Claim the Spirit



God’s spirit is one of those things like love.  The more you give it away, the more you have for yourself.  The apostles insisted on passing the Spirit to new Christians by the laying on of hands.  What if each touch, each hug, each handshake between us carried with it a little prayer for the Spirit, for its power to work in the one we touch? Especially when someone is trying to be faithful and they face a challenge– that is the time to offer a prayer and a warm hand, so the Spirit’s power and our faithful support will help them to meet that challenge. Claim the Spirit, and share it.  

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
January 13, 2019

Catch the Spirit

            Acts 8:9-24  Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great.  10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”  11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.  12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.  13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place. 
            14  Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.  15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.  18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money,  19saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”  20But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!  21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.  22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.  23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”  24Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

The Acts of the Apostles is our main record of the earliest church.  It is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, written by the same author, about the wild adventures of the apostles, who were sent on road trips to share the Good news of Jesus.  Apostle means ‘sent’.  In Acts, the Holy Spirit is a vital force, almost the main character.  It guides the first Christians.  The Spirit gives them courage and power in their mission to spread the good news.  

In our reading from Acts, the apostles Peter and John are cleaning up after an eager apostle named Philip.  Philip had baptized a bunch of people from Samaria.  The Spirit was in that already.  What would a bunch of good Jews to be doing with Samarians, an ethnic group that they hated, and thought were “unclean?”  God’s Spirit had been at work in the Jewish apostles, and also in the Samaritans, healing old hatreds and fears.  This was news that Samaritans would even listen to the apostles, so Peter and John went to check it out for themselves.  They discovered genuine loyalty to Jesus, but Philip had forgotten one little detail.  He forgot to give them the Holy Spirit with their baptism.  So Peter and John took care of it.  They prayed for the gift of the Spirit and they laid their hands on those new Christians, and then they were good to go. 

This passage raises all kinds of questions.  Is the Holy Spirit really contagious from one person to another?  Could people tell?  Could they feel it when they received the Holy Spirit?  What difference did it make for them?  What difference does it make for us?  What does the Holy Spirit do, anyway?

Some people feel that there is a huge gap between heaven and earth.  God is far away, and the best we can hope for is to follow God’s rules and hope to be united with God after we die.  That doesn’t leave much room for the Spirit to act. Not only skeptics but faithful people, who have not experienced the power of God in their lives, or more to the point, haven’t recognized it: these people do not expect the Spirit to show up around here and make a difference.  And that’s a sad thing.

Some of you probably experience what I’m calling the Spirit, but you call it Jesus’ power, or God’s grace, or something like that.  And that is perfectly fine.  If God is going to give us three wonderful faces for us to know and love, we have every reason to choose the face that is most approachable to us.  Still, if you haven’t tried relating to God as Spirit, you might be missing something wonderful.  Spirit is the power of God that acts in us and through us.  In this scientific age, it is hard for some people to picture a personal God. But maybe they can picture a Force, like Star Wars, or a connection like an electrical circuit that connects us to God’s power, and that can allow God’s power to flow in us, and through us to other people.  

After Peter and John laid hands on the new Christians, a fellow named Simon the Magician tries to make the Holy Spirit into a franchise.  He’ll pay the apostles, if they’ll give him the power to dispense the Spirit.  Before we are too hard on Simon, you should know that the apostles messed up his last franchise in magic, by converting all his customers into Christians.  

Simon the Magician is a caution for us.  We too can try to work the Spirit on our terms, tame it and make it serve at our beck and call.  That doesn’t work.  John’s gospel says: The Spirit blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.(John 3:8) Your Bible probably says “wind” instead of “Spirit” but in Greek and Hebrew wind and Spirit are the same word. Also breath, life force—all these are spirit.  So the Holy Spirit is free-ranging like the wind, as essential as breath, God’s own life-force.  Try to tame that!

Some people think that the Holy Spirit came to people for the first time on Pentecost. Wrong. Of course it came to Jesus at his baptism.  The Spirit had also already come to prophets and leaders in Israel hundreds of years before. And the Spirit is not a Jewish and Christian exclusive.  In Genesis 1, Spirit blew over the waters at the dawn of creation. Spirit sustains all life; Genesis 6:3 says that when God’s Spirit leaves us we die.  

So what did the Spirit do for Christians that was special?  It brought an awareness of, and access to, God’s power– to all Christians, not just religious leaders and prophets.  That power shows up in many different ways.  According to our bible it comes as speaking in tongues, the most dramatic gift of the Spirit, and according, to Paul, the least useful.  It comes as spontaneous joy and praise of God. Spirit prays for us when we don’t know how.  It teaches us truth, and is our advocate, giving us hope and strength to do what God calls us to do.  It gives a variety of gifts that build up this community.  Some are obviously religious, like preaching and prophesying (prophesying just means saying the things God needs us to hear).  Some gifts are practical like encouraging and administration.  Spirit brings us the famous nine fruits that we need for right living: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  You’ll never prove the Spirit gave you gifts like all those. But it is a backwards kind of false humility when we don’t credit God for empowering the good things in our lives. What, we did it all ourselves? So…do you have any of these gifts? If you don’t think so, pray for the Spirit.  If you do, claim the Spirit!

The Spirit brought God’s power to all Christians, not just to leaders.  It brought the potential to lead, to speak with authority, to make wise decisions, to any of us.  It is a great equalizer, a great empowerer.  No wonder some of us love the Spirit, and others don’t know what to do with it. As time went on, the early church became more hierarchical, more controlling, like the culture around it.  God’s power, blowing among the common people wherever it willed, made the leaders kind of nervous.  The leaders would decide who was authorized to dispense the Spirit, and to exercise churchy Spirit gifts like preaching and prophecy.  Some of that was necessary—there were plenty of self-proclaimed prophets who managed to warp the Good News pretty badly.  But the control of the hierarchical church stifled the Spirit in many ways.  I am very conscious of one of those ways.  In many churches in this country, probably the majority, I could not be ordained clergy or preach because I am a woman. 

We in the UCC are not a hierarchical church.  We are a congregational church.  Decisions by the larger church are not binding on our congregation.  You as the congregation are the final authority of the church.  That is a great gift, and a great responsibility.  How could you do it without the Holy Spirit’s guidance and power? The responsibility is that if we do not stay empowered by the Spirit, we do not have the weight of a church hierarchy to keep us on track—our church will die.  The gift is that we as a church can respond to the Spirit as we are called, in ways that more hierarchical and rule-bound institutions cannot.  So we must be deliberate about seeking the Spirit, and sharing it.  It is the life of our church.

I think it is wonderful that the way the apostles shared the Spirit through prayer and the touch of their hands. Something as free as the Spirit can never be taken for granted, never tamed and passed on by a ritual alone—so prayer is required, to make sure our hearts are tuned and open to the Spirit.  Spirit is invisible, so we need concrete signs like human touch, to help make the Spirit real to us.  And we need the guidance of flesh-and-blood people, who themselves know the Spirit, to bring that power into our own lives.  To many people, the “power of the Spirit,” like “God’s love,” is an empty phrase.  And it will remain that way until we, who know what it means, share it.  

The Spirit is already in us if we’re breathing, but awareness and acceptance of its power waits for our invitation, and our sharing.  When the Spirit came in power at Pentecost, it came only after weeks of prayer, and it came to all the people gathered together. 

I see the Spirit moving in your lives in many ways.  I could list them, but it would be better if youstarted naming and claiming the action of the Spirit in your lives, and in this church.  Some of you already do, in your own way.  But many of you are shy about claiming that God’s power is actually doing anything for you, for us, here in this little church in Brea.  I know it can be hard to do that.  You don’t want to name the Spirit’s action in your life unless you’re really sure.  And we can never prove the Spirit’s action scientifically. Well, maybe your naming can be a leap of faith.  You don’t want to be taken for a religious nut, or a snake-oil salesman like Simon the Magician. But maybe…better that than to deny the power of God!  You don’t want to single yourself out as someone who gets special favors from God.  Well then start naming the Spirit acting in your friends’ lives too!  No false modesty, please:  we are children of God.  We have great gifts and a great destiny.  Claim it, and share it. 

God’s spirit is one of those things like love.  The more you give it away, the more you have for yourself.  The apostles insisted on passing the Spirit to new Christians by the laying on of hands.  What if each touch, each hug, each handshake between us carried with it a little prayer for the Spirit, for its power to work in the one we touch? Especially when someone is trying to be faithful and they face a challenge– that is the time to offer a prayer and a warm hand, so the Spirit’s power and our faithful support will help them to meet that challenge. Claim the Spirit, and share it.  Amen.

Bearing Gifts


When you are sheltered among people of your same religion and don’t get to know people on the outside, it’s easier to do and believe what you’re told. Whether you like it or not, it’s your identity.  It’s your culture.  But as soon as you let in the outside world in, it’s harder to maintain a religious culture generation to generation without a lot of coercion.  Teenagers are often not interested in what their parents are doing if their friends are doing something different.  So Kumail’s parents had long odds once he moved from Pakistan to the U.S. A similar thing happened to me when I stopped going to Catholic school in 9th grade.  And what religious culture I tried to make for my son was probably being undermined in preschool; his two best friends were from atheist and Jewish families. 

We do not need an exclusive Christian culture.  We need to build a compelling culture of respect and care, peace-building and creation justice with people of all faiths and no faith, to counter our popular culture of greed and exploitation and name-calling. So we have little to lose and lots to gain by befriending people of other faiths who value sacred community, even if the details of how we do that are very different.  We bring each other gifts: not gold and frankincense and myrrh, but the jewels of our faith that remind us who we are and what we value: sacred stories that guide us, rituals and sacraments that invite us into the mystery of the sacred, and everyday practices that help us live our values.  Whenever I make a friend who is committed to honoring what is sacred, even if they frame it very differently than I do, my own faith is encouraged and strengthened.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
January 6, 2019

One Light

Matthew 2:1-12In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
6         ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 
                        are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 
            for from you shall come a ruler 
                        who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 
            Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Magi add spice to the nativity scene.  Foreign kings.  Gold and frankincense and myrrh.  Camels. (Camels aren’t actually in the original story we read.)  The Magi only appear in Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew is very concerned with the fulfillment of prophecy, and the Magi fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 60.  Later Christians assigned them names and countries of origin, made them kings and gave them camels, using Isaiah chapter 60 as a guide.  Matthew simply calls them magi from the East.  Magi can be translated as magicians, or as priests of a foreign god.  Those job descriptions, magician and priest, used to overlap.  These men are clearly figures of wealth and power, stopping to visit King Herod.  They have some wisdom as well, since they knew astronomy, how calculate the movement of the stars, and there was no app for that back in the day.  They were not wise enough to keep from telling Herod about this newborn king.  Herod, hearing the news from the Magi, sought to get rid this treat to his rule of in a general massacre of babies, making Jesus a refugee fleeing violence, and I talked about that a couple of weeks ago.  

Taking the story of the Magi at face value, they saw a star, a sign from God that something special was happening.  They were not Christian (no such thing existed at that time.) They were probably not Jewish like everyone else at the Nativity stories.  Whatever religion they did practice, they were secure enough in it that they could take a long pilgrimage to honor the birth of a Jewish King.

The Magi invite us to explore interfaith meetings and interfaith learning.  There is one ultimate reality, one sacred light, and none of us see it very clearly.  We each experience the sacred differently like the facets of a prism, through our own religion and culture and personal history. When we get to know people of other religions, we experience different facets of that same light.  Hopefully we get more light.  That’s a good thing under any circumstances, but especially in this time when people of different religious traditions and none must find common ground to heal the human divisions and the ecological devastation we face. 

Some people are downright afraid of other religions.  Their faith is a closed system that can’t deal with other facets of the sacred.  We know that some Americans fear all Muslims, as if there weren’t Christian terrorists as well.  Remember that fear is what drives hate, and fear justifies hate and violence.  Building relationships overcomes fear.  What we may not realize is the number of people of other religions and no religion who fear Christians.  Sad, isn’t it?  They need to get to know us and our flavor of Christianity!

Our church just joined the Brea Ministerial Association.  That organization is not interfaith, and we may be the only mainline church participating.  Interfaith bridge building is not on their agenda. They do service activities and community building, but I think see their most important job as bringing everyone to the Christian faith, saving them from hell.  With the best of intentions, that overriding goal feels to people of other religions like coercion and the threat of violence. 

As you can imagine, I bring a different perspective to the Brea Ministerial Association, and I will speak up when the opportunity arises.  That may or may not make a difference, but we here, Brea Congregational UCC, we do make a difference. We are tiny, but we have a big street sign. We have a voice.  That voice is desperately needed.  

Over the holidays I watched the movie “The Big Sick.”  The main character Kumail is a young standup comic in Chicago, an Uber driver, and a Muslim, sort of.  He is trying to keep the peace with his Muslim parents by pretending be to a proper Muslim.  At one point he’s visiting his parents and they say, “Prayer time!” So he goes down to their basement, pulls out a rug, sets the timer on his phone, and waits.  After five minutes of standing around doing nothing in particular, the phone beeps, he puts the rug away and he goes back upstairs to join his family.  I have been that kid.  I have also been those parents.  We want our kids to be like us, to do what we do, to value what we value.  But the culture around them gives them other ideas.

When you are sheltered among people of your same religion and don’t get to know people on the outside, it’s easier to do and believe what you’re told. Whether you like it or not, it’s your identity.  It’s your culture.  But as soon as you let in the outside world in, it’s harder to maintain a religious culture generation to generation without a lot of coercion.  Teenagers are often not interested in what their parents are doing if their friends are doing something different.  So Kumail’s parents had long odds once he moved from Pakistan to the U.S. A similar thing happened to me when I stopped going to Catholic school in 9th grade.  And what religious culture I tried to make for my son was probably being undermined in preschool; his two best friends were from atheist and Jewish families. 

We do not need an exclusive Christian culture.  We need to build a compelling culture of respect and care, peace-building and creation justice with people of all faiths and no faith, to counter our popular culture of greed and exploitation and name-calling. So we have little to lose and lots to gain by befriending people of other faiths who value sacred community, even if the details of how we do that are very different.  We bring each other gifts: not gold and frankincense and myrrh, but the jewels of our faith that remind us who we are and what we value: sacred stories that guide us, rituals and sacraments that invite us into the mystery of the sacred, and everyday practices that help us live our values.  Whenever I make a friend who is committed to honoring what is sacred, even if they frame it very differently than I do, my own faith is encouraged and strengthened.

In the middle of a culture that doesn’t care much about what is sacred, we also have access to a kind of potluck of spiritual beliefs and practices from all over the world that we can use to enrich our lives.  Tai chi. Yoga.  I love it that my son Mark listens to a Buddhist mindfulness teacher Tara Brach on his insight meditation phone app; he’s way better at meditating than I am.  He goes to Shabbat services with his Jewish friends in New York City. He likes the singing. That’s the amazing smorgasbord we have access to.  

This little church is part of the feast.  If people are looking for an age-graded Sunday School or a bunch of rules to follow, we can’t help them.  Yet a lot of our friends and neighbors and sometime attenders treasure us… what are our gifts to them?  A taste of Process-Relational Christianity.  (How to explain that to your friends?  Try this. “God doesn’t control, God invites and inspires.  God doesn’t plan everything out in advance; God co-creates with us like a jazz musician.  And God is never far away; God is in and through everything. Our job is to pay attention.”)  Another gift we give: permission to believe as you choose, and respect other beliefs. To vote on important church decisions as a congregation.  Welcome for all including gender and sexually diverse people and a conscious effort to welcome people of all races and ethnicities, care for the earth as part of our faith, a heart for more dimensions of justice than we have energy to keep up with, and some unique cultural practices like First Food Sundays. We are part of that rich religious smorgasbord. There are a lot of people who got one taste and are still raving about it.  We do wish we would see them more often, though.

Because somebody’s got to do the cooking for that potluck. Somebody’s got to keep this church’s culture going, and build on it, and let it be known.  So I am deeply grateful for those of you who take a role in making Brea Congregational UCC happen.  I celebrate all of you who participate in worship, on Council, in our music program, with your financial support, in the kitchen and in facility maintenance.  I am grateful for those of you who represent us in the community through your service and your political and social action. Please know that your service and your faithfulness, your showing up makes a difference. To people who have walked through our doors once, or who have only driven by, or met one of you at a community meeting, you are bearing precious gifts from our Christian faith and practice here at Brea Congregational UCC.

As for receiving gifts, some of us went to an interfaith Ramadan meal, and experienced great generosity.  There is no interfaith group in Brea, and I never managed to get on the mailing list for the one that supposedly exists in Fullerton. Something to work on.  Elsewhere in Orange County, Muslims and Mormons are often the backbone of interfaith groups: they have experienced religious persecution, and they work hard for religions tolerance; for their own safety. 

Personally, the faith tradition that has given me the most gifts is Judaism. Like my son, I developed Jewish friends in grad school in New York.  Sam Gellman was my best friend besides my husband, and I learned how to be friends with an observant Jew: what not to feed him, what not to do on Saturdays, but much more, the stories that formed him. In seminary, I was blessed to have a Jewish teacher for Hebrew Bible, Marvin Sweeney.  Even at Claremont, quite a liberal seminary, Professor Sweeney put up with a lot of ignorantly offensive Christian students.  I have received all kinds of treasures of Jewish bible scholarship that most Christians don’t even know exist.  Then Rabbi Marc Rubenstein, whose congregation shared space with mine, did a bible study with me.  He had more midrash than bible scholarship, oral tradition beyond what’s in the bible, and he had one little teaching that sustains me to this day.  It goes like this.  

When we die and go to God, God will ask us three questions. First: what have you learned? Second: what mitzvot have you done?  (A mitzvah is a good deed, an act of service or devotion) And third, how have you enjoyed My world?  These three questions have been inspiring me for years now.  Thank you Rabbi Marc. 

Wise people of other faiths, bringing gifts.  We are blessed by them.  May we, as part of a vital and faithful Brea Congregational UCC, bring gifts to those who cross our doors and cross our paths.  And may we meet people of other faiths with our minds and hearts open, to receive their gifts, to experience more facets of the One Light that invites us into abundant life.  Amen.

Sacred Invitation



Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation.
If you have issues with virgin birth, I’m with you.  We don’t need to take these stories as factual history to use them as invitations to encounter the sacred ourselves.  We can reflect on these sacred stories, and wonder: how they might intersect our own lives.

Let’s begin by eavesdropping on a curious little meeting that happened earlier in this first chapter of Luke’s gospel: God personally sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary she was chosen to be pregnant, and not in the normal way.  Can you see her face?  Such an expression.  Confused. Worried.  But then at some point, acceptance, a yes that reverberates through time and space.  And just like that, the angel is gone.  But not forgotten.  

I wonder. Has it ever happened to you that a situation was dropped into your lap and you didn’t think you were up to?  You were confused, worried.  And then, maybe not right away, you came to accept that thing that radically changed your plans and maybe even your identity, you grew in ways you never expected.  We have our narrow view of the world and our role in it, but the possibilities are so much bigger than we realize.  Not what we were expecting, but maybe what was needed.  Not what we thought ourselves capable of doing, until circumstances led us to do the thing we thought was impossible.  I think of single mothers everywhere, and other caregivers.  That was probably not their plan… and yet they pull it off, and sometimes they are greatly blessed.  I wonder. How would the sacred invite you to a task you never expected?  What would your angel look like?  Would you recognize the invitation?  Would you say yes?

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
December 23, 2018

Leap of Faith

Luke 1:39    In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 
46      And Mary said,  
            “My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47                  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
48      for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
                        Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49      for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
                        and holy is his name. 
50      His mercy is for those who fear him 
                        from generation to generation. 
51      He has shown strength with his arm; 
                        he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52      He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 
                        and lifted up the lowly;
53      he has filled the hungry with good things, 
                        and sent the rich away empty. 
54      He has helped his servant Israel, 
                        in remembrance of his mercy, 
55      according to the promise he made to our ancestors, 
                        to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


What shall we do with the Christmas stories?  We can make manger scenes, complete with angels to remind us that something extraordinary happened.  We can ponder the paradox of Jesus being born not in a palace but a barn.  And we can step into the stories as if they happened to us.  

If you have issues with virgin birth, I’m with you.  We don’t need to take these stories as factual history to use them as invitations to encounter the sacred ourselves.  We can reflect on these sacred stories, and wonder: how they might intersect our own lives.

Let’s begin by eavesdropping on a curious little meeting that happened earlier in this first chapter of Luke’s gospel: God personally sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary she was chosen to be pregnant, and not in the normal way.  Can you see her face?  Such an expression.  Confused. Worried.  But then at some point, acceptance, a yes that reverberates through time and space.  And just like that, the angel is gone.  But not forgotten.  

I wonder. Has it ever happened to you that a situation was dropped into your lap and you didn’t think you were up to?  You were confused, worried.  And then, maybe not right away, you came to accept that thing that radically changed your plans and maybe even your identity, you grew in ways you never expected.  We have our narrow view of the world and our role in it, but the possibilities are so much bigger than we realize.  Not what we were expecting, but maybe what was needed.  Not what we thought ourselves capable of doing, until circumstances led us to do the thing we thought was impossible.  I think of single mothers everywhere, and other caregivers.  That was probably not their plan… and yet they pull it off, and sometimes they are greatly blessed.  I wonder. How would the sacred invite you to a task you never expected?  What would your angel look like?  Would you recognize the invitation?  Would you say yes?

If you’d like to ponder this scene some more, we have reproductions of a number of classical paintings of the Annunciation in our church entry.  The painting on our bulletin is more contemporary.  It captures the mystery of the sacred.  Not only couldn’t Mary prove pregnancy by divine intervention to her parents or to the town gossips…  Maybe she was not certain herself what had happened that day.  Maybe she took a leap of faith.

We too may encounter the sacred, and be given challenging and awesome tasks. If you are skeptical, that’s understandable.  You’ll never prove an encounter with the sacred.  We can only tell our story as we understand it, and maybe take that leap of faith.  

Does anybody remember the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah?  It is also in this busy first chapter of Luke’s gospel.  Elizabeth was John the Baptist’s mother, who got pregnant long after she gave up hope of having a child.  

I wonder. Have you ever given up on a hope because it was too long in coming or too farfetched, and then it happens long after you stopped expecting it, and you are so amazed, and maybe also a little scared?  And all you can do is sing your awe and your wonder and your thanks.  That’s what Elizabeth did.  

Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah won the lottery at the Jerusalem temple.  He got to enter the mysterious Holy of Holies to light the incense.  Little did he know an angel was waiting for him with a surprising announcement. Zechariah did not believe his wife could become pregnant– a perfectly sensible response.  So Zechariah was struck mute.  He was prevented from telling Elizabeth what was not possible.  A good reminder to hold our tongues when we’re about to shut down someone else’s inspiration.  We can assume he did his part in the end, to help make the miracle happen.  He was John’s father.

I wonder. Has it ever happened that you told someone else what they couldn’t do, judged them and found them wanting, placed your limits on them?  How do we even know what is possible for someone else?  Kids get this all the time.  It’s built into our educational system.  Our schools demand academic and motor skills before many children are developmentally ready. So many kids, boys especially, write themselves off as failures very early on.  

Who told you what you couldn’t do?  How long did you believe them? Do you believe them still?  We don’t know what God can co-create with us unless we try. I wonder. Maybe instead of shutting down hopes and dreams, we can encourage each other, inspire each other, believe in the power of the sacred working in all of us.  

In today’s reading, Mary dashes off to compare notes with her cousin Elizabeth.  These two women, pregnant in the most unlikely ways, come together thanking God and speaking in poetry like prophets of old. (Give Luke a little creative license here.)  Elizabeth blesses Mary in words that the Catholic Church still uses as prayer.  

I wonder, when you are stretched by the task you’re carrying, do you seek out companions to share the joys and burdens you hold?  Someone who understands.  Someone has traveled the same road and can empathize with us, and tell us about the potholes they’ve found and the good rest stops.  Someone who will pray with us, or bless us, or just reassure and encourage us. This kind of intimate sharing takes courage– to reveal our fears and worries and to trust that they will be received with care and understanding. Whether it’s pregnancy or parenting, or caring for our elders, or pastoring, or teaching, growing old, wrestling with finances, or running a business, or growing a garden, you name it. Sharing with fellow travelers bring us blessing, and allows us to bless others.  We can take Elizabeth as our model.

Mary’s reply, now that’s something special.  Mary’s song is known as the “Magnificat,” That’s Latin for “magnify,” as Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It’s funny to me to think of God getting magnified. Is God so small that God needs a magnifying lens?  Truth to be told, in our daily lives, in our priorities, sometimes the sacred looks small indeed.  Mary has seen the power of God up close, has experienced it in her own life.  And by witnessing her story and her song, perhaps her magnification will work on us, and the sacred will come into focus, and become a larger part of our lives.

Mary speaks about what God has done for her.  It’s Luke’s agenda.  It’s Jesus’ agenda: the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Mary’s song starts personal, but turns social.  Being a good Jew of her time, she knows that the personal and the social cannot be separated.  So her song is about what God has done for her and for all people.  Let me give you a translation that has the rhyme and grit of the original Greek.
            God threw the rulers down from up high,
                        He promoted the bums.
            He gave the hungry a piece of the pie
                        And left the rich with the crumbs.
This, according to Luke, is Good News.

Here is the most curious thing, to me, about Mary’s Song.  According to the song, this turning upside down of our normal ideas of human value, and of the social order, has already happened.  It is not a promise Mary speaks for the future.God has already done it.  God hasbrought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  God hasfilled the hungry with good things.  And Jesus wasn’t even born yet!  There’s a leap of faith. 

Mary’s Magnificat has been prayed and sung by many people.  Often in Latin and in cathedrals, where its point was entirely missed.  But some people got the point. The British rulers of India in the 1900’s deleted the Magnificat from their evensong services– the natives might get ideas.  In the 1970’s, at the height of the liberation theology movements in Central and South America, dictators in Argentina and Brazil banned the public reciting of the Magnificat.  It was illegal in Guatemala in the 1980’s. 

I am told of an occasion in El Salvador that poor peasants seeking their rights were meeting in a church.  During the meeting the church was surrounded by government soldiers.  Those soldiers didn’t need much excuse for a massacre. The peasants left the church singing the Magnificat at the tops of their voices. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” The soldiers squirmed. It was straight out of the bible, after all.  

Ordinary people, claiming God’s action in their lives, even in the most difficult of circumstances.  We are invited to imagine it.  We are invited to live it.     

I wonder. When we claim these stories of encounter with the sacred as our own, where will we discover the sacred among us? What task will we be given to challenge us, and make us partners in creating God’s Kin-dom?  

Luke doesn’t want us to look for salvation from on high.  Instead, he invites us to look among the ordinary and the struggling, for our own angel encounters and tasks we never expected, our own tied tongues, our own meetings of shared struggle and celebration.

I wonder if we can take the leap of faith and recognize: it’s all sacred.  From the dance of atoms to the dance of human relationships to the dance of galaxies.  Every one of us is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and empowered to do some extraordinary thing or other.  And we don’t know what’s possible until we become willing to say yes.  A leap of faith is required.  Amen.

Sharing and Caring


Sharing and caring.  Caring can be shown in a lot of ways.  John the Baptist didn’t need to lecture faithful Jewish people on how to care for family, or for those who are lonely or vulnerable.  That’s always been part of Jewish law and practice.  Instead he called out those people whose jobs invited them to abuse people: tax collectors, who made their living by overcharging people, and soldiers, whose power and prosperity depended on terrorizing people. How could tax collectors and soldiers be honest, when their jobs only paid a living wage by extorting their victims, I mean clients?  They could take a huge pay cut.  Disobey their bosses.  Be shamed by their coworkers.  Or quit. 

I wonder if we have any jobs like that today, that set workers up to cheat or abuse other people? Compliant employees are very handy for carrying out unethical practices.  They need to make a living, right?  Upton Sinclair, who championed workplace and economic reforms back in the 1930’s, said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” 

Asking questions about how our workplaces and our economic system treat people, and the planet, that’s one thing.  But opting out of the parts that exploit?  That sounds radical.   The word radical fits our reading today.  “John said, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”  John was a radical, in the dictionary sense of the word, and so is Jesus.  The word radical means “going to the root.” Seeing through distractions to what’s really going on, what’s important.  Being radical, going to the root doesn’t mean having a revolution.  It means recognizing what is essential.  Yet when we do that, everything that is not essential gets called into question.  

 ********
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
December 16, 2018

What Should We Do?

Luke 3:7-18  John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 
            10  And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
            15  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
            18  So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


Advent is a season of expectation.  We are expecting Jesus, and what do we get?  John the Baptist, that wild man. Matthew’s gospel portrays a desert hermit: wearing hairy clothes, eating locusts and wild honey.  Both Matthew and Luke quote John yelling about broods of vipers and axes to the root of the tree.  If we saw John the Baptist walking down the street we might be tempted to cross to the other side.  It’s remarkable that he got a following, out there in the wilderness at the Jordan River.  I can only imagine that people were pretty desperate for change to be lining up to get baptized and yelled at by this guy.  

Let me try a line-by-line translation of John into modern expressions.  Verse seven: “You SOB’s. Running like rats off a sinking ship.” Verse 8:  “If you’ve really been transformed, act like it!  Your heritage doesn’t make you special.” Verse 9:  “This house of cards is all coming down.  Every rotten piece of it.”  Ouch!

Those people listening to John had gotten baptized; they really want to make a clean start and so they ask John, “What then should we do?”  John gives them a list.  It’s Luke’s list, I suspect.  It’s short, simple, and profound.  First, and for everyone, if you have extra food or clothes, give them to people who have none.  Second, for people in professions that are considered shady (tax collectors and soldiers at that time): be scrupulously honest; don’t skim, don’t bully.  Do that. That’s all.  How is this transformation? 

It is not a top-down transformation.  This is a bottom up transformation.  We think we have no power, that power is elsewhere, and some of it it is.  But nowhere in the gospels are we instructed to transform our world.  Instead, we are invited to be transformed ourselves.  And transformation is contagious.

John the Baptist’s simple practices are an invitation to daily personal transformation, from:  “What’s in it for me?” to “How can I share?  How can I care?”  How much can we share and care? According to Luke, a lot.  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.”  Only the Greek word chiton doesn’t mean coat, it means tunic, the long shirt they wore that doubled as their underwear.  Having two tunics meant you weren’t destitute: you had a clean one to wear when your other one was being washed, or when it was really cold.  Giving that second tunic away was a big share, not a little share.  This kind of sharing only makes sense when you are in a caring community where you can trust that somebody else will share with you when you share what you really couldn’t spare.  That is the kind of Christian community Luke was trying to build.  And it’s the opposite of capitalism.  Don’t blame me.  It’s in the Book.

Sharing and caring.  Caring can be shown in a lot of ways.  John didn’t need to lecture faithful Jewish people on how to care for family, or for those who are lonely or vulnerable.  That’s always been part of Jewish law and practice.  Instead he called out those people whose jobs invited them to abuse people: tax collectors, who made their living by overcharging people, and soldiers, whose power and prosperity depended on terrorizing people. How could tax collectors and soldiers be honest, when their jobs only paid a living wage by extorting their victims, I mean clients?  They could take a huge pay cut.  Disobey their bosses.  Be shamed by their coworkers.  Or quit. 

I wonder if we have any jobs like that today, that set workers up to cheat or abuse other people? Compliant employees are very handy for carrying out unethical practices.  They need to make a living, right?  Upton Sinclair, who championed workplace and economic reforms back in the 1930’s, said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” 

Asking questions about how our workplaces and our economic system treat people, and the planet, that’s one thing.  But opting out of the parts that exploit?  That sounds radical.   The word radical fits our reading today.  “John said, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”  John was a radical, in the dictionary sense of the word, and so is Jesus.  The word radical means “going to the root.” Seeing through distractions to what’s really going on, what’s important.  Being radical, going to the root doesn’t mean having a revolution.  It means recognizing what is essential.  Yet when we do that, everything that is not essential gets called into question.  This “going to the root” is not a comfortable process.

If we contemplate just how radical are these practices Luke gives us, we may get discouraged. Or we can conveniently ignore them. They’re for another time and place, not for us.  I’ve never heard a biblical literalist say Christians shouldn’t own two coats, let alone two shirts or two pairs of underwear.  Yet I’m certain Luke meant these practices for his community.  In the sequel to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke talks about the first followers of Jesus holding all their property in common. And he is the only Gospel writer who has soldiers engaging Jesus or his followers in a positive way.  That’s something Mark and Matthew can’t imagine.  

We are not literalists.  We are free to follow the Gospel as our hearts leads us, that is the UCC way.  Still it’s worth asking the question,  “What should we do?” 

How did the church of your childhood answer that question?  What rules did they have?  Funny how few of them have to do with sharing and caring.

What should we do?  I don’t have a clear answer for you.  Let’s live in the discomfort of the question, and see how we might be transformed. What practice might transform you as you live it out, invite you to closer relationship with the sacred, and right relationship with other people and the planet?  We can begin by asking questions.   How can we better share what we have?  How can we free ourselves from obedience to a system that glorifies money and uses people and the planet as tools to get money?  These are not comfortable questions. These are essential questions. 

I heard of a sharing practice that John the Baptist would approve, from Rev. Austin Shelley and her grandmother. (1) 
My grandfather never questioned the grocery bill. All other expenditures fell subject to his review, but the grocery shopping belonged entirely within my grandmother’s domain. Papa had good reason to be frugal. Though we never went hungry, we lived on relatively little inside our 526-square-foot home in rural South Carolina. Under these circumstances, Papa kept a tight grip on the finances, even meting out our weekly contribution to the church—ten dollars for the offering plate, plus one dollar for each grandchild for Sunday school…

As far as I know, Papa never discovered the secret my grandmother and I shared. Every Saturday she and I whisked into town in her faded blue Ford Torino. As I pushed our cart up and down the aisles of the Red & White, she carefully selected food in duplicate—two boxes of cereal, two jars of peanut butter, two bags of flour—until our cart looked like an abstract rendering of Noah’s ark with its produce and nonperishable food items arranged two by two.

Then we’d check out (an achingly slow process involving a hefty stack of coupons), load the car with heavy paper grocery bags, and drive straight to the town’s food bank, where my grandmother would donate exactly half of everything she’d just purchased. She bought my silence each week with a small candy bar, which was not immune to her rule: one chocolate treat for me, one for the food bank.

On one of these grocery trips when I was eight or nine years old, I asked my grandmother for a name-brand cereal I’d seen on a television commercial. “We can’t afford that one,” she replied without looking up from her list. “We can if we don’t buy two of them,” I grumbled under my breath. My grandmother’s eyes met mine. She put her list down so as to place her hands firmly on my shoulders. She measured her words as carefully as my grandfather had measured the dollars for our Sunday offering: “If we can’t afford two, we can’t afford one.”

When the practice of caring collides with our paychecks, it gets harder.  My father was a physicist.  For a number of years when I was a child, he trekked back and forth from the Bay Area to Nevada and Utah, testing nuclear bombs underground.  He got colorful printed certificates with strange names on them like  “Project Fulcrum” and “Project Quicksilver.” He told us stories of schlepping lead bricks, and measuring temperatures in the millions of degrees.  As a righteous teenager I finally confronted him: “How could you work on nuclear weapons?”  And he replied, “I did it to feed my family.”  That shut me up.

I do know people who have walked away from jobs that were asking them to be a part of something they would not do, people who stood up to bosses who directed them to cheat or harm (which will get you fired!)  They felt devastated.  In our culture we often get a huge part of our identity and worth from our job and our paycheck.  Caring at the cost of those things feels like failure.  But maybe it isn’t failure at all.  Maybe we can talk about ethics at work, and begin to change that mindset.  Our generous sharing with people who care at the cost of their job might help.

Sharing and caring.  Consider creating a practice for yourself, to share or to care in a consistent way. Maybe one thing that calls to your heart.  Maybe something simple.  Maybe something radical.  For the radical: negotiate it with your family; I don’t recommend hiding it like Austin’s family did.

Then be kind to yourself when you don’t do it as well as you’d like.  Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, at least at first.  It’s a practice, not a perfect.

We know we are in need of transformation.  Our society, our world, is in need of transformation.  What should we do?  Share and care, Luke tells us.  How?  Your choice.  Take your time deciding, and have fun with your practice.  Let’s share and care together, in a community that makes sharing and caring easy, and supported, and celebrated.  I hope this church is that community for you.  I’m glad you’re here.  Amen.


The Real Nativity

Kelly Latimore, La Sagrada Familia
This, the gospel writers tell us, is where we find the sacred.  Not in a palace, not in a world where all is right and good, but in a barn.  In the midst of fleeing refugees.   In our precious nativity story is brokenness: poverty, homelessness, political unrest, and violence.  And angels.  God chose to be found in brokenness.  This is not the Good News most people were expecting, then or now.  

When people are hurting, struggling, heartbroken… there God is.  God did not fix the world and put a bow on it and say, “Well if anything is broken, it’s your fault; you were not good enough or faithful enough.”  No!  God didn’t tell us we could fix it all, either.  The gospels don’t promise us an absence of suffering.  Rather, the gospels show us that God is found right in the middle of our messes.  And so the Christ child is born in a barn, and the holy family flees for their lives. And God is the heart of compassion that accompanies us in our struggles and our fear, and sends angel choruses to sing for us when we are alone at night.  


Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
December 9, 2018

Expecting God in Unexpected Places

Luke 3:1-7    In the fifteenth 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 the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, 
            “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
            ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 
                        make his paths straight.
5         Every valley shall be filled, 
                        and every mountain and hill shall be made low, 
            and the crooked shall be made straight, 
                        and the rough ways made smooth; 
6         and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Advent is the beginning of a new church year.  This year, our readings are from the Gospel according to Luke.  The birth story of Jesus is a mashup of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  Mark’s gospel says not a word about Jesus before he gets baptized by John.  John’s Gospel (Not the Baptist: different John!) has the Word creating the world at the beginning of time.  He doesn’t mention anything so humble as being born a human baby.  

It’s not Matthew’s year, but I need to bring up an important theme in Matthew’s story of the baby Jesus.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the new Jewish King is born, and prophecy is fulfilled.  Matthew is big on prophecy.  King Herod takes notice, and not in a good way.  Does anybody remember the slaughter of the innocents?  That is the story where Jesus was a child refugee, fleeing violence.  He found refuge, in Egypt.  Chapter and verse: Matthew 2:12-23. That story is the basis of the old Coventry Carol, whose third verse you may not know.  

Herod the King, In his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, In his own sight
All children young to slay.

Historically, that probably never happened.  Yet it has happened, in a thousand times and places since then: leaders and law enforcement slaughtering their own people, families fleeing for their lives from violence.  It happened this year among the Rohingya in Myanmar and in several countries in the Middle East, and at our own borders. So whether or not it actually happened as Matthew told it, that story is true.  We live in a broken world.

Luke tells a different story, of a homeless woman giving birth in a barn.  If Jesus was born in Southern California, it would have been in a garage.  Luke tells of angels witnessed only by low wage workers on the graveyard shift:  we know them as shepherds. Whether or not it actually happened as Luke told it, this story is also true.

And this, the gospel writers tell us, is where we find the sacred.  Not in a palace, not in a world where all is right and good, but in a barn.  In the midst of fleeing refugees.   In our precious nativity story is brokenness: poverty, homelessness, political unrest, and violence.  And angels.  God chose to be found in brokenness.  This is not the Good News most people were expecting, then or now.  

I was at the hair stylist a week and a half ago, and I was annoyed to find I didn’t have my haircutter’s whole ear. Another client was there.  And she was a talker.  Somehow she started talking about the homeless situation.  She explained to me how homeless people were all either mentally ill or addicted, and wanted to live that way.  In other words it was their fault they were homeless.  So I parroted off some numbers for her: less than half of the people evicted from the Santa Ana river encampment were in that demographic, “either in drugs or in need of them” as one social worker put it. Many of the rest were newly homeless, due to soaring rents.  She didn’t hear a word I said.  And she kept talking.  I couldn’t walk away.  I was trapped in my chair with goop on my hair.  So I tried to listen.  I tried to understand the thinking behind her staunch belief that people could only be homeless because of their own failings, not the astronomical cost of housing, governmental inaction, and Nimbys- as in Not In My Back Yard will I allow you to build low cost housing or permanent shelters.  I dared not bring up the topic of immigration: I could guess what would happen. 

I began to understand her thinking. She was a good person, a caring Christian.  Her city government was right and good and doing everything it should.  Therefore her world was in good order.  And in order to believe that story, she had to refuse to see the suffering and need happening in her own city.  If she did see it, she would have to admit our brokenness.  So she divided the world into “us”: the good people who are right and therefore are not in need, and “them”: the people who have problems, who are the problem.  This is how she keeps those problems at a safe distance from her and her good world.  Anything different, to her, was fake news; it couldn’t be true or she would lose her identity, her conviction that she was right and good, and therefore entitled to an orderly world. 

This is a belief system that both Matthew and Luke refute in their gospels.  Matthew says it in a spiritual way, in his Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The beaten down are blessed?  Not the right and the good in their orderly worlds?  Luke does it in a blunt and earthy way: “Blessed are the poor.”  Full stop.  That is our Good News.  ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is not gospel.  Being blessed, being seen and loved and cared for by God when you suffer whatever the cause, that’s Gospel.  There is no “us” and “them” in the Kin-dom of God.

We know this because of our shelter program. We do not fear or judge them, because we have eaten with them and talked with them, and we know they are us.  The ranks of homeless and refugees are growing in California.  Jaime O’Neill got a taste of homelessness when his retirement home went up in smoke a month ago (1) in the ironically named town of Paradise.  Fortunately he had a pension and a credit card, so he was able to feed himself and his wife, and after a few weeks they found a home to rent in Sacramento.  But in the meantime he was flustered enough to forget to buy a razor for a few days, so when he was buying underwear and toothpaste and wearing few days of scruff, in line at the store, he looked and felt the part of a homeless person, and people treated him that way.  Now he gets it.  Homeless people are not “them.” They are us, without homes. 

I have my own warped version of the gospel: I’m not doing enough.  You might identify progressive Christians by this mantra: “We’re not doing enough.”  As if it’s my job to fix everything.  None of the gospels say, “Blessed are the guilty, who think it’s their job to fix everything.”  We are invited to participate in God’s Kin-dom.  The way to do it is not to feel guilty, but to let the hinges of our hearts’ doors swing gently and easily to welcome Christ’s coming.  Where we didn’t expect it.  Our call is to find ways to make it easy and joyful to share and care and remove the barriers between “us” and “them.” 

When people are hurting, struggling, heartbroken… there God is.  God did not fix the world and put a bow on it and say, “Well if anything is broken, it’s your fault; you were not good enough or faithful enough.”  No!  God didn’t tell us we could fix it all, either.  The gospels don’t promise us an absence of suffering.  Rather, the gospels show us that God is found right in the middle of our messes.  And so the Christ child is born in a barn, and the holy family flees for their lives. And God is the heart of compassion that accompanies us in our struggles and our fear, and sends angel choruses to sing for us when we are alone at night.  

Luke’s gospel is the most socially aware, putting rich and poor side by side.  He doesn’t say being rich is bad, but he has some pretty clear ideas about what people should be doing with their money.  Luke’s is also the most politically aware of the gospels.  Our reading today introduces John the Baptist by listing all the political and religious rulers of that time and place.  You know, the ones John was thumbing his nose at by doing his own made-up rituals in the river Jordan.  He should have been doing proper rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem, whose high priests were appointed by Rome.  John was putting lie to the idea that people were good, doing things right, and their world was in order.  That was unacceptable to the Power that Be.  Neither was John trying to fix everything.  He was… baptizing.  Interesting. As far as the “good” people, the “us” people were concerned, John was just inciting “them” to rebellion, promising some mysterious new leader.  It cost him his head.

The seats of power were in Rome and Jerusalem.  And where was John the Baptist?  Out in the desert wilderness, the land of lawlessness, chaos, and possibility. Where the Spirit can grow a new thing free of political control.  Luke says, “the word of God came to John son of Zecharaiah” – that is the biblical way to introduce a prophet.  And then Luke quotes the ancient prophet Isaiah to describe John’s work.  
            Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 
            Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, 
            and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.
All is not good.  Major repair is needed.  It sounds like road reconstruction.  Read that as a metaphor for transformation.

What John actually did was baptize people.  This was not Christian baptism, our sacrament of initiation into the church and the faith. This was a renewal of their Jewish faith, a cleansing and a fresh start.  Of course he was getting them ready to receive Jesus and his message, but they didn’t know that yet.  They were just expecting God to do something wonderful among them, despite all signs to the contrary.

What are we expecting this Advent?  Some of us are weighed down by the bad news we witness.  So much brokenness in our communities, our nation, our planet.  We are not good.  All is not right. And the world is not in order.  It would be easy to assign blame to “them” – Either the suffering or those in power who allow, and sometimes cause, that suffering.  Let’s be careful, on this Sunday when we light the Advent candle of Peace, not to divide the world into “us” and them.”  That only makes things worse.  We are all broken, and in need of reconstruction, and God knows that’s OK.

So let’s take a cue from John, and prepare ourselves for something new.  What in us needs a new start?  Where among us will we discover Christ anew in this season? Hopefully we will meet the sacred here on Sunday mornings and on Christmas eve.  But we can also discover new life and transformation all around us, and sometimes in the places we least expect it.  

A child born in a barn, a refugee.  This, our Gospels claim, is the full presence of God among us.  I hope you will remember that when you see those nativity scenes.  This is Good News, because no matter what we face, God will meet us there.  Helpless? God is there.  Afraid?  God is there. Homeless?  God is there.  Grieving? God is there.  Nothing that we face we face alone.  In the long dark night, angels sing.  In the midst of the brokenness, God arrives. That is our Good News. Amen.


1) “The Camp fire took my home. Now I understand that no one ends up sleeping under an overpass by choice.” Jaime O’Neill, L.A. Times Op-Ed, Dec. 7, 2018.