The Gift

I took one of those spiritual gifts inventories when I was with my last church. I was surprised to see that I got a very high score on the gift of faith.  That comes in real handy for a pastor.  So why was I surprised?  Because I remember so vividly the time when God was not yet real to me, and I was searching desperately for connection with God.  I was a scientific materialist, and I so wanted to trust that God was real.  

What kept me hoping when God had not become real to me were some Catholic children’s books on my grandma Lucy’s shelf in Phoenix, Arizona, that I had read at around age five.  I remembered the stories of crazy saints and lovers of God. God was so real to those people that they turned their lives upside down.  That usually involved disobeying their parents, which was very intriguing to me.  These spiritual athletes defied all conventional expectations to be in relationship with God.  If they could be that sure God was real, I could hope.   So I kept searching: in books, worship, conversations, classes, retreats, until I had an experience that allows me to stand up at memorial services knowing that God is real and that love wins in the end.

Generations before us have claimed this gift of God at work in their lives.  They lacked most of our scientific knowledge.  and sometimes they were wiser about matters of the heart than we are. If the gift of God’s presence is not real to you, it is not because God is far away, or because you haven’t earned it, or because you don’t know enough. An Indian poet, Kabir, said it this way:  “I laugh when I hear the fish in the water is thirsty.”  The Apostle Paul said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).  The sacred is already here. A shift in perception, and the gift is revealed.  It was here all along.  Seekers, don’t give up hope

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ                                       
December 24, 2017
The Real Gift

John 1:1-14.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
            There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
            He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
         And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.


When Jesus has a birthday we give each other gifts.  I like that. A birthday is the day that we celebrate a person’s coming into the world, so that we get the gift of relationship with them.  On Jesus’ birthday we celebrate the gift of God’s presence and power and love among us, made know to us through Jesus.  Through him we know that God is not remote and hands-off.  God cares.  God is with us, and for us, and the whole world.  That is the real gift.

May we have the faith to trust that this gift is real, and may we let go of everything that prevents us from receiving this gift fully. 

In our bible we have five different reports of the gift to us that is the life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Four Gospels and Paul’s version.   These five reports differ in many details.  And that makes perfect sense to me.  Because they are told through the lens of vital, personal relationships, and they were told and retold aloud, so that the next generation of followers of Jesus could also receive the gift of relationship with his living Spirit.

Time passed.  The sacred got codified into the Trinity.  It got ossified into the creeds.  But the real gift is still relationship with the sacred, not as some perfect immovable, unfeeling god of philosophy (how do you have a relationship with that?) not as some tribal god that demands vengeance or blood sacrifice (who wants to have a relationship with that?), but the sacred made known in Jesus: inviting fishermen to go on a road trip with him, teaching about God’s upside-down Kingdom, healing and affirming outcasts, challenging unjust power, even to the cross, the love that transcends death.  

John’s gospel that we read today paints Jesus as more Godlike than the other gospels. The Logos, the Word that existed before anything else in the universe.  John wants you to understand how important this man was.  No birth stories for John.  It may have been too much for John to picture Jesus in diapers. By this cosmic prelude to his gospel, John is telling us the profundity, the world-changing nature of this gift: God with us, and for us, and the whole world.  This gift that we sometimes take for granted, or maybe can’t trust is real. 

How would you feel if you got an elegantly wrapped package and you opened it up and you searched through all the layers of colorful tissue and you couldn’t find the gift?  It looks like an empty box.  But people told you about the gift, how wonderful it was, how it was going to change your life.  And these people, who claim to have received the same gift, are all smiling at you and waiting to see your reaction.  What do you do?  Do you smile and pretend you see it, and tell them it’s very nice? Do you set the wrapping down and leave in a huff?  Do you decide the wrapping itself is a good enough gift and ooh and aah over that and make do?  Or can you keep believing that these people really did get a gift, and admit you can’t haven’t seen it yet?

There is a view of the world called scientific materialism.  It says we can only know what we can sense: see and hear and touch and measure.  Scientific materialism says the gift of God’s presence, of relationship with the sacred, is impossible to experience. A relationship with a man two thousand years dead, or his spirit, which exists on a level of reality that is inaccessible (if it exists at all), that is just not going to happen. 

A lot of organized religions have been acting like materialists. God may be out there, in heaven or some spiritual realm but don’t try to relate to God directly.  Perhaps in ancient times the rules of nature were broken and the two realms touched, physical and spiritual, but don’t expect it to happen to you. The religious leaders know what God wants. Don’t bother seeking God’s guidance for yourself; you have to rely on those leaders to tell you about God. 

I’m glad we do it differently here.  If God’s presence is not real to you, you can follow Jesus.  You can study his words and deeds.  You can imagine how he would speak and act in our contemporary world.  You can take principles from his life and teachings and do your best live by them.  And this is a powerful and worthy gift.  Still I wish for the materialists in my life the experience of something more. 

I took one of those spiritual gifts inventories when I was with my last church. I was surprised to see that I got a very high score on the gift of faith.  That comes in real handy for a pastor.  So why was I surprised?  Because I remember so vividly the time when God was not yet real to me, and I was searching desperately for connection with God.  I was a scientific materialist, and I so wanted to trust that God was real. 

What kept me hoping when God had not become real to me were some Catholic children’s books on my grandma Lucy’s shelf in Phoenix, Arizona, that I had read at around age five.  I remembered the stories of crazy saints and lovers of God. God was so real to those people that they turned their lives upside down.  That usually involved disobeying their parents, which was very intriguing to me.  These spiritual athletes defied all conventional expectations to be in relationship with God.  If they could be that sure God was real, I could hope.   So I kept searching: in books, worship, conversations, classes, retreats, until I had an experience that allows me to stand up at memorial services knowing that God is real and that love wins in the end.

Generations before us have claimed this gift of God at work in their lives.  They lacked most of our scientific knowledge.  and sometimes they were wiser about matters of the heart than we are. If the gift of God’s presence is not real to you, it is not because God is far away, or because you haven’t earned it, or because you don’t know enough. An Indian poet, Kabir, said it this way:  “I laugh when I hear the fish in the water is thirsty.”  The Apostle Paul said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).  The sacred is already here. A shift in perception, and the gift is revealed.  It was here all along.  Seekers, don’t give up hope.

An additional barrier can lie between us and the gift: the wrapping. .  I’m talking about the worship service, the music, even the teachings. You might have found the wrapping repulsive, or just deadly dull, and you gave up on the gift because you could not stand that wrapping. I want to give everybody that gift.  But I can’t. We can only try to wrap it nicely and hope people will discover it for themselves. We have a lot of different kinds of wrappings to choose from– different styles of churches.  Mostly that’s a good thing.  I personally find some of those wrappings downright dangerous.  Strangely, the gift is sometimes still hiding in there even if the wrapping is scary.  Unfortunately some of us got so tangled up with scary wrapping that we’re still recovering.  I think we could have an “ugly wrapping contest” for the Gospel, like an ugly tie contest.  It would be funny if it didn’t hurt so much.

On the other hand, be careful not to get too picky about the wrapping.  The sacred shows up in all kinds of wrappings that are out of our comfort zone: different styles of music, of prayer, of ritual, teachings that are unfamiliar to us… If we must worship a certain way, we need to check: have we confused the gift with the wrapping?

That wrapping, the worship service, the forms that we observe, these are tangible to our senses.  God’s Spirit is not.  Perhaps the closest you can get to peeking at the gift in this place is to take a good look at the people here.  Look for signs of their love of God,  their relationships with each other, signs of their trust, their hospitality, their honesty, their generosity, their risk-taking to stand up for what’s right.  If you look for flaws, you’ll find those too.  All the wrappings have flaws.  You can always go to a different church if our wrapping doesn’t suit you.  Good luck finding a flawless one, though.

What if you started to open this gift, and, well, it was not exactly what you expected?  It was looking to be a high-maintenance gift, and you realized things might go easier without it.  You might have to let go of a lot of other things in your life to hold on to this gift. You might even have to reorder your whole life.  You like your life the way it is.  Well at least it’s a known quantity.  You don’t like surprises.  You decided to pass on this gift for now.

Or, what if you found the gift, long ago, and it was glorious, and it made a deep impression on you (or at least you seem to remember it did).  But now you keep that gift on a high shelf and just take it out on special occasions.  Because it is a lovely gift, but not really practical, not compatible with your everyday life.  Maybe you handle the gift with kid gloves, because you’ve felt its power, and you’re not sure you want that kind of force set loose in your life?

So if you’ve seen the gift and decided to pass it by, or had it and shelved it…here you are looking busy on a Sunday morning, messing around with the wrappings.  I like the wrappings.  Maybe you’re hoping you’ll get the benefit of someone else’s gift, a little of the vitality of the living Spirit of God secondhand without having to change and grow much yourself.  We’ll do what we can for you.  But remember, your gift is waiting patiently for you, whenever you’re ready. 

I know some people try to hit you over the head with this gift, whether you want it or not.  It is a gift, not a blunt instrument. And not accepting it does not send you to hell.  (Although accepting it can sometimes get you out of hell.) 

Lots of people have passed up the gift over the centuries, and made of their lives something beautiful and true and good.  Materialists, seekers and skeptics, some who were too hurt by scary wrapping.  If the light of Christ really lights the whole world, perhaps it does not always need our conscious awareness.  It certainly doesn’t need saying the right words, to shine in us and through us.  I love that Process theology has an explanation for this.  The gift is not just landing on our conscious mind to be consciously accepted.  It can be received in our unconscious mind, even at a cellular level.  How does that work?  I have no idea!  But I like to think it does.

What is it like to make the gift a part of your life?  For some people, receiving the gift is a sudden shift, a vivid experience that brings home God’s nearness and God’s care in a way we can never forget.  It’s like those Before and After pictures –a beauty makeover for the soul.  For others, receiving the gift happens gradually.  There is just a gradual growth in and trust and learning how to follow Jesus, no fireworks, until one day you look back and see a faithful relationship has grown up and stood the test of time. 

If you’re wondering whether the gift is for you, the answer is yes.  That gift is custom made to be right for you.  And this is the season of opening gifts, of new light, and of new birth.

To those who have received it, the gift is given again and again.  We are invited to wake up in the morning and admit our own agendas and hopes and fears and expectations, and then try to set them all aside and just listen, to attend to the other partner in the relationship, to receive the gift afresh for this day, and be ready for surprises.  This gift is a two-way relationship, with the Spirit who knows you better than yourself, and loves you more than you can imagine.  What happens when you receive the gift?  The adventure begins. I hope you’ll tell me about it sometime.  Merry Christmas. Happy Birthday, Jesus.  Thank you for the gift.  It’s just what we needed. Amen.



Behind the Scenes



When I think of Joseph’s role in the story of Jesus, I think of all the people behind the scenes in those dramas I love to watch.  The ones who work the lights and the sound.  You only notice them when they mess up.  The folks dressed all in black, who move the furniture around between scenes.  These people don’t get paid, not in community theater anyway.  They are often invisible to us.  Their names might appear somewhere in the back of the program; only their friends read far enough to notice. You might think these people don’t matter.  You would be wrong.  They do matter, and I hope they know it.  They are essential to the story.  Their joy in being a hidden part of the drama, their generosity with their time and skill, their faithful participation, make it possible for the story to be told.  

Our culture tells us something different.  Grab the spotlight, look good, flaunt what you got.  Those people all in black moving the furniture?  They’re losers.  The important people get attention. You gotta be somebody, make the grade.  

That, you know, is a lie.  What really matters is not where you stand on the ladder of earthly value.  The real drama is going on behind the scenes, where nobody is even looking.  Are you a faithful friend?  A faithful parent?  A faithful worker? Not all the time; none of us are.  But do you keep trying when you fail?  Are you a faithful, if imperfect, follower of Jesus?  Are you showing up to fulfill God’s role for you as best you are able, through joys and sorrows, despite your fears and your failures? For these things you may never get human recognition.  But your faithfulness is essential to God’s drama as much today as it was in Joseph’s times. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
December 17, 2017
Joseph Was Faithful

Matthew 1:18-25    Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 
22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23       “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
                        and they shall name him Emmanuel,” 
which means, “God is with us.”  24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

I moved to Southern California when my son Mark was a toddler.  I still remember my culture shock when I first arrived here from Minnesota.  The weather was perfect.  All the time.  (Compared to Minnesota, anyway.) The traffic on Irvine streets went twenty miles an hour faster than in Minnesota.  People made interesting hand gestures at me when I drove.  And the news. The news was… all about show biz.  Movies, TV, theater, actors.  I learned that a job at Disneyland is a great job for an aspiring actor.  And I’ve met a whole lot of aspiring actors here in Southern California.  Some of them have become dear friends.  People who get degrees in theater at UC Irvine.  People who drive up to LA to audition as extras.  People who do community theater.  They work full time at their day job, and then they put in a few more hours for no pay, just for the joy of being part of the drama.

I just watch theater productions.  I especially enjoy if I know someone in the cast.  And my very favorite drama is the old, old story: about how God came to earth, and became one of us, a helpless child born in poverty.  Then he increased in wisdom and years (according to Luke), and around his thirtieth year he started teaching us and loving us and healing us, and challenging us to follow him.  He died for us.  But that was not the end of the story.  He rose, and his Spirit is with us even now.   And that old, old story is still being lived out, by us, today.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

This time of year we naturally concentrate on the birth part of the story.  The details of Jesus’ birth are probably not accurate history, that mash-up of Matthew and Luke’s versions if Jesus’ birth that we know as “the Christmas story.” But let’s take the story at face value for now, because it makes for some pretty good drama.

We tend to sanitize the Christmas story.  For instance, when’s the last time you’ve heard about the slaughter of the innocents?  Matthew Chapter 2.  I didn’t think so.  Tragically,  is still being acted out among the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the people of Syria, and sometimes in our own country’s schools and streets.  Today’s reading is another part of the story we frequently leave out: the angel’s annunciation to Joseph. 

Poor Joseph. He doesn’t have a single speaking part in the whole of the Gospels.  In the G-rated Nativity story he just stands beside Mary at the manger, looking like a third wheel.  Matthew and Luke sketch Joseph’s role in only the barest outlines.  Mark and John, not at all.  But we can read between the lines; imagine what was happening behind the scenes: do Midrash, as Jewish scholars call it.  Pretty quickly we realize that Joseph had plenty of drama to contend with.  And Joseph’s drama might have something to tell us about our faith.

For Mary’s annunciation, the angel appeared in person.  Joseph’s angel appeared only in a dream.  That kind of disorienting dream experience that could happen to anybody, and that could be totally explained away.  I imagine Joseph wanted to explain it away.  It’s a wonder he could sleep at all, given the news he’d just heard.  His fiancĂ©e was pregnant.  Not by him.  Devastating.  But he could put it behind him and start over, if he just… oh wait.  The angel said: go through with the wedding.   That angel Joseph could easily have explained away for his convenience.  It was only a dream, after all.  It would have been so easy for him to just ignore that dream.  Because whatever you believe about virgin birth, you can bet the neighbors didn’t believe a word of it.  Yet Joseph chose to be faithful.

This was probably not the role Joseph expected to play for God.  But he stepped up and took up that ego-crushing part in God’s drama.  He took Mary under his protection, and legitimized her child, and gave him a name and a heritage: descendant of the royal line of David.   Legitimacy and genealogy may not matter so much to us, but they mattered a whole lot back then.  

Next, Joseph is forced to drag Mary, nine months pregnant, to Bethlehem, ninety miles away from home, so that the occupying Romans can count her correctly for tax purposes.  And Joseph doesn’t have good enough connections in his ancestral town to find Mary a real bed, so this child for whom he has given up so much, in whom he has become so invested, gets born… in a barn!  Some provider for his family.  Can you imagine the shame?

Some time later, rich foreign dignitaries arrive, bearing gifts.  They know way too much about this special child, and they have revealed way too much to that power hungry old despot Herod.  The angel pops up in another dream, and tells Joseph: run for your child’s life. The journey to Egypt is over two hundred miles of walking through wilderness.  Jesus’ family become refugees, immigrants in a foreign land.  For Joseph that meant sweat and fear and gut-grinding powerlessness. 

The last mention of Joseph in our gospels is when he leaves Jerusalem years later after a festival visit, and accidentally forgets to take twelve-year-old Jesus home with him. Didn’t notice your own kid wasn’t in the caravan? Can’t control your son, can you, Joseph? Shame again. 

How did Joseph raise Jesus?  That happened behind the scenes.  By the time Jesus started his ministry, Joseph was only a memory.  But despite the loads Joseph carried, loads of dashed expectations and confusion and shame and guilt and fear, we can tell that Joseph did some things right.  He stayed faithful.   By “faithful,” I don’t mean that Joseph believed certain things.  I suspect he didn’t know what to believe.  He must have stopped trying to imagine what God was going to drop on him next.

Joseph was faithful because he took this role he was offered by God, though it cost him his reputation more than once. He was faithful when he went to any lengths to protect the child God had entrusted to him.  He was faithful when he persevered in that role even when he felt like a total failure.  Day after day, through joys and sorrows, Joseph was faithful in raising this child who later was called Savior, the child who brings us hope and healing two thousand years later.  It seems he raised that child well indeed.

I wonder how many of you noticed:  it was Joseph who got to name the baby.  Jesus.  Yeshua in Aramaic.  “God saves.”  A message of joy, that people in that place and time needed to hear.  We probably do too. But God does not always save in the way people expect.  A child, born in a barn, of parents who were nobodies, in a tiny occupied country.  Would you have written the story that way?  Nothing special at all, except God, and a few faithful people that almost nobody even noticed.

When I think of Joseph’s role in the story of Jesus, I think of all the people behind the scenes in those dramas I love to watch.  The ones who work the lights and the sound.  You only notice them when they mess up.  The folks dressed all in black, who move the furniture around between scenes.  These people don’t get paid, not in community theater anyway.  They are often invisible to us.  Their names might appear somewhere in the back of the program; only their friends read far enough to notice. You might think these people don’t matter.  You would be wrong.  They do matter, and I hope they know it.  They are essential to the story.  Their joy in being a hidden part of the drama, their generosity with their time and skill, their faithful participation, make it possible for the story to be told.  

Our culture tells us something different.  Grab the spotlight, look good, flaunt what you got.  Those people all in black moving the furniture?  They’re losers.  The important people get attention. You gotta be somebody, make the grade. 

That, you know, is a lie.  What really matters is not where you stand on the ladder of earthly value.  The real drama is going on behind the scenes, where nobody is even looking.  Are you a faithful friend?  A faithful parent?  A faithful worker? Not all the time; none of us are.  But do you keep trying when you fail?  Are you a faithful, if imperfect, follower of Jesus?  Are you showing up to fulfill God’s role for you as best you are able, through joys and sorrows, despite your fears and your failures? For these things you may never get human recognition.  But your faithfulness is essential to God’s drama as much today as it was in Joseph’s times.

I wonder if anybody is hearing this sermon thorough the filter of process theology.  If so, you might be thinking, “God doesn’t direct everything going on here. There is no script, no master plan.”  According to process theology, in each moment of experience there is the invitation to choose the good and the beautiful and the true. And then a new moment is created, with a new invitation.  That looks like direction to me, although the script is being written as we live it.  Improv, you might call it.  Improv actually requires more attention and skill of the participants than reading off a script.  Either way, our participation, our faithfulness, is needed.

We are starting a new chapter in the story of this church.  Faithfulness is required, so that we can be guided together, not necessarily into my vision of what this church can become, or yours, but so that we can create, together with God, the next chapter of this church’s story. 

And we are all still part of the old, old story, that is larger than us, and larger than this church. God With Us, Emmanuel, is still being acted out today.  God with us, not far away.  God here and now.  No longer in the form of a helpless baby, but in the Spirit of the Risen Christ, the Holy Spirit breathing into us, life and hope and love and purpose and joy.

If you haven’t yet become part of God’s evolving story at Brea Congregational UCC, please join us. I’ll be honest, it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to keep a church going. And it is a joy and a privilege to work and play with people who care so much about getting out God’s message of love and acceptance and creative power to the world.

God doesn’t need us to be in charge, or to be successful, or fearless, or to remember any lines, or even to follow the story line.  Your faithfulness, you just showing up, your willingness to learn, and serve, and love, is what matters to God.  You matter to God.  Even if your name never shows up in the credits, this side of heaven.  Thank you, Joseph, for faithfully taking the supporting role.  And thank you, people of this church, for to bring the story of God’s amazing love to Brea, California this Advent season.  Amen.

Steadfast Love

“All flesh is grass.” Have you heard that at a memorial service? That verse has been taken to say that human life is short, and that’s how the Greek version of Isaiah 40:6 reads.  The Hebrew version says: all humans are unreliable. “Their chesed is like the flowers of the field…  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Chesed is used many times in the Hebrew bible, and it is usually translated love, or kindness, or steadfast love. Psalm 136 repeats twenty-six times: God’s steadfast love endures forever.  God’s chesed endures forever.  And, according to the prophet, ours does not...

If we are expecting people to satisfy our expectations for love and respect, says the prophet, we can expect to be disappointed.  If we expect ourselves to be unfailingly loving and kind, well.  What pushes your buttons?  We all have buttons. The worst part is that when somebody provokes us, and we defend, it looks to the other person like attack. That’s how the downward spiral begins. But God’s steadfast love endures provocation.  Relying on that love, we can halt the downward spiral.  And this, my friends, is Good News indeed.


Full sermon below
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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ                                        
December 10, 2017

Prepare for the Prince of Peace

40:1    Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2          Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
            that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
            that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.
3             A voice cries out:
            “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
                        make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4          Every valley shall be lifted up,
                        and every mountain and hill be made low;
            the uneven ground shall become level,
                        and the rough places a plain.
5          Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
                        and all people shall see it together,
                        for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
6             A voice says, “Cry out!”
                        And I said, “What shall I cry?”
            All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7          The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
                        surely the people are grass.
8          The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9          Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
                        lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
            say to the cities of Judah,  “Here is your God!”
10       See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
                        his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11       He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
                        and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Welcome to the second Sunday of Advent, a season for preparation, anticipation, and hope.  Today we lit the Advent candle of peace.  I want to ponder with you the hope we have for peace, since Jesus so clearly teaches us to be peacemakers.  How can we prepare for peace?  That is a question worth pondering.

“Comfort, comfort, O my people.”  The passage we heard from Isaiah is one of the most familiar from the Hebrew bible.  As good poetry, it touches the heart.  These words spoke to the Jewish followers of Jesus as they tried to fit him, and John the Baptist, into the framework of what they knew, or thought they knew, of God.  John the Baptist, that unforgettable wild man, becomes this voice crying in the wilderness.  All four gospels invoke this passage to describe John the Baptist.  It fits! A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

The writings of the biblical prophets usually fall into one of two themes:  afflicting the comfortable, or comforting the afflicted.  Here in chapter 40 of Isaiah, the author was writing not to afflict the movers and shakers of the little hill kingdom of Judah, but to comfort demoralized exiles who had been taken from Judah to Babylon as the spoils of war.  They were stunned, and utterly demoralized.  Had their God given up on them?  How could they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137) They needed comfort. They needed hope.  And so this passage closes with the assurance that God still cares for the people, as a shepherd cares for his flock, up to and including nestling lambs on his chest. 

And in between the comfort and the lamb cuddling, are two challenging metaphors: road construction, and people as grass. 

The first metaphor: “All flesh is grass.” Has anyone heard that at a memorial service? That verse has been taken to say that human life is short, and that’s how the Greek Septuagint version of this passage reads.  The Hebrew version says: all humans are unreliable. “Their chesed is like the flowers of the field…  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Chesed is used many times in the Hebrew bible, and it is usually translated love, or kindness, or steadfast love. Psalm 136 repeats twenty-six times: God’s steadfast love endures forever.  God’s chesed endures forever.  And, according to the prophet, ours does not.

We humans are not reliably loving or kind.  But God is, and God will nurture and protect us.  No wonder this passage is a classic; it affirms what Jesus taught; the promise of reliable forgiveness and reconciliation with God, despite our failings. 

If we are expecting people to satisfy our expectations for love and respect, says the prophet, we can expect to be disappointed.  If we expect ourselves to be unfailingly loving and kind, well.  What pushes your buttons? We fail each other, and we fail God.  The worst part is that when somebody provokes us, and we defend, it looks to the other person like attack. That’s how the downward spiral begins. But God’s steadfast love endures provocation.  Relying on that love, we can halt the downward spiral.  And this, my friends, is Good News indeed. 

Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints, gives an interesting orientation to new members of her church.  “Welcome to our church,” she says. “We will disappoint you.”   She wants people in her church to know that her community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if.”  She explains, “We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens.”  Her experience is that when we face our failings or disappointments instead of walking away, that is when God can work in and through us, to do some powerful transformation, and reconciliation, and healing.  She’s Lutheran, so she calls it grace. All flesh is grass. But God’s steadfast love endures forever.

The second metaphor in the reading is of road construction.
3             A voice cries out:
            “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
                        make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4          Every valley shall be lifted up,
                        and every mountain and hill be made low;
            the uneven ground shall become level,
                        and the rough places a plain.
5          Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

This promise of restoration is also a command from God: do the work.  Build a highway in the wilderness so God can get through to you.  Road construction.  Get out the earthmovers, which in those days were brigades of people and animals with carts, and start building that peaceable kingdom we say we want.  Bulldoze the mountains of pride and greed.  Fill in the valleys of despair and suffering.  God wants to enter into our lives: do we want to do the heavy construction work required to receive God’s love fully?  It sounded just as improbable in the prophet’s day as it does today.  And just as necessary. 

Have you ever been on a really bad road?  Take the road to my mom’s old house.  This September I drove it, hopefully for the last time.  Four long miles of hell.  Deep potholes. Gorgeous scenery, dirt and dust, sharp rocks that pop tires regularly, washboarding, deep ruts. Also switchbacks, blind curves, and trucks coming at speed. And did I mention the potholes?  When my mom drives it’s like watching her playing a video game, trying to weave the car around the potholes that have scraped off her muffler.  Inevitably, we land in some. I just hope not to break a tooth.  Nobody wanted to visit my mom when she lived down that road from hell.  She was pretty isolated.  She moved to downtown Santa Cruz in September, and now she’s entertaining all her friends and relatives.  Anybody want to buy a gorgeous house just 25 miles from Silicon Valley? It’s a screamin’ deal.  She still hasn’t sold it.  To my mom, oddly, that drive was no big deal.  When you endure something awful long enough, it feels normal; it becomes your normal.

I am left pondering:  what obstacles feel normal to us that should be unacceptable?  Besides parking on the 57 freeway, I mean.  How we treat each other.  What level of meanness and what level of suffering do we put up with or just tune out?

For instance, there’s TV news.  And not just the news of one political party.  I think a lot of TV news is toxic.  Yelling on TV is sport.  Hounding those who are suffering.  Reporting on unacceptable behavior as if it were normal. You may have worked up a tolerance to it and be able to survive exposure to it, but beware the small people in your life; they are at risk.  I’m still scarred from TV news in the 1960’s. And what might we be losing by constant exposure to incivility?  Not our muffler; just our memory of how to treat people with respect, or to value truth.  I do read the news to be informed, so it doesn’t hit me at such a visceral level.

We pay a dear price for our nation’s failure to show love and kindness on the world stage. We no longer draft our young people to fight our wars; if that were required, our leaders would have had to find other solutions.  Instead, we have normalized war by creating a mostly hidden,  self-selected class of people who undertake a body-and-soul-scarring duty, a sometimes fatal duty, on our behalf.  They do it for a war we barely know in a place that has been a battleground for almost two generations, a war that is unwinnable because it is a war against terror, and bombs and bullets only beget more terror.   In this and other ways, we have answered violence with more violence, and tolerated the intolerable.

Prepare for peace: how shall we start?  Have you heard of the peace that passes over misunderstanding?  Stop following the news altogether.  Say polite things to those who rant, and don’t spend any more time with them than we need to.  Avoid difficult topics, and do our best to shelter our own sense of peace.  Sometimes that’s the best we can do.  But the peace that passes over misunderstanding is a fragile and shallow thing.  What we long for is the peace that passes human understanding that Paul spoke of, the peace that comes from God.

The peace that passes understanding, even if we just experience it in flashes, allows us to stand in the midst of trouble and know that it is not our job to fix it, but it is our calling to act out for love and kindness no matter what the provocation, and name the violence and the incivility around us and say, “This is not normal; this is destroying our souls,” When we do so, are not alone.  We are paving the road for the Prince of Peace to work among us, bringing transformation, reconciliation, and healing.

Prepare for peace.  I recently joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).  The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, are one of the historic peace churches; those Christians who took Jesus seriously when he said “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “love your enemies.”  Their focus this year has been on military spending.  Like Citizen’s Climate Lobby, they advocate on both sides of the aisle. Though my Congresswoman hasn’t deigned to meet with us yet, we have met with the many candidates running against. Prepare.  Anticipate.  Hope. Remember: hope is what we rely on when optimism fails us.

I visited the Washington DC office of the FCNL with my neighbor Betty– she’s our Irvine coordinator.  They are the oldest faith-based advocacy organization in the country, started in 1943. They have their own building just a block from the Capitol, nearly a century old but recently remodeled to be very green– the highest LEED rating possible. I saw my first light pipe, sending light from the four-story roof all the way down to the first floor.  They gave us the grand tour; I think we met every employee and saw every green feature of the building.  Talk about hospitality.  Their shared some of the creative bipartisan legislation they are working on.  They make space for civil discourse by hosting private bipartisan discussions for congress people.  I envied the hope, maybe even optimism, I saw on so many of their faces.  I asked one of them if we had ever had such polarized political factions as we have today.  She grinned sheepishly and said, “Well, there was the Civil War, that was worse.”

Here is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s mission statement:
We seek a world free of war and the threat of war.
We seek a society with equity and justice for all.
We seek a community where every person's potential may be fulfilled.
We seek an earth restored.
Those are words to live by. 

We prepare for a Prince of Peace. We will not despair. We hope and dream and of a world where all are safe, and respected, and loved, and have enough.  A world where God’s will is done.  It was the hope of the prophets and it is our hope.  And we are grass; we fail repeatedly to live up to this vision. But the Love we rely on does not fail, and is ever ready to pick us up and restore us, to comfort us and invite us back to this hard and joyful work of building a highway for our God. We will refuse to call our condition normal and acceptable.  We will learn the skills of peacemaking.  We will pave the way for the Prince of Peace to dwell fully in our families, our communities, our nation, and in our hearts. Amen.