They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
I have friends who are teachers in the traditional sense in that they teach at schools and universities. I also have friends who teach Pilates and yoga classes, and courses on breathe work and guitar to name a few. I've also had a few mentors, people who have inspired to be a better version of myself both professionally and privately. And I’ve learned countless lessons by watching others succeed and fail. Who you learn from matters to who you can become.
Most of you have had dozens of teachers throughout your life. If you’re lucky enough, some made a lasting impression or an impact. Like my art teacher, Linda Knisley. She didn’t just teach me how to draw and paint. She showed me how to remain patient while learning to basket weave. She taught me gentleness through lessons in water color and stain glass. And how to think backwards and see negative shapes with lessons in woodcutting, and print making.
She also introduced me to Salvador Dali, Miro, Picasso and other artist who, like Ms. Knisley would ignite my imagination. With only one good eye, this amazing teacher showed me how to see the world and to know myself in a variety of different ways.
Then there was Frank Morris. His classroom wasn’t at a school, but in the small kitchen of his Italian restaurant where I first learned how to cook. Working for Frank taught me how move under pressure, how to think on my toes and multitask in a working environment that was literally as hot as hell. He also taught me how to smoke cigarettes and drink beer from a glass, a few other things too that are better left unsaid.
There are also those teachers who you barely know, but they make you realize who you are or what you can be. Like my college English professor whose name I can’t remember. But I will never forget the first paper I got back from him that had more red ink on it than black. To my surprise, the grade on the top of that paper was an A. When I asked about it, he reminded me that this was a creative writing class. He said, “Anyone can go and learn grammar. But not everyone can be a writer.” He showed me I could to go and do both. Although I’m still struggling with one.
Who we learn from matters. Which brings us to today’s reading about a teacher who stands in a synagogue and teaches the sacred scriptures like it’s never been taught before.
Read Mark 1:21-28 here
watch the message here
Mark tells us that Jesus entered a synagogue and began to teach. We don’t know why he went there. Perhaps he was invited to be a part of a lecture series or was just the guest speaker for the day. We don’t know. He might have just wandered in and started doing his thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jesus did stuff like that. He was that kind of teacher, spontaneous and hands on. Whatever the case was that day, Jesus started teaching. And did so with authority.
Mark tells us that Jesus’ style of teaching was different than what the people were used to. We know it’s different because the scribes, whose job it was to teach the laws and traditions of the church, never would have let the man with the unclean spirit enter the building. Mark doesn’t give us much about this man’s story either. But if you were paying attention, you learned that when the man addressed Jesus, he saw him for who he really was. We aren’t sure how, because Mark gives us nothing more than to say Jesus was teaching. We can safely assume Jesus was teaching the sacred scriptures. After all, that’s what you do in church.
So one could argue that the way Jesus approached this man is the same way he did with scripture. With authority. Like the Holy One of God. When Jesus spoke to the man, we see his authority came from his willingness to do the will of God and see to it that justice was served. He practiced what he preached. As a result, this man’s life was saved and made new again. Who we learn from matters.
Of all the teachers in my life, only one so far has come close to doing what Jesus did. Fr. Harold Anderson was my priest, mentor and friend. I learned more about Jesus by watching him than in all my classes of seminary. Wherever Fr. Anderson was, it was obvious that Christ was there too. He welcomed everyone with an open mind and an open heart, just as Jesus welcomed the man with the unclean spirit.
Like Jesus, Fr. Anderson made God’s love a priority; bringing the gospel to life by putting love into action. His way of teaching inspired me to want to be my best. And he did that by teaching me how to think with my heart and love with my head. A life lesson that I desperately try to practice, even though I often fail.
That’s what good teachers do, they don’t just teach; they help us push ourselves to be better. That’s the kind of teacher Jesus was. Like my friend Dawn pointed out to me the other day, Jesus doesn’t give us a bunch of facts to pass a test. He speaks and shows us a way to go deeper inside ourselves so we can discover who God made us to be, and what we’re all about.
Jesus teaches us the fullness of life; igniting the fire within us that fuels our thirst for knowledge, curiosity, and wisdom that make us want to be better people so we can make our world a better place for ourselves, our neighbors, and the next generation...who we will inspire to do the same.
Using God’s word as his textbook, Jesus doesn’t merely read it, or explain it like the scribes. Instead, he demonstrates it by living it, and living it in such a way that it will inspires us to follow him. Jesus practiced what he preached because he knew people were watching and listening to him. He knew his responsibility to proclaim God’s truth. So that’s what he did in all the ways he lived. With authority.
When questioned about his authority in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “I did not come to change the laws and the prophets but to fulfill them.” And wherever Jesus went, God’s words were proclaimed and fulfilled by the love he gave and the mercy he showed others.
That’s a lesson for us all. By seeing the world through the eyes of God’s love, Jesus possessed the power to heal and transform people. It allowed him to face human ugliness, with justice and mercy and kindness; always ready to forgive and to give.
In John’s gospel Jesus said, “I am the truth, the life and way.” I have come to believe this to mean that Jesus is the way to our salvation because he lived God’s truth perfectly. Jesus knew God’s love and made it the central part of his life. He embraced love’s power to heal us of our brokenness, to forgives of our transgressions, to lift us up when we are down.
He taught us how to do the same. How to harness God’s love to save ourselves from the mess we make or find ourselves in. Imagine how our world could be transformed if we dared to live like Jesus did, as if God actually meant what God said.
Soon enough Jesus will send his new students out into the world to do just that. They aren’t perfect. They mess up like we do. They fumble to find their way. Yet Jesus sent them knowing they had all they needed. They had God’s love already written on their hearts. Jesus sent them out to preach the gospel, like St. Francis suggested, by using words only when necessary.
He showed them the way. The way of love, the way of peace, the way back to God’s redeeming grace. And then he sent them on their way to show and send others. Jesus didn’t require his followers to have seminary degrees in order to teach this gospel. Even though they will doubt themselves, Jesus never lost faith in them. He knew they could do it, because Jesus showed them how. They watched he did, and chose to follow suit.
This tells me, that you and I can do the same. Just as Jesus called his students, so too does Jesus invite us to go out into the world to share the good news. By studying scripture like he did, we know what to do. The only textbook you need is an honest heart. And a lesson plan that includes a gentle smile and a willing hand. As for your students, well, they are everywhere. In classrooms, boardrooms, living rooms and beyond.
As students of Christ, we are called to be teachers of Christ - practicing what we preach in the ways we welcome one another - loving on them in all the ways Jesus loved us.
We will all have different teaching styles and methods, but we all share the same assignment; to show the truth and the light of God’s love. And to go and teach that way with authority as the holy ones of God.
The first epistle from John the Apostle boldly declares “God is love.” Suffice it to say, this is the most important way to describe God if such an act were even possible. It’s not. The second we try to describe who God is, we begin to make God who we think God should be. But John said, “God is love” so there’s that.
In his gospel, John also stated that Christ is the Word of God. To put it another way, Christ is the Word of love in that Christ speaks and defines God’s love to us. If we believe what the gospel writers and early church first pronounced, that Jesus is the Christ, then we can say that Jesus is God’s love defined in human form. Thus, the Christian faith proclaims that Jesus is God or at least a part of God’s love. What might this say about you or me if we love like Jesus did?
In his best-selling book, the Ragamuffin Gospel, the laicized priest and late author Brennan Manning, wrote “If Jesus stopped loving, he would stop being God.” God is love. Christ is love. Jesus is love. So who are we?
Moreover, God is also in love. God is love, and wherever God is there too is God’s love in action, on full display. This should speak to each one of us, especially in regards to how we greet every relationship be it a deep or shallow one. Is God's love actively present? Is there love in that moment of time and space?
Like I’ve stated before, if we believe we are made in the image of God, then we must also believe that we are made from love for the purpose of making love grow.
Wherever we show up, God is there because God's indwelling love is in all things, including you and me. God is in love with us because God is in the act of loving with and through us. To put in another way, if God is in us, then God should present in everything we do. Every act should be an act done in love.
I don’t know what it’s like to be God. But I know what it feels like to be in love. It's both beautiful and explosive, colorful and dangerous as you give yourself completely over to something other than yourself. No surprise love is often described visually with fireworks.
Love is often described as euphoric or an intense emotional state that is characterized with an overwhelming sense of joy and happiness that can empower you with a confidence to believe if the world were to explode, you’d somehow come out okay. But love is more than that.
Love is also very dangerous. It can make you feel more vulnerable, afraid or confused whether or not you’ve been hurt in the past by love. Love is risky, not just because you might lose that person one day, but because of what love makes you do. It invites you in.
If God is love, then God is inviting to jump in and be a part of the action of love. That is to say, God is inviting you to be in love. This can be spiritually cool and refreshing. Or it can be faithfully frightening. Either way, the invitation is the same. You either jump in, or you don't.
The gospel, or good news, is how Jesus invites us to be in love. When he said, “Follow me” he was showing us how walk in the footprints of God’s love. John went on to write, “let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action.” Because that’s what love is, and that’s what being in love is all about. Being in the act of loving God and loving one another.
It has become too common in our modern lexicon to throw around the word love and to do so without any true commitment to it. “I love my job” is one such phrase, but how many of us are in the flow of God’s love at work?
God is inviting you to dive into love and give into the wild and unpredictable currents. To be in love requires risks as you partake in the act of love – be it emotional, physical or spiritual. Love might seem dangerous and daring but it also has its rewards. The most common one, which is often the one we desire the most, is to be loved in return. To be in love is to share love. Just as God shares love with us – unconditionally.
God is in love with you and me. God wants us to jump in and be in the flow of love and ride it everywhere we go. God is inviting you and me to take the risk and be fearless, and even dangerous with it, knowing that love begets love.
To you and me, that might not seem like much more than someone who is good at her job. But if that’s all it was, just a job, she did in a way that made God feel close in a house that was still grieving in pain and sorrow. She did it with love.
Love has many faces. The first time I saw my wife, I fell instantly in love. I would do anything for her to show her just how much she meant to me. Over time, our love evolved from proving our feelings towards each other to simply practicing love with one another. We made it a daily routine to make love grow, adapt, and flourish everywhere we went.
Love is powerful and love is transforming. It was the reasons I accepted my call to ministry. However, it was not love that led me to seminary. It was hate.
I remember seeing a news report about a group from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. You might remember them as the people who would go around the country protesting at funerals of soldiers who had died in Iraq. They loved to get the attention of reporters with their neon colored signs. One in particular that the news was focusing on read, “God hates fags.” I knew right then and there I had to do something.
Love has many faces and means many things. But this I know to be true. God is not in the business of hating. God is in the business of loving. Our only job, as followers of Christ, is to be the face of love, by witnessing to the way of love, that came to us from Jesus himself. Curry is right. Love is the way. And thus it must be our first priority.
In the biggest selling book of all time, there is a treasure of a letter written by John the Apostle.
(Read 1 John 4:7-21)
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
John’s first epistle is one of my all-time favorite books in the bible. In it, he doesn’t mince words. With elegant concision, he tells us what God is so we know what God is not. This is important because there are people who preach a god of hate, a god of war and a god of wealth. The antithesis of what Jesus preached.
Some want a God of power and order. As violence remains pervasive and suffering ever present, we want a God who protects us from harm or who can prevent bad things from happening. But John said, “God is love.”
Some want a God to be a punitive authority who lays down the law and holds everyone accountable. But John said, “God is love.”
Some want a God of prosperity, who promises great wealth if we obey a few simple principles. But John avoids such descriptions in favor of one - God is love.
It’s worth mentioning that John uses a rarely used Greek word – agape – to describe God. Agape is a self-sacrificing love. It’s the kind of love Ms. Robbins brought into the Curry home. It’s often translated as unconditional love, that gives without expecting anything in return the kind of love found in the very heart of God’s grace.
This is not to say that God’s love isn’t powerful, or punitive or prosperous. God is and can be anything God wants to be. As Richard Rohr likes to say, “God loves things by becoming them.”
In Jesus, God’s agape came to humans in human form to show us the way back to God’s heart. By walking in the path of love, in the footsteps of Jesus, we walk into God’s heart. “For those who abide in God must also abide in God’s love.”
watch the message here
Love has many faces. Like yours and mine. Those who share the faith of Christ, also wear the face of God. We are called to go out into the world and define what love means by practicing love with one another.
It really is that simple. And yet, it’s truly that difficult because agape seeks to do good for the well-being in others. Agape is not selfish, in fact it’s the opposite. Selfishness pulls us apart. Agape ties us together. Like Curry points out in his book, “Love isn’t a sentiment. It’s the only thing left to save a community divided.”
Agape doesn’t merely lead us to the heart of God but it draws us to the heart of each other. It turns our self-centered world upside down and causes us to give instead of take; to seek peace instead of instigating war.
Agape makes room for others. It does not exclude. It lifts people up when life knocks them down. It stands up to injustice with justice. It fights the face of inequity with fairness. It helps and heals those who whom the world has hurt and harmed.
There are some people today who see this kind of love as a weakness. But as God clearly showed us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, agape is more powerful than death itself. No wonder why John chose to use this word for the early church live by.
Love has many faces. Some are black, some are white. Some are red, some are blue. Some live across the street, other’s in a country you have no idea where to find it on a map. But in each person, and in every situation, we must always make love our priority. For love invites the world to see the face of God when it might otherwise feel absent.
Like John wrote, “No one has ever seen God but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” If you want to know God, fully and authentically, then open your heart and hands, and allow the love of God to flow through you like Jesus did.
Five hundred years ago St. Teresa of Avila said it best, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”
Her words remind us all that God’s love is the transformative power that is so desperately needed today. “Love is,” like Curry realized, “the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.”
To know the God of love, then, is to live agape like Jesus who gave God’s love away to all people. And in doing so became the face of God for all to see. Like Brennan Manning argued, “God is love. Jesus is God. If Jesus stopped loving, he would stop being God.”
What does this say to you? How might it inspire you to go and make love grow? Better yet, what’s stopping you from loving unconditionally as God loves you?
Love has many faces and means many things. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or worthy. Just as God’s love was made perfect in Jesus, so too has Jesus made you worthy in spite of your flaws. God loves you as you are, not as you should be. God’s love meets you where you are and takes you to where you need to go.
As Jesus showed those who came to him, God loves you beyond fidelity and infidelity, beyond worthiness and unworthiness, in your state of grace and in your state of disgrace. There is no time limit or breaking point. No matter what happens or what you do…it’s impossible for God not to love you! God is love.
If we are created in God’s image, then we are created from and made for agape to give of ourselves and our love freely just as Jesus showed us how.
Many of you might be afraid to do this. Perhaps you’ve been burnt in the past, or hurt and abused by love. But that’s not agape, that’s selfishness. Agape doesn’t harm, it heals. It puts the well-being of others first. Therefore do not be afraid to give our love away, “for God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
To quote Bishop Curry one last time, “The way of love will show us the right thing to do, every single time. It is our moral and spiritual grounding – and a place of rest – amid the chaos that is often part of life. It’s how we stay decent in indecent times.”
Of course, Jesus said it best when he summed up all the commandments and laws with these simple words: Love God. And love your neighbor. As John pointed out, we cannot claim to love God and hate our neighbor at the same time. Love and hate do not mix. They do not play together. They cannot co-exist either in heaven or on earth.
God is not in the business of hate. God is in the business of loving us. And as God’s children, we are employed to do the same for each other. We are made in love to give our love to one another in the way that Jesus gave his love to us. With agape - giving his whole self unconditionally to heal us and redeem us. By his love, we have the power to go into the world fearlessly, to act lovingly in all situations, even if imperfectly.
Love is what God is and love is why Jesus came. And it is why he continues to come, day after day through ordinary people like you and me. Love is the story that we write. It is the book that God reads over and over again. And when finished says, “I’m so glad I read that.”
My hope for you is that you will experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible, all-encompassing, totally unconditional love that is yours for the taking. For love has many faces...but will yours be one of them?
Bartlett, David L. And Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008)
Curry, Michael. Love is the Way. (New York: Penguin, 2020)
Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel. (New York: Random House, 1990)
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey, December 16. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997)
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. (New York: Convergent, 2019)
When she says, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..." the voice says, "Whoa, are you sure you want all of that? My kingdom coming and my will being done?"
"Well, yeah," says Linda, "we could all use a little more heaven around here."
"So what are you doing to make that happen?" asks God.
"I kind of thought you would do all that, you're the king."
"You can't have a kingdom without subjects to do thy will."
"Oh," gulps Linda, along with all the rest of us."
In his first letter, the Apostle John wrote, "Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth." This is our reminder that what we do is more important than what we say or believe. "This is the urging of God's Spirit breath and wind," as Manning pointed out. Or as St. Paul might say, this is what it means to "bear good fruit of the Spirit."
As you pray today (and I hope you do), ask for your heart to be open, ask for your hands to be opened, ask for your mind to be opened, and ask for your eyes to be open wide enough to feel, touch, understand and see the many ways we are called to love one another in this place we call life.
With this simple prayer not only will you find love and peace in your life, but you will also become the peace and love that is so needed in our world today.
watch the message here.
What we know up to this point is that Jesus had begun to gather his disciples. First is Andrew and his brother Peter. They heard something good about Jesus and decided to check it out for themselves. According to John, Jesus’ invitation to them is simply “Come and See.” The next day Jesus invites Philip to do the same. And in turn, Philip invites Nathanael.
What on earth made him, or any of the disciples, follow this guy isn’t clear. Jesus hasn’t performed any miracles, shown any signs, or made any proclamations or promises about the reign of God that might excite one’s imagination. Yet they go - with no idea what God is about to unfold before their very eyes.
In Jesus, they will see God’s righteousness on full display. And by accepting the invitation to come and see, they will also discover what God intends to bring about through them.
The only one to hesitate in this bunch is Nathanael, whose character Jesus seems to know even though they’ve never met. Since the Bible doesn’t tell us anymore than what John gives us, I see Nathanael as an inquisitive young adult questioning his purpose and place in the world. I like to imagine he’s sitting in the shade of the fig tree contemplating life, or perhaps lost in prayer.
Whatever he is doing is interrupted by an overly excited Philip who encourages him to come and meet the one the prophets had written about. Nathanael perks up, excited by news until hears “And he’s from Nazareth of all places!”
It’s here the young contemplative rolls his eyes and shakes his head, “You’ve got to be kidding! Can anything good come out of that place?” Phillip responds to his cynicism using Jesus’ own words – “Come and see.”
The rest of John’s gospel is dedicated to Jesus showing everyone the truth behind his words. That is to say, all the good things God is doing in the world. And the transformative impact it has on people who choose to believe and trust him. This tells me that whatever you are seeking in life will be affected by the way you see Jesus for who he really is…the Messiah, the very incarnation of God’s never-ending love.
Now, poor Nate can’t quite figure out why God’s favor would come from some backwoods, insignificant rural village like Nazareth. Our kings are supposed to come from ivory palaces with gold-plated toilets, right?
I heard a comedian say, “I always vote for the richest person because don’t want my president to be worrying if the country’s electricity is going to get shut off this month.” We don’t want our leaders to know our poverty, we want them to know how to get us out of it. However, Nathanael's pushback or need of proof reveals two exceptional truths about God.
First. God can accomplish great things in the most unlikely of places – a filthy stable, fragile baby, or even a fractured religious or political system. This tells me that God is present in your personal Nazareth’s. Be it a failed relationship or a false truth that has caused you to lose trust in God and one another. No matter what you are facing today, God can and will accomplish great things from them.
Second, God is perfectly capable of honoring ordinary people from all walks of life, and calling them to do extraordinary things. From Moses to these bumbling disciples to each one of us, there is a place and purpose in God’s Kingdom for everyone. Jesus shows us this every time he crosses over cultural divides to share God’s love. We can trust Jesus simply because Jesus proved to be trustworthy by God.
Again, Jesus invites you to come and see this love firsthand. And let it transform who you are - or who you think you are - into who God made you to be. His invitation is more than a chance to marvel at God’s righteousness that he puts on display. It’s a call to see what God is doing in us - transforming our fears into faith.
In the remake of the movie Jumanji, four ordinary high-school kids with ordinary teenage problems accept the call to play a mysterious video game they found. To their surprise, the get sucked in and become the actual avatars in the game.
Through a series of unfortunate events, they have to trust one another and work together in order to return home. At the end, they discover what they are capable of, and who they’re destined to be.
When we take the time to be with Jesus, we not only discover who he is, but we discover who we are because of who he is. In Jesus, God shows up in our life, calling us out from under the fig tree to share the good news of God’s redemptive love.
If we trust Jesus then we too will see the Kingdom of Heaven opened, and angels all around us. We might even discover that we are God’s angels called to further Jesus’ ministry in this heavenly space.
Jesus invites you and me to walk with him and learn how to live out God’s grace and righteousness. To come and see how to speak the truth that leads people to set aside their anger and move towards peace, and justice, and equality. His is an invitation to see him and receive him in everyone you meet.
This is important for us to remember because every day we receive invitations to do things that pull us away from God. Friends invite us to gossip. Co-workers invite us to cheat. And some people, if you allow them, invite us to believe an alternative reality that will make you doubt even what your eye sees and knows to be true.
In his epistle John writes, “No one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Likewise, Jesus never says “Trust me, I know better than you.” Instead, he says "Follow me" and he shows us why we should trust him.
By living fully and faithfully in God’s love he shows us why we can trust him. This is the way that brings about true transformation - for the self, your community, and all of creation.
By accepting his call, you accept the responsibility of his mission. To love God, love others, and serve both. I never get tired of saying this, but in all the ways we showcase the truth of those seven small but powerful words people will come to see us and know us as people whose words and deeds are good and reliable and trustworthy.
As you leave here today, I hope you remember this: Jesus is calling you to come and see with your own eyes that which is true. But he’s also inviting you to “go and be” the angels of God - swooping down in the most unassuming places and lifting people up to God’s eternal glory.
As Jesus himself said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Let’s come and see and go and do in the name of the One who reveals our own true worth.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word, Year B vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Marsh, Michael. interruptingthesilence.com. Jan 16, 2012. (accessed Jan 13, 2018).
*based on a sermon originally given on January 14, 2018.
look at those people who have put their trust in you and ask yourself if you are worthy of this honor.
“She’s the first woman I trusted,” I confessed. And it was true. For most of my grown life I had not fully trusted women, including my mother or sisters. I know it stemmed from a bad relationship when I was younger. That first heartbreak. And it caused me to do things that would ensure that I would be the one breaking the heart, or destroying the relationship, before it would happen to me again. But this young woman was different.
I remember sitting with her on the crooked stoop of her studio apartment. Our neighbors were out in the courtyard, as they often were, drinking and laughing. We lived in a place of broken hearts and budding dreams. The perfect place for me to heal from yet another relationship I had destroyed. In fact, it was really two relationships. It wasn’t the prettiest of places, just the perfect place to rest and restore my soul. I had nothing left in me to go and look for somewhere nicer. Good thing. She lived there.
I don’t know what it was that made me trust her. It could have been her smile, or the way she listened but watched the world around her as if my words didn’t really matter. I told her things, things I had trouble admitting to my therapist at the time. And she listened while still drinking and laughing with the rest. And when it was her turn to talk, her words would pierce my heart – poking holes in the darkest of places to let the light in.
When we started dating, I let her into my most intimate of secrets. Then for my birthday, she threw me a surprise party. One might see it as a betrayal of my trust because she had to lie (or really hide the truth from me) in order to make it happen. For some reason, I loved her more and trusted her more for it. I can’t explain it beyond trust is irrational at times.
When I knew we were going to get married, I confessed my most protected fears. I shared my story and told her of my true calling – something I had kept to myself for decades. She didn’t run. And that made me love her and trust her more. So, by the time we moved into our first house, having our first of three kids, I trusted her more than I trusted my own breath. She has lived up to this in every way.
This week I was privy to a conversation between two women in the park; one asking the other, “Who do you trust?” I have no idea what lead to this question or how her friend answered. But it got me thinking about my relationship with trust and with my wife.
Many people trust our current president more than they trust themselves. Just the same others distrust the man for a variety of reasons. For example, he is constantly sowing seeds of doubt in our ability to trust our government, or media, or one another. And does so simply by telling his sycophants to “Trust me.”
But here’s the thing, his words are vague, at best, because time and time again he has proven himself to be untrustworthy. As of today, it has been reported that Trump has stated over 52,000 lies or mistruths in the last five years since they started counting. His trust in social media has given us well recorded documents of this. This is alarming if you trust the sources who have been fact checking him. And ammunition for those who put their trust elsewhere.
Without a shred of proof or anything to back up his claims, Trump has asked us to trust him when he says he has a better health plan, or that he loves the environment more than anyone else. And let’s not forget “Trust me, this virus will be gone by Easter.” Those who trust him do so believing he isn’t lying but is optimistic about a better way forward. Those who don’t trust him only see these faithful followers as gullible fools.
As the old saying goes, words matter. They say something about the person speaking them.
In a recent article in USA Today, Cindy L. Otis reported, “The reality we must contend with is that the insurrection was the result of a massive, five-year disinformation campaign waged by Trump and his supporters who have weaponized lies, conspiracies, and the reach of social media to gain and attempt to hold onto his power and to distort reality.”
The problem with putting our trust in a person is knowing for sure if that person is trustworthy or not. There are simple ways to check this. The easiest and most important one is by asking yourself, do their words and actions align? If they say they are going to show up and don’t, then what does that say?
Trust is important on so many levels. I need to trust if the surgeon about to operate on the tumor in my throat knows what he is doing. I need to trust that the person I gave a deposit to do some work on my house will show up the next day to do the work. I need to trust in the law and legal system in case he doesn’t. So let me ask you the question I was privy to in the park. “Who do you trust?”
As a kid I went to a school where they pride themselves on forcing kids to battle it out with sword drills – the memorization of bible passages; book, chapter and verse. This allowed us to look like we knew the bible, without having to know the context in which it was written. I have no idea if this was the first one, or just the one that stuck with me, but it’s been my go-to verse in shaping my faith. It’s a proverb that states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not into your own understanding. In all ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.”
Trust God. I can’t tell you how hard this was for me. I knew God. I loved God. I wanted to be closer to God. But trusting God was difficult because I didn’t trust myself, or those in my life. But here’s what I learned after a hard life of doing it my way. Unlike so many women that I ran from, cheated on, or betrayed, God never did any of that.
In spite of all the reasons I have given to God not to trust me, God remained faithful to a fault. I can’t say this about my job as a minister any more than I could say it when I was a copywriter. I can’t say that about my government or even the institutions put in place to keep them honest. And yet, I know God remains trustworthy because God has remained faithful to me.
What does this say to our own faithfulness be it to God or one another?
“Who do you trust?” is a great question to ask yourself. And one we should ask frequently. You can begin by looking around your circle, taking inventory of your friends, family and community to see whose words match their actions. Another way to approach it might be to look at those people who have put their trust in you – your spouse, your kids, your boss, your co-workers – and ask yourself if you are worthy of this honor.
The answer may or may not surprise you, but I believe it’s a worthy exercise if only to help you better understand yourself. Believe me, you can trust me on that.
*There is just so much to talk about on this subject. This is just one small aspect of a much larger picture.
The Jesus I know from the gospels would not condone such behavior. The Jesus I know would have never weaponized people to wage a violent insurrection.
The Jesus from the gospels did not fight even when he was being arrested or unjustly crucified.
The Jesus I love said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” For that, God blessed him with a name above all others.
Read Mark 1:1-11
There are two things are worth noting here at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. First, the Holy Spirit of God is “a dove that descended from heaven.” And second, a voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
After the September 11th terrorist attacks on our country, then President George Walker Bush famously said to the world, “You’re either with us, or against us.” Although this was tough, hawkish language meant to garner support from our allies, this “us versus them” mentality has set the stage for the bitterly divisive place we’re in today.
Now Mark begins his gospel identifying Jesus – not with a war hawk, but with a dove, the symbol of peace. God’s shalom. This instantly sets Jesus apart from other human rulers whose reigns depend on violence and bloodshed to secure more power, not peace. The author will spend the rest of his gospel revealing what the Spirit of God’s peace means to us today.
The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. A voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
watch the message here.
If Wednesday’s coup attempt taught us anything, it should be this: Thirst for power corrupts us. But a hunger for peace unites us. We need to stop dividing ourselves over our petty differences and be united by our commonality. As our great advancements in science have proven, all humans are 99.9% identical. This leaves .01% for all the tiny little differences – like thumb prints and taste in music.
Paul Schoenfeld noticed, “Despite the vastness of our similarities and the breadth of our mutual desires and needs, it is easy to focus on our differences—in beliefs, life experience, aspirations, habits or personality. Today, there is so much emphasis on how we diverge. Whether they be political views, religious practices, or philosophy of life. These distinctions can have a way of creating the false view that there is an “us and them” that is everywhere. It can cause us to forget that we are one species.”
The Jesus I know from the gospels never took a “me versus them” approach. It was always “me and them.” You see, Jesus was inclusive. He loved and welcomed all – including those who eventually killed him.
If science is correct, that there’s merely .01% difference between you and me, that tells me we are also created like Jesus, who at his baptism The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. And a voice declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
In seminary, I did a class project to get people to see Jesus in a new light. Using my advertising skills, I created a series of billboards designed to look like handwritten notes from Jesus. They said things like “Spiritual but not religious? I understand completely.” Or “Like giving blood for a good cause? Me too.” Each note was signed “Love Jesus.” And on each the tagline read, “You might have more in common with Jesus than you think.”
Let’s think about our commonality. Jesus was birthed by a mother, and he relied on her to be fed, changed, and cared for. He had siblings who bothered him, and at least one weird relative named John the Baptist. He laughed, he cried, and he probably cussed when he stubbed his toe or spilled hot coffee on himself.
We can debate the divinity of Jesus, but he was undisputedly fully human. Along the Jordan River, he was claimed and named by God. “You are my beloved. “With you I am pleased.”
What does this say about who we are as humans? “These words revealed the true identity of Jesus as the beloved. Jesus truly heard that voice, and all of his thoughts, words, and actions came forth from his deep knowledge that he was infinitely loved by God” (Nouwen).
Despite the rejection, jealousy and hatred Jesus faced, he continued to show love to all people no matter what tribe they were from or what little faith they had. Jesus was deeply inclusive. He welcomed all people to come and follow his way back to God’s righteousness. The way he lived his life “from that inner place of love,” teaches us how to be human – and to be claimed and named by God.
Jesus set the bar by which we are all called to live – especially those baptized in his name. A bar that opposes violence, bigotry and hatred. A bar that turns the other cheek and sets aside one’s personal needs to care for others first.
His way is the way of God’s love and righteousness. He is a living example of God’s peace and shalom. Thus, Jesus is the One in whom God is well pleased. He is the One inviting all of us to join him - anywhere and everywhere - to uphold and promote the Kingdom of God, not the fiefdom of some ungodly, power hungry person.
But here’s the thing when we are divided into our camps, with hearts are hardened by anger and rage, this can be difficult to understand, making it nearly impossible to follow Jesus faithfully. To claim exclusive rights on Jesus as Richard Rohr points out, “might make it easier to worship him, but it makes it that much harder to imitate him.”
Today, as you leave here to watch sports or engage with others on Facebook, I want you to remember this: We’re all made God’s image. Even those jerks you don’t like or the idiots who don’t like you. This is where claiming the name Christian becomes difficult, but not impossible, to do.
For the last decade I have been seriously working on my ability to see Christ in the face of others. As I’ve stated on my blog, it’s my daily struggle to find the Divine in our midst. What I’ve learned along the way is, the more I try to focus on our commonality rather than our differences the easier it is to see the presence of God all around me. And we all have something in common, if only it’s the divine love that God has etched on every heart. I think Jesus was able to love, even the unlovable, because he understood this.
He knew we are all created in God’s image, which means we all house God’s Spirit of peace within us. This is how Jesus approached all people. You might know that Buddhist often bow to one another, not out of respect for the person but to show respect for the divine within that person. Take a moment to imagine what our world could be like if we allowed God’s love in us to bow in respect to the love of God in others like Jesus did.
The Spirit descended like a dove. A voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved. With you I am pleased.”
As Jesus’ life will reveal, we won’t get along with everyone. We won’t always like people’s post or agree on the way some people do things. But in order to stake our claim on Christ’s name, we have to continue his mission of peace and receive one another in love because we all are God’s beloved children.
So, I’ll leave you with this to ask yourself: Am I living in a way that pleases God? Am I living into my baptism? Walking as Jesus walked? Loving as he loved? Am I caring for the least of these my brothers and sisters?
God’s dramatic acknowledgment of Jesus makes it clear that through his words and deeds we’re encountering God’s intensions for all people. And those intensions, according to the prophet Micah, are to see that justice and fairness is done for your neighbor, to be merciful and compassionate, loyal in your love, and to get off your high horse and humbly walk with your God. (Micah 6:8)
The words God spoke to Jesus in the wild rapids of the Jordan River are words spoken to us all.
To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, “Once we accept the truth that we are God’s beloved children, loved unconditionally, then we can go into the world to speak and to act as Jesus did.”
But when we hold on to rage and anger, and participate in divisiveness like we witnessed on Wednesday, it makes it harder for God’s love to penetrate our hearts. Harder, but not impossible.
Like heaven at baptism, God is able to break through our hearts and gives us peace.
If we can truly believe that God is speaking to us, calling us the beloved, then we can begin to see that it’s not our subtle .01% differences that make us standout. It's how we live out our similarities as one people in the name of the One who unites us in perfect peace and calls us all home to be with him.
Green, Emma. A Christian Insurrection. The Atlantic. January 8, 2021 (accessed on January 8, 2021).
Nouwen, Henri. Anchor Yourself In God’s Love from You Are the Beloved. (New York: Convergent, 2017)
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And…Daily Meditations. (Cincinnati: Franciscan, 1997) p. 249
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. (New York: Convergent, 2018) p. 23.
Schoenfeld, Paul. We are more similar than different. everettclinic.com on July 26, 2017 (accessed on January 8, 2021).
Symeon the New Theologian, “Hymn 15,” from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, ed. Stephen Mitchell (Harper Perennial: 1993), 38–39. Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 219–220.
watch the Andrew Benson tells the story of a little girl building a sandcastle. It’s a palace fit for the princess who fills her imagination. Before she can complete it, a wave comes and crashes over her masterpiece. Instead crying or throwing a fit, the little girl picks up her bucket and begins again.
He writes “We build something beautiful in our minds or with our hands, and we hope our work endures. Then the tide comes in and rolls over us. Trial after trial, set back after set back, we build and rebuild. It’s what we do. It’s what God does.”
Last year, the waves came crashing down on us. But God was there, rebuilding us and making something new out of great love for us. It’s a story that is repeated time and time again in the bible. One of which we read about here, from the young prophet Jeremiah.
READ JEREMIAH 31:7-14
What a perfect reading for a new year. It reminds us of why our faith is so important to how we move through life. Like I’ve always said, faith is less about getting into heaven when we die and more about living in heaven right now. Jeremiah gives us a great picture of what that living looks like – people gathered from every corner of the earth to shout praises and raise their glasses to toast God. There’s singing and dancing and celebrating the goodness of life.
Today, in these last days of the Christmas season, churches around the world are celebrating Epiphany, when God revealed God’s self to the world. It’s often accompanied by the story of the Magi coming to visit Jesus. But today, I want to talk about the epiphany I had while binge watching Hallmark Christmas movies this past week.
watch the message here
Now if you’re not familiar with this pop-sugar phenomenon here’s some things you need to know. There’s often a character with a Christmas name like Holly, Noel, Nick or Chris.
In every story there’s a cynical person from the big city who for some reason has to go to a small town where they discover, or rediscover, the magic of Christmas. And fall in love with hot cocoa. No matter where this small town is located, it’s always within driving distance to Manhattan. And there’s always snow. Lots of snow.
There’s also a certain mystique and mystery about Hallmark Christmas movies that draws you in and makes you want to watch more. It isn’t the predictable outcome, boy meets girl and falls in love.
Nor is it the fact that everyone is obsessed with Christmas or that every square inch of their home or business has been professionally decorated by magical elves with an endless supply of ornaments.
It’s more subtle than that. After watching three movies back to back, I began to notice that in every scene, people are smiling. And for some strange reason it makes me want to watch more Hallmark Christmas movies. I guess that the old saying is true - smiling is contagious.
Sadly, this doesn’t happen enough in the real world. Not even at Disney, and that’s the happiest place on earth. The real world is full of cynicism, and real pain and deep suffering. These days it seems to lack that joy and goodness that makes us want to smile.
But not in towns like Holiday Falls or Hope Junction. There everyone smiles. All the time. No matter how bleak or dire the situation becomes, they smile – faithfully believing that everything will turn out alright by Christmas. And you know what...it does. They smile because they have hope.
The previous chapters in Jeremiah are dedicated to warning God’s people that a time will come when their world will come crashing down. In today’s reading, the prophet reminds them not to lose hope. Instead, keep smiling because God is always smiling upon you.
But here’s the thing, you don’t have to live in a world where a cup of cocoa can solve all our problems, to produce a smile. You just need a small glimmer of hope. Long before that first Christmas Day, the incarnation was already unfolding.
Jeremiah’s words remind us that God is always one step ahead of us, leading us to whence we came. We can have hope in God, knowing that what we’re dealing with today is preparing us for what is to come tomorrow.
This should be good news for all of us who survived 2020. Christmas is our reminder that life is pregnant with hope, always giving birth to God’s grace and glory. Knowing that God has included us in that story ought to bring a smile to everyone’s face.
Now another characteristic of every Hallmark Christmas movie is the fact that someone or something needs to be rescued – like the annual Christmas pageant or a small family business. But that rescue is usually the precursor to the main characters being redeemed from his or her past.
For forty years Jeremiah warned the people that something bad was about to unfold. If they didn’t repent and return to God, then they too will fall like the many nations that had conquered them in the past. Eventually his prophecy would come true. And God’s people would be scattered and stuck in places they don’t want to be. As they were being humbled, all they had to hold onto was the hope of God’s promise that Jeremiah spoke about.
This is what makes this passage important for us as we start the new year. There are places we find ourselves that we don’t want to be in. Dark places of addiction, anger, jealousy, or resentment. Places that steal our joy and cause us to lose hope in God’s word.
Like these silly movies show us, we are all in need Christmas - God’s final word on salvation. In Christ, God came to save us from ourselves by showing us how to live rightly in God’s promise. It’s in this way of living, God transforms us to be who God created us to be - kind, loving, peacemakers seeking justice and equality for all people.
In Hallmark Christmas Land, this transformation is obvious. With a renewed heart, the redeemed character always decides the big city life just isn’t where they belong anymore. So they buy the failing bookstore or crumbling hotel and start over. They give themselves a second chance at life.
Hope and restoration. That is the hallmark of Christmas.
This is exactly the Christmas gift God is offering you in Christ Jesus. This is the great Epiphany - that God came to be with us, to rescue us, by becoming one of us. On Christmas, God's grace became incarnate and transformed the world; restoring us and returning us to place where our hearts have always belonged – at home in God’s heart.
This doesn’t mean we won’t have more days like we experienced in 2020. There will be suffering and sorrow, and hard times that will challenge us.
But out of pain comes healing, out of darkness comes light. God’s mercy and grace that is given to us in Christ Jesus is just what we need to help us through difficult situations. Like Jeremiah points out when the hard times end, we will be closer to God than we were before.
Which takes me to one last thing about Hallmark Christmas movies. This is the obvious one. Every movie ends with true love being found. Which makes total sense, because Christmas is the greatest love story ever told. Christ is proof of God’s unconditional, transformative love. A love that is real and everlasting, and always catches us off guard.
It’s the kind of love that cracks our heart wide open and allows God to be where God wants to be the most. In you - singing, dancing, celebrating and of course sipping endless amounts of hot cocoa.
As the new year begins, I hope that you will always remember that in Christ God has given us a chance to renew our faith and to place our hope in the great heart that leads us home just in time for Christmas.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”