Prophets Ancient and New

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

How does the story of Jesus begin?

Each of the four gospels begins the good news of Jesus Christ in a different way. The gospel of Luke begins with a long story of Jesus’ birth, full of angels and songs: more of that to come later this month. The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy connecting Jesus to powerful ancestors, drawing a line from the past to the present. The gospel of John begins with a poem about the eternal nature of Jesus: in the beginning was the Word.

Today we hear the very beginning of the gospel of Mark.  In Mark’s gospel, there is no mention of the manger, or the magi, or the angels, or the ancestors.  And there is no poetry. Instead, we hear this: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’’”

Mark begins with prophecy: the prophecy of Isaiah, and the prophecy of John the Baptist, who carries on the legacy of Isaiah in a new era. John, as you may know, was a curious figure. He wore camel’s hair.  He ate insects. But despite his odd personal habits, John drew people to him. Lots of people. People from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself came out to hear him preach along the River Jordan. They listened to him, and their hearts were moved.  Many chose to confess their sins and be baptized into a new life.

Mark’s gospel begins with the prophet Isaiah, and it continues with the prophet John the Baptist. And then, John says, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The next prophet in the lineup is Jesus himself.

What is a prophet? Sometimes we speak of prophets as predicting the future, like fortune tellers. But in our religious tradition, prophets are not primarily focused on forecasting what is to come. Instead, they reveal the hidden reality of the present. Prophets have an uncommon ability to perceive the wisdom of God, the perspective of God, and to share that with others.  If we listen to what they have to say, we can also begin to perceive the world as God does.

We could use some prophets in this time and place.  Some folks to keep us grounded, and clear-headed about what is going on around us.  We live in troubling and tumultuous times! What are some of the things that are troubling you these days? What are you reading in the news, or experiencing in your daily life? (Members of the congregation named some concerns, including sexual harassment, failure to welcome refugees, wildfires).

We could use some prophets in this time and place. And I am glad to tell you: we have some.  Just this week, there was a national call for moral revival, the launch of a new Poor People’s Campaign.  Fifty years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”  King was part of a movement that worked to make visible, and audible, the reality of discrimination, dehumanization, and poverty in a nation with more than enough to go around.  This movement was, King said, a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”

Honoring that history, and compelled by our current reality, a new movement is arising today. Led by the Rev. William Barber II, as well as the UCC’s Rev. Traci Blackmon and so many others, this new Poor People’s campaign is uniting people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted morality.

Last spring, I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. William Barber speak at the UCC’s General Synod gathering in Baltimore. It was an experience. I stood there having to remind myself to breathe in, and breathe out, as I listened to him speak.  My heart was jumping out of my chest, because everything in me was saying, “yes, this is it!”  He was able to articulate with stunning clarity what is going wrong in the world and what going right would be like.  Rev. Barber refuses to be partisan, or to seek anything less than the full justice of God. He believes that we can be a remnant to transform this nation; that we can bring about a season of moral resistance; that together, we can change the moral narrative of our country.  And as he was speaking, it seemed not only possible to me, but inevitable; because he and those who are working with him are calling out the good in us, the God in us.

Prophecy is one of the great gifts of the church.  We, the church, have the capacity to profess a vision of what human society can and should be.  We have the capacity, because we stand rooted in a history of justice seekers.  We have the capacity, because we rely not on our own power, but on the power of God and the power of community.  We have the capacity, and we have the call.

In the United Church of Christ, as the Rev. Traci Blackmon, one of our national leaders, has said, we have a history of crying out, and of showing up. Being part of this movement is the next step. Our local Associate Conference Minister, the Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, has been attending local meetings for this new movement in Boston. This week, she issued an invitation to all of us to join in.  As the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts, we have power to use here, to strengthen a national effort that has been building for over a year now, preparing to mobilize in the months to come.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. Hannah – what are you asking us to do? There’s only two weeks until Christmas. No one’s got time to march on Washington right now.

Don’t worry. Today, all I am asking is this: honor the seasons of Advent and Christmas by listening to the prophets, both ancient and new. Take five minutes, or ten, to read about this movement. Watch a video of some of the leaders speak.  Let the words and ideas seep into your heart. Notice whether these words offer you some clarity, or some hope.  You can find out more at poorpeoplescampaign.org. There’s also a link on our Facebook page, and I will put one in the eWord.

How does the story of Jesus begin? How a story begins tells you so much about what it is really about.  The gospel of Mark begins with prophets: Isaiah, and John, and Jesus.

In this season, when we are exhausted or disgusted, we can find our way to the feet of the prophets, ancient and new.  We can lay down the burden of our sins, and drink in the words of God’s prophets like living water. Their words continue to prepare a way out of no way for us today. They make a clearing through wildernesses of confusion and despair.

The prophets tell us that every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.  The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.  The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

There are prophets among us, and they lift up their voices with strength, heralding good tidings, saying to the cities, “Here is your God!”

Thanks be to God.

The Lodgings

Sunday Fellowship entered the Sanctuary on December 3 to find it utterly transformed. One hundred lit candles and a twelve circuit labyrinth invited us to enter the space with wonder and curiosity. Music and the tradition of Las Posadas became our guides as we began to explore what the familiar story of Jesus’ birth has to say to us and to our world at this moment in history?

Las Posadas or “The Lodgings” was first developed hundreds of years ago by Spanish religious leaders as a way of communicating the Christmas story to people unable to read the scriptures for themselves. While there are a variety of ways to celebrate Las Posadas, dramatizing the holy couple’s search for shelter in Bethlehem is always central.

Members of Sunday Fellowship acted out the story with wonderful music, costumes and a candlelit walk of the labyrinth. We took turns playing the roles of the weary travelers and the overwhelmed innkeepers. How would we respond to a stranger at our door in the middle of the night? How would we feel being refused shelter in our hour of greatest need? Las Posadas challenged us to get in touch with both our compassion and our vulnerability. Will we be prepared to offer both to God’s own child wherever and whenever he comes?  We felt a little more prepared by the end of our time together.

Preparation, Anticipation, and Wonder

On December 3rd, Jessica offered this sermon for all ages:

This year Advent has the fewest days possible: only 21.  In fact, the fourth Sunday of Advent this year lands right on Christmas Eve.  I feel like you blink and take a few deep breaths and Christmas is here.  Seems to happen every year, but this year Advent really is quite rare in its brevity (contrast this with last year which had the longest Advent possible).  So we only have 21 days now to wait for Christmas, right?  Waiting is often the word that is used when referring to the season of Advent, especially in children’s literature and when explaining this season to young ones.  But waiting can be boring.  Waiting can make you feel anxious or nervous or frustrated (think about waiting on hold with your cable company or waiting for an important test result).  Waiting is really not something anyone wants to do.  So this isn’t really the right word to describe the mood and tone of this holy season.  Instead, I would use the word preparation.  And anticipation.  And wonder.

Instead of sitting twiddling our thumbs for three weeks, we prepare.  We bake cookies, we pick out a tree, we put up lights or add a festive touch to our dining rooms, we buy gifts, we go to parties.  Maybe some of us make a concerted effort to slow down this season and embrace the quiet, slumbering world outside while some of us will be organizing and planning and arranging every day until Christmas.  We may do it differently, but we all prepare in some way during Advent because we are anticipating that great gift of wonder and joy and love on Christmas day.

We just witnessed, through masterful dramatic retelling, the moment that Mary learns she is to be the mother of Jesus.  This young teenager is perhaps at home.  By herself – this is important – maybe cleaning or making bread or getting ready to collect water.  And the angel Gabriel suddenly appears to her.  After the angel calms her surprise and fear, he gives Mary this HUGE news that she will become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to God’s own son.  I don’t have to remind you that in the first century in Israel, getting pregnant before marriage was a big no no.  Mary knew this, but instead of questioning or disbelieving or simply refusing Gabriel’s proclamation, she said, “Yes.  I am ready to serve.  Let it be just as you have said.”

Now, in Sunday school every week we are experts at Wonder Questions.  We wonder a lot and we ask lots of questions that often result in pretty dynamic discussions.  So this is automatically how I approach our bible stories.  I wonder.  I find it very significant that Gabriel appeared to Mary herself to deliver this good news.  In just the previous verses before this passage, Luke describes another encounter with the angel Gabriel and Zachariah, the husband of Elizabeth, who is Mary’s cousin and becomes miraculously pregnant in her advanced age.  Gabriel told Zachariah this wonderful news – he didn’t appear to Elizabeth at all.  So why come to Mary?  I wonder why Gabriel didn’t appear to Joseph instead.  Or at least Joseph and Mary together.  That certainly would have cleared up any questions of dishonesty or infidelity.  And although the book of Matthew does describe a dream in which Joseph is visited by an angel of the Lord and reassured of Mary’s immaculate conception, this happens well after Mary herself is told the news.

So Mary is told first.  And Mary is alone when she receives this news.  Why?  I think it comes back to preparation, anticipation, and wonder.  For a little while, Mary is the only person in the world who knows she is to become the mother of God’s son.  Just Mary.  God has given her an exceptional gift to prepare herself and revel in her anticipation and wonder in her own personal way.  God allowed Mary to process this huge news however she needed to in order to embrace it.  The unique and personal ability to prepare was God’s gift to Mary, and it is God’s gift to us as well during Advent.

I’d like to read a very short children’s book now, called Who Is Coming to our House? by Joseph Slate.  It has simple words and very simple pictures of animals in a barn preparing for someone.

Who is coming our house?”

Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

“Make room,” says Pig.  “I will butt aside the rig.”

“We must clean,” says Lamb.  “Dust the beams,” says Ram.

Who is coming our house?”

Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

“Sweep the earth,” says Chick.  “Stack the hay,” says Goose, “and quick!”

“Spin new webs,” says Spider.  “I will line the crib with eider.”

Who is coming our house?”

Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

“Someone’s coming from afar.”  “I will nose the door ajar.”

“But it is dark,” says Cat.  “They will never come,” says Rat.

“Yes, they’ll come,” says Mouse.  “Someone’s coming to this house.”

“I will lay an egg,” says Hen.  “I will spread my tail for them.”

Who is coming to our house?

“Mary and Joseph,” whispers Mouse.

“Welcome, welcome to our house!”

This season of preparation and anticipation is such a gift to us.  Just like these barn animals, we get ready in all different ways to celebrate Christmas.  All are unique and special and personal.  We thank God for this time to prepare and anticipate the wonder of the birth of Christ, just as Mary was able to do.  How will you prepare this Advent season?

God of Life.  We lift up the Advent story of preparation, anticipation, and wonder.  Of a young mother embracing her astonishing news and a king appearing when we’d least expect it. Open our eyes and our hearts that this might be an Advent of hope to the world.  Amen.

Made Well

  • November 21, 2017

Luke 17:11-19

Jesus is on the border between Samaria and Galilee when ten people approach him. We don’t know if they are Galileans like him or foreigners, outsiders, Samarians.  We don’t know anything about these people, except that they are afflicted with the disease of leprosy. They call out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them, and he sees their affliction.  He hears them calling out to him with the name his disciples use for him. He hears them asking for mercy. Jesus says: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  They go, and as they go, these ten people are healed.

So far this story is not very remarkable, at least in the gospels. Jesus is, by nature, a healer. He heals whoever he comes across. He heals people, no matter where he finds them. He heals people, no matter who they are. Jesus’ healings are often simple, like this one. He doesn’t make a big show of what he can do. And the healing often takes place after the fact, as it does here.

The healing in this story is not very remarkable, at least for Jesus. The twist in the story comes after the healing. One of the people afflicted with leprosy – a Samaritan, a foreigner –  notices that he has been healed. And as he notices, he changes direction, turning back towards Jesus. He praises God with a loud voice. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet. He thanks Jesus. And Jesus tells him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. Your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you whole.”

In this story, ten people are healed from leprosy: a physically debilitating and socially isolating disease. For at least one of the ten, something else happens as well. He responds with praise, with worship, and with gratitude. His physical healing changes his heart. His heart is made well, he is saved, he is made whole. Jesus witnesses his transformation, and sends him out, to find an entirely new way.

The practice of being grateful is a hard one to learn. Day after day, I ask my children, after they have received something: “What do you say?”  Still, with all this drilling, they rarely come up with an unprompted “Thank you.” Learning to notice what we have been given, to delight in it, and to be truly grateful for it: this is a spiritual practice that most of us struggle with throughout our lives.

Christian blogger Glennon Doyle calls the shift from complaint to gratitude “putting on our perspecticles.”  As if gratitude is a pair of spectacles for the heart that can fundamentally change the way we view the world. (more…)

Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning

  • November 14, 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten young women take their lamps and go to meet a bridegroom. Five bring back-up flasks of oil. Five do not. Unfortunately, the groom is late — very late — so late that everybody falls asleep and the lamps begin to go out. Finally, at midnight, the groom shows up, ready to start the party. Five young women refill their lamps with their back-up flasks.  Since these women refuse to share their oil, the other five women are forced to leave and seek oil elsewhere. When the women return from their errand, the door has been closed against them. The groom will not let them in.

I confess that this story is not one that I like very much. A whole group of young women, or virgins, or bridesmaids, waiting for the arrival of a tardy groom: It seems like the set-up for a cliché and sexist romantic comedy.

I also have practical questions.  Why would failing to bring an extra oil flask to a wedding get you kicked out?  And who would actually be available at midnight to sell supplemental oil to desperate guests?

My biggest question, however, is: what are we supposed to learn here? It is challenging to draw any sound moral lesson from this tale.  Consider the heroes we have to choose from. The five supposedly wise women refuse to share.  The breathlessly awaited bridegroom is so late his guests fall asleep waiting for him. This is rude enough, but then he bars the door and denies ever knowing the five women who take a few minutes to purchase more oil. Talk about a double standard.

Thankfully, Jesus ends this story by dropping a big hint to let us know what it is really about. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (more…)