The Crucifixion Generation: A Defiant Hope

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018.

Mark 11:1-11

About a month ago, on Friday, February 23rd, I took my daughter Abby to the Bushnell to see the musical, The Bodyguard. Based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Huston and Kevin Costner, the acting was uneven and the plot kind of silly, but the Whitney Houston music was fantastic, and it was a great father-daughter night out.

There was a point in the play when the villain came on stage with a large pistol. It had one of these red lasers affixed to it, so a red dot would appear wherever he pointed the gun. For what seemed like an eternity, the actor aimed the gun into the audience, the red dot landing on one person, then another, then another.

This was just 9 days after a gunman killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Every time the actor swung his gun in my direction, I winced and squirmed. I looked over at Abby, and she had completely disappeared down into her seat, curled into a fetal position. On the way home, I asked Abby about that moment, and she said that it had “triggered her PTSD.” Now, I doubt that Abby could give a clinical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but she sure as heck knew her own feelings of trauma. She had been traumatized by the shooting at the Parkland, Florida high school, and has been left fearing for her own safety. She is not alone.

Though Abby may not know the clinical definition of PTSD, Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Rinad Beidas do. One is an emergency physician and violence prevention researcher, the other a clinical psychologist with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they are also parents. Together they just penned an article, Generation Parkland: How Mass Shootings Are Affecting America’s Children, And How We Can Help.

In their work, they observe evidence of trauma, not just in kids who have directly experienced gun violence, but in this so-called mas-shooting generation. They write, “Our combined experience and expertise make us particularly concerned about these events’ psychological effects on American kids.”

This generation of children, they say, “has grown up with turtle-time, lockdown drills, ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) maneuvers and the very real threat that a classmate will bring a gun to school.

As a parent, this knowledge makes me feel helpless, terrified, and angry.

As a preacher, I can’t help but bring my feelings and experience to my reading of the Bible. Thoughts of the trauma experienced by our children were weighing heavily on my mind, when I turned to this familiar and beloved story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

Jesus’ followers lay palm branches before him and greet him with shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! (meaning, “Saved! We are saved!). Like his disciples, this crowd is sometimes thought to be naïve or foolish. By this interpretation, his followers assume that Jesus is the promised king, God’s anointed, that has come to restore Israel to its former glory; and they fail to anticipate or understand that Jesus will soon be brutally executed on the cross.

But were they really naïve? Did the crowd really misunderstand?

I think an experience of trauma informs our understanding of this story.

Though they didn’t have 24/7 news coverage, and they didn’t have social media, Jews in first century Palestine were regularly exposed to something that was just as traumatizing as mass shootings today, crucifixion. If kids today identify as the mass shooting generation, it could be said that those growing up in Roman-ruled, first century Palestine were the crucifixion generation.

New Testament scholar Hal Taussig writes that “Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion.” Crucifixion got rid of those Rome perceived as threats, and fostered fear in the Jewish population as a means of social control.

First century Jewish historian Josephus writes that the Romans crucified thousands, sometimes on the walls of Jerusalem so all could see.

Television and social media bombard us with horrifying images, but imagine going about your day and seeing bodies, some of whom you recognize, hanging from Roman crosses dying, dead, and decaying.

Crucifixion is literally the background for everything we read in the gospels about Jesus’ life and ministry.

And crucifixion is the background for this morning’s well-known story about Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

So, do we still think his followers were naïve? They would have been well aware of the tensions that had been building between Jesus and Jewish and Roman authorities, and knew full well what fate awaited those who were perceived as a threat.

So maybe Jesus’ raucous welcome into Jerusalem was not out of ignorance of the cross, but in defiance of the threat of crucifixion.

We know from other historical sources that Jesus’ was one of two processions into the city that day. At the same time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the East, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was entering through the western gate at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and solders. Because the approaching Passover festival celebrated Jews’ liberation from an earlier empire, it was a time ripe for social unrest. So every year before Passover, Pilate and additional troops would enter Jerusalem to assert Roman power.

With crucifixion casting a traumatic shadow over daily life, and the acute threat of Roman power in the form of Pilate and a company of soldiers entering the city, Jesus chose this moment to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. And knowing the threat, his followers responded with shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

The researchers Ranney and Beidas make four suggestions for what we should do to help our kids and our communities to be resilient after a mass shooting.

First, parents need to take care of themselves. In the way we are asked to put on our oxygen mask first during an in-flight emergency, we need to make sure we reach out for help to respond to our own fears before we can support our kids.

Second, set limits around TV and social media, specifically how much we allow our kids to watch and re-watch coverage of traumatic events like mass shootings.

Third, ensure our kids have social support available and don’t become withdrawn and isolated,

And fourth, kids must be able to create a sense of control that generates hope.

In the aftermath of Parkland, youth like Emma Gonzales, that remarkable, young woman with the shaved head, are leading a movement. This movement is critically important for American communities in more ways than one. It may well lead to an effective and lasting response to pervasive gun violence. But taking action is also important for this generation. It gives them hope, and gives us hope.

Not every child is Emma Gonzales, but almost every child can take some action to help feel in control and to help feel like they can make a difference.

On March 14th, one month after the Parkland school shooting, my daughter Abby participated with several hundred other Simsbury High students, and close to a million students around the country, in a 17-minute, #neveragain walkout. Though the school administration had offered its support, Abby was especially pleased that the walkout was meant to be held in the school gym, but all the students walked right past the open gym door to gather outside instead, contributing to a sense of control that fostered hope.

I felt that same control and hope as I joined millions of others around the country at yesterday’s student-led March for Our Lives.

Which brings us to today’s Palm Sunday message for us all, whether or not gun violence is among your trauma triggers. As did Jesus, we live in traumatic times. We don’t need to know the clinical definition of PTSD to experience the fear, helplessness, and anger that trauma brings. Maybe gun violence prompts your fear. Or maybe it is the threat of nuclear war. Or the devastating breakup of a marriage. Or maybe it is the loss of a spouse, or a child. Or maybe you are facing bankruptcy. Or maybe the affair that has been kept quiet is now public knowledge. Or maybe the addiction you thought you had under control is now threatening your life. Or maybe the world just feels like it is changing too darn fast. Too often our lives feel out of control; hopelessness threatens.

We aren’t naïve, nor are we foolish. As in Jesus’ day, crucifixion casts a traumatic shadow in our lives. We know that crosses await. But as people of faith, we also know that our story does not end with the trauma of the cross. And on Palm Sunday, with the faithful of every generation, we lay claim to hope and choose life, welcoming Jesus into our lives with joyous shouts of, Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!


Holy Plot Twist, Cathie

moses in nile

This painting is Moses in the Reedbed by Addie Hirchten.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

This story of Moses has plot twists worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.

There’s nothing like a good plot twist, especially when it revolves around life and death. The 1999 movie The Sixth Sense is remembered for two things. The line uttered by nine year old Cole Sear, “I see dead people,” will forever be part of the pop culture lexicon. And the movie’s concluding plot twist left movie goers slack jawed. In this surprise ending, child psychologist Malcom Crowe, who we see visiting with Cole throughout the movie, helping him accept and understand his ghostly visitations, is shown at movies end to have been dead all along, himself a ghost. The Sixth Sense is a redemption story, at the same time the ghost of Malcom Crowe is helping Cole, so he is also working out some unfinished business of his own, healing the relationship with the wife he left behind.

It is always risky using movies or books as sermon illustrations. The point may be lost on those who never saw the movie. Whether or not you saw The Sixth Sense, remember this, redemptive plot twist.

The Sixth Sense had a redemptive plot twist, an unexpected element that healed, restored and affirmed the meaning of the lives of the characters. Of course the foundational story of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus, has the greatest redemptive plot twists of all time. Three days after his gruesome death on a cross, Jesus emerges from the tomb affirming God’s love for humanity forever.

Well, this short passage chronicling Moses’ first months has more plot twists than a Latino telenovela.

To summarize, Joseph (a Jew of Technicolor dream coat fame) had emigrated to Egypt with his family, found favor with the king, and prospered. Joseph died and a new king arose in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph or his family. This king saw the increasing population of Israelites as a threat, so he oppressed them and enslaved them.

But the more the Egyptians persecuted the Israelites, the more they multiplied and spread throughout Egypt.

Seeking to stem the tide of Israelites in Egypt, the king instructed Hebrew midwives to kill any male Hebrew children at their birth. The midwives refused to execute this awful command and instead made up a story to tell the king to save their own lives. It worked. Next the king told the Egyptian people to throw every male, Hebrew infant in the Nile River to drown.

Now we learn of Moses’ birth to a here unnamed Hebrew couple. His mother, fearing for his life, kept his birth a secret for three months. Imagine how afraid of being found out she must have been every time he cried. When she felt she could no longer hide him from the prying eyes of Egyptian neighbors, in desperation, she waterproofed a basket, put him in it, and hid the basket at river’s edge among the reeds. Imagine the hopelessness and despair that would cause a mother to abandon the child she loved, knowing that if found by the Egyptians he would likely be drowned. Moses’ sister, we are told, watched from a distance.

But plot twist. Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who finds Moses when she goes down to the Nile to bathe. She recognizes him as one of the Hebrew children but, instead of having him put to death, she takes pity on him.

Then, plot twist, Moses’ sister steps from the shadows and offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for her, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees.

And, plot twist, Moses’ sister calls her own mother, Moses’ own mother to come, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees to pay her to nurse and raise Moses!

And still another plot twist, after Moses is grown, his mother brings him back to Pharaoh’s daughter who takes him as her own son! She names him Moses which means to pull out, to draw out, of the water.

The final plot twist is yet to come, that Moses will be called by God to confront Pharaoh, his adopted grandfather, and free the Israelites from slavery.

Now this is a redemption story, revealing the ways God moves to redeem suffering and death.

Notice, I say that God moves in this story, by God does not have a speaking part. Rather, the redemption of suffering and death is enabled by the actors, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter. God moves through them, and God moves through us, empowering us to perform the plot twists that redeem our experiences of suffering and death.

Moses’ sister is our example. She watched for God to create an opportunity, then she responded, spoke and acted with God to give life.

I have witnessed a powerful example of just such redemptive plot twists in the life of our beloved church member Cathie Behrens these past couple weeks. I asked her if it was OK to share these stories and she agreed.

Many of you know Cathie. She has been a member of First Church forever, she worked here in a number of essential roles for 25 years until retiring last fall, and she leads both a women’s small group Bible study and our Card Making ministry. To say that Cathie is beloved is an understatement.

Rev. Kev and I were on the mission trip just one month ago when Cathie called from the ER saying that she was experiencing some unusual bleeding, and everything moved very rapidly from there. She was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer, then with lung cancer that has metastasized, and just early this week with a golf ball sized tumor in her liver. Her doctors tell her that this is an extremely aggressive, fast-moving cancer. Sadly, accompanying people through such tragedy and trauma is part of being a pastor, so I thought I knew what to expect, a series of very somber visits with Cathie.

Well, plot twist.

Every time I would call Cathie over the past couple weeks, she would say seriously, I’ve got more bad news, and update me on her latest doctor visit. But she would immediately follow this by saying, “But I have to tell you about the God-moments I experienced today.

God moments are Cathie’s way of describing the ways she experiences God in the world. These usually involved people she met in the course of medical appointments. There was the doctor who, like Cathie, was a Duke University alumni. They compared notes about the basketball team’s prospect this year. There was a nurse who, like Cathie, had once ridden horses competitively and knew many of the same people Cathie did. These were God moments, experiences that assured Cathie of God’s continued presence. They didn’t erase the fear, anger or sadness she felt, but they helped redeem these experiences, place them in the larger context of God’s love.

Like Moses’ sister, Cathie watched for God to be revealed in this difficult chapter in her life.

Then, just a few days ago, Cathie was put in hospice care. Here again, I thought I knew what to expect.

But again, plot twist. I had a long conversation with Cathie on Thursday afternoon during which we talked about her life and faith. Her life changed for the better three years ago, she said, when she decided that instead of giving something up for Lent, she would make ten people smile every day. And she has never stopped. This has become a daily spiritual practice for her. She does this simply by asking people about themselves, wishing them a good day, and sharing a smile, and she has maintained this practice throughout her illness. When they smile, she says, my life is better too. Just in the course of our visit I witnessed her work her magic on three people, a doctor, a nurse and me.

And like Moses’ daughter, Cathie didn’t just stand back and wait for God to appear, when God created openings, she responded with a kind word and a smile.

I visited Cathie last night and she was having a rough time. Likely the effect of an ever increasing dose of pain meds, she was finding it impossible to complete a thought. She would start to talk, say a few words, and be unable to get the rest of the words out. She would doze off, and wake with a start, and after forty five minutes we had been unable to have a meaningful conversation. I thought maybe it might help if I just said a simple prayer together.

Now, I need confess something necessary to understand the rest of this story. When I visited Cathie on Monday, just after she found out about the tumor in her liver, I screwed up the words to the 23rd Psalm. Some of the most well-known, beautiful and comforting words every written, to be delivered at this most difficult time, to this woman I adore, and I blew it. Now, Cathie was a good sport, but I left feeling like I had missed an opportunity to minister to her.

So last night, I suggested to Cathie that we say the Lord’s Prayer, and…

Plot twist. After what had so far been a frustrating visit for both of us, Cathie got a familiar twinkle in her eye and said, without missing a beat, “If you remember the words.” We both laughed, then prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. Perfectly.

Cathie is still making people smile, making me smile. And, this was a God moment, an experience that reminded us that God was still present, even in the face of suffering and death. This was a redemptive plot twist. Cathie and I were the actors in this scene, but we were equipped and enabled by God to perform our roles.

Every moment is pregnant with these God moments. Remember, Moses would have died, never gone on to save his people, if his sister hadn’t been paying attention, then hadn’t risked a conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter, a conversation that revealed an unimagined, life-saving, life-giving way forward.

To experience life’s redemptive plot twists we need to do more than watch and listen, we need to participate. Like Cathie, we need to face our fears and suffering and talk to one another, make each other smile through simple acts of kindness. When we do, God will lead us from death to new life, today and always. Amen.

Easter in August!

rose 7

Here is the column I wrote for the September issues of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Forget Christmas in July, it’s Time for Easter in August!

Though I have never participated, I know Christmas in July is “a thing.” People who can’t get enough of Christmas or are just looking for an excuse to throw a party host events with a Christmas theme in July (though I expect the baby Jesus can nary be found). When I left the house this morning, burdened by the news of the day, and saw that my rose bushes are in bloom it occurred to me that, more than a Christmas party in July, we need more Easter in August!

In May, my Aunt Dot, sent me six bare-root rose “bushes” in the mail as thanks for performing a grave-side service for her husband, my Uncle Sunny. I opened the box to find what looked like a bunch of brown sticks. You know from other stories I have told that I have the brownest of thumbs, so this box of dead wood was unrecognizable to me until I read the enclosed card. The instructions promised that by following some simple steps, these bare roots and stems would soon produce beautiful roses. I had my doubts, and if it wasn’t for some sense of duty to my Aunt Dot I might have just left them where they lay. But obligation can be a powerful motivator, so before a couple days passed I followed the steps and planted the sticks along my driveway. Sure enough, the stems quickly began to sprout leaves and have continued to grow throughout the summer.

There has been the occasional challenge. I sought advice on Facebook on how to prune them; pretty simple it turns out but even the most basic tasks can seem intimidating if you have never done them. A number of you offered helpful advice, and church members even invited me and my family over to dinner, followed by a hands-on demonstration of rose pruning in their garden! There have been bugs, brown leaves, and other worries, but now the bushes are putting forth beautiful blossoms.

The story of Jesus’ Passion is one of persecution, suffering and death. Likewise, today’s headlines are filled with stories of persecution, suffering and death, whether it be nuclear sabre rattling or Nazi marches. At the same time, members of our church are carrying their own crosses, whether terminal illness, depression, or a broken marriage.

As we anticipate the beginning of the church year, let’s prepare for Easter in August (and September… and October…).

We are planning a number of initiatives to promote resurrection and new life in our church and community. Read the column by our new Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn, about ways the Spirit of resurrection is moving in this exciting new ministry. Also read about the coming church-wide book group for Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible? Whether you are a biblical novice or experienced veteran of Bible studies, I guarantee that Bell’s perspective will make the Bible newly interesting and relevant to you! And stay tuned to information about a Greater Hartford Faith-Based Community Organizing Initiative. These, along with our continuing commitment to Spirit-filled, creative, engaging and relevant, Sunday worship remind us that Easter isn’t a once-a-year invitation to a resurrection celebration, but an everyday commitment we make to bring new life to a hurting world.

And just as my rose bushes required community participation (and a dinner invitation!) to bring forth beautiful blossoms from that which appeared to be dead, so we must all pitch in to make resurrection real in the church, the community, and our lives. I’ll see you in church!

Still Rising

 This is the sermon I preached on, April 23, 2017, the Sunday after Easter, at First Church Simsbury. I revisit the story of “Doubting” Thomas. Someone said that this sermon deepened their understanding of the Easter sermon Rev. Kev and I preached together last week. You might read them together.

John 20:19-31

I confess I groaned when I first saw that this Sunday’s reading was the one from the gospel of John about the disciple popularly known as Doubting Thomas. I groaned, in part, because I have preached so many times on this passage that I doubted, no pun intended, whether I had anything new to say. But also, because I have come to feel that Thomas has gotten a bum rap as a doubter, and I grow weary of having to come to his defense every year.

But the more Thomas and I spent time together this week, the more I felt compelled to again enter into his story together. So, here we go.

Let’s rewind to Easter morning. Peter and another disciple, the one who Jesus loved, see the empty tomb but have not yet laid eyes on Jesus. Mary then sees, touches, and speaks to Jesus outside the tomb and, we are told, tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

That’s where this morning’s story picks up. It is now evening of that same day, and we find the disciples locked in a room, afraid of those who crucified Jesus. If these are the same disciples Mary reported to, they haven’t believed that Jesus has risen from the dead. They have not had a personal encounter with Jesus following the resurrection. Until now.

Jesus appears to these disciples and shows them the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the soldier’s spear in his side. This confirms for them that this is in fact Jesus.

He then breathes on them, further confirming that Jesus is alive. This breath of the Holy Spirit empowers and equips these disciples to go forth into the world to forgive sins, to share the life changing grace of God.

We now encounter Thomas. He was not with the other disciples in the locked room who saw Jesus with their own eyes. As Mary first told them, they now tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas says, in effect, I need to have the same experience that you have had; I need to see the marks in his hands and the wound in his side just as you did. Then I will believe too.

Indeed, a week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is with them and Jesus invites him, not just to see, but to touch his wounds, saying “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas touches, experiences for himself, and affirms Jesus’ divine authority, saying “My Lord and my God!” Note that there is no record that the other disciples make such a proclamation of faith following their encounter with Jesus. Even Mary does not make such a bold affirmation.

Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” History has understood this as a rebuke of Thomas as a doubter, but I think this is where he gets a bum rap. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt. He goes out of his way to provide Thomas with an experience of the power of God, so that Thomas might carry that message to others. Rather than criticizing Thomas, Jesus’ words are a blessing upon those who follow Thomas, who come to believe without having personally experienced the power of God to bring forth new life from death.

So, that’s the rescue mission I feel obligated to launch on behalf of Thomas every year at this time.

And here are some of my new observations upon this text so framed.

In two separate sermons in the past month I have shared the view of Bible scholar Karoline Lewis that resurrection is not so much something to be believed, but something to be experienced. Mary, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas all had first-hand experiences of resurrection. Their belief followed from their experience.

But there is more than that to these stories. Mary has an experience of the resurrected Jesus, believes and tells the disciples. The disciples have their own experience, believe and tell Thomas. Thomas has his own experience and believes.

An experience of resurrection can be communicated in such a way that others may then experience it for themselves. Resurrection is reproducible.

This ability to communicate and reproduce an experience are cornerstones of the scientific method.

We live in a time where that which is directly observable and reproducible, in fact science itself, is under attack by some. New words have been introduced to the lexicon, fake news and alternative facts. We watch a video that shows a politician saying something, then the politician says “I never said that.” A picture captures an event as it unfolds, and someone insists that the event never happened. The conclusion of years of scientific research are dismissed based on something someone read on the internet. Yesterday, Earth Day, thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and around the world participated in a March for Science. Frankly, it seems incredible to me that anyone should need to stand up for science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that resurrection can be proved by science. But I am saying that individual experiences of resurrection can be shared and are reproducible. Jesus tells Mary, go tell the disciples what you experienced. Jesus tells the disciples, I empower and equip you to go forth in my name and share the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that Rev. Kev and I preached that an experience of resurrection is any experience in which we first encounter a dead end in our life, undergo a crushing loss, make a mistake that seems irredeemable, or fall into despair or depression, only to encounter God’s grace, a second chance, new life. This is what I mean when I talk about an experience of resurrection.

I can’t imagine I am alone in saying that I have made mistakes in my life, betrayed and hurt those I love. In those times, I was convinced that this was the end, the end of a relationship, the end of a good life. I saw no way out. But beyond all hope and reason, the stone was rolled away from the tomb, a way was made where there had been no way. This is a resurrection experience, and it is reproducible. It is reproducible, not just by telling others about it, but by becoming, and being, and living resurrection as God’s new creation.

I am Thomas, believing in Jesus after seeing and experiencing resurrection for myself. Jesus says, blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe. Jesus no longer walks the earth to inspire such faith. But we do. We are, therefore, required to do more than tell of our experience, but like Jesus we are called to show our wounds and share our stories of redemption. We become as Christ, wounded and risen, that others might share in an experience of resurrection.

If you are a widow or widower who has been restored to a full and happy life after losing your spouse, then foster redemptive relationships with those who still mourn. Let them see resurrection in you. If you are gay or lesbian and have found joy and wholeness following a childhood of condemnation, then model that freedom for those who still doubt that they are loved by God. If you have betrayed ones you loved but confessed, made amends, and found forgiveness, share this hope with others, not just with your words, but by committing yourself to walk side-by-side with those who are trapped in despair. If you have overcome an abusive childhood to raise happy children who know they are loved, reach out to extend that love beyond your family to other hurting children.

Belief in resurrection follows an experience of resurrection. Mary to the disciples. The disciples to Thomas. Thomas forward into history to us. If you have experienced resurrection, tell it, live it, be it. If you are still waiting to experience resurrection in your life. Believe. New life awaits.


Advent I: Standing Watch

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on November 27, 2016 on the First Sunday of Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

Many of you know that I was an officer in the Navy. For two and a half years I was stationed on a ship, the frigate USS Ouellet out of Pearl Harbor. Whether in port or at sea, ships operate twenty-four hours a day. To make sure all the systems operate properly and safely the entire crew are assigned to stand watches overlooking various aspects of the ship’s operations. In port I was qualified as the Command Duty Officer or CDO meaning I was responsible for everything that happened on the ship after the Captain had gone home for the day.

CDOs were allowed to sleep at night while several sailors would stand watch, checking machinery readings, making security checks, and standing at the brow, checking sailors on and off the ship. But I was always anxious about what might happen while I was sleeping. One night as I slept the ship got a call from the Honolulu police that two of our sailors had caused a terrible car accident, they had been drinking, speeding through a tunnel, hit another car that crashed and burst into flames, killing the occupants including a baby. The sailors then fled the scene and were later apprehended. When the call came in, the sailors standing watch came in to wake me up, I am told, but I fell back asleep and didn’t hear about the accident until I woke up in the morning. I remember the feeling of dread that consumed me as I realized that I had failed in my responsibilities and slept through this really important incident. At a minimum I should have woken up and called the Captain. When all was said and done, no additional harm came of my failure. But I can still recall that fear following my inability to “stay awake.”

This memory came to me when I read the Matthew passage in which Jesus implores his disciples to “stay awake” suggesting dire consequences should they fail.

This is what is known as an eschatological text, a teaching about the end of human history as we know it, and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal reign of peace. Every year, the Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, begins with one of these eschatological teachings or stories. And I can tell you, most preachers I know hate it, myself included! Why? First, because it is hard for many of us to wrap our minds around. So called “end times” are the stuff of bad books and movies. And second, because it is terrifying. These lessons bring up that same fear I felt at having slept through something important, failed in my responsibilities, sure I would be judged with terrible consequences.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The church is decorated, we are looking toward Christmas with excitement and anticipation! I think these parables are inserted at the beginning of Advent as a way of framing Jesus’ birth as an end of the old order and the dawn of a new era. But really, is it necessary to scare the bejesus out of us just to say, “Something good is coming; get ready?”

But this is the text we have been given, so let’s see what we might find here to lead us from fear to hope?

Following the teachings of Judaism, many of Jesus’ followers believed that his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be followed in short order by his triumphal return to inaugurate a new age of peace and justice. This is what the prophet Isaiah anticipates when he says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and…nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought this would happen in their lifetime. However years passed, and instead of a triumphal return, really bad things happened. The Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Matthew is writing to a fearful community of Jesus followers with a couple messages. First, no one knows when this will happen, not the angels nor Jesus himself. Only God knows the time when God’s plans for peace and justice will be fulfilled. And because no one knows, everyone better pay attention so as not to miss it when the realm of God breaks through.

Well, now almost two thousand years have passed and God’s promise of a new heaven and earth has still not been realized. So how are we left to understand passages like this?

We have three choices.

First, we can wait as Jesus’ followers did, for a once and for all end to our conflicted human history and the dawn of a new age with no more suffering or crying or pain.

Or, second, we could understand that this promise of life everlasting is fulfilled not at the end of human history, but for each of us as individuals at the time of our death. Many Christians share this hope that death will deliver us from the suffering of this life into eternal rest in the realm of God.

But there is a third understanding of eschatological passages like this one; we can find here God’s promise to us today. Each day is a day of judgment, God is forever revealing a new heaven and new earth if only we stay awake and pay attention. We can recognize these God moments, and choose to participate in them, or we may fail to see or willfully ignore them, and oppose God’s activity among us.

These understandings are not mutually exclusive, and many people of faith embrace some aspect or combination of the three.

But I believe that the third, the idea that God is beating swords into plowshares right here, right now, is especially compelling for us today. This reading makes sense of Jesus’ intense, almost threatening tone in this passage. He isn’t just saying get ready for good times; rather Jesus is saying I am revealing the realm of God to you in this moment, yet you refuse to see and accept it; and you’re refusal has consequences. Wake up!

So, how might we stay awake to recognize, and participate with the ways that God is breaking into our lives each and every day?

To do this, I want to return to that metaphor of standing watch.

My favorite watches to stand were bridge watches as Officer of the Deck underway. I especially enjoyed the mid-watch, stood from midnight until four in the morning, when we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Captain would be in his stateroom asleep, and I would be on the bridge with three other sailors, a helmsman, a lee helmsman and a quartermaster.

I was responsible for the safety of the ship. This meant staying alert for any danger, reading the chart with the quartermaster, looking at the radar, tracking the course of any other ships to make sure they would remain a safe distance from us, receiving reports from the engineering watch about the operation of the boilers and engine, and ordering the helmsman and lee helmsman to make the necessary corrections to our speed and direction to say on course.

But something else would happen on the bridge of the ship on those mid-watches. While staying alert for peril, I would also have a heightened awareness of the moon rising over the ocean, of the phosphorescence illuminating the bow wake, of the Milky Way undimmed by city lights, and of the taste of the salt air.

The Confirmation class learned recently about “thin moments,” experiences where the boundary between the mundane and sacred become porous, permeable, or thin. I had many thin moments on the bridge of the Ouellet.

Beyond seeing God revealed in the magnificence of creation, there was something about that darkened bridge of the ship that made one mindful of the relationships between us. A ship’s crew is a wonderfully diverse assortment of humanity. You’d get kids right off a farm in Nebraska alongside men who grew up in inner-city Detroit. I can’t say that we had deep conversations about philosophy or religion, but we had very genuine conversations. Along with funny stories about escapades in the last port call, we would talk about being homesick, of our hopes and dreams for the future, of having our heart broken.

These conversations were also thin moments. Though I wasn’t even active in a church at the time, I can look back on standing watch on the bridge and see the gentle stirrings of what would later become a call to ministry.

Thomas Merton once said:  “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through everything.  The thing is that we normally don’t see it.”

This is how I read this morning’s Matthew passage. Stay awake! Pay attention! God’s realm of peace and justice is being revealed, all the time, right here, right now.

Some describe the experience of giving birth as a thin place where human flesh kisses the divine. This is why Paul draws on the language of birthing in describing humanity’s relationship with creation, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” And this is why the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are uniquely powerful, human life is affirmed as holy.

I remember cupping Abby in the palm of one hand the day she was born, sure I was looking upon the face of God. Though being the father of a teenager is a considerably thicker experience, that divinity still lives in her and lives in each of us if only we have eyes to see. One of my favorite contemporary hymn writers Brian Wren expresses this beautifully in his poem Good Is the Flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Beginning with the uncertainty and anxiety we share with angels, this Advent we are asked to develop the art of watchful living. What lies before us is far from certain, but certainty is not required to act in a spirit of wakefulness.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God is shining through everything. So watch! Pay attention! Stay awake!


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