Sermon: Sunday, December 21, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:  2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  +  Luke 1:46b-55  +  Romans 16:25-27  +  Luke 1:26-38

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

A young adult friend of mine told me that she’s spending the month of January in Sydney, Australia with classmates from her college. Normally this would have been unequivocally exciting news for both of us, but I noticed that my first response wasn’t joy. It was anxiety. In the week since we last gathered here for worship we have seen the faces of everyday people pressed up against the glass of a downtown cafe where they were held hostage by a lone gunman with a long history of violence against both intimate partners and strangers.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest.

No sooner had that crisis come to a brutal ending, than we learned of an attack on a school full of Pakistani children that left 145 people dead. I remember listening to the news coverage of this event while driving home from work in my car, wondering why anyone would target innocent school children. What political motivation could there possibly be for the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians? Then I heard the Taliban’s spokesperson say, “we targeted the school because the Army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”

That immediately took me back to the terrorist strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001. Our shock at watching the Twin Towers fall, and with them any sense that we are removed from the politics of our nation. We live in a time when terror rains down from the sky and violence is the preferred solution to conflict. No side can claim the moral high ground when it comes to the taking of innocent lives, whatever those are. The line between innocent and implicated has been blurred past the point of recognition. If the message of those we call terrorists says anything, it seems to say that those who benefit from the arrangement of power and wealth enforced by state-sanctioned violence will not be protected from the wrath of those who are trying to rearrange the balance of power by any means necessary.

It is no easy thing to make sense of Mary’s song in times like these. “[The Mighty One] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Who is she talking about? Who are the powerful? Where are their thrones?

More importantly, where did Mary find the courage to sing her song? What ever would have led a pregnant, unwed young woman to believe that the life being born in her, a life that would be born into oppression and occupation, could change the balance of power in the world?

IMG_0169Do you know who Mary reminds me of? Can you think of a more inspiring young woman than Malala Yousafzai? She wasn’t even a teenager when she began blogging for the BBC on the plight of girls seeking an education in Pakistan. She was only 15 when she was shot three times, once in the head, for her activism. Yet she remained unbroken. She said, “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot. I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up” and “the terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

Malala didn’t come into the world an activist. She was raised and nurtured in a family of politically engaged people. Her family owns a number of schools and her father has been an educational activist. He remembers that from an early age, Malala stayed up late into the night listening to him talk politics and joining in.

Likewise, Mary draws on centuries of Hebrew prophetic rhetoric. Her song, the Magnificat, which we sing this time of year with great relish is a magnification of the song of Hannah, who dedicated her child Samuel to the Lord with these words,

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; [God] raises up the poor from the dust; [God] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes in seats of honor. (1 Sam. 2:1,5,7,8)

These young women are exceptional, but they aren’t unique. They are extraordinary, but they are not inaccessible. They are signs of what happens when we allow the spirit of God to be born in us, when we say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Or, in Malala’s words, “Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward?”

One more Malala quote before I lose my voice or get lost in a fit of coughing. She has said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

This is the true reversal, the real upheaval. If we allow ourselves to get lost in the question of who is the mighty on their throne, we will stay trapped in justifications for violence. Nations will legitimate their use of drones and terrorists their use of suicide bombers. But, if we focus on unseating violence itself then we are truly getting to the heart of the matter. We stop playing musical chairs, replacing one violent power with another, and we begin building the world from the bottom up, from the vantage point of the lowly, through the eyes of the unarmed Black teenager, the Pakistani school girl, the hungry day laborer. We begin building a world where the good things of God — food, shelter, family, love, education, community, justice and peace — are shared among us all.

Mary and Malala, extraordinary prophets of hope flinging their fragile bodies forward into a world weary of war. Surely they are not alone. Surely God is being born in us as well.



Sermon: Wednesday, December 19, 2012: “Fear Not! Advent Worship Nearing the Longest Night”

Texts:  Isaiah 12:2-6  +  Luke 1:5-25  +  Luke 1:26-38  +  Matthew 1:18-25  +  Isaiah 43:1-7,15-21


What might you do if you weren’t afraid?


Would you quit your job?

Would you ask him out?

Would you insist, “Stop. No more!”

Would you tell the truth?

Would you finally say, “I love you.”


What might we do if we weren’t afraid?


Would we ask how she ended up on the corner begging for change?

Would we share more and keep less?

Would we interrupt the joke told at his expense?

Would we listen more than we speak?

Would we give up our guns?


What might happen if the nations weren’t afraid?


Would they distribute their resources more freely?

Would they find new exports that cannot kill?

Would they dismantle the drones and the tanks and the missiles?

Would they tear down the walls and open the roads?

Would they send their children to school instead of to war?


Fear is the enemy of change.  Change requires us to take a risk, to imagine a future different from our present and to act as though that future was already on the way.  Fear cannot dare to risk, and will endure a tortuous present rather than chance an even more disastrous future.

Fear is real, but it makes for a poor reality.  It is impossible to live in this world, awake, without seeing true cause for real fear.  All around us we find evidence to make the case for fearful living.  The career employee laid off just years before retirement.  The friend or relative diagnosed in the prime of life.  The marriage shattered by an inconceivable infidelity.  The son or daughter lost to war.  The empty schoolyard and the grieving nation.  The case for fear makes itself.  It needs no help from us.

The case for hope requires angels, messengers of a new reality working to be born, laboring to become real.  The angel appeared to old Zechariah as he offered his prayers in the Temple, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to young Mary as she awaited the day of her marriage, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to righteous Joseph as he prepared to take a wife, “do not be afraid.”  God’s message came to the nation of Israel, occupied and dispossessed, “do not fear.”

Before anything else can be said — before God can assure an old man that his dreams of parenthood are within his grasp, before God can explain the scandal taking root in the young woman’s womb, before God can convince the man to set aside conventions and laws, before God can promise the people that their children will all be called home — before anything else can be said, God’s messengers must first say, “do not be afraid.”

What might happen if fear was set aside?

The refusal to let fear rule our lives is the first step along the path that leads to a new life.  It is the decision to take a new road, to commit to a new future.  It is not easy, and it does not come without its own costs.  Of this open road, the poet Walt Whitman writes,

“Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days the must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive to the city to which you were destin’d,

you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you

are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and

mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer

with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their

reach’d out hands toward you.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” stanza 11

Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive, and their son is the herald of a new future.  He is executed in prison.  Mary and Joseph provide a home for God’s own Beloved child, Israel’s long awaited savior.  He dies on a cross… but not before the world is forever changed.

How might your world change if fear did not hold the last word?

Long before God’s messengers appeared to Zechariah, or Joseph, or Mary, God spoke to God’s people Israel, as they longed for a home most of them had never in their lifetimes seen.  To a people dispossessed by empire and despairing that the future could ever be different from the past, God declared,

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isa. 43:18-19)

Into a world filled with violence, into a manger because the small business owners said there was no room, into a people occupied by a foreign empire, into a family touched by scandal, God puts on flesh and becomes vulnerable to the human condition.  To all the conditions you and I face each day.  With a fearlessness that can only be born of love, God does a new thing and the world is made new.

Tonight, as we approach the longest night, as we wait for the coming of the Lord, God’s messengers arrive under the cover of darkness to speak to us those ancient words, bearing the promise of a new future:

Do not be afraid.