Category Archives: sermon

pruning, abiding and bearing fruit: repentance and the days of awe*

“grapes”

I remember, after I had been ordained–three years ago this October–though there were many emotions present, there was one with a very particular outlet.

I was excited, finally, to be able to have something to say that I ‘do’ when crossing the  border from Mexico to the US and being questioned by the border guards. Up until that point I had tried to describe it–well, I’m in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but I’m also a photographer and a writer and I travel a lot–but now I could just say “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Easy. Done.

Right.

My first time crossing, after being ‘official’ as a minister I drove up to the gate (this was pre-SENTRI pass for those who pay attention to such details) ready to give my answer.

Sure enough the guard asked me, “What do you do?” Almost too proudly I responded, “I’m a Presbyterian minister” to which his immediate response was, “Recite the 23rd Psalm.”

I blanked. Totally blanked. This was not what I was expecting from the US Border Guard.

“Yea though I walk thru the shadow of death…” I tried, starting in the middle and stopping far short of the end.

“Keep going,” he said.

“Well, I don’t have it memorized,” I had to admit to him. “Do you?” I asked him in return.

“Yep,” he responded.

“Well, you must be Catholic,” I replied, to which he, smiling, answered in the affirmative.

“I’m Presbyterian, we don’t have to memorize Psalm 23,” I responded, rather pathetically, I can admit.

He, smiling, waved me through as I, in my shame, crossed over to the other side.

The very next time I crossed, not to be dissuaded, I planned on the same answer–though I still hadn’t memorized the 23rd Psalm.

“What do you do?” the border guard asked me. “I’m a Presbyterian minister,” I responded.

“Do you have any drugs, tobacco or alcohol with you?” he responded.

Oh, so you must be Presbyterian too…

This month our Not Church theme is the Days of Awe. It is a phrase that references the Jewish calendar, a ten day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, and ending with Yom Kippur.

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur those records are sealed. The time between, then, is a sort of ‘purgatory’ if you will in which one can, if necessary, attempt to change the outcome.

What is interesting is that the two days are not back to back, one right after the other.  They are separated by ten days, what are known as the Days of Awe. This ‘grace period’ in a sense, is a time of penitence, of repentance, of considering what one has done that is not exactly what might have been best, and what one might do, in the coming year, to change that.

The new year begins with repentance. Ten days of repentance. It’s not unlike the New Year, the January 1st one, being a time of making resolutions. Though with the Days of Awe there is more of a focus on this need to cleanse that which has kept one distant.

Many of you know that I like to work in my garden. I’ve given you a break from garden stories for the past few months, but you know that can last only so long…

Lately I’ve been planting fruit trees. Many fruit trees. At last count I’ve got 15. You name the fruit, I’ve likely got it. except for Quince, which I had to look up when the plant guys were trying to sell me a membrillo to see what that meant. Even having the translation, knowing that the tree was a quince didn’t help me much. I’m not sure what to do with a quince.

But mango, apple (yes, I do have both mango and apple planted in the same yard…we’ll see how that goes) peach, nectarine, plum, avocado, guava, pomegranate, pear, tangerine, lemon, lime, grapefruit and, most recently, orange. I’ve also got an almond tree, a pistachio bush, and two grape vines.

Not that long ago I posted a photo of my grape vine, newly purchased, and captioned it ‘grapes!’ A friend on facebook correctly pointed out that, in fact, this was not a photo of grapes, but of a grape vine (with not even a flower at this point) and that by calling it grapes I was expressing something that I ‘saw’ but that clearly was not yet realized.

Which, of course, is what I think the ‘Days of Awe’ are all about…

Jesus, himself a Jew, who, it happens, liked to tell stories from the garden, is said to have put it this way in the book of John–the most poetic and mystical of the four gospels:

I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. (John 15:1-5)

Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.

It seems to me that the word ‘repentance‘ has got a bit of a PR problem.  I think that the idea ‘repentance’ can be a word we don’t necessarily like talking about. It too easily can bring up images of hate mongers, standing on the corner spewing vitriol, or protesting whatever they see as the current threat, while waving signs that say “Repent!”

If that’s what ‘repent’ is, I want nothing to do with it.

But in Hebrew, which is the language of the Jewish Scriptures, the word translated as repent is most often the Hebrew word Shoov, which, literally, means to turn. When I was in seminary, studying Hebrew one summer, my friends and I had to memorize something in the range of 40 words a day. The mnemonic which we used to remember Shoov was the image of your shoe, turning around. That’s free of charge. There was also another word, Ohell, which we remembered as “Ohell there’s a bear in the tent” but I can’t remember if the word means ‘tent’ or ‘bear.’ Since there are more tents than bears in the Bible, I’m guessing it was the former…

I also took Greek, which is the language of the Christian Scriptures, known often as the New Testament. In Greek the word for repent is most often metanoia, or to change ones mind.

So repent literally means to turn around–to stop going in one direction and turn, or return, in the opposite direction. It is a changing of ones mind.

It is not so much about “Horrible me, I’m an awful person, what must I do to rid myself of my horrible-ness.” It is more like ‘pruning’ which is an entirely different concept altogether. I’ve seen it primarily in my bougainvillea.

Last winter I gave the bougainvillea what I would call a good haircut. So good, in fact, that people who saw it wondered if it would ever come back. It had been a few years since I had pruned it, and in the intervening time it had gotten rather ‘leggy’ and not very full. So I pruned it. It was not because I was mad at it, or because it is an awful plant and needed to be punished–I pruned it because I wanted it to grow well.  And this summer? The blossoms are abundant, the foliage is dense and green.

The Days of Awe give us an opportunity to reflect, to prune.

But the thing about pruning, and about bearing fruit is that they both, of course, assume planting. There is a Chinese proverb–the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is today.

The thing is, if you want to eat grapes now, you don’t plant a grape vine. If you want to eat grapes now you go to the fruteria and, provided they are in season, which they are currently, you buy yourself some grapes.

Planting a grape vine is something different entirely.

Though I have 15 fruit trees, this summer I can tell you exactly how much fruit I ate from them: three nectarines and one plum. That’s it. Four pieces of fruit. Granted, they were delicious. The best nectarine you’ve ever eaten. A plum that was sweet beyond anything that you’d buy at the store. But, that’s something in the range of $50 per piece of fruit, if you do the math.

It’s not exactly a great deal. At least not yet.

Right now, in fact, it seems a bit absurd, really.

But give it time. It will most definitely seem absurd. But, I trust, for entirely different reasons.

For I remember, as a kid growing up, we had a plum tree in our back yard. There were three of us–my mom, my dad and I–and we could not possibly eat all of the plums that came from that tree in a given summer, making jam with some, and giving the rest away. In fact, I was born in June, and that summer the plum tree on Snug Harbor Road had a bumper crop. Let’s just say, my mom learned the hard way that what she ate, I ate. But, I like to think that the love of plums, fresh from the tree, was instilled within me from the very milk that I feasted on when I was only weeks old.

That was one tree, with three people. I’ve planted 15 trees. I hope you all like fruit…

The Days of Awe invite us into a time of reflection, of repentance, of turning away from certain ways of being, pruning if you will, and turning toward that which bears fruit, abiding.

We are invited to consider that which we need to let go of, that which binds us, that which keeps us from being who we already are.

The fundamental question asked, in the ten day period represented by the Days of Awe, is ‘will my name be written in the book of life?’

We are called to turn, to change our minds, to repent.

But, at the end of the day, the point is not the pruning. The point is to bear fruit.

Jesus, when he preached among the people, put it this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Turn. Return. Change your mind. That which you are seeking, it is not ‘out there’ distant in some far off place or for some future time. Believe. It is right here, now, among you, within you.

You are already who you are still becoming–like a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t know the 23rd Psalm. Like a fruit tree. Like a grape vine.  This process doesn’t happen over night or immediately. It is not instantaneous. There is a time, a grace period–the Days of Awe–a space between the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

It’s like seeing that young vine, still only a plant, no fruit yet to speak of, and proclaiming, “grapes!”

 

*presented at Not Church September 9, 2012

are we there yet?*

Two weeks ago at this time I was hiking–14.67 miles, to be exact.  Or, if you prefer, 36,331 steps, with an elevation gain equivalent to the Sears Tower.  Those stats are thanks to ‘fitbit’ a GPS-like device and the mascot for a 5 night, 6 day journey through the Trinity Alps Wilderness, about 4.5 hours north of San Francisco, just west of Redding, California.

It was awesome.

This is my 4th summer doing such a trip in August–each one has been different–from the High Sierra Trail to last year’s trek across Switzerland, through the Swiss Alps on the Via Alpina.

A friend asked me, before this trip, what it was about these adventures that makes me keep coming back for more.

I have to say, even as I found myself asking, or more like whining, ‘are we there yet’ on our longest day–a 16 mile journey hiking down from a beautiful glacial lake surrounded by a virtual wall of granite, I was, even then, pondering the possibilities for next year’s trip.

There is something very centering about the simplicity of it all.

Yes, you are walking pretty much all day, everyday. Yes, it can be tiring. But it is an invigorating tiring, surrounded by nature, fresh air, beauty–no sounds but those of your footsteps (and the occasional bear calls to make sure you don’t surprise one coming around a bend) no lights at night but those from a tiny headlamp and, of course, the stars and the moon. Good food that is enough, but rarely too much. Drinking only water–sometimes 4 liters a day–and carrying only what you need, on a most basic level.

But even in the midst of that, one day, as we approached the 16 mile point, and were looking for a campsite for the night, my feet had begun to hurt around mile 12, and I was just done, tired of walking for the day, and I really wanted to find a campsite and go swimming in the river. I found myself saying in that almost whiny voice that those of you who have kids, or those of you who remember being a kid, can say with the perfection inflection….are we there yet?!

It was a feeling I had during one of the nights we spent camped out by Diamond lake as well.

The lake itself looked like a kind of natural infinity pool, dropping down into the canyon below. We were fairly high, and fairly isolated. That evening, at sunset, down in the meadows below, we thought that we might have seen something that could have possibly been a bear. This is not the way to go to sleep, in a flimsy little tent, in the backcountry, with no one else but your two hiking companions around.

It was not me who woke up, but my friend Katy, who proceeded to wake me up saying “Erin, are you awake?” Well, I am now. “Did you hear that? It sounded like footsteps, of something heavy.” Though I hadn’t heard ‘that’ I did hear every other possible noise, and some non-noises, the rest of that night, and as I laid awake strategizing what I’d do if a bear, or an ax murder (because I’m sure they go hiking?) attacked the tent.

I found myself wishing that the dawn would come, longing for the light of morning to break through as I slowly fell back asleep.

 …..

It was as he slowly drifted off to sleep that Peter was awakened to God at work in new and startling ways as it is found in Acts, chapter 10.

This story takes place as Peter and the other disciples are finding their way down the path that they seem to have been placed upon, with Jesus’ departure, and their lives turned upside down. Nothing is the same as it was, and so each day is, in a sense, a day of journey, of walking into the unfolding plan of God. For though it is new to Peter and the disciples, it is not, of course, new to God—the God who was then, and is now, already at work in the world long before we put on our packs and begin the journey.

Peter, it seems, was being drawn into something more, something deeper, something much bigger and much more incredible than had even imagined up to that point. It was surprising, to say the least.

 …..

It was surprising to say the least…

3 years ago, I had a sense.  Not necessarily a vision, but a sense that God was calling me to something, but it was a ‘something’ that I wasn’t sure how to shape, as it didn’t seem to take a ‘normal’ path—I couldn’t really find it on the maps I seemed to have around me.

So, as a good Presbyterian, I brought this sense to the presbytery and to some of the other pastors and churches in the presbytery—what has become the the Bridging Borders Partnership—St. Mark and St. Andrews in Newport Beach, First Pres Downey in LA, Placentia Pres, and Santa Ana First. Together we listened for this call that seemed unusual, but that also seemed to be the Spirit of God already at work in the world.

I remember saying at the time, “I’m not sure what exactly it is that I’m being called to (I don’t necessarily have a map with the destination printed out clearly) but I know that I am being called to take the first step—here is the trailhead, what about if we start and see where this journey might lead?

That’s the thing about journeys—if you’re not careful, once you take that first step, you can find yourself led deeper and deeper into it.

The call was to a community in Baja California, Mexico, called La Mision, about an hour south of the border from San Diego. It is a community that I know well, since it is where my grandmother used to live—I now live in her house. It is a community of expatriate Americans, and Mexicans, living side by side and somewhat intermingled.

Recently we were featured in TIME magazine as an example of what is being called the Rise of the Nones (not the catholic kind, but N-o-n-e)—those who check ‘none of the above’ on a list of religious preferences.

When asked, 3 years ago, if I was ‘going there to plant a church’ I responded something along the lines of ‘of course not!’ which, I realize, might be an odd response from someone who is ordained as a minister, an evangelist no less. It was Steve Yamaguchi who suggested to me that we all just might be surprised at how God could or might work in calling us onto this journey.

 …..

Even in spite of the potential bears, ax murders, and tired feet, my time backpacking has been drawing me into something more, a deeper journey, something, perhaps, like the John Muir Trail (or the Pacific Crest Trail, which the book ‘Wild’ featured recently on Oprah recounts) or perhaps something along the lines of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route, leading to Santiago de Compestella, Spain.

I first heard about the Camino while at dinner at my friends Jose and Vita’s house. Vita had, of course, made a delicious meal.

RLee, a local expatriate of Spanish heritage, had been invited as well. I was preparing for my 1st backpacking trip, and was telling them about it, when RLee began to tell us about his walk of the Camino. As he spoke, and did charades of him throwing things from his pack—too many pairs of shoes, a leather jacket he would not need—item after item of heavy, unnecessary baggage, Jose and Vita and I were laughing so hard we were almost rolling on the floor. Each year when I go backpacking, Vita reminds me not to be like RLee, taking too much and having to leave it strewn on the path behind him.

But it is that fascination with the Camino that led me recently to watch the film The Way.

In it Martin Sheen plays father to Emilio Estevez. Martin Sheen is a type A, no-nonsense kind of guy, an ophthalmologist, who is busy, focused, and serious. His son, on the other hand, is a bit of a wanderer—deciding to drop out of a phd program so that he can ‘learn from the world’ in one poignant line, in a heated discussion, Martin Sheen says to his son “I’m sorry that you don’t approve of the life that I’ve chosen.” To which his son retorts, “You don’t choose a life, dad, you live one.”

The movie opens with Sheen getting a call from authorities in France that his son has died in an accident. When he flies there to deal with the logistics, and to collect the remains, Sheen discovers that his son had been on his 1st day hiking the Camino when a storm hit. Sheen calls home, cancels his appointments, and takes his son’s gear, along with a box of his cremated remains, and sets out to walk the Camino ‘with’ his son.

You may know that the early followers of Jesus, at the beginning, were not called Christians. The word didn’t exist yet.

They were called “People of the Way.”

It seems like so often in our world today, especially in the media and in the public square, the word Christian gets associated with a particular stance on a particular issue. The word Christian is often used more like a checklist of who is in and who is out, of who is right and who is wrong, of what is good and what is bad, and less like a ‘Way.’

The early followers of Jesus were known, in contrast, as those who shared meals together—across gender, class or racial boundaries, who shared belongings with one another—so much so that the text tells us that ‘no one was in need’—no one was in need?!

The community that began to form was known for not just its hospitality, but its healing—it was a place where people found new life, where they were relieved of their burdens and were set free to travel the path that God was unfolding before them.

After Peter’s rooftop vision and subsequent visit to the home of Cornelius, he is called to explain what he had just been doing—the right people, the one’s who think they are in charge, want him to explain, to give account—and really to defend what the heck he thinks he is doing, fraternizing with ‘those’ people who we all know are not the ‘right’ kind of people and who he should not be wasting his time with…and Peter does give an account, an explanation, of what happened saying,

If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

They were utterly amazed.

 …..

Amazed is definitely the word for it. Or in awe. Humbled.

Last Sunday at this time I was preaching at what has become, in La Mision, our regular monthly gathering.

It’s called Not Church. No one wanted to go to ‘church’ or invite others to ‘church’ so we decided to call it Not Church. Some have wondered about the fact that it sounds like a negative term—why not say what you are, rather than what you are not? But the thing is, Not Church has actually become something quite positive—it is a place, a space, where everyone is welcome, included, invited, and where the community gathers for a service (that is based, loosely, on a Presbyterian order of worship, though contextualized to fit the community) that is intentionally ‘spiritual’ in focus.

There are many community gatherings—for dinner at someone’s house, or a fundraiser to raise money for school scholarships for children in need—but this gathering is unique in that it is ‘spiritually’ based.

As more and more ‘church people’ have heard about Not Church, I’ve been asked to give an account –not all that unlike Peter–How is it, now, that people are gathering for something called Not Church?

I wish I could take credit for it—it wasn’t my idea at all, actually.

Let me back up.

When I was ordained 3 years ago, we had already begun to meet, twice a year, on Easter, and near Christmas—for community gatherings that included singing, a sermon, readings, and candle lighting or sharing of a common loaf of bread.

After a few of these gatherings, people began to ask, “Do you think it might be possible for us to meet more than twice a year?”

So we began meeting monthly in what has come to be called a spiritual conversation group. About 12 of us gather the first Monday of each month and discuss a different topic, facilitated by the member of the group who chose the topic. The only guideline is that it somehow has to be ‘spiritual’ in nature. So, we’ve talked about the Beatitudes, about forgiveness, the Good Samaritan, life after death, good and evil, the golden rule, meditation, and living through joy and pain.

After about a year of this, one of the members of the group said, “You know, I really love this group, but I’m wondering, do you think we could do something a bit more like a church service? Erin, you go up and preach in the US to churches there—we’d love to hear you preach here.” Even as she asked this to the group she followed it saying, “I can’t believe, I, of all people, am the one who is asking this…”

It was that question that gave birth to what has come to be known as Not Church. We’ve been meeting since January. We gather, and the members of the community lead us in a reading or a meditation, some singing or a prayer, and I preach.

Many of them know that I am here this week, sharing with you, and wanted to make sure I greeted the ‘church people’ on their behalf.

It’s been an amazing journey, really. We don’t use much traditional language—and in fact, there is some language used that you’d never hear in church, but we are all, together, being drawn deeper into this journey—what those in a more traditional church context might call the life of faith, following the path that the Spirit of God is revealing before us.

Recently I’ve found myself so thankful, and amazed, at how all of this has come to be—from my vague sense that God was calling me to ‘something’ to this. It’s incredible. And it would be an easy time to take off the pack, sit down, and, like Peter, take in the view from the rooftop and fall into a bit of a siesta.

But then, just this past week, as I was basking in the fullness of another Not Church when someone come up to me and said, “You know, everyone really likes Not Church—it’s better every time, and I can’t imagine us not doing it. But, the thing is, there are some of us who are wondering, do you think we might be able to do something deeper, something more?”

And so, the journey continues, doesn’t it? Just when we thought we’d arrived. And even as we are wondering, are we there yet?

Each time we, like Peter, find ourselves ‘resting a bit on the rooftop’ we are invited by God into that ‘more’ into that deeper, into that journey, that adventure.

Are we there yet? Of course we are—we are here. And here is of course, the only there we will ever have.

But, are we there yet? Of course we are not. It is, after all, a journey. We are, after all, a People on the Way.

Sometimes we might need to be like my friend RLee, hiking the Camino, casting off that which is weighing us down—that which we thought, in the beginning, would serve us—we’re carrying those provisions because we thought we needed them, perhaps not all that unlike Peter, before his noontime vision. But, like Peter, perhaps we are also called to let go of some of what we’ve been carrying around with us, to be open to the Spirit of God who is continually drawing us deeper on the journey. The Peter who found himself proclaiming:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

For we have been called by God to be a people who are known for their hospitality, for their shared life together, for the healing that their presence brings to those around them, to their community, and to the world.

That is the destination. The way it is described in the Bible is not so much as a place, but as an event—an event to which all are invited, Jew and Gentile, Church and Not Church…

The way this destination, this event, is most often described in the Bible?

It is, of course, a feast.

 

* based on sermons preached at ‘Not Church’ and at Village Presbyterian Church in August 2012…

what we nurture*

I have another story for you from the garden…I know, maybe you are getting sick of stories from the garden? But, the thing is, two of my favorite story tellers also focus on stories from the garden, or about the land—those storytellers, are, of course, Jesus and Garrison Keillor.

This story is from a few years back. It, too, is one of the instrumental pieces in my becoming the ‘gardener’ that I am today. It was really the sort of ‘taking it to the next level’ of my gardening prowess.

It was summer. Maybe even July, which is, under normal circumstances, a bit too late to begin planting seeds. But these were not normal circumstances.

My good family friend, Jack, like a father to me, and what I had left after my own father had passed away three years before, was nearing the final stages of dying from cancer. He was still living a fairly ‘normal’ life, but it was clear that he would not be ‘winning’ this battle. It was, as you can imagine, a difficult time.

As it happened, two of his three grandchildren were away at camp. The third, Tommy, at 6 was too young, and had to stay home.

To be honest, I don’t really remember exactly how it played out, but, on a whim really, Tommy and I decided to plant a garden in his grandparents back yard. Or Tommy decided. Like I said, I’m not sure how it actually began. But I can tell you how it grew.

There was a lot of unused dirt, that had been laying fallow for years. I wasn’t entirely sure that it was capable of growing anything, truth be told. But we decided to take a chance, and to see.

So, Tommy and I made a trip to the nursery, and I told him to pick out whatever he wanted to plant. Let’s just say we left with quite a collection of seeds—pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, onions, carrots, Crenshaw melons and even morning glories, which we only later found out were poisonous, but which provided a beautiful canopy of color along one of the fences.

For the next few weeks Tommy and I cultivated sections of that fallow, untouched dirt and waited to see what would happen.

…..

Again Jesus began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’

…..

As we began to talk about Not Church for May, and the realization that it was falling on Mother’s Day, it was suggested that we take that and allow it to guide us toward a theme of ‘nurture.’

To be honest, I was less than thrilled. Nurture? I thought. It somehow struck me as a Hallmark excuse to sell cards—this sort of surface level celebration of all things motherly and sugary and sweet. But that is what the group had decided, and I wasn’t going to be the one to overrule it.

But as I thought about it, nurture seemed, to me, a bit sentimental, a bit ‘warm and fuzzy’ a bit ‘kum ba yah’ and group hug. It seemed, as I thought about it, to lack grounding, to lack roots. It was, perhaps, a beautiful flower, but one whose color faded quickly, almost like the seed in Jesus’ story, the seed that was dropped along the path and quickly plucked away by the birds, or that which fell amongst the rocks, sprang up quickly, and then was scorched by the sun.

…..

The sun was hot that summer, that summer that Tommy and I planted a garden in his grandparents’ backyard—no gloomy marine layer in that July.  Each afternoon, Tommy and his mom would come over to his grandparents’ house to water the ground, to water the seeds.

For my part, I was a bit nervous. I had never done such wide scale planting before. I had no idea if it would ‘work.’ I had no idea if we would actually be able to grow anything in that hardened, dried out and crusty dirt. Added to that, I had let a six year old do most of the work. Did we really know that the seeds had been planted at a quarter of an inch, or a half inch or…? Everyone seemed to look to me as the expert, since I was the one with the idea. But I was learning along with the process. Sure, I had been planting tomatoes for the previous three years, after the passing of my dad. And I had dabbled with zucchini—supposedly the easiest thing in the world to grow, but for which I seemed to lack the secret, getting one mediocre squash the entire season. All of my gardening had all been in pots in my moms small yard. Nothing of the scale or magnitude that Tommy and I were attempting.

…..

This past week, as I began working on a new section of my garden, adding the freshly composted soil that I’ve been allowing to decompose for the past six months, it occurred to me, and for those of you who are parents, you mothers in particular, this will likely not seem surprising—that nurture is hardly a ‘fluffy’ or ‘sentimental’ idea—it is hard work!

Preparing that soil had meant moving mounds of dirt, adding truckloads of dried manure, searching for enough dead leaves and other decomposing plants to mix in, and hauling them, in buckets and large garbage bags, down the road from where I had found them and into the garden. It meant pick axing the hardened ground to loosen it in preparation. Shoveling, moving it slowly, in buckets, from one part of the garden, into a pile, and then from that pile to the final destination. It was back breaking work, almost literally.

On top of all that, it meant carefully transplanting my tiny little tomato shoots, and the seedlings of something in the squash family that I can’t remember exactly what I planted, seedlings that I have worked hard to get to this point, and putting them into the newly prepared ground, hoping that they will be able to take root.

…..

What was taking root, that summer, was more than simply those seeds Tommy and I planted. What was taking root was, in a quite literal sense, life.

In the midst of a time where death seemed to hang in the air as something not quite present, but on the tip of your tongue, we were literally sowing life. Hope. The act of gardening, of planting seeds, is, by its very nature, an act of hope for the future. It is not an immediate process. It takes effort—it requires nurture. And it waits for growth, for new life.

Over the course of the next few months there were times when I had to be out of town, During those times I’d get a phone call, from Jack, Tommy’s grandfather, giving me a report on the garden. “Erin, you’re not going to believe it, but I think the morning glories are going to take over the block.” Or “Hi Erin, I just wanted to let you know that the tomatoes are taller than Tommy now.” Or “This pumpkin vine looks as though it is going to take over the entire back yard.”

It was amazing. Like nothing I had ever seen before, or anything I’ve seen since. That garden—that hardened, fallow ground—burst forth with abundant new life. It was, I believe, a gift of pure grace. It offered a respite from the death, and an experience of and participation in cultivating, nurturing, life.

It was like the seed, in Jesus’ story, that fell on the good soil—it came up, produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, a hundred times.

…..

There is a term I’ve been reminded of lately. Beloved community. It was a term used by a young woman—younger than me!—who is an artist and in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, and who seeks to foster such ‘beloved community’ in her life as an artist and as a minister.

It struck me that, like the word nurture, the word community can often be seen as something a bit, well, a bit sentimental and not necessarily very deep—can’t we all just get along, why don’t we pretend to be buddy buddy—a sense of glossing over the differences or the challenges and putting on a happy face. But community, like nurture, does not have to remain in the realm or at the level of a Hallmark card.

Which is why I like this phrase, beloved community. For me, it conveys a sense of something that may require pick-axing hardened ground, moving bucket loads of dirt, waiting months, or even years, as the elements are allowed to come together, to sink in, and to create a rich and fertile soil, a good soil, one that bears much fruit.

A beloved community is one which may take some work, some hard work, but which bears much fruit, which blossoms, and displays its colors in a beautiful canopy.

A beloved community is one that…offers hospitality to friends and strangers alike—and we all know that no one is allowed to remain a stranger long in this place!

A beloved community is one that comes together to celebrate weddings, to remember those who have passed on, to enjoy life over a shared meal or an evening cocktail, or that comes together in a space like this, to set our intention on that which binds us all together in our common journey…

A beloved community doesn’t pretend that it is perfect or without fault—we all, at times need help finding our way—but a beloved community is one in which we come alongside our neighbors, our friends, and even those with whom we might disagree on politics or religion.

A beloved community, it seems to me, does not live only for itself, but offers itself to the world, a taste of the richness and goodness of life lived in all its fullness.

That, is what we nurture.

*A sermon written for Not Church on Mother’s Day. Thanks to Doug Rye, for delivering the sermon on my behalf.

breaking the bread of happiness

The story of this Easter Day that we read this morning, from the gospel of John, is actually one of four accounts, in the Bible, that tell the story. Each account tells a slightly different version of the story–not unlike La Mision, where everyone has their own twist on the chisme of the day!

Part of what I love about this story is that, in it, Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest companions, upon encountering him, doesn’t even know who he is. She thinks he is the gardener, of all things! I love it. Was he wearing his cut offs and black rubber boots? Is that why she thought he was the gardener?

Granted, to her credit, she did not expect to see Jesus walking around. She was looking for a dead guy, who was supposed to be in that garden tomb, behind a big rock. So, we can cut her a little slack that she didn’t, right off the bat, realize that it was Jesus that she was talking to.

In fact, even when he spoke to her, she still didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t what she was expecting.

“Woman, why are you crying?” he asked her. She heard his voice. But it was not until he called her by name, “Mary,” that her eyes were opened and that she could see that somehow, miraculously, it was actually Jesus standing there before her.

Last week I came back from Thailand. It was a long flight. I flew through Tokyo, on Al Nippon airlines. It just so happened that one of the movies that was playing was a Japanese film called Bread of Happiness.

Bread of Happiness is a story of a husband and wife who move from the big city of Tokyo to a remote rural area, really nowhere in particular, not necessarily a destination itself, but somewhere with a bus stop–a place that is more on the way to somewhere else than a place to head for its own sake.

The wife, Rie, has always dreamed of her soulmate–the perfect companion with whom to share her life, her dreams, her hopes for the future. But, instead, she’s got her husband, Sang. It is not that they are unhappy–but it is just not the dream that Rie had been imagining. It wasn’t the life she was expecting.

There, somewhat in the middle of nowhere, they open a cafe–a cafe in which, each day, each season, Sang bakes bread–a different type of bread, based on the season. As the two begin to carve out this life together, people seem to find their way to the cafe–a woman who has been dumped by her boyfriend, an elderly couple who plan to go there to die, a young girl who has lost her mom–and in the midst of the sharing of bread together, and the hospitality of Rie and Sang, the bread that is broken together begins to heal the brokenness of their lives.

Toward the end of the movie–and it was a long flight, I should have been sleeping, and was sort of on the verge of it–all of a sudden I had to rewind it, as a phrase (in the subtitles, of course–I’m not yet fluent in Japanese) caught my attention.

It was almost said in passing between the characters, but it struck me by its simple depth–companion, as it turns out, literally in the origin of the word, means those who share bread together. Really? I had never heard that. I had no idea that is what the word meant. Companion. Those who share bread together.

For, though Rie did not find her ‘soulmate,’ what she did find, in the kneading of their lives together, in the sharing of the bread, was that Sang had become her companion.

Today is Easter. It’s a big day. One of the two biggest days, in the Christian calendar. It’s a holiday. A big celebration. And that is fantastic, something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

But I began to think, as I pondered the Bread of Happiness and Mary thinking Jesus was the gardener, if resurrection, new life, is not also played out in the unexpectedly ordinary–in the day to day, sharing of bread with one another, in a place that is really here nor there, but somewhere along the journey? Being companions to one another, breaking bread together, and in the midst of that breaking, finding that our own brokenness is being kneaded together as well?

Recently I saw an article posted on facebook. It was called ‘The Brain on Love,’ from the NY Times. A line from it caused me to pause:

In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.

What we pay the most attention to, defines us, literally transforms us.

So, on this Easter Sunday, let us celebrate the big moments of new life, rebirth, and resurrection. But let us also go into the world, into the ordinary moments, as companions, those who break bread with one another, and share that bread with the world.

on cracks, edge, and light*

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

When I decided to quit my corporate job to attend seminary I also decided to spend the summer before I started school working in the Dominican Republic. I worked with an organization that was just getting started in the small mountain town of Jarabacoa.

It was a wonderful experience—and definitely a crash course in immersion for my up to that point classroom only Spanish knowledge.

Jarabacoa is a small town, with dirt roads, not unlike La Mision. As I got to know my way around I began to, each afternoon after work, go for a jog throughout the town.

Suffice it to say that this was not standard behavior amongst the local Dominicans, but after a few weeks of odd looks, I began to get invited, in the midst of my run, for coffee. I tried to politely explain that no, I couldn’t really stop, I had to keep running. Coffee in the DR is more like a shot of espresso with about a cup of sugar, so it may have helped the running, actually.

One afternoon I happened to be running past a primary school as it let out for the day. The children came flooding out onto the dirt road as I was running past. Some of them joined in with me, running along side me, huge smiles on their faces. It was beautiful, really.

It could have been a picture-perfect photo shoot for some sort of ‘save the children’ type organization, with Sally Struthers narrating as the camera rolled, me running, flanked by children, all of us smiling.

And that is when I saw it. The finger.

One of the boys, running along side me, with a huge smile on his face, was also, I realized, holding up his hand, giving me the finger.

So much for the photo shoot.

There is never a dull moment, living in another culture, is there? There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Recently I was reading a daily meditation by one of my favorite authors, catholic priest Richard Rohr. To be honest, I continue to be amazed at the abundant openness in his teachings, and how he continues to take the walls of doctrine and belief and push them out further, and further, and further, until there is this expansive spaciousness in the lessons that he shares. It is a good reminder to me that this welcoming inclusiveness has a place, even in the midst of the most organized of religion.

In this daily meditation Father Rohr quoted the Leonard Cohen song, ‘anthem.’ You may know it. The refrain goes like this:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Richard Rohr goes on to say that “there is simply a crack in everything and so we should not be surprised when it shows itself in us or in everything else.

But it can be so easy to want to fix the crack, can’t it? To get out the glue, or the duct tape, and patch it up as quickly as possible, before it cracks any further. Or, better yet, avoid the cracks altogether, keeping life safe, out of harm’s way, far from the danger of that which might threaten it.

Working in the garden hardly seems like it would be a dangerous activity, but yesterday a run-in with a fairly thick, coiled, unknown snake has made me start to wonder. To be honest, I didn’t really want to get close enough to identify tail or head markings.

One of the things I love about working in the yard is the constant learning—though I’d prefer it to be about vegetables than reptiles.

Amongst a certain contingent of somewhat geeky gardeners there is a term that is growing in recognition. It’s called permaculture. Permaculture, is a way of looking at the system as a whole, rather than each individual part. Within permaculture there is a concept called edge.

Edge is where two systems meet. So, for instance, here along the shoreline we are in a place of edge, where the sea and the beach meet. Edge might be where a forest touches a field. Edge is where the energy is in a system. If you want to increase the vitality and fertility, increasing edge is one way of doing that.

For example, if you were to have a pond in your garden, rather than create the pond as a circle, if you were to make its shoreline all squiggly, that, in turn, increases edge, which, in turn, increases the amount of life that can thrive and benefit from that pond.

So, if you, as a gardener, want to increase the yield of your garden, you might want to figure out ways to increase the amount of edge. Edge is where the action is. Edge, according to wikipedia, is a place with an intense area of productivity and useful connections.

Edge is a space of encounter. A space of engagement.

We are, at this time of year, in just such a season of edge—the edge between the winter and summer that is spring. With the time change last night we have a tangible sense of the lengthening of the days. In the Christian calendar the name given to this season is Lent. Not lint that you find in your pocket, but Lent. The word literally means spring, and having to do with the lengthening of the days.

Lent is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, often seen as a time of giving up something—whether chocolate or beer or cake or thin mint girl scout cookies.

Because of the focus on abstaining, Lent, and thus those who practice it, can be seen as a rather killjoy of a time—especially coming from the craziness of Carnival or Fat Tuesday, the night before the time of ‘fasting’ begins.

But, in a sense, Lent can also be seen as a time of creating space, an allowing of some emptiness, of making room for that from which the new life of spring will blossom.

The season of Lent is, itself, an edge, between the now and the not yet.

The thing is, we all who are here, we are also living, in a sense, in a place of edge. Living in a country that is not our own, but one that we have chosen. Living physically in a place where multiple cultures have the opportunity to encounter one another.

Sure, it can be a place of challenge—navigating the language, assumptions, and the way things are done. Who hasn’t been thrown off by the nuance between ahora, now, and ahorita, a now that is, how do we put it, a bit less punctual than we might be likely to assume.

At times life here can be like running along that dirt road side by side with those Dominican children, smiling, basking in the beauty and the joy of it all. And, I think, if we are honest, at times it can be a bit like turning and seeing that one boy, middle finger held all in the air.

That is part of the territory, in life along the edge. It’s part of the risk. It is precisely this encounter with differentness, with otherness, that brings the challenge and the risk, but also gives the vitality, and the life.

We are, most of us, much too familiar with the fear such living in the midst of edge can bring.

Just last weekend, in talking with the wonderful surgeon who operated on Jimmy’s heart to save his life, I was asked again, ‘But is Baja safe?’

This surgeon had visited Baja many times when he was younger, to surf, explore the tidepools near the bufadora, and eat lobster at puerto nuevo. He had a first hand knowledge of this place. But because of what he’s heard in the news, he wondered, is it safe?

We’ve all heard it, been asked it, haven’t we? That ubiquitous ‘is it safe?’

And, to be honest, normally I try to do my best to assure people that, of course it is, that it is just the media sensationalizing, not making distinctions on particular locations as if Chicago’s crime would make you not want to go to Portland.

I try to explain to them, as I’m guessing many of us do, that this fear is actually having a direct impact on the life and well being of so many of us, including our own friends, and ourselves, who depend on the income of tourism for renting horses or renting houses.

But it’s also got me thinking about a line from the children’s book, and movie, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe. In this book four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter through a wardrobe into the magical world of Narnia. When they arrive they meet a couple of beavers—Mr. And Mrs. Beaver, who begin to tell them about the great king of Narnia, Aslan, the Lion. Talk of a lion starts to make the children somewhat uncomfortable. Finally one of them asks, “Um, Mr. Beaver, this lion, Aslan, is he, is he quite safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, ‘Safe?! Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe. But he is good.”

Is living in this place safe? I’ve begun to wonder if my answer shouldn’t be “of course it isn’t safe.”

Who knows how you will be transformed?
Who knows how you will be changed?
Who knows what food you will begin to eat, what friends you will make, what decisions you will begin to make differently?

We who are living during this season of edge, in this place of edge, live and move and have our very being at the intersection of something far greater than ourselves.

Of course it isn’t safe—if you let it, it might just turn your whole world upside down.

Of course it isn’t safe. But it is good.

So go on,

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

*A sermon preached on March 11, 2012 for Not Church in La Mision

unexpected things

Mark 2:13-17

Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Jesus, it seems, has begun to hang out with the wrong crowd. Sweet little baby Jesus, no crying he makes, seems to be fraternizing with the less than reputable of the community. Did you hear about that new Jesus guy? He’s hanging out with those kind of people. I thought he was a healer? He is. Well what’s he doing hanging out with them? Doesn’t he know better? Doesn’t he realize that at the least he might be encouraging their bad behavior by not frowning upon it? And even worse, what if hanging around them rubs off on him…? Then what.

I don’t watch much tv. In fact, I don’t even own a tv. But I do have a favorite tv show. And, I’ve got to admit, it’s one that I’m not exactly proud of.  I mean, it would be one thing if my favorite tv show were something from the History Chanel, or the Discovery Chanel, or even the Food Network—something uplifting, educational, informative. No, my favorite tv show is none of those. My favorite tv show is Desperate Housewives.

Though the quality of its content may be debated (though I do have to say, it is a rather clever commentary on modern life) one of the things that I love about the show is the way that it tells a story. Often you are given a scene from the future before you are shown the events that lead up to that particular incident. Sometimes the story is woven together amongst the many characters. So it is up to you, the one watching, to pay attention to how it all plays out.

The writer of Mark is a master storyteller. It is often thought that the book of Mark is the earliest of the gospels, written somewhere around 70AD. Some scholars have concluded that, because of its brevity compared with the other gospels, and because of the writing style of action moving from one scene to the next, that Mark was also the most basic or least polished or well-crafted of the gospels. But that assumption has been called into question by some recent scholarship as well.

The thing with Mark is, you’ve got to pay attention.

Just like we saw last week, with the opening of the first chapter, most of the time Mark doesn’t hit us over the head with what he’s trying to convey. Instead, he leaves us clues. Clues like telling us that John the Baptist was wearing camel hair and out by the Jordan River, and clear illusion to Elijah. Mark does not say flat out “John the Baptist was the return of Elijah” but he gives the reader enough information to let the questions begin to percolate and to draw the hearer of the gospel deeper and deeper in.

In our world of Google we are becoming more and more used to having answers immediately at our fingertips. Add to that my iPhone, which has Google right on it, and I can be pretty much anywhere and have ready access to information.

But the book of Mark, his recounting of the life of Jesus, is much less ‘Google’ and much more Desperate Housewives. It is up to you and I, the readers and hearers, to put together the pieces.

So, with that in mind, let’s read our passage for this morning one more time.

Mark 2:13-22

Jesus went out again beside the sea the whole crowd gathered and he taught them. And as he was walking along he saw Levi…

Wait a second.

Jesus, the one who will usher in the messianic age, who will usher in a time where there is no war, no hunger, where as one Jewish philosopher put it the good will be plentiful and delicacies will be as available as dust.  (There’s a lot of dust in the Middle East.)

If this Jesus is, in fact, the long awaited Messiah, don’t you think we might want to know what it was he taught them? Don’t you think it would be important, if you were telling the story, to tell us what Jesus said? But Mark, it seems, is more concerned with telling us what Jesus did.  And in this case it seems that Mark is intent on letting us know that this Jesus who had come onto the scene was not exactly hanging out with the Messiah kind of people.

It would be like Jesus, appearing today, and rather than accepting an invitation to be interviewed on the 700 Club or on Trinity Broadcasting Network, instead chose a cameo appearance with the Desperate Housewives on Wysteria Lane. Definitely not the way to promote your good reputation, Jesus.

Levi, often thought to be the disciple whose name became Matthew, was a tax collector. He was sitting at his tax booth, doing his job, like he did probably most any day. There is some question over exactly what type of tax collector Levi was—did he work for the Romans, the occupying government during the time, or did he actually work for King Herod, the King of the Jews? Either way, Levi was not the guy you’d want to invite to your next dinner party.

When we think of taxes in America today we might think of the IRS. But tax collectors in Jesus’ day made the IRS look compassionate. For in that time the tax collector had a contract with the ruler (whether it be Rome or Herod) for a certain amount of money. Whatever he was able to collect, or extort, over that amount, was his to keep. So, not only was Levi collecting taxes from folks who probably didn’t have much to begin with, you knew that a healthy portion of what he was taking from you was just lining his own pockets, and that there was no justice in the system.

Levi was the guy everyone hated. It was easy to do, really. And, if you think about it, it was his own fault…right? He was the one who took the job as a tax collector, after all. When the respectable folks were having a potluck, odds are, Levi was not on the guest list.

In La Mision, the small community where I live in Mexico, there are a few things that you come to assume. The first is that any event worth its salt requires food. The second is that once you start inviting folks to come over for dinner, pretty soon and everyone knows, so you’d better either keep it quiet, or make sure you’ve got enough for everyone.

Whenever we hold a service, whether it is for Easter or for Christmas, a memorial service or a celebration of 3 Kings Day, there’s always a potluck. Sometimes it is a fairly fine line between a ‘service’ and a party. You can always count on Keith to concoct some yummy and complex recipe, Tom to bring these delicious homemade pickled vegetables, and Nadine to put together the best vegetarian dish you’ve ever had. But you can also count on certain others to show up empty handed, or to bring along many more people than the food they’re contributing. And though at times there is a bit of grumbling—did you see that such and so showed up with all the kids and didn’t bring a thing?—there’s always enough food for all and mostly enough understanding that, at the end of the day, everyone is welcome and no one is excluded.

When Jesus called Levi the word must have gotten out. “Did you hear?!” That new teacher Jesus just commanded Levi to follow him. Can you believe it, a tax collector?! And worse yet, they’re now having dinner with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners…”

Now, let’s just pause a moment, because we need to understand what this word sinners conveys. We might tend to think of those who are morally despicable, depraved, or otherwise sort of off the deep end.  But actually the word sinners simply refers to those who did not, for whatever reason, keep the covenant. They were not necessarily especially bad or evil people. Often the poor wound up in this category, because to keep the regulations of the covenant one had to offer certain sacrifices in the temple, and this could become a costly endeavor. So, those who could not afford to do so, by definition became sinners not because of any wrong doing, but because of financial constraints. In our day these sinners would not necessarily be those who have committed heinous crimes, but rather those who, on any given Sunday, don’t find themselves within the four walls of a church building.

So, when Jesus called Levi, the word must have gotten out. But imagine what it would have been like amongst the tax collectors and sinners. Did you hear? That new teacher, Jesus. The one who has been doing all of the healings and who some are saying might just be the Messiah? He wants to have dinner with us! Can you believe it? Us? Does he know what kind of people we are? Those religious types don’t normally want to have anything to do with us…maybe he’s mistaken. Maybe he doesn’t realize who we are.

Which is the very same question the religious people were asking as well. Does he realize who he is eating with?

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with tax collectors and sinners they came to his disciples to ask, Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?

It’s interesting—that word ‘saw’ is actually a word that means perceive, turn the eyes to, pay attention to—it is the same word that is used when Jesus sees Levi by the tax booth.  Jesus saw Levi and invited him to follow him, but not only to follow him but to share a meal with him.  The religious folks just saw a bunch of tax collectors and sinners, the wrong sort of folks.

It made sense, that they would ask the question of course. They weren’t necessarily trying to be mean or rude or heartless. They were actually trying to be good, religious folks, dedicated to working for the coming of the Messiah, the ushering in of the Messianic age. Everyone knew that the only way that was ever going to happen was by following the law. Everyone knew that the Messianic age would only be brought about by religious observance and good deeds.  So, if this Jesus knew the first thing about Messiah stuff, he’d know that as well, and he would not be hanging out with those, well, those sinners.

Often, at the end of an episode of Desperate Housewives, we are hit with a whopper, something that we hadn’t expected, something that now changes everything that has gone before. It forces you to reexamine your assumptions of certain characters and certain events, and to reinterpret them in light of the new tidbit you’ve now been given. Something you thought was one way is now inexplicably overturned, and you’ve got to make sense of the implications.

Jesus gives the scribes of the Pharisees just such a whopper, and Mark leaves us with it, no other explanation given.  “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” Jesus says. Good point. It makes sense. How often do you see healthy people going to the doctor?  But then… “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Boom. Just like that. Something you thought was one way, being a good religious person, has now been inexplicably overturned, and you’ve got to make sense of the implications.

For when Jesus throws a dinner party, all are invited and no one is excluded.

first things

It’s amazing, it feels like summer lately even though the calendar tells us we are in mid-November, swiftly approaching the holidays, as many retail stores have been making all too clear with their displays of trees, lights, ornaments and tinsel. Soon, the Christian season of Advent will be upon us.

Advent, as you are probably aware, is a season of waiting, of anticipation, that spans the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people light advent candles and children often open advent calendars, both of which are ways that we mark our waiting. This Advent waiting reminds us both of the Hebrews who waited for the coming of the Messiah, but also serves to remind us that we still wait for that time when God will make all things new.

But if the stores can get such a long headstart on Christmas, why can’t we in the church as well? What if we get a head start on Jesus before we start singing about him being in a manger? What if we take a look, before we get swept up in the pageantry of the Christmas season, to pause and look more closely at the man that this nativity baby was to become? At Easter it is often common to remember and contemplate the final days of Jesus’ life and to commemorate the ‘last words of Jesus’ so why not, before the Christmas season, take a look at some of the ‘first words of Jesus.’

Of course, we do not mean the actual first words, mama or dada or the like, as we do not have a record of what those might have been for the baby Jesus as he grew up.

But what about the first words of Jesus as we have them recorded in the gospel accounts, his first public words and the context in which they were uttered? Before we get wrapped up in all of the commercial packaging of the celebration of his birth, the “Jesus is the reason for the season” what if we take a look at what Jesus said was the reason for, well, for Jesus?

So listen with me to the word of God, as we find these first public words of Jesus as told by the Gospel according to Mark in the first chapter, beginning with the first verse. Listen for the Word of God.

Mark 1:1-15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the book of Mark we do not have a Christmas story, the traditional nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men.

If we were to make a nativity of the opening scene of the book of Mark we would likely have a river, a somewhat odd looking guy wearing fur and eating bugs, a lot of people (the text says that ‘everyone from Jerusalem and people from the whole Judean countryside went out to John at the Jordan). As the scene unfolds we begin to catch a glimpse of one guy, coming all the way from Nazareth, probably about 100 miles away, on foot. It must have taken him awhile to get there—an average walking pace is about 3 miles an hour, so that would potentially be a three day’s walk. Instead of baby Jesus in a manger, we’d have grown up Jesus with a lot of dust on his sandals.

The last time I was with all of you I was living in Orange County, and waiting to be ordained. Since then I have finally been ordained, as a ‘designated tentmaking evangelist’ and I have moved to live in a small community in Mexico. It is my grandmother’s house that I’ve moved into and it is surrounded by a yard which, before I started working in it, had been long neglected and overgrown. Over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly working my way through the overgrowth, trimming, digging up, and planting. It is common amongst my friends down there to realize that if they call me on the phone and I don’t answer, I am probably out working in the yard. One of my favorite things to do is to make a path for the rainwater, so that it creates almost a stream through the yard when it rains, and allows more of the water to soak into the ground. This not only keeps the rain runoff from getting too much and out of control, but it also helps to bathe the dry ground in fresh water.

A few weeks back, in October when we were having all that rain, I found myself outside digging around in the garden in the mud…in my pajamas. I had meant to just go outside to check on the water’s flow, but one thing lead to another and I wound up in the mud, digging, my pajamas getting wetter and wetter, and trying to keep them from getting muddier and muddier. I knew it was a bit odd, but I was occupied with my task. All of a sudden I heard a car pull up on the road outside. Sure enough, as I looked up at the car, I saw my  Doug, Kathy and Leslie–who had come for a visit. They took one look at me, soaking wet, muddy, and in my pjs, and burst out laughing.

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John the Baptist must have been quite a sight. Clothed in camel’s hair secured by a leather cord, and eating a rather interesting diet of bugs and honey. Why are we told all of this? We are not given wardrobe information for anyone else in our story, not Jesus, not the crowds, just John. If we stop to think, one wonders why the author of the book of Mark includes these details. Is it just to make him sound a bit weird? His strange appearance doesn’t seem to be off-putting though—the text tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem were coming out to John at the Jordan. Maybe they were just going out to see a crackpot in the wilderness, outside the city? But they weren’t just going out to see John or to gawk at this strange sight; they were getting baptized by him.

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we have become so accustomed to it that we don’t see what is actually in front of us. I am a photographer because I like to help people see that which they somehow overlook when not guided in the direction of a particular image. Mark is giving us a photograph of John, inviting us to pause and take a closer look at this unusual man. For those who knew their Hebrew Scriptures would know that John was not the first person to be described in this way.

Elijah, one of the Hebrew prophets, was described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” who lived out beyond the normal borders of society. Elijah, coincidentally, did not die, as it is told in the book of Second Kings, but was simply surrounded by a chariot of fire and taken into heaven. Where did this miraculous event happen? None other than the banks of the Jordan River. The same Jordan River where we now find John.

But so what? So what if there is this guy who seems to look like Elijah and happens to be found in the same place where Elijah had last been seen? What’s the big deal about that?

That is where the writer of Mark gives us another clue. “It is written in the prophets…I will send my messenger ahead of you, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.” There are actually two quotes here, one from Isaiah and one from Malachi. Both passages talk about the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who will turn the people back to God and make the world a place of peace, justice and harmony—the one who will make things right.

But Malachi goes further…”Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes…” The reason Elijah matters is that it was believed by the Jews of the time that before the Messiah would come and usher in the day of the Lord, that time when all would be made right, that day for which the people of Israel had been waiting…before that day would come, first Elijah would return, a precursor, a messenger announcing the coming Messiah.

John even seems to echo this belief himself, proclaiming that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have washed you in water, but he will wash you in the very Spirit of God.”

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One of the results of this summer we seem to be having in November is that it has brought with it some beautiful sunsets. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to catch any of them, but from where I live in Mexico, they are hard to miss as they paint the sky with pinks and oranges and yellows. You can’t spend too much time watching sunsets in Mexico without someone bringing up ‘the green flash.’

The green flash is a phenomenon that occurs right as the last bit of sun has sunk below the horizon. If the view is clear and there are no clouds or smog to get in the way, the story goes that this flash of green can happen just as the sun disappears. It is a story that I’ve heard all of my life, and to be honest, I sort of thought it was the product of people having too many cocktails, rather than there being any sort of real occurrence. I assumed that the green flash would be just that, a flash of green lighting up the sky, impossible to ignore, obvious to all who were paying the least bit of attention, like a bolt of lightning casting a green hue across the horizon.

It turns out, the green flash is much more subtle than that. You’ve got to be watching for it. You’ve got to be paying attention. And even when you are, you might miss it. It’s less of a shout, more of a whisper. I always assumed that because I hadn’t seen what I expected it to be, that there was no green flash. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I might be staring it in the face and not even see it right in front of me.

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And so onto the scene walked Jesus. Jesus who had traveled a few days journey to get to the Jordan where John was baptizing, immersing the whole of the region in water as a sign of repentance, of turning, of a fundamental shift. John had already warned them, this is only the beginning. What I’m doing, what you’re doing by coming out here to me, this is just the start, this is the first step. There will be another and that other will bathe you not just in water, but in the very Spirit of God. I’m doing this to prepare you for that.

And then, just like that, Jesus enters our nativity scene, getting baptized by John just like the rest. But when Jesus comes up out of the water something new happens. The text says ‘he saw the heavens opened’ but literally it means the heavens were ripped open, were torn or rent apart. And the spirit like a dove came down upon him saying, “you are my beloved in whom I delight.” And immediately the Spirit drove him further out into the wilderness, alone, tempted by the adversary.

If this were a movie I think we’d stop right here and say, what? After all that build up, all of that careful stage setting in showing that this John the Baptist was actually fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was the one to appear before the Messiah, the anointed of God, came upon the scene and made all things right, brought the world into justice, peace and harmony…

And everyone has come out to the wilderness to prepare, to make themselves ready for this big event that the Jewish people have been anticipating, toward which God has been guiding all of history…and then Jesus shows up and the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him.

And just when we are waiting for a green flash to proclaim itself across the entirety of the evening sky, it is much more subtle than that. Instead of stepping onto the stage and proclaiming, here I am, the one you’ve been waiting for, the chosen of God, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Spirit drives Jesus from that place out into the wilderness to wait for 40 days.

After that 40 days Jesus shows up back in Galilee, back where he started, and utters his first public words as recorded in the book of Mark: “Now is the time to turn around, for the reign of God is here, right now, so put your trust in the good thing that God is doing.”

It sounds a little bit like a passage you will likely be hearing in the coming weeks, a passage that comes from Luke’s gospel: “And the angel, the messenger, said, fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”

Or, to put it as Mark does, “This is the beginning of the good tidings of Jesus the anointed Son of God…”

Did you catch that? When we first read the passage? The first line of the book of Mark isn’t a sentence at all—an English teacher would call it a fragment. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed.” Some might call it a title or a heading. The only problem is, if you keep reading the book of Mark, there are no more headings, other than this one.

If you spend much time with the Gospel of Mark you will see that it is not always neat and tidy, cut a dried. Often Mark leaves us hanging, without answers, without conclusions. In fact, what is referred to as the ‘shorter ending of the book of Mark’ ends with the women coming to the tomb after Jesus has risen, seeing an angel, and fleeing in fear. Even in our text this morning, we have suggestions more than assertions. The prophets have written about a messenger, an Elijah-like figure. And here we have John. John talks about preparing the way for someone greater. And then Jesus shows up. Mark gives us enough of the story to draw us in, to invite our participation, to cause us to wonder. But he doesn’t give answers. That he leaves up to us.

Jesus comes onto the scene and his first public words are, “Change, turn around, turn from the way you were going and toward something new, for there is good news, there are good tidings, the kingdom of God has come near, have confidence.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ…

Perhaps, the author of Mark is suggesting, I’m going to give you the beginning, but it’s up to you to keep the story going.