Unfulfilled Dreams

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’ 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

Less than a month before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. returned home to Ebenezer Baptist Church.  He was there to preach to the community that baptized and ordained him.  The title of his sermon for the day was “Unfulfilled Dreams.”  

He preached on 1 Kings 8, about a little phrase that the God had spoken to David. David, as we know, never completed one of his biggest dreams.  It was Solomon, not David, who built the temple that was David’s dream.  Yet 1 Kings has God telling David, “You did well to consider building a house for my name” or in the King James language Rev. King used, “Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart.”

Martin Luther King Jr. took this words from God and preached it as it was first heard to David, then to the congregation, but then as pastors so often do, you can just hear in this sermon how he was preaching to himself.  We know Martin Luther King Jr. as the hero, as the one whose vision has been vindicated and accepted, even as we imperfectly move toward it.  But to him, this glory wasn’t far from assured.  Like David, Martin Luther King Jr. knew that his dreams were not likely to be fulfilled. 

Yet, what he heard in this scripture, this tiny little overlooked verse, what he wrung out of this text was the promise from God that trying was good enough.  That is was about the orientation of our heart, our intention, that God honors.  He said near the end of the sermon, “I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony.  You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint.  Oh, no.  I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s childrens.  But I want to be a good man.”     

It is almost heartbreaking to hear this, the testimony of a man we know and honor as a great man, standing before his church family and before God simply asking to be known as good.  

I’ve read that Americans these days may have left this kind of longing far behind, as we now accept that we are good, maybe great even.  That we have an over-inflated sense of self, that it’s a problem of over-confidence than lack-of-confidence.  And for churches and preachers this can make it much more difficult to convince Americans that we are, in fact, sinful creatures.  In short, we don’t need convincing that we are good, because we know we are.    

I have seen this and believe it to a certain extent, but I don’t trust it entirely.  Because what we say and do on the surface can often hide our real insecurities.   I have seen the longing Martin Luther King Jr. had.  This deep desire to be known as good.  The desire to be liked, to be loved, to be seen as someone worthwhile, someone good.  In fact, overconfidence can be a mask for deep insecurities and a desire to be loved and known and seen as good that we all have.  We want to hear these words, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” 

Of course, these are the words God said over Jesus during his baptism.  As Jesus came out from the waters of the Jordan river after joining right in on this wild baptism thing, Mark says the heavens were torn apart.  The Spirit descended.  And God came right to the river, right to the mud, right to the ragtag group of followers, to John the Baptizer with his camel’s hair clothes, to Jesus, and declared God’s pleasure.  This was good.  This was worthy of love. 

And this was before Jesus even did anything.  This is the beginning of his ministry, the very first time we meet Jesus in Mark.  Maybe his divinity was worth declaring good.  But there’s hopefulness here that God’s blessing comes as an act of grace.  Jesus is beloved not because of what he is going to do, but because of who he is.  God’s blessing comes as undeserved grace.  

We can travel far away from understanding God’s blessing upon the world, upon us, as good.  It’s a blessing that comes right at the beginning of creation, in the beginning as Genesis says, when God was creating the world, God continually called what God saw “good.”  This, remarkably, included us, the humans.  As beings created in God’s own image, as beloved children, we too were called good.  But we’re quick to abandon this blessing God gives. 

But we have to come back to this, go back to the beginning, go back to the blessing of God, because do people need to hear this.  I know this because there are powerful people who continue to lie and tell people that they are not valued.  That where they live makes them less worthy.  But that’s not of God.  

Because in God’s eyes, the people of Haiti are good.

The people of Africa are good.

Do you know why they’re good?  Because they are people created in the image of God. Full stop.  

Guess what, church?  We’ve forgotten this, time and time again, preferring judgment to the knowledge that God loves and offers grace freely, abundantly.  That God called our world good.  That God doesn’t judge separate from this world, but becomes fully human to be a part of it, and it well pleased with that!  

We are good to God and worthy of love.  

Here’s the other way we could imagine God.  We could imagine God distant from our world.  Judgmental of our world.  An unmoved mover.  Aloof.  Elite.  Out of touch.  

But here, when we come to recount this story of the day when Christ was baptized, we hear anything but.  The story goes that God tore open the heavens to send a blessings to earth.  That Jesus asked to be baptized, to be brought alongside all of these other people who were seeking a new way of life, to get right in the river with them. 

And God was pleased because it was good.  

If only we could believe this.  If we could believe it about ourselves.  What would it mean about how we viewed the world if we believed that we were good?  Maybe greater yet, what if we believed those around us were good?

We are witnessing in our society right now such a lack of appreciation of the good that is to be found in others.  I think of the world Martin Luther King Jr. inhabited and I think it is no wonder that he sought to be considered good in a world that was telling him he was less than the white men around him.  And Rev. King’s dream is still unfulfilled!  White privilege is alive and well. Police decisions motivated by fear and distrust, an inability to believe that a young black man could be good, lead to senseless killings. Need I say again how entire countries are dismissed out of hand.  

Yet these are beloved children of God!

It is my faith, it is my belief of who God is, it is my study of scripture that makes me want to shout this until all know and understand.  

I wish I could sit down with Martin Luther King Jr. and tell him, yes, yes, you are a good man.  Because God has come to you and names you as beloved.  And you are good.  

That I could tell this to all who doubt their self-worth, who have to listen to the other voices that dismiss them, who push them aside who say they are not valued.  To let them know that this is not how God sees them.  

Today, let the sky open.  Let God send the Spirit on those who need to hear that they are beloved, that they are good.  

Centered Joy

Matthew 25:1-13 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Have you ever met a person that just radiates good? Someone who spreads joy, who makes everyone who encounters them feel at home?  I met someone like this seven years ago at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  His name is Brother Paul.

I met Brother Paul through an opportunity I had through a class I took at Baldwin-Wallace.  I was taking a class on Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer and monk.  In this small class we read many of Merton’s books and sat around and talked about God, religion, and the contemplative life.  The highlight of the course was traveling down to Kentucky to the Abbey of Gethsemani which was Thomas Merton’s monastery.  


This is a photo of the Abbey of Gethsemani.  The weekend I spent there among the monks and my classmates was holy.  And yet it was simple.  We followed the monks in times of prayer, meals, times of work, times of gathering together.  All together it was this time of heightened spirituality, where God felt so close.  

It didn’t hurt that I was also able to share the weekend with my new boyfriend at the time, who many of you now know as my husband Josh.


Here at the Abbey life was and still is marked by silence.  It is somewhat strange then that my memory of the weekend is not of silence, but of laughter. 

My classmates and I had an opportunity that weekend to sit down with Brother Paul to talk.  Brother Paul had been a student of Thomas Merton and we were to ask him questions about his life and Merton.  I don’t remember many of our questions or answers, but I do remember Brother Paul’s laughter. 


Here is Brother Paul and Josh.  We sat at the Abbey in a special “monks only” area under a ginkgo tree.  It was a warm October day, as we sat in the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the tree.  

Brother Paul was radiant.  He had this energy almost unlike anything I had ever seen and unlike anything I have experienced since.  He was full of joy and laughter, so unlike any kind of solemn expectations I may have placed upon him as a monk.  And he was present.  He sat there with us, interested and engaged in what we had to say, asking us questions.  

I found a PBS interview with Brother Paul where he said, and here I am quoting,  “Well, I think the purpose of the monastic life in the modern world is to show that we don’t need a purpose. The purpose of life is life, and you are to be just to be. Everybody measures their importance by how useful they are, so you need to shatter that. You know, somebody has to come along now and then just say listen, you know, that’s not it. That’s not what life is.”

Brother Paul was there.  He was ready to see us, to listen to us, to see God in us.  He was present and prepared for joy.

There is a famous Thomas Merton story from his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he talks about walking through downtown Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut.  He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

The wonderful thing about this story is that the corner of Fourth and Walnut is not an exciting place.  It’s not much more exciting than the corner of Northfield and Rockside.  Merton just happened to be ready to receive this glimpse of God.  

We hear in Matthew how there are some who are prepared with light, and some who aren’t. There are those who are ready for Jesus and those who are not.  Be ready, Matthew tells us.  

Notice which bridesmaids were ready.  They all fell asleep, they all had to wait, the ending of the night was unexpected to every single one of them there.  But the wise had extra oil and were ready for the banquet.  The foolish had to leave, to run frantically out to try and get more oil for their lamps.  

They were half present.  They brought the lamp, but not the container of oil.  

It was a silly thing.  It was a small thing, to have that extra oil ready.  The difference between wise and foolish was just a bit more preparation. 

The difference between an ordinary street corner and a moment of pure joy was maybe just a bit more attentiveness. 

I was at my sister’s house a few weeks back.  This is my sister Charity, the one who got married in October.  We were sitting at her dining room table, visiting as we waited for her husband Ahren to come home so we could all eat together.  When Ahren walked in, he immediately went over to the window and turned on two electric candles that sit in the window.  “You always forget,” he scolded Charity.  She giggled, knowing that was true.  An exasperated Ahren shook his head and that was that. 

I didn’t think of it until this past week when I was driving home from one of our choir rehearsals.  I was driving on Charity and Ahren’s street, looking for their house.  In a row of suburban homes, I still can occasionally have trouble picking out which one is theirs when it’s dark outside.  Looking through my windshield I spotted those two electric candles and instantly knew which driveway to turn down. 

Maybe Ahren had just wanted Charity to know that it only take a little light to be able to find your way home.      

It doesn’t take much to leave the light on.  I thought for a while after meeting Brother Paul that to have that kind of spiritual luminosity, I would have to give my whole life to a monastic lifestyle.  

It turns out it’s much simpler.  

Some read these parables in Matthew about the great division God puts between the wise and the foolish, how there are some who are prepared and ready to enter the joy and celebration God offers and those who are not.  

But all it took was a little oil, a moment of laughter, a bit of sunlight through the ginkgo tree.  I am coming, Jesus says. Turn on your light and see.  



John 1:6-9 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Today we hear these ancient words of John. Both the gospel of John and John the Baptist--two separate people although easy to get confused.  John the Baptist, although never labeled as such in the gospel of John, is our signpost at the beginning of the journey of Advent.  He points and we look.  

It reminds me of something my dad would do when we were kids.  All four of us would be at the kitchen table and my dad would suddenly just look up at the ceiling.  Of course, we all would then look up.  And then my dad would be laughing, because there wasn’t anything up there, he was just tricking his gullible children.  

Well, John the Baptist points toward something much more meaningful than a spot of nothing on the ceiling.  But like my siblings and me, it’s hard to not follow John’s gaze.  

We learn in the gospel of John that the baptizer John was there to witness and testify.  If these words sound legal to you, it’s because they are.  John was building a case.  John was there to witness to the truth and light of the person of Jesus Christ.  This is in direct opposition to those who set out to build a case against Jesus.  

It is in the gospel of John that we hear the most about the plot to kill Jesus.  We hear about the smear campaign that placed Jesus in front of Pilate, the political maneuvering that sentenced him to death, even though as Pilate said, there was no case against him.  Jesus was framed.  

And so, even here at the beginning, we hear the testimony of John the Baptist.  The one who went ahead of Jesus, proclaiming his light.  John says look, the truth will be illuminated here, in this story we tell about Jesus.  You will see how he was light and life. It’s not what those people said.  Let me tell you the truth.

The light that John brought wasn’t the cozy blur of Christmas tree lights. This is the bright light of investigative truth.  John the Baptist is a spotlight, turned toward the injustice of the world.  

He is a witness.  

I am here today to make a case to you that Advent is not just a cozy season of hot chocolate and Christmas lights.  Advent is a season of testimony where we are called to rise up and testify against all that is untrue and hidden in the secrecy of night.  

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. 

Because I could help but read this witness of John separate from the news.  You know the news, begun perhaps by all of the women standing up and speaking their truth through a simple two word phrase--me too.  

This has led to a dramatic cascade of truth telling, casting light on shameful patterns and habits of men abusing their power against women.  

I won’t recap the news any further for you, as I trust you have heard plenty about the names of those who have fallen from grace. 

But I do want to linger a moment longer on how I view the acts of these women who are standing up and revealing truth as acts of Advent witness.  

Think of how long it took for some of these women to get to a point where they believed they would be heard.  Think of the case they have to make, that each detail, each piece of evidence must be in place or else their truth would not be believed.  

Yet what we’re seeing is that truth telling brings more truth telling.  The powerful are not protected by their wealth and position.  

What could be more faithful to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus?  Both of these men came to speak about injustice in the world.  They talked about how the world would be turned upside down, how the mighty would fall.  They spoke about the corruption of the leaders of the day.  

This Advent, don’t shy away from testimonies of truth.  

Each week this Advent we will be looking at scriptures and studying around the theme and focus, “Leave the Light On.”  You’re going to hear a lot about light the next few weeks.  And as we journey toward the manger, we will get cozy, hushed, and reverent as we move closer to the sleeping baby Jesus. 

But this is not without remembering the bright light that John the Baptist gave witness to.  Testify to the light that causes the mighty to fall and the world to enter a new day of truth and justice. 


Worse Than a Bridesmaids Dress: Matthew 22:1-14

Have you ever seen someone wear white to a wedding?  You have, I’m certain, because the bride wears white.  But what about someone else?  That’s one of those great faux pas that you can hope you never see.  It’s funny how sacred we hold that kind of tradition. 

Now here’s another one; have you seen a bridal party gone wrong?  I’m thinking like the movie bridesmaids, when things get really out of control.  I have this theory that things go wrong because bridesmaids are often forced to wear the most ridiculous outfit.  You know the dresses I’m talking about--those ones with poofy sleeves or an unflattering hemline.  Definitely a hideous color.  So the bridesmaids get the wedding day and get so mad that they have to wear these terrible dresses that they behave just awfully.  

This is why my sister, Charity’s, wedding last weekend went so well.  She let the bridesmaids pick out their own dresses, so we all loved them.  And therefore, it was a wonderful wedding. 

Our worst wedding attire faux pas for Charity’s wedding was when my brother, Wesley, only had flip flops to wear with his dress pants for the rehearsal dinner.  He had also forgotten dress shoes for my wedding though, so I suppose fair is fair.  

Jesus told a story about a different kind of wedding.  Once again, today we are being brought into the world or parables, with all of the exaggeration and allegory parables bring.  It is not a direct narrative, a historical retelling of events that happened, but a story to open our minds, bring truth and understanding to us.  Parables tell us about God and about what the kingdom and realm of God is like.  Parables help us do this thing that we can’t help but do when we get close to the holy, we have to talk around it a bit, using all the creativity and metaphor at our disposal.  

Hear this parable again:

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

We can learn a few things about God from this, but the one that sticks out to me is how attentive God is as a host.  God cares about the details.  When we think about divinity, the holy, who God is, there’s a line of theology that has placed God as separate, other, and quite uninterested in what humanity is up to.  This is not the case if we are to trust Jesus’s parable.  

God is an attentive host.  God care about the details.  It matters if this one man is out of place, so much so that we are certainly tempted to ask, does it really matter what this guy is wearing?

And I say to you, ask the bride of the wedding where one of the guests wore white.  

What we learn from this parable and other parables is that God does care about the individual.  It’s the one lost sheep out of a hundred, the one lost coin who bring great joy.  In the gospel of Matthew there are two different stories about yeast, that tiny bit of yeast that spreads.  In one story, the yeast is good, in the other the yeast represents the Pharisees.  It is the small that spreads, that has influence.  The gospel of Matthew is also the gospel that is strict in tell what to do with the sin and the people who do follow the way of Christ.  As Matthew 18:9 says, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” And the person who would not repent is to be cut off from the church.  This is all in Matthew 18--look it up.  

One person, one idea, one moment--good or bad it is that one small thing that can affect lives.  

Ask Josh how one person can ruin a marching band. Talk to me about what shoes I wear when I want to feel powerful.  One question stars a lifelong relationship, one mutation changes the course of evolution, one protest sparks a movement. 

And God is not oblivious to the way our lives work.  God is attentive to the details of our lives.  God knows, as we must now know, that to build the realm of God will take consideration of all that we put into it.  If the realm of God is to be a place of welcome, of love and compassion, for children, for the outcasts, for all who seek refuge, why would God not be vigilant about the details?  God is an attentive host for those that God loves.  

Our attentiveness to the details of our lives in response is a way to honor God, the host extraordinaire, the one we give deference in judgment and retribution to.  We are to be good guests, to be thoughtful.  

I take these flashes of God’s judgment, the brief glimpses of outer darkness we get in scriptures like these, as moments to trust God’s vision for God’s world above my own.  It is not to encourage or revel in the judgment God brings, but to be grateful that God is paying attention and cares in such a way to create a world that prioritizes those whom we have forgotten.  

God is creating and building a world where the best can be spread, where the lost sheep and the little children take center stage, where joy is protected and honored.  God is offering a feast and celebration, one without wedding crashers.  One that looks a little bit more like this, love and hopefully for what is to come.  

Rachel McDonaldparables, matthew