Friday Feature #3 (on a Tuesday)

Shucks, Y’all! With all that I had going on, I completely forgot to post December’s Friday Feature. I briefly considered just skipping it and waiting to post this one the last Friday of January but this particular podcast has helped me examine and articulate my own personal experiences as a teen and young adult in church, and although I am no longer in the denomination of my childhood, what I continue to experience with others who are. So, consider this regular post on a Tuesday a bonus Friday Feature!

Before I introduce this month’s podcast, let me just say upfront, it isn’t always easy to listen to, especially if you have been harmed, to any degree or at any level, by the type of behavior in a church that the podcast addresses. Let me also say what an excellent job the writers and host do in presenting the hard reality with an atmosphere of grace. Mike Cowper (host) and those he interviews remind us often that even with the emotional and spiritual abuse inflicted by the leaders of this particular mega church, people came to know Jesus. It is a grace-filled approach that reminds me that despite the negative experiences I had in the denomination of my childhood, I found Jesus.

For me, it is a living example of redemption. God continues to take the scars caused by the harm other people have inflicted and is leading me through a season of healing and growth. The Gospel writer Luke tells us that as Jesus grew up as a child and adolescent that he grew in wisdom (see Luke 2:40-52; I’ve preached on this the past two Sundays). Jesus calls us to follow him in this continual growth through the whole of our lives.

When we are harmed by others, especially by those who claim to be christians, we can choose to grow bitter or grow better. We can turn toward God in our pain, trusting and knowing that the God of Love does not sanction in any way the harm caused us, finding comfort with our Compassionate Creator. In time, we can use our own healed pain to help others heal. As we seek to grow and mature in wisdom with Jesus, we can discern where and how we might be, either individually or as a part of a larger group, causing harm to others, intentionally or not.

There are no human institutions that are perfect and absolutely none that are infallible, even churches. When we witness the faults and failings of others, instead of judging or just gawking, we need to ask ourselves “what in myself and the institutions in which I serve needs to be made new by God’s gracious love?” We must work, with God’s help, to extricate the log from our own eyes (see Matthew 7:1-5).

The podcast is titled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and is hosted by Mike Cowper.

I’d appreciate hearing how you respond to this series, if you are willing to share.

God’s peace,
Mtr. Nancy+

Water & Fire

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings for the Baptism of our Lord are here.

Do any of you, like me during this relatively short yet seems so long time from Thanksgiving to New Years struggle with keeping up with what day it is? Even when our world isn’t disrupted by a pandemic, the out-of-routine-ness of this time of year messes with my ability to keep up with the date, time, and what happened when. Didn’t we just talk about Jesus’ baptism? Haven’t we been repeating stories a lot lately? And didn’t we just talk last week about Jesus as a kid? How is he grown already?

Our brains are designed to understand time linearly and sometimes, we seem to get caught in these spirals of memory that leave us a bit discombobulated. My son, the youngest of mine and Jim’s combined family, turned 32 this past week. He didn’t ask my permission to grow up, he just did. And it surely doesn’t seem like 32 years have passed since he was born but that’s what the calendar says, even if I can’t make sense of it in my head.

So, I’m going to try and keep us all on a straight path here as I bring back up a couple of sermons and readings from recent weeks that will hopefully help us all get on the same page today. With last week’s sermon, I wanted us to focus on the reality of Jesus as a person, a baby, a child, an adolescent with parents and friends and family and community activities. One of the more striking verses from last week’s reading that a few of you have noted was that Jesus went with his parents and was obedient to them and the gospel writer Luke associates this obedience with Jesus growing in wisdom.

Jesus, the incarnation of the very God who created us and everything, the universe and beyond, came as a vulnerable baby to be raised by parents and grow as a child and adolescent and young adult. Jesus fully God and fully human, submitted himself to the authority of these parents as he grew in wisdom.

And, as we first read on the third Sunday of Advent and then again today, Jesus submitted himself to the authority of his cousin, John the Baptizer, a prophet and messenger of God.

So, yes, it was just a few weeks ago that we read some of these same verses along with the part where John calls those he is baptizing a brood of vipers. And I promised you that it was a message of Love. Really.

God’s assurance to his children has always been that when we change our heart, when we choose God’s Way, in other words, when we REPENT, God rejoices over us with gladness and renews us in his love. God’s desire isn’t to destroy us in wrath but to embrace us in Love, drawing us always closer toward him.

In our day and age, we don’t consider baptism as a radical act but John’s call to baptism in his day and time was quite radical. Baptism, the ritual immersion in water, was part of the ceremony of non-Jews converting to Judaism. It was a ritual cleansing away of the old way of life so one could begin living the new way. But John tells even the Jews to repent and be baptized. John is saying, “this is a new thing, God is making things new for all of us, let’s wash ourselves clean of the old ways and step into what God is doing here and now.”

And as he proclaimed this new thing, folks wondered if John himself were the One God had promised to send to his people. John emphatically tells them he is not, that someone greater will come one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

When all the people had been baptized it is only then that Jesus also was baptized. Jesus didn’t put himself at the top of the list, the front of the line. The One who is more powerful than John put himself last and submitted to the same baptism we are all called to as God’s beloved children.

So what about this baptism by fire thing? I think we get too caught up in equating fire with God’s anger, and I’m not saying it isn’t in scripture, but the overwhelming majority of the time when fire is mentioned in our holy scriptures both the Old and the New Testaments, it isn’t about wrath or anger but about purification and growth.

Fire purifies, we boil water to make it safe to drink, we cook food to make it safe to eat, precious metals are purified by melting them, steel is strengthened by heating it, new land is made by volcanoes, forests and grasslands are renewed by fire. Yes, fire can also destroy but that is not how the writers of our scriptures used it most of the time.

Gods spoke to Moses through a burning bush in which the fire did not consume the bush.
When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, he went before them as a pillar of fire. At Pentecost, flames sit on the disciples and do not burn them.

And in our OT reading today, God says through the prophet Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

We also talked previously about just what winnowing is: the process of blowing a current of air through grain in order to remove the chaff, the husk that covers the actual fruit. The image of Jesus with his winnowing fork is an image of purification and growing in wisdom. What’s burned away in the unquenchable fire is that which gets in the way of our relationship with God. It isn’t separating good people from bad people, it’s about purifying the good that is already in all of us as we are created in God’s image.

Jesus submitted to the authority of God through baptism as an invitation for us to follow him in this submission. Our twenty first century, western world thinking tells us that submitting ourselves to anyone is a sign of weakness. Jesus shows us it is the way to wisdom and strength.

Our ego is the chaff that gets in between us and God. But this ego problem isn’t something new and modern. The very first humans whom God had tasked to care for his garden decided they didn’t have to submit to every rule of God and look where it got them.

In Jesus’ time, those living under Roman Rule would have equated submitting to the oppression of not only the Pax Romana but also the Pharisees of the temple. Part of this “new thing” that John was inviting others to be baptized into was a new understanding of submitting in relationship with God. The God who made us and formed us, the God who says to us “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” invites us into the relationship we are created for with the understanding that God is God and we are not.

At our baptism, we, or our parents on our behalf, enter into a covenant with God as we answer a series of questions that frame our submitting to who God is and Whose we are:
We are asked if we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and all sinful desires that draw us away from the love of God. These are the chaff that cover the image of God in each of us. This is what God wants to separate us from and burn away.

And after submitting to the winnowing process, we are asked if we will turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Savior, putting our whole trust in his grace and love, and promising to follow and obey him as our Lord?

When we submit, when we follow Jesus, we are adopted into God’s kingdom so that we, like Jesus, hear God say, “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” When we submit we have the reassurance that God is always faithful to us even when we choose our own way and that when we return, God will always welcome us in love.

Jesus shows us what living in submission to God looks like in flesh and blood and he invites us to follow him in obedience, growing in wisdom as God’s beloved children through the whole of our life, in all that we do and in all the time in which we live.

Our children may grow up without us realizing it, time may pass too quickly at times and we can’t seem to keep up, but God gives us permission and yes, calls us to continuously grow in wisdom and grace, remaining obedient to him regardless of our age. We are always his children. Amen.

Active Prayer

I posted this on Facebook on New Year’s Day:

For the year to come, I pray for the wisdom that will enable me to be an active participant in bringing about the Peace on Earth we all long for. Wishing won’t get us there but prayer and active participation in God’s work will.

If I pray for more love in the world and then do not love God, my neighbor, and my enemy, my prayer is not sincere. If I pray for more unity and peace and then exclude others, my prayer is not sincere. If I pray for change and refuse change myself, my prayer is not sincere.

I pray we all come to know more deeply that we are beloved children of God, invited to walk the Way of Love with Jesus, participating in the answer to our prayer “your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

In part, it’s a response to all of the posts wishing everyone peace and happiness in the coming year. I want the same for everyone as well, for sure, but I also believe that passive wishes are ineffective, even if we label them prayers. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray to make us feel better; he taught us to pray so that, in conversation with God, we are changed and transformed into who God calls us to be: beloved children, heirs of God’s kingdom, participating with God to make it on earth now as it already is in heaven.

There have been countless debates in our theological history with much ink and blood spilled over “works” or “faith” being most important. But it isn’t either/or. It’s both/and. We pray for God’s will to be done and then we listen for what is ours to do to bring it about with God’s help. God chooses to work in and through us, his beloved, to bring about his purposes. And I hope that thought brings you as much joy and excitement as it does me!! God chooses US! He CHOSE us long before he even created us, before he put the stars and planets in their courses, before he created all that is. God chose us knowing we’d misuse the great gift of free-will. God gave us free-will so that we could have the option to choose him back because love is a choice.

When we focus only on works, our tendency is to give ourselves the credit for the good in the world. When we focus only on faith, we tend to use God as the scapegoat for the bad in this world. But when we seek an active relationship with God as we follow Jesus, our faith informs our works and our works deepen our faith.

God’s peace be with all y’all in this year to come as we work together with God to bring about the Kingdom.

Growing in Wisdom

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The Lectionary readings for the second Sunday after Christmas are here.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR! How are you feeling about the year to come? Excited, anxious, hopeful, fearful, ambiguous? Are you setting expectations or are you just going to roll with it as it comes? Do you have a plan or have you given up on planning anything? Are you just going to charge ahead into the new year or are you stepping in intentionally with your eyes and heart open to seeing where God is at work and listening for God’s call for what is yours to do?

Time moves forward, regardless of anything we do. God created the order and rhythm of the sun and the moon, days and nights, winter, spring, summer, and autumn. The time we inhabit is a sacred gift of God. What we do with and in time is our choice. And regardless of how hard we may work to ensure things “stay the same” it is God’s intention that we move and grow through time, continuously being formed into who we are created and called to be.

Today’s gospel reading is the one and only story we have of Jesus’ childhood. This story paints such a concrete picture of the life of a jewish family and community in first century Palestine, I feel like we can just step into it and imagine ourselves as one of them, inhabiting God’s story along side them.

Mary and Joseph had taken their annual trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. But this wasn’t a roadtrip as we’d think of one: a nuclear family traveling independently in their own vehicle from one place to another.

Traveling was treacherous: there weren’t rest areas every 50 miles, there were no restaurants or hotels or gas stations along the way. Today, Google maps says it will take about 30 hours to walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem. The journey is about 90 miles, on foot, taking anywhere from 3-5 days. And it wasn’t just Mary and Joseph. It would have been most everyone from Nazareth making the journey together – 100s of people with some pack animals and carts to carry what they needed for the trip and the festival. There weren’t roadside hotels or rest stops.

And when the festival was over, Mary and Joseph and the entire community began the return trip home. But they didn’t realize Jesus had stayed behind. They assumed he was in the traveling group.

Imagine it: it’s the morning of the departure and Mary and Joseph are packing up. Jesus, being twelve, starts to wander away. Mary probably assumes he’s going to hang out with his friends and tells him to be ready to go at a certain time. “Yes, Mamma,” Jesus says in the absent minded twelve year old way, and Mary resumes her packing and loading.

And as the group starts to pull out of Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph know and trust that their entire community is looking out for each other and assume Jesus is with a group of kids. They check in with those around them and everyone seems to be ready and accounted for.
“Here let me help you with the last of that stuff, we have a little extra room in our cart.”
“Do you have enough water? We have enough to share if you run out, I picked up a couple of extra new jars and filled them.”
“We are getting a late start, how far do you think we’ll make it today?”
“Yes, I saw him, he’s with the other boys over there.”
“This year’s festival was so special but it’s always good to be heading home.”

And as evening approaches, Mary and the other mothers start rounding up their kiddos for supper. As the groups of kids start to disperse, Jesus is no where to be found.
“Boys, is he with you?”
“No, I saw him this morning but he said something about his father’s business so we thought he was staying with you.”

Mary and Joseph panic. Where is he? Those around them do their best to reassure them. “He’s got to be here somewhere? Boys, when did you see him last? Which way was he heading? Pass the word up and down the group: where’s Jesus? He’s not here, he must have stayed behind. But why? He knew we were leaving today.”

And so, Mary and Joseph separate from the group. “Y’all go ahead, we’ll return and look for him. He’s probably hurrying along the road to catch up with us. He knows the way.” Imagine their fear.

But they don’t find him along the road and for three days, they search and search in Jerusalem, until they find him, safe and sound in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening and asking questions, as if everything were as it is supposed to be.

Have you every thought your child was lost, lost sight of them momentarily in a store or at the park? What was your response when you found them? It’s a mix of relief, anger, and love, a flood of emotions so immense, we don’t know what to express first.

Mary responds as most any mother would, “Why have you done this to us? Don’t you know we were worried about you?”

Jesus tries to reassure them that everything is fine: “I must be in my father’s house, I am supposed to be about my father’s business.”

The family returns to Nazareth, to the relief of their community and all we are told of the rest of Jesus’ adolescence is that he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

What’s going on in your heads and hearts as we picture Jesus as a kid with his parents and in his community? What are you thinking when you hear that Jesus grew in wisdom? Does it draw you closer into relationship with him? Does it make you question what you think you know and believe? Does it allow you to see the reality of the humanness of Jesus? Does it strengthen your faith in Jesus as one with God? Does it help you know more concretely, your place in God’s story?

This story is about growing in wisdom and is bookended with the word ‘wisdom’. The verse right before our reading today says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

This very human story is given to us, wrapped in the wisdom of knowing Whose and who we are so that we can know the what it is to be wholly, and holy human, beloved children of God, as a model of the way God intends for us to inhabit this time we are in. In the midst of our daily rhythms and annual occurrences, we grow and mature in wisdom as we walk with God.

Wisdom is what enables us to take what we know and live it. Wisdom is what enables us to live into our humanness from the image of God within us.

Whatever your approach to this new year, step into it with the confidence that we are all in God’s Story, participants with God in bringing about God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom made up of all people, bound together in God’s name, with God’s love, illuminated by the image of God in all of us, growing in wisdom.

In last week’s sermon, I made the statement that Jesus is more fully human than anyone because he never tried to live any other way than from the image of God. We are created to live this way. Our anxiety, our stress, our fear, our trepidation all comes from our attempt to live into our humanness without acknowledging the image of God in us, when we disconnect ourselves from the very source of who we are to be. We are most fully human when we live fully as God’s beloved.

God chose us BEFORE the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him IN LOVE.

And, so I invite all of us to take the prayer that Paul prays for the church at Ephesus and pray it on behalf of our St. Francis by the Lake community as we intentionally step into what God is doing in and among and through all of us in this year to come. In your bulletin, look at the New Testament lesson and let’s pray together: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Amen.

Receiving Christmas

A sermon preached the first Sunday of Christmas at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings are here.

Soooooo, if you were here yesterday, you may be wondering if:
A) That in all of the pre-Christmas commotion, did we forget to update the gospel lesson in the bulletin, OR
B) That you are so discombobulated by all of the Christmas festivities, that you think you imagined the same gospel lesson yesterday and today OR
C) That we slipped some extra eggnog into your coffee this morning OR
D) That Mother Nancy’s just gotten lazy and is replaying the gospel and sermon from yesterday.

Let me reassure you that none of the above are true. One of the choices for the gospel reading for Christmas Day is the same lesson at the First Sunday of Christmas. Except for one little detail – today’s is longer and includes more verses than the reading for Christmas Day. Now, I won’t pretend to fathom the brilliant minds that are the keepers of the Lectionary and offer some explanation as to why, I’ll just run with it and do my very best to give you something to ponder for this coming week.

But before I do my bit, let me ask, for those of you who were here yesterday, Christmas Day, is there anything you remember? That’s a seriously dangerous question for a preacher to ask!

So, for those of you who weren’t here yesterday, let me bring you up to speak. We talked about how John’s telling of the nativity, the story of God coming to us, doesn’t include what we expect in the Christmas Story – there’s no shepherds nor angels nor a baby in a manger. John chooses to take us farther up and farther into God’s eternal story so that we can hear God calling us to participate with him in the bringing about of the kingdom on earth as in heaven as we live the Christmas Story every day of the year.

And John leaves us with no doubt that Jesus was fully God and fully human, both God and made in the image of God, and that from this fullness – some say that Jesus is more fully human than we can even imagine being because he never tried to live any other way than in the image of God – from his abundance of grace and his absolute truth, we are given, we are able to receive all that God has to give. Grace upon grace.

But just what is grace? Grace is that which we don’t deserve. And this is so often taken as a negative with statements like: we don’t deserve God’s love but he gives it to us anyway. That sure doesn’t sound much like ‘good news’ to me, how about you?

The good news of God’s grace is that we don’t have to work ourselves to death to get it. Regardless of the choices we’ve made in life, God offers us the gift of his love and life and light. God doesn’t love us “in spite of” or “regardless of” or “because of” anything we’ve done; God loves us because of who God is.

In the beginning, God made us in his image and said we are good, and our place in God’s creation made all of creation very good.

And from the beginning, God gives us the choice to live into the good and holy image in which we are created, to bear this image to the world so that the world knows that every human being is given the power to bear the good and holy image of God, to love as God loves.

When God first gave the law to Moses, the Ten Commandments, it was to help the Israelites learn to love as God loves: an unconditional, all in, other focused love. People who love God and their neighbor and themselves as God loves don’t need other gods; we don’t need to boost up our own egos by working constantly and can let go of our need to control and rest; we don’t have to take or even desire what others have, life or property, because we seek together to ensure everyone has what they need. This is how God says loving people live.

And when God decided the time was right, he came to show us the truth of what living in love looks like in flesh and blood. This unconditional, self-giving love looks like a baby in a manger, born to parents who risked everything, even their own lives, to walk with God into God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. This love looks like the poorest of shepherds and the wealthiest and most educated traversing difficult journeys to get in on what God is doing in this world because they are willing to accept the awe and mystery of something they can’t fully grasp.

This love looks like a man who spends time with those on the margins of society and who works to restore the dignity of life in others, who feeds the hungry, washes feet, and heals even those who seek to harm him.

This God’s-image-bearing love works to include everyone because everyone is a precious child of God. This love sheds light on the truth that real power is demonstrated by compassion.

And although it is the baby Jesus we celebrate during Christmas, it is the life and words and actions of the man Jesus that we follow every day of the year as we learn from him more and more who God is and whose we are as beloved children. That’s the good news: that we can know whose and who we are, if we seek the truth of that in the right place, with the right person – the one through whom we are all created, the One that John testifies to, our source of life and light and love.

But just what does that look like for us here and now?

Do you know the poem by Howard Thurman titled “The Work of Christmas”?
Howard Thurman was an American author, theologian, and civil rights worker in the first half of the twentieth century and was a mentor and spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.

Thurman’s most known book is titled Jesus and the Disinherited in which he discusses nonviolent responses to oppression.

His short poem, taken from a collection of writings on Christmas is one many of us see floating around this time of year:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

Christmas isn’t over, the season of Christmas, the twelve days of Christmas is just beginning. But the work of Christmas, the coming of God among us to remind us of whose image we bear, is ours to do with God’s help all year long.

The work of Christmas is seen in the lives of the greats like Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King and Bishop Desmond Tutu who’s death we grieve today, but we know that the light they shown so brightly is the light of God and the darkness will not overcome it. These men and so many others have devoted their lives to the work of Christmas.

And when we choose to follow Jesus beyond the manger and into the hurting world where ever we are, the work of Christmas also looks like what we do in our community and families to help those who feel lost feel love, to feed the hungry both physically and spiritually, to tell people of the freedom of the good news of God, that we don’t have to earn God’s love, God loves us because of who God is and who we are. The work of Christmas happens as we receive the gift of God’s love, letting it flow through us into the world, sharing the message of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

A Different View

A sermon preached on Christmas Day at St. Francis by the Lake in Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings are here.

As you listened to the gospel reading just now, did you find it odd that it wasn’t about the manger scenes we typically associate with Christmas Day? Where are Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and angels? Where is the baby Jesus? Isn’t Christmas about the baby Jesus?

Well, yes, it is, but there’s so much more and I want us to talk about the ‘more’. God didn’t come as a baby to stay a baby or just to give us something to celebrate one day a year but to remind us of, to help us remember, the full and abundant life we are create for. This is the part of the story that John provides for us.

What we typically tell as “the Christmas Story” comes from a mashup of details from the gospel writers Luke and Matthew. The details they each provide place the story of the birth of Jesus into time and history as we can humanly understand it.

Luke tells us that by the time he chose to write his version of the birth of Jesus, that many folks had already “applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” And that, “after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning … [he] decided to write a carefully ordered account… to provide confidence in the soundness of the instruction [we] have received.”

Luke starts with the announcement to Elizabeth and Zechariah of the birth of John, who would be Jesus’ cousin. And he tells of the angel’s visit to Mary and the reason for the trip to Bethlehem, and how they ended up in the stable, as well as the visit by the shepherds.

Matthew doesn’t give us a reason for writing what he writes, but starts with the genealogy, from Abraham to Joseph, the husband of Mary and then simply tells us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” before telling the story of the Magi traveling by the star to find the newborn king, whom they find in a house, not a stable. But we’ll save talking about them for Epiphany, because despite what our manger scenes may look like, they didn’t arrive until later.

And just so I don’t give the impression of ignoring the other gospel writer, Mark, I’ll just say that in his immediacy, Mark starts his version with Jesus and his cousin John already grown and offers nothing of their conception, birth, or childhood.

When John penned his version of God’s story, he decided to go way back before the birth of baby Jesus to the Beginning, to take us into the eternal nature of the story. Because, you see, the birth of Jesus wasn’t an add-on or a plan B, Jesus was and is and will always be part of God’s eternal story. And John tells us how we are a part of God’s eternal story, too.

In the Beginning was … the Word, Jesus, somehow, in holy mystery, both God and with God. One and yet distinct. In the beginning was also the mystery of the Trinity but that’s for another sermon on another Sunday. This is Christmas. The celebration of the birth of Jesus, yes, but not the beginning. Or the middle. Or the end. It is a continuation of God’s Story of Love.

This celebration, this Mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus, is so much more than a day.
It is so much more than a box of decorations we get out once a year and then put away when we are done with them. It is so much more than a once a year meal with our extended family and friends. It is so much more than the wonderfully wrapped “Just what I wanted” under the tree.

It is more than our words can fully describe. What we celebrate today is the Holy Mystery of God who spoke us into being in Love, for Love, to Love.
We celebrate the God who called an ancient people to learn to love as he loves so that the world would know love.
The God who again and again forgives when we choose our own way, for taking what we want instead of being grateful for the abundance God gives.
The God who always offers us the choice to be who we are created to be or try to find life for ourselves.
The God who loves us regardless of our choices and waits for us to return to who we are meant to be.
The God who feels the pain of our choices and offers us comfort and courage and strength.
The God who says, “you are my beloved.”
This is the God we celebrate.

God came as a vulnerable and fragile infant, born to the poorest of parents, in a time dominated by fear and violence to shine the light of love into the darkness.
God came to live and die as one of us so that we could live every moment of every day as we are created to live, in the image of the God who spoke us all into being in the beginning.

“Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”

This is what we celebrate with our manger scenes and trees and ornaments and gifts: the love and light and life that comes from the God who created all things and all of us as beloved children.

So that, as with our collective prayer we prayed to be “daily renewed by God’s Holy Spirit”. This Word, this Light, this life is for all of us, to guide our steps in The Way of Love.

God comes to us every moment of every day, waiting for us to respond to his invitation of love and life. The Christmas story is God’s Eternal Story and we are a part of the story. We are, each and every one of us, born in God’s image. We are born to shine the light of love into the darkness of this world. Each and every baby born, whether in a stable or in the grandest of palaces and every possible place in between says that God isn’t finished writing his story yet.

The baby in the manger scenes is our reminder of who we are born to be: beloved children of God.

Mary and Joseph remind us that even when God calls us to do the really hard things that he is with us, giving us courage and strength.

The angels proclaiming the birth are our reminder to share the message of hope and love we’ve been given.

The shepherds remind us of the awe and wonder of God coming to us, as we are, not requiring us to earn our way into his presence but drawing us into the kingdom, into God’s eternal story, as activists participants, shining the light into the darkness.

Yes, the Christmas story is about the baby Jesus, but it is so much more. It is the story of who we are meant to be, written by God, in which we are given the power to be children of God, born of God in Jesus’ name.

It is the story of God with us in our homes and in our places of work and play and where we volunteer and shop and participate in our communities.

Christmas is about God with us every day of the year, shaping and transforming us as we participate with God in the answer to the prayer the grown up Jesus teaches us: God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.


Knowing Joy

It’s almost Christmas, y’all! And before I go any further, let me say I enjoy Christmas festivities, I really do, but over the past several years, I’ve embraced a simpler way of Christmas. I’m certain that the main reason is that as a priest, Christmas isn’t time off but a season of additional work. But a lot of it has to do with a deeply forming desire to experience the (and I’m sorry this has become so cliche, I really am being sincere and authentic) true meaning of the Holy Day (holiday) of God becoming flesh for all our sake, the real reason for the season, why we celebrate the Mass of Christ (get it? Christ’s Mass, Christmas) in the first place.

And there’s a few more pieces to the puzzle as well (If you can’t tell, I’ve been thinking this through a lot because I want to make sure I’m not just becoming a grinch in my old age). I am also on a journey of doing my best with God’s help to not overload my days and weeks in any season and to step out of the western culture’s ideal of hustle and hurry. It’s tough to follow Jesus when I’m running around being busy for the sake of being busy.

And, I’ll just go ahead and say it: gifts cause me stress. I’m not a clever gift giver. I can’t, at a moments notice (or even a long notice), think of the perfect gift for anyone. If I’m out and about and see something that makes me think of someone I treasure (the ‘someone’ not the ‘something’) and if I can afford it, I might think through getting it for them but it’s the thinking that often stops me: do they already have something like this, do they need something like this, do they even want to add one more ‘thing’ to their existing stuff, will they like it or will they be annoyed at me for getting it for them (yes, seriously, I think that last question the most, you other Enneagram 9s will understand)? These questions began running through my head long before I started downsizing, decluttering, and limiting the ‘stuff’ in my own life.

So, with all of this, and the fact that Christmas doesn’t even begin until December 25, I’ve let myself off the hook from all of the stress, hustle, and bustle of the time before December 25 (which, as you know, is the season of Advent which is about slowing down and reflecting anyway). During the 12 days of Christmas, I’ll make cookies and goodies and mail cards to my people treasures and I will enjoy it.

I’ve given myself permission to let go of the expectations of the “best ever” Christmas because I’ve come to know that The Best is already with us, leading us on the Way of Love every day of the year. With God’s help and my continuously awakening awareness of God’s Presence, I know the joy of the birth of Jesus.

I experienced this ever abiding joy and Presence just this past Sunday. We awoke to discover that our aging dog had died during the night. It was early and I had to be at church to lead worship. And so I prayed: I gave thanks for the companionship and love this wonderful dog has brought us. And I cried because I will miss her sitting with me while I pray in the morning. And I prayed some more and I asked God for the strength for the morning.

As I read the Eucharistic Prayer, The Presence of God was so very real to me. It is every time, but this time was different, more solider (to borrow a word from C. S. Lewis). I felt and knew the joy of stepping into God’s Story more than I ever had before. And it was nothing I did but a gift from God to enable me to do what is mine with God’s help to do.

I do not believe this experience is limited to those of us called to be ordained. Each and every human being is a beloved child of God and God wants all of us to experience the reality and joy of The Presence with us and in us and in each other. This joy is so real, so much more and solider than anything. Even when we grieve. Even when we hurt. Even when we just can’t grasp what is going on in this world. Even when we are laughing in a room full of folks we treasure. Even when we get that one thing we’ve wanted more than all the other things. Even when we realize that things can’t sustain happiness.

May you experience the joy of God’s Presence this day and all days, my friends. Emmanuel.


A Sunday reflection.
The lectionary readings – and the prayer (collect) for the Fourth Sunday in Advent are here.

I first began posting the Sunday prayer from the Book of Common Prayer each week way back in seminary. For each Sunday of the church year there is a prayer designated to fit the theme of the scripture readings and season. And although the language may sometime sound a bit archaic (y’all know how strongly I feel about the ‘language of the people’ thing), the prayers have always spoken deeply to my soul. And, I’m going to get brave and say, I think they speak to many of you as well. Through the years, I’ve skipped posted a week here and there for various reasons and some of you have asked where the prayer is. As I started this blog, I transitioned the weekly post from my personal page to the graphic for my weekly sermon or Sunday reflection post. Today’s prayer is all about this season of Advent and weaves beautifully with the picture of Mary and Elizabeth we are given.

The gospel reading for today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is about Mary and Elizabeth rejoicing together because of how God has invited them into The Story. In spite of the dangers and obstacles, even with the fear and trepidation they are feeling, these two courageous and holy women know they are part of something extraordinary and joyfully step into God’s kingdom on earth as it heaven. They have prepared themselves for God’s presence.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent from the Book of Common Prayer

That’s what the season of Advent is all about: preparing ourselves for the abiding presence of God with us. And yet, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy of God, we can only be willing to be transformed by God’s presence. We don’t make it happen, we answer the invitation, just as Mary and Elizabeth did.

I’ve had some wonderful conversations with some of the folks at my parish lately about God waiting for us. We are reading a book in which the author tells the story of realizing that whether or not she showed up to spend intentional time with Jesus every day, that Jesus was always waiting for her. With each day, with each moment, we have the choice to respond to God. God is always with us, whether we are aware of The Presence or not. And if/when we say to God, “I’ll fit you in when I have time” God waits.

God’s greatest desire is to be with us, beloved children. We discover the joy of Mary and Elizabeth when we, too, step into God’s Kingdom, following Jesus on earth as in heaven, opening ourselves up to be prepared, by abiding in God’s presence now, for the face-to-face presence in the time to come. Emmanuel.

Who Warned You?

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The RCL readings for the Third Sunday in Advent are here.

I missed y’all last week. I hear that father David really got your attention for the the first bit of John’s message last week, using the traditional way of asking us to hear God’s voice calling us to return, to change our hearts and minds and follow in the Way of Love as we participate with God in the building up of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And today we continue with John’s Good News of God as John gets our attention by calling the folks he’s baptizing a “brood of vipers.”

What would you have done, or how would your parents have reacted if the priest at your baptism started out by calling you a brood of vipers? Yeah, I don’t think many of us would have taken it well.

But I promise, it IS a proclamation of good news and love, Y’all! So, let’s break it down; it might be helpful to look at the passage in your bulletins and follow along.

The greek word “gennema” can be translated into English as offspring, generation, or FRUIT of the earth.

It’s interesting that the only other time the English word ‘brood’ is used in the gospel stories is later in Luke when Jesus is lamenting over Jerusalem and says he longs to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And it’s translated from a different Greek word that specifically means a nesting of birds. But I digress.

So, yes, John is calling the folks he’s preaching to the children, or fruit, of poisonous snakes but the point of what he’s saying is the very important and often overlooked question that follows: “who warned you to flee from the wrath?” Who have you been listening to?

Throughout the OT prophets, the proclamation from God has always been if you change your heart, your mind, your ways, IF you REPENT, which means to change your heart, your mind, your ways, God will, as Zephaniah puts it, “rejoice over you with gladness, renew you in his love.”

So, if these folks are being warned to flee the wrath of God, they haven’t been taught anything about God’s nature of Love. They’ve been mislead, mistreated, and flat out lied to. They’ve been told there is no way to avoid God’s wrath, that God is more interested in destruction and condemnation than he is about transforming his children into children of peace, children of joy, children of hope and love.

John is asking them “who have you been listening to? Who are you looking to for your source of life and truth and wisdom? Because the way you are living seems to show that your source is NOT the Word of God as it has been revealed to the prophets.”

He then tells them to bear fruit worthy of repentance – the fruit of God’s kingdom: hope, peace, love, and joy.

“Yes, Mother Nancy,” you may be saying, “that sounds all good and lovely but what about the times the OT prophets do warn the people of God’s wrath and what about the times they talk about the fear-of-the-Lord. Aren’t we supposed to be afraid of God?”

God’s message to change our ways, God’s invitation to be in relationship with him is always a message of hope. God offers a choice: to exchange our way for God’s way of living or to face the consequences of forgetting and ignoring God, the consequences of wanting to have our own way.

God’s greatest desire for all of his children is that we live in his presence on earth as in heaven. God does’t want us to be afraid or to fear life but to live it as we are created to live, in loving relationship with God and each other.

So, yes, Fear-of-the-Lord is is used often by the OT prophets and sages but how often to we hear Jesus say, “do not be afraid?”

In our modern western culture we struggle with the understanding of the term ‘fear-of-the-Lord.’ The meaning of the phrase isn’t a sum of its parts: Fear+God. It is a bound phrase – words that are used together to function like a single word. We don’t define it by adding together the dictionary definition of ‘fear’ and ‘god’. In the original Hebrew it is a two word phrase, again, that when used together make a new idea. Eugene Peterson defines it this way: fear-of-the-Lord is “the way of life that is lived responsively and appropriately before who God is, who he is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.… A way of life in which human feelings and behavior are fused with God’s being and revelation.”

Fear-of-the-Lord isn’t scary or fearful. It is a way of stating the understanding that we’ve come to know that God is God and we are not. It is the way of life that bears fruit worthy of our repentance.

So, does it change your thinking about John to hear, “you brood of vipers, who has warned you” through a “fear-of-the-lord” lens and not a fear lens?

As we continue through the story, it appears that the crowd is beginning to understand. “How do we do that?” they ask. And John explains to them in simple terms what it is to live knowing that we are not the center of all, that God is.
If you have more than you need, share.
In your job, work with integrity and honesty and compassion for others.
Be grateful for what you have.
In other words, live into the image of God in which we are all created.

John’s message is one of inclusion and love, not exclusion and condemnation. It truly is Good News!

The jobs John chooses as his examples are jobs that were considered sketchy and unsavory to say the least: “even tax collectors” came to be baptized. And the soldiers were part of the occupying force that kept ‘peace’ through fear and intimidation. Even these are welcomed into the Kingdom if they change their mind and heart and choose to bear the good fruit of the Kingdom. Today, we might substitute politicians and cable news commentators. Even these are welcomed into the Kingdom if they change their mind and heart and choose to bear good fruit.

Bearing this good fruit takes growth and transformation as we follow Jesus. And to keep with the agricultural metaphor of fruit, John speaks of this transformation through the process of winnowing. Winnowing is the process of blowing a current of air through grain in order to remove the chaff, the husk that covers the actual fruit. With the chaff removed, the grain can be used either for nourishing food or as seed to grow more grain. Separating the chaff from the grain isn’t about dividing one group from another but preparing everyone for better growth and formation in the Kingdom, so that we can produce the fruit worthy of our repentance. What’s burned away in the unquenchable fire is that which gets in the way of our relationship with God. It isn’t separating good people from bad people, it’s about purifying the good that is already in all of us as we are created in God’s image.

All that John has to proclaim is GOOD NEWS for us all!

The point and purpose of John’s proclamation isn’t to belittle or shame but to get folks asking the critical questions of self-examination: What does it mean to say I am a child of God? How does it change my worldview to know that God loves me. How does it change my worldview to know that God loves everyone?

Is my source of truth and wisdom warning me to flee or to exclude others or is it teaching me how to include everyone, to share love not fear, to bear good fruit so that everyone around me is nourished with God’s love?

Am I seeking, are WE seeking together in community to prepare the way of the Lord? Are we seeking with God’s help to make the path straight and level so that everyone wants to join us in The Way?

We can choose to be children of vipers, or we can recognize that we are created children of God and, listening to John’s proclamation of Good News and following Jesus live as we are created to be, who we are created to be, Whose we are created to be.

And knowing Whose and who we are, we can ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Letting our gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:4-7). Amen.

Glaciers and Pearls

As I’m adjusting to being again in full-time ministry in a parish and all that brings this time of year, along with moving house, and tending to a senior dog who appears to be declining in health, getting my Tuesday (Wednesday?) posts out is taking more forethought and intentionality. I don’t say any of this to invoke sympathy or to complain but simply to lay out the reasons that this post is a day late. I am so very grateful for my parish, for our new home, for the many years of joy and companionship our dog has brought us, and for each and every one of you who give of your precious time to read my words. Life is an amazing journey following Jesus in God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven and I’m so glad you are with me.

Have you ever been to Yosemite National Park? It is one of my most favorite places on earth. Did you know the beauty of The Valley was cut by the long, slow, continuous movement of a glacier? Another one of my favorite things is a pearl. Now, I’m sure you are asking what on earth do glaciers and pearls have to do with each other (either that or you are wondering if I’ve had enough coffee yet today)? And I’m so glad you asked.

Glaciers and pearls are two metaphors (albeit limited, as all metaphors are) I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs from the collection of books we refer to as the Old Testament. The movement of glaciers over time sculpt a beauty deep beneath surface. Pearls begin as something undesirable and are transformed into a precious gem.

The beauty of Wisdom isn’t something that can be instantly attained, it takes a lifetime of sculpting and transformation. What we do with our time and where we focus our attention matters.

More than anything you guard, protect your mind, for life flows from it. Have nothing to do with a corrupt mouth; keep devious lips far from you. Focus your eyes straight ahead; keep your gaze on what is in front of you. Watch your feet on the way, and all your paths will be secure. Don’t deviate a bit to the right or the left; turn your feet away from evil.

Proverbs 4:23-27, Common English Bible

The information we consume every moment of every day shapes us whether we realize it or not. I’m so very grateful to have discovered the wisdom that life is not a series of isolated events but a continuous journey of growth. I don’t just move from one event to the next (even when my calendar is full to overflowing) but I do my best with God’s help to inhabit with intentionality every moment, looking for the image of God in all people and being aware of God’s presence everywhere. And when I stumble or get bogged down in “what’s next” or lose sight of Jesus, I am so very grateful to know God is with me in these times, too.

I said last week that I wasn’t sure what this book of Wisdom we call Proverbs and Advent had to do with each other and here’s what I’m beginning to discover. In this season of Advent we are to wait and watch for Christ, The One, the Prince of Peace, our Savior, God with us, Emmanuel. The world says all that we need to make us happy can be purchased and that we have to work and move faster and faster to prove ourselves worthy of the next thing we will need to buy to be happy. Advent and the book of Proverbs remind us we are glacier valleys, carved and transformed by time and intent, keeping our lives centered on God. The world says we should instantly remove and discard anything and everything that isn’t “happiness.” Advent and the book of Proverbs both remind us we are like a pearl, that as we follow Jesus we learn how God transforms that which we find less than tolerable into precious beauty that can’t come about any other way.