This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 1.20-33, Psalm 19, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Street Church, wisdom, frightening faith, vision processing, preaching cliches, the sanctity of silence, communal affirmation, cross bearing, the present of presence, and mic drop moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Those Who Can’t Teach, Do
Romans 8.28, 31-39
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Everything happens for a reason. We say something like that to bring comfort to people in the midst of uncertainty, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances mostly because we don’t know what else to say. It is a remarkably common expression among Christian-types and it’s not in the Bible.
Years ago I received a phone call that a woman in my church was in her final moments. She had been suffering from a great number of chronic problems for the better part of two decades and most of her family had not expected for her to live as long as she did. We all stood around her bed together praying and sharing those final moments before she died.
A few days later, on the eve of her funeral, her now widower husband fell down the steps in front of their house after returning from the wake and was rushed to the hospital. He needed a few days to recover and we delayed his wife’s funeral until he was better. Eventually he sat in the pews with surrounded by his family and worshipped with the rest of us as we gave thanks to God for his wife.
After the burial and reception he returned to his now empty house complaining of our tired he was and after he went to bed, he never woke up again.
A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.
When I got the call about his death, having only seen him the day before, I rushed to the house to meet with the family who were still in town from the wife’s funeral. And one by one I watched and listened as every single family member exchanged a version of “everything happens for a reason.”
“God just needed another angel in heaven.”
“God wanted them to be married in heaven just like they were married on earth.”
“This was all part of God’s plan.”
And the more I heard it the more my blood boiled. But before I had a chance to blurt out something pastors aren’t supposed to say, one of the couple’s daughters beat me to it.
“That’s BS” she stammered.
Though she didn’t use the acronym.
“If this was all part of God’s plan, then why did God take away my Mommy and Daddy so quickly? Why would God do that to me?”
And that’s when the whole room turned to me, the pastor, the so-called expert on God.
So I said, “If there is a reason for everything, if God killed both of them on purpose, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.”
When we throw out trite and cliche sentences like, “everything happens for a reason” it puts all of the responsibility of every single little thing entirely upon God.
It makes God into a monster.
The author of car crashes, incurable childhood cancers, and unending wars.
And yet, more often than not, it is our go-to expression when we don’t know what else to say.
If there are two things that we, as human beings, just can’t stand they are mystery and silence. It’s no wonder therefore that when we face a situation that has no explanation we get as far away from mysterious silence as we possibly can by saying something we think is helpful. We both want to have an answer for every question and we want to be able to get out of uncomfortable moments when we don’t know what to say.
The problem with all of that is we think we’re helping someone when we’re actually making things worse.
Anyone who claims that everything happens for a reason are those who believe God wills every single horrific death, every incurable diagnosis, and even something like the Coronavirus. They see and imagine God as some great puppeteer in the sky instituting every possible contingency such that it must be this way at all times no matter what.
And if that’s true, then every rape, every murder, every act of child abuse or neglect, every war, every storm or earthquake, are all part of God’s plan.
To those who believe that is the case, the response from the daughter whose parents died should suffice.
In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the unimaginable tsunami that wrecked South Asia back in 2015. The article was focused on a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of all his efforts, which included swimming in the rolling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to save his wife or any of his four children from drowning in the waters. The father recounted the names of his children and then, overwhelmed by his grief, sobbed to the reporter, “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here… he will save us” but I couldn’t do it.”
David Hart wonders, in his book, If you had the chance to speak to the father in the moment of his deepest pain, what would you say? Hart then argues that only idiots would have approached the father with trite and empty theological expressions like: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s cosmic plan” or “It’s okay this was God’s design” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Most of us, Hart believes, would have the good sense not to talk like that to the father. And then he takes it one step forward. “And this should tell us something. For if we think is shamefully foolish and cruel to say things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
And to take it one step even further, if we mustn’t say things like that to such a father, then we ought never to say them about God.
St Paul wrote to the early church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Which, for many, justifies the desire to say “everything happens for a reason.”
And yet we so often forget that this verse is the beginning of Paul’s big crescendo to one of the texts we use most often at funeral – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What we miss in that profound and powerful declaration is that there are powers and principalities contending against God in this life.
That is, death is something that is trying to separate us from God, but God wins in the end.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated in Christ Jesus, and will ultimately destroy forever in the New Jerusalem.
That is, to put a fine note on it, the whole point of the Gospel in the first place.
It would then be nothing but ridiculous for God to delight or even ordain the deaths of those whom he loves for it would run counter to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
God does not want bad things to happen to us. But bad things do happen in this fallen and fallible world we find ourselves in. We, all of us, make choices we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. We contribute in ways both big and small to the tremendous suffering in the world. From delighting in being able to purchase a banana whenever we want from the grocery store (a banana that requires low waged work, an absurd amount of fossils fuel, and harmful chemicals to make it to our plate) to texting while we drive (which distracts us from the kid running into the street to grab his wayward basketball) to a great number of other scenarios.
Some of the suffering of the world is willed, but not by God. It is willed by us in our relentless pursuit of whatever we think we deserve.
And yet a fair amount of suffering in the world exists not because of us or God, things just happen without explanation.
And when those things occurs, whether willed by human beings or random events in creation, we do well to close our mouths and rest in the knowledge that God has defeated death.
Does that erase death’s sting here and now? Of course not, death always hurts.
But as Christians, we know how the story ends, we know that those we lose in life will be waiting for us at the Supper of the Lamb surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us.
The “for good” that God works to achieve is the proclamation that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That even in our suffering, even in our deaths, God is with us.
Look, I hear it a lot in my line of work, people showing up at the church or calling me on the phone to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?”
The loss of a child. The loss of a job. The loss of health.
And for as many times as I have heard questions about God’s purposes behind the purposeless moments in life, I’ve heard from just as many people wondering, “What can I possibly say to someone in their suffering, in their loss?”
Sometimes the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. As hard as it might be to sit with someone else in their pain and in their suffering, just listening to them is far better than trying to fill the time with trite and meaningless aphorisms. At the very least, it’s the most faithful thing we can do.
Life is hard and all sorts of things happen without explanation. I know that might not sound very pastoral, but it’s true. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came to the church one morning in your grief or suffering or pain, and you got down on your knees to pray to God when all of the sudden you heard a voice booming from the heavens declaring, “I”M DOING THIS TO YOU ON PURPOSE! THIS IS PART OF MY PLAN!”
If that’s who God is, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Thankfully, that’s not who God is. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. God is the author of salvation and not the dictator of death. God is the one who would do everything, and already did, to make sure that nothing, truly nothing, could ever separate us from the his divine love.
Our hope is not contingent on finding reasons to explain everything that happens – instead our hope is built on Christ who shows us in his life, death, and resurrection that God is with us, always.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
For I am convinced, like Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s the gospel.
Jesus is the reason that even when things happen, we are not abandoned.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 Kings 19.9-13
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
Let’s get a few things out of the way. You two, are without a doubt, the coolest couple I know. You’re hip, and fun, and just the right amount of edgy. You eat at really awesome restaurants, you spin the best vinyl, and you both often dress the way the rest of us will five years down the road.
I know this is especially true for you Parker. Because, though we’ve known each other since elementary school, when we played house league basketball and you ran around with your bowl haircut, it was in middle school that you began wearing girl jeans, white belts, and black skinny ties. That might sound a little ubiquitous now, but I promise you were the only one in our school who dressed like that.
Liz, I cannot speak to your sartorial habits from your youth, but I can affirm that you’re sense of wonder, in particular regarding the literary world, is cooler than a cucumber. Back after my own wedding, when you and Parker were visiting us, I was trying to brag about how well read we were as a couple, when you asked if I had read anything from Elena Ferrante. And, not only had I not read anything, I hadn’t even heard of her. And then when I expressed an interest in learning more, you simply left me a your own copy without even waiting to see my reaction.
You two are too cool.
And, in addition to being cool, you two have got to be the best gift-givers I’ve ever known. Parker, you sent me a framed business card from Elvin Jones when I got ordained. For those of you who are uninformed, Elvin Jones was the greatest American Jazz drummer of the post-bop era, and he played with Coltrane. When our son Elijah was born you two sent us his very first vinyl record, and a vintage copy of a recording of Elijah Rock. And you’ve never come to see us without bringing an assortment of toys for our dog Tennessee.
And that’s just a sampling of what you’ve showered me with! I am positive that if we took the time, most of the people here would be able to share similar stories of your gracious gift-giving abilities.
You two are cool, you care very deeply for the people in your lives, and just as you have given so much to all of us, now you come here to this place, at this time, to give yourselves to each other.
James Baldwin wrote about his discovery of love being the key to life while in the midst of starving.
This is no accident.
There is something about absence that draws us to existence. In our weakness we are bound together in ways we can scarcely imagine, both as individuals, and as entire communities. And it was through Baldwin’s hunger that he discovered the overwhelmingly transformative power of love.
Baldwin, of course, is most known for his writing on race and identity, his work “The Fire Next Time” still haunts me to this day, but the selection from Baldwin you chose for your wedding, I believe is indicative of his entire work. It was a profound love for humanity that compelled Baldwin to speak so candidly about her failures. It was in the recognition of our shackles to one another, and our freedom from one another, that he experienced the mystery of glory.
There are few things more glorious in this world than two people making the profound covenant that you two are about to make. In your words, in your prayers, in your promises you will enter into that mysterious state that both confounded and excited Baldwin, this paradox in which your bondage will mean your liberation.
It is just as Rilke says, if you learn to love the expanse between you, if you learn to accept and cherish the paradox we call marriage, then you will experience the impossible possibility of see each other as a whole AND before an immense sky.
Your relationship began over a shared love of books; both evidenced in the readings your chose for your wedding and your gift giving. Though, as many of us know, Parker you did everything in your power to learn as much about what Liz liked, including books, just so you could keep talking to her. And in case anyone here doesn’t know, Liz slept through the first date.
But you both kept trying; you took steps closer to one another with your intellectual curiosities and you took steps away with your own experiences. You ventured out to new and strange places together, and then back to places of comfort and familiarity. And that give and take, the binding and the liberating, is what eventually brought you right here.
Parker, you are an extremely grounded person, almost to a fault, and I am grateful that Liz keeps you comfortably off the ground. She pushes you and challenges you in ways that would make Baldwin proud, and she loves how dedicated you are to others.
Liz, you bring a sense of wonder to your relationship that is truly wonderful. You seek out new adventures, embrace creative moments, and you excel at being in the moment. I am grateful that in Parker you found a partner who both affirms your beautiful brain and can make you laugh better than anyone else, except for maybe Lenny Bruce.
A few weeks ago, the three of us were talking and I asked both of you to consider what you think marriage actually is. I challenged you to create your own working definition of what marriage could be and this is what you said: Marriage is bringing new worlds to each other.
I like that. I like it a lot in fact. Because that’s precisely what God brings to us.
In the story of Elijah we discover the strange new world of God’s reign. Elijah is afraid, he is in fact running for his life when he comes to the cave, when he hears the probing question from the Lord, “What are you doing here?” God promises to be present for the prophet, and from the safety of the cave Elijah experiences the great wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and even the silence. But God is not in any of those things, not even in the silence.
However, it is only in the silence that Elijah is able to hear the question for the second time, and truly began to ponder his answer, “What are you doing here?”
When I asked you two if you wanted anything particular to happen during this wedding celebration, you said silence. How perfect! In a world hell bent of berating us with sounds and words and arguments, you wanted time to shut up and listen. You wanted the silence in order to appreciate the sacredness of this moment, so as to not give yourselves over to the ways of the world.
Silence is rare in God’s scripture, but silence is not absence. Silence is often the perquisite for the most profound discoveries we could ever hope to experience. It is in the silence before the first note of a song that we enter into the strange new world of anticipation, it is in the silence shared between two friends that sets them forth on a path to the strange new world of a relationship, and it is in the silence shared between all of us right now that God asks the most important question of the strange new world you two are about to embark upon, “What are you doing here?”
Shutting up might just be the thing that sustains you in your marriage.
But, it’s not just about being silent so that the other can speak and you can appropriately listen, it’s about shutting off all the noise under which we are suffocating. Silence is the beauty of self-reflection that allows us to see who we really are in order to give ourselves to the other. Without silence, we are just clanging cymbals making noise in the void.
In your marriage built on silence, you will find speckles of the divine in the other. Those speckles will shine forth in intimate moments shared in the silence of your apartment, in the rare silence of a subway ride, in the silence shared during a meal, and even in the silence as you prepare to fall asleep in your shared bed.
Silence might just sustain your marriage.
I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? That’s okay. In the backyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.
I don’t know if everyone knows this, but we are gathered in the middle of a labyrinth. Christians have been using abyrinths for at least 1,000 years as a way to experience the divine. The journey to the middle of the maze is one marked by contemplation, reflection, and silence. It is a journey to a new world, one in which you can’t imagine, one in which without silence becomes meaningless.
It is therefore perhaps the most appropriate place to have a wedding. You two are preparing to embark on a long journey to the center of the labyrinth we call marriage. It will be filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and in the silence of your journey you will find each other, and God will find you.
God always find us.
When Elijah stepped forth out of the cave, the stench of burning wood was still in the air, the boulders were crumbled into rocks, and the trees were split in two. The silence after the dramatic allowed him to really hear the question, “What are you doing here?”
And here we are, millennia later, and God is asking both of you the same question.
I’d like you both to look out at everyone gathered for just a moment. Their presence is an answer to God’s question. They are here because they believe in the impossible possibility of your marriage. They see in you what you have discovered in one another, and it will be through their hopes and dreams and prayers that your promise will be sustained in times of drama and in times of silence.
But at the end of the day, marriage is a mystery. It is like the paradox of being bound together and simultaneously being set free. It is like an empty tomb that stands a stark declaration about the defeated power of death. It is like the labyrinth in which we stand. It’s only something we can figure out while we figure it out.
Marriage is like the mystery of new worlds joining together.
So, my friends, it is my hope and prayer that you two recognize how profoundly mysterious your marriage will be, that you will cherish the moments of deep silence, and that you rejoice in the strange new worlds you are bringing to each other, and the strange new world that God has brought to you. Amen.
When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
I like going to the gym. It’s one of the few places I can go without being spotted as a pastor (and therefore can avoid of all the Christianisms that often occur like, “I haven’t been to church in a long time,” and “What do you think heaven is like?”). There is a peace I experience while running on the treadmill in that I can be alone in my thoughts, with just enough distraction in running to actually relax.
On Monday afternoon, while about halfway through my run, my mindful journey was interrupted by the person running next to me. When I quickly glanced over it was clear that he was deeply disturbed by something on the television screen and I could hear him cursing under his breath. For 15 minutes I continued to run in silence, but I could not stop listening to, and worrying about, the man next to me. With every passing minute his face grew redder, his volume increased, and his anger became even more palpable until he could no longer stand it, he shut off the machine, and he walked away.
I honestly left the gym feeling pretty good about myself. Not only had I taken the time to be mindful about my physical health but also I wasn’t nearly as angry or ridiculous as the man running next to me. I know I left on Monday afternoon with a sense of pride. At least, I did until I got in the car, started listening to the news on the radio, and saw my tight knuckles gripping the steering wheel as I listened to all that is going on in the world. By the time I got home I realized that I was no better than the man from the gym, the only difference was he let out his emotions in front of everyone and I did it in the solitude of my car.
How do you respond to difficult information? Do you pick up a nearby object and hurl it across the room? Do you mutter words of anger under your breath? Do you lash out on those around you? Do you clench your fists in concentrated frustration?
It is impossible, and frankly unhealthy, to keep everything bottled up. Whether it’s a response to what you witness on the news or learning something disturbing about someone you know and love, we can’t avoid how we feel. But, as the psalmist puts it, we can at least take the time to ponder it in silence before reacting.
If the Lord we worship responded to our many failures with knee-jerk reactions, this world would probably not exist. But God is patient and contemplative when it comes to how God’s creatures act. Sometimes God is silent specifically such that we might come to realize who we are and who we need to be.
We all live and move in a world predicated on knee-jerk reactions. The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with information designed to elicit responses from us. We check our emails, and social media accounts with a regularity that is frightening (myself included). But God shows us a different way; a way in which we can ponder the events of the world in silence before jumping into the fray.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arms rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question recently: “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” It’s a great question because it accomplishes three things: It’s gets a conversation going even among people who don’t know each other very well, it sheds light on what kind of hopes and expectations people place on this season, and it helps me learn which hymns you all know how to sing on Sunday mornings!
The answers have been marvelous; I’ve heard memories of standing with long lost family members with the words of O Holy Night passing between them. I’ve been told about the power of Handel’s Messiah and it’s ability to make even the tightest lip quiver with joy. I’ve even learned about bizarre traditions like family competitions to make up new words to Joy to the World on the spot without any practice.
There is some really good Christmas music out there. Perhaps we think it’s so good because we only listen to it for a season every year and therefore are not overwhelmed by it. But nevertheless, there is at least one song that drives me crazy this time of year, one song that I will immediately shut off the radio if I hear the opening chords, one song that has no place in the Christmas lexicon: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
Now, don’t get me wrong, when I was younger I loved the song. There’s something about Dean Martin’s voice that just makes the song sound like melted butter, and the scene in Elf when Will Ferrell starts singing it in the shower makes me laugh no matter what. But as I’ve aged, the more I’ve realized how problematic the song really is.
When you pull back the veneer of incredible voices and dynamite harmonies, the song is nothing more than a man forcing a woman to stay the night against her own will. It is, in verse and chorus format, sexual misconduct.
Check it out: I really can’t stay, I’ve got to go away. This evening has been, so very nice. My mother will start to worry, my father will be pacing the floor, so really I’d better scurry, but maybe just a half a drink more… The neighbors might think, say what’s in this drink?
All the while the male voice is doing everything in his power to convince and force her to stay.
The cultural acceptance of a song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is precisely why we are hearing, every week, about more people (and in particular men) being accused of this kind of behavior.
Behavior we learn about in an all too beloved Christmas song.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Who are we supposed to be comforting this time of year? Those who sit in the warmth of a church sanctuary on a cold December morning? Those whose trees are almost hidden behind mounds of presents? Those who have a full family around the table for dinner every night?
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The Lord declares that a reckoning is coming; all will be made new. The mighty shall be brought low and the weak shall be made strong. Only then, only with the reversal and evening of all things, shall the glory of the Lord be revealed.
During Advent we are forced to recognize that God is in the business of toppling things over, particularly the things we’ve grown all too comfortable with.
Over the last few months there has been a continuous revealing of sexual harassment from some of the most powerful people in our country. Whether substantiated or not, we haven’t gone a few days without another name bubbling to the service. Roy Moore with young girls many years ago, Al Franken both before and after he became a senator, Matt Lauer installed a button to lock his door to trap women in his office, Harvey Weinstein repeatedly used his power to assault and manipulate young actresses. Even our president has not escaped the scores of women coming forward to name the terrible things that have been done to them. And I don’t think the naming is going to stop any time soon.
But to make matters even worse, many of these men have had these habits for a very long time and nothing was ever done about it. The abused women were made to feel powerless and threatened if they ever revealed what happened, others in power knew about the behaviors and made light of them, and many of us have grown all too comfortable with a world where women are made to feel inferior.
Even the United Methodist Church is not immune to the degradation of women. In the Virginia Annual Conference, clergywomen who have the same education and worked the same number of years make, on average, $12,180.94 less than their clergymen counterparts. (UMC GCSRW)
I could go on and on with examples of how sexism and disruptive power dynamics have done terrible things to and against women. A song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is only scratching the surface but it goes to show how deeply entrenched these practices and behaviors really are.
The word from Isaiah, from God, comes as the people are suffering under an oppression that seems inescapable. God declares that a new thing is happening to and for a people who feel no hope. Babylon, like too many men today, rules with an iron fist, the power feels inescapable, and that precisely when God describes the coming change, the evening of all things, and we’re part of it.
I’m ashamed to admit that as more and more names have come out, the Kevin Spaceys and Charlie Roses and Louis C.K.s, I’ve been surprised how pervasive this is. My surprise is embarrassing because I see the world through my own lens (white male) and therefore have ignored or been blind to what actually happens. When I talked with my wife, and my sisters, female friends and church folk, they have not been surprised. Their lack of surprise is due to the fact that for every famous and powerful man that asserts his will or degrades a woman, there is an equal (if not higher) number of men in the workplace or in the community who do the same.
We live in a world where women are made to feel less than men.
And God is doing something about it.
During the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel existed in a state of misery: they were stripped of their institutional structures that shaped their lives, their temple was destroyed, and they were compelled to worship the Babylonian god Marduk. And God, like God had done before, has a new vision for God’s people, a way through the wilderness, a wilderness reshaped by the Grace of God.
Today, we are captured and captivated by a culture that tells us all is well when we know that all is hell. If the world had it’s way, we would be prevented from entering and contemplating these difficult things, but we come to a place like this precisely to hear a counter to the culture.
Women in the world exist under the threat of male chauvinism, physical and emotional abuse, and a patriarchal frame of reference that would make Jesus turn even more tables.
It is good and right for us to receive this word from Isaiah during the season of Advent, while word of female suffering comes forth every day. It is good and right because the story of Advent is one about believing what a woman says about what has happened to her, namely Mary. Advent is the season in which we relearn how God identifies God’s self with those on the margins, and not with the powerful. Advent is the time where we look for the ways God is turning the world upside-down and we give thanks.
When we hear these words from scripture, about comforting the people of God, they are meant for those who have been forced to the margins of life by the powers and principalities. They are words of hope to those with no hope that a new thing is beginning.
And for those of us who feel too comfortable in life, too comfortable with this season, too comfortable with the status quo, those of us who might not be able to witness the suffering of others because of our towers of privilege, there is something for us to hear as well.
We should hear this word and tremble.
This Word helps to establish the distinction between those who rejoice at the word of God’s arrival and those who see God’s rule as a threat to their own power and position. Advent shines a light on the truth of our lives in a way that most of us would rather avoid. The prophet shouts to us through the sands of time and beckons us to imagine where we have fallen short, to wait for God to judge our iniquity, and to respond to God’s grace made manifest in the manger.
This is the God we worship. Or, as Isaiah puts it, “Here is your God!” The One who makes all things new, who brings down the mighty, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, who makes a way where there is no way. Here is your God who provides a voice to the voiceless, who empowers the powerless, and breaks the silence.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, as we step closer and closer to the manger in Bethlehem, as we wait for the next Advent of God’s Son, the Word grabs hold of our souls and begs us to consider: “Are we aligning ourselves with those on the margins? Are we listening to the people that Jesus listened to? Are we participating in the great reversal of all things?”
God is making a way where there is no way, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
Here is our God! Amen.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
In 1968 there was a man whose job was to record nature sounds for films and television. He would pack up his recording equipment, hike out into the wilderness, drop his gear, and then return later for the undisturbed natural sound. In order to achieve 1 hour of unaffected sound, no planes or sirens or human presence, it would take 15 hours of recording time.
Today, the same man continues to record and when he wants to get 1 hour of unaffected nature sounds, it takes 2000 hours of recording time.
We live in loud world.
Most cars now come with separate audio systems for the front and back so that passengers can listen to different music. You can buy clothing with wires stitched into the fabric so that you can have music in your ears wherever you go. I even saw a commercial last week of a couple out in the wilderness camping and they were unable to sleep because it was too quiet and they then started playing “soothing city noises” of traffic and horns honking on their phones in order to fall asleep.
What does it say about us when we now have apps to help us sleep with the sounds of pedestrians and road rage?
What does it say about us when we need to have sound and music playing whenever we’re in the car, whenever we’re sitting in the backyard, or whenever we’re walking down the street?
What does it say about us when most of squirm and uncomfortably cough when we’re asked to pray silently in church on Sunday for all of 15 seconds?
Many of us want the same things as the psalmist; we want to hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people. But how can we ever expect to hear God speak when our ears are filled with the sounds of life that bang and clash and hum over and over?
When was the last time you were intentionally quiet for ten minutes? What is it about silence that makes it so difficult? Why is it so much easier to be surrounded by noise than to stop and listen?
There are times when God will speak to us through loud and cacophonous means, but there are other times when God shows up in the silence, if we are willing to listen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Molly Williamson about the readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, 1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Molly is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Duke University and loves talking about God’s Word. The conversation covers a range of topics including the perils of skipping scriptures, how God can speak through silence, and why you can’t ignore the Old Testament. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Sheer Silence
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
“Why don’t you offer the prayer?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask in order to make someone uncomfortable when they least suspect it. I’ll be out at dinner, or some sort of communal function, and the moment right before the host inevitably asks me (as the pastor) to pray, I’ll lean over to someone and say, “Why don’t you offer the prayer?”
The question is often met with a blank expression that quickly morphs into terror. Some people feel like they can’t say no when a pastor asks them to do something so they start to pray; others begin to quake under the anxiety of publically praying though they muster something together; and others just sit there silently waiting (and perhaps praying) for me to start saying something instead.
But the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realized how harmful it can be. And not just on an interpersonal level regarding the manipulation of the pastor over and against a lay person, but also because it leaves people feeling like they have to be able to make up a prayer and offer it on the spot in order to be a Christian.
Spontaneous and extemporaneous prayers can be difficult and problematic things. Instead of sitting silently and listening for the Spirit we often fill the void with our own words that may have nothing to do with what it means to pray in the first place. We assume that praying has to be original and new every time it happens, but it was not so for the first Christians.
In the wake of Pentecost, the new coverts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Notice the definite article: the prayers. They were given prayers to pray and this is entirely different than assuming that everyone can and should be able to make up their own prayers on the spot.
It is a great gift in the church to have prayers from the saints, to be able to look back and use the words that have been used so many times (and will continue to be used long after we’re gone) because sometimes we don’t have the right words to pray. Rather than struggling to come up with something on our own we can use the words from the Psalms, or reach for the Book of Common Prayer, or even read the words from a beloved hymn. Those words are our prayers, they are the prayers, and they have been given to us. Thanks be to God for providing the words of prayer when we cannot find them on our own.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
“Where do you feel God’s presence?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I gather with fellow Christians, and one that I will be asking the youth on our mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina this week. “In your daily life, where do you feel the presence of the Lord?”
The good and faithful members of St. John’s are usually quick to say they feel God’s presence in the sanctuary whenever they gather for worship. Whether it be a particular hymn, a stained glass window, or even the rare good sermon, they feel like God is with them when they’re sitting in the pews.
Others will tell me that they experience God’s presence in the silence of the morning right after they wake up, or the moment right before they fall asleep. They can describe feeling comforted by the Lord’s presence in that moment when they are otherwise totally alone.
And still yet others tell me they regularly experience God’s presence in nature. There is something about the sounds of the woods, or the view of a sunset, that is indicative of God’s great majesty and power.
In the psalms we read about the earth proclaiming the handiwork of the Lord. From the smallest cell in a leaf to the great horizons of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the world around us declares the work of the Lord.
The challenge of discovering the Lord in nature is in not taking nature for granted. How often do we get in the car to drive along I-81 without taking a glance at he mountains in the distance? How often do we sit in our backyards without giving thanks for the light and subtle breeze? How often do we curse the bees flying around our heads without giving thanks for their pollinating practices?
This week, as we continue to take steps in faith, let us look for the presence of the Lord in the pines and the poplars, the plateaus and the prairies, the ponds and the puddles, the wind and the wake, the stars and the sky, the breeze and the bulbs, the fungi and the fireflies.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Two years ago, today, I woke up like every other Sunday and got ready for church. Though I was enriched with theological education Monday – Friday in seminary, I looked forward to spending time in worship with people who were not from school on Sundays. Duke Memorial UMC is a beautiful church located right on the corner of downtown Durham and serves the needs of a wide variety of people. The sanctuary is wider than it is long, with a balcony, and a raised area above the altar for the choir and the organ. The church prides itself on its ability to worship faithfully, and engage deeply in the community.
Two years ago, today, I woke up like every Sunday morning, but this one would be different. While my roommates got ready to attend their respective churches, my phone began to ring and my pastor’s name appeared on the phone. Now, many of you might not know this, but if you receive a phone call from me on Sunday morning, it usually means there’s an emergency. I nervously answered the phone and through her scratchy voice I learned that both pastors of Duke Memorial were sick, and neither one of them would be able to preach. I had a feeling that I knew were the conversation was headed and I quickly glanced over at my clock; worship would begin in one hour. She continually apologized for their sickness and then finally asked if I would be willing to preach in a very short amount of time. “Of course” I said with a chipper voice, knowing full and well that I had not the faintest idea regarding what I would preach about.
The next hour was a blur.
I obviously did not have the time to write out a manuscript, I was not able to consult numerous commentaries about the text, and I had not spent an appropriate amount of time in prayer over the passage. All I knew was that the passage was the same as today’s (Mark 9.2-9) and that it was Transfiguration Sunday.
I barely made it in time for the service to began with a 3×5 index card in my pocket with three key points that I wanted to make. Upon arrival I searched for a bulletin to discover what else would be going on during the service and I quickly said a prayer before entering the sanctuary. My eyes were still closed when organ began and an acolyte walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the preacher?” To which I responded, “You’re looking at him.”
The next hour was also a blur.
I led us through the usual motions of worship after explaining the lack of two ordained pastors. We prayed together; we sang together; we read together; I preached; and before I knew it, the service came to a conclusion ten minutes earlier than usual.
While people departed from the sanctuary, I did as all pastors do and stood at the door to shake hands with everyone. Many made comments thanking me for my service and willingness to preach on such short notice, but most of the compliments came in the form of, “Hey thanks for getting us out early!”
However, there was one older woman waiting around at the back of the line for her turn to come forward. Another thing you might not know is that if someone waits a long time to speak after a service, they usually have a critique or a criticism that they don’t want to share in front of everyone else. I waited and waited until nearly everyone was gone when she finally stepped forward and grabbed my hand; “Son,” she said, “I’ve been coming to this church my whole life to worship the Lord and hear people preach. I want you to know that you said more in 10 minutes than many could say in 45. Thank you.” And with that she left the sanctuary.
Two years ago, today, I woke up and got tapped to preach a sermon at a moment’s notice. Now, of course, I am the pastor here at St. John’s and I have plenty of time each week to work on preparing for Sunday worship. I have the time to be in prayer over the words of scripture, I have the time to consult commentaries about what’s happening in the deeper sense of the text, I have the time to write out a full manuscript of everything I will say from this pulpit. But this week, I kept thinking about what happened two years ago on Transfiguration Sunday, and I wanted to do something similar…
Instead of combing through numerous books highlighting the ins and outs of Mark 9, instead of doing all the things I normally do to prepare a sermon, I began by reading one verse: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”” and then I felt propelled to do something radical, something that I have not done in a long time, something that I want to share with all of you right now:
I listened to Jesus.
I spend so much time talking about Jesus, that I don’t spend enough time listening to him. Now, I have had some remarkably beautiful and religious experiences in my life, but I have never literally heard the Lord speak like on the mountain during the Transfiguration. I felt called to the ministry but it did not come in the form of a voice booming down from on high saying, “Taylor you need to be a pastor!” So, this week, I put away all the books, and tried to listen to Jesus speaking in my life.
I heard Jesus during my interactions with other people:
One of my best friends in the world found out he has cancer this week. As a young pastor, husband, and father of two young boys, he is more often on the other side of the hospital bed praying for people in the midst of suffering. I immediately wanted to shout with my clenched fists in the sky, I wanted to know why this was happening, but when he wrote to me about his diagnosis I heard Jesus telling me that I need to keep the faith. I remembered that even pastors need prayers and that all of us are called to be faithful and loving people toward those who are suffering around us.
A few days ago I visited one of our long time church members who is nearing the end of her life. Upon arrival I learned, from one of her helpers, that she had tried to get herself ready for the visit, but discovered that she did not have enough energy to get out of bed. As I made my way into her bedroom, and knelt beside her bed, I saw her smile for the first time in a long time; “It’s not everyday that I invite a young man into my bedroom” she said with a laugh. We talked together about her struggles, we reflected on the many blessings from her life, and we prayed for God’s peace to reign abundantly in the days ahead. While kneeling beside her bed I heard Jesus telling me to be thankful for my blessings. I felt convicted by her faithfulness to not wallow in my own self-pity, and strive to live my life as fully as she has.
I heard Jesus during my reading of scripture.
This might come as a shock but I am ashamed at how rarely I read my bible. Sure, I read scripture every morning as a devotional practice; Sure, I read the bible every day in preparation for sermons on Sundays. But it has been a long time since I just picked up the good book and started reading for the simple pleasure of reading. More often than not my reading of scripture is based on a requirement or using the text as a resource. Even when I tell myself that I am reading for the right reasons I find myself writing down notes about using this bit in an epistle article or weekly devotional.
So, one day this week, I carved out some time and sat down with my bible. It took a while to rid myself of the vocational tendencies I have when reading scripture, but eventually the words and pages started to flow through my mind. I read about the great acts of God during the life of Moses, I flipped ahead to the story of Samson when he toppled the pillars and destroyed the Philistines, I soaked up some of the psalms and let their words become poetry for my soul, I walked the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus as he prepared to overturn the tables in the temples, I entered the strange new world of the bible and felt it come alive. Through reading the scriptures I heard Jesus telling me to that all people are part of God’s cosmic plan. From the patriarchs in Genesis, to the crowds in Mark, to the disciples at St. John’s, God can use anyone to bring about his will on earth.
I heard Jesus in the silence.
I am not a quiet person. I am as extroverted as can be. I usually have music playing in my office, or I am tapping my fingers away in some sort of percussive rhythm, or I am humming a hymn or song out loud. But this week I tried to be quiet and listen. I turned off the radio in the car, I let my turntable collect some dust, and I left my headphones at home. Silence is uncomfortable. Even a few moments of silence can drive us to fidget in our seats. Allow me to demonstrate: (1 minute of silence from the pulpit)
How did that feel? Yet, even though it makes some of us uncomfortable, silence can be beautiful. Turning off the noise this week allowed me to hear things that I normally miss: the sound of children laughing in the preschool, the crisp sound of pages turning in my bible, I even heard my heartbeat. What did you hear during our minute of silence? Maybe you heard the wind blowing against the roof of our church, perhaps you heard people breathing beside you in the pews, or maybe you heard heard the faint murmurings of your heart beating. During my time in silence this week I heard Jesus telling me that life is precious and beautiful. Only God could have imagined something like a heart to give us life, constantly thriving and pumping to bring existence to our bodies, a constant reminder of the fragility and beauty of what it means to be alive.
The disciples thought they knew everything they needed to know about Jesus. They believed they had him completely figured out. But when they made it to the top of the mountain God made it very clear that their assumptions and expectations were wrong; whenever we think we know what God is up to, its usually more about us than God. Its like looking for something at the bottom of a well, when all we really see is a faint reflection of ourselves. The Transfiguration shines brilliantly as a reminder that we are called to listen to Jesus. We need to hear him through the people in our lives, through our prayers, through our bibles, and through the silence.
Listen to Him through the words of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s table. Hear what God has done in the world for people like you and me. Listen to the Messiah that speaks to us through the bread and the cup. Hear the Lord speaking to you as you come to gather at the altar. Listen closely, and you just might hear God speak. Amen.