The Holy Name: A God of Surprises

The Holy Name: A God of Surprises

Luke 2:15-21

By: Chris Clow

It might not seem like it, but I promise I’m going to tie this one back into the gospel. You’ll just have to bear with me for a bit.

One of my favorite prophets is Jeremiah. I suppose it’s because – like a lot of my favorite religious and spiritual people – he’s honest. Sometimes, brutally honest.

“You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced;

you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

All day long I am an object of laughter;

everyone mocks me.

Whenever I speak, I must cry out,

violence and outrage I proclaim;

The word of the LORD has brought me

reproach and derision all day long.” (Jer 20:7-8)

Now that’s a prophet I can relate to. Not just moody or temperamental – no, Jeremiah is able to be honest about his struggles. But don’t be deceived; Jeremiah is also a powerful prophet, and he gives us some of the most beautiful imagery in the Bible.

“The word of the Lord came to me:

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jer 1:4-5)

It paints a beautiful picture – that God, the great infinite, what Rudolph Otto referred to as the wholly other, knew Jeremiah (and, hopefully, us) before we even came into existence. To expand it out further, to think that our occurring here is no random cosmic accident, but in some way, shape, or form, intentional. We are part of the plan.

It’s something that I have been reflecting on more and more ever since our child was born back in September (and yes, I know that a lot of these Christmas reflections have turned into parenthood ones – look, we’re celebrating the story of a child’s birth here, you draw from your own experiences, etc). When my wife was pregnant, we made a big point of not wanting to find out the gender. “There are so few surprises left in the world,” she told me. “It would be nice to still have this one.” And so, every time someone would ask us what we were having, we’d say “We don’t know,” and they’d always smile again (or very rarely give us a look of confusion). I know that others would want to know, but we were happy not knowing.

But we were confident it was a girl. We didn’t tell people this, of course, but we knew it. My wife started having a couple of dreams towards the end of her pregnancy of her. I had always pictured having a daughter first. Towards the end of the pregnancy, we were using her name already, and starting to envision the life we would have with her. And so, even before she was born, we were already anticipating her.

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

I still don’t know if we’re ever going to tell our son Xavier that we were so sure he was a girl.

Yeah, we were totally wrong. And it’s funny how sure we were. We were using the girl’s name, for crying out loud (which I won’t use here in case Xavier ever gets a sister someday). We thought we totally had this one figured out. It would be a surprise to everyone else, but not us – we knew who this child was going to be. We had figured out the plan.

As the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh…

When it comes to God, I’ve always tried to expect the unexpected. I would like to think that is what everyone in our gospel story was doing as well (see, I told you I’d get there). We read about the shepherds who go to see the child and his parents. It’s important to remember what a weird welcoming party this would have been. When my wife was in labor, in the very distant back of my head was the thought of how to introduce our new child to our parents, who were very excitedly and expectantly awaiting the good news.

The shepherds were not setting out that night to go find Jesus. They were not waiting in anticipation for Mary to give birth. They were just watching their flocks, probably hoping for a quiet, simple night, because quiet meant safe – no wolves, no thieves, no threats. The sudden announcement of that Good News was a frightening thing to them, at first. It was not what they were expecting. Mary and Joseph, I’m sure, were not expecting Mary to have to deliver in an animal trough, much less that they would be visited by a bunch of random shepherds in the middle of the night. They would have liked to stay in the inn, or to have been in their home – this was not their plan.

What a strange story. And yet, what joyful news this is. The shepherds tell everyone about what they had seen. Mary, Jesus’ mother, who certainly is weary from the birth and the stress, not to mention the unexpected visitors, instead hangs onto these moments. She sees in the midst of the stress and the dashing of plans once held, the surprise of God.

The naming of Jesus is given one sentence in Luke’s gospel. It is the most unsurprising part – Jesus is circumcised at 8 days and given his name, the custom of the time. But we know that this name will be associated with something extraordinary. We know what Mary took on faith, and what his disciples and friends would have to come to learn – that this Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

We also know that, no matter how cute the nativity scenes might paint it in our churches, there is something off here. Jesus, the King of kings, is born into poverty, lying in an animal’s feeding trough. Jesus, the one who will save all people, will be forced with his parents to flee to Egypt as a refugee. Jesus, the Son of God, who will in time spend his days healing the sick and lame, restoring the downtrodden to community, and even raising the dead, will become a criminal, sentenced to death by the state. In the midst of God’s grace-filled surprise, we still see evidence of the brokenness we know all too well. And yet, we finally know that the name of Jesus is not just tied into all the fear and violence he endured, but also the grace, glory, and salvation he means for us.

To think – all of that mystery and majesty, sorrow and joy is contained within a name. The name may be simple, but the person behind the name carries such hope and promise and power. Mary knew what the angel had told her when they named their child Jesus, but she couldn’t really have predicted exactly how his life would have gone. Jeremiah didn’t know the extent of what being a prophet for the Lord would lead him into (though he probably had an idea). When my wife and I brought little Xavier home, we had no idea how the next few weeks would go, whether we would ever sleep again. We have no idea what his life will hold, what he will love and think and do, what his name will mean to other people.

There is an awful lot of hopes, dreams, and wishes placed on his little name right now.

But, even though we were not expecting Xavier, he is still the child that we hoped for. He is still the one we talked to in the womb, the one whose ultrasound we watched, the one we tried to plan for. He is the one we left for the hospital at 4am for, the one whose cries we are now attentive to, and the one whose smiles seem to make the rest all worth it. There is so much still that we don’t know, so many surprises left to discover. We do not yet know what his name will mean, but we look forward to discovering God’s surprises to come. Mary did not yet know just what the name of Jesus would mean, but she, and we all, would come to know just what God’s latest surprise would have in store.

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a new parent, campus minister, and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. He and his wife Emily mostly now spend their time tending to their young infant Xavier, but he also still enjoys working with the students and playing music, finding time for games of all sorts where he can, and converting his son to St. Louis Cardinals fandom in time for Spring Training.

1st Sunday after Christmas(C): A Little Child Will Lead Us

1st Sunday after Christmas(C): A Little Child Will Lead Us

Luke 2:41-52

By: The Rev. Joe Mitchell

During my days as a youth minister, I served a church in South Carolina with a large number of children.  One such child was named James, and on one particular day I was serving at the altar and saw James, along with his sister and mother, coming up to the rail for Communion. James was running ahead of them, and when he got to the rail he stretched out his arms and loudly exclaimed, “Give me a cracker!”  His mother was embarrassed, worried that some of the Old Blue Hairs in the church might think her overly excited child shouldn’t even take Communion if he doesn’t know what it is. “Do any of us really understand what’s happening up there, though?” I asked. “What he does know,” I continued, “is that something special is happening, and he wants to be a part of it.”

We all know those folks in our churches who would have the same reaction to a child like James as all of those Old Blue Hairs did. Children should not fully participate in church until they have a grasp on how to behave and an understanding of what is going on! This is nothing short of a heresy, and the proof is right here in our Gospel text for the First Sunday during Christmastide.

Unless we break out the Gospel of Thomas—which, let’s face it, we really should sometimes!—we don’t get a clear picture of what Jesus was like as a child. Matthew features nothing between Jesus’ birth and his earthly ministry, Mark starts off at his baptism, and John has him existing before creation itself. Only Luke offers us anything resembling a childhood for little Jesus, and it occurs during the Passover when Jesus was 12 years of age. Granted, Jewish custom said that a boy became a man at such an age—12 is the traditional age for a Bar Mitzvah, after all—but even back then no one would have seen Jesus as anything more than a child (a fact made clear by his own mother’s exclamation, “Child,  why have you treated us like this?”). Nevertheless, regardless of his age Jesus is drawn to the temple, to its teachers, and to the holy task of asking questions and wondering. It is here in this moment that Jesus, as young person, sets an example for each of us to follow, pursuing a relationship with God with excitement and wonder.

Like most children, Jesus doesn’t listen to his parents. He is not part of their caravan that came up to the holy city and was now heading back to Nazareth. His curiosity and wonder have gotten the better of him, and in a very real sense it seems that pre-teen Jesus is giving children of all ages the permission to wonder, to wander, to ask, to be excited, and to pursue God in their own creative ways.

I wonder what our own churches and faith communities would look like if we could instill in our people that they are to treat children the same way that those teachers treated Jesus. They didn’t shoo him away or ignore him. Rather, they engaged with him and let him speak. They did not negate his own experience of the holy, even if he was but a child. What might happen if the next time you heard a child cry out in church you stopped and listened? What might happen to your church community if the people saw children as full and equal partners, ministers of the Gospel by virtue of their baptism, and seekers of God no less so than they?

The Incarnation is beautiful for many reasons, not the least of which is the reminder that God was a child like any of us. In Christ, God wondered and wandered and whined and wailed. In Christ, God has set for us an example of what it means to be fully human, including what it means to be a child. Children are vulnerable, like little baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers, but children are also inquisitive like 12-year old Jesus wandering the temple to talk with the teachers about God. Somewhere we lost that perspective and treated children as nuisances that are to be silent until the day they get confirmed and learn all the secrets of the faith. Thanks be to God that James’ mother did no such thing and let her son run up to the Communion rail to ask for his cracker!

As we continue our Christmas celebration, let us remember not only the meek and mild baby but the inquisitive pre-teen who wanted to know more. Let us be mindful of such eager hearts and minds in our own congregations and seek to foster a community where those questions are not only tolerated but encouraged. We may find some of our older folks starting to wonder themselves, and we may find our own dried-up sense of wonderment renewed. After all, a little child will lead us!

 

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The Rev. Joe Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus

Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus

Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

This past July, Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis (where I serve) placed statuary of the Holy Family in an enclosure on our front lawn in order to draw attention to the crisis of Family Separation on our southern border. The aim for this icon was the same as all other icons: to cause us to pause and consider the materiality of the object of our prayer. To have an image, a display, draw us into the reality of a concept, and further into the eternal reality that lies among the object or person the icon depicts. All good iconography is good prayer. All good statuary, all good architecture, serves to draw us materially into the spiritual reality that permeates all of creation. While we as people are capable of high-level abstract thought, we’re not very good at it. We need something visible or tangible to ground us. A place to point to and say that, while God is not constrained, there are places and objects in which God is reflected. Pointed to.

By the time Fox News picked up the images and video of our display we were receiving quite a bit of correspondence. Much of it was nasty and polemic, which didn’t particularly phase me. What gave me pause, however, were a line of responses with a similar proposition—that the Holy Family was a materially privileged one. That they were not sojourners or wanderers in a strange city. That the stable was sufficient housing, the manger a well-made bed. And as such our work of identifying Jesus in the plight of the refugee and the migrant was ill-founded. Our icon did not reflect the Jesus that they knew. They Jesus they were convinced was pious object of yuletide devotion. The tidy and flat Jesus of countless roadside creches, white and flood-lit casting long shadows in front of equally white and empty crosses.

When St. Francis of Assisi made the first Crèche in the City of Greccio in 1223 he did it to put real and incarnate life to a static celebration. In what was perhaps the first of a millennium of attempts to “put Christ back in Christmas” the Saint called for a living display, he “made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be (sic) brought unto the spot.”[1]  It was a living icon. An act of theatre. Contextualized, and situated in 13th century Italy, certainly, but it was a contextualization of those scant few lines that St. Luke gives us, that, “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.” On a cold December night an infant slept in hay. Oxen and Asses smelled as Oxen and Asses do. It was noisy, and odd—so much so that Saint Bonaventure made sure to note that Francis had papal permission to do it.[2]

There is a part of me that wonders what we’ve lost in losing the newness, the life and the vitality of this icon. If we’re still able to see the radicality of the God’s incarnation that comes to us in the most unexpected way. If we’re able to see that God from God and Light from Light took on mortal flesh in the midst of a forced-government relocation. In a town so crowded that a trough was all that was open. At an unattended birth, with Shepherds as the first visitors.

Who are we to flatten the life in this? Who are we to tame a God that comes to us in ways that take us aback. Who are we to tame the mystery of the incarnation. To condense it. Sell it. Whiten it. And then claim that its ours? In a sentence no less profound than the opening line of St. John’s prologue, St. Luke tells us that Christ came to us a displaced Child born in a barn, and Angels shouted Glory!

We cannot afford to tame this. We cannot afford to own this. We cannot afford the great and terrible cost of re-making Christ’s nativity in our own image.

It is our job, then, to keep it wild. To break open the coming of God’s incarnation with awe and astonishment. To see behind every icon of the Holy Family a real and living Christ. A tender and exhausted Maria. A bewildered and beleaguered José.

Its up to us to let the icons and stories do what they are here to do.

Point us to God, and send us out in love to our neighbors.

[1] THE LIFE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI. Saint Bonaventure, Translated by E. Gurney Salter (1904 by E.P. Dutton, New York, US.) Accessed at: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/bonaventure/assisi/francis.shtml#__RefHeading___Toc351061216

[2] Ibid.

 

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The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univerisity, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman

Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

What does it mean to truly live? This time of year is full of all kinds of wonderful things: friends having get togethers, office parties (though one could question the goodness of those), and family time. These are the times of year that we see people that maybe we’ve lost contact with over the course of the year and maybe we finally manage to reconnect. We get to make amazing memories of the holidays.

I remember my Christmases growing up in North Alabama. There weren’t many white Christmases to speak of, but there were lots of memories. My dad has always loved to decorate the house for Christmas. We always had these amazingly beautiful Christmas light displays: vis a vis Clark Griswold from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” There were two amazingly tall Southern Magnolia trees (magnolia grandiflora) in our front yard. They had to be at least 40-50 feet tall. Though I have to confess, they seemed bigger than that as a child. One year when I was a kid my dad decided that he wanted to hang lights on those trees in the front yard. I thought he was absolutely out of his mind. But he was determined, so he came up with a rig. He basically used a smaller tree with all the branches cut off, leaving only a Y at the top of the pole to run lights up into the huge magnolia trees. I can’t believe it even now! Looking back at it, I am amazed at his determination and his commitment to making something special and amazing of that Christmas.

I think about all of the special memories and amazing moments of my life and I am filled with awe and inspired to try to make wonder filled moments with the kids I work with. When I was in seminary, I remember one of my professors saying, “Christians and Jews march on their memory.” It is a comment that has stuck with me after many other things have passed from my memory. I think it has stuck because it is deeply ingrained in my own spirituality. It’s one of the ways that I seek balance and hope in times of trouble. To remember the depth of God’s love and the continual promise of God’s seeking human redemption. Lamentations tells us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

In certain moments it is very difficult to hold this idea and our experience of our daily lives hand in hand. I’m writing less than a week after the tragic shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My heart is broken by this tragedy and the hatred that has been leveled against my Jewish brothers and sisters. Hate is not found in the heart of God. Crimes of hatred and violence betray the very image of God that lays inside each and every human being. Just a few days after the shooting, I had the privilege of standing alongside Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, Mormons, Lutherans at a synagogue here in Calgary and declare that we will reject hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and stand together as people of different faiths to support our Jewish brothers and sisters following the massacre in Pittsburgh. It is one of the positive moments to come from such a terrible tragedy, but it isn’t the only one. Our Muslim brothers and sisters formed rings of protection around synagogues in Toronto on the most recent Shabbat.[1] We have to look at the good things that can come from these horrible tragedies. It is hard for us to hold these terrible moments in human history alongside the Glory of God revealed in the incarnation.

It is easy to reflect on the power and prestige of the birth of Jesus, but when we celebrate the glory of the incarnation that comes into such a messed-up world where there’s violence and hatred and evil it is much harder to imagine the God of heaven and earth deciding to enter into this world for its redemption. I would love to believe that Jesus entered into a world that was filled with less hate or less pain, but that simply isn’t realistic. It isn’t true to the human experience, and it isn’t faithful to the message of God’s redemptive acts throughout human history for our salvation. God comes in times that are most confused when people have most lost their hope and direction in life and aren’t sure how to live as God’s people in a new age.

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, it was to break the yoke of Pharaoh’s slavery and give us freedom to worship and love God. When God brought God’s people into the promised land, it was that they might not wander lost in the desert eternally but to give them a home. When God came to dwell among us, it was not into a sanitized world apart from the reality of human suffering, but it was to a people who were oppressed by the Roman authorities and crushed under the burden of the legalistic religious authorities that we might know the freedom of true life. St. John Chrysostom in his famous homily says, “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.”[2]

Jesus comes to dwell in and among our ordinary human life filled with both suffering and beautiful things to show us the true treasure of life and invite us to participate in God’s saving work. That we might know the abundant life to which God has called us a life of freedom and belonging and to open to the whole world the way of salvation. There surely is no greater proclamation of God’s love than God’s enduring embrace of the whole of creation through the incarnation. God reaches out through the incarnation to make God’s love known to us and to the whole of creation.

[1] “‘We Share That Pain’: Muslims Form Rings of Peace at GTA Synagogues in Wake of U.S. Shooting.” CBC. November 03, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/gta-muslim-pittsburgh-synagogue-peace-ring-1.4890743.

[2] St. John Chrysostom. “St. John Chrysostom: Homily on Christmas Morning.” Prydain. December 25, 2008. https://prydain.wordpress.com/2008/12/25/st-john-chrysostom-homily-on-christmas-morning-3/.

 

 

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The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

The Rev. Jerrod W. McCormack was recently ordained a transitional deacon in Diocese of Calgary in the Anglican Church of Canada. He serves as the Spiritual Health Practitioner for the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Alberta and as a deacon for St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. He’s a native of Alabama but has been sojourning in the Great White North for several years now and is pleased to call the Canadian Rockies home.

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Luke 1:39-55

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Luke presents the story of Jesus as a combination of history and biography. He sets out to give an “orderly account,” committed to telling the story of Jesus in such a way that makes all things clear. Luke’s attempt at capturing the story of Jesus in fullness walks the line other ancient historiography does, “marked by the paradox of two or more less competing interests – veracity (the attempt to depict events that actually happened) and narrative (the attempt to set events within a coherent, meaningful series, the presentation of which accords privilege to causation and teleology).”[i]  It is an opportunity for us to say, “We don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but we know that this story is true.”

The narrative element of Luke’s writing invites readers to engage the story with imagination rooted in the text. This can be a delightful task when the text includes angels, which happens quite a bit in the opening chapters of Luke. As we read the lectionary pericope this Sunday, we just miss the appearance of one. We enter the narrative while the wonderful glow from the angel who announced Mary’s pregnancy to her is still fading.

If we are reading from Mary’s perspective, it may not have been so wonderful. An unwed pregnant woman was not a good thing to be in her time. Joseph, her fiancé, had a couple of choices. He could have her stoned or he could walk away leaving her with a newborn and no income. Neither option would have been good for Mary.

And then there is the actual pregnancy to consider. Any pregnancy can be difficult, but teenage pregnancy is particularly hard. Beyond what scholars can tell us about the social and historical context of the text, we know this because we know the obstacles and risks teen mothers face today. The preacher might take time to look at teen pregnancy and birth rates in their state and/or community along with available resources to localize the situation for the congregation. We cannot help but wonder how things would have worked out for Mary if she had been an unwed teenage mother in our time – would she still have been shunned, uninsured, and with less access to maternal healthcare?

After the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, we usually just skip to the Magnificat. The angel leaves and then Mary starts singing, right? But Luke says there is more to the story. Perhaps the most overlooked element of the Magnificat is when it appears in the story. Mary does not burst into song when Gabriel shows up. She does not start humming the tune when the angel tells her The Plan. She does not shout from the rooftop as Gabriel exits. She barely clears her throat.

When the angel disappears, Mary has a panic attack. This is not in the text, but read between the lines. It happens in the little empty space between verses 38 and 39 where we’ve added the title Mary Visits Elizabeth. Immediately after the angel flits away, Mary packs her bags and leaves town. “In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” She is scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She is in trouble. She’s a pregnant teenager without any support. So she runs, hoping that her cousin Elizabeth will keep her from getting stoned or shamed to death.

The moment that Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth’s house, everything changes. The first thing Elizabeth does when Mary shows up at her door is to bless her with holy words of welcome: “Welcome, dear one. Welcome. Come and stay for while.” She called Mary blessed. Blessed. And then, then it is that Mary sings about being lifted up, about mercy.

When does Mary sing the Magnificat? When does she find her voice? When is she convinced that everything is going to be okay? After she gets help, when she finds refuge, in the wake of being welcomed and embraced. Mary’s Magnificat, which follows in verses 46-55, is made possible because Elizabeth’s welcome helped Mary find her footing. And we cannot separate Jesus’ life and ministry from the woman who raised him with the words, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” on her lips.

This pericope is the linchpin of the story. The Good News is Elizabeth’s response to a scared, pregnant teenager who doesn’t have the resources to take care of herself. This is when everything turns, where the story of Jesus pivots in the right direction. The key ingredient is holy words of welcome.  

And now it is our work to continue the story. What welcome is the church speaking today?

[i] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke (p. 15). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is associate minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Oklahoma State University.

 

 

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Luke 3:7-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

I’ve recently entered a fun part of my vocational journey. It seemed as if my 20s were spent in endless preparation—an advent that felt like it would never end. I was learning and teaching and practicing, but all of it was done in a liminal space due to the educational programs in which I was enrolled. I was a full-time student and only part-time everything else. And now, in my thirties, I have entered into a new space—one with a full-time job that is in line with my vocational call and professional goals, and so my time is spent less thinking about “someday,” and more spent honing in on who I am and what I have to offer. In short, my eternal relationship with advent has come to an end.

Or has it?

You see, in my role as a college chaplain at a small liberal art college that does not presume religious faith of any kind, I have been forced to articulate a vision for my role’s existence. In 2018, if a college is not specifically faith-based, why have a minister at all? It’s a question I myself wrestle with, but when I read this account of John the Baptist, I find a kindred spirit in vocational call.

As I have been articulating just what this vocational call is, recently my message of a misplaced pastor in a secular setting has been this: The way things are now is not how they have to be. It seems to me that this is John’s message as well.

In the first several verses, John calls the gathered group to repentance.[1] In the right context, such requests for accountability and changed living can be a message of hope. When we are caught in patterns of sin, particularly when they are causing us pain, offering a way out suggests that the way things are now is not how they have to be. We can be different. We do not have to bear bad fruit. We can do something to heal the world.

But how?

John responds to the “how” question with practical tips. He says that whoever has two coats should share with someone who has none, which suggests that we are all responsible for generosity. The willingness to share what we have is not only demanded of the rich, but of anyone who has what someone else does not.

Following this, John addresses two professions that at the time held the potential to be abused by exploiting others. John’s admonishments here are not as much about the professions themselves as they are about the condemnation of exploitation. Combined with the verses immediately before, we see that John is advocating for the social and economic care of each person in the community. There is not indictment of the poor themselves, but instead, the conviction and responsibility is placed on those who take and keep from those who do not have. Again, the way things are now (exploitation and inequality) is not how they have to be.

In the final verses, John points to someone who is coming whose presence is a purifying fire that burns away the sins of the world—injustice, exploitation, inequality, hoarding resources, abuse. The way things are now is not how they have to be. And perhaps this is my call as a chaplain who works with religious and non-religious students alike: not only to remind people over and over that the way things are is not how they have to be, but also to work with them to figure out ways that they can participate in the social transformation. And perhaps my call, like John, is not to do this for my own sake, but to point the way to one who comes who is much greater than that which we do accomplish in the meantime. We pare down our closets and share our food now, knowing that we are preparing the way for more and more. We are changing the world. And more is coming.

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Amen.

[1] It should be noted here that in Matthew’s version of the story, John specifically calls out religious leaders. In that passage and in this one, I encourage my fellow Christian ministers to take care not to perpetuate the idea that religious people of the time, specifically Jews, were any more of a problem than religious people of this time, including Christians. Even with the best of intentions, this interpretation has bolstered anti-Semitism by instilling in Christian congregants the idea that early and current Jews are less than Christians in practice or belief. Obviously Christian doctrine about other religious traditions vary widely across denomination, but anti-Semitism itself has violent consequences, and particularly after the Tree of Life shooting October 27, 2018, Christian preachers should exercise discernment about the impact of their words.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

 

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Just to be clear: this is no small, trivial act. From this moment of revelation emerges a prophetic ministry that sets all things in motion, proclaiming the time that is soon at hand, a mission of preparing the way for the One who is to come. Saint Luke’s detailed location of this event as a moment in time is much more than an obsessive attention to detail.

The specificity of the time and place defines the enormous significance of this occasion. It is not a moment to be overlooked, but a time and place worthy of note.

After all, the word of God coming to someone, to anyone, in the wilderness of all places, was no ordinary occurrence. There had been hundreds of years of silence. Generation after generation had been born, lived, and died since the people of God had been in the presence of a prophet, one who had received a word from on high.

John’s message was rooted in the words of his predecessor, the great prophet Isaiah. In the days of old, the prophet cried aloud to make ready and prepare the way of the Lord, to straighten the paths that had grown crooked and smooth that which had been made rough. All of this was to serve that single purpose – that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”

The word of God came to John, and a prophet was in their midst. The message of God’s abiding and redeeming love was being made known anew.

Let’s be honest: in our own time, prophets are many. Their messages are even more numerous and varied. Silence is not common. Some of our prophets claim to speak a word from God, while others boldly claim a message that is all their own. Some shout loudly on street corners and across airwaves, while others seek a more subtle transmission. There is no shortage of prophets in our midst.

For us, followers of Jesus in this day and this time, the careful work of discernment is all the more challenging. Who and where are the prophets who truly speak a word from God?

This passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel issues an important clue into where we might best look: to the wilderness. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God’s good news emerges on the fringes and at the margins, far from the seats of power and privilege. In the places that appear so bare and desolate, absent of the presence of anything that is holy, the prophetic word of the living God is made real.

Where are such wilderness prophets today? A few ideas…

Perhaps we need to go to a literal wilderness, to the desert Southwest of these United States, where families arrive at our nation’s border, day after day, in search of sanctuary. Fleeing violence and fear, in search of safety and peace, these children of God—men, women, and children—arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. From the wilderness of tents and detention centers, what word might they speak to us this Advent season?

Perhaps we need not venture far from home to find ourselves deep in the wilderness. In the neglected and overlooked neighborhood of our own city, the wilderness might look like the parking lot of the market with a ‘check cashing center.’ Inside, the individual who is struggling to make ends meet, agonizing over which bill can be paid this month, is the recipient of a loan that may never be repaid, bearing a rate of interest so high that it renders them enslaved. What word from God might emerge in just such a wilderness?

Perhaps we need only look at the wilderness of our own faith community to discover a fresh word in this season of anticipation and expectation. In the pew sits the mother whose family does not look like every other family, the forgotten widower who wonders if he has been noticed, the child who has been told she is not enough. The wilderness of experience, rather than location, is no less desolate, no less isolation. What word from the Holy One might they proclaim to us as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts and souls?

These are prophets, each and every one, testifying to the truth from the wildernesses that call to us, people of the Jesus Way, here and now.

To ask the question of where and who the prophets of our place and time might be emerging, we do well to remember that, in ancient days, the word of God appeared in the most unlikely of places, in the wilderness, to the man named John. In the wilderness of our own days, in this year, 2018, may a good word from God be heard anew, and may we have the grace and power to share it, that all shall see and hear and know the salvation of our God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.