This week I sat in on a two hour Zoom class that was being offered to ministers. Within the first hour my mind had drifted and then I spent the second hour practicing my banjo. At least I was learning something.
I don’t know how or if my kids are managing their education this way. Or how teachers are able to teach in this limited capacity. It’s tough enough to harness the energy or lethargy of adolescents when they’re in the same room. I can’t imagine it’s any easier online. But until the vaccination takes hold, Kathleen and thousands of other teachers will have to find ways to engage their students, hoping no one will fall behind.
The good news is, we are naturally a learning species. We approach every situation with a certain curiosity to discover or to try new things that will help us grow and evolve. Moreover, we love to pass along what we learn, whether formally to students in a classroom or informally to one another. Teaching and learning isn’t just in our DNA. It’s a part of the evolutionary process. So who we learn from matters to our survival.
We have friends who are teachers in the traditional sense in that they teach at schools and universities.
We also have friends who teach Pilates and yoga classes, and courses on breathe work and guitar to name a few. I’ve had teachers who were mentors, people at work who have inspired to be a better version of myself both professionally and privately. And I’ve learned a lot by watching others succeed and fail. Like I discovered, who you learn from matters to who you can become.
Most of you have had dozens of teachers throughout your life. If you’re lucky enough, some made a lasting impression or an impact. Like my art teacher, Linda Knisley. She didn’t just teach me how to draw and paint. She showed me how to remain patient while learning to basket weave. She taught me gentleness through lessons in water color and stain glass. And how to think backwards and see negative shapes with lessons in woodcutting, and print making. She also introduced me to Salvador Dali, Miro, Picasso and other artist who, like Ms. Knisley would ignite my imagination. With only one good eye, this amazing teacher showed me how to see the world and to know myself in a variety of different ways.
Then there was Frank Morris. His classroom wasn’t at a school, but in the small kitchen of his Italian restaurant where I first learned how to cook. Working for Frank taught me how move under pressure, how to think on my toes and multitask in a working environment that was literally as hot as hell. He also taught me how to smoke cigarettes, a few other things too that are better left unsaid.
There are also those teachers who you barely know, but they make you realize who you are or what you can be. Like my college English professor whose name I can’t remember. But I will never forget the first paper I got back from him that had more red ink on it than black. To my surprise, the grade on the top of that paper was an A. When I asked about it, he reminded me that this was a creative writing class. He said, “Anyone can go and learn grammar. But not everyone can be a writer.” He showed me I could to go and do both. Although I’m still struggling with one.
Who we learn from matters because it will shape not just who we are but our lesson plan that we will use to teach others. Which brings us to today’s reading about a teacher who stands in a synagogue and teaches the sacred scriptures like it’s never been taught before.
Read Mark 1:21-28
Mark tells us that Jesus entered a synagogue and began to teach. We don’t know why he went there. Perhaps he was invited to be a part of a lecture series or was just the guest speaker for the day. We don’t know. He might have just wandered in and started doing his thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jesus did stuff like that. He was that kind of teacher, spontaneous and hands on. Whatever the case was that day, Jesus started teaching. And did so with authority.
Mark tells us that Jesus’ style of teaching was different than what the people were used to. We know it’s different because the scribes, whose job it was to teach the laws and traditions of the church, never would have let the man with the unclean spirit enter the building. Mark doesn’t give us much about this man’s story either. But if you were paying attention, you learned that when the man addressed Jesus, he saw him for who he really was. We aren’t sure how, because Mark gives us nothing more than to say Jesus was teaching. We can safely assume Jesus was teaching the sacred scriptures. After all, that’s what you do in church.
So one could argue that the way Jesus approached this man is the same way he did with scripture. With authority. Like the Holy One of God. When Jesus spoke to the man, we see his authority came from his willingness to do the will of God and see to it that justice was served. He practiced what he preached. As a result, this man’s life was saved and made new again. Who we learn from matters.
Of all the teachers in my life, only one so far has come close to doing what Jesus did. Fr. Harold Anderson was my priest, mentor and friend. I learned more about Jesus by watching him than in all my classes of seminary. Wherever Fr. Anderson was, it was obvious that Christ was there too. He welcomed everyone with an open mind and an open heart, just as Jesus welcomed the man with the unclean spirit.
Like Jesus, Fr. Anderson made God’s love a priority; bringing the gospel to life by putting love into action. His way of teaching inspired me to want to be my best. And he did that by teaching me how to think with my heart and love with my head. A life lesson that I desperately try to practice, even though I often fail.
That’s what good teachers do, they don’t just teach; they help us push ourselves to be better. That’s the kind of teacher Jesus was. Like my friend Dawn pointed out to me the other day, Jesus doesn’t give us a bunch of facts to pass a test. He speaks and shows us a way to go deeper inside ourselves so we can discover who God made us to be, and what we’re all about. Jesus teaches us the fullness of life; igniting the fire within us that fuels our thirst for knowledge, curiosity, and wisdom that make us want to be better people so we can make our world a better place for ourselves, our neighbors, and the next generation...who we will inspire to do the same.
Using God’s word as his textbook, Jesus doesn’t merely read it, or explain it like the scribes. Instead, he demonstrates it by living it, and living it in such a way that it will inspires us to follow him. Jesus practiced what he preached because he knew people were watching and listening to him. He knew his responsibility to proclaim God’s truth. So that’s what he did in all the ways he lived. With authority.
When questioned about his authority in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “I did not come to change the laws and the prophets but to fulfill them.” And wherever Jesus went, God’s words were proclaimed and fulfilled by the love he gave and the mercy he showed others.
That’s a lesson for us all. By seeing the world through the eyes of God’s love, Jesus possessed the power to heal and transform people. It allowed him to face human ugliness, with justice and mercy and kindness; always ready to forgive and to give.
In John’s gospel Jesus said, “I am the truth, the life and way.” I have come to believe this to mean that Jesus is the way to our salvation because he lived God’s truth perfectly. Jesus knew God’s love and made it the central part of his life. He embraced love’s power to heal us of our brokenness, to forgives of our transgressions, to lift us up when we are down.
He taught us how to do the same. How to harness God’s love to save ourselves from the mess we make or find ourselves in. Imagine how our world could be transformed if we dared to live like Jesus did, as if God actually meant what God said.
Soon enough Jesus will send his new students out into the world to do just that. They aren’t perfect. They mess up like we do. They fumble to find their way. Yet Jesus sent them knowing they had all they needed. They had God’s love already written on their hearts. Jesus sent them out to preach the gospel, like St. Francis suggested, by using words only when necessary.
He showed them the way. The way of love, the way of peace, the way back to God’s redeeming grace. And then he sent them on their way to show and send others. Jesus didn’t require his followers to have seminary degrees in order to teach this gospel. Even though they will doubt themselves, Jesus never lost faith in them. He knew they could do it, because Jesus showed them how. They watched he did, and chose to follow suit.
This tells me, that you and I can do the same. Just as Jesus called his students, so too does Jesus invite us to go out into the world to share the good news. By studying scripture like he did, we know what to do. The only textbook you need is an honest heart. And a lesson plan that includes a gentle smile and a willing hand. As for your students, well, they are everywhere. In classrooms, boardrooms, living rooms and beyond.
As students of Christ, we are called to be teachers of Christ - practicing what we preach in the ways we welcome one another - loving on them in all the ways Jesus loved us.
We will all have different teaching styles and methods, but we all share the same assignment; to show the truth and the light of God’s love. And to go and teach that way with authority as the holy ones of God.
Let us pray: Lord God, you have taught us your ways through Jesus Christ, and you have empowered us to teach them by your Holy Spirit. Send us now, out into the world, to do just that. Amen.
This week, I began reading “Love is the Way” by Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. You might remember him as the priest who gave the rousing sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018.
That sermon couldn’t have come at a better time. As our country was bitterly dividing and Britton was wrestling with Brexit, Bishop Curry comforted our souls when he proclaimed to the royal couple, “There is power in love, to help and heal when nothing else can.”
The first chapter of his book begins, “In my own life, love has had so many, many faces, but among the boldest is the face of Josie Robbins.” Curry goes on to explain that Ms. Robbins was hired by his father to help with the kids after his mom had died.
He writes, “My father nervously welcomed her into our house and led her to the spare bedroom, where both twin beds were covered with clothes that my father had managed to wash but not iron. Josie had never been in our house, hadn’t met the children who wore most of those clothes, but she ironed every single garment with love.”
To you and me, that might not seem like much more than someone who is good at her job. But if that’s all it was, just a job, she did in a way that made God feel close in a house that was still grieving in pain and sorrow. She did it with love.
Love has many faces. The first time I saw my wife, I fell instantly in love. I would do anything for her to show her just how much she meant to me. Over time, our love evolved from proving our feelings towards each other to simply practicing love with one another. We made it a daily routine to make love grow, adapt, and flourish everywhere we went.
Love is powerful and love is transforming. It was the reasons I accepted my call to ministry. However, it was not love that led me to seminary. It was hate.
I remember seeing a news report about a group from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. You might remember them as the people who would go around the country protesting at funerals of soldiers who had died in Iraq. They loved to get the attention of reporters with their neon colored signs. One in particular that the news was focusing on read, “God hates fags.” I knew right then and there I had to do something.
Love has many faces and means many things. But this I know to be true. God is not in the business of hating. God is in the business of loving. Our only job, as followers of Christ, is to be the face of love, by witnessing to the way of love, that came to us from Jesus himself. Curry is right. Love is the way. And thus it must be our first priority.
In the biggest selling book of all time, there is a treasure of a letter written by John the Apostle. Today's word is from 1 John 4:7-21
John’s first epistle is one of my all-time favorite books in the bible. In it, he doesn’t mince words. With elegant concision, he tells us what God is so we know what God is not. This is important because there are people who preach a god of hate, a god of war and a god of wealth. The antithesis of what Jesus preached.
Some want a God of power and order. As violence remains pervasive and suffering ever present, we want a God who protects us from harm or who can prevent bad things from happening. But John said, “God is love.”
Some want a God to be a punitive authority who lays down the law and holds everyone accountable. But John said, “God is love.”
Some want a God of prosperity, who promises great wealth if we obey a few simple principles. But John avoids such descriptions in favor of one - God is love.
It’s worth mentioning that John uses a rarely used Greek word – agape – to describe God. Agape is a self-sacrificing love. It’s the kind of love Ms. Robbins brought into the Curry home. It’s often translated as unconditional love, that gives without expecting anything in return the kind of love found in the very heart of God’s grace.
This is not to say that God’s love isn’t powerful, or punitive or prosperous. God is and can be anything God wants to be. As Richard Rohr likes to say, “God loves things by becoming them.”
In Jesus, God’s agape came to humans in human form to show us the way back to God’s heart. By walking in the path of love, in the footsteps of Jesus, we walk into God’s heart. “For those who abide in God must also abide in God’s love.”
Love has many faces. Like yours and mine. Those who share the faith of Christ, also wear the face of God. We are called to go out into the world and define what love means by practicing love with one another.
It really is that simple. And yet, it’s truly that difficult because agape seeks to do good for the well-being in others. Agape is not selfish, in fact it’s the opposite. Selfishness pulls us apart. Agape ties us together. Like Curry points out in his book, “Love isn’t a sentiment. It’s the only thing left to save a community divided.”
Agape doesn’t merely lead us to the heart of God but it draws us to the heart of each other. It turns our self-centered world upside down and causes us to give instead of take; to seek peace instead of instigating war.
Agape makes room for others. It does not exclude. It lifts people up when life knocks them down. It stands up to injustice with justice. It fights the face of inequity with fairness. It helps and heals those who whom the world has hurt and harmed.
There are some people today who see this kind of love as a weakness. But as God clearly showed us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, agape is more powerful than death itself. No wonder why John chose to use this word for the early church live by.
Love has many faces. Some are black, some are white. Some are red, some are blue. Some live across the street, other’s in a country you have no idea where to find it on a map. But in each person, and in every situation, we must always make love our priority. For love invites the world to see the face of God when it might otherwise feel absent.
Like John wrote, “No one has ever seen God but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” If you want to know God, fully and authentically, then open your heart and hands, and allow the love of God to flow through you like Jesus did.
Five hundred years ago St. Teresa of Avila said it best, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”
Her words remind us all that God’s love is the transformative power that is so desperately needed today. “Love is,” like Curry realized, “the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.”
To know the God of love, then, is to live agape like Jesus who gave God’s love away to all people. And in doing so became the face of God for all to see.As Brennan Manning argued, “God is love. Jesus is God. If Jesus stopped loving, he would stop being God.”
What does this say to you? How might it inspire you to go and make love grow? Better yet, what’s stopping you from loving unconditionally as God loves you?
Love has many faces and means many things. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or worthy. Just as God’s love was made perfect in Jesus, so too has Jesus made you worthy in spite of your flaws. God loves you as you are, not as you should be. God’s love meets you where you are and takes you to where you need to go.
As Jesus showed those who came to him, God loves you beyond fidelity and infidelity, beyond worthiness and unworthiness, in your state of grace and in your state of disgrace. There is no time limit or breaking point. No matter what happens or what you do…it’s impossible for God not to love you! God is love.
If we are created in God’s image, then we are created from and made for agape to give of ourselves and our love freely just as Jesus showed us how.
Many of you might be afraid to do this. Perhaps you’ve been burnt in the past, or hurt and abused by love. But that’s not agape, that’s selfishness. Agape doesn’t harm, it heals. It puts the well-being of others first. Therefore do not be afraid to give our love away, “for God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
To quote Bishop Curry one last time, “The way of love will show us the right thing to do, every single time. It is our moral and spiritual grounding – and a place of rest – amid the chaos that is often part of life. It’s how we stay decent in indecent times.”
Of course, Jesus said it best when he summed up all the commandments and laws with these simple words: Love God. And love your neighbor. As John pointed out, we cannot claim to love God and hate our neighbor at the same time. Love and hate do not mix. They do not play together. They cannot co-exist either in heaven or on earth.
God is not in the business of hate. God is in the business of loving us. And as God’s children, we are employed to do the same for each other. We are made in love to give our love to one another in the way that Jesus gave his love to us. With agape - giving his whole self unconditionally to heal us and redeem us. By his love, we have the power to go into the world fearlessly, to act lovingly in all situations, even if imperfectly.
Love is what God is and love is why Jesus came. And it is why he continues to come, day after day through ordinary people like you and me. Love is the story that we write. It is the book that God reads over and over again. And when finished says, “I’m so glad I read that.”
My hope for you is that you will experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible, all-encompassing, totally unconditional love that is yours for the taking. For love has many faces...but will yours be one of them?
Let us pray: Great Creator of Love, thank you for opening our heart to receive this gift. Send us now out into the world with open hands to give your love away, freely and faithfully, to the glory of your name. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. And Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008)
Curry, Michael. Love is the Way. (New York: Penguin, 2020)
Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel. (New York: Random House, 1990)
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey, December 16. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997)
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. (New York: Convergent, 2019)
This week I was privy to part of a conversation between two women who passed me while walking in the park. I didn’t know the context of their conversation, because I only heard one sentence. But it got me thinking how I would answer the question that one lady asked the other. “Who do you trust?”
In my blog I confessed that up until my wife, I had trouble trusting anyone, including God. I had trouble because I had been burned by people in my past. But if I am being honest, I had trouble trusting because I myself had not always been trustworthy.
Merriam-Websters defines trust as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of something or someone.” For example, I trust my surgeon knows what he or she is doing before they cut me open. And I trust the legal system in case he or she doesn’t. I think it’s safe to say that over the last five years or so, this question of who to trust has been put to the test.
We’ve been told not to trust the media or anyone who doesn’t say what you want to hear. We’ve been told not to trust the government or any elected officials who don’t vote like you. And more recently, a man who has been well-proven to bend the truth told his followers not to trust the bedrock of our democracy...the election process.
The irony is, this man is part of the media, the government, and until Wednesday, is an elected official who loves to say, “Trust me” – even when it’s obvious to the naked eye that his words were not always trustworthy.
Now, you might know that Missouri is known as “The Show Me State.” I’m not sure who screwed them over to make this their state motto, but they certainly pride themselves on it. And rightfully so. I think it’s important to hold back trusting someone completely until they show their true character and ability.
It’s easy to say trust me. But it’s harder to show a person why they should. Jesus never took the easy route. He has no problem showing us why we should put our faith and trust in him. Even if it kills him to do so.
Read: John 1:35-51.
What we know up to this point is that Jesus had begun to gather his disciples. First is Andrew and his brother Peter. They heard something good about Jesus and decided to check it out for themselves. According to John, Jesus’ invitation to them is simply “Come and See.” The next day Jesus invites Philip to do the same. And in turn, Philip invites Nathanael.
What on earth made him, or any of the disciples, follow this guy isn’t clear. Jesus hasn’t performed any miracles, shown any signs, or made any proclamations or promises about the reign of God that might excite one’s imagination. Yet they go - with no idea what God is about to unfold before their very eyes.
In Jesus, they will see God’s righteousness on full display. And by accepting the invitation to come and see, they will also discover what God intends to bring about through them.
The only one to hesitate in this bunch is Nathanael, whose character Jesus seems to know even though they’ve never met. Since the Bible doesn’t tell us anymore than what John gives us, I see Nathanael as an inquisitive young adult questioning his purpose and place in the world. I like to imagine he’s sitting in the shade of the fig tree contemplating life, or perhaps lost in prayer.
Whatever he is doing is interrupted by an overly excited Philip who encourages him to come and meet the one the prophets had written about. Nathanael perks up, excited by news until hears “And he’s from Nazareth of all places!”
It’s here the young contemplative rolls his eyes and shakes his head, “You’ve got to be kidding! Can anything good come out of that place?” Phillip responds to his cynicism using Jesus’ own words – “Come and see.”
The rest of John’s gospel is dedicated to Jesus showing everyone the truth behind his words. That is to say, all the good things God is doing in the world. And the transformative impact it has on people who choose to believe and trust him. This tells me that whatever you are seeking in life will be affected by the way you see Jesus for who he really is…the Messiah, the very incarnation of God’s never-ending love.
Now, poor Nate can’t quite figure out why God’s favor would come from some backwoods, insignificant rural village like Nazareth. Our kings are supposed to come from ivory palaces with gold-plated toilets, right?
I heard a comedian say, “I always vote for the richest person because don’t want my president to be worrying if the country’s electricity is going to get shut off this month.” We don’t want our leaders to know our poverty, we want them to know how to get us out of it. However, Nathanael's pushback or need of proof reveals two exceptional truths about us and about God.
First. God can accomplish great things in the most unlikely of places – a filthy stable, fragile baby, or even a fractured religious or political system. This tells me that God is present in your personal Nazareth’s. Be it a failed relationship or a false truth that has caused you to lose trust in God and one another. No matter what you are facing today, God can and will accomplish great things from them.
Second, God is perfectly capable of honoring ordinary people from all walks of life, and calling them to do extraordinary things. From Moses to these bumbling disciples to each one of us, there is a place and purpose in God’s Kingdom for everyone. Jesus shows us this every time he crosses over cultural divides to share God’s love. We can trust Jesus simply because Jesus proved to be trustworthy by God.
Again, Jesus invites you to come and see this love firsthand. And let it transform who you are - or who you think you are - into who God made you to be. His invitation is more than a chance to marvel at God’s righteousness that he puts on display. It’s a call to see what God is doing in us - transforming our fears into faith.
In the remake of the movie Jumanji, four ordinary high-school kids with ordinary teenage problems accept the call to play a mysterious video game they found. To their surprise, the get sucked in and become the actual avatars in the game. Through a series of unfortunate events, they have to trust one another and work together in order to return home. At the end, they discover what they are capable of, and who they’re destined to be.
When we take the time to be with Jesus, we not only discover who he is, but we discover who we are because of who he is. In Jesus, God shows up in our life, calling us out from under the fig tree to share the good news of God’s redemptive love. If we trust Jesus then we too will see the Kingdom of Heaven opened, and angels all around us. We might even discover that we are God’s angels called to further Jesus’ ministry in this heavenly space.
Jesus invites you and me to walk with him and learn how to live out God’s grace and righteousness. To come and see how to speak the truth that leads people to set aside their anger and move towards peace, and justice, and equality. His is an invitation to see him and receive him in everyone you meet.
This is important for us to remember because every day we receive invitations to do things that pull us away from God. Friends invite us to gossip. Co-workers invite us to cheat. And some people, if you allow them, invite us to believe an alternative reality that will make you doubt even what your eye sees and knows to be true.
In his epistle John writes, “No one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Likewise, Jesus never says “Trust me, I know better than you.” Instead, he said, “Follow me.” By living fully and faithfully in God’s love he shows us why we can trust him. This is the way that brings about true transformation - for the self, your community, and all of creation.
By accepting his call, you accept the responsibility of his mission. To love God, love others, and serve both. I never get tired of saying this, but in all the ways we showcase the truth of those seven small but powerful words people will come to see us and know us as people whose words and deeds are good and reliable and trustworthy.
As you leave here today, I hope you remember this: Jesus is calling you to come and see with your own eyes that which is true. But he’s also inviting you to “go and be” the angels of God - swooping down in the most unassuming places and lifting people up to God’s eternal glory.
As Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Let’s come and see and go and do in the name of the One who reveals our true worth.
Let us pray: Gracious God, we put our trust in you because you alone have proven to be trustworthy. In Christ, your word came to life and by your Holy Spirit, we too have been filled with life and a new purpose to live it fully, for your glory and your glory alone. Amen.
In honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we will remember tomorrow, I would like to share these words of his that I think are fitting for where we are today.
“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right."
Dr. King taught us that everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is the radiant light of hope. By shinning that light, we are better able to see a person for who they really are, and who we are as well. Therefore, let us shine the light of Christ in the world; inviting others to “come and see” the one who gave his life for all.
Excerpts from a sermon originally given on January 14, 2018.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word, Year B vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Marsh, Michael. interruptingthesilence.com. Jan 16, 2012. (accessed Jan 13, 2018).
This past week, Emma Green wrote a piece in The Atlantic titled A Christian Insurrection. It was about a small group of Christians who, for weeks leading up to the horrific insurrection on our democracy, had been gathering to march around the US Capitol building – fasting and praying for election integrity.
These events were part of the Jericho March; named after the biblical story where Joshua marched around Jericho blowing horns until the walls came down.
These self-professed Christians believed the noise they were making was doing God’s work. But last Wednesday the world saw whose bidding they were really doing.
On the Mall nearby, Green reported hearing a man yell “Shout if you love Jesus!” And the crowd cheered. Then the same man yelled again, “Shout if you love Trump!” The crowd cheered louder.
Even after a police officer died defending the capitol from attack, many continue to believe the coup attempt was holy and justified. I have a severe problem with this.
The Jesus I know from the gospels would not condone such behavior. The Jesus I know would have never weaponized people to wage a violent insurrection.
The Jesus from the gospels did not fight even when he was being arrested or unjustly crucified.
The Jesus I love said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” For that, God blessed him with a name above all others.
Read Mark 1:1-11
There are two things are worth noting here at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. First, the Holy Spirit of God is “a dove that descended from heaven.” And second, a voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
After the September 11th terrorist attacks on our country, then President George Walker Bush famously said to the world, “You’re either with us, or against us.” Although this was tough, hawkish language meant to garner support from our allies, this “us versus them” mentality has set the stage for the bitterly divisive place we’re in today.
Now Mark begins his gospel identifying Jesus – not with a war hawk, but with a dove, the symbol of peace. God’s shalom. This instantly sets Jesus apart from other human rulers whose reigns depend on violence and bloodshed to secure more power, not peace. The author will spend the rest of his gospel revealing what the Spirit of God’s peace means to us today.
The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. A voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
watch the message here.
If Wednesday’s coup attempt taught us anything, it should be this: Thirst for power corrupts us. But a hunger for peace unites us. We need to stop dividing ourselves over our petty differences and be united by our commonality. As our great advancements in science have proven, all humans are 99.9% identical. This leaves .01% for all the tiny little differences – like thumb prints and taste in music.
Paul Schoenfeld noticed, “Despite the vastness of our similarities and the breadth of our mutual desires and needs, it is easy to focus on our differences—in beliefs, life experience, aspirations, habits or personality. Today, there is so much emphasis on how we diverge. Whether they be political views, religious practices, or philosophy of life. These distinctions can have a way of creating the false view that there is an “us and them” that is everywhere. It can cause us to forget that we are one species.”
The Jesus I know from the gospels never took a “me versus them” approach. It was always “me and them.” You see, Jesus was inclusive. He loved and welcomed all – including those who eventually killed him.
If science is correct, that there’s merely .01% difference between you and me, that tells me we are also created like Jesus, who at his baptism The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. And a voice declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
In seminary, I did a class project to get people to see Jesus in a new light. Using my advertising skills, I created a series of billboards designed to look like handwritten notes from Jesus. They said things like “Spiritual but not religious? I understand completely.” Or “Like giving blood for a good cause? Me too.” Each note was signed “Love Jesus.” And on each the tagline read, “You might have more in common with Jesus than you think.”
Let’s think about our commonality. Jesus was birthed by a mother, and he relied on her to be fed, changed, and cared for. He had siblings who bothered him, and at least one weird relative named John the Baptist. He laughed, he cried, and he probably cussed when he stubbed his toe or spilled hot coffee on himself.
We can debate the divinity of Jesus, but he was undisputedly fully human. Along the Jordan River, he was claimed and named by God. “You are my beloved. “With you I am pleased.”
What does this say about who we are as humans? “These words revealed the true identity of Jesus as the beloved. Jesus truly heard that voice, and all of his thoughts, words, and actions came forth from his deep knowledge that he was infinitely loved by God” (Nouwen).
Despite the rejection, jealousy and hatred Jesus faced, he continued to show love to all people no matter what tribe they were from or what little faith they had. Jesus was deeply inclusive. He welcomed all people to come and follow his way back to God’s righteousness. The way he lived his life “from that inner place of love,” teaches us how to be human – and to be claimed and named by God.
Jesus set the bar by which we are all called to live – especially those baptized in his name. A bar that opposes violence, bigotry and hatred. A bar that turns the other cheek and sets aside one’s personal needs to care for others first.
His way is the way of God’s love and righteousness. He is a living example of God’s peace and shalom. Thus, Jesus is the One in whom God is well pleased. He is the One inviting all of us to join him - anywhere and everywhere - to uphold and promote the Kingdom of God, not the fiefdom of some ungodly, power hungry person.
But here’s the thing when we are divided into our camps, with hearts are hardened by anger and rage, this can be difficult to understand, making it nearly impossible to follow Jesus faithfully. To claim exclusive rights on Jesus as Richard Rohr points out, “might make it easier to worship him, but it makes it that much harder to imitate him.”
Today, as you leave here to watch sports or engage with others on Facebook, I want you to remember this: We’re all made God’s image. Even those jerks you don’t like or the idiots who don’t like you. This is where claiming the name Christian becomes difficult, but not impossible, to do.
For the last decade I have been seriously working on my ability to see Christ in the face of others. As I’ve stated on my blog, it’s my daily struggle to find the Divine in our midst. What I’ve learned along the way is, the more I try to focus on our commonality rather than our differences the easier it is to see the presence of God all around me. And we all have something in common, if only it’s the divine love that God has etched on every heart. I think Jesus was able to love, even the unlovable, because he understood this.
He knew we are all created in God’s image, which means we all house God’s Spirit of peace within us. This is how Jesus approached all people. You might know that Buddhist often bow to one another, not out of respect for the person but to show respect for the divine within that person. Take a moment to imagine what our world could be like if we allowed God’s love in us to bow in respect to the love of God in others like Jesus did.
The Spirit descended like a dove. A voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
As Jesus’ life will reveal, we won’t get along with everyone. We won’t always like people’s post or agree on the way some people do things. But in order to stake our claim on Christ’s name, we have to continue his mission of peace and receive one another in love because we all are God’s beloved children.
So, I’ll leave you with this to ask yourself: Am I living in a way that pleases God? Am I living into my baptism? Walking as Jesus walked? Loving as he loved? Am I caring for the least of these my brothers and sisters?
God’s dramatic acknowledgment of Jesus makes it clear that through his words and deeds we’re encountering God’s intensions for all people. And those intensions, according to the prophet Micah, are to see that justice and fairness is done for your neighbor, to be merciful and compassionate, loyal in your love, and to get off your high horse and humbly walk with your God. (Micah 6:8)
The words God spoke to Jesus in the wild rapids of the Jordan River are words spoken to us all.
To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, “Once we accept the truth that we are God’s beloved children, loved unconditionally, then we can go into the world to speak and to act as Jesus did.”
But when we hold on to rage and anger, and participate in divisiveness like we witnessed on Wednesday, it makes it harder for God’s love to penetrate our hearts. Harder, but not impossible.
Like heaven at baptism, God is able to break through our hearts and gives us peace.
If we can truly believe that God is speaking to us, calling us the beloved, then we can begin to see that it’s not our subtle .01% differences that make us standout. It's how we live out our similarities as one people in the name of the One who unites us in perfect peace and calls us all home to be with him.
Let us pray: Loving God, you have made yourself known in Christ Jesus, and by his words and deeds we have learned what it means to be your beloved. Empower us with your Holy Spirit, to be peacemakers, for the glory of your name in which we have been named your beloved. Amen.
Green, Emma. A Christian Insurrection. The Atlantic. January 8, 2021 (accessed on January 8, 2021).
Nouwen, Henri. Anchor Yourself In God’s Love from You Are the Beloved. (New York: Convergent, 2017)
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And…Daily Meditations. (Cincinnati: Franciscan, 1997) p. 249
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. (New York: Convergent, 2018) p. 23.
Schoenfeld, Paul. We are more similar than different. everettclinic.com on July 26, 2017 (accessed on January 8, 2021).
The Christmas Hallmark
The late Ram Das spoke about a Rabbi who, after reading the holy scriptures, would instruct his students to place those words on their hearts. One day a student asked, “Rabbi why do say to put these words on my heart and not in it?”
“Because” said the Rabbi, “only God can put things in your heart. We put them on our hearts so when God cracks us open, they will fall inside.”
Last year did it’s best to crack us. For many it did more than that. So today we gather with the new year and with a new chance to fill those cracks with the goodness of the Lord who is renewing us from within; transforming our hearts and minds so that we might go and transform our world. You seen, the church is not a building full of people. It’s people building upon the love and a grace of God. And to do so by sharing it.
Andrew Benson tells the story of a little girl building a sandcastle. It’s a palace fit for the princess who fills her imagination. Before she can complete it, a wave comes and crashes over her masterpiece. Instead crying or throwing a fit, the little girl picks up her bucket and begins again. He writes “We build something beautiful in our minds or with our hands, and we hope our work endures. Then the tide comes in and rolls over us. Trial after trial, set back after set back, we build and rebuild. It’s what we do. It’s what God does.”
Last year, the waves came crashing down on us. But God was there, rebuilding us and making something new out of great love for us. It’s a story that is repeated time and time again in the bible. One of which we read about here, from the young prophet Jeremiah.
READ JEREMIAH 31:7-14
What a perfect reading for a new year. It reminds us of why our faith is so important to how we move through life. Like I’ve always said, faith is less about getting into heaven when we die and more about living in heaven right now. Jeremiah gives us a great picture of what that living looks like – people gathered from every corner of the earth to shout praises and raise their glasses to toast God. There’s singing and dancing and celebrating the goodness of life.
Today, in these last days of the Christmas season, churches around the world are celebrating Epiphany, when God revealed God’s self to the world. It’s often accompanied by the story of the Magi coming to visit Jesus. But today, I want to talk about the epiphany I had while binge watching Hallmark Christmas movies this past week.
Now if you’re not familiar with this pop-sugar phenomenon here’s some things you need to know. There’s often a character with a Christmas name like Holly, Noel, Nick or Chris. In every story there’s a cynical person from the big city who for some reason has to go to a small town where they discover, or rediscover, the magic of Christmas. And fall in love with hot cocoa. No matter where this small town is located, it’s always within driving distance to Manhattan. And there’s always snow. Lots of snow.
There’s also a certain mystique and mystery about Hallmark Christmas movies that draws you in and makes you want to watch more. It isn’t the predictable outcome, boy meets girl and falls in love. Nor is it the fact that everyone is obsessed with Christmas or that every square inch of their home or business has been professionally decorated by magical elves with an endless supply of ornaments. It’s more subtle than that. After watching three movies back to back, I began to notice that in every scene, people are smiling. And for some strange reason it makes me want to watch more Hallmark Christmas movies. I guess that the old saying is true - smiling is contagious.
Sadly, this doesn’t happen enough in the real world. Not even at Disney, and that’s the happiest place on earth. The real world is full of cynicism, and real pain and deep suffering. These days it seems to lack that joy and goodness that makes us want to smile. But not in towns like Holiday Falls or Hope Junction. There everyone smiles. All the time. No matter how bleak or dire the situation becomes, they smile – faithfully believing that everything will turn out alright by Christmas. And you know what...it does. They smile because they have hope.
The previous chapters in Jeremiah are dedicated to warning God’s people that a time will come when their world will come crashing down. In today’s reading, the prophet reminds them not to lose hope. Instead, keep smiling because God is always smiling upon you.
But here’s the thing, you don’t have to live in a world where a cup of cocoa can solve all our problems, to produce a smile. You just need a small glimmer of hope. Long before that first Christmas Day, the incarnation was already unfolding.
Jeremiah’s words remind us that God is always one step ahead of us, leading us to whence we came. We can have hope in God, knowing that what we’re dealing with today is preparing us for what is to come tomorrow. This should be good news for all of us who survived 2020. Christmas is our reminder that life is pregnant with hope, always giving birth to God’s grace and glory. Knowing that God has included us in that story ought to bring a smile to everyone’s face.
Now another characteristic of every Hallmark Christmas movie is the fact that someone or something needs to be rescued – like the annual Christmas pageant or a small family business. But that rescue is usually the precursor to the main characters being redeemed from his or her past.
For forty years Jeremiah warned the people that something bad was about to unfold. If they didn’t repent and return to God, then they too will fall like the many nations that had conquered them in the past. Eventually his prophecy would come true. And God’s people would be scattered and stuck in places they don’t want to be. As they were being humbled, all they had to hold onto was the hope of God’s promise that Jeremiah spoke about.
This is what makes this passage important for us as we start the new year. There are places we find ourselves that we don’t want to be in. Dark places of addiction, anger, jealousy, or resentment. Places that steal our joy and cause us to lose hope in God’s word. Like these silly movies show us, we are all in need of being saved, if only from ourselves.
We’re all in need of Christmas - God’s final word on salvation. In Christ, God came to save us from ourselves by showing us how to live rightly in God’s promise. It’s in this way of living, God transforms us to be who God created us to be - kind, loving, peacemakers seeking justice and equality for all people.
In Hallmark Christmas Land, this transformation is obvious. With a renewed heart, the redeemed character always decides the big city life just isn’t where they belong anymore. So they buy the failing bookstore or crumbling hotel and start over. They give themselves a second chance at life.
Hope and restoration. That is the hallmark of Christmas.
This is exactly the Christmas gift God is offering you in Christ Jesus. This is the great Epiphany - that God came to be with us, to rescue us, by becoming one of us. On Christmas, God's grace became incarnate and transformed the world; restoring us and returning us to place where our hearts have always belonged - at home with God.
This doesn’t mean we won’t have more days like we experienced in 2020. There will be suffering and sorrow, and hard times that will challenge us. But out of pain comes healing, out of darkness comes light. God’s mercy and grace that is given to us in Christ Jesus is just what we need to help us through difficult situations. Like Jeremiah points out when the hard times end, we will be closer to God than we were before.
Which takes me to one last thing about Hallmark Christmas movies. This is the obvious one. Every movie ends with true love being found. Which makes total sense, because Christmas is the greatest love story ever told. Christ is proof of God’s unconditional, transformative love. A love that is real and everlasting, and always catches us off guard.
It’s the kind of love that cracks our heart wide open and allows God to be where God wants to be the most. In you - singing, dancing, celebrating and of course sipping endless amounts of hot cocoa.
As the new year begins, I hope that you will always remember that in Christ God has given us a chance to renew our faith and to place our hope in the great heart that leads us home for Christmas.
Let us pray:
Gracious Lord, in the complexities of life, you have revealed yourself to us in simple ways. As we leave here today, may we always see you and welcome you, in the faces of family, friends and strangers. With hearts cracked open, we invite you to make your home in us. And to place your peace so that we can share it with others for the glory of your name. Amen.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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