begin in terror

(This is yesterday’s sermon, a tiny cheat in my daily Advent writing practice.)

Zechariah’s story is the opening scene in Luke’s gospel:

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

That’s how Luke begins the story of Jesus, the Gospel, the Good News: with an old, faithful priest named Zech and his wife, Liz, who couldn’t have a baby.

Zechariah had spent his life in service at the temple and to his God. He was a descendant of the priestly order, so he’d likely known all his life that working in the temple would be his vocation. He’d spent decades training and learning all the law and prophets, and his days were filled with liturgy and sacrifice.

On this particular day, Zechariah’s priestly section was on duty and it was his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. There was a big crowd of people praying outside the sanctuary as he entered, alone. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, Zechariah froze: an otherworldly creature was there, just to the right of the altar. Well, maybe Zech froze. Luke tells us that this creature TERRIFIED and OVERWHELMED him, so maybe he froze, but maybe he SCREAMED, or cowered, or fainted. Whatever he did, Zechariah was horrified.

We know, from our vantage point as readers of the whole story, that this creature was an angel. But if it was an angel like the ones we see in craft stores and on the tops of Christmas trees during this season, then why was Zech so scared? A float-y, shimmering cherubic kid with wings, right? That’s what an angel is?

It turns out that angels in scripture are nothing like what we imagine. The prophet Ezekiel has some particularly evocative descriptions: wheels with many eyes; four-headed beings with multiple wings; a creature that looks like a demented moth, with eyes on every one of its eight wings. In scripture, angels are not softly lit and gently smiling. In scripture, angels are terrifying creatures. 

Now, to be fair, the angel that shows up here in Zech’s sanctuary is probably more human-like than a wheel with eyes. Gabriel is known to be the archangel of the cherubim, which, according to people who call themselves “angelologists” are angels who appear sort of super-human: gigantic, with majestic wings and overpowering presence.

And still, Zechariah was TERRIFIED.

That’s how the gospel begins: in terror.

I think that’s worth paying attention to, right now: that Luke chooses to start the story of the good news with an aging priest encountering something terrifying in the sanctuary. Just like the way angels are far more complicated and unsettling than our popular imagination tell us, the gospel is also not something that begins in a clean, safe, pastel stable. The gospel begins with things getting turned upside down.

Once Zechariah recovers from his faint, the weird angel says “Don’t be afraid!” Which, you know, feels sort of like too little too late when the being has startled him there in the sanctuary. But the angel continues: “Your wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant and is going to have a son. And you’re going to name him John, and everyone is going to rejoice! He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and bring many people back to God, and prepare the way for the Messiah, who is on the way.”

And Zechariah, sort of dumb-founded and still finding his footing in the wake of such a scare and such impossible promises, blurts out his first thought: “But I’m so OLD! That can’t be true!”

And the angel, sort of annoyed that Zech isn’t getting immediately on board with God’s plan, says “Look, I’m Gabriel, the angel. I work for God. God’s the one who sent me here, in case you hadn’t figured that out, yet, to bring you GOOD NEWS, man. But it doesn’t seem like you can handle this quite yet, so – and I really hate to do this, you know, but we can’t have you messing up the plan with your own fear and short-sightedness – I’m gonna have to take away your voice until your son is actually born.”

And then Gabriel disappears, and Zech stumbles back out into the light, and all the people are curious and concerned about what’s been happening in there, but Zech can’t tell them. All he can do is gesticulate wildly with his hands, and crouch down and start to cry.

But Zech goes home. And soon, he and Elizabeth realize that it’s true – she’s pregnant. Elizabeth is much more joyful than Zechariah had been, and raises her voice in praise. 

You know what happens next: Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary also gets a visit from Gabriel, and is also told that she’s going to experience this unexpected pregnancy. Mary visits Elizabeth, stays for three months, and they marvel, together, at this new thing that is happening to them.

And then, Elizabeth gives birth. In this family, a priestly family who has waited so very long for a child, the firstborn son would automatically be named after his father. This baby should be named Zechariah. But when he’s born, Elizabeth says, “nope. This kid’s name is JOHN.”

And everyone sort of furrows their brow and clucks at her, surely delusional in her post-birth state, and looks to Zechariah. Remember, Zech has been mute for the last nine months, unable to utter a single word. By now, he’s gotten used to this state of things and always has a tablet nearby. He grabs the tablet and writes, clearly, “his name is John.”

And, Luke tells us, the entire household was amazed. Immediately, Zech’s tongue is untied, and he starts speaking as fast as he can – not the build up of opinions and questions he’s been stockpiling for months, but an immediate, joyful, passionate song of praise to the same God who made him mute in the first place.

And, we hear, “fear came over all their neighbors.”

There it is again: fear. Elizabeth knows what is happening. She’s on board. It took Zechariah nine months of humbling himself in muteness to understand that what was happening here was not about him, or his family, or his priestly line, but about something much, much larger. He finally got it. But everyone else, all the gathered neighbors, well, whatever is going on here? It is TERRIFYING.

All this fear seems worth paying attention to. Why does Luke choose to begin the gospel with so much fear? Why include these details – that Zechariah was terrified when the angel showed up in the sanctuary and that the neighbors were terrified when they witnessed Zechariah finding his voice? Why is it important for us to know that the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth was tinged with so much terror?

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The detail of this story that captivates me is Zechariah’s nine months of being struck dumb. Gabriel recognizes that, in his terror and confusion, Zech is not going to be able to properly translate or explain what is happening. And it’s no wonder: what is happening is incredible, miraculous, out of time and place. It starts with a VERY SCARY creature appearing out of nowhere in the sanctuary. It starts with everything Zechariah thought he knew being upended. He’d spent his entire life in service to God, but he still didn’t realize that God might show up in his life like THIS.

So, instead of moving on and choosing another family to be part of this story, instead of leaving Zechariah in the dust of the gospel breaking into the world, instead of passing him and his disbelief over, Gabriel just says, well, okay, I guess you’re going to need some time to get used to this if you are really going to be the father of the Proclaimer.

There is grace in those nine months of muteness. God gives Zechariah TIME to come to terms with what he’s being invited into. God doesn’t see his fear and give up on him; he instructs Gabriel that this is the man, the father of the messenger John, and that whatever it takes for Zechariah to get on board, well, that’s what they’re doing.

Zech had nine months of watching his wife’s pregnant belly grow larger with the child the angel promised him would be a key part of God’s plan. He had nine months to sort through his own personal fear and sense of ownership over this kid. In her commentary on the passage, Hannah Garrity says “By removing his own personal and family legacy from the picture, he is truly able to give way to the greater narrative that God is calling him to participate in. This is an incredible moment of humility.”

And when Zechariah is able to speak again, when he humbles himself and consents to having a son with a God-given name and not his own, when he assents to being a part of the thread of bringing God incarnate into the world, even at the expense of his own human legacy, his first words are not explanation or question or relief; they are words of blessing and praise:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

These are the words that begin every blessing, every “berakhat.” In Jewish practice, blessings are for every moment of every day. One ancient rabbi said that a faithful Jew would say as many as 100 blessings a day, thanking and praising God for God’s provision and joy in every moment of life.

Zechariah begins his song with words of praise, and keeps them flowing, recounting the currents of salvation that Zech now recognizes he is joining:

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.69 He has raised up a mighty savior for usin the house of his servant David,70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,and has remembered his holy covenant,73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousnessbefore him all our days.

And then, he blesses his son, setting him up on a foundation of the history of God’s salvation among God’s people:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah and St. John the Baptist. A medieval Georgian fresco from the Monastery of the CrossJerusalem.

In those nine mute months, Zechariah has been re-oriented, from fear to faith, from grief to joy, from feeling cheated and left out to recognizing himself a part of a cosmic, generational movement of God in the world.

Zechariah took a while to move from fear to praise, and that’s okay. He had nine months to get right with God. Gabriel gave him that gift. What started in terror ends in blessing.

I wonder what it is, in our own lives, that we are terrified of, right now. I wonder what it is that just isn’t making sense, that we are not able to understand, that feels like our world is being turned upside down. I wonder if any of that – any of the situations or circumstances that are scaring us or sending us all out of sorts – might turn out to be the source of salvation, of blessing. I wonder what we need to become re-oriented and shift our own fear into canticles of praise, to recognize that we, too, are people called into the streams of salvation, invited to be, like Zechariah, people who prepare the way for the Lord.

and, predictably, they fall in love

After years of turning up my nose at them, I’m watching all the Hallmark Christmas movies this year. Well, not *exactly* Hallmark Christmas movies since – even though I supposedly have access to the Hallmark channel through my Dad’s shared YouTube TV subscription, I cannot get my Roku to allow me to search for the thing I want to watch. (What a sentence.) But all the Hallmark-adjacent silly Christmas romance movies where a sad, overworked urban single person returns home for the holidays and (SURPRISE!) finds love with a sweet, burly, flannel-wearing guy next door.

Yes, I will share some reviews here. But first, let me tell you that, like all good media consumption pipelines, I came to these implication-less movies by first reading implication-less books. In what I can only really understand as an attempt to escape the worrisome reality we’re all living in, I have read SO MANY romance novels this year. Romance and mysteries are comforting because no matter what happens, you can be guaranteed that the plot will be resolved and end on a high note. Always.

I have long been a book snob, and refused to read any kind of pulp-y fiction, but my friend Carynne, who is super smart and with whom I love talking books, told me a while ago that she reads romance all the time. And then she started sharing recommendations. And I discovered that the people who write romance novels are *writers* who, unlike me, have the skill, fortitude and patience to write *entire books.* And some of those books include deftly written characters, razor sharp humor and imagined worlds where I want to live. Plus, as mentioned, they always end well.

The romances kept me reading, and rocketed my 2021 tally to over 100 books read. If you, like me, are skeptical, might I recommend “Red, White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston or “Get a Life, Chloe Brown” by Talia Hibbert or “Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors,” by Sonali Dev. Then you can move on, like I have, to everything Jenny Colgan has written.

Like the books, the Hallmark Christmas movies are guaranteed to be what some might describe as “heartwarming.” There may or may not be complicated emotions or family dynamics, but there will certainly be a neatly resolved falling-in-love plot line. Here are my initial reviews of Netflix Hallmark Christmas movies:

  1. The Christmas Prince: apparently a widely appealing film, since it has spawned at least two sequels that I will be viewing. A young, single NYC journalist is sent to a made-up European country to cover the playboy prince who is heir to the throne and, predictably, falls in love with him. This movie is bad. Like, bad even for (what I know of) this genre. But there is a castle, and snow, and the lead wears her Converse to royal gatherings.
  2. Christmas in a Castle: new to Netflix, starring Carey Elwes! and Brooke Shields! A successful author escapes a messy divorce and writer’s block by fleeing to Scotland, where her family has roots. She meets a duke and, predictably, falls in love with him. This movie is better than The Christmas Prince. It also features a castle, plus Carey Elwes. And there are charming villagers who like to knit and drink. Still bad.
  3. Love Hard: a young professional gets catfished on an online dating app, but doesn’t realize it until she has FLOWN ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO SPEND CHRISTMAS WITH A MAN SHE HAS NEVER MET BEFORE. The guy who catfished her agrees to help her catfish *another* guy – in person this time. Bad, racist portrayal of strict Asian parents and high-achieving sons. Very creepy – dangerous – set up. Also not awful.
  4. Single All the Way: also new to Netflix. The algorithms are on to me after this first week of Christmas romance movie bingeing, and Netflix sent me an email announcing that they thought I might enjoy this new film. They were right. A recently-dumped guy travels from LA to New England to be with his family for the holidays. He brings his roommate/bff with him and, predictably, falls in love with him. This movie is one million times better than any of the others, legit funny, actually charming in some places, and reminded me enough of “The Family Stone,” one of my Christmas movie standards, that it jumped immediately to the top of the ratings in my estimation.

I’m going to keep working on getting access to the actual Hallmark Christmas Movie Universe. Until them, what else should I be watching? Or reading?

relinquish voluntarily

I’ve been thinking about kids and guns, because there are kids killing people with guns in the news. All the time. White boy kids, specifically. Kyle Rittenhouse, whose mom dropped him off in Kenosha with an assault rifle in order for him to kill two people. Ethan Crumbley, whose parents helped him buy a handgun and then ignored his blatant pleas for help before he killed four other kids. These kids are on my mind.

Mostly, I’ve been angry at the parents of these children. Teenagers are *children.* They should not have unsupervised access to deadly weapons. They should not be dropped off in the streets alone, left to defend themselves. They should not be ignored when they scream for help. They should not be raised in situations where adults in charge endorse violence, stoke rage, teach hatred and then abandon their children when the children emulate them.

There’s a racial lens here, too, that I’m trying to at least be aware of in myself: I am formed to see these white boys as children even as I am formed to see Black teenage boys as adults. I know that is true. I know it is evil. I am working – not to insist that these white boys ARE adults and should be treated as such – but to extend my outrage and care to Black boys, Black children, too, especially the Black boys who are detained, injured, shot and killed because other white people like me are incapable of recognizing that they are *children.*

I’m not a parent. I’m not an expert on gun control or public policy. I’m just a participant observer, over here noticing that we are explicitly raising kids to kill people and giving them open access to the means of doing it. For years, The Hunger Games has felt like a terrifyingly prescient fable; now it just feels like present-day reporting.

Youths take part in a National School Walkout anti-gun march in New York City, New York, U.S., April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A 1978 Church of the Brethren statement on “Violence and the Use of Firearms” calls people who follow the Prince of Peace to “relinquish voluntarily our own handguns.” There are all kinds of caveats to this contribution to the discourse: statements are flimsy snapshots of a moment in time and have no binding power; 1978 was so long ago that assault weapons weren’t even considered part of the conversation; nobody, not even people who still claim to be part of the Brethren movement, actually cares what a 45 year old statement says.

But one piece of the moral calculus that this document reasserts for me is that while policy change and legal protections are vastly important as backstops and boundaries for what we, as a society allow and endorse, my morality is not defined by any set of laws governing any nation.

That is to say, being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good, moral, compassionate, faithful person. In this season of life in America, it’s abundantly clear to me that choosing right and good and life-giving ways forward have little to nothing to do with whether or not I obey or break the rule of law. Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges, an outcome that was legally valid and morally repugnant. The Supreme Court is allowing states to impose tyrannical laws on the bodies of people who become pregnant, opening up wide swaths of potential compassionate, healing, pastoral behavior subject to prosecution.

Time for us to double down on our convictions, to talk amongst ourselves about what IS good and right, what SHOULD be guiding our choices, what kind of people we are called to be. Time to remind one another that Christianity has nothing to do with asserting individual rights in an empire, but with finding ways to live together in mutual care and protection here among society’s ruins.

I wish the parents of Kyle Rittenhouse and Ethan Crumbley had better sense. I wish they had a fuller picture of what “survival” meant, of how we are all interconnected and bound to one another, how violence is rarely productive and always disastrous. I wish those families had been part of communities that shared practices of mutual care and compassion and insisted on extending that kind of grace to everyone they encountered. I wish the possibility of “voluntarily relinquishing deadly weapons” was something that made sense to them in their moral understanding of the world.

A friend reminded me yesterday that the answer to the world’s crumbling is not to sit back and wring our hands, but to join in where people are already building and creating joyful, generative, peaceful alternatives. To put our hands to the plows and insist that another way is possible, that things DO NOT have to be this way. For me, that commitment has begun to look like divesting from systems that are not actively working toward mercy and justice and reorienting my time and energy into spaces that are closer to home, whose work is clearly bringing people together, meeting needs, and pushing communities toward mutual care.

What does it look like for you?

intergenerational

Both of my grandmothers died this year, which has really messed with my sense of generational place. I’ve had grandparents actively involved in my life for 39 years. I have young parents who also had young parents; I know what a gift and rare thing it is to get to be this old and just now be moved up the living generational ladder.

Intergenerational relationships is something I am regularly grateful for and rarely talk about. My friends are just…my friends, you know? But I had regular, intimate conversations with my grandmothers until they died. I got to hear stories and ask questions and be connected to parts of who I am in ways that my parents can’t fully explain to me and that I won’t otherwise have any access to.

I have a writing group that has been meeting monthly and retreating annually for almost 9 years now, a group that is currently made up of three grandmas and me, women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who somehow don’t mind my relative immaturity and just keep sharing their experience and wisdom and love. It is simultaneously comforting and discouraging to know, intimately, that life’s big questions and challenges don’t ever seem to disappear or dissipate, just morph and, maybe, soften a little with time.

And church is almost necessarily intergenerational, my congregation in particular. We have toddlers and nonagenarians and everyone in between. For a tiny congregation, we’ve got some serious life-stage diversity, including college students and retirees and young adults and kiddos. A couple of weeks ago, ahead of a conversation together about a new documentary on Pauli Murray, who grew up here in Durham, our post-worship conversation was an incredible example of intergenerational learning. A couple of older people asked for help with using pronouns in ways that are inclusive and respectful, confessing that they wanted to get it right and practice hospitality and care, but that it was difficult to re-train their brains. A young adult piped in and gave a gracious, clear, succinct summary. People asked questions, we practiced together. Beautiful.

Recently, I’ve been struck by my new place in the line of generational succession. I don’t have children of my own, which is maybe how other people sense this shift, but I do know and love a lot of young people who are, as they say, coming into their own. In addition to my own grandparents dying and shifting the family dynamic, the young people are speaking up, asserting themselves, and *teaching* me things. So many things. I had the privilege of hosting a podcast episode of some folks who are calling themselves Young Adults on Fire a couple weeks ago, and if you care about the church, then you should listen. You should really just start listening to young people in general, wherever you are, whoever you’re close to, because they are sharp and wise and not willing to put up with any more of our bullshit. Thank God.

It’s a joy and a gift to know and love and learn from people who are both older and younger than I am. Those relationships expand my awareness and reassure me of my place in the family of things. I am a granddaughter without living grandparents, a nearly-middle-aged adult without children of my own, but I am nevertheless held firmly in place by these connections and conversations and friendships filled with grace.

booklist

I finished reading my 100th book of 2021 yesterday. 100 books a year is a stretch goal for me – I usually end up with around 75. But I hit 100 with an entire month of reading still ahead of me. There have been an unusual number of mysteries and romance novels this year, as my reading life trended toward comfort and avoidance. 100 still feels big to me, and I will definitely be rewarding myself with the traditional Reading Goal Prize, a pepperoni personal pan pizza.

When we cleaned out my grandmother JoJo’s apartment this fall after she died, I found a treasure: her handwritten reading log, which picks up in 2004. We think she had been keeping track since my grandpa Bobby retired in 1987, and this log begins at #1736.

This log starts in 2004 at 1736 and ends in 2018 at 3335. That’s an average of 107 books each year. ONE HUNDRED SEVEN. I knew she was always reading. We talked books every time we talked – she liked to give a detailed outline of whatever plot she was in the middle of at the time. We traded recommendations. I know that she read more books after this log ends, because she saw Amy Jo Burns’ “Shiner” on my Instagram and asked me to send it to her through the mail last year, which of course I did. Because she was my grandma, she got the book and promptly put $20 in a card back to me to cover the shipping cost. Reading was one of JoJo’s big losses over the last couple of years as her eyes and her mind slowed, and I know it hit her hard. No wonder. She read ONE HUNDRED BOOKS A YEAR for over thirty years!

JoJo read a lot of pulp fiction – Danielle Steele, James Patterson and David Baldacci. I knew she would read whatever I recommended to her, would at least try it even if she ended up hating it. I once gave my Grandpa Bobby a book on the Creed by one of my seminary professors, because he was always asking me what I was learning in school, and bless Bobby’s heart, he hated that book. But he read it! “I read it, Dana Beth. Now, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about most of the time, but I did read it.”

But this log tells me that JoJo wasn’t just reading supermarket check-out line fiction. Her librarians knew and loved her, and they pressed literary fiction and classics into her hands. She knew what was on the NYT bestseller list, and she wanted to read it. If she saw a book mentioned in the newspaper or on TV, she downloaded it to her Nook. In addition to all the Sandra Brown and Sue Grafton, JoJo read Louise Erdrich, Ann Patchett, August Wilson, Colson Whitehead, Isabel Allende and Neil Gaiman. I didn’t know until after she died that she had been reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, dear to my own heart. And it wasn’t until just this minute, reviewing her list again, that I discovered she’d already read the entire Nevada Barr National Parks mystery series that my friend Meredith just told me about this year.

I guess this is what good grief feels like – simultaneous delight and despair. I am DELIGHTED to learn that JoJo was even more widely-read than I knew, and slightly chastened to think of all the times I shared a recommendation with her complete with content warning, when she’d been reading hard-hitting literary fiction for decades before I even knew what that meant. But I am also gutted that I can’t call her up and ask why she never TOLD me she had read Louise Penny, what she thought about Anna Pigeon solving murders in national parks, who told her to put Isabelle Allende on her TBR pile, and what she’s reading right this minute.

We never have enough time with each other, do we?

a failed experiment

Today is my 6th anniversary with the people of Peace Covenant Church!

And I am looking forward to celebrating more anniversaries here, too. That’s a rarity right now, a testament to the grace and grit of my congregation. In the last year, 46% of pastors under 45 have seriously considered leaving ministry. I know at least a dozen who actually *have* left, and twice that many who are still seriously considering it. There are a million reasons for this exodus, and Melissa Florer-Bixler captures several in her article for Sojourners this week.

I spent about four years writing and directing a grant-funded program aimed at supporting part-time pastors. In the Church of the Brethren, more than 2/3 of all pastors work in part-time roles but every institutional practice, procedure and assumption has been based on the myth of a full-time, professional, seminary-educated pastor in every congregation since the 1950s. You hear that decades bandied about all the time as the heyday of the American church, but I can actually point you to documents – seminary theses and journal articles from the tradition – that argue for paying pastors as professional, cultural workers in order to “keep the church relevant.” In the ’50s, Brethren were making decisions explicitly based on how we could keep up with other, larger, more powerful Christian denominations. “Everybody else has got professional, educated clergy! We need it, too!”

The outlines of that argument are basically cribbed from the Bible, but not in a good way. When the Israelites burned through as many judges as they could, leader after leader trying to drag them back onto God’s path for their community, they got entirely exasperated and DEMANDED that God give them KINGS. “Every other important people group has got one, God,” they whined. “GIVE US A KING, TOO!” “We want to be LEGIT, a real, serious, earthly NATION.” (Seriously. Read 1 Samuel 8 – it’s all right there.)

That’s essentially what happened in the Brethren movement around mid-20th century: “we want to be a LEGIT denomination, like something that the National Council of Churches will take seriously. We’ll need infrastructure and commissions and legal standing, God, and while you’re at it, GIVE US SOME PASTORS, TOO!” For Brethren, at least, full-time, salaried, professional clergy was, at best, an interesting experiment that lasted 2 generations. Of course pastors are leaving. The experiment failed.

Churches don’t NEED pastors, particularly full-time, professional clergy – and we’ve got the historical chops to prove that. Especially in our low-church tradition of communal ecclesiology, there is no sacramental or hierarchical need to plop a professionally educated person into every small group of committed people who long to follow Jesus’ instructions together. For Brethren, at least, that is a manufactured desire, borne of a 20th century demand to be like everyone else.

Congregations DO need spiritual leaders, though, wise people versed in the complicated dynamics of people and power, committed people who promise to show up and keep showing up, prayerful people who can point to God at work in our midst, hospitable people reminding us that our call is to be living testimonies to the mercy and justice of Jesus. It’s just that we don’t need all those gifts to co-exist in one measly human being with a title.

Nancy Heishman, Director of the CoB Office of Ministry, says that if we were serious about noticing and naming the spiritual gifts of one another in our congregations and communities, we would discover that we already have all the leadership we need. I agree with her. Church is changing. The ways that God’s people live together in the world already looks different than it did 70 years ago. Institutions are crumbling and, like Melissa Florer-Bixler says, it was never our job to keep that from happening. God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and the Church will not disappear just because our human structures are forced to change.

Yes, all the pastors are quitting. And I, for one, think that’s great. Young people aren’t settling for this decades-old manufactured desire or the unhealthy labor practices of the church. Churches aren’t going to get away with outsourcing their discipleship much longer. We’ll have to put some real time and energy into understanding what, exactly, Jesus is calling us to do and to be, right here and right now. Which is, as I understand it, the whole, entire point of discipleship in the first place.

hope is the thing with groaning

In my congregation, the preacher preaches and then immediately asks the congregation to share their reflections and responses. This practice preceded my arrival six years ago, and it is one of the best things about our worship together. Interpreting scripture isn’t the sole responsibility of one person; discerning *together* it is how we follow Jesus faithfully. Over the years, my preaching has been affirmed, questioned, repaired and made irrelevant by the discussion that immediately follows whatever I say, thanks be to God.

This week, we began an Advent season focused on the theme of “Close to Home,” using beautiful resources from A Sanctified Art. The creators of the resource invited us to think about HOPE, which is the theme of the first Sunday of Advent, and homesickness – what does it feel like to long for something that doesn’t really exist anymore?

“Awake to Wonder,” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity

I told the story of my false-start at going to college: raised in a close-knit family in a close-knit church in a relatively small town, I had never, in all my life spent time away from my family. We’d traveled a lot, and I had friends and activities and a full life, but almost everything happened with my family involved. When I moved into a dorm room across the state that fall of 2000, my homesickness overtook me. I remember being excited and curious and totally taken by the classroom discussions, but the sense of being set adrift, far away and alone overpowered all of that. I knew what community felt like, and this wasn’t it. I hadn’t yet learned, I told my congregation, that you can create community in new places with new people. I wanted to go HOME.

And hope is sort of like homesickness: longing for what is yet to come sometimes feels like longing for what has been. We know what is possible because we were created in love and created for love, and when we live in a world that cuts us off from living that love, we feel the pain of it. We long to live the primordial love of our creation.

I finished preaching, and was immediately corrected. “Sometimes,” one person said, “home is not a safe place. Sometimes you do not ever, ever, ever want to go back there. Sometimes you never get homesick because there’s not much at home to miss.”

And someone else said, “you know, I can understand the message of this sermon because I do long and hope for things to be different. But I’ve always felt like I was searching for a place where I belonged, so the feeling was never really ‘homesick.’ My longing is for the future, hoping for the thing that hasn’t arrived, yet.”

And just like that, we broke the fourth wall and tore apart the provided resources and moved ourselves to a deeper understanding of what it means to hope. Hope is not nostalgia. Hope is not wishing the return of what once was. Hope is bigger and more complicated and more painful than homesickness. Hope does not feel like I felt that first semester of college. Hope is rooted in a much bigger crevice between what is and what will be, anchored deep in the wells of pain we all carry around with us.

Paul writes to the Romans that the WHOLE CREATION has been groaning in labor pains with hope of redemption. “Hope that is seen is not hope,” he says. “Who hopes for what is seen?! But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

And sometimes, he goes on, we can’t even find words to wrap around this feeling. It’s not homesickness, it’s not nostalgia, it’s not just patient waiting. It is a deep and unintelligible groaning that only the Spirit can interpret, with sighs too deep for words.

I’m so glad that my congregation corrected me and deepened my understanding, so relieved that the not-quite-right sermon was righted and amended and turned around so that we could all learn to hope, together. Hope is not homesickness or nostalgia, it is longing forward, groaning for release and redemption, acknowledgement that we live in a world where things are all wrong and confidence that the Spirit is translating our pain into divine sighs too deep for words, divine sighs that God knows, hears, and is, even now, acting upon.

every angel is terrifying

Angels in scripture love to tell humans not to be afraid when they show up on the scene. In her devotional for today, Angela Finet notes that “Don’t be afraid!” is the first line of dialogue in Luke’s gospel, spoken by the angel Gabriel who shows up to tell an old priest that he’s going to have a baby. The angel has to lead with that line, even though he’s got some serious news to share, because he can tell that Zechariah is freaking terrified.

And Zechariah is freaking terrified because in scripture, angels are not rosy-cheeked babies or glowing orbs of light. In scripture, angels are bizarre beings with mismatched parts and too many limbs. Some have four faces, some have six wings, a bunch of them have FAR TOO MANY EYES.

scripture, not sci-fi.

There is a whole thing called angelology which is not, despite my first impression, the hobby of collecting Precious Moments figurines. Angelology is all about categorizing and classifying kinds and types of angels because, well, there are a lot. Scripture’s got all kinds of weird and cringe-inducing heavenly beings in its pages. Ezekiel is particularly graphic, with cherubim (way too many faces) and ophanim (WHEELS. They are WHEELS WITH EYES: “Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.” -Ezekiel 1:18).

Ezekiel’s Vision

Gabriel was, according to some angelologists, the archangels of the cherubim. He was not a wheel with eyes, but he maybe had four faces? And some of those faces may or may not have been human-looking. He definitely had some amped up wings and was very, very large. The number of eyes is up for debate.

Whatever Gabriel the angel looked like, it was not the sweet Christmas tree topper that my mom made years ago out of old quilts sewn by her grandmother. (Kira Austin-Young is crafting an Accurate Angel Tree Topper this year, which inspired a lot of this post.) The angels who sing on high do not look like the children’s choir on Christmas Eve. Every angel is terrifying.

Yes, God is known in some circles as The Comforter. And we sing about comfort a lot during Advent, which also happens to be hygge season in the Northern Hemisphere. But the scenes that begin these stories – that is, the story of Jesus, the story of Christ, the story of God incarnate – are the opposite of cozy. The scenes that begin all of this are chaotic and confusing and filled with terror. Angels don’t translate well to the earthly realm, and they assault the senses. Their messages might begin with “don’t be afraid,” but their presence says otherwise.

What to make of that? Stand up. Raise your heads. Pay attention, even when the thing in front of your face is face-meltingly horrifying. Zechariah, the old priest, overcame his initial shock and held a conversation with Gabriel, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe what the four-faced creature was trying to tell him. He refuses, so the angel renders him mute until his baby is born. Mary gets a visit from Gabriel, too, but she responds differently: she pays attention. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sometimes, the stuff that looks the most terrifying on the surface turns out to be our salvation. Sometimes terror is just terror, sure. Our exquisite human bodies know how to send up flares when danger is afoot and our limbic does its best to keep us alive. But sometimes, if we’re paying attention; if we are fully present to the many-eyed abomination in front of us, if we calm our fight or flight response long enough to listen to what is happening beyond the adrenaline…well, we might find buried underneath all that fear an invitation to become a god-bearer, like Zechariah, like Mary.

stand up and raise your heads

I’ve been writing these little daily posts during Advent and Lent for several seasons now. I decided I wouldn’t do it this year: too much trauma to process, too little grip on the overflowing chaos of the world to feel like anything I have to say is worth sharing. Plus, who even writes BLOGS anymore? If I wanted to be relevant and accessible, I’d be making TikTok Advent reflections, right?

Mostly, it has felt like my ability to make connections and see patterns and understand what is happening under the surface of things has disappeared. That part of me feels burnt out, oversaturated. The breaker got overloaded and flipped off, and I can’t seem to figure out how to flip it back. My brain is stuttering, stopping and starting, and it is hard to know where to look for verified information or trustworthy perspective. I don’t want to blather on out here in public about things I’m not yet certain about – things I am not even reasonably sure of. We’re just all here in the mud and the muck of it, together.

But I woke up this morning, on the first day of Advent, and read the first page of a devotional and finished the last paragraph of my sermon, and realized that a) I had something to say and b) I still can’t convince myself to join TikTok.

Advent always starts with apocalypse. If you haven’t heard by now, “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “utter destruction,” it means “revelation.” This year, we get the “little apocalypse” from Luke’s gospel:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Jesus says that when chaos begins to reign, the thing to do is not RUN AND HIDE. It is not TAKE COVER. We are not advised to run to the prepared bunker we’ve been working on outfitting these last 20 months, or grab the arsenal of machine guns we’ve been stockpiling. We are not instructed to hold fast to what we’ve got – whether it be money or houses or privilege or power – and go down fighting.

When chaos begins to reign, when people are fainting from fear and foreboding, when institutions break down and the old order begins to defend itself by any means necessary, when there is distress among the nations because new variants keep emerging and the only possible solution powerful leaders can imagine is to further isolate ourselves from one another even though viruses do not give one shit about international borders or locked down airports, when politicians are issuing death threats agains their colleagues, when global supply chains get stopped up and teachers can’t bear to face their classrooms one more day and nurses are so overburdened and burnt out that they are walking off the job and children get hurt by ricocheting bullets from gang fights in the mall, when the community that taught you how to live a good life starts turning against you, issuing threats and lining up behind abusers because they think that will keep them safe, when money becomes a problem instead of an opportunity, when grief arrives in wave after wave and just keeps coming, when everyone around you seems to be reeling from one trauma or another and everything – everything – feels tenuous and unsteady…

Don’t curl up in a ball. Don’t shut down. Don’t stick your head in the sand or get lost on Instagram.

Instead, Jesus offers another possible chaos response:

Stand up. Raise your head. PAY ATTENTION. It might not make any sense at all, but redemption is – apparently – drawing near.

I’m going to try it, this paying attention thing. You are welcome to come along.

beware the scammers

Sermon 11-7-2021, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Mark 12:38-44

My Mammaw had Alzheimer’s, and the last couple of years of her life were confusing – for everyone. She lived alone in her own home until just a couple of weeks before she died this summer, and my mom and aunts walked through a long season of slowly taking control of different parts of Mammaw’s life that she couldn’t manage on her own – cooking, cleaning, mail and finances.

Somehow, Mammaw got on all the non-profit, elder-scam mailing lists. You know the ones I’m talking about, right? A flier in the mail with a photo of a sad child, begging for money. A phone call from a representative asking for funds. There’s an entire industry built arounds scamming elderly people out of their money, and my Mammaw wandered her way square into the center of it all. She wanted to help, and she couldn’t tell what was reputable and what wasn’t. All she saw were people in need, and she wanted to do the right thing. Mom would go over to Mammaw’s house and see photos of strangers on the fridge, ask who they were and learn that it was some child who had asked for money through the mail. Mammaw ended up writing checks to false front orphanages, buying regular supplies of algae pills, and in a strange, confused trail of illogic that I can’t understand, a pro-fracking organization…which she somehow believed was feeding hungry people.

Mom and my aunts knew what was happening, and were able to safeguard most of Mammaw’s savings. But she insisted on writing checks to the people who asked her for help, even when those people were clearly scamming her. It happens all the time – charlatans scamming old, kind-hearted poor people out of the few resources they have. It is both sad and kind of gross, thinking about all the ways that people take advantage of the vulnerable among us.

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In her reflection on this passage – which we often call “The Widow’s Mite” – Barbara Brown Taylor says that the widow dropping her last two coins into the Temple Treasury is something like what happened to my Mammaw. She says that this story is a story of powerful people taking advantage of vulnerable ones.

This is NOT how we usually hear this story of the widow and her two coins. If we’ve heard the story told before, it might have been as an encouragement during stewardship season – if even a poor widow would give up her very last coins in contribution to the temple, how much more should we, people of means, be giving? Giving to the church or the temple or whatever institution it is that safeguards our religious practice and devotion is GOOD, right?

But in Mark’s story, Jesus never praises the widow. He does not say “look, you should be more like her!” Instead, this little glimpse of the widow and her mite acts as a counterbalance to the scenes that surround it. Jesus has just finished WARNING his disciples about the ways that some religious leaders use their positions of power to cheat and oppress the poor: 

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And immediately after he points out the widow, one of Jesus’ disciples marvels to him about the grandeur of the temple where they’ve been hanging out: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” But Jesus, not missing a beat, says “Yeah, you see these huge buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

The story of the widow and her mite – two coins which amount to about a dollar – literally, as Jesus says “her entire life” – is not meant to be read as an affirmation of sacrificial giving. It is sandwiched here between warnings and prophecies about the destruction of oppressive religious systems that “devour widows’ houses” and, because of their abusive practices, will not survive in God’s new realm.

Jesus points out the widow because he wants his disciples – and us – to see what things look like from the underside. He is dragging our attention – as he does so often – away from the people and places that the world tells us are the most important toward the ones that Jesus himself declares are important. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus points out the widow to his disciples – this widow who no one else bothered to notice at all – in order to turn our expectations upside down. 

“If he had taken a Polaroid snapshot of the temple that day,” she writes, “and handed it to the disciple with one question written underneath – “Where is Christ in this picture?” – they would never have guess the answer. There were MAJOR CHARACTERS in that room, after all – doctors of the law and patrons of the arts, rich people and smart people, people with names and faces – any one of them a better bet than the thin woman in the widow’s weeds, a minor character if there ever was one. “she’s the one,” Jesus tells them when their time is up. “The one without a penny to her name, she’s the one to watch.”

Jesus is saying “look. Do you see what the religious leaders of this system that is about to be obliterated are doing to people? Do you see how hungry she is, how without resources, how alone? And she believes that giving her last pennies to this temple, which we know treats her like dirt, is the right thing to do.”

The moral of this story is not “be generous like the poor widow.” It is, instead, “beware the religious leaders who like to walk around in fancy clothes, insist on being greeted with respect and invited to the seat of honor at dinner and reserve the best seats in the synagogue, the ones who prey on the poor and weak and demand that they sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of the abusive system.”

Watch, Jesus is saying, what happens to the pure in heart when these systems devour them. Pay attention to this, he says, because the very same thing is about to happen to me.

It is important to name that Jesus wasn’t critiquing Judaism, and he was not implying that ALL the scribes were selfish and abusive. He’s just had an encounter with a scribe that goes very well – the one who hears Jesus teaching and asks him about the greatest commandment. Jesus says, well, of course the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all you are, and the second is really similar: love your neighbor as yourself. And the scribe approves, and says, of course, you’re right. Loving God with your whole life is much more important than any kind of offering or sacrifice. And Jesus recognized that he was someone on the same journey and said “you are not far from God’s kingdom.”

Jesus isn’t condemning Judaism; he is condemning powerful religious leaders who oppress the poor and pure in heart. He is issuing a prickly warning about preachers who want to be seen more than they want to serve. He is affirming what he has already taught: in God’s world, the last are FIRST and the ones we think are first in this world, well, they’re often last.

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Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question about this story that’s helpful for us to reflect on as we try to turn our own perspectives about who to watch upside down: “Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution? Was is right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she? What if she were someone you knew, someone of limited means who decided to send her last dollar to the 700 Club? Would that be admirable, or scandalous? Would it be a good deed or a crying shame?”

What do you think?

I tend to fall in the “crying shame” camp, once I read around the passage and consider all the ways that Jesus got so angry and promised judgement on the religious leaders who ignored and oppressed and abused the people in their care. “Crying shame” is how I feel about my Mammaw sending money to all those scammers, thinking she was doing good. No judgement for the widow or my Mammaw – just like Jesus didn’t pronounce judgement or praise on the widow in the text. Just attentiveness to how twisted the system is, and what a shame it is that the most vulnerable are the most taken advantage of.

Jesus rarely gets angry in the gospels, but when he does, when he pronounces judgement, when he warns of the wrath to come, he is almost always aiming that anger and judgement at hateful, dishonest, scamming religious leaders who mistreat the people in their care. Jesus is crystal clear that cruel religious leaders – the abusive, selfish scribes and the scamming Pat Robertsons and the church bureaucrats who sacrifice vulnerable people in favor of institutional survival – these folks will receive “great condemnation.” 

This interpretation of the story asks us all to upend our assumptions and expectations. It is not the priests and scribes that we should be paying attention to, and it is not the wealthy, big givers who deserve the lion’s share of our respect. Jesus, in this story, is asking us to turn our attention upside down, to prioritize noticing the least, the last, and the ones who are caught and chewed up by the gears of a religious system run by those leaders.

If we read the story this way, we might hear Jesus asking us to organize our common life together not around the decisions and desires of the most powerful, but instead to organize our life together around the needs and accommodations of those least likely to be noticed. What does this mean, practically?

This week, I have seen SO MANY beautiful pictures of brave kids getting their COVID vaccines. And one theme in the comments that their parents shared has been that these kids are being brave and getting the shot not so much for themselves but for their dear friends who are immunocompromised: so that they can eat lunch with their best friend who has asthma; so that their cousin who has health issues, might be able to come to their 8th birthday party in February; so that they can hug their elderly grandparents. That is an example of centering the most vulnerable in decision making, straight from the mouths of kiddos.

During the pandemic, we have tried to make decisions in this way at Peace Covenant, too. We are still wearing masks in the building, even though almost all of us are vaccinated, because we know that there are some among us with compromised immune systems. And we know that our beloved kids have not had that privilege up to this point. The mask-wearing is an attempt to center the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Another, non-Covid related example: I know of a congregation in Pennsylvania that learned so much about white supremacy and racism in the United States that they collectively decided to make it a regular practice in their classes, meetings and worship to make space for the Black women in the congregation to speak first. Knowing that Black women live at the intersections of multiple kinds of oppression in American society, they decided to prioritize their perspective and their voices in their fellowship. They have actually trained themselves to wait until one of these church mothers has spoken for the rest of the discussion to continue.

What would happen if those selfish scribes decided to do their jobs with people like the widow as their priority? What would it mean for us, here at Peace Covenant, to center the opinions and needs of the most marginalized among us? 

What would it mean for us to follow Jesus’ nod and pay attention to the widows among us? How would our life together change if we prioritized the perspectives and needs of the most vulnerable? I’m curious to know what you think.

[With gratitude for Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection “The One to Watch,” in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993).]