January 13, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Baptism of the Lord Sunday falls in the season of Epiphany with (as we heard last Sunday) its themes of illumination, revelation, and transformation. But during Epiphany we shift from the obvious revelations of Christmas, with its angelic choirs and traveling wise folks, to catch glimpses of God and the Kingdom, the extraordinary, beneath and beyond the ordinary that lives all around us. And what can be more ordinary than water, in the font, out of the tap, and flowing in the creeks and rivers around us.
In today’s passage Jesus’ ministry starts when he is baptized by John in the Jordan. In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus stands in line with everyone else and waits his turn but after he comes up for air and is praying, that’s when the heavens open and something that looks like a dove that seems to come straight from the heart of God settles on him and he hears a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke says nothing of mass conversions, or the crowd falling to its collective knees and proclaiming Jesus the Messiah. Instead, it seems to be a private epiphany, a private moment, given to make sure Jesus knows who he is and whose he is before he starts off in his ministry. Jesus goes into the water a carpenter, and comes out a Messiah. The same person, but with a new direction, a new vocation. He goes into the water his own person and comes out God’s person. Maybe it’s only with such a clear sense of his identity, when God calls him the Beloved Son, that Jesus can take on the enormous ministry before him. For next he’ll be tempted in the wilderness, where Satan will attack as the evil around him taunts “If you are the Son of God,” seeking to undermine any vulnerability or insecurity with his relationship with God. Jesus’ ministry will face the Wilderness, the skepticism of religious leaders, and Gethsemane with a confidence born in his relationship with God and God’s commitment to him. Declared the Beloved Son of God at his baptism, before Jesus ever does anything worthy of praise except opening himself up to God’s vision, responding to God’s movement, God makes sure Jesus is clear about who and whose he is, which is the beginning of everything honest. And it all starts with Jesus’ baptism.
Most of us here today have been baptized, and whether we knew it at the time or not, that was the beginning of our ministry as well. Granted, a lot of us were too young to remember voluntarily opening ourselves up to God’s movement, but found ourselves raised in a faith that began the process for us, teaching us to listen for God’s voice. But somewhere along the line, at confirmation or a much later date, we, like Jesus, find ourselves at the water’s edge. And whether we’ve made the decision to go in or are still contemplating it, that process, God’s movement, continues as God whispers in our ear, “I have redeemed you. Do not fear for I am with you.” God is committed to us not because we’ve done anything to deserve it, but because it’s God’s nature to love us unconditionally, and no one is forgotten in the circle of divine love regardless of whether we turn a deaf ear, drudge up all the sludge we threw into the water once before, or ignore the sound of the dove. But when we plunge in, whether through water or our confession, by our desire to follow, to be a disciple of the Master and serve him, we are blessed with God’s own Spirit, given the name Christian, and marked with Jesus’ cross. Maybe now is a time when the question of our identity has seldom been more pressing, when there are so many sources out there who want to claim and construct who and what we are, with few of them life giving and none of them redemptive1. Instead, we who have followed Jesus into the water find ourselves armed with Christ’s own name as we face our own wilderness temptation and challenges and live into the ministry and mission God has set before us in each of our lives, sure of who we are and whose we are, secure that we are beloved by God and bound to Christ in a ministry that begins at our baptism.
Joined to Christ, we are pulled into community as well. Just as the ancient Israelites weren’t in the wilderness alone, but had each other; just as Jesus wasn’t in the wilderness alone, but had the presence of the Spirit and the promises of God’s declarations; we aren’t in the wilderness alone as our baptism propels us into the community of the Body of Christ. A body that extends to our pews in the church, to Times Square and Nancy’s, to Washington, DC, to our borders, and across the earth. A family in Christ responsible to and for each other, joined together as we live out the Kingdom of Heaven in the world. But the world is a big place, so God calls each of us to be part of a particular body of believers that has particular tasks that need done, that just happen to fit the particular gifts and talents we have been given by the Holy Spirit. Each of us with different gifts and talents, all needed, that we might accomplish what none of us could accomplish alone. Sometimes that means we are called to a community for a short time, to give and receive what we need before God calls us elsewhere. But other times God calls us to stay put for a long time, like Dave Mathews and Liz Carkhuff, who have served this particular faith community each for over 70 years, committed to giving their gifts and talents in such a way as to teach the rest of us what it means, what it looks like to be the Presbyterian Church in Kinsman, Ohio—a church that reaches out and serves the community around it through ministries to AA, NA, and Al-Anon, through ministries to the local kids, like the Boy Scouts and tutoring. Dave and Liz, with gifts that are as unique as they are, have been guided by the Holy Spirit to shape our faith community, but that’s true for the rest of us as well. All of us are blessed with our own gifts, none being more important than another, all useful in our various callings in our jobs, at home, as well as in the church. Let’s face it folks, we have been gathered by God as a family, called to share our gifts and work together as we live as Kingdom people in the world God wants desperately to know him.
Swept up in the waters of baptism, God shows God’s commitment to us by naming each of us as God’s own beloved child, by telling us who we are and whose we are, and then asking us all to carry on the family commitment.
1David Lose shares this thought in a blog “In the Meantime” January 2017.
Pondering & Growing
December 30, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9
John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16-18
For we who gather on this 30th day of December, Christmas isn’t a done deal, but continues. While the rest of the world is already taking down Christmas lights and ornaments, we find ourselves pushing against the culture towards a place where Christmas still matters, where Christmas is still happening. Let’s face it, the wise men haven’t even made it there yet. What better time to create a space, to ponder and grow, as Scripture tells us both Mary and Jesus did, as we live into Christmas.
Mary seems to do a lot of pondering. To be honest, she has lots to think about when the shepherds come to the manger with their stories of angels and songs of promise and praise. Granted, as a girl child, in her culture, she had no chance, no opportunity, to ruminate on the Scriptures like the boys in Hebrew school. But the informal education offered every Jewish child, male and female alike, raised in a broth saturated with the law and stories of the prophets, creates, for her, a space to contemplate the promises of a child who would be born, a Prince of Peace. Creates space that takes Mary’s musing at the annunciation of “how can I, a virgin, a young woman, bear a child?” and expands her question to include the mystery happening in Bethlehem, outside the bounds of both human experience and explanation. Deliberations not ending with the baby’s birth, but continuing as Jesus grows into childhood and then goes to the Temple for Passover. Hearing that teachers and bystanders alike are amazed at her son’s understandings and answers, even as she hears his confusion and bewilderment at their search, once again Mary contemplates the happenings around the child. The mystery of divinity taking on humanity, that humanity might take on divinity, makes her ponder.
Yet, it seems to be in the DNA. Mary’s willingness to think on things gets passed on to her son. Our Scriptures say Jesus grows in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor. Still, it’s not just in his nature, in his make-up, although certainly that plays a part, but surely, Mary’s and Joseph’s faithfulness nurtures Jesus’ own faith as well. Coming into the world when time isn’t overly scheduled, when, while there is lots of work there’s still time to think and day-dream, without an overly filled schedule or mind-numbing TV, Jesus is born into a culture that encourages questioning and debate. A culture that during Passover sees the Sanhedrin meeting in public at the Temple court to discuss, in the presence of all who would listen, religious and theological questions that insist that every moment can be holy. Jesus hears and asks questions in ways that astound elders and perplexes the Pharisees—evidence of a student in search of knowledge who will grow into manhood, on whom the spirit of the Lord shall rest. Jesus grows aware and is receptive to God’s vision through a process, not a flash in the pan but a process, as he ponders on God’s call on his life.
Well, like the prophet, Mona Draa said recently, “If it was good enough for Jesus, I guess it’s good enough for the rest of us.” If Jesus, the One who teaches with authority, who not only knows, but is the Word of God, if he continues to grow in wisdom and stature, shouldn’t we, who claim to follow him, do the same? Yet, we live in a time that offers little incentive for thinking and growing, where reflection is too often interrupted by the noise of meaningless chatter, where beliefs aren’t pondered, and assumptions aren’t challenged, and we don’t give God the chance to move us to evolve and grow in our faith. Instead, we’re content to keep God limited to what we learned in our 8th grade confirmation class, as if that’s all there is to know about God. Yet, in reality, the mystery at Bethlehem, the mystery that is God, that is far too great for any of us to wrap our minds around, draws our hearts to long to know more. Just as Mary ponders the Christmas message, just as Jesus grows in wisdom and stature, we, too, are invited to muse, to question, to doubt, and to wrestle. All signs of an active living faith, unwilling to allow God’s word to simply be ancient words on a page, but instead engages us in growing pains. For it’s only as we grow in wisdom that we can increase in stature, like Jesus, a quality all about character and merit. When, better than Christmas, can we hear an invitation for some major honesty and openness to what God might be wanting us to learn? When is there a better time to wonder just what this season and our belief all means? As followers of Jesus we, too, are called to ask and answer, to learn and grow.
Now is the time, when we’re already pushing against culture, to ponder. For Christmas is all about reminding us that God acts in our midst. It’s the time to re-evaluate and re-orient as we sit with the marvel that is God.
Be Ready to Move... For the World Is About to Turn
December 23, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Today’s passage, today’s story, is an unusual one. Did you notice it’s an all- female cast? Oddly, the one guy who could be in the story, the one guy who lives in the house, Zechariah, is literally silenced. At a time when women’s voices were seldom heard, that such a passage appears is a rarity. Yet, whenever anything that seems particularly unique makes its way into the Scriptures, there’s usually a holy reason for it and it should stand out like a sign to listen up, for God has something to say.
The Church has long been conflicted when it comes to Mary, whose voice we hear in the song. She has been buried under layers of theologies and politics. Some folks pray to her, others ignore her, and still others find that while they have no problem with her, between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit there’s little room left in the inn for the one who bears the Christ child. Some of us see her as a young woman guided by God like an ancient Joan of Arc, while others see her the victim of divine coercion. It makes it hard for us to figure out just who she really is and just what she has to say to us today. Certainly, Scripture is scanty when it comes to Mary. We get the Annunciation, today’s passage, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, and the cross, if we’re expecting to hear from her in her own voice. And with hymns titled “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child,” maybe it’s no wonder about the only picture we can even form is one of a meek, vulnerable, little maid. Hardly someone who can stand up to what the world will throw at her. Hardly someone who will be able to participate in the salvation of her people or the world. Yet, she follows in a long line of faith-filled women blessed by the calling of God who are courageous, refusing to be passive, taking huge risks while defying what the culture expects when the Spirit moves them. Women included in Jesus’ own lineage like: Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, Jacob’s son. He, with no fondness for her, will acknowledge, at the end of her story, that she was more righteous than he; or Rahab, a Canaanite woman living in Jericho, whose choices brought safety to her household; or Ruth, whose story ends with her neighbors’ claim that she is more to her mother-in-law, Naomi than seven sons; or Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, taken by David, who wrangles a kingship for her son Solomon. Mary follows a long line of faith-filled women, but she also differs from them, for her strength doesn’t show itself through the machinations of power, or military cunning, or economic strength, or a good marriage. Her strength is found through her body, even as her soul will be pierced, as she willingly gives birth and raises the One who will then give his body to death as he announces a new eon, a new age. When it comes to the little we know of Mary, what we do know is that she trusts the God who calls her wholly and fully.
We know it because in her blessing Elizabeth calls out Mary’s truest self. Maybe it’s no wonder that as soon as the angel Gabriel leaves, Mary sets out in haste, not just ambling, but in haste. A pregnant teenager who runs for the hills, not slowing down until she reaches Elizabeth. And when she gets there, while Elizabeth connects the dots in Mary’s story, the not-yet-born John leaps, prophesying of another time when he will go before the child Mary carries. In Elizabeth’s greeting, she’ll bless Mary, first for the child she carries and then because she believes what the Lord has spoken to her, and it’s through Elizabeth’s blessing that Mary finds her own prophetic voice, not a pious hymn of thanksgiving but a radiant, hope-drenched song that is probably the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. She sings of the power of God as she describes a world reordered and renewed, a world characterized by love and justice that only the baby she carries can birth into beginning. Later, his parables and beatitudes and the way he lives his life will set into motion an awareness that unjust systems, oppressive hierarchies, and rampant self-interest and ego aren’t the way it has to be. That there can be more, be better. Mary becomes the pivot as her song heralds a world about to turn upside down, as she sings of what will be because she knows God will fulfill God’s promises. Anticipating what the baby will bring, Mary and Elizabeth show the world around them how to function when life is about to change, as they live into the existence of the kingdom, allowing it to not only change the future, but to change their present as well. Living into who she is, Mary steps up and finds herself a messenger to the world about life in the Kingdom, and is blest by Elizabeth.
In their actions, Mary and Elizabeth model what the church at its truest self can also be. For together they become a prototype of Christian community where Mary’s need for safety, affirmation and empathy is met with companionship as Elizabeth offers acceptance, rather than judgment, nurturing and celebrating God’s work in Mary’s life. At the same time, Mary shares God’s vision not only for the future but for the present as well, and together each gives strength to the other. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we, as the church, strengthen and support each other in our efforts to live out the future Kingdom in the present. In some ways, it’s no different than when we were in high school making decisions and taking classes based on what we thought our future held—college prep classes if we anticipated college, tech classes if that was where we were headed. In the same way, Jesus’ first coming draws us to live in the here and now as if his second coming, with the reign of God, is already present. Mary’s Magnificat isn’t simply ancient words on a page, but a guide as to how we can do that. Her words are reminders that eventually systems of injustice will give way. God’s favor will fall on the poor, folks we marginalize will be lifted up, and God will do grand things for and with the very folks our society casts aside or locks out. And that healthy dose of reality should shake us all up a bit and make us realize that perhaps we need to think about where we stand and what we do, and maybe rethink some of the ways we live. For change is coming, and the world is about to turn. And if we aren’t wanting to be part of Jesus’ way, then perhaps God will find others who are among the least expected, as God did 2,000 years ago. The reality is, we, as people of faith who follow the way of Jesus, can’t celebrate Christmas without recognizing that we, too, are part of turning the world, trusting that God fulfills God’s promises no matter when that fulfillment happens.
Even today, God is working through women and men to bring all God’s children into an existence like the one Mary sings of. Are we ready to move, are we ready to be part of God’s bold, risky, world-changing work? Mary tells us that the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, can only be celebrated with as we take up her song and become part of the action. For once again, the world is about to turn.
1 Matthew 1: 1-16 is Jesus’ lineage according to the writer of Mathew. A lineage that includes 4 women. Tamar’s story is found in chapter 38 of Genesis, Rabab’s story is in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25, Ruth-the book of Ruth.
Where’s the Good News
December 16, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
It is the third Sunday of Advent, pink candle and all. Yet even with the pink candle and Zephaniah’s words of rejoicing, John’s scolding makes us wonder just where’s the good news? For those of us who grew up where “turn or burn” sermons were not uncommon, nor preachers who seemed to “channel” John at his angriest, his words don’t seem to bode much redemption, may even bring out some resistance. Yet, for some reason the writer of Luke seems to think John’s proclaiming good news to the people.
So just where is it? Where’s the good news John talks about. “You brood of vipers.” Really? This is what John is calling the folks who give up a day at work to hear him? Then he adds a little “end of the world” good fruit/bad fruit fear of God to his sermon, with the ax at the root of the tree. It is no Norman Rockwellian picture he paints when he calls folks “snake spawn.” His words are hard, but still the crowd comes. According to Luke, great crowds stream into the desert to hear John berate them. Why? What’s the attraction? Of course, look who John’s attracting: a crowd of “gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” a lot of them misfits and losers. Folks at the edge of society who maybe weren’t quite so comfortable at the synagogue or temple where religious leaders, more polite than John, would normally hang out, not so comfortable with the “good folks from town” missing from John’s gathering, who were probably out doing their Christmas shopping or busy enjoying their holiday indulgences (just kidding, they didn’t have Christmas). See, many of the folks who make up the crowd around John are clearly at the end of their rope, who maybe don’t have any better place to be, no real job to go to, no steady, gainful employment. Or are tax collectors, turncoats, who work for Rome, allowed to skim off the top of what they collect from people who would just as soon spit on them as pay the tax. Or soldiers, also employed by the empire, mercenaries by any other name, as often as not thugs with trouble staying within the boundaries of their authority, comfortable using fear to get what they want. For a lot of folks making up the crowd, about the only thing going for many of them is that they’re still children of Abraham, part of the covenant, but John eliminates that hope with his “brood of vipers,” suggesting what they’re passing in their DNA is cold and evil, as he strikes down any hope of entitlement or assumption of election. So, it makes you wonder why they bother coming, or why they stay and take John’s abuse, ‘cause it sure doesn’t sound like John has any good news.
But John’s doom and gloom sermon doesn’t end in dismal hopelessness. The crowd isn’t done yet. Maybe somehow they know God has a different vision for the world and God’s children in it. Maybe they aren’t content with bearing bad fruit and being thrown in the fire, but question John with, “What shall we do?” And isn’t that our question as well? Isn’t that the question we ask when we come to the end of our own wisdom, when our defenses are down, when things just aren’t working as we think they should? “What should we do because folks looked exhausted after the Bazaar? What should we do in five years as folks get older and there are fewer of us? We ask the question, “What shall we do,” when we’re weary or disillusioned. In all honesty, lots of us are no less desperate than the folks in the crowd. Realities like the collapse of the family order, the lack of job security for our kids, the dishonesty and incompetence of political leaders, and the impact of other, often hostile, nations crosses the eons of times. Granted, most of us don’t live on the margins of society, but we, like the crowd, share a common despair for our very real world as we watch the “breaking news” and wonder at the apparent hopelessness of it all. John’s answer is as pertinent today as it was then. To the poor, share the gifts you have, contribute something—there’s always someone with a greater need—be generous. To the tax collector, how about a little economic justice, not filling your pockets with the hard-earned money of others. And to the soldiers, be satisfied with your wages, don’t be a bully but instead act with integrity. Not such crazy ideas. You’d think somebody dressed like John in camel hair, who seems to prefer fast food, literally on the fly, would require us doing something a little more radical. But instead, he offers fairly pragmatic instructions that aren’t rocket science, but lessons we should have all learned in kindergarten—and each and every one of them within our reach. Go home, to family, jobs and neighbors, and live fully, deeply, and generously. Share now, be merciful now, live genuinely now, because now is what we’ve got, now is when we can make a difference, as John points to the very real places where we already live, love, laugh, and struggle. Just like he doesn’t ask the crowd to move to the wilderness, the tax collectors to abandon or betray Rome, or the soldiers to become pacifists, he tells us that wherever we are, God meets us, accepts us, and uses us if we are willing to bear good fruit by living a different vision of the world, an alternative version that prefers compassion over indulgence and sacrifice over self-interest. John gives us an invitation to become new creatures when he answers the question, “What shall we do,” that we might bear good fruit and become part of God’s vision for the world.
No wonder Luke says John’s proclaiming good news. It is, and that is a cause for rejoicing. For what John announces is that salvation isn’t only “when we all get to heaven” but that salvation—healing—is here and now, within and among us. Rejoice, that all the possibilities we need to make the world a little more heavenly are right here before us if we’ll just start asking and listening and placing ourselves in a position to be guided. For we believe in a Messiah who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. A Jesus whose judgment looks beyond our masks to see us clearly and knows us to our very core, whether we act like vipers or doves. A Jesus who patiently and lovingly wields a winnowing fork to remove the chaff that hides our rich promise. A Jesus who’s willing to stay with us though the sacred fire that comes into every life. And that’s cause to rejoice, for we are an imperfect people, all too willing to compromise and live with all kinds of evil and wrong. Yet, Jesus is with us amid our imperfections and failings, meeting us in the need of our neighbor and in the hope of our grandchildren as he blesses our efforts to reflect his love and claims us, even when we fall short, as he draws us into his purifying flame. Rejoice. Like Zephaniah, just when there is little ground for hopefulness, John dares to trust that God will be God, will honor the promise to redeem us and by doing so then frees us to care for our little part of the world that God loves, and then stretch ourselves a little further. How can we help but rejoice? What other response can be possible to the God who will gather us up and brings us home? Rejoice, for John the Baptist gives us good news.
John pushes us in his curmudgeonly way to look at whatever job, place, or real life situation we’re in and find ways we can show a grace, an honesty, and an integrity that comes from our Lord, that we might be part of the divine shift in a world that reflects God’s vision. And that is certainly good news, and a cause for rejoicing.
Change ... for the Here and Now
December 9, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
The second Sunday of Advent (and for that matter, the third as well) asks us to prepare ourselves to see and welcome the coming Messiah, drawing us up close and personal that we might hear the words of John the Baptist, the prophet central to Jesus’ story but nowhere to be found in any Advent calendar. Yet, John is present in all four Gospels as the gateway to arrive at the nativity, and I would guess, the gateway to arrive at Jesus’ second coming as well. The prophet on whom the season depends, the opening act for the coming of the Lord.
John comes onto the scene, “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of,” you’ve already heard it, all the way to the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. It’s quite a lineup, the “magnificent seven.” Seven sets of power, of wealth, and of influence, secular and religious, a veritable “who’s who” of first century Palestine, as Luke places John and his message squarely into the time and place right in the middle of the events and happenings. Located in history, John comes out of the wilderness, going to the region around the Jordan with a message from God. “Prepare the way,” someone’s coming, and when he comes things are going to happen; mountains will be leveled, valleys filled in. Be prepared, get yourself ready for him, as John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Not a Christian baptism, not a once-in-a–life-time response to God’s promise of grace, but an Old Testament, human-motivated baptism. A symbolic act of washing, scrubbing away the dross, the impurities, the contaminations, that continually happen in every life. A washing that occurred in every Jewish home or mikvah on a regular basis, exchanging the isolation of being unclean, because of who was touched or what was done, to a state of purity with its return to the joy of family and community. John shifts the act of removing physical contamination to a spiritual place, accomplished, he proclaims, by the act of repentance. In a time and place unburdened by two millennia of Christian guilt, to repent was less a feeling and more an action, less about being remorseful and more about changing behavior, re-orienting direction, adjusting priorities. John calls folks to a repentance that is at the same time both harsh, but also liberating, as his message was heard up and down the Jordan. Not that everybody listened. Maybe the Tiberiuses and Caiaphases, presuming they spoke for God already, just couldn’t hear a fresh revelation. Let’s face it, such high positions, where money and power put folks at the top of a mountain, make it hard to want to see the mountain leveled. Maybe they couldn’t hear, but other folks did, like the disciple Andrew, who later follows Jesus, first follows John1 who announces the dawn of a new age and a new and different way of living. Folks come and prepare themselves for the Kingdom in their time and place.
Through the arc of time, John comes. We are now in the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump; in the eighth year of John Kasich as governor of Ohio; when Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown are Senators and there are a plethora, as in 16, representatives of the House; when Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintron-Olivieri and Reverend Cindy Kohlmann are co-moderators of the PCUSA; and Cathy Ulrich is General Presbyter and Stated Clerk of Eastminster Presbytery. Again, it’s quite a lineup, as John continues to call folks now, today, as he did over 2,000 years ago. In our time and place, six weeks after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in the midst of revelations of issues between Chinese and US relations, and just a few days after the death and burial of our 41st president, John announces we are to get ready for the One who brings the coming kingdom, and I’m guessing he is still proclaiming that it can best be accomplished by a baptism of repentance. John calls us to turn and live a different way, a better way, that we might live into the abundance he promised here and now, in 2018. In case we’re unsure of what “preparing the way” might look like, in case John the Baptist seems too extreme and the example of Jesus seems too unlikely, just think back to the last week. We’ve just heard, during the funeral of George H. W. Bush, of what making the crooked straight and the rough smooth might look like, however faulty and imperfectly. Whether you like his politics or not, his political life not always considered great, elected for only one term, yet, he was someone who strove to be a good man, a godly man, who worked not so much to win as to have everyone on the field playing, and offered generosity beyond self and circle. The Americans with Disabilities Act leveled the mountains for many, and his Clean Air Act, protecting the ozone level, made the world a better place. In his eulogy Jon Meacham said, “His life code was: tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course,”2 even as he called on us “to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts”3—words of preparation. Still, while most of us may not personally know Presidents who lead by example, many of us have known private folks in our lives who strive to be good and godly men and women, also probably not always applauded, but whose choices, the arc of time will show, have found them preparing the way in the here and now.
Well, in the 2,018th year of our Lord, John’s words come to Kinsman, Vernon, Burghill, and Johnson, speaking to you and to me, asking if we are preparing for the coming of the Lord, asking us how we are filling in valleys, leveling mountains, and making the path straight, that all flesh might see the salvation, the healing of our Lord. John comes asking what, in our lives, do we need to repent of, to turn from so that we aren’t a stumbling block, an obstruction to the One who comes, or to each other. What do we need to change that relationships may be reconciled? And what do we need to remove so that we can more clearly hear the word of God and follow on the path of a new era? What gets in each of our ways will likely be as different as each of us are from the other as we wrestle the hard questions. For they require a tenacious honesty that acknowledges places in each of our lives that need the borax of Fuller’s soap and the fire of conviction, neither of which are particularly comfortable. For sure, change is never easy. Re-formation is seldom painless. But that’s what we need to do when we bump up against sin that delights in rough ways and loves living on the mountains as it watches others scramble in the valleys. Sin is the reality of refusing to be fully human, refusing to open our whole hearts to God, to others, to ourselves. It’s the truth of choosing disconnection and disharmony over creativity, abundance, and flourishing. Repent, John says, turn around. Yet, if we can remember times and places when we have heard John’s call and acted, when we have filled in valleys, like the tutoring program that has lifted kids to a level playing field with their peers; when we have smoothed the fractures and rough edges by providing a space for NA, AA, and Al-Anon to meet and heal; when we have straightened tortuous paths by supporting the Needle’s Eye and the kids that attend; and when we have made the heights of mountains accessible by the wheelchairs Lisa Alfonsi works with—if we can remember such times and places, then we realize we have the background and building blocks to wrestle and struggle with the broken places that are still in our lives and world as we continue to prepare the way of the Lord in our time and place.
The reality is, the lectionary refuses to allow us to get to Christmas without going through Advent. Jesus comes only after we face John, who emerges in whatever time and place we find ourselves, telling us to get ready for the appearance of our Lord. John requires from us an honest reckoning, a willingness to undergo the unsettling movement that comes with the straightening and smoothing of our ways as we are re-formed and changed for our time in history, in our here and now.
2Jon Meacham, presidential biographer and author, eulogizing the funeral of George H. W. Bush at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, 5 December 2018
4Jill Duffield also touches on these thoughts in her article, “Looking into the Lectionary, Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018,” in Presbyterian Outlook.
Signs of Hope
December 2, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
It is the first Sunday of Advent. For folks who enjoy the taste, sounds, and excitement of Christmas, it’s easy to want to go straight from Thanksgiving, with the smell of sage, turkey and pumpkin pie, to Christmas trees, nativities, and Silent Night, with one long consumer-feeding frenzy filling in the middle. But the church isn’t about to let us do that; she reminds us that we are entering a holy season as we begin our new year while the days are still getting darker, which should tell us this is not a season for the faint hearted, but a season that rejects shallow sentimentality and fake cheer. Luke starts us off not with shining stars and fleecy lambs, but the world as it really is, with falling stars and the sea overwhelming the earth, a world, lovely, fragile and coming apart.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord: there will be signs in the heavens and on earth. Friday’s earthquake in Alaska seems to be right on cue, with the earth heaving and its isolated tsunami-like waves doing an imitation of the roaring seas. And wouldn’t you know it, the G-20 meetings bring to the surface fears of another cold war looming, while domestically, tear gas and rocks found their marks on our southern border. Signs of fear, signs of a certain destruction, rather than signs of gratitude for redemption or the hope of new life, seem to be what we see all around us. No wonder Luke says people will faint from fear. Perhaps it’s that very fear that allows us to transform people who are somehow different than we are into enemies whom we should distrust, or even eliminate. Perhaps it’s that very fear that causes us to hoard, as if there just isn’t enough, making everyone else our competitors. Fear that causes us to view each other as “them or us” as we choose to define ourselves not by attributes or ideas that we share, but by our differences, only to make it impossible to find a middle ground. The same fear causes us to close our eyes to the fact of climate change and our part in it. Such fear certainly fractures any understanding of or desire for some kind of solidarity or compassion. Instead, it has the power to stunt our imagination, harden our hearts, and gives us a dark vision with the power to make us wonder what’s coming upon the world even as the heavens shake. Jesus warns us there will be signs. Signs that seem amazingly timely not because they’re prophesying the future, but because they’re reading the reality of the world, a world that has always lived with uncertainly and fear. The days are surely coming, if they aren’t already here.
So realize it and act accordingly, Jesus says. Read the signs and know what’s going on and then figure out what and how we need to respond to what we see. Be awake, be alert, and be on guard, that we don’t lose heart, get distracted, numb ourselves, or believe the stuff the false prophets are spewing. There’s a reason “Fear not,” in some form appears 120 times in the Bible, proclaimed by angels, or priests, or prophets or some ordinary Joe Blow off the street, usually speaking on behalf of God. Let’s not quake in fear, rubbing our hands together, but instead, raise our heads, be courageous, because whatever we’re fearing doesn’t have the last word. The Kingdom is near, meaning righteousness and justice might be just around the corner. It’s just a little hard to see. So we need to prepare not for what scares us but to meet the new life that’s coming, trusting the promises of the One who is more than the fear that whirls around us, who brings new life even out of what has been cut down, who draws green shoots out of what looks like dead branches. Luke’s words aren’t about “the end” but about our very real future. And while we may not have a clue what it might look like, we know it will find us and lift us up. So stand up, for redemption draws near. Jesus promises not to abandon us amid the tumult of the world but to be with us, to strengthen us, encourage us, and equip us for what’s coming that we might not only endure, but flourish. So let’s stand up and raise our heads.
Whether we realize it or not, we, people of faith, have been told what’s happening, given a heads up, for a reason—so that we might live as signs of hope. That we might shine enough when other folks stand on tip-toe and look at the horizon in fear that they might see glimmers of the Kingdom, different and better ways of living that bring not just survival, but abundance. Jesus came living out the reality of what life in the Kingdom will look like that we might not be tempted by the fake news of fear, but instead live with the courage and love that behooves his followers, evident in our acts of kindness, our offerings of community, our whispers of encouragement, and our whiffs of reconciliation. We are called to live in such a way that our actions might be a sign of a viable alternative, as tangible of a sign as the bread and cup found on the Table which offers welcome to all—equally—in ways seldom seen in this world, and just as real as the forgiveness found at the font that allows us to lay our burdens down and move forward. Font and Table, both signs of hope created out of things of the earth but imbued with divine purpose just like we are. Jesus’ promises continue in the real presence of disciples whose actions are motivated not by the fear around us, but by the love and courage of Christ. For we have been grafted into the branch of Israel, Jesse, and David and our light reflects Jesus’ own as we become signs of hope and promise.
Advent is brutally honest and invites us to look and live in our world in our “here and now” precisely because it’s in the “here and now” that God dwells with us. But God also shows us what will be, that we might live into God’s future, becoming signs of hope in a world where oceans heave, the ground shakes, and the world’s redemption comes.
November 11, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I kinda’ chuckled when I first turned to the lectionary reading for this week. I couldn’t help but think that it must be November—what is typically “stewardship month” in the Presbyterian Church. To that end, perhaps it’s a good time to mention that there were pledge cards in the October newsletter and the joint meeting of the session and trustees, for the purpose of talking about budget, may be a long meeting, so if you’re a member of either board make sure you’ve had lunch prior to coming. That said, we’ve got to wonder just what Jesus is doing when he asks us to notice the widow who stands at the treasury box.
Let’s face it, we all know the story of the widow’s mite. We’re just not always sure what to do with her, her offering, or the scribes who are the focus of Jesus immediately before the widow comes on the scene. Growing up, if we were churched, most of us heard the widow’s story as a tale of sacrificial giving. A woman, poor and vulnerable, offering all that she has, two coins worth about 1/64th of a laborer’s daily wage,1 generosity par excellence. Likely we’ve all heard a few preacher-types suggest that if she gives all she has, in her poverty, shouldn’t we, out of our abundance, dig a little deeper, maybe skip a few lunches at Times Square after church, to further God’s work, as well? Yet, placed next to the passage about the scribes, supposedly good church folks whom Jesus charges with devouring widow’s houses and feeding off the vulnerable for their own gain, it seems unlikely he would encourage anyone, the widow included, to further impoverish themselves for an institution he’s just declared corrupt. It’s hard to imagine Jesus would applaud the poor he’s spent his ministry caring about for sharing their pennies empowering scribes who act like bottom suckers, their piety a sham. In the story, Jesus neither congratulates the widow on her faithfulness, nor does he reprimand her for becoming a victim of the scribes grasping behavior. We don’t know if he asks a disciple to invite her to lunch or gives her some spare change to live on. And we certainly don’t know if he wants us to follow her actions—or shut the church off from our giving. While we all know the widow’s story, Jesus isn’t clear just what he wants us to do with her.
Yet, what Jesus does do is notice her. Scripture says Jesus sits himself down opposite the treasury and begins to people watch, like so many of us are prone to do. He notices her and invites disciples, then and now, to notice her, also. At a time when everyone is so busy rushing here or there, being absorbed in what’s going on inside our own minds, or heads down looking at phones, Jesus says notice her, when it’s easy to overlook the person standing right next to you. See her while other thoughts are vying for your attention. Think about it: did you notice the first stranger who came into your line of vision, your first contact, at the Bazaar last weekend? Did you really see them, notice the color of their sweater, or how about their eyes? So, what’s it take for us notice someone? Who attracts our attention? And who are the folks we don’t notice, people our eyes seem to naturally avert when they come into our line of vision because we don’t want to know them, or because they aren’t like us, or because they make us uncomfortable? When was the last time you made eye contact with somebody who maybe came up to you on a bike at the mall or came close as you walked out of the library, asking you for some money to get a cup of coffee? If we’re honest, most of us really don’t want to know anybody like that. We don’t like to think of someone destitute and dependent. We certainly don’t want anyone to mistake us for one of them. It messes with our self-image. We’re actually pretty good about ignoring the widow, the derelict, the stranger. We don’t make eye contact, so we can forget who she is. Like the scribes, it’s much easier to notice the seating chart at banquets and make sure our long robes are neat. Granted, we all have days when we can kinda feel for her, when we feel invisible or not worthy of notice, but they’re fleeting and not a way of life. Yet, Jesus calls to us, as disciples, to see her, to recognize that she has value, to acknowledge that she is a person worthy of respect, to notice her.
See, not noticing individuals gets us off the hook when it comes to categorizing people. It’s easy to make generalizations, fit people into stereotypes if we don’t know, don’t see, the individuals within the group. Poor folks like the widow become freeloaders, sure to be trying to beat the system, forget that her culture places a woman without a man, either husband or son, in a situation where she has no income or support, catches her in a situation with few exits, akin to the way payday loans, cash bail, and ever rising court costs punish and keep the poor in a downward spiral in our own culture. It’s easy to dehumanize groups of people when there’s a past precedence, as when we counted African-American slaves only 3/5 of a person for political representation. It becomes uncomplicated to think of enemies, like the Germans, as we come to Veterans Day, as a just a bunch of godless Krauts, just like it was effortless for Germans, a generation later, to refer to Jews as Kike and Hymie, persons without a real name, without identities, just vermin. It’s an attitude that makes all blacks look alike and all whites elitists, and before you know it, such sinful blindness turns into sorrow as the crimes we have seen all too frequently recently have shifted from simply ignoring others into something more malevolent, full of fear and hate, striking out towards nameless persons in a group that, to the perpetrator, the executioner, has no worth or value. But that’s what happens when we lump everyone in a group and refuse to notice the individual, the person.
Maybe that’s why Jesus asks disciples, we who claim to be part of Christ’s body, to follow his example and notice the widow. Maybe part of our commitment, as a people of faith, is to stand with the One who comes to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, and to care for the least of these. And maybe, we’re to encourage others to see her as well. To be the church and to lead the way in this time and place when we, as a country, are so divided into groups and so hostile towards each other. For when we notice the individual, foolish stereotypes begin to break like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, never to be put back together again. It’s one thing to think all Muslims are terrorists until our daughter marries one and he becomes the father of our grandchild and we begin to appreciate that the man prays five times a day. It’s one thing to think anyone gay is an abomination until we realize our grandson is gay and that he is as good a man and as faithful a Christian as anyone we’ve ever met. It’s one thing to think of folks seeking asylum as a mob until we recognize that an asylum seeker is someone who had to leave their country but didn’t want to leave their country—kind of like Mary and Joseph.2 Jesus reminds us to notice each person before us—the Muslim father, the gay grandson, the refugee, the widow, and the countless others, including the person who shares your pew but thinks differently—and to see them for what they are, a child of God just like we are, our brother and sister, worthy of respect. For to see someone as an individual is the beginning of treating them with respect, and respect is the beginning of knowing and developing a relationship, and a relationship is the beginning of loving our neighbor, so Jesus asks us to notice the person God places before us and to show others how to see them as well.
The widow’s mite is a story of redemption as Jesus calls us to notice what other fail to see, that each and every one of us—you, me, and everyone else—is valuable to him and is a beloved child of God.
1Footnote found in the Harper Collins Study Bible, NRSV, 2006.
2 Interview by Presbyterian Outlook Leslie Scanlon with Andi Atkinson, executive director of La Posada Providencia, a shelter on the border of the United States and Mexico. https://pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary.