nathanjhill.com

writing, reflecting, and hoping for a transformed world

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.

#Sermon Scripture: Luke 18:35-43

With our lives disrupted by this pandemic called COVID-19, many of us are watching with anticipation for a vaccine that could potentially save lives and return us to some kind of normal. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a shot so we can return to something of the life we used to know? Wouldn’t it be great to go grocery shopping without having to duck and weave around people? Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to drop our kids off at school again, away from home, for several hours each day? According to a website called the History of Vaccines, a vaccine typically takes 10-15 years of development, with scientists first trying to understand a particular virus and learn how to reliably develop an antigen from the disease. The antigen itself is what prevents the disease, giving our bodies a means to fight off the virus. But to get to that point, not only must they create the antigen, scientists and researchers must test it, making sure it works safely in humans without damaging side effects. And then make enough to get to a widely available to people like us. In recent weeks, the FDA has been instructed to waive a lot of steps in order to speed up the process, but it may still take months to years before everyone has access to a safe, effective vaccine against this pandemic. I do have hope that a vaccine will be in our future for COVID-19 – vaccines of all kinds have already saved millions of lives from diseases that once preyed upon the vulnerable. But other than COVID-19, wouldn’t it be amazing if we had other kinds of vaccines? – Vaccines that inoculate us against the deadly effects of racism – Vaccines that prevent the spread of hatred against people who may seem different to us – Vaccines that eliminate violence against women – Vaccines that can topple the deep walls of division that are turn neighbors against neighbors We are hungry for a healing in this time of anxiety, fear, and injustice – ready for wholeness for our nation, for our world, and especially for our minds, bodies, and souls. Where, O God, is a vaccine that can heal that sickness? Jesus was a healer, although as far as we know, he did not develop vaccines. His healing stories remind us that Jesus had the power to mend wounds and hurting bodies. Healing stories in the Gospels are some of my favorite stories to try to understand what it means to follow Jesus. When I was a young Christian, the healing stories were simply remarkable for what they said about Jesus and his ability – I wish I could alleviate the physical diseases and conditions of my loved ones and friends. But as I have gotten older, I have noticed that the healing stories aren’t about Jesus showing off power. His healing acts give us a vision of God’s future for us, for all of us. In our scripture today, Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jericho. This city has deep significance in our sacred stories – for we remember in the Book of Joshua how the people of God were commanded to march around the city until the walls came tumbling down. But Jesus, in Luke 10, also tells a story about a certain man who is going down to Jericho when he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious leaders who are supposed to live and exemplify their holy scripture see the victim but pass on by down the road without stopping to help. It is a Samaritan, a non-Jewish neighbor who stops, tends to the man’s wounds, and makes sure he is moved to a place of safety. And so, as Jesus and his disciples draw close to Jericho, this parable comes to life. A blind man, hearing that Jesus is near, begins to shout, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The crowd has forgotten the message that Jesus had given earlier and tells this blind man to shut up. To be quiet. We can think of all of the people who are ill, who are suffering right now, who are being told to be silent. We can think of the women who have been victims of sexual violence like rape or harassment being told by powerful men to be silent. We can think of families grieving the loss of loved ones due to police brutality or street violence or broken healthcare systems being told to be silent. We can think of those asking to be treated with dignity and respect because of their sexuality or their gender identity being told to be silent. Here, this blind man is told to be silent by those at the front – could that have been Jesus’ disciples, trying to ignore this person in need of God’s vaccine? But Jesus stops and notices this man on the side of the road. Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” I imagine that a hush falls over the crowd as the words come out of their Rabbi’s mouth. Doesn’t Jesus have all the answers? Doesn’t Jesus already know this man’s needs? Jesus, however, engages this man not as a caricature or an annoyance but as someone who deserves the attention and care of the Son of God. He recognizes that this man is hungry for healing, and that hunger deserves to be heard. “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man asks to “see again”. Yes, he is asking for sight to help him navigate the world, but he is also asking to be seen. Jesus sees him, hears him, and heals him. Don’t focus on just the individual being healed, but imagine all of the family members and extended community that had likely helped care for this man all the days of his life, providing meals even when times were hard, defending him against those who judged him. They too are transformed by this encounter with Jesus. The whole community when they saw what happened praise God! They can now see too that God, through Jesus, is still on the move, ushering in new possibilities for their lives and worlds, revealing that God sees their hungers for healing and offers us a way to a transformed life not just as individuals but as a whole community. If Jesus stopped by your front door today and looked at you, right into your eyes, and asked – “What do you want me to do for you?” – how would you answer? What healing do you need today – for a relationship, for a physical challenge, for a spiritual wound, for the ability to see? Think of everyone that needs to hear that question from Jesus right now. – Like those struggling on ventilators right now, those in hospitals with COVID-19, worried about never seeing their family again… – Like those struggling to battle cancer, even when the doctor’s head hangs low to tell them the bad news… – Like a gay, lesbian, or transgender teenager who came out to their parents this weekend and now find themselves without a home as their misguided parents try to punish them by showing them the door… – Like those crying out for dignity on our city streets to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be offered equal treatment under the law… – Like those who are feeling disconnected and cut off from the people they love… – Like those who are grieving the loss of their partners, their parents, their children, or their friends… “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. Our scripture reminds us ultimately that God is in the healing business – God is interested in our deepest needs and our deepest longings to be made whole. Perhaps our call in this time of division and disease is to stop as we proceed down to the Jerichos of our lives and listen to the cries of our neighbors and the cries of our own hearts. To take to Jesus our fear, our anxiety, and our pain, trusting that Jesus is asking us that question each day of our lives, waiting for our response, “What do you want me to do for you?” One of the stories that came to my mind as I thought about this scripture was from a youth Sunday school class I attended in my home church in Anadarko, OK so many years ago. Our teacher was Verl Daugherty, an long time leader and incredible man who cared about us young people at the church. That morning he was talking about miracles and healing, and he asked us, “What is a miracle?” I remember we argued a little bit about the definition, us young people who felt like we know so much about life already and a lot about God. A miracle meant it had to be God doing something out of the blue, out of nowhere, detached from anything in the world. It’s almost like we argued that miracles couldn’t happen in hospitals or through doctors or human relationship. Verl then told his story about being diagnosed by his doctor with a rare and life-threatening condition. He had limited treatment options, the best of which included going to the Mayo Clinic up in Minnesota. Unfortunately, time was short. To have the best chance to deal with this condition, he needed to get treatment immediately and the earliest they could book him was a few months away. I know Verl and his wife and our church prayed, asking and hoping for God to move. And then – out of the blue, the Mayo Clinic called and said, “We’ve had an opening two days from now. Can you get here?” Verl dropped everything, jumped on a plane, and made the appointment – saving his life in the process. I remember he turned to us and asked, “Now, for me, that was a miracle.” Miracles can sometimes look like vaccines. Like the kindness of a stranger. Like the strong leadership of one committed to changing broken systems. Like the generosity of a normal person like you and me. And especially like those moments when we truly see each other and listen to the deep hunger we have for wholeness. I’ve invited Gladstone to play something quietly, and while he plays, I want you to quietly imagine Jesus asking you the question he asked the blind beggar that day – “What do you want me to do for you?” Offer your hurts to Jesus today and trust that Jesus sees you and listens.

My father died on July 27.

He was a lifelong educator who passionately believed in his work.

He was lucky enough to be able to integrate his faith and his vocation all of his life as a public school counselor, advocating for children, believing in the power of education to change lives, and working for the best of everyone he served.

There are too many stories to share, and I will be writing a few of those to offer here on the blog.

I do want to link to G5Center to begin. One of the gifts that my father left my brother and I with was a passion to tinker with computer hardware. He encouraged us to be fearless and wise, to get our hands in there and figure out how technology works. To this day, his passion sticks with me. I often “pray” by spending time rehabbing an old computer, cleaning it up, exploring how to get more out of it by spending a few bucks, and making it work better. It's fun.

Read a quick article about this here: When a Dead Mac IIci is a Gift

Stay tuned for more.

Note: This #litany and prayer of confession was written in 2012 and links Palm Sunday and Advent.

Leader: Lord of Creation, You seem to be one that likes to make curious entrances into the world – burning bushes, wild dreams, booming questions, cryptic prophecies, a child born of a virgin, even a low budget parade. We confess that we don’t always see or understand the way You move in the world. We are not always on the look out or ready to join up in your cosmic procession.

On this day then, receive these prayers of confession and renewal. March into our midst today. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March in and disrupt our everyday routine that we can live lives that are filled with justice and compassion. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March in to our situations when we sin against You and our neighbors. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March into our heads when we think we are not good enough. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March into out hearts when we think we don’t deserve to be loved or have love to share. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March into our silence when we feel deserted or abandoned. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March into our grief and weep with us. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March into this world that Your kingdom, heaven on earth, may reign forever. Come, O Come, Emmanuel. March against empires built on violence and war. March for youth and children abused and killed, for peoples oppressed and enslaved. Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Leader: Hear this good news: There is room in God’s parade for saints and sinners, for idealists and pessimists, for young and old. God invites us to join the celebration – forgiveness and reconciliation abound! Thanks be to God. Amen

Creator, God of Justice and Reconciliation, We cry out – How long, O Lord? How long must our communities suffer? How long will black and brown neighbors be unheard? How long will justice be delayed? Right now, a deadly virus rages among us Not just COVID-19 - But the virus of white supremacy, indifference, and division. We witness it on the streets of Minneapolis, we glimpse it in the statistics of over 100,000 lost to disease we recognize it in generations that have been denied education, access, and voice in American history. Right now, O Lord, too many of us who are white and comfortable have been infected. We are content with the status quo. We are silent in the face of discrimination, inequality, and murder of our black and brown siblings. We believe we do not have power to change the trajectory of this moment. We have bought the tempter’s lie that it is someone else’s problem. We have chosen to be comfortable, closing the window to the Holy Spirit who even now gathers Her winds in preparation for change. Your Spirit is fierce and mighty, promising not to simply rustle our hair but alter who we are and who we can be. Your Spirit offers us an alternative narrative, “to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free.” Trusting in your grace, trusting in your capacity to alter this broken landscape, we repent of white supremacy. Empower us afresh to reject this demonic narrative that devalues lives and erects walls between our common humanity. May their names be on our lips: Ahmaud Arbery Breonna Taylor George Floyd and so so many more: (Silence.) May their deaths not be in vain as we seek justice and transformation. May those in power in our communities, lawmakers, law enforcement, and policy makers, know who we are and what we demand. May we take ownership of how we have contributed in our complacency and complicity to where we are today - and may we, enabled by the Spirit, work for change with boldness. Spirit, equip us afresh to imagine a just future for our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, our nation, and our world, one where no one is unheard. In the name of the Risen One, Jesus, Amen.

Like many pastors, I lead a faith community that is beginning to think carefully on how we will gather again physically during this pandemic in a way that is safe. Guidance continues to suggest some of the things we take for granted in our worship, like singing, should be avoided. The closeness we feel through handshakes, hugs, laughter, and deep conversation become vectors for the transmission of this disease which can harm so many.

I know the question for many Christians will be – is it church if we gather without hugs? Is it church if we cannot lift our voices together in praise and lament from the depths of our hearts? Is it church if we must maintain six feet of physical distance and minimize our time together for one another’s safety? Is it church if our practice at the communion table focuses more on sanitization than celebration? All of these realities make these decisions so difficult because we know, from previous pandemics and the nearly 100,000 lives already lost, life and death is at stake. When we do gather, it may not feel like the church we once knew.

And yet I recognize somehow that social distancing is woven into the very DNA of the church’s story.

Jesus regularly distanced himself, going out to pray to renew and recharge, and often invited his disciples to the wilderness or mountaintop or middle of the lake to wait upon God’s presence, away from the commotion of crowds and expectations.

The early church sustained itself and passed on stories and wisdom through the writing of letters, which we call the Epistles, instructing and encouraging early communities of disciples in how to live faithfully in anxious, oppressive times. Some of these letters were even crafted from prison cells.

The desert fathers and mothers fled the Roman Empire into the wilderness to wrestle with their inadequacies, pray in community, and pursue Jesus away from distraction and corruption. Generations of monastic orders continued that practice to this day, some even around the corner from where you might be reading this.

And there have always been those who have been turned away by church structures and leaders and had to form their own socially distant networks, resources, and communities to foster alternate narratives and ways of holy living, speaking words of affirmation and justice to those marginalized and wounded by systems of power.

Perhaps social distance for people of faith provides an opportunity to save lives not just from a pandemic but also from systemic evils that take lives everyday by providing us a time to look at what exists, critique it, and reimagine what might be. Reimagine a church where no one is socially distanced by the misuse of power. Reimagine a church where the care of the most vulnerable is at the core of who we are. And live into that imagination.

an Easter #sermon sunrise meditation

Have you ever noticed that two of the most important moments of the Bible happen in a garden?

In the Book of Genesis, we discover the story of the first humans living in right relationship with their Creator in a garden, a garden which supplies all of their needs – only to have that balanced, just, abundant life shattered and broken when we humans mess everything up.

And then in the Gospel of John, the one God sent who came to heal the brokenness of our lives, to teach another way, and to offer abundance here and now, was arrested who we call Jesus was convicted in a sham trial, tortured, and crucified on a cross. He is laid to rest in a tomb in a garden nearby. His death too seemed to be another instance of we humans messing up something good that God gives us.

On this Easter morning, we are deeply aware of how we can mess things up.

We see in COVID-19 a virus that harms us physically but also exposes the continued brokenness and fragility of our society. We bear witness to the deep veins of racism and inequality in our healthcare and economic systems that especially put our black neighbors at risk. We have learned that some people are worthy of getting tests and resources first while the rest of us have to wait at the back of the line. We have been unable to look away when insults and slurs and violence have been inflicted upon immigrants and people whose grandparents are from another part of God’s planet.

And we have marveled at how the Earth has gasped for a desperate breath when we stop for just a minute – stop driving in circles, stop producing more and more, stop and wait and be silent. Did we realize how our busy-ness poisons the air and harms our precious Creation?

What will it take to break these cycles?

The good news of this Easter morning and the story of both gardens is that they do not end in defeat and loss. Though the first humans must leave the garden, God goes with them and continues to covenant with them to bring wholeness to this blessed Creation.

Though Jesus is crucified, on Easter morning, the garden teems with life as the angel proclaims, He is not here – he has risen!

These are the stories of God – God reaches out again and again to repair that broken relationship and gather us into a new way of living together.

Today, on this beautiful Easter, as the sun rises over our lives, know that God invites you to receive that gift.

We are able to write a new story for our lives, for our society, and for our world.

May we walk with God and write it together.

Christ has risen. He has risen indeed!

Adapted and written for Holy Saturday vigil

One: God, you created Creation and called it good. Enable us to move from silence into action to care for this Earth. Many: Here I am, Lord. Send me. One: God, you created humanity and called us good. Challenge us to love each other and see the face of God in the eyes of a stranger, no matter who they are and how you created them. Many: Here I am, Lord. Send me. One: God, you give abundantly – enough food for the world to eat and be filled. You give us enough, so transform the way we live that we may share this abundance so that no one is poor. Many: Here I am, Lord. Send me. One: God, you come that we might have peace for neighborhoods and for nations. Through love and service, may we mend broken relationships and bend down to bless even those who intend us harm. Many: Here I am, Lord. Send me. One: God, you promise that the deepest night gives way to morning. You gather our tears and our hearts into your care and bless us. Renew us in the hope of resurrection. Many: Here I am, Lord. Send me. One: You have heard the good word. Even on this day of silence, God is not silent. God suffers alongside us, and God even now births a New Creation. Let us go to the tomb in expectation for what God is doing in and through us.

Yesterday, I had a first as a pastor – a small family-only graveside funeral without hugs or even handshakes.

It was already a wet and chilly day, so maintaining our physical distance made it feel a little chillier.

The funeral home placed COVID-19 pamphlets on every chair, spaced out evenly in the viewing area.

We fiddled with our smartphones as we waited in silence.

Touch is important in a time of grief. Sure, it’s not the only way to grieve or always appropriate, but there is something about being together as human beings, drawing close to the presence of God and the comforting connection in each other. We are frail creatures. Life can be short. Funerals help us remember that we are not so different from each other.

In those sacred gatherings, when we can be thankful for life, when we consider the complexity of our relationships, when we confront pain and regret, when we are reminded that the people we love (or struggle to love) will not be with us always, we need, often, a little touch.

So, it was difficult as a pastor to offer comforting words and to be present in a time of grief and yet not be able to take the hand of a family member and pass on a little connective warmth on such a chilly day.

Maybe it was difficult because I need that touch as much as others might need it too.

I write a lot.

But I often feel very sensitive about posting those things on the web.

I suppose this is something I need to talk to my therapist about, but seriously, I've written academic papers, religious service material, and lots of reflections. But then, when it is time to share it with the world, I feel very reluctant. Judged or something.

It's a problem. Maybe not as big as other people's problems, but why do I not dare to risk putting my work out there?

Stay tuned.

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