Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Luke 9:28-36

By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin

I’m the youngest of three brothers. My oldest brother and I have always looked very similar. In fact, over ten years ago I met his wife’s sister and her kids and spent the day playing with them at the beach. The youngest was about 4 at the time and he kept calling me by my brother’s name. I would correct him, but he’d just look at me like I was dumb and repeat my brother’s name. His mom later apologized and just said, “Listen. Tomorrow he’ll talk about what a great day he had with your brother. Sorry, you guys look so much alike.” And it’s true. Despite being 5 years apart, we look very similar. It’s a little eerie.

All of that changed a few years ago when my brother had surgery to correct his jaw. We all have big jaws, but his was shaped in a way that when he bit down, his back teeth would hit and his front teeth would still be about 10 millimeters apart! Try eating pizza when your front teeth stay 10 millimeters apart!?!? So, they broke his jaw and rewired it and fixed his bite. Great for him. Except, now his smile is a little different and we don’t look as similar. I’m happy for my brother, because now he’s more whole than before, and he can function more as an adult. But I kind of miss his old look. I’ve grown used to the new smile by now, it’s just different.

So, Moses climbed the mountaintop and communed with God. Moses descends the mountain with the tablets of the covenant. We tend to picture Charlton Heston stoically walking with Roman numeral clad, ten-commandment tablets. Instead, a more accurate picture is Moses walking to the people with physical evidence of God’s covenant with the people. In the Old Testament, one of the major themes is that God is revealed to one person and through one is revealed to the many. We see this with Noah, then Abraham, and eventually Moses becomes a central figure in this theme. Another theme before Moses is that the covenants God made with the people were one-sided. After the flood, God puts the rainbow in the sky as a covenant that God would never again destroy all humanity. This covenant depended on God’s action and did not depend on human action. Similarly, God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s chosen people. Abraham didn’t really have to do much to fulfill this covenant (perhaps a little procreation). All of this changes with Moses.

As Moses descends the mountain with the tablets, God has made a covenant with the people, but the people make a covenant with God to remember to be God’s people. Part of that includes re-reading the covenant every year and re-promising to be God’s people. Included in this covenant is a bit of an ‘or else’, whereby God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people as long as…” This is a significant moment in human history as God’s revelation is taken to a new level. God chooses an entire people and leads them from slavery and into the Promised Land. In this moment, this encounter with God to receive the covenant, this encounter changes Moses life and his appearance. After the encounter with God, Moses’ face is transformed and the people are afraid. Moses has experienced the Glory of God in a way no human had since Adam and Eve. If we think about it, a glowing face seems a fitting response after such a supernatural experience!

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus ascends another mountain. He brings along Peter and John and they pray. One reason for this mountaintop prayer time is to show that Jesus fulfills the covenant with Moses. Jesus is able to hear the reading of the covenant that Moses brought down the mountain and re-promise to keep the covenant, as generations had done before him. Yet, Jesus is capable of fulfilling that covenant. Jesus hears the reading of the covenant where God says, “I will be your God and you promise to be my people.” And Jesus says, “Yes!” and the covenant is forever fulfilled—not ignored (Marcionites!), but fulfilled! So it makes sense that Jesus’ appearance, like that of Moses, is transformed. Jesus shines like the face of Moses. They are speaking of Jesus’ departure. Perhaps Jesus is making the new covenant with humanity, represented by Moses and Elijah, as they discuss Jesus’ coming death and resurrection? This new covenant seems to have Jesus saying, “I will be your God and you will be my people. And you are loved. Go and Love one another.” So, what does an encounter look like for us today?

There’s an older woman in our church, Mary. She might be one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Mary’s also one of the best bakers I’ve ever experienced. In her mid-eighties, she still makes communion bread for us every Sunday. I love the symbolism of giving her communion each week. Here, she’s brought her gift to the church and offered it to God. The people bring her bread and the wine to the altar. Through the Eucharistic prayer, I the priest offer these gifts to God. In this great mystery, God transforms the gifts of the people. The bread that Mary has given to the congregation and the congregation has offered it to God, is now given back to the very same people, blessed and broken. This bread has encountered God on the mountaintop (well, the altar) and it will forever be different. And it’s given back to the people so they can go out into the world and love God and their neighbors, having encountered God. The people are changed.  

What do you experience when you encounter God in the Eucharist each week? What would it be like if that encounter changed our appearance and people saw us and were afraid? I’d like to think that I’d feel loved by God and empowered to love the neighbors around me. This sounds like a simple thing. It sounds so basic and Sunday School-y to say that God loves me. Yet, if I truly knew and could embody the fact that God loves me, oh what a change! For now, I keep coming back each week, encountering God in the bread that has been to the mountaintop and broken for me.

 

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The Rev. Jim Dahlin

The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Luke 24:13-35

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Third Sunday after Easter. We have passed the austerity of Lent, the spiritual high of Easter, and (hopefully) everyone is now back in their pew after the post-Easter slump. Now the real work of the Resurrection life can begin.

There is a lot of exegesis that could play into a study of this text, and if you go looking you are sure to find it. The third Sunday after Easter is always the Road to Emmaus. Every lectionary commentary deals with it at least three different ways and every commentary on Luke addresses the text at least once. That is to say nothing of the academic periodicals, blog posts, and preaching commentaries like this one that can be summoned from the depths of google and ATLA.

My advice to you is to resist a deep exegetical dive into this text. You may be tempted to delve into a complicated theological treatise on the divine presence of the Eucharist, but I say to you: RESIST.

People in the pews are tired after a long Lent and the exhausting ecstasy of Easter. Let deep theological explanation melt away this Sunday. Let the bread be bread. Let the fellowship be fellowship. Let the road be the road. Let the hospitality of Cleopas be hospitality. Let the Resurrection be the Resurrection. Humble yourself on Luke’s Emmaus Road; you cannot do better.

Let the text be the text, because in this story of fellowship and resurrection the specter of Good Friday is shed from the eyes of Cleopas and his companion. The road to Emmaus is about seeing God in our midst overcoming death, and the Church is preoccupied with death. Attendance, membership, and budgets have been steadily declining for 30-50 years.

The Millennial pastor to whom this blog is aimed is in an interesting position; we have never known a year of Church growth. Sure we may be part of growing communities, but we have grown up in failing denominations. We have heard about new methods for church growth our whole lives and now our whole ministries, because the Church has not found one that works.

As contrary as it sounds, millennial preachers, pastors, and priests are in a wonderful place because MILLENIALS HAVE ONLY KNOWN CHURCH DEATH! This could be a depression inducing epiphany, however I believe that this is our generation’s greatest strength. Who better to point to life? Who better to say look at who has come out of the tomb? Who better to stand with the disciples in Emmaus and say, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?!?!?!”[1] Life isn’t the status quo the church has been trying to hold onto, or claw back to life; true eternal life is a gift given only by and in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the joys and purpose of table fellowship. He says:

…The congregation of Jesus believes that its Lord will to be present when it prays for his presence. So it prays: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest”—and thereby confess the gracious omnipresence of Jesus Christ… Christians, in their wholehearted joy in the good gifts of this physical life, acknowledge their Lord as the true giver of all good gifts; and beyond this, as the true gift: the true Bread of life itself; and finally, as the one who is calling them to the banquet of the Kingdom of God… At table they know their Lord as the one who breaks bread for them; the eyes of their faith are opened.[2]

Our gift as Christians, as the Church, is found in fellowship together. It is in fellowship that we see the resurrected Christ revealed, and realize both who has given us these gifts of life and who and what the true gift is.

For this third Sunday after Easter let Jesus confound our expectations. Emmanuel Lartey, who taught my Introduction to Pastoral Care course, said in class that the role of the pastoral caregiver is to walk into someone’s life and point to a God who is already there.[3] This Sunday, more than most, the role of the Preacher is to stand up and point to a God who is already there, to the places where God is at work, and the people who are inviting Christ into the community. We are Millennials (and folks who resonate with the Millennial generation). Who better to point to the creative, innovative, and new *gasp&shutter* ways that Christ is breaking the bread in our midst? Who better to see the new life that has been flowing all along, name it, and embrace it? Who better to see the ways that Christ has broken bread, broken death, and brought life than the very people who have only seen a church preoccupied with the power of death?

Preacher, SPEAK OF NEW LIFE! The dead will bury the dead and only the gift of Jesus Christ will raise the dead to life!

This week isn’t about deep exegesis of the text. This week is about a deep exegesis of the congregation. This week is about pointing to the moments where Christ is revealed in the lives of those in the pews. Speak of the grandparents who bring their grandkids to Church. Speak of the retiree who gives their time reading with school children during the week. Speak of the folks who staff soup kitchens, clothing closets, and homeless shelters. Speak to the creative, new, and unexpected ways that God is breaking into the world. God is already here. Speak of those who are caring for the immigrant and refugees in your community and our nation (Trust me. No matter what you think of your congregation’s politics, you will not have to look as far as you imagine). The resurrected Christ walks among us here and now. This Sunday do not let Christ get away without breaking the bread of himself and opening our eyes to the resurrection that is among us.

 

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a grad of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. Jonathan enjoys the outdoors, spending time fly fishing, biking, running, and hiking. He has thru hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a triathlon, keeps chickens and bees, and ran his first half marathon in March. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. They have one dog named Nantahala (Hala for short).

[1] Luke 24:32; NRSV. Punctuation mine.

[2] Bonheoffer, Dietrich, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W.Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 67-68.

[3] Lartey, Emmanuel. “Introduction to Pastoral Care” Seminary Course, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 2013.

Annunciation: The “Yes”

Annunciation: The “Yes”

Luke 1:26-38

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

In the parish I serve in Lexington, Kentucky, there is a stained glass window depicting the Annunciation located in the clerestory that rises above the nave (the part of the church where the people of God gather for worship.) On Wednesday afternoons, when the congregation of the faithful is often few in number, my seat is located directly below and across from this magnificent piece of art.

If at all possible, I try to arrive in my seat ten minutes or so prior to the start of the service—a time set aside for reflection and prayer that all too often, can go forgotten in the course of a normal week. During these moments, week after week, I continually find myself gazing at the image of the Annunciation.

The depiction is traditional in almost every way. The eventual Mother of God is devoutly kneeling, as though her noonday prayers are being interrupted by the angel who appears before her eyes. There is no resistance or hesitation; there is only adoration of the divine messenger—the one who will utter a word rendering her life, and the life of all creation, forever changed.

Bells toll from the tower and the Eucharistic liturgy must be underway. All too soon, my moment with the Blessed Virgin and the angelic visitor is over. But Mary remains, fixed in her position of consent and obedience, awaiting the next person who will pause to gaze upon her life-altering moment of divine visitation.

Annually, the Church returns to the Annunciation, nine long months prior to the mid-winter festival of the Incarnation. With each return, preachers and pew-sitters alike are faced with the question of what, if anything, this story has to offer our lives and journeys of faith.

After all, when an individual speaks of an angelic visitation, the twenty-first century impulse is more likely to make a psychiatric referral rather than record it as Gospel truth.  Yet, this story and its yearly festival remain on our calendar, with some leaving it forgotten in the confines of Lent while others mark it with great ceremony and devotion.

The angelic announcement to the eventual Mother of God is a biblical narrative in which, I believe, it is very possible to locate ourselves as twenty-first century readers and preachers and find meaning for the Christian journey in our present day. Mary’s is an unlikely tale of surprise and faithfulness that can reach beyond so many boundaries and enliven the absurdity of our common call as Christ-followers in this age.

When the angel of the Lord visits Mary, she pauses, resists even. Luke tells us that she is “perplexed by his words.” And who could blame her? The unwelcome guest has entered into her midst and is preparing to offer the most unlikely of invitations: a summons to join in God’s story of salvation for all time.

In our own time, the unwelcome guest with a life-changing message can appear in so many different forms, but rarely as an angel. One might hear the message of the angel in this passage but not be able to shake the words of the physician who has just named the spot on the X-ray as cancer. Another might envision the angel’s appearance before the youthful Mary but see only the image of a former employer announcing the terms of a layoff and a promising career taking an unexpected turn.

As Luke’s rendering of the event progresses, it is as though the teen girl is maturing into an astute woman before our eyes. Blessed Mary receives the improbable dispatch of the angel and responds with an even more astounding affirmation. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”

It begs the question: What divine call might we, as individuals and communities of readers, be wrestling with as this passage is proclaimed? As I write, faithful people in our nation are perplexed at how to respond to a ban on the entry of refugees into this nation. Others are pondering sustainable solutions to staggering reality of hunger in our various communities.  No doubt, other issues exist and will continue to arise.

As a preacher, I often think of my task as opening up the story and then stepping out of the way—a task easier said than done. In this passage, it is to invite a congregation to see this story for all that it is: an unlikely young woman receiving a visit from the divine messenger and offering a less than warm welcome. But, even more, it is to invite the hearer to respond to the call of the Holy One with a like fervor, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The location of the Annunciation window in my parish is significant, far beyond the fact that the presider is offered the opportunity to gaze upon her week after week. In the clerestory where the window stands are images that are associated with each of the apostles. They work their way around the sacred hall of prayer in order, from the front to the back, left to right.

Following this path, the same pilgrimage that marks the life of Jesus on the lower level, Mary’s Annunciation experience is first among those. She is the first apostle, the first to encounter the incomparable plan of God and to respond in affirmation.

Mary’s response to the divine summons, “let it be with me according to your word,” is the ‘yes’ that sets in motion the incarnation of the perfect reconciling love of God. Her ‘yes’ makes possible our ‘yes,’ our participation in the cosmic movement of redemption that is being worked out, day by day.

The Annunciation bids us all to find ourselves, individually and collectively, in the story of a young woman engaged to a man named Joseph, a girl who heard the unexpected invitation of God and said yes. Her story has the power to inspire each of us, in our own journeys, to follow in the path that she herself has traveled, a trail of faithfulness that leads us ultimately into the redeeming heart of 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.

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Ben Day

One Sunday while serving as the Curate at an urban Atlanta congregation, I was confronted by the matriarch of our parish community as she exited the nave. “You preach the same sermon every time I come to church,” she said, “try changing it up once in awhile.”

I have never been one to avoid confrontation or to shrink in the face of what I think is unjust criticism, so without missing a beat or stopping to consider what I was about to say, I responded, “Well ma’am I only preach that sermon when I see you come in the door. I will change my sermon when you change your bad attitude.”

The lady turned and glared at me, and then in a moment of pure grace, burst out laughing, as I stood shattered and humiliated by what I had just blurted out.

I would like to think that I have matured a great deal as a person and a pastor since then. But I was reminded of that moment again when I read today’s text recalling Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The years of seminary coursework on pastoral care, all of the hours spent studying on family systems theory, the interpersonal work of CPE, learning to be a “non-anxious presence…” As I stood in the doorway of the parish, none of those things appeared in my mind or inspired grace to come from my mouth.

The gospel explains that Simeon prepared too. It was revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah appear during his lifetime. He knew to expect it and be vigilant. But as I read his response in verses 29-32, which is sometimes called the “Song of Simeon,” I wonder whether he might have been a little caught off guard by what he holds in his arms?

We learn that he is led by the spirit to the Temple that day (v.27), but upon meeting the child, he takes him in his arms and offers an elegant but visceral description. Not just a description, but a proclamation. And not just any proclamation either, but also a prophecy. And the holy family is amazed.

The content, though, can’t be that amazing. Simeon is at least in part paraphrasing Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary (Luke 1: 32-33), and Mary proclaims as much as Simeon does in her own song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  But the Holy Parents are “amazed” nonetheless. I am left to believe it must have been a scene to behold–Simeon’s offering of praise. Because what it lacks in original content must have been made up for in tone and style. An elder in the temple confirming all that you have been told, and all that you hoped and believed. A soul bearing description with pure wonder and praise – that would amaze!

Reading the lesson in this light, with a bit of theoretical imagination, I became aware of its subtle but strong connection to my own experience that day, standing in the doorway to the parish nave in Atlanta. Sometimes no amount of preparation or vigilance can prepare us to confront what stares us in the face. Our impulses and emotions are part of the journey of discovering the incarnate presence among us. Moments when we go off script and turn ourselves over to the messiness of our impulsive selves, we can discover new things concerning our relationships to God and one another. For me I discovered grace. For Simeon, I think it was wonder and praise. In a world that seems to market test and choreograph everything, including an increasing amount of its religious activity (see Megachurch culture), I am encouraged. Impulsive messiness matters.

 

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. Married to Amanda, they have a 16mo son, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. Life is far from dull or boring in the Day family, or at Christ Church.

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Luke 2:15-21

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21 NRSV).

“What’s your name?”

You can hear this question in an astonishingly wide range of emotional tones: curiously friendly. Angry and demanding. Sympathetic and caring. When in the presence of a stranger, it often feels natural or even necessary to learn someone’s name. Names are important to humans: they are, quite literally, our identities. Since language has existed, what a person is called has been crucially important both to the individual and to the community.

Humanity highly values names, and the Abrahamic religions, including Christianity, are no exception. In the book of Genesis, God names things as God creates them — including the first human: “Adam,” who is created out of adamah, the earth. After God creates and names the human, God has Adam name all of the animals. In Exodus, before Moses can introduce the Hebrew people to their God, he has to learn God’s name: “YHWH” — “I am what I am, and I will be what I will be.”

Throughout Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, names are changed to reflect new identities and purposes. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God. In the New Testament, Saul becomes Paul and Simon becomes Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built. From creation, names have been given the highest importance. They are more than just words. They often convey a person’s place and purpose in the world.

In a faith that so highly values names, the Holy Name of Jesus is the “name above all names” — a phrase from Philippians 2 which is often quoted in Christian songs of varying quality. If indeed our faith so highly values names, Jesus should be given the most powerful, dominant, beautiful name. Then there’s the rest of Philippians 2: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11 NRSV) — a passage that some use as a way of asserting the superiority of Christianity over other faiths. The irony of doing this, however, is that it is in the midst of a passage about humility (cf. Philippians 2:1-8).

When I was a child growing up in the rural South, the name of Jesus was often used almost like an incantation. Jesus had the mightiest name, the most powerful name, the strongest name. Given this human tendency to emphasize power, Jesus should have been born and named as a prince in a royal ceremony. If our faith is meant to be the dominant, powerful one, our God should have been a high-born, noble-born child.

But we find Jesus today in the Gospel passage born in a stable, with no one but his parents and some low-born shepherds to celebrate and spread news of his birth. He’s born poor to young parents, named on the eighth day like every other Jewish boy, and becomes a refugee in Egypt at a young age. But we are also told that he is named by an angel before he is conceived. We are also told that angels announce his birth to the shepherds. This ordinary poor boy is also holy — our God has become flesh and lived among us, not as a king, but as a carpenter’s son.

From those beginnings, Jesus, whose holy name simply means “to save,” lives as God-made-flesh who is not so much interested in dominance as in making the ordinary holy. The ordinary life of a thirty-year-old man born in an occupied land is also the holy life of the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Ordinary people become holy pillars of a new faith: Peter, the fisherman; Mary, the girl engaged to the carpenter; Matthew, the tax collector; Mary, the woman who went to put spices on the body of the executed teacher. Sinners become saints.

Ordinary bread and wine become the holy body and blood of God.

And in baptism, ordinary water becomes holy and washes ordinary people clean and welcomes them into the family of God — in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Names are important to us and to our faith: they help us to define ourselves, each other, and our world.

The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy.

It is not a magic word, and it is not an incantation. It is not meant to denote dominance. In the holy name of the ordinary poor boy who was God-made-flesh, our own names, our own bodies, are made holy.

The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy.

We, ordinary people, ordinary flesh, are made holy by the God born in a stable in an occupied land. The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy. Therefore, as we begin another ordinary year in the Holy Name of Jesus, let us pray that God would make our ordinary year holy: may we seek and find God this year in the ordinary, for God has made the ordinary sacred. May we find God in the poor children born in the occupied lands. May we find God in the marginalized and oppressed of our own nation. May we find God in our ordinary neighbors, for the name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy. Amen.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-year-old Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, part of the New England Synod of the ELCA. She moved to New England from Atlanta, Georgia, and is known for her frequent use of the word “y’all.” Anna graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2011 and has since served in a variety of settings, urban and rural, in hospital chaplaincy and in the parish. In her spare time, she enjoys climbing mountains and being outdoors, as well as exploring the noisy intersections of faith, politics, pop culture, and psychology.

 

Christmas Eve (A): ‘Twas the Night Before Birthing

Christmas Eve (A): ‘Twas the Night Before Birthing

Luke 2:1-20

By: Emily S. Kahm

Lately, I’ve taken up an interest in birthing shows, especially British series like “One Born Every Minute.” Whether it’s an interest borne out of the increasingly serious conversations I’m having with my spouse about when will be a good time to start a family, or just the old-fashioned curiosity that has spawned many a reality show, there’s something gripping about these hour-long ventures into the lives of women in their final moments of pregnancy and first moments of new motherhood. You get a glimpse into the frustration of labor, which seems to oscillate between agonizing pain and extreme boredom. You see how unpredictable this supposedly straightforward method of reproduction really is, and taste the terror of possible loss and injury. You see strange family dynamics play out around a hospital bed. I’m always trying to predict how a woman will cope with labor, and I’m usually wrong. They all find their paths through the exhausting ordeal somehow, but I’m taken aback—nearly every time—by how quickly it all ends. It’s jarring. One moment is loud and frenetic and pain-filled, and then in half a second, someone new is here and the chaos seems, somehow, very long ago.

When I read this Nativity story, I find myself wondering how Mary coped with her labor on the road, far from home, perhaps without midwives or older women in attendance to accompany her through the intensely painful experience. We have a sense of her in the Gospel of Luke as both curious and brave, able to converse with angels and happy to take a long trip to see her older cousin. We don’t talk about it much, but in Catholic tradition, Mary is usually said to be 14 or 15 years old at the birth of Jesus—hardly a worldly age, even if she had had a diverse or cosmopolitan upbringing. I wonder if she cried. I wonder if she shrieked obscenities at her spouse while she labored to create the Holy Family. I wonder if she was also a bit shocked, somehow, when it was all over and she got to meet this “someone new” she had heard so much about from divine sources.

In that perhaps irreverent spirit, the loveliest thing about this Nativity story, I find, is how un-miraculous all of the miracles are. Mary and Joseph were on a truly unromantic trip that they apparently couldn’t put off despite the awful timing. Once Jesus was born, I envision the two of them tiredly improvising with a manger and some spare cloth, seeking the chance to rest before their newborn inevitably begins his new routine of squalling every 3 or 4 hours to be fed. The angels don’t seem overly concerned with comforting the new parents and instead go tell the shepherds everything that’s going on so they can drop by. While the shepherds knew they were journeying to a holy place, I imagine that they experienced some of the familiar delight that I feel when I see a complete stranger with a newborn in tow—I feel a nearly irrepressible urge to offer congratulations and a casserole, hearkening back to a long human history of celebrating our continuation. Whether or not the shepherds got the full significance of the angelic message, at least they knew the everyday but life-changing joy of a family that has just remade itself. It’s a miracle they would know well, even if there usually weren’t so many angels. This story is especially precious to us because we not only know it as a beloved Bible story; we know this story because it happens all around us regularly, and because it never seems to get less exciting.

Luke is able to craft this Nativity story to reflect humble beginnings, a new age that begins in the same way as all of our lives began—with pain and blood and fear, but also with anticipation and joy. Especially as we commemorate Christmas with pageantry and the sweet delights of a favorite holiday, it’s helpful to go back to this simple, straightforward story and the utterly ordinary way that this part of salvation history begins. When we recall just how visceral and untidy birthing is, we start to see the foreshadowing of the cross in this comforting tale. Mary, our main character in the Lukan version, watches the shepherds come and go with tired and grateful eyes. She treasures in her heart the miracle of a safe childbirth and a new family of her own. And, very probably, she begins praying for the miracle of a full night’s sleep.

 

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Emily S. Kahm

Emily S. Kahm is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver and teaches at Augustana College. Her research interests include sexuality education in Christian churches and young adults who were raised Catholic. She lives with her spouse and two rabbits in eastern Iowa.

Reign of Christ (C): God’s Kingdom Breaking In

Reign of Christ

Luke 23:33-43

By: Casey Cross

Last weekend, I sat with a 12-year-old boy who desperately wanted to die. In reality, it wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, he just really didn’t think he deserved to live. He actually used those words. It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear the depths of his emotion and pain leave him with the conclusion that he did not deserve to be alive anymore. As we worked together through all of this pain, the thing that most quickly settled his turbulent heart was prayer. So he talked to God. He let God know what he needed, “to hear God’s voice clearly, in English,” so he could understand. I think many of us can relate to this feeling of despair and the need to hear God’s response clearly. I know I do.

When he was done praying, I asked him what he thought God’s voice would sound like. After he gave me some of the usual answers, I told him what I thought, that God uses the voices of the people in our lives to give us wisdom and tell us the truth. In this case, to tell him that he is loved and valued and necessary. The affirmation of who this boy is turned into the affirmation of who we believe in, who we know God is as embodied in Jesus the Christ. It was at this point in our conversation that my mind flashed to the image of Jesus dying on the cross and the conversation he had there with God, the accusers that surrounded him, and the men being executed beside him.

In this scene, we hear the answer to Jesus’ question as earlier heard in Luke chapter 9, “Who do you say that I am?” Those that surrounded Jesus as he died were caught up in who he was in comparison to themselves. They were caught in the “If…then…” language that left them with the mindset, we get what we deserve. This line of thinking relies on a perspective that focuses on what is owed to us because it has been earned in some way. Here, we hear Jesus named a criminal (v.33); the Messiah of God, chosen one (v. 35); and the King of the Jews (v. 38).

Yet despite those who called him these names, Jesus answers the question of his identity in his own way. Jesus shows us who he is, with no stipulations, no strings attached in his prayer and petition for the forgiveness of others (v. 34) and in his promise of paradise (v. 43).

Jesus didn’t say that the man next to him deserved to die, nor did he test him on whether he deserved paradise. Jesus did promise that they would be together in paradise that very day. That is something to hold onto. Although what we deserve or don’t deserve may waver with history, context, lawfulness, and opinion, the person and promise of Christ will never change.

Humanity hasn’t changed much over these thousands of years. When we hear about an assault, crime, murder, war, or death, our collective thoughts quickly shift to whether or not it was deserved and why. The question is whether we will choose a perspective that sets us over and against others, or whether we will choose a perspective given to us by the person of Christ, one that relies on who Christ is for us?

Preaching on this text provides an opportunity to live together fully under the Reign of Christ with a practice of Law and Gospel. The law points out all of the ways we deserve death while the Gospel flips the rules upside down with a promise paradise and eternal life even amidst the death throes of sin. Here is an opportunity to see a life under the reign of Christ with new eyes; an opportunity to leave behind the old way of understanding self and God so that we may be reclaimed by the love of Christ, living with full reliance on who Christ is rather than who we are and what we deserve. This is a practice of confession and assurance of forgiveness. This is a practice of professing our faith in Christ and letting go of our grip on personal understandings and judgements.

No matter our age, we are faced with the pain of death, warping our perspective to focus on what we do or do not deserve. For those of us that put our faith in Christ, we are given the power to face down this pain with the truth that we are loved, forgiven, and accepted into the Kingdom of God, not because of anything we have done to deserve it, but because of who God is. My prayer is that the 12-year-old-boy that I spoke with last weekend, along with all of the young people I work with on a daily basis, will know this truth of Christ clearly, so that it reigns in their hearts with every step of their lives. My prayer is that this text is preached in a way that all may recognize the love of Christ, the person of Jesus, personally, so that lives may be freed and transformed. In this way, may we see the reign of Christ reflected through our very lives, God’s Kingdom breaking in.

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross is currently serving as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. She can be found walking her black lab, Lola; listening to music; reading too many books at once; playing Pokemon Go! with her husband; and sitting around, thinking about stuff that might eventually get written about on her blog: http://caseykcross.wordpress.com.