Judge Twice Matthew 7:1-5, 12

7 Don’t condemn others, and God won’t condemn you. 2 God will be as hard on you as you are on others! He will treat you exactly as you treat them.
3 You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. 4 How can you say, “My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you don’t see the log in your own eye? 5 You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.
12 Treat others as you want them to treat you. This is what the Law and the Prophets are all about.
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Point your finger at me. Like this. Now, look at your hand. How many fingers are pointing back at you? That is one of the lessons we can glean from today’s scripture. Jesus says it like this:
3 You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. 4 How can you say, “My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you don’t see the log in your own eye? 5 You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.
Psychologists call this situation “projection.” You see a fault in someone else, but in reality, you have that very fault. Because you don’t like this fault in yourself, you project it onto someone else and see that fault in them. Then you judge them for being lazy, for being prejudiced, for being a gossip. It’s a way of shifting the blame of your own faults onto other people, so that you don’t have to recognize your own guilt.
I was an expert on this before I was diagnosed with depression. Everybody else was wrong and I was right. Have you ever known people like that? They are hard to live with, hard to work with, and you never invite them to join you for a fun evening out.
I thought everybody else was rude. I was the one who was rude. I thought every other teacher was disrespectful of their students. I was the one who didn’t respect her students. I’m thought the students were unfriendly. I was the one who was unfriendly. I thought my husband wasn’t taking good enough care of the kids. I was the one who wasn’t taking good enough care of the kids.
Everything that I was doing wrong was what I thought other people were doing wrong. I was looking in a mirror, seeing everything that was wrong with me. Only I blamed it on everybody else.
Lucky for me, my rudeness and disrespect and egotism could be cured with a pill. And a Bible study. (more later)
My example is extreme. Thankfully, not all people are as negative as I was.
Jesus’ example is extreme, too, but sometimes we need exaggeration to comprehend the lesson.
Jesus “puts” the log in the eye, the very organ we use to see, to perceive. Projection is a matter of perception. I see what I want to see instead of what is really there. I can’t think of a better metaphor, a better way to explain our tendency to judge others despite our own imperfections. When we have something in our eye, even a speck, it distorts how we see.
This business of judging others has become a full-time occupation, a modus operandi in our culture. All I have to say is Make America Great Again or Black Lives Matter and alarms go off. What does those alarms tell us to do? They do not tell us to run for our lives. They do not tell us that something is burning. They do not tell us that a train is coming or to make way for an ambulance. Those alarms, those phrases and others like them, simply shove us to one side or the other as a giant chasm opens between us. Then we stare across the chasm, not noticing that though it is deep, it is not so wide, not as wide as one step. But we refuse to take that step, to be in community with those who are separated from us.
It seems cliche’ to blame the media, but the media certainly does enhance or exacerbate the divide.
One of my friends, a former student, sent me an article yesterday. She did it in Messenger. Are you all familiar with how Facebook works? Anything you post on Facebook is seen by your friends, sometimes by your friends’ friends. Once that post is shared, your friends can comment on it. “Oh, your grandchild is so cute.” “I wish I were in Florida with you.” “Who is in the picture with you?” “Have you tried that recipe?” Fairly innocuous. No arguments start with cute grandchildren. We don’t fight over whose is cutest. But when we post something about our beliefs in a social issue or a public person, instead of thoughtful comments or questions or no comments at all, we get blasted with rhetoric that is less than kind. Sometimes we are made fun of, sometimes we are given alternate facts meant to cut us down, sometimes we are chastised. My friend wanted to share an article with her Facebook friends, but she knew it would make some of her friends angry. So she sent it to a group of us in Messenger, which is the email component of Facebook. The article itself was about the divide that seems to throw us into dysfunction and bad manners and hurtful accusations. Lucy was afraid—-afraid, to post an article that she thought made lots of sense.
The problem is not what we post on Facebook, but how we react. We judge. We jump to conclusions. Why? Perhaps the log in my eye keeps me from understanding why my friend posted a criticism of a former president or a group of people. More likely, I am blind to my own prejudices and when I see them in my friend’s post, I judge him for his views. I see him in a negative light. Where does that lead? I’m afraid to talk to him. So, on Facebook, that is easy: I block or ignore him. But in real life—how does that attitude alter our relationship?
How many of you have distanced yourself from some of your friends because of their views on social issues and public figures? How many of you have been unfriended, either on Facebook or in real life? How many of you dread family reunions, Thanksgiving dinner, because you are afraid of where the conversation will go?
At the heart of all this is one thing: fear. We have become afraid of each other, but the fear goes deeper. We are afraid for our future. We are afraid our guns are going to be confiscated. We are afraid our kids are going to be denied education or jobs. We are afraid that those values we hold dear are going to be trampled on by those with the most power. We are afraid we are losing something, losing our rights to be or do what we’ve always been or done. We are afraid we won’t be able to afford doctors or cars or food or the very roofs over our heads.
When we are afraid, we become defensive. And that log lodges itself in the eye and we see what we fear and not what is there.
I remember the first time I saw that fear at work. I was at a political gathering. Of course. A candidate for the U.S. Senate was speaking, trying to convince us that he would do such-and-such if he were elected. This was about ten years ago, not last fall. A member of the audience stood up and started shouting at the candidate. She wouldn’t stop shouting, thus preventing the candidate from replying to her concerns and preventing the rest of us from hearing what his hopes were and preventing the rest of us from asking about our own concerns. Fear.
Here’s the thing about fear: it can be harnessed, organized, promoted, endorsed, encouraged. All it takes is shoving a log of some kind in the eye and we see in others what we fear in ourselves.
Does Jesus have a solution? Yes. Yes, he does. Verse 12. 12 Treat others as you want them to treat you. This is what the Law and the Prophets are all about.
Every law, every commandment in the Bible comes down to this. Be nice to people. No caveats. No “what ifs.” No “but they.” No “what about?” That’s actually a term: “whataboutism.”
When you deflect criticism by pointing out flaws in your opponent, specifically using the phrase “what about x?” This is an attempt to excuse you from changing you behavior by painting your opponent as a hypocrite. (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=whataboutism0
For instance, I could tell my kids to stop drinking Diet Coke and they could come back and say, “What about all the coffee you drink?” The most popular “whataboutism” I can think of is when someone says “Black lives matter,” someone else says, “Blue lives matter;” then someone else says “All lives matter.” Whataboutisms keep us from discussing the real issues.
My personal feeling is that the divide in our society has two factors. The first is fear, fear of the known and unknown. The second is lazy thinking. When we could be learning from each other through one-on-one, face-to-face discussion, we instead take the lazy way out and repeat and repost what we’ve heard, without thinking about it, without looking at cause and effect and history and culture. Maybe a third factor is lack of caring. Maybe I don’t care what you think, how you feel, how you are affected. Maybe I don’t care about your concerns and struggles. Again, Jesus has an answer. 12 Treat others as you want them to treat you.
It’s know as the Golden Rule, the Great Commandment. That exact same rule exists in every major religion in the world. Including Islam. There is a another great whataboutism. The Muslims do thus and thus; therefore they are bad. Of course, Muslims can say the same about Christians. The fact is both Muslims and Christians have their share of black marks, black sheep. We find out through the media, which is great at making us afraid. I only know one family of Muslims, but they are my friends, are faithful and kind.
Another form of whataboutism is “If everybody…” If everybody carried a gun….
If everybody had affordable healthcare… If everybody was paid a higher minimum wage… If everybody cheered for the Hawkeyes… If everybody was subject to the draft…
Jesus’ answer is short and to the point. Love everybody. If you review the meanings Luther wrote for the ten commandments, you’ll see the same thing.
We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].
We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.
We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbor’s wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and [diligently] do their duty.
Here’s the hard part. Those logs in our eyes are just about permanent fixtures. We might as well wear eyepatches. So what’s a Christian to do? One of my Facebook colleagues—-there are wonderful uses for Facebook, you, know—suggests that we judge twice. We cannot help judging. It’s in our sinful nature. So, we judge. I judge. Then I judge again, this time looking through the lens of God’s creation. When God was finished creating the earth as we know it, God created us. God created humans—in God’s image and likeness. God did not create bad people. God did not create morons. God did not create liberals or conservatives. God created good people, like us.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I belonged to Ruth Circle at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church; we had excellent Bible studies.. The most searing scripture was exposed to me to me by one of those Bible studies. Simple, familiar lesson: we are made in the image of God. But I was in the midst of a lot of conflict in my life, mostly between me and my high school Language Arts students. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I returned to class with a new hermeneutic: my students were created in the image of God. They were not stupid, narrow-minded, ungrateful little wretches. They were made from the same dust as me and they were just as wonderful. That knowledge (and lots of Prozac) turned my teaching career around. My students didn’t necessarily learn more, but they knew they were valued and loved and that love continues to sweeten my life to this day.
I had to be re-taught, at the age of 35, that God created each of us to be like God. Kind, loving, merciful, creative, curious. I learned to judge twice. I looked at what I thought I saw, and then I looked again. I learned what is nowadays called the “backstory.” I learned why each student acted the way she or he did. I learned to value the good in each student, the God in each student if you will. If you look at a person long enough, the log can fall out of your eye, and through the grace of God, you can learn to not only love that person, but to understand that person. My fear was replaced by empathy and acceptance of all that was good in that student.
I have never forgotten that lesson. I have shared it hundreds of times. By sharing it, I am not trying to impress you with my piety, my goodness. I want you to embed that same lesson in your life. I want you to have that gift of sight, that gift of insight into every relationship, every encounter, whether it be at card club, at a family dinner, at a ball game, on Facebook. Let that log that makes everything look dangerous and threatening fall out of our eyes and help us to clearly see each other as God made us. Amen.

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Not a Sermon.

I used to think I was irreplaceable, indispensable, a cut apart from anyone else in my call to Hope Lutheran.
I tried that approach with two denominations. The first summarily dismissed me, with good cause. The second decided that I was still salvageable.
I think the second also took a chance on me because my father had contributed rather richly (like a chocolate chip in a cookie the size of Chicago) to the history of the Lutheran church. It was, above all, not what you know but who you know. As I’ve often said (impressing no one), my father’s pastor’s wife was a Fritschel. (Her brothers founded Wartburg Theological Seminary.) What was important was that my father’s pastor and my father had the bond of spiritual advisor to disciple. That spirituality, along with his love of all things church (aka Lutheran) made my father a major influence in the lives of a dozen pastors who served in that congregation from 1923-2016. If any one’s faith grew in that congregation, there is a good chance that my father influenced it in someway, as council member, as historian, as Sunday School teacher, as role model, as creative contributor. (Who else hires a cartwheel of ponies to be available to all the boys and girls in the neighborhood?)
Both denominations asked me what ordination meant to me. I’ve gone through several answers.
One, it was a great topic of conversation with my own pastor after he suggested I run the gauntlet. I ran the gauntlet. By then he had moved on to safer grounds as a golf course groundskeeper. I might as well have been beaten by golf clubs; it hurt that badly.
So, another reason: to please my dad: I had done pretty well. After all, I had become a teacher AND a church organist. Just as Pastor Hafner was Dad’s mentor, Dad was mine. He was the first theologian in my life. In our religious beliefs, there were actually two Trinities: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (We are German: Geist) and Martin Luther, Pastor, Organist. But then my Dad died. Suddenly ordination became a rite without the right to celebrate.

Next, I was called (with some political sleight of hand) to serve a Lutheran Church. Because I was (I thought at the time) on track to be ordained in the UCC (Unitarians Considering Christ), that made made me “almost” acceptable. According to the Formula of Agreement (was that born out of desperation or cooperation?), an ordained UCC pastor could serve a Lutheran Church. I was not ordained; I had served UCC churches under a license that was renewed every so often, depending on when the association got serious about such things. That license (and 15 years of experience, of administering sacraments) meant nothing in the eyes of my “new” denomination. But because I declared that ordination was right around the corner, and because of the awesome promises the calling congregation made, I was installed in an actual ceremony straight out of the cranberry hymnal.
Then the crash: at my ordination interview (one per person, I found out later) I gave all the wrong answers. What does ordination mean to you? It means that after all these years of caring for everyone else’s faith, I can care about my own. I may have mentioned an invalid husband. And in a burst of hubris, I claimed that my new congregation could not survive without me. I apologized for my arrogance, but even if God’s self did not believe it, my congregation did.
I also gave wrong answers for atonement theory (nobody in the thirty years with that organization had ever mentioned atonement theory.) Crucifixion—sure on Good Friday. I gave the wrong answers for who is God, what is the Bible? I was basing my answers on the convocations I had attended with colleagues—-Crossan, Borg, Brueggemann, for crying out loud!
I was brutally and suicidally honest. Three days later I received an email (not a phone call, letter or Hallmark card) saying I’d been dismissed from the process. Thirty years of service on every level and I wasn’t good enough. Let me say that in those thirty years of service I had run a program for lay ministry, that I had served on a board that declared yea or nay to candidates like myself. I had learned nothing.
Of course, I stirred up a cloud of sympathetic dust, but that did not take away the fear that my congregation would pay by my losing my authorization. I was on a year by year basis. Now the basis was stripped away—-through my own fault.
I crawled into the Synod office. I had one shred of hope. Fortunately, the AB had that same shred of hope: seminary.
Several months later I could glibly say that for twenty years I had been wishing I could go to seminary. (Like wishing I could learn to line dance.) God heard my wish as a prayer. Prayer answered.
The music has started.
I haven’t ever really been a good student. Just a lucky one. Because I went to college in the 60’s, I had some creative professors who nurtured my creativity and ignored my lack of scholarly preparation and ability. I took a class that might as well have been called “Berkeley Hangouts.” We hung out in Berkeley, California for a month. (I never did learn to inhale.) I took classes in art and created a stunner with six Budweiser cans wired to hang out of a Schlitz quart bottle. “First Buds of Spring.” (Schlitz is so obsolete it’s not in Spellcheck.)
How I turned into a pretty good teacher for quite a few kids was the work of the Holy Spirit. There are probably some who are looking for my unlisted number, but they’re the kind who are looking under the “U’s.” U….un….
Now I’m a pastor. And I’m still a teacher to many of those kids. Now I teach them in two arenas: Facebook and the funeral home. I have buried (short for officiated at a funeral) students, their grandparents, their parents, their children. Our relationships have developed into confidant, political role model (Jesus made me do it.), comforter, drinking partner (coffee, beer, doesn’t matter). At one time, I was declared most hated teacher by some students. That changed when I realized that Genesis 1 is right: we are all created in the image and likeness of God. Not just me. Every kid who stole my keys, drew obscene images on my posters, threatened my own children. And every kid who came to me to be safe, to be happy, every kid that laughed at my jokes, every kid that still remembers that 10th grade book report or the sword fights in the wrestling room (no academic teacher used the wrestling room more than I did—mostly reenacting certain scenes from Romeo and Juliet.)
Sometimes we wrote poetry. A daughter read her mother’s poetry at her mother’s funeral—-I’m pretty sure the font looked like it came from a typewriter back in the seventies in the format assigned in my class.
Now I am a pastor—-and a student.
The pastor part has been a natural for me—-only because of thirty years of teaching and being an A+ church member.
I hold my parishioners in my heart and in my hands.  We are sinners, so we sin from time to time. We also confess and receive absolution. We come together not out of habit or social convention, but because we need each other, we count on each other. We are, in the vocabulary of a quilter, a scrappy quilt. We are the leftovers of other congregations. Some of our patches are brand new, some are recycled, some are authentic thirties, forties, fifties prints. We are flannel and polyester and cotton and silk. We are neutrals, darks and lights. And frankly, we haven’t totally stitched up a recognizable classic quilt pattern; we change from Log Cabin to Dresden Plate to Baby Blocks to Flying Geese.
We’re taking a step in choosing at least a foundation for our quilt. To fit in with the accepted and acceptable polity of just about every denomination, we are firming up our membership list. On the last Sunday in January, we well welcome EVERYONE PRESENT into membership at Hope Church in Dixon, Iowa. Each of us will say the words that separate us from the rest of the world and unite us with the rest of the Church.
Because I am learning from my upcoming Systemics 1 Class that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is most respected among Christian denominations, we will be using those words as the basis of our confession. (I’ll call it The Nicene Creed so I don’t have to mispronounce it.)
What is it like to be a student at my age? I have survived, that is, received credit for three classes. Thirteen to go. I have mentors, and liaisons, and advisors and supervisors.
I am pushing myself. But I am not pushing myself to be the best or the smartest or cleverest or even the funniest. I am pushing myself to listen, question a little, listen a lot more.
I am pushing myself to finish my classes before “something happens.” What could that be? I don’t know.
I don’t want this to be my last career. I still want to be an artist.
Artist or not, that will be a calling set up by the Holy Spirit, just as wife, mother, teacher, friend, pastor have been arranged by the Holy Spirit.
In the last years of his life, Dad chose Galatians 5: 22-23, the fruit of the spirit, as his guiding scripture. In 2015, he chose patience. My firs thought was that I wished he’d chosen that in 1967. However, he needed patience more in 2015. He was spending most of his time sitting in a chair, not on a tractor seat. After more than 80 years, first on the back of the pony that guided his mother’s plow through the garden, later, on a big orange tractor with more horsepower than would fit in one barn if it were actual horses, he had been in charge. In those last years, he needed patience to get through each day letting God be in charge. Not that he ever doubted God was in charge; he had assumed that God had delegated a lot of the day-to-day operations to him. He was right. He never forgot, though, that God was the real power behind every living thing, behind every breeze, behind every successful harvest. God was the one who kept the rain away until the last load was in the barn. God was the one who blessed the birthing of all creatures. And when despair conquered hope, God was there to listen.
This week, I met with my mentor for the first time. The hard questions begin. What do I believe? What do I have to believe? How can I keep the red flags to a minimum. If I have any fears, it is that I am not suited to be a Lutheran pastor.
After today (Sunday, Janaury 13) that worry has decreased significantly. I went to church this morning, but because of bronchitis, I did not participate. Anne-Marie led the entire service and did so with a faithfulness that was inspiring. After church, Tony led us in Bible study through Genesis 1. His passion and enthusiasm were mesmerizing, as is his knowledge. (He went to seminary for 6-7 years because he didn’t know which career to pursue.)
So, let the Holy Spirit lead…my arrogance has been knocked down to neutral, if not reverse.
My fears for the future are alleviated. Hope Church will be fine. Who is in charge? Not me. God has delegated some very important duties to me, but it’s not all on my shoulders. The Keys to the Kingdom is a term not much used, but I think I was claiming them for myself. God forgive my arrogance. God be in my hands and heart and mind, in my cries and in my laughter, in my loving and living. Amen.

YOU are the Light John 8:12-20 John 1:1-9

John 8:12-20 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
12 Once again Jesus spoke to the people. This time he said, “I am the light for the world! Follow me, and you won’t be walking in the dark. You will have the light that gives life.”
13 The Pharisees objected, “You are the only one speaking for yourself, and what you say isn’t true!”
14 Jesus replied:
Even if I do speak for myself, what I say is true! I know where I came from and where I am going. But you don’t know where I am from or where I am going. 15 You judge in the same way that everyone else does, but I don’t judge anyone. 16 If I did judge, I would judge fairly, because I would not be doing it alone. The Father who sent me is here with me. 17 Your Law requires two witnesses to prove that something is true. 18 I am one of my witnesses, and the Father who sent me is the other one.
19 “Where is your Father?” they asked.
“You don’t know me or my Father!” Jesus answered. “If you knew me, you would know my Father.”
20 Jesus said this while he was still teaching in the place where the temple treasures were stored. But no one arrested him, because his time had not yet come.
John 1:1-9 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
1 In the beginning was the one who is called the Word.
The Word was with God and was truly God.
2 From the very beginning the Word was with God.
3 And with this Word, God created all things.
Nothing was made without the Word.
Everything that was created 4 received its life from him, and his life gave light to everyone.
5 The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out.
6 God sent a man named John, 7 who came to tell about the light and to lead all people     to have faith.
8 John wasn’t that light.
He came only to tell about the light.
9 The true light that shines on everyone was coming into the world.
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We, here at Hope, represent the Light of the World. We are not wired for electricity. We aren’t born with cords or switches or light bulbs. But we provide light in dark places.
I had an interesting phone call the other day. The council arranged for the church number to ring into my cell phone. That means that anytime someone calls Hope Church, they get an answer—-from me.
The gentleman on the other end gave me his name and then asked if he could meet with me. I don’t think he really knew where our church was and of course he didn’t know where I was.
He was in a dark place.
He was about to be deployed, with little warning, and the arrangements he had made for his family’s housing had fallen through. He had made other arrangements, but the home wasn’t available for another week. He was desperate. This was way out of my range of experience, but I know people. My cousin is a counselor employed at the Arsenal by the Army. I called him, got his permission (I owe him a nice dinner now) and his phone number and called the soldier back. I gave him Scott’s number and said that Scott knew how to help him. I also gave him some ideas about where else to get help. His army chaplain had given him a list of numbers and we were the first one he called.
We represented light in the midst of his darkness.
Now, that could have been a bogus call. He didn’t call my cousin. He did text me last night, to thank me. Nonetheless, we still represented a light, a hope, in the midst of darkness. That doesn’t change anything.
Many times, we don’t get a reward for being a light in the darkness. That makes some Christians mad.
When I was an active member of another congregation, we were called upon to host refugees from Hurricane Katrina. At the time, we had an empty parsonage for sale, so it seemed like a match made in heaven. Our members had a great time bringing in furniture and bedding. One mother and daughter brought a whole basketful of shampoo and cosmetics and hair-bows for the twin high school age girls. We welcomed them in every way we could. The girls went to school. We invited the family into our homes for holidays. We helped the father get his elderly mother into a nearby nursing home. We were so welcoming. But when the family never came to church, and the father refused to get a job, our members were hurt. I personally got a scolding at the annual meeting. Fourteen years later, most of us tell each other that we did the right thing, even though we were not particularly appreciated.
But still, we were light in the darkness, and we acted as such.
Another time, a member had major surgery, and with four children and a busy husband, needed meals brought in. We set up a schedule. Some of our members refused to help because the mother had burned a few bridges. Thankfully, some were still able to be a light in the darkness for that family.
My point is that we can’t just hang around like stars. Being a light in the darkness is not a passive position.
The light is not of our own making. Our light is simply the reflection of the light of the world, Jesus.
Every so often I get a call from a funeral home. Someone has died and the family wants a Christian burial, or at least something familiar and traditional that will help them in the grief process. Whether the family knows it or not, they are seeking the Light of the World, the Light that only Jesus can give.. The care I give is a mere reflection of the light of Jesus.
The phone call from the soldier put me in uncharted territories. God’s people have often found themselves in uncharted, unfamiliar places with no previous experience to draw upon. Yet even in those awkward and frightening places, God is always present.
We have all walked in uncharted, unmapped territories. In times of loss, of grief, of challenge, we can hide in the darkness or we can seek the light. Hiding in the darkness is a real temptation. When we are afraid, when we distrust what is happening around us, it seems safer to bury ourselves in the little bit of familiar we do know and hide from the light that can pull us from the darkness to whole-hearted living.
Sometimes those uncharted territories are places of joy. Best practice is to be accompanied by Jesus on these roads, too. In my own experience, joy, good luck, good times, call it what you will, makes me think the World is on my side, that I’m in a great position to call the shots. And then when the good luck runs out, when circumstances change, then I try to fix things myself. Big mistake. If I insist on Jesus walking with me all the time, I’m not as likely to walk in the wrong direction.
Have you ever stopped at a friend’s house or gone to a party, expecting an ordinary good time? And then something happens, wild and crazy or stupid and dangerous, and suddenly the good time turns strange and you find yourself stranded in another city in a houseful of strangers or you’re in no shape to drive or the person you came with has left with someone else or you can’t remember where you parked your car…. the ways of the world can sneak up on us and turn our self-sufficient, independent lives into chaos or shame or anger.
We can play Monday quarterback and go over all the things we should have done. Or we can walk in the Light all the time.
Jesus is the Light of the World. The only way people in darkness can see that light is as it is reflected by each one of us. The light of the world is visible only through us.
Sometimes it is easy to reflect that light. Sometimes it is scary to be the light, the most visible, the brightest, among all the darkest.
An easy time to be the Light is at the Fish Fry. It may seem like just a nice gesture, or it a unnecessary amount of work, but when we spread our desserts on that big round table, they are like little lanterns, casting a new light on people who are well enough, rich enough, confident enough to come into a room of friends and strangers for some food and some conversation. We are not the only Christians there, of course. But, nonetheless, our light shines. Let us remember, with a teaspoon of humility, that it is the light of Jesus that we are sharing and not necessarily the glowing reputation of our baking.
One of the plays I used to share with my students was The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. One of my favorite lines comes in the last act of that lovely play. Portia, the heroine of the play, is reflecting on the events of the characters as she notices a candle burning a distance away. She observes:
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world
(Portia, V:i The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)
How far pieces of cake have shown a light in our own community. How far bottles of water have shown a light in our community. How far a phone call, how far a visit, how far cans of soup and boxes of crackers, how far a shiny new steeple, how far our very presence casts a Light, the Light of the World into dark corners beyond our reckoning.
Never take for granted what and whom you represent. You are not just a good person. You are a reflection of the the eternal Goodness, of the glorious, resurrected Goodness, the Light of the World.
My prayer is that when someone sees any of us, they see the Light of the World. May we be the hands and feet and smiling faces of Jesus wherever we go. Amen.

The Adult Version Matthew 2:1-23 Micah 5:2-5a

2 When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was worried, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. 4 Herod brought together the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
5 They told him, “He will be born in Bethlehem, just as the prophet wrote,
6 ’Bethlehem in the land
    of Judea,
you are very important
    among the towns of Judea.
From your town
    will come a leader,
who will be like a shepherd
    for my people Israel.’”
7 Herod secretly called in the wise men and asked them when they had first seen the star. 8 He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, let me know. I want to go and worship him too.”
9 The wise men listened to what the king said and then left. And the star they had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 They were thrilled and excited to see the star.
11 When the men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him. They took out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and gave them to him. 12 Later they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back home by another road.
13 After the wise men had gone, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Hurry and take the child and his mother to Egypt! Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is looking for the child and wants to kill him.”
14 That night, Joseph got up and took his wife and the child to Egypt, 15 where they stayed until Herod died. So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “I called my son out of Egypt.”
16 When Herod found out that the wise men from the east had tricked him, he was very angry. He gave orders for his men to kill all the boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years old and younger. This was based on what he had learned from the wise men.
17 So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet Jeremiah had said,
18 “In Ramah a voice was heard
    crying and weeping loudly.
Rachel was mourning
    for her children,
and she refused
to be comforted,
    because they were dead.”
19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph while he was still in Egypt. 20 The angel said, “Get up and take the child and his mother back to Israel. The people who wanted to kill him are now dead.”
21 Joseph got up and left with them for Israel. 22 But when he heard that Herod’s son Archelaus was now ruler of Judea, he was afraid to go there. Then in a dream he was told to go to Galilee, 23 and they went to live there in the town of Nazareth. So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “He will be called a Nazarene.”

Micah 5:2-5 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
2 Bethlehem Ephrath,
you are one of the smallest towns
    in the nation of Judah.
But the Lord will choose
one of your people
    to rule the nation—
someone whose family
    goes back to ancient times.
3 The Lord will abandon Israel
    only until this ruler is born,
and the rest of his family
    returns to Israel.
4 Like a shepherd
    taking care of his sheep,
this ruler will lead
    and care for his people
by the power and glorious name
    of the Lord his God.
His people will live securely,
and the whole earth will know
    his true greatness,
5 because he will bring peace.

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When we say “the adult version,” what are we implying?
First of all, we are saying that an adult version of a story or a movie or book requires the years of experience accrued through age. Oftentimes, it helps to have gained some wisdom through the years, so that the story or movie can be fully and correctly understood.
Sometimes, when we say “adults only,” we are warning listeners that the information is going to be uncomfortable or threatening in someway.
Matthew’s rendition of the birth of Jesus is the adult version. Luke’s version is the romantic version, the version that makes for great Sunday School pageants with children dressed in bathrobes or adorned with gauzy wings and halos. Our favorite Christmas carols are based on Luke’s version…Hark, the Herald Angels Sing! While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. O Little Town of Bethlehem.
True, there is a pageant-perfect element in Matthew’s version: the Wisemen. Elegant, mysterious strangers from a distant country, bearing gifts for a king whom they learned about through astrology, through science, that is, not through Scripture.
But those astrologers, those wisemen, are also the cause of terror and disruption and murder. What if they had simply followed the star, without stopping in Jerusalem to ask for directions?
2 When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
I wonder where they stopped. They didn’t go directly to the king. Did they go to the temple? Did they simply stop at a local gathering place for a meal? They would have attracted attention, simply because they were different and they were strangers. Did they engage the locals in conversation? They must have stopped at a Jewish, rather than a Roman, establishment because word of their visit got back to King Herod, who summoned the priests.
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was worried, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. 4 Herod brought together the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
Herod was not pleased about the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. He was frightened that he would be replaced by the new king, Messiah or not. If the Scriptures were true, Herod would be out of a job, out of his palace, and no longer in favor with the occupying Roman government. He, like nearly every member of the Jewish nation, expected the Messiah to be a military conquerer.
Herod was in the Roman version of the 1%. He had more to lose than a title and a job if a new king was born. He had sons of his own who were hoping to take his place someday. A king born somewhere else was a threat to everything he had worked for, to everything he had accumulated. A new king would take away his wealth and power, or so he would have thought.
Herod was desperate, so he took no chances. First, he tried to use the wisemen to get to the new king.
7 Herod secretly called in the wise men and asked them when they had first seen the star. 8 He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, let me know. I want to go and worship him too.”
That didn’t work. The wisemen also believed in dreams. They were warned in a dream to not trust Herod.
12 Later they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back home by another road.
Herod was denied a chance to find the threatening baby. Based on his next action, I don’t think he planned to worship the “new king.” He planned to kill the baby.
16 When Herod found out that the wise men from the east had tricked him, he was very angry. He gave orders for his men to kill all the boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years old and younger. This was based on what he had learned from the wise men.
This is the adult version of the nativity. A child is born into this world, not in the comfort of his parents home, but in a barn, a stable, a cave, without a midwife, without grandmothers and aunts talking to him and cuddling him, with only two frightened, inexperienced parents. No neighbors standing outside the door, ready to support the parents and welcome the new baby to the village. Only strangers—-the lowest of the low—shepherds—and the strangest of the strange—-eastern astrologers—to share the joy of a new child with the parents.
And then the joy turns to panic. Little boys are being ripped from their parents arms and being slaughtered all over Jerusalem. No warning. No reason. Just the king’s soldiers descending and invading and murdering the darling little boys in each household. Violence. Bloodshed. Weeping. Deepest grief. Helplessness. Anguish. Murder. The murder of innocent children.
Once again, God intervenes through a dream. Mary and Joseph leave this most violent and dangerous of places to go to a strange land, a land where they knew no one, where they did not speak the language, where they had no address to claim.
They struck out because they needed refuge. Refugees. How many times have parents left the violence and danger and despair of all that is familiar to protect their children? Mary and Joseph and Jesus fled certain death for uncertain refuge. This is a story that repeats itself over and over, even in our own time.
I just read a moving story about a family in Mt. Pleasant. The son was in school, in his hometown, but was being threatened by various gangs to become a gang member. He made his way to Mt. Pleasant, where his father was working. For now, he is safe. But there are thousands like him who are not safe, who are forced into gangs, who are hiding, who are trying to find their own Egypt, as Mary and Joseph did.
Who is to say that God didn’t plant the dreams of a safer home in the minds of parents and children who are now detained at our borders, seeking legal asylum?
Regardless, Jesus was born into a violent world. God created a beautiful, perfect world, but sin invaded and the struggle has never stopped.
Sometimes Christians become impatient with God and scold God for not stopping the violence, for not defeating or transforming those who cause war or injustice or hate.
That is not God’s way.
Sometimes Christians think that God sends evil to punish us or to teach us a lesson.
That is not God’s way.
God’s way is to walk with us through the violence, through the heartbreak, through the injustice.
We have learned that God is not a military God, nor a financial God, nor a dictator God. God is a companion God, a healing God, a strengthening God.
God walks with us through the bad times, through the sorrow, to bring us to peace and justice and glory.
Jesus’ birth did not make everything ok. Jesus’ birth did not vanquish evil or war or cruelty.
Jesus does bring us peace, healing, hope. And that hope is realized as reality when we leave this world, not as beat-up sinners, but as the restored children of God.
Jesus lived this life in real time, as a real human. Jesus conquered the worst that can happen to us: death. Because Christ died and conquered death, we will die and conquer death. This is the good news that started in such a precarious place, in such a strange place. This is the good news that lived among violence and poverty and fear and emerged triumphant, not over a king or government but over death.
That is the greater glory. We know that Jesus walks with us because prayers are answered, good deeds are accomplished, and we enjoy a peace that is other-worldly.
O little town of Bethlehem, O strange visitors from the east, O parents of lost children, O foolish kings who know only their own greed, O shepherds and soldiers and sleepy villages. O people who lie in hospitals beds or on the hard ground at the border of hope. O children of God, welcome God into your lives and embrace God’s Son, your Savior. Amen.

Parenting –Matthew 1:18-23

Matthew 1:18-23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
18 This is how Jesus Christ was born. A young woman named Mary was engaged to Joseph from King David’s family. But before they were married, she learned that she was going to have a baby by God’s Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph was a good man and did not want to embarrass Mary in front of everyone. So he decided to quietly call off the wedding.
20 While Joseph was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord came to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit. Go ahead and marry her. 21 Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, 23 “A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
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The power of a dream. Do you have favorite dreams? Recurring dreams? Scary dreams? Sad dreams? I can tell what is going on in my life by which dreams I have. If I dream about skipping class so many times that I can’t remember where my classes are or what time they start, I know I’ve got too much on my plate. If I start having dreams about my Mom and me fighting, I know that I’m coming down with a spell of depression. Some people pay attention to dreams. Some forget them. Some ignore them.
Dreams are important in the Bible. Joseph and Daniel both used their dreams to give guidance to kings. Joseph, son of Jacob, ended up as second in command to the Pharaoh; Daniel ended up in the lions’ den. (He was released when the king realized he was right.)
Joseph, Mary’s true love, had a dream—-just in time. He was ready to divorce Mary when the dream arrived. The visitor in the dream was Gabriel, the same angel who had visited Mary in broad daylight to tell her to go buy diapers and receiving blankets.
Gabriel gave Joseph explicit information: the Child’s father is God. And by the way, you don’t need to think about a name. His name is Jesus. Furthermore, just so you know how important this child will be, this child, this one that your wife is bearing, this child, will save his people from their sins.

This child, even though not yours, will be yours to raise, Joseph, and and to love and to teach. Joseph was not the first, nor is he the last to love a child who was dramatically different from him.
I recently read a book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. Solomon talked with dozens of parents who are quite different from their children. The children in these specific families have Downs syndrome, are dwarfs, are transgender or gay, or were conceived in rape, or had committed a crime. Solomon wondered what made these families happy. Essentially, the condition for a happy family was accepting the child as the child was born, being happy with the child rather than trying to change the child,
Joseph accepted Jesus, even though Jesus was the not the kind of child Joseph would have chosen to raise. But Joseph accepted, graciously, gracefully, lovingly a child into his family, who though not his own, was raised as his own.
We have no record of Joseph’s conversation with himself or with Mary. But how interesting that would be! What did they understand about this unexpected event?
Ironically, this unexpected event was long-expected, long hoped for by thousands of Hebrew people down through the generations. Prophet after prophet had hinted that God had a bigger plan, one that would establish the independence of the Hebrew nation.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2). The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1–2).
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13–14).
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Mary and Joseph would have known those prophesies, would have heard them at synagogue, and surely they discussed their role in the prophecies. Of course, they could have missed the connection between the traditional Scriptures about a Savior and their own Savior, but Gabriel’s words were pretty specific to both of them:
30 Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, 31 and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. 33 He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
21 Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
What did they talk about? What was their vision for their child? We all have some ideas for our children. They don’t disappear when the child is born. They grow grander as the child grows. As the child reveals his interests, his skills, we envision the adult he or she will become. When I look at my grandsons now, I see an engineer and an entertainer. Those visions will change as they grow and discover new interests. What did Mary and Joseph envision for Jesus?
The traditional expectation for this Savior was a military and political leader. This long-expected child would grow up to be a king and would help overthrow the occupying government. After all, God’s leadership had traditionally come to the Israelites through the leadership of their kings. And since the Babylonian captivity, Israel had been under the rule of the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. That was Israel’s biggest complaint and biggest shame: that they must submit to rulers who weren’t sent by God through their own bloodline.
Did Joseph wonder how he could give this child the necessary military training? They couldn’t afford a horse or armor.
I’m guessing that Joseph and Mary decided that since God sent this child, God would send the means to raise him. As far as we know, Jesus was raised like every other kid in the neighborhood, learning his father’s trade, learning from other neighbors, and learning at the synagogue. We know Jesus had a special interest in Scripture, based on the story in Luke 2:
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for Passover. 42 And when Jesus was twelve years old, they all went there as usual for the celebration. 43 After Passover his parents left, but they did not know that Jesus had stayed on in the city. 44 They thought he was traveling with some other people, and they went a whole day before they started looking for him. 45 When they could not find him with their relatives and friends, they went back to Jerusalem and started looking for him there.
46 Three days later they found Jesus sitting in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was surprised at how much he knew and at the answers he gave.
Perhaps by this time, Mary and Joseph thought of Jesus as just another boy.
Luke continues:
48 When his parents found him, they were amazed. His mother said, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried, and we have been searching for you!”
49 Jesus answered, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he meant.
51 Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and obeyed them. His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened.
Maybe Mary and Joseph still thought back to Gabriel’s words to them. But Jesus was just an ordinary kid, a good kid, for sure, who always obeyed his parents. And by now he would have had brothers and sisters. Surely he didn’t show any military tendencies as he played with the neighborhood kids. But Mary kept wondering. She never forgot those words: 33 He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
And did Joseph contemplate Gabriel’s words to him? He will save his people from their sins.” What did those words mean to Joseph as he watched his son, for Jesus was certainly his son in every sense of the word but one. Did Joseph see Jesus’ future as more than another skilled carpenter in the village? Did Joseph, after that trip to Jerusalem, watch Jesus more closely for changes in conversation or in attitude?
One of the blogs I read is “Dancing with the Word” by Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. She sees Joseph as being instrumental in forming Jesus, as important in forming his ministry:

For where do you think, except from Joseph, that Jesus got the idea that a father always gives good gifts to his children?  Where, do you imagine, did he get the image of the father running to welcome home his prodigal son?  Where do you think the tenderness in his voice came from when he said we were to address God as ‘abba’ or ‘daddy’ if not from his own experience of an earthly dad?  I have to believe that Jesus drew from his own experience growing up with Joseph as his father here.  Joseph who abandoned his own pride, his own long-learned sense of right and wrong. Who set aside his fear and worked through the stone in the pit of his stomach. Who stretched his own sense of what and who he was responsible for, to ‘just be a dad’ to Jesus.  To give earthly legitimacy to this child of Mary’s from the Holy Spirit and to help shape Jesus’ life and his vision in such a way that some of his best teaching was informed by his own experience of an earthly, loving dad.( http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2013/12/just-what-dad-does.html Dancing with the Word. The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt.)
I love the idea of Joseph as a loving father to this surprise package of a son.
I love especially that Joseph loved Jesus, accepted him, taught him, and encouraged him. God gave Joseph a most important role in Jesus’ life. Mary gets a lot of attention because Jesus was physically a part of her. But think about it. God didn’t need Joseph. God could have kept Mary a single mother, protected her, let her raise Jesus on her own. But God chose Joseph. God used an earthly father to create a heavenly Savior.
So, give Joseph some credit. He was not a betrayed husband. He was a necessary and fundamental part of the nurturing of the Savior of the World.
God had the big picture handled: That was the salvation of all of us from our sinful bondage. Joseph handled the finessing, just as a carpenter uses a plane and sandpaper to finesse the lumber he has sawn. Thanks be to God for parents, for women who serve as mothers and for men who serve as fathers! Amen.

You are Pregnant Luke 1

You are pregnant. Elizabeth, you are pregnant. Mary, you are pregnant.
What does the statement “You are pregnant.” mean? For one woman, it can bring unbelievable joy. For another woman “You are pregnant.” brings on fear and foreboding.
If I were a man, I couldn’t have written this particular sermon. But I’m a woman who has been both afraid and eager to hear the words, “You are pregnant.”
A remarkable number of women in the Bible waited many long years to hear the words, “You are pregnant.” Sarah, mother of Issac. Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau. Rachel, mother of Joseph. Hannah, mother of Samuel, the prophet. Mrs Manoah, mother of Samson. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.
They prayed for years for a baby and kept getting the same wrong answer. And then God finally answered those fervent prayers. The saddest part of their lives was not that they were childless, but that they were ashamed of their childlessness. They did not bring that shame on themselves: the community provided that shame. A woman without a child was an enigma.
Women are supposed to have children, right? We’re built for pregnancy, designed for pregnancy, wired for pregnancy. Or so we’re taught. Eventually, we learn that we are also wired to bake bread, run marathons, pilot airplanes, manipulate computer programs and raise cattle. But there is something beyond our flesh and blood, something in our DNA that makes us motherly. In Sarah’s day, in Hannah’s day, in Elizabeth’s day, women were seen as child-bearers. Have you ever heard the term “of child-bearing age?” Not of “needs to wear a bra” age or “cooking age” or “advanced-skills age.” Child-bearing age.
Are men designated as being of “child-begetting age?”
In many cultures, ancient and recent, women desperately have wanted children not only because they wanted to love those children, but also because it was the only thing that made them worth feeding and housing. So, by biological accident, not by any moral flaw or social faux pas, women without children were made to feel less important, less valuable, less worthy. Has it changed much since the first century?
Pregnancy was a litmus test for validity.
And then we have another woman who did not pray to get pregnant: Mary, mother of our Lord—-unmarried. She, just the opposite of Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth, got pregnant without trying. Again, not because of a moral flaw or social faux pas, but because of a miracle. Mary became pregnant. And shamed. It doesn’t say in scripture that she was shamed, but we do know that Joseph was going to “put her away”—that he was embarrassed, that he was ashamed because his fiancé, his bride-to-be, was pregnant. And he knew who the father wasn’t: it wasn’t him. We do know that Mary left town shortly after that announcement from Angel Gabriel—-if not to avoid shame, why else?
I find it ironic that a woman can be shamed for not getting pregnant as well as for getting pregnant. Isn’t that weird?
All of these great women, mothers of these great men, had to endure shame before they could enjoy motherhood.
For Sarah, Elizabeth, Rachel, Mrs. Manoah, Hannah, those words were the most beautiful words in the world. But for Mary? “You are pregnant.” Terrifying, but then again, it was God, right? God doesn’t rape or seduce, right?
Likewise, in many cultures, ancient and recent, I think of the women who hear “You are pregnant.” and react only with fear—fear for self, for future, for reputation, for survival.
And, ironically, who is blamed for that unplanned baby? I think we’ve been around long enough to know the mother’s reputation hits the cellar and the father, anonymous or not, has proved something positive about himself. I don’t ever remember a boy being called an unwed father the minute he proves himself fertile. Girls on the other hand…well.
I remember one recent conversation with friends. Talk was about someone’s cousin, an amazing business woman who has a son, who has his own wonderful family. But being an amazing business woman was not what the speaker talked about. Instead, he shamed her because Cousin X had Baby Z “out of wedlock” forty years ago. And he threw further shame by mentioning that grown-up son’s daughter has a baby “out of wedlock.” I hadn’t heard that term IN YEARS!!!! But that is how that woman and her family were described, remembered, categorized, discussed. Out of wedlock. That was all they were noted for. How far have we come?
A mother and a child are a thing of beauty, no matter the circumstances previous to the birth. And fortunately, most of the people I know believe that. I bring this up, not to enforce some kind of feminist agenda, but to marvel at how all of these women, Sarah through Mary through somebody’s cousin, became, according to God’s plan, mothers of very important men.
Sarah—- God promised her that her descendants would be more than could be counted. Hannah—the mother of the great prophet Samuel—was so grateful for her son that she dedicated him to service at the temple. Rachel—the mother of Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from starving during famine. Elizabeth—mother of John, who prepared people to follow Jesus. Every one one of these long-awaited children became a rich blessing to the people of Israel.
And Mary’s son, our own Lord and Savior…greatest man ever born.
When Luke relates the birth of John the Baptist, he describes the reactions of the friends and relatives of Elizabeth and Zechariah: 66 Everyone who heard about this wondered what this child would grow up to be. They knew that the Lord was with him.
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to welcome every child? What will this child grow up to be? Anticipation. Hope. Wonder. Possibility. Expectation.
Those are the emotions we try to capture in this Advent Season. Anticipation. Hope. Wonder. Possibility. Expectation.
I am in awe of God’s method of renewal and resurrection. Every time a child is conceived, friends and family enter into a kind of Advent, a time of hope and wonder and expectation. God choose this very same, ordinary, extraordinary way to save God’s people. Have you ever wondered about the absurdity of God rescuing us through one of our own kind? God could have sent angel armies, dragons and unicorns, mind-altering drugs, to create the Kingdom God dreamed of. The possibilities are limitless. But God choose a human baby, and that baby, 100% human and 100% God—not half and half but whole and whole, became the Savior not only of the nation of Israel, but of all generations of all people to come.
You are pregnant. God takes a negative and turns it to a positive. God takes nothing and turns it into everything we need.
Praise be to God for loving us and blessing us, not according to our own expectations, but according to God’s expectations. Amen.

Not as Planned Exodus 13-16

Judges 13:2-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. 3 And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6 Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; 7 but he said to me, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.’”
8 Then Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.” 9 God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, “The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” 11 Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.” 12 Then Manoah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?” 13 The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. 14 She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.”
Judges 13:24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
24 The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him.
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Samson is not the smartest character in the Bible. But he is interesting enough to make it into a few Sunday School lessons. You may remember the story of Samson, that he was dumb enough to tell Delilah the secret of his strength. His secret was his long hair. As long as he didn’t get near a barber, his super-human strength was secure.
Samson was not the smartest guy in our common ancestry. In fact, my commentary says that he was the worst of all the judges.
Do you know about the judges? Before Israel had kings they had judges. The judges were the go-to people. If you had a problem or if you wanted to conquer some nearby property , the judges were there to advise you, and to lead you into battle. They were the leaders for about 350 years. Eventually, that system fell apart and the Israelites demanded that God give them a king, instead. That is another story.
Samson is one of the reasons the system fell apart. He had a hard time following rules.
Samson was a miracle child. His parents had remained childless well into their married life and they had given up hope of every having a child. Like some of the other mothers in the Bible, Samson’s mother was visited by an angel who told her that she was no longer barren, but with child. How exciting and how frightening to find out you’re pregnant at that age!
God had special plans for this child, so God asked his mother to follow special rules. God wanted this child to make a covenant with God.
Numbers 6:1-12 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
6 The Lord told Moses 2 to say to the people of Israel:
If any of you want to dedicate yourself to me by vowing to become a Nazirite, 3 you must no longer drink any wine or beer or use any kind of vinegar. Don’t drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins— 4 not even the seeds or skins.
5 Even the hair of a Nazirite is sacred to me, and as long as you are a Nazirite, you must never cut your hair.
6 During the time that you are a Nazirite, you must never go close to a dead body, 7-8 not even that of your father, mother, brother, or sister. That would make you unclean. Your hair is the sign that you are dedicated to me, so remain holy.
9 If someone suddenly dies near you, your hair is no longer sacred, and you must shave it seven days later during the ceremony to make you clean. 10 Then on the next day, bring two doves or two pigeons to the priest at the sacred tent. 11 He will offer one of the birds as a sacrifice for sin and the other as a sacrifice to please me. You will then be forgiven for being too near a dead body, and your hair will again become sacred. 12 But the dead body made you unacceptable, so you must make another vow to become a Nazirite and be dedicated once more. Finally, a year-old ram must be offered as the sacrifice to make things right.
So, three things—-nothing to do with grapes, never cut your hair, and don’t go near anything dead. Ever. These rules took affect at the moment of conception—that is the angel told Mother to follow similar rules:
Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
God had a plan for this baby. This baby would deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.
Who were the Philistines? They were Israel’s main enemy. At least a dozen battles between the Israelites and the Philistines are noted in the Old Testament. Remember David and his slingshot and the death of the giant, Goliath? Goliath was a Philistine.
Even though Samson was to, finally, after all the other judges, be the one to deliver Israel, he was only partially successful. If you read Judges 13-16, you will discover that he was able to do away with about 3,000 Philistines. The rest got away.
Samson was not given a choice as to his life’s vocation. It was thrust on him while he was still in the womb. He was born with rules to follow—no grapes in any form, no haircuts, no touching anything dead—-and another one—no foreign women. That meant no Philistine women. So of course, what did he do? He fell in love with a Philistine woman. Spoiled only child that he was, his parents gave in and arranged for his marriage to the Philistine girlfriend. The party lasted a week—the same amount of time as the marriage. We can assume that he broke the no-grape rule at the party. But he kept his hair, if not his head.
Samson’s claim to fame was his great strength. He was stronger than any man alive and his enemies wanted to know what his secret to super-human strength was. He had a lot of fun with that request and told several clever lies about his strength. Seven new bow strings. New rope. The most creative lie was about Samson’s hair, but he didn’t tell the real truth about his hair. “My hair is in seven braids,” Samson replied. “If you weave my braids into the threads on a loom and nail the loom to a wall, then I will be as weak as anyone else.”
All of these lies were told to his current girlfriend, Delilah. She tried everyone of them. She tied him up with bow strings and called the Philistines in. Samson broke the Philistines and the strings. She tried new rope: more casualties: the rope and the Philistines. She tried weaving his hair into a loom and nailing it to wall. Good-bye, loom; good-bye, Philistines. But Samson tired of Delilah’s nagging and told her the truth. Cut my hair and I’ll be weak as a baby. She did it. The Philistines captured Samson, blinded him and put him on display. How did it end? Read Judges 16 to find out. It wasn’t pretty.
So, why did God make such a big deal of Samson? Why did God want him to follow the nazirite rules in the first place? Why didn’t God give up on Samson when he broke the rules? In other words, can we learn anything from Samson?

Here is one idea I gleaned from my reading: God’s specific will may be helped or hindered by what humans and other forces in the world may do. (New Interpreter’s Bible, II, 847)

God can set us up to go in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean we have to follow. What next? God gets us back on the path via a different route. My life is the perfect example. I went to college to be a German teacher. I got a failing slip in German my first semester. I switched to English, an language with which I was more familiar, but I kept up with the German, too. I took one teacher education course and decided teaching was not for me. So I graduated with a degree but no job. I moved back to the farm and became a cook at the local nursing home. Four years of college and I was poaching eggs for a living. Not what my parents had planned. But then my college professor called and said his professor friend at South Dakota State University needed some graduate assistants to teach Freshmen English. Why not? So I moved to South Dakota, took some graduate classes and taught some freshmen. That wasn’t so great either, so I moved back to the farm and back to poaching eggs. BUT I had loved teaching freshman, so when I had poached enough eggs to earn enough money to go back to school, I returned to my alma mater, got a teaching certificate. I didn’t tangle with any Philistines, but one thing I had in common with Samson was partying. So my path to Central Community High School was a little crooked. But God got me there. And then when I had had enough experience working with human beings, God sent me in new directions that pulled me into this gig.
What’s the point? We don’t have to be perfect to bring on the Kingdom. God meets us where we are, keeps turning us in the right direction, even when we are in enemy territory. That’s what God did with Samson and that’s what God does with each of us.
God didn’t plan on us being nazirite, but he does give us some rules. Grapes are ok, we can cut our hair, and we can marry pretty much whomever we like.
God found a new solution. He sent a baby, not to a barren woman, but to an unmarried woman. That baby grew up, took on the burden of our sins, and died for us.
Just as God presented us that baby out of love, so we present ourselves out of love to God, through our faithfulness to God’s commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. Amen.