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Jeremiah 17:5-10

Psalm 1

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

(Also Feast of Absalom Jones)

Collect: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


Our Gospel this morning drops us into a story already underway. Jesus comes down from the mountain with the 12 apostles he’s just chosen and leads them, along with the rest of his disciples and “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (which were Syro-Phoenician communities, by the way—so we might infer that there were both Jews and Gentiles in the crowd), and he leads them all to “a level place.”

You’ve probably already noticed that this sounds like the story that we know as the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. But here Luke says, “a level place”—a place Jesus has come down to from the mountain. Why the difference? Anytime there’s a difference in accounts like this, it’s worth wondering about. Did one of them just make a mistake? Get the details wrong? Or could this be a problem of perspective?

Some have speculated that it was a plateau—you know, both mountain and level. When you go to the Holy Land and the spot where tradition says this took place, the keepers of the holy site go to great length to show how this could be a mount or a level place depending on where you’re standing.

To be honest, I’m not much interested in these speculations. I’m much more interested in what Luke the author, the creative writer, might be doing with this image.

From here Jesus launches into his famous and familiar beatitudes, but in Luke’s retelling it’s not just blessings that Jesus delivers, but woes as well. Jesus comforts, but also disrupts.

It could be easy to read this text and put it into a neat and tidy little binary box and think: starving? Good! Satisfied? Bad! We like it when things are black and white—when there is a clear right answer and a clear wrong answer.

But I don’t think that’s actually what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is always messing with our nice little neat and tidy boxes. So what might he be doing in this teaching?

First, let’s look at the word that is here translated as “blessed.” You’ll sometimes see it translated as “happy,” as it is our Psalm from this morning. There are two words for blessing in Hebrew: baruch—which is the word used in the reading from Jeremiah this morning and is the standard word for blessing—and asher, the word used in the Psalm, translated as “happy” and what gets transliterated to the greek makarios, the word used in the gospel, translated as blessed. Asher, in turn, is connected to the Hebrew verb ashar—to continue on the way. So one scholar I read suggested a better translation for the word blessed here might be “respectable” or worthy of respect. One who is on the right track.

In other words, this is a term that connotes a sense of being on the right path, heading the right direction. In contrast “woe” is a warning. You might think of it as “woah” spelled a different way. Wait! Head’s Up! Warning! Time to recalibrate!

I think we have here a call to pay attention to where our values lie and an invitation to realign ourselves with them.

In his Gospel, Luke is often inviting us to shift our perspective. He sets up all sort of contrasts in telling his story—for example, he begins the story of the birth of Jesus talking about the Emperor Augustus and the Roman empire . . . and then shifts to a small town in a far off corner of the empire and the birth of a child and the shepherds who came to visit him. He sets up his story with—see, you’re used to paying attention here (empire), but if that’s where your focus is, you’ll miss this. What are you focusing on? Where are you giving your attention?

And this is what I think is happening in our text this morning. Where are we focusing our energy? Are we committing our energies to being satisfied and comfortable, never letting the grief of the world touch us? Woe to us, if we are.

And lest we are tempted to think of these contrasts in still binary terms of good and bad—ever a risk for us humans—let’s go back to the text. These things Jesus is speaking to are conditional: “woe to you who are full now,” “blessed are you weep now” . . .

Remember earlier when I was wondering about why Luke chose “a level place” for this story to occur? This is what I think: I think he sets the story there because these things describe all of us at different times and places. None of us are exempt from veering from the right track, and there is never a point when we can’t realign ourselves with it. We are all in this messy journey together.

I was having a conversation last week about the tension between Original goodness—found in the creation story—and the church doctrine of original sin. And the question was posed, Which is it? Are we at base good? Or are we at base sinful and bad? And in true Anglican form, my response was, and is: both. We are both.

Friends, I believe we have to get beyond the good-bad binary. It is insidious and destructive. It is immobilizing us as a people. It keeps us from engaging those who think differently from us, it keeps us from listening, it keeps us from loving—both others and ourselves.

It also keeps us from learning and growing. When this binary takes hold we will go to extreme lengths to uphold our own sense of goodness, and we will feel threatened by anything that disrupts that—even if that disruption is in itself good. I think this is a particular challenge for us church folk who want more than anything to be seen as good. It keeps us expecting to be comforted and appeased in our church rather than challenged. It keeps us from being able to hear the correction of loved ones who we may have unintentionally harmed, because to do so would be to admit, even in a small way, that we were not somehow fully “good.” This is why as a white person when a person of color tells me about something I’ve done that has caused harm, my first instinct is to think, “Oh! But I didn’t mean it!” Rather than, “I’m sorry. I commit to doing better.” We can be so invested in being seen and understood as a good person that we lose the chance to be a better person.

If we were to rewrite these for our time, we might say, “Happy/blessed are those who can apologize when they’ve caused harm,” and “Woe to those who say, ‘but I didn’t mean it!’” “Blessed are those who can learn from their mistakes,” and “woe to those who cannot see their mistakes at all”

This is not to say we can’t call out evil or goodness when we see it. On the contrary, we have to do so if we want to continue on the path set before us as disciples of Jesus. But they do not exist within us in a mutually exclusive way. The presence of one does not negate the presence of the other. We all get off track. We all need at times things that can call us back to that path.

One of the ways that we practice this in the church is through the keeping of Lent. On Ash Wednesday we will be issued an invitation “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” For 40 days we will recall the stories of the Israelites in the wilderness and Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. We will embark upon our own journey, discerning as best we can where we have allowed our focus and attention to drift, and where we need to realign ourselves with the path of discipleship. We will remember that it’s not about being a good person or a bad person, but rather about being a fully human person who makes mistakes and who is called to an ever deepening relationship with Jesus. And we will walk with Jesus as he makes his way to a tree, a tree designed to be an instrument of terror but will become one of love, solidarity, and liberation.

And so I invite you over the next couple of weeks to consider how you’ll observe Lent this year. How will you engage in the work of self-examination? What might you read and study as you carve time to meditate on God’s holy word? We will have some options here at St. Paul’s for you to engage this time with Wednesday night classes, Stations of the Cross, and Morning Prayer. Consider what will help you enter into this season most fully.

Friends, the invitation from Jesus into a closer walk with God and neighbor is ever before us. Amen.

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Collect: Almighty God, whose Son our savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.


A number of years ago I attended a conference focused on exploring new and creative ways of being church in the world. There were sessions on various methods of church planting and revitalization, the ways in which the church was engaging critical issues in the social sphere such as racism and poverty, and just overall a really neat network of people to explore these kinds of questions with.

But the thing that I remember the most from that weekend is actually a sermon—which is saying something for me because I never remember sermons—even ones I love. Even my own!  The dean of the cathedral where we were meeting pointed out the painting that hung over the main doors to the nave—a painting which depicted the Hebrews just after having been rescued from Pharoah’s army by the parting of the sea, and just before they embarked on their journey into the wilderness—and he asked us pointedly, saying “there’s a reason that’s hung over the doors to the church”: “what if the most important part of our Sunday liturgy is not communion, not the sermon, and not the prayers . . .but the dismissal?” The dismissal—this itty bitty piece of the liturgy that might at times feel like an afterthought? The dismissal—this phrase that can feel like one of the more rote moments on a Sunday morning? What if, in fact, this is the most important thing?

In each confirmation or Journey class I’ve taught I’ve asked the group what their favorite parts of the liturgy are. Kneeling at the altar rail is a popular response, and the Prayer After Communion comes up a lot, too. Now, I know I haven’t been doing this a super long time, but the dismissal has yet to come up as someone’s favorite part of the liturgy.  And while important and favorite are not the same thing, I wonder if maybe we have overlooked this small but mighty part of the liturgy?

Just as that painting over the doors of the cathedral depicted the Hebrews at a pivotal threshold moment, so does our reading from Isaiah this morning. The passage comes from near the end of the book and scholars believe it to be speaking to the moment just before or just after the exiles return to Jerusalem from Babylon. Utterly defeated in war, stripped from their homes and the places that gave them meaning for several generations, they now stand in their own threshold moment of returning to a place that will be both familiar and alien at the same time. It is their land, their home, the place where God dwells, but it will look nothing like what it did before. The temple is gone, their homes are gone, and there are new peoples dwelling in the land.

And what does the prophet say? He says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest . . .”

I will not keep silent. . .

So, one of the other topics at that aforementioned conference was evangelism. And I have to admit as a former evangelical, that word still sometimes makes me squirm. And for a long time it wasn’t “sometimes” but all the time. And I know this isn’t just an issue for former evangelicals either—nothing gets Episcopalians squirming quite like talking about evangelism.

And I think for some good reasons. On a macro level, evangelism has been the articulated motivation for all manner of horrendous things, not least of which is the Doctrine of Discovery—which is a legacy we are still living under today—and the ensuing genocide and subjugation of innumerable peoples in the Americas and around the world. It’s easy to see why evangelism would leave a sour taste in your mouth.

And on a personal-level, too: I’ll admit that when I think of evangelism the first things I think of are condescension, arrogance, self-righteousness and unkindness. I think of people standing on street corners spewing hatred. I think of my camp counselors telling me as a child that my parents were going to go to Hell because they weren’t “saved.”

I reached a point though, in my own journey (and it may have coincided with the realization that it was looking more and more likely that I might actually become a priest and would likely need to have a better response to this topic than mere avoidance), when I decided that rather than continuing to avoid the E-word, I needed to engage it. Wrestle with it. Reckon with it. And see where I came out on the other side.

Because, see, I realized that I didn’t want that story—that story that I had heard, that story that I knew, that story that I had experienced—to be the only story. Evangelism literally means “to tell good news.” The tradition in which I was formed told me the good news was that Jesus saved people from hell if they repented and recited the sinner’s prayer. When my theology around how the salvation of God works shifted, that old story no longer felt like good news. And rather than shifting my definition of Good News to go along with my new thinking, I just threw the whole notion of Good News out.

But the thing is—I do believe there is Good News. It’s just not the good news that I was taught.

The prophet in our reading this morning says, “I will not keep silent” because he has good news to share! What is that good news? That a people heavy with war and exile, broken, outcast, forsaken . . . are seen by God. That they will be a crown of beauty in the hand of God, that rather than being called “Forsaken” they will receive a new name: “My delight is in you” and that God will pledge and commit to this heartbroken people. And this delight, this commitment, this restoration and healing will cause the people to shine out like the dawn as a sign to the world around them.

I will not keep silent. There is good news here.

This is the good news Rachel spoke about last week—that God loves us each of us so deeply and yearns for our wholeness. When I look at our world, and the loneliness and sense of unworthiness that plagues so many, I am convicted that this is good news people need to hear. (Do I want to add something in this paragraph about justice?)

Does that mean trying to coerce people? No. Does that mean believing we’re the only ones who have it right and so we should go out and try to convince everyone to do what we’re doing? I don’t believe it means that either. But I do believe that when we experience beauty and hope, the natural thing is to want to share that. (concert story?) And I hope that we don’t stifle that inclination because our kin in the faith have twisted that and messed it. Because if we do—then their story becomes the only one that people hear. And that, my friends, would not be good news.

There’s a popular quote out there attributed (correctly or not) to St. Francis: “preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” There are many ways to share the good news, and hopefully our whole lives bear witness to the work and presence of God in the world. But, invariably, at some point we will likely need to use words to communicate our hope and that’s okay. That’s good. It is possible to do without disparaging others—and might even be a comfort to them.

So I encourage you to explore the question: What is the good news? What has been good news for you in your life? There is something that pulls you back here week after week.

Like the Hebrews in that painting, and the exiles from our reading this morning, we too stand on a threshold. The world is in a period of rapid change—politically, economically, socially, climatically—and what the future holds won’t look like what came before. There is profound suffering. And each week we return to this place to be reminded of a God who gives their people new names like “delight.” To be reminded of a God who loves their people so much that they chose to move into the neighborhood, to pitch their tent among the people and tether their lot to the rest of us. We are united and nourished at this table. And then, in what might be the most important part of the liturgy, we are sent back out across that threshold each week to “love and serve the Lord.” Thanks be to God.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Psalm 147

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

Collect: Almighty God you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


A colleague of ours down in Seattle, the Rev. Shelly Fayette, wrote a Facebook post a few years ago, which has suddenly, this year gotten quite the attention from church people around the globe as it was picked up and shared by an Australian bishop. In it she suggests, only half jokingly, that instead of the traditional Christmas pageant we do every year, which is—by and large—a mashup from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, that instead of this we do Gospel-specific pageants, for they all tell a slightly different story.

She suggests the following for the Gospel of John that we read this morning:

“The room is dark. Tiny children wear black capes. They whoosh around the room whispering, ‘in the beginning . . . in the beginning . . . in the beginning.’ One of them whirls around to display a glow-in-the-dark WORD, and they dance over to another child, whose belly reads GOD, and then they link and become one unit, together, dancing, dancing. They keep pulling out glow-in-the-dark scarves that say light, light, light, and they dance around lighting all the candles scattered throughout the room.

They chant, ‘the darkness did not overcome us! Ha!’

A haggard man enters the room and says, ‘I am a witness to all this light.’

The children whisper, ‘the true light is coming, the true light is coming, the true light is coming.’

[from the loudspeaker: ‘the true light is coming! To the world! Even though he came to the world, and made the world, the world didn’t like him much! He came to his own people, who rejected him, probably like some of you! But those who did recognize him, and you sitting here, if you’re ready, will become children of God yourselves! Not some halfway ‘actually children of people who feel slightly more divine because of church’ nonsense! Actual! Children! of! God!]

The child bearing the word WORD tears off their cape and runs around in their underwear, in the flesh, like a wild thing.”

It’s a useful exercise to consider. How would you retell the story we heard in our Gospel reading this morning? John’s Gospel is so very different than Matthew and Luke. If Matthew and Luke are concerned with the nitty gritty, mundane and earthy details of what’s happening with a few particular people, John wants to pull us back to try and get that 30,000 foot perspective. Yes, there was this man—but who was he, truly? And why did he come? And why does it matter? And because it’s John, he’ll probably say the same thing at least a half a dozen times in just slightly different ways—just to make sure it’s clear.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . .” The Greek word for “lived” here, or what you also hear translated as “dwelled” comes from the idea of “pitching one’s tent,” and for me at least, that’s a helpful counter balance to seeing this discourse of John’s in purely abstract terms. When one pitches their tent among a group of people . . . that’s not merely a random or indifferent gesture. It’s a way of throwing your lot in with a particular group of people. Like saying, “alright, these are my people, for better or worse, and we’re going to face the future and whatever it holds together.” God became flesh and pitched their tent among us. God threw in their lot with us. God chose to say, “these are my people, for better or worse, and we’re going to face the future and whatever it holds together.”

In his paraphrase, The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Y’all. The creator of the stars of night became flesh, and bone, and body and moved into the neighborhood. Think about that for a moment: God living here among us, here in this very neighborhood.

And if God has moved into our neighborhood, how will we also “move into our neighborhood?”

As the weather turns frightfully cold this week, and in yet another year of uncertainty, anxiety, and the ground seemingly shifting beneath us, amidst unattainable and conflicting expectations, how do we live as though God themselves lives among us? In the house next door? In the checkout line at the grocery store? In the person sitting on a flattened cardboard box wrapped in blankets in the doorway of a local shop. If we truly believe the living God is here among us, how will that shape how we live in the world? Will we throw our lot in with each other as God has thrown theirs in with us?

I hope you’ll meditate on that question this week—we do have 11 more days of Christmas after all. What does the mystery of the incarnation—that wonder of God showing up to a specific time and place and community all those years ago—show us about who God is, and who we, too, are invited to be in the world?

For my Christmas reading this year, I’m reading a collection of meditations called, “The Mood of Christmas”* by the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. A mentor to both Dr. King and Pauli Murray, if you’re not familiar with his work, I cannot commend it to you enough. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite of his poems. He writes,

“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among others. To make music in the heart.


* Thurman, Howard. “The Work of Christmas,” in The Mood of Christmas. Friends United Press. 1985.

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