Belief: A Matter of Choice

A sermon from the Rev. Mark Sutherland, 9 pm Christmas Eve, 2018

Increasingly, I have come to understand that stories are all we have and that human beings create meaning from the stories they construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.

Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together, as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.

Christmas is a story about how God becomes known not through timeless mystery but within the flow of events that forms our shared human history.

There is always more than one way to tell a story. I can tell my own life story as a story of a glass half full. Or I can reframe this story to take account of my actual experience of abundant grace and generosity – a story of a glass overflowing. This second way of telling makes the quality of my experience ever more fruitful.

As we all have multiple stories from among which to make choices, so we discover that Christmas is not one story, but multiple stories.

Matthew’s birth of Jesus story is really about Jesus and Joseph and the fulfillment of Israel’s long dream of a new Moses. In Matthew it’s the kings of the earth who come to pay homage to Israel’s infant king. Like Moses, Matthew has Jesus taken down into Egypt, but not as prince but infant refugee in the company of his parents, who are in flight to protect the young boy-king’s life. In 2018, we identify with this story of forced migration and flight to safety as the world is rocked by the largest global movement of peoples, now on course to exceed that in the aftermath of the Second World War. Choosing to believe in response to Matthew’s version of the story might help us to clarify what are the priorities for us in the current immigration debate that conflicts us as a society.

Luke’s birth story is about Jesus and Mary. In Mary, an adolescent girl, pregnant out of wedlock and scared out of her wits by the dangerous predicament she finds herself in becomes an image of courage born of vulnerability. On Advent 4, in Truth: Stranger than Fiction, I wrote about how in 2018, Mary’s story evokes powerful resonances to the #me too movement. Luke’s story is about the role we human beings play as the essential agents who collaborate with God’s dream of putting the world to rights. Luke’s Jesus is a universal savior, born in utter obscurity, witnessed not by kings but by illiterate peasant shepherds and field hands. Luke’s Jesus is born among the outcast and excluded, those of us who are of little account in this world.

John’s story offers a further take on the birth of Jesus. There is no Joseph, no Mary, no wise men, and no shepherds or angels. In contrast, John constructs a narrative in which Jesus’ birth is reframed as a new Genesis event  – that harkens back to the very origins of the creation, itself.

John’s opening words are: In the beginning —–. In the beginning, when God created the heaven and earth, the Word already was. Logos, translated in English as Word, points to the action of God in creation. Jesus is the Word -that is, God in action communicating outwards through the energies of light and love. In the birth of Jesus, God the creator of heaven and earth now self-reveals in the contours of a human face and in the unfolding events of a human life.

From his opening words, John quickly sketches out his plot line. God’s self-giving as the Word, has come into the world, but the world is not ready for this and fails to recognize what God is doing. Because the world remains interested in pursuing its status quo, when we make the choice to believe under the influence of John’s story we become the change we long to see.

Each Evangelist constructs a story that makes sense of Jesus birth in the context of their own time and place. Each of these stories poses for us a challenge of particular choices, accepted or refused.

We modern Westerners like to know if something is true or not. We tend to treat the birth narratives in the Gospels as fairy stories, which for many of us places them in the not true category and consequently of no value to us. But the question – is this story true or not true is the wrong question because it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in relation to story. The real question is: what implications flow from believing or not believing in this story? Essentially, these are questions about choice. We choose whether to find value or not in these large faith stories.

The choice of story is always ours. The enchanted magical-realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie a set of tensions: between safety versus risk; between invulnerability and vulnerability; between collaboration and resistance; insiders or outsiders.

In its cosmic expansiveness, John’s narrative might better speak to those of us with science-fiction rich, post-modern imaginations as once Matthew and Luke’s enchanted birth stories functioned for the pre-modern mindset. For me, John’s more cosmic and expansive reframing of the Creator’s entry into the heart of the creation fits better with my sci-fi – Quantum field influenced imagination. Picture

in the beginning, was the Word, the Word was with God  ….. the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it  ….. and Word became flesh and lived among us  …..and we have seen his glory …..God’s only son full of grace and truth.

John 1

scrolling across the wide screen of a new Star Wars postquel epic.

I believe in the power of these gospel stories to change lives. I believe in these stories, not because I mistake them for literal descriptions of true events, but because to not believe in their message impoverishes and limits my imagination, reframing my own self-limiting life story. I choose these stories to live by because they are large stories that challenge the forces that resist the transformation of our world into a better place from what it currently is.

Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from – or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Viewed in this way, the Christmas story might be worthy of our closer consideration?

A Christmas Blessing

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.

My paraphrasing from John O’donohue A Morning Offering


Virgin and Child Embracing by Giovanni Batista Salvi 

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs – Christmas Eve, 4:00 pm,  24 December 2018

And so, all Creation waits for the birth of the Christ Child.

Someone once told me that, for God, Resurrection is easy. It’s Incarnation that’s hard. Imagine being God, and squeezing yourself down into this fleshy unpredictable body, filled with emotions and plans and aspirations, faced with the highs and lows of making it from one day to another, weighed down by the past, uncertain about the future, and unable to rest in the present. Imagine choosing to be this fallible, and vulnerable, and finite.

It does give one pause. Emmanuel. God With Us – God With Us.

Chaotic, mixed-up, not-always-very-loveable Us. Wow!

Which is why we’re here tonight.

A few months ago I read an article called, “Becoming Human.” Only it wasn’t about God becoming human; it was a thought-provoking observation that we are not born human; that actually we become human by a process that involves negation– separating ourselves from different aspects of existence, specifically from God, from Nature, and from Society. The author says that we choose to become human when we establish our distinctness as individual creatures with unique capacities to think and reason within ourselves, without reliance upon an exterior Divine presence, or upon social pressures and demands. He says that when we choose to be part of this process we thus avoid the risk of falling prey to the echo chambers and groupthink that currently threaten to destroy us. And he has a point, especially in the current environment—we do have a responsibility to think independently and creatively as part of our social and civic communities. But here is what saddens me about his argument:

The author writes, “To be human is to preserve, inside oneself, against all forms of social pressure, a place of intimacy and secrecy into which the greater whole cannot set foot.”

Not even God.

How lonely that must be!

The author, Bernard-Henri Levy, is not a theologian. His perspective is more a view of what is, than it is a view of what we are called to be. I think he is looking at our world today and fears for it, and sees a remedy in a form of self-protection; nothing out there will protect us, so we need to protect ourselves. I wonder if he has actually shed light on something crucial; that we have, in fact, preserved those secret places he talks about too well, and as a result we are, as a society, more and more alienated from one another, from creation, and from the call of God to live lives of reconciliation and healing. So the question here is: Is negation and self-protection the ultimate goal of becoming human?

Nope. Negation is not the Good News!

We are here tonight because God says Yes.

Yes to Creation.

Yes to us.

Crazy mixed-up not-always-very-loveable Us.

So what does it mean to be human? It is the opposite of negation and self-protection. It is to seek relationship. We seek to love and to be loved; to return the gaze of love that we first knew as babies, gazing into the eyes of our parents. We seek it because we are made in God’s image, and God’s nature is love. Love is transitive—it needs an object in order to be complete. It needs a Yes—the relationship of one to another, mutually giving and receiving.

So the question tonight is not what is it for us to become human, it’s what does it mean that God became human?

A mother of a five-year-old settled her son into bed—story read, last cup of water, last trip to the bathroom, prayers, night-nights and I-love-yous said, door gently closed:

“Mo—om?” Sigh. “Yes sweetie.” “I’m scared.” “There’s nothing to be scared of—you’re safe in bed and I’m right in the next room.”“But. It’s DARK in here, and I’m all alone!” “You’re not alone, precious; God loves you and is right there with you.” “I know God loves me! But I need somebody with skin on!”

Yes. That’s it. Jesus is God’s yes. With skin on.

God has declared God’s enduring, abundant and undying love for us by entering into history. Entering the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us—that tempts us into giving up on a world wrapped in fear. God counters our no’s of anxiety, self-doubt and negation by calling us to bloom outward from our hearts; to risk embracing Creation and our neighbor—even the ones who drive us nuts.

And how better to do that than to be born among the creatures of God, on a night filled with stars, visited by smelly shepherds and Eastern sages, sung to sleep by the tired loving voices of his parents, as the angels’ music fades gently into memory?

Emmanuel. God, with us. Creation waits, holding her breath. And God whispers, “Yes!”

Truth: Stranger than Fiction

This looks a long recording as the recorder ran over. The actual sermon time is around 14 minutes only

How old is she, I wonder? 12-13-14 years-old? We don’t know. What we do know is that she’s just a girl. Maybe a girl already betrothed, but a girl nevertheless. A girl betrothed as was the custom of her people. But a girl according to the betrothal custom of her people should not have yet come to know the man to whom she is betrothed in the intimacy of sexual intercourse. She hasn’t, – well as far as she knows. Yet, how to explain the strange stirrings in her belly? Whatever – however – these things are happening. Mary is very, very scared.

She’s scared, and yet, somewhere deep inside her she feels something else, a consolation, a rightness that defies all rationality. At night her mind flits to-and-fro, back and forth. One moment calm, she feels the assurance of a consolation. In the next moment – the grip of terror takes hold once again.

Two questions vie within her.  What is happening to me? A question that stirs her curiosity. Only to be followed by another question: what will Papa do to me when he finds out?

St Martin’s, Providence, is one of the finest examples of both English domestic Gothic form and ecclesiastical Arts and Crafts in New England, if not wider afield. It has both nave and clerestory levels of stained-glass windows telling the story of faith and life. Although put in over a 40-50-year period, all the windows stylistically conform to a master schematic – presenting a holistic integrity in style and an orderly progression of themes. Like the Medieval cathedrals and churches, St Martin’s windows are more than decoration, they tell the story of Christian faith and Western culture.

The nave windows form a progression in which the story of Jesus’ life unfolds in sequential chapters. The first window begins with the chapter occurring before the one we hear about in Luke’s Gospel on Advent IV – the announcement from the archangel Gabriel to this 12-13-14?, year-old girl. The next window depicts the events of Luke 1:39-55. In this window we see two adult women, one clearly middle-aged while the other in the full bloom of early womanhood. Both sit appearing to be in conversation; each depicted with a boy toddler – two maybe there year old, sitting in their lap.

St Martin’s Visitation Window

This is the window that depicts the event we call the Visitation, when Mary journeys some distance to visit with her older cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also pregnant. Again, her pregnancy, like Mary’s is unexpected. But in her case, the surprise is one that defies biological rather than social convention, because Elizabeth is decidedly post-menopausal.

There are deeper strands of significance weaving through this story of Luke’s. Elizabeth and Mary are cousins. Luke tells us that Elizabeth is married to Zechariah, and that Zechariah is of the priestly clan. Luke, here, clearly wants us to know that Mary too is of a priestly family, thus telling us how Jesus is connected into the institutions of his Hebrew people. For his readers, this is a matter of some importance in supporting their claim that Jesus is the one promised to Israel. Elizabeth’s son is John the Baptist, who is not simply the cousin to Jesus, son of Mary, but the prophetic Elijah, who later the wilderness will announce the arrival of the promised one.

One final comment about the Visitation window. This window is clearly a euphemized depiction, a pleasant cover for the unpleasant or embarrassing truth of the actual event.

At the time of their meeting, neither woman has yet given birth. Yet, here they are with two toddlers in their laps. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the year the window was made – 1924, a period when WASPy social convention was clearly uneasy with the depiction of pregnancy in the sacred precincts of the church. This is how we dress-up, gloss over in order to distance ourselves from the rawness of the biblical story.

Back to Luke’s actual story –  In those days, Mary went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. Because of the discrepancy in their ages, it seems probable to assume Mary’s and Elizabeth’s relationship is one more typical of niece and aunt. Maybe this is the reason Mary has come to Elizabeth. Uncertain of her own mother’s reception of her news – she comes to the woman who has always looked out for her and whom she knows will protect her. Mary rises early, and with haste, flees to the bosom of her aunt.

Mary leaves in haste, because she is very, very scared. She lives in a society that practiced honor killing for girls made pregnant outside wedlock. Though betrothed to Joseph, Mary is not yet locked into the social convention of weddedness that would explain and approve her pregnancy.

The Law of Moses dictated that a girl in Mary’s predicament was to be stoned to death. But Mary is from a priestly family and a special method of honor killing was prescribed for her. In priestly families, the daughter in Mary’s predicament was to be strangled by her father at the door of their house.

So, Mary sets out with haste – in flight – to the protection of her aunt – in the distant hill country of Judea. It’s speculation, but maybe she continued in the seclusion of Elizabeth and the kindly Zechariah’s protection until the middle-aged Joseph agreed to marry her. But that is part of Matthew’s telling of this story, not Luke’s.

Luke’s story is about two women the elder protecting the younger from the harshness of the patriarchal heart. Between Elizabeth and Mary lies a recognition and a solidarity that is the ancient echo of a very modern #me too moment, because the vulnerability of women to the hardness of the patriarchal heart is a story older than time.

Luke take an earlier song of a woman’s jubilation – Hannah’s song from the second chapter of the first book of Samuel – and transposes it into Mary’s key. Mary sings out in jubilation the story of God’s generosity towards her, and through her, to generations yet to come.

What is the essence of Mary’s jubilation? It is that at a deeply intuitive level she perceives the significance of her acceptance; of the exercise of her individual responsibility to participate in God’s dream for the world. She sings out:

It extols,
  my life does,
It rejoices,
   my breath does,
   at Elohim[2] my deliverer.
 Because Elohim looked on the humility

   of his female slave.

Mary sings out that this is a dream for justice, of putting to rights those things that are currently so very wrong:

His mercy extends
into birthings and birthings
of those reverencing him.

He made strength with his arm,
 he scattered those visibly superior
  by the intentions of their wills.  
He put down the capable from thrones
    and exalted the humble ones.  
Hungry ones he filled full of worthy things,
     rich ones, out and away he sent them,

         empty. [

Richard Swanson’s evocative translation

How will the Messiah – the promised one – come? He will come in obscurity, through the courageous cooperation of human agents like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

In the womb of an adolescent girl, untimely pregnant, who has had to run for her life, the next chapter in Israel’s long story of God’s dream for the world awaits fulfilment. How many other countless young mothers are running for their lives, shielding their unborn and shepherding their born children from danger in the hope of finding the equivalent of an Elizabeth and Zechariah – that’s code for you and me, for all us together, we who have the power and resources to provide a place of safety?  Let the President and his hawks have ears to hear and eyes to see.

God comes into the world, not as the head of a multinational conglomerate, not as a political figure of power and influence, not as a successful culture icon, but as a babe, protected for a time within the womb of an adolescent girl who finds shelter in a world of patriarchal danger. God comes through the collaboration of a frightened and courageous girl-woman. Pray God that like Mary we may not be found wanting when the time for our decision making comes.

Mary’s story is our story too. The nature of truth is stranger than fiction because you couldn’t make it up even if you tried!

[1] HaShem. noun. Judaism a periphrastic way of referring to God in contexts other than prayer, scriptural reading, etc because the name itself is considered too holy for such use. [2] The true God

Featured Image ‘The Visitation’ by Dr. He Qi, China/USA

The Topography of Hope

The power of that for which we hope is already effective within us

a Paraphrasing of Alice miller

The Prophet Zephaniah is the 9th of the minor prophets, minor referring to the shortness of their writings not to the importance of their message. In 721 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel, comprising 10 of the 12 tribes, is utterly destroyed by the Assyrians. In 586, the remaining Kingdom of Judah will fall to the Babylonians. Zephaniah is writing roughly between 639 and 626 B.C. – a time of great foreboding and danger. The remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin stand alone, threatened by bands of Scythian invaders sweeping down from the North. Into this politically and militarily unstable situation in 639 B.C. the 8-year boy, Josiah ascends to the throne. 

Zephaniah’s prophecies are heavy with the expectation of God’s judgment upon Judah. So, it’s somewhat surprising that he ends his writing with the joyful expectations we find in verses 14-20 of his final chapter; the whole book only numbers three chapters. Zephaniah makes no mention of a personal messiah. Nevertheless, he articulates a vision of hope and redemption –

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more. … I shall save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home ….gather you….make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.

This is the nature of hope, that the power of that for which we hope is already active within us.

Without hope we have no compass to direct our actions


Mark, Matthew, and Luke, each paint a portrait of John the Baptist as the last in the line of the great Hebrew prophets whose purpose is to announce the arrival of the messiah. However, it’s Luke, in particular, who gives us the most relatable picture of John. Mark makes no mention of the people who come to hear John, and Matthew, refers to them exclusively as Pharisees and Sadducees – always the Jewish bad guys for Matthew. In Luke those who come to hear John are described as the kind of people one might find at any modern crowdsourced event. Among the general populace of the hungry -some physically hungry, others spiritually ravenous – coming out to the wilderness to hear John, Luke includes some rather dubious groups as well.

Luke’s depiction of John the Baptist in the wilderness emphasizes the inclusivity of his view of Jesus’s message- a message not for the few but for the many, not for the special or religious but for those whose daily lives are hard and often complicated by being forced into or trapped within compromising and dubious choices. In particular, Luke includes tax collectors and soldiers among those who come to hear John.

Our official translations often avoid communicating the wild and fluid nature of the Biblical conversations. ‘Listen’ to how Richard Swanson of the Provoking the gospel project renders the encounter between John and the crowds.

They kept asking him, the crowds did, they said: What should we do? He answered, he kept saying to them: ‘the one having two coats, give one to the one who has none. The one having goods: do likewise’. They came, even tax gatherers, to be purified. They said to him: ‘Teacher what should we do’? He said to them: ‘nothing beyond what is set to you. Beyond that do nothing’. They asked him, soldiers, they said: ‘what should we do, even we’? He said to them: ‘rob no one, neither be an informer, and let your wages be enough’. 

Richard Swanson’s Provoking the gospel: methods to embody Biblical storytelling through drama 

The first thing to notice is that the members of dubious groups like tax collectors and soldiers ask John, not what should we believe, but what should we do? Tax collectors were Jewish traitors because they collaborated with the Roman occupation,not only collecting the Roman taxes but top slicing their profit from what they collected, and so collecting a little more than they needed to. John’s view of them seems to accept that everyone needs to earn a living, even if sometimes by dubious means. Even so, he tells them: collect the tax but oppress your neighbors no more than you need to, to satisfy Roman demands. 

If they don’t tell you to bring the tribute in money boxes or cash bags,” says John, “Don’t.  Turn in heaps of pennies.  If people pay you in chickens or goats, turn in the livestock.  Let the Romans figure out how to feed their tribute.


Soldiers were notorious street thugs who like modern day vigilantes terrorized local communities through extortion with menaces and violence – in effect setting up and administering their own protection rackets. John says to them: if you want to do know what you should do to be right with God, don’t be mindless proxies for a violent system of oppression; be satisfied with your wages and stop exploiting your own community.

John seems to recognize that life at times can be a morally ambiguous affair. In other words, you may not be able to control the whole of your situation, but nevertheless quietly resist sacrificing your sense of right and wrong to a cynical transactional approach to living.

And to those of us who live ordinary, noncontroversial lives, those of us who enjoy some abundance but an abundance that is finite and limited; to us John says: it’s fine to have two coats, but if having two coats means that someone else has no coat, then share what is actually your surplus.


In what or where lies our hope? An even more fundamental question: Is it even worth it to risk hoping at all? Beneath both questions sounds the solid drumbeat of the crows question to John: Teacher, tell us, what should we do? So think about it this way.  Without the prophetic dream of God’s putting to rights all that currently seems so wrong we have little inspiration to act similarly in the present. Without a strong hopeful vision setting the needle of our moral compass to guide our actions we will fall into the temptation of being guided only by the concept of what we can get away with.

John the Baptist is popularly presented as the most uncompromising of characters, whose very strictness gives us an excuse for backsliding, because how can we ever match up to his moral and spiritual demands? Yet, in Luke’s picture of him he seems to understand that life choices are made in the grey ambiguity of circumstances where mixed motivations vie with each other, self-interest competes with our genuine concern for others.

Prophetic hope, the greater vision of God’s restoration of Israel should not be misunderstood as a reflection of good times following bad times. In fact, the prophetic vision of God’s restoration of Israel occurs often in the darkest of moments,either just before national catastrophe as in the case of the first Isaiah or after such a catastrophe as in the case of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Teacher, tell us, what should we do? The answer is: struggle to keep hope alive. Advent’s hope is simply this:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. 

Paul tillich

Living in the Present

Abstract: The theme of Advent’s second Sunday is the coming of the messenger. The concept of a messenger whom God will send firmly links the O.T. reading from Malachi with Luke’s account of the arrival of John the Baptist upon the scene. There is a striking resemblance between Malachi’s messenger and Luke’s John the Baptist. The unexpected nature of the message poses a challenge to the hearer.

Malachi writes: See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly (unexpectedly) come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.

Luke writes: Hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness (wilderness is an unexpected place): Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Both are messengers of hope.   We long for the coming of the messenger, yet as Malachi poses the question: will we be able to endure the day of his coming? Who among us will be able to stand when God’s messenger appears? The unexpected nature of the message lies in its power to surprize and disturb the hearer.

John the Baptist’s message promises the longed-for salvation. Yet, its arrival  disturbs everything – as we know it.  To borrow an image from science fiction channels, the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a massive terra-forming of the planet; a reshaping of the world as we know it. Paths that presently are crooked are to be made straight. Valleys are to be filled in with the material of hills that are to be leveled flat. And the rough terrain is to be smoothed out. It’s an uncomfortable realisation that human beings have been despoiling the earth by terraforming the planet for centuries, the prophetic imagery here functions as a metaphor for the remaking of human society at the hand of the Creator.

Malachi is among a slew of prophets known as the minor prophets, or alternatively, as the Twelve. The term minor refers not to the importance of their message but to the shortness of their books. We don’t know much about the prophet Malachi, and in fact the name Malachi simply means messenger, which is clearly a reference to God’s messenger in chapter three.

All twelve of the minor prophets speak into the historical period in the decades following the return of the Babylonian exiles in the middle of the fifth-century BC. The rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple expressed a powerful hope for a return to the glory days of King David.  The hope in this period could be summed up in the soundbite -let’s make Israel great again!

As Malachi looked around him he saw a period of reconstruction that had failed to recreate the nostalgic dream for a new Davidic age. The renewed institutions of national life centered on the temple were corrupt and demoralized.  Worship had degenerated into a listless perpetuation of form. The study of the Law – neglected. Taxes – unpaid. The Sabbath routinely broken. Intermarriage with pagans seemed the order of the day. The priesthood – corrupt, and the political leadership – self-serving. Malachi proclaims God’s impending judgement upon this situation. 

A tension permeated the Post-Exilic period between a nostalgic longing to recreate a vanished past and a stalled hope for an as yet  – unrealized future. The result was a present-time – marked by disillusionment and moral malaise. Doesn’t this all sound rather familiar?

Advent 2018 arrives at the end of another year of turmoil, rancor, and fear; a world caught in transition between the relative stability of a recent past and the hope and fear for an as yet – unrealized future. The past is gone. The future has yet to arrive. Like post-exilic Jewish society we also sit in a similar place of tension. The tension between a desire to recreate an imaginary golden past and the fear of an unknown future paralyses us, rendering us incapable of making the fruitful choices and decisions that could shape our renewal in the present.

Hope is greater than an attitude of optimism. The unexpectedness of Advent’s message lies in the counter intuitiveness of hope. Last week on Advent Sunday, in a few short, pithy sentences Linda reminded us that Advent’s message comes to us in the midst of social and political uncertainty and the devastation of ecological disasters all around us. Yet it’s not a message of defeat but one that unexpectedly exhorts us to:

stand up and raise our heads. Look up, look around, pay attention. Wait. Hope. Live faithfully. Don’t hide. Don’t panic. God is God. We are not.

In a piece printed in the Guardian newspaper, Ibram X Kendi, the director of the AntiracistResearch and Policy Center at American University, expresses for me the unexpectedness of Advent’s message:

The times when all seem lost are the times when we most need to see the people and ideas trailblazing the way out of the muck.

We live in an age when there are no more messengers, in the sense of someone coming to show us what we as yet need to know. Godself became the ultimate messenger in the human experience of Jesus. There remains one more act in the drama of salvation which will involve God’s final restoration of the creation. However, the function of the vision of the end time is to refocus our attention on what we need to be getting on with in the present time.

We live in an age when there is now only the message, and we hold the power of choice to heed the message or not. We have no need for another prophet to show us the way. What is needed is a greater commitment to sparking in one another the energy for new ideas, and most crucially of all – the energy to risk bold actions capable of trailblazing a way forward out of the muck and mire in which we currently find ourselves.

Hope, the prophetic tradition reminds us, also disturbs our self-protections; the false certainties that provide the illusion of safety. The world of the first quarter of the 21st-century is in transition as the 20th-century’s social and political tectonic plates break apart and begin to realign. The rampant creed of individualism – unchecked, of globalized, unrestricted venture capitalism  -unleashed, of wholesale destruction of the environment have brought us to a sticky end. As the tectonic plates of former certainties shatter, it will be the kind of stories we embrace that will really matter.

There will always be those who are easily manipulated into embracing the small and pernicious stories of our culture, which whenever previously embraced, have led to moral bankruptcy. I speak here of traditions of racism, of gender oppression, of military adventurism, of planetary exploitation for personal profit, of both laisse faire economics and nationalist protectionism.

The Advent hope is the greater story of the reign of God’s justice which is a vision: 

+ where racism is no longer intersecting with other bigotries to manipulate people away from their self-interest.

+ Where native and immigrant are united by common interest.

+ Where we honestly share our racial history.

+ Where free high-quality healthcare is a universal right.

+ Where guns are as controlled as much as motor vehicles.

+ Where voting is easy and accessible.  

+Where human activity is no longer the principle cause of environmental catastrophe.

Where we all can be fully human through embracing humanity fully?

Ibram X Kendi

Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming? The future begins now!

We Wait: Advent I, Year C


Luke 21:25-36  A sermon from the Rev.  Linda Mackie Griggs

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. “

There’s a sign in a bookstore window: “Post-apocalypticLiterature has been moved to the nonfiction section.”

Yeah. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right?

Sometimes it does feel like everything’s coming apart—like the proverbial End of Days—wars and rumors of wars; a baking planet, bad news upon bad news. Fear begetting more fear. Joking aside, the genre of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction does tend to stoke peoples’ anxiety as they try to match the plot up with the news cycle—because that’s what sells. And for creators and purveyors of doom-related scenarios, that’s the point: Fear equals ratings. But a better understanding of Apocalyptic literature, of which today’s Gospel is a sample, tells us that the panic (or resignation, or eagerness, take your pick) about how current events presage the world’s doom is misplaced. Apocalyptic literature isn’t a crystal ball predicting the future. Attempts to use it that way have resulted in many calendar dates circled in red—THE END IS HERE—and then the sun comes up the next day anyway. You would think people would learn that this isn’t a great strategy for how to plan the program year, or for that matter, how to enact environmental policy. The fact remains that the timing of the end of days is, frankly, none of our earthly business. God is God, and we are not.

Stand up and raise your heads!

Stand up and raise your heads for your redemption is drawing near

The original purpose of apocalyptic writings was to respond to times of turmoil, violence, persecution and fear. They go back at least as far as the 2nd century BC, when the Book of Daniel was written, and it is this scripture that Jesus evokes in today’s passage—the vivid image of the Son of Man coming in the clouds. The point of apocalyptic asa genre was to offer people who lived in fear signs of hope amid the chaos of their time. They saw the turmoil in the sky, the earth and in the nations as reflections of a larger battle of good and evil taking place on another plane of existence—a hidden place that the writers could only imagine. And when they imagined, they imagined big. They didn’t know what the end times would look like anymore than we do, but the vivid stories they wrote provided hope to people living in fear of earthly events.

Writers of Apocalyptic texts had rock solid faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, on earth and in the heavens. They had faith in their redemption– that God would act—indeed was acting to bring God’s Dream of justice, healing and reconciliation ultimately to fruition.

When will all this happen? We don’t know. What do we do in the meantime? We wait. We wait within the reality of the challenges of the present, by virtue of our faith in the future; our faith that God is faithful to us.

We wait, and watch. And hope.

In today’s Gospel, Luke’s Jesus, having entered Jerusalem in triumph, teaches in the Temple, his own fate looming as all of Palestine buzzes with whether or not he is The One; the Messiah that they have awaited for so long.

In the verses before the ones we’ve just heard, Jesus tells of the coming fall of Jerusalem: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” Luke’s Gospel was actually written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, so Jesus didn’t actually predict the future; what Luke did was a literary setup to Jesus’ sweeping declaration about the Son of Man from Daniel’s Apocalypse.  The images are disturbing—they reflect what people fear—the violent, the unknown. “People will faint with fear and foreboding.” There is a risk of focusing exclusively on these images—breath held, expecting only the worst. But a little advice here:  If we ever come away from scripture in a state of fear, we need to go back and read again. (Are we disturbed? Maybe. Challenged, absolutely. Fearful? Nope, go back.) The God who loved Creation into being does not call us to fear.

So how to press on? Know that Luke’s Jesus speaks of the difficult reality in which he lives in a language and style that people would recognize—in this case the apocalyptic texts of Daniel. He uses the language of the past to address the difficulties of the present and to point toward the future. It’s not about becoming fearful—it’s about facing those fears with courage.

Every era has its crises and insanity—some more than others. So today we observe distress among nations and within nations. These as roar, the wildfires rage.  Some crises, like war, are familiar. Some, like climate change, are unique to our time. Welcome to a broken and sinful world.

But what does Jesus say? Buy a survival bunker and head for the hills? No. He says to stand up and raise our heads. Look up, look around, pay attention. Wait. Hope. Live faithfully—don’t hide, and don’t panic. God is God, and we are not.

Look at the fig tree. Look at any tree. Every time a leaf falls it leaves a bud behind—new life ready to spring out before the old growth hits the ground. Look up! Look around! Yes, the world is going nuts. It has done it before and it will do it again. But Jesus knew, and Daniel before him knew, that even when the world goes bananas buds of life abound.  Look for them—look for the joy. For people falling in love, and getting married and having babies. Look for roses to smell, music to make, exploring to do. Look for laughing until our sides hurt. For planting trees. For caring for each other. The buds are everywhere. Hope is built into Creation.

Advent begins today. We wait. How?

We remember what God has called us to from the very beginning: Love. Generosity. Compassion. Justice. Hope.

Stand up and raise your heads! Look around you—see the buds of new life, perhaps hidden, but there if you look closely.

In the second chapter of Luke’s book of Acts he describes what the earliest Christians did as they awaited what they thought was Christ’s imminent return. They didn’t hide, they didn’t hoard; they didn’t scheme and turn on one another. They prayed. They shared. They sang. They loved. They lived with courage, not fear, in face of persecution and a world going bananas. 

We are called to carry on with their waiting, because only God knows God’s time.

The infant will soon be in his cradle, and begin his journey to the Cross. The Christ Child will show us the way, through everything the world can throw at us–through our fear, our despair, and anxiety; the Christ will show us the way of love, right up until Kingdom Come.

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