Live Like IT Matters

(A message based on 2 Cor 8:1-15)

In 1988 the international fitness brand Nike launched the popular “Just Do It” campaign. The magazine Advertising Age selected the campaign as one of the top two taglines of the 20th century because IT was both “universal and intensely personal.” Using the word “IT” allows the listener to insert their personal “IT” into their hearing.  IT might be running, swimming, or hiking.  What might be YOUR IT?

And as the campaign took hold it became a way of silencing the anxiety that holds us back, giving us a psychological shove to, well, just DO it.

Other marketers seized on the idea.  The national boating association launched the “Wear It” campaign to encourage the wearing of life vests.  A coalition working for awareness of modern slavery launched the “End It” tagline.  Even Greenpeace took IT a step further with their “Cool IT” campaign calling on Information Technology (IT) companies to power technological solutions needed to fight climate change.

In the 90’s the California Health Department and the CDC hired my marketing agency to create prevention advertising to slow teen pregnancy and the incidence of sexually transmitted disease.  I won an award for my own “IT” campaign, using humor to call out the fact that even though kids couldn’t bring themselves to talk about IT, and parents were struggling to talk about IT with their kids, the kids were doing IT without protecting IT, thus transmitting IT.  And if they ended up pregnant they would have to take care of IT until IT was at least 18 years old.  Maybe they just didn’t get IT?

IT –is universal and IT is personal.  Our reading today from 2nd Corinthians lifted up a new seeing of an IT I hadn’t considered. Now I have an entirely new thesis about IT.

We could say that the original IT campaign was launched in the first century by none other than the apostle Paul.    NouwenDid you see IT?  He’s talking to the church at Corinth, lifting up the paradoxical generosity of the Macedonian church.  Grace filled generosity in the face of extreme challenge shouldn’t have been the overflowing reality but IT was exactly what took place.   IT seemed that God’s own overflowing love having been generously extended to them, was bringing about a natural and generous response. They could only respond to IT by doing likewise and living IT in their own lives.

As Paul tells them about the Macedonians he encourages them saying “ And in this matter I am giving my advice: IT is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something —now finish doing IT, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing IT according to YOUR means.”

(pregnant pause)  …Are you getting IT?  The IT is God’s love. God’s overflowing generosity. God’s extension of love for all.  The IT is grace.  The IT is hope.

And when they got IT, they got IT.  They were free then to respond to IT not out of obligation or force but out of loving reaction.  Paul understood IT this way.

That IT is a holy privilege. IT is an invitation to share in this ministry to the saints.

That the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich—this was an IT that was foundational to a new understanding of generosity.

Paul asked them to consider IT a generous undertaking of their community, that their own generosity (small or large) was how Christ’s community could share with fair balance thereby spreading the gospel of good news.  The gentile believers with perhaps more means were blessed to be able to help those with less.

2nd Corinthians is one of the most profound essays on holistic stewardship there is. Even stewardship’s IT has been reimagined.

IT isn’t and never was about what we have to do. IT is what we get to do, what we want to do because God first loved us.

IT is our holy response to that love that we are invited to share IT, in every way we as individuals and as a community can share IT.

In many ways the church has stumbled in how IT has tried to talk about the IT of stewardship.  It was never about the churches need to receive.  IT is about the givers need to give.

Giving, in whatever form IT takes, is always in proportion to our response to God’s love.

For the church Nike’s “Just Do IT” doesn’t capture IT.  I’d get at IT this way.

God’s Love:  Feel IT. Know IT. Share IT.

Become a Steward of IT. Seriously. That’s all there is to IT. And that’s a lot.  Then we will be free to live like IT Matters.

Amen.

 

 

Recurring Dreams

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

How many of you have had recurring dreams?  Dreams that appear to be more than dreams?

I had one that continued for some time. In the dream I lived in a large historic home, a home where I never went up the grand staircase into the upper floor, living in only part of the home. Eventually I did ascend the stairs and found that the previous owners had left beautiful furniture and all their belongings– which was always when I woke up.  But as the dream repeated I gradually explored all the rooms until finding myself even higher on a dreamcast4AAbeautiful rooftop terrace I didn’t even know I had. Eventually I understood this dream to be about breakthrough. Until I stopped being afraid of God’s greatest imagination for my life, I was stuck on the lower floors. When I figured that out and stopped being afraid is when the dreams stopped.    This wasn’t an ordinary dream. It was something more, something holy.

For some of us, the Holy Spirit might communicate through dreams or visions. And depending upon how open we are to such experiences, will determine if we recognize it and what we do with the phenomenon.

Each of us experience the Holy Spirit differently.  At times it may be a still small voice, a holy whisper through which a fully formed thought enters your mind.  Mothers might call it woman’s intuition, when we know something we wouldn’t otherwise know.

Other times the Spirit reminds us of something we’ve forgotten. Maybe we’ve begun to doubt ourselves and then, in an instant, we remember that we’ve got this. We know what to do. Or perhaps we’re going through something truly frightening but can’t deny that we also feel a peculiar peace that assures us everything will be ok. Have you had that experience?

Throughout the bible ordinary people experienced visions, dreams– promptings.  Mary did. Joseph did. Hannah. David. Samuel.  The prophets of old.  And…the apostle Paul.

His experience with Jesus on the Emmaus road was such a vision and it transformed him, forever opening him to the Spirit who pulled him along like a divine GPS.  The beautiful thing was that he trusted it. And he listened.

Apparently for Paul, when you know that you know, you want others to know what you know.  And so he told everyone he met about this man Jesus.

The book of Acts records that “During the night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul didn’t assume it was a figment of his imagination. He paid attention.

As a result he started churches in the cities of Antioch, Corinth, and Ephesus and beyond.  And like the Spirit he kept in communication with those churches, giving them counsel as he had been counseled.

The letter we read today is the 4th letter he wrote to the church in Corinth. They were experiencing frayed and shattered relationships. Sharp words had been spoken and there was deep wounding.  They had forgotten they were Christian community.

Paul knew that even the healthiest communities can experience conflict. The Corinthian people were in dire need of getting un stuck.  He did not want their future to be defined by their past. He needed them to step back and review the gospel basics of how God was with them every step of the way.

In these letters he begins by focusing on what God can do that we cannot.

He reminds them that struggles happen telling them that as God comforts us in our troubles, we are to comfort others.  In other words we are blessed to be a blessing.

He reviews the gospel message that brought them together in the first place.  He talks about the God that raises the dead.  He reminds them that it was human conflict that led to the crucifixion of Christ.

He reminds them that God’s message of resurrection is a refusal to let human conflict set the terms for the future.  That resurrection always stands over and above the conflicts of life and man oh man do we all need that reminder.

It’s quite incredible really that God would bring the gospel to the world through deeply flawed human beings. We are each treasures in clay jars, fallible, breakable but FULL OF Godly potential.  Each of you are full of Godly potential.

That is God’s recurrent dream. That we will remember who and whose we are.

That we’ll remember we are children of Deity. Capable.  Loved. Supported.

Another one of my own recurring dreams also stopped when I yielded to the peace and not the fear. In the dream I’m crawling on all fours up the side of a grassy mountain. All around me people are sitting comfortably enjoying a spectacular view. Finally a guy taps me on the arm and says, “You CAN turn around now. You’re here. You’ve made it.”

And when I turn around there’s a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. The sky is a perfect blue. The air is clear.  And I realize he’s right. I’m OK. And I seat myself with the others to take it all in, my heart no longer troubled, no longer afraid.

Oh yes. I remember.  Children of Deity. Capable. Loved. Supported. Full of Godly potential.

Amen.

With all your heart, mind, soul and strength

(A sermon on 1st Corinthians 13:1-13)

“God is the force and the love that created, sustains and that transforms the universe, including you and me.”

Those are the words of Rev. Stephanie Spellers, an episcopal priest in New York.  That was her answer to being asked “Who is God to you?”

To Stephanie (and to me) I see God’s very nature as love.   God created the world through love. God sustains the world in love.  God does what God does BECAUSE of love.  Love is the essence. The main ingredient in Creation’s stew.  Love is the motivation for everything God is, does and hopes.

This God of love is the God that the apostle Paul tattoomet on the Emmaus road.  When Paul encountered God in Christ—he found himself turned upside down. When God’s love touched him, he could do no other than respond IN LOVE, serving the living, and loving the God he had encountered.  And thank God, he couldn’t stop. He had to tell everyone, be they Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male or female, gay, straight, black or white.

Which brings us to the familiar Corinthians 13 known as “the love chapter.” We read it at weddings and at funerals.  And I wonder if we’ve heard it so often that we barely pay attention.  Is it a simplistic affirmation of Christian love and unity?

Is it a Duh. A “so what.”  NO. It’s not.

That’s not what was happening when Paul spoke those words to the church at Corinth. He wasn’t affirming that they had love. He was calling them out because they lacked it. Today we have the opportunity to place Paul’s words back into their context, wrestling them away from their warm and fuzzy misunderstanding.

It’s likely that he spoke the words with love and exasperation in his tone.

Things were not going well in Corinth.

The Corinthian Church was not a happy and homogenous body. They were not a comfortable gathering where people fell into step with each other because they shared a belief in Jesus, OR fundamentally similar lives, or values, or experiences. Quite the contrary.

The Corinthian fellowship was a melting pot of backgrounds, gender, age, rank, status, and life situation. Most of its members were from the lower classes but some sat on the opposite side in rank and resources. There were slaves and free people in the community, as well as people with different skill sets and gifts.   The problem was, the diversity among the Corinthians had dissolved into discord and rivalry.

This was a community fragmented, rather than enriched, by difference. So Paul is introducing them to an ethic-a way of living, being and thinking, that is necessary if they are to survive the muddy waters of difference and disagreement.  Without love they would be doomed.  Without diversity they would be less than.

This topic of diversity and how communities can get sideways when they become divided has always fascinated me, especially within the church.

In fact the title of my doctoral dissertation was “Divine Diversity: The church’s challenge or God’s greatest imagination?”  God has built diversity into all of creation, human, animal, biological.  In biology diversity is a mark of health. When absent, that biological system is diseased.  Logic tells us that it’s the same in humanity even if we humans haven’t always caught up with God’s brilliant design for OUR optimum health.

I grew up in a culturally diverse neighborhood and an interreligious home. My home was half Methodist and half Serbian Orthodox.  We had a Jewish family across the street, Italian Catholics on both sides, a Lutheran family next to the Jewish family and another Catholic family next to them.  The Jewish family invited us to Seder dinners and Hanukkah celebrations.    Everyone invited everyone to church or synagogue.  My neighborhood was a successful experiment in Love. We were close—like Salem. We tried always to show love and live from love. Knowing ourselves loved by God was our universal unifier.

Knowing ourselves loved, we cannot help but live in love. It’s in our divine DNA. It’s how we’re wired.  Only from that place can we call each other beloved and only from that place can we serve one another other in love.

And while faith and hope are essential elements of faith, LOVE is the empowering gift of the three. It is the glue, the fuel, and the reason.

The God of Christ and of Paul keeps calling us back into that love.

WE never “have” love — Love has us! Grasped by a love that never ends, we are privileged to be channels for that same love.

And today I am not calling you out because you don’t get it. I am affirming you because you do. With all your heart, mind, soul and strength, thank you Salem for being who and whose you are, claimed by love and compelled to respond in that same love.  It’s what people feel when they encounter us.

I love you for that.

AMEN.

And What Do You Think about That?

A sermon on Mark 12:13-17

My friend Sue grew up with a favorite aunt, Aunt Jenny.  Aunt Jenny never told Sue what to think, however  by example she taught Sue how to think. Whenever they would discuss an issue Aunt Jenny would leave the conversation open ended by simply asking, “…and what do you think about that?”  What a marvelous way to teach critical thinking.

Reflecting on Mark’s gospel this week brought Sue’s stories of Aunt Jenny back to me. Frankly I’ve been relieved by the admission of several colleagues that we do not know what Jesus meant when he said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” I do offer a thesis about what he didn’t mean.

The story opens with the arrival of representatives from two factions who together have come up with a render_to_caesartrick question for Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay money to the emperor?”

The first group is the Pharisees, a group resistant to paying the head tax to their Roman overlords, most likely because the emperor considered himself a deity making giving to him the same as idolatry.

The other group, the Herodians, advocated pragmatic collaboration with the Romans. We don’t know much about the Herodians but the name implies sympathy with a line of violent and irreligious kings who ruled in Judea at Rome’s behest and who were generally despised by pious, nationalistic Jews.

That these two opposing factions were in cahoots would have been the ancient version of working across the political aisle.

They were setting Jesus up when they asked if it was lawful to pay the tax to the emperor. Jesus knew if he said, “Yes. We should pay the tax,” the popular base that resonated with his anti-establishment preaching would complain that he was giving in to special interests.

But if he said “No,” he would be accused of sedition or in other words he’s be inciting people to rebel against the government.

And so he brilliantly asks to see a denarius, the Roman coin used in Israel in those days. Whose face is on the coin? The emperor! “Then…give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Yay, Jesus! That settled it only if you lived in the first century. What about today?

Most biblical scholars agree that our modern separation of church and state is just that, modern. A devout Jew of the first century could never imagine separating their lives into political and religious spheres. To be Jewish is to fully integrate the ethics of your life with and because of your religion.  It should be the same for Christians.

Crediting Jesus with laying the foundation for the separation of church and state doesn’t make sense. Remember that the past few weeks Jesus has been telling us that the first should be last, and the last will be first. That the greatest are those who humble themselves and serve. That the rich man should sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus regularly inverted social values, teaching the disciples a better and more embodied way.

He was NOT advocating for state sponsored religion but I do believe he was advocating for us to likewise integrate our faith with the way we live out our lives.

Let me be clear here. America was founded by Christians but not exclusively FOR Christians. Our founders escaped the tyranny of state sponsored religion which is why we have separation of church and state in our government. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

That said, as individuals I think Jesus invites us–actually demands of us–that we be thinking regularly and relentlessly about how all of our decisions (what we think, what we buy, who we vote for, where we spend our time) should be shaped by the confession that, indeed, the whole world is God’s and everything in it! Including us!

With that in mind our ushers are distributing sharpie markers. I’d like you to take out the debit or credit card you use most often and mark it with a small cross.  OK? Now, show me the money!

How does someone who belongs to God allocate their money? How will you make decisions of conscience about what you support and what you do not?

By all means, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  This is more than a cute exercise. This is a way of being daily mindful about your choices, a way of being more integrated.  The way we spend our money as individuals and as a nation is a moral confession of who and whose you/we are.

This beautiful nation is made up of people who answered the call inscribed on the statue of liberty.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

Yes, it is true that my colleagues don’t always know what Jesus means. Sometimes what is true is that we know what he did not mean. And that is equally important.

My name is Dr. Robyn Provis and I approved this message.

And what do you think about that?

Amen.

Jesus Loves Me Yes or No?

A Sermon on Mark 6: 1-29

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God. Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come!”   On this “Throwback” Sunday, those are the words of Pastor Jonathan Edwards when he preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” That sermon from 1790 is still studied today-as a literary form and as an example of fire and brimstone preaching, preaching designed to emphasize hell as a real place.  Now before you run away screaming, give me a chance to redeem the theology behind such declarations.

In Edwards time the goal of preaching do-you-love-me-filteredwas in part to keep people scared enough of hell that they’d live a good life despite themselves. Such sermons were crafted to awaken an audience to the horror that awaits them should they continue life without devotion to Christ.  My opening words this morning were Edwards’s final ones—every Sunday. Yikes.

His words and approach do not represent the God of love that I follow, just like we don’t beat our children in the shed anymore. But there are times when we would be well served by being made a little uncomfortable.

Paraphrasing Brian McLaren, if your goal is to keep yourself untouched by the world, preserved in roses until you can arrive without blemish in the afterlife, you’ve missed the heart of the gospel. The gospel isn’t something you learn. It’s something you live. The gospel is a verb. And there is a certain heresy to playing it safe when it comes to your faith.

Jesus loves me, yes or no? If you’re not sure, maybe you’ve grown too comfortable with your faith and possibly with Jesus?

Today’s gospel reading is largely about rejection, beginning with Jesus’ own rejection in his hometown.  What if we are the ones rejecting Jesus…. maybe because Jesus is just so darn familiar to us in the church. We, the church, are Jesus’ hometown. We’ve known him since we first heard the Christmas story. We’ve grow up with him. He is our constant companion – so constant a companion that we hardly notice him anymore. He’s one of us, a good buddy, a comfortable presence. And when he acts in divine ways and calls us into that same work with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees saying – who is this guy anyway?

Jesus loves me, yes or no?  Is your belief mere intellectual assent or is your faith a radical get-off-your-couch-to-join-God-where God-is -working kind of belief?

Verse 6 reports Jesus “was amazed at their disbelief.”  Would anyone want to be in the number to whom Jesus referred? God, no!

Their disbelief was not only crippling their own lives, apparently it was crippling his! Save a few minor healings here and there, we’re told he could do no deeds of power. Think about that for a moment.  Despite or perhaps because of rejection he sends out the twelve to proclaim and heal. Sending out is always at the center—even of these bookended stories.

Next… Mark reminds us of Herod’s own rejection of the truth and how it resulted in John the Baptist’s death– his head on a platter. He couldn’t say yes to John OR yes to Jesus but he couldn’t say NO to his wacky wife!  Herodias’ problem was that she was offended because John the Baptist condemned her marriage to her brother in law.  And Herod didn’t want to acknowledge John’s indictment. To do so would diminish his power because the one who rules the king, rules the kingdom.  And did you catch that Herod was freaked out because he thought Jesus might be John the Baptist resurrected?

Resurrection was at the heart of Jewish faith. It was connected to hope and hope is one of the most dangerous things oppressed people can have.  As king, Herod couldn’t risk hope if he couldn’t be the one to deliver it. Jesus loves me, yes or no?  No matter. After all Herod might say. It’s my birthday.

When we follow the narrative arc of God’s unrelenting pursuit of us, how can we answer the question without absolute confidence? Jesus loves me, yes or no? Jesus loves me THIS I KNOW!

You and I are called to tell the story, not only to be prophetic to others, but to be prophetic to ourselves: to rediscover who this Jesus we think we know so well, really is. We don’t need fire and brimstone to live a good life. We need a reality check!

God came down in Jesus to: bring good news to the poor, free the oppressed, release the captives, and to recover sight to the blind. Even today, Jesus’ message of good news is often met with rejection. Where would Jesus stand on the issues of our day?

Justice isn’t about violence and retribution. Justice is what loves looks like in public!

Jesus came to confront us. See Mathew 23.

Jesus came to include us. See Luke 18.

Jesus came to challenge us. See Matthew 9.

Jesus came to call us into service. See Mark 6!

Jesus loves me yes or no? See the whole bible!  Frankly I’m tired of anyone using fear to sell a good life. Fear sells. But love transforms!  Don’t live the gospel because you’re afraid not to! Live it because God first loved you and now you’re crazy in love right back!

Today’s preaching is designed to call you off your couches to share that good news with the world.

As for hell. Hell isn’t a place. It’s an experience: Hell is what the families in Flint Michigan are going through.  Hell is a child going to bed hungry, their parents frantic and broken not knowing where their next meal is coming from.  Hell is hoping the war in the Middle East doesn’t claim more children-our children. Hell is standing at the border of an unfamiliar country, holding a sick child, only to be turned away.

Ask any gay person if there was a time when Hell was being afraid that the answer to Jesus loves me, yes or no– really was no!

Truth is, there is nothing that keeps the world at any one moment out of hell but the mere fact that God sends us to make sure that does not happen. It is silence and inaction that makes hell a possibility for any of us.  Let’s reform Edwards benediction saying therefore let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly towards the LOVE to come!

People of God, the world is waiting on our next move.

In Jesus name. Amen.

Oh Say Can You See?

A Sermon based on  Mark 10: 32-52

Our Lenten journey continues with the theme “opening our eyes to God,” framed by a gospel that artfully places before us a story of spiritual and physical blindness.  It is a kind of vision test that invites us to become aware of how we Bartimaeusare using our physical and spiritual eyes.  Referring to our spiritual eyes, the 13th century poet RUMI said “Close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

It’s a timely reflection during a contentious election year when we are living with a level of division that can cause us to question what we see and if others are looking at the same thing.  Clearly not everyone sees the candidates or the presidency or the best course for America the same way–not our neighbors and not even our family members.

What we see and how we see it is more than a matter of how light rays reflect and enter the cornea.  Vision infers a kind of interpretation or as Anais Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”.

I learned the hard way that even history is up for interpretation depending on who is doing the interpretation.  What happened was that I simply brought home my middle school history homework.  Not surprisingly my Serbian mother took issue that my textbook pointed to the two Serbian “terrorists” who started World War 1 when they assassinated Arch Duke Ferdinand.  Apparently that was a small part of the larger story. Still she was furious that Ferdinand’s death was being viewed in isolation and she was ready to march down to my school to give my teacher a history lesson of painful personal context.

She knew first-hand the complexity of events and ideals that would become World War 1, telling me what the classroom had not. That years of ethnic conflict had resulted in 30,000 Serbians being held in Austro-Hungarian death camps. Her mother, grandmother and my aunts were held and several died there. This was the first time in my life when I questioned that not everything we’re told—even in school–is the entire truth.

So does that mean truth is a moving target? Not exactly but it can involve a certain amount of bias, positive or negative. We see what we’ve been taught to see and… we see what we want to see. It was the same with the disciples. They did not want to see that Jesus wasn’t going to save them in the way they wanted to be saved. They were looking for a military hero so in the beginning it was not good news that he was a global hero of an entirely different type.

And so Mark tells us the story of Jesus’ desire to instruct his followers in matters of spiritual and physical short-sightedness. Their myopathy didn’t allow them to see who Jesus was or the fullness of why God came down in Jesus. Despite his every attempt to tell a larger truth– that he had come to set ALL the captives free, that he had come to bring sight to ALL the spiritually and physically blind, they remained blind to the big picture.

They were so blind that they skipped right past Jesus’ painful pronouncement of suffering and certain death, jumping like spoiled children to ask for status in the life to come. They may as well have said, “Wow Jesus. If you’re going to be THAT kind of king, then can we sit next to you? Do we get a crown? What color will my robes be?” Which—spoiler alert–Jesus then contrasts with a physically blind man who asks Jesus not for privilege but for mercy.

The irony that jumps off the page is that Bartimaeus COULD SEE Jesus’ truest identity when the disciples could not.

I heard recently about a strange but real innovation in tourism. It’s known as “sightseeing for the blind.” If it sounds like a cruel and insensitive joke, it is in fact a bona fide industry that enables the vision impaired to safely experience famous landmarks and locations through their other senses, particularly hearing and feeling.  It was these same senses as well as spiritual eyes that guided Bartimaeus to Jesus.

What a great lesson!  We would all be served by employing all of our senses!

What if we asked ourselves if what we think we are seeing is accurate?  What if when a person in our circle is acting mean, we ask if there something behind the behavior that we are not seeing?  Is God placing before us clues to spiritual transformation that we are missing because we don’t know to look for them?  We cannot see what we do not think is there?

If we think God is a nice idea but an absentee parent we’re secretly mad at–what if we’re not seeing the evidence that God is very much present! Even when we do not SEE God, God is there!

Bartimaeus could not see but Bartimaeus wanted to see.  Bartimaeus could see that Jesus was coming near and he called out. Jesus answered.

Be like Bartimaeus. Open your hearts and your eyes to God and you will see.

Amen.

The Empire Strikes Back…Meanwhile

As a new generation prepares for the Christmas 2015 premiere of the latest Star Wars film, here are the cliff notes for all of you padawan (Jedi apprentices).

Star Wars tells the story of a pstar-wars-and-the-bible-cover-e1374981428379eople and a galaxy in the distant past described as “far, far away.” Those representing good are known as the Jedi and the Jedi are in conflict with the evil “Sith.” The Sith’s culture of war and oppression is referred to as “the Empire.”

The six films that precede the one premiering December 18 have taken movie goers through the narrative arc of the story of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker who battles the evil
Darth Vader.  Like all good storytelling, the plot thickens when we are taken further back in time to meet young prodigy Anniken Skywalker. Anniken is selected for Jedi training though his Jedi masters sense that he is somehow conflicted and his future could go either way.  As he grows to become a man he is haunted by premonitions that his secret wife, Padme Amidala, will die and Anakin Skywalker is seduced by the dark side.  In a stunning plot twist, we learn that Anakin left good behind changing his name to be forever known as….Darth Vader.  Later in mortal battle with Luke Skywalker, Vader reveals “Luke I am your father.”  Luke and Darth Vader are faced with a choice.  Will good triumph or will evil?

As we’ve studied the older testament these past years, does the narrative sound a bit like those more unfamiliar bible stories?  The bible invites us to make choices.  We are not Jedi. We are disciples of a man named Jesus.  The battle for good over evil is timeless, though we wish that battle was fantasy.

The bible tells us the stories of a people and a land also in the distant past that could be likewise described as “far, far, away.” God has tried to remain central in the lives of his chosen people.  God has sent kings to rule righteously only to have them become seduced by the greed and… the dark side. God has sent judges to help the people choose right over wrong and God has sent prophets to teach the people, bringing God’s word directly.  And doesn’t it all come down to the same question?  Way of Empire? Or way of God?

In today’s reading, the prophet at the center is who scholars refer to as second Isaiah. This is the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile. We’ve moved 40 years into the future, from King Josiah in the year 620 BCE to 586 when the Babylonian empire’s military has invaded Jerusalem, destroying the city, the temple and deporting its people into exile. God calls Isaiah to preach good news to frightened and lost people. (Anyone else hope he is talking also to us?)… But Isaiah thinks they won’t listen. “People are like grass and what’s more they’re incapable of being constant,” he says.  In verse 8 God answers with “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever! [Now] get up on that high mountain and preach it!  Tell them “Do not despair. I’m coming to get you. Just as I always have always done, I’m building a road to bring you back to me. Go! Tell them Here is your God!

Sounds eerily similar to something we might hear in Star Wars, as if the Millennium Falcon starship has just radioed “we have you on visual and we’re coming to get you!” The Empire will be struck down and evil will not prevail!  Han Solo out!

Isaiah is speaking words of comfort to the exiles but, yes, what about you and I? Don’t we need those same words of comfort? Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly. When bullets fly in places bullets should never fly, speak tenderly because we are afraid!

What has dominated in this week’s news cycle, from serial violence right here in Minneapolis, to San Bernadino, California and from ISIS–these are the newest installments in the piecemeal war that’s been going on for centuries.  Look again at the word of God and let it speak to you. The God announced by Isaiah is both powerful and gentle, able to comfort as well as defend. This God is a shepherd who will “gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.”

And then we hear what we wait for each and every Advent.  A new voice joins the scene declaring: “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  For soon and very soon, God is personally coming onto the scene!

According to Mark’s gospel, “From The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Lord in your mercy get ready to get ready! Stand by to stand by!

Because my “padawan” star followers, isn’t that what Advent is all about? The Good news proclaimed is this!  “Here comes God!”  The ultimate Jedi force for all that is good; all that is holy is coming, is here and will never leave us.

Said in Star Wars parlance, “The force. It’s calling to you. Let it in. “ May the force AND the faith be with you. AMEN.