It's strange to read about the salt and the light this morning. Jesus tells us you are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its saltiness, what good is it? It's thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world, but no one lights a lamp and hides it under a bushel basket…
Salt losing its saltiness. Well, that just seems impossible. It's never happened to us. We've never gone to put salt on our food and discovered that it wasn't really salt and that it didn't have any flavor left. It seems impossible. And lighting a lamp and putting it under a bushel basket, well, that just seems like a joke as my three-year-old son, Romey, would say, you would have to be a dum-dum to do that. So it's not something we worry about. It just seems comical, improbable. It just seems like it must be easy to be the salt and the light. But I think that misses Jesus' point and his humor.
I think what Jesus wants us to take away from this—and he's poking at us; he's poking us in the ribs—he's saying, you know it's impossible for salt to lose its saltiness, but with human beings, it's a different story. It's ridiculous to light a lamp and to hide it under a bushel basket, but with us, with people, oh, it's all too common. It should be impossible. It should be ridiculous. And yet we still manage to do it, don't we? And we've all seen it, right? Just when moral clarity is most needed in our time and in our culture, that is the moment when we and those we have elected and lifted up to lead us, begin to equivocate, swirly talk, both sides, what about, losing focus. It's just when action is required most in our world, when it's most critical, when those who are oppressed and excluded are feeling the most pain and they need us most, that's when we lose our nerve. We go into hiding. We say, well, of course, I agree on principle, but I don't want to put that sign up on my lawn. I'm not going to wave that flag. I'm not going to go to that protest or to that demonstration. It just doesn't seem safe. It doesn't seem right. It doesn't seem prudent. What would my neighbors think of me? Suddenly, all the justice and the righteousness of the Bible and the values that we uphold gets replaced by these more mundane and very human and very practical concerns (and I don't mean to dismiss them entirely): Finances, safety, unity, politeness, propriety—they take precedence in our minds.
And I think that that is what Jesus is warning us about here in the second half of the Sermon on the Mount. We started on the first half of the Sermon on the Mount last week. And I was speaking to you about the rise of Christian Nationalism in our culture and in our country. And we also spoke about the book challenges at the Glen Ridge Public Library and Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans and becoming vocal supporters of that movement ourselves in town. And we discussed that tolerance is at minimum what is required of our faith because Jesus asks us—commands us—to love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. And that means, at a minimum, at a bare minimum, you have to tolerate people who are different than you, which is pretty much the definition, according to Jesus, of what a neighbor is—somebody who's different than you.
What we didn't know at the time that I was preaching that sermon is that very morning the staff and the congregation of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield had showed up for religious education on Sunday morning and found the remains of a Molotov cocktail smashed on their front door. Someone had tried to fire bomb the synagogue. Surveillance footage showed a man with a mask on and with gloves on, approached the front of the synagogue in the night and light the Molotov cocktail and threw it at the front door of the synagogue in attempt to burn the synagogue down—an antisemitic arson. And then he ran away.
What we didn't know is how would Temple Ner Tamid react to such an act of hatred and antisemitism aimed at them, targeted at them. How would they handle it? What would they do? What we didn't know is the way that Temple Ner Tamid would handle that experience would be, I think, the epitome of what Jesus is asking us to do when Jesus asks us to be salty and bright and bold when it matters most.
First, I just want you to imagine what it must have felt like this week to be a congregant of Temple Ner Tamid, or to be a Jewish person living in Glen Ridge or Montclair or Bloomfield or anywhere in Essex County who are especially feeling this attack on them. Can you imagine how afraid they must have been? Just imagine that somebody tried to commit an arson here at the church.
Imagine what your mind would do. And I know what my mind would do. I would say, well, well, well, what did we do? What did we do wrong? Is it because we made ourselves a target? We stood up too tall? We spoke too loudly? Is it because of that sign we put up on the lawn that says Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans? Is it because of some bold stand that we took on another issue? What was it that we did? How did we make ourselves a target? Are they going to come back? Are they going to get us again? What can we do to protect ourselves?
And I can imagine within myself a desire, and I've been through this before, to withdraw. I remember back in, oh, Lord, it must have been 2015 sometime, I think. We began at the church that I was serving in Somerville to get death threats and arson threats against the church. And I went on to my online presence, and I just started taking things down, taking things down, taking things down. I was terrified that somebody was going to find out where I lived, where Bonnie lived, that she was connected to me. Somehow I started to strip all that stuff away out of a fear that that violence was going to come and get me again.
You can imagine what it would've felt like, the desire that you would've had, that I would've had to roll up the welcome mat, to bolt the doors from the inside to pull down the shades, to turn off the lights and just to lay low. But that's not what Temple Ner Tamid did. Instead, they planned for Thursday night a rally. They knew that lot of people in the area were going to come out to support them, but they decided to double down. Not only were they going to stand up and be loud and visible at a time when their fear and anxiety was telling them to hide, but they were going to be bold about stating who they were, what they stood for, and what they would absolutely not stand for. And they had just a stroke of spiritual genius about how this rally should go. That while they were under attack, an anti-Semitic attack by somebody who hated them, in a time when antisemitic attacks are on the rise in this country, they decided that the issue was bigger than them—that it wasn't just about them, and that they were going to invite their friends and allies who were also feeling under attack in these times. And they said, we've had so many mass shootings lately. There's been Tyre Nichols beating death on the street, that we all saw the video of—police killings. There's been attacks against the LGBTQ community locally and nationally going on. There is so much to mourn and there is so much hate. And we're not going to focus just on the hate that is affecting us. We're going to bring everybody together and we're going to double down, and we're going to say exactly what it is that we stand for at a time when they must have felt that doing that was going to just paint a bigger target on their back. But that is who they are.
And as Jews, as people of faith, that is what they were called to do. And so at the rally that I went to on Thursday night, and this is a beautiful truth, one man decided to throw a Molotov cocktail at Temple Ner Tamid on Thursday night. We had more than a thousand people show up to that rally to show their support. It was standing room only, people were outside on the lawn. There were all kinds of elected officials. And there were Jews, Christians, Muslims, from all over Essex County and beyond. It was a really beautiful show of support. But also there was a speaker, Ruth Roe from Asian American Pacific Islanders, Montclair, speaking about the struggles of their community. There was Roger Terry, who is from the NAACP president of Montclair, speaking about the struggles of Black people and African Americans in this country and beyond. There was Mary Valentine, who is one of the founders of Bloomfield Pride, speaking about how the synagogue had always supported them and the struggles that they are also continuing to go through. And there was Amy Tores from New Jersey Immigrant Justice, speaking about attacks against immigrants and legislation against immigrants and what it means to them.
At a time when they must have been feeling like they had stood up too much, been too bold, and been too bright, and that they just needed to withdraw a little bit, Temple Ner Tamid said, No, we're going to stand up. And while the national spotlight is on us, we are going to declare exactly who it is that we are, exactly what our values are, exactly what we believe, who we stand with and who we are. And we know that there are going to be people out there who don't like it, but we are going to be bright. We're going to let our light shine in front of us in this moment. And it was an absolute triumph, a stroke of spiritual genius in a time when they were under attack. They put their friends and allies ahead of them and said, this is bigger than us.
This is about us too. It can be hard as a Christian sometimes to define exactly what it is that we stand for, and sometimes it can be even harder to say what it is that we won't stand for. It can be intimidating to make bold and public claims about what we believe and what our values are, but that is exactly what Jesus is asking us to do. And he's not asking us to do it only when it's easy. He's asking us to do it even when it feels hard. He's asking us to let our light shine in front of us to be clear—not even bright—clear, unequivocal about who we are, what we believe, what we stand for. We don't have to be the boldest flavor on the block, but when people get a taste of us, they should taste that salt. It's there. You know who we are.
I am deeply concerned by the growing lack of tolerance in American culture. By tolerance, I mean the willingness to accept and respect behaviors, beliefs, and opinions that are different than our own. This sort of liberalism is a virtue in decline on both the right and the left and now more and more social and political capital comes from owning the libs, cancel culture, identity politics, and all kinds of fabricated rage.
Why am I concerned with that? Well, tolerance is essential for a healthy and functioning democracy. Extreme ideologies from the far left and the far right are moving toward the center and taking over our political and cultural dialogue. It’s no good on either side. I happen to personally think the worst of it is on the right. You may disagree. I believe that our democracy can survive the left’s elitism and cancel culture and that eventually we will all get sick of the sanctimony and we’ll correct course. I think the conspiracy theories, the appetite for totalitarianism, and the attacks on institutions, norms, elections, and democracy on the right is a much greater threat. But whoever has the worst of it, I want extreme views and beliefs and lack of tolerance to stay at the margins where they belong.
One of the extreme views that has been with us a long time but is having a resurgence and is creeping more and more into the mainstream is called “Christian Nationalism.” You’ve probably heard it talked about on the news, depending on where you get your news. Christian Nationalism is a distortion of our religion, a modern-day heresy, used to back-up an extremist political agenda which asserts that America is a Christian nation, not just historically, but essentially, and that Christians (especially white, Anglo protestant Christian nationalists) should have a privileged position in defining both America’s heritage and future. Christian Nationalism is not some singular movement, and these folks have all kinds of big ideas, but all of them are terribly bad for our democracy and our nation and our Church.
Christian nationalists believe that the fact that we live in the most racially and religiously diverse nation in the world and that our democracy is a pluralist democracy where all people and all ideas and opinions are allowed to compete for votes is a bad thing. Many of them want a nation that is less diverse and they want a democracy that is less pluralistic, with greater power in their hands.
For those who may be feeling confused at this point, it’s important to remember that none of this political agenda has anything to do with actual Christianity. This is not just un-American, it is anti-Christ. I believe that there could be no greater call for tolerance than Jesus’ command to us that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that we even pray for our enemies. Christian faith has always been about spreading he good news, but it can never be about dominating those who live, think, or believe differently than we do. Domination and oppression is not love. Unfortunately, too often in Christian history we have justified attacking and dominating others with our faith and it is always wrong—from the Crusades, to antisemitism, to slavery in America, to trying to deny LGBTQ people the right to marriages and adoptions—it is always wrong.
Looking at our text for this morning we see even more. There is nothing in the ambitions of Christian Nationalists that is congruent with Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Jesus wants us to be defined by meekness, by mercy, by peacemaking, by poverty of spirit, not by the ambition to dominate our neighbors or the political power of our nation. You cannot make the Christianization of your country through political means your goal and truly be a Christian. This is an essential betrayal of fundamental Christian orthodoxy, not to mention a betrayal of the Constitution of the United States.
But, also, let’s look at how Jesus relates to us. The sermon on the mount is so powerful because in it, Jesus looks into the depths of our humanity, into the depths of our human frailty, vulnerability, and suffering and he says that this is what defines us, this is what connects us, and this is what blesses us. We are not blessed because we are Christians, or right believers, or because we’re saved, we’re blessed because God in God’s goodness loves us all. And God’s compassion for us is so great that God’s blessing comes first to those who are last. Jesus concludes by saying it is his followers who will be persecuted for following his religion of love, not that Christians should try to persecute those they’re in conflict or disagreement with.
Christian nationalism is not Christianity and is not patriotic. Christian faith far from calling us to take power over others, asks us love, serve, and (at a bare minimum) tolerate others and make room for their humanity. The sermon on the mount isn’t a moral scold. It’s a call to human connection through the vulnerabilities that we all share no matter what else may separate us.
You may have heard if you live in Glen Ridge about the “so-called” book ban at the library in which eight individuals representing “Citizens Defending Education” have challenged six books with LGBTQ and sex-ed themes written for children and young adults. They want these books removed from the shelves. After some discussion with church council, we have decided to support the Glen Ridge Public Library through this ordeal and have put up a Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans sign on the church lawn.
Now because we’re a sensitive and loving crowd this may make some of us a little uncomfortable. What about those eight people who want to remove the books from the library? Shouldn’t we be tolerant of them. Yes! Absolutely. More than that we should love them. Tolerance requires us to be tolerant of all people. But tolerance also requires us to stand up against intolerant ideas, words, actions, and agendas. Tolerance cannot be achieved by silence in the face of intolerance. We have to make a stand.
We want all of Glen Ridge to know that we support them as they fight back against this book challenge and we want the town to know what our Church believes—that loving people who think, act, and believe differently than we do (in other words, our neighbors) is our religion. And love requires us, as the sermon on the mount shows us, to prioritize people who are suffering the most. God is not calling us to meddle with LGBTQ books in the library. God is calling us to love our LGBTQ neighbors at all times and especially when they are feeling under attack.
And God is calling us always at a bare minimum to tolerance. And what could be more tolerant than reading a book? Let me close by quoting to you from a paragraph of a letter that I and more than 20 other clergy people from Glen Ridge, Montclair, and Bloomfield sent to our library in support of their decision to keep these books on the shelves:
“Free speech matters to us, in part, because it is the bedrock on which religious freedom is built. Too many of our traditions have faced censorship. Hatred is a habit. The more groups are silenced, the easier it gets to continue to do so. Book banning is a slippery slope. Once any idea is stifled, it becomes more acceptable to attack every idea. And without the understanding that comes with reading, the unfamiliar will always feel other. Enmity blooms in the unknown.”
Beloved, silence is unacceptable. So, let us proclaim our Christian faith: God is calling us to know one another, to love one another, and to serve our community. And that takes, at a minimum, a healthy tolerance for difference and a bold voice of solidarity and support for those experiencing intolerance.
2022 was the year of my midlife crisis. And it was a really wonderful experience. I wish that I could have done it like 10 years earlier, but I don't think that I could have—all things have to come in their own time. And it was a wonderful experience: I didn't buy a sports car. Not that I would mind having one. I didn't have an affair. No tummy tuck or other kind of plastic surgery or any kind of improvements like that. I made it through intact, which is a good thing. I think midlife crises get poked fun at a lot for being, you know, men trying to hold onto their masculinity and virility and deny the fact that they're going bald, and you know, dealing with the fact that they don't feel as cool and relevant as they used to.
But I don't think that's what a midlife crisis is about at all. One of my companions through this crisis was the poet Rilke who once wrote, you must not understand life. “You must not understand life, and then it will become a celebration.” Now, midlife crisis, I think, is about a shift in perspective: letting go of everything that you think you were supposed to know about life and letting life be just what it's supposed to be. There were a lot of lessons that I learned over the course of this experience, but the one I want to share with you this morning is that my midlife crisis helped me realize that I will no longer put all of my effort and energy into being a successful person. Instead, I'm just going to do my very best to be myself in whatever circumstances I happen to find myself in. Charles de Foucault (who was canonized as a saint last year in the midst of my midlife crisis) once said, “I want to preach the gospel with my life.” At the end of my midlife crisis, I hope that I can do something similar.
And we can't preach the gospel with our lives if we're expending all our resources on trying to be some sort of a big success. Because the experience of midlife, I am finding through work and through family commitments and through aging and through the disillusionment of our youth, it shows us definitively that life is not success. That's not what life is. Life is limitation. And that's okay. We cannot do it all. We cannot have it all. We must make choices. And success itself can be sort of like a drug or like an evil charm, right? It makes us feel really good temporarily, but it never really deeply satisfies us. It makes us seem cool and enviable to others. But beneath all that fame and esteem, there is often a spiritually ravaged soul, desperate for something more real. But whatever road you take to get there to that something more real, you are going to have to pass through the reality of failure.
And so, I guess I'm hoping that a little bit of my acceptance of myself as I am, the reality of failure, is going to rub off on other people, the people I pastor to, and the people I love. You do not need to be a success to be a part of this church. You do not need to be a success to be loved. You do not need to be a success to be called and loved by God. In fact, sometimes success just gets in the way with all of its competition and all of its pretensions. Far better than success, for the deep fulfillment of your soul, are things like honesty, right? Openness, vulnerability, availability to other people, and compassion. And these are traits and virtues that are best forged when we stumble, when we fall down, when we fail. That is when we deepen as human beings. When we succeed, we build walls around ourselves, narrow walls. But when we fail, we go deep. Why are we so afraid of failure? Why are we so turned off by limitation?
I think it's the fear of failure that causes us to define success so narrowly and so claustrophobically that success, even when we experience it, doesn't satisfy us. We're all convinced that we'll be happy once we're truly successful, instead of simply realizing just this basic and intuitive truth: Being happy in and of itself is a success! We've got it all backwards. And so we hold ourselves back from ourselves. We hold ourselves back from the world, and instead we try to project success. We want to look good. And we're not just trying to fool others. We're not just trying to fool ourselves. We're trying to fool life itself. And it never works. So, eventually, there's a crisis.
And with that, I turn to our text this morning. This is the second servant song from the prophet Isaiah. Traditionally, we Christians interpret this as being a prophecy of Christ. And as you read it, I think it's obvious why our Jewish friends and neighbors and loved ones continue to interpret the suffering servant to be Israel itself. And that's clear in the text. “And he said to me, you are my servant, Israel.” And the biblical scholars go even further back than that. And they say even “Israel” is added to the text later. And that this prophecy goes way back and was probably originally about some historical king or other personage that's sort of lost to us. And there's all these theories about who it is. None of that really matters, who specifically it is about, because it illustrates a theme within scripture—something that I think God is trying to highlight for us: This idea of somebody being called from the very beginning of their life. It's throughout the prophets. It's in the Psalms. “The Lord called me before I was born while I was in my mother's womb. He named me.” Right? This sense of destiny that we sometimes feel when we are young and energetic, that we have been called for great things. And we go out there and we try to seize it, make it all happen, make it all work. But then comes the crisis. “But I said, I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Spinning wheels. It's not working out. The great dreams that I had aren't all coming together in exactly the way that I thought they would.
But the servant allows himself to have the crisis and to turn to God and to say, “Hey, what is going on here? Why am I suffering? Why isn't this working?” And in that moment, that moment of crisis, God chooses to reframe the whole calling. And now listen to what God says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The original calling was too small, it was too focused on myself, on yourself, on what we wanted. And in the crisis, God shifts the perspective. Stop trying to understand life. Let life be a celebration. It's not just for you, it's for everyone. This is how God comes into the text to expand its boundaries in that moment of crisis.
So in my midlife crisis, I don't want, anymore, to succeed for myself. I don't want to succeed for my dreams, for my family, for my profession, or for my church. I do not want to succeed with or for anybody or anything. I do not want to succeed. I want to be myself and give of myself to everybody. I want to preach the gospel with my life to everyone I meet and interact with. I don't want to be a success. I just want to be somebody in your life. That's a bigger dream than I ever had before—to just be somebody who makes a difference in your life.
In the early fourth century, the Roman Empire transitioned from being a pagan empire to being a Christian empire. And it did that mostly through the leadership of Emperor Constantine. He became the emperor of Rome very early on in the fourth century. I think it was like 304 CE, and then he converted to Christianity in 312 CE. And this is one of the biggest milestones in all of Christian religion. Our history after this point is completely different than it would've been if Constantine hadn't converted and if he hadn't transitioned the Roman Empire into being a Christian empire.
Even though he converted in 312 CE, Constantine was not baptized until 337 CE while he was lying on his deathbed. Isn't, that's strange? Why would he do that? Well, it seems that Emperor Constantine was under the impression that if baptism was for the washing away of sins, and you could only do it once, he had better save it for the very last possible moment in order that nothing might be missed. His fear was that if he did it too early, and then he committed some sins along the way (as we're all bound to do) that he might not properly repent for them. And after all his efforts of transitioning the whole empire to Christianity, he still may find himself in hell.
That's a pretty interesting perspective. Why then did I baptize my son, Felix, this morning at the opposite end of life, right there at the very beginning? If Constantine was right, why would we baptize babies? I remember very distinctly as a child, one of my best friend's fathers, my best friend asked him, “Dad, why did we go to church and why was I baptized and why do we do all this stuff?” And my friend's father said to him, “Well, I don't know if I really believe it all, but, you know, just in case, just in case!” And that is sometimes the answer we get when we ask, well, why do we baptize children as babies? Well, just in case, in case anything happens, we don't want them to be unbaptized and then be stuck in some sort of limbo or purgatory, or not be able to go onto heaven. So, just in case we'll do it nice and early.
I think that Constantine was wrong, and I think my friend's dad was wrong. I don't think that baptism is about how you die, the state you're in when you die. I think baptism is all about the way you live your life. And that's why I baptized my son right here at the very beginning of his life. Baptism, I don't think, is a ticket to heaven. I don't think everybody who's ever been baptized is going to make it all the way. And I don't think that those who haven't been baptized are hopelessly doomed. I believe that baptism is one specific form of God's amazing grace to imperfect people living imperfect lives in an imperfect world. And thank God for that.
I believe that being spiritually healthy means living a life where you are able to reflect on your own foibles and shortcomings and imperfections and mistakes, and to own them and to move forward and to try and do better. Yeah? At the same time, I believe that being spiritually healthy means not getting stuck or mired in guilt and shame that strangles your heart, that doesn't let you go and doesn't let you progress in this life. How do we do that? How do we raise children who will be compassionate, and reflective, and kind, and own their mistakes, and do better, and yet, who will not be overwhelmed with shame and guilt?
I believe that one of the answers to that is baptism. It's interesting. When we look at Jesus' baptism from our scripture reading this morning, why was Jesus baptized? This is a question that has plagued theologians for a long time because Jesus was fully human, but he was fully God. And traditionally the answer is that Jesus was perfect. He was sinless. He never sinned. He never did anything wrong. So then why was he baptized? And the answer has kind of been, well, he did it just to be a good example for all of us, all of us sinners. And I'm not going to, I'm not going to challenge whether or not Jesus was completely sinless if he never did anything wrong in his entire life. Let's just accept that. Let's grant it that the Orthodox view is a hundred percent correct and Jesus never did a thing wrong because he was fully God.
But Jesus was also fully human. And I know, I know. And you know, too, that being fully human means living a life where sometimes you just feel rotten about stuff. You don't feel like you're good enough. You make little mistakes, you stub your toe. People get mad at you, even though it's not your fault, right? You feel bad about yourself, you feel inadequate, you have regrets. You become a perfectionist and you say, “Ah! I didn't do it perfectly! I didn't do it exactly the right way.” And I think that Jesus, even though he was without sin, because he was fully human, experienced that same range of emotions that all of us feel around mistakes and regrets and worries about our adequacy and how good we are. And I believe that's why he chose baptism for himself. Not because baptism washes away the sin. It does. But because baptism is also meant to wash away the guilt and to readjust us spiritually to live in relationship to our frailty, to our humanity, in a positive and healthy way.
Maybe we've got it all wrong. You know, often we believe that our humanity is what separates us from God. All this human stuff, all this frailty, all this imperfection. Well, that's one perspective. But the other perspective, the perspective of Christmas and Epiphany is that God meets us here in our humanity. God meets us in our brokenness. You know, as a minister, I've of often asked people, you know, when did you feel God most strongly in your life? It's one of those questions I like to ask people to elicit a response. Oh, and how many answers I have heard to that question! And I can tell you that none of them sounded like this: “Well, everything was going great. I was on top of the world, man. I was successful and I was healthy. And boy, what a life I was leading. And while I was there just swimming at the top of the world, having a ball, I just suddenly felt like, yeah, God. And that's how I found God.” That's just never the story. When you ask people, “When did you feel God most strongly in your life? When did you first connect with God?” it's usually a story somewhere down near rock bottom. It's about a loss. It's about an addiction. It's about human pain and suffering and frailty and brokenness. And in that moment, that's when God showed up to show us the power of the Spirit. And maybe if we don't have that experience, it's hard to really know who God is or how God intersects with our lives.
I'll tell you a short story. Back in 2011, I was working as a labor organizer in New York City. And I was wanting to move, transition out of labor organizing and the work I was doing as a faith organizer and get a job as a minister. The first sort of real job as a minister, I'd worked as a part-time as a minister, but a full-time job as a minister in a church. And I wanted to transition my career. And so I was applying to a lot of churches and trying to figure out where I was going to go.
And I kept getting rejections and not a lot of interest. And man, I was feeling really bad about myself. But there was this one church that I was really excited about, and a friend of mine had said to me, “Hey, you know what? I think that church up in Boston is gonna be the one for you. I think they're really gonna be interested in you.” And I was feeling really depressed that night, and I said, “I don't know.” I was working late. It was something like 11 o'clock at night. And just as I was walking out of the office, I checked my Blackberry—it was 2011—and I had an email from the search committee of this church, and it was this amazing email. We're so interested in you. Thank you so much for applying. We really want to interview you. If you're about to take a job anywhere else, let us know because we want to speed up the process so that we can talk to you.
I mean, it was the most amazing, glowing, interested email you could ever get. And I remembered just that very night my friend had said, that's gonna be the church. And so I forwarded her the email message, and I was very excited. So you'll have to forgive my language. I just sent it with three words. The first word was “Holy,” and the other two words were anything but holy. And I will let you use your imagination. Holy Macaroni, let's say. And I sent that off to her to show her how excited I was. And I remember the little hourglass spinning on my blackberry. And as I watched it spin, I realized I was so excited that I hadn't hit forward and put in her email address. I had hit respond. And so I sent Holy Macaroni to the search committee of the one place I was most excited about.
And so I immediately sent a follow up response. I'm so sorry. Tried to explain what I did, but man, what a mistake. What an idiot, right? And I will tell you that night was the dark night of my soul. I said, and I did things to myself that night that I would never, ever do to any other person. I was cruel, I was hateful, and I hurt myself. Why? I made a mistake. I probably blew it, but life would go on. I just felt like I was no good to anyone.
Well, the search committee was awfully surprised by my response, and it was a bit of a kerfuffle, but by a slim margin they voted to continue to interview with me, and they did interview with me. And when I finally walked in for my in-person interview, I sat down in a room with the search committee and the chair of the search committee turned to me and said, “So, Holy Macaroni!” And it broke the ice. And it turned out that that mistake that I made helped me to stand out to everyone on that search committee. They saw that I was a human being. They saw that I was not your traditional, no-fun minister. They saw that I was really excited about working with them. And all of a sudden, I was a standout candidate in their mind because of that stupid moronic mistake that I was beating myself up over. And I got the job because of that mistake. I am convinced of it.
And it was like God was saying to me, “Yeah, you're not perfect. You make mistakes. That's the way you are. That doesn't mean that you don't deserve good things. That doesn't mean I'm not going to put you to work. Forgive yourself. Let's go. I show up in the broken places.” So beloved, to all of you, when you're feeling guilty or shameful, remember the promise of your baptism: Your mistakes do not define you. The God who enters your life through the cracks, that God, that loving God is the one who defines you.
I was technically on vacation this past week, so I haven't prepared anything to say, but that doesn't mean I don't have a few things on my heart that I would like to share with you on New Year's Day. And I especially want to just start by saying thank you to Tom so much for putting together this service and giving me a little break. This is a wonderful way to ring in the new year. Thank you, Tom. The new year has always been about ringing in joy and celebration, right? It is an opportunity to look forward to things that are coming, to celebrate things that have passed, to get together, to drink and eat and be merry, and just to dream about the possibilities. And yet more and more in the last few years, I have been sensing this growing feeling of pessimism in our culture that I feel like has even invaded the way we think culturally about what the new year is.
The new year has become more about saying, oh, thank God that last year is over, and fingers crossed that this next year won't be worse. But who knows what it might have in store for us, right? I think this pessimism has been reflected in some polling that's been done about how Americans and people around the world are feeling about the future of our country. This is on both sides of the political aisle. People are feeling pessimistic about what's in store for us for the future, economically, politically and all kinds of other ways. And, and it's true around the globe. We’re at a time where people are feeling this pessimism, and I think it's reflected even more in our young people than anybody else. And that's really concerning because the youngest generation, the kids coming up, they're supposed to be the ones who are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed who believe that they can tackle the problems of the world and make a true difference.
And yet they are feeling like they might not want to jump in with both feet. For instance, in polling 25% of people under 35 years of age—25%—say that they have changed their plans for having children. They're either not having children at all, or they're reducing the number of children that they're having because of concerns about climate change, right? And this real sense that there is a disaster looming for our country and the whole world so that they don't know that they want to commit to the project of humanity continuing to move forward. They want to step out because they're so afraid of what that unknown is going to be like and how bad it might be for people. 25%, that's really significant.
85% of GenZs who have been polled feel that climate change is the biggest issue for the world. And 85% feel like if we don't do more right now to address climate change, that large swaths of the planet could be rendered uninhabitable in their lifetimes, right? That's huge to carry that burden as a young person, as a teenager looking to try and figure out what you're going to do in the world and in life. Now, the good news is that there are a number of people who feel like it's a big issue, climate change, and many of the other issues we face, but who are feeling optimistic about it. But in polling even more, people are feeling pessimistic about it. Now, I am saying this, I'm not a futurist. I'm not a political commentator. I'm not an oracle. I do not know what the future is going to bring. And I certainly don't mean to suggest that the political and environmental and economic problems that we are facing as a nation and as a world are not significant and that they shouldn’t be things that we're not worried about.
I do not mean to belittle anybody's perception of how bad things are, but as a pastor, I have to be concerned with the soul of the nation, and the people, and the esprit de corps. No matter how big the tragedy, no matter how big the unknown, the Christian response and the response that we should be trying to elicit from the world, though the energy we should be putting into the world is that no problem is too big for us to align to it hopefully, positively, and actively. That is what we have to do. And that's a contribution that we can bring to the world as Christians, we bring it with our Christian faith. We also just bring it with our faith perspective. That perspective is this: that Christians are not defined by the size of the problem or the magnitude of the tragedy. We are defined by God's ability to respond to the problem and to the tragedy. It is not for us to be pessimistic, to say, woe is me. It is for us to step up to a problem and say, yeah, that's a big problem. God is bigger. Our faith is bigger, our hope is bigger. We can do this together. Now, it's not pie in the sky, and the stereotype of Christians is of course, that we're just gonna try and pray it away, right. And that, oh, if you just believe in God, then you don't have to believe in problems, and that's not it. As Christians, we need to acknowledge the depth of the pain that our young people are feeling about their future. And if we do not do that, then they will never believe that this faith or this church or this spiritual alignment that we have has anything to say to them because they will believe, I think maybe rightfully, that we have our heads buried in the sand.
We need to acknowledge their pain, the magnitude and the depths of the problems that we face, and then we need to step up next to them and say, I believe that we, and that you can do this. I believe that God is with us. And no matter what may come in the year or the decade or the century ahead, our alignment to the future must be one of hope and action.
And even if there was a way to look into the future and to see, oh, no, everything is tragedy and awful in the future—as so much of our culture is obsessed with doing in movies right now, these apocalyptic fantasies about just how bad it's going to be. Let's say that every one of them is totally true and correct. That doesn't change how we feel about the future in this room as Christians. As Christians, we still approach that future with the same hope and determination that we approach some Utopia, maybe even more so because we are going to be God's response.
Tragedy is always going to be with us. It always has been with us. Pessimism is always going to be with us. It always has been with us. I would encourage you, if you don't have any resolutions yet to make this your resolution, that you are going to align yourself to the problems of the future with hope and determination, and that you will tell the young people in your lives that you understand why they are afraid and that you will stand by them and act with them to make a difference.
If you ask just about anyone, “What do we know about Jesus’ human father, Joseph?” they’ll probably say, “He was a carpenter.” That’s like the one piece of information we have about him, but it actually may not be completely accurate. It’s possible he was a stone mason or a wagon builder or a construction worker or a day-laboring handyman. The Greek word we’re translating here just isn’t actually all that specific. So, maybe he was a carpenter and maybe he wasn’t. And, I’m wondering, this morning why don’t we answer this question with something we ARE absolutely sure about: Joseph was a dreamer.
We get Joseph’s first dream in our reading this morning. And WOW. Can you imagine what a night that must have been? What Joseph must have gone through? He woke from that dream, not a different person, because he was probably always a faithful and kind person, but he woke up with a completely different life. The life he thought he was going to have for himself, the honor he thought he was going to have, the way his friends and family were going to look at him, the rules he thought he was going to live by, the relationship he thought he was entering into, the safety he thought he was going to enjoy—they’re all out the window.
Can you imagine how hard it must have been to believe that crazy dream? How easy it would have been to wake up and say, “Oh thank goodness, it was just a dream, I shouldn’t have had that leftover Chinese right before bed, nothing serious”? And it makes me wonder, if it’s hard to live our dreams and easy to dismiss them, are there dreams you’ve forgotten or are there dreams I’ve given up on, that we were meant to believe in?
Joseph believed in his dreams. He listened to them. It wasn’t just this one dream either. Joseph had three more dreams. One would tell him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the baby. Another dream would tell him it was finally safe for the family to go back home again. And the last one would send them safely to Galilee and Nazareth. Joseph listened to all these dreams, and he lived out their promises and their warnings. Joseph trusted his dreams.
Do we trust dreams? I don’t think we do, really. I don’t think we trust dreams or dreamers very much. Maybe that’s why we say Joseph was a carpenter, even though we can’t really be sure he was. Because almost anything, even if it’s not all that accurate, is probably better than being a dreamer. And when we think of what a father should provide his son, what do we think of? We like to think of his work, his trade, the way he provides for his family. We don’t want to hear too much about his dreams.
And we see precisely why we don’t want to hear much about dreams in Joseph’s story: Dreams can disrupt an otherwise honorable and productive life. In the American version of the dream, the dream is our goal which we apply our hard work to in the land of opportunity until we achieve it. We focus on the dedication and the chance to become a self-made person, rather than on the disruption. But of course every great story of the American dream is also a story of disruption—of immigration, of revolution, of the flight from slavery. Dreams in the Bible, and the dreams we have in our beds at night, don’t shy away from this darkness, this uncertainty.
The Bible is chock full of dreams, and dreamers, and dream interpretations. There are dozens of dreams in the Bible and even more strange visions in the dark and voices in the night which, at the very least, are like dreams. You can’t read the Bible and come away with any other interpretation than this—God is in dreams. And that’s the trouble with them—according to the Bible, unlike our American dreams, we don’t control dreams. Dreams find us in the dark, and our role is to believe in them, to say YES to everything they portend to us, and to attempt to follow them as they change us. Following the American dream is about self-actualization. But following a Biblical dream is about self-surrender. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are very different ways of understanding our responsibility to a dream.
If only, if only, God would just make every dream an inspiring source of guidance, giving us insight into our lives and relationships while delighting and refreshing us. I love those dreams! But do you think Joseph got a dream like that? Do you think he woke up saying, “I just had the most wonderful dream?” I imagine he shouted himself awake in a sweaty tangle of sheets and fell out of the bed. And that’s the problem with inviting God into your dreams. There’s not one comforting dream in all of Scripture. They’re all challenges and warnings and upheavals. Joseph dreamed that he would marry a woman everybody thought was unchaste, that he would raise a baby who everybody knew wasn’t his baby, and that he would run for his life from the greatest political and military power of the land into exile in another country.
So why would we say YES? Well, the Bible is unambiguous on this: God is in dreams, that’s why. If dreams were easy, God wouldn’t need to be in them. So, when we say yes to the difficulties of dreams, we’re also saying yes to God. And when we turn away from challenges that seem too dark, that feel too difficult, we might also be turning away from God’s dream for us.
Notice I didn’t say God’s plan for us. It’s much easier to spot God’s plan when we’re looking back on the past in the bright light of day. But in the foggy predawn darkness, just waking up from a dream, it’s hard to see a plan at all. There is so much darkness, so much uncertainty, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know (ultimately) what is going to be asked of us. We see a direction. We see hope. We don’t necessarily get the whole picture—Joseph certainly didn’t. He had to have three more dreams just to get to him to Nazareth, to the beginning of the story. But you and I can only say that Jesus was God’s plan because Joseph and Mary said yes to a hard dream. If we don’t follow the dreams, we never get to the place where we can see the plan.
Advent is a time for dreams. Dreams like Joseph’s dreams, life-changing dreams that are, by definition, dark dreams. You don’t necessarily have to go to bed to discover these dreams. Dreams come to us all sorts of ways, we know. Reading a book, taking a shower, talking to a friend, slowly over years of planning and prayer, all at once in response to an incredible victory or terrible loss. Advent is not a silly season with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. It is a time for closing our eyes in the dark and trusting that the hard dream, the dream that totally upends our lives, the dream that frightens and intimidates us a little, may not be the nightmare we fear it is. It may be the beginning of God’s plan. Would you be willing to abandon your expectations for life in exchange for God’s hope for the future? Would you be willing to be a part of God’s plan, before it looked like anything more than a dream?
This week there was an article on National Geographic entitled, “What is Advent—and why do we mark it with treat-filled calendars?” This just proves my personal thesis of the moment that somewhere along the way we lost touch with the meaning of Advent, and I believe that’s a spiritual loss. I’m hoping to convince you this season that it is, indeed, a spiritual loss and I’m hoping to invite you into this season of Advent with me to begin to address that loss and to restore yourself in this season.
National Geographic defines Advent as a season of candlelight, reflection, and expectation that prepares Christians for Christmas. That’s a pretty good start, but because even those of us who observe Advent treat it like it’s a 24-day extension of Christmas, full of Christmas-themed events and Christmas joy and lights, this season I’m also trying to remind us all that Advent takes place during the darkest time of the year, and that darkness is an important part of the season. Because constant exposure to light is not good for us.
Scientists are beginning to discover just how bad constant exposure to light is for us physically. Thanks to smartphones and other screens, we’re now studying the effects of certain kinds of light on our natural bodily rhythms and our sleep rhythms, and we’re discovering bad news about how bad it is for us to look at screens after the sun goes down and how disruptive it is to sleep in a room with the lights on in it.
Well, what’s true of us physically always also has been true of us spiritually. Just imagine the star of Bethlehem that led the three Magi to the little baby Jesus. You and I live in a place where it would be very difficult for us to see, let alone follow a star anywhere. This is a physical limitation, but it has also become a spiritual limitation. What I mean is, maybe the bigger challenge than physical light pollution would be that none of us would be outside looking at the stars anyway because we’re inside consumed by much brighter lights—streaming shows, scrolling social media, working late—these things can only happen with our bright little screens, but they are also a spiritual choice—choosing or maybe just being overwhelmed by one kind of light, instead of paying attention to another kind of light. But if the power were to go out everywhere for like a week, then we might rediscover our interest in the much fainter, but oh-so-beautiful stars. Advent is meant to be one of those times, a sort of Sabbath in the longest nights of the year where we allow our eyes to readjust to the dark. The physical darkness of the season is a sign, a symbol for what we hope to achieve spiritually. Because in the dark our eyes open up. And from darkness, we can begin to see the beauty of even the faintest stars.
You see, I’m trying to rehabilitate the spiritual symbol of darkness. Darkness has gotten such a bad rap in our culture. We associate darkness with evil, danger, and being hopelessly lost. Light is knowledge, righteousness, beauty, and truth, and darkness is their opposite. But we forget that we live in a world with a lot of bad lights. I heard a story recently of how beach bandits would sometimes set up false lighthouse lights to lure ships onto the rocks, wreck them, and loot them. There’s such a thing as bad light. Alex Jones, for example, is a bad light. He leads people to him with the light of lies and with hate speech masquerading as the moral light of free speech. When you speak hate and defend yourself by saying you just have a patriotic belief in free speech, that’s not the truth. Perhaps you do really believe in free speech for everybody, but you also believe in hate speech. Let’s not forget that. That’s what’s making you money, right? Not patriotism. Jones has made himself millions and millions of dollars doing this.
He’s an extreme example, of course, and it is fully evil, what he does, but—back to my point--it’s not darkness. Darkness doesn’t work hard to mislead you. That’s the work of a bad light. Darkness isn’t trying to trick you. If you trip in the dark, that’s just because that’s the way darkness is, but darkness isn’t trying to mess with you. Darkness just is. And what it is can be wonderful. Darkness is rest. It’s quiet, it’s meditative, it’s contemplative. And darkness is also the place of incubation—the place where creation literally began. It began in darkness. And it’s where all new life begins.
Our scripture reading this morning is such a magnificent vision of hope. Imagine a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, a world of peace and justice, a world where there is no more pain, a world where the oppressed are heard and uplifted, and the wicked are finally silenced. It is a light-filled prophecy. And where does this light-filled prophecy come from?
It comes from the dark. It is a branch, our reading says, growing up from the roots of Jesse, from the deep earth, under the dark soil, where no light can go, there is a dream that is being incubated, a dream of a future hope for peace and justice. This deep longing does not come from the light. It wasn’t dreamed up while swinging from the light-filled crown of a healthy, growing tree. It comes from the deep, dark, quiet, contemplative, life-giving roots of a stump.
Christmas is the day that the branch shoots up out of the ground. Christmas is the day the child takes the lion by the whiskers and leads him. Christmas is the day we walk outside proudly wearing the belt of our faithfulness. But Advent is those roots, it’s all the days and years of darkness that incubated and grew that dream and that made its reality possible. When we skip that kind of darkness, because we think darkness is just depressing or just too scary, we get an empty Christmas, don’t we? We get a Christmas that’s pretty, but leaves us feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Every adult in this room has felt that feeling at Christmas at some point or another. Why? Because nothing has come alive within us. Because nothing has been incubated within us. Because we avoided the dark.
This is the good news, beloved. Have you ever lived through a time in your life when you didn’t know what to do? When you didn’t know where to turn to? You weren’t sure what tomorrow would bring? You didn’t know when things would get better? Advent is the season in which we learn not to try to rush our way out of the darkness. We all know that the darkness can be uncomfortable. That you can’t see what’s coming. That’s scary. But darkness is also the place where new life, hopes, and dreams for the future are incubated. Darkness is not a problem to be fixed. It’s an experience to be endured with candlelight, reflection, and contemplation. It is an opportunity to grow a new branch for a new journey in a new direction.
So, this Advent, try turning off the lights. You can do this, physically, to the actual lights in your house, as a physical signal to your spiritual side that you want to spend some time in the dark. Darkness is not necessarily for feeling depressed or pessimistic or bad in any way (but it’s fine if you do feel that way). Ultimately Advent darkness, pre-dawn darkness, root darkness, incubating darkness is about turning down the brightness on the all the world’s lights (good and bad) and sitting in quiet emptiness for a while, without being stimulated by anything but the hope and the expectation for the coming of Christ into our world and into your life. Spend a little time in the dark this Advent. On Christmas Eve, a star will appear in the sky. Will you be ready to see it? Will you be able to feel the promise of Christmas kicking in the dark within you?
We don't often think of New York City as being a place of spiritual pilgrimages. But here's one that happens every year. When I was living on the Upper West Side, I got to experience it one morning in late June on the summer solstice to be exact. I got out of bed long before the sun rose and walked over to the cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of the largest church buildings in the world. It was sometime before sunrise, before 4:30 AM when I arrived. But the street and the stairway up to those giant doors of that church were bustling in the dark with the quiet pilgrims, thousands of us filing into the dark interior of that cathedral. It's never really dark outside in New York City, you've probably noticed if you've ever lived there or walked through the city at night, not truly dark, but inside that enormous cave of that church, it was truly dark.
And there were ushers there who were helping us through the narrow pathways between all of the seats in the dark. And they had these tiny little flashlights, but they were using them sparingly. There were no lights on in the whole place. And only if somebody was really struggling did they flash the lights for you so that you could see where you were going, only when necessary. They were there to guide the people, but they were also there to protect the darkness. Once we were settled into that holy darkness, the organ began to play a concert of low rumbling notes that filled the entire chamber of that space. And as the music played, slowly (as our eyes fully adjusted to the total darkness) we began to see a glow. It was coming through the cathedral's 40-foot-wide, east-facing rose window.
The sun was rising, and it was not just any sunrise. It was the sunrise of the longest day of the year. 10,000 individual pieces of glass began to glow, and then sparkle, and then blossom with color as the organ swelled and crescendoed. It's one of New York City's great mystical traditions, a ritual that reaches deep into our spiritual history and celebrates the bright light of summer and everything that the coming of the light represents to us symbolically and religiously. But the key player in this drama, the force that keeps the ritual alive and grounds it, the preset cue that welcomes the worshiper is the darkness. Now, if the concert started at 10:30 in the morning, I'm sure that, you know, maybe even hundreds of people would attend. But at 4:30 in the morning, thousands attend because you cannot experience the beauty of a sunrise except from the position of darkness.
Let me give you another example. It also happened in a church. Many years ago, my wife Bonnie Mohan, and I had been dating something around a month. She was living in the Bronx, not far from Fordham University, where she went to school. She had recently graduated, and one night she was just giving me a tour around campus to show me all her old haunts. It was late at night because probably we had been out at a bar or something like that. The point is that we get up to the chapel for the school, which is a great big Catholic chapel church building. And of course, it's like two o'clock in the morning. So the place is completely shut down. It's completely dark. But for some reason, Bonnie, who I can guarantee you never darkened the door of this chapel one time her entire four years of college, reached out to the door and pulled, and someone had forgot to lock the church.
And so we went inside together and it was absolutely dark in there, but for some reason we filed in and sat somewhere in the middle of the church and just stared up into darkness. And we sat there next to each other in silence, holding hands. And I'd say we sat there at, you know, something like two o'clock in the morning for about 30 minutes in total silence. And in that darkness, in that space, a connection happened between us, a deepening connection that could not have happened, I really believe, if the lights had been on, because if the lights had been on, we've been looking all around and people would've been able to see us and know that we weren't supposed to be in there. The darkness kept us safe, and it kept us together, and it let us reflect. And as we kind of came out of that meditation together, I turned to Bonnie. And for the very first time in our relationship, I said, “I love you.” And that I love you happened in the dark. And I believe it only could have happened in the dark. The dark let it be revealed.
The reason I'm telling you stories about the dark is because today is the first Sunday of the Christian year, the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is the season before Christmas. Christmas, as you all know, is the season of the sunrise, and that means that advent must be the dark before the sunrise happens. But that's a tough sell nowadays. In holiday time, I really hate to sound like that old curmudgeon, but I was driving around right after Halloween, I think it was the week after Halloween, and people already had their Christmas lights up and their Christmas decorations up. And I'm like, goodness gracious. Some people still have like skeletons on their lawn and other people have Christmas lights up. It's a bit of a juxtaposition. And there's nothing wrong with that! There's nothing wrong with the beautiful sparkle lights except that, you know, this Christmas creep from late December and early January into early December and late November and now early November, it prevents us from giving Advent and from giving darkness it's due.
You know, we like the idea of hopping from one high point to another high point, to another high point without ever stopping or pausing to catch our breath in between. That is our culture. Go, go, go, go, go, go, go. Focus on the positive. Stay positive. Hashtag blessed all the time, Instagram, social media, everything's beautiful, everything's perfect. Everybody is living their best life now. And now is always, and everything is always bright and shiny and perfect. Market it baby! And it's all baloney and we all know it. You can't live like that. And any culture that would ask us to live like that all the time, not acknowledging the fact that the bright light requires sometimes a little bit of rest, it's just asking us to behave in a way that's manic. Darkness brings balance.
We cannot live in the dark forever. But when we resist venturing into the darkness of our traditions in our spiritual lives, we alienate most of the people we think we're trying to protect when we keep the bright lights on all the time: the people who are living through the darker times of life. Now, as a minister, I know many, many people who have had something happen at Christmas, for instance, the loss of a loved one on or around the Christmas season. And they come to loathe holidays that they once loved. Why? Why should that have to happen? Because the bright lights of Christmas and the holiday cheer don't make any room for the grief that they are going to always have to carry at that time of the year. Because it comes around annually. We need to make a little bit more room for darkness in our lives.
I've been beating around the bush a little bit here. But you know, this is true of all of us to a certain extent. We're a little bit afraid of the dark because you know, when the lights are out, you can't see what's coming physically or spiritually. When the lights are on, you can see what's coming. You can react, you can respond. But when it's dark, you don't exactly know what's coming for you. And that makes darkness frightening for many of us. And it doesn't help when Jesus says on the first Sunday of Advent that when he arrives in our lives, he is going to come like a thief in the night. Well, that doesn't sound very appealing. Why would Jesus want to do that? You would think that Jesus wouldn't want to associate himself with such an image, a thief in the night. Can you imagine how Jesus' PR department and his branding consultants must have been pulling their hair out when he let that one fly? A thief in the night? Come on.
When a thief came in the night in Jesus’ day, the thief didn't announce themselves. They snuck in while you were asleep and while you weren't paying attention. And in those days, people didn't have like flat screen TVs hanging on the wall and all that kind of stuff. You didn't have a whole lot of stuff. Maybe if there was something to steal in your house, it was hidden away somewhere like inside a couch cushion or something like that, your savings, a few coins, a little bit of silver. And so you would wake up in the morning and you might not even know that your treasure had been taken away because someone had snuck in and gotten it away from you. Advent is a season that asks us to pay attention, and it asks us to take our treasures out of their secreted, hiding places to check on them. What are the treasures that you have in your life? What are the gifts you hold in the darkness? You go and you pull them out of their hiding places, and you hold them in your hands and you think about them, meditate on them, tell them that you love them. Maybe stay up all night, waiting, watching, praying. You keep your eyes on the window for a little bit of light that's going to come in. It can happen when you least expect it.
Jesus can show up. Your treasures may be needed. Keep them close. Stay awake. Don’t lose heart. So this advent, let's not be afraid of the dark. Let's use the dark to watch for the coming of the light.
In August of 2013 I went on a vacation that changed my life. It was a road trip out West with my then girlfriend now wife, Bonnie, and Bonnie’s mother, and Bonnie’s sister, and Maura, Catherine, and Niamh, Bonnie’s cousins. I had never spent any significant time with any of Bonnie’s relatives, and now I was about to spend 10 days in a minivan with her and five of her closest female relatives. The joke from the Mohan women was that if this vacation didn’t scare me off, nothing would. I mean they laughed when they said it, so maybe it was a joke, but I knew this trip was also a test of sorts, and I was a little nervous. And so were they, and so was Bonnie. What would we discover about one another?
The road trip started in Yosemite National Park, and we did a lot of hiking. On the third day Bonnie and I hiked from the valley floor up to Glacier Point. We thought we’d have enough time and energy to hike up and back down, but by the time we got up to the point, we knew it was probably going to be dark by the time we got back to camp, and we were tired and hungry. You can drive up to Glacier Point so we asked some normal looking people who looked like they might have room in their SUVs for us if they’d mind if we hitched a ride down with them, and they all practically fell over themselves trying to get away from us as fast as possible. So, we call down to Bonnie’s family to drive up (which was a long ride) and get us. But while we were on the phone, some German tourists pulled over for us, with just enough room in their little rental car, and they said they heard we needed a ride, and they offered us a ride down the mountain. They were three wonderful guys and I really appreciated the ride. They were even going out of their way a little bit to get us back to our camp.
When we got back I insisted that our German heroes get out for a bit and join us. I appreciated their kindness and I wanted to offer them something, but it was our last day of camping, and I wasn’t sure that we had much, I was also really tired. And this is the moment that I’ll never forget from that trip. Bonnie’s family treated our new German friends like hometown heroes. And we didn’t have much in the way of food, but they offered them our last few cans of beer and we broke out the cooler full of snacks and feasted them as best we could. I didn’t need to do anything but sit by the river with my new friends, and the beer and food and welcome was brought by the rest of the less tired family. I’ll never forget it, because it was the first time I felt like Bonnie’s family was MY family, and I was so, so grateful that I was a part of this family that knew how to show love and gratitude to strangers with whatever was at hand.
I was lying in my bedroll that night, trying to think about why it was that such a simple meal, such simple gratitude, moved me so much. Was it just because I’m a minister and a Christian and Jesus was someone who also valued meals and who sat and ate with strangers and served the table? That must have been a part of it, but there was something more. I let my mind wander, and I found myself thinking of Thanksgiving dinners as a kid.
I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving, in general. It is the greatest American holiday. It was invented by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln saw Thanksgiving as an antidote to the forces that were tearing the country apart. How do we face the horrors and the grief of this war? With a meal, with our family, with Thanksgiving for the blessings we have received, and maybe that will help sustain a hope in our hearts that this national division that separates us from our neighbors is not permanent and may one day know peace again. Maybe Lincoln knew that a young, vibrant, changing democracy like the United States would always need a holiday like this. In some ways, on a national level, Thanksgiving is even better than Christmas, because EVERYBODY in our country celebrates it. North, south, east, and west, black white, and brown, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, republican, and democrat, expats gone for decades, and immigrants who have just arrived, we all celebrate Thanksgiving. In our reading from Deuteronomy, another source text and origin story for Thanksgiving, when you had your harvest feast of Thanksgiving, you made sure that even the aliens in your land were invited to celebrate too. NO ONE was supposed to be left out.
There is a deep spiritual truth here. If you are truly blessed, and if you are truly grateful for that blessing, you’re going to have at least little something for everyone. No one can be left out! Your Thanksgiving should be more than a private pious moment, it should be a celebration that benefits even the strangers you barely know yet.
I learned that as a kid at my family’s Thanksgiving table. When we celebrated, the whole family got together, the food was always plentiful, and there was almost always somebody else at the table. For instance, my grandfather had a neighbor for many years. His wife and he never had children and had no close family. When his wife died, my mother started to invite him to Thanksgiving dinner. She wasn’t particularly close to the man, she just knew he needed a place to be, and so she invited him, and he came and celebrated with us for many Thanksgiving meals. And he wasn’t the only one. If we knew someone might need a place, they got an invitation.
And so that reason I was so deeply moved by my new family’s hospitality to three foreign strangers who visited our camp was because of the lessons I had learned at my family’s Thanksgiving table. This is how you prepare for the whole nation’s holiest day. You stuff the turkey, you bake the pie, you have the whole family over, you hold hands together around the table and say grace and give thanks to God, AND don’t forget to invite a stranger or anyone else who might need a place to sit.
And, of course, this is also my best vision for what a church should be—not a private prayer chapel, not a cavernous holy space where you can get lost in the alcoves. Those are wonderful things too, but church at it’s best is a community of people who have woven their lives together with gratitude and love and fellowship and faith in such a deep and meaningful way that when strangers and new friends pass through our community, there is something for them to grab a hold of, there may even be a safety net of love that can catch them and hold them in their time of need. This is my point. A church that knows the true meaning of Thanksgiving is not just a collection of individuals who feel grateful, it is a community that believes holiness is made complete when we invite a new friend to join us.
What lasts? Really lasts? In a world where things are constantly changing, and where disaster seems to always be right around the corner, and where there is endless turnover in trends, and truths, and regimes, and borders, what really lasts? What do you think? Maybe nothing truly lasts. Maybe eventually everything is gobbled up by the inexorable woodchipper of time. Maybe everything is eventually lost. Maybe, but I don’t think so. And I don’t think Jesus thought so either. Jesus, I think, wants us to know that the things we typically think are going to last aren’t the things that are really going to last. Jesus doesn’t want us relying on the wrong things—things that eventually rust, or get eaten by moths, or get knocked down. He wants us to experience the things that really do last.
Take the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the center of religious, political, and economic power. That seems like a place that ought to last! And it was huge too. It covered 35 acres. A NYC block covers five acres. Imagine 7 city blocks, and it’s 14 stories tall at its highest point. That seems like something that should last, doesn’t it? And did I mention it was made entirely out of stone? There’s this one stone in the Western Wall that we think is the largest stone ever used in construction in human history. You might be able to squeeze that stone into our sanctuary if you took out a couple of walls, but the problem is that it’s so heavy that nobody alive today has any idea how to move it. That seems like something that should last! And by the time Jesus came along the Temple was already like 600 years old. Doesn’t that seem like something that’s just going to be there forever?
But while everyone else is admiring the architecture and the stonework and the views, Jesus reminds them that even this Temple—this ancient, stone seat of power and the center of their world—will not last forever. And he was tragically proved right. About four decades later the unthinkable happened—the Temple was utterly destroyed by a Roman army during the sack of Jerusalem.
Now, this might feel disappointing to you if you were hoping that Jesus’ mysterious words in our scripture reading this morning were about the Apocalypse—some vague notions of the end of the world cobbled together with little pieces of the Bible taken out of their original contexts. I hate to disappoint, but Jesus was not talking about some event in our future. He was talking about an event in his future, now far in our past.
But he was also making a larger point, wasn’t he? Even the Temple will one day be gone. If it hadn’t happened in the year 70, it would have happened eventually. Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, pandemics, comets and asteroids—eventually something is going to take us out. Scientists tell us that the whole Earth will be gone in five billion years and the sun in 10 billion. And some billions of years after that the entire universe may just stretch itself out into an empty, cold, lightless infinity. So, what really and truly lasts?
When confronted with the possibility of the apocalypse or an apocalypse (little apocalypses are happening all the time—a divorce, a job loss, a cancer diagnosis, a natural disaster) when we face these possibilities, one response is the fear response. The fear response says, I should try to placate the power in charge of apocalypses so that apocalyptic things don’t happen to me. I will believe in God, so that God will protect me from all the trials and tribulations of the world. This perspective finds it’s “highest” expression in the entirely made-up “doctrine” of the Rapture—in which obscure biblical verses are strung together to suggest that at the beginning of the looming end of the world all the good, believing Christians will be whisked away to Heaven and the ungodly along with all the other religions of the world will have to suffer the plagues and wars of the end of times all alone. I mean hadn’t you heard? Bad things never happen to good people! That just wouldn’t be fair!
Jesus puts it simply for his followers (not for his non-followers, he said this to his FOLLOWERS): You will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned, tried, and hated. You will experience division, betrayal, and the loss of family and friends. And some of you will even be executed. And then Jesus says something very strange. He says, “But not a hair of your head will perish.” That’s a very strange thing to say to someone you’ve just predicted may very well be put to death.
Well, they’re going to kill you. Yeah, they’re definitely going to do that. But don’t worry about your hair. Your hair is going to look great the whole time. No, I think it’s almost like a riddle. You may suffer. You may die. But not even one hair of your head will be lost. Because, beloved, whatever trail or tribulation you may pass through (and you can be certain that you’re going to pass through some) Jesus wants you and me to be the things that truly last. Jesus wants us to endure. And when we endure, he says we gain our souls.
In the turmoil of the world and in the trials of our lives, it is our authenticity, our forthrightness, the expression of our character, our truth, and our selves that matter most. Life is hard. But you have a destiny—God’s plan for you. This destiny, these plans, are built into your life, they are a part of you, they are you. Now, when tragedy strikes in your life, as it probably has before and certainly will again, the person who God made you to be doesn’t suddenly go away. In fact, sometimes it’s in the walk through the valley of the shadow of death that we discover more deeply who it is that God made us to be and we can express more fully what it is that God gave each and every one of us to express. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you have a destiny, that God has a plan? Do you believe that there is something inside of you that God created in you and that your life—its joys and its sorrows—is just God’s way of giving YOU every opportunity to come out as fully as possible?
If you don’t quite believe it, let me suggest a prayer you can pray starting today. Pray, “God, I believe that I am here for a reason.” It’s a very short prayer. It’s like a breath prayer, you can pray it all day long on repeat, if you want. But even if you just pray it a few times a day, take the time to pray that prayer. I am here for a reason. When you pay attention to your life and when you walk out into the world with that prayer in your heart, you might begin to see your opportunities a little differently. We have a couple pairs of prayer partners in our congregation this month. Prayer partners, why don’t you discuss this together. What am I here for? We need to live this question out as the question of our lives, at all times. We need to believe that whatever we face, when we are living faithfully to who God intends us to be, the expression of those gifts will outlast stone and outshine the sun.
Do you believe that? Can you believe that an act of simple generosity or human kindness or music making or falling in love will last longer and matter more than all the stars in the sky? Do you believe that something will last? Do you believe that you’re a part of it?
God, I believe I am here for a reason. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations