Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Third Way [Epiphany 7A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 5:38-48

The Third Way

What is happening here? Seriously, what is happening? Turn the other cheek? Give your cloak as well? Go the second mile? What kind of advice is this?

Given the options of fight or flight, it seems that Jesus is casting a strong vote for flight – just flight a little too late. Were one to follow this advice they would fly away with tired legs, a pummeled face, and no clothes. Generally, you want to do the flight, if that is the option you choose, before you are hit in the face.

What is happening here? Seriously. This is a dangerous passage. One might even be so bold to suggest that Jesus' advice to an impressionable crowd is irresponsible. Do you have any idea how many people – mostly women and children – throughout history have been abused under these instructions? Told to turn the other cheek. Told not to resist their abusers. Instructed in the name of Jesus to quietly and passively absorb endless violence – as if that was some sanctified behavior. Do you have any idea how many pastors have advised battered women to take their beatings, citing chapter and verse: Matthew 5:39?

What is happening here? In a sense understanding the Bible is always us trying to look back in time. The challenge of that of course is that, so goes the L. P. Hartley quote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And so often the Bible is read divorced of its historical context, as if there is no interpretation required, as if Jesus and his crowds existed solely in some timeless vacuum. Studying the Bible is hard work; it is a whole lot easier to simply read the red letters and twist and turn them to support all of one's biases and bad behaviors. Like we do with the news.

It's stunning to think about how long and how often this passage has been used to justify abuse and oppression and violence, how often Jesus' plea for creative non-violent resistance has been misused and misappropriated. Because that is what this is: Jesus is presenting, in the Sermon on the Mount, a third way. It is definitely not fight. But it is also not some passive flight. This is not avoidance or cowardice. Jesus is giving his crowd of occupied, oppressed, abused followers a third way: a way of non-violence that condemns our fight; a way of resistance that challenges our passive silence in the face of injustice. Jesus challenges his listeners, present company included, to have the guts to choose another way: the way of creative non-violent resistance.

But the truth is: without understanding something of Jesus' context, it is almost impossible to get that from this text some two-thousand years later and some seven-thousand miles away. But without taking that journey, this text can easily be used to justify horrors that are in direct opposition to Jesus' original intention.

So what is happening here? Well, let's take for example Jesus' command: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. This has become something of a generic motivational catchphrase - “go the extra mile.” But there is, of course, much more to it. In the Roman Empire, the Empire in which Jesus and his audience lived, a Roman soldier was permitted to force an occupied person, in this case a Jew, once again Jesus and his audience, to carry his pack for one mile. The soldier was permitted to do this because, well, the Jews were less important than Roman soldiers and important people tell less important people what to do. That is how this world most often works.

To the Roman soldier, and to the Empire, that Jew might as well have been an animal, a donkey, a beast of burden – not a really person. This was a way to publicly humiliate, to belittle, to dehumanize, to strip another person of their dignity. It was like a white person sending a black person to the back of the bus. It was a way that the one with power could use that privilege to make another person feel less than human – to embarrass and belittle them. It was one of those small ways that the one with power keeps that power.

So of course, the Jews listening to Jesus would hate the practice and despise the soldiers who exploited them. It was a practice that promoted dehumanization by all the involved parties – both oppressor and oppressed were dehumanized in the process, seen, on the one hand, as monsters or, on the other, as animals. And yet Jesus tells his followers to keep carrying the pack – to continue to voluntarily do something humiliating, something dehumanizing. Now why would Jesus do this? Well, there was a limitation to what the soldier could require. A soldier could only require one mile of one person; to do otherwise might earn the soldier a punishment. And so carrying the extra mile was a form of non-violent resistance. It was clever and subversive in a way that did not require one to take up arms or passively accept abuse.

But in the context of Jesus' sermon, I think there is more to it. Because Jesus doesn't command his followers to shame their enemies. Jesus requires his followers to love their enemies.

By choosing to carry the pack an extra mile, the one being humiliated asserts his or her humanity – denies the oppressor's attempt to dehumanize – stubbornly claims dignity in the face of indignity. Walter Wink says, “[Jesus] is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”1 It is a powerful action; it is the subversive work of love; the enemy's salvation depends on his ability to recognize their common humanity. That can only happen in the second mile – when the walk becomes a choice – an act of defiant and unexpected kindness. In that extra mile, both the oppressor and the oppressed become more human by the power of love – love showed to an enemy. Only by the power of perfect love can one look into the face of the “enemy” and see a human being – equally in need of, and worthy of, God's grace.

That doesn't happen when the only choices are fight or flight. It only happens through creative non-violent resistance – the third way, the way of Jesus, the way of love. And Jesus did not just talk it; he lived it. Touching the unclean clean. Raising the dead. Freeing the tortured. Eating with the despised. His ministry challenged, resisted all of the ways in which people are denied their human dignity. He was not violent; but he was not passive. And when Jesus was confronted with the cross, again he didn't fight or flight. When Jesus was on the cross what he chose was love: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. From his cross, he looked at those who mocked him, who drove the nails through his wrists and rather than see enemies, he saw the image of God. Even on the cross, Jesus chose the way of love.

It was the only way to break the cycle of violence, the only way to defend the image of God. Non-violent resistance, soaked through with love, is the most courageous and most difficult action one can take in this violent world – foolishness to the violent, radical to the resigned.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived his life and ministry out of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Guns can't do that. Bombs can't do that. Force can't do that. Love is an amazing miracle – a miracle we so often take for granted. And it changes both the giver and the receiver. In an encounter with love nothing stays the same. When I love another human being – when I see in that other the face of God – that other person becomes more human – more human because they are loved. When I love another human being – when I risk my heart for another person – I am transformed as well. I become more like my Heavenly Parent – a little closer to the perfection to which Jesus calls us in today's Gospel.

So, what is happening here? Jesus is calling us to imagine a world beyond fight or flight, to have the courage to choose the third way, the way of love, to as Thomas Merton so eloquently put it, to “Be human in this most inhuman of ages; [to] guard the image of humanity for it is the image of God.”


Sunday, February 5, 2017

No Cheat Code [Epiphany 5A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 58:1-12

No Cheat Code

The key is finding the shortcut, the cheat code. UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, Start. And...Heaven. Hacking God: that's the holy grail.

We all want to know how much is truly required. I mean, what'll do it? Communion every Sunday? You're in? Seven Daily Hail Marys? In? Say the Sinner's Prayer? Jackpot? DVR all of Joel Osteen's, let's call them “motivational sermons”? Well, let's not push it. The question is: what is the least that I can do and still sneak into Paradise? Is there a minimum threshold to achieve maximum eternal rewards?

It's an old question. In fact, it shows up in our reading from Isaiah today. The pious folks in the Old Testament lesson are pretty sure they have cracked the code. It's the fasting. Fasting is not that fun so it makes a pretty convincing shortcut. And when you are fasting it does feel like God should be impressed – especially around lunch time. And, like, it's easier than loosing the bonds of injustice (which sounds like a lot of work) or letting the homeless into your house (which sounds kind of risky and wacky) but it's still uncomfortable. So, that must be it. Surely fasting impresses God.

And they do it well. Not only are they fasting, they are, as they point out to God, being very humble about their fast. They were the most humble fasters. Much more humble, it seems, than God could really understand. And the sackcloth. Did I mention the sackcloth? The sackcloth is the extra mile of humble fasting. You're welcome, God.

See the thing about finding the divine skeleton key for the pearly gates, why it is so exciting, why we long to get that key, is that once you find it you don't have to worry so much about getting the rest of it right. Like if you read enough Bible maybe you don't have to love your annoying brother-in-law. Or maybe if you cross your self correctly you get to say a few racist things every once and a while. Or if you vote for pro-life candidates you can ignore refugee children. Or like in the Isaiah passage, if you fast like a pro you earn the OK to oppress your workers and punch people.

It is much easier to go through the motions on a Sunday morning than it is to live and love in this messy, messy world. It is easier to follow the rubrics than to follow Jesus.

That's why we say “I will, with God's help” after every baptismal promise. That's why we say that same confession every week. I mean Jesus only gave us two commandments – but they are hard ones. Fasting every now and again is much easier. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Because those two things are hard. It is hard to live like Jesus beyond these walls. Isaiah is not confronting villains in today's text. He is confronting humans. Humans who want to impress God, who want some kind of guarantee, who think they have discovered the cheat code.

The great thing about a cheat code is that once you get right, it always works and always in the same way. We have control issues and God is out of control. We want a predictable God – a God that we can figure out, a God that follows the rules of cause and effect. We press the button; God gives us a treat. And so we develop in our minds, and in our religious communities, these ways to get God on our side. So we do some good and pious things. We hope that God will notice and in return maybe give us a pass on some of our actions, words, thoughts, attitudes that are less than righteous. And then, when all is said and done, God will count up the number of hours we spent in this building and will be super impressed and will reward with a big heavenly mansion. No conversion necessary. No change of heart. No messy, vulnerable love. Just press the button and get the treat.

As a result, our relationship with God becomes very self-centered, all about us; we lose sight of not only God but also of all of those neighbors God expects us to love. Rather than the dynamic, loving relationship God longs for, it becomes a cost-benefit analysis. It's as if we are trying to convert God to us.

But the thing is: God is already sold on you. God loves us. God loves us – even if we are not that good at fasting. God even loves us with our rough edges and half-hearted devotion and our ungodly attitudes. God loves us enough to convert us to God.

Worship is not the cheat code. Worship is a chance to encounter the God who cares enough about us to change us into the likeness of Christ. Worship is a deep dive into the Holy Spirit, intended to light us on fire.

Our goal here is not to impress God with our beautiful music or with a few bucks in the offering plate. Our goal is not to earn some credit towards a heavenly abode. We're here to experience God. Our goal is to be together in the presence of God and to be changed in that presence. We gather not to earn God's love but to experience God's love – in so many ways: in the faces of our sisters and brothers and in the bread of heaven and in the cup of salvation and in the proclaim of the Gospel. God is meeting us here not because we deserve that but because God desires that.

And in that encounter, as we see, touch, taste the living Christ we are transformed. We are sent back into the world looking a little more like Jesus. Better prepared to love and serve the Lord. Sent out these doors, not to impress God or secure some reward, but because we are what we eat: the Body of Christ.

And as the Body of Christ in this world, we are sent out to share the good news, to continue Jesus' work in this world. We are lit here to be lights for the dark places. We go through these doors glowing – lit up by the light of Christ. We go through these doors strengthened in all goodness. We go through these doors full of hope, inspired by God's dream for this broken world. We go through these doors as world changers – ready to answer the violence and hatred we encounter with peace and love.

There is no cheat code. Nothing you will do here today will earn you anything. Nothing you do out there tomorrow will earn you anything. God already loves you because God loves you and there is nothing you can do to change that. That is good news, life changing news, world changing news. Good news that a world of frustrated, hurting, lonely people need to hear. People need to hear that they are loved – perfectly and unconditionally loved.

God is present in this place and in that encounter we are changed, changed for a reason: to tell this story, to share God's love. Changed people ready to change the world. 


Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Song of the Resistance [Epiphany 4A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 5:1-12

The Song of the Resistance

He lived in polarized times. And as he ascended the mountain, he knew the crowd was waiting for his endorsement – because that's how things go in polarized times. Both sides want your allegiance; everyone needs to know if you are one of them. One side was the Empire, the most powerful nation on the planet – a war machine with a superior economy – all led by a jealous, insecure Emperor who lined the streets with the bodies of those who stepped out of line, his perceived enemies. On the other side were his people, an occupied people longing for freedom and power, and they were looking for a Messiah to lead the revolution, a king to lead them to victory; their swords were sharpened; they just needed their new King David. And they had their eyes on him, on this Jesus. Both sides wanted his allegiance; both wanted his heart and his soul.

And so the crowds gathered as he climbed the hill. And he cleared his throat and sang the song that no one wanted to hear; he sang the song of the resistance. In a world of black and white he chose colors. There were two choices, two clear options and he chose a third. It was between the kingdom of the Emperor and the kingdom of David and he chose the Kingdom of God instead. He sang the song of the resistance – and he invited them to sing along.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

In a world of desperate grasping: for money, for power, for position, for fame, for respect, for recognition. The lucky ones, Jesus says, are the ones who come up empty-handed. Poor. Despised. Belittled. Mocked. Or maybe even worse: unknown. But the kingdom of God is coming to displace this realm with its power games and its political spin and its golden gods. And when the kingdom comes it will be the poor in spirit who are empty-handed enough to embrace God's dream. Those with nothing have nothing to lose – theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

If you are paying attention this world will break your heart. Because there is not enough love. There is not enough mercy. There is not enough justice or kindness. There are swastikas on garage doors and shootings in our elementary schools and desperate families begging at our borders. Our economy runs on addictions and vices. If you pay attention it will break your heart. But you don't have to pay attention. Because we are perfecting the art of distraction – luxury goods and manufactured rage. So that it is easy to trade in your mourning, to forget your broken heart, to just be numb. But if you can stick with it, if you can hold that broken heart, and mourn what should be mourned, and then place it in the hands of God, God will wipe away your tears – you will be comforted, not sedated, comforted.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

But that's not true, is it? Meek does not make one the president or a CEO or a hedge-fund manager. No one in charge of anything in this country, or on this planet, that matters is meek. The only way the meek inherit the earth is that they are trampled into the earth by the go-getters, by the successful, by the winners. Those who want to own this planet, have to earn it or take it. But the meek don't earn it; they don't take it; they inherit it. The kingdom come will be good news for the meek – but not for everyone; the meek will inherit the earth.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

They hunger and thirst because righteousness is human conduct expected by God; it is living like Jesus. And we are living in a desert. And every time someone decides to really live, speak, dream the kingdom of God into this world, they shake things up. Kingdom living destabilizes the system; it challenges the priorities; it threatens the powerful on their thrones. The resistance is not welcome. Just ask Jesus. But the time is coming. Those who hunger and thirst will be filled.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Sometimes the spiritual life feels esoteric, difficult to grasp. Sometimes we hear these scriptures, read theological texts, and everything sounds good but the practical application part is lacking. But this one is pretty straightforward. Be merciful. Is mercy good politics? I don't know and I don't care. Because it doesn't matter. Because Jesus expects his followers to be merciful; Jesus commands his followers to be merciful. And yes that means that folks will get more than they deserve, people will be treated better than they should. You will have to love those who do not deserve love. You will have to fight for life in the face of death. And it will be unfair because mercy is unfair. But one day, when you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, he will show you mercy; he will love you more than you deserve.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

This is our prayer: to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. This is our mandate: to seek first the kingdom of God. In a world of polarities and partisanship, Jesus asks us to devote ourselves to the third way – the only movement that matters: the Jesus movement. This is about our priorities. When push comes to shove, who do you love? There are a lot of things in this world vying for our allegiance. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are those who love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart, for they will see God.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Children tend to look like their parents, they inherit their traits. Those who work for peace in this conflicted time, those who work for peace amidst the violence, those who work for peace in this broken world, will be called children of God. Because those who engage the work of peace, begin resembling more and more their heavenly Parent; you can see Jesus in their eyes.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Persecution is not the virtue here. There are many ways in this social media age to be slandered, attacked, persecuted. Persecution is easy; it often feels like justification; there are folks who run on that stuff. The virtue here is commitment. Those who are fully committed to the resistance, who have pledged their sole allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, rather than the kings and kingdoms of this world, suffer consequences.

Those who stand somewhere between the Empire and the Revolution, will become the collateral damage. When the lines are drawn and the sides selected, you are called to choose the third option, to see the world not as it is or as you think it should be but as God wants it to be. You are called to be the empty-handed, the broken-hearted, the merciful, the peacemaker. You are called to be a minister of reconciliation in world that runs on division. You are called to be the color poured out on a black and white world.

This is not the path of success. In fact, these are the eight habits of highly frustrating people. This is the path of resistance. This is the path of Jesus, who defied the Empire and challenged the Rebellion, who lived, spoke, and dreamed the kingdom of God all the way to the cross.

On the mountain, before a curious crowd, Jesus cleared his voice and sang the song of resistance. A song that defied the impulse of his age – with all its greedy demands and false dichotomies and stubborn allegiances, polarized parties that want your heart and soul.

But your heart and soul are spoken for. Kings and kingdom rise and fall. Movements wax and wane. But the resistance carries on – in the hearts of women and men who dare to take their cues from a simple peasant from a backwoods village with a wooden cross on his horizon – who just so happened to be the voice of God. This is our song, Jesus' words in our mouths. And we're meant to sing along – even when the audience heckles.

It's true, and Jesus warned us: those who sing the song, like the prophets who were before us, they always seem to lose – marginalized, ignored, crushed, or crucified. But the kingdom of God is coming. The resistance is building. The whisper will one day soon become a roar. So clear your voice and keep singing.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dream Bigger [Epiphany 2A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 49:1-7

Dream Bigger

Nothing seems to be working. “I have labored in vain,” says the prophet Isaiah. “I have spent my strength for nothing.” That is a terrible feeling. Investment with no return. Effort without progress. I have labored in vain.

The prophet has a word from God, but no one is listening. The prophet is called to bring the people hope, but they are hopeless. The prophet is a dreamer in the land where dreams go to die. It is a frustrating place to be. And so he cries out to God in holy protest: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.”

The prophet's task was an unenviable task. The line between platitudes and a word of hope is often uncomfortably thin – made even more uncomfortable because the wrong words in this situation would sting, would add insult to injury. Let's be clear, the prophet was not sent to turn some frowns upside down. Deep gloom enshrouds this people, this nation. This was not a case of the Mondays; they weren't just kinda bummed. The people of Israel were devastated, broken-hearted; they were living a nightmare. Their holy city was destroyed before their very eyes. The temple: still in ruins. The people were strangers in a strange land, exiles, defeated, despairing. They were wounded.

Now exiles do not have many options, but they have do have one choice: they can dream dreams; they can hold on to hope. Or they can downsize their expectations to minimize their disappointment. Accept the defeat, give in to the nightmare, and just survive.

And that is what they chose. But God wanted more; God wanted more for them. And so God sent the prophet with a word – a word of hope. The promise of a future, that same impossible dream that sustained the ancestors in the Ark and in Egypt and in the wilderness, the promise of a God who heard their cries, who would never leave them, who walked them through the Red Sea. That same God suffered with them in exile. That same God would carry them home. That was the message from God's mouth to the prophet's ear; from the prophet's mouth to the people. And it sounded good, no doubt, it sounded good. But good news is hard to hear over the wailing. Hope is hard to see through the tears. It is hard to dream dreams in a land of nightmares.

And so here we are: the messenger of hope is losing hope. The voice of the one who is supposed to bring good news is raising his voice instead in lamentation: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.”

The prophet found what I think we all know deep down, it is hard to be the last dreamer. Isaiah was so sure this was it. He was so sure he was called to bring his people hope, to raise up the tribes, to restore the survivors, to pave the way home with words of edification. And he tried, but he failed. I have labored in vain.

Let's be clear about what this is: this is the resignation speech, this the “you've got the wrong guy” speech, this is Moses at the burning bush looking for an out. And it makes sense. If God called the prophet to this mission, if he was the right choice for the job, it should work, right? The labor should not be in vain. The prophet should not feel like a failure. And the people, his people, should not be exiled without hope.

But it was and he does and they were. And God responds. Now not in a way that makes sense, but God does respond. God says to this dejected prophet, this prophet who has failed, who has labored in vain, who is giving up: you are dreaming too small; dream bigger.

The prophet is speaking hope to his nation; God wants that message to find a larger audience. The prophet has packaged the salvation story for folks who look, act, believe like him; God's salvation overflows the banks, violates the boundaries. God is not content until the good news reaches every ear, every heart, every soul. Isaiah was struggling to reach the local market. God wants him to find a bigger platform. God's message is universal. God's dream is bigger.

He was dreaming too small. And of course he was. The small dreams were too big to come true. God says to the prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel.” But it didn't feel light. Actually it felt like he was being crushed under the weight.

When I look around – especially on social media – I see a world weighed down by despair. I see hopelessness. I see a people who are pessimistic about the future. I see a nation broken by violence and poverty, by racism and division, by anger and disappointment. And when folks are weighed down by despair, they forget to dream dreams. Because dreams seems foolish when all of the headlines are nightmares.

But I will remind you, that when things seemed hopeless, God told the prophet to dream bigger. Walter Brueggemann says that God's people are called “to dream the impossible dream; to speak the impossible word; to act the impossible act.”1 It is too light a thing to just be optimistic; you are called to dream impossible dreams. It is too light a thing to offer this world some empty platitudes; you are called to speak the impossible word. It is too light a thing to smiply act politely; you are called to act the impossible act. Dream, speak, act the Kingdom of God into this world. Do not let the nightmare have the last word.

This weekend we remember a man who dreamed impossible dreams. A prophet who dared to speak those impossible dreams into a situation that felt hopeless, to a nation held captive by the nightmares of racism and hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed big; he dreamed impossible dreams. And he kept dreaming even when it seemed his labor was in vain, even when the valleys seemed too deep and the odds too long.

Because he knew that impossible dreams don't come easily. And that why he said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. [E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” He knew that impossible dreams don't come easily. And that why he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Impossible dreams don't come easily. But you, you are called to dream impossible dreams, to speak impossible words, to act impossible acts. To live this world into the Kingdom of God, to bring hope to the hopeless, to be light in the darkness, to drive out hate with love.

And when it feels as if your labor has been in vain, and it will, sometimes it will: Don't stop dreaming. Dream bigger.

1 Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church, 287.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

One Tiny Flame [Christmas Eve 2016]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Christmas Eve 2016
Luke 2:1-20

One Tiny Flame

I can't explain this. I hope you understand. It all came out of God like poetry instead of prose – beautiful but hard to make sense of. How did the one who spoke creation into being get caught up in the small town drama of a pregnant teen who see angels? How did the God who spilled the stars across the universe like marbles become enclosed in the cramped, black space of a virgin womb? See I can't explain this. I hope you understand.

Christmas presents us with more questions than answers. Christmas, I think, means to leave us tongue-tied, at a loss, in awe and wonder, clinging desperately to whatever faith gives us the eyes to see God in that manger. Christmas means to leave us breathlessly pondering all these things in our hearts.

So Christmas is, of course, mysterious; it is, after all, God wrapped in packaging much, much too small. But also Christmas is teaching me to believe, teaching me to believe in the power of small lights.

Which I understand doesn't make a lot of sense. The vastness of the backdrop deserved a big bang. But Christmas in the vast and powerful Roman Empire, the empire of Augustus, the empire that shook the earth and caused the peoples to tremble, was announced to only a few lowly shepherds. The angelic lights that filled the Bethlehem skies did not alert the press, did not reach the royal palaces. To call it a blip on the world's radar screen is probably a stretch.

The baby dropped not only into a huge empire, but also into God's salvation story. The crushing weight of centuries of messianic expectation demanded a divine spectacle. While the rulers of the Empire neither expected nor desired a new Messiah, others did. The people who walked in darkness, they had been promised a great light. They knew the ancient stories; they told them to their children and their children's children. Those stories reminded them that their big God did big things. Their God divided the day from the night; their God split the Red Sea so that their ancestors could walk through on dry land; their God closed lions mouths and carried away prophets in chariots of fire and caused the sun to stand still in the sky. Their God did big things. They expected a great light. They were waiting for something big.

And into an immense world, against a sea of darkness, onto the grand cosmic stage came one tiny flame – a burning bush in a young girl's belly. God's big move was a baby. And even big babies aren't big.

Every year, in the build up to Christmas, I wait for something big but every year it's just a baby. Surrounded by the same peasant family. Adored by the same meager audience.

It as if this God who spoke light into being, who breathed the fire of a thousand suns suddenly realized there was only one way to dispel the darkness: start with one tiny flame. One tiny flame: ignited in the mysterious darkness of God's imagination. One tiny flame: ignited in the darkness of Mary's womb. One tiny flame: ignited in the darkness of the little town of Bethlehem – a speck of a village in a great big world. One tiny flame that might ignite in the darkness of our hearts. One tiny flame. You see, Christmas is teaching me to believe in the power of small lights.

It was a humble beginning. But I suppose, perhaps, the Messiah was not born in a palace because there is no kindling in a palace. The tiny flame needed a manger; the fire was set in straw.

It is said that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And that is because Christmas did not stay in Bethlehem. That tiny flame: no king could put it out, no army could snuff it out, no darkness was dark enough to hide it. And so it spread.

That tiny flame, that little Jesus, was set by God to blaze. Why else would he be wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a bed of straw? That tiny flame was meant to set this world on fire. To burn in our hearts.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light because the fire spread, because the light of Christ still burns; it burns in you and it burns in me.

You see, Christmas is teaching me to believe in the power of small lights. I look around this room and I see tiny flames – each heart ablaze with the light of Jesus. I see tiny flames that have the power to light up the dark corners of this world. I see tiny flames in a world of kindling.

But also, when I look around this room I see a great light because if I squint, just a little bit, all of those tiny flames become a blazing fire.

Christmas was just the beginning of something big. It started small – as small as a spark in the darkness of a virgin womb, as small as a peasant baby in a vast empire, as small as a flame in a bed of straw. But here we are, two-thousand years beyond the manger scene, and we're still burning – call us the Light of the World. Jesus did.

Every Christmas I gaze into the little manger waiting for something big. But it's always that tiny baby. Only, if I look closely, if I really look, I see the spark in his eyes, the fire he set reflecting in his heavenly face. I can't explain this: why Christmas was so small. I just know that Christmas is teaching me to believe in the power of small lights. And in a God who started a blazing fire with one tiny flame.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hope in the Desert [Advent 3A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 35:1-10

Hope in the Desert

Hope needs a desert in which to bloom. This is what Advent tells us. Elizabeth and Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus: new life born in impossible places; hope blooming in the desert.

This also reminds us, this season of Advent, that we don't come by hope easily. It is not mere optimism, born of some dishonest naivety, like a cheap salve more likely to bring infection than healing. Hope digs in deep; it has to. Henri Nouwen makes the distinction saying, “While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will go better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone.”1 And so, in that sense, maybe the chasm separating the two is filled with trust. Optimism justifies our lack of trust. Hope needs trust to survive.

But like most things in the desert, hope is also dangerous. So while it is far preferable to mere optimism, one can still understand why optimism always wins the popular vote. Optimism is a blueprint for a house that will never be built: ultimately worthless but it helps us sleep at night. Hope is believing, trusting with all your heart that God is paving a path beneath your worn out soles.

I like hope. I like that our Christian hope compels us to defiantly shout Alleluias at the grave, through our tears, when it would be so much easier to fall back on trite sentiments. I like that our Christian hope takes the instrument of our Savior's death and rather than shy away from it calls it victory. I like that our Christian hope can see the Spring through the Winter. I like that our Christian hope is placed in a weak peasant baby instead of in the more logical choice, the powerful Emperor who ruled that world.

I like hope. But I recognize that hope is dangerous. Because hope dreams impossible dreams.

The prophet Isaiah, in our reading today, is peddling those impossible dreams. And his audience is a barren land. His audience is weak hands and feeble knees. His audience is fearful hearts. His audience is the aftermath, the devastation that remains in the wake of war, the broken souls left wandering in the desert, far away from home.

Isaiah is peddling these impossible dreams to exiles – exiled not only from their land, but also from their hope. And I'm not sure that is fair. I'm not sure it is fair to plant in their barren souls the hope that one day their torched earth will bloom, or that their broken bodies will one day leap for joy, or that their despairing hearts will grow strong again. Because isn't surrendered acceptance better than hope unfulfilled and isn't hope just belief in search of a guarantee that will never come? The problem with hope is that it believes in big, big things when low expectations are so much easier to meet.

That is one of the reasons hope is so dangerous: it never knows when to stop. It doesn't believe in low expectations – I guess because it so stubbornly believes in God. Isaiah begins with out-sized expectations. He begins with impossible dreams: the deserts shall blossom. That might sound like a golf course in Arizona, but it's not that. It's healing. It is the dream of new green life after the enemy sets the fields ablaze. It is strip mine scars returning to beauty. It is Eden before the curse. And it was far away, forever away.

But Isaiah dreams bigger. He dreams impossible dreams of war-ravaged bodies restored. The ecological scars, the devastation of the land, that was one thing, but these scars, they are personal. This hope is the kind of hope that touches open wounds, that threatens brokenness, that alters identity. This hope is the kind of hope that feels embarrassing to admit – embarrassing like admitting every week that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, embarrassing like saying your impossible dreams out loud.

But Isaiah dreams bigger. He dreams impossible dreams of a way back home. And he shouts these dreams over the prison walls. This is what is hope looks like in a concentration camp. Hope is always dangerous where it is an endangered species. Isaiah dreams dreams of a future; he dreams of a future in a place where survival is as good as it gets. In a place where hopelessness is a defense mechanism, the prophet lowers his defenses – and dares to ask his people to do the same.

There was no reason for optimism. No more reason than there was when they were slaves in Egypt. Optimism cannot live behind bars. But hope, hope sings behind bars. Hope is Paul and Silas praising the Lord until the earthquake comes. Hope is remembering that the Exodus happened, that the Incarnation happened, that the Resurrection happened, so the impossible becomes a dangerous precedent.

Advent is a dangerous season because it makes us dream dreams; it inspires hope; it rouses us from sleep; it shakes us free from the complacency upon which the powers of this world rely. We are not required to simply accept the brokenness and pain in this world. We do not have to passively stomach the aggressive march of our oppressors, of violence and racism and hatred. We were not created to surrender to the forces of addiction and despair. Our healing is not found in the acquisition of goods. Our salvation is not hidden in our lowered expectations. We are people of hope.

It is easy to look at our world, to watch the news, to read the blogs, and lose hope. The pain and division in our world, and in our nation, seem insurmountable. Tensions simmer, hate crimes escalate, oceans rise. Suicide rates continue to climb; heroine related deaths continue to mount.2 We proclaim our hope to world of exiles hopelessly wandering in the desert.

We proclaim our because we know how this story goes. We know that hope needs a desert in which to bloom. We know that God births new life in impossible places. We know that God peddles impossible dreams. This is what Advent tells us: God gives us hope. And “Hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone.” Not in Egypt's slavery, not in the pain of exile, not even in the grave. God will never leave us alone. And that is why we dare to hope, that is why we dream impossible dreams, that is why even at the grave we shout our Alleluias. This is the story Advent tells. It is a story of a God who will never leave us alone – who wrapped an impossible dream in baby soft skin to give the world hope.

1 Here and Now, 41.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Visions of the Messiah [Advent 2A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 11:1-10

Visions of the Messiah

Today is the second Sunday of the Advent season. And we have yet to catch a glimpse of the pregnant Virgin Mother or of the dazed and confused Joseph. We have yet to see angels. It seems, surely by now,, we should have arrived at the gates of Bethlehem. And yet, our readings have yet to speak of any of those most familiar Advent nouns.

Instead we get guesses, the predictions of prophets and poets – prophets and poets peering into a hazy future their eyes would never see. The visions of Isaiah and the Psalmist – visions as ominous as they are thrilling as they are hopeful – speak of the world as it might be. But not only that, they speak also of the Messiah – long promised, long expected – who will finally make the dream the reality.

The prophet Isaiah dreams of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which the wolf snuggles the lamb and leopards nap with baby goats. He dreams of a world in which children no longer need to fear the serpent's bite. He dreams of the world as Eden, a return to Creation before things started to crumble – when the creatures lived in harmony, when peace reigned, before the forbidden fruit, before Cain killed Abel, before violence was born and blood soaked the ground. That is the dream – the world as it might be, as it might be again.

But that world, in Isaiah's prophetic vision, can only come with a Messiah. And so he dreams of a Messiah. The visionary image of the Messiah starts beautifully strong. He will decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he will love and support the poor. That sounds good. But then, things get confusing because that same Messiah starts breathing fire and that beautiful, peaceful vision goes up in smoke: with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Mostly hopeful. Thrilling. Maybe not exactly peaceful. And ominous.

The Psalmist takes the same path. The Messiah shall usher in a time of abundant peace – that sounds good – but also shall be the crusher of oppressors. Probably all of that crushing will disturb the peace.

And then we come to John the Baptist. He doesn't say much about peace. Never accused of being subtle, not know for his sunny disposition, John lays out his own vision of the future – and it is chock full of wrath. He also describes his vision for the coming Messiah. The Messiah will baptize folks with the Holy Spirit – that sounds good. And also that Messiah is carrying a winnowing fork in his hand, which if you are curious, looks like a giant Freddy Krueger hand, and with those devastating blades he will clear the threshing floor before he sets it ablaze with the unquenchable fire. So again: something of a mixed bag.

We have yet to see the Virgin Mary; we have yet to see gentle Joseph; the angels have not yet made an appearance. But what we do see is an unsettling vision of the coming Messiah. Are we expected to be excited or afraid?

For centuries the prophets of old waited for the Messiah to come. They waited and the expectations grew. They waited for a King. They waited for a warrior. They waited for a Messiah who breathed fire, who crushed oppressors, who carried the winnowing fork. And then he came, the Messiah. But he did not meet the expectations.

The prophet Isaiah imagines that when the Messiah arrives the people will no longer hurt or destroy; he imagines peace on the hills of Jerusalem. But the Messiah came and the people hurt him. The people destroyed him. And instead of peace on the hills, there stood, on the hill, an old, rugged cross – a cross that held the long-awaited Messiah.

The psalmist imagines that when the Messiah arrives he will rule the people and crush the oppressors. But the people were not interested in his rule. Once upon a time, they thought he might make a suitable king. He was good at bread production; they saw some potential. But then the bread dried and he offered them his body instead. And they realized he was not at all what they were looking for, not at all what they wanted. They wanted someone who would either make them rich or make them safe. He would do neither. The people walked away and the oppressors crushed him.

John the Baptist imagines that when the Messiah arrives he will finally usher in the coming judgment. He will separate the good from the bad and punish those in the bad pile. But Jesus did not make separate piles; instead he prayed that they might all be one. And the only fire that came was the fire of Pentecost. It was unquenchable, but no one was burnt. And instead of punishing the bad folks, Jesus ate with them, invited some of them to be his disciples, forgave them from the cross. John was so confused that he sent his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the Messiah or should we be waiting for someone else?”

For centuries faithful people have been waiting for the Messiah to come as a conqueror. The first time he came though he did not meet the expectations; and so, perhaps the second time, maybe the second time he comes he will meet our expectations and be the powerful Ruler we need, or at least want. Faithful people are still searching the skies for this divine conqueror; we are still waiting for the Messiah with blade in hand, fire in mouth, smoke in nostrils, and violence in his eyes. We are waiting for the Messiah who will destroy our enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The first time the Messiah came, he came wrapped in baby soft skin. No sword. No fire. No violence. Not what we expected. And now we await his second coming. God willing, he'll fail to meet our expectations once again.