Gritty

When I played sports growing up (field hockey and lacrosse), I was often told that I was “scrappy.” I think that meant I wasn’t always as skilled as the other players, but I refused to let that hold me back. I would usually come out with a few bumps and bruises, and during one memorable lacrosse season I received the superlative award “Most Likely to Be Carded.” Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved the Flyers. They’re scrappy, too. Or better yet, gritty. As is Jesus’ message: it takes heart, it takes determination, and it isn’t always pretty. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve been following along with our sports sermon series, you know that this week it’s all about Gritty, the newly unveiled mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. And you might be wondering just what exactly Gritty has to do with Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. Gritty is a seven-foot-tall, furry orange creature with googly eyes. Legend has it that Gritty emerged after construction work on the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers play, destroyed his natural habitat.

Really though, the Flyers realized they were one of only three teams without a mascot, and wanted to get in on the fun. In designing Gritty, they agonized over every detail. How tall should he be, how long should his hair be, how big should his eyes be. They even debated whether or not to give him a belly button. But one thing that was never in doubt was his name: Gritty.

Because if one word encapsulates Flyers’ hockey, it’s gritty. From their early days as the first expansion team in the NHL, through the golden years of the 70s, and to today, the Flyers have been proud of their reputation as a rough-playing crew. In the 70s, in the course of winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row, they earned the nickname, “Broad Street Bullies.”

They had a reputation around the league for their physical, rough style of play. Dave Shultz set a league record with 472 penalty minutes. Others teams criticized the Flyers, though, saying that they weren’t doing things the “right way.” They weren’t respecting the game.

But in 1976, the Soviet Red Army team was touring the US in exhibition games. They’d been cleaning up. No one could beat them. They played like a well-oiled machine, every move perfect. The final game of the exhibition series would be in Philadelphia. Suddenly, the Broad Street Bullies, instead of being the black sheep, were America’s last hope for victory.

Their play was so rough, that the Soviets left the ice, refusing to play. Only after they were threatened with the loss of their salaries did they return. The Flyers won easily, 4-1. The Bullies had proven that you could beat perfect precision with a lot of heart and some good old-fashioned grit.

You might still be wondering, “What does this have to do with Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah?” What is gritty about that wonderful promise that Jesus has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor? To bring good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free?

Jesus is, essentially, declaring his mission statement to the gathered crowds at the synagogue. Last week, I mentioned that turning water into wine was Jesus’ first public act of ministry in John. In Luke, it’s this reading. This is the very first thing Jesus does after being baptized and then tempted by Satan. He’s telling us what his ministry is going to be about and although it might not seem like it at first, it’s going to be gritty.

Jesus comes to bring good news, to announce God’s salvation. But good news isn’t always easy news, or comfortable news. Sometimes, it’s challenging news. Notice how specific this announcement is: good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Freedom for the oppressed. What if you’re not a captive? What if you’re not only not oppressed, but privileged? What if you’re not poor, but might in fact, have more than enough? This good news just got a little more complicated.

When Jesus mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he’s talking about the Jubilee year. The time, every fifty years, when all debts are forgiven, all slaves are freed, all lands are returned to their original owners. Good news if you’re a slave, or in debt, or lost your land. Not so great if you own slaves, or own debts, or acquired land in the last fifty years. This good news is starting to seem a little offensive.

People are starting to question whether it’s good news at all. The very next thing that happens after our reading today—the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ friends and neighbors, people who have known him all his life—they run him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff, because they are very sure that this is NOT good news. They don’t succeed, but others will, later on, when they crucify Jesus for living out this very mission. They didn’t think it was good news, either.

So, what do we think? What do we think of this Jesus who has come to bring salvation, who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor? Is it good news for us? Or is it troubling? Perhaps it’s both. Because the announcement of the year of the Lord’s favor might mean difficult things for us. It might mean giving up some of the things that make us privileged in the name of justice. God’s jubilee might mean that we have to adjust the way we do things.

But Jesus’ announcement—that he has come to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free—it is surely good news for us and for all people. It might be complicated, it might be messy, but it is most definitely good. Because it means that God comes to bring salvation, not for the perfect but for the imperfect. Not for the healthy, but for the ill. Not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. Not for the strong, but for the weak. God comes to bring salvation, that is, for us.

God comes to free us from what keeps us bound, to make whole what is broken, to bring hope where there is despair, forgiveness where there is pain and new life where there is emptiness. And not just to us, but to all society. In the Jubilee year, the land itself was restored and renewed. God’s salvation is for all the earth, that our world and society might be set free from hate, from evil, from greed.

And that salvation is now. Jesus gives possibly the shortest sermon ever after he reads from Isaiah. Just nine words: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today. God’s good news, with all its complexities, with all its grittiness—it isn’t waiting from some distant future day. Today, this day, God brings release. Today, God brings liberation. Today, God brings healing and renewal.

Because today, we receive the same one who declared his mission in Nazareth all those years ago. May we receive the healing, hope, and good news he brings. And may we make his mission our own. Amen.

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We All We Got, We All We Need

Welcome to Week 2 of our Phanatics sermon series. This week, the Philadelphia Eagles. (Unfortunately, they didn’t give us a win last week, but the message is still a good one!) I have to say, the Wedding at Cana is probably one of my favorite stories from the Gospels. There’s so much interesting stuff packed into these verses. Why does Jesus respond so abruptly to his mother? What does it mean that his hour has not yet come? Is there any significance to the number of jars? What role do we most identify in this story? There’s so much here, it’s hard to choose one focus point. But this time around, I chose to focus on the abundance that Jesus provides. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I’m performing a wedding, I always tell couples that something is going to go wrong. I’m not trying to scare them, or to tempt fate, but simply to prepare them. And to manage expectations. Something is going to go wrong. There’s so many moving parts in a wedding, it’s almost inevitable.

For Tim and me, it was the shuttle that was supposed to get guests to and from the reception. It got them there, but it never came back at the end of the night. Luckily, that one was easily solved with a phone call to the hotel and an extra 15-minute wait. Sometimes, someone spills something. Or a groomsman forgets his cufflinks. Or someone’s running late.

It might not be disastrous, but usually something goes wrong. I tell couples that, and then I tell them not to worry about it, because they’re going to end up getting married anyway. Even with something going wrong, at the end of the day they will be married and that is the most important thing.

Sometimes, the things that go wrong are a bigger problem than a late shuttle, though. The problem our wedding couple at Cana is running into is actually a huge deal. They’ve run out of wine. This isn’t, of course, a situation where you can just go get some more.

Running out of wine is more than just embarrassing, as it would be today. In the ancient world, hospitality, how you treated guests, was hugely important. Weddings were weeklong affairs, where everyone would come to the groom’s house to celebrate the couple. Hosting this crowd was an honor and a way to display the importance of the family. This couple, and their families, risked not just embarrassment, but shame. Loss of their social standing and a negative reputation.

And Mary takes notice of this. It’s not clear really if anyone else has noticed, but Mary at least is paying attention. And, concerned for the couple, she brings this problem to Jesus, telling him, “they have no wine.” Jesus, almost reluctantly, eventually listens to his mother and solves the problem, turning water into wine.

It’s a miraculous solution to the problem, but it’s not just miraculous, it’s extravagantly so. There’s six jars, holding twenty or thirty gallons each. Someone better at math than me did all the conversions to realize that we’re talking about almost 1,000 bottles of wine. And not just any wine, the steward notes. He hasn’t seen the miracle but is amazed anyway. This is the good stuff. Once the guests are drunk, most people are serving Franzia straight from the box, but here, at the end, is the best wine of the celebration.

Jesus’ response to the problem of no wine is not a simple fix. This first miracle, his first public act of ministry in the Gospel of John, it isn’t a healing or an exorcism, or a teaching. But instead it’s an absolute abundance. An overflowing amount of joy. He provides so much more than is needed.

I think sometimes we all fall victim to the mentality of looking around us, and only seeing what we don’t have. Only seeing holes, only seeing what’s lacking. “We all we got, we all we need,” became the motto of the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly play out well for them last Sunday night.

But last year! Last year, after their star quarterback Carson Wentz had a season ending injury in December, team leader and safety Malcolm Jenkins gave an inspiring speech in the locker room after the game. He knew that many people would now be saying that the Eagles had no chance in the playoffs without Wentz. That they didn’t have what it took.

And he declared to his teammates, “We all we got, we all we need.” Believe that everything we need to succeed is right here. Look around this locker room and instead of seeing what’s missing, see what’s here. He used a little more colorful language than that, of course. But he was right. The Eagles did have all they needed. And they won the Super Bowl. It started with a mindset of seeing what they had as being enough.

God provides abundantly far more than we need. I’m not talking about points on a scoreboard or players in the starting lineup. Those things are fun for us sometimes, but they’re definitely not what God is most concerned with. God provides for so much more important needs: love, the ability to care for each other, gifts and talents and passions.

Only sometimes, we get so caught up in the idea that there isn’t enough, that we’re unable to see the abundance right in front of us. Instead of living with the mindset of abundance, we live with the myth of scarcity, believing that there isn’t enough. When we live our lives by the myth of scarcity, we are never satisfied but always wanting. When we live our lives by the myth of scarcity, we are always in competition with every other form of life on the planet. When we live our lives by this myth, other peoples’ successes, other peoples’ blessings, become bad news for us because we think we’re all fighting for the same small pool.

But in this story of water turned into wine, we have a powerful new narrative by which we can live new lives. We can be generous. We can take risks. We can act like guests at a wedding feast, filled with thanksgiving and joy. We can stop viewing fellow human beings as our competition and instead see them as our companions. Because we do in fact have enough. Sometimes, we might need to ask ourselves what “enough” really looks like. Because we have enough food on this planet to feed everyone, and yet people still starve. We have enough space to house everyone, and yet people are still homeless. We have enough, but we often don’t use it well enough to care for everyone.

But God has given us enough. God has given us more than enough, because God has given us God’s very self. We are called to be the stewards of what God has given. The steward in our story is amazed and overjoyed at what God has done (although he doesn’t know who did it). But he sees this miracle of abundance and simply delights in it. And then, because he is the steward, he would have shared it. He would have made sure that everyone had a taste of this marvelous abundance.

We are God’s stewards in this world. We have been tasked with caring for what God has given us. Like the steward in Cana, we can delight in how magnificent that is. How deeply satisfying, how nourishing, how fulfilling it is. And then we can take up the task of seeing that what God has given us—our lives, our ability to care, our resources, and God’s own love—is spread around. Is shared with all those in need.

“We all we got, we all we need.” The Eagles were on to something in the way they chose to view their situation. They saw abundance instead of lack. There’s a lesson there for all of us. We do in fact have all we need, but only because we have something much bigger than ourselves. We have God, who gives generously and abundantly, fulfilling our needs with overflowing grace. Amen.

Trust the Process

This past Sunday began a four-week sermon series called “Phanatics.” It’s focusing on the four major Philly sports teams, beginning with the 76ers and their motto, “Trust the Process.” The sports are just an entry point into the main focus of each sermon, though, so even if you’re not a phanatic, these are still for you! This first sermon is on the Baptism of Our Lord as told in Luke 3. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Trust the process. It’s a phrase I heard a lot in seminary. Trust the process. When my classmates or I would worry about where in the country we’d be assigned, about whether there’d be a church for us, or jobs for our spouses, about what it meant to be answering this call in a changing church landscape, we’d hear the familiar refrain: trust the process. Trust that God is at work in this process and go where the Spirit takes you.

We said it again and again at our synod gathering last spring, as we elected a new bishop. Trust the process. As five hundred voting members from the hundred and fifty congregations of Southeastern Pennsylvania wrote down the name of a pastor—any Lutheran pastor—on a blank piece of paper: Trust the process. The Holy Spirit is at work and will raise up a new leader for us. And sure enough, after two days and five votes, we had a new bishop—the first black female bishop in our denomination’s history.

Trust the process. I’d heard it in church circles for a while, so when the Sixers took it up as their motto, I stopped to listen. This was not the normal sports process that they were talking about. In the years since Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala had left the team, we’d gone from good, to middle of the road, to pretty bad.

When a new GM comes aboard, you expect them to talk about how we can be good again. How we can win. Instead, Sam Hinkie talked about a process. A process that started with absolutely destroying the team. Trading away our only All-Star player. Tanking. At one point in 2015, the Sixers lost a league record 28 games in a row.

And still Hinkie, the coaches, the players all said to trust the process. By being so terrible, we were able to get great draft picks. A new team started to emerge from this absolute mess. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz. Trust the process. Last season the sixers finished third in the conference and made it to the second round of the playoffs.

Sometimes death is the thing that leads to new life. What exists must die so that something new can be born in its place. Today is the day when we remember the Baptism of Our Lord. And what is baptism but a process of dying and rising again?

In baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. We are drowned in the waters of baptism so that we might be reborn to a new life in Christ. Usually most of our focus goes on the second half of that process—the rebirth. But in order for that rebirth to happen, our old self must die.

We die to sin and are made alive in Christ. What does that mean? It means change, which is never easy, or comfortable, even if the end result is good. It means that God is seeking to wash away, to get rid of, to put to death the things that keep us from fully living as God intends. Maybe that’s a harmful mindset, where we’re constantly looking down on ourselves or others, or being judgmental. Maybe it’s prejudiced ways of thinking. Maybe it’s things that we do that are hurtful to ourselves or to other people in our lives. Dying to sin means self-examination, prayer, and change.

That’s not necessarily a fun process. It wasn’t fun when the Sixers were losing 28 games in a row. It’s not fun to get to that rock bottom place where change finally begins to happen. John the Baptist speaks of God coming with and baptizing with fire, which is a scary image, but fire both destroys and purifies. The wheat and the chaff? Those are two parts of the same head of grain. The chaff dies in order for the wheat to be able to be harvested. It’s not a fun process, but it’s one that leads to new beginnings and new life.

And, it needs to be said, this is not a process that we’re in on our own. It’s God’s process. Notice when Jesus is baptized, in Luke’s account, it doesn’t actually say that John baptizes Jesus. We skipped some verses where we learn that John is actually imprisoned by Herod. So, who baptizes Jesus then?

God does. The Holy Spirit does. The same Spirit that baptizes us. Pastors are just here to say the words out loud. It’s God who does the baptizing. It’s God who washes away our sin; it’s God who reforms and reshapes us. It’s God who claims us forever, who says to us, just as the Spirit said to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved.”

We do not go through this process of dying and rising on our own. We do not go through the difficult times in our lives, the agonizing times alone. As God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah: when you pass through waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. You are mine.

When we are baptized, we are marked with the cross of Christ. Marked as God’s forever. We do not do this alone. When Katelyn is baptized (at the second service/in a few minutes), it will mark the beginning of a process. A process of dying and rising. Of being washed and reborn.

It is only the beginning, because even though we are baptized once, it is an act that we live into for our whole lives. As Martin Luther explained in his Small Catechism, “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness.”

It’s a process. A process initiated by God because of God’s great love for us. A process that makes us see ourselves as God does: precious, favored, wanted, and beloved beyond all measure. Trust the process. Trust in God who brings new life out of death, who brings resurrection out of the darkness of the tomb. The God who creates in us new beginnings and new life. Amen.