Teenagers Know Best

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas-January 3, 2016

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

Luke 2:41-52

The parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


Teenagers Know Best

I have a group of good female clergy friends who serve at other Episcopal churches around RIchmond, and one of the ways that we keep in touch is with a running Facebook message thread.  Sometimes we encourage each other through busy, stressful times (“We can make it!” we’ll say during Advent and Christmas), sometimes we share more serious concerns and mention prayer requests, and sometimes we get just a tad irreverent.  The latter was the case this week when we looked at the lectionary’s gospel choice.  We began swapping cheeky alternative titles for the story of Jesus getting lost while teaching at the temple, some of which included: He Came to Save, Not to Behave; How Not to Parent; A Precocious Tween and Two Disgruntled Parents Walk into a Temple.

Joking aside, this is one of our stories that can trip us up, since it disrupts our ideas about a perfect Jesus.  It can be uncomfortable to think about Jesus disobeying his parents, and if we sit with the notion of a rebellious Jesus for a moment, we can get, as my friend Kristen would say, twitchy, trying to explain away what he did and why he did it.  Many interpretations would tell us that Jesus was not in fact ill intentioned or misbehaving at all. Jesus’ parents’ limited understanding meant that they could not keep up with their son.  We might call them neglectful, since they simply took off assuming Jesus would make it back all right.  Or we might say that Jesus had to choose between two goods: obedience to his parents and obedience to God, and Jesus chose the greater good, subordinating human social customs to God’s will.

Still, I’m sure the parents among us would have rather him not gone about teaching in the temple the way that he did–perhaps instead requested to stay behind, and then acted more graciously when reunited with Mary and Joseph.  And it must have stung when Jesus answered Mary’s question with an acknowledgment of only his heavenly Father–a not-so-subtle snub of Joseph–as though choosing deliberately to cut his ties with his earthly parents.  Sure, Jesus broke his curfew to provide religious instruction, not to party or steal, but he does not seem too different from a typical teenager here, absorbed in his own plans and dreams and unconcerned that he almost gave his mother a heart attack.  (Although, I should caveat here, that this is how the story reads to us today.  Our conceptions of the teenaged years and adolescence would not have been shared by Jesus’ first century contemporaries, who drew a much sharper line between childhood and adulthood, and 13 was usually the age when one was no longer considered a child).

There is, however, another way that we could approach Jesus’ behavior, a way that is more interesting, if unsettling.  Perhaps Jesus was not perfect, perhaps he was indeed very human with sometimes less than excellent judgement.

This story about Jesus’ childhood does several things.  For one, it roots Jesus and his family firmly within their Jewish context.  We learn that they faithfully observed Passover and made the trek to Jerusalem each year and that they were familiar with Jewish teachings and customs.

The story also provides one of the only glimpses we get of Jesus before he is an adult and helps us form a picture of our savior by connecting the dots between the Eternal Word, the innocent baby lying in a manger, the marvelous teacher and miracle worker, the justice seeker, the sacrificial lamb, and the resurrected crucified man.  We still have many unanswered questions, but we have yet one more piece of the puzzle.  

And finally, this story demonstrates real, messy, human relationship struggles.  This interaction between Jesus and his parents is actually quite relatable; it sounds like an exchange that could happen within any family.  The Jesus in this story is someone who knows us, who gets us, who has experienced the same frustrations and embarrassments and conflicts.

In the Christian faith, we are always moving back and forth between stressing the divine and human aspects of Jesus Christ.  Jesus of Nazareth was the lowly carpenter who showed us how to live righteously in the world, and Jesus the Christ overcame death on the cross, so that sin will not ultimately defeat us.  All of our credal statements attempt to get this balance right–Jesus is mysteriously, somehow, both and fully human and divine.  The creeds’ wording is careful, measured, because it is so easy to slip into emphasizing one part to the exclusion of the other.

Another way we might conceive of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is that Jesus is a figure both accessible and aspirational.  He provides a model for who we are trying to become but is not so far removed from us that we cannot relate.  There always is an unattainable dimension to our walks of faith–we are growing and evolving, and not necessarily linearly or progressively–but we venture on with hope and courage because Jesus has invited us to journey with him.

All of this talk about the fine lines between being and becoming resonates well at the dawn of 2016.  Upon us is a new year, a time for change and remaking ourselves, a time to become better, more perfect versions of who we already are.  I bet we all have read articles about how to set successful New Year’s resolutions: we should make our goals SMART–specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive; we should find someone to hold us accountable; we should not try to make too many changes at once.  While there are some naysayers who argue that we can set a resolution any day of the year, that there is no need to wait until January 1 (and they have a point), the energy and promise that a new calendar year brings is nonetheless contagious.  Advent may technically be the start of the Christian year, but I think January better registers with us as a beginning.  

Why not feed off the enthusiasm of others voicing their 2016 intentions?  Read the Bible for ten minutes before bed each night, or pray and journal for a few moments in the morning.  Volunteer with one of the nonprofits in our neighborhood or one of St. Mary’s partners in outreach.  Establish a tradition of praying as a family each night around the dinner table.  Talk to God about anything and everything during our daily commute.  Give grace to the body which God so wonderfully crafted and gave us, forgiving ourselves when we miss a workout and filling it with good, well grown and well made food.

And…expect there to be bumps along the way.  We will forge ahead imperfectly, perhaps skipping a few days of praying or growing exasperated rather than thankful during grace at dinner after a long day, but all will not be lost.  What I so love about the 12-year-old Jesus is that he manages to hold both together–the human and divine, the accessible and aspirational, the flawed and the excellent.  In one moment, he can share with and bestow upon others amazing insight about God and God’s works, and in another, he can completely lack consideration for his parents.  He shows us that living out our faith tends not to be all or nothing.  Our actions and practices are never all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, and we know that they are not in vain, because it is the striving, the believing that we can, even if imperfectly, that is the point.    

Perhaps you have heard the words before “Jesus descended so that we might ascend.”  Put differently, Jesus came to earth to show us the way, how we might be forever with God.  As the letter to the Ephesians tells us, God sees us through the lens of Jesus; we get extra credit. God the Father “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  Jesus’ full sharing in our human experience deepens and intensifies God’s love and understanding for us. Our contemporary ideas about adolescence and young adulthood are actually quite lovely to bring into play here.  We know that teenagers’ brains are still forming, that their judgement vacillates between spot on and missing the mark.  We, as spiritual teenagers, if you will, are united to Jesus, in all our missteps and all our glories, and God is good with it.  God embraces us, eagerly, happily.

Maybe my favorite alternate title of all that we tossed around in that Facebook thread was this: Teenagers Know Best.


It wouldn’t be Christmas without…

Isaiah 62:6-12


Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels;

all day and all night

they shall never be silent.

You who remind the LORD,

take no rest,

and give him no rest

until he establishes Jerusalem

and makes it renowned throughout the earth.

The LORD has sworn by his right hand

and by his mighty arm:

I will not again give your grain

to be food for your enemies,

and foreigners shall not drink the wine

for which you have labored;

but those who garner it shall eat it

and praise the LORD,

and those who gather it shall drink it

in my holy courts.

Go through, go through the gates,

prepare the way for the people;

build up, build up the highway,

clear it of stones,

lift up an ensign over the peoples.

The LORD has proclaimed

to the end of the earth:

Say to daughter Zion,

“See, your salvation comes;

his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.”

They shall be called, “The Holy People,

The Redeemed of the LORD”;

and you shall be called, “Sought Out,

A City Not Forsaken.”

1   The LORD is King;

let the earth rejoice; *

let the multitude of the isles be glad.

2 Clouds and darkness are round about him, *

righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.

3 A fire goes before him *

and burns up his enemies on every side.

4 His lightnings light up the world; *

the earth sees it and is afraid.

5  The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the LORD, *

at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.

6 The heavens declare his righteousness, *

and all the peoples see his glory.

7 Confounded be all who worship carved images

and delight in false gods! *

Bow down before him, all you gods.

8 Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *

because of your judgments, O LORD.

9 For you are the LORD,

most high over all the earth; *

you are exalted far above all gods.

10 The LORD loves those who hate evil; *

he preserves the lives of his saints

and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

11 Light has sprung up for the righteous, *

and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.

12 Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous, *

and give thanks to his holy Name.


Luke 2:8-20


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without


“It wouldn’t be Christmas without…”  Magazines and newspapers run articles this time of year featuring responses ranging from the serious to the silly to the cynical, and we all could fill in the blank with our own ideas.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without ugly sweaters, the famous and secret family mulled cider recipe, Great Uncle Ned’s crazy story about how he stole the neighbor’s inflatable reindeer as a rebellious teenager, the midnight candle-lit Christmas Eve service closing with the congregation singing the softest, most beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.”  As our seasons of life change, traditions may evolve–your daughter makes the special cranberry relish for Christmas dinner at her house, and you slip into the role of excited grandparent instead of exhausted parent, or you move, and your church home changes, or you lose some special loved ones, and you can feel their presence now only through memories–but there are certain non-negotiables we all have this time of year, and the holidays would not feel like the holidays if they were missing.  


The sameness, the familiarity provides comfort.  There is something to be said about knowing the ending sometimes, knowing that all the men will retire to the sofa for naps following the holiday meal, that the dog will eat too many table scraps and get sick, that the trash company will leave behind a wrapping paper trail after its hurried, half-hearted post-holiday pick up.  


As we leave behind our childhood years, we recognize that the rhythm and routine to it all blunts the excitement of the season, so that the extraordinary, the miraculous, seems manageable, digestible.  It’s the recurrence of the bizarre customs like the plump man who breaks into everyone’s home through the chimney and a virgin becoming a mother to God that makes them endearing rather than frightening, understandable rather than unfathomable.


Yes, it’s the recurrence that makes the story about a baby being born to a seemingly unprepared, unfit girl–a baby lacking the basic necessities for his care, who in this day and age would be reported to Child Protective Services–sweet and benign.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without remembering Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth, complete with the stable and shepherds and angels and bright lights.  But if we place ourselves into the story itself, it is anything but tame and mundane.  “Do not be afraid” are the angel’s words to the terrified shepherds–and those same words are uttered to a frightened Mary and Zechariah, a few chapters earlier.  


“Do not be afraid.”  It’s the most frequently repeated phrase in all the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.  It was precisely the unknown that so rattled Mary and Zechariah and the shepherds.  The laws of the world they knew began crumbling before them: babies were being born to virgins and old ladies, the Almighty God was coming to earth in the form of a vulnerable infant, and lowly shepherds were beginning what would become a religious movement that would captivate and transform millions of followers spanning oceans and millennia.  We think of Christmas as the expected; we know the story.  The circumstances which so terrified Jesus’ first visitors comfort us, or amuse us, causing us to smile knowingly and suspend our belief about the actual facts and historical record of how everything went down.  It is old news by now.


I am not sure that we can recapture that same sense of awe and astonishment to which Luke testifies, other than by trying to insert ourselves back into the narrative, or watching the church glow brighter with white altar dressings and candle light, or allowing ourselves to be swept up during our petition to God to keep acting in the eucharistic prayer (which is what the liturgy is always trying to do–take us to that thin place where we meet Jesus, shape us, change us into a holier, more faithful people).  Our response and witness to Jesus may take a different form than the shepherds’, who incited amazement in the crowds, or Mary’s, who held close her intimate knowledge of God.  


The people of Jerusalem, to whom Isaiah spoke thousands and thousands of years ago, may most resonate with us, in this case.  Isaiah tells the Israelites to count on God, to hold God to God’s promises, but not to stop praying and working for justice and peace.  They were to be expectant, not idle.  And God would privilege them, their city, their people.  Jesus shakes that message up a bit. Jesus emerged from Israel–the place, the heritage, the customs–but casts a wide net, enfolding anyone who wants to be caught up in his history.  Maybe we are a bit too complacent with this idea of being partners in building the heavenly kingdom on earth, too confident about the inevitability of a Redeemer’s arrival that Jesus’ birth has lost its punch.  Our culture has domesticated the Christmas story.  It’s almost as though we are entitled to Jesus rather than humbled by him.


“Do not be afraid.”  Do those words hold?  Do we need them?  Yes.


The frightening part of it all, which Luke attempted to point to by describing angels and bright light and signs and heavenly voices, is that God came to save us, not judge us.  We believe that judgment will happen (and it needs to happen, so that violence and oppression and all of the evil in our world do not have the final word), and in fact, we voice that conviction every time we say the creed: “Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead.”  But God first and foremost desires to be with us.  Baby Jesus tells us that we are not alone, that God is mixed up in this crazy experience called life and wants to know us intimately.  It’s grace.  Before God judges us, God is with us.


That’s the scary part.  It’s counterintuitive, antithetical to our ideas of judges and rulers needing to be detached and mighty, not involved and vulnerable.  Are we prepared for this Jesus?


Madeleine L’Engle, the author behind the much beloved A Wrinkle in Time, writes of Jesus’ first coming.  Her poem conveys that most importantly, Jesus anticipates our needs before we do; Jesus’ time is not our time but it is the right time:


First Coming

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came

to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,

to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!


It wouldn’t be Christmas without…Instead of completing that statement, let’s keep it open-ended, trusting that God has just the perfect answer to fill in the blank.

Kingdom Check

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

November 29, 2015

Year C
By Emily Rowell Brown


Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”


Luke 21:25-36

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

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Let’s learn some fun (or maybe not-so-fun) facts about Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The use of the phrase “Black Friday” dates back to 1961, when used to describe the chaos resulting from the two big shopping days following Thanksgiving in downtown Philadelphia, and in following years, came to be used across the United States.[1]  Every year we hear stories about riots arising in stores as people compete for the insane sales and to get their hands on one of the “it” items of the year (remember Cabbage Patch Kids and the iPad?)–there is even a website devoted to totaling the injuries and deaths resulting from Black Friday.  Staggering statistics tell us how Americans spend about $50 billion on holiday gifts, many putting themselves into debt (and it would cost about $20 billion to end homelessness).[2]


This sort of behavior gives new meaning to the warnings of Luke’s Jesus against becoming too caught up in the pleasures of this world.  Today we begin Advent, and every time we approach this season, our lectionary texts take on an apocalyptic tone.  They warn us that the end days are coming, that there will be judgement, that the world as we know it will pass away and God’s kingdom will rule for evermore. But until that day comes, we wait.  And watch.  As Luke puts it, we should be on guard, alert at all times.


The mood being set here does not jive so well with the Thanksgiving weekend shopping sprees and the Hallmark Channel Christmas movie marathons (which, I’ll admit, fill my DVR for the month of December).  There is a somberness, a restraint, to the church’s approach to the days leading up to Christmas.  We light the Advent wreath slowly, one candle, one week at a time.  We move from darkness to dimness to light.  We hold out on singing Christmas songs–mostly!–until Christmas Eve.  We wait to put out our best flowers and greens until the end of the season.  We are, symbolically, as a community, modeling and heeding Jesus’ advice.


To me, our faith always feels most out of step with majority culture around the holidays, believe it or not.  It’s not the ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, or forgoing the coffee or chocolate during Lent, that feels so odd or different; it’s the stab of frustration I experience when days become so jam-packed with parties and gatherings and obligations and guilt-induced command performances that there is no margin left.  It’s the conflicted emotions that surface when poppy Christmas music blares from the speakers at Target and I find myself humming along yet also telling myself that it is not yet time.  See, the Christmas we in the United States know, is one of instant gratification, immediately ready for the taking.  It is shallow.  It lacks depth.


This is not to say that December should not be enjoyed, gingerbread houses should not be crafted and consumed, parties and plays and pageants should not be merrily had.  But.  We lose too much of Christmas’ meaning if we jump straight ahead to the celebration.  Before there is light, there is darkness.  Before we celebrate Christ’s coming, we must apprehend and accept why we need him in the first place.  Ambiguity abounds: we find hope in the promise that God will make all well, but before that day, we must endure suffering and evil.  We feel trepidation and excitement at the idea of judgement because we want the world to be different than it is now, but it is frightening to imagine exactly what is in store.  Jeremiah and Jesus promise it will be good.


More than other years, this year the need for judgement and God’s rule registers especially profoundly.  In the wake of the attacks in Paris and Colorado shootings, and with anxiety and discord so high among our fellow citizens–local and global–the cosmic signs of which Jesus speaks do not seem too remote a possibility.  Jesus tells us that we will see the change in outward, recognizable signs, so that anyone–educated or not, intuitive or not, religious or not–who pays attention will see and participate in the final establishment of God’s kingdom.  He uses the parable of the fig tree, a symbol known in the Old Testament to signal prosperity for the nation Israel, and language of justice and transformation resonant with the prophets’ promises.  Jesus and Luke and the earliest Christians expected these signs to come soon and for God’s reign to come to fruition in their own lifetimes.  Distress did come, with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem following Christ’s death, but God’s kingdom did not.  Now, two thousand years later, we have a different perspective on how much longer the present state-of-affairs will continue.  We have tempered our expectations for Christ’s second coming so that it seems far, far away.


The military has a custom known as the coin check.  Members give one another a special coin as a sign of their gratitude–a literal token of appreciation.  They can be given unexpectedly for a tiny action of goodwill or something tremendous; it depends.  These coins are often used to play a drinking game, wherein one service member will throw down his or her coin and shout “coin check!”, demanding that everyone else present pull out their own coins.  Whoever is without buys the group drinks, but if everyone else has their coin, then the person who initiated the coin check is on the hook for the tab.  Coin checks can happen anywhere, anytime.  Whether sleeping, showering, or walking the dog, many service members never part with their coins.  They are ready no matter what.


Notwithstanding the drinking part, the ritual built around the coin check sheds some light on Jesus’ exhortations for expectancy.  Jesus warned the disciples about immersing themselves too much in the pleasures of their day–drinking, goofing off, caring too much about status symbols and idle pastimes–and redirected them towards prayer.  Prayer would be the antidote to carelessness and the temptations of their peers; constant conversation and connection with God would ensure that they did not miss the impending judgement.


That habit of touching the coin in one’s pocket reminds the service member of the important whys: why they serve, why they are an integral part of the institution, why they give of themselves as they do for their colleagues.  The coin is a touchstone, a tangible reminder, that calls the owner back to center.


Prayer–broadly conceived–does the same for us.  Lighting the candles of the Advent wreath; saying, to quote writer Anne Lamott, “help, thanks, and wow” to God in the midst of our daily lives; seeking deeper understanding of the refugee crisis in light of our Christian responsibility; finding glimmers of God’s desire to nurture in our mother’s obsessive attention to detail and God’s justice in the hands and feet of those restoring the hope, trust, and physical strength of our world’s innocent victims…these are our prayers.


When the day of judgement comes, will we stand before our God with fear and trembling, wondering whether we lived up to our Lord’s commands?  Luke sure makes it sound that way, and certainly the Left Behind books would lead us to understand judgement as harsh and unyielding.


That is one way of looking at it.  But what if we shift our perspective, come reckoning time to think about the gift of this life?  What have we done with this gift God has bestowed upon us?  How have we enhanced the light of God shining in the world–or how have we smothered it?  When opportunities to spread warmth and goodness presented themselves, did we seize them–or did we even see them?


Jesus speaks cryptically about the coming of the Son of Man, a vague term around which there never has been consensus, even in Jesus’ own time.  Whether the Son of Man is Jesus himself or some other figure or a more universal term for humanity itself is not clear, but what is interesting is Jesus’ desire to connect the final judgement to human beings.  Commentators over the years have pointed out that the Son of MAN (as opposed to Son of GOD) emphasizes Jesus’ humanity over against his divinity.  One who walked upon this earth, drank from its wells and ate from its fig trees, who also endured its turmoil and searched for security, will ask us how we did.  It is one who knows us, who dwelt among us, who holds us to such high standards, with faith that we can do it.  In the words of our psalm, we follow the ways and paths God has already established, so that we will be ready when the time comes for our kingdom check.

[1] Everett Tucker, “Culture of Consumerism: A Brief History of Black Friday,” Mystic Politics,  accessed November 27, 2015, http://mysticpolitics.com/culture-of-consumerism-a-brief-history-of-black-friday.

[2] See infographic pulling from 2012 data collected by the Department of Housing and Development.  Accessed November 27, 2015. http://www.trinet.com/blog/2015/11/25/how-to-stay-in-the-black-to-avoid-debt-this-black-friday/

Showing Up for Miracles

All Saints’ Day

November 1, 2015

Year B


A Homily by Emily Rowell Brown

Revelation 21:1-6a

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”



Let’s talk about miracles.  Do you believe in them?  What even counts as a miracle, anyway?  On the one hand, we all know stories of miraculous cures for terminal illness and resuscitations of people who have left this life.  But, on the other hand, we could also think about more banal instances that contain a hint of the miraculous: the reuniting of two sisters estranged for 27 years; cancer survivors, sustained and healed by loved ones, doctors, and modern medicine; airplanes and spaceships, and even trains and cars, for that matter.  Caterpillars transformed into butterflies.  Each and every new life.


For many people, miracles are how we can know that God exists.  It is the vastness and near unfathomability of creation that points to God’s power and splendor.  It is the healings and turning of water into wine and raising of Lazarus from the dead that demonstrate, especially in John’s gospel, that Jesus is God.  It is the answered prayers for relief from pain and suffering that assure that God is here with us, that we matter to God.


But all this begs the question about the miracles that never come–the miracles that we desperately want, that God never provides; the sick who never find wellness again; the wrongs that are never righted; the evil that persists.


In today’s gospel, Jesus delays his trip to visit the sick Lazarus, and Mary and Martha call him on it.  They ask why he did not come in time to save their brother but held on to the faith that he could save Lazarus still.  Why did Jesus wait to go?  And then, perhaps even more puzzling,  when Jesus does go, for the first and only time in the New Testament, Jesus breaks down himself.  Jesus walks into a whole crowd that is weeping and joins them.


We don’t know whether Jesus cried tears of sadness or remorse or something else, but see that our God does not will or accept death as a final reality.  Lazarus teeters on the edge between this world and another, passing from one to the next and then returning back again thanks to Jesus’ miraculous intervention.  Our text from Revelation describes an unfolding future where justice and beauty reigns, where God and humanity experience no separation.  There will be no more weeping because there will be no more death.  Wholeness, togetherness, newness: these are the words invoked to explain what God desires for us, what God draws us towards all the time…what we hope for as Christians.


Right now the line between what God promises for us and what actually is is blurry, and we live in that tension.  We highlight the struggle on days like today, when we remember all those who have come before us and reflect on how they are no longer with us.  At the same time, we affirm that Christians–the living and the dead, the communion of saints–do still share common ground because we are all mixed up in the glorious mystery that is God’s work but none of our legacies is yet complete.  In that way, perhaps we can relate well to Lazarus, for we have one foot in this messy, imperfect world and one foot in the world that could be, that we believe on day will be.  We have Jesus standing beside us as we negotiate this in-between space, telling us to have a little faith, have a little faith, because good claims victory in the end.


Why, then, if God intends to usher in a kingdom unmarred by suffering and evil, does God not just do so already?  Why help sometimes and not others?  Why grant miracles so gratuitously?


I wish I–or any other theologian, for that matter–had good answers to give.  But, then again, maybe we are asking the wrong questions.  What if, instead of focusing on why Jesus waited to come until Lazarus had already died, we dwelt upon how he wept with Mary and Martha and their community?  What if, instead of wondering why John describes such a faraway, unattainable world in Revelation, we delight in the tenderness that characterizes the relationship between God and humanity, intimacy not unlike that between a married couple or parent and child?  What if, instead of relegating God’s role in hurricanes and tsunamis to their creation, we found God in the relief efforts, in the hands of nurses, carpenters, firefighters, mayors and volunteers that labor tirelessly in the aftermath?


Miracles are about God showing up in extraordinary ways when we do not expect it, but the thing is, God is showing up all the time, we just don’t bother to notice.  Miracles are everywhere, if only we look closely.  And it is the saints–both those among us and those preceding us–who help us to develop the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hearts to know.






It’s Money That Matters

A Sermon for The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
October 11, 2015
By Emily Rowell Brown

As a properly raised southern girl, I know that there are certain things you just don’t talk about in public, and that just don’t make for pleasant dinner table conversation: finances, religion, politics. So it is not without a bit of guilt and reticence that I admit that my first two Sundays here, I preach about age and money.

Today’s gospel is hard. It is discomforting, provocative.  I think it says something that so many people find the need to respond to Jesus’ instruction to the rich man to give his wealth away.  Some people point to the exchange as an argument against capitalism, some as an argument for charities, and some as argument for a detached attitude towards possessions.  But regardless of where the arguments land on the spectrum of interpretations, they tend to smack of defensiveness, prickliness, ruffled feathers.  It’s easy to rush to Jesus’ defense when he speaks about caring for little children and loving our neighbor, but it’s an entirely different matter to embrace the teachings that are far more radical.

Is the money even necessarily the important part? Maybe the heart of today’s gospel is actually about discipleship, about being willing to leave behind everyone and everything to follow Jesus.  Jesus’ way does not include prestige in this world but promises eternity instead.  Maybe the gospel means to teach us to that Jesus will reverse everything we know, turn everything on its head: the first will be last, the last will be first, the powerless will have favor, the powerful will lose all.

But abstracting more general, spiritual messages from the story does not seem to do the startlingly vivid and specific encounter justice. It’s difficult–and probably inauthentic–not to make today’s gospel about money.  When we look at the episode in the context of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and outcast, and in the context of our Old Testament reading, where the prophet Amos delivers news again and again of God’s outrage over the disparities between the haves and have-nots, we get a taste of a recurrent theme in our scriptures.  If we look at our scriptures as a whole, there is no getting around the fact that the Bible includes more than 2,000 verses about money.  (To put that figure in perspective, there are fewer than 500 verses on each prayer and faith.)  Estimates vary, but most people who have bothered to count contend that 15 percent of everything Jesus taught was on the topic of money and possessions.[1] Wealth clearly has something to do with our relationship to God.

If we were to ask many of the poor in places like Latin America, stories like this one encapsulate the entire gospel, the good news God brings. God wants to disrupt and transform the wide, wide gap between their society’s rich and the masses. Whereas the wealthy and powerful hold prestige in the here-and-now, they, the poor and marginalized, absolutely matter to God–they are in fact God’s chief concern. A strain of Christian thought known as liberation theology articulates these convictions: that Jesus is political, that the kingdom of God is about the present day, that heaven involves setting things right on this earth, not in a far-away heaven of clouds and pearly gates.

If we were to ask historical critics, they would tell us that they think Jesus’ strong words about wealth make sense of the ancient Roman context, where the gulf between the elite and the common was far wider than we experience or can imagine today. Since we believe that Jesus’ first followers were, for the most part, the outcasts, they of course wanted a revolution. Jesus offered a new world, where the rulers did not take, take, take from those who worked so hard, where they would not be taxed to death or shut off from the graces of God because they could not contribute towards the building of synagogues and making of sacrifices. Plus, most early Christians believed that Jesus would return any day and set all things right, so it did not seem necessary or logical to saddle oneself down with a bunch of possessions. Soon there would be no need, and they wanted to be ready.

If we were to ask Saint Francis or Mother Teresa, the passage means exactly what it says. We should take up an itinerant lifestyle like Jesus, wandering from place to place preaching about the kingdom of God. Wealth is unnecessary; God will provide.

If we were to ask many of the churches beginning their stewardship campaigns (as are we), one way to part with wealth as Jesus commands is by giving it to the church. The church helps redistribute goods, resources, and blessings in the community so that all might experience the delight and beauty of God’s earth and live comfortably, by reaching out to those in need and by helping humans infuse our lives with meaning and purpose and wonder.

If we were to ask many–I bet most–of the text’s readers today, we would learn that Jesus’ challenge is somewhat specific to the rich man. Because of the rich man’s attachment to his wealth, Jesus called him to give up what mattered most. What stands between Jesus and any given person may vary–for some, its work, others, fame, or influence, or reputation–but what Jesus requires each of us to do is to let go of what we clutch so desperately. We must hold our blessings, like our nice houses and fancy cars and fascinating jobs and even dear family and friends, more loosely, remembering that God always comes first. Being too attached to the things of this world inhibits our ability to respond to Jesus. Therefore, the text is about one’s spiritual state as much as it is about one’s material state.

I go through all of these different ways of responding to the text partly because they demonstrate how much the reading gets under our skin. No matter how you come down–liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, right, left–you probably have walked away from this story, if you’ve heard it before, not quite satisfied.  Most of us are caught between two scenarios: we either are faithful enough in reading the story to feel that our lives do not line up with our interpretation; or we feel great about the coherence between our interpretation and our lifestyles but wonder if we exercised a little too much creative license with how we make sense of Jesus’ instructions.

But what’s the solution? I can remember back to a discussion of this text I had with a divinity school colleague.  His question, sincere, earnest, was, “What does this mean for investments?” and he proceeded to tell me how he and his wife and were struggling with whether they should be saving for retirement and college when there were hungry people they passed on the street everyday.  “Doesn’t that seem antithetical to the gospel?  To store up a bunch of money, beyond what we need to live, for a far away day?”

His question was not the one we all ask about the cardboard box–you know, are we supposed to give so much that we put ourselves in situations where we end up in cardboard boxes and others must take care of us–but it held a similar sentiment: How much wealth is too much wealth? To what extent does it belong to God and to what extent are we stewards of what we have been given?

Remember the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film–the original, not the Johnny Depp fiasco? Five children won golden tickets to visit the top secret Willy Wonka candy factory, and all of the children–with the exception of the story’s hero Charlie–fell prey to their own greed.  Instead of delighting in the copious amounts of sugar and fantastical confectionary inventions, they became caught up in their own agendas, focused on securing their fame and fortune by stealing factory secrets for a supposed competitor.  Only Charlie gave himself over to the experience, appreciating Willy Wonka’s generosity and taking each moment as it came.

Our world is material, and God made it that way. This physicality is not accidental–Jesus came to us not as just a spirit, but as a real, enfleshed person.  We use cars and feet to move between places, money to provide for our needs, bread–and sometimes chocolate–to fuel our bodies.They are ways for us to experience God and God’s love, but they are never the ends in themselves.  They help us to take care of one another, to build a little bit of heaven here on earth, as long as we do not grasp hold too tightly.
[1] Estimates vary, but most place the number of references to money, possessions, and wealth around 2, 000. See, for instance, Sheryl Nance Nash, “Is the Bible the Ultimate Financial Guide?”, Forbes Magazine, May 24, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/sherylnancenash/2012/05/24/is-the-bible-the-ultimate-financial-guide/ and http://www.providentplan.com/personal-finance-bible-verses/.