Posts

Christmas 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Every sermon I’ve written since 2005 is on the computer through which I’m speaking to you now. Yet there was no sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas—until now. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was embarrassing my kids on the dance floor at the YMCA of the Rockies. I couldn’t have imagined all the changes this year would bring, including the undoing of holiday traditions for my family.

My sister forwarded a list circulating on the internet of twelve things to ponder for the New Year. Number one flatly states, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.” Number five, “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came home & told my dog. We laughed a lot.” I could relate to that one.

Perhaps it is always true. None of us can predict the future, but it feels more-true now. In the wake of an unpredictable year, on this, the 10th Day of Christmas, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised any more by surprises, our scriptures bring us Sophia, the power of God in the form of Woman-Wisdom who, scriptures say dwells in all creation.

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet she sings out from the appointed readings for today. At the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is identified with the Woman-Wisdom of Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. According to Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate.” It is a transgender moment in God’s story. The Wisdom of God took on flesh and became the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet the Wisdom of Solomon retells the story of the Exodus as Sophia’s doing. She is the one who delivered God’s people from a nation of oppressors (10:15). She sheltered them with a cloud and guided them with a pillar of fire. The exodus from slavery was the work of Sophia, who led the people through the sea and into freedom. In Ephesians 1, Jesus incarnates Sophia’s liberation in the church: Christ is our “redemption,” our deliverance in his/her sharing with us of “wisdom” (verses 7-8). Christ is the Sophia of God, calling us into her work of liberation.

The book of Sirach, which is one of the optional readings appointed for today, instructs us that Woman-Wisdom is like the mist, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, the pillars of the sky. She rides the waves of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
Woman-Wisdom featured prominently in the writings of the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century. They lived in a time of even greater uncertainty and upheaval than our own. They fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. They cared less about Christian doctrine and more about living the mystery of the Christian life. (A Coptic monastery from that period North of Cairo, Egypt is one of the memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. (photo)

You might consider choosing from among their wisdom “sayings,” as you think about New Year resolutions this week. I find them interesting and amusing: “Never stop starting over,” (Arsenios, 5th century). “Live intentionally, not aimlessly,” (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). “Pray simply, not stupidly,” Abba Macarius. “Stay put,” Mother Syncletica (4th century). “Acknowledge my brokenness,” (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). “Be ruthlessly realistic,” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). “Read the obituaries,” “At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life” (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century). (“My New Year’s Resolutions” (From the Fourth Century) Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/27/20)

Poet Kathleen Norris found a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics: Like them, Norris “made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste;” her “idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change.”

Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, “my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance…writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.” The great gift of Sophia is the discovery that the place we are standing now is holy ground.

Years ago, a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist,” made the top-seller lists. In it a recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young shepherd living in Spain. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. In the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. We follow Santiago through a lifetime of adventure, stops and starts, diversions, and mysterious coincidences, until finally he arrives at a certain Coptic monastery in Northern Egypt, and finally at the foot of the Pyramids. There, he doesn’t find any treasure, instead, he is beaten up by thieves who try to rob him. They let Santiago go after they realize he doesn’t have anything of value. To prove to him what a fool he is one of the thieves tells Santiago about his own worthless of dreams of treasure buried in an abandoned church in Spain where a sycamore tree grows—the very same church where Santiago’s journey began. He returns to Spain to find a chest of jewels and gold buried under the tree and returns with it to build a home in a place called Al-Fayoum, where he reunites with Fatima, whom he loved and who awaits him.

As we embark together on a new year, Sophia reminds us the fullness of the presence of God dwells with us and walks with us starting in the all-too-familiar, loneliness, and uncertainty of our pandemic lives. Like Santiago, we find the treasure of God’s wisdom buried here in the place that we are, hidden within the current moment. Yet, perhaps, it is not in the possession of wisdom but in its pursuit that we find the adventure of our lives, acquire new skills, discover hidden talents, meet new people, and finally find ourselves at home. The Woman-Wisdom of God is revealed as we commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s dream living our faith. All things are united in Christ, things in heaven and things on Earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Heaven and earth are united here in our frail bodies to be the body of Christ for the world. In all that is to come, and in whatever is to be. God with us – comes to be born again in us and through us, and Sophia joyfully claps her hands.

The credits roll.  The music plays.  Lights come up in the theater. Yet people linger in their seats.  They stay for the outtakes—scenes not included in the movie. Sometimes stories include an epilogue that reveals what ultimately happens to the principle characters.  We learn Oskar Schindler died bankrupt and penniless in Germany.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins leave their beloved Hobbitsville and travel with the Elves.

Likewise, when we catch up with the disciples on Sunday, we already know how the story ends.  “The strife is o’er, the battle is done” (ELW #366). The twenty-first chapter of John is an epilogue. The disciples are on holiday back home. One story is at an end and another is just beginning.

But Peter isn’t sure he has a role in the new chapter Jesus is writing. That’s because he screwed up. He is painfully aware how he squandered all the hope and confidence Jesus’ had placed upon him. Peter can’t imagine Jesus would have any more use for him now.

He was supposed to be the Rock. Peter the “fisher of men.” It was Peter who was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus was the Son of God. It was Peter’s mother-in-law whom Jesus had healed. It was Peter who walked beside him on the sea. Peter who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Peter who promised to stay at Jesus’s side even if he be killed. Yet is was this Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire when Jesus was arrested. Peter’s betrayal marked him as unworthy. ‘No. No, I am not the man! I swear, I don’t even know him.’ (John 18:17-27)

Do you know what that kind of failure feels like? Failure is where our dreams go to die. We withdraw. We don’t return eye-contact. We are weighed down with heaviness and dread. We tend to find comfort in familiar patterns and old routines. Peter went fishing

“Peace be with you,” Jesus had said in Jerusalem (John 20:26) He offered Peter and the disciples the gift of his continuing and abiding spirit. Now Jesus continues his healing, reconciling work beside the seashore. This time his strategy is simple. He said to them “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12) He prepared a meal for them beside the Sea.

Notice “In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his. Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends. He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas. He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples. He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 4/28/19)

Jesus asks Peter three times.  Once for each time Peter had denied him.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (21:15) These questions open Peter to the future. Despite his failure, Jesus again entrusts Peter with the ongoing work of the Church. “He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”  (Debie Thomas)

The early church drew inspiration from the memory of Peter’s biggest failure as an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem our past and renew our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. If God could do that for Peter, God can do it for all of us!” In the intimacy of loving words, Jesus calls Peter beyond his personal relationship with Jesus to lovingly embrace all of Jesus’ followers.

St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century, wrote that Peter and Paul became “successful failures.” They experienced the liberating truth that “the person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone, for they know that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of us who is trying to make progress.”

Through simple acts of care in Jesus’ name, the disciples would spark a revolution that spread around the world and persists from that moment till today. They started down a path that would lead to the flourishing of millions and to their premature death. This is because Jesus’ potluck breakfast was for them and for all, for everyone who has failed in life, for those cast out by their families, those without a name, for the immigrant, the widow, the imprisoned, and the poor.

In this radical hospitality and love we find oneness with God and one-another.  It’s a simple plan we inevitably make too complicated. Will you, can you feed Jesus’ sheep? Will you lay aside your own fear of awkwardness and failure to say hello to someone you don’t know? Even perhaps, to invite them for coffee? Will you take from what you have to share with others? Will you take a stand with the afflicted? Can you invite and shepherd others into fellowship with God and all people here in this congregation? Feed my sheep. In so doing, we will feed ourselves.

Today we learn Jesus remains involved in the work and life of the church. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, he is still a force to be reckoned with. Jesus is not dead but alive. Jesus has ascended but remains eternally present in Spirit.  We may continue to see Jesus in our midst through the eyes of faith.

Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful little book that she calls, The Quotidian Mysteries, in which she describes the ways she often encounters God while doing simple everyday tasks like laundry or cleaning the dishes. We encounter Christ while gathered around the table for a simple meal. There, we are surprised to see him in each other.  We encounter the Living God at the bath. There, we are overjoyed to find God alive and working deep within ourselves.