Jesus Warned Us About Donald Trump

The internet is abuzz with Donald Trump’s recent gaff at Liberty University.  In a room full of evangelical Christians (i.e. people who know the Bible), Donald Trump quoted “Two Corinthians.”  He was actually reading from “Second Corinthians,” the book of the Bible that is the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth.

Many Christians—like the Liberty students in the room with Mr. Trump—have laughed it off as the silly mistake of someone who is probably not too familiar with Holy Scripture (and, really, is anyone surprised Donald Trump doesn’t know his Bible?).  Others, however, have declared this incident to be further proof that Donald Trump is a false prophet, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” Jesus warned us about in Matthew 7.

I agree.  Donald Trump is the one Jesus warned us about.  But not in Matthew 7.  I’m talking about Matthew 5:  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

I try not to be heavy-handed with the term “enemy.”  But if an enemy is someone who is hostile or harmful to someone or something, I’d say Donald Trump could make my list.  Because even though he claims to be a defender of Christianity, much of his rhetoric is hostile and harmful to the Gospel.  When he mocks Carly Fiorina for her looks, Megyn Kelly for her uterus, Serge Kovaleski for his disability, or Senator McCain for being a POW, he’s being hostile to the Jesus who welcomed all kinds of people to his table.  When Trump’s words increase fear—fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of other countries–he’s being harmful to the Good News that is Jesus’ message of hope and hospitality and peace.

Jesus knew that the Gospel would encounter opposition from the Trumps of the world, so he told his followers how to respond:  love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  He didn’t tell us to debate, attack, mock, or coerce them to change their ways (probably because that never really works).  He told us to take responsibility for how we respond to them.

I haven’t once prayed for Donald Trump.  But I am going to start today.  Not because I think it will soften his heart (although all things are possible for God), but because I hope it will soften my own.  Maybe praying for Donald Trump will help me to see him as a human being and not as a caricature.  Maybe praying for Donald Trump will compel me to keep my snarky comments and insults to myself (or, better yet, to stop thinking them altogether).  Maybe praying for Donald Trump will lead me to new understandings of why Trump is so popular.  Maybe I will become more aware of the anxiety and fear that is dividing our nation.  Maybe my ministry and preaching will be informed by this revelation.  Maybe praying for Donald Trump will transform me.

I need to be transformed.  I need to find a way to respond to Donald Trump that is more authentic to my faith than the snarky comments and eye rolls I’ve used thus far.  Donald Trump could very well be a presidential nominee.  He could very well be our next president.  And if he is, he and I are going to need a lot of prayers.


These Things I Pray

I’ve spent the last few weeks preparing for a new position in a new church in a new city. I’ve found an apartment, updated my contact info with my student loan providers (although I’m confident they would find me even if I didn’t), and discovered the grocery store and pizza place closest to my new home. But in the midst of this chaos, I’ve also been trying to spiritually prepare for this new journey.  And that has involved a lot of prayer.

Some of my prayers over the last few weeks have felt a little deranged, the result of sheer panic:

Please, God, do not let me drop the communion chalice on my first Sunday.

Please, God, may we avoid all plumbing problems in the church building for my first two months of ministry.

Please, God, help me learn their names. Fast.

 But some prayers have bubbled up from a deeper place in my soul:

Please, God, let there be love.

One of my mentors told me that asking, “Can I love these people?” is the most important question to ask when discerning a call. It’s good advice. But in a time when pastors are burning out of ministry and those of us who remain are catapulting to the top of the “most unhealthy professions” lists, an equally important question seems to be: “Can these people love me?” For my health and the health of the congregation, I pray for love to guide the ministry we are about to begin together.

Please, God, fill me with confidence.

I am pretty sure that Self-Doubt is Life Transition’s inseparable best friend. In new beginnings and new endeavors, I inevitably reach a point when I think, “I cannot do this.” I’ve been having that thought an average of five times a day for the last three weeks. So I pray for confidence—for reminders that God has gifted and called me to this work, that at my ordination the Church recognized and affirmed this call, and that I’ve spent years training and learning and doing ministry. I am already enough for this holy work, because God has made me enough.

Please, God, keep me humble.

Of course, there are also moments when I become too confident. Usually these are the moments I make the most harmful mistakes, the moments when I foolishly begin to believe that God works through the power of me and not the other way around. I still have a lot to learn; may I walk humbly with God on this new path.

Please, God, grant me a patient, forgiving, courageous heart.

For when I actually do forget their names, I ask that God will help me be easy on myself; I will learn.

For the moments during the first few weeks when I sit at my desk not really knowing what to do, I ask God to help me be patient; for every day I feel like I am treading water, there will be a many more when I feel like I am swimming strong…and a few when I will feel like I am being washed out to sea.

For the times when being the pastor requires me to do the thing I really do not want to do, I ask God to help me find the courage to do it anyway, trusting that I do not walk this road alone.

Please, God, help me answer this new call faithfully.

I pray that each day I will strive to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, to follow Christ on the path of discipleship, to listen for the stirring of the Spirit, and to love my neighbor just as I love myself.

At the start of a new journey, these things I pray.

Five Things Progressive Christians Can Say We Believe

I have a pet peeve when it comes to progressive Christianity: we in the religious left have a really hard time articulating what we believe. Somewhere in the last 30 or 40 years, the definition of “Christianity in America” became equated with “Christian fundamentalism;” now those of us outside of this one piece of the big Christian pie are constantly defining ourselves against it. So when asked what it is that we believe, progressive Christians usually say things like, “We don’t believe what those other Christians believe.” Or if we’re feeling specific that day, we might say, “We don’t believe being gay is a sin” or “We don’t think the world is only 6,000 years old.”

And this is my pet peeve. It’s my pet peeve because it reinforces this cultural belief that progressive Christianity is somehow a departure from “real” Christianity, when in fact much of what we in the religious left do is deeply rooted in scripture and centuries-long Christian practices.

It’s my pet peeve because it describes our sense of belief only in negative terms, which–no matter how you spin it–ends up having bad connotations instead of Good News connotations; when we can only say “we don’t believe x, y, or z,” we’re not doing a good job of telling people about God’s love, inclusivity, and grace.

And it’s my pet peeve because it’s lazy; it lets progressive Christians off the hook of deeply thinking about our faith. We need to question who we are and what we are about; we need to know why we still exist in the religious culture of society; and we need to be able to articulate what our traditions have to offer to those who come asking, “So what do you believe?”

So here is a list of five things that I think progressive Christians can positively say we believe. Of course, the world of progressive Christianity is quite large; you might not agree with my list and that’s fine with me. Make your own. That’s kind of the point.

5. We believe the Bible is inspired by God, but written by [many] people.
I’ve honestly heard people in my own tradition say, “Eh, we don’t really believe in the Bible.” It makes my heart hurt. It makes Alexander Campbell, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and [insert your tradition’s guru] roll over in their graves. Because of course we “believe” the Bible; we’re Christians. We just have to know what we believe about the Bible.

When we say “we believe the Bible is inspired by God, but written by [many] people” we mean that we believe the Bible can connect us with the Divine through the wisdom and experiences of our ancestors, who went through some of the same spiritual wrestling matches that we go through. It means that the Bible doesn’t have to be inerrant (without error) because humans wrote it and humans make mistakes. It’s ok that the Bible is inconsistent with our understandings of history and science…or even with itself. We can explore those inconsistencies and actually grow in our faith because our understanding of God does not depend exclusively on an unblemished Bible.

4. We believe in reading scripture in its historical and literary context.
While #1 articulated what we believe about the Bible, #2 is about how we use the Bible. When we believe that people wrote the Bible, we believe each piece of it was written in a specific time, in a specific place, and for a specific audience. We need to know and understand these historical contexts so we might know why the author is writing what he (maybe she) is writing. When we root the Bible in its historical context, we also have to acknowledge that it wasn’t written in modern American English, so—unless we’re really skilled in ancient languages—what we read is coming to us through at least one interpreter; we like to read many different translations of the same passage to see what may be different, to challenge us to think about it in new ways.

We also read scripture in its literary context; it matters to us if a book of the Bible is poetry or narrative, law or prophet, Gospel or letter, and why. It also matters to us that the Bible be read in big passages, rather than pulling verses out individually. Think about when you hear that really controversial, four-second soundbyte on the news and think, “There has to be more to the story than that.” That’s what we believe about reading scripture.

3. We believe “sin” is much more than “sex.”
Admittedly, I’m being a little flippant here. Maybe even a little sensationalist. But I DO believe Christians across the theological spectrum have a sin problem. Our fundamentalist relatives talk about sin a lot, but it’s most often in the context of one’s personal sin and brokenness; and while it’s not always about sex, a lot of the time it is. Think about how much Christian material there is about “purity”–purity from premarital sex, homosexual sex, sexual lust, pornography, masturbation, etc. Perhaps to try to distance ourselves from fundamentalism, progressive Christians have kind of stopped talking about sin altogether; for us, it has too much baggage. And therefore we offer no alternative understanding of sin.

I’d love it if progressive Christians started identifying the ways we believe sin is manifest in the broken systems of our society. Sin is much deeper than individual struggles with sexual purity; it’s about cultures of violence against women, people of color, the poor, and the marginalized. We can say we believe that men earning more money than women for doing the same job is a sin. We can say we believe that stop-and-frisk policies or drug policies that intentionally target the poor or people of color are sins. We can say we believe laws that criminalize homelessness are sins. We can say we believe violence in any form is a sin. We can say that these are the sins most often talked about in the Bible and we believe they’re important for Christians to acknowledge and address.

2. We believe Jesus’ life saves us from sin.
When “sin” gets equated exclusively with personal sin, then personal salvation tends to become the dominant theme of Christianity. And personal salvation—most often—gets wrapped up in the cross; God demanded a ransom for all of the bad things we do in the course of our lifetime and Jesus was willing to pay the ransom. This interpretation has scriptural and historical substance, so I would never argue that it’s totally invalid. But it’s also not the exclusive theory of Jesus’ saving work.

If we believe sin is communal—manifest in social institutions and cultures—then Jesus’ saving act must have communal implications. And it does! We just might need to shift our focus from Jesus’ death to Jesus’ life. Think of the ways Jesus taught us how to live together: with compassion for the outcast, with righteous anger for unjust systems, with radical inclusivity, with tolerance and forgiveness, with generosity, with hope and love. We believe that when we really try to follow this path, we live lives that are counter-cultural to the systems of sin we find at work in our world; we believe Jesus offers us The Way out of sin.

1. We believe that God’s love for all people IS Christianity.
It’s impossible for progressive Christians to look at the Christian story without seeing the thread of God’s love running through it. God creates the world and declares it “good.” Although humans repeatedly deviate from God’s instructions and get in all kinds of trouble, God continues to intervene in human history to save us from ourselves. God even becomes human to be in solidarity with us in our plight. Through Jesus, God reveals to us The Way to live as God intended, a way that brings God’s kingdom to earth just—we pray–“as it is in heaven.” If anything we’re doing, teaching, or preaching is NOT proclaiming this great love story, then we’re not doing Christianity. We get it wrong at times, but we most definitely believe this.

If Not For The Women

This meditation was written as the Easter devotion for the Christian Women’s Fellowship group at First Christian Church, Falls Church.

April 9, 2014

As we approach the end of the season of Lent, our ministry staff is beginning to think about Easter.  On Easter Sunday, we will sing the triumphant hymns.  We will smell the sweet scent of lilies in our sanctuary.  We will replace the purple cloth on the Communion Table with fresh white linens, a sign of new life.  And we will read the familiar, timeless story.

But one decision we must make is:  which version of the story will we tell?

As many of you know, our church has been journeying through the Gospel of John this Lenten season.  And John’s account of the resurrection is, perhaps, one of my favorites.  This writer is the only one to include the lengthy conversation between Mary Magdalene and Jesus (who she mistakes for the gardener) just outside the empty tomb.  In this story, we experience the range of Mary’s emotions:  at first grief over her dead friend, then fear and panic when she discovers his body is missing, to confusion with this gardener who may look familiar but who will not leave her alone to cry, and finally…to belief.

But Matthew’s account is great, too.  Matthew is the gospel writer who includes a cosmic element:  a great earthquake shakes the earth, moving the stone before the tomb, and the guards are so afraid they are struck half-dead.  When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrive at the tomb, they find an angel of the Lord who tells them “do not be afraid…He is not here; he has been raised” and instructs them to go and tell the other disciples.  The women leave in mixed emotion–“fear and great joy”–to tell the others and on the way Jesus appears to them.

Mark’s version is quite similar.  In this story Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb to anoint the body.  Worried about how they will move the heavy stone, they are surprised to find it has already been rolled away.  When they enter the tomb, they find a young man who tells them “do not be alarmed…He has been raised; he is not here.”  As in Matthew, the women are instructed to tell the other disciples.  Mark tells us they leave and say nothing, because they are afraid.  But if you read either the long or short ending of Mark (and yes, there are two!), you learn that the women DO eventually tell the disciples what they have seen and heard.

And finally, we read Luke’s account.  Luke tells us it is a large group of women who go to the tomb:  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James, and “the other women with them.”  When they find the stone rolled away, they discover two men inside, who ask them–one of the best questions in the scriptures!–“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  And the women leave the tomb to tell the apostles this Good News.

The Gospel writers differ in the details.  Sometimes the tomb is empty except for the wrappings; sometimes there is an angel or a messenger (or two!) inside.  Sometimes the resurrected Jesus appears, but sometimes he is absent from the story and the readers are asked to trust and believe without seeing.  But across the four Gospels there are two things in common:  always we are told the Good News that Jesus is “not here” in the tomb, but alive in the world.  And always we have the women.

It is rare that the four Gospels share a detail in common–they don’t even agree on the details of Jesus’ birth!  So it seems significant that here there is some form of agreement.  Significant…but not particularly strange.

This week I thought back to the beginning of the story, in Luke’s account, when a pregnant Mary goes to visit her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth.  Upon seeing her cousin, Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and asks, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43)  She is the first person to recognize what is happening: that God has become human.

This means that two of the most important beliefs in the Christian faith are first uttered by women.  Women are the first to proclaim that God has come to live among us, the Messiah has arrived.  Women are the first to share that Jesus lives, that not even crucifixion can keep him in the grave, that God triumphs over death.

When we think over the Bible, we think of many great men:  the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Gospels attributed to male writers, and the letters of Paul.  We love these stories, but so often they do not include–or at least include in a significant way–the women.  But if we think of Elizabeth and the women at the tomb, we know:  When God has something REALLY important to say, God sends the women.

What if these women had kept what they saw, felt, and knew to themselves?  What if they had given into their fear–as Mark tells us they did at first–and not told a soul?  Would we know the ending to this story?  Would our lives be missing the joy of Easter and the hope of resurrection?  Would be bound to death, instead of followers of the Living God?

It’s hard for me to imagine a world without the Good News testimony of these women.  And so today, I give thanks for them and pray that I–and all of us gathered at this table–can be like these ancient sisters of ours:  messengers of God’s story and proclaimers of this Good News–he is not here, he is risen!

Letting Go of Holding On

“Tenacious,” my college professor called me.

“Determined,” is what the career aptitude tests usually call it.

“Stubborn,” was usually the word an old boyfriend preferred.

However you choose to say it, I don’t give up or let go easily.

Sometimes this is one of my best characteristics:  I see jobs through to the end…I don’t give up in the face of adversity…I put my best work out there…I stick by the people and the things that I believe in.

But sometimes this is one of my biggest downfalls:  I can value being right over my relationships…I can work myself sick…I can lose perspective…I can hold grudges, forget to forgive, and cause emotional harm to others but–more often–to myself.

Despite what I want to believe, I know that holding on tightly is not always a good thing.  The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes acknowledges that there is a time for everything—even time to “throw away,” to pack up, to jump ship, to move on, to let go.  These aren’t the most beautiful seasons of our lives, but sometimes these seasons of “throwing away” are exactly what we need to move into new seasons of rebuilding and growth.

One of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas, captures this sentiment beautifully:  “And if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again.”[1]

When we are “lucky enough to lose,” when we enter seasons of “throwing away,” or when we simply learn to just let go, we can open ourselves to the possibilities of new relationships, new opportunities, new stirrings of the Spirit, whispers of the Still Small Voice, and beautiful mysteries of the Divine.

As we approach the next liturgical season, many Christians will begin to discuss what they’re “giving up” for Lent.  Often we choose things that physically (and sometimes literally) weigh us down:  chocolate, coffee, fast food.  But this season I’m challenging myself to give up what can so often weigh me down emotionally:  I’m letting go of holding on.  I’m praying to gratefully release those relationships that have run their course, to offer forgiveness that I’ve withheld far too long, and to find peace with those things that—no matter how much tenacity, determination, or stubbornness I may muster—I simply cannot change.

And if I should be “lucky enough to lose” throughout these 40 days, I hope that life may “become beautiful with mystery” at the empty tomb on Easter morning.

What Simeon Saw

“What Simeon Saw”

Sermon Text:  Luke 2:22-40

December 29, 2013 – First Christian Church, Falls Church

 If you ever venture upstairs to visit me in my office—which I hope you will–you might notice an odd-looking piece of artwork hanging on my wall.  The figures are rough, sticklike, and colorful—as if a child drew them—and there is writing along the side of the print.  It’s part of a series of artwork called “StoryPeople,” created by an artist, and fellow Iowan, named Brian Andreas.  Brian designs sculptures and paintings to accompany what he calls “stories”—short sentences or fragments of paragraphs by unnamed authors.  Sometimes they are imaginative and silly, sometimes heartbreaking and painful, sometimes sweet and romantic, sometimes inspiring and profound.  All of them seem to get to the heart of the human experience.  Because they are “anonymous” stories—told by real or fictitious people, I’ve never been sure—it’s quite easy to see your own story, or the stories of your relationships and friends, within them.  I like combing the catalog to try to find the perfect story to give to my friends and loved ones, but the one that hangs in my office was actually selected for me by a lifelong best friend, given to me the summer that I graduated from college and packed my bags for seminary.

The one that doesn’t hang in my office, but probably should, is one that sneaks up on me every Christmas season.  The story, called “Purple Madonna,” reads:

One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remember thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.

The story ends lightheartedly, but the message is poignant.  If you simply substituted “Bethlehem” for “Hollywood Boulevard,” you may as well have ripped the story straight from the Gospels.  A young woman with a baby.  Poor.  And no room in the inn.  And like the narrator of the story I wonder, “if anyone—or, really, if Iwould recognize the Christ child if we happened to meet.”  How would you know?  What’s the sign?  What would you have to see to recognize him?

I ask these same questions of Simeon each time I read this Gospel story.  Simeon was a righteous and devout man, who had been waiting for the Messiah a long time.  He had been waiting so long, in fact, that God had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw God’s promise fulfilled.  First century Jewish Messianic expectations were diverse, so it’s hard to say what, exactly, Simeon was looking for.

Perhaps he was expecting a king to be born among the rich and powerful.  But what did Simeon see that day in the Temple?  A young couple.  The husband, a carpenter.  They were so poor that they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb for the mother’s purification, a prescribed by Levitical codes; instead, they brought two birds.[1]  This child does not look like royalty.

Perhaps Simeon was expecting a wise priest to rise above the others, or maybe a powerful warrior to overthrow Rome and end the foreign occupation of Israel.  But what did he see?  A child who could not yet talk.  A defenseless baby, dependent upon his mother to carry, clothe, and feed him.  He does not yet, at least, look wise or mighty.

So what did Simeon see?  Simeon saw the Messiah in an every day place, an every day moment, among every day parents bringing their child to the Temple.  Simeon saw God, entering the world in the most ordinary and unassuming way, just as every human enters the world.  Simeon saw God in the flesh—Emmanuel, God with us.

Not long after I started my ministry with you all at First Christian Church, I had my own Simeon-like moment, when I was struck by God-in-the-flesh.  I walked into the office one morning and Karen, our office secretary, said to me, “You have to bless someone’s bicycle today.”

“Whose?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  A guy just called and asked if a pastor would do something like that.”

I was feeling a little sassy that morning, so I said, “They didn’t teach that in seminary.”

“Well,” replied Karen, “You’ve got about 20 minutes to figure it out.”

And the next thing I knew, I was walking across the parking lot, Bible in hand, nervous and anxious about who I would meet and what would be expected of me.  And there I found Marcus, a man who looked only 5-6 years older than me.  We spoke briefly and he explained that he had lost his home and his family in a fire.  He’d been living in shelters and finally decided to try to get a fresh start in North Carolina.  He had made arrangements for a place to stay and was setting out that morning to ride his bicycle to what he hoped would be a new life.  We read a Psalm together and said a prayer for his safety and for his bicycle.  And just as we said goodbye, he asked if I had a Bible he could take on the road with him.  I offered him the one in my hands and he wept.

As Marcus departed, I realized I had seen the face of Christ.  A man on a bicycle—so ordinary.  A request for a prayer—so typical in my line of work.  The parking lot of this church—where I stand at least five days a week.  An everyday person, an every day event, in an every day place.  It was so normal that I almost missed it.  And yet, there he was:  Christ breaking into my world.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

Simeon saw a small baby in his mother’s arms.  He saw “God with us” in one of the sweetest moments of human life—the joy of a new child, the excitement of something new, the innocence and purity that we can only associate with a life that has just begun.  But Simeon also saw much more.  His prophecy foretells of the life ahead:  of the opposition that Jesus will encounter, of the heartbreak Mary will endure, of the effects that this person will have upon the lives of many.  Simeon saw, even at that moment, what the Incarnation would mean:  that a God who would become human and live among us meant that Emmanuel would experience all that human life offers, the joy of birth–yes–but also life–the hurt, conflict, and death that goes along with it.  Simeon saw the child Messiah, but he also saw the rejected and the outcast man he would become.

It’s a difficult vision to grasp on to.  As one scholar wrote, “Anyone who had happened along the streets of Bethlehem might have looked good-naturedly at the baby lying in Mary’s arms, but by no means would everybody have looked good-naturedly at the Son of man who afterward went out from Nazareth.”[2]  It’s so much easier, so much more pleasant, to look at what Simeon saw and see only the baby.  To find God in our own lives in those moments that are so special they are obviously sacred—like when a child is born or dedicated, when candle light fills our sanctuary on Christmas Even, when we see the surprised look on the face of someone just emerged new from the baptismal waters.  But Christianity asks us to also see the man that Simeon saw—to see Christ in those more difficult moments, the ones that happen everyday—to see him among those who suffer from rejection or sickness or loneliness.  Among the Purple Madonnas and Marcus’s of our world.  To know “God with us” is to see that God IS with us—working in our world, encountering us on the streets, accompanying us in joy and in pain—in people, places, and events so ordinary that, if we’re not careful, we might just walk right on by.

One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet.

Fortunately, for us, Luke’s Gospel records the moment that Simeon DID recognize the Christ child when he happened along his path.  And in his delight Simeon sang a song, declaring that salvation had been prepared in the presence of all peoples—Jew and Gentile, 1st century and 21st century.  May our eyes be opened to see as Simeon saw.  Amen.

[1] Leviticus 12:6-8

[2] Interpreter’s commentary.

Advent & Agriculture: Clearing the Way for the Christ Child

An Advent reflection on Matthew 3:1-12:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

I’m from Iowa, where agriculture is a way of life.  I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I had friends who did.  And even though I was a “town kid,” I still managed to have corn and soybean fields at the end of my street for most of my growing up years.  I liked to watch the fields all year round.  In the winter months, I would see the flat acres and acres of white snow mixed with brown mud.  In the springtime, I would see the farmers out planting and I would wait expectantly for patches of green to spring up from the ground.  During the summer, I would watch the plants grow and grow.  If we were lucky, they grew with the help of rain; if we weren’t so lucky, they grew with the help of modern irrigation systems.  And if it was a year that sweet corn was in the field—always my favorite—I would hope that, indeed, the stalks would be “knee high by the fourth of July,” as the old adage goes.  In the fall, I would see the big farm equipment head out to bring in the harvest.  And after everything was gathered for the year, sometimes, I would see the fields burn.  I remember being young—probably just finishing up a Smokey the Bear fire safety unit at school–seeing the billowing smoke from the fields and thinking something was terribly wrong on the farm.  But when I consulted my parents for help, I was told that the farmers did this on purpose to their fields:  it was a way of clearing out the leftover stalks and leaves, killing insects, and helping to ensure that whatever was planted next year could grow and thrive.  It seemed destructive to me, but this way of clearing the land was actually the farmer’s way of preparing for the next year.

During the Advent season, we’re asked to engage in our own sort of preparation:  not preparing for next year’s harvest, but preparing the way of the Lord.  This Gospel reading from Matthew presents us with the challenging words of John—who is THE preparer for the Christ child.  The story seems a little crazy and the source not-so-credible:  as if we’re supposed to trust the words of a man covered in camel’s hair and eating bugs.  But John makes a very good and clear point:  by declaring “repentance,” John tells the us that in order to prepare the way of the Lord, we’ve got some cleaning up & clearing out to do.

During the Christmas season, we can be inundated with clutter: trees, stockings, and decorations can take over our homes; advertisements pressure us to buy the most expensive gifts to prove to our loved ones that we really care about them; made-for-tv movies lead us to believe that the perfect meal is the key to familial harmony.  And it’s not as though gift giving, holiday decorating, or family meal preparing is necessarily bad, but it’s not what we’re really supposed to be spending all of our time this season preparing for.  We’re supposed to be, as John declares, “preparing the way of the Lord.”

And so while John’s words may seem a little, wild, dark, and apocalyptic, I encourage us to think of them as a welcome invitation this Advent season:  inviting us to clean up our lives, removing the clutter from our hearts and minds—and even our houses—so that we are not distracted from what is about to take place.  During the “hanging of the greens” service in which we help to decorate our sacred space, we included the action of removing the “Ordinary Time” paraments from the sanctuary, as a symbol of the “clearing out” we strive to do this Advent season.  We want to be sure that things are in order so that when the Christ child arrives, we are ready for the kingdom of God that will be upon us.  We’ve got to “burn the fields,” so to speak, so that when our Messiah arrives, new life will grow.  We’ve got to “clear the threshing floor,” to borrow a phrase from John, so that when the Kingdom fully arrives, the harvest will be rich and plentiful.  We’ve got to clean up our hearts and minds, so that when the Christ child arrives, we experience the joy and peace that is the true hope of Christmas.