Epiphany 2 B
January 17, 2021
“Speak, Lord”

When the lectionary readings include a couple paragraphs plucked out of a less-familiar book of scripture – like 1 Samuel -- I’m pretty sure at least some of you respond with, “Wait. What?” So, if we’re listening for “a word from the Lord” that might be addressed to us in that reading, let’s try to first understand it within its own context.

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Epiphany 2 B January 17, 2021

I Samuel 3:1-10 Pastor Susan Henry

John 1:43-51 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Speak, Lord”

When the lectionary readings include a couple paragraphs plucked out of a less-familiar book of scripture – like 1 Samuel -- I’m pretty sure at least some of you respond with, “Wait.  What?”  So, if we’re listening for “a word from the Lord” that might be addressed to us in that reading, let’s try to first understand it within its own context.  After the death of Moses, as the people crossed the Jordan and entered the land promised by God, Joshua took Moses’ place as their leader.  After Joshua’s death many years later, a number of judges led the various tribes of Israel, wisely or not so wisely, during what became a chaotic, morally corrupt time of ongoing conflict.  In fact, the last chapters of the book of Judges recount one stomach-turning story of depravity and lawlessness after another.  Although the people of God may have arrived at the promised land, the very last verse of Judges, in a bleak summary, recounts what life was like there: “In those days . . . all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how well that went – or how well it goes today.

You might recall that the ark of the covenant, the sign of God’s presence, had been carried through the wilderness when God’s people had wandered there for forty years.  In this story from 1 Samuel, the ark now resides at a holy place, a temple, in Shiloh where Eli and his sons are the priests.  It’s where, maybe a dozen or so years before the events in today’s reading take place, a couple had come to worship and to offer sacrifices.  The woman, named Hannah, in deep distress over having no children, had prayed there so passionately for a son and wept so bitterly that Eli was convinced that she was drunk.  When he confronted her, she told him of her plight and how she promised God that, if she had a son, he would be raised to serve God in the temple there.  Eli heard her story and said, “Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

Hannah and her husband returned home, and in time she did have a son.  After he was weaned, she brought him to serve at the holy place at Shiloh, lending him to God, she said, for as long as he lived, just as she had promised.

After Hannah left Samuel with Eli, she sang a remarkable, joyful song of praise to the God who raises up the lowly – like her -- and brings down the powerful, the God who feeds the hungry while those who were full have to hire themselves out to get enough to eat.   She and her husband returned home, but, every year, Hannah would sew a new tunic for her son and bring it to him there where he was serving God in the temple at Shiloh.

Today’s story from First Samuel begins by noting that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  In other words, nobody was expecting anything out of the ordinary on that night when, as usual, Eli was lying down in his room and Samuel was lying down in the temple, where the ark of the covenant was kept.  “Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli said, “I didn’t call you.  Go back to bed.”  The same thing happened again, with God calling, and Samuel thinking it was Eli, and Eli saying, “I didn’t call you.  Go back to bed.”  We’re told that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him,” so who else would Samuel have expected to call him but Eli?  After this happened a third time, it dawned on Eli that God was calling Samuel, and Eli told him how to answer if he heard his name called another time.  Again, God called, and this time Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

It’s a good thing that God was persistent and Eli was perceptive, because Samuel was new to this kind of relationship with God.  How would he have recognized God’s voice, whatever that sounded like, on his own? Good thing he had Eli, a mentor and teacher.  It’s a good thing for us, too, to have mentors, Godly Play and Sunday School teachers, faithful parents or grandparents or pastors to help us listen for God’s voice among the many competing voices in our heads. 

As best I can tell, most of us don’t have experiences of being called like Samuel, but that doesn’t mean God’s not calling us.  God’s call might come through Jesus, as it did for Andrew and Peter and Nathanael.  God’s call might come through something that keeps pulling us toward it – a vocation to teach, a love for the planet, a desire to serve in our community, a cause that connects us with others who are seeking justice.  Sometimes God’s call is just a subtle nudge in a direction we’re pretty sure God would like us to go – making amends for harm we’ve done to someone, using our love for cooking to feed others, or calling a lonely friend.  Sometimes we need people like Eli to help us discern God’s call.  Quakers are good at listening together for God’s voice, and we learn from their practices.  Our council takes a full day toward the beginning of each year to listen, as best we can, to what God is calling House of Prayer to do and who God is calling us to be.

When we wonder if we’re hearing God’s voice and God’s call, perhaps the single best question to ask ourselves is whether what we think we’re hearing from God is consistent with what we know of God revealed in Jesus.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., perceived God’s call to a ministry of compassion and justice and nonviolence, a costly call that followed Jesus’ own way of being in the world and revealing God’s love.  When God said, “Martin! Martin” – whether that was to Luther himself or King who was named for him – each in his own way said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

When Samuel replied, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” who knows what he expected to hear?  If he anticipated a boy-sized, getting-to-know-you, easy-to-speak word from the Lord, that’s not what he got.  He got God’s judgment on the house of Eli, the kind of judgment that was going to “make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”  God tells Samuel, “I have told Eli that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”

Not by words they said but by what they did, Eli’s sons were blaspheming God.  In Eli’s time, meat sacrifices were offered to God by those who came to worship at Shiloh.  After the best of the meat had been offered to God, the rest was eaten, but Eli’s sons were taking what was meant for God for themselves, skimming off the offerings like a corrupt TV evangelist who buys expensive cars and a private jet with what people offer to God.  Even when people complained to Eli about his sons, he didn’t hold them accountable.  And, not only did his sons take for themselves the best of what was offered to God, they also slept with women who, like Hannah, had come to the temple to pray.  In that chaotic, conflict-ridden, morally corrupt time, Eli’s sons – priests serving in the temple at Shiloh! – “did what was right in their own eyes” – and Eli did not stop them.  That he knew what they were doing but did not restrain them or hold them accountable made him complicit with them.  Another man of God had already confronted Eli about what his sons were doing, and still there had been no turning away from their corruption of the priesthood. 

Now, here is Samuel, called by God to announce to Eli, his mentor and teacher, “God says, ‘That’s it. You’re fired.  You and your household.  For always.’”  Delivering that message is a lot to ask of a boy of twelve or so.  It’s a tough way for a prophet to begin a ministry.  No wonder Samuel lay there until morning, “afraid to tell the vision to Eli.”  After Samuel “opened the doors of the house of the Lord,” the voice he heard was not God’s but Eli’s.  “Samuel, my son,” Eli called.  “Here I am,” Samuel answered. 

I imagine Samuel’s heart beating fast, his stomach in a knot, sorrow in his eyes over the pain he is about to cause when Eli asks what God has told Samuel.  “Tell me all of it,” Eli says, “Tell me the truth, and don’t keep anything from me.”  And so Samuel says what he surely doesn’t want to say and what Eli surely doesn’t want to hear.  Eli listens, and Eli acknowledges with dignity and humility the truth of what Samuel has spoken.  Eli accepts God’s judgment on him and on his family.  God may forgive them, but that doesn’t mean they still get to serve as priests in the temple. 

To accept God’s call, to listen when God speaks, is to be a bearer of good news sometimes and bad news other times.  It’s to speak God’s own words of forgiveness and also to speak truth to power.  It’s to announce the good news of Jesus Christ and also to confront -- with God’s own judgment – injustice, moral corruption, and complicity with evil.  That’s the work of God’s prophets in Samuel’s time and in our own.  Our hearts may beat a little faster, our stomachs may be in knots, and our eyes may reveal our sorrow or our fear not only when we are called to speak truth to power but also when we ourselves are called to hear how we ignore injustice or are complicit in it, how we’re reluctant to confront what we know is offensive to God, or how we’re unwilling to hear and accept with grace and courage the truth that judges us.

To say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” is likely to take us to unexpected places.  It may make our ears tingle with apprehension about what we might hear about ourselves.  It may nudge us toward greater love for God and for our neighbors.  It may bring us the deep, abiding joy of hearing God call us beloved sons and daughters.  Actually, to say to God, “Speak, for I am listening,” will surely take us to all those places.

The good news is that we don’t go there alone.  Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, God’s saving Word addressed to us, is with us.  In him, we find joy in the assurance that we’re loved.  With him, we find grace and the courage to accept hard truths about ourselves and our society.  Through him, we live as people of hope, even in times as dark as those in Eli and Samuel’s day.  On this day, we recall the words of Martin Luther King, who answered when God called and who testified to this truth: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  King was surely speaking the God-honest truth.

May we who know Samuel be willing to speak truth to power, even when we are afraid.  May we who know Eli be willing to listen to the God-honest truth about ourselves, even when it’s hard to hear. And, may we who know the crucified and risen Jesus keep listening for God’s voice so that our lives may reflect the light of Christ and reveal the love of Christ for the sake of a world that needs more joy, grace, courage, and hope right now.









Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2021
Boundary Breaking

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Just weeks ago, Advent began with this plea from the prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” “Show up, God,” Isaiah prayed, “and help us!” With record-breaking numbers of Covid cases and deaths, and with a mob breaking into the Capitol this past Wednesday, we too may be longing for God to break through the boundary between heaven and earth to help us. It’s been a horrible week, hasn’t it?

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Baptism of Our Lord January 10, 2021

Genesis 1:1-5 Pastor Susan Henry

Mark 1:1-11 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Boundary Breaking

Just weeks ago, Advent began with this plea from the prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  “Show up, God,” Isaiah prayed, “and help us!”  With record-breaking numbers of Covid cases and deaths, and with a mob breaking into the Capitol this past Wednesday, we too may be longing for God to break through the boundary between heaven and earth to help us.  It’s been a horrible week, hasn’t it?

What Mark’s gospel tells us today – and will keep reminding us throughout this church year – is that, in Jesus, we meet that boundary-breaking God we long for.  The first real event in Mark’s gospel is the baptism of Jesus.  We spent Advent and Christmas immersed in Matthew and Luke’s gospels as they began with stories of promises fulfilled, of the birth of Jesus, of a baby in a manger visited by shepherds and magi.  Then, in John’s gospel, we really began at the beginning, with the Word that was God and was with God at creation now becoming flesh and living among us in Jesus.

Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story begins with Jesus’ baptism – but why?  For this gospel writer, Jesus’ baptism reveals in no uncertain terms how Isaiah’s plea has been answered.  “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”  In Mark’s gospel, he lets us in on what only Jesus perceives – that the boundary between heaven and earth has suddenly been breached and that the Spirit of God has now made its home in him.  In a way, this is Mark’s account of the Incarnation.

We might imagine clouds gently parting or beams of light shining down from the sky as the Spirit gently descends like a dove, but the picture Mark paints is more startling, more dynamic, more disruptive.  Jesus sees “the heavens torn apart,” ripped open, split, rended as God in God’s mercy no longer remains “at a distance.”  In truth, as Lutheran scholar Donald Juel puts it, “God is on the loose.”

At his baptism, Jesus sees and Jesus hears.  A voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  So -- who is Jesus?  Jesus is God’s Son.  Jesus is the Beloved.  Jesus is the One with whom God is well pleased.  This is Jesus’ identity.  He may also be Mary’s child, a brother to siblings, a Jewish resident of Nazareth, a person living under Roman rule, a speaker of Aramaic, and much more – but his core identity is as God’s Son, God’s Beloved.  His baptism is sign and seal of that.

Our own core identity is as a child of God, as God’s beloved son or daughter.  Our own baptism is sign and seal of that, and hopefully we live more deeply into that identity throughout our lives.  Of course, we are also individuals with parents and perhaps siblings, with spouses or partners or roommates.  We are people living in particular towns, working at certain jobs, studying in various places, holding a variety of political beliefs.  Those things are part of who we are.  But our deepest, most to-be-treasured, truest identity is as a child of God, as one who is beloved of God.  You are loved unconditionally.  You belong to God forever.  That is who you are.  It’s astounding, really.

You and I ignore that, forget it, or don’t trust it at our personal and collective peril, because numberless shallow, false, alternative identities try to seduce us.  They want to convince us that our core identity, our worth, and our sense of belonging are tied to or defined by something other than our being a beloved child of God.  We get tempted to believe that what makes us who we are is our success in life, the status we have, how much money we make, the car we drive, the brands we buy, the political views we hold.  We get seduced by how much attention we can garner, how many people we can influence, how many grievances we have in common, how much admiration or loyalty we can elicit.  I don’t know anybody who hasn’t gone looking for love – really, for God’s love – in all these wrong places.

But when you and I and others are not grounded in our core identity as a beloved child of God, we are at the mercy of our egos’ needs.  We’re at the mercy of the fears and the truths about ourselves that we try to hide from others.  We’re at the mercy of powerful, disordered desires.  And we’re often unwilling to confess all those things and trust in the mercy of God.  It’s a recipe for chaos.

Among the images I can’t unsee from the riot at the Capitol is that of a guy wearing a bulletproof vest that read, in giant uppercase letters, “HOLY BIBLE.”  I have no idea what that meant to him, but it suggests to me that instead of feasting on the promises in that book, he and those around him have been gulping down a toxic stew of Christian nationalism and White grievance, of a theology of glory rather than of the cross, of confusing the freedom of a Christian with insistence of having one’s own way, and of captivity to a leader’s demand for blind loyalty that can erupt in violence.  Boundaries were broken last Wednesday, but it was not God on the loose in the Capitol.

I can’t help but imagine how things in our nation might be different if we were looking for love in all the right places nowadays.  In an actual Holy Bible, for example.  What if all who identify as Christians knew at their very core, deep in their hearts, that God had torn open the heavens and come down so that Jesus might reveal that they and we and those who work in the Capitol are all beloved of God?  That God is still loose in the world, bringing about, little by little, a reign of mercy and justice and peace, a reign of love so powerful that it can transform us?  That not only the heavens at Jesus’ baptism but also the curtain of the temple at his death were torn open to reveal God’s determination to be with us and to save us from ourselves?  Surely such convictions would help protect people from succumbing to the lure of alternative identities that are not grounded in love.

God’s fierce love is life-giving, identity-forming, and boundary-breaking in good and glorious ways.  That fierce love calls us “beloved.”  Mark’s gospel starts with the claim that it is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The kingdom Jesus proclaimed has begun and is still emerging, even though some days it seems impossible to see.  But, for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ and the reign of God, we who know ourselves to be God’s beloved children have prayers to pray and work to do. 

Right now, my prayer is, “Help me.  Help me know what is my work to do in this time of disruption in our country.  Help me trust that you are still loose in the world and that evil won’t get the last word.  Convince me that those who wreaked havoc in the Capitol and are intent on further violence are your beloved children, too, and move them to recognize the truth and the depth of your love that will set them free.  Keep us steadfast in your word, feed us with your love, and lead us on your way.”  And maybe I will add, “Thank you for rending the heavens and coming down, because we really need you now.” 

Howard Thurman, the first black dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel and a mentor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was grounded in a philosophy of Common Ground and a theology of non-violence.  One of his best-known writings draws us back toward the work to which love will lead us.

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.

The urgency in Mark’s gospel and its witness to God’s boundary-breaking in Jesus for the sake of love and life and mercy makes Mark just the right companion for us in this time of crisis and in the church year ahead.  God has torn open the heavens and God is still loose in the world, accompanying us who are God’s own beloved children as we pray and work, as we find our way and as we walk Jesus’ way.





Christmas 2 B
January 3, 2021
Close to the Father’s Heart

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While Matthew and Luke ground the Incarnation in time and place, John’s gospel offers us a cosmic telling of the Word becoming flesh and living among us. The writer of John begins, well, at the beginning – with the same words that come first in the book of Genesis, there at the very start of the story of God’s loving and saving way with all of creation. “In the beginning,“ God speaks, calling into being all that exists. Or, as John puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

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Christmas 2 B January 3, 2021

Jeremiah 31:7-14 Pastor Susan Henry

John 1:1-18 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, born of Mary.

Close to the Father’s Heart

While Matthew and Luke ground the Incarnation in time and place, John’s gospel offers us a cosmic telling of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.  The writer of John begins, well, at the beginning – with the same words that come first in the book of Genesis, there at the very start of the story of God’s loving and saving way with all of creation.  “In the beginning,“ God speaks, calling into being all that exists.  Or, as John puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

The good news is that the Word has come to us in Jesus, that God has revealed God’s own self in a new way, dwelling among us in person.  Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”  That God chooses to be with God’s people isn’t a new thing, of course.  In a long-ago dream, God came to Jacob as he slept one night with a rock for a pillow, and God offered Jacob – who was fleeing for his life – the assurance of God’s presence.  “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

But now the gospel of John testifies to the remarkable new way in which God has decided to be “with us.”  And not only to be with us, but to show us more fully what God is like.  “No one has ever seen God,” John writes; “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  What is revealed here about God is the tender, intimate relationship between a parent and child that we ourselves may have experienced or at least glimpsed or perhaps still yearn for. 

This tenderness may not be how we have imagined God, but in these first few verses of John’s gospel, we’re invited to trust that such a tender, intimate, loving  relationship is meant not just for Jesus and the Father, but for us and Jesus, for us and the Father.  We who are friends of Jesus are children of God.  Baptism is the sign and seal of the intimate relationship in which we are assured that we too are “close to the Father’s heart.”

We may remember snuggling up close to our mother or father to hear a bedtime story or find comfort during a thunderstorm, or we might have fond memories of our own  children or nieces or nephews wanting to be close to us, experiencing our love for them through their sheer proximity to us.  Those of us who’ve nursed our babies know a sweet and tender intimacy with them that our husbands may have been a little jealous of and that our older children may have wanted to return to.  It’s a powerful thing to be so close to someone’s heart.

Much later in John’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples are sharing a last supper together, and he is preparing them for his betrayal and death.  One of the disciples -- “the one whom Jesus loved,” John says – is “reclining beside him” and is often portrayed as resting against Jesus’ chest, staying close to Jesus’ heart.  That disciple is never named – because that disciple is you.  That disciple is me.  We are together the ones Jesus loves, and being loved by God, being loved by Jesus, gives us life.  It sets us free.  It feeds us no less truly than we were fed at our mother’s breast.

Bodies – milk in the breast and meat on the bones – are what the Incarnation is all about.  It’s not an idea or a doctrine we assent to; it’s a revealing of God in human flesh, of Jesus being born and nursed and laid in a manger, of God’s own self bodily present with others in a boat on a rough sea, of God-with-us at the table and on the cross.  There’s a sometimes-uncomfortable, raw physicality to all this, especially if we grew up thinking of God as ethereal, as far away and up in heaven.  But the witness of the gospels is that God always comes down to us, that the Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood.

Composer Samuel Barber wrote a song cycle based on some little poems written in the margins of medieval manuscripts.  With sometimes surprising physicality, and in words not necessarily meant for a superior’s eyes, an Irish monk wrote of wanting to invite those in heaven to come to his house where he would have “a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.”  Another recounted St. Ita’s vision:

“I will take nothing from my Lord,” said she,

“unless He give me His Son from Heaven

In the form of a Baby, that I may nurse Him.”

So that Christ came down to her

in the form of a Baby, and then she said:

“Infant Jesus, at my breast,

Nothing in this world is true,

Save, O tiny nursling, You . . .

Who every night

Is Infant Jesus at my breast.”

While we too often are tempted to spiritualize Jesus right out of the Incarnation, St. Ita’s vision was of Jesus in the flesh, Mary’s baby, held close to St. Ita’s heart. 

In her vision, to nurse the baby Jesus was to receive “grace upon grace,” just what the whole gospel of John bears witness to.  We got the basics from Moses, John says, and now Jesus has come revealing the fullness of God’s grace and truth.  And for those who have come to accept him and to live in the intimacy of that relationship with him and with God, it’s “grace upon grace.”

We know from experience that that doesn’t mean life will be easy.  Just because the light shines in the darkness doesn’t mean we don’t have to confront the darkness.  We just don’t have to do that alone.  We don’t have to do it with our egos at stake or with hatred in our hearts or with fear driving our actions.  There’s plenty of darkness we have to face right now – the pandemic’s brutal cost, inequality that takes a disproportionate toll on people of color, political divisions that deepen rather than heal, the temptation to resort to violence, the earth’s own suffering.  That’s a lot of darkness.

Maybe that’s why John’s cosmic telling of the Christmas story matters so much right now.  We take into each new day the promise that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, cannot, will not overcome it.  That helps us face the darkness and not be overwhelmed by it. 

We take into each new day the promise of “grace upon grace” and the call to look carefully for it – for where we see it, feel it, hear it, touch it, taste it.  How has the grace of God come to you lately?  Who has been a channel of God’s grace when you really needed it?  What has touched you and moved you to say, “Thank you, Jesus” or “God is good”?  Grace helps us confront the darkness and to “keep on keepin’ on.”

We take into each new day and through every long night the tender, intimate, loving, and sustaining relationship we have with Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart.  So remember your baptism.  Remind yourself, child of God, that you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  You belong to God’s family.  You are a beloved daughter or son of God, a beloved sister or brother of Jesus.  Knowing that we are already close to God’s heart reminds us that we don’t have to find our way to God or prove our worth to God.

The witness of scripture is that God is with us.  Revealed in Jesus, God is with us.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth that fills us and fills us again when we get emptied out by the world’s and our own struggles and sorrows.  We are not facing any of the darkness – the darkness in the world or our own inner darkness – alone.  The Word that called the cosmos into being is with us.  The one who is close to the Father’s heart is with us.  In Jesus, God is with us.  That is the mystery and the gift of Christmas.




Christmas Eve
December 24, 2020
Among the Humble

Christmas Eve worship and our Christmas celebrations look different this year, don’t they? Much has been stripped away by the pandemic – family gatherings, holiday parties with friends, plans for travel through crowded airports, and maybe some cherished traditions.

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Christmas Eve December 24, 2020

Luke 2:1-20 Pastor Susan Henry

House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Among the Humble

Christmas Eve worship and our Christmas celebrations look different this year, don’t they?  Much has been stripped away by the pandemic – family gatherings, holiday parties with friends, plans for travel through crowded airports, and maybe some cherished traditions.  Countless lives and jobs have been lost this year, children and adults are going hungry, and the threat of eviction looms large for too many people, so Christmas looks and feels very different.  Strange as it sounds, all our loss, fear, and exhaustion may have made us especially ready to hear again the good news of the birth of Jesus.  The joyful news that God is with us has not been stripped away.

All through Advent, we’ve heard gospel stories about angels showing up to say, “Don’t be afraid” and to bring remarkable news to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary, to Joseph, and now, on Christmas, to the shepherds who are tending their sheep in the fields near the little town of Bethlehem.  These are all ordinary people – an older village priest and his childless wife, a seemingly insignificant young woman in a backwater town, the workman she is engaged to marry, and some shepherds who sleep out in the fields near their animals.  They could all use some good news – and they all get some. 

Zechariah thinks that Elizabeth having a baby might be news that’s too good to be true, but it all happens while he watches and listens and waits through nine months of not speaking a word.  Mary is told that she will have a baby who will be her son and God’s son – and that this will be a sign to her:  her relative Elizabeth is expecting, too.  In a dream, Joseph is visited by an angel who reassures him that Mary’s pregnancy is the Holy Spirit’s doing, so he shouldn’t be afraid to marry her.  It’s good news all around for these ordinary, lowly, humble people.  It’s good news despite their living under Rome’s obnoxious, oppressive rule that does its best to strip away joy from people’s lives.

When Mary’s baby is born and swaddled and laid in a manger, one more angel visit is called for – this one to some other ordinary, lowly, humble people who are just minding the sheep and the lambs in their care.  It’s nighttime, and perhaps these shepherds are gathered around a fire, telling stories about the day, celebrating milestones like weddings and new babies, complaining about the weather or about those in power who make their lives miserable.  Out of nowhere, in a blaze of light that reveals the glory of God, an angel appears and scares the daylights out of them.  By now, we know what the angel will say first: “Don’t be afraid.”  “Fear not, you shepherds, for I have something really good to tell you.  It will bring great joy to you and to everyone.  To you is born this day a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you – you’ll find a newborn baby swaddled snugly and lying in a manger.”

And then suddenly the angel isn’t alone.  The heavenly host -- God’s army, really -- shows up and praises the God of heaven who brings peace on earth.  I don’t know how long it took for the shepherds to get over being stunned by what just happened, but they decide to go look for the sign that the angel has described.  They find Mary and Joseph, and the child in the manger, just as the angel said.  The good news of God is right before their eyes – in a baby, born like their own children, wrapped up like their babies, endearing and lovable and drawing them near.  I wonder how long they stay and if they’re reluctant to leave.  Maybe they just like being with Jesus.  Maybe the only thing that matters to them right then and right there is Jesus, the one born for humble people like them.  The baby Jesus, Messiah, Savior, Lord.

Given how momentous this event is, we might have expected the angel’s appearance to be the sign – but it isn’t.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy is the sign given to Mary, and the baby wrapped up snugly with a feedbox for a bed is the sign given to the shepherds.  A pregnancy and a baby?  Wouldn’t you expect supernatural phenomena, pyrotechnics, special effects, and maybe a fly-over?   You might expect that, but you’d get something much more humble.    

That very first Christmas night was stripped of all kinds of traditional things.  There was no cozy home, no familiar surroundings, no gathering of friends and neighbors to celebrate with, not even a midwife to be with a young mother through her labor and as she delivered her baby.  And yet everything that really mattered still happened.

Jesus was born, swaddled, tucked into the equivalent of a dresser drawer, loved by an exhausted Mary and a relieved Joseph, and visited by shepherds who saw in this newborn the fulfillment of all they’d been hoping for.  The baby Jesus himself was good news of great joy. 

Today, our joy may be clouded by worry that there may soon be no room in the ICU for those with Covid or a heart attack or a complicated birth.  We may be anxious about what the future will bring, wondering whether we and those in our communities will be able to provide for our families, care for our neighbors, and keep our jobs and a roof over our heads.  Feeling lonely or sad, we may yearn to gather with our families and friends.  These are not unfounded concerns or feelings to be dismissed.  But when grief over what’s been stripped away this Christmas catches up with us, let’s look for signs of the good news that once was made flesh in the birth of Jesus.  Let’s name some of the ordinary ways in which, despite our fears and losses, the love of God continues to be revealed to us and maybe through us at Christmas and beyond this time.

The love of God we know in Jesus is made manifest in the healing, saving presence of doctors and nurses who persevere in their work of caring for patients who are sick, afraid, and alone.  That is good news.  The love of God made flesh in Jesus continues to come to ordinary people in the work of Friends of the Homeless, whose volunteers used our fellowship hall during December to organize, receive, wrap, and provide Christmas gifts for three hundred families, including the young mothers and babies at Ruth House.  That’s good news, too.  I have no doubt that you can name other signs and ways and places and people through whom the incarnate love of God is at work right now.

Here’s one more sign – a literal sign – of God’s love taking on human flesh today.  Yesterday, after Friends of the Homeless had finished their own massive Christmas Shoppes project and helped the Hingham Police Department with their usual Toys for Tots venture that had been disrupted by the pandemic, the fellowship hall was still pretty full of gifts.  Each year, what’s left goes to a Haitian mission in Boston, and through them, to families in their community who give gifts on Epiphany when the magi arrive with their gifts for Jesus.  I looked out the window at the huge truck that had come to pick up all those leftover gifts and winter clothes.  In large letters, the truck said, “Church of the Nazarene,” and in slightly smaller letters the sign read, “Friends of the Humble.”

The good news of Jesus’ birth first came to humble people who received it with great joy, despite their initial fear when the news came by way of an angel.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds – they were all humble, ordinary people to whom and through whom the love of God was revealed.  Jesus had a humble beginning – born in a stable, laid in a manger – and Jesus led a humble life, not seeking power or wealth or fame – but instead humbling himself, even dying on a cross, out of love for the world.

In many ways the pandemic has humbled us collectively, revealing our arrogance, our selfishness, our unwillingness to love our neighbors, our lack of commitment to the common good.  On Christmas Eve, we who have been humbled are invited to choose humility and to receive with great joy the humble child who has come to save us.

On Christmas, what could be better than for us to be friends of the humble – friends of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds; friends of Jesus, the incarnate sign of God’s own humility; friends of the ordinary, humble folks who followed Jesus then, and friends of those who follow him now – people whose love for others is writ large on a sign that calls us to be “Friends of the Humble” along with them.   





Advent 4
December 20, 2020

Righteous, Amazing Joseph

In this time when so much fear and anxiety are in the air, we’re blessed with Advent stories in which angels appear to ordinary people and say, “Don’t be afraid.” That’s good news for Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, for Mary, and, in today’s gospel, for Joseph. Soon angels will show up and say the same thing to some shepherds. “Don’t be afraid, because more than you could ever hope for has been given to you in a baby you will find in a manger.

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Advent 4 December 20, 2020

Isaiah 7:10-16 Pastor Susan Henry

Matthew 1:18-25 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Righteous, Amazing Joseph

In this time when so much fear and anxiety are in the air, we’re blessed with Advent stories in which angels appear to ordinary people and say, “Don’t be afraid.”  That’s good news for Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, for Mary, and, in today’s gospel, for Joseph.  Soon angels will show up and say the same thing to some shepherds.  “Don’t be afraid, because more than you could ever hope for has been given to you in a baby you will find in a manger.  Fear not, even though the night sky is terrifyingly bright with angels giving glory to God and proclaiming peace on earth.”  “Fear not” is good news meant for us, too.  Messengers of God come to us in scripture, song, poetry, and maybe even in dreams, saying, “You don’t have to be afraid.  I have good news for you.”

Centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah tried to convince king Ahaz that trusting in God rather than military alliances was the antidote for the king’s anxiety and fear.  To God’s offer of a sign, Ahaz had responded with false humility that was meant to conceal his very real lack of trust in God.  But Isaiah said, “Fine.  God’s going to give you a sign anyway, and here it is.  In a couple years, by the time a now-pregnant young woman’s child has become a toddler, the military threat you perceive will be gone.  And in case you didn’t notice, Ahaz, the child’s name will be ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  God, not some neighboring army you’re counting on.”  (Ahaz, by the way, chose to depend on military might rather than trusting God, and things did not go well.)

Hundreds of years later, when the writer of Matthew was telling Jesus’ story, Isaiah’s words took on a whole new meaning.  A young woman named Mary had given birth to a remarkable baby who was named Jesus and called Immanuel, God-with-us.  In Matthew’s gospel, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and reminds him of Isaiah’s words and God’s ancient promise to be with and to save God’s people.

Joseph doesn’t figure very prominently in the Advent or Christmas stories.  Luke’s an exceptional storyteller, and he’s the one who recounts the angel Gabriel’s announcement of a baby who’ll be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age.  He tells us about Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, her assent to God’s plan, her journey to visit Elizabeth, and her powerful song about the great reversal God is bringing about.  Where is Joseph in all that?  Definitely in the background.  He’s the one who stands beside a glowing Mary in every Christmas pageant, a nondescript guy in a brown robe who fades into the background as Mary, the baby, the angels, the shepherds, and the magi capture our imaginations.

But Joseph matters.  Joseph is a man for our time, worthy of our attention, deserving of our praise.  Matthew’s gospel tells just a little of his story – so little that legends and carols sprang up to fill in what we wish we knew.  In scripture, all the verses before today’s gospel reading in Matthew are about Jesus’ ancestors: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  The list begins with Abraham and follows through the generations to “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

We might recall another father Jacob and son Joseph in scripture, which is just what the writer of Matthew wants us to do.  This past summer we heard stories of our ancient mothers and fathers in faith, including Jacob who had twelve sons, the favorite among whom was Joseph.  Joseph the dreamer.  Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt and who avoided a potential scandal over the advances of Potiphar’s wife.  Joseph whose discernment of dreams and wise leadership saved his family and the Egyptians during a years-long famine.  Joseph whose bones were finally brought back to Israel.

Given that first Joseph’s story, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says that we shouldn’t be surprised that a “second Joseph, son of Jacob, will dream dreams, take his family to Egypt to protect them, and return to the land of Israel.”  And so it is in Matthew’s gospel. This second Joseph is to be Mary’s husband because she has been promised to him in marriage.  But she tells him she is pregnant, and since it takes two to make a baby, and Joseph knows he is not one of the two, he must deal with news that is both unexpected and unwelcome.  Unexplained pregnancies like Mary’s carry a whiff of scandal and are ripe for gossip.  Suddenly, the ordinary life Joseph expected to lead is no longer an option.  Out of nowhere, everything has changed, and Joseph must do his best to navigate through unknown territory, to persevere in a hard time, to make the right decisions about Mary’s future, her baby’s future, and his own.

I imagine him experiencing a roller coaster of emotions – confusion, worry, anger, fear, grief.  Over this past year when, out of nowhere, everything changed as a viral pandemic upended our lives, we too have done our best to navigate through unknown, unexpected, unwelcome, even dangerous territory.  We are not strangers to confusion, worry, anger, fear, and grief.  When what we had is no longer an option, we can relate to the upheaval in Joseph’s life. 

Maybe some days were better than others for him.  Maybe fear for his own reputation sometimes dogged him.  Or maybe love for Mary caused him pain.  Maybe his mind raced, and his anger burned, and his imagination ran away with him as he pictured what the future would hold.  Perhaps he thought and thought and thought about how to resolve this dilemma until he couldn’t think any more.  The writer of Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and that he didn’t want to humiliate Mary, so he concluded that the best thing to do was to quietly annul their marriage contract.

Joseph had a plan, but before he could carry it out, God came to him with a plan of God’s own.  In the night, when Joseph wasn’t thinking about his life and Mary’s and her child’s, he had a dream.  In the night, when all was darkness and Joseph was vulnerable and not thinking at all, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said what angels most often say: “Don’t be afraid.  Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife, for this pregnancy is the Holy Spirit’s doing, and this child will be God-with-us.”

Here’s what I’m in awe of – that Joseph believed what came to him in that dream.  Joseph took to heart the angel’s words and believed that this dream could be trusted to shape his future, that Mary’s pregnancy was good news, and that Mary’s baby would indeed be God with us.  Martin Luther was amazed that Mary believed what Gabriel said to her, but it seems no less amazing that Joseph, too, believed what he was told by an angel -- in a dream, no less!  I feel great affection and admiration for a man who could do that!

The promise that God will be with us is itself a light in the darkness.  And that is God’s promise – that Jesus is God-with-us-always, not only in our joy and our pre-pandemic, ordinary lives, but also in our confusion, our worry, our anger, our fear, our grief.  Sometimes God’s promise comes to us through prophets like Isaiah whose words can speak in new ways.  Other times God’s promise comes by way of messengers like the angel Gabriel who show up in broad daylight and proclaim that God’s power is stronger than our fear and God’s purposes involve our participation and assent.  And now and then, God speaks in the night, in our dreams – as God did to both the first and the second Josephs in the Bible – opening up a future that we, like Joseph, couldn’t possibly have thought our way into, a future not to be afraid of, a future that is in God’s good and loving hands.

Joseph the dreamer awoke and did as the angel in his dream had said.  He took Mary as his wife, trusting that the child growing in her was from the Holy Spirit.  In his dream, the angel had told him that Mary would “bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  The words of Isaiah would find a new fulfillment in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  This was not the ordinary life that Joseph had expected to live, but it was the faithful life that Joseph, a righteous man, a man who did not dismiss either Mary or the angel in a dream, would now live as a husband and father, as a protector and provider. 

He could have railed against Mary and his fate, and maybe he did wrestle with those feelings.  A Christmas carol from the fifteenth century gives voice to his imagined anger when, as he and Mary are on their way to Bethlehem, they travel

“. . . through an orchard green [where]

There were cherries and berries, as thick as might be seen.

Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild,

‘Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.’

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he.

‘Let the father of the baby gather cherries for Thee!’

The [the baby] spoke a few words, a few words spoke he:

‘Let my mother have some cherries, bow low down,

cherry tree.’

As the carol continues, the tree bends low, and Mary gathers cherries while Joseph watches.  He regrets his anger, however, praying, “Lord, have mercy on me!”  Over the centuries, believers have imagined Joseph’s confusion, worry, anger, fear, and grief because they (and we) also experience unexpected losses that will surely redefine what our lives look like.  This Cherry Tree Carol explores that a little, imagining that Joseph responded as they or we might in similar circumstances. 

Poet Ann Weems’ portrays righteous Joseph – amazing, believing, very human Joseph -- in a different way that we can relate to, give thanks for, and acknowledge, especially this Christmas.  She writes,

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?

     Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,

     and told him to stand in the back of the creche,

     background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful

     in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,

     in spite of the danger from Herod.

This man, Joseph, listened to the angels

     and it was he who named the Child Emmanuel.

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries in the back of

   the stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway

     guarding the mother and child

     or greeting shepherds and Wise Ones.

And when he wasn’t in the doorway,

     he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,

     gently covering her with his cloak,

     assuring her that he would watch the Child.

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms

     and walked him in the night,

     patting him lovingly until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God

     for this man of incredible faith and courage

     into whose care God placed the Christ Child.

And as a gesture of gratitude,

      let’s honor him by putting Joseph in the front of

the stable

      where he can guard and greet,

            and cast an occasional glance

            at the Child who brings us life.

Thanks be to God for amazing, righteous Joseph.  May we follow his example of believing in the midst of our own confusion, worry, anger, fear or grief.