December 11, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

Pointing to the Light

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Luke 1:46-55

John 1:6-9, 19-28

We are deep into Advent. The days are short because there is so much to do to get ready for Christmas –yes – but also because the sun sets so early. December 21 is the day of the year with the least amount of total daylight but today is one of the days with the earliest sunsets. The sun will go down today at 4:20vand we will be wrapped in darkness for almost 15 hours – 14 hours, 48 minutes to be precise.

A very long nighttime. A lot of darkness.

Except…. There are lights everywhere now: twinkling white lights draped over the eaves of houses,big colored bulbs on outdoor bushes and trees, tiny candles set in the windows. One house that I pass on my daily commute has dozens of giant lighted snowflakes hanging all over the surrounding trees. It is so magical; I’ve seen it over and over and it is still making me smile.

I think part of the beauty of all the lights is the kind of brave statement they make. When the world is shrouded in night, literally and figuratively, it is an act of courage to let in the light. In a way, when we string up our Christmas lights, we are symbolically doing what God has done – causing the light to shine in darkness.

That is how the gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ coming -- not with angels and shepherds or wise men and mangers. This gospel starts long before any of that: “In the beginning (it sounds like Genesis, doesn’t it), was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1-2)

The Word is God’s holy act, made flesh in Jesus. At creation, God’s first act, God’s first word was about light: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) And God is still speaking the Word that brings light into the world: As the gospel tells us: “What has come into being in him – this Word which is the Christ – was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3b-5)

And John was the one who was called to point to light. He understood his role to be like that of the prophet Isaiah: “’I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’ he said, echoing the ancient scripture:
 ’Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23)

But what exactly is this “way of the Lord,” this way of light and life. Isaiah tells us that, too, in prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. The way of the Lord is good news to the oppressed, healing for the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives,
 and release to the prisoners. It is an era marked by God’s favor for those who seek God, and God’s judgment of separation from love for those who do not. It is comfort for those who mourn and God’s praise to encourage faint spirits. That is the way of the Lord, the way of light, and we, like the prophets before us, are called to point to the light.

But what does that mean? How do we do that? Isaiah tells us this, too. Those who live in God’s light “shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)

Isaiah was likely speaking of the aftermath of the siege and war and occupation of Jerusalem and the need to rebuild all that had been destroyed. But 2500 years later, the instructions still apply, and they apply to us. We, too, witness to the light by rebuilding what is ruined, raising up what is broken down, repairing what has been devastated. The rabbis call this work tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase which means repairing the world.

There is much in our world that needs repairing. There is much that is ruined, broken, and devastated. In the midst of great abundance, children are starving and old men are homeless. The gap between the richest rich and poorest poor is greater than it has ever been in human history. For reasons that are incredibly complex and also simple and completely obvious, violent crime is increasing in our cities. Basic health care is a luxury for most of the world’s people.

This is not the way of the Lord.

And if you think seriously about the brokenness of our world, if you do not turn your eyes away from suffering and devastation, it is all too easy to despair. The world’s troubles are so complicated, its problems so insurmountable, the challenges so great – how are we to accomplish anything? Aren’t all our efforts the equivalent of lighting a tiny candle in the midst of overwhelming darkness? How can we be successful? The work of tikkun olam seems beyond our ability. We aren’t very powerful; we aren’t very rich. We can’t possibility change the world, can we?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but here is the good news of the gospel: we don’t have to. God has already done that. God has changed everything. Isaiah knew it, Jesus knew it, and Mary, his mother, knew it.

Just look at Luke 1:46-55. This is the Magnificat, that beautiful song of Mary. It speaks of the way of the Lord, the straight way, where all inequalities are leveled out. Do you see what God has done? God “has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

This is the way of God: no one is high and mighty and no one is down and out; no one is eating caviar and filet mignon all the time and no one is starving; all are equal in God’s sight and all have an equal share of the world’s goodness.

But the world isn’t this way, is it? So why did Mary sing as though this had already happened? A little grammar lesson might be helpful in understanding what she was saying. The form of these verbs is what is called the present perfect tense. According to Wikipedia, that is a grammatical construction that is used to express a past event that has present consequences.

A past event that has present consequences. We know what that past event is, don’t we? The light of the world that has come into the world, the light has been present since even before the beginning. And that past event, the coming of the light, has present consequences for us. In it we are called to engage in tikun olam, repairing the world, our beautiful, broken world.

No, we can’t fix everything, but remember that we don’t have to. All we have to do is point to the light. All we have to do is live in the light. All we have to do it light our own little candles and let them shine. Because tikkun olam, the work of repairing the world, begins within our hearts. We don’t have to fix everything. What we do have to do is witness to the light with our own lives, our words, our deeds, our prayers; our intentions and attitudes and actions. What we have to do is let the eternal light shine through us.

A song by the poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen has this refrain:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. And in our cracked and broken world, even in our cracked and broken hearts, the light still gets in.

The light still shines. And the darkness has not overcome it. Thanks be to God!

© Martha C. Highsmith

April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

It is gray today, cold and wet. It seems fitting somehow.

About Good Friday, Paul Tillich writes of the way the physical world itself responds to the crucifixion. The sky darkens, the earth shakes, the temple veil is torn. He says:
Nature, with trembling, participates in the decisive event of history. The sun veils its head; the temple makes the gesture of mourning; the foundations of the earth are moved..... Nature is in an uproar because something is happening which concerns the universe.
If Friday is darkness, then Easter morning is bright and glorious. Even on those rainy Easter Sundays, there is still that sense of light, the Paschal light.

But what about Saturday? Saturday is the day between, but it certainly must have seemed the end and not the middle. Resurrection was coming but why did it wait another day? After sitting with people in the midst of profound loss, I think that maybe Saturday was like that, even for God. Great loss induces shock and numbness. It is almost impossible to act, to comprehend, to believe. Perhaps this is putting too much of a human face on God, but I think God might have been so numbed by grief and sorrow that nothing else could happen. He had lost his Son, and he had lost his children, too, by giving them the freedom to do what they wanted, even crucifixion. Of course, we do not get the last word -- thank God -- but on Saturday, maybe no one knows that yet.

So today it rains and it is cold. And I think that maybe even heaven is weeping with the tragedy of terrible death, Jesus' death and any other, too. Tomorrow there will be light and lilies and sparkling music. But today there is only the stunned disbelief, only the grief, only the loss.

April 14, 2011

Building in Stages

Many of the buildings on the Caribbean island of Anguilla are made of concrete. It is shaped and poured and painted sometimes so it looks like wood or stucco-type plaster. And sometimes it is just left gray and plain. One of the interesting things about the buildings, houses in particular, is the rebar sticking out of the top. The builders have prepared for another storey even though they have not been able to build it at the start, because materials or money are too scarce. All over the island, you see these houses, fully occupied, with metal rods decorating the top and extending to the sky in the hope of more to come some day.

I like this as an image for life. We are building our houses at the same time we are living in them. We are also thinking we will be able to add on, enlarge, do more, and we make plans for that. Sometimes those plans come to fruition and sometimes they just stick out and rust in the rain. Sometimes we finish what we start, sometimes others do it after we are gone, and sometimes what we have is all that will ever be. And no matter what, we still go on living in what we have made, making a home with what we have, and not waiting for everything to be perfect and final and finished. And isn’t life just like that?

April 12, 2011

A Sermon in Lent

Wonder. Bread!
Exodus 16:1-15
John 6: 24-35

Those of you in the Howdy Doody generation – you know who you are – will remember the commercials for Wonder Bread: You know: “builds strong bodies 12 ways.” It was enriched with vitamins and it was soft and white, fluffy almost – in our house the complete opposite of the substantial biscuits and cornbread that were the usual fare. In fact, in my part of the South, white slices from a bag are still called light bread.

But whether our daily bread is soft and white, or biscuits, pita, or pumpernickel – we still call it the staff of life. Even the cruelest diet contains bread and water. And despite all our sophistication and abundance, the prediction of a big snow storm still sends hundreds of people out to stand in line to buy milk and….bread.

If you doubt the wonder of bread, think for a moment about the feeling you have when you smell a freshly baked loaf of bread. If you think bread has become unnecessary, try to imagine all your Sunday dinners with no fresh rolls, Mexican food without tortillas, March 17 without soda bread. If you think bread is not important, consider this Table without it. Bread is essential for life – the life of the body and the life of the soul.

It has been this way for thousands of years, all the way back to the wilderness and even before that. Bread is strength for the journey. So it is not surprising that when the children of Israel found themselves out in the middle of nowhere without any bread, they were anxious, upset, and angry. They were hungry. And they complained about it. In Egypt, they were slaves and they were forced into backbreaking labor, but at least they had known what to expect. At least, they had something to eat. Not like this.

In Egypt, the people were dependent on Pharaoh for bread. In the wilderness, they had to become dependent on God. It was a hard transition.

But just as God had noticed their slavery, so God noticed their hunger and sent manna. It was strange stuff, like nothing they had ever seen before. "When [they] saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?"" (Exodus 16:15a). "What is it," which in Hebrew is man hu. And so this bread from heaven was called manna. It covered the earth like dew in the morning. Moses told them what it was, bread from God, and they ate it.

Think about the courage to do that, the act of faith it took to eat this stuff that they had never seen before, this stuff they could not even name.

But they had no choice, really. They were hungry, they were in the wilderness, they ate, and it satisfied their hunger. It was sufficient. It was enough for the day.

But it was not to be hoarded. When they tried to save it up, stockpile against the future, it bred worms and was spoiled. This wonderful manna was food for the present. And if it required an act of faith to taste it for the first time, it also required an act of faith to believe that there would be enough for tomorrow without hoarding what was offered today. After all, they needed this bread to live. And it was hard to leave it there, hard to be confident that there would more in the future.

There in the wilderness, they had to accept what God would offer, on God’s terms. They had to trust that what God offered was life itself.

To be given bread when you are really hungry is to be given all you need. As Mother Teresa once said: "We give dying people bread because they hunger and perish not just for bread but also for love. When we hand them bread, we are also giving them love." ." (Sunday Dinner, Willimon, p 65) That is what God did with those hungry, complaining people in the wilderness. God gave them food – and love.

And Jesus did the same thing, multiplying the loaves, feeding those who had followed him into the desert. They thought they understood the power he had. He had them eating out of his hands, after all. They thought he was a second Moses, sent from God to give them bread. But they were wrong. They misunderstood his power. His power had little to do with their stomachs and everything to do with their souls.

The bread that mattered was not the bread from his hands but another kind of bread, something new and wholly different. It was the bread of life. It was his own life.

Remember: To be given bread when you are hungry to the point of perishing is to be given love. It was true for those in the wilderness, it was true for those with Jesus in Capernaum, and it is true for us, too.

We, too, may know something about the wilderness. It is a place where the fear of scarcity can easily turn to complaining. It is a place of hunger and emptiness, sometimes of anger. The wilderness is a time of being pushed out of all that is familiar, of being uprooted, of having nowhere to turn -- except to God. The wilderness is that experience of learning to depend on God because you can no longer depend on anything else. The wilderness is the place where you live from day to day, and there is enough, just for today. In the wilderness, you have to trust and obey God.

And whether we know it or not, we are praying a wilderness prayer every time we say: “Give us this day our daily bread.” What we are asking is this: God, give us enough for one day. Give us what we need for the present moment. Keep us from hoarding your gifts. Teach us to trust that you will provide.

This is not easy. We live in a world where every message is about being self-sufficient, taking control, maintaining independence. It is a hard transition to move from the message of the world to the message of the Word. It is a hard transition to give up our reliance on ourselves and what we have stored up, and learn instead to rely on God. It goes against so much of what we have been taught: don't be a burden, pay your own way, save for retirement, be responsible. Those actions are worthwhile, of course, until and unless they get in the way of God. We can become so focused on looking after ourselves that we forget to look for God. We can become so intent on saving ourselves that we miss out on life.

Life comes from one source: Jesus, sent by God to satisfy the deepest hungers of the world, for those in the wilderness, for the starving, for those who are afraid and angry with God; Jesus, offering his life to us and for us, and showing us the way to receive the gift. Not by hoarding what we have as a hedge against the future, not by longing for the old days of Pharaoh’s plenty, not by becoming paralyzed with the fear of not having enough. We receive the gift of life by reaching out in faith and obedience, seeing that God in Christ is giving us what we need, but also recognizing that it may not look like anything we have ever seen before.

It may raise more questions than it answers. It may make us wonder. Like those in the wilderness and those around Jesus, when we are confronted with God's strange provision, it will require an act of faith to take it in.

The bread we share here comes from the hand of God – God who gives us all we need for life, God who gives us Jesus Christ. This bread builds a strong body, the body of Christ, in more ways than we can even imagine. And that is cause for thanksgiving, for trust and gratitude, for awe and for wonder.

And Jesus still says to us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

And may it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

April 7, 2011


The daffodils are starting to bloom, opening their little yellow faces to this tentative spring. They stand with their heads bowed, nodding gently in the still-cold breeze. I wonder if a flower can pray -- that is what they look as though they are doing. Are they offering obeisance to their Maker? Are they giving thanks for the light after being buried almost all year? Are they just glad to be alive? And whether these are their prayers or not, shouldn't they be mine?

March 30, 2011

Holy Heartbeat

My friend and I are taking a drumming class. She got two djembes for Christmas and I am borrowing one of them. The experience is quite amazing. There is a group of about 15 women, some with years of practice, others like me, brand new. Somehow we find the rhythm and connect with each other. The teacher guides us, but the rhythm is an organic thing, synchronizing our hands and connecting the sound. No one is counting out loud or directing us; it just happens. And what I find is that all I can focus on is the moment. There is just the beat, like a heart beat, steady and comforting, life-giving. All the cares of the day recede. The drumming does not solve problems or work out troubles, but it somehow makes them fade in importance, even if for just an hour. And I think that this is what the best praying is like: a heartbeat connecting itself with the universe, bringing heart, mind, soul, and body to a single focus, letting go for a moment of the cares and worries of life. And when I pray the Lord’s Prayer in the church of my childhood, that same powerful rhythm is there, joining us together, creating a harmony among us and with creation, surrounding our folded hands with the One whose hands hold us always, the One whose very heart beats in and through and among.

March 27, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent

Bucket List

Exodus 17:1-7
Luke 4:5-42

Do you know this term, bucket list? It’s the list you make of all the things you want to do before you die. Yesterday, in the funnies, Dagwood Bumstead was working on his bucket list – as he put it, the important things he wasted to do before he kicked the bucket. Blondie asked him if he meant things like cleaning all the window screens before the end of spring – apparently something on her bucket list. Usually a bucket list is not about spring cleaning. It is more likely to include adventures and once-in-a lifetime events: going mountain climbing, riding in a hot air balloon, traveling to China, taking a cruise, visiting the home of your ancestors in Africa. It could also be things like learning to speak a foreign language, restoring an antique car, or running a marathon. A bucket list, in other words, is a list of all those things you would love to do but find it all too easy to put off. The press of daily life can crowd out hopes and dreams. We get caught up in the everyday and lose sight of the sense of wonder and adventure that renews our spirits. A bucket list is a commitment to seeking out that wonder and excitement. It is a way of finding fulfillment.

Here’s one thing you can be sure of, if there had been such a concept of a bucket list in Moses’ time, his would not have included a trip through the wilderness with the children of Israel. Yes, certainly it was an adventure, but not one, remember, that he willingly chose. And if the escape from Egypt seemed good at one point, when they found themselves out in the middle of nowhere, it was less attractive. In that dry wilderness place, they thought they would die of thirst. There was no water anywhere that they could see.

Have you ever been really, really thirsty? Maybe it happened when you were in the wilderness place of a hospital waiting for surgery, not allowed to eat or drink. Real thirst has a way of focusing your attention, doesn’t it? Just about all you can think about is how wonderful even a damp swab would be. You would give just about anything for a sip of cool water. That is what happened in the wilderness. The people were ready to trade their freedom for something to drink. Their joy at being rescued from the hand of Pharaoh had evaporated, dried up in the desert sun. It would have been better, they thought, to die in Egypt then to perish of thirst in the wilderness where there was no water.

But there was water in the wilderness. They just couldn’t see it. All they could focus on was their own thirst. And maybe they couldn’t see God either. Their focus on their thirst kept them from focusing on God. But there was water there and God was there, too, going ahead of them, standing on the rock where the water was, waiting to give them life. The hidden water flowed out when Moses opened the rock. It had been there all along but it took an act of faith and obedience to bring it forth.

As I think about this story, I wonder how many times in my own life I have been so focused on what I needed, or thought I needed, that I was blind to the way God was waiting to provide. I think about those times when I have been worried or afraid, when I have been so focused on taking care of myself that I forgot how God is always looking out for me. But there have also been times in my life when I have been able to act in faith, in obedience, even when it didn’t seem to make any more sense than getting water out of a stone. And I’ve seen that same thing happen in the lives others. In those times, I have been able to see that what was needed was there all along, hidden in plain sight, but it took action based on trust and belief to receive it.

That is how Jesus lived his life, after all, acting in faith and obedience to God, even when there was no visible reason to think that what he or those around him needed would be provided.

That is what happened in his encounter with the woman at the well, in the heat of the day. In a desert place, water is precious. In ancient times, and even today in too many places around the world, drawing water is a daily requirement for life itself. The women who did this work would have wanted to come early in the day, before it got too hot, before they got on with their other chores at home. But one woman came at noon, when the sun was overhead blazing down. She did not come with the others, and we can speculate that they avoided her and she avoided them. Most likely, she was not the kind of role-model the others would hold up for their daughters. She had been married – a lot. Maybe she had been widowed or divorced, who knows? And now she was living with a man out of wedlock. I picture her as tough and practical – she would have had to be in order to survive in a small community. You know how people talk; you know how cruel we can be to those who seem to break the rules of polite society.

But even with her own history, she knew there were some rules that no one should break. Men absolutely did not talk to strange women. Jews did not have anything to do with Samaritans. Nice people did not listen to her kind. And then she met Jesus.

At the start of their conversation, she misunderstood what he was saying to her. After all, she was the practical type. It was hot, he was tired and thirsty, she had a bucket and he did not. But there he was, saying that he could give her water, living water. She was skeptical at first: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”

For both of them, the woman and Jesus, the water they need for life itself was right there, but hidden and inaccessible until they each reached out to the other in trust and belief. Jesus was the source of new life for the woman, and the woman with her bucket could give Jesus what he needed.

In the wilderness of our world, in the dry places of life, we stand with that woman at the well. Jesus, the Jew, speaks to us, the Gentiles. And it doesn’t matter what the circumstances of our lives are, how many mistakes we have made, how many times we have messed up. As he did with the woman, Jesus offers us living water. He waits to give us that which will satisfy the deepest thirst we have, the thirst for love and acceptance and grace and God.

But there is more to our meeting Jesus. Jesus has no bucket. But we do. Dag Hammarskjold, a wise and holy man who was the Secretary General of the UN in the 1950s wrote this: “I am the vessel. The draft is God’s. And God is the thirsty one.”

God in Christ thirsts for what we would draw out of our souls with our little buckets. The well inside us is deep and full, whether we can see that or not. In faith and obedience, we are called to find the life that is there, even if it seems hidden and inaccessible, to draw it out and lift it up to God.

Those who would follow Christ have a bucket list that is different from the world’s. Our bucket list is not about those things we want to do for ourselves before we die. No, as Christians our bucket list is what we want to do for Jesus before we die. Our bucket list is what we want to do for Jesus because he died, for us, and is risen to eternal life, for us.

Jesus stands before us with no bucket of his own. He is waiting for us to draw water for him, to offer him the life that he is thirsty for, which is our life. And he is waiting to give us the life that will fill our thirsty souls, which is his life.

What does your bucket look like? Is it shiny and new, or a little dinged up and slightly worse for wear? It doesn’t matter. You still hold the gift of life within you, because God’s love has been poured into you.

The bucket of your life is filled with Christ’s own life. All that you need comes from that unending source of love and life. All that you need comes from Christ. And all that you are is all Christ needs – whoever you are, whatever your gifts, anything and everything you have to offer. You get to figure out what Christ needs from you. That’s your bucket list.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

March 24, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

The Sunday night Lenten service was in a small country church that has been in the same place since 1800. The building is plain and square, with white clapboards and a tin roof, two front doors leading directly into the sanctuary from the porch. The pews are wide boards joined at the perpendicular, with the blessing of cushions, but even so requiring us to sit up straight. We joined the generations of faithful to worship and pray and hear the Word. And we sang old gospel hymns, the songs that people there know by heart, the songs that lie deep in memory, accompanying the joys and sorrows of life. And then someone requested “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” It was a favorite of a woman who attended these services for years and years until her death, when her obituary made special note of her favorite hymn. We always sang the hymn when she was present, and I’m sure they sang it at her funeral. But….our mother would rather sing just about anything else. So she leaned over the pew to my sister and said, “Oh no. But she’s dead.” And my sister replied, “Well, there’s another one of them.” And that set us off the way something would strike us as funny in church when we were children. We shook with silent laughter until there were tears in our eyes and did not get ourselves under control until the very end of the last verse.

The sermon was strong and good, the prayers embraced us all, the food and fellowship afterward were lovely, and the almost-sacrilegious laughter shared with my sister was sweet and pure.

March 21, 2011

Sweetness and Light

On Saturday, my brother opened the bee hive. The bees have ended their winter’s hibernation and are back out, visiting dandelions, forsythia, clover, and vetch. The hive has the left-over honey from last year, what they did not need to see them through the cold. At the end of the fall, when almost everything had stopped blooming, the bees fed on basil blossoms. And the honey they made from those end-of-season flowers is lightly sweet and the color of summer sun. We uncapped the honeycomb, each cell a miraculous perfect little hexagon, and ate the honey in the yard, even as the bees flew off in search of the nectar of another spring.

March 13, 2011


The images from Japan are wrenching. The destruction is beyond imagining. There are untold lives lost, and for the survivors, whole ways of life gone forever.

The earthquake and the tsunami did not happen here. The ground underneath my feet in my little neighborhood is stable, there is no radioactivity falling from the sky, houses sit firmly on their foundations. The devastation that I see on television is halfway around the world. And yet the faces that I see are the faces of my neighbors. Our ever-shrinking world brings us closer together. Sometimes that global closeness magnifies differences and conflicts. But sometimes it illuminates our common humanity.

Japan is not another world. Last week, I sat in a meeting with a colleague from the University of Tokyo who is back home – whatever that may mean for him now. My niece has traveled there; my friend’s sister has lived there. Fifty students and faculty from my school are there now, trying to figure out when and how they can leave.

The poet and preacher John Donne once said “No man is an island.” And no island, whether it is Japan or any other, separates us one from another. So our hearts break for our neighbors, our sisters and brothers, our unknown friends.

March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

The snow is finally melting, but it is still about a foot deep in parts of my yard. In contrast to when it was newly fallen, now it is dirty, marked by soot and grime. As it melts, it exposes what has been hidden and forgotten all winter. I see again the tools from the little remodeling project that did not quite get finished. The birdbath has resurfaced, as have my little bench and the bottle tree. There are sticks and limbs and general yard debris, all buried for months. Down the street, a manger scene is being uncovered day by day, Mary and Joseph sticking out of the snow bank first, and then the Baby, slowly being revealed. Christmas trees put out for recycling are still by the curb, uncovered and finally able to be picked up and sent on to a new purpose.

And today is the beginning of Lent. The word “lent” means spring, that elusive season that we are just beginning to feel, however tentatively. And I think that the melting snow of spring is like the work of Lent. All that I used to cover my unfinished business and debris and old decorations, all that seemed so white and shiny at first, is melting away. All the beautiful defenses that I use to hide my sin disappear in the practice of Lent, and everything is exposed to the bright light of a new season of forgiveness. As the ashes and soot fall into the ground when the snow is gone, so the dirt of my own life, the accumulation of days and weeks – months and years – will also be transformed into new life.

And in the midst of all the melting away, the Christ is being revealed, too – long hidden, forgotten in the midst of the storms, out of sight but now exposed and visible. And the new encounter with that Christ is what cleanses and restores all the life that has been hidden away in the futile attempt to cover up, hide, and forget sin.

Something else: The daffodils are starting to come up. The pussy willows are fat and fluffy. And I remember the garlic and the strawberries and the black-eyed Susans that I have planted in past seasons, warm and waiting for the moment to emerge. Spring is coming. New life is possible. Lent is hope. And may God resurrect all the good that has been planted, all that is waiting to bring nourishment and beauty and joy.

March 8, 2011

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Wholly Holy

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

The Book of Leviticus is not the place you turn when you are seeking biblical comfort and familiarity. If the Ten Commandments are God’s law, then Leviticus is the governmental regulations. It is page after page of specific instructions for how the people are to live – what they are to eat and not eat, what they should wear, how they are to plant their fields, what kind of relationships they have with each other, how to deal with disease and disability. Not exactly cheery reading.

All those proscriptions make us nervous and uncomfortable. Many of them are very culturally specific, applicable to a people and a place that are not relevant to us. But the passage the lectionary gives us today is different. Right in the middle of Leviticus there is this amazing section where God speaks to the people about their fundamental identity and gives them what is perhaps the most radical commandment in all of scripture. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This brief statement is the heart of God’s law. All the rest, as they say, is just commentary.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble thinking of God as holy. To me this notion of holiness means perfection, complete goodness, steadfast love. It also embodies the concept of otherness: that which is holy is somehow set apart, separated from corruption and the taint of the secular.

I have no problem seeing God like that. But it is much harder to think of humanity that way. I suspect that was true of the ancient Israelites as much as it is for us because God gave them very specific examples of God’s own holiness as it might translate into their everyday lives.

Let’s consider those examples for a moment.

Do not reap to the very edges of your field. It was an ancient practice to allow the poor to come behind the harvesters and glean any part of the crop that might have been missed. Of course then as now, it was in the best interest of the farmer to send as much product as possible to market, to do as well as one possibly could for one’s own self. But holiness, God’s holiness, has an element of profound unselfishness. God does not require the people to give away everything but God does require them to be generous with others, to provide for them the accidental leavings of the crop and more. Holiness, then, is an intentional regard for the poor.

Another part of God’s holiness is being truthful and trustworthy – not stealing, lying, practicing crooked dealings, or swearing falsely – that is, being careless about the way one pledges allegiance to God.

Also here: not defrauding another, or withholding what is due; not making fun of those with handicaps; being fair and just to everyone, treating rich and poor alike; not profiting from another’s misfortune; not hating anyone who is kin to you – and you know, we are all brothers and sisters.

And finally, summing it all up, this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Sounds a lot like what Jesus said, doesn’t it? And that should not be surprising. God’s holiness is embodied, incarnate in Jesus Christ. And like the holiness code of Leviticus, Jesus’ teachings include specific examples of how the people are to live.

But I have to say when I listen to these instructions from Leviticus and from the Sermon on the Mount, it almost seems to me that being holy is the opposite of being human. It may be holy to turn the other cheek, give away your coat, go the second mile, give to everyone who would beg or borrow from you, and love your enemies; but that doesn’t seem like human nature to me.

These actions that Jesus calls us to take have been termed the third way. You see, we tend to look at things as either/or, a kind of “my way or the highway” approach. It is flight or fight: We can engage with injustice and oppression and evil or we can walk away. But Jesus says there is a third way, the way of nonviolent direct action. The biblical scholar, Walter Wink (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press, Minneapolis; pp 175 ff.) explains these commands of Jesus like this: To those who have been humiliated and attacked, slapped around, turning the other cheek robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate, he says. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieved its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.”

In practical terms, it works like this. If I am going to slap someone I consider my inferior, I will give him the back of my hand – right hand to right cheek. But if that persons then turns the left cheek for me to slap, I can’t do it with my right hand, unless I make a fist or strike with my open palm – both methods which signal a fight between equals. The oppressor is now confronted with an impossible dilemma. He can no longer humiliate. If he would strike again, it must be in a way that signals a fair fight. And in a fair fight, he might lose. He is no longer in control.

It is the same with giving one’s cloak in addition to the coat. In Greek, the word for coat means an outer garment, while the word for cloak implies an undergarment. What Jesus is saying is take it all off. If someone wants to sue that pants off of you, help them. March out of debtor’s court in your birthday suit. This would have been a terrible situation for the creditor, much more than for the bare-bottomed debtor, since looking on the nakedness of another was a violation of the law. It was a much greater humiliation for the one of saw the nakedness, than for the one who was naked.

Similarly, while common practice allowed a Roman soldier to force a citizen to carry his heavy pack for one mile, to go beyond that might create grounds for a rebuke of the soldier from his commanding officer, or even a fine to be paid. So if someone refused to give up the pack after a mile and kept going, it shifted the balance of power. Now the oppressed are in control; now the Roman solider is at the mercy of the one he sought to oppress.

Jesus teaches us how to upset the powers that be by peaceful and creative means. It is not just flight or fight. There is a third way of resistance that restores humanity, equality, dignity. This is what it means to be holy, as God is holy. It is a leveling of humanity – raising up the lowly and taking the powerful down a notch or two. When we are able to do this, then we fulfill Jesus’ commandment to be perfect.

Now if being holy is a daunting task, how do you feel about being perfect? It might help to think about what the word means in the original Greek. It has a sense of being complete. I think about this call for us to be perfect as God’s call to us to live as God intends, to be wholly and completely who God means us to be, in other words, to be holy.

This is not an impossibility. We can do this because we are made in the image of God. In other words, as God is holy, so are we. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And just think about what would happen, if we lived as though we really were the image of God in the world – which, of course we are. There would be no barriers between people; the alien and the outsider would be welcomed as one of us; the poor would have enough to eat; we would seek to understand and embrace our enemies rather than vilifying them; our generosity would ensure that everyone had enough; no one would be humiliated or oppressed.

That is our calling. That is what God in Christ commands of us. It is not easy. Except it might be a littler easier here in an urban church. Your place in the world gives you a perspective on poverty and injustice that all-too-many other Christians don’t see. You have ready-made opportunities to be holy, godly people, living Christ-like lives, opportunities literally right on your doorstep. You are already practicing some of this. You don’t reap to the edge of your field; you don’t keep the wealth of this church all for yourselves. You engage in ministries of social justice. You welcome the stranger. You stand with the poor and oppressed.

The problems of our world are difficult and often seem intractable. But remember, dear friends, that nothing shall be impossible with God. It is not either/or, it is not fight or flight – not in engaging the world, or even in deciding your future as a congregation. There is always a third way, a holy way.

And you are holy people, made in the image of God and called to reflect God in the world. May it be so now and always.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

February 4, 2011


One of my neighbors has stuck a pole with a white flag on it in the snow bank in front of his house. That pile of snow must be at least eight feet high. We live in a frozen, lunar-like landscape. Cars creep out of driveways and intersections, unable to see what might be coming. Pedestrians walk with tiny, mincing steps over icy paths. The wind blows through the trees and makes a brittle, tinkling sound as it rustles ice-coated branches and twigs. Buildings are falling in from the weight of the snow and ice. We have never had winter like this. Schedules are disrupted, school vacation is cancelled, it is cold all the time. We are all ready to surrender. But I remember that I planted garlic in the fall, and it is waiting somewhere under all the snow to sprout. The daffodil and tulip bulbs are there, too. And the chipmunks, in hiding now, but resting up to wreak havoc on the lawn and eat the bird seed and burrow under the walkway. Everything green is on hold, but it is there nonetheless. W just have to have faith: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Meanwhile, more snow is forecast for tomorrow…..

January 23, 2011

Another kind of jet lag

There is a form of jet lag that does not involve time zones. It is what happens when you hurl yourself from one climate to another. Your watch stays the same but everything else is out of sync. I got on a plane in the middle of winter. The snow was piled up higher than my head in places. Everything was a brittle and blinding white. A few hours later, I stepped into summer. The air was warm, and I was surrounded by green -- soft, lush green. Instead of bare brown limbs, there were palm trees overhead, and flowers blooming, orchids being sold by the side of the road, fountains playing like music. It was as much a shock to my system as crossing into another time zone. And in a way it was just that: crossing from one season to another. So I have let my frozen bones soak up the warm. When I step off the plane, it will be maybe almost 20 degrees, and there will be no palm trees….

January 18, 2011

The Safe Way

What a tragic irony that the terrible shootings in Arizona occurred at a place named the Safeway. It makes me wonder where the safe way is for any of us. When a routine trip to the grocery store or an interest in meeting a congressperson turns deadly, we have all lost our way. I don’t know if the political rhetoric or the images of cross hairs contributed to what happened, but I do know that unbalanced individuals cannot process meaning and intent in the same way as others. And as others have noted, the two things that could have prevented this horror – strong mental health referral and treatment, and reasonable gun laws – are unlikely actions in our America today. In the midst of the weeping, where is the will?

January 15, 2011

Praying in the Produce Aisle

Grocery shopping can be a chore: something on the weekly to-do list, necessary but not especially rewarding or exciting. I suspect it is safe to say that most folks don’t approach this task as an occasion for prayer -- but perhaps we should.

The next time you are in the produce aisle, take some time to reflect on the bounty before you. Even a regular grocery store will have at least six varieties of apples, maybe eight different lettuces, five kinds of tomatoes. Kale comes in two or three forms, each one colorful and interesting; there are red, yellow, orange, and green sweet peppers, and small fiery chiles. For relatively small amounts of money, we can have the fruits of someone else's labor in unimaginable array.

When I am in a hurry, tired, stressed, it is easy to miss the extraordinary beauty and abundance in this ordinary place. But instead of mentally griping about the high prices or the hassle, I am trying instead to engage my shopping chores with a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving. I am trying to be mindful of the care and provision that God makes for all creation, understanding that as pure grace, and rejoicing.

And I am also reminding myself of those unable to partake of the bounty because they are poor, disabled, ill; because there is no real grocery story in their neighborhood; because they have to ride a bus to shop. I am reminding myself to offer prayers prayers of intercession on behalf of the hungry in my own area and then concentrating on putting those intercessions into action.

And finally, I think that produce aisle might also be a call to repentance. There is enough food in the world so no one has to go hungry and yet people are still starving to death. The problem is not lack of food, but lack of will. Might we repent of our self-focus and turn our skill and ability to repairing the structures that keep the hungry from being fed?

Physicist Brian Swimme writes about the creation of the universe as “a titanic bestowal, a stupendous quantum of free energy given forth from the bottomless vaults of generosity.” All that gift is played out in microcosm right there in the midst of the squash and the celery and the peppers. Let us pray that we may be part of realizing that overflowing abundance.

January 12, 2011

Sunday of the Baptism of Christ

“Water, Wind, and Fire”

Psalm 29

Matthew 3:1-17

Baptism is always a special occasion in the church. Some churches prepare those who are being baptized all through Lent and then the baptism itself takes place as soon as Easter morning arrives. Some churches gather on a beach or at a river. Some pour the water into ancient stone fonts where generations of the faithful have been baptized. In churches that baptize infants, as we do, the baptism of a little one is an especially tender moment - usually.

I remember a baptism in a church I attended years ago of a little girl, maybe two years old. She was truly a child of the church – both her parents were elders; her grandfather was a retired minister; she had been in worship almost since the day she was born. Her baptism was a special day for everyone there. She was in a new dress, hair brushed, looking like an angel sitting with mom and dad in the pew. But when it was time for them to gather at the font, she refused to budge. No amount of coaxing could get her out of her seat. In the face of her loud protests - NO, NO – the minister finally cupped the water in her hands and carried it to the little girl in the pew, letting it drip down on that shining hair as she said the ancient words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

We all knew the little girl and knew that she was a head-strong two year old, but I have wondered since then if she had a more primal understanding of what was about to happen than perhaps the rest of us. After all, the traditional baptismal liturgy speaks of our being baptized into the death of Jesus Christ. It reminds us of God almost giving up on humankind and destroying our evil in the waters of the flood. Baptism embraces the suffering of Jesus on the cross when his side was pierced and water and blood flowed out. In baptism we are buried with Christ in his death.

Baptism is rejecting sin, renouncing evil, and repenting of our old ways. It is not sweetness and lace and antique christening gowns but an altogether different and potentially terrifying experience –terrifying because it involves the complete destruction of an old way of life.

This is what John meant when he began to baptize with a call for repentance. We often think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, a kind of holy regret. That is certainly part of it, but the real meaning is much more expansive. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia and its literal meaning is to turn around, to do an about face. It means to change your mind, not just in the sense of making a different decision but also in the sense of changing the way you think, the way you live, who you are.

Baptism calls us out of our comfortable place, and it seems to me and perfectly normal reaction to want to stay put, to say NO, NO. That’s human nature, isn’t it? Change is hard. It is hard, and it is painful, because it always involves some form of destruction.

That is probably why we often prefer the status quo, even if we don’t necessarily like the way things are. You know the old saying: better the devil you know than the one you don’t know. But the truth of the matter is that it is often the devil we know instead of the God we are afraid to know.

And into our unknowing, God’s voice enters, clearing the space for something new to happen. This voice of God, as the psalmist wrote, is powerful and majestic, flashing with fire, shaking the wilderness, stripping the forest bare, thundering over mighty waters.

The record of scripture bears witness to the power of God’s voice. Think of the watery chaos at the beginning of time when God’s voice brought life and order out of wild nothingness. And then God’s voice came again, in 40 days of rain and a great flood that destroyed evil from the face of the earth. The Israelites stood on the banks of the sea and watched their Egyptian enemies destroyed and understood themselves transformed from slaves into God’s chosen ones. And Jesus came to the Jordan and God’s voice thundered over the waters again, changing everything.

That same voice, that same God, also speaks to us, with power and might and glory, entering the wilderness of our own lives like a whirlwind, uprooting and shattering all the evil that has taken hold. In the waters of baptism, through the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, we are created anew, changed, transformed into God’s chosen people, God’s own beloved.

This is the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace but it is not a cheap grace. Perhaps the poet/preacher John Donne captured some of the nature of God’s costly grace when he wrote these words:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you as yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;

that I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend your force to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

God transforms our lives with a love as powerful as water, wind and fire. That transformation is not always easy. But in the midst of the destruction of the old, the breaking, blowing and burning that clear a space for God’s newness, it is important to claim God’s presence with us and for us, not against us.

It is a tragic truth that every day someone somewhere in the world will suffer from a terrible disaster -- flood, fire, tornado. Sometimes we speak of these as “acts of God” but I think it is more accurate to call them acts of nature. I do not believe that God punishes people by sending tragedies like the floods in Pakistan, hurricane Katrina, fires in California, or the December tornadoes in Missouri. But I do believe that God is at work in those terrible situations in ways we cannot fathom. I have been struck time and time again by television interviews of people standing in the midst of the destruction of everything they have known – houses burnt down, flooded out or blown apart, neighborhoods and livelihoods destroyed, surrounded by damage and injury and loss. And over and over again, they all say the same kind of thing: “We have lost all our stuff but we still have each other. And that is all that matters.” It is as though the destruction around them has given them a new sense of priorities, has shown them what is truly important.

I do not want to minimize or trivialize the awful suffering that accompanies disaster and loss. But it may be that this is a powerful metaphor for how God works in our day-to-day lives – destroying those accumulations that distract us from what is really important, destroying those things that keep us from seeing love.

This is not easy. Change never is. But here is another thing to remember about how God works. God is always with us, no matter what. God has claimed us as God’s own children. We are God’s beloved.

And God’s word to us, God’s voice, coming through the prophet Isaiah, is still trustworthy and true:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God…. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-3a, 4a)

In the chaos of our lives, in the wilderness of our souls, in the midst of destruction and despair and desperation, God is with us. Through the water, wind and fire of baptism, God’s voice descends on us like a blessing, and everything is changed. Nothing will ever be the same, except God’s eternal love.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith