Turning time into wine | February 10

Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-12

Here’s a bit of CMC trivia: In what official congregational document do these words appear: “Thus we pledge to allow sufficient time for work of the congregation and to involve ourselves, on a scheduled basis in the outreach of the congregation, realizing this may conflict with an already busy schedule.”

This is a bit of an unfair question because this is more of a formerly official document.  A big clue is that we are currently working on revising our current version of this statement.  Any takers?

This line comes from our original membership commitment statement, written in the early 60’s.  It’s actually the last line of that statement.  How interesting that when our founding mothers and fathers were naming the commitments they were making to one another as they formed this new congregation, they felt compelled to end by naming a key limiting factor in anyone’s commitment to any purposeful activity: time.  We only have so much time.  We commit, we pledge, we will, we also pledge…”realizing this may conflict with an already busy schedule.”

That very last part about busy schedules didn’t make it into the Revised Standard Version of the Membership Commitment from the 1990’s.  Maybe Mennonites were less busy in the 90’s than they were in the 60’s, or maybe the busyness of life was such a given it didn’t seem worth mentioning.

In the next couple months we’ll be drafting the New Revised Standard Version of this statement – which may look very different than the first two.  We’ll see if stewardship of our time gets named or if it’s assumed that everything we do has to do with time.

At least for today, we’re naming it.

Worship Commission has been kicking around the idea of a stewardship series for a little while.  We’ve settled on a three week series this month on those three key areas of stewardship: Time, Talent, and Treasure.  The fact that we’re doing this well after our fall First Fruits pledge drive, and just a bit after the due date for the Opportunities to Serve forms, either means we are terrible at strategic timing, or  we can consider stewardship free from feeling directly manipulated to give more time, talent, and treasure just to the congregation.  This is not a sales pitch, but it is an invitation into an expansive and generous way of living.

Our text for this morning is the recent-lectionary passage of Jesus at the wedding in Cana.  Also known as the water into wine story.

For starters, this passage makes unique references to time.  It begins, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”  John’s gospel is charged with symbolism, so it’s unlikely his mention of “the third day” is merely about chronology.  Especially since there’s no clear first and second day that come before it.  Commentators have pointed to the significance of the third day in the death and resurrection.  The third day is the day of resurrection, the day of life in all its fullness triumphing over the powers of death.  Perhaps John is telling us this story has to do with the fullness of life Jesus brings, on the third day.

Taking the third day reference a bit further – John’s gospel begins with a clear reference to the creation story of Genesis 1.  In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word became flesh.  On the third day of the Genesis creation Elohim adds to the waters of days one and two by creating vegetation, and plants with seeds and fruit of every kind.  Of this third day Jesus enhances the water into the fruit of the vine – a new creation of goodness for all to enjoy.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.”  When his mother points out to him that the wine has run out, Jesus makes another reference to time.  “My hour has not yet come.”  It’s not the right time.  The hour, the time of revelation and unveiling is not yet here, Jesus replies.  But Jesus is no match for his persuasive Jewish mother.  If she says the hour has come, then the hour has come.

It is time.  It’s time for you to show these people what you’re all about Jesus.

What he’s all about, it seems, is enlivening the life of the party.  Six large stone jars, filled to the brim with water, become vessels of delicious, fine vintage wine.  25 CE, or whenever this was, was a good year for wine.   The story says nothing about the particular bride and groom being celebrated.  All we learn is that when Jesus shows up at your event, with a little nudge from his mother, there will be more than enough of the good stuff for everyone.

A final reference to time is John’s indication that this was the first of Jesus’ signs.  This is the beginning of John chapter 2 and there’s a lot of narrative yet to go.  Jesus’ next major action, which John places toward the beginning of his story rather the end like the other gospels, is to visit the temple and overturn the tables of the moneychangers profiting off the poor.  John might be less concerned about chronological time and more concerned about symbolic time.  What might John be trying to say by placing this wedding story as the first of Jesus’ signs?  A third day at the beginning and end of his gospel.  A feast with wine, a resurrection.  The hour has come.

What I find especially intriguing is that what puts this story in the category of miracle has everything to do with time.  Turning water into wine, as any winemaker will tell you, happens all the time.  It just takes a while.  It’s a miraculously natural process.  Evaporation from the earth leads to condensation in the clouds which leads to precipitation.  Some of that water falls in vineyards, or gets piped in, drawn up through the roots of the carefully selected vines which bloom and fruit into grapes.  A time tested process of picking, pressing, fermenting, and storing moves things along.   Keep it all at the right temperature and you’re on your way.  All you need now is Time, the ultimate ingredient.  When the time is ripe, water has been turned into wine.  Thank you Jesus.

George MacDonald has a great line about this.  He was the 19th century Scottish author who helped pioneer fantasy literature ahead of Lewis Carroll and Tolkien and Madame L’Engle.  He was also a preacher.  He wrote: “The miracles of Jesus were the ordinary works of his Father, wrought small and swift that we might take them in.”

The goodness of time – which can heal a broken body, which can turn water into wine – the goodness of time gets concentrated so that we may taste and see.  Ordinary works wrought small and swift that we might take them in.

Wine is a common image used by the Hebrew prophets to speak of the grand banquet of Yahweh at the end of days.  There is a superabundance.  At this table will be rich foods and fine wines.  But the prophets speak of it in future tense.  A feast yet to come.  In this story, the future banquet becomes a present reality.  The celebration of life is now.  Mary elbows Jesus in the side and says, “It’s time.”  And it is.  It’s time for the eternal feast to wedge itself into the present fullness of time.

That’s the invitation.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I think about this in a practical way, I’m “realizing this may conflict with an already busy schedule.”

We are indeed busy people.  This is sometimes a matter of choice and management, and sometimes a matter of necessity.  And sometimes a great injustice.  There’s something fundamentally anti-Christ about a society in which one needs to work three part time low wage jobs and still barely make rent.  It’s hard to taste the sweetness of the banquet feast when you barely have time to eat in between shifts.

Time, as we all experience it, is a limited, non-renewal resource.  No matter how careful we are with managing our time, the further along we get in life the more aware we are of our inability to stop time or even hold a moment.

Time does not heal every wound.  And our bodies will not survive the effects of time.  We live in the first day, we die on the second day, and nobody knows for sure what will happen on the third day.  This water to wine story suggests a transformation.

For now, we do have time.  We have time.  And it almost goes without saying, and sometimes does go without saying, that what we do with our time is what we do with our life.  Annie Dillard writes: ““How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”  (The Writing Life).

What we do with this hour is what we’re doing, and what we’re doing is pondering what we do with our time.

One of the biblical tradition’s great gift into the flow of time is Sabbath.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that while cultures around them focused on the sacredness of objects, Jews focused on the sacredness of time.  The Sabbath, he says, is a cathedral in time, a holy space that we can dwell, which holds us and gives meaning and richness to the rest of the landscape in front of us.

This past week was our monthly Central District Conference pastor peer meeting, up near Bluffton.  We got on the topic of healthy sexuality and one of the pastors mentioned the tradition of the Sabbath being a time when couples were intentional about having sex.  So, there you go, get a bunch of pastors in the room and this is what we talk about.  And now I have just given each of you a come on line you can use 1/7th of the time with your partner.  You know…it’s tradition…on the Sabbath…  The point is when we treat time as sacred, we are intentional about nurturing and participating in things that give us – and the relationships we hold most dear – health and life.

We manage our time, we spend our time, we plan our time, we budget time.  These are important life skills.  We take time to do something. We give our time.    Part of what good religion teaches us is how to order our time in a way that cares for ourselves and for others.  To be generous with the time we have.

Part of what really good religion teaches us is the importance of enjoying time, no matter what stage of life we might be in.

Einstein theorized time as a fourth dimension of the space-time continuum.  As far as we can tell, he was on to something.  Perhaps we can think of the life of the spirit as a depth dimension to time itself.  A fullness, a sacredness where we encounter the holy, the good, the infinite within the confine of the finite.

What if this story of water into wine isn’t just the first of Jesus’ miracles, but the prototype of what makes a miracle miraculous?  What if we saw Jesus in this light?  Jesus came to sweeten and thicken our experience of time.  To bring the eternal feast of the kingdom into the present moment.  To declare today as the Day of Divine favor.  Time itself gets turned into wine, and flows freely.

And, of course, being Jesus, to remind us that this feast is for everyone.  So if someone is locked out it’s time to overturn some tables and fling wide the gates.

John ends this passage by writing: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and thus revealed his glory.”



Leaving, gleaning, giving | Coming of Age | Feb 3

Text: Ruth

I want everyone to think back to when you were 11 or 12 years old.  If you attach memories more to school grades, this would be sixth grade.  If you’re not yet in sixth grade you can imagine a bit what it might be like.

Are we there?  If sixth grade was not a highlight of your life, I apologize for taking you back there, but try to stick with it just a bit.

I want you to think about what it was like to be you at that time?  Who were the key people in your life who loved you – family, friends, and teachers?  What did you already know deep down that had always been there and has never left?  What were you learning about yourself, about how life works?

This is a time of life so pivotal that cultures around the world have surrounded it with ritual.  Maybe not exactly the same age across the board, but there is a near universal recognition of this sacred passage out of childhood, into an age of greater independence and responsibility.  This Coming of Age service is our small way of ritualizing this passage from childhood into what we call adolescence – this in between period when you’re no longer a child, and not yet an adult.

This morning there are four of us for whom this time of life is neither a distant memory nor a future possibility.  Henry, Lily, Graciela, and Owen are right at the threshold.  Paxton is a fifth, and he was unable to be here today.

You have helped create and lead this service, and before we offer you our blessing, I want to reflect a bit about what this all might mean.  We’ll do this through the story of Ruth.  And, shameless plug to the adults, if anyone wants to go deeper into Ruth you can join the Bible Study Sunday school class starting March 10.

The character of Ruth is older than you, but maybe not by much.  We first meet her when she marries one of Naomi’s sons.  Women married young in the ancient world.  What’s more important is that the story tracks really well with what it means to come of age and mature into a healthy adult.

I’ll highlight three markers along that path.

You all just told this story, so you know the book of Ruth actually begins with another character, Elimelech.  Elimelech is married to Naomi, and they have two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.  They’re from Bethlehem.  But they’re forced to leave their home because of a famine.  When there’s not enough food, people migrate to places where there’s something to eat, where they can sustain a life.  So this family heads East, across the Jordan River, to the land of Moab.

They are foreigners in Moab, they’re immigrants, but it’s a good land.  They have all they need.  Both sons marry women native to Moab.  They stay there about 10 years.  To put that in perspective, that’s just about your whole life.  But over the course of those ten years Elimelech dies, then the sons die.  And so the only person remaining from our original family is Naomi.

This a story that begins with grief and tremendous loss.  The loss of a homeland, the loss of a family.  Naomi buries her husband and sons in a foreign land.  Only her son’s wives, daughters of other mothers, are with her.

One of these young women is named Orpah, the other is Ruth.

The famine in Israel comes to an end, and Naomi wants to go home, back to Bethlehem.  She feels like her life is over, and she recognizes that these young women have their whole lives ahead of them.  She urges them to go back to their homes.  They can move back in with their parents, remarry, and have a full life.  After many tears, Orpah agrees to return to her home.  But Ruth refuses.  The story goes that she clings to Naomi.  The same word used in Genesis 2 when it says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they may become one flesh.”  The words Ruth says to Naomi are so poetic they are commonly read at weddings, “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die.”

Ruth clings to Naomi, refuses to part from her.  And so she leaves her own home, binding her life to her mother- in- law Naomi.

And here’s the first theme to highlight.  Leaving home.

The four of you have not yet left home, but these years you are entering mark a period in which you’re beginning to leave home.  Or at least, expand your sense of home.  Your world expands beyond the family you’ve been born into.  You make new connections that are yours alone – new relationships, new thoughts, new possibilities.  You conduct social experiments with who might be a part of this new home you are beginning to create, this sense of selfhood you’re developing.  Some don’t work out so well. And from those failures come new understandings.  Who can you trust?  Who and what brings you joy?  What will you cling to?  Who will cling back?  To what and to whom will you bind your life?  These are new and exciting questions that take a while to answer.

Ruth leaves home by binding herself to Naomi.  Each adult in this room has also undergone and is still undergoing the process of leaving home.  Your parents love you and have created a home for you, but they also know that parenting involves helping you leave a small experience of home, to embrace a broad sense of home that can include your original home but also much more.  The questions you are asking are the same questions that Ruth asked.  To what and to whom will I bind my life?   Ultimately only you can answer this question for yourself.

We usually talk about this as a great exciting adventure, which it can be.  It is.  But reading Ruth made me also think about how leaving the home of childhood is connected with grief.  We love seeing you grow, but there’s also a tinge of grief that this small child we held so easily in our arms is no longer a child.   And I wonder if some of the struggle of the teen years is an unnamed grief, that you too know somewhere deep inside that something as precious as childhood is coming to an end and the world presents itself to you in all its difficulty and you feel, for the first time, the weight of it.

It is a great and challenging journey.

So that’s one theme from this story – leaving home, expanding home in widening circles.

Naomi and Ruth make the trek to Bethlehem – a homecoming for Naomi, and home-leaving for Ruth.  Very soon Ruth takes on the responsibility of providing for the two of them.  It’s harvest season, and, with Naomi’s blessing, Ruth heads out to the barley fields to do some gleaning.

To understand what’s going on here, it’s important to know a bit of Israelite law.  Specifically, Leviticus 19 verses 9-10.  Excluding the ten commandments, this law definitely makes my top ten list of favorite biblical laws.  Here’s what it says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am Yahweh your God.”

In an agricultural society, land is wealth, and those without land have no way of building wealth.  The Israelites believed the land belonged to Yahweh, or at least that’s what is declared in Leviticus 25.  The purpose of the land was to provide for the needs of the community, including sojourners, those who were newly arrived, like Ruth, or just passing through – the landless.  So land owners were explicitly instructed to not maximize harvest yield.  They were just tenants in the fields of Yahweh anyway, so they weren’t supposed to harvest all the way to the edges.  And if they dropped some barley in the field or some grapes in the vineyard, they were to just leave them there.  The gleaners would come behind and gather them up, and use them to feed themselves and their family.  When it worked well, everybody got what they needed.  Social security in a basket.

Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz and collects enough grain for her and Naomi to eat their fill.

Needless to say, our society doesn’t quite work like this.  A recent reminder of our fierce loyalty to private property came when I visited a neighbor and saw a sign on their front porch with images of guns on each side of the text which read, “We don’t call 911.”  In other words, this place is mine and if you try to take anything, watch out.  I think it’s fair to say that’s a “No gleaning allowed” sign.

But we still find ways to glean.  In the Cincinnati neighborhood where we lived before moving to Columbus – the Oakley neighborhood – there was a significant homeless population.  Many of them lived on the railroad tracks just a few blocks north of our house.  Every week our street would put out our recycling for the city to pick up, and every time, at about 7 in the morning, before the recycling truck rumbled through, some of our friends would make their way down the street, rummaging through the recycling, looking for aluminum cans to gather and recycle and make some money for the day.  I affectionately called them the Gleaners of Oakley.

Food banks, thrift stores, and even libraries are some of the ways gleaning shows up in some form even within our consumer driven culture.

Even in our privatized, colonized, mapped and coded world, there is much to be gleaned.

If the question of leaving home is “To what or whom will I cling,” then a question after you leave home is “What will I glean?”  What is available to me in this world?  What will I find if I start looking?  What will I pick up that others have dropped?  Where will I go to the edges where others have stopped?  What knowledge, what relationships, what joy can I glean from this day I’ve been given?

Gleaning is a certain way of looking at the world.  It dares to believe this is still God’s world, and there is a great wealth available to all of us to enjoy.  We are still hunters and gatherers, gleaners, foraging for meaning, for something that will feed our soul and our body.

So, as you come of age, I encourage you to take on the spirit of Ruth and set out to glean.  Glean in the wide open fields of God, and see what you will find to fill your basket.

A final theme I want to highlight comes at the very end of the story.

Ruth has gleaned herself a husband among the pickings of Bethlehem – the owner of the field where she gleaned the barley, Boaz, who ends up being related to Elimelech who had married Naomi.

Boaz and Ruth have children, and one of their sons is Obed.  Obed becomes the father of Jesse, and Jesse becomes the father of David, one of the most important rulers of Israel who the tradition also remembers as a poet of Psalms.  Both Matthew and Luke, in their gospels, trace the lineage of Jesus back through David.  Meaning you can’t get to Jesus without Ruth, the woman from Moab, who left her home and bound her life together with Naomi, a family of her own choosing.  Who gleaned in the field of Boaz and approached him on the threshing floor offering herself in marriage.  Ruth, whose gifts to the world include a lineage that led to Jesus and leads to us, followers of Jesus, pondering Ruth’s story in a very different time and place.

If the question of leaving home is “To what or whom will I cling,” and a question after you leave home is “What will I glean?” then the question once we find a new and expanded sense of home is “What will I give to this world?”  In what ways will my life bear fruit?

This does not have to be a grand contribution.  Many successful people, at the end of their lives, point not to their accomplishments, but to the quality of their relationships for what they feel is their best gift.

One of the wonders of your age, is that what you have to give this world is such a wide open possibility.   One of the things I especially like about the way your theatrical presentation is that it ended with Ruth surrounded by community, past and present.  Our prayer for you and for ourselves is that we can be part of that community for you, as your sense of home expands, as you glean the good things this world has to offer, as you give of yourself for the good of others.
















Smells like Christ | Epiphany | January 6

This sermon contains musical interludes and is best heard (above) rather than read.  Many thanks to Tom Blosser (piano) and Jim Myers (clarinet), and to Rick Leonard for doing a first draft physics fact check, resulting in some editing that makes me sound like I know more than I do about such things.   

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-18

Sitting down a while back to plan this worship series, one of the tasks was assigning which sense would go with which week.  Seeing and hearing could go anywhere, but when, exactly, in the Advent to Christmas to Epiphany plot is it time to taste, to touch, to smell?  Fortunately, the texts help us out.  It’s not every week frankincense and myrrh get hand delivered into the story line.  And so, we finally arrive at the wafting wonder of Epiphany.  A time to breathe in the fresh air of a new year.  Do you smell what I smell?

Do You See What I See?

Matthew’s birth narrative has a distinctly different smell than Luke’s.  Luke has the infant Jesus laid in a manger, a feed trough for animals.  Do you smell what I smell?  Mary and Joseph are soon joined by shepherds who’d been living with their sheep in the fields.  There’s no room for them in the inn, so they share space with non-human creatures, and the mostly- domesticated humans who care for them – and the smells that emit from them.

Matthew speaks of educated foreigners – magi – meeting with royalty – Herod – on their way to visit the Messiah whose star they have seen.  When they find him, he’s in a house, into which they bring their fragrant and valuable gifts.

If one were to have one’s eyes and ears swaddled around with strips of cloth, such that one could only smell what was going on, one would find it very difficult to imagine that these two scenes are related.

Smell involves breathing in molecules, which get stuck in the back of our nose.  Special nerve cells up there differentiate the molecules by firing in different combinations, sending the signal through the brain, which creates the phenomenon of smell.  Things that don’t release molecules into the air, like gold, don’t smell.

Smell is the sense most deeply tied to memory.  Walk into the home where you grew up, and if it hasn’t undergone an extreme makeover, you will be transported through time not so much by what you see, but what you smell.

I like that in order to smell something, one has to actually welcome a tiny part of that thing into one’s body.  To become a place of residence for it.  Our bodily experience of a tiny airborne portion of an Other is smell.

The story of the magi ends with a bursting forth of smell as they open their gifts, the baby Jesus gaining an early core memory of the sweet goodness of those outside his own people.  Tiny molecules from afar, now so near they get inhaled.  But the story begins with something we can’t smell at all.  Something massive and far away.  A star.  The long journey from the east to the house of the Messiah is also a longer journey from the star to the air and bodies inside that and this house.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Let us imagine there was indeed a star.  A star that caught the attention of those who give their attention to stars.  They’d been looking for years, decades at the stars.  They have inherited the knowledge, the wisdom, the charts and star-maps of their teachers, and those who taught their teachers.  And those before them.  Generations of those who found wonder and meaning in these lights through which we mysteriously but predictably move.

These wise ones were good to have around.  Top consultants for those in power who used such knowledge to administer their domain.  Will it be a good harvest year?  Shall we set out to battle tomorrow, or shall we wait?  When will the rains come?  Shall we build the temple here and how shall we orient its base, design its walls and openings to match the cycle of the seasons?  What are the stars saying?

Let us imagine there was indeed a star, positioned just so in relation to the others, that caught their attention and caused them to pause and consider.

Let us consider that this star was a flaming ball of hydrogen, the most basic of all atoms.  A singular electron dancing around a singular proton.  Hydrogen atoms having formed out of the primordial bursting forth, moving outward in all directions from a singular point of unimaginable density.  At first, isolated and without partnership or pattern.  Then, ever so slowly, drawn together by that gentle and ferocious force of gravity.  At first two and three, then two and three thousand, three billion, then uncountable clusters of uncountable congregations of uncountable atoms of hydrogen.  Individually imperceptible, but collectively incandescent.  So many, so large, so much gravity that these once singular atoms begin to fuse together – an act of creation.  Now two electrons dancing around two protons – Helium.  Fusion gives off photons.  Let there be light, traveling at the speed of itself.  Stars turning on in the vast darkness, Christmas lights strung across the sky.

A star is born.

Let us consider that when this particular star was born there were no eyes yet to perceive it.  No Bradley Cooper to first perceive the quality of its stardom.  To invite it on stage.  No Lady Gaga to step out and sing its light.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it.

Let us consider that the tissues of the eye, the nose, the skin, the vocal chords, are composed of atoms created even further along in the life of a star.  Hydrogen fuses into Helium.  Helium fuses into carbon.  Carbon and helium fuse into oxygen, and we’re on our way to the raw materials that keep you and me alive.  Materials that are you and me.  That combine in a particular way to smell fire and see stars burning.  Bodies that live and breathe, fall in love, and go on journeys.

As the wise ones of our time have informed us, we are the scattered, cooled, and gathered remains of stars no longer seen in the night sky.  Stars now cool as a cat, cool as a sheep lying beside a manger, still glowing with splendor.  Stars still twinkling in the eye of each and every child of the Creator Spirit.

Let us marvel that when the star gazers saw the star, it was scattered, cooled, and gathered star material in human form recognizing itself.  Finding wonder and meaning in these lights through which we mysteriously but predictably move.

We Three Kings

Let us imagine that something in that star caused these star watchers to pack their bags for a long and perilous journey.  This star was leading them somewhere.  Somewhere unknown but essential to their own being.  Someone they’d never met before who would reveal to them a part of themselves they’d never met before.

And so they set off.  When you’re used to looking at stars, unfathomably distant, everything on earth seems nearby.  When you reckon you share the neighborhood with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, everybody on your own planet feels like a neighbor.

Let us note that this star led them first to Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews.  In Jerusalem they encountered Herod.  Matthew writes: “Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’”

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Bethlehem – a town of such little significance that one of the ancient prophets felt compelled to write: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of the Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

O little town of Bethlehem, from you shall come something like a small packet of molecules sent out into the world, that scatters and lodges in the nostrils of every sentient being, sniffing the new creation wafting in their direction.

Herod is frightened, paranoid, craving power.  Herod understands.  Knows that even something small can change the atmosphere, change brains and minds, shift the wind against him.  Herod, with the heightened awareness of a blood hound, senses threat.  Can smell it miles away.  These magi were used to consulting with those in power.  Sharing their knowledge for the benefit of rulers.  Herod will deploy them for his own purposes.

They arrive in Bethlehem, and come into the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are staying.  It’s the star that has led them here.  They are distant foreigners, Gentiles in a house with Jews.  But when your gaze is as long and as deep as the magi, every place that can be visited feels nearby, every person a neighbor, every child a member of the same family.

And so they behold the Christ child.

What Child is This?

They behold the Christ child.  Son of the stars.  Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus.

Son of Mary.  “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Son of the stars, Son of Mary, Son of the Most High.  The Most High condenses into matter.  The Most High fills the universe with bodies which give birth to other bodies, which give and receive the gifts of one another.

The room fills with the smell of sweet frankincense, and earthy myrrh.  The odorless gift of gold has its own story.  79 protons.  Gold can’t be produced like the lower elements.  Our best current theory is for gold to come into being there must be a catastrophic collision of ultra-dense neutron stars.  That heat creates the higher elements, including gold.  In their deaths those stars create something new not otherwise available.

In that fragrant room there exists the golden possibility of something new.  A body to embody the love out of which the cosmos was formed.  Not an abstract love.  Not the idea of love.  But the incarnation of love.  The enacting of love.  The bringing together of Jew and Gentile.  The welcoming of the leper into the community of the worthy.  The sharing of bread with the hungry.  The embodiment of the eternal flame of love, cooled down to temperatures that lead to life and more life.  A life so dense with the divine that when it collided with the god-like power of Rome, it created, in its death, the higher elements not otherwise available.

Herod does not understand how this works, but he is frightened.  And he has been tricked.  The magi engage in civil disobedience and defy his orders.  They return home by another route.  Their gifts have been left in Bethlehem.  Their eyes now opened to new a world.

Herod launches his pre-emptive strike against the babies of Bethlehem, but Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, get wind of the plans.

Do you see what I see?

Let us imagine the holy family, fleeing for their lives.  The long journey – or short, depending on your scale of space – down to Egypt, to escape the murderous Herod.  Using the newly gifted gold to pay off coyotes who show them the paths around danger, the doors into shelter.  A holy family, myrrh and frankincense hastily packed in their bags, shedding molecules every difficult step of the journey.  The fragrance scatters out from the road tread by refugees and migrants, from the snaking line of humanity searching for safety and secure dwellings.

To smell is to take a small part of the other into one’s own being, to have them register in your own field of experience.

Do you smell what I smell?  It smells like Christ.

Elizabeth and Mary: A holy trimester | Advent 4

Texts: Luke 1:39-56

This sermon was accompanied with a violin playing “My soul cries out,” Sing the Story 124, and vocals singing “Taste and see,” Sing the Journey 86.

Three months ago we were at Camp Luz for fall retreat.  After a heavy rain on Friday, it was a lovely weekend to be outside.  As usual, we played, ate, sang, talked, and ate some more.  Three of us rode our bikes the 100 miles from Westerville to Camp Luz, on the Ohio to Erie trail, rather proud of ourselves and a little surprised for having made it with no major problems.  On Sunday Jim Leonard reflected on congregational life.  Joe Mas and Linda Mercadante shared thoughts on hiking the Camino in Spain, a lifelong goal fulfilled, a pilgrimage.  After the service, we cleaned up and headed home.  Pulling out from Ravine Lodge, with my own and another bike strapped to the back of our minivan, I backed directly into a tree.  It bent the front wheel of one bike, and the frame of my new road bike.  After the somber 100 mile drive home, I took them both to the bike shop. Two days later we celebrated Ila’s sixth birthday.

That was three months ago.

A lot happens in three months.  The weather has changed.  An election has come and gone.  We turn the calendar, people have birthdays and anniversaries.  Kids get a little older and taller.  Bikes get ridden, bent, fixed, and ridden again.  Then suspended in the garage, waiting for warmer days.

Three months was also the length of our summer Sabbatical.  I suppose a lot happened then, too, but the best part of a Sabbatical is what doesn’t happen.  An extended time away from the normal routine.  Time to rest, to restore, time to be intentionally unproductive.  On Sabbatical, time is much less linear.  For a while there I was losing track of time.  What day is it?  Sunday?  Oh my.  When the Lilly Foundation is paying for it, it’s time to eat lots of good food you didn’t prepare yourself.   Time to take stock of where one’s at in life.  As Luke says of Mary, time to “ponder these things in your heart.”  Prepare to re-engage with a fresh perspective.

In his Gospel, Luke tells the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  Of Elizabeth hosting her cousin Mary at a crucial point in both their lives.  Luke writes, “And Mary stayed with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Elizabeth, as we’ve already been told, is the daughter and wife of a priest, herself a descendant of the priestly house of Aaron.  She was nearing the end of her child bearing years.  In Luke’s way of phrasing it, she was “getting on in years.”  And she’s childless, cause for great distress for a first century Jewish woman.  But she became pregnant with a boy they would name John, who was later known as John the Baptizer.  A reformer.  A prophet.  A martyr.

Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary becomes pregnant.  Our modern minds may have trouble accepting a virgin pregnancy scenario, but this much seems to be clear enough.  Mary is young, having just become eligible to be married, likely in her early to mid-teenage years.  And Mary is pregnant.  And Joseph, to whom she is to be married, is not the father.

This is bad, bad news for a first century Jewish girl.  Cause for great distress.  To dishonor one’s family’s name.  Had Joseph wanted to push the letter of the law, he could have had her stoned.  According to Luke, Mary doesn’t stick around to find out her fate.  She sets out from Nazareth ‘with haste,’ in Luke’s words, to a Judean town in the hill country.  The home of Elizabeth.  “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”  Pregnant Elizabeth hosts pregnant Mary in her home, for three months.


In the first month Mary caught her breath.  How long of a journey had it been from Nazareth to the Judean hills, to Elizabeth’s house?  At least 80 miles, perhaps 100.  No day trip, no paved trail with leafy canopy.  No carbon fiber forked road bike, or internal combustion engine.  This was the pilgrims route to Jerusalem, only further yet.  A camino for feet, and, if you’re lucky, a slow animal to carry bundles or bodies.  Finally, finally, Mary arrived at the home of Elizabeth and caught her breath.  Rested her feet, slept under a roof for the first time in a week.

In the first month Elizabeth was a priest.  For Mary, the angel’s voice was already fading – It’s assurance that the life within her was holy.  The life within her was holy.  She had repeated this to herself, trying to convince herself it was true.  There was another, more obvious way to interpret this pregnancy.  That it was a curse.  That this brought disgrace on the men of her family, her husband to be.  Shame on her.  And her son would be stigmatized from the start, as illegitimate.  A burden too heavy for anyone to carry throughout life.  An angel’s assurance is little comfort against human cruelty.  Mary needed a priest.  To distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between curse and blessing.  To speak human words with authority.  For Mary, Elizabeth became a priest.  When they greeted one another, the holy life within Elizabeth recognized the holy life within Mary, signaled this with a swift kick in Elizabeth’s gut.  From this place of knowing, Elizabeth’s first words, first words to come out of her mouth, are words of priestly blessing: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the fruit of your womb.”  Not cursed are you, doomed are you, unclean are you.  But blessed are you.  Blessed are you, and your child.  So declares Elizabeth, of the priestly line of Aaron.

In the first month, Elizabeth prepared a special meal.  She and Mary sitting down to eat.  Eating for themselves, and eating for the life they carried inside them.  Eating for 2, for 4, for the 5000 who would one day go out to the wilderness to hear Mary’s son — Hungry for grace, for salvation, and for bread.  This small loaf broken and blessed and shared between two, and four, and 5000.  And there was more than enough for everyone.

In the first month, Mary rested.  She made herself at home.


In the second month Mary imaged herself as Hannah, Elizabeth as Sarah.  Sarah who had born a child for Abraham, for herself, in her advanced years.  Who had given up on her body, and laughed, laughed, at the prospect that it had anything to offer the world.  Sarah who had labored and birthed Isaac, whose name means laughter.  Whose child and grandchildren became the ancestors of all Jewish people.  Sarah, their mother.  Elizabeth, advanced in years, unexpectedly pregnant, now like a mother to Mary.

And Mary was Hannah.  Hannah who faithfully made pilgrimage to the old shrine in Shiloh.  Hannah, who, in her heart, gave her child away to the priesthood, before he was even born.  Hannah whose son Samuel grew in wisdom and stature and guided his people into a new era of kings, and the prophets who called them to account.  Hannah, the poet, who, upon leaving her young child, newly weaned, in the temple where he would grow and she would know him only through her yearly pilgrimage, proclaimed: “My heart exults in Yahweh; my strength is exalted in Adonai….The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”

Sarah and Hannah, lives separated by almost a millennium, now united in spirit, under one roof.  Elizabeth and Mary.

In the second month, Elizabeth prepared a simple meal, she and Mary sitting down to eat.  Mary looked up from her bread and smiled, saying, “Adonai has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  “What?” said Elizabeth, distracted.  Mary pointed at the bread, pointed at herself, pointed at Elizabeth’s swollen belly.  She repeated: “Adonai has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Elizabeth laughed.

In the second month Mary had a dream.  She dreamed she had a daughter, much like herself, whom she held, who played as a child.  She dreamed what she might get her for her sixth birthday, her seventh, her sixteenth.  This daughter would live a traditional life among her family, with her people.  She would grow and be married and have children of her own.  Mary’s grandchildren.  Mary would help provide for them.  Mary dreamed she had a daughter who was by her side when she was old and dying, stroking her hair, comforting her, singing her in to the next world.  There were no angels in this dream.  No “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  No “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  It was Mary’s dream for one night.

In the second month Elizabeth and Mary both lost track of time.


In the third month Mary finally settled on how to begin her song.  “My soul magnifies Yahweh, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Magnifies, makes larger.  My soul magnifies Yahweh.  Adonai was larger in this world because of her.  She loved this.  She had accepted, decided, that she was, as Elizabeth had declared, blessed.  Not only now, but always.  She always had been, and always would be blessed.  There was nothing that could ever change this one foundational truth.  Her song continued: “Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”  And from this blessedness, the whole world shifted.  “Yah has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  Yah has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Yah has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  So said Hannah of old.  So said the young Mary.  This was not a dream.  What’s is this? Elizabeth asked.   This is my fight song said Mary.

In the third month Elizabeth couldn’t sleep.  It was her ninth month.  She was uncomfortable.  The child too large now to have any room to kick.  It was time, and Elizabeth was ready.

In the third month they shared a meal.  Elizabeth blessed the bread and broke it.  She gave it to Mary.  Mary ate.  Mary put her hand on her middle and spoke to the life forming inside her.  She said, “This is my body, which is for you.”  Mary drank the cup and whispered, “This is my blood, my covenant with you.  As often your heart beats, do so in remembrance of me.”

In the third month, Mary prepared to leave.  The hardest pilgrimage to make is the one that takes you back home.  But it was time.  Mary pondered all these things in her heart.



“There will be signs” | December 2 | Advent 1

Texts: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

1963 was the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  That year King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  President Kennedy addressed the nation about why he sent the National Guard to help protect two black students at the University of Alabama.  There was the March on Washington with its “I have a dream speech,” the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four black girls.  President Kennedy was assassinated.  And, in 1963, African American writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, addressed to his 15 year old nephew, trying to explain why so many white folks were responding to all this with such fear.

To his teenage nephew, coming of age in this world, Baldwin writes this:

 “Try to imagine how you would feel, if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”  — from The Fire Next Time.

I don’t know if James Baldwin had Luke’s gospel open as he wrote, but his words echo those of Jesus.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Luke 21:25-26

Jesus speaks these words having just been in the temple – that solid, fixed star in the life of his beloved people.  The place where the symbols of cosmic meaning were etched in stone, enacted through ritual.  Where earth touched heaven.

Luke is almost certainly writing his gospel after 70CE, the year the Romans destroyed the temple.   These words of Jesus speak into this time of disorientation and upheaval.  “Not one stone left upon another,” Jesus had said earlier.  “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

When what you thought was solid and fixed moves out of place, then what?  When the unshakeable is shaken, where does that leave you and your little life?


2018 is not yet over, but on the church calendar, this is day one of a new liturgical year.  Without fail, I’m always a bit taken aback that these are the words and images to begin Advent.  They are startling, especially when one is expecting tidings of comfort and joy.  I’m yet to see a Hallmark card with the greeting: “May your season be filled with fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world”…flip to the inside…”for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  If you’re still looking for a tagline for your family holiday cards, it’s not too late.

How to greet these words that beckon us into this new season?  Especially when they sound eerily close to summarizing the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Is this a meltdown?  An unravelling?

A shake up?  A shakedown?

A crash?  A market correction?

Jesus’ words are by no means a direct forecast of our present predicament, but apparently there are some common themes that connect 70CE, 1963, and 2018CE: Disorientation, loss, grief, confusion, fear.  Solid things coming undone.  Has there ever been a year free from these realities?  A month?  A day?


The turbulence gets all the press, but there’s more going on here.  Look closer, for a storyline that takes a lot more careful attention to notice.  Breathe.  Pay attention.

Luke 21:27: “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with power.”

They’re the words of Jesus, but the imagery is borrowed.  Daniel had been the first to imagine this. Daniel, as in Daniel and the Lion’s den.  Daniel the interpreter of dreams.  The dreams of bewildered emperors seeking council.  Daniel who himself became a dreamer.  Who, one night, dreamed of horrible beasts destroying and conquering and taking their stand as rulers of the earth – each one corresponding to an empire that had harassed and oppressed his people.  Babylon, Persia, Greece.  Daniel who said I have a dream that one day, despite these beasts of empire, one day a Human One will come as if on the clouds, and rule humanly, such that all humanity and all creation will thrive and flourish.

Jesus evokes Daniel’s dream, and follows it up by saying, “Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Redemption.  Healing.  Wholeness.  A proclamation of emancipation.  Making right what has gone wrong.  If that’s what’s coming upon us, it’s worth paying attention.  But where to look amidst the rubble of late capitalism and post-industrial data-driven society?  What does redemption sound like?  Taste like?  If redemption had a smell, how would it fill the air?


“There will be signs.”  That’s how Jesus introduces this whole sequence.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth.”

It’s a good thing he included that last bit about “on the earth.”  The sun, moon, and stars are out there, a whole other scale.  But we live on the earth.  We walk on the earth.  If there are going to be signs, we need some earth bound signs.  Signs that might show up on a daily walk around the block.  Signs that might come out in conversation with a neighbor.  Signs that might show up at home, doing the kind of work that keeps a home going.  Signs that speak our language, or at least live in the neighborhood.

And here’s a glimpse of what that might be:  The primary sign Jesus points to is “the fig tree and all the trees.”  This affirms a conclusion I too have reached in my adult years.  When in doubt, consult with a tree.  They’ll tell you what you need to know.  Even the prophet Jeremiah, when speaking of a redemption yet to come, can’t help but reference a tree: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and it/he/she shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 34:15)

This is how Luke tells it: “Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kin-dom of God is near.’”

“These things” seems to be referring to the disorientation, loss, confusion, and fear already mentioned.  But now there’s more going on, if you’re willing to pay attention.  “These things,” these signs, also point to the message of the trees, who were here long before us, and have been faithfully providing for us ever since we dismounted from their righteous branches and started walking around this wondrous earth, seeing what we could do with flint and fire, iron and oil.

When the tree shows the slightest sprouting of green, it’s a sign.  Something is growing.  Summer is coming.  That’s a sign even children can read.  You don’t have to be able to read to notice that sign.  We’re skilled at noticing signs of things falling apart.  It takes a particular way of seeing to notice signs of summer, signs that point to the coming of the Human One.  Signs that say “Redemption is near at hand.”


Our theme this Advent is “Do you sense what I sense?”  We’ll be using all our senses to pay attention.  Since Advent moves us toward the birth of Jesus, a baby born in a small village to an insignificant couple, it’s OK to think small.  It’s OK if the taste of something delightful around the table is a small sign that there is indeed cause for delight.  Or if the smell of something in the air is the smallest sign that you share breath with all the creatures of this world.  We’re not trying to shake the heavens and move the foundations of the cosmos here.  That’s already underway.  We know all about that.  That’s what so often causes us to shut down our senses.  Hunker down.  Guard our brains against the onslaught.  And that’s OK too.  These are fearful times.  We must take care of ourselves.

And as we take care of ourselves, we will open our senses to the message of the trees.  The slightest greenery, the smallest bud, the babe in Bethlehem — a sign.  Can you see it?  Do you hear it?  If someone served it to you, would you let yourself taste and enjoy it?  Savor it on your tongue and feel it slide warm down your throat.  Know that it will find its way into your blood and stream through your body, each cell renewed for another day.

I sense fear and foreboding giving way to calm delight.  I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can smell it brewing.  It’s a season when we must trust the senses of children whose joy is itself a sign.  Calling all nephews, nieces, grandchildren, Mary’s child amidst the animals – to point us toward redemption.

James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew suggests that what is fearful news for some – the crumbling of things that held up the universe – is liberating news for others – the shaking loose of the old order.  The possibility of something new coming into being right in front of our eyes.

So it is with the entry of Jesus into this world.

“Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”












The thread | November 25

Texts: John 18:33-38a, Revelation 1:4-8

William Stafford was a pacifist and a poet.  He died August, 1993.  That month, perhaps knowing death was near, he wrote this poem, which he called, “The Way It Is.”

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

—William Stafford

Today is the day in the church calendar known as Christ the King Sunday.  Officially, it’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  Next week begins Advent, when themes of expectation and birth start the cycle all over again.  This is the church’s way of keeping time.

As William Stafford observes – over the course of life, “tragedies happen; people get hurt or die.  Nothing you do can stop times unfolding.”  This past year has been no exception.  Yet, there is a thread that goes among things that change.

One of our readings is from the book of Revelation.  Appropriately, the last book of our Bible.  The author, John, as he calls himself, has been exiled to the island of Patmos.  He writes this letter to seven churches across Asia Minor, present day Turkey.  It’s a difficult time for these churches.  Revelation is a vision, a dream, about the nonviolent Christ, the lamb as it’s envisioned, and the violence of empire, Rome, and all those it enlists to exert its power.  Wondrously, it’s the lamb who emerges victorious through the hard slog of history.  This is good news for these little churches, committed to the peaceful way of Jesus, living in the shadow of empire.

John greets the seven churches by writing: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.

And there it is, right from the beginning.  The thread.  The thread you can trace back into the past, the thread you hope remains for the future.  The thread you hold in the present.  For John, the thread is Jesus the Christ and everything he represents to humanity.  For John, this is more than just a singular life with a birthday and crucifixion date.  Christ is the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Cosmically available for all.  A force unto itself.  A thread that runs through the troubled story of humanity.

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.

Every Thanksgiving my family sits down for an end of the year recap.  We set aside a whole evening after the youngest generation is asleep.  We go around the circle one at a time, reflecting on the past year.  It’s the four of us siblings, our partners, and my parents.  Ten of us.

We’ve been doing this for a dozen years or so.  I’d like to say we time this annual review to coincide with the end of the liturgical calendar, but we’re not that tuned in.  It started when we all sat down for something more like a family meeting after my brother came out to us and was moving toward a covenant ceremony with his partner, back before this was legally recognized as a marriage.  It was a chance to hear from Luke and his journey, get to know Christian who would be joining our family, and provide some space for our parents to air their own uncertain thoughts as they came to terms with something they hadn’t imagined for themselves or their family.  We went around the circle and talked about our feelings.  If you’re a young person and are confused about why this might have even been a problem or something requiring a family meeting, I thank God for the new normal you’ve been raised with.

It was an important time, a sacred time.  Then we realized we didn’t need something that intense to give us an excuse to talk like that.  So we’ve established the family talk as a tradition, and Thanksgiving weekend has become the best time to do it.

Over the years we’ve processed births, moves to new cities, parenting struggles and joys, work highs and lows, miscarriages, thoughts on retirement.  A lot happens for ten people over the course of a dozen years.  For me, that time has become a thread that goes among things that change.  It’s one of my favorite events of the year.

Over the years, it has become a thread that has better enabled us to stay tuned in to the thread of one another’s lives.

The poet says:

While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

This thread goes by different names: Love, family, our true self, Christ, Buddha nature, home, peace, Spirit.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

Our Gospel reading puts into sharp focus what Revelation also reveals.  The thread of Christ, who is, and was, and is to come is not the only thread of the human story.  There are others.  There’s another power that would claim to be the line to which we must cling for security.

We see these two threads in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, the Roman governor, in John’s Gospel.

Over the course of these verses, Pilate asks Jesus four questions. His questions are direct.  Jesus’ answers are indirect. Surprise.

Perhaps the first question was the only one Pilate was really interested in getting answered. “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus replies with a question of his own: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate is playing his part as the interrogator.  But, Jesus asks him, is this all he is doing?  Just playing out a role others have assigned him? Jesus is under arrest, but is Pilate really as free as he may think he is, asking the question on his own, or is he just one more prisoner confined to his narrow role given him by someone else?  Is Pilate just another thread in the mighty rope of empire, of whom Rome is merely the latest manifestation?

Pilate is not deterred. His next question is “What have you done?” Jesus answers this by pointing out what he has not done. What he has not done is call on his followers to fight for him, to protect him, to prevent him from being arrested. Jesus has not used violence. Even though this kingdom that he has been speaking about occupies the same time and space as the kingdom that Pilate serves, Jesus’ kingdom “is not from this world.”

Pilate skillfully jumps on the mention of a “kingdom” as a way of bringing it back to his original question, this one now his third: “So, you are a king?” The closest Jesus gets to answering whether or not he is a king is his response to this question. Jesus says, “You say that I am a king.”

One of the compelling aspects of this conversation is that we have some freedom in how we hear the questions of Pilate and the responses of Jesus. Whether they’re harsh. Whether or not Jesus is being sarcastic, ironic, speaking boldly or softly, looking Pilate in the eyes or at the ground or off in the distance, smiling, expressionless.

This flexibility of interpretation is no more present than Pilates’ fourth and final question of this exchange.  Pilate had been asking questions about power. Jesus comes out and finally says what he is all about. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

And there we have it.  Pilate, the man of imperial power, and Jesus the man of truth.  Two threads that run through history.

This prompts Pilate to ask a very different kind of question than the previous ones. “What is truth?” Which prompts us to wonder just what kind of question this might be.

Does Pilate have an admiration for the Greek philosophers and wish to hear Jesus’ take on the much-debated question? What is truth?

Has something Jesus said, or the way he said it, leapt into a deeper part of Pilate’s humanity and caused him to ask this question? – the world-weary Roman governor seeking spiritual insight from the mystical Jew? What is truth?

Or is this the cynical question of a powerful ruler who knows that the answer is plain as day? What is truth? Truth is what Pilate says it is – nothing more, nothing less.  The truth is that Jesus will soon be dead, sent by Pilate across town to be crucified, and Pilate will soon leave Jerusalem after the Passover festival, back to his base in Caesarea, one more successful episode under his belt of keeping the peace, doing his duty, fulfilling his role.

The innocent man from Nazareth dies a violent death.  And Pilate flips a sheet of paper on his desk and moves on to other business.

Regardless of how he inflects the questions, Pilates’ truth is that the puny thread of Jesus will be snapped, and the many threaded rope of Rome will endure.

Our truth is that today isn’t called “Pilate the King Sunday.”  And for all of its history, it’s not Pilate or Herod or Caesar that the church has exalted as the thread to which we hold.

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

Whatever you call this thread, you must give it your attention and honor it with your life.  As we stand at the end of another liturgical year, it is this thread that has brought you here.  Which is, which was, which is to come.

If you have lost the thread, can’t find it for the life of you, hold on to someone holding on to the thread.  They will likely welcome the company.  If you can’t see anyone near you, cry out, “Help, I’ve lost the thread.”  This makes it easier for the thread to find you.

May your way be blessed.  May you find and follow the thread and may it take you places you would not otherwise have imagined going.







“Not far from the kin-dom of God” OR Margaret Unchained


Texts: Acts 12:6-11; Mark 12:28-34

If you’re like me, you didn’t grow up observing All Saints or All Souls Day, or even know it was a thing.  Either way, each of us have likely accumulated a few saints over the years.  These are the people, living and dead, who exemplify a life well lived.  We hear their stories and we want to know more.  We don’t need them to be perfect, but we need them to show us something.  Something of love, something of courage, something of God.  Knowing their stories shapes our own. We need these stories = these lives who were, in the words of Jesus, “not far from kin-dom of God.”  They help us see that the kin-dom of God can indeed be not far away.

Hebrews chapter 11 walks through a whole ensemble of characters from the Hebrew Bible – From Adam and Eve’s son Abel, to Abraham and Moses, to Rahab, to the prophets.  It follows this up by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.”

Observance of All Saints and All Souls, in our own Protestant way, reminds us of that great cloud of witnesses.  Even though the question “Who’s in your cloud?” sounds like a tagline for a tech company, it would make for an interesting exercise for each of us to do some cloud mapping and compare clouds.  “Who’s in your cloud?”

I like to focus this first Sunday in November on someone from our Anabaptist/Mennonite cloud of witnesses.  I’m guessing our Anabaptist-of-the-year this time around is an unknown.  I hadn’t heard of her until Paula Snyder Belousek, who pastors Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio, brought her up at a monthly CDC pastors meeting a little while back.  Margaret Hellwart of Beutelsbach.  Anyone ever heard of Margaret?  Paula said she often tells her story to youth considering baptism.  After today, Margaret Hellwart will be an official member of the CMC cloud of witnesses.

I want to get into her story by way of this week’s gospel lectionary, from Mark 12.  That’s where we hear that line from Jesus, “you are not far from the kin-dom of God.”  If you were a part of the congregation in 2014 you might recall this passage was one in our Twelve Scriptures Project – when together we selected the Twelve Scriptures that most inform our faith.  These twelve scriptures are still preserved in the colorful installation in the foyer over the bench.  This passage from Mark got the most votes.  So, had it been a one scripture project, this would have been it.

It’s absolutely central because it involves Jesus being asked about what he considers to be central.  A scribe, a member of the elite educated class, approaches Jesus with this question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”  When you boil it all down, Jesus, what’s it all about?

Jesus frequently responded to questions by posing a better question.  But there’s not much to improve on with this one, and Jesus has a direct answer.  He combines a passage from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus.  To paraphrase: “Love God with all your being, with all you are, your heart, soul, mind, strength,” and “Love your neighbor as if they were you and you were them.”  When you boil it all down, it’s about love of God and love of neighbor, and when you boil that down, it’s God who is the Source of all love, continually flowing to us, that enables us to love in the first place.

That’s it.  That’s what’s first of all.  That’s the center.  That’s what most matters.

In the gospels, scribes are mostly portrayed as opposed to Jesus, but this one receives Jesus’s response with gratitude, and adds his own commentary.  He agrees with Jesus’ distillation of all the teachings and all the commandments: love of God, love of neighbor.  The scribe then adds his own two cents: “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe highlights a tension that runs through all religion.  There are the ethical teachings about how we treat one another, and there are the ritual practices.  Love your neighbor – ethics, morals, the relational part of how we live, kindness, mercy, and justice and peace – and the ritual part – perform the burnt offerings, observe the annual holy days, attend church, sing the hymns, take Communion, etc.  These two don’t need to be in tension, but without a deep rootedness in the love of God, ritual easily becomes ritualism, habits of religion can easily dull rather than heighten our senses to what really matters.  To this insight, Jesus tells the scribe: “You are not far from the kin-dom of God.”

This is where Margaret Hellwart comes in.  Because Margaret first became known publicly through her conscientious objection to the ritual parts of the dominant religion of her time.  To put it in more plain language, she got in trouble because she stopped going to church.  Quite a role model for all of us.  But stick with me.

Margaret lived in the village of Beutelsbach.  This is in present day southern Germany, close to Stutthgart.  In the sixteenth century it was in the circle of influence of the Swiss Brethren movement of Anabaptism.  This is the group of Anabaptists who did the first ana-baptizing on record – re-baptizing.  Or, as they believed, their first true baptism in consciously choosing to follow Jesus.  That was January, 1525.

Their teachings on the need for an authentic inner faith appealed especially to those who had little power within the current economic and religious establishment.  There was a renewed emphasis on the teachings of scripture, and the leading of the Spirit.  They rejected the use of violence, the sword, within the church.

Many women found an opening in Anabaptism to exercise their own authority outside the rigid male dominated hierarchy of the state church.

Men and women were martyred for their deviant teachings.  Anabaptism was a far cry from feminism, but it did threaten social harmony organized around patriarchy.

Margaret Hellwart was not a martyr, so there are no images of her in the Martyr’s Mirror.  She was born in 1568, about two generations after those first re-baptisms.  We know hardly anything about her until 1608, when she was 40.  By that time the Swiss Anabaptist movement had been scattered due to persecution.  The heaviest persecution had passed, but Anabaptists were still considered suspect.  Because they believed the church should reflect the life of Jesus, the Anabaptists around Margaret would often skip Sunday worship and Communion at the local Lutheran parish, which they saw as being full of unregenerate people.  Instead, they would meet in homes and a nearby wood to teach one another the scriptures, pray, and sing.  This was actually the primary way of identifying Anabaptists.  Look at the church attendance roles and figure out who in town wasn’t showing up on Sunday.

So, in the spring of 1608, we have our first public record of Margaret.  Her name appears in a report by the Lutheran General Superintendent to the Synod.  They note she’d been warned several times before to attend church and the Lord’s Supper sacrament, but she wasn’t complying.

Margaret had come to same conclusion as the scribe who spoke with Jesus in the temple.  A life defined by love was of greater value than simply going through the rituals.

By the way, if you’re visiting today and you’re Lutheran, we love you, and we’re grateful we’ve had plenty of time over the centuries to work on our relationship.  Just be sure to sign the attendance pads when they’re passed around during the offering so we know you’re in church.

A local ordinance in Stuttgart made specific reference to a group of very energetic Anabaptist women in the area.  Interestingly, most of their husbands weren’t Anabaptists.  An initial policy was to exile these women from the region, but the families couldn’t cope without the wives/mothers present, and the public expense to help care for their families became too heavy.

So we don’t want these women getting out of line and causing things to not hold together, but we really need them…in order to hold things together.

So the authorities came up with a new plan.  They would no longer exile these women.  Instead, they would chain them to the floors of their houses.  The chains would be long enough that they could move about and do domestic type things – cook, and care for children – but they couldn’t leave the house and be in conversation with other Anabaptists.  I’m guessing the guy who suggested this in the committee meeting was given a promotion.

Margaret was the most prominent of these Anabaptist female leaders.  She had two years to avoid the fate of the chain.  She was called before the Consistory, the church court, in 1608 and 1609, each time interrogated about her faith and practice, each time ordered to attend the local parish.  Each time letting them know in no uncertain terms she had no intention of obeying the orders.

The main source I’m drawing from, called Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers says this: “Margaret Hellwart appears to have been unusually gifted with self-confidence.”  One piece of evidence for this was at a later trial, after she’d been chained for six years, it was reported that Margaret had a mocking smile on her face.  Because, you know, any sign of self-confidence is surely a mockery to authority.

Perhaps a reason for Margaret’s confidence is that between the years 1610 and 1621, that’s eleven years of house arrest, records show she escaped no fewer than 21 times.  Margaret is the Great Houdini of Anabaptism.  Each time they found her, they would re-assemble the chain around her ankle, and each time she’d find a way out, visiting mostly with other women in the community, speaking to them about the faith.  In one instance, there’s an account of the church superintendent and mayor coming to her house unannounced.  After knocking on the door, Margaret didn’t answer right away.  But they could hear what sounded like her moving through the house and then putting her chains back on before she opened the door.

How many others throughout history, women and men, have had to give the impression of being chained, when they are in fact free in mind, soul, and body?

One of the scriptures Margaret would share, when she was out and about, was the passage we read from Acts chapter 12 – the story of Peter being freed by an angel from his chains in prison, and going out to the other believers to give them encouragement.

It’s unfortunate we don’t know more about Margaret Hellwart.  We have these records, and we have just a few testimonies about her from others.  This is how the Profiles book summarizes the testimony about her faith: “God has commanded that people should love one another.  Any who live as a Christian are by that fact alone a member of the church.”  A friend of Margaret’s named Katharina Koch testified that she didn’t need to attend church because Margaret Hellwart taught her all she needed to know.

These are testimonies from a time when the institutions of the day were utterly failing their people.  The structures had become so caught up in preserving their own existence, they had forgotten their initial reason for being.  Teacher, which commandment is greatest of all?

We claim Anabaptism as our lineage because Margaret and others rediscovered what is greatest of all.  The psychologist James Finley has said: “Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things.” James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013)

Considering Margaret’s story makes me think of today’s #MeToo movement.

It is a gift to be living in a time when Margarets are becoming unchained and telling their truth to their sisters and brothers.  Aided by angels, allies, and tremendous courage, Margaret is speaking.  The institutions that prefer her chained are scrambling to do damage control.  We are witnesses to the Spirit at work through her, and we sense that the kin-dom of God has come a bit nearer.

Margaret lived out her life in her home community.  Court records of her end when she was in her early 50’s, meaning either she died then, or the authorities gave up bringing her to trial.  Historian’s best guess is that she buried in an unmarked grave on unconsecrated ground in Beutelsbach.  We consecrate her story today by lighting a candle in her honor.