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Choices and Consequences

“My mother,” Bill Moyers said, “used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over. If she meant the temptation to be test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked. I think of this when I hear the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence? Genesis confronts us with many tempting questions.”

Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch? Why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the garden? And, why did God draw attention to it by telling the man not to eat the fruit because on the day that he did, he would die? Who was the serpent anyway? Why did the woman eat the fruit then give it to the man. Why did the man accept it so passively? Finally, is this a lesson about the choices we make and their consequences?

So many questions to ask. Seemingly, so few answers to receive. However, I think there is a fundamental lesson resting, simply and plainly in this scripture, which becomes clear only when we compare the man and woman’s story with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You recall, the man and the woman are in the garden God has created as part of the whole of creation. God created the man and the woman for a purpose- a vocation. They are to keep and till the garden. They are to be God’s stewards of creation and exercise care and concern in preserving creation as God created and ordered it. God, also, created them to be companions for each other. They were to live together in a relationship of mutuality; helping each other, caring for the other and working with the other person. They will be a community together. There is no hierarchy or relationship of superior to inferior. Neither is more important than the other. They stand together as one. This is the vision of community no matter how many people reside in the community. All are to be one. Now, God gave them gifts for this vocation- food for their physical nourishment. They could eat the fruit of any tree of the garden. And, pleasure in their work. God, also empowered them for this task with the freedom to carry it out, and with authority over the rest of creation.

But there was a limit to their freedom and authority. For God told the man, “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat because on the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will die.”

Well, one day as the woman and the man are busy working in the garden, the serpent comes to the woman. Now the serpent is characterized as the craftiest of wild animals God created. However, being crafty does not necessarily only mean being sneaky, conniving, or diabolical. It does mean those things, yet it also means skillful, ingenious, or dexterous. So, the serpent can be deceitful or the serpent can be ingenious depending upon how the serpent chooses to use its crafty character.

On this particular day, the serpent asks, “Did God really say, ’you shall not from any tree in the garden?” A simple question. No hint of untoward motive on the part of the serpent. Just asking what God’s word was regarding the fruit of the trees. Actually, the serpent is really wondering how much freedom God has given to humans. What choices do they get to make if indeed they get to make any choices at all. A clever question because a yes or no response is impossible. By the way, just for the record, the serpent is asking both the man and the woman the question. The “You” in Hebrew is a plural, so both of them are asked the question. The man remains silent while the woman answers the question.

“We, “said the woman, “can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, except God said ‘you shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.”

Fairly straightforward answer. She does add a prohibition God did not give the man earlier, but the man may have added that to God’s word when he re-told the command. “Nope, can’t eat it or you’ll die. As a matter of fact you can’t even touch it. Touch it and you’ll die too.” We really don’t know where the extra bit of the command comes from, but the woman is pretty sure about the command and what it means and the man is too, since he remains silent.

“Did God really say that to you?” the serpent asks. “C’mon, you want the truth. You won’t die. God just said that because God knows when you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God. You’ll know what God knows. You’ll know about good and evil.”

Well, the serpent’s response jolts the man and woman’s reality. The seeds of doubt are sown just by the serpent’s words. The serpent doesn’t “do” anything, but ask a question and offer a different version of why God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit of that tree. I can almost hear the questions going back and forth between them. “We won’t die if we eat it? Can the serpent be telling us the truth? Why would God say such a thing if it wasn’t true? And, what’s this stuff about being like God. It’d be good to be like God. Look, at all that God can do! Does it just come from knowing good and evil? Will we see the world and ourselves as God does?  Does God not want us to be like God? Is God holding us back from realizing our true potential?”

The serpent seems to be telling the truth. Yet, is he? Is death only about physical death or is there a broader definition of death that they don’t know about? Has the serpent held out the possibility of something more for them? Something that will enable them to transcend who they are, where they are, and their limitations. “The serpent calls God a liar,” says Leon Kass, a professor of ethics, “and the serpent undermines God’s authority and offers what seems to be an exciting new possibility.”

While the woman and the man do not voice their questions or their ponderings out loud, we get an inkling of their thinking as the woman judges the fruits beauty, its goodness as food, and its desirability to make one wise. All of which combine to tell us they have decided to trust the serpent and their own decision making abilities rather than trusting God’s word and the boundaries and limitations God placed upon them.

Compare the woman and the man’s actions with Jesus’ actions in the wilderness. Just as with the man and woman, God had a purpose for Jesus. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to be Emanuel, “God with us.” And, God empowered Jesus for this vocation with the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  Then, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit before he begins his ministry. For forty days and nights Jesus fasts- a real Lent- and he is famished. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? It’s tough just to go a few hours without eating! But, Jesus does it for forty days and nights. He is famished and, perhaps, weak.

Enter the devil, in Greek the word is diabolos and comes from the verb to separate or to cause conflict. This is what diabolos, or Satan in Hebrew, is about doing. The goal is to separate human beings from God. So, here comes diabolos aka the Tempter with what Henri Nouwen calls the three compulsions of this world.

The first, to be relevant. “Hey, if you’re the Son of God turn these stones into loaves a bread. That’s what the people are expecting from the Messiah. C’mon, if you’re relay the Son of God it’ll be easy. C’mon, I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. C’mon turn the stones into loaves of bread. It’ll remind people about how God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. C’mon.”

Jesus simply says, “bread is not that important to life. One does not live only by eating bread and food, but has life by every word that comes from God’s mouth. God creates life by God’s word and I’m not here to do miracles for the sake of proving who I am. That’s not God’s purpose or plan for me.”

The Tempter comes back with the second compulsion, to be spectacular. “Okay! Well, lets see if you really trust God. Jump off the pinnacle here of the Temple and see if God sends down angels to catch you.  Remember scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

“Yes,” Jesus said, “But it is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Don’t see if God really will do what God promises to do. Realize that God’s promises are real promises and that God always does what God promises to do. That is what trusting God is about. And, God has given me a path to walk and I will be walking that path. I am to be obedient only to God’s will. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s. Only God’s.

Then, the Tempter retorts with the third compulsion, to be powerful. “Yeah, yeah. Look, I will give you all the power, wealth, and kingdoms on the entire earth. Everything you see here. All you have to do is bow down and worship me. That’s all. Do it and you get everything. Power. Wealth. Tower bildings made of gold. Kingdoms. Servants. The whole enchilada. Huh. Huh. Huh What d’ya say?”

“Away with you Satan!” Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only God.”

Jesus is tempted with the same temptation as the woman and the man, to be like God. “if you are the Son of God, “ says the devil, “then act like it. Use your power to create food, orchestrate a spectacular miracle, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” But, Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptations. Rather, he chooses to live as God has created him to live, doing what God has planned for him to do, and trusting God completely.  The man and the woman do not.

“You ask what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden, “said Marianne Thompson a professor of New Testament, “they fail to trust God-that what God says will happen, will happen, or that what God prohibits is for their own good.”

The man and woman try to reach beyond the limits of their creatureliness, to transcend creation, but they cannot. They have knowledge of good and evil, but it is knowledge limited by the contingency of human life. All we can know is the past and the present. We cannot accurately see into the future, nor do we completely comprehend the impact down the road for the choices we make today. The woman and the man didn’t know that their choice would lead to a death that is defined in Scripture as separation of persons from God. The breaking of their relationship with and their separation from God becomes a physical reality when they are expelled from the garden. Yet, they broke not only their relationship with God, but with each other as well. When God asks the man how he knows he is naked then tells him what he has done and God asks why he did it. The man blames the woman. “It’s not my fault, She gave it to me!” Then, the woman blames the serpent in turn. Both fail to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. As they blame each other, conflict ensues and their relationship is damaged. I doubt they saw all of these consequences coming from that one choice. But, how many of us do?

Test this out by any choice you have made at any point in your life. Look at the impact of choices you’ve made have had on your life. Look at the impact of choices made fifty years ago by chemical companies to dump waste into rivers and land such as at Love Canal in Niagara Falls or coal mining waste dumped into rivers and streams. We can’t know what God knows because we do not have God’s perspective on the entire created order. We can’t be like God, exercising God’s authority or claiming God’s wisdom because we are not God.

In resisting the temptation to be like God, Jesus countered every word of the tempter with a word of God. By doing this, he proved himself to be the Son of God and accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed upon him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “though Jesus was in form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The good news is Jesus’ victory over temptation provides us with hope that we, too can resist if we trust God and God’s word. Jesus’ example shows us the power of God’s word. The woman and the man’s downfall was trusting the tempter’s word as the basis for their choice and, thus, not trusting God’s word. But we must rely on the truth, the faithfulness of the word of God no matter what other voices declare it absurd or invalid. No matter what experiences urges us to doubt or presume on it.

Jesus’ victory over temptation gives us life beyond our bondage to sin and death. Because Jesus, Son of God, resisted the temptation to be like God, because he accepted being a servant, taking on himself our full humanity including all the burden of our sin and guilt, we are saved.

We still experience temptations and we still may sin. But through Christ we have the strength and the courage to be the people God created us to be, the people who are truly ourselves when we live in an intimate relationship with God and as a community of mutuality with each other.

As John Calvin writes, “We are God’s people; let us therefore live for God. We are God’s people; let God’s wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s people; let all parts of our life strive toward God as our only goal.” We are God’s people let us find our life and rest in God alone.

Words for the Wise

The light was so radiant and so bright it overwhelmed everything. No longer were the tops of the other mountains or the valleys stretching out from the mountain visible. Even the dark brown ground and rocks and crags were hidden from sight as the entire mountaintop was bathed in warm radiance.

The light shone with an intensity the three of them had never known before in their lives transforming the dull cloth of Jesus’ clothing a dazzling white that was sparkling like diamonds sending shoots of light all around him. Even transforming his face into an iridescent glow.

Then, in the middle of this wondrous light Moses and Elijah appeared! And, they were speaking with Jesus! Here were the two advocates for Torah and the covenant. Here were the two prophets from old. The prophets the people rejected, but whom God vindicated. The prophets who performed miracles and who had been taken up into the transcendent glory of God! Here were Moses and Elijah who had both spoken to God on Mountaintops. Who had been in the presence of the Lord of the universe, the creator of life and had spoken to God directly just as they were now speaking to Jesus directly. This was not simply an echo of the Exodus and the still small voice on the mountain; it was the continuing conversation with God.

“It is true,” they thought. “Jesus is God with us. He is the fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets. He really did not come to abolish Torah and the prophets, but he came to bring all of scripture to fulfillment.” He is the Messiah just as Peter had blurted out six days before on a mountaintop outside of Caesarea Philippi, the ancient city twenty miles or so north of the Sea of Galilee that is ringed by idols in the hills and grottos. It was there Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” And, Peter got it right, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Peter was excited when Jesus affirmed Peter’s answer and said Peter was the rock upon whom Jesus was going to build his community of followers. But, when Jesus said he must go to suffer and die and be raised on the third day all Peter heard was suffer and die. “No, you can’t. May God not allow that to happen!” Peter said as he took Jesus aside. “It really was,” as one theologian notes, “only human that the disciples in their minds thought what Peter blurted out. They began looking for alternatives to what Jesus said was going to happen. They became desperate for a second opinion, a way to stop time,” a way to stop the journey to Jerusalem. But, Jesus had rebuked Peter sharply calling him “Satan.” The name of one who had tried tempting Jesus in the wilderness to turn away from God. Satan came to Jesus after Jesus had fasted for forty days in the wilderness-an echo of the flood and the exodus- and at the time Satan thought Jesus might be ripe for the temptation of turning away from God for food, for power and wealth, or at least being willing to doubt God’s faithfulness and promises of salvation and life by putting God to the test in the act of jumping off the highest pinnacle of the Temple. But at the Caesarea Philippi grotto it was Peter who was tempting Jesus to be unfaithful to God by refusing to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die and be raised on the third day. The inevitability of the cross at the end of Lent weighs heavily on the disciples just as it does on us. The cross seems too horrific, too difficult, too harsh to be part of theirs’ and our deep reflection on our relationship with God.

Except, that now in this moment when the radiant light was washing over him and the two other disciples, Peter thinks he has finally gotten it. Now, is the age of God’s glory, the kingdom of God has now come! The life of toil, sin, pain and death has passed. “Lord,” Peter exclaims,” it is good for us to be here, if you wish I will make three booths, three tabernacles, here. One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” The words declaring the desire to build a sanctuary away from the world, away from the heartache, the stories of loss in mundane human lives, the suffering friends,  the child who is ill, the career that has fallen apart, the relationship that seems beyond healing and the pondering about whether we dare risk the price of weeping and suffering, celebration and surprise when life is somehow redeemed or choose distance and an emotional fortress designed to keep sorrow at bay by also keeping joy at bay.

The words were no sooner off his lips than a great cloud of light and rumbling sounds overshadowed them like the Shekinah, the presence of the Lord, resting on the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, and the great cloud that enveloped Moses on Sinai. Then, they heard the same voice Moses had heard and the same voice Elijah had heard on their mountaintop experiences. It is the same voice repeating now, as at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Filled with awe and fear Peter, James, and John fell to the ground. Maybe Peter’s excitement had gotten the best of him again. Maybe he had tried to confine God’s kingdom to the narrow thirty feet of this mountaintop. Maybe Peter is a reminder to us to be wary of those who tell us being a follower Christ is easy and care free. Those who are like the Rev. Terry Cole Whittaker, the fifty something former Mrs. California, who preaches every Sunday in front of thousands of people in huge convention center in San Diego and to thousands more on television stations around the country the gospel of prosperity based upon her book, “How to have more in a have-not world.” “You can have exactly what you want, when you want it, all the time,” she teaches. “Affluence is your right!” For a donation of $25 or more she will send you a “prosperity kit” consisting of a cassette tape, booklet, and a bumper sticker, all designed to enhance your awareness of abundance. “I consider myself, “she declares, “the spokesman for the spirituality of the New Age. Heaven is a cinch! You can have it all, now!”

Whatever it was, the words of the Lord were still ringing in their ears “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

They were the words Isaiah spoke about God’s servant who was going to suffer because he faithfully and obediently lived God’s justice, kindness, and love. Because he will take upon himself all our iniquities, the consequences of all our sins, suffering for us to redeem us.  Perhaps, that was what Jesus was telling them six days before. He is God’s suffering servant. Maybe that’s what God meant by saying, Listen to him!” Listen to him because as C. S. Lewis writes the final word from Aslan in the “Silver Chair,” Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly, I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear, as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Perhaps, God is preparing them to for the time when they will go back down the mountain into the valley where life is lived each day and where Jesus will walk to Jerusalem and to the cross. Maybe that is why we need to remember that the word “listen” in Hebrew is “Shema” and means not only to hear the words being spoken, but it also means “obey the words you hear being spoken.” Live those words every day! Let them be words to the wise, words for the wise.

So, what had Jesus been saying? Blessed are those who are poor-who admit they are dependent upon God for their life and are grateful to God for life. Blessed are those who work for peace-not just to end violence, but who strive to eradicate violence and hatred like the dread disease smallpox that no longer exists. Blessed are those who mourn-who share in and lament the suffering of others. Blessed are those who are humble and who are gentle-who seek to influence without coercion, rather influencing others through self-giving love. Blessed are those who are as persecuted and reviled as Jesus himself is because they are being as faithful and obedient to God as Jesus.

But, that is not all Jesus had said. For Jesus also said, that the one who is great will be servant of all. That the first will be last. That any person who wants to follow Jesus will deny themselves-will not be ego and self-centered, but will be God-centered. They will pick up a cross and follow Jesus. That the one who seeks to save their life as the wisdom of the world says is the way to save your life through owning all the latest toys, by engaging in the latest fad, by going after wealth, success, power, status, celebrity will lose their life in the desert of emptiness and meaninglessness. While those who lose their life for the sake of God, will have life because just as God vindicated the prophets, so too will God vindicate Jesus in his resurrection and vindicate all of us in ours.

What else was Jesus saying? Welcome the little children. From the street children of Buenos Ares or the migrant children living in Livingston, Monroe, Wayne and Ontario Counties to the street gangs in some 4800 American cities, towns, and villages. From the children kidnapped and trained to kill other children in Zambia or those who are sold into slavery by poverty-stricken parents to those orphaned by tsunamis, the AIDS pandemic, or by earthquakes in Haiti, Africa, New Zealand, or Australia. From those who had used alcohol and drugs to blot out years of abuse to those who live in abundance, but who still do self-destructive acts. Welcome all the children. No matter whom they are, where they are from, what they look like, dress like, or talk like. Feed them, clothe them, care for them when you see them lying on the side of the road bruised and bleeding. Be compassionate, be forgiving, be patient, and be loving. For there are no barriers, there are no walls; there are no distinctions that can possibly separate God’s children from each other because God loves all equally and unconditionally.

What else will Jesus be saying? More and more about being students learning to be faithful and obedient to God by learning to serve each other as they follow Jesus. Jesus who is the focus of their faith.  Jesus who offers the new model of faith that is, “the circle where God lives in full solidarity with people and people with one another.” Jesus who comes to give us all a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, and a new body.” Shema! Hear him! Listen to him! Obey him! Let Jesus transform you into a wondrous light shining so brightly it makes the incarnate God real in the everyday, ordinary, mundane lives of all humanity for that is where God is truly with us, within us.

Bob Diehl was on his way up the corporate ladder in New York City. He knew where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there.

“I was determined,” he said, “to make a lot of money and be president of a corporation.” He saw his future clearly. Knew every step to take along the path he was walking. He clearly knew who he was, what he thought about himself and his family, his place in the world, and the way life was supposed to be.

Then, as that wonderful theologian John Lennon said, “real life got in the way while he was making other plans” because suddenly and unexpectedly he was caught by the challenge of the mysterious and uncertain call to “drop his nets and follow Jesus.”

“I was a good Catholic,” he said, “which meant I went to mass on Sunday mornings.” But as he got closer to the top of the corporate ladder, “the more I realized that to play the corporate game I had to play meant giving up my faith. It was then; I realized God was calling me to change the direction of my life.”

Calling he and his wife to leave their suburban lifestyle with all the trappings of big and expensive house, two cars, the technological gadgets and recreational toys to begin a journey like the one Peter, Andrew, James and John began one early morning on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The mist of the early morning had dissolved in the brightness of the early morning and Zebedee, a fisherman of no great importance, sat on the deck of his boat with his two sons James and John. The fishing was done for the day. The catch of fish had been taken to market. Now, they were sitting on the deck of the boat that was resting at ease on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and they were tending to the busyness of mending their nets, planning the next morning’s fishing when a voice from the shore calls.

“James! John! Sons of Zebedee! Come. Follow me! And, I will make you fishers of men and woman.”

Without a word, James and John drop their nets to join Jesus and Peter and Andrew.

Now, I wonder what Zebedee thought about this because when I finally realized God was calling me to pastoral ministry and I was about to enter seminary, I called my Dad, who was living in California. I said, “Dad, I am going to seminary to become a minister.” Silence. Absolute silence. It had taken me forty-six years, but I finally made the old man speechless. So, I wonder what Zebedee felt when his two sons dropped their nets. What did he think? What would he have said?

Might he have said, “You know, I heard the voice calling, “James! John!” but, I didn’t know who it was. I just saw a young man accompanied by two other men I recognized as the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. I only later learned his name is Jesus. Well, John and James dropped their nets in mid-mend. Just like that. They drop their mending hooks, hemp strands, climb off the boat to join that young man. No good-bye. No, “Shalom, Poppa.” They do not even ask if they could leave. They just drop their work. I was stunned. Of course, my sons are known to be hot heads, the kind of men who act first and think later, but never had they just left in the middle of doing their work. Yet, this Jesus summons them to follow him and they obey immediately. I was stunned. They never obeyed me like that. Later, I heard Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were in the midst of fishing when this Jesus called them, “Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men and women.”

They, too, just dropped their nets and left their boat. They did not even stop to fold their nets or give their boat to someone for safekeeping. No! Jesus calls; they drop their nets, and go off to who knows where and doing who knows what. He just barges into their lives like with my sons. My sons were not thinking about following this Jesus. They were not thinking about changing their lives all around.  That was the farthest thing from their minds. We were talking about the fishing, the nets, our family, and when they would inherit the boat when Jesus intrudes into our lives, disrupting everything, and changing everything with his, “Come follow me.”

Of course, that’s how God calls people. He intrudes in people’s lives without asking their permission. He disrupts their neatly laid plans and the way they think the world works. Think about Abraham and Sarah. I doubt they were planning to leave Ur and everything including their family to wander around until God told them to stop. Moses wasn’t planning to return to Egypt. David was a child watching his father’s sheep. Every Prophet from Elisha to Malachi was just living their lives when God showed up to call them to prophetic ministry. Mary was doing household chores like the good Jewish girl she was when Gabriel showed up saying, “Greetings, favored one!” Even Joseph was simply sleeping when he received the call to name Jesus.

So, it really makes perfect sense for Jesus to just show up with his” come follow me” not as a question or a request, rather as an invitation to begin a journey without really knowing exactly the destination or all that will be required of a person. After all, Jesus is God with us. Why wouldn’t he do a very God kind of thing?

Now, Peter, Andrew, John and James had no idea where they were going or what exactly they were going to be doing by following Jesus. They probably didn’t know any better than we do what being a fisher of men really meant. However, they would soon learn what Jesus was calling them to do as they followed him throughout Galilee. Going to Capernaum by the sea then down to Mt. Carmel and then around Gilead. Tracing the outline of the ancient tribal lands of Zebulon and Naphtali, lands lost and people lost when Assyria conquered the land and scattered the people in exile like blades of grass blown far and wide by the wind, they would witness words of the prophet Isaiah coming true, “In the former times he brought into contempt the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A people who lived in deep darkness on them light has shined.”  These first disciples of Jesus they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They were part of those people who lived in darkness until the light of Christ came to shine upon them and that light was calling them to choose to change by following Jesus.

You see, as they witnessed with their eyes Jesus’ healing and witnessed with their ears Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, they were experiencing directly all of God’s promises that Isaiah prophesied, “You have multiplied the nation, and you have increased its joy. They rejoice before you with joy at the harvest, for the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. See, a child has been born to us, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

As they saw Jesus healing every disease, every sickness and every affliction what they were experiencing was a foretaste of the pouring out of God’s steadfast love and mercy that all people of the world would receive on the day of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the resurrection.

And, what they would learn on the journey with Jesus was that Jesus was calling them to not only drop their nets and be eye witnesses and ear witnesses to the coming reality of what Isaiah said, “Once a people walked in darkness, dwelled in a land of deep darkness, but the people have seen a great light;” the great light of God’s endless peace, justice and righteousness, but Jesus was calling them to participate in this new thing God was doing. Calling them to cast out their nets woven together of the good news of God’s grace and be part of God’s gathering all people of the world into the new life of God’s kingdom through Jesus the Christ because it is in God’s kingdom where the whole community of humanity’s life would be sustained, where every human community would discover its well-being. That’s what Jesus meant when he said and I’ll teach you to be fishers of men and women because God’s gathering of people into the community of God’s people would come through their discipleship and through actions as God’s servants. They left their nets behind them along with families and friends and their settled seemingly predictable lives to learn from Jesus how to serve God’s plans for humanity and not their own plans, their own ambitions, their own bias or their own desires.

As a matter of fact, one of the most important lessons they had to learn was to trust God and not to look back about all the changes that were happening to them. It was a little like climbing a mountain. One of the first things experienced mountain climbers tell people is” don’t look down” as Kari Myers writes it,” because when you have a long way to fall then your attention is focused on falling and fear grasps hold of you and all you can think about are all the problems and barriers to climbing the mountain. That happens to individuals and it happens to congregations. We can always come up with a list of substantial reasons why we cannot overcome the challenges God sets before us. Sometimes it’s too hard, too big, too complicated, too unmanageable, too new, and uncertain, unproven. Yet, it really isn’t about how high the mountain is or how weak the climber is. Rather, it is about God and it is about the disciples realizing that when they focus on God and going where Jesus is leading then they could do whatever God in Christ is calling them to do.

The second lesson they had to learn was that being God’s servant meant serving others and recognizing that, “as Barbara De Grote Sorenson and David Allen Sorenson tells us, “that servant hood is a gift of grace God gives to those who are givers to heal us of our sinfulness, our self-centeredness, our self-preoccupation, and selfishness” so we might sustain and promote the well-being of others without worrying about rewards or what we get out of it. Because, we know as lesson one reminds us that we trust God’s generosity. After all God is the one who gave us life in the first place.

Finally, the disciples had to learn that in every generation God is calling men, women, old and young alike to “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.

Indeed, Jesus called all of us. Oh, it may sound like a tiny voice calling you to get up out of bed  and go to worship or shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk after a snowfall or maybe it was a deep, unnamed feeling that told you that you needed to be focused on God’s agenda for humanity; or it may have been Jesus calling you through the voice of your mother, your father, your wife, your husband, your child, or simply the rhythm of life telling you today is the Sabbath, the resting time of God’s Kairos time, but it was Jesus calling you.

And, just to be clear, Jesus will be continuing to call all of you. Intruding into your life. Disrupting your neatly laid plans. Calling each of you to take a journey whose destination is not exactly known, to participate in a ministry that is the new thing God is doing now in your midst, which in this moment remains a mystery, somewhat uncertain and may when it is known make you or others speechless.

It might be as advocates for food justice or immigration justice for farm workers and farmers alike. It might be becoming a healing center for those suffering from moral injury and Post Traumatic Stress or being advocates for better access to mental health treatments.

It might be…. anything. But, it will be a ministry that will gather people together in community to sustain and promote the well being of this community and the whole community of God’s people around the world.

The only real question all of us need answer is, will we drop our nets and follow Christ?

The Big Call

“I’ve heard your anguish, I’ve heard your hearts cry out,

’ we are tired, we are weary and we are torn out,’

set down your chains until only faith remains,

set down your chains and lend your voices only to the sounds of freedom,

no longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Fill your lives with love and bravery and we shall lead a life uncommon,” these song lyrics written by Jewell remind us God calls us to an expansive, deep, commitment in a life where humanity’s imagination is beckoned to embrace a vision of the possibilities for a vibrant, thriving community life far different than the fear based life so many people feel trapped within,

This life begins with the risen Christ coming to quicken, to bring alive, a festival of eternal springtime in the innermost heart of humanity,” Brother Roger of Taize wrote in 1970, “Christ is preparing for us a springtime of the Church-a Church devoid of the means of power, ready to share with all persons a place of visible communion. Christ is going to give us enough imagination and courage to open up a way of reconciliation, of unity. Christ is going to prepare us to give our lives so that one person will no longer be the victim of another person.”

A life uncommon is the vision Paul is writing the house churches of Corinth to embrace as God’s call filled with immense possibilities that go beyond the little, trivial status seeking, having arrived self assured, individualistic salvation sometimes articulated as ”I have my Jesus, my salvation, my ticket to heaven is punched, so don’t bother me about some commitment to the world, to other people.” This was, of course, part of the Corinthian church’s conflict fueled by spiritual arrogance, attachment to a charismatic-celebrity teacher, wanting everyone to be like minded, and the misconceptions about why they existed as a community of faith in the first place.

Now, private faith in a personal future is more comforting and marketable as so many television preachers from Tammy Faye Bakker to Joel Osteen have discovered, however such faith has little to do with the hope Jesus came to bring and doesn’t really spell good news for the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the left out. Not only that, but such individualism is unbiblical because God is not focused on saving one person, God aims to save all the people, to transform the whole of humanity. But more importantly, such a private faith is simply too small, too shallow to be the call of the God, who makes mountains rise up from the seas, who makes deserts into an oasis, who turns the cries of mourning into giggling laughter, whose way of creating human life is the image for how creation itself was created in the beginning and is being created even in this very moment.

Which is why, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians toward this life uncommon by beginning this letter with his call to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul asserts his call to this ministry is not by his choosing. This wasn’t his desire. Remember Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was a persecutor of the church because his understanding of who God was, and is as well as how God intended the life of God’s people to be lived did not include Jesus as messiah. However, God had other plans for Paul, plans that began on the road to Damascus. Plans sending Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles and a church planter in places like Thessalonica and Corinth. This wasn’t Paul’s plan for his life, it was God’s plan for Paul’s life and, by the way, it wasn’t so Paul could be rich and famous, a celebrity of the church because if you sent Paul’s resume out to any church, including this one he’d never get called to be a pastor. Indeed, there is a story about a church that received Paul’s resume when they were searching for a pastor and they even rejected Paul. I know Paul is telling the truth because if you asked anyone I went to high school with if they thought I’d be a pastor; they’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Indeed, it took me years before I really thought God might be calling me to ministry.

The point is that Paul was called by God to be Christ’s apostle just as the house congregations of Corinth were gathered together by God and called by God to witness by their lives to God’s grace in Christ-together with ALL those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. The ALL are not simply those in Corinth, they are every Christian community from Jerusalem to Ethiopia to India to Pakistan to Rome to Spain to the Slavic tribes of Central Asia to China and Korea. God’s community of faith is not limited to any one congregation in any one place, rather God’s community stretches north, south, east, west and all the way to the ends of the earth and every community of faith has all the knowledge, the ability to speak and witness to the gospel, all the spiritual gifts it needs to be God’s people. It is by God’s acts in Jesus Christ that the Christian church exists at all.

Which is the reason, the church of Jesus Christ is so much larger than just one congregation in one city or town or village or denomination, which ought to make us more aware that American Christianity is growing in amazing, yet hidden ways. For decades, we have heard that Christian churches in America are declining, so we need to work to get stores to have Christmas sales, we need the ten commandments carved into the stones of our public buildings, and we need have government sanctioned prayer in schools otherwise we’ll stop being a predominately Christian nation-if we ever really were one in the first place. What nonsense!

Yes the mainline Protestant churches’ membership have been declining, however the truth is captured in this tidbit of information. There were 200 churches in the city of Boston in 1970, but thirty years later there were 412 churches. From 2001 to 2006, 98 new churches were planted in Boston. Does this sound like decline? Of course not, but here is the important part of the story. Most of these “new” churches were immigrant or multiethnic congregations of Asian, Haitian Creole, Hispanic and other immigrant peoples. It is true that mainline, ethnically northern European congregations declined, but God’s church, the church of Jesus Christ wasn’t declining. It was growing!!! It is becoming more diverse because it is reaching to the ends of the earth and ALL those who call on the name of Jesus are called to be Christ’s body because as Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote her Carmelite sisters, “Christ has no body now on earth, but yours, no hands, but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing well; yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless men and women now.”  This is what some call an incarnational theology-the idea we are to be Christ to the world by fully embracing  and embodying God’s love for the world, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies,” as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian churches.

This is the life uncommon God calls every person to embrace, yet it is a life that can at times make one feel tired and worn out as the prophet Isaiah speaks about. This servant experiences this call from God beginning when God was creating and forming this person in the womb to the moment when the servant was tired and worn out as though he has done everything he could do, everything God called him to do, and still his efforts have not borne the fruit he desired. This servant in whom God was to be glorified had momentarily forgotten one thing, it wasn’t up to him to make his efforts bear fruit, God would do that.

Quite honestly, this is a common mistake. It is made every time church folks say, “we’re bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment or we’re bringing God to this city” as if God’s kingdom weren’t already here, as if God was late because JetBlue grounded the flight due to weather. However, it is a serious concern as one young, high school woman told Rodger Nishioka several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do campaign was at peak. She had been given a bracelet with the WWJD on it, as Rodger tells the story, and she fully understood it was to be reminder that we follow Jesus and that we are to be guided by Jesus’ actions in every facet of our lives. Her problem, she said, was that she didn’t see how it was possible to know what Jesus would actually do, let alone do it faithfully because as she said, somewhat exasperated by being reminded that we have scriptures and a wide community of believers to help us, “yeah, but don’t you see! I’m not Jesus I am fully human, but I am not fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God.”

And, she has a point. None of us are God. None of us are Jesus and for sure, even those of us we have received Master of Divinity degrees are not really Masters of the Divine. Yes, what we are really to be doing is living lives that embody Christ and to love the world as God loves the world, but we must understand the world will not be saved by what I do or what you do.

Rather, it will be saved by what God has done, is doing and continues to do in the world around us and for the world through us by being present with us, strengthening us when we need the strength to, like the servant in Isaiah, keep on keeping on being those whose lives point other people to Christ like John the Baptist, who calls people to see Jesus Christ, to see God at work in the world by saying, “Hey look, God is alive, God is in our midst. Behold the Lamb of God .Behold, the Holy Spirit is weaving among us and within us, transforming circumstance and people,” for a life uncommon.

A life that is a festival of eternal springtime here and now lived in the visible communion of the whole humanity, whose voices sing songs of freedom and who lend their strength only to living into the expansive possibilities of God’s call setting them free to live lives filled with love and bravery.

 

Water Borne Grace

Water. Simple. Common.

We are surrounded by water in the lakes, the rivers, in the snow visible on lawns and along sidewalks and roads, in the water that comes rushing out of our faucets at the flick of wrist and in the. water covering more of the earth’s surface than land.

Indeed, there is enough water on the earth to cover the entire United States to a depth measured in miles and water makes up between 50-90% of the body weight of every living organism. Human anatomy textbooks tell us we can live longer without food than we can without water because water is in every cell of every organ in our bodies and our cells and organs cannot function without water and the same is true for all living organisms. We cannot grow food or grass without water, just ask the Texas and California farmers who have suffered from years long drought, the folks in Atlanta who watched their reservoirs dry up several years ago, or folks living in Flint, Michigan.

Of course, water has other uses. We clean our clothes, cars, and our dishes with water. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries water powered many of the industrial machines and ocean liners as well as being part of a national transportation network that included the Erie Canal.

Water is simple. It is common.

Yet, water becomes much more when it is poured into or baptismal font. For in this font our simple and common water is transformed into the waters of creation, the flood, the Red Sea, and the Jordan River.

When I hold an infant in my arms and I take water from here and splash it on the child, the water is transformed into the gift of God’s grace that comes to us without our having to do anything to earn it or deserve it. God just gives it to us freely, without any conditions being placed upon it because like the infant in my arms we simply receive this magnificent gift of God’s love. In this water borne love we are claimed by God to be one of God’s own beloved for the entirety of our lives as if saying, “You are God’s beloved child deserving love and respect just because you are you.”

When an adult stands next to the font and I take water and splash it on her head, the water is still transformed into the gift of God’s amazing love, but that person’s past is also washed away, it no longer exists, it is dead and it is buried in a tomb. She is liberated by God to live her life confident that all of God’s promises of an abundant, vibrant life are hers. She is a new creation and may begin writing her life story anew, writing it with the freshness and the joy that comes every time new life springs forth.

All of this happens on the day Jesus wades into the waters of the Jordan River, the waters John used to symbolically wash clean those who chose to turn their life around. Who chose to say, “I don’t want to live my life the way I have been living it. I want a different life. I want a new life with God and God’s people.” The same waters their ancestors crossed through to claim the land and life God promised them both in exodus and exile. A promise affirmed by God declaring, “I am your God and you are my people, my people who will show the rest of humanity what living in shalom looks like when lived fully.”

The people John baptized were assured of that same new life with God and God’s people because Jesus waded into the same water they had waded into and just as John baptized them, so too did John baptize Jesus. Not because Jesus needed to repent, rather because God chose to live in solidarity with all humanity by sharing the entirety of our lives with us. Experiencing all we experience.

That is what God was doing through Jesus from the moment of his birth to ordinary folks like Joseph and Mary in the everyday. common surroundings of a barn witnessed by ordinary folks like the shepherds and villagers of Bethlehem to the day Jesus wades in the water and is baptized.

Yet, God, also, came to be with us to write humanity’s life story anew. To move humanity away from the life of a world that hungers for more whether that is more profits, more body surgery, more cosmetics, more cars, more beer, more sex, more certitude, more security, more power, more oil, or more of whatever is the latest and greatest shiny, new thing, acquiring it and possessing it through coercion, hate, trickery, or game-rigging mechanisms without compassion or concern for others lower in the social hierarchy. You see, God comes to be with us to move humanity toward a righteous life, which is the point of Jesus saying “so we might fulfill all righteousness.” However, being righteous gets kind of a bad rap because the centuries long stereotype of a righteous person is being self-righteous, which deludes a person into thinking they are morally superior and, perhaps the arbiter of everyone else’s morality, as if they are themselves God and so end up in the idolatry of worshipping themselves. By the way, one of the essentials of reformed theology is sin.  Specifically, the sin the reformers were concerned about was idolatry. Indeed, this stereotype is so old that Christians in the second century told the joke about how when Jesus released everyone from hell, the devil wept, until Jesus said, “don’t worry when the self-righteous start dying, the place will be filled up again.”

 What is really meant biblically by righteous is the harmony between faith and acts of daily living that are aligned with the consistent and normative actions of God, which promote wholeness, well being and life for everyone. Being righteous means integrating into a whole, complete self our inner spiritual life with our outer acts of living, reflecting God’s intentions for all humans and human communities as well as the rest of creation.

The first chapter of this new story is written in Jesus’ birth when the world through the Magi’s willingness to follow God’s sign of a star came to a manger to acknowledge Jesus is Lord of life. The second chapter began being written when Jesus rose from the waters and the Spirit of God rested upon him and God declared, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.” In this moment, we witness Jesus’ identity being clearly articulated publicly to everyone who was present on that day in the river, along the bank of the river and everyone who reads this gospel. But, that’s also when God claimed everyone who shares the waters of Christ, this water, to be God’s own beloved sons and daughters. Here is the moment when God says to all who share in this water, “You are God’s beloved child and you deserve love and respect because you are you, created in the image of God.” This is the moment our identity is clearly articulated publicly, in front of everyone present in the sanctuary of our baptism.

But, that isn’t all because in the aftermath of that moment Jesus goes out into the wilderness of temptation as the prelude to the daily living of who he is and what he is here to do as a righteous person that is spelled out in his actions and his words, most notably in Matthew chapters 5-7 or what we call the sermon on the mount. And, when Jesus calls disciples to “follow me” he is calling everyone whose identity is God’s beloved son or daughter to join in doing what he is doing because the second half of that identity piece is, “God will use me and you to change the world” by all of us being righteous persons joining in doing Missio Dei- the mission of God.

However, God won’t force us to be righteous persons, rather God invites and persuades us to choose to be righteous persons pursuing Missio-Dei. We need to actively choose to do this. It won’t happen by luck, by a series of fortuitous moments linked together, nor by us standing around complaining or whining about the state of the world or our lives. We must actively choose to do this. But here’s the thing to remember, every person, including all of us, has a life story they are writing, not only with words on paper, but through spoken words, actions, decisions, and all the experiences that come from our choices and we have the power to choose how our life story will turn out by choosing whether our inner spiritual life and our outer active life are an integrated whole.

Each one of us has the same power to choose today to trust God’s goodness, mercy, steadfast self-giving love and presence by serving God’s mission of restorative justice, of freeing those kept in bondage whether it is economic, lack of access to education, not having food sovereignty, lack of quality health care or tyrannical oppression, of valuing all life and seeking ways to nurture and promote an abundant life for all, of being the light that breaks through darkness, so other people may reach out for the light of God and in that light find the fullness and the life of shalom God desires for every person.

This will not guarantee that we will know exactly how our lives will go in each present moment because we are living our life as God’s beloved son or daughter joining God in changing the world day by day and writing our life story word by word, choice by choice and action by action and we may still experience pain, disease, sorrow \and suffering, but we will be able to live through those moments assured that God’s promises of life are for us and for our children and their children’s children. This confidence and strength comes to us in the simple, common water that Jesus transformed for all eternity into the grace that is always with us, all around us, bathing us in the life creating love of God.

Praise the Creator of Life

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

All creation from the highest heaven to the deepest seas raises a chorus of praise for God. Brothers sun, wind and air, Sisters moon, stars, and water, rocks and the hills lift up a strong united voice singing praise to the Lord.  All you great diversity of people over the earth from the rich to the poor, the presidents and prime ministers to citizens who vote, farmers and factory workers to doctors and lawyers, men and women, adults and children raise your voices in songs of God’s praise.

The singer of this psalm invites, “All creation be partners in this song! Praise the Lord!” This invitation is an imperative cry. It is strong and exuberant and loud and demanding! It is a cry that cannot be ignored because there are more important things to do. It is a cry that demands not just a simple, “God is great. God is good.” singsong response or a whispering kind of “God is good.”

It is a cry demanding a strong, exuberant, joy filled, shouting, glad, demanding, happy, celebrating, clap your hands, stomp your feet, “God is good! All the time! God is good! All the time!” response. It is a cry to join in an act that is equally poetic and audacious as it is self-abandoning and subversive.

It is a cry that reminds creation that God took a deep, dark, formless void, a hajata tohu vohu, and brought order, light and shape to it. God took a place where life was not and was not possible, then created a place where life exists and where life not only flourishes, it is sustainable. God created by life by speaking life into being by God’s Word. Each day God spoke life, order, shape came into being. First light for day and dark for night. Second, oceans and sky. Third, dry land called earth. At the same time seas and oceans were given boundaries. Then, fruit trees and all other trees and green plants were brought to life. Fourth, sun in the sky for day and the moon and stars for night were given their reason for being. Together, their movements in the sky would be signs for days, weeks, years. For the changing seasons. Fifth, fish and all the other creatures living in the waters were given life. Then birds flying in the air receive life. Sixth, wild and domestic animals and all the creeping things receive life. Then, human kind, men and women, are created in God’s image and likeness and given their purpose. They are to be stewards of God’s creation by relating and exercising dominion of creation in the way God does; as a servant. Seventh, God rests. Creation is whole and complete, so God rests and by resting, God set within creation’s time God’s rhythm of work and rest.

Where there was only formlessness, God created a complex, highly textured, intricate woven tapestry of a dynamic, organic life containing within it the fingerprints of God’s creative touch from the largest mountains and deepest oceans to the minutest sub-atomic particles.

What also becomes clear in our remembrance of how God creates life is the relationship between humanity and land, people and place. Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, makes this point clear in his essay “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” when he writes, “we must not speak or think of the land alone or the people alone, but always and only both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.” Berry continues to point out how the destructiveness of driving or encouraging people to leave the land in favor of an industrialized life of being consumers instead of being producers, where one has a “Job,” but not a vocational calling or a vocational choice is destroying local communities and local economies. Because,  when a people move to find the “job” to earn the money to buy what one does not produce, they fail to live in a community of mutual usefulness. That place where small store owners know their patrons, skilled craftsman are known by the quality of their work and where farmers grow crops for subsistence and for sale locally because people live in their home counties where they not only know the people going back  generations, but also know the names of all the trees in the forests near them. People were rooted to the land and to the people. Industrialization in all of its forms creates “jobs,” but it also creates the destruction of mutually useful and mutually supportive communities by making people able to be exploited by corporations with wealth and power or to be discarded when the “job” the economy falters or when a machine can perform their jobs.

In our remembrance of how God creates life and how the industrialization of life prompts the need to save both people and the creation in order to save the fragile relationships of mutuality inherent in both, we hear the psalmist’s imperative cry to “Praise the Lord!” as more than a call to exclaim and celebrate our wonderment and awe at God’s creative act. Rather, his loud and demanding cry calls us to speak about God. To describe how our ancestors and we have experienced God’s presence as the key to living into our future.

We speak about God by telling what God has done. We speak about creation because it tells us that God seeks relationships of mutuality defined best by Martin Luther King, Jr. as ”I can never fully be who I ought to be unless you are fully who you are to be.”

We speak about God’s call to Abram, the giving of a child to Sarah and Abram in their old age, the deliverance of the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, the Hebrews being brought to the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they tell us that God keeps God’s promises and God’s promises are about life.

We speak about the Hebrews being fed manna and quail and water in the desert, God sending prophet after prophet to the people Israel, the bringing of Israel out of exile and back to the promised land, the promise of a Messiah bringing justice and peace because they tell us that God is faithful to the relationship with us despite our unfaithfulness.

We speak about God coming to be with us in the midst of creation as a child born in the humblest and unexpected of places, of the healing ministry of Jesus the Christ, of the self-giving love Jesus lived in his relationships with other persons and taught us was God’s way, of Jesus’ willingness to die on a cross for our sakes, of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it brings into our lives because they tell us God is merciful and forgiving, seeking to reconcile our broken relationship with God by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves-namely bearing the burden and the consequences of the guilt and shame of our sins that break apart all our relationships. And doing this because God loves us with a love that is the full expression of mutuality. A love we can never be separated from no matter the place, time, or circumstance because not even death can separate us from God’s love.

We speak about how God spoke through an angel to Joseph telling him to get up and take his family to Egypt, so they will be safe and far away from Herod’s murder of thousands of innocent children, about how when we felt confused and lost the Holy Spirit led us out of our confusion to the place we belonged, about the time we were alone and weeping tears of grief and God sat beside us and rocked us in God’s loving embrace because in speaking about these times we witness that God is present to protect us, to lead us, to comfort us, to touch us, and to transform our lives by God’s grace and power.

Our exuberant, shouting, celebrating, songs of praise speak of God’s presence, God’s reliability, God’s steadfast and self-giving love, God’s mercy and faithfulness. Yet, these songs of praise also tell us about ourselves.

We use poetic words and metaphorical phrasings in these songs of praise that evoke for us images of God, that generate and suggest to us concrete ways of understanding who God is-the mother that rocks a crying child to sleep in her lap, a mighty fortress strong and able to keep us safe within protective walls, a confidante who walks and talks with us. Yet, these same poetic words and metaphorical phrasings always resist every closed meaning or attempt to put God in a box to be controlled or manipulated. These poetic words of praise are so open to many meanings and ambiguity they leave wide latitude for us, who sing these words to accept and affirm a different version of reality than the one popular culture affirms. For as Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and professor reminds us, “If we eventually become the way we talk, if reality sooner or later follows speech than our utterance of praise may eventually wean us from our memo-shaped mastery-our 30 second sound byte shaped world, so we may fully live in the world God created.

Just as our poetic words and metaphorical phrasings open us to the full reality of God’s kingdom, our act of praise is an audacious act because we seek to show how great and significant God is. How prominent God is in our lives. We dare to do this act of praise as though we are giving something to God that God needs or desires until we are met in moment of our praise with the surprising gift of illumination; our relationship with God is refined and deepened. We realize our praise arises out of an intimate communion with the One who is wholly reliable, who is so fully present with us, who loves us so dearly that in this moment of praise singing we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to God as an act of joyful gratitude for all the goodness of life.

We abandon ourselves to God in gratitude and gladly celebrate the Lord’s claim on our whole lives. Here our praise is subversive because we say there are no other gods, kings, or loyalties who can give us gifts, who have benefits to bestow, no summons to make, and no allegiance to claim. They are massively and forcefully dismissed. Every other loyalty that would put a hedge of vested interest between God and us is critiqued and dismissed in our song of praise.

There is only one Lord of the universe, we sing. God alone is sovereign of our lives. And, this sovereignty is embodied in the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh embodying the reign of God in the ministry of a suffering servant who creates and renews life for us and for the whole of creation just as God created life by God’s Word in the beginning.

Halleu Adonai! Praise Christ the Lord!

Song of Joy

 

O God-chosen waif down the lane serving families and God with gentle obedience, a smile across your brown face, your brown hair tied back to keep it out of the way of wash cloth, dust mop, dish water and bath water; were you waiting, were you listening for angelic footfalls or the wing startling breeze shaking the world like a snow globe-in an upside down, sideways, topsy-turvy cosmic revolution of grace

Were you, grace filled young woman, singing the ancient song of joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!” after Gabriel surprised you with the unfathomable good news?  Did you think mouths full of laughter were as joyful and wondrous as mouths full of Godiva raspberry truffles or Leo Bakery cakes layered with butter cream frosting? Did you know the joy of those who sowed their fields with the tears of exile, but who brought the harvest  home, the home God created for them, with shouts of joy?

Was that what made you race to your cousin Elizabeth? Because you just had to share the joy and wonder with someone? Did you know your aged cousin would share your joy because what mother has not waited for the first stirrings of her child or felt the goodness of God’s blessing in the fullness of her womb? Was your and Elizabeth’s twin joy expressing the joy of all mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child, making every child’s birth a sign of salvation, of being blessed, of living with promise and realizing its fulfillment? Did you sense God’s saving work in your life to be the invitation to consider how the experience of patient expectancy teaches human beings God’s way of gracious work? Was your and Elizabeth’s joy peaked by waiting?  Did you realize your aged cousin’s son was the one who will bring one age to the close while you, the young mother, would birth a son who will usher into being God’s new age? Did you already feel blessed by God? Did you grasp the full meaning of the leaping joy of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb at your arrival? Did you realize your blessing for trusting God had already happened?  Did you hear all of that in Elizabeth’s song to you? Did you think the joining of this wonder with God’s saving work was God’s brilliant idea, so you might experience God’s gracious acts of new life in the same way the prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant in his song, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Was this servant’s song, your song, Mary? Did you feel the way the prophet Isaiah did at his call, you who are the unlikely one living in a remote, country village, yet blessed by God to birth a child who will be a blessing to countless generations throughout the world?

Is that why you sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?” Was joy filling every nano particle of your being until it overflowed in glad abandonment? Was that why you, Mary, so joyously proclaimed that all of your actions, your thoughts, your daily activities- every aspect of your being—the entirety of all that makes you this distinctive person named Mary-will point all people to see the greatness of God in all that God does? Pointing to the promises of comfort and strength for those who mourn that they might have garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning? Pointing to the promises of new life springing forth like crocus shooting up out of the earth. Pointing to the healing of all who suffer, Pointing to all who have been pushed to margins of society are being drawn toward the communities center.

Is that why Mary sings aloud with the excitement and wonder of a joy that pours out of her like a thunderous spring swollen waterfall cascading down a mountainside, “for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant, Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed?”

Indeed, God’s blessing of life within Mary, transforms her and her life so decisively she will never be the person she dreamed she might become. Instead, she and her life will be celebrated for the wonder and amazement of God creating a new life  the way a caterpillar is transformed by the cocoon into the stunningly beautiful Monarch butterfly that will fly from flower to flower in spring delighting our eyes and imaginations with such amazement and awe that we are compelled to share with others this wonder. Future generations will remember God-transformed Mary and will say, “Yes, God has blessed you Mary with such extraordinary joy that rejoicing and praise is the only possible response to this pure gift of grace.”

“There are those who have in themselves the gift of joy, “a theologian writes. “It has no relation to merit or demerit. It is not a quality they have wrested from the vicissitudes of life. To them joy is given as a precious ingredient in life. And, wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others. To be touched by them is to be blessed of God.”

Mary is one such person. Through her we experience a tantalizing taste of joy in this our season of anticipation and expectation. After all, she is one of us. She was not powerful like a queen or a president. She was not even one of the wise women of the village.

Yet, out of all the women in the world God could choose to take part in this wondrous blessing, God chooses Mary to receive this life-transforming blessing of joy. She didn’t get a detailed explanation about why she was being chosen. God simply sends the angel Gabriel to tell Mary this good news with the familiar, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Which is, but one of the ways grace comes bounding into our lives like a puppy romping through new fallen snow. Mary’s experience of grace was mysterious because it did not fit with the rhyme of common sense or laws of logic, but worked based on some kind of out of left field, principle of divine math where two plus two equals 27.

However, at other times, grace makes a serendipitous appearance, showing up just when we need it most like a non-essential embellishing note in a musical score, whose beauty is unmistakable and carries with it splendor and an over-the-top quality of unanticipated loveliness.

Then, again we may experience grace moving unobtrusively, calmly gliding under our lives, so we might land on our feet when we’ve lost our way. Of course, there is the grace that dresses up in everyday clothes, experienced in the common rough and tumble moments of life, working through our myriad fragilities and adjusting to where we happen to be at any given moment to take us to the place where well-being and joy overflow. But, sometimes grace is weightless, effortlessly entering our lives with levity and humor like a precious buoy of hope reminding us that strident morality lends heaviness to much of life and legalism simply drowns the human spirit.

Whichever way grace chooses to come to us, it brings a fullness of life into being, which move us to songs of gratitude and joy. The same joy recurring throughout the Gospel of Luke from the joy of the annunciation and the visitation and births of John and Jesus to the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead to new life, outcasts of the community being drawn to the center of Jesus’ ministry to the ascension joy of the disciples returning to Jerusalem with joy and entering the Temple praising God for resurrection and the Holy Spirit pouring over them setting ablaze their passion for humanity transforming justice leading to peace.

This is the joyous praise for a new life as intimately connected to God as Mary is connected to the life within her, compelling all who experience it to sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” because we too are those whose mouths are filled with laughter, those whose whole being is filled with the overflowing joy of God’s love.

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