Changing Minds

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Changing Minds” Luke 3:1-6

Christmas is a beautiful and magical time of year in Saranac Lake.  On Friday evening, I was working in my home study when the windows began to vibrate with the thump and boom of over-amplified bass guitar.  The night sky pulsed with the bright flash of holiday lights.  Big wheels rolled up Park Avenue.  It was Santa, paying neighborhood children a visit pandemic-style, riding through the village streets in a convoy of fire engines.

After a forced hiatus, Sparkle Village returned to the Town Hall this year.  Our favorite crafters, like Martha, shared their one-of-a-kind hand-made wares with neighbors in search of that perfect holiday gift.  There were birch baskets and handknit sweaters, wooden toys and sweet jams, fragrant soaps and hand-poured candles.  This year, to mitigate the risk of sharing COVID along with our holiday cheer, immunization records were checked, masks were worn, and entrance was staggered.

Fortunately, some of our Christmas traditions seem naturally suited to pandemic life.  We can still admire the village Christmas tree on Berkeley Green while sipping a peppermint latte and grooving to Santa’s jukebox.  We can go for an evening stroll and check out our neighborhood Christmas lights.  We can take the kids to drop a donation in the red kettle while a masked bellringer wishes us, “Merry Christmas!”  Despite COVID-19, we are finding ways to enter the spirit of this special season.

For the majority of our neighbors, this is what preparing for Christmas is all about.  It’s Santa and shopping.  It’s seasonal music and decorations.  It’s gift making and gift giving.  I, for one, will freely admit that those are some of my favorite pursuits of the season.  After all, it is Saranac Lake, there’s a fresh snowfall, and it’s just so beautiful.  But John the Baptist always pays us a disruptive visit on the second Sunday of Advent to see if he can change our minds about what this time leading up to Christmas is all about.

Advent is a prophetic, preparatory season, so after Jesus’ apocalyptic message last week, it is only fitting that this week John the Baptist strides across the wild country surrounding the Jordan River, looking and sounding a lot like a Hebrew prophet.  John had heard a message from God Almighty, a word so significant and relevant that he felt compelled to preach it.  Drawn by his powerful preaching, crowds came from the cities and villages.  They flocked to the banks of the Jordan to hear John speak.

Luke calls our attention to the political and religious landscape of the day by naming seven of the most powerful and affluent men in John’s world.  Tiberius rose to the rank of emperor after military conquests in Pannonia, Dalmatia, and Germania and the mysterious deaths of those who were closer to the throne.  Annas and Caiphas were part of a priestly dynasty that would control the Temple until its destruction in the year 70.  Herod and Philip had followed in the footsteps of their father Herod the Great, living lavishly amid the poverty of the people they ruled.  Pilate, a military man like Tiberias, would govern Judea for ten years with a brute force that would eventually lead to his recall to Rome.  These men called the shots in the life of the Hebrew people with an earthly dominion that was brutal, costly, and oppressive.  That’s one heck-of-a context in which John shared the prophetic word of God.

We no longer contend with emperors and high priests or client kings and procurators, but we have our own less than desirable political, religious, and social realities that we contend with this Advent.  Don’t get us started on the gridlock, corruption, acrimony, and big money of partisan politics.  Don’t remind us about multi-million-dollar mega churches, high-flying televangelists, and miracle working faith-healers.  Don’t remind us about the rise of the “nones,” those neighbors, friends, and sometimes family members who say there is no God and scoff at our Christmas joy while putting up a Christmas tree, hanging stockings for Santa, exchanging gifts, and perhaps even coming to church on Christmas Eve.  How weary are we of twenty months of pandemic with shots and boosters, masks and hand sanitizer, social distance and unending variants?  Our world is not the same as John’s world, but we need God’s word to come to us, every bit as much as John’s listeners did.

And what a word it was.  John called his listeners to trust that God was still at work in a world dominated by petty despots.  God’s plan for the salvation of all people was unfolding in their midst.  A Messiah had come to usher in a holy and eternal Kingdom that would have no end.  Tiberias, Caiaphas, Herod, Philip, Pilate, all would one day be footnotes in the greatest story ever told, the story of a holy child, born in lowly circumstance, God Almighty, who would enter all those hard political, religious, and social realities to reveal to us an eternal love strong enough to break the powers of sin and death.  John called his listeners to be a part of that story, to join their purpose to God’s purpose with repentance that would prepare the way for that coming King.

Repentance—metanoia—means to change your mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.  John called his listeners to change their minds about what power and authority looked like.  John summoned the crowds to turn away from the powers, principalities, and preoccupations of their world and to turn instead to God.  John longed for his neighbors to be reoriented, to prepare for the coming Messiah, who alone would be worthy of their ultimate allegiance and devotion.

Alan Culpepper, who served as dean of the McAfee School of Theology for more than twenty years, teaches that John the Baptist continues to remind us that God is at work to bring salvation to all people.  We can trust that John’s prophetic word is true, regardless of our challenging political climate, our daunting religious landscape, the economics of inequality, and the limited social circumstances forced upon us by COVID-19.  Each Christmas, we remember that God continues to enter our world and work in ways that bring healing, redemption, new beginnings, and a love that is stronger than death. 

That promise of God’s salvation calls for our repentance.  Amid the beauty and magic of these weeks, the music and decorations, Santa and shopping, gift-making and gift-giving, we return to God.  We change our minds about what is really important in this busy and overscheduled season.  We turn our lives around.  We make straight the behaviors that have gone crooked.  We smooth out the rough places where we have been captivated by political powers or we have been preoccupied with consumption, or we have lost sight of religious truth.  As John the Baptist preachers, we reevaluate our priorities and grant God the authority and reverence that God so richly deserves.

As the crowds sat on the banks of the Jordan and listened to John preach, their perspective shifted.  They worried less about the trifling despots of their world.  They remembered God’s long history of raising up heroes, toppling empires, and delivering faithful people.  They began to trust that God was still at work for their salvation and the redemption of all people.  Repentance came in the changing of minds, hearts, and priorities.  They returned to God.  Then, as an outward sign of that inward shift, they were baptized.  Afterward, as the people returned to their villages, their political and religious realities hadn’t changed one bit.  Tiberias remained the emperor, Caiaphas still held sway in the Temple, and Herod would continue to collect their taxes.  But John’s listeners felt freer, lighter, more hopeful.  God was at work.  The Messiah was coming.

As John’s prophetic word finds us this morning amid the beauty and magic of a Saranac Lake Christmas, may we, too, find that our perspective has shifted.  In the first year of the Biden presidency and the second year of the pandemic.  When Kathy Hochul was the first woman governor of New York, Clyde was marking his final year as mayor, and the Atlanta Braves shut out the Astros to win the World Series, the word of God comes to us.  God is still at work, my friends.  The Messiah comes with the promise of salvation for all people.  It’s a promise powerful enough to change our minds, turn us around, and reorient us in God.  May it be so.  Amen.

Resources:

R. Alan Culpepper.  “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 6, 2009.  Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.

Audrey West. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 5, 2021.  Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.

Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Veli-Matti Karkkainen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”


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Prayer for those who sigh

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” — Romans 8:26


You know them, Lord.

She heard from the oncologist.

His wife left.

Their child is being bullied.

She’s hearing voices again.

He can’t get a fair trial.

Their dog crossed over the rainbow bridge.

He’s got more month than money.

She just peed on a stick.

They haven’t left the house in twenty months.

He’s afraid to come out of the closet.

She’s off the wagon – big time.

Wrap us in your Spirit, O Lord, and pray for us with sighs too deep for words.


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Growing Light

Poem for a Tuesday — “Growing Light” by George Ella Lyon

I write this poem
out of darkness
to you
who are also in darkness
because our lives demand it.

This poem is a hand on your shoulder
a bone touch to go with you
through the hard birth of vision.
In other words, love
shapes this poem
is the fist that holds the chisel,
muscle that drags marble
and burns with the weight
of believing a face
lives in the stone
a breathing word in the body.

I tell you
though the darkness
has been ours
words will give us
give our eyes, opened in promise
a growing light.

from Claiming the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. P. 318.


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Signs

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Signs” Luke 21:25-36

The gap between church and society is at no time more noticeable than it is on this first Sunday of Advent.

Out there, enormous, electric snowflakes hang from village lampposts as a sign of the season.  In here, the Advent wreath has returned to its seasonal home, above the baptismal font. 

Out there, we have weathered the buying frenzy of Black Friday and small business Saturday, and we are anticipating the online deals to be found on Cyber Monday.  In here, we are thinking about using our resources to help neighbors in need throughout the coming weeks.  We are bringing in canned corn for Christmas Food Boxes or undertaking a Reverse Advent Calendar or planning the gift of clean water with shallow wells for Africa. 

Out there, strings of Christmas lights are decking the eaves.  Snowy yards are about to sprout inflatable snowmen and Grinches.  In here, we have donned the penitential color of purple and hung Advent greens that speak of eternal life amid winter’s death.

Out there, the feasting and merriment have begun.  The grocery stores are filled with holiday treats, we can place our order for Buche de Noel at the Left Bank Café, and we are revving up for holiday gatherings with family and friends after twenty long months of social distance.  In here, Advent has traditionally called us to fasting, study, reflection, and repentance.  We probably won’t fast, but we’ll take home Advent devotionals for reading and prayer, or we’ll Zoom together to learn from C.S. Lewis.

Out there, we’ve been hearing Christmas carols ever since Halloween.  In here, we listen to the somber sounds of “Wachet Auf,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”

Out there, we are more than a month away from champagne toasts, the ball dropping in Times Square, and the joyful greeting of “Happy New Year!”  In here, we keep God’s time with a holy calendar that today marks the start of a new year.

In these weeks of Advent, there is a palpable gap between our church life and the spin that our culture has put on preparing for Christmas.  Can you see it?  Can you feel it?

That gap between the sacred and the secular seems even more pronounced when we ponder today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.  Sounding a lot like the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Joel, Jesus got downright apocalyptic, warning his listeners of a coming Day of Judgment.  There would be signs in the heavens, chaos among the nations, and tumult upon the waters.  Amid the discord and disruption, Jesus called his followers to vigilance, saying: look, be on guard, stay alert, pray.  All that eerie, end times prognostication sounds ominous and hard to swallow along with our holiday eggnog.

It helps to remember that when Jesus stood in the Temple court and got all prophetic, he was in the midst of a different holiday season, and he was surrounded by people who were sadly and fearfully aware of the gap between God’s Kingdom and the world that they lived in.  It was Passover week. From around Israel and across the Roman Empire, the Jewish people had come to Jerusalem to remember that God had once delivered them from the cruel bondage of Egypt.  With plagues of frogs and gnats, darkness, disease, and death, God had shown Pharaoh who was boss, and then Moses had led the people forth to freedom.  That Passover week, Jesus and his friends would remember God’s deliverance with the sacrifice of a lamb, the signing of psalms, and the sharing of a final Passover seder.

There was a tense, politically-charged gap between those Passover memories and the everyday reality of Jesus’s listeners.  Israel was again in bondage, a vassal state of the Roman Empire.  A legion of Roman soldiers had ridden out of Caesarea and up to Jerusalem amid the Passover pilgrims.  Any dreams of Jewish freedom would be promptly and brutally quashed.  The local political and religious powers served the emperor’s purpose, not God’s purpose.  As that week continued, this would become increasingly clear as the Temple authorities conspired with Judas to arrest and condemn the Lord.

Given the context in which Jesus’s prophetic words were originally spoken, they take on a hopeful tone.  As Jesus spoke in the Temple court, he reminded his listeners that it was God, not Rome, who had ultimate authority.  God, who had launched creation with a Big Bang, hurled a billion stars across the heavens, and delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, God was still at work and would one day bring all things to completion.  Indeed, before the week was out, God’s epic plan for the world’s redemption would embark on a new chapter as Jesus took on the sins of the world on the cross and launched a revolution of self-giving love that continues to ripple through the corridors of time.  God’s Kingdom was coming.  They could count on it.  There was hope to be had amid the world’s darkness.

In the UK, the train conductor encourages travelers to “mind the gap” as they step off the platform and onto the train, to notice and attend to the divide between the two.  In this Advent season, Jesus’s apocalyptic words are a little like that conductor’s call.  We are to be mindful of the gap between God’s Kingdom and life as we know it.  It’s terribly tempting to board the Christmas juggernaut, to be swept along in these coming weeks by the non-stop shopping, eating, decorating, celebrating, and partying whirlwind.  That train is leaving the station and it’s standing room only, but Advent invites us to a different kind of journey.  I’m not telling you to give up your seat on the Polar Express, but Jesus and I are asking you this morning to simply mind the gap.  Remember the true reason for the season.  Notice the people and places where redemption is needed, God feels distant, and the love of Christ would sure make a difference.

This Advent, we could resolve to live as signs of that coming Kingdom where justice is served, the wounded find wholeness, and love prevails.  This Advent we could dare to bridge the gap between “in here” and “out there.”  Would you like to know how?

Be hope for those bowed down with sorrow or grief.  Send them a caring note.  Include them in your holiday plans.  Invite a hurting friend to join you for our Longest Night service on December 8th, when in shared worship, prayer, and music we will be reassured of God’s steadfast love.

Be care and compassion for a neighbor who feels lost and alone.  Take them an Advent devotional.  Share with them a link to our online worship.  Bring them along to a Sunday service or for story-telling and music in our Blest Be the Tie Christmas Evening on Dec. 15.

Be generous with and for those who know poverty and privation in this world of terrible abundance.  Ring the bell for the Salvation Army.  Make a donation for a Christmas Food Box.  Volunteer with the Holiday Helpers.  Help us meet our goal of giving shallow wells to six African villages.

Be love for those people who are hard-to-love.  You know them: the prickly and the grumpy, the mean and the miserly, the bigot and the bleeding heart.  Try a random act of kindness.  Turn the other cheek.  Listen deeply, pray fervently, and don’t give up.  Be your best Bob Cratchitt to the Ebenezer Scrooges of this world.

Mind the gap, my friends.  Be signs of Christ, who bridge the gulf between “in here” and “out there.”  As we stand, like Jesus did, in that uncomfortable gap between life as it was meant to be and life as we know it, we just may catch sight of that other Kingdom, the heavenly one that Jesus anticipated all those years ago.  May it be so.  Amen.


Resources:

Wesley D. Avram. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Mariam J. Kamell. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


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Luke 21:25-36

25“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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“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, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.”


Thankful

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and to God we belong; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name. For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
—Psalm 100

“For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson



Thanksgiving was a special holiday for the family of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson—so much so that they celebrated for two consecutive days. They feasted at Uncle Samuel Ripley’s home on Thanksgiving Day. Then, on the following day, they would “keep festival” with extended family and friends at their home in Concord. It was one of Emerson’s favorite occasions. Indeed, he called the day “Good Friday.” According to family recollections, it was a fun-filled day of “family gossip,” feasting, and games.

Thanksgiving is central to the Christian life. Our Israelite ancestors made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, entering “God’s gates with thanksgiving and courts with praise.” At Passover, they gave thanks for God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. At Pentecost, they rejoiced in the harvest of wheat and God’s generous providence. When New England Puritans celebrated their first American thanksgiving, their feast shared sentiments of Pentecost and Passover. They were grateful for their harvest and the help of indigenous neighbors; and they gave thanks for a new home, free from persecution for their Protestant beliefs.

The tradition of gratitude for God’s deliverance and providence continues in our annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations. Despite the hardship of pandemic and the losses that have touched our friends and families, the Lord has seen us through. Emerging from the COVID cloud has felt a bit like deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Despite the isolation and the anxiety of the past twenty months, we have much to be grateful for, from life and love to bird song and bee hum.

According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps us feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve our health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. Returning to God with gratitude and acknowledging God’s goodness to us deepens our spiritual life, brings hope, and builds trust that God will continue to work in ways that help and bless.

So, pass the mashed potatoes. Thanksgiving is good for us—in body, mind, and spirit. You may not follow Emerson and his family in celebrating extravagantly for two days; yet, wherever you are this Thanksgiving Day, may it be a time of goodness and gratitude.


“O Lord that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness!”—William Shakespeare

“Be present in all things and thankful for all things.”—Maya Angelou


A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God

Poem for a Tuesday — “A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God” by Nancy Willard

I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,

and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.

In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.


From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1989, Volume XI, No. 2


“Birds, Lilies, and the Kingdom”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Matthew 6:25-34

Are you worried?  If you are, you’re not alone.  Let’s face it.  These are worrisome times.

We are feeling worried about COVID-19.  The Franklin County Health Department says that we have thirty-nine cases of COVID in Harrietstown this morning and fifty-six in Tupper Lake.  Those are our highest numbers of the pandemic.  While most of us are fully vaccinated and not at risk for severe illness, we worry about our senior seniors and friends with immune system compromises who face greater risk.  We have concern for our kids who are still getting shots in arms.  We think how tough this must be for our healthcare professionals—the hospital staff, nurses, and doctors who have spent the past twenty months on the front lines.

We’re also feeling a worried resignation that we’ll be dealing with the new coronavirus for a long time.  Worldwide in the past week, cases have increased in 72 countries, with twice as many new cases reported here in the states in the past 28 days.  In fact, the only two countries in the world that did not report new cases last week were the Vatican and Oceania—that’s a small cluster of south Pacific Islands.  We don’t like what the experts have to say.  Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, warns that COVID-19 won’t go away.  It will simply become one of many viruses that cause infections, and there will always be a baseline number of cases, hospitalizations, and even deaths.

Related to the pandemic, we are feeling stressed about economics.  The US consumer price index has surged 6.2 percent from a year ago in October.  That’s the highest rise in thirty-one years.  US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last Sunday that quashing COVID-19 is key to lowering inflation.  If we can get a handle on this acute phase of the epidemic, then the surge in the price of commodities, like crude oil, should abate in the second half of 2022.  But in the meantime, we are feeling the spike in prices at the grocery store and the gas pump.  We may have also noticed a phenomenon that has been named “skimpflation.”  Businesses can’t keep enough employees to deliver the experiences and customer service that we previously enjoyed, and so we are paying more for less.  Service is slower at restaurants.  Airline flights are being cancelled.  Businesses have cut hours.  To complicate matters, COVID has created supply chain issues.  Santa might give us a raincheck this year as imported goods don’t make it to store shelves or we balk at the exorbitant price of the latest gift fads.  Am I making you feel worried in writing about this?

As Jesus shared today’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, his friends and followers had worries of their own.  Many people in the Galilee were subsistence farmers, always one crop failure or drought away from hunger.  Some of Jesus’ friends were fishermen.  The fish in the Sea of Galilee belonged to Caesar, but you could pay a pretty shekel for a license to cast your nets and earn your living.  That licensing fee was substantial—the cost of about a third of your catch.  A night when your nets were empty wasn’t just a waste of time, it was a threat to your livelihood.   First century financial failure didn’t land you in bankruptcy court.  It led to debt slavery, consigning yourself or your family to a period of conscripted labor.  That sounds worrisome to me.

Jesus and his friends also contended with the constant anxiety of foreign occupation.  Client kings, like Herod, were appointed to rule locally in the emperor’s stead, and they typically did so by living large at the expense of the people.  Every major city in the land garrisoned Roman soldiers.  The Pax Romana (Peace of Roma) was secured with an iron fist, and the law was swift and harsh in responding to civil disobedience.  Jesus and his followers lived with the terror of crucifixion and public execution.

Beyond the poverty and the politics, there were religious problems.  Even the Chief Priest in the Jerusalem Temple was a Roman appointee.  Factions like the Pharisees and Sadducees divided communities with competing understandings of the Torah.  It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that these factions were lining up in opposition to Jesus.  Already, his cousin John had been arrested in an effort to silence his prophetic voice.  Already Jesus was anticipating his journey to Jerusalem and the rejection that would await him there.  They may not have faced COVID-19, but Jesus and his friends had plenty to worry about.

Jesus’ words in our reading from Matthew 6 are a response to those worries.  “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”  Jesus called his listeners attention away from their worries.  He invited them to instead attend to the present moment: the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  He pointed to pelicans skimming above the surface of the sea and to storks spirally slowly up from nests in the marshes.  Jesus gestured to fields of anemones, bright blooms bobbing in the breeze that swept across the hills.

In the gift of the moment, Jesus called his listeners to remember their place in God’s good creation.  The empire might be Caesar’s, but the world and all that is in it belonged to God.  God, who brought the world into being, continued to care and provide for the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and those worried first-century Israelites.  Jesus reminded his friends that beyond Caesar’s empire there was a holy Kingdom all around them, like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price.  Long after Caesar’s empire would crumble, God’s Kingdom would prevail.  It was to this eternal and unstoppable Kingdom that they belonged.

I like to imagine that as the crowd that followed Jesus listened to his words and attended to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, they felt better.  Those worried furrows in their brows lost their crease.  They took some nice deep breaths.  Their hearts began to beat a little slower and their blood pressure fell.  As they saw God at work in creation with beauty and power, something shifted within them.  They remembered the eternal Kingdom that they served and the Holy One, who had brought them into being and would one day welcome them home.  Heads nodded in agreement.  An occasional “Amen” broke forth from grateful lips.  Everyone went home that day feeling a little less worried and lot more thankful.

We, too, might feel less worried and more thankful if we took Jesus’ words to heart.  I’d like to help us do just that. 

First, we can make some time in the coming days to attend to the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and the goodness of God’s creation.  Stretch your legs with a favorite neighborhood stroll.  Take to the trail.  Park your car at Lake Colby and watch the sun set.  Watch the rolling flight of the pileated woodpecker.  Let the Grey Jays on the Bloomingdale Bog eat from your hand.  Ponder the blooms on your Thanksgiving cactus.  As we attend to God’s presence and providence at work everywhere all the time, we can trust that God is at work in and for us.  We can know that God is with us, even in the dark valley of pandemic.  God’s Kingdom always prevails.

Next, we can spend some intentional time with the Lord this week.  Carve out ten minutes to sit with God in silence.  You can begin by reading today’s gospel reading.  Then, do some holy listening.  In the quiet of the moment, you can count on your worries to rise up and greet you, as they often do when we actually sit still.  Instead of allowing your cares to hijack your quiet time, hand them off to God.  Use your imagination to put them in Jesus’ hands.  He promises to take our burdens and give us rest.  Take some deep breaths in that quiet space, and remember that God, who has worked in the past, will work again in your future.

Finally, once we are reoriented and centered in God, it’s time to get busy in service to that holy Kingdom that calls for our ultimate allegiance.  Lace up your sneakers and run to raise money for neighbors in need with the Saranac Lake Turkey Trot.  Find a nice, sturdy cardboard box for your Reverse Advent Calendar, adding a canned or dry good daily in December to benefit the Food Pantry.  Serve the church in this Advent season by sharing your dramatic or musical talents to help me with a pre-recorded Christmas Program for the children and those feeling a little childlike.

I suspect that as folks travel for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, our COVID numbers won’t improve.  We’ll still be wearing masks and minding our social distance.  We’ll pay more than we should for that Christmas gift for someone special.  When we get a gander at the price, we’ll trade our Christmas roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for ham or turkey.  And yet, I have hope that in the coming weeks we may also feel less worried.  We’ll consider the birds of the air, the balsam in the forest, and the billion stars in the Adirondack night sky.  We’ll remember who we are and Whom we belong to.  Thanks be to God. 


Resources

Steven P. Eason. “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 6:24-34” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Richard Beaton. “Commentary on Matthew 6:24-34” in Preaching This Week, May 25, 2008.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/eighth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-624-34-2

Emerson Powery. “Commentary on Matthew 6:24-34” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 27, 2011.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/eighth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-624-34

Data Team, Lisa Charlotte Muth. “The coronavirus pandemic is far from over” in Deutsche Welle: Science, Nov. 19, 2021.  Accessed online at The coronavirus pandemic is far from over | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 19.11.2021

Christine D’Antonio. “Pittsburgh doctor on pandemic: ‘We will be living with this virus, there is no covid zero’” in WPXI-TV News, November 14, 2021.  Accessed online at Pittsburgh doctor on pandemic: ‘We will be living with this virus, there is no covid zero’ – WPXI

Shep Hyken. “The Great Resignation Leads to Skimpflation” in Forbes Magazine, Nov 14, 2021.  Accessed online at https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2021/11/14/the-great-resignation-leads-to-skimpflation/?sh=6d93bf5d6c2b


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Part of Eve’s Discussion

Poem for a Tuesday

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” — Genesis 3:6


“Part of Eve’s Discussion” by Marie Howe

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

from New American Poets, ed. Myers & Weingarten. Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, 1991


Merritt Anna Lea Eve 1885 Oil On Canvas-large
“Eve in the Garden” by Anna Lea Merritt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Blessing

Poem for a Tuesday

“A Blessing” by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness   
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.   
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.   
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me   
And nuzzled my left hand.   
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

from James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.

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