Advent 2: It Was Never Easy Being Johnny – Matthew 3:1-12

The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.

The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.

It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?

Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.

What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.   

Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.

John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.

–Richard Bryant

Putting On Your Loudest Christmas Sweater – A Reflection on Romans 13:11-14

Underlying The Season of Advent is one central idea expressed in three ways:

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God’s Love for Humanity

1. The gulf between God and humanity is slightly more comprehensible than ever before in human history. Instead of:

GOD IN THE DISTANCE.

GOD ON A MOUNTAINTOP.

GOD HEARD IN THE ANGER OF THUNDER.

GOD IS HIDDEN AMONG CLOUDS.

We may interact with God directly as we interact with one another. Speak with God as you would speak to a loving parent or friend.

The gulf between humanity and God is permanently bridged. God is present and embodied incarnate in a family and the larger human community.

2. We love each other as we love ourselves. This is our framework for living and relating to other people. It’s how we fine-tune our corner of the universe every day. This is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to see why Jesus distilled 613 commandments into this single idea because it is full-time work.

If we can master this idea, our ability to love more, fight less, make peace, mend the broken fabric of society, feed hungry people, and be as Christlike as possible becomes easier. We have a chance at a kind of love we’ve never had before, making the prophetic ideal a reality.

3. We layer these habits and practices into our lives, one on top of another. (Think of putting on a loud, ugly, colorful Christmas sweater and then another on top of that and then another on top of that one.)

Paul calls this putting on “the armor of light” or putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

If we can put meat on the bone of commandment one by being in a community/relationship, incarnational living with Jesus (internalizing this moral vision), then loving God and loving each other is the natural byproduct.  If we put on and internalize outlandish love (spiritually), we will give away Christ’s love extravagantly (spiritually and physically).

Once you’ve put this one on, it’s never seasonal or out of style. You do not need to take it off. It becomes part of who you are – people see the Jesus in you if it’s on you, like a loud Christmas sweater, a Santa tie, or bright red shoes. It’s who you are all year long.

–Richard Bryant

Advent, Proust, and the Search for Lost Time

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Advent is a season of preparation, but it is also about time. We live in what Samuel Beckett called “the Proustian equation…that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation-Time.”** Time is at the heart of the Advent argument. There is not enough of it to go around. What time exists is perpetually eroded by commercialism, secularism, and commitments that pull people away from the church. Instead of preparing for the unexpected and jarring arrival of an infant who redefines the meaning of time itself, we, like Proust, go searching for lost time. We find none.

Where has the time gone? We’ve given it away and done so freely. The world isn’t taking it away. It’s always easier to blame others but we are our greatest foe. We set our schedules and make priorities. The competition between the sacred and the secular is something we create and impose on ourselves. There is only one time, one moment, and it is this season of preparation. Advent remains, in perpetual time, waiting for us to return and to prepare our hearts for this all-important moment in human history.  If we step outside this moment, Advent isn’t diminished, the church isn’t devalued, and Christmas hasn’t lost its meaning. No, we’re allowing sacred time to be determined solely in a chronological, linear fashion. We cannot talk about eternity, the cosmos, and the incarnation in this way. God is beyond time. Advent is about going off the clock and saying no to a world that measures reality in winners, losers, minutes, seconds, hours, and days. Do you want a more meaningful Advent and Christmas? Change how you think about your time.

–Richard Bryant

**Samuel Becket, Proust, Grove Press, 1957.

According to God’s Good Purpose (A Covid/Lectionary Reflection) Romans 8

Romans 8:28 is a verse we know exceptionally well. We quote it, share it, and read it in special services. It’s seen a great deal of use during this time of the pandemic. Here’s what it says, “We know that God works all things together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” People take and give hope with those words from Paul. However, as we look at this single verse and how it might apply to our lives (and the lives of others), I’d like to break it down to see if it’s the best scripture for a moment like this, a time of death, dying, and ventilators.

To apply this to our lives and mine the full extent of hope Paul is trying to present, we’ve got to do one thing: we have to assume no longer that everyone knows what we mean. Words like “good,” “all things,” and “God” are not the sole property of major league Christianity. When we talk about this verse, we need to realize there are other ways to understand what Paul might mean. People beyond the church have their ideas about God, God’s goodness, and morality.In some places, Paul’s Greek is a little open-ended. So it’s good for us to listen to other ways this thing might go.

Let’s go back to that first clause, everything from “we to God.” What does that half say? What is Paul trying to tell us? “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.”

At first, whether you are a believer, it sounds like God works things out (whatever those things are) just for those who love God. So it only works out if you love God? I see things working out for immoral people who don’t love God, and I witness honorable non Christians of various identities suffering horrible fates. Does God only help those who love God? Neither sounds right.

Paul, is this a pep talk or sound theology? I think it’s both. We have to read this as Paul wrote it; to be understood by the entire world. In a time before the church and denominations as we would come to know them in the post-reformation era, Paul’s first audience was Jewish converts, gentiles, and other Romans. Each brought their ideas about God, goodness, and what it meant to live in 1st-century chaos.

Paul wasn’t talking to one narrow group of believers with a limited view of God. No! He was speaking to everyone. God’s idea of resolution may not be our first plan, but God’s purpose of love is a two-way street. Why do I say this? I read Romans 8:37.   I come away convinced that God is on humanity’s side, with a fierce, unbreakable, bond of love that plays no favorites.

If we read Romans 8:28 any other way, God manages a litmus test to determine who is worthy of love, love is a vague get out jail free card, and our sufferings never reach the eschatological table where we await our seat.

Richard Bryant

Grounding Our Faith in the World Caused By This New Realty

  1. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Disease is disease.  It knows no ideology or strategy other than the mathematical reproduction of itself.
  2. Faith asks us to look beyond fault. That’s different from ignoring responsibility (personal or otherwise).  The spring breakers come to mind.
  3. We have narrow definitions of fellowship. Biblical discipleship probably included more social distancing that we like to admit.  Fellowship with God and with each other is two different things.  God is present in our absence.
  4. This is hard and may get much harder. At the present, for the most of us, the virus is an inconvenience. We need to be better at having schedules moved, life cancelled, and our world rearranged.  Are we being asked to live under pressure or live better quality lives that we might normally experience?  That’s a matter of perspective.
  5. Jokes about toilet paper scarcity are stupid.
  6. Things feel out of control.  We can’t control everything.  Stop.
  7. When, we need to be prepared for dealing with death at a distance. We’re used to bodies and death rituals. We may not have this in many cases.
  8. Life will outweigh death but the death see will be hard.
  9. Pray and talk.
  10. Listen and ponder.
  11. Take it seriously.   More seriously than schism, conferences, or anything related to the church.  There will be time for our personal chaos on down the road.  It’s life and death time.

Richard Bryant

Jesus, Social Distancing, and Health Care Mark 1:16-37

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a medical crisis in Galilee overwhelms Jesus. Everything seemed to happen at once. It was the beginning of his ministry. Imagine launching a company and all the new things that go along with opening a business. First, you have to hire staff. It can be challenging to develop job descriptions, ideas for how big the company needs to function, and then look at resumes, all before interviewing people. That’s before setting out to speak to a single person about the kingdom of God. Until this part of the plan takes hold, success depends on one person doing all the work. Every aspect of the ministry depends on Jesus and the driving force of his personality. Before he’s called the first disciple, he’s already exhausted. (We know this because he tells us.)

John baptized Jesus, and the pace of Jesus’ life and ministry went from 1st to fourth gear overnight. He saw the need for help and he called disciples to join his ministry team. Whatever thought, planning, and ideas Jesus put into calling the disciples (people like Peter, James, and John), it came down to one question: Will you follow me? Jesus can make the distinction between fishing for people and actual fishing. Still, it’s a question of following Jesus, as a rabbi (or teacher), to build a movement around the idea we now understand as the kingdom of God. That’s the question: will you follow me? The question is not: “will you discuss following me, will you consider supporting me, will you follow me for a couple of hours a week on Sunday morning, or will you follow me when you like the way the church is going? No, Jesus asks a simple question: will you follow me? Are we able to give Jesus an honest answer?

If not, why not? What’s stopping us from being honest with Jesus? Will you follow me? And that’s Jesus of the Gospel, not the Jesus of our filters. Are we ready to follow Jesus?

Once Jesus gathers followers, people who said “yes” without context and explanation, they begin the work of the kingdom of God. What’s the first thing they do? Does Jesus start preaching a message of fire and brimstone? Do these first disciples warn others of the dangers of hell? No, they do none of these things. Remember, the pace hasn’t stopped.

First, the group goes to see and observe Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit. The man is possessed. Or, as we would say in our day in time, he’s mentally ill. Wouldn’t we say that an evil spirit possesses an addict?  We all would! Jesus’ exorcism, his first action in Mark’s gospel, is an exercise in mental health treatment. Jesus is caring for the man’s soul. The sad thing about this story is we are never encouraged to see this story about health care, mental health care, and human compassion. We hear “exorcism” and think scary movies. How about we believe in Jesus making a man’s life better and whole, which is what the Bible says occurs. Jesus, the healer, is a practical healer. Jesus begins his ministry by doing two things: preaching and health care. We see it here in Mark 1. Yes, this is still jam-packed Mark 1.

The pace has not let up. All these things are occurring one right after another. It is as if Jesus is working at a pace to meet the needs of a spiritual and public health crisis. Jesus keeps going, and the action is about to pick up to an even higher intensity.

After the story of the healing of the possessed man, Mark tells us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Did you catch that? As soon as he’d healed the man, everybody wanted to come to seek medical care and be treated by Jesus. Jesus knew this would happen but it also goes the needs people had the sheer volume of people who would be coming to find Jesus in the coming hours.
How would he prepare to see them?

Where would Jesus encounter them? Would there be enough beds and disciples to listen to their needs? The one thing he wouldn’t do is ignore them or minimize their concern. They were why he was here.
After quick consideration, it seemed the best place to go was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. I can only imagine what that phone call was like. “I’m coming home with my new Rabbi Jesus and a few other friends, and there might be crowds of sick strangers gathering at the door looking for medical care.” Her house in Capernaum isn’t huge, so I’m guessing this must have been the most significant thing happening in town.

Mark, as I’ve always said, has a sense of immediacy that is lacking in the other gospels. After the man’s healing, it was, “At once.” Now, as they are on the way to Peter’s mothers-in-law, it is “as soon as.” This sense of urgency is essential. There is a near exhausting pace for all the participants involved. Mark is doing his best to convey this.

Once they arrive at the house, it is like they are in the worse Corona ward. Mark says, “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Fevers and respiratory illnesses were all around him. Mark continues, “That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases.”

All-day and night, Jesus worked to heal sick people in the most conventional way we understand medicine to this day. Given the pace, you that you realize things have been going in this chapter, how exhausted must you think he feels? Given what he’s seen and heard from his patients and neighbors, where must his mind be? I ask these questions because Mark gives us an answer. We don’t have to guess how Jesus might feel or burden ourselves with a faulty Christology.

Jesus needs a break. We might even say he’s opting for some social distancing, to recharge his body and mind. He can’t care for others if he can’t care for himself. After it all seems to be over (and we are still in Mark 1) look at what Jesus does, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus, in the midst of carrying for the sick, isolated himself. This bothered his disciple friends. Verse 36, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him (they wanted to keep Jesus on a leash). Everyone is searching for you.” Here’s the thing: Jesus knows where he is. But even Jesus needs some space to pray. Jesus’ friends get so wrapped up in the chaos and anger. Jesus sees the need. Let’s look for the human need at the heart of the kingdom of God.

Richard Bryant

The Reason for the Season (New)

Once we acknowledge Jesus as the “reason for the season,” what comes next? Can we leave such an important piece of information unattended and expect it to explain itself? No, we cannot. To make a confessional statement about the incarnation and the identity of Jesus requires multiple next steps. Once we’ve declared, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” what do we do? What’s expected of someone who accepts “Jesus is the reason for the season”?

Firstly, we are on the hook for living like we believe the statement to be true. We made a truth claim, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” (One of the most important truth claims in human history.) Do our lives reflect this reality? Are we on Christian autopilot, or are we living like Jesus frames our approach to gift-giving, encountering the poor, and helping the oppressed? In short, are we rejecting ideas antithetical to the infant’s reason for being?  It is easy to say a catchy phrase and get on with our lives?

Secondly, Jesus is not an abstract reason. Jesus is not a tool to be used in a culture war/war on Christmas argument. Jesus is the living breathing son of God, made flesh as the child of Joseph and Mary. Those who first came to Jesus were drawn to Bethlehem by scripture, relationships, angels, friends, and family. A quest for reasons didn’t lead the shepherds to Christ. They were driven by the idea of divine prophetic fulfillment, and a realization of God’s work for humanity was being accomplished in Bethlehem. To isolate Jesus as the single rhyming phrase “reason for the season” undercuts and devalues all God was hoping to achieve in and through the incarnation. If we’ll talk about Jesus as a cliche, who’s to say we won’t live like he’s one as well? I can imagine nothing worse than a cliched Jesus.

So who is Jesus? He is everything!  Jesus is more than a single reason representing the intricate beauty of God’s desire to be reconciled with humanity that was first unveiled in Bethlehem.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Word of Encouragement from Richard

Thanksgiving is a time when the word “gratitude” becomes spoken perhaps more than at any other time of year. We are asked to be grateful. Some families have traditions where they go around the table, and each member shares something for which they are thankful. Clergy persons like me encourage our flock to make gratitude a priority, not just on the fourth Thursday in November but all year round. Then someone flips the switch, and suddenly it’s Black Friday.

I remember studying Armenian in Yerevan, Armenia, during the summer of 1998. The noun for gratitude(երախտագիտություն) is one of the longest words in the Armenian language. Sure, there are 16 letters plus words here or there, but this was one we needed to know.

As language students, thousands of miles away from home, we were dependent on the hospitality of others for most of our basic needs. The ability to communicate our gratitude in word and deed was crucial to our experience. We needed to know how to say we were thankful and be understood. It was also important to show thanks in a manner that matched the length and psychological impact of such an important word. As we learned how to say “thank you,” we learned how to be “grateful” in another culture. Getting “thank you” right became as important as spelling and pronouncing “yerakhtagitut’ yun”.

Is there anything we need to learn or relearn about gratitude before we meet up with our family and friends next week?

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Some Confessions in Honor of Saint Augustine

Earlier this week, we remembered the 1665th birthday of one of the most important theologians in the Christian tradition.  Saint Augustine of Hippo, the Neoplatonic philosopher and Bishop of Hippo bridged the gap between late Roman antiquity and the early Church.  We are who we are because of Augustine helped us become.

One of St. Augustine’s early works was The Confessions.  It is a classic work of Christian theology and autobiography.  In short, he defines the genre.  The Confessions may best known for this quote, where Augustine says, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”  What a rascal!

In honor of Augustine’s birth, here are a few of my own Confessions.

  1. After twenty plus years of full-time ministry, I feel awkward and self-conscious when I pray with my hands in the air. I’m more comfortable using my words and leaving my hands down.
  2. Some phrases become part of our entrenched prayer vocabulary. We use them so often they can lose the beauty of their intended meaning. I’m looking at you, “hedge of protection”.
  3. Outside the church, people don’t understand our “insider” language. We shouldn’t make ourselves challenging to understand. We have a vocabulary, by al means. However, everyone should be able to learn as they go.
  4. We need to talk more about Mark 3:20-35. Is Jesus the crazy relative we feel more comfortable trying to contain with our standards of conformity? I think so.
  5. I miss Sunday School. Specifically, I mean coloring pictures of Jesus on Sunday morning. Now I spend my Sunday mornings getting ready for worship. Coloring was fun.
  6. It is possible to take the Bible seriously but not literally? I feel like I say this all the time. Is anyone listening?
  7. Intinction is my preferred method of giving and receiving Holy Communion. It may not be the “old way” (of American Methodism), but it is the “oldest way,” which Jesus likely knew.
  8. Were we to compare United Methodism to a rare wine, I’ll prefer the 1738 Herrnhutt from Saxony. It’s a husky, smooth blend of English and German piety.
  9. A relationship with Jesus is, by default, a personal relationship. You don’t define any of the other meaningful relationships in your life (spouse, children, or parents) as personal. They are simply relationships. Be cautious of jargon (this goes for any part of your life), focus on the substance. Be in a relationship with God.
  10. It is easy to walk past a resurrection moment or to go in search of a Resurrection encounter only to realize; God’s right beside you, riding shotgun, ready to talk, and up for the journey.

Richard Lowell Bryant