Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sermon: Jesus' fullness fills our emptiness (Jan. 16, 2022)

Full service can be viewed HERE (with our new livestream equipment!).

 Epiphany 2C
January 16, 2022
John 2:1-11


We have now moved out of a season of festivals and into the season called Epiphany. The lectionary calls this “Ordinary time,” marked by the use of green paraments – but there is nothing ordinary about a time of epiphany! In these weeks between Jesus’ birth, his manifestation to the magi, and his baptism… and the beginning of Lent… we will hear lots of stories about how God has been revealed and made manifest to people of faith throughout time, and reflect upon how God is manifest and revealed to us still today. 

And we’ll kick all that off with the story of Jesus turning water to wine. It is one of his most well-known miracles (or signs, as John calls them), known even to people who have never stepped foot in a church. But there is much more to know about it than the impressive outcome. For example, it happened at a wedding, at a most ordinary, human gathering. Also, this is Jesus’ first sign, his entry onto the scene of public ministry – in other words, keeping the party going when the host ran out of wine is what Jesus chose to be his first impression! Also, notice that Jesus wasn’t quite ready at first to make his identity known, but his mom urges him, as moms sometimes do, and invites the people there to trust him. Pretty cool!

In Isaiah we’ll see echoes of the wedding theme from the Gospel. And in Corinthians, we will hear about what gifts emerge when God’s Spirit is manifest in us. God’s power is all around us! So as you listen, watch for it – watch how God is manifest in each of these readings, and in your life. Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Well, my 6-year-old daughter has had to start hauling her school-issued laptop to and from school every day, in case schools suddenly have to go remote again due to Omicron. Several of my colleagues have opted to hold services online-only for the next few weeks. Someone said at council this week, “Drive carefully, because there aren’t enough doctors and nurses at the hospital to take care of you.” Omicron has shot those case numbers and hospitalizations right back up higher than ever before. I know that I, and I guess probably you, had already reached a little deeper into my energy store to get through the past two years, and as I prepared myself for getting through this wave of the pandemic, I reached in and found… nothing left. 

Just like those six 30-gallon stone jars: I feel empty. 

I’m not sure that was the part St. John had in mind for us to focus on when we read this well-loved story about Jesus turning water to wine, and yet, that’s where my attention rested: on the empty stone jars. That’s where I found myself in this story. 

Well maybe John didn’t intend for me to focus on that, but I also believe that where our heart is drawn in a scripture passage is exactly where it needs to go. So, if I’m feeling like an empty stone jug… how, in this Epiphany season, is God being made manifest to that place? How is God being made manifest to a world that is also feeling the emptiness of so much loss and weariness? A world where, as Mary points out, “They have no more wine” – a world where the joy and celebration has run dry?

Well of course our temptation is to jump to the exciting end of the story: the jugs don’t stay empty. At Mary’s urging, Jesus has the stewards fill up six stone jars with water – totaling some 150 gallons – and the water quietly and miraculously turns to wine. That is a LOT of wine, about 1000 bottles: far more than would be needed at this point in the wedding, already three days into the party! Just when everyone was worried about lack and not-enough, Jesus came through with more grace, more blessing and more abundance than they knew what to do with! It’s a great ending!

But I admit that in my own feelings of emptiness, weariness, dryness… I need more than that happy ending. I’m not quite ready to receive that much blessing right off the bat. It’s gonna take a minute for me to get there. So, let’s slow it down a little, and look at some of the details along the way.

First, I think this story says that it is okay to name that emptiness. Mary does, and her acknowledging that fact is a gift to us. In the first century, running out of wine at a wedding would be worse than a party faux pax; it would be a disgrace, truly mortifying for the host. But Mary names aloud that reality, names it to the one person she knows can address it. I think we spend a lot of energy not naming things that cause us shame – and I include admitting fatigue on that list. We prefer just to power through, showing everyone our strength and competence. We think if we keep our weakness and shame hidden, then others will continue to believe we are as strong as we wish we were. But it isn’t true, and it doesn’t help. As shame researcher Brene Brown observes, “Shame thrives in secrecy and silence.” 

People are going crazy for the new Disney movie, Encanto, and with good reason. It is beautiful in so many ways. One of the catchiest songs is sung by Luisa, the sister of protagonist, Mirabel. Luisa has the gift of super strength. Like, rerouting rivers and moving churches strength. She takes on more and more pressure to take care of everyone and everything, and seems to do it willingly… yet in the song she reveals her fear that she can’t handle the pressure. In a gorgeous bridge, she also names an alternative: “But wait…” she sings, “If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy? Or relaxation? Or simple pleasure? Instead, we measure this growing pressure.” After she names this aloud to Mirabel, we see her begin to heal and grow, to be more authentic, and move toward the joy and life she craves. She is unburdened by the expectations her family has put on her, and eventually can move toward life. That is the power of naming our pain and weariness!

Where else does God show up in this story of the empty stone jugs? The next thing Mary says is to the servants: “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” Here, she moves from stating the lack, to inviting trust in the One whom she knows can do something about it. Oh, that trust can be so hard! God doesn’t always act as quickly as we’d like, nor in the way we had imagined. Sometimes God even calls us into something difficult – and you can be sure filling six 30-gallon stone jars was no easy task! Remember, there was no running water there, no hose they could grab, and a single gallon of water weighs about 10 pounds – multiply by 150! But still, they trust, as Mary urged them to. 

And the result is indeed impressive. Finally, we get to the part where the emptiness, dryness, weariness… is filled. God doesn’t leave the jugs empty. They are filled, not just a little bit, but way over the top, and with the best wine. The beverage is not the point, of course – Jesus was not trying to intoxicate the guests – the point is that here the wine is a sign of God’s blessing, grace and abundance. Just prior to this story, John has described what Jesus’ coming into the world means for us. “From his fullness,” John says, “we have received grace upon grace.” And here, in this story of water turned to wine, we see what that fullness, that grace upon grace looks, tastes, and smells like: it is like the best wine, offered in absolute abundance, way over the top. It is like a party and celebration that need not stop. It is like God recognizing our lack, our dryness, and saying, “I won’t leave you like that. Here, take some of my fullness. Here is grace upon grace, blessing upon blessing, love upon love.”

You see, this isn’t really a story about turning water into wine. Sure that’s miraculous and all, but to me, that isn’t the good news here. The best news is that God turns out emptiness and weariness into blessing and grace, our struggles into insights, our lack into abundance. We all share the weariness of the pandemic, and I’m sure we all carry our own weariness as well. You know what weighs on you most. And so does God. And God does not intend to leave you in your emptiness, your brokenness, your lack, your endings, or deaths. God turns all those things into fullness, wholeness, blessing, beginnings, and life. Sometimes we don’t see that come to its full fruition in just a quick moment like it did in our reading, or even in a few days. Sometimes it might even take a few years or maybe that fullness isn’t apparent to us until we are at the gates of heaven. But eventually it does happen, because that is the business of God: to fill up the emptiness with love, grace and blessing.

Let us pray… God of abundance, we are tired. We’re totally over this pandemic, and finding our store of patience and energy has run dry. Be with us in our feelings of emptiness, be manifest to us there, and then help us to trust you, as you turn our empty stone jars into places ready to receive from you grace upon grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Sermon: Renewal and baptism (Jan 5, 2022)

HERE's the part of the service with the sermon in it.

 Baptism of our Lord (C)
January 9, 2022
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


Today is the festival of the Baptism of our Lord. Each year on this Sunday after Epiphany (which was Thursday), we hear the story of how Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels has a slightly different take on how that happened – I’ll mention a couple things that are unique to Luke’s telling. One is that the voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus – “you are my son” – where in the others that heavenly voice speaks to those gathered – “this is my son.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Holy Spirit comes down like a dove, but where the other Gospels say this happens as Jesus comes out of the water, in Luke it doesn’t happen until later when he is praying. Speaking of prayer, no other Gospels tell us that Jesus prays after; in fact, the others send Jesus immediately into the wilderness after his baptism, where Luke takes his time with that, offering us Jesus’ genealogy before Jesus heads out to the wilderness. 

However it happened, hearing about Jesus’ baptism invites us to reflect upon our own, and our other readings will help us to do that. Acts shows again the importance of prayer after baptism, and how the Holy Spirit comes to us in prayer. The Psalm describes the power of God and of how God works through water. Isaiah 43 is a beautiful text written for the Israelites who have grievously sinned against God, and yet still, God loves them and claims them and promises to restore and redeem them. Just like God does for us in baptism! As you listen today, hear and give thanks for all these marvelous promises of God that we receive in our baptism. Let’s listen. 


Grace to you and peace from the Light of the World, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The past couple of years, we at St. Paul’s have used the festival of Epiphany, on January 6, to do an activity called Star Gifts. In honor of the wise men following a star to Bethlehem to find Jesus, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we have handed out paper stars with gifts written on them, gifts that will help us see how God is manifest in our lives – gifts like laughter, time, goodness, joy, acceptance. Just as God was made manifest to the wise men, God is manifest to us through these gifts. The idea then is that the next year, a few people share their reflections on how they saw God manifest in their lives over the past year, through their particular gift.

Well, due to a number of factors, we didn’t get to share our Star Gifts reflections this year, but I do still want to make new stars available to you to take this year, and, I wanted to share some reflections on my own 2021 star gift, which was renewal, and I’d like to do that through our Gospel and the text from Isaiah. 

Since today is Baptism of our Lord, let’s start with that text, in Luke, but I’m actually going to start just before the baptism, with John’s foretelling of Jesus’ coming and his mission. You may remember that we heard that part of the text during Advent. Turns out, that bit about the unquenchable fire is no more palatable in the new year than it was in Advent! All this talk of separating wheat (the edible, life-sustaining part of the plant) from the chaff (the stalk, which is not edible and fairly useless after harvest) can sound an awful lot like Jesus is coming to put us into two groups: those who are saved, and those who will burn in unquenchable fire. Yikes. But looking at it with a renewal lens helps us to see that this is not what Jesus intends at all. We are not all chaff, or all wheat, completely disposable, or completely worthy of salvation. No, we are, each of us, the whole plant, both wheat and chaff, and what Jesus is coming to do, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is burn away that useless chaff in us and leave the fruit, the wheat, that which brings life and sustenance. 

Ahh, suddenly that image of fearful, unquenchable fire becomes an image of renewal. As I said, I have been watching all year for the ways God is made manifest through the gift of renewal, and I saw it many times… and I’m not sure even one of those renewals came easily. New discoveries about myself came after admitting embarrassing mistakes and shortcomings. Growth and healing in my relationships only came after painful encounters. Revelations in parenting came after loud, sometimes tearful fights. Improvement in all those areas came after the hard and painful work of letting go of things I had depended upon (like wheat depends upon the stalk to grow!), and developing new habits, new understandings, new patterns – ones that do bring life – even as the old ones are burned away. The wheat, if it was never harvested from the chaff, would be left to die. It would be fruit, but it would be useless, and never bring life to anyone. Part of the plant must go through the fire in order to bring life. 

Yes, renewal is, more often than not, a painful process. We see this also in the Isaiah reading. Reading this chapter alone is a lovely experience, with its glorious and gorgeous poetry and imagery. But look at how it starts: “But now.” That is a hinge phrase, a shift, both in English and in Hebrew, and it urges us to look at what came before. From what are we shifting? 

Well, it ain’t pretty – it’s all about Israel’s disobedience, which is what led them into their current mess, being in exile with their home destroyed by enemies and fire. Here, listen to the two verses immediately prior, from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible: “Israel sinned and refused to obey the Lord or follow his instructions. So the Lord let them be robbed of everything they owned. He was furious with them and punished their nation with the fires of war. Still, they paid no attention. They didn’t even care when they were surrounded and scorched by flames.” Yowzer. That’s pretty rough! Can anyone be redeemed from that?

But then… Isaiah 43 brings the good news: yes, they can. Yes, God does. Hear now again these words from today’s reading: “But now [there’s that shift], but now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” 

Whew. That takes my breath away. From that first part I read, from chapter 42… Israel does not sound like a people worth the effort. That would be the chaff I would want to burn, the relationship I would want to let go, the habit I would want to eliminate. But God doesn’t. God doesn’t give up on them. God sees them for all that they are – all their failures and shortcomings and even their unfaithfulness – and He isn’t happy about it, but also doesn’t leave them there. God is committed to their redemption, to their renewal. God chooses to respond in a way that dispels their fear, creates belonging, and sees them as precious, honored and beloved. Indeed, God gathers up the broken pieces and remolds them into something that is for God’s purpose. They are renewed. 

This, my friends, is what God does also for us in our baptism. Baptism is not just some Get-Into-Heaven-Free card, but rather, a channel by which God is continually re-calling, redeeming, and renewing us, just like God did with the Israelites. Baptism is the means by which God promises to keep that unquenchable fire burning, ready to receive all of our sins and failures, so that what is life and what brings life in us will be able to thrive. And furthermore, God felt so strongly about the importance of this promise, that God, in the person of Jesus, stepped right into the water with us, right into those promises, assuring us that God does indeed pass through the waters with us, making sure they shall not overwhelm us.

Thanks be to God for the gifts of baptism. Thanks be to God for the unquenchable fire that burns away what does not bring life. Thanks be to God that we are renewed, redeemed, called by name, and always belong to God.

Let us pray… Renewing God, in this new year, keep our sight on you and the many ways you renew us and our faith. Make us open to the new thing you are doing in us. You have created us, formed us, redeemed us, and called us by name; assure us that in our baptism, we belong to you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Zelenka, Dave. Baptism of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved January 9, 2022]. Original source:

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Wearing One Dress is a Matter of Faith

 In a previous post, I described what made me want to wear the same dress for 100 days. I wanted to go more in depth about why this challenge is also a matter of faith for me. 

1) Joy! I mentioned this in my last post, and want to elaborate. I see a spiritual director every month (yes, even pastors need direction in their spiritual lives!), and one recurring theme in my sessions with her is how easily I let All The Things get in the way of feeling joy. We often talk about this in terms of how joy is felt in my body. I would describe not-joy as feeling burdened and closed, and joy I would describe as feeling free and at peace. One day a couple months ago, my spiritual director said to me, "That feeling of wholeness and joy - that is your natural state. It is God's intention for you. Follow that joy." It hit me like a sudden burst of warm air. Why was this such a shock to me? After all, I knew it in my head; I just didn't practice it in my life. I have since become more aware of what gives me a sense of that joy, and what doesn't, taking cues from how things feel in my body. I watch for things especially that make me feel that burden and tightness, and have realized that getting dressed is one of them. It's strange, because I'm pretty comfortable in my body, and I don't hate the way I look or feel in my clothes. They just weren't bringing me joy. I kept finding myself longing for something different, as I gazed into my drawers and closet and thought, "I don't want to wear any of this." So every day, I was starting my day with something that felt decidedly un-joyful, which set the tone for the rest of my day. How is that living into God's intention for me? It is not! Well, once one thinks enough times, "I wish I had a comfy dress I could just wear over leggings. Dresses make me feel pretty, fun, and comfy," it becomes pretty obvious what one should do next! I boxed up a bunch of clothes I hardly wear, and left the ones that make me smile, and now getting dressed each day is peaceful and joy-filled. And I feel much more like I'm living into God's intention for me. Plus, wearing a dress really does make me feel lighter and pretty!

2) Rebuke of fast fashion. This is the motivation for many of the participants in the challenge: it's an effort to rebuke fast fashion, as well as "live more with less." If you are unfamiliar with the impact of fast fashion on the environment, read more here, but basically, fast fashion is the rapid production of new, cheaply made clothes to keep up with whatever we are told is in style, and because these clothes are cheaply made, they don't last and need to be replaced frequently. Instead of investing in pieces that will last, we are told to get the latest fashion, then we find said fashion "for a great price!" and then a couple years later we send those cheap clothes (that we barely even wore) to the garbage heap or the thrift store, which frequently is ultimately also the garbage heap. All this production, shipping, and disposal does massive harm to the environment, from the chemicals involved (which especially harm those working in factories under unethical conditions, so this is also a love of neighbor issue!), to the carbon footprint (producing more CO2 than air travel and shipping combined), to the microfibers in waterways and oceans, to the amount of water used to produce and then care for these items (some 80% of the carbon footprint of our clothes is our laundering of them)... you get the idea. 

Enter well-made merino wool dress. It can be worn more times (not quickly replaced), requires owning less clothing overall, is a natural fiber, and doesn't need to be washed as frequently because the wool does not hold odors (on day 40, I just washed mine for only the second time, after my muddy dog sat on my lap). Many who do this challenge pare down their wardrobes considerably afterwards, vow to buy only sustainable clothing that is ethically made, or limit their purchases to thrift and consignment shops, and commit not to give into the latest new fashion. Fast fashion hurts God's creation; as a matter of faith, I want as little part in that harm as is possible.

3) Consider the lilies of the field. Or, We are enough. To elaborate a bit further on the fast fashion piece, advertising and the media tell us each year that we must look a certain way and buy certain clothes in order to fit in and be stylish and thus succeed and be well thought of in society. This could not be more contrary to God's intention for us. God created us as good. We are enough. If the lilies of the field aren't worried about being beautiful and enough, why should we be worried? While society has convinced us we must look or dress a certain way, the truth is that most people don't even notice what we wear. There is something in psychology called "the spotlight effect," which is the belief (and resulting anxiety) that people notice our behavior and how we look more than they really do. Some people doing this challenge have noted that even their own family members didn't notice they were wearing the same dress. One friend of mine interviewed for a job during her challenge, wearing the same dress for all three interviews, and she is now the associate dean at a seminary. The sooner we can shed the belief that our enough-ness and beloved-ness is dependent on us looking how someone tells us we should, the sooner we can live into the belief that God loves us just as we are, and that we are enough. (That said: don't get the impression these dresses aren't good-looking. People look fantastic in these dresses and style it all kinds of ways! But they are doing it with items they already own, seeking to find their particular "look," rather than always seeking elsewhere.)

4) My own personal growth. On a more personal note, one thing I struggle with is that I have such a desire to do things right or "correctly," that I am sometimes hesitant to engage in them. I stay in my comfort zone, worried about messing up. This is something that I think keeps me safe, but in fact, it keeps me from joy (see above!). So one of my spiritual practices is making sure I'm always trying to do something that puts me a little out of my comfort zone, and that I won't always do "perfectly." A challenge like this is not something that I look at and think, "Oh, I'll knock that out of the park!" I scares me just enough to tell me that this is something that will keep in check my need for control in the form of doing all things well. There is a wonderful group on Facebook of people who are doing this challenge, and it is an incredibly uplifting and encouraging group, so that when I'm starting to feel like, "Uuuugh I'm not doing this as well as I want to..." I can reach out there and hear, "You look great! Keep going!" There, participants are routinely reminded of their beauty and belovedness, no matter their age or body type or style. It is a beautiful community that continually affirms all of the above points.

There is more, but these are the main pillars. Being motivated by my faith certainly gives me the strength to continue another 60 days - at least!

Dear God, you created us good, and we are beloved and enough in your eyes. Thank you for the many ways you remind us of that, and let us never stray from a deep knowledge of this fact. Help us to be mindful of our neighbors and of your creation, seeking always to care for both, and guide our attention to the many ways you provide for us to experience joy, even in our most mundane tasks. Amen.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

100 Days in One Dress

I'm wearing the same dress - not just all week, not just all month, but for 100 days straight. 

Why would I do such a thing?

If you can believe it, I've been considering doing this for a couple years already. I have over the past several years been trying to live more simply. I learned early on that living simply does not always mean living easily - for example, trying to avoid plastic was hard right from the start, but all the more so when kids came along with all their plastic toys and individually wrapped snacks that somehow taste better to them than the ones I make and pack in Pyrex. Similarly, the end point of major decluttering sounds spectacular, but the process of getting there while my family brings in more and more stuff is like shoveling while it is still snowing. Result: discouragement, followed by tossing up my hands and giving up.

I don't want to give up. As life has gotten more complex, I have longed for a way to simplify in a way that does not add more stress to my life, but truly does make my existence simpler, even more peaceful. Similarly, I have been focusing my attention lately on finding what makes me feel real joy - not happiness, which is so often circumstantial, but real joy, the sort that makes me feel whole and my heart at peace - and I find again and again how I too often let physical and emotional clutter compromise my joy. Life is too short; ain't no one got time for that.

After several months of thinking almost every day,  "How is it that I have so many clothes, and yet never feel like I have something to wear? How can I not like so much of what I have?" I resolved to try something drastic, something that would force a reset at least about this basic activity I have to do every day, something that was somehow taking a lot more energy than I want or can afford to give it: getting dressed.

Cue the 100 Day Dress Challenge. I had a couple of friends who had tried this wacky challenge put forth by the company Wool&. The company insists that their merino wool dresses are so versatile, so durable, so classic, that one dress can be worn for 100 days straight. They have several styles and colors to choose from; you just pick one, and then take pictures of yourself wearing the dress every day for 100 days to prove you did it. If you can complete the challenge, you are awarded a $100 gift card, almost enough to cover another dress. (The marketing here is brilliant - they are investing in their very satisfied costumers to do their marketing!)

It was just quirky enough to interest me and my NorCal hippie heart, just the thing to force the reset I craved. Honestly, I didn't intend to do the whole challenge. I received my dress right before Advent began, and I thought, "This will be a way to simplify my life during Advent, but that's all." But then we left for vacation for a week, which is the perfect time to pack a simpler wardrobe, right? And by then I'm almost halfway there so why not just finish it?

Hence, I'm just over 1/3 of the way through (okay, it's not THAT close to halfway!), and I will tell you what, I'm having such fun. I haven't repeated an outfit yet, and still have a bunch of outfits in mind that I haven't tried. Here are some of my looks from the first 29 days:

Here are some things I have noticed:

1) Knowing every day that I am putting on this dress takes one thing off of my mental load, which in turn leaves more room for things that truly bring me joy. I don't spend those few moments each morning standing in front of my closet thinking, "I don't want to wear any of this." If I have the energy, I get creative with the dress (something which, when I have that energy, DOES bring me joy). If I don't, I just put on a pair of leggings and a cardigan or jacket and call it done, and put my energy toward other things. 

2) No matter what I end up with, I look put together and am super comfortable. I wear a lot of black anyway due to my work, and it always makes me feel classy. The material is incredibly soft (not itchy), and doesn't hold odors, and de-wrinkles itself just by hanging on my closet door. Even when I'm "dressed up" I feel like I'm wearing pajamas (side note - some women do actually sleep in these dresses because the merino wool is temperature-regulating!). 

3) Using this as the base of every outfit is helping me to see my old clothes with a new eye. I find myself thinking,  "I wonder if I could..." and often, lo and behold, the crazy ideas look good! I'm simultaneously simplifying my routine AND getting out of my comfort zone - the best of both worlds! This exercise is breathing fresh air into my old wardrobe. One of the ideas behind this challenge is that you "go shopping in your own closet," pulling out things you haven't worn in a while to give them new life. People commonly exclaim, "I'm rediscovering my scarf collection!" If you buy something "new," you are urged to buy it from a thrift or consignment shop. (I admit I did get some new-new things for Christmas - mostly tights and leggings, which aren't great second-hand!)

I have much more to say about this experience from a faith perspective, but for now I'll just say: I'm having a lot of fun with this. And finding joy in getting dressed and in my life. I'm looking forward to what other lessons I will discover in the next 2/3 of the challenge!

Sermon: Incarnation, all the way (Christmas Eve, 2021)

 Christmas Eve 2021

Grace to you and peace from the one who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.

            I came across a comic shortly after my first child was born that made me laugh out loud because it hit so close to home. In it, a woman clearly meant to be the new mother, Mary, is talking to a young boy with a drum, who is ready to play a little rump-a-pum-pum for the baby. She says, “I appreciate the thought, but I just got Jesus to sleep.”

            It gives a little comical insight into what it was like for those new parents. There is not much written about Mary and Joseph’s experience in those first few weeks of Jesus’ life, but the topic has been the fascination of mystics and theologians for centuries. I remember that first Christmas as a new mom, with a 3-month-old. That year, this mysterious story of the incarnation hit me a totally new way. The church I was serving at the time put on a pageant for the community – not with children, but with adults. The Rehbaum family, with our new little bundle of joy, was selected to play the holy family. And so, yours truly donned a white robe and Mary’s signature blue veil, and walked the walk (or rather, waddled the pregnant waddle) of Mary. After so many years of hearing and telling this story, participating in this allowed me to experience it in a new way. Kneeling in prayer, I heard the angel’s announcement that I would bear God’s own son, and my hand instinctively moved to my belly, imagining this truth. I stood with Joseph (aka my husband Michael) in the crowd as we heard the centurion deliver the decree that we must travel to Bethlehem, and I remembered the fatigue I felt late in pregnancy just from walking upstairs, let alone 70 miles. I felt anxious as Joseph and I debated whether we should even bother knocking on the door of the inn with the sign that said, “No vacancy.” I waited in desperation for the innkeeper and his wife to figure out where they could put this pregnant lady, and smiled with relief when they said they had room with the animals. And I waddled my pregnant bones down the steps toward the makeshift stable we’d set up in the sanctuary, sneakily slipping out the pillow from my robe and grabbing my own real-life baby, and laid my child in a manger – then grimaced at the prospect of letting her stay there, and quickly picked her back up. While Joseph and I kept our holy spots in that stable, we sang to our daughter, stroked her and bounced her, and when she started to cry we discreetly checked her diaper, and bounced her some more, and whispered soothing things in her ear, and let her suck on my pinky… and because she clearly hadn’t gotten the message that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” we finally took her someplace more comfortable so the show could go on without distraction. 

Of course, Mary and Joseph didn’t have that last option. The stable was it for them. They were stuck with a manger instead of a rocking, vibrating bassinet, and bands of cloth instead of a cozy, zip-up fleece sleeper, and lowing cattle instead of a smart speaker ready to play whatever the new parents requested. They were stuck with this newborn baby boy, with no experience, no conveniences, and presumably no clue what to do next.

            My heart goes out to Mary and Joseph, trying to figure out how to parent this child under the worst of circumstances. Joseph being unable to get proper paternity leave and Mary fretting about fitting into her jeans again were the least of their worries, as Jesus literally had his bed eaten out from under him by his bovine roommates.

            All this makes me wonder anew: Why on earth would God decide to come to us this way?! To two faithful, but inevitably faulty parents, with no clue what they were doing, and in such crude circumstances? As a friend of mine said after having her first child, “Every day, new aspects of parenting daunt me. Every day I have to ask for help. I rely on others to care for me... Sometimes, I feel as tender as a newborn myself.” And God entrusted the Savior of the world into the arms of two such parents?

Such a tender, vulnerable being, in such unpracticed arms. It wasn’t so long ago that I was in a position of doing absolutely everything for another human being – feeding, burping, carrying them from place to place, dressing them, wiping that cute little behind – and when I remember those days, this reality that we celebrate tonight baffles me: the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God… come as a baby? And even before he gets to the vulnerable baby stage – did God not know how risky getting there was, how many things can go wrong with a pregnancy, not to mention labor and delivery? How likely it was that Mary would die in childbirth, like so many women did in that time? Entering the world by way of childbirth was not only an incredibly messy choice on God’s part, but also a terribly dangerous one, in which too many things could go wrong. Couldn’t God have come as a fully formed man, just like Adam had?

It’s definitely crazy, but also… I can’t imagine the incarnation happening any other way. Some traditions say that Mary’s labor was quick and painless, even that she immediately resumed her pre-pregnancy figure as Jesus happily nursed (having had no trouble, of course, with that initial latch). I find this possibility frustrating and disappointing. If I’m going to worship an incarnate deity, a God who is willing to become human, then I want – I need – God to go all the way. The thing is, life starts with pain. Every one of us here today came into the world through pain and mess and fear. Since that messy day of our birth, the pain and mess and fear of life have changed and evolved, but those things have always remained a part of the human experience. For God to be truly human, God has to experience the whole kit and caboodle, including the risk, and the fear and pain of birth, and the vulnerability that follows.

Because if God was willing to share that experience with us humans, then I can truly believe that God means it – that God is willing to get down with us in the darkest, messiest, scariest moments of life, that God loves us enough to want to understand, that God cares enough not to bypass any part of the human experience, especially not the scariest, most demanding, and most vulnerable parts, even if that means coming into the world to the sound of groans and screams, and being clumsily fed by a young teenage mother, and inexpertly swaddled by a novice father. God came on that night and continues to come this night and every night into all the mess and fear of life – the pandemics, the grief and loss, the mental illness, the job loss, the impossible family dynamics, all of it.

Ted Loder tells about an experience he had during a rough patch in his life: his mother was dying, his dad depressed, his marriage hanging on by a thread, his kids angry about it, and his professional life on the rocks. One night, as he walked down Lombard St. in Philadelphia to meet his daughter for coffee shortly before Christmas, he saw a home that had dedicated their entire front window to an elaborate nativity scene. He was quite taken with it. But as he looked more closely he noticed two curious things: first, that all the characters seemed to be looking right at him, standing out there on the street; and second, to his surprise, it was missing a key piece. He writes, “There was no manger, no infant Jesus in the window! In effect, the street was the manger, and I was standing in it.” He goes on, “I stood there with tears in my eyes. With a force that lumped in my throat, I realized that just where I was standing, the Christmas miracle happens. In the street, where human traffic goes endlessly by, where men and women and children live and limp and play and cry and laugh and love and fight and worry and curse and praise and pray and die, just there Christmas keeps coming silently, insistently, mysteriously.” (Tracks in the Straw)

            Just there – in all the fears and joys and sorrows and mess and beauty and vulnerability of life – just there, the Christmas miracle came that night in the form of a teenage mother giving birth, to an audience of sheep and cattle, and it continues to come to us, in whatever situation our life finds us in this year. God cares enough to do that. God loves enough to do that, tonight, and every night.

            Let us pray… Everlasting God, you came into this world through pain and fear, just like we did. When we feel overwhelmed by fear and sorrow, pandemics and pain, loss and uncertainty – come to us again, and again, so that we would know your love with us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Sermon: Mary's response to the turning world (Dec 19, 2021)

Full service can be view HERE

 Advent 4C
December 19, 2021
Luke 1:39-55


Finally, on this 4th Sunday of Advent, we get some texts that sound Christmasy. Micah will announce the importance of the little town of Bethlehem, and Hebrews will tell us why the coming of Jesus is important. But the really Christmasy texts will be the Psalm and the Gospel – and I need to tell you, we will hear them out of order. They are actually part of the same passage, but reversed. So let me situate you: Just before the part of the Gospel we’ll hear today is the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she will be the mother of God. When Mary is, understandably, perplexed by this news, Gabriel adds that in fact, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is also with child, and “it is the 6th month for she who was said to be barren, for nothing is impossible with God.” Then the angel departs from her, and that’s where our Gospel reading will pick up, with Mary leaving “with haste” to go see the cousin the angel mentioned. Upon hearing Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary will sing the Magnificat, which is today’s Psalm. 

So look carefully at the text of the Psalm and keep it in mind as you hear the story that precedes it. Notice especially how very revolutionary the text is, describing a major reversal in the usual order. In fact, the song our Advent series features today is a paraphrase of Mary’s song, and keeps repeating the line, “The world is about to turn.” So watch in our readings and hymns phrases and imagery of the ways God is turning, changing your world, or the whole world. Let’s listen.


Magnificat window in Taize, France

Grace to you and peace from the One who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.

Throughout our Advent series, “My heart shall sing,” we have been highlighting two themes: one is that the world is always ending and beginning, sometimes even in the same place, and second, that throughout scripture people’s response to God’s marvelous ways of bringing about new beginnings is to sing. Today, the final Sunday of Advent, we see both of these themes come to their peak in the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and the song the springs forth from her.

And just like in the other stories we have heard during Advent, that song, while joyful, doesn’t necessarily spring forth from a place of happiness. Last week when we talked about joy, I said that while happiness is often dependent on circumstance, joy is not. Today’s story shows how that is true.

Now, I used to think the annunciation, when Mary finds out she is pregnant, which happens right before the reading we just heard – I used to think this was an unequivocally happy moment for Mary. “Oh, how nice!” I thought. “She must have been so happy to be chosen as God’s mom!” But now that I am a bit older and wiser, I realize: no. She must have been terrified. Pregnancy in the first century was always a little scary, because of the high rate of women who died in childbirth. But just look at Mary’s particular circumstances. She is unwed, and engaged to a respectable man. By the laws of the day, he could have her stoned for what clearly looked like a sexual indiscretion. At best, she would be dismissed by Joseph (which was originally his plan before getting his own angelic visitation). This would leave her alone to raise this child by herself, and without much or any hope of any other man ever wanting to marry her. By all counts, this is a very dangerous situation for a girl who, tradition says, was only maybe 14 years old. 

What Mary does with this terrifying reality can guide us as we face our own terrifying or unsettling circumstances, our own moments of uncertainty. The first thing Mary does is seek out a faithful community. When the angel spoke to her, the angel mentioned that Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, had also conceived and was in her 6th month. And so, in her uncertainty and fear, as well as her hope and trust, Mary packs up to make the long journey to the hill country. 

I read a commentary this week that named this gathering of Mary and Elizabeth as the first Christian worship, the first time people gathered around the Christ to proclaim the good news, to prophesy, to bless, to sing. I love that, and I love that Mary was compelled to do it not alone, but in community. There is certainly power in being with other people – something we have learned profoundly during this pandemic when that possibility was taken away from us. There is strength in community. There is hope. There is the assurance that we do not carry our fear and uncertainty, nor our joy, alone. And, we know that God works through community. 

Some time ago, I was going through a very scary time in my life, that involved a lot of discouragement and uncertainty. I remember one night in particular, sitting in my house and feeling so desperate and alone. I picked up my phone and started scrolling through my contacts, searching for someone, anyone who might understand how I was feeling. I found someone, another Christian woman, and called her, at 10pm. She listened, and said things like, “Oh, I have felt that way, that’s so frustrating.” And when we finished talking and I hung up the phone, I felt stronger. I felt more hopeful, and yes, I even felt some joy – not happiness, but the peace that often accompanies true joy. I was empowered to seek out more support from faithful women, and I found a support group. And suddenly, what had been a very scary situation became one that brought me purpose and hope. 

I imagine Mary feeling similarly after the angel departed from her. I imagine her sitting there, alone, and thinking, “Who will possibly understand? Who can I talk to? Who can share what I am carrying?” And then she remembers those words, “Even now, your relative Elizabeth is with child, and this is the 6th month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing is impossible with God.” And she is driven to seek out that faithful community, for she knows it will bring her the strength that she needs.

Once she gets to Elizabeth’s doorstep, she makes her next move – she sings, and in so doing, she calls upon an even larger community, one that spans across time. The song Mary sings, the Magnificat, is not an original piece. It is based on the song sung by Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who prayed and prayed for a child, and when she was given a son, she dedicated him to the service of God, and sang a song of the greatness of God, and the great reversals God brings about, and the ways that God is always bringing about a new thing. It is the perfect song for Mary to reference as she and Elizabeth rejoice in their own divinely ordained new thing, and as they anticipate the wondrous things God will do with the children in their wombs.

That is not to say that their fears and questions have disappeared. While we may think we need to leave our questions and doubts at the door when we come to worship, Mary and Elizabeth do no such thing. Imagine the questions swirling in their hearts: Will they survive the rigors of childbirth? Will Joseph leave? Will Zechariah ever speak again? Will Mary’s family disown her? Will Elizabeth, in her old age, live long enough to see her son grow into adulthood? What will it mean for these children that God has some special plan for them – will they bring about God’s kingdom, or will they die trying? Yes, those questions still remain… and yet, still, these faithful women lean into their trust of a God who has been and will always bring about great reversals, who is always doing a new thing.

I first heard this week’s featured song, Canticle of the Turning, when I was on the precipice of my own new thing – I was about to head overseas to serve as a missionary. At that point, I didn’t even know what I would be doing, just that I would be living in a Slovak village called Vrbovce, working through a church. Gathered with the 60-some other young missionaries, we heartily sang, with Mary, “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!” We did not yet know how the world would turn as a result of our missionary work, nor what tears we may shed that would need to be wiped. But we knew that the justice burned in our bones, compelling us to service, and we knew that, come what may, God had called us to this time, this place, this mission, and was somehow using us to turn the world toward God’s vision. And so, we went forth with trust. And, like Mary, our hearts and voices sang.

In the wake of the incredible, life-changing, world-turning news that she would carry the Holy-of-Holies in her womb, Mary no doubt felt a healthy fear. Yet still, she trusted. She found strength in the promises of God, and the ways God had already acted throughout history, and she also found strength in a community of faithful women, present and past. And in response, she sang – sang a song that is a revolution, that testifies to the ways that God always has and always will bring about new things, and turn us toward God’s justice, God’s vision, God’s hope. In her story and her song, Mary has given us words to empower us, too, as we continue facing the constant stream of endings-turned-beginnings that come our way. The world is about to turn, yes, and has always been turning, and always will turn - toward God's justice, mercy and love.

Let us pray… God of our hearts, our spirits sing of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. When we are confronted with a new thing that brings about fear and uncertainty, increase our trust, show us the way toward a supportive Christian community, and make our hearts to sing of your strength. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Sermon: Where joy comes from (Dec 12, 2021)

We had some issues with the software, and the service is in three parts. THIS is the part with the sermon. 

Advent 3C
Dec. 12, 2021
Luke 3:7-18


This third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday. It is when we take a break from the sometimes penitential nature of Advent and instead embrace the joy. You will see this sense of joy in our first three readings – though none of them are written from a place we would call joyful. Zephaniah writes from a context of spiritual and political corruption, in which leaders exploit the poor. The entire book up to this point has been lament and calls for repentance. The context of Isaiah, from which today’s Psalm comes, is the Babylonian exile, and all its suffering and humiliation. And Paul is writing his letter to the Philippians from prison! He is awaiting trial and death, having been threatened, rejected, beaten, and shipwrecked. And yet from each context come these words calling us to sing aloud, shout, rejoice, rejoice again, and sing praises. You see, joy is not dependent on circumstance.

Knowing these contexts prepares us to hear the Gospel reading, which is… less overtly joyful, unless of course you like being called a brood of vipers. And yet Luke will end today’s reading by saying that by saying these things, these tough words and calls for repentance to those gathered, John was “proclaiming the good news to the people.”

So as you listen, listen for the good news. Hear these readings as acknowledging that life can be hard, but joy can still exist, and find how God might be drawing your attention to how joy comes about in your life. Let’s listen.


Photo credit: my dad on his morning walk, North Ponds, Webster

Grace to you and peace from the one who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.

After all those weeks of apocalyptic texts, I was looking forward to this week, this “Rejoice Sunday,” because I am ready to talk about joy! I approached these texts with relief, smiling as I read Zephaniah. Yeah, that’s the stuff, I thought. The Psalm, this week from Isaiah, is one that always brings to mind a certain song I once performed, and that fills my soul right up. Philippians is obvious – rejoice, and then say it again! This is great, I thought. So many options!

Then I got to the Gospel. Nothing says “joy” like, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Yup, all the warm fuzzies. Nothing like axing trees and unquenchable fire to warm our hearts this Advent season! 

And yet, Luke tells us in that last verse that it was with words like these that John proclaimed the good news to the people. And good news certainly is joyful, so… what good news are we to wrestle from this text?

Let’s look first at the fact that all these people are swarming toward John’s difficult words. You might not think that “you brood of vipers” would be an effective opener, yet there they all are! And not just humoring him, but engaging with him. “And what about us?” they ask. “What can we do?” They’re into it! People don’t ask question about how they need to change their lives unless they, you know, see a need to change their lives. If everything is going hunky dory, I can’t imagine they would stick around, but it is not hunky dory. They heard John’s message and felt that stirring in their hearts, that voice saying, “Listen to this. Don’t turn away.” Boy, turning away from difficult messages is tempting, isn’t it! Not many people take criticism well. More often, when criticized, we make excuses, or dismiss the criticism, or bite back, flipping the comment back on someone. “Well, what you need to do is…” because it could never be us who has the problem, right? And yet, deep down, we know that we do have the problem. We are feeling restless, resentful, angry, depressed, lonely, afraid, tired. Things are not how we’d like them to be. And those flocking to hear John’s message feel that, too. They know a change has to happen.

So that’s the first, difficult step toward finding the good news, and with it, the joy: recognizing that this message is one we need to hear. That message may be an ending, one of those endings that we try so desperately to avoid. But we’re not stopping there at the end. We’ll keep going toward the message that will bring a beginning. So now, what is that message we need to hear? 

Menacing as it is, I find good news in that image of an ax at the root of the tree. The ax and the fire tell us that the time has come to get rid of the things that do not bear fruit in our lives – that keep us from living joy-filled lives. Get rid of them! And really, why would we want those things in our lives anyway, if they are keeping us from joy? Yet, making a big change is hard. In my head, I think it is easier to chip away at it, little by little… but man, that gets exhausting, right? Having to work so long and hard and tediously? Sometimes we need someone to say, “Hey, I’ve got an ax here. Want some help?” 

When I was undergoing chemo treatments at age 15, I was terrified of losing my hair. I didn’t want to look like the cancer patient I was, because my 15-year-old ego was already fragile enough. But sure enough, the hair started to go. For several days I woke with hair on my pillow and in my mouth, and watched it gather round the shower drain. I was heavy with despair. One day, we invited my hairdresser to come out to our house (I wasn’t well enough to drive there). She tried to style what was left, to no use. So… she buzzed it. Took the hair styling equivalent of an ax to my beautiful curly brown locks. And I. Felt. Liberated. My heart was lighter, I was smiling, I didn’t cry again for the rest of my treatment. I was rid of this thing I had been insistent about hanging onto, this thing I thought I needed to feel strong and confident. Of course, my strength and confidence never came from my hair – it had always come from God – and now, with my hair gone, I could see that.

I wish that cutting off our sin was that easy and fast! It isn’t, but, the work of repentance is as effective at bringing about joy. It may take some digging to find what exactly needs to be buzzed, because, like my hair, things that need to be cut off may look very much like the things that are giving us what we crave. But don’t be swayed. With God’s help, you can discern the difference. Some things may make us happy, but that happiness is only fleeting or surface deep; this is not what will bring us lasting joy. But if you can look at some aspect of your life – not another person, or another person’s problem or a circumstance outside of yourself, but rather, a habit or feeling or common reaction that is yours –  when you look at it and imagine it gone, and you feel in the depth of your heart a lightness, freedom, peace, and joy… that is a good indication that this is something that needs to be thrown into the fire. Repent of those things: turn away from them, go a different way. Don’t let them any longer rob you of that joy that God desires for you.

Once we’ve turned away, how do we know which way to go? It is so much easier imagining how someone else needs to change, right, which way they should go, rather than do the hard work ourselves! John gives some suggestions for a direction: be generous, kind, merciful, and just. Don’t give in to the greed and selfishness that the world tells us will put us ahead of others. Live your life with an eye more toward those godly qualities; live it more like one who loves and is loved by God. 

I love this earthy advice, which speaks to any vocation – whether tax collector, soldier, stay-at-home mom, doctor, teacher or custodian, you can live into your vocation in a way that is generous, kind, merciful and just. You don’t have to take on a bunch of extra in order to find a joyful life. You just have to live the one you’ve got in a way that embodies the life God wants for you.

Our featured song today, which we will hear during communion, is another that I would not normally associate with Advent, but it beautifully illustrates this life that John describes to the crowd. “When the poor ones, who have nothing, still are giving; when the thirsty pass the cup, water to share; when the wounded offer others strength and healing: We see God, here by our side, walking our way.” The people in this song – the poor, the thirsty, the wounded – refuse to be limited or defined by their label. They are poor, but still have something to give. We all do; we all lack in many things, and we all are gifted in many things, and we all have something to share with our neighbor, whether it is a coat or a listening ear. And in these ordinary ways, when we are kind, generous, merciful and just, the hymn claims, “We see God, here by our side, walking our way.” Or as Paul says in Philippians, “The Lord is near.” And suddenly, with that nearness of God and that faithful living – in our work, in our daily lives – suddenly, there we find the joy we crave. 

That is what needs to be fed as we look toward the coming of our Lord. So much demands our energy – our responsibilities, yes, but also all those things we considered earlier, things that we think are giving us what we need but are not, things we need to cut off, like an ax to a tree that doesn’t bear fruit. Those things suck our energy and they don’t deliver what they promise. Our joy, our life, comes in taking an ax to those things that do not give life, and turning toward the things that do: the things marked by generosity, kindness, mercy, justice, and joy.

In a recent conversation with my spiritual director, we were talking about joy – how to find it, how it feels, what keeps us from it. As I described how I experience joy, how I really know I have found it, she looked me in the eye and said, “That feeling of joy and wholeness that you described – that is your natural state. It is God’s intention for you. Follow that joy.” And that is what we do in this Advent season: we follow the true source of our joy, our Lord and savior come to us, to love us and show us the way to life.

Let us pray… God of joy, it can be terrifying to make the necessary changes in our lives, even when we know they will lead to joy. Give us courage to move toward joy, to live our daily lives in ways marked by generosity, kindness, mercy and justice. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.