An Early Lamb

Luke 2:1-20

“But Dad, you HAVE to come to the Christmas program. We have all the best parts this year!” Holly planted her ten-year-old fists on her hips. Her lips curled into a prodigious pout. And she stamped her foot three times on the linoleum of the kitchen floor to punctuate her point. “Kevin is the narrator. Cindy is the angel, Gabriel. Jeremy is the littlest shepherd. And I get to be Mary this year instead that stupidhead, Becky Jennings. It’s Christmas Eve. You just HAVE to be there!”

Dad was still in his brown, insulated coverall and five-buckle snow boots. He tipped his head to the left, squinted his eyes tight shut, and scratched the three-day-old beard on his right cheek. If they were going to be on time for the Christmas program, Dad had ten minutes to transform himself into a clean-shaven and respectable Christmas pew-sitter. “Kids, you know how much I want to be there. But one of the ewes down in the barn is going to have a lamb tonight. She’s having some trouble already, and I think things are going to get worse. Besides, the wind chill is forty below outside. If I don’t get that lamb some place warm, that poor thing will be dead in ten minutes. I have to stay here. I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t a satisfactory explanation, but it was the end of the conversation. Dad headed back to the barn, and everyone else went to the car. Dad had started the 1967 Ford Fairlane wagon a half-hour ago, so it was toasty warm when Mom and the kids got in. Dad’s explanation had not appeased Holly in the least. She flung herself in the back seat to punish the vinyl for the unfairness of life. It groaned under the abuse.

Kevin sat in the front passenger seat and kept his own counsel. Last Christmas he had arrived at a startling insight. For a few years, Kevin had noticed that the family was always ready unusually early to leave for the Christmas Eve program. That was especially odd because they were never early for anything. Mom and Dad bundled them all into the car—caps and mittens, boots and scarves, snow suits and presents for Sunday School teachers.

Dad would climb behind the wheel. Then Mom would say, “Dear, I forgot the flashlight (or the iron was still on or the Christmas ham needed to be turned down or some such thing).” Dad would grump and moan and head back into the house while everyone else waited in the car. Some years ten minutes passed before he returned. All hope of being early had vanished. But strangely, Dad always came back to the car humming and smiling.

Kevin knew from long experience that when they returned home from the Christmas eve program, Santa’s deposit of presents would be safely under the tree. The cookies they put out for Santa were eaten; the celery for his reindeer consumed, and Santa’s milk glass was empty. It was a wonderful miracle of perfect timing on the part of Old Saint Nick. Kevin had wondered for a couple of years about the coincidence. Then last year, when the dome light in the car came on, he noticed a slight milk mustache on Dad’s upper lip. The whole thing looked very suspicious.

Kevin was unwilling to draw any firm conclusions—no sense burning one’s bridges unnecessarily. But he did see a correlation, and it made him very excited tonight. There was some kind of connection between Dad’s behavior and the number of presents under the tree. Maybe the presents this year were so numerous or so large or so complicated that Dad couldn’t take time for the Christmas program. That had to be the explanation for Dad’s strange behavior. It was way too early to have any lambs anyway. Kevin hugged himself with anticipation. There was going to be a big haul this year.

The Christmas eve children’s program was, for the most part, uneventful. Kevin’s narration stumbled only once. Rather than noting in Luke 2:2 that Quirinius was governor of Syria, Kevin pointed out that some fellow named “Queerness” had taken the job. Giggles were suppressed throughout the sanctuary. Holly stuck her tongue out at “that stupidhead, Becky Jennings” a few times when she thought no one was looking. Naturally, everyone was.

Cindy’s tinsel-covered halo crept down to the bridge of her nose as she said her lines. But the words were crystal clear: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And Jeremy brought all the dignity his four-year-old frame could muster to the bathrobe and tea towel conscripted to be his shepherd’s costume. Each child received the evening’s payoff from a deacon at the door—a brown paper bag filled with assorted nuts, chocolate peanut clusters, peanut brittle and candy canes. Children began trading for their favorites almost before they got out the door.

Cindy wore her halo and Jeremy his shepherd’s towel all the way home. Holly still basked in the glory of virgin motherhood. But Kevin was wandering in visions of new bicycles, miniature race cars, remote controlled airplanes, a new chemistry set, his own television—enough dreams to occupy someone for a lifetime of Christmas eves.

Mom pulled the car under the tree next to the chicken house. Before she could stop him, Kevin was out of the car and headed toward the house at a gallop. He shed his snowy shoes on the back porch, dropped his sack of candy on the kitchen table, and burst into the living room. As he passed the couch, he froze in astonishment. Not one thing had changed since they left. Not a package, not a stocking, not so much as an explanatory note had appeared. Kevin sprinted back to the kitchen. Not one bite out of the cookies or one sip of milk gone. This was a disaster of epic proportions!

At that moment, Dad stepped into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box. He had a hand towel wrapped around his face. The towel was dotted with chunks of ice and flecks of straw. The sleeves on his coverall were frozen dark and stiff with what could only have been blood. His coverall and jacket were unzipped to his navel. Kevin could see that Dad had spent most of the evening stripped to the waste, on his knees, next to an old ewe, in a frigid barn. There was no Christmas eve deception here. What Kevin noticed most, though, was Dad’s eyes. They were red and puffy—like he had been crying.

Mom and the other kids struggled through the door. “I’ll get the hair dryer and some towels,” Mom said. It was the standard routine. A frozen little bundle of wool and hooves was placed in a box on the furnace register. The old hair dryer—only rarely used for its stated purpose—was placed on a chair, pointed down toward the box and turned on high heat. A little milk replacer was mixed up in a saucepan and warmed on the stove. Then all waited to see if the verdict would be death or life.

After all was in place, Mom noticed the pain on Dad’s face as he sat on a kitchen chair in a flannel shirt, white long johns and wool socks. “Are you all right, dear?”

Dad sighed. “I should have sent that old girl off to market last fall. But it was that little Cheviot—my favorite, I guess. That white face and the pointy ears and the tiny feet—you know, she was one of our original flock. She produced a lamb every spring just like clockwork. I guess she got to be kind of like an old friend. But I should have retired her. Having a lamb was just too much for her this year. Her calendar was all screwed up. I guess that’s why she was so early, She couldn’t take the strain. She was suffering terribly. After the lamb was born, I had to shoot her to put an end to it.” A trickle of tears ran down each of Dad’s cheeks.

There was a shuffling sound from the cardboard box that said “Van Camp’s Pork and Beans” on the side. Then a small bleat came from the box. In a few moments two tiny ears appeared above the rim of the cardboard. Then the small lamb stumbled a bit as he shook off the burlap wrappings that had kept him warm in his first moments on earth.

The kitchen had witnessed this small miracle dozens of times before. But something else came to pass on this night. Cindy spoke in her clear and sweet seven-year-old voice. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Cindy paused for a moment, as if to allow all to absorb the profundity of her announcement. The lamb insisted on further attention by trying to crawl out of the box. Cindy spoke again, “Daddy, I think we should call him ‘Good News.”‘ And so the lamb was named all the days of his life.

Christmas returned to normal after that. They all ate chocolate covered cherries and peanut butter kisses. Mom took pictures until she ran out of flash bulbs. Dad stayed up to watch Midnight mass from New York City and to complain about how the Catholics made it all too big of a production. In the morning, the presents were under the tree, the cookies were eaten, the celery was consumed and the milk was gone. There was no bike or racetrack or chemistry set, but it was nice anyway. And by noon, Good News was in a pen out in the chicken house—the first of several orphans from the latest lambing season.

Often, years later, Kevin thought about that Christmas—how it was more special than so many others were. An early lamb came into a hostile world. He was engulfed in cold and darkness and the threat of death. A mother gave herself for him and wondered if that threat would follow his steps. Wrapped in burlap feed sacks and carried in a pork and bean box, his prospects were poor. Only a scruffy and overly sentimental shepherd saw the birth as anything approaching glad tidings. Yet the early lamb stood up and shook off the wrappings. He stretched out to feel the warmth and the touch of light on his face. And he walked into a world just as hostile as the moment he was born. But it was a world where he could live and give life.

Leave it to Cindy to see through the details and to name that lamb “Good News.” For Kevin the reality was inescapable. Jesus came into the world as that early lamb—the product of an untimely birth, wrapped tight against the cold, threatened on every side. But shepherds came to worship him. Who else would know better the power of this miracle? Who else could better appreciate this good news?

An early lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—an image of that good news had stood among them that night in the kitchen. He was the lamb who came at an unexpected time, at God’s time, to bring life and light to all the world. He started out in a box and ended up on a cross. Yet the world could never be the same again. His name, too, is ‘Good News.’ It took an angel to tell them about it. It took a shepherd to adore him. May that early Lamb be born in us today. Amen.

Another Perfectly Good Christmas

John 1:1-14

He really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. The man didn’t hate this time of year. That would have taken far more energy, passion and commitment than he was willing to spend on anything. He wasn’t opposed to the season in the way that, for example Dickens portrayed old Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. That, too, would have required a personal stand and individual effort that he just couldn’t muster up at this time of year. No, for him, Christmas was more of a dull ache or irritation. Christmas was a fingernail cut too short. It was elastic on his underwear that had lost its vigor. Christmas was a pebble in his shoe, a rattle in the dashboard. He didn’t like it. But he could hardly generate the initiative to do much about it.

His name was Hilbert Neugebauer. He was the custodian at the old downtown church. That probably didn’t help his Christmas mood any–what with taking chairs down and putting them up for fourteen different Christmas teas, the interminable vacuuming after children’s programs and concerts, after parties and receptions, after luncheons and meetings. Worst of all, it was his job to put out the decrepit old Nativity scene. Reuben and Mildred Broadbuckle had made and donated the set nearly forty years ago. Apparently no one had the gumption or the nerve to suggest that the decaying plywood characters should be replaced by more state of the art Christmas decorations. So year in and year out, the old custodian put up the same characters in the same places at the same time. He just didn’t like Christmas very much at all.

The Nativity scene itself was fraught with tradition and required behaviors. December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, was the unwritten deadline by which the scene must be erected on the church lawn. Only once in his years as custodian did Hilbert miss that deadline. His tardiness was still the topic of conversation when things got a little slow around the church coffee pot in December. The positioning of the characters was also sacrosanct. Mary was to Joseph’s left. The donkey had to be to the right of the sheep. The shepherds were downstage left. The wise men were upstage right. The star was fastened to a strand of number nine wire connected to the left arm of the wooden cross that served as a background to the whole scene. The angel was fastened in the same way to the right arm of the cross. The angel was required to be exactly eighteen inches higher than the star, to reflect how Reuben and Mildred understood the divine order of creation. Hilbert thought it was all a royal pain in the…oh, never mind.

It was Monday and there was a new phrase on the church sign. It was a Bible verse, although the custodian couldn’t quite place where it came from. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The old man could always tell when the pastor was feeling overworked and harassed. Those were the times when the pastor resorted to a Biblical quotation rather coming up with some clever and pithy saying. It took far less effort to just whip out a few choice lines from Holy Writ than to invent something that might actually be novel and stimulating. The old custodian grumbled to himself, “None of it ever changes. The same crummy nativity set, the same tired Bible verses, the same silly Christmas carols–why don’t we just phone in this whole Christmas thing and save a lot of trouble!”

Hilbert just didn’t like Christmas very much. Part of it was that for years he had been particularly sensitive to illnesses and deaths around Christmas. Working for the church for as long as he had, he was pretty much in the know about all such events in the community. He remembered when the Johannsen boy was driving a tractor and pushing some snow, not two days before Christmas. The boy got a little over zealous with the tractor and rolled the rig right on top of himself. The custodian remembered the big funeral on that bitterly cold December 26th. Then there was Agnes Plueger, their next door neighbor–finest pumpkin pecan pie the world has ever tasted. And there she was, in the ground on December 16th of 1972. Every time something like that happened, he would sit by the table at home and cluck knowingly, “Another perfectly good Christmas, all shot to…” But before he could finish that dire phrase, his wife would shoot him a glance that stopped all speech in the room. Anna Neugebauer had no patience for his swearing and would have none of it in her house, especially when the subject was Christmas.

It was all smug speculation until that first Christmas six years ago when she was no longer there. She hadn’t felt quite herself for a few days, and he nudged her a few times about seeing the doctor. But she was sure that it was just a little indigestion. Then, on December 17th of 1993, she was gone. No goodbyes, no final tearful embraces, none ofthat–just alive when he crawled into bed that night and gone the next morning. Even now he could remember standing next to the bed after futile efforts to wake her and thinking to himself, “Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…” Even now, out of love and respect for her, he could never bring himself to finish that awful phrase.

He was thinking about his Anna the second Monday in December as he performed his annual cleanup of Nativity Scene vandalism. Another of the unwritten traditions connected with the Nativity Scene was some creative, but very secretive, remodeling of the Nativity scene by the senior high Bible class. Sometimes the vandalism was quite creative. About ten years ago Hilbert came to the church one morning to find the Mary and Joseph characters stacked on top of the manger. Attached to Joseph was a note that read simply, “Luke 2:16.” Hilbert looked it up and read these words, “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. ” Other years were not quite to clever. Unfortunately Joseph had clearly distinguishable fingers on his right hand. Hilbert had lost track of the number of times he had to replace all but the middle finger on that hand. Once, Mary appeared made up with glaring purple nail polish, false eyelashes, ruby red lips and half a pound of rouge on her cheeks. That, Hilbert thought, was quite a commentary on the Virgin Mother.

This year was one of the least creative efforts. The baby Jesus was up in a tree limb. The sheep were placed in morally questionable relationships to one another. Joseph had a pack of Camels in his hand and Mary had an open bottle at her feet. Hilbert grumbled, “Even the Christmas vandalism isn’t what it used to be.”

That night disaster struck. The vandals returned to complete the job. A lack of creativity turned into an expression of malice. Some lighter fluid and matches did the trick. In a few moments the ancient, tinder-dry figures had flames licking at their faces. The wind picked up, and the flames moved to the ancient wooden cross behind the Nativity. There wasn’t enough fire to reach the church or damage any buildings. But the Nativity scene was a total loss. Worse yet, the base of the cross, fragile from years of rot and moisture, gave way. Fortunately no one was injured, because the twenty foot cross toppled into the middle of the ruined Nativity, flat on the snow.

Hilbert’s phone rang in the early morning. “Do you know what time it is?” he shouted into the phone before he even looked at his alarm clock. “It’s 6:30 a.m., Hilbert.” The pastor was on the other end. “You better come to the church. Someone burned down the Nativity.”

Oh, the curses and imprecations, the fantasies of dismemberment and execution that went through the old custodian’s mind as he drove to the scene of the crime! He saw Joseph, blackened from the chest down. He looked at Mary, paint curling up toward her chin. He saw scorched shepherds, singed wise men, charred camels and stumps that used to be sheep. He began to clean up the mess. He muttered to himself, “Don’t know what difference it all makes. Nobody seems to care anyway. Christmases come and go and nobody notices. Should have probably burned this stuff years ago. Oh well, what can you expect. Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.”

The one item that survived the fire in good shape was the sign, the one with the Bible verse–The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe it was just plain a miracle. Who knows? At any rate, in a day or two, there was a Nativity resurrection in front of that old church. First there was a shepherd that looked suspiciously like Herbie Husker. Then there was a wise man who bore a striking resemblance to the Smoky the Bear figure down at the fire station. Mary and Joseph seemed to have had a previous existence as manikins in the J.C. Penny store that closed a year or so ago. The donkey was a first cousin to a pinata character that Lillian Dornbusch kept in her parlor. The new camel was apparently a fraternal twin to Jefrey Giraffe from Toys’ R’ Us. The new manger might have been liberated from the county fairgrounds, although no one was talking. The star seemed to be a spotlight from Andy’s Auto Repair down the street. The angel still had on his Superman cape, but somehow that seemed to work into the scene. The baby Jesus had done time as a Cabbage Patch kid, and he looked relieved to be working a new gig. Finally, some considerate person put a small fire extinguisher in the new manger as a precaution against future adventures.

Hilbert just shook his head as the gifts continued to appear. To one side that wretched sign kept broadcasting its message: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In the middle of it all lay the cross–singed, blackened and broken, but still there. And as he worked and grumbled and moped, he was suddenly reminded of another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.

It was a Christmas with more than its share of rough spots–a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a pregnancy of questionable origin, parents of impeccable credentials but with little credibility, a birth in a barn and a crib licked shiny by the tongues of a hundred cows. Yet, for all that, it looked awfully good for awhile. Angels, shepherds, magi–a cast of thousands to be sure. Songs of praise, words of wonder, treasures of great price–things were certainly looking up for the little boy and his family. A miraculous escape by night to a foreign country, a trip home to wondering relatives, years of growing in wisdom and stature and favor with God and people–the boy showed great promise. It was a perfectly good Christmas.

Then the inevitable shadow appeared. It was a shadow in the shape of a cross. That shadow lay across that perfectly good Christmas just like the cross lay across the makeshift Nativity scene. The little boy who had cried in that Bethlehem stable screamed from a Jerusalem hill, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The twelve year old who debated fine points of theology with temple scholars whispered in agony, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The young man who looked up to a heaven torn to shreds and heard the words, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”–he groaned his final words, “It is finished.” This teacher and healer who made the lame to walk and the blind to see–he breathed his last and committed that breath to his heavenly Father. And he too was dead. Just like my Anna, Hilbert thought. Another perfectly good Christmas, shot to…well, you know.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That sign just would not quit. Because here was something else. Here was resurrection. Here was new life where there had been only death. It was an act of foolishness, of stupidity, of irrational malice that burned down the Broadbuckle Nativity. How different was that from the sin, the death, the evil that had nailed Jesus to a cross so many years ago? Not very much, Hilbert thought. Yet, the Nativity refused destruction. The darkness took its best shot and lost. A new light shone forth from a tomb. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.

The makeshift Nativity scene stayed up all that Christmas season. After Christmas people decided to take up a collection and buy a new, respectable set of characters. The old wooden cross was retired and a new steel one was set in its place. The whole area was illuminated with a security light, and the tradition of Nativity scene vandalism became a subject of exaggeration and legend. But Hilbert always remembered that Christmas. After it was over he went to the cemetery to Anna’s grave, to talk to her like he did sometimes. He said to her, “You know, Anna, it was another perfectly good Christmas.”

In That Region There Were Shepherds

Luke 2:8-20

The Larson Chapel is a lovely stone building in the center of the Lautenberg University campus. The chapel once stood downtown, not half a block from the old county courthouse. Then a generous (and slightly loopy) alumnus decided that the chapel would look better at Lautenberg U. He bought the chapel and paid to have it moved stone by stone from the city square to the tree-covered campus. There Larson Chapel has stood for nearly a hundred years.

Albert Neugebauer was the Lutheran Campus minister at Lautenberg U. He belonged to old Christ Lutheran Church downtown. In fact, Christ Lutheran stood on the spot where Larson Chapel had once been. Christ was one of four “Christ Lutheran” churches in the city, so people affectionately called it “Christ on the Corner. “

The folks at Christ on the Corner had a special concern for Lutherans at Lautenberg U. It was historically a Roman Catholic institution. Members of Christ on the Corner were afraid some of their young folks might be infected with the alien Romish theology. So they hired a half time lay person to bring the true Lutheran gospel to the benighted campus. Albert was the latest edition of that fortunate person.

It was Christmas Eve. Albert walked toward the Larson Chapel. It was the first time he would lead Christmas worship there. A few students were staying on campus during winter break. Most happened to be part of Albert’s little flock. They begged him for services on Christmas Eve. He offered to transport them to worship at Christ on the Corner. But they insisted that it simply wouldn’t be the same. They loved their little stone church and their tight-knit community

The chapel was in sight. Snow crunched under Albert’s boots. He thought about his little congregation. In the beginning, he had such high hopes. He longed for a church filled with theology students, a choir composed of music majors, and faculty members who would be stirring and credible guest preachers. All of that happened. But it happened during daily mass In the campus auditorium.

For some reason, most of the Lutherans were theater majors. Fine folks all. But as Albert’s grandfather—the sexton at Christ on the Comer—would say, they were all “about a quarter bubble out of plumb.” They didn’t want a “normal” Christmas Eve service. They wanted to act out the Christmas story, complete with script, costumes and special effects. Albert rolled his eyes, took a deep breath and (against his better judgment) agreed.

They were already at the chapel door! Albert shook his head and sighed. The crowd looked like a collision between a camel caravan and a Renaissance festival

“Merry Christmas, Al!” caroled Sarah Potter. Clearly she was the Virgin Mary, ready to deliver at any moment. Brian Bingum dressed as Joseph, complete with a tool belt over his Bedouin robes. He thought the cultural contrast was a powerful artistic statement.

Brian was studying theater construction, so he built a wooden donkey to transport his betrothed. When Brian pulled on the reigns, the donkey’s eyes lit up. A tug on the donkey’s mane produced a braying that caused passersby to believe the poor thing was dying. A switch under the left ear controlled the tail. When turned on, it spun like a propeller.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Albert replied. “Let me get the key so we can go in.” Several groups used the chapel during the week. The university administration, however, would allow only one key. So that key rested in a small hole in the rock above the great double doors. It had been a foolproof system— until tonight.

“Oh, good grief,” Albert sputtered. ‘The key isn’t there! Now, how are we going to get in?” He felt the anxiety of the group go up as the temperature dropped.

H. Randall Hanson produced a cell phone from beneath his robes. The “H” stood for “Herluf,” although Randy revealed that only within the confidentiality of the confessional. “Call Campus Security and I’m sure they’ll let us in.”

Albert did a double-take. “H. Randall, what are you supposed to be?” He wore a pointed wizard’s hat. His robe was fluorescent gold covered with sun, moon and stars. He carried a staff with a bulb on one end that flashed when he tapped the ground. “I’m one of the wise men, Al! Can’t you tell? They were magicians, weren’t they?”

At that instant, Albert grasped his situation. He was surrounded by magicians, belly dancers, Roman soldiers, angels, and a herd of livestock, all anatomically correct and walking upright. He dialed Campus Security at record speed.

No one answered. Albert suspected some well-lubricated merrymaking down at the secunty office. The message said that in case of emergency, he should call the local police. At the moment, Albert wouldn’t have made that call for a million dollars

“I’m afraid we have to go to Plan B,” Albert announced. “We could drive down to Christ on the Corner and have our service there.” His words hung in the suspicious silence that followed. A few cynical souls suspected that he had planned this. Albert beat a strategic retreat. “I suppose we could try some other alternative.”

Amber Ellingson, one of the goose-pimpled belly dancers, said, “Let’s go looking for a church that needs us! We can walk to several from here.” She clashed her finger cymbals together for emphasis.

Albert rubbed his eyes and tried to remain calm. When Lautenberg University was founded, it rested in the little village of Lautenberg. It was a safe haven from the big city. But the city captured the village Now it was a neighborhood of pawn shops, adult book stores, delicatessens, bars, palm readers and vacant lots. The Lautenberg U. brochure said the neighborhood offered a “culturally diverse setting.”

Amber was already headed down University Avenue. The whole group followed. The lone musician produced a recorder and began to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Albert felt like a leaf riding a tidal wave.

They were in their fourteenth chorus of “O come, let us adore him,” when they passed a vacant lot. A ten foot high chain link fence guarded the space. Out of the darkness charged a pair of bull mastiffs. The dogs hurled themselves against the fence. The costumed singers fled in terror.

Albert stood his ground as the growling sentries returned to their posts. Jackie Muller, dressed as a Guernsey cow complete with all the plumbing, said, ‘Now we know what Mary and Joseph felt like when the Roman soldiers announced the census.” People nodded, and the singing resumed.

The lights were on at River of Life Church of God in Christ. ”Let’s go in there!” Summer Judson exclaimed. Summer’s skin was so fair that she glowed in the dark. Albert was certain his little flock would be, shall we say, “conspicuous” in the African American congregation—even if they didn’t look like refugees from an Arabian garage sale.

Summer was not dissuaded. “Come on, Al! It’ll be fun!” Choir members were warmmg up in the front of the sanctuary. They were in red robes trimmed in gold. When the Lutheran parade entered, they stopped singing. The silent seconds stretched to a minute. Then Summer began in her clear soprano voice: “Angels we have heard on high.. ” The choir members joined in. Soon everyone was swinging, swaying, and clapping.

H. Randall Hanson approached the pastor, the Reverend T. Everett Hollandsworth. “Reverend, may we do our Christmas play for your service?” Hollandsworth had served the congregation for forty-three years. He thought he had seen it all. But this was anew one.

“Son,” he said, ‘that’s kind of you. But we already have our young folks ready to lead worship. I don’t think it will work. But please stay and worship with us!”

That wasn’t what the Larson Chapel crowd had in mind. Amid shouts of “Merry Christmas!” and “Thanks anyway!” they headed back down University Avenue.

Two blocks later they were in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Services had just ended, and people were coming down the big stone steps. Frigid stares were common. A few people crossed the street to get to their cars. “I didn’t realize the Drag Queen convention was in town,” someone said in the dark. One compassionate soul came over and said, “Kids, church is already over. We’re going home to have Christmas with our families. You should do the same.”

Heads sank and shoulders sagged. Andrew Norgaard—who hardly ever spoke and was dressed as a lamb—said, “Wow! I guess there was no room in that inn either.”

Albert hoped that common sense might return now. But the joumey was not yet complete. Amber Ellingson saw activity in another vacant lot. “Look, there are people around that fire barrel. Let’s do our play for them!” The tidal wave was on the move again. Albert began to compose the letters he would write to parents explaming what had happened to their precious children. He felt nauseous.

They arrived at the lot and began the play. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world would be taxed. ” The Roman soldiers began waving their swords at Joseph and Mary.

At that moment a police car pulled up, The officers strolled toward the group with their night sticks unsheathed. Albert started to calculate how much bail might be for twenty-three people. H. Randall Hanson held out his helmet and sword to one of the officers. “We’re telling the Christmas story. Would you like to help?”

The man hesitated for a moment. Then he put his cap on Randall’s head and assumed his post as Caesar’s centurion.

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. ” On cue, Sarah Potter dropped to her knees and uttered a blood-curdling scream. She then produced a naked doll from beneath her robes. Brian Bingum took the doll and swatted it firmly on the bottom. A computer chip—installed personally by Brian—produced a reasonable facsimile of a baby’s cry.

A homeless woman had edged closer during this scene. Without a word, she held out her arms. Sarah gently handed the doll to the woman. She held it close and rocked back and forth. She wept as she rocked. Sarah’s cheeks were damp, too. “I guess she’s a lot more like Mary than I am,” the college girl whispered.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people… ” At that moment, the other police officer hit the spotlight and the siren. The fire barrel crowd scattered in fear. When nothing happened, they returned to see angels glittering in the white light and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ” The police officer’s smile was almost as bright as the spotlight.

The light revealed shepherds kneeling at the feet of the homeless woman. They had used every bit of fake beard material in the theater department. Their robes were musty from decades of storage. Their hands and faces were smudged and greasy. One enterprising youth had even blacked out four of his well-tended front teeth.

One of the University natives declared, “Hey, you guy look just like us! Can we be shepherds, too?” Four homeless men knelt with their university colleagues.

“In that region there were shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night. ” A few days later, the president of Lautenberg University learned of the Christmas Eve adventure. He decreed that such a thing should never happen again. He also ordered two dozen keys made for the Larson Chapel.

Too bad, Albert thought to himself. On that night, Jesus was once again among his people. Boundaries of class and race and education melted away. Shepherds were once again watching in the fields, and angels told the Good News. The inns were full, but the baby found loving arms. Albert hummed a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Look Deeper

Luke 2:1-20

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise there is nothing to see.

It was the night of November 14th, 1940. Four hundred and fifty German bombers flew toward England. Their target was Coventry. Coventry was a city filled with aircraft factories, munitions works and chemical plants.

The planes dropped one million pounds of high explosives and forty thousand fire bombs. Fourteen hundred people died or were wounded. German Air Marshall, Hermann Goehring, created a new word to describe the devastation. He warned other British cities that they would soon be “Coventrated.”

Coventry hosted an ancient cathedral. Bombs ripped the old building apart. Flames engulfed the structure. Parishioners saved what books, pews, and liturgical vessels they could. The senior pastor laer said, “It was as though I was watching the crucifixion of Jesus upon the cross.”

That was the surface view. On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

The morning after the attack, the cathedral stone mason was picking through the rubble. He noticed two charred timers. They had fallen into the shape of a cross. Parishioners had put that cross on an altar made of smashed stones. Someone wrote two words on the wall behind the makeshift altar.

“Father, forgive.”

That cross and those words remain today in the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

It is a strange story. At first, it seems like business as usual. The powerful give the orders. The powerless comply. Only two things are certain—death and taxes. The Emperor calls the tune and the Empire gets up to dance. But then we take a closer look.

While they were there,” Luke tells us, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Here is a look beneath the surface. This night we see the cross in the midst of the rubble. We see hope underneath the despair. We see new life built on the ruins of the old.

In 1865, near the end of another war, William C. Dix wrote a Christmas carol. He named it, “What Child is This?”

What child is this, Dix asks us, sleeping on Mary’s lap? Shepherds show up to hear good news. Angels sing celestial songs. Heaven and earth meet together around a cattle trough. On the surface, it is all just too strange.

So take a closer look.

“Why lies he in such mean estate,” Dix wonders, “where ox and ass are feeding?” If you look beneath the surface, you can glimpse what is happening. Listen to the angelic announcement: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”

This child is a sign that appearances are deceiving. What matters is underneath, deep down, in the heart of God. And that’s precisely where this child comes from.

We could stop there and be happy with the clutter of Christmas cuteness. But the story will not stay put. “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,” William Dix reminds us. “The cross he bore for me, for you.”

Now we know why our eyes linger on the surface. You don’t see any cross-filled mangers at Wal-Mart. You find no Christmas crucifixion cards at the Hallmark store. Why do we refuse to g deeper? Because the depths hold death. And that is the one deep thing we want to avoid.

The surface is where the world helps us lie to ourselves. Here are some of those lies. I can have love without suffering. I can have happiness without community. I can have peace without justice. I can have power without responsibility. I can be my own god.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

So we look deeper. Like Mary, we ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts. “Good Christian, fear,” Dix reminds us, “for sinners, here the silent Word is pleading.”

Now we can see the depths of God’s love for us and for the world. Here is Emanuel, the Word made flesh. Here is God, who will not abandon us to our own foolish devices. Here is the Creator of the Universe who comes as the Redeemer of the World. Caesar may issue orders for the moment. The world’s one true King has come to overturn all the powers that imprison us.

If we see that, we must be changed. Otherwise, we have seen nothing.

The charred cross remains in Old Coventry Cathedral. A new church has been built along the ruins. In the new church you can find the headquarters for Coventry’s international ministry of peace and reconciliation. This ministry focuses on forgiveness and changed lives as the key to global peace.

A deeper look changes us. Otherwise we have seen nothing. We must not exchange one set of chains for another. It is not enough to climb from one casket into another. In the end, that is all the world can offer.

William Dix offers this invitation. “The King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.”

Let loving hearts enthrone him. This is the call of Christmas. This is how we change when we look deeper. Let us be amazed at the words of the shepherds. Let us rejoice in the song of the angels. Let us smile at the coos of the baby. And let us pray about the call of Christmas.

Will Jesus sit on the throne of your heart? Let us pray…

Worth Pondering

Luke 2:1-20

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

It was such a mean old world. What a time to have a baby! The government raised taxes at the point of a sword. A pregnant women was ordered to travel dark and dangerous roads on the brink of birthing. An old king worried himself into a genocidal rage. Poor people were turned into migrants and refugees at the whim of a distant despot. Housing demand exhausted supply. A damp, dark cave became a delivery room.

And it was all so…so normal. Graft and greed, vice and violence, fraud and fear…this was the order of the day. There was nothing to ponder. No one was surprised. It was such a mean old world.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. This was not just any old baby. This was a promise fulfilled. “For a child has been born for us,” Isaiah declares, “a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. So the days of this mean old are numbered. Oppression will be over. Combat boots and bloody fatigues shall fuel the fires of festivals. God’s justice and righteousness shall be the order of the day, every day. God’s passionate longing to set things right shall be satisfied.

For the shepherds it was just another cold night in this mean old world. They lived in the shadows of society, on the rim of respectability. Their safe and familiar darkness exploded into terrifying light. “Do not be afraid,” the angel thundered, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Somehow, their mean old was world about to change.

To you,” the angelic announcer continued, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This was anything but normal.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. Love was born in a manger on the margins. Love was born to migrants on the move. Love was born to overturn oppression. Love was born to defeat the darkness of death and despair. Love was born into to this mean old world to bring all that meanness to an end.

It’s still a mean old world. I confess that too often it burdens me. We live in tribes divided by twisted truth claims. We are divided by race and class and gender and age. The world worships power and rewards arrogance. People are trafficked and tortured, abused and abandoned. Shouting heads and lying lips fill our airwaves. The mortality rate is still one hundred percent. And the meanness rate is close behind.

And it is all so…normal…for us. It’s so easy to forget that none of this is normal for God.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes to Titus, “bringing salvation to all…” Tonight we can treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts. Love is born into our hearts and into our world in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. It is a night to remember all the ways that Love is born into this mean old world.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the gratitude of families as they received bulging baskets of food here for Thanksgiving. I ponder the celebration of one of our own members just a year removed from jail and now building a life of faith, hope and love. I ponder the joy of children hugging our own Santa Claus and receiving gifts from the angels here at Emanuel because their parent cannot give from behind the walls of a prison.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the witness of our young people who showed us the best Christmas pageant ever and pointed us to all the horrible Herdmans in our own community. I ponder the love and care you show to one another as injury, illness, grief and death still shadow our homes and our lives. I ponder how we are blessed as a faith community to serve and to celebrate in this season of life and light.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

So I invite you to ponder as well. Where is Love born in our life today, this week, this year? It is worth some quiet time in prayer and reflection. Amid the mayhem of this mean old world, a manger is filled with light and life. And we are invited to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and see.

It’s a mean old world. But into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. Let us ponder how we can make our world the birth place of Love.

Bedroom Talk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Bedroom Talk

“If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “you will never find him.” Tell that to Mary in her room in Nazareth! God comes as the original alien invader. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary.

Easier said than done.

I don’t share this often, but it seems appropriate today. I was in my bedroom on our farm west of LeMars, Iowa. It was Christmas break in 1978, my senior year in college. A few weeks before, I had failed to take the Graduate Record Exam. That was required for me to apply for the doctoral program in my future. The application deadline had passed. I hadn’t made any conscious decision. I simply forgot.

To this day I cannot imagine how that happened. I can remember the day with relative clarity, but I cannot see how I could have missed such an important appointment. Others have suggested over the years that Divine intervention was the cause. I’m not willing to write off my own sloth, lack of organization, and subconscious resistance (perhaps) as God’s work. Instead, I’m grateful that God could take such shoddy material and create a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

Photo by Tan Danh on Pexels.com

In any event, there I sat in my room, wondering what to do with my life. I was engaged to be married. I was going to graduate with degrees in history and philosophy—highly unmarketable majors. I hadn’t told anyone except my fiancé about my failure—not my parents, not my friends, not my advisor. There was no comfort in that December bedroom for me.

Late one night during that lonely Christmas break, I heard a voice that said, “Go to seminary.” Speculate if you will whether it was a real voice — whatever “real” means in that context. Wonder about my mental stability at the time. I certainly did (and have never really left off wondering). Debate whether this came from vocation or desperation. It makes little difference.

My first question was, “What did you say?” My second question was, “Are you sure you have the right number?” Of course, somewhere in there was the factual question — What’s a seminary?

I didn’t hear the voice again, but the voice vexed me. When I got back to school, I really had to make some sort of decision. One morning, I called my home pastor. I said, “I think I’m supposed to go to seminary.” I waited for the laughter on the other end of the line. He said, “I’ll be there by supper time.” He drove the five and a half hours to see me and hear my story.

Before long I visited Wartburg Seminary, registered for my New Testament Greek class, and the rest, as they say, is history. I did not find God in the comfort of my bedroom. Instead, God decided to make my bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed. That hasn’t changed much in forty years.

Because of my experience, I have a special place in my heart for Mary, the mother of our Lord. This week, we read the story of the Annunciation—the angelic announcement that God had big plans for this little girl. She did not find God in the comfort of her bedroom. Instead, God decided to make her bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed.

This announcement is about Mary’s vocation. Her first question is, “What did you say?” Her second question is, “Are you sure you have the right number?”

God comes to us — where we are, whether in bedrooms or boardrooms, in faith or in doubt, in comfort or in crisis. That is the heart of the Christmas message. Strip away the tinsel and trees, the parties and presents, the elves on shelves and hooves on housetops. God comes to us. And as a result, nothing can stay the same.

God comes to Mary with a call. That’s always the way with God’s coming. She is not qualified. She does not apply. She doesn’t even know there’s an opening. God’s grace comes first. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel declares. “The Lord is with you!” In response to this announcement (and after the questions), Mary sings a song of praise that we call “The Magnificat.”

God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.

The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience, as Lois Malcolm puts it, is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.

“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).

God comes to us. That Christmas message is for you as well. Greetings, favored one! You—beloved of God, marked with Christ, sealed with the Spirit—the Lord is with YOU! You are not qualified. You need not apply. You may not even realize there’s an opening. God comes to you in Jesus. You have found favor with God. That is true even, and especially, when we find ourselves at the lowest points of our lives.

God comes to us – especially at those low points. This is the heart of the Christmas message. God comes to you and me with a call. Now we can return to that opening quote from St. John of the Cross. “If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” he wrote, “you will never find him.”

When we need God’s comfort, God will indeed bring it. But mostly we want God to give us a life that is undisturbed and pain-free. That’s not something God will do. Because that sort of life is not worthy of those who bear the image of God in Creation. We are not called to be boring and mediocre.

God comes to us. And when God comes, God turns our lives inside out and upside down. The Holy Spirit turns our focus from inside ourselves and out into the world. The Holy Spirit turns our worldview from a race to the top of the heap to a love for the least, the lost and the lonely.

Our God does not come as a theological therapist. God comes as the Divine Disruptor. Our God is not nice. Our God is not safe. Our God is not comfortable. Our God is good and loving and merciful — and destabilizing.

God invades our sanctuaries and changes our lives. And our God has big plans for those who are called to bear Jesus to the world.

Just ask Mary.

And then look to Mary as a model of faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” We can relax into self-satisfied serenity. We can resist the call and run the other direction. Or we can surrender to the call of the Holy Spirit and find true comfort and peace.

That surrender will involve struggle. It will require sacrifice. It will produce pain. I tell people that I have spent almost forty years trying to run the other direction. But there is no joy in fleeing. There is only joy in accepting. Accepting God’s call makes us bearers of God’s presence in the world, just as Mary has led the way.

The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.

God comes to us where we are. These are the last words of the Advent season. God comes calling in Jesus. How will we respond?

References and Resources

Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55.

Jacobson, Rolf, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55-3.

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.

Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

Text Study for Luke 3:1-6 (Pt. 7); December 5, 2021

Further Complications

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I think it will be most helpful to read through verse nine of Luke 3 this Sunday. Take a look at the first sentence in Luke 3:7 in particular. “Therefore [John] said to the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him, ‘Offspring of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” It’s worth comparing this to the other Synoptic accounts and then reflecting on the differences.

The Markan composition doesn’t portray John the Baptizer as yelling at anyone about being the illegitimate children of serpents. The writer of Matthew, on the other hand, really likes this description. That writer likes it so much that it shows up three times in the Matthean account, in Matthew 3, 12, and 23. Matthew applies the tag first to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then to the Pharisees by themselves, and then to the scribes and Pharisees.

Photo by Erik Karits on Pexels.com

Luke has John yelling in general at the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him. There may well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in those crowds – as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. It’s clear that Matthew and Luke share this label from a source upon which they both relied. But why does the Lukan author make the particular editorial choice to spray this insult with a firehose rather than to apply it with a squirt bottle?

I think the Lukan author is addressing a mixed crowd, even though the author appears only to be addressing a member of some elite group, the “most excellent Theophilus.” The Lukan author is not merely worried that the Markan composition is somehow incomplete, although that is a concern for the Lukan author.

I think much more is going on. A generation after the Jewish War and two decades after some thought the End of the Age would arrive, Jesus followers appear to have become complacent. On the one hand, the Lukan author is encouraging Jesus followers to settle in for the long haul and to see the Kin(g)dom of God already in their midst. On the other hand, the Lukan author is challenging the Jesus followers not to settle for the values and practices of the larger culture.

As I read the Lukan account, it strikes me that the author has at least three groups in mind here. Next Sunday, we will hear from the “little people” who come out to John. We’ll look at this in more detail in upcoming posts, but we can make some transition here. The Lukan author does not ask those people to give up their “jobs” to resist the values of Empire. Instead, the author reports that John calls them to do their jobs with integrity rather than in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement.

In particular, the Lukan author singles out those who would experience the greater pressure to conform – tax contractors and mercenary soldiers. I think these two classes were made up primarily of Jews at the time of John, and that fact continued to hold in the time of the Lukan account. The author will spend more time with such folks in the coming chapters, but we get a preview here of how Jesus followers engaged in “The System” are to behave.

John also addresses the poor and indigent in the crowd. Who could blame them for trying to come out on top in the day-to-day struggle for survival? But John commands the standard of “enough” even for those whose daily bread is a daily question. In John’s time, this group would have made up an increasing percentage of the population, as the Romans squeezed the Syrian province for more and more funds to underwrite adventures elsewhere in the borders of the Empire. The Lukan audience would not have experienced much change in that dynamic in the two generations after the Resurrection.

The third group, the one that seems to get the most attention in the Lukan account, is those who can presume upon their pedigree and privilege. “Produce fruit that is worthy of repentance,” John commands them, “and don’t begin to say in yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as father…’” That reliance on the holy genealogy will get them precisely nothing. That status is worth as much as the stones along the road. If God wants to turn those stones into children of Abraham, God can do it with a word.

The Lukan account will criticize repeatedly those who presume upon their power, position, privilege, and property. I think of the parable of the Rich Fool. The real punch of that parable is the smug self-satisfaction of the rich man. “Self,” he says to himself, “you have plenty laid up for years to come; take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry!” Of course, it didn’t work out all that well for the Rich Fool. The conclusion of this line of thought is clear – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It’s clear from the introduction to the Lukan account, that the primary audience for Luke-Acts is this population of the relatively privileged. They have survived the debacle of the Jewish War. Jesus has not returned to make their riches irrelevant. Now they must learn how to follow the Jesus way rather than the Roman way, despite the fact that they are attached to that larger cultural system through their status, wealth, and privilege.

While the Book of Acts moves the narrative into the larger Gentile world, it begins with a concentrated focus on how those with wealth can be part of the community of Jesus followers. In Acts 4, we get the description of the common life of the early Jesus community. They held in common their trust in Jesus as if they had one heart, one soul, and all their physical possessions in common. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35, NRSV).

The Lukan author then tells the story of the Cypriot Levite, Joseph Barnabas. He converted his property to cash and placed the offering at the feet of the apostles. In contrast, chapter five begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They, too, converted some of their property to cash and delivered a portion of the proceeds to the apostles.

The problem, apparently, was that they wanted the community to think they were more generous than they were. They held back a portion for security and thus lied to the Holy Spirit and the community. The result of this deception was the consecutive deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

It should be clear to us as readers that the Lukan author is addressing a number of relatively wealthy members of the Jesus community. There’s no reason to discuss the proceeds of real estate transactions with people whose property inventory consists of a second cloak. One of the questions facing the Lukan community as they settle in after a generation of relative chaos is not whether the privileged can be part of the community but rather what to do with that privilege as part of the community.

References and Resources

Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-season-for-truth-telling.

Hearlson, Adam. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-5.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mora, Raul Alberto. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/key-concept-counter-narrative.pdf.

Norton, Yolanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-7.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-malachi-31-4-6.

Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).

Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.

Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rumors_of_Resistance/QwQDAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR3&printsec=frontcover.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

And That’s the Good News — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Luke 21:1-36

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

My world has been coming apart at the seams and from the center since long before I was born. “Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, in ‘The Second Coming,’ “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote his twentieth century apocalyptic verse in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the near-fatal illness of his wife, and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Disintegration was in the air around the globe.

Secular prophets had predicted and pointed to the dissolution of modernity even earlier. “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “and we killed him!” The collaboration of Enlightenment modernity and liberal Protestantism had produced a sterile and empty consensus which equated Christianity with high European culture. That empty consensus was the soil out of which National Socialism arose as the old world continued to fly apart.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I didn’t know about these things in my young life. The world seemed put together well-enough for my tastes. I was born while the myth of American innocence and the ideology of American exceptionalism still seemed to make sense. There was that odd little police action on the Korean peninsula that threatened to unmoor us a bit, but we recovered from that. Joe McCarthy rattled the chains of authoritarianism, but he was too stupid to make that stick.

My world – the world of White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism continued to turn, apparently undisturbed. But under that serene surface, my world was disintegrating.

Thurgood Marshall moved the Supreme Court into only its second spate of morally defensible rulings on race. But the world that produced me pushed back – some schools resisting until nearly the end of the millennium. Sputnik threw us Americans into a beep-beeping panic as we wondered if we really were the best and the brightest this cosmos had to offer. But Jack Kennedy, poster boy for these best and brightest, promised that we would land on the moon before the end of the decade.

President Kennedy nearly got us blown out of the cosmos before the first space capsule could be launched with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We survived by a hairsbreadth. Then Lee Harvey Oswald ripped the façade off our invincibility from the School Depository window. The center began to wobble. The foundations started to shake.

I learned to speak, to write, to read, and to think while Civil Rights and Vietnam filled the newspapers. The nightly news carried the body counts, the bombings (both foreign and domestic), and the cities on fire. Malcolm died, although I didn’t hear about it until later. Then Martin. Then Bobby. The wobble became a shaking. The foundations were crumbling.

I lost a school bus driver, a friend, and a cousin to the body bags. I came of political age in the era of Watergate. I cast my first vote for Carter, but the tide was already running to Reagan. Law and order, family values – White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism pushed back hard. My world was held together with myths and lies, with enemy lists and Iran Contra, with law and order that was hardly lawful and anything but orderly.

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

I got to seminary and learned to watch my language. I wasn’t swearing in class, well, not much. But I heard about inclusive talk, something my conservative little church college had kept safely in the shadows. I knew the critique was correct and started to wonder what else I assumed that was wrong. The list was and is so very long.

I hadn’t gotten out of seminary yet when I heard that everything I had learned, all the training I had received, was obsolete. I had been trained as a pastor in “Christendom” (whatever the hell that was), and the time of Christendom was now over. I had to be contemporary, seeker-sensitive, visitor-friendly, and driven by attendance numbers rather than membership statistics.

I learned about the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, although I never learned to love it. And I went to conferences in places that looked like gyms and warehouses rather than basilicas and cathedrals. Megachurch pastors were like rockstars. I didn’t want to be one, but it didn’t hurt to imitate them.

Well, that had a short shelf-life, decreased in part by the misconduct of giant egos and in part by the classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and narcissism of the models employed. That wasn’t the answer. But my world kept spinning into wider chaos, deeper despair, murkier visions of the future.

So, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a dying world because that’s what I was given.

Our personal worlds have a tendency to fly apart as well. I thought I could see the path from the all-consuming parish to a quiet retirement with my spouse. But the denomination and the congregation had other plans. The denomination made the right decision on homosexuality, and some of those closest to me in the parish made the wrong kind of response. It was time to go, and to let go of that part of my world.

A few months later, I was no longer married, and my first wife was buried. Only now did I really experience what it was like to have a world disintegrate, to have the future run through my hands like so much sand. There was no going back to the way things were. There was no recovery. There was only being pushed forward into a newness that I had not sought and for which I was not prepared.

My world has been disintegrating my whole life, and most of the time I didn’t even know it. Yet, that disintegration is the good news.

It’s the good news because large parts of that world need to die in order for God’s love to live fully among us. A world constructed for the sake of White Supremacy does not deserve to continue. A world built to preserve Male dominance is not worth saving. A world that makes northern European the definition of normal and cultured is too limited for the grandeur of Human being. A world that seeks moderation in all things always ends up underwriting the status quo of those with the power. Unfettered capitalism will destroy us and our environment on its own unless we find another way.

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that there is nothing new under the sun. Those who claim to be the only ones who can save us – those charlatans are a dime a dozen in human history. Nonetheless, we are often still seduced by their siren songs. Wars and insurrections are everyday realities now and have been for millennia. Conflict between nations, empires, kingdoms, and tribes is ubiquitous. Natural disasters arrive like clockwork, plagues (and pandemics) don’t care about scientific progress, and famine is a perennial feature of human greed.

“Now,” Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

We who follow Jesus proclaim that we are not destined to face the disintegration alone. The Son of Man is the Coming One – not just once or twice, but always. This is the very heart of the one we call Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. That’s why we can lift up our heads in hope as the world is falling apart. Heaven and earth will come apart, he tells us, but his words – his promise of hope and salvation – will never desert us.

“This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us,” Serene Jones writes, “as clergy, could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the divine coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s presence” (page 39).

It is that presence which makes the proclaiming possible. White Christian Nationalism must be dismantled if humans are once again to flourish as part of the American project. White Male Supremacy must be abandoned if all people are to live out their identities in hope and love. An economic system that places the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a group small enough to fit in a conference room is a system that cannot be allowed to continue. A world political order that declares democracy obsolete and human rights impractical is an order that must fall.

You see, I have just described my world – the world I inherited, the world I accepted uncritically, the world that has given me more power, position, privilege, and property than I could ever deserve. That’s the world that has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive. That process of dissolution will continue long after I’m gone. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will look back in disgust at the world they have left behind.

I’m no utopian. The world as we know it, on our own terms, is always coming to an end. And that’s the good news. But there is something about our time which has a particular stench of death and decay about it. And the dim outlines of a different way are beginning to rise up out of the debris.

So, we hear the call of Advent to be awake, to be alert, to stay sharp, and to do it all with prayer and courage. And that’s the good news.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.

Mocking Jesus — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Have you ever been mocked for being a Jesus follower? If so, you’re in good company.

In 1857, explorers uncovered a bit of anti-Christian graffiti in a room of a building called the domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The hand-drawn cartoon depicts a person hanging on a cross. The figure has the head of a donkey rather than that of a human. The caption of the cartoon reads something like “Alexamenos worships his (or a) god.” At the foot of the cross is a figure, presumably said Alexamenos, raising a hand in salute or worship.

In the next room is an inscription that reads “Alexamenos is faithful.” This may be a reply or rebuttal to the graffiti in the first room. Of course, we cannot discern the tone either of the cartoon or the response. This may have been a hostile exchange. It may have been a bit of good-natured ribbing between friends. It may have been a way to identify the location of Alexamenos to authorities seeking to regulate or persecute Alexamanos and other Jesus followers. We can’t know for sure.

Photo by Rodrigo DelPer on Pexels.com

Scholars believe the graffito was drawn sometime in the late 100s to the early 200s of the Common Era, about a century after the four canonical gospels were put to the page. At this time, pagan writers regularly ridiculed Christians for worshipping a crucified and dishonored criminal. It may be that some of these pagan authors believed that Christians practiced donkey worship, an accusation applied to Jews before the Christian era.

Depicting a character with the head of an ass is a time-honored trope in the literature of lampooning. I am reminded, for example, of the fate of Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom and his hapless colleagues provide the comic relief during the drama.

Bottom’s head is transformed by Puck into that of a donkey. In that guise, he becomes the object of infatuation for Titania, the fairy queen, who has been bewitched by a love potion. The situation provides no end of hilarity, mostly at Bottom’s expense. Bottom merits some of this treatment, in Shakespeare’s telling, because he has an inappropriately high opinion of himself and his own dramatic talents. The script takes him down a notch, and (as the Bard might say), all’s well that ends well.

Mockery is in the historical DNA of the Jesus followers movement (what I abbreviate as the JFM). This is especially true in the Markan composition. In his climactic “passion prediction” in Mark 10, Jesus declares that the Gentiles who execute Jesus will begin the process by mocking him and spitting on him. That description comes to pass in Mark 15:20 when the soldiers mock him as part of their practice of torture. Those who pass by the cross continue the mocking in Mark 15:31.

It was no worse treatment than a failed revolutionary messiah deserved. Jesus made it clear that members of the JFM could expect similar treatment in the future. In Mark 13, he tells the disciples that they can anticipate betrayals and beatings, interrogations and internment, humiliation and hatred. This sort of treatment, Jesus declares, is not a sign of failure but rather of faithfulness.

I don’t know about you, but I have rarely been subjected to mockery because I’m a Jesus follower. When I was in college, I took a three-year sojourn into philosophical atheism. I thought at the time that this was the only reasonable path for intelligent people. I discovered that I could not survive the existential vacuum such a perspective seemed to demand of me. After a bit of personal drama, I returned to the path of Jesus following.

Even then, I was not really “mocked.” An honored mentor received the news of my lapse from atheism with a rueful and puzzled shake of the head. Friends and classmates simply thought I had gone crazy in a new but not particularly novel sort of way. Other Jesus followers rejoiced that I had returned to the fold and hoped that I had learned my lesson. Only one of my former atheist compatriots had the integrity to call me “a stupid ass who exchanged hard truth for easy certainty.”

Coming back to the life of the Church did not subject me to ridicule. Instead, it was celebrated and rewarded. Obviously, it led me to my life’s work inside the confines of the Church. I’m not complaining in the least. I’m simply observing. In my experience, being identified as a Jesus follower presented no downside. No one was drawing donkey-headed cartoons to mock me and lampoon my faith. Instead, I was on the path to privilege and respectability.

That hardly sounds like mocking. It has nothing to do with dying. I am not sure I’ve ever gotten very far as a member of the JFM.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that persecution and pain are the means to demonstrate my belonging. The Christian gospels do not valorize victimhood or celebrate suffering. But the gospel accounts certainly remind us that faithful following is likely to get us into real trouble with the guarantors of the status quo. If our discipleship doesn’t get us into “good trouble,” we may need to wonder if we’re on the right path. Donkey-headed cartoons are not the goal of following Jesus, but they are often the outcome of such faithful following.

There is nothing attractive or virtuous about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Markan composition of the gospel. There’s lots of groaning and crying out. There’s lots of blood and screams. There’s plenty of mockery and humiliation. It’s not attractive or controlled. There’s lots of human cruelty and straight-up tyranny.

In the midst of it, however, something strange happens. The world gets turned upside down. In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Joel Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).

Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus, the sign on the cross, “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).

But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was the son of God.”

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Kelly Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.

It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them.

We Jesus followers believe that God ratifies this power to change the world by…changing the world. That’s what the Good News of Resurrection is all about. The powers of sin, death, and the Devil are turned upside down and inside out. The mockery of Creation – the captivity of all things under an alien power – is mocked by the Creator who deigns to be crucified. Suddenly the joke is on the jerks.

If I embrace that Good News and the power of the Resurrection, then I might be given the courage to resist the Powers by mocking the mockers. That would mean stepping out of my safe, establishment, institutional Church bubble and into the hurly-burly world of pagans in power. These days, a number of those pagans in power call themselves “Christians,” so the confrontation has become ever so much more complicated.

At the end of our year with the Markan composition, this is where we find ourselves. Will I put myself in places where someone wants to put an ass’s head on me and laugh themselves silly? Will I keep pushing until the laughter turns to rage and some wish to bash in my ass’s head? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I want to flee in fear like any self-respecting disciple in Mark’s account. But perhaps I’ll do better once in a while.

After all, my story is no more complete than Mark’s story…

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/not-without-gods-power.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/commentary-on-mark-151-47.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

The Fab Four — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 12:35-44

The Fab Four

Konstantin Stanislavski is regarded as the “father of modern acting.” He was the one who first said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Prior to his time, the bit players and extras in productions didn’t do much acting. Mostly, they just filled in the spaces between the lines of the “big” actors.

Stanislavski rejected this understanding. He required the same depth, commitment, and quality from all his actors – big or small, headliners or extras. This demand revolutionized the theater experience for both the actors and the audience.

In our text, we witness the performance of one of the bit players and extras in the Gospel according to Mark. The poor widow may have a small part in the drama. She is, however, anything but a small actor. The poor widow is, in fact, one of the “Fab Four” in the Markan gospel account.

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Mark’s gospel features four unnamed women. They are the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5, the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, the poor widow here in Mark 12, and the woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14.

These women are some of the so-called “little people” in Mark’s gospel. That means they aren’t one of the Twelve so-called “official” disciples. Nor are they among the named characters who have larger roles in the drama. Instead, they come on stage. They play their parts and speak their lines. Then they leave the stage, not to be mentioned again.

The four women are, in the language of the theater, bit players and extras. They might not even rate a mention in the credits at the end of the film or on the back of the program. Yet, these four women – the characters I want to call the “Fab Four” – reveal more about who Jesus is and what following him means than most of the other characters in Mark’s script.

These four women have similar roles in the Markan drama. Each of them takes the initiative. The woman with the hemorrhage seeks Jesus out and takes the risk to touch his robe. The Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus and walks right into the house where he’s staying. The poor widow expresses her devotion to God in the Temple with her whole living. The unnamed anointer comes uninvited, not only into the house, but into the space reserved for the invited male guests.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like. These are not small actors. Nor do they have small parts.

These four women are outsiders to “The System” – the status quo that keeps them sick, rejected, poor, and segregated. They do not allow, however, “The System” to keep them in their places. The woman with the hemorrhage has had enough of ineffective treatments. The Syro-Phoenician woman has had enough of limited access. The poor widow has had enough of gifts evaluated by size. The anointing woman has had enough of men controlling access to worship.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like.

They, however, are not identical. The “Fab Four” each have their own roles and performances. The despair of the bleeding woman drives her to courageous faith. The determination of the Syro-Phoenician woman empowers her to get what she seeks. The devotion of the poor widow requires even a corrupt and broken system to convey her gift to God. The discernment of the anointing woman is beyond that of any of the men in the room.

These women engage in the dance of trust. It is a complicated step that I won’t often get right. Trusting Jesus as my Lord often requires this combination of desperation, determination, devotion, and discernment. The recipe is never quite the same twice in a row. But this complicated dance plays out in the Markan drama for those with the eyes to see it.

Martin Luther describes one function of the “Law” in God’s Word as driving me deeper into my need for Jesus. Luther gets that right. This text drives me deeper into Jesus’ loving embrace. That doesn’t happen as resignation or fear. Rather, I am driven by a joyous hunger to have what the Fab Four have. There is more to this discipleship biz, and I want it.

Yes, perhaps the way to relate to these four women is to contract and nourish a case of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “holy envy.” I know it was Krister Stendahl who coined the phrase. And Taylor always gives due credit. But she puts additional flesh on Stendahl’s theological bones in this phrase.

I can envy the widow for her deep devotion, her “ruthless trust” (as Brenna Manning would name it). I can envy her for shedding her last bits of financial and cultural baggage. After all, as that great philosopher, Kris Kristofferson, once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

I can envy her the adventure of not knowing what comes next and the excitement of finding out. I can envy her love without anxiety or limits. I can envy her desire to love God, not for what she can get but rather “for nothing.” I can choose to feel ashamed by her example or inspired by it. I think the Markan composer longs for us to see the Fab Four and know that there are no small parts in the Good News of the Kin(g)dom of God – not even for me.

I am convinced that the Christian gospels are not, in technical terms, “wisdom” texts. They are not advice on how to get along in the world as it is. That work is left for books like Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures and, perhaps, James in the Christian Scriptures. No, the Christian gospels are apocalypses. They seek to uncover the world as God intends and destines it to be.

Each of the Fab Four is an apocalyptic actor, revealing more about the Kin(g)dom and Jesus’ role and identity in that Kin(g)dom. They demonstrate that God’s healing love flows into the world. They show that outsiders have faith – often more than the insiders. They demonstrate what it means to give one’s whole life for the sake of love. And they point to Jesus as the true Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God.

In my envy, I am challenged as a disciple to live an apocalyptic life as well. I don’t mean that I should focus on end times prophecies. No, I’m claiming the real meaning of “apocalyptic.” Jesus followers are called to live lives that reveal the living and loving presence and power of God in Jesus Christ for the sake of each person and the whole cosmos. The four women do that in the Markan composition. They show us that we can do that in our lives as well. There are no small parts in the gospel drama, and no one is a small actor.

The Fab Four also uncover The System in its tragic brokenness and terrible power. The critique in the poor widow’s story, for example, is not that the Temple is financially extractive. The problem is that the widow is abandoned with only two pennies to her name. The fact that this widow exists is Exhibit A to prove that The System is broken and corrupt. The rich have a surplus because the widow has a deficit – and vice versa.

Each of the Fab Four reveals, in her own way, a place where The System is broken. The bleeding woman requires us to look at our health care system and know that it penalizes the poor not only for being poor but for daring to be sick. The Syro-Phoenician woman reveals our anti-Other prejudices now expressed in rejection of the migrant. The poor widow reveals our exploitation of the many to enrich the few. The anointing woman shows up in our discounting of the witness and voices of women – especially in churches.

The four women remind us that where we look determines what we see. If we look at the rich donors and the big stones of the Temple, we will not see the poor widows, the bleeding women, the desperate mothers, the grieving prophets of the world. We dare not look at the beneficiaries of The System and expect to see anything other than support for the status quo.

The Kin(g)dom of God is most clearly revealed in the people The System regards as bit players and extras. We who follow Jesus know where to look. It takes immense, self-serving effort to avert our gaze and look in all the wrong places. The Fab Four remind us to abandon that habit of the averted gaze.

The small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into a bigger apocalyptic story next week. Jesus tells us that a system which can treat this poor widow in this way is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. More on that next week, but (spoiler alert), we should be very worried.

More important, however, the small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into the biggest story of all. She gives her whole life in trusting response to God’s goodness. This is a preview, a foreshadowing, of Jesus as he gives his whole life in trusting response to God’s call and for the sake of all.

In the gospel drama, there are no small parts. Please, God, help me to stop being a small actor.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-6.

Cruz, Samuel. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-5.

Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.

Kiel, Micah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-2.

Langknecht, Henry. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-3.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-4.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.