A Dream Realized

A Dream Realized
Matthew 4:12-23
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2023

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Fulfillment. This term so casually thrown around by gospel writers and Christian theologians seems to pack a lot of meaning. What does it mean when the gospel author says that Isaiah’s words from eight hundred years ago have been fulfilled? I know when we say fulfilled today, it is in the past tense. It is a completed task. The task is no longer ongoing. It is done and finished. But Isaiah was written to the Hebrew people hundreds of years ago, was it never fulfilled before Jesus? Has it ever been fulfilled since then?

I looked up the Greek word for fulfill used here by the gospel author. The word Plēroō (play-rah-o) can be defined as fulfilled but it can also be translated as “to carry into effect, bring to realization, to realize.” (Blue Letter Bible) Does this change our understanding of how the word fulfilled is so often used in scriptures referring back to the First Testament? What if it said, Jesus moved to Capernaum “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be realized…” The dreams of the prophets were coming true in this moment when Jesus, the light of the world, moved to Capernaum to offer hope for those who have long been oppressed. The dreams of Isaiah were realized in that moment. 

But I would argue that this is not the first time (or last) this dream is being realized. John the Baptist had been sharing this exact same message that Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John had been preaching and baptizing in hopes of realizing the prophet’s dreams. The community that was gathering around John was beginning to realize these dreams as well. But then John is imprisoned because these dreams are not something that the Roman Empire wants making their way into revolution. 

So Jesus takes up the mantle of fulfilling these dreams and continues the good work started by John and others, the good work envisioned by Isaiah and others. Jesus is realizing the dream of his ancestors for liberation, for hope, for love to break into the oppressive regime. And how does Jesus go about realizing these dreams? Jesus first turns to community to join him in this work. 

We see two instances of Jesus seeing fishermen working on their boats, embedded in the imperial economy of Rome, who may never get to even eat the fish they capture. Jesus challenges the status quo and offers them a loyalty different from the empire’s. Jesus offers them the chance to realize the dreams of the prophets and the dreams of the oppressed. These disciples gather around Jesus, catching sight of the dream, a dream that then continues even after Jesus is killed by the same Roman State that imprisoned and killed John. These disciples do not let the dream die but start the church as a way of realizing Isaiah’s dreams. 

And then after collecting a community, Jesus shows us what the realization of this dream can look like. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” By some estimates 70-90 percent of people in the Roman empire experienced poverty, people who could not subsist on their own. Widespread disease would come from this lack of access to clean water and healthy food. (Warren Carter – Working Preacher) This level of disease could be fatal in a world without antibiotics and other cures. Into this sick world, Jesus offered healing and care. Not simply to provide that antibiotic but to return them to community and to challenge the oppressive systems that make people sick in the first place. Jesus sparked this dream in hundreds more through this work. 

And the good news for us today is that the dream of Isaiah, John, Jesus, and the disciples has not died. It lives on in us today. It is the whisper calling out to set free the prisoners and feed the hungry. It is the call to dismantle systems of harm and build communities of care and support. It is good news because it provides housing and medical care and community. It is the dream of heaven on earth. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

Have you ever failed to give to communities of care and instead worked for systems of harm? Turn around from those death dealing systems and change your loyalty to the God who desires the flourishing of all life, not just a few. Heaven is near in our work as a community when we donate land for affordable housing breaking the cycle of poverty. Heaven is near when we come alongside our sick members and provide care and support and even money to make sure everything is taken care of. Heaven is near when we share what we have for the flourishing of all. Heaven is near my friends. I have seen it time and time again in small and large ways in our community. Jesus is calling us to realize and fulfill the dreams of our faith forebears to make it a reality. Let us turn and join in this holy work. Amen. 

The Spirit Interrupts

The Spirit Interrupts
Acts 10:34-43
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
January 8, 2023

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Peter’s life has been rudely interrupted time and time again. From Jesus’ first encounter with him when Jesus changed his name to Peter, to his walking on water, to his denying Jesus three times, to him being filled with the Spirit and preaching on Pentecost. Peter’s life will never be the same. But even after all these things, Peter still has room to grow and is again interrupted on a rooftop in Caesarea. He grows hungry when the Spirit gives him unclean food to eat and tells him to eat. Eventually Peter learns that what he thought was unclean might not be the boundary that God wants him to hold. 

Phew, another lesson learned and it wasn’t too hard. But wait, “knock knock knock,” on the door. Gentiles have come calling for Peter to come with them to come and meet with the head centurion. Peter walks with these men to the centurion Cornelius’s house and is pondering these interruptions along the way. When he arrives, Cornelius’s whole household is gathered to hear what Peter has to say. So Peter uses a sermon that he had prepared beforehand to tell this group of Gentiles, people who were completely on the outside of who Peter would let into this budding sect of Jesus Judaism. But once again Peter is interrupted by the Spirit during his sermon. 

But, before we get to that interruption, I want to interrupt this sermon and do a little digging at one word that really stuck out to me this week from Peter’s sermon. That is the word tree. Xylon – soo-lan. Peter calls the cross that Jesus was executed on a tree instead of a cross. And that word stuck out to me because whenever I talk about the cross or hear it talked about, I almost never hear it called a tree. Honestly, it feels a little unfair to trees to associate them with this instrument of violence and death. The tree did not ask to kill Jesus or be used for his public execution. But the sad reality is that so often what we are meant to be is shaped by violence into instruments of destruction. We are called children of God. We called to love our neighbor. We are called beloved. But then violence twists us in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to become children of greed, to fight with our neighbor for resources, and to only love what is earned. This is not an ancient problem as we can clearly see how trees have been twisted from their lifegiving ways into weapons of violence from crucifixion to guillotines to gallows to electric chairs to trees used for lynchings. We see how we treat the trees and I wonder if it reflects how we treat ourselves. 

Just this week I learned of the origin of the word tree hugger. This term intended to be derogatory came from a protest in 1730 when the Bishnoi people in India were protecting their sacred khejri trees from the building of a new palace. The people wrapped their arms around the trees to save them but tragically the ruler’s soldiers killed 363 people and took the trees. Sadly, we can still find examples of this even today. 

And this idea of tree huggers reminded me of the term water protectors. A term coined by protestors and activists who were trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation. These indigenous people knew that the way we treat the water reflects how we treat ourselves. But once again, the ways of violence twisted the water into a weapon as the police’s water cannons shot down protestors. 

The way we treat the water, the way we treat the trees, will ultimately reflect the way we treat one another. Peter had his idea of who was in and who was out of this budding liberative community. He believed that baptism should be reserved for people from his culture and background who accepted Jesus, not those from another culture and background. But the Spirit interrupts his patterns of violent exclusion and replaces it with radical inclusion. Baptism. In just a few verses from our text today, the Holy Spirit descends on this group of Gentiles while Peter was still speaking, interrupting him again! Leaving him to the only conclusion that the Spirit left for him saying, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 10:47)

Likewise the Spirit is trying to interrupt us. How are we treating the earth? How are we treating our neighbors? How are we treating ourselves? Do we close off our hearts to others and even ourselves? Or. Or do we accept this radical call in baptism to let the Spirit call us beloved, just as we are? Do we let the Spirit work in us to transform us away from violent tools and into trees of life and waters of righteousness? In baptism, we are called not to an exclusionary and violent faith, but instead a radically inclusive, affirming, and transformative community where the Spirit turns us from swords into plowshares. Baptism is the sign and seal that we are beloved before we ever did anything to earn it and we can never lose it. But we can be twisted away from knowing it and acting like it by violent systems to which we must resist with the Spirit’s help. We must work with the Spirit to transform ourselves from weapons into life givers. Can anyone withhold the radical waters of transforming baptism from these people? Will you let the Spirit transform you?

Follow the Star

Follow the Star
Matthew 2:1-23
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
January 1, 2023

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.

Our text today is filled with all the things we experience day in and day out. Wonder and curiosity about the new world dawning, which propelled the magi on their dangerous journey. Fear as we look at uncertain futures, anxious about what will come next – which we know Joseph and Mary must have been feeling in their bodies. The exhilaration of building new connections across boundaries, as the magi and this new family experienced together. Even the terror and unspeakable violence of the most vulnerable among us being targeted by the greed of unjust rulers.

It’s all here. Which means this isn’t just the story of ancestors who came before us, long ago. It’s our story too. 

It would be too easy to flatten these characters into classic Sunday school flannelgraph props, sorting them into the good guys and the bad guys. But each character is just a human being, like each one of us. What if we slowed down and found ourselves in this story? What would the Spirit do in our hearts? 

Imagine Herod. It’s too easy to say, “He is a monster, I could never be a part of the horrific violence he perpetrated.” But what we know about Herod is that was put in place by the Roman empire to rule Judea, a job that made him and a small group of people with him very rich at the expense of the general population who lived in overcrowded towns and under heavy taxation that all went to fund the empire’s fancy building projects and bloated police and military budgets that would keep the oppressed from pushing back. The truth is that there are many of us – myself included – who benefit just like Herod did from systems of oppression. I own a house only because of wealth I inherited from family who have invested heavily in a stock market that funds big tech companies that abuse their employees, extractive industries harming our earth, and a host of other life-threatening corporations. I have a pension through the Presbyterian Church USA and the Board of Pensions that still refuses to categorically divest from fossil fuels, and industry which we know endangers all of us, but especially those who are already poor. Like Herod, I’m part of a system that makes me richer at the expense of my human and non-human siblings.

We know from this text that Herod got really scared when the Magi asked about this new king they had traveled to Judea to worship. Because somehow he knew that the world order he was benefitting from, that he had come to rely on, would not be left the same with this new king coming on the scene.

We all get scared sometimes, don’t we? We all have times when we feel our own power threatened and it shakes our foundation. 

But what would have happened if Herod had slowed down long enough to really be with and examine his fear? Would he have been able to feel an invitation to join the magi in searching for God made flesh among the oppressed? Would he have been transformed by this love, and would it have led him to start making different choices? Perhaps it would  have caused him to turn around and start walking in a new direction of justice that very day – finding ways to get the wealth extracted from oppressed people back to those communities. Maybe he would have started using his position to divest from the police state he had helped create so that the most vulnerable people could receive care first, not punishment meant to keep an unjust system in place. If we slow down to examine our own fears, I wonder what daily choices we could make to share our resources, to fund community care instead of punishment, to follow the magi to the place where God is being born in our own community?

And now, imagine the magi. We can’t be exactly sure of their identities, but they were probably some combination of seers, magicians, astrologers, and advisors to the rulers of their own land. We think they came from the Parthian empire, an enemy of Rome. Rome used their version of a border patrol police to keep the Parthians out of Roman occupied territories like Judea. Historians suspect that the magi were also living under an oppressive regime in their home community. 

And they didn’t have to go on this risky journey to follow the star! They didn’t have to go to the empire-sanctioned king of Judea to directly challenge Rome’s power by asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” None of the magi’s choices were a foregone conclusion! 

They could have tuned out the forces of hope that led them to risk their lives in seeking solidarity with other oppressed peoples like them living in Judea. They didn’t need to risk their lives to find a way to support and partner with the holy family in building the new world birthed at Christmas. But friends, they did! They made the choice to follow a star, not knowing where it would lead them, and they put their lives on the line to be a part of love taking on flesh on earth, rising from the bottom up.

As we look into a new year, how can we make different choices than Herod made? How can we resist the systems that benefit those of us at the top at the expense of those at the bottom? How can we find new ways to share that build up a new world? 

And what risks is God inviting us to take in the spirit of the magi? Which targeted siblings are we called to cross borders to be in solidarity with? What new, boundary-transgressing community do we feel God guiding us to build together in 2023? And what kind of transformation will the Spirit work out in our hearts and bodies along the way?

I have the words of God to God’s people from the book of Deuteronomy ringing in my ears: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, God says, so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut. 30:19)

May we follow the star and choose the way of life in new and risky ways this year, LPC family. In every big choice. In every tiny, daily action. And always reaching out to hold each other close every step of the journey. Amen.

See, Behold, Notice

See, Behold, Notice
Luke 2:1-20
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve – December 24th, 2022

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
  and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.

What would you need to see today in your life, in your family, in our community to know that God is here?

I wouldn’t mind a whole host of angels showing up to make it obvious, to be honest. I’ve always been a little jealous of the shepherds in that way. They get such a bold and clear announcement that GOD IS HERE! When I’m walking alongside dear ones in my life who get the worst diagnosis, or lose a job, or find out that they have miscarried yet again, or can’t crawl out of their depression no matter how hard they try, I would like God to make Her presence a little more clear. When Supreme Court rulings go after my bodily autonomy and the most basic rights of my queer siblings and my doubts about the future are as thick as morning fog, I would appreciate a big banner moment telling me God is on the way. When I want to scream at the forces of oppression that keep beloveds in prison cages and bar dear ones from finding stable housing and harden the hearts of those who have the power to make change but just won’t, it would be nice for a choir of angels to let me know that God hasn’t forgotten about us. 

But as I linger over this passage we read on this night every year, I can’t help but get stuck on one particular line: This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Sorry, but was the singing choir of angels not the sign the shepherds should be looking for? I guess not! Apparently, the sign that the shepherds have found God will be a tiny baby lying in an animal feeding trough. 

This story has become so familiar to many of us, and so it is easy to not feel the scandal of that. But let’s think about this. If a baby is lying in the feeding bin of a cow, something must have gone wrong. Because in what world would that be Plan A? 

Here are some ways we could paraphrase this message from the angels: This will be a sign to you – you will find a shivering baby, wrapped in the only cloth his parents could find.

This will be a sign to you – you will find a being who is utterly dependent on others and who we cannot be sure will be able to survive the cold night ahead.

This will be a sign to you – you will find a situation that no one would have planned and that everyone is sure could not get any worse. When you find these things, the angels announce to the shepherds, that will be the sign that you have found God. 

I wonder if that is why we come back to this wild story year after year after year – because it reminds us that God’s presence is not first and foremost in the fanfare or the angel choir or the big miraculous sign, which are not experiences many of us recognize as our own. God’s presence is in the plans that fell apart. God’s presence is in the moments when we realize we truly do not have control. God’s presence is in the failures we don’t want anyone else to see. God’s presence is in the very stuff that, if we are honest, makes up so much of our messy lives. 

But how is that possible? Even if we look in those devastating cracks in our lives for the God of the universe, how can we be sure we are finding this God? Let’s look at that line one more time: This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Those bands of cloth didn’t appear by accident. We can imagine Mary grabbing Joseph’s arm and saying, “Is there an edge of your robe you can spare? Tear it off so we can wrap Jesus up in something that’s warm.” And that manger didn’t become a baby cradle on its own. We can picture Joseph dragging it across the stable floor and sorting out the muddy pieces of straw from the clean ones so that his adopted son would have the best cushion for his head available in that unplanned place. There’s Mary, completely exhausted from hours of labor, offering up her scrappy creativity to make the stable Jesus’ first bedroom. And there’s Joseph, hands covered in dirt and mud from following Mary’s directions, using every ounce of his strength to make his wife and son as comfortable as possible when everything else has fallen apart. The sign telling the shepherds, telling us, that we have found God is always in the messiest of places, and we can trust we are encountering the Divine there because that’s where we’ll find the gritty love of a community using whatever they have on hand to make new life possible. 

The angels tell the shepherds “Do not be afraid!” and just after this, they tell them to SEE, to BEHOLD, to NOTICE, as Minister Candace Simpson puts it. (Minister Candace Simpson, “Liturgy that Matters: December 25, 2022.”) And it is that community-showing-up-alongside-each-other-to-birth-something-new that I believe the angels are telling the shepherds – telling us – to slow down long enough to see, to behold, to notice. Because that intentional noticing will somehow be the pathway through our fear. SEE this strange little cobbled together family who trusted each other enough to turn a shelter for livestock into God’s own birth place. BEHOLD the meals that showed up on your doorstep after your loved one passed away. NOTICE the everyday church folx who gave half their church property so that doors might literally open for our unhoused neighbors. SEE the faithful ones rising up all over the country to pool their financial and relational and advocacy resources in mutual aid to help every single person who needs to exercise their right to reproductive choice. BEHOLD the friend who texts you once a week just to say, “I know you are hurting. I’m here if you need to talk.” SEE the dear one who walks quietly into the room as you grieve and shows you their love not with their words, but with their silent and abiding presence.

This time of year, we use an ancient Jewish name to speak about the God who comes to save us – Emmanuel. That name translated to English is NOT God has fixed everything. It is NOT God has erased our fear. It is NOT God has caused all the suffering to go away. No. The name Emmanuel means God is with us. Nothing is fixed yet, and still – Emmanuel, God is with us. Our fear makes it hard to breathe sometimes, and still – Emmanuel, God is with us. The suffering that has unfolded all around us is here yet again, and still – Emmanuel, God is with us. Let this be a sign for you, dear ones – God is alive and well among us in the community that crosses boundaries to hold onto each other this night. May we slow down long enough to see, to behold, to notice this God being born. Amen.  

Alone No More

Alone No More
Luke 1:39-58
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
December 18, 2022

Dexter: In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

And Mary said,

Kay: ‘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 for ever.’

Dexter: And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

I was in sixth grade and basketball camp had just ended. My friend asked if I needed a ride home. “Nope, my parents will be here soon.” As my friend drove off with their family, I did not know that I would regret those words very shortly. Through a series of very unfortunate miscommunications I was left at a high school gym on a Saturday afternoon with no one coming to pick me up. Minutes turned to hours. I did not know if I should trek to the closest business, a few blocks away, to try and make a phone call because I was sure I would miss the person picking me up. I sat there for hours pondering what must have gone wrong, who was hurt, and mostly why I was forgotten. After about the fifth hour, I decided to run to the mall to try and make a call. Being alone can be scary and unsettling. 

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of the angel visiting Mary and talked about fear. Mary was terrified by this intrusion into her house and into her life. Our passage today takes place immediately afterwards. Mary is afraid, she could be shunned and exiled, she could even be stoned. She had all the reason in the world to run. Our text says she went “with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” to meet her cousin Elizabeth. 

I want to pause here and ask a huge question that does not have an answer that I can find. Where in the world are Mary’s parents? Are they still alive? We have not heard anything about them anywhere in the Bible, not in either of the genealogies. Did they reject Mary after she was found to be pregnant? Did they not believe her that an angel told her that this was God’s child? Were they maybe nice and polite but actually more passive aggressive and judgmental? Whatever the reason may be, Mary in her greatest time of need and fear did not turn to her parents, her betrothed, or any friends. She ran to her older cousin, Elizabeth. 

Now as I picture myself in this story, I imagine that Mary must have been feeling so alone and isolated. She has just been visited by an angel, a thing that only happened in Bible stories! She has just been told she would bear the messiah who would free the Israelites from Roman occupation. All of these things isolate her and would cause a feeling of complete loneliness. Are there times in your life where you have felt completely alone? What did it feel like to think nobody would ever understand or know what you’re going through? Did you want to crawl up in a ball and hide in a corner? Then perhaps you have a sense of what Mary is feeling in our text this Sunday. 

But my follow up question is: did you have someone in that loneliness that you made haste to be with? Did you have someone see you and check in on you? Did you find a community of support to show that you are not alone? Then you also have a taste of the love that is shared between people who choose to be in relationship and community with one another. You have a taste of the love of God experienced in community on this Love Sunday. 

We are not meant to be alone. The church is meant to be a place where the lonely find community. We are called to be a people who seek out the lonely and lost to tell them they are not alone. The bonds we create together are what unite us and free us from the shackles of isolation and fear. On Love Sunday, we think about the connections we have as a church and the connections we are called to create. Mary was unable to turn to her immediate family and so turned to an older cousin for solidarity and support. The church is a place for us to find that familial connection outside of the bonds of blood. 

Who of you are lonely this time of year? I need you to hear that you are not alone. I am here for you. This church community is here for you. We see you and we want you here with us. Join us throughout this season and even Christmas Day to celebrate that God is with us and we are that community of Love that shares that truth.  

Who of you are feeling connected this time of year? Seek out those who are lonely and invite them to lunch or coffee. Go for a walk at the lake and look at the Christmas lights. Make sure that no one is alone this Christmas season. 

Friends, may we bear witness to the image of God in one another and let the people we see know that truth. May we go and share the Love of God this Sunday and this season. Let us make it so. 

Disruptive Joy

Disruptive Joy
Isaiah 35:1-10
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
December 11th, 2022 – 3rd Sunday of Advent

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
   the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
   but it shall be for God’s people;
   no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

“This text shouldn’t be here.” (Barbara Lundblad, Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10, December 15, 2013.) That’s what theologian Barbara Lundblad says about this passage. Some scholars agree that it was actually supposed to be the opening for Second Isaiah, starting 5 chapters later, to open chapters 40-55. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39, which should include our text today) was all about the 8th century prophet Isaiah trying to get God’s people to repent, to turn around and walk in a new direction of justice, so that they could avoid the situation they find themselves in in Second Isaiah – the horrific trauma of the Babylonian exile. But the tone of chapter 35, our passage today, is one of hope, which does not at all fit with the “call to repentance” tone of the First Isaiah passages surrounding it on all sides. We don’t know why this text got placed here. This word of hope is too early. It’s not supposed to be here.

Maybe that shocking placement is a metaphor for how this word of hope must have felt to those hearing it for the first time. The audience of Second Isaiah is a people who have had all their ways of life torn apart by Babylonian armies who destroyed their place of worship, stole them away from their homes, and carried them off to live in a completely unfamiliar place under an oppressive ruler. And before I go much further, I should mention that the lines that talk about the healing of deafness, blindness, and the inability to walk or talk should be handled with care. There’s a spectrum upon which folx with disabilities define their own identities and experiences. Disability justice theologian Amy Kenny puts it this way: “…disability is not always cured or killed off in Scripture. Disability acts as a blessing, a revelation, and a prophetic witness to the community. It even becomes a mark of the covenant for Jacob, who becomes disabled at a crucial phase of the narrative. His disability acts as the catalyst for radical transformation.” (Amy Kenny, My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability in the Church, “Disability Blessings,” pgs. 76-77) And – we can hold that in tension with another reality of this text, which is that some of the people Isaiah is speaking to here had been physically maimed as a result of the warfare that led to their exile. King Zedekiah, for example, while trying to escape Jerusalem as the Babylonian army laid siege to the city in 2 Kings 25, was captured and brought to the king of Babylon, where they slaughtered his sons right in front of him and removed his eyes, blinding him and then binding him, and carrying him off to Babylon. So, yes, this text is out of place literally in the book of Isaiah, but it is also out of place in the sense that it is a bold word of hope spoken to a people still carrying the trauma of oppressive systems in their bodies.

We, too, are a people still carrying the trauma of oppressive systems in our bodies, albeit in different ways. I think of the veterans in our community, many of whom are living with the terrible cost of our nation’s constant war-mongering in their own bodies and minds when they return home. I think of teachers, students, parents, administrators, staff in our schools – who completely reinvented how to do their work during the pandemic, all while seeing so many disparities in access sharpen in the lives of kids and their families who had already been struggling. I think of family relationships that frayed or completely broke apart as misinformation campaigns aimed at our beloveds set them on paths where many of us didn’t know how to follow them. I think of all the loved ones who died during the pandemic for any number of reasons. Many of us never really had a chance to grieve those losses as part of an enfleshed community. I think of our own precious bodies and the ways aging accelerated during COVID, hastening memory loss, mobility issues, and more. I imagine each one of us is holding in our bodies our own experience of exile.

And then we hear about streams gushing forth right out of the desert sand. Fragrant blossoms bursting gloriously from the crevices of a forlorn wilderness. Dried out grasslands filling with water and exploding with reeds and rushes. If you can feel those descriptions in your body, that is the point. These words of shockingly abundant joy coming out of nowhere are meant to disrupt the traumatic stories we are living inside of, day in and day out. To help us feel the hot sand cool with relief as the water emerges beneath our bare toes. To fill our nostrils with the scent of perfuming flowers we never thought we’d smell again after a long winter. To remind us that the world God created to be full of life, overflowing with an abundance where everyone has enough, that world is. Still. Possible. Even here. Even in the desert of your grief. Even in the wilderness of compounded trauma. Even in the wasteland of losses we still don’t have words to describe.

These words of disruptive joy are Isaiah’s way of giving a weary, exhausted people a bodily experience of shalom, wholeness, when our bodies have just about forgotten what that feels like. Because perhaps if he can help us feel that shalom for just a moment, that enfleshed joy disrupting our despair, maybe we’ll have the bit of energy we need to pass it along. The bit of energy we need to make a little more dinner than planned so we can invite over the neighbor who’s been isolated and lonely. The bit of energy we need to say “no” to taking on one more thing in an already packed schedule inside a system that tells us our productivity is our worth. The bit of energy we need to make the phone call to that person we trust to say, “Actually, I’m not ok. I need some help. I can’t do this alone.” All those little bursts of joy that connect us again to our bodies and to one another – they add up, y’all. It’s how this world God made us for comes to be. Through our hands. Our feet. Our hearts cracking open. Isaiah’s words of disruptive joy jolt us – like a pink candle among a bunch of purple – into remembering again in our bodies the juicy world of pleasure that’s possible for all beings. And as our own Rev. Dr. Sharon Tuck is so good about reminding me, a better translation of the Hebrew describing a highway through the desert where the “unclean shall not travel on it” is actually that the unclean “shall not pass it by.” That means the highway home to this new world is FOR EVERYONE. We are all included and the text says that not even fools like me can go astray. As we build up communities that care for each other and share what we have and trust each other with our lives – maybe we’ll discover that Isaiah’s word of bold hope wasn’t out of place after all. Maybe it was right on time. Amen.

The Great Yes

The Great Yes
Luke 1:26-38
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
December 4, 2022

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Welcome to the second Sunday of Advent, the season we spend waiting and preparing for the coming of the Messiah. We are inching closer to Christmas Day, the celebration of the birth and incarnation of our Lord and Savior. This morning, we lit the candle of peace. A reminder of the peace that comes with the Prince of Peace. But this morning’s scripture starts off with fear. 

An angel appears out of nowhere and Mary is justifiably frightened. The Greek word used is dietarachthē which is translated as perplexed here by the NRSV translators but could easily be translated as greatly disturbed, alarmed, agitated, or deeply troubled. In the previous verses of this chapter when this same angel appears to Zechariah, the root of this Greek word is used and the translators say he was terrified. 

To this deep seated fear the angel Gabriel simply says, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid is the most common phrase in the Bible and is echoed here again by Gabriel, the messenger of God. This phrase is so common because so often the people of God are facing oppression and persecution. And I am not talking about saying Happy Holidays or starbucks cups. The people of God are living under unjust empires and monarchs. They have been sold as slaves, had their places of worship destroyed and terrorized, and face economic hardship through systemic oppression. 

Unsurprisingly, Mary remains unsure. Which in and of itself is a huge act of courage and will power. Mary, an unmarried girl, who is essentially seen as property, who now has a stranger in her room, asking her to birth a messiah to save her people. She does the most amazing thing here. She takes a breath. She slows down this messianic proclamation by simply asking a question, “How can this be?” How can this be? There is so much going on that she needs to think for a second. She needs a moment before consenting to bear the Son of God. So she seeks a little more information about what this will entail. 

So Gabriel gives more information. While Gabriel is talking about how God will do this miracle and sharing about how this child will be the Son of God, Mary makes her decision. So my big question is what shifted for Mary here? This I feel is the crux of this amazing story. What shifted her from great trouble to a peaceful decision? Is it the removal of fear? Not likely. Is it the removal of doubt? I doubt it, it seems like there are lots of questions still to be asked. Is it the pressure of an angel? Once again, I think not seeing how she has already advocated for herself by asking questions and giving herself space to think. 

I think Mary says this great “Yes” to God because she started to dream about what her participation in God’s plan would mean for her and her people. Mary started to dream about what a savior could look like for the lowly like her to be lifted up from their lack of status and safety. She imagined a world where the Roman occupation that was pressing down on her people would end. She had a glimpse of the Davidic reign returning to Israel, a reign that her people had been speaking about in hushed terms for years and years, awaiting a messiah to liberate the people. These ongoing hopes of a messiah would have been circulating through her mind since she was a little child, seeing the Roman state police her community through fear and repression. A messiah who would set the oppressed free, unshackle the prisoners and end prisons, feed the hungry without money or agenda, and proclaim God’s jubilee for all people. 

The vision we see in Isaiah 11 about prey and predator lying together on God’s holy mountain is the same vision that Mary lifts up in her radical song the Magnificat which she sings in a few short verses from our passage today. It is clear that Mary has a dream for this child based on what the angel said and her community has taught her. All of these dreams of her participation in God’s liberating activities and promises give her the peace, the confidence, and bravery to say “Yes” to God’s ask on her life. 

Mary does not lose her fear but acts in spite of that fear with bravery. Mary does not know the exact path this will take but she has the dreams of participation in God’s liberatory work. May we hear this story of bravery and imagination and find ourselves saying “Yes” to God’s story and working to make that world we heard about in Isaiah and the magnificat come to pass. May we pass on the dreams and visions of Isaiah and Mary to the next generation so that we can all work toward God’s liberative reign. May we go and make it so. 

Creating New Families Out of Thin Air

Creating New Families Out of Thin Air
Matthew 1:1-17
Written by: Rev. Dexter Kearny
Preached by: Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
November 27th, 2022 – 1st Sunday of Advent

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.

It’s important to know that Matthew’s decision to open his gospel with this genealogy of Jesus, was right in line with Jewish tradition. These genealogies appear often throughout the Old Testament and were always less concerned with getting the exact biological ancestry correct and more interested in invoking particular stories of their ancestors that would explain how we got here. Honestly, maybe your family does a version of this too! Gathered around a meal table, I remember my dad telling the stories of discrimination my Grandpa Ole faced when he emigrated from Norway as a 12 year old boy, or my mom telling me how Grandma Barbara quit her smoking habit cold turkey the day she realized she needed that money to buy my mom a new pair of shoes. Those stories aren’t just historical facts. They are moments in time my parents have lifted up again and again to tell me something about how I ended up where I am and what kinds of things matter going forward.

And goodness gracious, what I learned this week is that this genealogy has a fascinating story of radical inclusion to fold us into as we look back through the generations that brought us to Jesus. First, this genealogy names five women with wild stories. If you follow along in our daily Advent devotional (which starts today and is available in the back!), you’ll read more about them this Tuesday. Artist Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman writes in that Tuesday reflection that each of these women “took their life and survival into their own hands. They were catalysts who propelled the lineage forward.” (Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, From Generation to Generation… An Advent Devotional: Art, Poetry, & Reflections for the Season of Advent – A Sanctified Art – sanctifiedart.org, Tuesday – “There’s room for every story”, pg. 4) Tamar, when her rights were snubbed by her father-in-law after the death of her husband, tricked her father-in-law into getting her pregnant with twins so that her family line wouldn’t stop with her. Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, sheltered Israelite spies in Jericho and secured a place for herself and her family because of her bravery. Ruth, a Moabite woman, cleverly and bravely navigated her way through a patriarchal system to make sure she and her mother-in-law had shelter and food after their husbands had died.  And the “wife of Uriah”, Bathsheba, survived sexual assault by King David himself, and she made sure her son Solomon was the one to take the throne of Israel. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes that “these women are not sinners as some early church fathers suggested;” She says, “were sin the genealogy’s concern, then many of the men listed would be better candidates.” (Amy-Jill Levine, Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition: Revised and Updated, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, pg. 467) No, these women did what women have done since the beginning – scraped and scrapped to make a way when there was no way. They crafted a path through trauma, through grief, through patriarchal absurdity so that they could make a better life for their children and their chosen families. 

Here’s another feature about this genealogy to note – you may have noticed that this line leads to Joseph, Mary’s husband, someone who is not biologically related to Jesus. So what is that – just more patriarchal oppression making this about tracing lineage through a man even though it was Mary whose body gave birth to Jesus without Joseph’s help? Maybe. But given Matthew’s inclusion of some of the Gentile women in this genealogy, there’s another explanation to consider: What we know is that Joseph essentially adopted Jesus. At his own and Mary’s peril, he refused the path of putting Mary at risk by throwing her out when he found out she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Instead, he stayed by Mary’s side and claimed Jesus as his own son. And there are some scholars today who would say that this is Matthew’s way of affirming adoption as a pathway to parenthood that is just as legitimate and thoroughly real as becoming a biological parent. After all, any of us who are not Jewish are considered adopted into the family of God through Jesus. So running this family line through Joseph is one way to say that God is a God who doesn’t need biology to make new family. God makes real families, kin, out of thin air. Because our God who created the world with a word is a God who can make new families out of anyone, everyone, all of us. 

These oddities in the genealogy, they aren’t just historical facts. They are moments in time that Matthew is lifting up at the very beginning of this story to tell us something about how God’s people ended up where they are and what kinds of things will matter going forward. And as we’ve heard today, the message is clear – in God’s kin-dom, we are all called to make family out of each other even when that seems impossible, not burying the trauma and pain we have been through, but laying it out in the open in our storytelling so that the world will know that the Spirit helped make a way for us. Not limiting the ways that we become kin to one another to biology, but adopting one another into deep, intimate bonds that show everyone around us that there’s always, always more room at the table for them to find a welcome. This is hope, y’all, that word we lit a candle for today. When you’re sharing breakfast with our unhoused friends at the shelter, you’re right there in God’s kind of family, making kin where no one expected it. When you are a member of the queer community crafting deep relationships in communities of care despite the ways your own biological families may not have embraced you, you’re right there in God’s kind of family, making kin even out there in the wilderness. When you’re reaching across the boundaries society has engineered to keep us divided and standing in solidarity with those targeted by systems of greed, you’re right there in God’s kind of family, making kin where it wasn’t supposed to appear. When you’re more concerned with every being finding welcome at your table than with making sure to follow all the rules, you’re right there in God’s kind of family, making kin out of thin air. 

A strange numerical note about this genealogy – there are 14 generations named between Abraham and David, and then another 14 between David and the Babylonian captivity, which scholars have said is likely a symbol completion, since 14 is 2 x 7, the number associated with wholeness in Jewish thought. But in that generation between the Babylonian captivity and Jesus? Only 13 generations named, with Jesus being the 13th. And guess what? Scholars believe this is because Matthew wants us to know that the “fourteenth and final generation is that of the church.” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, by Marc Z. Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine, pg. 11) The end of this genealogy has left an open question from Matthew to us – will we take our turn in this lineage as the 14th generation of the church? Will we join the saints who came before us in being wild weavers of new kinds of families that disrupt oppressive social norms and make ways of belonging out of no way? 

I’ll leave you with this poem written for this Sunday by Rev. Sarah (Are) of A Sanctified Art, the organization that provided most of our liturgy for today. Hear now these words reminding us that in the wildly-woven family of God, there is always, always room. (“Room”, a poem by Rev. Sarah (Are) Speed, From Generation to Generation… An Advent Devotional: Art, Poetry, & Reflections for the Season of Advent – A Sanctified Art – sanctifiedart.org, Sunday – “There’s room for every story”, pg 1)

Leadership 101

Leadership 101
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Written by: Rev. Dexter Kearny
Preached by: Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
November 20, 2022

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Some of you might be wondering why Pastor Dexter chose a prophetic text on this Reign of Christ Sunday that not once mentions or refers to Jesus? Some scholars would use a Christian lens to put Jesus into this Jewish text but we would not want to trample over our Jewish siblings with secessionist logics. What this text does teach us about is leadership. It shows us what bad leadership looks like and gives a vision for what good leadership can be as well. 

Jeremiah was speaking during the reign of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah who were each under Babylonian control and would reach out to powerhouse Egypt when they wanted support. This often led to sieges of Jerusalem eventually ending during Zedekiah’s reign when the temple was destroyed and many people were taken into Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah was calling out these bad leaders and attempting to give hope to the people under this oppressive leadership. Now you can imagine that the kings probably did not like what Jeremiah had to say, in fact it is believed that Jehoiakim burned an early version of the book of Jeremiah in order to stop it from circulating among the people. 

The first 25 chapters of Jeremiah lay out numerous reasons why these kings were wicked and predicted the fall of Jerusalem. In earlier chapters, Jeremiah points out that these wicked kings had forsaken justice, abandoning the most vulnerable in society–foreigners, widows, and orphans. Jeremiah chapter 22 also discusses how these kings failed to adequately pay their workers all the while growing and hoarding their personal wealth. Jeremiah says that these kings have blood on their hands. It is clear to us today that these kings were examples of bad leadership that caused immense harm to those entrusted to their care. 

So what are the alternatives? The good news is that Jeremiah does not leave us only with the list of bad leadership attributes but turns toward a beautiful portrait of messianic hope. Jeremiah leans into the Jewish tradition of waiting for a messiah who will save Israel from violent outside attacks as well as insider-caused pain. This king to come, Jeremiah says, will “deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land”. 

And this is where Jeremiah uses an interesting phrase to describe the coming good kings: Jeremiah calls them shepherds. This might seem common parlance now but to compare the highest official in the land – ordained by God and in charge of immense wealth – to a shepherd, the lowest of the low, covered in muck and smelling rotten from their job tending livestock in the open fields, that would have been quite the surprising turn of phrase. This shepherd image is a reminder to remain humble in your charge and responsibility as well as a call to be like the lowly shepherd. Shepherds are responsible for protecting their flock and providing food and water to them. It is the shepherd’s job to fight off wolves, bears, and thieves, to search for the lost sheep, and to rescue them when in danger. The shepherd is one who is responsible for their flock. Similarly, Jeremiah is saying, a king or leader should be judged upon how well their flock is doing. 

With this shepherd image, Jeremiah is also pointing out that good leadership does not come from the tippy top of the pyramid but from the bottom, from those hardworking and compassionate leaders in our midst. This means that anyone can be a good shepherd of humans. It just takes ordinary people like you and me who choose to do right in the spaces we are in, to seek justice and mercy in our dealings with others, and to mirror God’s call to care for those our unjust society has targeted – the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the ones that the powerful have tried to throw away. 

These last few years we have seen the challenges of good and bad leadership. In our own town, we have seen the poorest pushed to the edge of the city, to a place removed from where the wealthy in Longview live, relegated to the Alabama Street encampment. But recently leaders are trying to do better and just last week the Longview City Council approved a pallet home community called Hope Village to operate here in our own city. This will now go to the county commissioners some time in the coming weeks, we hope, with a request to fully fund the project with document recording fees collected here in Cowlitz County that are earmarked specifically for addressing homelessness. We do not know how our commissioners will vote on this request. One of our commissioners pulled this from the commissioner meeting agenda this coming Tuesday 11/22 at 9am, where the vote was supposed to take place. Every person and every leader has choices about how to treat the people who have the least amount of power in our community. Leaders have a responsibility like a shepherd to make sure the sheep do not die outside in the cold or go hungry when we have plenty of resources to share. And we have a responsibility to be like Jeremiah and remind our leaders of their responsibility to take care of ALL the members of this community. Many of you have been going to Longview council meetings as recently as this last Thursday to be like Jeremiah, pushing our leaders to be the kinds of shepherds who care for the most oppressed among us. I’ll be at the commissioner meeting at the county building this Tuesday 11/22 at 9am to follow your lead, ready to speak if needed in support of the ones who most need our help. I hope you’ll consider coming to the county building this Tuesday morning to join me, because the sheep are in desperate need of a good shepherd. 

Jeremiah puts the question to us on this Reign of Christ Sunday: Will we trust in the leaders of the empire? Or will we put our trust in God and the communities of shepherd-like care where we depend upon one another to live? Do we put our faith and hope in Wall Street and a certain political party? Or do we rely upon one another, building bonds of trust and safety, resisting the systems of oppression that pull us down? What would a community look like with good shepherd leaders?  With people working for the care and safety of all? 

Beloveds, I have glimpsed this good shepherd Reign of Christ here on earth in this community of faith. I pray that we will always keep that at our forefront so that in all we do, we live into the community of shepherd-like care and support that will bring forth God’s loving reign to our world. May we go and make it so!