“In the Dark”; Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23; January 26, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“In the Dark”
Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23
January 26, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Darkness can look like many things: the time before the sun rises. Hopelessness in dark nights of the soul. Fear of an uncertain future. Or simply the deep darkness at night that allows you to fully see the beauty of the stars. Many of those definitions are at play in our scriptures today and each worthy of an entire sermon focusing on them. But for today, I want to focus our attention on the type of “in the dark,” we are when we simply don’t know what is going on.

Our passage in the New Testament points us to the prophecy in our Old Testament text. The understanding in their correlation is that Jesus is the light dawning on those who have been in darkness. But this Jesus of Nazareth was not so easily understood as the fulfillment of prophecy in his time.

So much of Jesus’ ministry to those around him left them in the dark. Scripture tells us over and over that the disciples rarely, if ever, fully understood what Jesus was trying to tell them. Even when Jesus told them exactly what was going to happen. Even as prophecies such as our text today spelled it out for them precisely what Jesus was doing. They so often have no idea what Jesus was talking about.

Also, so much of Jesus’ ministry happened out of sight of mainstream culture and society, in the homes of those on the margins, among tax collectors, and on seashores off the beaten path. Our text today occurs in Northern Galilee, which in Jesus’ time was largely composed of poor people involved in the fishing industry. Not exactly the place one would go to network or schmooze with the well connected.

Jesus often spoke in parables. And I guess when you’re speaking about the counter-cultural realities of the realm of God, sometimes stories approximating the nature of the thing are the closest you can get. In a way, he’s utilizing the tradition of his culture. So much of rabbinical teaching comes not in the form of answers, but in the form of questions, ever unpeeling layer after layer to discern what is true. And my goodness did Jesus frustrate those around him by responding to questions with questions of his own.

But this Jesus of Nazareth was the light who came to those in darkness, and it took his death and resurrection for those around him to know that more fully.

Throughout time, those who have followed God have sought the clarity of God’s full revelation, frustrated with the unknowability of God. It was once believed that were God fully revealed, such power would kill you on the spot. 

There’s a poem by Emily Dickinson on this theme:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Truth, Emily Dickinson infers, is too great to be understood all at once. In that way, it was a small mercy that those around Jesus didn’t fully comprehend all of his identity in his lifetime. The concepts of Christ’s humanity and divinity have been studied, analyzed, and debated through the centuries. But those followers of Christ in his time were spared the discomfort of fully understanding every little detail about Christ’s nature, so they could be in actual relationship with this man, who was also God. Christ’s divinity wasn’t hidden exactly but was certainly not fully known.

But God doesn’t intend to keep us in the dark, sending the Holy Spirit to give us as much clarity about God’s love, grace, and mercy as we are able to receive. Through the Holy Spirit, God’s revelation alights the darkness, providing a path for us not just to know the Christ who has come to save us, but to follow Jesus out of that boat and into the world. May we greet the dawn of Christ’s revelation. Amen.

“A Thin Place”; Psalm 29: 1-4, 10-11 and Matthew 3:13-17; January 12, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A Thin Place”
Psalm 29: 1-4, 10-11 and Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Growing up in Northwest Ohio, there wasn’t much of a horizon. When you tried to look for where the sky touched the earth it was mostly just buildings or trees in the way. But I’ve been some places where the sky and the earth meet in some pretty spectacular ways. Once, I was part of a crew filming a kid’s program in Alaska and watched the sunrise over a bay as dolphins leaped and eagles soared.

For our honeymoon, David and I went to the Grand Canyon and were delighted to watch the sunset over the canyon. And the sunsets I’ve experienced on my drives in for our Lenten worship services have been quite incredible in their own right. It is these meetings of the sun and the earth that come to mind when I imagine our text today, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him.”

One of the words I have heard used to describe God’s incarnation in Christ is “condescension.” Since this primarily carries a negative connotation I initially balked at that word being used, but then I just couldn’t get it out of my head. And one of the ways the Holy Spirit shows up in my life is in those little earworms of phrases that echo through my consciousness as I seek to connect with scripture. In Christ, God is condescending to us. The divine descends to dwell in the ordinariness of human skin. The heavens touch the earth in the person of Christ..

There is a term used in Celtic spirituality and throughout the history of Irish tradition called a “thin place.” It describes “a place in time where the space between heaven and earth grows thin and the Sacred and the secular seem to meet.”

There are places around the world that are distinctly referred to as thin places, where many others have identified feeling God’s presence. There’s even a travel company called “Thin Places Mystical Tours,” that will take you to various locations in Ireland and Scotland. Iona in Scotland is one such place, and certainly the wailing wall in Jerusalem and the mosque in Mecca. I’ve heard people refer to their beloved childhood summer camp in this way. Maybe for you it’s been a family vacation spot or beloved treehouse growing up where you did all your best thinking.

Thin places can be used to describe both a physical space and a particular date and time. In Greek, the word “kairos” is used for this sort of time, God’s time, the fullness of time, that often has little to do with clocks or calendars.

If ever there were a thin place, Jesus’ birth and baptism stand out as prime examples. In the liturgical calendar we’ve just left the thin place that is the nativity with a newborn Jesus of Nazareth swaddled, being kept warm by a host of earthly animals and attended by a host of heavenly angels. Divinity made incarnate in humanity.

This week our text takes us to the waters of the Jordan, and that baby has grown into a man. In the waters of baptism, Christ condescends to John, insisting that it is right that John be the one to baptize Jesus. Humanity extends it’s blessing in John, while the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and “alights” on him.

When I hear the part about “ the Spirit of God… alighting on [Jesus]” I think of a line in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is telling Mary that he’ll lasso the moon for her and that she “can swallow it… and the moonbeams would shoot out of [her] fingers and your toes and the ends of [her] hair.” I wonder if this is how Jesus looked, light radiating out in beams.

To me, Jesus’ baptism scene strikes me as an invitation, not to any place or time in particular, but an invitation to seek out divine incarnation. To look for the places that God “alights.” To see if that thinness the Celts speak about is closer than you may have previously thought possible.

New York Times Travel Journalist, Eric Weiner wrote about his search for “thin places” in a piece entitled, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” He frames his search saying, “The question, of course, is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many ‘spiritual journeys’ disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.”

Episcopal Pastor and Christian Educator, Debie Thomas writes of how difficult it can be to find that thin-ness, even and especially where others have said they have experienced God in space, but also in action through the sacraments of baptism and communion..

She writes, “How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy.  But no — the font is just tap water, river water, chlorine. The thin place is a neighborhood, a forest, a hilltop.  The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder, indigestion, or delusion. Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star?  Is this the body and blood of God’s Son? Or is it a mere hunk of bread? A jug of wine?  

What I mean to say is that there is no magic — we practice Epiphany.  The challenge is always before us. Look again. Look harder. See freshly.  Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise.  Epiphany is deep water — you can’t stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.”

On this day of celebration Jesus’s baptism, may we ever be on the lookout for how heaven  is meeting the earth. Even with us, even right here, even right now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Unimaginably More”; Ephesians 3:1-12; January 5, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Unimaginably More”
Ephesians 3:1-12
January 5, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Sometimes when I am looking for an entry point into a passage of scripture I look for which words are repeated. In our Epistle reading from Ephesians the word of the day, if you will, was undoubtedly “mystery,” repeated four times within our passage.

Now when I think of mysteries, I primarily think of them as a literary genre or type of movie. Something solved by Sherlock Holmes in an English countryside, Veronica Mars in Neptune, California, or Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove, Maine. Often in these contexts mysteries are essentially questions, especially “whodunnit?” that end up having one clear answer or explanation. Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the wrench, something like that.

But that is not what Paul means when he uses it in this passage. The way he frames it is more as something that has been revealed that was not known previously. In a way it works in the opposite direction of mysteries as a genre, first God reveals something and then prophecy is referenced to see if it lines up. It’s not that prophecy wasn’t pointing to a more expansive kingdom of God, but that it was simply more than the contemporaries of the prophets could’ve fathomed or thought to look for.

Augsburg University professor, Jennifer V. Pietz frames it in this way:

“The assertion that this mystery was unknown to previous generations (verses 5, 9) raises the question of whether or not the Old Testament prophets, whose words Christians interpret as pointing to Christ, had any understanding of the mystery. Some interpreters assert that the “as” (os) that begins the second part of Ephesians 3:5 signals a comparison, meaning that the mystery was not made known to previous generations to the full extent that it has now been revealed. Others think that Paul is in fact claiming that earlier prophets did not envision God uniting Jews and Gentiles in Christ in the way that Ephesians describes, even though doing so was part of God’s eternal purpose (verse 11). In either view, Ephesians 3:1-12 is clear that the decisive revelation of this mystery is occurring now (verses 5, 10).” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4347)

Just reading this text with a modern lens could lead us to believe that Paul was just musing to himself on these sorts of things. That his understanding of God’s promises for humankind were simply that, his understanding. But what he is claiming is that the mystery of God’s design of unification and reconciliation must be from God by the Holy Spirit because it is beyond what the human brain could come up on it’s own.

Today is Epiphany Sunday, most closely tied to the narrative of the Wisemen’s arrival after the birth of Jesus and the revelation of Jesus as the expected messiah. If “mystery” is the word that Paul uses to frame the question, then “epiphany” is the answer. Jesus is the epiphany to the mystery of how God will redeem humanity. And radical inclusion of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, is the epiphany to the mystery of who are included in the humanity to be redeemed.

This has major implications for Christians of every time. It means that all people are able to receive the grace and redemption offered by Christ’s resurrection. And if all are able to inherit Christ’s redemption then all are to be invited to claim their place as known and beloved by God.

It reminds me of a blessing that my seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson pronounced at the end of each class. The ending of it goes something like this:

“May joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.”

The part that came to mind especially with this week’s text is the line about light guiding others “whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent.” This is the truth that seems to stop Paul in his tracks, that God’s invitation is so much larger than what the prophets could’ve imagined. 

And while this epiphany of God’s expansive inclusion is incredible in its enormity it’s also incredible in its specificity. Because it is for everyone, that means it is for every one. Whoever you’re thinking of right this moment, it’s for them. And that other person who you might think beyond saving, them too. And you in the midst of the worst thing you’ve ever done? You too.

It really means something that this message comes to us in the person of Paul. After all, we are first introduced to Paul as a man known as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. The first few verses about him in scripture in Acts 8 he is introduced approving of the death of Christ’s followers and then “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and] committed them to prison.” The fact that it is this man that becomes such a voice for the church is honestly rather staggering. Redemption for him, really? Co-inheritor of heaven with Christ? Him?

For Paul, receiving this epiphany that he too was able to be redeemed, wasn’t just some abstract reality, but genuine Good News. God was able to use him, all of who he was to revolutionize the church, spreading the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection far and wide, both in this time and also in ours.

Presbyterian Pastor Michelle Wahila explains it in this way:

“Like Paul we are planted in a particular place and time with a particular holy purpose. Don’t be afraid to claim your story and who you are. You can say, “this is me: brave, bruised, but who I am meant to be.”

Paul’s testimony was that “God’s grace was sufficient.”[2] Our God is the God who answers our failings with affirmations. Jesus whispers to you: I know your imperfections. I know you who are, but do you know who I am?

On your very worst day, when you think your story is finished, Jesus calls you beloved. If you aren’t hearing this, you aren’t hearing Jesus. He chose you before creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he claims you.” (https://upcendicott.org/sermons/2018/8/19/merry-christmas)

What a mystery, what a revelation, what an epiphany! Thanks be to God. Amen.

“A Righteous Man”; Psalm 80:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25; December 22, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A Righteous Man”
Psalm 80:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Our text today gives us a different perspective than we usually associate with the stories of Christmas. The narrative we’re most familiar with is really a combination of all of the Gospels, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, and the magi, they’re all spread out throughout the gospels. But in Matthew’s account, the focus is not so much on Jesus’ birth itself, though it’s in there. There’s no trip to Bethlehem or shepherds in a field. What there is however, is a focus on Joesph and his experience of Mary’s surprising pregnancy.

Joseph’s mostly a background character in most depictions of the nativity of Jesus. He’s the one leading the donkey, the one inquiring with the innkeeper. He shows up in paintings of the Holy Family and in nativity sets, but we don’t know a whole lot about him in particular. After the story of Jesus staying behind in the temple when Jesus was 12, we really don’t hear about Joseph again.

We do know him a little though through the world that surrounded him. We know that his ancestral hometown was Bethlehem, but our narrative begins with him living 90 miles north in the town of Nazareth. Once thought to be rural, recent archaeological discoveries have pointed to a perhaps more established community. We know also that he was a carpenter or builder, likely as a part of the family business. He would’ve known how to read Hebrew, learning it in order to be Bar Mitzvahed. He would’ve spoke Aramaic and could’ve known Greek and Latin to engage in business.

We know also of his lineage, he was a descendent of the house of David. The first verses of the Gospel of Matthew giving us a detailed account of who all was included in that lineup. I’ve always found it curious that Joseph’s family tree is the one detailed out in the first part of the first chapter of Matthew, then we’re immediately told that this child to be born is not a biological descendent of Joseph at all, acting as a testament to the strength of God’s trust in Joseph as Jesus’ adoptive father.

By, eventually, accepting this role in Jesus’ life, Joseph would be giving up his right to a biological first born son, something that was of high importance in the patriarchal culture of that time. It is a big ask.

And so for a great many reasons, we hear of Joseph’s hesitation. Upon hearing about the pregnancy his first impulse is to “dismiss Mary quietly.” I can’t imagine how that would’ve actually worked out for her, as women of that time did not have the ability to own property on their own. She would’ve certainly struggled to get anyone else to marry her after giving birth to a child that appeared to not have a father.

It’s hard to fully understand what’s going on in the text from a twenty first century Christian perspective, but former Luther seminary New Testament Professor Arland J. Hultgren explains the context of their relationship a bit more clearly than is captured in simple translations of the text. He writes:

“Mary is said to be “engaged to Joseph” (1:18, NRSV), but the English word “engaged” hardly captures the meaning of the Greek word that it represents (mnesteuo). The variety of translations in some of the most widely known English versions show how translators have struggled to render the word appropriately. The RSV says that Mary “had been betrothed to Joseph.” The KJV says that she “was espoused to Joseph,” and the NIV says that she “was pledged to be married to Joseph.”

The problem with the word “engaged” (NRSV) is that an engagement can be broken off informally; there is no need for a legal action. But the situation of Mary and Joseph was more complicated than that. According to the custom of the day, there were two stages for a couple to go through in what can be called a marital process.

First came the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin), a marriage contract, typically arranged by the parents, that could be broken only by divorce (cf. 1: 19, where apoluo is used, rendered as “divorce” in the RSV and NIV; the NRSV has “dismiss”).

That was followed by a second step (Hebrew nissu’in) considerably later (sometimes a year later), often including a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. The verb paralambano (“to take”) in 1:20 and 1:24 can actually mean “to take home” one’s wife, thus referring to what happened after the second step. The drama of our text, however, takes place between the two events in the lives of this young couple. The first step had taken place; the second is in jeopardy.

Joseph’s reaction, when he hears that Mary is pregnant, is to suspect her of adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law.1 In light of that, Joseph “planned to dismiss [RSV: “divorce”] her quietly” (NRSV). It may seem surprising to many in our day that Joseph is called “righteous” as he contemplates divorcing Mary in her time of need (1:19), but the accent must surely be upon the clause saying that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” wanting to keep the whole matter quiet. Moreover, law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.”

Thank God, literally that Joseph took on this role as Jesus’ father, shaping all of human history by trusting the word of angels and of his wife, Mary.

And I think that is the message that Joseph’s narrative can have for us, that there is great value in being a background character in God’s great story. By looking for opportunities to trust God we can support God’s kingdom coming to fruition on earth as it is in heaven. Sometimes that looks like angels giving direct instruction, but more often than not it comes through trusting the direction God has given to others’ in our lives. We can support one another in the vocations God has given us, as we each endeavor to bear Christ into the world. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

“Are You the One?” Matthew 11:2-11; December 15, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Are You the One?”
Matthew 11:2-11
December 15, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Surprise!” It’s a common movie and tv trope, I’m sure you’ve seen it: a room full of people all prepared to surprise a guest of honor and then someone else comes in right before. And the moment is ruined, the good surprise used up. 

Reading our text this week a scene of a ruined surprise came to mind. John asks the question, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The messiah, after all, had been greatly anticipated. Not just for a few minutes of people crouched behind a couch ready to welcome a guest of honor, but for hundreds of years. And the people really didn’t want to be wasting the good welcome, the good celebration for some person who wasn’t the messiah.

Today is our Advent week of Joy, but unlike the other lectionary texts that highlight Mary’s Magnifcat, her song of great joy at learning she is to be the mother of Christ, this passage is much more tempered. It’s trying to decide if there’s something to be joyful about. It’s cautious, wary of getting too excited.

There is so much in this world that tempers our joy, environmental crisis, divisive politics, and social unrest. In this polarizing world, we are wary of that which doesn’t come right out and identify itself. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” We want salvation from everyday trivialities and from the overarching unrest of earthly existence.

The lectionary narrative this week takes us out of the manger scenes of the season and into John the Baptist’s prison cell and among Jesus and his disciples. It’s towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Right before this story Jesus is commissioning his twelve disciples and sending them out. So, while we’re in the season of celebrating the baby Jesus entering into the world, this text draws us forward to the adult Jesus’ entering into his ministry.

“Are you the one?” It’s a haunting question really. And one that it takes a certain level of gumption to ask. John wasn’t really known for being subtle. He’s described as some sort of unkempt man of the wilderness. He rolls into town preaching and prophesying, his radical nature landing him in jail.

“Are you the one?”It’s one thing for the question to be asked by those who don’t know Jesus or those who are new to his company of followers or by those who oppose Jesus and his teachings. But this question is asked by the one who perhaps had the most intimate knowledge of Jesus. From John’s first time in the presence of Jesus he seemed to react to his divinity, leaping in his mother’s womb.

Tricker still, this question was being asked second hand, as John himself was in prison and unable to ask. I’m not sure what disciple it was that was tasked with asking this question, but can picture those who had talked to John drawing straws to see which one of them would have to be the one to ask Jesus:” are you the one?”

I don’t know about you, but John specifically being the one to ask this question feels like the pressure being taken off a little. It makes it easier to be vulnerable with our own questioning when someone this in the know has doubts too. I can imagine the disciples breathing a sigh of relief that someone was willing to bring this up, at that it was one with such thorough knowledge of Jesus. I’d hazard to say, that as Christians, approaching our faith with our own questions showcases a vulnerability that invites others to be a bit more transparent with their own doubts too.

Jesus responds to John’s question by sharing accounts of the ways that the world has been changed in the wake of his coming. He says to that messenger disciple, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

This is not just a report of what’s transpired, it’s a reference to the prophecy that preceded Jesus. In Isaiah 35 we read, “Here is your God… He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

Our Advent wreath theme of the day is Joy, and while it is very present in Jesus’ account of what the world is like now that he has come and prophecy is being fulfilled at that very moment, John’s question holds joy at a distance, not wanting to jump in too soon, to be too excited if there’s still more waiting yet to come.

“Are you the one?” When we’re not one hundred percent assured that God’s Good News is good news for us, we can find ourselves asking that same question. Are you Jesus, the one that can transform our lives, our hearts? Or should we wait for another? There are so many idols of this world that can look like salvation when our joy is not fully rooted in Christ.

But salvation is not just meant to be personal, it’s meant to be for the whole world. So, while we might not always be able to identify how God is at work transforming our world and our lives specifically, Jesus’ list in this passage invites us to view these radical healings and transformations already taking place all around us. One of the greatest joys of being community, of being the Church universal is that the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just for us, but for all of us. Thanks be to God.

In this season, may we be willing to ask the difficult questions so that we can make way for Christ to be revealed in this world around us and received more authentically by all those who are awaiting his coming.

Amen.