Sunday, January 13, 2019


Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Baptism of our Lord, Feb. 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22                   
               15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 
               21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

          Baptism.  It’s that moment when the church stands in the shoes of God, who doesn’t probably have shoes, but whatever.  The church stands in the shoes of God and claims a person.  Snatches that person up and now that person is God’s.  Forever.  There are no Baptism Divorces.  Once you are God’s, you are God’s. 
          You also belong to the church when you are baptized. 
          [Big voice]  “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share.”  That’s what we say to the newly baptized person, all of us, together.
          Baptism is a joining ritual in which we mark a person as
1.  Joined to God in a new way.
2.  Joined to the church in a new way.

          And all of that action is God’s.  Even the church part, because—and we sometimes forget this, so it’s good to remember—the church is God’s.  It was established by Christ and it belongs to God.  So baptism, the foundational sacrament of the church, is God’s.  God claims you in baptism.
          It should be easy enough for the church to get that right…shouldn’t it?
          Over on the Working Preacher blog, Professor Karoline Lewis tells of preaching a sermon in Lutherland—Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the sermon, she quoted from Luther’s Small Catechism and talked about how baptism is a claim on us.  “In baptism,” she said, “God claims you.”  And it’s forever.
          A ninety-year-old woman came up to her afterward.  Karoline calls her Dott, though that is not her name.  Dott said that three years before she was born, her parents had a daughter born with severe birth defects.  They were told that there was nothing the hospital could do for her, and they should take her home.  Dott’s grandmother baptized the little girl, fearing for her salvation.  But when the baby died, their pastor refused to do the funeral, because he had not baptized the child.
          After hearing Karoline Lewis’s sermon, Dott said to her, “Is it true that GOD baptizes you?” 
          “Yes,” replied Dr. Lewis. 
          “Does that mean my sister is okay?” asked Dott.
          For ninety years, that woman thought her older sister had been in peril, because she wasn’t baptized “properly.”  She hadn’t gone to heaven, because she hadn’t been baptized by the proper person in the proper place.
          You know what the proper place for baptism is?
          Someplace where there’s water!
          A river, a lake, a big room with a bowl of water in it.  Your living room with a bowl of water in it.  The bedroom of a sick child…with a bowl of water in it.
          Sure, pastors usually do baptisms.  I also usually stomp down the paper towels in the second floor bathroom trash can.  But that doesn’t mean that anyone else in this building couldn’t do it. 
          Here’s why it is good that the church belongs to God and not just us:  we like to put walls around stuff.  In the church we--and by “we” I mean pastors most especially, God help us--we like to wall off important stuff like sacraments.
          But that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Baptism is all about walls coming down. 
          Scientists call water the “universal solvent.”  Water dissolves more substances than any other solvent.  Plain water.  Dissolves all kinds of things…including walls. 
          Baptism erases walls.
          There is no wall between us.  There is no wall between us and God.  In baptism we are claimed by God—adopted into God’s family.  We become God’s children in the same way that Jesus, on the day he was baptized, became God’s child in a new way.
          In baptism, God says to each of us, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
          We are God’s children just like Jesus is, which is why Jesus was baptized, just like we are.
          We are all washed in the same water.
          In fact, the water on your forehead came from this bottle [show bottle], which I bought at a little store up on a road above the River Jordan.  I took the bottle down to the river, to the spot where they say Jesus was baptized, and I filled it with water, and this is the first time I’ve used it.  You are now marked with the same water in which Jesus was baptized.
          But if you were already baptized, you have already been joined to him.  There is no dividing wall between us and Christ.  No dividing wall between us and all of humanity. 
          Walls are bad.
          But we love them, don’t we?
          Somewhere in your life, there’s probably a wall that needs to be washed away.  It may be a wall between you and another person.  It may be a wall in a relationship that looks okay, but that wall is keeping you from truly loving that person.  Maybe you’ve erected a wall around a dream—just put a wall around it and it won’t hurt when you think about it.

          Christians, we are not Wall People.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

--Ephesians, chapter two.
          Christ is our peace, and Christ has broken down the dividing wall between us.  Christ will work with us and walk with us as we break down those walls we erect to keep us “safe”—from other people, from our deepest dreams, from truly living into the fullness of what God has for us.
          Remember your baptism today, people of God.  You have been marked by the waters which baptized Jesus.  You have been baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized.  And if you are not baptized, please know that God has filed all the paperwork to adopt you too.  The waters are ready for you.
          Remember your baptism.  May the waters of the River Jordan, and the waters of all those baptismal bowls wash away anything that is separating you from realizing peace, hope, joy. 
          No walls.  Only us, together with God.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Power of Wisdom

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Sunday of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12                   
          In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
               9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

          Like all good art, this painting affects one slowly.  It works at several levels, and the point (or points) that the artist is making come as you consider both the piece and its title.
          I believe the artist wants us to consider power as we observe the piece.
          Government agents using power to separate children from their parents.
          The power of love which connects them even as they are separated.
          The power of wisdom, and the lack of power in not utilizing wisdom.
          The power of art to drive an image into your heart like a stake.

          I cried when I realized what this image was showing us by juxtaposing a family separated with the Holy Family.
          It is a powerful piece—would you agree?

          I want to talk about power this morning, though I should really say that I want to continue talking about power.  The Christmas and Epiphany stories, which have provided the narrative structure to four worship services in a row now—these stories are all about power.  How power appears, who has it, how it is used.
          Consider the nativity story as told by Luke, our evangelist for this church year, Year C.  The story begins with the Emperor—Augustus—exercising his power to make his subjects bend to his will.  “Y’all go to your hometowns so that we can count you,” he decrees.  And a very pregnant woman and her loyal fiancĂ© are forced to travel a hundred miles on foot and the back of a donkey...because the Emperor has that kind of power.
          The child is born, then, in a place meant for animals.  Wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger—a feeding trough.  How much power does he seem to have?  Yeah, well, you can’t always tell who has power, can you?
          Then an angel appears, obviously exhibiting great power—so much that like most angels, this one has to lead with “don’t be afraid.”  The angel tells the story to shepherds—nobodies on a hillside.  Then “a multitude of the heavenly host” makes a big, powerful splash:  “Glory to God in highest heaven and peace on earth.”
          And after this very powerful moment, the narrative shifts back…to…
          The shepherds.  The dirty nomads who follow their sheep around the Judean hill country and beyond.
          And those nobody shepherds, who have already been the first to see the Messiah, also become the first to tell the story.
          Which means that God bestowed on them—the shepherds—the power of WITNESS.  A really important power.  Somewhere between occlumency and divination.  (That was a little shout out for the Harry Potter crowd.)
          The shepherds exercise the power of witness to begin the work that has been handed down for generations, all the way to us:  the power of observing the Christ and reporting what we see and know. 
          Shepherds.  Get that power.  You can’t always tell who has power, right?

          And from Luke 2 and the shepherds, we go this morning to Matthew 2 and the wise men.  How many are there?  No idea.  We assume three because they bring three gifts:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But if in a trivia contest you are ever asked how many wise men, the answer is “we don’t know.”
          What do we know about them?
          They are powerful.
          They have means:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  According to some scholars, the gold is actually the least valuable of the three, assuming there was a decent amount of the frankincense and myrrh.  By the pound, that stuff is expensive!
          However much there was, it is clear that these “wise men” come from a particular class of people.  They have stuff, and they are able to travel around checking out babies.  And the description of them suggests that they are Zoroastrian astrologers, whose powers of divination (there it is again!) would be highly sought by other powerful people.
          So a far cry from shepherds, yeah?
          And yet, they inhabit the same plane in our Manger Scenes.  The wise men have robes, and carry gifts, but you just can’t discount those shepherds and their place as the first hearers and first tellers.
          The wise men bring great gifts, and they are great astrologers.  Or maybe astronomers?  In any case, they find Jesus and Mary and Joseph by following a star.
          That’s a lot of power.  But their greatest deed of power in the whole story is the deed they don’t perform.  I am referring, of course, to…?
          They “left by another road.”
          They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they “left by another road” to get back home.
          Herod, whose power was utilized for great evil during his reign, asked them to return and tell him where the baby born King of the Jews could be found.  He lied and said that he wanted to pay homage to the child.  We all know he had nefarious intent, and Matthew goes on to describe how he realized he had been tricked by the wise men and sent his soldiers to kill all of the children under two in and around Bethlehem.
          But they did not kill Jesus, because Joseph had another dream, which told him to “take the child and his mother and go to Egypt.”  They became refugees, in a land which did not erect a wall between itself and children. 
          A land, in other words, far different from our own, where the power of the bully pulpit has been joined to the power of the bully in order to demonize families that look an awful lot like our Holy Family.
          And I feel very comfortable saying that all of us in this room are upset by that. 
          Angry about that.
          Frustrated by that.
          But, really, what can we do?
          I mean, the bullies have all the power, right?
          We don’t have any, right?

          Today is Epiphany.  The word literally means “revelation.”  Jesus was revealed by a star.  And by wise men from the east who followed a star to see a child of little means whom they knew to be a king.  Wise men who bestowed upon that seemingly powerless child gifts meant for a king.
          You can’t always tell who has power.
          Rosa Parks was a slight African American woman, in a time when all of those things worked against you.
          Albert Einstein had a learning disability.
          Nelson Mandela was in prison for twenty-seven years, under the worst separation law in the world…at least so far.
          Then he became President of South Africa.
          Listen to the story of Epiphany.  Let it reveal itself.  See Christ revealed in it.
          See Christ, and know that you have the same power once vested in shepherds:  the power to see the revealed Christ, and to tell of his power.  The power of witness.
          The world needs witnesses.  This. Nation. Needs. Witnesses.  People willing to testify to what they have seen revealed in scripture, to what God has done in their lives and in history, and in the lives of the least of all of these.  The ones who seem to be without power but who are actually at the center of the Power of God’s Love.
          Listen to the story of Epiphany and ask yourself what it means for your life, this day.  Here we are on the precipice of another year.  Will we allow 2019 to happen without intervention? 
          Or will we find the power that is within us—the power of witness, the power of testimony, the power of shepherds and wise men, to put our bodies in important places?  Will we stand for the ones who lack power in the spaces in which they find themselves?
          Hear the lessons of Epiphany, people of God:

>Listen to your dreams. 
>Don’t believe everything others tell you.  See for yourself.
>If your mission is true, don’t let someone else co-opt it.
>Be brave.  Find your own power, and don’t fear the power of tyrants.
>Finally, pay homage to Jesus.  Offer him your gifts.  Invite him to use your gifts for the good of the world.

          There is a quote from the activist and writer Marianne Williamson which says this better than I could.  It is often attributed, falsely, to Nelson Mandela, for obvious reasons.  May these words reveal a truth to you.

          Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliantgorgeoustalented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
          My hope for you in this new year is that you will shine.  And the world will be made better, by the revelation of your power.


Sermon for SMHP, Christmas Eve 2018
Luke 2:1-14
          In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
          3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
          6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
               8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
          10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.”

          A burning bush.
          A pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
          A talking donkey.
          A “still small voice.”
          God has found a lot of ways to appear before human beings.  You might even say God has a flair for the dramatic. 
          And maybe I’m biased, but I think there is no more dramatic tale of human beings encountering God than the one which opens Luke’s gospel.  There’s all the buildup—angelic visitations to Mary and Zechariah, travels across the Judean countryside, poetry.  The poetry may only be dramatic for the English majors among us…
          Then there’s some political intrigue.  “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
          Joseph and Mary must travel to Bethlehem, the original City of David. Jesus is born, and lain in a manger…”because there was no place for them in the inn.”
          Add shepherds, angels, and a heavenly host, and this thing is ready for Broadway.  Or at least countless low rent church productions starring six-year-olds in bathrobes looking shepherd-y.
          Just one thing seems out of place in this grand drama. 
          The baby.
          I mean, after all of the pomp and circumstances around this moment of divine inbreaking, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that God would choose to become incarnate as a baby?  Not so dramatic.  Babies are born every day.  They’re not so…you know, huge.
          God could have been the most perfect human ever born, sort of a cross between Idris Elba, Mother Teresa, and Patrick Mahomes.  Go ahead and take a minute trying to picture that.
          We know God was trying to be like us, so no pyrotechnics—no pillars of fire or raging bush fires. 
          But a baby?  Why would God choose to become known to us in a whole new way, as a newborn?  A newborn is so…vulnerable. 
          And that’s why, right?  God has done powerful.  It wasn’t so incarnational, really.  This time God wanted to become like us, and let’s be honest, we’re pretty vulnerable.  We can be hurt, physically, emotionally, spiritually.  We try to hard to be safe, that sometimes we make the world more dangerous.  What else but our profound vulnerability has created the gun culture that makes us all less safe?
          In being born a tiny baby in a space meant for animals, Jesus became truly like us—profoundly vulnerable…
          …and profoundly adorable.
          We are all willing to stipulate that Jesus was adorable, right?  By which I mean not just “cute.”  He was adore-able.  People came to adore him.  People are still adoring him.  We sang about it at the beginning of the service, right?  “Oh, come, let us adore him, Oh come, let us adore him, Oh come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
          Jesus may have been a vulnerable little baby, but he created quite a stir when he was born. 
          An angel told some shepherds and then a “multitude of the heavenly host” showed up and the shepherds left their hillsides and became the first to adore him.  And people have been adoring him ever since.  The more you get to know him, the more you want to adore him. 
          From the moment he was born, Jesus was vulnerable and he was adorable.  Because God wanted to remind us that we are both of those things and it’s okay.  God sent us a savior because God knew that we would never be able to overcome our fragile nature.  But God also wanted to remind us that God doesn’t just love us…God adores us.  God delights in us.
          This Christmas, as you think about the birth of Jesus, I want you to remember that he was born because you are adorable.  In fact, I want you to say it, out loud:  “I am adorable.”
          I am adorable.
          You are adorable, and you are adored.  It is the point of incarnation.  It is the point of this night.


You Can't Do That

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Advent IV, Luke 1 Series, Dec. 23, 2018
Luke 1:57-80                   
               57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
               59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
               67Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for God has looked favorably on God’s people and redeemed them.
69 God has raised up a mighty savior for us
   in the house of God’s servant David,
70 as God spoke through the mouth of the holy prophets from of old, 
71   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered God’s holy covenant,
73 the oath sworn to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve the Lord without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
               80The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. 

          So I know most of you pretty well, and I know that at some point in your lives, and perhaps at several points, you have encountered a moment like the one in which we find Elizabeth and Zechariah this morning.
          You’re explaining something very important to the people in your life, and they are just not getting it. 
          Them:  “It’s just a phase.”  (Anybody ever heard that one?)
          You:  “No, seriously, it’s not.”
          Them:  You can’t really believe that.
          You:  Yes, that is what I believe.  Here are the reasons why.  (List of reasons follows.)
          Them:  You can’t wear that, eat that, do that, sing that, name your child that.
          You:  Um, yeah.  I can.

          That more or less the story over at Liz and Z’s house.  Their baby has been born.  Everyone has been calling him Zechariah, because that’s the custom—babies get named at birth, and first sons after their fathers. 
          But when they say to his mother, Elizabeth, at his bris, “Hey, he’s Zechariah, right?” she replies, “No.  He is to be called John.”
          And instead of saying, “Oh.  John.  Nice name.  I had an uncle named John.” they meddle and argue.
          What?!!  No one in your family is named John!  You can’t do that?!  That’s not the way we’ve always done it.”
          And then they start waving and gesturing at Zechariah (because he can’t speak, so they assume he can’t hear either).  [Pointing and mouthing]  “She wants to name the kid “John.”  Do something!
          And he takes the writing board he’s been carrying around for nine months—it’s a piece of wood with some wax on it—and he writes on it, “His name is John.”
          Because that’s what God told him, and he is faithful, and we aren’t doing things the way we’ve always done them anymore.  It seems to me that that’s the point of this weird little story, and the biggest reason I wanted us to read all the way through Luke 1 this Advent.  The story of the birth of Jesus, God’s incarnation, God’s desire to be with us in a new way—it’s all so radical that Luke writes a long prologue to it that sets the scene, with angels and divine intervention and mothers and fathers being faithful to God, even when it seems odd to the people around them.
          And finally, a song of faithfulness that reminds us once again that our faithfulness is a response to God’s faithfulness.  Zechariah’s Song, the verses that make up most of our lesson for this morning.
          The whole first half of the song is the perfect ending to the first chapter of Luke’s gospel--a description of how God has been faithful through the years.  “Blessed be the God of Israel, who has looked favorably on us and redeemed us,” Zechariah begins.
          Then he goes on to describe God’s faithfulness:
Here’s what God has done.  God has:
--raised up a savior for us in the house of David.  (The people listening probably thought he meant David.  But he meant Jesus.)
God has:
--spoken through the prophets
--shown the mercy promised our ancestors
--remembered the Covenant

          God has remembered the Covenant, and now God is establishing a New Covenant, one that will seem odd and different to some of you, but go with it.  Zechariah is the first to speak of the New Covenant, but Jesus will definitely have some things to say about it, and we continue to speak of it each week at the Eucharist.
          Then at verse 76, there is a pivot, in which the father speaks to his newborn son.  “And you, child,” he says, “will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”  And indeed, that is the role of John.  It is the role he knew, no doubt prepared by his priestly parents.  It is the role he described to others, when they asked if he was the Messiah.  It is the role he often plays in iconography, one finger pointing to Jesus. 
          This section of Zechariah’s Song is the transition, from what God has done, to what God will do through Jesus. 
          Like God, Jesus brings salvation, but Jesus’ salvation is eternal.
          Jesus brings forgiveness of sins.  Another thing we talk about during the Eucharist.
          Jesus brings light to a people living in darkness, as the great prophet Isaiah promised.  We will hear that word tomorrow night, and some of you read it this past Wednesday.
          And finally, Jesus brings guidance, and this is where Zechariah’s song really looks into the future.  Because this is the part that is about us.  Look at verses 78 and 79: “By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us, 
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
          John is charged to be the prophet of Jesus, who is charged with being a light in the darkness, a Word of hope, and with “guiding our feet into the way of peace.”
          Which means that the charge to us is about our feet.  Who knew that the feet were the most spiritually significant body part?
          But according to Zechariah this morning, the Most High, God incarnate, Jesus Christ, came to “guide our feet in the way of peace.”
          So our role in this song, in this story of Advent and Christmas hope—our role is to have the feet of peace.  To be on a journey of peace.
          The New Covenant of Jesus Christ is a Covenant of Peace.  No longer will God’s people be invited to make war on each other and on neighboring tribes.  We are assured of our salvation and the forgiveness of our sins, and freed up to simply love each other. 
          This fourth week of Advent, love is our theme, and as people of the Incarnate one, the child of peace, we are reminded that love is our one and only charge.  We are called to set our feet on a journey of peace, guided by our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
          And it might seem odd to people around us, all of this peacemaking in a time of grumbling and aggression.  But it is our calling, as inheritors of the New Covenant.  It is the song Zechariah is singing this morning, to his infant son, and to each of us. 
          Let us greet these beloved children, John and Jesus, with a new commitment to peace.  To make peace, to live peace, and to sing our own songs of peace.  Songs that will seem odd, perhaps, to the world around us.  But songs that will indeed redeem that world.

We believe in God

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Advent III, Luke 1 Series, Dec. 16, 2018
Luke 1:39-56                   
               39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is God’s name.
50 God’s mercy is for those who fear the Lord
   from generation to generation.
51 God has shown strength with God’s arm,
   and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
54 God has helped God’s servant Israel,
   in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever.’
               56And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

          “Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
          We’ve been talking about faithfulness this Advent, and about how the people of Luke one, including Luke himself, exhibit such extraordinariness in the face of what God is doing through them.  And we’ve talked about how our faithfulness is a response to God’s faithfulness.  The Magnificat is all about God’s faithfulness.  Mary sings about all of the things that God has done, for her, and for her ancestors, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.  God has ordered the world in a way that lifts up the poor, the hungry, the powerless. 
          And then God has invited us to co-create that world.  To live into a vision of the powerful brought down and the lowly lifted up.  Because without our conscious participation, that world will struggle to come to fruition.  God can and does intervene in the world, but God has, from the creation, given us free will to make decisions on our own.
          So how are we doing?  Are we co-creating a Magnificat world?
          Not so much.  In the past few months, our country has made a series of decisions which will impact God’s creation in devastating ways.  Just this week, 150,000 acres of public land in Utah were auctioned off for fracking, which is a very unstable way of breaking up rock in the oil drilling process.  We’re drilling in federal waters off of Alaska, rolling back protections for air and water, and, for good measure, bulldozing a butterfly sanctuary to make room for a wall to keep out refugees.
          All of this devastation is wrought by, and approved by, people who by and large make the same claims we hear Mary and Elizabeth making this morning. 
          “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary’s song begins, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
          We’ve heard similar statements of belief from the very people who are fricking and fracking God’s beautiful world, haven’t we?  “We believe in God,” they say, “and we also believe that a wall is more important than a butterfly.  And poor people wouldn’t be poor if they’d just work some of the wonderful jobs in the belly of the economy.  The ones that pay a full time salary of $15,000 a year.
          I want to be clear that I am naming this as a problem.  You cannot follow Jesus and denigrate the poor.  Sorry.  To paraphrase Matthew 6, we can’t serve two masters; we will hate one and love the other.  You cannot serve God and fracking.
          The actual quote is “God and money,” and isn’t it pretty much the same thing?
          The bad news is that the problem is getting worse.  Wealth is finding itself a lot of willing servants these days. 
          The good news—and there is definitely good news on this Gaudete Sunday of the Magnificat of Mary—the good news is that we have found the error that caused the problem, and Mary and Elizabeth have outlined its solution for us.
          So, in case you missed the error when it went by, let me circle back.  A moment ago, I said we have a lot of leaders (and followers) who say “we believe in God,” and also “we believe in a border wall” and “we believe the poor should just get jobs.”
          See, part of what has happened is, as it often is, grammatical.  Or maybe stylistic and semantic, but I think it’s grammatical and we can debate that later.
          We have been using the word “belief” wrong.  And “believe.”  The noun, and the verb.  Using them wrong wrong wrong.  We say “we believe in God.”  It’s the first line of the Creed, after all.
          But we also say “I believe in the free market.”  Or “I believe in socialism.”  Or “I don’t believe in climate change.”
          Or “I believe I’ll have another piece of pie.”
          Okay, so the pie thing isn’t a huge threat our future.  Maybe our wardrobe, but not global stability.  Some of those others are, though.  Here’s what happens when we “believe” all kinds of stuff at the same time:  We start to believe that all of these beliefs can coexist and it will all work itself out. 
          It doesn’t work itself out.  Because once you say, “I don’t believe in climate change,” or “I believe the poor need tough love” or “I believe in protecting our own people first,” then those principles—they’re not beliefs after all—those principles start to order your behavior.
          There’s no “believing” in climate change.  It’s a scientific fact.  That’s like deciding whether or not to “believe” in wood.  There’s wood.  It comes from trees.  There’s climate change.  It comes from CO2.
          Faith is something else.  We believe in God despite the fact that no scientist has shown us irrefutable proof that God exists.  As the writer of Hebrews tells it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (11:1)
          Now, the fact that we haven’t seen God doesn’t make our faith any less powerful than scientifically verifiable phenomenon.  In fact, and this is the crux of this whole matter, so pay attention to this part even if you zoned out when I got to “phenomenon:”  for us, as people of faith, it is believing in God that centers our lives.
          We order our lives around our belief in God.  God created the world and called it good.  God declared that we were to be stewards of the created world.  And if our belief in God is at the center for us, then we don’t hold other “beliefs” which run contrary to our call to be stewards of the earth.  Or our call to care for the poor.
          We have a wonderful role model for this sort of living, centered in our belief in God, our faithfulness as a response to God’s faithfulness:  it’s Mary.
          Mary believed God.
          Mary believed in God.  Elizabeth could see it on her when she arrived.  Elizabeth knew, at the core of her being, that God was doing something very special in Mary.  Just as God was doing something special in Elizabeth.  Even the child in Elizabeth’s womb, John, recognized that God was at work in Mary, and in Mary’s child, his cousin Jesus.
          God was changing the world, through God’s servant Mary.  And Mary knew it.  Mary believed it.  And all the decisions that she, and Joseph, made from that point forward were centered in their belief that what was happening in her was part of God’s plan to redeem the world.
          It was the continuation of God’s faithful interaction with the world, stretching all the way back to creation.  Mary’s song is an outline of God’s faithfulness:

51 God has shown strength with God’s arm,
   and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
54 God has helped God’s servant Israel,
   in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever.’

          God has done all of those things because God promised to be faithful to us, and that faithfulness has been at the center of God’s relationship with us.
          Believing in God’s faithfulness, and responding with faithfulness of our own, is at the center of our relationship with God. 
          We are who we are because we believe in God.  Say it with me:  we believe in God.
          Say it every day:  I believe in God.  The creator.  The redeemer.  The sanctifier. 
          If that is the center of your life, then you can sing with Mary:  “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, who has looked on me with favor.”
          Because you are one of the ones turning the world.