Reflection for January 4, 2015

Isaiah 60: 1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

I.

     Sermons are certainly a challenging form of public speech these days. It is difficult to preach Sunday after Sunday. But perhaps a more difficult speaking challenge is the introduction of the main speaker at an event.  This short but important introduction speech can be very difficult. It needs to be concise. But it also needs to recognize the speaker’s origins and accomplishments with perhaps a little bit of flattery, but not too much. It should take into account the interests of the audience and point out how those interests are important in the mind of the one being introduced. The introducer should use a bit of humor to lighten the mood and to warm the room. Then there are people to thank for their work on the event and other distinguished guests to recognize as well. And there should be just a touch of drama to the words so that everyone stops daydreaming (or eating or looking at their phones or talking) and senses that what follows is important. So this concise introductory speech is sometimes very difficult to accomplish well. It is one of the more challenging speeches people need to write.
Today we have the wise men or sages coming to the birth of Jesus. It’s hard to believe that these events actually happened as they are written.  The sages are some of the most mysterious figures in the New Testament and the details surrounding their presence and journey may be more mythic than historical.  Still, there appears to be a common Christian memory regarding the birth of Jesus shared by both Matthew and Luke involving Bethlehem, Nazareth, the parents of Jesus engaged but not married, angels, visions or something like that, significant visitors of some sort, and portents in the sky involving light, planets, or stars.  It may be that much of this common memory is grounded in what happened at the birth of Jesus, but many do not think things actually happened as Matthew records them in chapters one and two. How would the light of a star stop over a particular stable in Bethlehem?
What is more likely is that the first two chapters of Matthew, his infancy story of Jesus, is Matthew’s introduction to the hero in the story that follows. Matthew one and two are like an introductory speech that warms the audience to the main speaker: Jesus who really does have major addresses in the Gospel of Matthew. And in the center of this introduction to the hero of the story: Jesus, come these mysterious magi.
Actually, the form of these introductions was set in ancient Roman rhetoric and literature. The introduction of the hero in a story or saga is called the encomium. And like a good introductory speech today it must cover the bases in a short period of time. An ancient Roman encomium would not use humor but rather embellishment and stretching the facts to engage the listener. It might begin with the hero’s genealogy and a legend surrounding the birth of the hero which contain some interesting characters, as does Matthew. There would be some tension in the encomium, some presence of shadows and struggles yet to come in the story. And those are here in Matthew not only in the tension between Mary and Joseph but also in the tyrant’s cruelty. There would be a vision or dreams or divine insight. That is here. Usually the birth of the hero was accompanied by celestial wonders. Somehow the hero would be connected to the divine or be considered a god. And outsiders would also recognize the importance of the birth of the hero.  Chapters one and two of Matthew’s introduction to the saga of Jesus contain all of the elements of an ancient encomium, the ancient introduction of Jesus to the audience.
Now a good introduction is based on the interests of the audience and it uses those interests to engage the listener in the upcoming main event. That is also true in Matthew’s introduction of Jesus according to classical form.
Roman Gentiles especially would have expected that an important hero was somehow divine, and that the birth of the hero was an extraordinary event overcoming obstacles and hardship. This story does all that.
And Jews would have heard in Matthew’s encomium echoes of the great Hebrew hero Moses. Both Moses in Exodus and Jesus in Matthew have a Hebrew genealogy, have stories shaped by dreams, escape a tyrant’s killing of children by in one case a Pharaoh, in the other by Herod in Palestine, have an inter-cultural sense, either flee to or from Egypt, and are perceived as liberators or threats to the established authorities.  So Matthew attends to his Gentile and Jewish audience and by the end of chapter two the stage has been set for the saga to follow in chapter three.
The star, the sages, the gifts, and the encounter with Herod are all part of this ancient introduction. But instead of trying to figure out what they all were or what they symbolized, it may be best in the time we have to recognize that through these details Matthew is covering all the bases in his introduction of the main speaker: Jesus. He is making the best possible encomium for what is to follow.

II.

     Which means that these chapters of Matthew, one and two, call us to think about how we introduce Jesus today. What is the best possible introduction we might make of Jesus to those we encounter every day?  What would be the concise, yet engaging way to now introduce Jesus to growing numbers of people who have no idea about who Jesus was and what he stood for? What would be our best encomium of the Christ? How might we introduce people to the light of Christ?
That is a hard question. All encomiums are difficult. And introducing Jesus has become more difficult in recent years. That question lies at the heart of our own congregation’s ground game for 2015 as our neighborhood undergoes substantial change. How do we introduce others to Jesus? We would not do it the same way Matthew does. But we are inspired by Matthew’s introduction to craft an introduction to Christ as well as we can for our own time and place.
What goes into our encomium? We would probably start with compassion. In word and especially deed, we would point to a God who desires us to be a compassionate people and to care for others, our world, ourselves, and future generations as well as we can. We would want to lead with that. Not because it is what people want to hear, but because it’s the most important thing.
And our encomium would want to be inclusive. We would not want to reject the wisdom of other faith traditions, but we would want to see the truth of God calling all to love and forgive one another and to strive for harmony in a broken world.
And our encomium would stress hope and joy, courage and faith, as important ways to make it through the hard times. We all have shadows, hardships, sorrows, and difficulties.  We share those with friends in faith whose mutual encouragement helps us embrace hope even in the struggle.
And our encomium would somehow show that we understand ourselves not only to be challenged by the demands of life but also to be challenging: to call into question those systems and ways of working that hurt others and treat people unfairly.
And our encomium would then stop talking and listen. So that people sense that it is not about what we think, but it is all about God working in your life, helping you shape your own future, your own compassion and forgiveness.
Compassion, inclusion, joy and faith, courage and challenge, listening as well as speaking would be our best encomium these days.

III.

     And at some point we may also want to add just a hint of wisdom, a hint of how useful it might be to engage the faith more fully: like the wisdom embedded in these readings this morning. For the first reading speaks of a coming together, God pulling a scattered people out of the darkness of exile back together. Isaiah 60 is the great ingathering. The second reading speaks of Paul going out with the gospel into the world: a flowing outward. And the third reading with the interaction of the wise ones with Herod and the massacre of the children speaks to consternation, to churning, to engaging the shadow side of things, twisting and turning, and milling around.
Sometimes we need to get it together. Sometimes we need to get out there and let it flow. Sometimes we simply need to let things churn for awhile while the plot thickens and we engage the shadow side.  And today you may need to come together with someone or gather your things, or depart on a greater journey or get out there again, or just mill around in the recesses of your churning soul as you sort out the best way to go home.  But no matter whether you’re coming or going, or staying put for awhile, the basic question remains, “how should we introduce Jesus now?”

References
Charles H Talbert, Matthew, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament, Baker Academic, 2010.
Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, 1977.

Reflection for December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40

Grace to you and peace. On this first Sunday of the Christmas season we are given three readings, each of which is filled with images of joy and hope. That makes sense since we say that on Christmas hope is born in the a child in a manger. Hope is not only for the church, and not only in this season, but also for our hearts and our world. I would like to spend some time with these images of hope and joy. They may help us continue the spirit of Christmas. And they may help us when hope and joy become difficult for us.
What are Isaiah’s images of hope? Isaiah has several poetic images in this poem this morning. One is spring. Often spring is a sign of hope and the birth to joy. For us the winter solstice has now come, and that means the days are getting longer. As the light of spring grows, we sense hope renewing in our wintered souls.
Isaiah also uses dawn or morning light as a sign of hope. The week before Christmas, I drove to Peoria to help Judy’s parents get settled into Lutheran Hillside Village where they were moving. I left early in the morning, before dawn. As I was crossing the Wisconsin border headed south, the first rays of new light began to break over the winter landscape. With the coming dawn comes a sense of hope.
Isaiah also uses a wedding as a symbol of joy and hope. When a new family is formed, when two people are united in love, and that love is lifted up in public commitment; our hearts are filled with joy and the promise of what is to be. Weddings fill our hearts with many things, but at their core is a sense of hope and joy.
Isaiah also uses a candle or torch to speak of hope. For centuries light or torches represented the presence of God. That is why we light candles in church and why there are so many candles and lights involved in the Christmas season. Torches, candles, and lights are a sign of hope.
And finally, Isaiah uses a coronation diadem as a sign of hope. A diadem is an open band tied around the head, with flowing tails. It symbolizes bridal joy, or victory, or a crown for a king. Later in the Iron Age metal crowns developed, as well as laurel wreaths. Even the concept of the tiara comes from the primitive diadem. In the ancient near east, the band of cloth might be woven through a metal band. And the diadem or band of a bride or king might be adorned with a jewel or a special sign. In our country we do not have coronations or crowns. But we know these events are events of joy and hope for the future of a nation and a people. Our own presidential inaugurations are times when people are hopeful for the future.
Now Paul who wrote Galatians is not the poet Isaiah is. He is much more down to earth, and sort of gritty in his language. But his letter to the Galatian Christians coming about 400 years after Isaiah, has two practical images of hope and joy that are important as well. One is the fulfillment of the debt. This is embedded in the word “redeem.” He speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of that which was due. He speaks of the joy and hopefulness that comes when a debt is retired, or when that final payment is made on a loan or obligation. It may not be as flowery as light or spring or a wedding. But that is Paul. He speaks about how it feels to make that final payment is made. Jesus is that kind of joy and hope.
And then he uses another practical image of hope: adoption. We sometimes think of Paul as using adoption in an abstract way. But it is much more down to earth and real in the early church. One of the things the church did was take in those children, especially female infants who were rejected by their families, left on the street to die. That was part of the Roman culture. The first house churches began to take in and care for many infants rejected by their families. That’s one of the reasons the church grew so quickly. When Paul speaks of adoption, he is speaking to adopted people. And he is speaking about an early mission of the church. His words on adoption would be the personal experience of many and would have been heard as a basic image of hope and joy.
In the third reading, Luke also tells a story using elements of the story as images of hope and joy. Like Paul, Luke also uses the fulfillment of the obligation. This time it is the religious obligation of the parents. As we go about our daily lives in the family and household, as we fulfill the usual responsibilities of our families; we also provide hope for our children. We value them. Luke’s story uses the childhood of Jesus, in Nazareth and Galilee as an image of hope. Childhood can be a time of struggle, and at the same time it remains a symbol of hope and promise.
But for Luke, the surprising primary image of hope is old age rather than youth. The older Simeon and Anna are the representatives of joy and hope in this part of the story. We do not usually think of the aged as those with the hopeful, joyous outlook. But that is the case in Luke. Simeon and Anna together provide insights into the gift of aging: wisdom, discerning the secret of hope, trust to now let go and be at peace, and the capacity to generously share. These are the strengths of the elders in Luke, and these strengths are images of hope for the future giving joy to the present.
These readings point to hope and joy. They use images that reflect the joy in our lives: weddings, the gifts of aging, retiring the debt, coronations, candles, adoption, the dawn of a new day, the joy of childhood, the coming spring. Certainly sorrow is embedded in each of these images of hope, just as Mary will know sorrow as the mother of Jesus. But let us treasure the shape of the hope and the joys we have been given. For they point to a greater joy and hope we cannot yet see, but sense has already been born.

Reflection for December 24, 2014

Luke 2:1-20

Once again we turn our attention to Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus. Every year we read this same passage because Mark and John do not have a Christmas story. The account in Matthew is problematic, even violent, and does not have the beautiful scenes and sense of angels, shepherds, and heavenly song. So every year we return to Luke.
Luke’s story is rich in meaning. I hope each of us will find our own place in the story this year. You might be an angel, or a young woman of resolve, or someone making a journey, or a supportive Joseph, or a shepherd wondering what it all means. Or you may identify with the creatures who witness God’s presence. All of that is good.
But the most important detail in Luke’s story is the manger: the animal feeder in which the baby is laid. Luke’s way of telling the story drives us to the manger as the most important thing. The manger in particular means something. Why do I say that? It’s how the story is constructed.
Luke does not lavish any detail on the birth of Jesus. The birth happens with story-telling efficiency, with just enough detail to let us fill in the blank spaces with our own imaginations, so that the story takes root in the heart of the hearer. Despite this economy of detail, the manger is mentioned more than anything else, three times in verses seven, twelve, and sixteen. The story is divided into three scenes and the manger is mentioned in each section of the story. Further, it is the one thing in the story that Luke calls a symbol or a sign. Luke points to this manger thing and is telling us that it means something: that it is in, with, and through the manger we will find the meaning we seek. Finally, Luke tells the shepherds and any who hear the story that we should all go to the manger to see what has come to pass. The manger is the subtle central detail of Luke’s Christmas.
So what does the manger mean? What does it represent? This is hard work. It’s one of the reasons we preachers like to focus on all the other things. There is no deep theological or scriptural tradition regarding mangers. There might be several possibilities, but the manger’s meaning may actually be difficult to discern.
The manger is not a common reference in the Bible. The poet and prophet Isaiah speaks of a manger in verse three of chapter one of the Isaiah collection. Here Isaiah is saying that even though a simple animal knows its manger, its feeding place, God’s people do not know God. That’s a good poetic image, but it probably is not what Luke has in mind.
Or some have suggested that the manger ties the Christ child to animals and creation. That too is a possibility, but there is nothing in the story as it is told to suggest that this is why Luke emphasizes it so much.
Away in the manger, no crib for a bed, we sing, implying that the meaning of the manger is that Jesus’ family was poor and they could not afford a bed for their baby. But it is not the poverty of Mary and Joseph that is lifted up in this story. They are ordinary, that’s true. But they are more blue collar than poor. And if they had been at home, they would have had some sort of cradle. The swaddling clothes are not a sign of poverty, but of special, loving care given to the child. Swaddling clothes are not rags but special clothes used by families to greet their new born. Indeed, Mary and Joseph may have packed this special cloth for their journey.
And that leads us to the best possible meaning for the manger, the animal feeder. The thrust of the story is the forced travel of an expectant couple at an awkward time caused by government decree. The story’s details speak to the crush of too many people traveling to too many places. Lodging, food and shelter are all scarce. There is no room. And in such settings, ordinary things, whatever is available, what we have around, what is common, is pressed into service, even in a makeshift way, for divine purposes.
Let me say that again: ordinary things, whatever is available, what we have around, what is common, are pressed into service, even in a makeshift way, for divine purposes. A baby needs to be put to bed. What do have? What is available in this stable? An animal feeder. A manger. Ordinary things, whatever is available, what we have around, what is common, are pressed into service, even in a makeshift way, for divine purposes.
Now this may not seem like much of a meaning. But it is. It is not a lofty theological construction. It’s a fact of life, especially life in the spirit.  For we use what we have, we make things do, we adapt what there is: and the common elements of life, the ordinary things are thus used for divine purposes. God’s presence is found in the contingencies of life. God is present as we pull things together, in the temporary arrangements, in the ordinary details of meals shared and eaten alone, in the sudden makeshift times of life, in small gifts which are really the manger of our love for another, in the everyday events of life shared in relationship, and in the simple task of writing a check so that others might have a place to sleep or the money they need.  The ordinary things, whatever is available, what we have around, what is common, are pressed by God into service, even in a makeshift way, for divine purposes. God it seems uses even the most mundane contingencies as vessels of the spirit. A few candles, a bit of bread and wine, a stanza or two of an old song, in the middle of winter, and suddenly we are in the deep end of God’s love for humanity. God is involved in the ordinary. And what we think is contingent and temporary is actually the means by which eternity is established.
This may be one of the most substantial themes of Luke. Later in the story of Jesus, ordinary loaves of bread and fish, what happens to be around, become the divine means for feeding the multitude. Later in Luke the common things like a farmer sowing seed, a Samaritan on the road, the broken relationship between a parent and child, the building of a house, or the dying of a fig tree: the common things are used by Jesus to reveal the divine purpose of his heavenly Abba.  And in the end of Luke, the simple breaking of the bread, the sharing of wine, after a walk with friends reveals the presence of the risen Christ.
So this manger, this animal feeder calls us to think on how God uses the things at hand for God’s purposes. God uses what is there to help us see more deeply into the mysteries of grace. God places the sacred in whatever is available. And whatever is available, even when it is deemed profane, or perhaps even evil by the end of Luke’s story, can become the cradle of love.
The manger. Ordinary things, whatever is available, what we have around, what is common, are pressed into service, even in a makeshift way, for divine purposes.
And what is the scope of that divine purpose embedded in such ordinary details? That might also be revealed by the manger if we recall what a manger was usually constructed of and how the animals were fed.  We think of mangers as being constructed of wood with legs on them. Some probably were. But most were probably made of stone. Why? Because wood was scarce, and there was a lot of stone in Palestine. We think of Joseph as a carpenter. But the word probably originally meant stone mason. Things were made of stone because stone was available and because it was durable. And if you Google first century mangers you will see lots of rectangle stone boxes resting on the ground. Rectangle enclosures that would be filled with hay.
This rectangular stone shape was used not only to feed animals but also for burial. It is the shape of a sepulcher. The dead would be laid in such a stone arrangement that resembles the shape of mangers. By pressing a manger into service for a cradle, at least one of the shepherds would have sensed that a child was lying in a coffin.
Now what could that mean? Ordinary things, whatever is available, what we have around, what is common, are pressed into service, even in a makeshift way, for divine purposes. Does God use even death to accomplish the divine purpose? Does God press into service our old enemy death to bring about the fullness of grace? Does God use even that which we dread to accomplish the good? That is a manger meaning worthy of the great story teller Luke.
And on this night, in this room, with these songs and readings, repeated here each year since World War I, echoing in this chamber and through the centuries, we sense the presence of those who have died in faith. And with them around us we know the manger means that the child, laid in the form of death, will bring us to the fullness of God’s love, one detail at a time.

Reflection for December 21, 2014: The Fullness of Four

Today with readings and carols, we light the fourth candle of the advent wreath and complete the circle. In Christian thought, four has been a symbol of completion, fullness, and solid foundations. There are four weeks of Advent preparation. There are forty days in Lent. And Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The wilderness wandering in the book of Exodus is forty years, a symbol of a complete generation. As Christians we have four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride in the Book of Revelation as a sign of the ultimate end. And there are four primary virtues: wisdom, justice, restraint, and courage. Four stands for a completed cycle, the fullness of time, and a solid base.
Four’s fullness is embedded in basic human thought. There are four basic mathematical functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The four sided rectangle is the basic building block for civilization. There are four cardinal directions on our compasses. And a 360 degree circle is divided into four quadrants.
In Buddhism there are four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path through suffering. And there are four great elements: earth, water, fire, and wind.
In the Passover celebrated by Jews there are four cups of wine to drink as well as four questions asked and answered.
In Hinduism there are four aims of human life and four stages of life: student life, household life, retired life, and renunciation, as well as four primary castes or strata of society: priest/teacher, warrior/politician, landowner/entrepreneur and servant/laborer).   And in Islam there are four sacred months.
Aristotle held that there are basically four causes in nature: the efficient cause, the matter, the end, and the form forming the foundation needed to think about why things happen. That same four footed foundation is found in our cars and truck that have four wheels to the road.
In classical music, common time is constructed of four beats and four is the number of movements in a symphony. We even use the  phrase “four-letter word” to describe most swear words in the English language, as most swear words do indeed possess four letters. There are four suits to playing cards. And four years in a single Olympiad.
The sense of the balance and completeness found in four is not only religious and philosophical. It is embedded in our biology. It is by fours that the base types of DNA and RNA are constructed. Many creatures, including us, have four appendages, and the hearts of all mammals have four chambers. And many mammals use four fingers for movement. And all insects with wings except flies have four wings.
Today we light four candles. This means the time is full. The circle is complete. And we are ready. There is no better day than this to reflect on what God is completing in your life? What is coming to a conclusion for you? Or to think about the solid foundation that you will need to open the next chapter of life. Or to think on what our community and nation needs as we face the future together. Certainly we will need wisdom, justice, restraint, and courage as we approach this coming year. And as we approach this season of nativity, may it be full of God’s blessings, may we find our balance and completeness, and may we recover the foundation we need in order to build both our personal and public faith in the coming season.

Reflection for December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8

Recovery and resilience. Perhaps no nation was more defeated than Japan at the end of World War II. What began on December 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor ended in radioactive ruins. And the nationalistic belief system that supported the war was in shambles. Great numbers were suffering deep wounds. And many more would die from radiation and war’s aftermath. As we Americans celebrated our victory, our defeated enemy was faced with the most profound issue facing the human spirit: recovery and resilience.
With help from the allies, especially America, starting in the late 1940’s, Japan began to rebuild, first with massive construction projects, then with the production of trinkets and toys, later on with transistors, electronics, and automobiles. How many Toyotas do we drive now? Somehow the Japanese recovered. Japan’s economy now faces new challenges. And their region of the world requires new wisdom. But Japan’s recovery of the last sixty years is a remarkable story of struggle and persistence in the adversity of defeat.
Recovery and resilience. Perhaps one of the best places to see it is in the physical therapy room of a care center. Outpatients and inpatients are learning again to use their legs and arms. People are recovering, learning to walk and move again. They extend their range of motion to its limits. They repeat over and over the exercises that give birth to strength. The days pass. The sessions continue. And slowly, by means of an inner resolve and a persistent therapist, the health of the body is recovered. And people go on.
Recovery and resilience. It does not matter if you are Bhutanese, Irish, Hispanic, German, African American, Italian, Chinese, or even a Norwegian who has read Giants of the Earth. Embedded in your current life or the history of your family is the story of immigrant struggle, persistence, resilience, and recovery. Overcoming politics, war, famine, economic collapse, persecution, drought, plague, and prejudice is part of who we are and defines our place in this nation of those who struggle to build. For we who inhabit the upper Mid-West of North America are a people of immigrant laborers and farmers, and we know in our gut what it means to be resilient and to recover.
Recovery and resilience. Our human story, through the millennia of our existence in every time and place is the story of recoveries by resilient people. This is what made the historical novels of James Michener so popular at the end of the last century. Whether one is Native American or a Berliner at the close of World War II, someone engaged in a struggle with cancer, an American at the end of the War of 1812, a Cambodian villager in the 1970’s, a Korean whose grandfather fled south in the invasion,  a victim of domestic abuse building a new life, a Syrian refugee,  a depression era farmer in Kansas or Oklahoma, or someone who remembers Wisconsin football in the 1980’s: whoever we are, our human story is one of coming back in the face of loss, despair, and defeat.
Until finally it is time to exercise that ultimate recovery that comes through death, that final time when the resilience of the body gives way to the resilience of the spirit, and we walk into a different place, a different space.
Recovery and resilience. That is the theme of human life. That is the theme in these readings this morning. They speak to what it means to be human, to find that resilience needed to recover. And the readings provide ancient clues to how resilience begins, how it is rekindled in the human heart.
As we look at Isaiah, Mark, and 2 Peter (the order in which the readings were probably written), the first thing we sense is how old they are. The most recent of the readings is almost 2,000 years old. The oldest may be 2,500 years old. Think about that. Their ancient age witnesses to the instinctive nature of recovery and resilience for the human creature. Recovery is not something that has just happened in our own generation or century or by our own reason or strength. It is common to all humans. Yet its commonness should not fool us into thinking it is ever easy or simple. At the core of human resilience is something called personal courage, and personal courage is a special, precious thing: our most important treasure. Resilience has been the story of humanity. As we recover, doing what humans do, we contribute our own courage to the great human story. But how does courage well up in our hearts again?
You know, St. John’s is filled with many homeless people down and out, day after day, week after week. As a pastor, I really cannot be of much help. The needs are overwhelming really. And on the streets there is so much despair. But whenever I do sense that stirring of the soul in someone struggling, that fresh sense of recovery, I am called by my office to lift up, nurture and kindle that stirring. It is the very first thing that happens in recovery, the first wind of change that blows in the human heart. How does that courage well up in the heart again? Sometimes it begins when we hear a phrase, a poem or song. Sometimes what seems frozen in place begins to melt. Sometimes we encounter a forerunner.
Isaiah’s nation has been destroyed by foreign invaders. But this reading is a song or poem of the first stirring of the nation’s spirit. It’s not a poem about Christian Advent or Christmas. None of that. It’s about a nation getting back on its feet. Here the first step of recovery is a song. Isaiah’s poem is the important stirring of the despondent national soul. The poem rekindles the spirit and begins the recovery after a crushing defeat.  Here is a 2,500 year old melody with a chorus that proclaims that we can make it through this, with the help of God. We will come back. And the first steps on the long road to recovery are always accompanied by poets and musicians writing the anthem of courage heard again in the hearts of the despondent. What is your song of courage and hope?
II Peter is written at a time of persecution. The growth of the early church is now frozen by fear, and the church is withering under the glacial pressures of political might. The first small urban congregations are no match for the power of the empire. But Peter’s language is interesting. He speaks of how the forces of oppression will (and listen to this) dissolve or melt. The glacial weight of the empire’s cold cruelty will dissolve in the warmth of God’s love. (If you are a young person, you may be familiar with a recent movie about this.) Things that seem frozen forever in place will start to dissolve and melt. There is no better image for us in Wisconsin as we ponder resilience and recovery than how the impending piles of snow and ice will have their season. Then we will begin to see water dripping as a spring thaws our world. This initial melting brings the first stirring upon which recovery and all springtime longing is based. Sometimes what seems frozen in place begins to melt. The winter of the soul will not last forever. Eventually we will be brought into the full brightness of the love of God.
Kata Markon, the gospel reading this morning, also speaks to the beginning of human recovery: how it gets started. In Mark, the recovery does not begin with a song in the heart, nor with the image of thawing out. In Mark recovery begins when we encounter a forerunner. It begins with John the Baptist. As resilience dawns, there is often a forerunner, a coach, someone or something that points the way, a foreshadowing of the time that is to come, someone whose presence reveals  that things are about to change. In our time and our own lives, often we recall those people who have helped us see that things could change, those people who showed us the way of resilience, those people who pointed out the first steps on the path to recovery.
This story of John the Baptist reminds us that recovery always involves a wilderness struggle, a wrestling with the forces around us and in us as we find our way through the wilderness and begin to take those first steps, often with someone holding our hand and moving us along.
The first steps to finding resilience, the first steps in recovery may involve hearing again the song of God’s hope, or sensing the coming thaw in your frozen world, or hearing the encouraging word of a forerunner. Apparently, it has been that way for humans of every generation, of every time and place. May the memory of those who have gone before, who have heard the song, sensed the season, and shown the way kindle in us the courage we need for our intimate and public futures.