I Can Do That!

We finished our series on the ways that God calls us by looking at the calling to Mary as reported in Luke 1:26-38 and some of the ways that she was prepared for that by reading Psalm 119:33-40.

Love for a child changes you. All of you know this already. There are wonderful, exciting things that can happen. And there are aspects of character development that would seem incomprehensible to your previous self.

I noted this shift in my understanding of self one evening when my daughter was about two years old. She had been sick, I had been flying solo as a parent for a couple of days, and we were looking at a road trip to reconnect with some family members. She had fallen asleep in the back of our ancient Chevy Impala before I had a chance to stop for coffee and a sandwich, and now I was faced with the eternal question: do I stop, and risk waking a sick, cranky baby? Or do I drive on in a caffeine-less hungry stupor?

Duh. You don’t stop. Everybody knows, you don’t stop. But I was hungry. I needed something. And then I saw it. Stuck to the grimy blue fiber of the carpet. It was a tootsie pop of indeterminate color and age. I pried it loose, and examined it. Ariel had already enjoyed some of it, yet the chewy center appeared to be intact. It was nasty…but I was hungry… I was ready to throw it out the window just to get it out of my car, but instead I held the pop in my hand for five or ten miles, observing its fur and overall appearance. There appeared to be no signs of life on the surface. Suddenly, something clicked. Clear as a bell, a voice came into my consciousness: I can do that.

And in an instant, I entered into the legion of you who have done incredibly gross things because in some way, you thought that they would benefit a child you loved. In my case, it was simply driving into the night with a furry lollipop, rather than waking a cranky daughter.

Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse (1914)

Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse (1914)

As we finish up our series of sermons on the ways that God calls to people of faith in scripture, I wanted to preach about the call to a teenage girl a couple of thousand years ago that, at least on the surface, seems to be an incredibly unique call – to bear the Son of God, to raise the savior of the universe, and according to some faith traditions, to live a sinless life. That is a heavy call, and there seems to be a lot of pressure there; moreover, when we view the calling of Mary in that way, it is incredibly remote. God will not call me to do that. Ever. I can’t do that.

But then I noticed that in reality, before this is an invitation to bear the eternal savior of the world, it is a calling to be obedient to the first command ever given to a human being. Do you remember the first thing God said to Adam and Eve in the garden? “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. Have a child.”

And that got me thinking: before Mary became a mother; before she walked with Jesus on the road to Calvary, she obeyed God. She said “yes”. She said “I can do that” to an unpredictable path – but a path that, by and large, was full of days and months and years that were not remarkable. She said yes to looking for God’s presence in splintered hands and in home cooking and in family gatherings and in doing laundry.

When I thought about Mary’s calling in that way, I wanted to say that Mary is a great example to us, not because she is so incredible, amazing, wonderful, or powerful, but because she is willing and able to say “Yes” to God in what will become the mundaneness of life in ordinary time. I wanted to say that Mary was a good person with whom to finish this series of call stories because she was fundamentally obedient – that is, she takes us back to the first commandment in the garden and is obedient. Simply and beautifully obedient. Maybe I can do that.

Think about it. There are so many places in scripture where the powerful and intrusive God calls people in amazingly flashy ways to incredibly difficult tasks. How about when he told old Ananias to go and pray for Saul, who’d been trying to kill Ananias a couple of days before? Do you remember when he appeared to an 80 year-old Moses out of a burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh’s court? Or the time he told a 75 year-old childless man named Abram that his family was going to be huge? I’m sure you remember Isaiah’s vision and the ways in which he was humbled by the splendor of heaven. I mean to tell you, those are some callings!

Annunciation by John Meng-Frecker.  Used by permission. See more at www.Catholic-Artists.org

Annunciation by John Meng-Frecker. Used by permission. See more at http://www.Catholic-Artists.org

But this call to Mary seems so simple, so basic, and so profound. And she said “yes”. And when I thought of that, I wanted to tell you that I thought it was a good model for us in many ways, because she was simply obedient.

That’s the sermon I wanted to preach, until I saw that today was Mothers Day. On the one hand, there’s nobody who can carry a Mothers Day sermon like Mary. But on the other hand, if your preacher starts talking about answering the essential calling of God in the same breath as he’s talking about being a mother, well, he’s in a boatload of trouble. Because while such a calling is indeed elemental to our race, it’s surely not within the grasp or the experience of most of us.

All of us are called by God. And most of us do not become mothers. Some of us are too male to become mothers. Others struggle with infertility, the loss of a marriage, or a hundred other obstacles. Not all who wish to be parents are able to become such, and many don’t wish to be parents at all.

Yet God calls all of us.

So I couldn’t preach the sermon I wanted to preach to you about Mary and motherhood. Frankly, this was disappointing to me, because I even wanted to work the lyrics to the Beatles’ Let It Be in there somewhere. But I couldn’t do it because while it was partly true, it wasn’t entirely true to everyone.

But I couldn’t leave this call to Mary alone, either. I kept staring at it and re-reading it. In what way is this singular calling to a remarkable young woman instructive and encouraging to all of us?

And then it struck me. A little word, just four letters in the Greek. The word is “ἰδοὺ”, and it first shows up in our reading in verse 31, where it is translated as “behold”.

ἰδοὺ” means “Open your eyes”, or “pay attention”, or “look here.” It is a common word in scripture, and in fact it appears three times in our reading from Luke. In verse 31, the angel tells Mary, “Behold, you will conceive…” In verse 36, he continues, “Behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth…” And in verse 38, Mary uses “ἰδοὺ” when she says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord…”

In fact, “ἰδοὺ” appears six times in Luke chapter 1. That got me thinking. What if the first calling from God is not to make babies, but to pay attention? I went back to Genesis, and in the Greek translation of chapter 1, it’s right there: where our Bibles read “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food,” the Greek word is “ἰδοὺ”.

Isn’t that God’s first word to Moses, to Saul, to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, to people of every place and time? Look! Pay attention! Wake up! Behold! Isn’t that the story of every call in every age?

But if you’ve ever been bird-watching, or fishing, or to an art museum, or babysitting…if you’ve ever been anywhere, really, you know that in most of our lives, we have to learn how to look. We have to figure out how to process the information at hand. We have to learn what to look for, and how to respond.

That’s what the reading in the Psalm is about: “Lord, teach me where to look and teach me how to look.”

People of God: ἰδοὺ! Look around you. The world in which we live is populated by people who say, “Oh, if I only knew what to do next… God, give me a sign…”

We come to church and we read about people like Jeremiah and Esther and Mary and Zechariah who are called by God and we say, “Oh, well, I guess he’s out of that business now. God hasn’t called me in a while…”

And if he were here, the Psalmist would give me a “dope slap” and say, “Look, Pastor Dave, the ‘sign’ that you want is right in front of you. Do you want to know what’s important to God? Do you want to know how to please God? Do you want to know what God wants you to do? Then read his word!”

The person who, perhaps more than any other, can be regarded as the “father of Presbyterianism” was a 16th century scholar named John Calvin. He talked a lot about the things that we notice and the things that we don’t. In one important writing, he said,

The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (detail), Jan Van Eyck, 1434-36.

 

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.[1]

In another place, he said,

For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, he not only makes those things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but he almost compels us to behold them, as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles.[2]

What’s important in the world right now? Well, if my television is an accurate indicator of the issues most pressing on humanity in early May 2015, it would appear as though the legal status of a couple of artificially-inseminated embryos created by Colombian actress Sofia Vergara, or the amount of air in the footballs thrown by Tom Brady, or the name of the youngest child born to Prince William and his wife are the most important issues on the planet right now.

Is this what matters?

Why do we care about these things?

Why do we distract ourselves in this way?

Why is it so easy to say, “Oh, God, please show me what you want me to do…as soon as I finish this game of Candy Crush”?

Oh, beloved…what if we are killing ourselves and those around us by allowing ourselves to be so distracted that we cannot even behold that which is true any more?

A Look At Life Through Red Tinted Glasses

A Look At Life Through Red Tinted Glasses

People of God, ἰδοὺ! Look at the people with whom you share a home. Look at the people with whom you share a sanctuary this morning, at least half of whom are struggling with some secret sin or deep pain or hidden need, but don’t know what to do about it. Look beyond the cotton candy in our media and hear the cries of those who suffer from violence or abuse or betrayal or enslavement… And to make sure that you’re looking at the right stuff in the right way, look through the Bible. Use the eyeglasses of God’s word to help you see what is really important in the lives of the people for whom Christ died, and those whom he has given you to love.

I guess what I’m getting at in this sermon on the calling of Mary is this: what if we are waiting around for a call from God to do or be something special but in the meantime we are not paying attention to the “behold” moments of life?

Here’s the truth: two thousand years ago, the Lord of life showed up in a Palestinian living room and asked an illiterate, unwed, peasant teenage girl if she was interested in seeing what he had in mind for the world. She said “yes.” And she entered into the grime and pain and joy and hope and fear and wonder that God opened to her. Not because she was so amazingly outstanding. But because she was willing to see what God would show to her.

Can you dare to believe that God is willing and able to enter into the messed-upness of your life? Do you actually think that God can call you toward something better or deeper or higher or fuller or richer than that which occupies so much of our world’s attention right now? Could God be inviting you to a life of maturity, service, and joy?

Can you ἰδοὺ? Can you seek to behold where and how that can be? And then, can you say “yes”?

There is a lot that I can’t do, including being a mom. But ἰδοὺ? Behold? Cracking open the Bible each day, and listening for God’s word, and trying to see God’s world through that word? I can do that. Can you?

[1] Institutes of the Christian Religion (1560) I.vi.1

[2] Commentary on Genesis, as quoted in Randall Zachman’s John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought (Baker, 2006) p. 196

Who’s Up?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  One of the people who did that time and time again was Mary of Magdala.  Our first service on Easter Sunday included a reading from Matthew 28:1-10.

If everything goes as planned, sometime after four p.m. tomorrow afternoon, Francisco Liriano will throw the first pitch of the 2015 Pirate season. It would seem as though thoughts of resurrection and hope are not limited to theological themes this week.
LineupCardAs I think about tomorrow’s game, I am struck by the notion that there are two kinds of ball players in the world. Some of you come in from the field and know exactly where we are in the batting order. Many of these folks not only remember the order, but are happy to issue a report as to how previous batters have fared against the current pitcher. And others of us, perhaps more focused on defense, strategy, or how good a burrito would taste right now, come to the bench and say, “Who’s up?” We have forgotten where we stand in the order.

Ever since my grandfather took me to a game in Connie Mack stadium nearly fifty years ago, baseball has been magical for me. I love it because it’s good to listen to on the radio, and it’s better in person. I appreciate how it is a wonderful blend of individual and team competition, and I love to see how choreographed it can be, such as when there are two men on base and the batter lays down a bunt. It is poetry.

And beyond the mechanics, there is a cerebral element. How will the manager construct his batting order? Speed up top and power in the middle, usually. Ask people down below to be smart, and don’t embarrass themselves or the team.

One by one, the procession of teammates goes out to stand at the plate and share in the common goal of advancing the runners and achieving victory. And I have noticed that there are two types of batters in a lineup. Some folks are chomping at the bit, and saying “whoo-hoo! I get to hit! Come on now, let me at ‘em.” And others are sitting in the on-deck circle silently pleading, “please, God, not me, not now, no with two outs and a man on third…”

Who’s up?

Believe it or not, that’s the question that came to mind as I pondered this morning’s scripture.

I know – believe you me, I know – that it’s dangerous to compare the arc of history and the message of salvation to a game. But bear with me on this, because I think that Matthew 28 reveals a significant shift in God’s dealings with humanity – and that has implications for us.

Think about it: for thousands of years, God’s promise was an idea. Every now and then, one of the prophets would pipe up and say, “Hey, don’t forget – God is moving. Things are going to happen. I’m not sure exactly how or when or where, but stay tuned. This will be big. Really big.”

Prophets

The Prophets

 

angelsicon

…and Angels

The prophets – God’s leadoff men, if you will, set the table, and then the heavy hitters come up. When the time is right, the angels appear. Angel, from the Greek word angelos, means messenger, and these messengers show up in droves. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all receive visitations with some real specificity. You will have a son. You will give him this name. You will find him here, wearing this. Who’s up? Well, mostly it’s Gabriel, it would seem. God had a message, and he sent messengers.

holy-apostles-icon

…then the Apostles

And then, about thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry and we quickly discover that he not only has a message, he is the message. For three years, Jesus works to transform human history and experience by raising up a small group of followers. The most prominent of these, of course, are the twelve apostles. Apostolos, meaning “one who is sent”. It is fairly obvious to even a casual reader of the Gospels that Jesus is preparing the twelve for something. To follow my baseball analogy, for much of the Gospels, Jesus is “up” now, and they are “on deck”.

And then the unthinkable happens. He is betrayed by one of the twelve. There is an unjust trial, a cruel execution, and a hasty burial. In a twist, the Apostles are not sent anywhere. Instead, they scatter and hide.

But God is not through. Jesus is not through. We heard this morning about the ways that God has turned this unthinkable tragedy into an even more unthinkable victory. The next phase is set to begin.

How will it begin? Are we going to see Gabriel, Michael, or one of the other angels again? Not really.

When God started the whole Jesus thing, there were angels everywhere: in the Temple, in Joseph’s dreams, in Mary’s home, in the fields around Bethlehem. That’s the way that God chose to get the news out then.

Now, when the best news ever is unleashed, it comes in the quiet corner of a graveyard at dawn. And not only that, but the news comes to a woman who, if ever there was a person to say this, is saying, “Please God, not me. Not me. Not me…”

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The best news in the history of news is entrusted to a woman named Mary from the town of Magdala. We don’t know a great deal about her, although Luke tells us that at one point Jesus drove not one or two, but seven demons out of her. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what that life would be like – a life filled with uncertainty and shame. Mary evidently connected with Jesus fairly early in his ministry and after having experienced the transformation of his presence, she became totally devoted to him.

He treated her with love and respect and encouragement, while most of her peers no doubt continued to remember her as she had been.  You’ve been in high school – you know how long people remember (“you know, Mary, the woman who used to be… the chick who always had… You know, Mary?”).

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

When the Apostles all scattered, Mary was unable to leave his side. Even as he hung on the cross, she could not see herself anywhere else. After all he had done for her she only wanted to show a little respect. She was, as Frederick Buechner says, “one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified – she had more guts than most – and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him into the tomb.”[1] The least she could do was to make sure he got a decent burial, and so she arrives at the tomb at first light that Sunday morning.

When she arrives, however, she runs into an angel. Unlike the previous angels in the gospels, though, this one is not telling her something that God is going to do. He simply instructs her to get back to the disciples and tell them to make their way to Galilee, where they will meet the Lord. Not long after that, she runs into Jesus himself, who demonstrates the truth of the angel’s message of resurrection and reminds her to send the apostles to meet up with him.

This is far and away the most incredible bit of news that anyone, anywhere, has ever heard, and to whom is it entrusted? Her. That one. Mary of Magdala receives the promises of Jesus: I can be found. I will be seen.

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The only way this makes sense for me is for Mary to be crying out, saying, “No, Lord! Not me. Send Peter. Send John. Don’t make me carry this news. What if I blow it?”

“Don’t worry, Mary. I will give them their job. Right now, it’s your turn. You are up, Mary.”

Listen, if the resurrection is a fairy tale, then we’re just wasting our time.

If the resurrection is an allegory or a myth, then maybe it’s a harmless enough way to spend a few moments before breakfast.

If the resurrection is merely history – an event that happened once upon a time, a specific occasion in a particular place, then maybe someone ought to put up a plaque or historical marker.

But I believe that the resurrection is better and truer than any of that. I believe that the message still holds. I believe that the Message is still operative in our world.

God, in Christ, is moving in and through the world to bring sight where vision fails, to build up what has been torn down, and to heal what is wounded.

Jesus With Mary Magdalene Bruce Wolfe Contemporary Used by Permission http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus With Mary Magdalene
Bruce Wolfe – Contemporary
Used by Permission
http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus Christ, God’s own messenger and Message, said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

That is not yesterday’s news. Jesus is, in all of the most important ways, still visible. Apostles, like Mary and the twelve are still, in every significant way, being sent. Do you know this?

Are you aware of someone who needs to have vision restored, hope re-planted, sin forgiven, oppression lifted, enslavement ended?

Go and look for them. And show them Jesus.

The angels are not going to do it. Nor can Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Priscilla, or Aquila.

It’s you and me. Come on, church. You’re up. The world needs to see Jesus. Can we show him here and now? Can we be his body in this time and this place?

The Lord IS risen. He is risen indeed!

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 102.

Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

The Visible Man (A Christmas Story)

As has been my custom for more than 20 years, Christmas Eve I told a story to the saints at Crafton Heights. It’s an original story, so far as I can tell.  I read a lot.  If you see something good in here, I probably remembered it from something else I read.  The inspiration for this story, and the truth to which it points (I hope) is found in Luke 1:46-55, the song of Mary known as The Magnificat.

Scott McBurney was not invisible.

He arose every morning of his life, trusting this to be the case.  He was not, and had never been, invisible.  He knew that.

He knew that even on the days when it felt otherwise.

When he was born, his parents were expecting twins.  And so when his sisters Susan and Sarah emerged from the womb, there was joy.  There was delight.  There was celebration.  There was…another baby!  Scott was born eight minutes after Sarah, to the utter surprise of everyone in the room.  For the first four days of his life he was known to all, including his parents, simply as “the boy”.

While a name was eventually found for him, along with a bedroom and the other necessities of life, he often felt as though he were, in fact, invisible.

Susan was the beautiful one.  She was simply stunning, and as the kids grew, she was never at a loss for a social life.  She lit up the social networks.  Scott did not.

Sarah was the brainy one.  Whenever the homework was arranged on the refrigerator, hers was the one with the most checkmarks, stars, or exclamation points.  She received a number of college scholarships and academic awards.  Scott did not.

Scott was the boy.  With the exception of being a triplet, he had about the blandest life imaginable.  Widely regarded as “a heck of a guy” or “one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet”, he still found himself – often – in the company of those who had forgotten his name.

He didn’t resent that.  He didn’t regret anything.  It just was, that’s all.

He taught High School English and Communications in suburban Chicago.  While there’s not much of an indication that he was anyone’s favorite teacher, the kids didn’t hate being in his class, either.

Late one autumn his second period Communication Arts class was studying Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.  He’d asked the class to take turns reading through the famous speech line by line.  At the end of the first paragraph, Marcus Dixon, a young man with a mild speech impediment, read, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in re- re- re- re- re- re- regard to it is ventured.”

And as young Mr. Dixon was wallowing in the re- re- re- of “regard”, Scott McBurney’s attention was drawn to Angela Wallace, who was hands-down the most attractive and most-intelligent student in the eleventh grade.  Although she had been blessed with looks and brains, kindness was not among her attributes, and she was very subtly, but unmistakably, drawing everyone’s laughter to poor Marcus’ plight.

And here, Scott did something he did not often do.  He assigned homework out of anger.  “All right, Miss Wallace,” he said.  “Since you are obviously so fascinated by the etymology of the word ‘regard’, I’d like you to enlighten the entire class.  On Monday, I’ll expect you to have a three minute speech, with at least four sources, on the meaning of and history behind the word ‘regard’.”

It wasn’t much, but Scott felt like he had to do something to support Marcus.

He was neither surprised nor disappointed when Monday arrived, and, like everything Angela did, the speech was flawless.  She was poised, relaxed and informative.  Scott, along with the eleventh grade Communication Arts class, learned that while much of the time “regard” is used to mean “esteem” or “glance”, it actually comes from a very old French word, garder, meaning “guard” or “watch”, and “re”, meaning “back” or with added intensity.  “Regard”, once upon a time, then, meant to look at, to watch out for, to pay attention to with some real energy.  Angela also pointed out that it carried with it a meaning of holding something or someone in esteem or respect.

And, because she was so, well, so Angela, she got an A on the speech and came out smelling like a rose.  And Scott McBurney gradually allowed that episode to fade from his mind for a few weeks.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Scott found himself in a place that was at once quite familiar and intensely uncomfortable: exactly halfway across the third pew from the front on the right-hand side at the church in which he and his sisters had grown up.  Susan’s children were in the pageant and it was expected that he would deviate from his normal routine and re-appear at the church to observe this spectacle.  And, because it was expected, and because he was still, in many ways, “the boy”, there he sat.

As he waited for the rest of the family to arrive and the service to start, he found himself humming the first line of a song that the kids at school had been playing over and over again: “I’m still alive, but I’m barely breathing / just praying to a God that I don’t believe in…”[1]

As he sat in that hard pew, it occurred to him that this whole Jesus thing reminded him of everything about his sisters that he resented.  He had grown up being taught to worship the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that wowed the multitudes with his amazing teachings and snappy miracles.  In other words, the Jesus who was every bit as attractive and intelligent as Susan and Sarah.  That, he thought, is why he had found it so easy to walk away from the church.

And on any other day, or had it been any other reading, by any other child – well, it might have just slipped by.  But on this particular morning, his own niece stood up and moved to the microphone and read Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat.  And as that halting soprano raced through the lines, one word caused her to stumble: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has re- re- re-garded the low estate of his handmaiden.”

Mary's Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission.

“Seriously?” Scott thought to himself?  “Regarded?”  And because he’d been brought to that pew every week as a boy, he knew that if he reached into the little cubby underneath his seat that he would find, in addition to some ancient bulletins and candy wrappers, a battered pew bible.  He thumbed his way to Luke 1 and there he satisfied himself that he had heard correctly: apparently, the Almighty is in the business of regarding…of watching.  Of looking for, or respecting, or guarding.  Of taking second glances. And he wondered.  And then he thought that maybe he’d been spending too much time at school, or, worse yet, too much time thinking about Angela Wallace.

A couple of days later he found himself back in the third pew from the front on the right-hand side of the church – his twice-yearly appearance (not counting the bonus points he’d earned for showing up at the children’s program).  And, as it happened, the preacher had chosen to read again from Luke.  This time, it was about the shepherds and the innkeeper.  And it struck Scott, again, that these were folks who were widely un-regarded.  Not worth a second look.  Shepherds and innkeepers and carpenters and unwed mothers were a part of the furnishings… but not here.

For the first time in his adult life, Scott McBurney wondered if this blond-haired blue-eyed popular miracle worker was, well, was not really Jesus at all.  Maybe that character didn’t even exist.

During the week between semesters, Scott sat down and read through the entire Gospel of Luke. It only took about an hour and a half.  And as he did so, he encountered an old man named Simeon, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and a tax collector, a centurion, a whole bunch of bleeding and disfigured people…an assembly of outcasts, all of whom would have been dis-regarded by the people of that time, as well as Scott’s own.  None of whom was worthy of any consideration.  And yet each of whom was sought out by Jesus of Nazareth.  Here was this son of whom Mary sang, honoring these people with his presence.  He was, in fact, regarding them in their lowly estate.  By the time he’d finished this exercise, Scott had left the shepherds and the fishermen and the sick masses…and wondered about himself.

Scott McBurney knew that he was not invisible.  But he never thought much about the fact that he had been regarded.  And somehow, that changed things.

Angela, and Marcus, and the rest of the second period Communication Arts class probably didn’t notice anything.  Mr. McBurney was still a nice guy.  He was still, mostly, the boy.  Oh, if anyone had had reason to thumb through his calendar, they might have noticed that he was spending more time not only at church, but in the feeding ministry the church ran on Tuesday evenings.  Had someone access to his checkbook, it would have been easy to see that his priorities had shifted dramatically.

Yet Scott would say that these changes weren’t really worth noticing, because they were merely symptoms of something more important going on.

He would say that once a person realizes that he’s been regarded, well, that person starts to do some regarding himself.  Once he realizes he’s been seen by Jesus, and he looks at Jesus, well…he just begins to look with Jesus.  And the world becomes a different place.

Scott McBurney is not invisible.  Nobody is.  Thanks be to the God who has regarded us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

IMG_1171Christmas Eve affords me with my absolute favorite view of the entire year.  It’s darker than it usually is…but I like to think that when I gaze at the congregation while they are holding their candles, just after we finish singing Silent Night, that we see each other more clearly than usual.  People who have hovered around the edge of the Holy, even on a dark and cold night, become more visible than we usually are.

When the writer of the Gospel of John was telling the story of Christmas, he didn’t monkey around with shepherds and angels.  He went straight to Jesus, and he said this:

“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(Jn. 1:14, The Message)

The Word – the Son of the Father – is the Visible Man.  God – in Christ – has a face.  And tonight, I celebrate that it looks like the people I get to worship with.

Scott McBurney took a couple of hours and read through a Gospel.  This Christmas season, I’d like to challenge you all to do the same thing.  Put aside the new toys, the fix-it projects, and the dirty dishes.  Grab your old Bible, or simply go to Bible Gateway, and look for a Gospel.  Read it in a new translation – like The Message.  And don’t read it for answers or for the Jesus you already know.  Read it as if you’d never heard it before. And look for yourself there.  Because you are visible there, too.

Thanks be to God, I can see you in the Gospel, and I can see the Gospel in you.  Never forget – you are regarded.


[1] Breakeven (Falling to Pieces), recorded by Irish band The Script, 2008 Phonogenic Records