment, the people of the city, to his surprise, make a U-turn. They grieve, pouring ashes on their heads and dressing in sackcloth. They change their behaviors, even the people at the top. They cut off the conspiracy-fueled social medial channels. They refuse to hate their neighbors, even ones they disagree with. They care for the immigrant, the poor, and the widow. They honor God and turn away from their wickedness.

But Jonah, when he sees this, goes off, pouts, and wishes he was dead. He is disappointed that his enemies received grace rather than judgment. He is distraught, when just moments before, he was talking about all holy he wanted to be in the temple.

So we must wonder – is Jonah saying the right things to get out of his situation without actually going through any transformation? Is this prayer authentic or empty?

Jesus had something to say about religious leaders like this in Matthew 23:27:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

Last week, hours after being evacuated and threatened by a raging mob, many of our leaders in the Senate and House took to their podiums and apparently found God. Their words and their tune changed with the world watching. All of a sudden, they spoke somberly about unity, coming together, and debate, when moments before some of them fundraised off of the riot.

Certainly, their words were needed to cool tensions.

Maybe their words reflected a real repentance and change in their hearts.

Or maybe in a few weeks, everything will go back to the way it was.

Jonah’s prayer in the belly of that fish gives us permission to speak to God in our low points.

To cry out. To lament.

To long for something different.

To seek repentance and return.

To speak to God when we are at our rock bottom.

And trust that God that hears us – whatever our rock bottom is right now.

But just like Jonah, we will be judged for whether our prayer means something.

Some of us, therefore, need to practice holding our tongues and let a few angry tweets/posts simmer for a bit before pressing post. Some of us need to be sure that our elected leaders are on speed dial. Some of us need to do a lot more listening to those who warned us that the threat of violence and destruction was real.

Some of us simply need to hear the truth – not conspiracy theories – the truth, and understand that hearing the truth is an incredible act of love.

But most importantly, we, as faithful Christians, must offer an alternative, however imperfect and messy it is than what we saw this week, a way that leads to abundant life and liberation from the sin and injustices of this world, a way that actively rejects racism and hatred, a way that seeks to hold one another accountable, a way that seeks to serve with humility and love, a way that ends the narrative of us versus them.

Or will our thoughts and prayers and Facebook posts end up being nothing more than hot air?

After Jonah finishes his prayer, the fish literally vomits Jonah up on to the beach. Many churches this week are reflecting on the story of Jesus’ baptism, where he too was immersed in the chaotic raging water of the Jordan River and emerged with affirmation for his ministry to liberate God’s people.

When we are baptized, we too die to the fake narratives of sin and death and are vomited up to live into the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.

Today, we are given another opportunity to show the world that our baptism means something.

God is vomiting us out after one more low point in our nation’s history.

Our call, like Jonah’s, continues.

In the words of St. Ignatius:

Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.

Thanks be to God.

Every Christmas season, the Hill family watches a few classic Christmas movies that get us in the holiday spirit. One of them is the 1990 film, Home Alone. In the movie, Macauley Caulkin plays a precocious eight year old boy named Kevin who is accidentally left home alone all during Christmas. While at first he is excited to have the run of his house to himself, that quickly wears off as he fends off two would-be robbers and longs for his family to come home again on Christmas.

Home Alone resonated with me on a different level this year.

The image of Kevin being left behind, all alone, to fend for himself, is surely something that we understand from the past several months of pandemic life. Maybe we have felt like our leaders, the supposed adults in our nation, abandoned many of us as this pandemic continues to rage and so many are out of work. Maybe we have experienced the deep pain of grief, losing someone near to us and unable to find comfort with our family members. Maybe we are preparing for a Christmas home alone this year, even though we wish for anything else.

And maybe there are some of us who have felt abandoned by our church or even by God, wondering where that hope, peace, joy, and love we need has gone with over 300,000 Americans alone lost to this virus.

Did God leave us home alone?

Two thousand years ago, Mary and Joseph, on contrary, would have preferred to have their first Christmas home alone.

Instead, according to the decree from Augustus Caesar, they had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem for an imperial census. The census’ purpose wasn’t to make sure their democratic system was appropriately represented and government funds were put to good things like hospitals, roads, and social security. Rather, that census insured that the Roman empire was getting its tax money to fund the violent military occupation that made Mary and Joseph and their families’ lives hell.

Among the Judean countryside, people rebelled against this oppression anyway they could – by picking up weapons and trying to incite rebellions or working with the Roman occupiers to find compromise… but especially by crying out to God that God would save the people.

No doubt, in Mary and Joseph’s day like our own, there were those who believed God had abandoned them, had turned away from their cries, and left them all alone.

In the midst of this, Mary was pregnant, ready to have that baby at any minute, forced to travel through mountains to a crowded little village on a hill south of Jerusalem. And that night, Bethlehem had swelled with size as everybody and their kid and their kid’s kid came home. Every bed was full. I hear even the local Costco was clean out of toilet paper.

When her contractions began, Mary and Joseph’s only option was the part of the house where animals were brought in for safety during the night, a room wafting with the Christmas smell of... livestock.

The closest thing they had to a crib was an empty feeding trough, a manger, where Jesus was laid, screaming like all newborns do, waking up the neighbors, until Mary’s lullaby rocked him to sleep.

Mary and Joseph made do in that impossible situation, but can’t you imagine they would have loved to be in their own home, in their own bed?

Adding more misery, a crowd of shepherds, farm hands, fresh from working the fields that evening, knocked on the door and practically let themselves in, barely pausing to wipe their muddy shoes, claiming that they had seen angels in the heavens with big news, that this baby was no ordinary baby but the Messiah, the one come to save God’s people.

Mary and Joseph again would have loved to be home alone where they were private and had locks on their doors.

But they also had heard messages from angels, urging them not to be afraid and understand that their child was a gift from God, not just for them but for all who walked in the shadows and pain of an unjust, broken world.

I am sure they could see in the eyes of the shepherds and even those Magi who came later, in the eyes of their family members and the prophets Simeon and Anna, people who had been waiting a long time, hope reborn. God had heard their cries. God had not abandoned their people. Even more surprising, as the Message translation of the bible puts it from the Gospel of John, “God had moved into the neighborhood.” God had come home to be with God’s people.

That’s our good news tonight.

In a world two thousand years ago that was as messy, violent, and full of grief and pain as our own, when people questioned whether God answered their prayers and if God had abandoned them, God came to us.

Not in a display of power and might but in the vulnerable form of a child to share life with us and to show us a way to love and care for each other. And to ultimately, love us.

So while we might all feel a little like Kevin this year, abandoned by the adults in charge of our country, saddled with grief and pain, crying out for justice to be done, Christmas is God’s way of reminding us that we are never home alone.

But Christmas is more than a comforting thought. Like the shepherds, we are invited this night to go and proclaim what we have seen and heard, to work for a world where there are no more Kevins, no one who feels left behind and left out. Imagine what that world might be like – no families facing eviction, no transgender children kicked out of their homes, no need to march in the streets for justice for black and brown lives, no more violence on our city streets.

That is, as Dr. Howard Thurman writes, when the work of Christmas begins.

So, hear the good news. We are not home alone, even if our Christmas is going to look a little quieter this year. God is with us, and our God comes to invite us to create a world where no one goes to bed hungry or unloved. May we receive that good news. And may we, despite how hard this year has been, have a merry Christmas and then let the real work of Christmas begin.

Thanks be to God.

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