Sunday, January 7, 2018

In the Beginning (a sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany)

I was honored to be invited to preach at my own congregation, Cleveland Park Congregational UCC in Washington, DC.

This is a sermon I shared for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany (or, in secular terms, the first Sunday of the new year). 

The texts were Genesis 1:1-4 and Mark 1:1-11.

Both text and audio versions are below; apologies for a couple of awkward audio patches in the recording, I had a few technical glitches.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“You better not never tell nobody but God."[1]
The first line of a story matters.
The beginning lines of a story, its first words or images, aren't just a tool to draw the audience in, to encourage further reading or listening or watching. No, the beginning of a story sets the stage. It gives us a hint, a window, into how the story will be told. The beginning of a story invites us in, but it also gives us a guide to how we are to continue encountering the story that is about to be told.
This next statement will probably reveal my nerdy proclivities, but if you want a great example of how the first words of a story affect our understanding of the kind of story we are about to experience, look no further than the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” – followed by strident trumpets – is a whole lot like “once upon a time.” It sets us up for exactly what Star Wars is – a fairy tale in space, a mythological, epic struggle between good and evil, hero and villain. “Space: the final frontier” is the introduction to a story about exploration, about testing human limits, about the complexities of utopia – it’s about a Trek, not a War. The uninitiated may find it easy to mix up the two – after all, they’re about spaceships going at faster-than-light speeds and aliens with lasers, right? – but two different beginnings make for two very different types of stories.
This morning we heard the first lines of the book of Genesis; and while this creation story arose out of the context of the Ancient Near East, its English translation contains one of the most famous “first lines” of Western literature:. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” as the old King James Version had it; or, in the more recent New Revised Standard Version, “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” This way of starting the tale tells us something about how the rest of the narrative is going to go. “In the beginning, God” – the story starts with God. There’s no explanation for God, no violent origin story for how God became God, a characteristic which differentiates this particular Ancient Near Eastern creation story from many of its contemporaries. God just is, and God is creating – that’s how this story starts. As the story will soon make clear, humans will indeed play a big role, but the story starts with God, and it’s God and God’s activity that sets the stage for all that is to come. In fact, in this first account of creation in the book of Genesis, while humans are declared to be “very good,” it is the Sabbath – God’s day of rest – that is the crown and finishing point of creation, not humanity. The story, we gather quickly, even when it is being told by and to humans, begins and ends with God.
The gospel of Mark, whose opening lines we heard read today, is also concerned with beginnings. Just like Genesis, Mark’s Gospel starts at the very beginning, literally with the word, “Beginning”: “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then we get a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, and John the Baptizer doing what Baptizers do down at the Jordan River. No nativity stories for Mark – no angels or shepherds or magi. No exposition. We just jump right in, in medias res. And this direct, plunge-right-in approach does indeed characterize the rest of Mark’s narrative. Mark’s Jesus doesn’t spend a whole lot of time teaching or dialoguing. He’s more of an action-adventure Jesus. One of Mark’s favorite words is the Greek euthys, often translated as “immediately.” The word appears more than 40 times in Mark’s gospel, at least six times in the first chapter alone. Jesus seems to do just about everything “immediately.” Mark’s gospel doesn’t have time to wait around for exposition – it’s got stuff to do.
What’s more, the story claims to be the beginning of the “good news,” or “gospel.” When Mark, or whoever actually wrote Mark’s Gospel, began their writing, there was no such thing as a “genre” of gospel. Mark’s writing precedes Matthew, Luke, and John, the books we’ve come to associate with the term “gospels.” For the author of Mark, “gospel” – the Greek is euangelion – was a commonly used word referring to an imperial announcement of military victory or the coronation of a new emperor. It’s a triumphant declaration. To begin the story with such a pronouncement of victory, and to plunge us directly into the action, conjures up certain expectations and assumptions about what kind of story this is going to be, about who this Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, is going to be.
And then Mark’s gospel proceeds, almost immediately, to subvert and undermine all those expectations and assumptions. First of all, even with the Gospel of Mark’s breakneck narrative, its “immediate” pacing, the good news about Jesus doesn’t start with Jesus. It starts with a quotation from Isaiah, a prophet whose preaching occurred centuries before Jesus. And that quotation from Isaiah serves to highlight, not Jesus’ ministry at first, but rather that of John the Baptist, described in terms designed to connect him to those Hebrew prophets of old. As scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon writes, “Prepared for the story of Jesus, we hear first a voice from Scripture that is then actualized in the voice of John the baptizer, “crying out in the wilderness” (1:3). Scripture prepares a way for John, who prepares a way for Jesus.”[2]
Then, when Jesus does appear on the scene, it’s mainly so that things can happen to him. He is the passive recipient of the action for most of the beginning of this good news about him. He gets baptized, a Spirit descends on him, God calls him beloved, and then he is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted, where angels care for him. It isn’t until John the Baptist is arrested that Jesus actually does anything in a story which is supposedly a triumphal declaration about Jesus. Theologian William Placher, in his book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, writes that “This will not be a story, we as readers gather, of easy triumphs or of the usual sort of monarch.”[3] In fact, this “good news” about Jesus reads like a whole lot of bad news. There is suffering, and confusion, and those closest to Jesus can’t seem to get their act together. Jesus is betrayed and executed, and it is only one of his executioners who finally seems to understand who he is. And then, rather infamously, the gospel abruptly ends with an empty tomb and no real explanations. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. No redemption of the failed disciples. No ascension of Christ into glory. This “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” doesn’t have a very good ending – so much so that later Christians actually went back and added longer conclusions to Mark’s gospel to try to improve on its abrupt, even jagged, finish.
            (Kind of like fan fiction.)
But maybe the gospel is supposed to end abruptly, or, to put it another way, maybe it’s not meant to end at all. Maybe the not-so-famous first line of Mark, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” doesn’t describe just the beginning of the story but the story itself. This is the beginning of a story that isn’t finished – and we, the audience members, are invited into the ongoing story. We hear the beginning of the good news, and we are led to wonder what our role is in this good news that has not been neatly tied up yet.
It turns out that the “immediately, immediately, immediately” of Mark’s story, the Jesus-on-the-move narrative, is not really about what Jesus gets done, what Jesus finishes, at all. Jesus doesn’t actually achieve much in Mark’s gospel. Instead, the story is about who Jesus is. And who Jesus is, according to these first few verses, isn’t based on what Jesus does – Jesus doesn’t do much of anything – but rather on how God perceives Jesus. “You are my child, the Beloved One,” says God. “With you I am well pleased.” Right at the beginning of the good news about Jesus, we learn that this story isn’t about what Jesus gets done, but about who Jesus is. Which makes us wonder who we are. Which turns our ears to listen to the voice of God, saying to us as to Jesus: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
The texts we heard this morning are associated with baptism. Perhaps, like me, you were baptized as an infant, prior to any cognitive memory of such an event; or perhaps not. But however you were or weren’t baptized, by participating in a community of faith, you are invited and incorporated into something that vastly precedes your cognitive memory. Our story of faith, of doubt, of life, doesn’t start with us. It starts with something that comes before us. Like this congregation celebrating its 100th year. And the countless families of faith that came before that. And Jesus before that, and John the Baptist before him, and the prophet Isaiah before him, and before all of them – “In the beginning, God.” It doesn’t start with us. It certainly doesn’t start with what we’re able to get done. It didn’t even start like that for Jesus, who was baptized and declared a beloved child of God before he did anything, before he healed a single sick person or preached a single sermon or invited a single disciple to follow him. The story started before that.
I remember this truth – that the story of faith and the creative word of God vastly precedes us and our beliefs and our stories – every time I hear the term “preexisting condition” bandied about in our public discourse about healthcare in this country. You see in 2011 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of hospitalizations. With that diagnosis came help, and treatment, but it also carried with it a new label – “preexisting condition.” That label has at times made it impossible for me to receive coverage for the treatment I need to stay healthy and whole. And I am of the opinion that the belief that an illness or disability can be considered a “preexisting condition” is not only a societal injustice but is, in fact, heresy. Our scriptural narratives tell us, at least those of us who identify as Christian, what conditions can be considered preexisting. God’s Spirit, descending from heaven and hovering over the waters, declaring God’s love for God’s children. God, graciously creating, speaking the world into existence. Love is preexisting. Grace is preexisting. God is preexisting. That’s where the story begins. Not with our actions or inactions, not with illness or sickness or brokenness, but with:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”
“In the beginning, the good news.”
“You are my beloved child.”
And so, as we begin a new year, let this be a reminder to us. That grace is a preexisting
condition. That the beginning began before us. That it continues beyond us even as it includes us. So when we feel like we aren’t getting enough done, or that our story feels jagged and unfinished – the story goes on, like it was created to do. And that, I think, is very good news, indeed.

[1] These are the first lines of, respectively, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
[2] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Gospel of Mark,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 481.
[3] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 12.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The first time I understood the Nativity

A photo of me in Yanoun by my friend Paul Buck

I post this pretty much every year on Christmas Day. It's not the only thing to say, nor the most important. But as far as I can figure, it's true.

The first time I understood the story of the Nativity, I was in a Palestinian village called Yanoun, in the northern West Bank. I'd gone there with a few friends associated with the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine/Israel, to meet folks in the village and hear about their lives.

We got a bit of a tour from two shepherds, both young guys who joked and laughed with each other as they shared their day with us. They showed us where they kept their sheep. It was a low, dark cave, noisy and crowded with animals, and smelling like...well...sheep shit. The mangers were a tad rusty, with sheep pushing at each other to find space to eat. It was a good hangout for sheep, but not really the sort of place where you'd want to have a kid. I remember thinking: "Oh. If God can be born here, I guess God can be born anywhere."

Merry Christmas. Wherever you are, remember: God can be born right here.


Here's a song I wrote about that trip:

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The In-Between Time (a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve)

This is a sermon I preached on December 24, 2017, in the chapel at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. 

The texts were Isaiah 9:2-7; Hebrews 1:1-4; and Luke 1:26-38The service ended with the lighting of the Christ candle and the reading of the Nativity story from Luke's Gospel

The bulletin cover image, which I've included here, is by contemporary Palestinian artist Zaki Baboun.

Please pray for all those at the Clinical Center during this season, who are courageously volunteering their very bodies in the search for new cures for some of the world's most difficult-to-treat medical conditions. 

Depending on what branch of the Christian family tree you are used to sitting on, you might or might not be aware that, for many pastors and preachers, this Sunday morning presents something of a challenge. For congregations following the traditional Western church calendar, this is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Advent is a 4-week period of waiting and preparation leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In contrast to the tone of the secular holiday season, Advent is a quiet, contemplative, inward-turning time. It is marked by somber colors of deep blue and purple; and hymns in minor keys. While stores in many parts of the U.S. deck their halls and hail the season to be jolly and generous with one’s credit cards, pastors who encourage their congregations to mark the season of Advent swim against the cultural current, saying: “Wait. Not yet.”
But, of course, this year’s Fourth Sunday of Advent is also December 24th, Christmas Eve. Since December 25th in the majority culture of the U.S. is generally a time for home and family, churches hold their Christmas services on December 24th, celebrating the Incarnation and the birth of Jesus. The Christmas carols we’ve held onto for the four weeks of Advent are allowed to burst forth in joyous song, and we finally read our beloved Nativity stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew.
So is this morning the first Sunday of Advent? Or is it Christmas Eve?
Well…it’s both.
            So, are we waiting still, preparing still, in quiet anticipation? Or are we finally celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace?
You see the challenge for preachers? Today is a bit in between. It’s not yet Christmas. And it’s already Christmas. At the same time.
I wonder if anyone here this morning, or joining us over the CTV, resonates with this odd, ambivalent, in-between time. The Clinical Center, it seems to me, can be an in-between sort of place. It’s a place of already, and a place of not yet. Perhaps an exciting new scientific discovery has already been made, but its exact implications for those who waiting for a cure? We’re not sure yet. Perhaps you are waiting for a procedure, or, the procedure may already have happened, but the results? Not yet available. Perhaps you have already had the transplant, but time to go home? Not yet. Or perhaps the time to go home has arrived…and you know you’ll be back in the outpatient clinic soon. The time has arrived, and the waiting continues. Already. Not yet.
This is a place where great hope and great anxiety swirl around each other, and are at times difficult to separate. Which makes our Bible readings during this season remarkably relevant. This morning’s readings are a mixture of texts assigned for the Fourth Sunday of Advent and others traditionally associated with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yet all of them contain a mixture of hope and trepidation, of celebration and waiting. The Prophet Isaiah writes of a coming ruler who will bring about a reign of justice and peace. Yet Isaiah was not originally writing about Jesus, or about the time of Jesus. Isaiah wrote in the midst of the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, a time of fear, even terror. Echoes of violence reverberate through this familiar text of hope. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the coming of a Son and the glories of a new creation. Yet the “last days” that the author speaks of have been wearing on now for 2000 years, a promise not quite consummated. The letter says that this “reflection of God’s glory” “sustains all things,” but the word “sustains” can also be translated as “bears along” – God, in Christ, bearing along with the struggles and anxious waiting of humankind.
And of course there is our gospel text, the Annunciation to Mary. Perhaps you, like me, are used to seeing this scene depicted in art with soft, glowing light and a passive, reverent Mary dressed in pale blue. Yet the Angel Gabriel’s encouragement “not to fear” was not an empty platitude. There was plenty for Mary to realistically fear. Besides from the plain fact of a heavenly messenger suddenly appearing in your bedroom, Nazareth itself, in the Galilee, was not a tranquil place. It’s in the same northern part of the land about which Isaiah wrote centuries earlier, and just as in Isaiah’s time, the boots of tramping warriors were never far away. In Mary’s time, it was occupying Romans, rather than invading Assyrians, who would have made all this talk about “Son of God” and “claiming ancestral thrones” so dangerous. “Do not fear,” indeed.
For that matter, Gabriel’s charge to Mary contains its own swirling mix of hope and fear. God, Gabriel says, is going to do a new thing – a bit of a research experiment, you might say, a try at a new cure for the sorrows and sickness of the world. But this new cure needs a human subject, a volunteer willing to take on the risky task of bearing something new with only her vulnerable human body as the vessel. Despite the risk and the heartbreak that is bound to go along with this sort of thing, Mary courageously gives her consent. She says “Yes” to the Incarnation – to God’s first-in-human trial. Mary’s decision is not the triumph of hope over fear, exactly – rather, it’s the resilience and the courage to say “Yes” in the midst of all the swirling mess of “Already” and “Not Yet.”
This, then, is the tension in which the gospel, the good news, is proclaimed. Not only on this odd Sunday, both Advent and Christmas, but throughout this whole season – the anxiety and the celebration, the hope and the fear, the already and the not-yet. They are all there. The reality of these tensions does not, I would argue, undermine the spirit of this season. Rather, this is what the celebration of Christmas is always about. For it is into this very world of contradictions and tensions that Jesus is born to Mary. Born, as we will read at the end of our time together this morning, into a simple cave, his first bed a feeding trough. Light and darkness, hope and fear, all wrapped up together as tightly as any babe in swaddling clothes. And this, exactly this, is the good news – that Jesus is born here, in this already-not-yet place, in this real, messy world in which we actually live and struggle and dream and worry and hope. Pay close attention to the Nativity story, and you will notice, not scenes of snowy comfort, but something else. Something so important. There, in between the mother and her child, huddled in a darkened cave. There. Can you feel it?
It is a quiet, fierce joy.
For the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who live in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

Merry Christmas, and may it be so.