My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.

He 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.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Wild, Dangerous, and Full of Grace

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on December 10, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8.

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, some friends of mine had a dinner party. They invited some people over, there was soup and sandwiches and drinks and conversation. My wife, Mariah, didn’t want to go — it was Saturday night and she had to preach the next morning — so I went on my own.

When I got home, I discovered that Mariah had put up the Christmas decorations. Our wreath was on the front door. Our little Christmas tree was in the window. Our nativity sets were out: a stately one on the mantle, a little rustic Peruvian one on an end table, and a duck nativity on some shelves.

And as I was reflecting on the readings for this morning, my mind kept wandering back to those nativity sets.

You see, Christmas is all about the nativity. In just a couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing a story about a manger and some shepherds, a man and an angel, a woman and her child.

And Advent anticipates that nativity. In some homes, people put up their nativity set week by week and Sunday by Sunday. First, an empty manger. A week after that, the shepherds. A week after that, the angels. A week after that, Mary and Joseph. And then, finally, on Christmas day, the Christ child.

And, if they want the wise men, they wait a couple of weeks. Those wise men have to travel a long way.

This morning, though, we’re in the gospel according to Mark. And Mark doesn’t give us a nativity scene. There are no shepherd here, no angels, no manger. There’s no room at the inn because there’s no inn, no census, no journey to Bethlehem. There’s no Joseph, no Mary, and no child.

Instead, Mark starts in what feels like the middle of the story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

It’s a strange scene, and it’s worth some context.

Israel is ruled by a foreign nation. In that nation, the emperor is worshipped as a god. But the tradition of that nation is that ancient religions are allowed to keep going. So, as long as the people of Israel aren’t too much trouble, they can keep worshipping God and going to the temple, and observing their customs.

But things are tense. Outright war is a few decades off, but war is on the horizon. There are people who want to work with this foreign empire.. There are people who want to fight it.

And then there’s this man, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey, living in the wilderness, crying out.

It doesn’t fit in with the nativity set. Not the stately one on the mantle, or the rustic Peruvian one on the end table, or even the duck set on the shelves. John is not stately or rustic… or a duck. John is wild and dangerous and full of grace.
There are no shepherds here, no angels, no manger. There’s no room at the inn because there’s no inn, no census, no journey to Bethlehem. There’s no Joseph, no Mary, and no child. Instead, there’s a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

But that’s not all.

This is the second Sunday of Advent. And on the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate — we anticipate — peace.

Now, it is tempting to celebrate and anticipate the peace of the nativity set, of the shepherd and angels, of Joseph and Mary, of the baby Jesus, meek and mild, swaddled in a manger. And nativity sets have a peace about them. The stately figures on the mantle don’t quarrel. The little rustic Peruvian figures on the end table don’t fight. The ducks don’t march to war. But of course there’s peace there… none of them are people, none of them are caught up in this messy thing called life.

But here’s the thing: peace is not just the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice.

When Mark opens his gospel, he knows what he’s going when he quotes the prophet Isaiah.

Today’s reading seem Isaiah opens with the hope of peace: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
Then there is the part that Mark quotes, “A voice cries out… ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

And then Isaiah continues: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah longs for peace. Mark longs for peace. I long for peace.

But the peace we long for isn’t a nativity set peace. It isn’t a meek and mild peace. It is a peace where valleys are lifted and mountains made low, where uneven ground is made level and rough places a plain. It is a peace where the glory of the Lord shines through.

It is a peace that — in a world that is constantly investing in the machinery of injustice and destruction and death — is a revolutionary act. It is the peace that comes from being baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is a peace that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

And so here we are, on the second Sunday of Advent, celebrating and anticipating and waiting in hope for peace to come. But that is not enough.

Advent is a time of preparation. It is a season when we remember that God came into the world. It is a season when we renew ourselves as the body of Christ. It is a season when we prepare ourselves again to be poor in spirit; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be makers of peace.

Because peace is not something that we can wait for. Justice is not something that we can wait for. The Kingdom of God is not something that we can wait for.

It is something that we must make. It is hard work that we must do. It is the people and the community that we must strive to be.

Mark starts in what feels like the middle of the story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

And we know — we know from what came earlier in the story and we know from what will come later — that baptism is not a safe choice. We know that being the church is not a safe choice. We know that following Christ is not a safe choice.

It means standing up for people who are being pushed down. It means giving our voices to people who are silenced. I means feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger and caring for the imprisoned.

It means being a a voice in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

It means taking the risk of being transformed.

This Advent season and every Advent season, John calls to us, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey. This Advent season and every advent season, Isaiah calls to us, exhorting us to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. This Advent and every day, Christ calls us to be his disciples, to be his kingdom, to be a people who are full of hope and peace and joy and love.

In a little while, you’re going to something special and risky: you’re going to vote on whether to call a new pastor. I pray that the search committee and the Holy Spirit will guide you. I trust that the decision you make — whatever it is — will be the right one for this community.

And, if I can take a moment of pastoral privilege, I will say this:

In my house right now there are three nativity sets: a stately one on the mantle, a little rustic Peruvian one on an end table, and a duck nativity on some shelves. And I like those nativities. They are quiet and serene and have their own kind of peace.

But I know that the church is not a nativity set. We do not not stand still. We do not stay in our places. We are not quiet and serene. We move forward.

And on this day… every day… God calls us forward into a life that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

Or, to put that another way, God calls us into abundant life. Amen.

People I Listen To: The Uncertain Hour

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is The Uncertain Hour.

One of my favorite newish podcasts is The Uncertain Hour, from the same people who bring us Marketplace. Each season of this podcast tackles one issue, allowing host Krissy Clark to take a deep dive into things like welfare reform (season one) and regulation (season two). The first season, for example, was an excellent primer on welfare form, thematically tied together by a single weird album focused on welfare-to-work. I highly recommend it if you want to learn the backstories behind some pressing current events.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Pragmatic Progressivism

It’s no secret that I’m on the political left. It’s no secret that, as much as there’s a left-right divide in the church, I’m on the theological and ecclesiological left. I support things like a robust welfare state, universal healthcare, a universal basic income, an emphasis on diplomacy, and a host of other progressive causes. More than that, I support a charitable society; I hope for a world where there is not a needy person among us, because we share freely with each other as there is need.1Acts 4:32-37

I also recognize that, given the current political climate and the broader culture of the United States — let alone the world — many of these things are unlikely to happen without direct divine intervention. We live in an imperfect world. While I can hope — and work — for the Kingdom of God, I know that the most I will accomplish in my lifetime will fall far short of that.

Which bring me to the point I made in this post: there is eschatological hope and there is immanent hope. My eschatological hope is for the Kingdom of God. My immanent hope is for more immediately attainable things, like winning elections.

That is to say: I am a pragmatic progressive. I am interest is furthering our movement towards a world of greater justice and mercy, and I recognize that doing so may mean accepting imperfect incremental improvements. That doesn’t mean that I abandon my eschatological hope. It simply means that I don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Listen To: Preet Bharara

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s person I listen to is Preet Bharara.

Preet Bharara is the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Near the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the administration asked for resignation letters from all 46 U.S. Attorneys who were still serving at the time. Bharara refused to resign and was fired. He is well-known for his anti-corruption stances  work and for being largely apolitical and fair-minded.

Stay Tuned with Preet is a podcast about justice and fairness, featuring Bharara talking with figures like John Miller, Bill Browder, and Jeff Flake about issues ranging from civil rights to the Russia investigation and beyond.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Addie Zierman: The Inadequate Gifts That Change the World

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

Hope… Eschatological and Immanent

While working on another project, I’ve been thinking about hope. And part of what I’ve been thinking about is the difference between eschatological hope and immanent hope. Those are big words, but they matter.

Eschatology is the branch of theology that asks questions about death, judgement, and the ultimate destiny of creation. Eschatological hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom will be realized: that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Immanence is the reality of the divine that we see here and now. Immanent hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom is already in the world among us. It is the hope that we can make the world a better place now, even in the face of the world-as-it-is.

And this matters because it’s easy to think that, because we can’t make everything perfect now, it isn’t worth doing anything at all. We can — to use a phrase that I remember showing up a lot in the original discussions of the Affordable Care Act — let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’m going to talk more about this in another context — yes, I’m writing this post so that I can write another one — but I wanted to put this concept out there. As a Christian, I always have an eschatological hope: I always hope that the world will ultimately be the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be. As a person, I also have immanent hope: I can make the world a better place today. And I’m not going to let the fact that I hope that God will ultimately make the world what it should be keep me from doing my part now.

Or, as the quote often clumsily misattributed to ‘the Talmud’ puts it:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

This Is How Development Works

A while ago, I was on the phone with a member of my Board of Directors. We were talking about plans for a trip to visit his congregation, but at the end of the call he brought up another subject: that congregation had recently finished a capital campaign, it had some money left over, and was going to send a significant amount to my organization.

And I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Here’s why.

On the one hand, I didn’t do anything to get that gift. I didn’t solicit it. I didn’t even know that the congregation was doing a capital campaign, let alone that it had exceeded its goal. It isn’t a gift that I would brag about bringing it.

On the other hand, I — and people who came before me — did everything to get that gift. Through years of visits, volunteer opportunities, newsletters, appeals, and other relationship-building, I created the climate that led that congregation to think about my organization when it had extra money. It was good cultivation and stewardship that led to that gift. And I was critical to making sure that happened.

It can be hard to remember that this is how development works. This is what makes development different from fundraising.

Fundraising is transactional. If I were a mere fundraiser, I would have had to ask for that gift. I would have to ask for every gift. I would be constantly chasing those next few dollars. I would be starting over new with every donor every time.

But I am not a fundraiser. I am a development professional. And development is the slow, steady nurturing of relationships to the point that donors are ready to give on their own. And while I still have to ask and remind, I’m never chasing dollars; I’m helping donors do what they already want to do.

And, sometimes, that means I get a nice surprise: all the work I’ve been doing pays off without even asking.

People I Listen To: Pretty Much Everyone at Crooked Media

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s person I listen to is pretty much everyone at Crooked Media.

Crooked Media is a podcasting network founded by three Obama administration staffers: Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. It features podcasts by those founders, plus others with media personalities like Ana Marie Cox and activists like DeRay McKesson. Every one of their podcasts is excellent, bringing deep conversations, serious analysis, and humor together in “a no-bullshit conversation about politics and culture where you can laugh, cry, scream, ridicule us daily, share your ideas, and hopefully decide that you want to help fix this mess too.”

Here’s the list of Crooked Media podcasts (current as of the time I’m writing this):

Crooked Conversations

Lovett Or Leave It

Pod Save America

Pod Save the People

Pod Save the World

With Friends Like These

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Economic and Political Empowerment

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this link to a story at the Washington Post. Here’s the gist. A lot of international organizations focus on women’s empowerment. But a lot of those organizations think of empowerment in terms of the ability to make a livelihood. They give women chicken or goats, or microloans to start a small shop in their home, or a sewing machine. Now empowering women is good, but the ability to make a living is good. But women aren’t suffering just because they can’t make money. Women are suffering because they don’t have political power. And organizations tend not to focus on that.

So women end up receiving financial or material help that doesn’t lead to longterm economic gains. And women still end up being denied the political power that they could use to change the systems that are keeping them — and their communities — in the ways that would lead to longterm economic and social improvement.

As the article puts it:

This narrow definition ignores something important: Women suffer not just because they don’t have a form of income. Women are part of a system that fundamentally doesn’t favor them, that makes it hard for them to obtain and stay in power. To change that, the report says, these women need political power. As one of the report’s co-authors, Rafia Zakaria, wrote in the New York Times: “Without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable.”

Many of us in the West — especially, maybe, charity skeptics — tend to have a narrow view of empowerment that is focused on providing people with the tools to find economic livelihoods. Job training, soft-skills education, and other employment programs become the beginning and end of empowerment. Often, that means taking on work that serves the interests of the relatively wealthy more than it does those of people experiencing poverty.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work on economic empowerment. But any economic empowerment project needs to be paired with political empowerment projects. People living in poverty need to have a substantial voice in the issues that affect them, from minimum wages and universal basic incomes to health care and criminal justice reform. Economic empowerment by itself can only help people survive in the system as it is; political empowerment can change the system so that it is more egalitarian and more likely to actually benefit people experiencing poverty.