A New Kind of Advent

Last evening, the congregation council of the church where I serve as pastor approved a 12-week medical leave of absence for me, to begin January 2, 2017. So I’ve got about five weeks now until that starts. The season of Advent just began, a season of waiting and preparing, watching and seeking. That’s how I feel right now. I’m waiting in this place, waiting for the light to shine in.

My depression has been bad this year, has been since the summer. It’s been worse than usual. I’ve wondered if I should leave my career. I’ve wondered if I should leave my family. I’ve wondered if I should just end it all. I’m not in any of those places right now. It’s stabilized, calmed down, eased some. But I’m still not happy. I’m still feeling stuck. I’m still not seeing the joy around me.

But there’s hope. There’s hope, and I’m heading toward that hope right now. I see that hope in the twelve weeks that are just a month away. I see that hope in the kindness of the leadership of my congregation for allowing me this time. I see that hope in the words and faces of so many people in the congregation who support me, and want me to get better. I see that hope when I remember what this season of Advent is really about: waiting for the coming of Christ. When I remember what Christmas is really about: the in-breaking of the Light into a dark, dark world. The shattering of the darkness by the light of peace and joy and eternity. Christians proclaim that the light came into the world 2000 years ago through the womb of an unwed peasant. The darkness still persists…the darkness always persists. It’s what darkness does. But I see that hope, the hope that Christmas is real…not the story of a baby in a manger, not the childhood joy of Santa Claus, not the good spirit that fills the world. That’s all good, but the real hope is that Christmas is real. The incarnation of God into our world is real. There is hope in my darkness.

I have been listening to a song while writing this post: Break of Dawn by Blue Stone. It just feels like Advent to me. It feels like hope in the dark, the shattering of the darkness. I have a lot of work ahead of me. This medical leave isn’t going to be a vacation, but a time to really work hard with my therapist, my doctor, and a spiritual director I’ve yet to find. But it’s going to be worth it.

But now…it’s Advent. I’ve got five weeks of waiting for the leave to start. Five weeks of preparing. Five weeks of planning and listening and praying. Then we’ll get started.

The Phantom Innkeeper

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Christ the King, November 20, 2016. The gospel reading was Luke 23:33-43.

That may have been a surprising reading to hear. Today is the final Sunday of the church year, a day called Christ the King. We might expect to hear about Jesus seated on a throne, reigning in glory. But instead, we hear a story that sounds more fitting for Good Friday. This isn’t where we expect to find a king. Not on a cross. Well, I may surprise you even more now, because before I talk about this story, I want to talk about the story of Christmas. Because I think Jesus the King has been showing up in unexpected places throughout his life, starting with his birth.

There’s a part of the Christmas story I’ve never talked about from the pulpit, because it just doesn’t fit the emotion of Christmas Eve. But it fits today. It’s the surprising story of the innkeeper and the inn. What’s the surprise? That there is no innkeeper, and probably no inn either.

Let me explain. Luke tells us in his gospel that Emperor Augustus sent out a decree that all the world should be registered, and in order to do this, everyone was supposed to head to their own hometown. Joseph lived in Nazareth, but his family was from Bethlehem, so he traveled there for the census. He took with him Mary, his pregnant fiancée. Luke tells us, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” No place for them in the inn. Now, in our imagination and in many Christmas pageants and movies, we add a lot of details there. We imagine a bustling inn full of travelers, and a kindly innkeeper who tells Mary that she can at least go sleep in the stable with the animals. It makes some sense. But Luke mentions no innkeeper. And actually, I’m not convinced he mentioned an inn either. And here’s why:

The Greek word that Luke uses, the one that’s translated “inn,” can also mean “guest room.” In fact, in two other places in Luke, that same word clearly does mean “guest room.” And I think it means that here. Think about it this way. Joseph traveled to his hometown, his family’s birthplace, and so surely there  extended family there. Hospitality was so important in those days that it would simply be expected that a cousin, a nephew, an uncle, some kinsman, would welcome Joseph to stay with them for the census. And in what room would he stay? Well, in their guest room, presumably. But Luke tells us, “there was no place for them in the guest room.” Now why would there be no place for them there? Because so many other relatives had also arrived? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was because Joseph arrived there with Mary, a woman to whom he was not yet married, a woman who was nonetheless obviously nine months pregnant. Perhaps Joseph told his relatives that she conceived through the Holy Spirit. I wonder what they thought of that. And I wonder if their sense of morality outweighed their sense of hospitality. Perhaps Joseph and Mary weren’t welcome because Joseph’s relatives viewed them as sinners. It would not have been unthinkable in those days.

And so perhaps Jesus was born in a place where he was unwelcome, a place where he and his family were shunned by the very people who should have shown the greatest level of support and hospitality. I don’t know this for sure. I’m adding details in that aren’t there. But I think it makes at least as much sense as the story of the kindly innkeeper. And in a way I think it fits more with the Jesus we see throughout the gospel of Luke, the Jesus we see in today’s gospel, up on the cross, abandoned, tortured, and taunted.

A Jesus who is nonetheless a king. A Jesus who is nonetheless the king. A Jesus whose throne is not made of gold and rubies, but whose throne is a cross. Who does not wield majestic power from a place of strength and glory, but who wields his awesome power from a place of suffering. From the trenches. From the ditches. A king who started his earthly life not in a palace, but in an unfamiliar town, unwanted and unwelcome even by his relatives. A king who ended his earthly life not surrounded by trusted advisors and loving family, but nailed to a cross surrounded by criminals and leaders who taunted him.

But a king who brought hope to all who encountered him, throughout that life. On the day of his birth, hidden in a manger, the king brought hope to a group of unwanted, disrespected shepherds. On the day of his death, hidden on a cross, the king brought hope to the thief crucified next to him, who asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus told him, not only will I remember you, but today you will be with me in Paradise. Jesus, the king who was always surrounded by those who hated him and feared him, nonetheless brought hope to all who asked. Jesus, the king who is always hidden, hidden in a manger and hidden on the cross. Jesus, the king who is even today hidden. Hidden in the words of the gospel, hidden in bread and wine. Hidden throughout our world, throughout your life. Jesus, the king who even today brings hope to all who ask. Who brings hope all who suffer today, for whatever reason they suffer. Who brings hope to you in the midst of whatever suffering you may endure.

Jesus our king does not stay on some throne far away, listening to us from afar. Jesus our king is with us here. On the cross. In the manger. In the bread and wine. In your suffering. In your home and your workplace and your school. Jesus our king is here with us, and if you ask him to give you hope, you will receive it. Our world is full of suffering, and our king deals with that suffering by coming to us, in that suffering, and bringing us hope. Your king is here. Call to him, and receive his gift of hope.

Amen.

Jesus Said it Would Be Like This

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 13, 2016. It was the first Sunday after the 2016 presidential election, and I tried to address some election-related concerns without being partisan or inflammatory. The gospel reading for the day was Luke 21:5-19.

“Vince said it would be like this.” When I was growing up, that was an ad campaign for channel 28 news. The weatherman on channel 28 was named Vince Sweeney. I can remember many commercials with people standing outside in the sunshine, or in the rain, saying, “Vince said it would be like this!” It was a way of saying, “Our forecasts are reliable. You can trust what Vince says. He said it would be like this.”

Finding a reliable weather forecast is really important. I used to do a lot of hiking. But it’s no fun to walk in the woods if it’s pouring. It’s no fun to walk in the woods if it’s 104 degrees with 104 percent humidity. It’s no fun to walk in the woods through lightning and hail. At least not for me. So I would always check a weather forecast I trust before I went. If the forecast was bad, what seemed fun becomes miserable or even dangerous. And I wouldn’t go.

Well, what about walking with Jesus? Walking with Jesus is a very different sort of hike. It’s a walk that is more of a way of life. A way of discipleship marked by prayer and scripture reading, by acts of kindness and generous giving, and most of all, by trust in God.

And just like walking in the woods, walking with Jesus can seem different depending on the forecast. If the forecast is good, it’s easy to trust in God, and walk the way he’s calling us. But when the forecast is bad, when there are storms around us and more on the horizon, it’s hard. Trust is hard. Following is hard.

And right now the forecast for many people is bad. How is it for you? Where are the storms in your life? Near, or far? Are you walking through one now? Well, here’s the interesting thing. Jesus said it would be like this.

Jesus said: “The stones on the temple will all fall down.” He said: “There will be wars and insurrections,” “earthquakes and famines and plagues.” “They will persecute you.” “You will be betrayed.” “There will be great distress.” Just like Vince Sweeney, Jesus said it would be like this. He knew. And he wasn’t just talking about 2016. The forecast has been bleak many times before. The forecast was bleak in 1931, as the Great Depression deepened. The forecast was bleak in 1863, as brother killed brother at Gettysburg. The forecast was bleak in 1349, as the Black Death was killing 50% of Europe. Jesus said it would be like that. And he said it would be like this.

But that’s not all he said.

Jesus said, “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

Jesus said, “By your endurance you will find life.”

Jesus said, “Do not be led astray.”

And Jesus said, “Do not be terrified.”

The people who first heard these words soon became the leaders of the early church. And they would understand suffering. Their temple was destroyed. They were persecuted by religious and military leaders. Throughout the book of Acts and other early church writings, we see people who suffer. And yet we see people who endure suffering with heads held high, because they knew that Jesus said it would be like this. And even more, they believed they would endure it, because Jesus himself endured death, yet he was alive. Jesus promised to be with them, and they believed that with him at their side, they could do anything. And they did.

And now it’s our time. Imagine I’m getting ready for a nice long hike. As I lace my boots, I’m watching the weather forecast. And the weather forecaster says, “Today’s forecast is bad. Really bad. The high is 150, there’s a tornado warning for our whole area, and a 75% chance of frogs falling from the sky.” I start to take my boots off, but he continues. “Michael,” he says, “put your boots back on. I want you to take that walk, because I will walk with you. I will protect you. I will keep you safe. Not a hair on your head will be harmed. And together, you and I will change the world through this walk.” I would tell him, “Sorry, Vince, you’re crazy,” turn the TV off, and go back to bed.

But it’s not a weather forecaster saying that to us. It’s Jesus, the King of Creation, the Son of God, the Lord of Lords. And he says to us, “I know the forecast is bleak. But I tell you, walk with me, even now, especially now. I will be with you. I will walk with you every step of the way. You have nothing to fear. Walk with me. Together, you and I have amazing work to do.”

If you are in the midst of a storm right now, keep walking. Keep walking, with your head held high, and hear Jesus’ voice over the wind. His voice is saying, “I am with you. You are safe. You will survive this. Keep walking faithfully.”

And if you know someone in the midst of a storm right now, be the voice of Jesus in their life. Be the church that we are called to be, that we were made to be, the hands and voice of Jesus in a world full of storms, and tell them, “You are safe.” Show them that they are safe. Be that safety.

Amen.

Introducing… Pinewood Men Studios

So apparently I’m now part of a film studio. My most excellent friend Pete and I have been making movies, and doing other assorted creative and rather ludicrous projects, for the past twenty-some years. Last weekend we filmed something we’re calling Brotherhood. It’s a silent film, mostly a series of strange and sometimes funny imagery. It’s definitely the most professional-looking thing we’ve produced, thanks to the fact that Pete has gotten quite good at editing, and apparently I have a decent videocamera.

Here it is. I encourage you to click on the link below to watch it full screen. Also, for those of you who know me as your pastor, please don’t expect this to be in any way spiritually edifying. It’s dark and weird.

Brotherhood from Pete Barry on Vimeo.

St. George

It’s right around All Saints Day. All Saints Day falls on November 1 every year, and many churches observe this holiday on the Sunday following. And my mind is turned today to those who have died; those with experience in the liturgical church will understand why. It is tradition on this day to specifically remember, often with candles and chimes, those who have died in the past year. It’s also Year C in the liturgical calendar1, and that means that my mind is turned toward my grandparents. You see, for some reason I have gotten into a habit of preaching about my grandparents on All Saints Sunday in year C. Nine years ago, I spoke about my deceased maternal grandmother, and I called her “St. Grandmom,” because she truly was a saint in the vernacular sense of the word, a sweet and kind woman full of love and peace. Six years ago, I spoke about my paternal grandmother, who by then had also died, and I called her “St. Grandmama.” I discussed how St. Grandmama was not the stereotypical “saint”…she was certainly loving, but not always sweet. She was bright and clever, but also judgmental. I discussed how she’s nonetheless a saint, because (in a Lutheran understanding) sainthood is something given by God, through baptism. We are all saints, even as we are all sinners. Three years ago, my paternal grandfather had recently died, and I referred to him and my grandmothers: St. Grandmom, St. Grandmama, and St. Daddy Jack. (Honestly, this was mostly a repeat of the sermon from six years ago, because during that time I had moved to a new congregation, and I could get away with it.) And now you’d think I would preach this year about my maternal grandfather. And I’ll tell you…he is certainly on my mind today, but for a very different reason.

I never met George Boyer. He died of a heart attack on Halloween 1962, when my mother was a teenager. My grandmother remarried, and I have very fond memories of her second husband Adam, who was certainly a grandfather to me. But I have always wished I could have known George. One of the reasons for this is that my mother has always told me that I am his spitting image.

George and Michael.jpg

And today is the day he died. It’s not the anniversary of his death; that’s not what I mean. I mean that today, I am the exact same age he was when he suffered that heart attack. As of today, George had exactly as many days of life as I have had so far. If I were him, my allotment of days would now be over. And that is so weird to me. I have always felt a kinship with him, even though I never met him. I have always felt that he was a special part of me, a part I could never really know…and now that part is gone. As of tomorrow, I’m striking out on new paths by myself. I don’t know why, but for some reason it feels like he has to leave right now, that some part of me has to leave, because he didn’t live any longer. My inner St. George has lived his life, and I now have to go on without him. It’s not sorrow…it’s not grief…I’m certainly not comparing this feeling to what my mother and her family went through when the real George died. But it’s kind of a lonely feeling, maybe? Or kind of a melancholy growing pain, a sense that I’ve now outgrown something that was important to me. Tomorrow, I strike out on my own. Tomorrow I have to write a sermon for All Saints Year C, and I don’t think I’ll be mentioning my grandparents in this one.

I am grateful for my grandparents, for all of them. But today, I’ll be lighting a candle in memory of George, my grandfather, my doppelganger, my inner alter ego, my patron saint. I’m not sure I’ve used his allotment of days wisely or not, but it looks like I have some extra days ahead of me, days he never had. I’m going to try to live in those days so that he would be proud of what I do with them.

 


  1. A “lectionary” is a list of readings prescribed for each day in the liturgical year. The Revised Common Lectionary, currently used by a large number of mainline Protestant churches, is a modified version of the Roman Catholic lectionary, and has a three-year cycle. These three years are called Years A, B, and C.