The Stage of Creation

Below is my sermon from January 14, 2018, when St. Paul’s celebrated The Baptism of Our Lord. It is also Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in the U.S. Although the sermon touches on the baptism of Jesus as recorded in Mark 1, it mainly focuses on the first story of creation in Genesis 1. Even if you’re familiar with that story, take a minute or two and read it again–I find we always notice something new in even the most well known scriptures.

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

In one of my English classes in high school, we were required to read Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. Are folks familiar with it? The play tells the story of the small town of Grover’s Corners, between the years of 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its inhabitants.

What makes it unique, though, is that it is performed without a set, on an almost bare stage. There are no backdrops, no scenes, no props. The actors pantomime actions, without the physical items in their hands. The stage manager—a narrator of sorts—opens the play by setting the scene with his words.

Beginning from nothingness, Grover’s Corners is brought to life as the play begins to take shape on the blank stage. Similarly, in our first reading, from the very beginning of Genesis, the opening words of the Bible, God begins, not quite from nothing, but almost.

In the beginning when God begins to create the heavens and the earth, the earth is a formless void, and darkness covers the face of the deep. It is sometimes translated as “chaos” covering the face of the deep. Not nothing, but not truly anything either. And into this shapeless, chaotic darkness, a wind from God sweeps onto the stage. The breath, the spirit of God, makes its way to begin setting the scene.

And into the silence, God speaks: let there be light. And God separates the light from the darkness, bringing the beginnings of order to the chaotic world. Our reading only covered that first act of creation, but the poet of Genesis continues, weaving the tale of God bringing order and life and beauty out of those chaotic waters.

In addition to night and day, the waters would be separated so that there would be a sky. And the waters were to be gathered together so that dry land might appear beneath the sky, and God declared it good. And still creation continued: vegetation, plants of every kind, fruit trees of every kind came to life. And it was good.

The waters themselves yielded living creatures—the great sea monsters and everything that swarms within the waters. And birds flew through the air, and God said that it was good. And then on the dry land the living creatures appeared, the creeping things and wild animals, and the cattle. That, too, was good.

But it was not finished. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And God creates humanity, in the image of God. And God blesses them, and declares that with them, all creation is “very good.”

Out of a dark stage filled with chaos, creation has come forth. Starting with big, huge acts—creating dry land and continents and sky—God is not finished, but continues to focus more and more minutely—first with plants, then with the fish and sea creatures, with animals, until finally stooping down into the earth itself to create human beings.

There’s a moment in Our Town where a character receives a letter from her pastor. He addresses the envelope with great care, and with great detail: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

Her pastor is making a very valid point about humanity’s place in the universe. At the end of the day, we are very small. Our lives are but a blink in the face of creation, and being aware of our relative unimportance can keep us from being focused too inwardly, only caring about ourselves.

While I certainly understand his point, the creation story in Genesis offers a radically different perspective. The Mind of God; the Universe; the Solar System; Earth; the Western Hemisphere; the Continent of North America; the United States of America; New Hampshire; Sutton County; Grover’s Corners; the Crofut Farm; Jane Crofut. From the waters of creation down to each individual—we are not too small to notice. On the contrary, we matter immensely to God.

You could fill in the blanks with your name, and location. Every single one of us—we are none of us accidents of circumstance, but our very existence goes back to that loving, life-giving, creating mind of God. Every person could fill in the blanks—no matter their name, their religion, the country they call home: in America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe.

There is no person, no place, that is outside the mind of God, the care of God, or the love of God. We are made in the image of God and reflect the image of God through all of our differences and individuality. It is a fitting thing to reflect upon on Martin Luther King weekend, in honor of a man whose life’s work was to proclaim the dignity of all people, no matter their race or place of origin. It was a threatening enough idea that it got him killed. It remains threatening enough today that we still fear those who are different from us.

But we are not just made in the image of God, as if that were not enough. We are loved and claimed by God. At Jesus’ baptism, God offers affirmation and celebration of who Jesus is. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The voice from heaven, the same Spirit and voice that moved over the water blesses and claims Jesus.

This announcement comes before Jesus has done anything. Before his ministry—before he has taught, or has healed. Before he has fed thousands or found followers. God’s blessing and God’s love don’t follow our achievements. God’s love creates our potential for love.

We are called God’s beloved children not because of something we do but because of who God is—a loving parent who wants nothing more than to see us flourish. In Holy Baptism, God just chooses us. God says that we are enough, already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. Just as we are.

Created in the image of God, claimed by God, loved by God, we have the opportunity not only to reflect, however flawed and imperfectly we may do so, but to reflect God’s image to the world through our love and creativity and advocacy, but we also the opportunity to find the image of God in others. To recognize others as also being reflections of that divine love.

May we appreciate and celebrate the diversity of God’s image, and may we give thanks for our inclusion in that great diversity and love of creation. Amen.

 

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Rejoice!

Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17th, 2017. In a rare move for me, I don’t even mention the Gospel reading! This sermon is focused on the readings from Isaiah and 1 Thessalonians. Let me know what you think in the comments!

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

This time of year can be a season of homecomings. Schools are out for winter break, and college kids stream back home. Families travel from near and far to join one another for holiday parties and gatherings. Homecomings are always meant to be joyous occasions, but sometimes they don’t always live up to expectations.

It didn’t happen my first semester back from college, or even the second. But by the third or fourth time I returned to my parents’ home from school, I started to notice a few things out of place. It started small—there was no longer space for me to kick my shoes right by the door, the spot where I dropped my keys now housed a coin jar. But by my senior year of college, my closet had been taken over by my mom’s overflow clothing, and my desk had become her office space. My brother’s room wasn’t touched at all and still remains in pristine condition—something I’m completely fine with, by the way.

When I was still in school, it was ok to be home still, but things feel even more weird now, that I have an actual home of my own instead of a dorm room. When we go back to our childhood homes, we expect to fit back into familiar roles and patterns, but often they don’t really fit anymore. It’s not always that things at home have changed, sometimes we are the things that have changed—and home hasn’t.

Our first reading from Isaiah is actually the story of a homecoming. The book of Isaiah starts with the Israelites in exile in Babylon, and great things are promised about when they will return to the land. That’s the path in the wilderness, the highway through the desert, everything is supposed to work out well when they return home.

But here, in our reading from this morning, they have made it back to the land; the exiles have returned, and they’re realizing it’s not everything that they expected. The people are in mourning at what they have found: ruined cities, devastations. Home is not at all what they were promised.

I think many of us have had the experience of looking forward to something with high expectations, only to be disappointed when it finally arrived. Maybe, like the Israelites, it was with a homecoming. Maybe it was something else. Working hard to reach a milestone—a new degree, or a big anniversary, or a good promotion—only to find out that it’s not perfect on the other side of that momentous occasion.

This time of year is ripe for disappointed expectations. All around us we hear that this is meant to be a season of cheer and happiness, but that doesn’t mean that all of our problems go away during the holidays. Sometimes they might even fell like they’re worse, especially in comparison to all the bright lights and happiness around us.

And yet in the midst of all of this—in the midst of the ups and the downs of real life—we hear the Apostle Paul’s call to rejoice. And not just to rejoice, but to rejoice always. To give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is typically reserved for joy. This third Sunday, we focus on joy, because, as Christmas nears, we turn from hope and expectation to realized rejoicing. It’s why we light the pink candle today instead of another blue one. If I had them, I could even be wearing pink vestments today, to take the rejoicing to a whole other level.

But what does it mean to rejoice always, to give thanks in all circumstances. Honestly, these phrases feel like the kinds of Bible verses that you put on a cross-stitch and hang up somewhere, but not like the kinds of verses that actually help in the real world.

Are we meant to rejoice when something bad happens? To rejoice in relative or friends’ illness? To celebrate a broken relationship? To take joy in being depressed or struggling with anxiety? Is this the will of God in Christ Jesus for us?

On this Sunday of joy, we sometimes read or sing Mary’s song of praise to God, the Magnificat. After the angel has announced to her that she will give birth to God’s son, while she is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims, “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.”

Mary shows us how we might rejoice in difficult circumstances. She is in a tough position: a young woman, a girl really maybe as young as twelve, unmarried and pregnant. No matter how miraculous the birth, she is still incredibly vulnerable. Nevertheless, she rejoices. She gives thanks for how God is working through her to bring about good.

We cannot rejoice about all things. We’d be lying. We cannot give thanks for all things. It wouldn’t be honest, and risks trivializing pain and hardship. But we can rejoice in the midst of all things. We can give thanks in the midst of all circumstances. Because in the midst of all circumstances, God remains with us, supporting us, sustaining us, and working for good.

The people in Isaiah return from exile to devastation. But in the midst of their devastation, God continues to promise hope and new life. God will provide for those who mourn in Zion, the prophet says—God will give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. The downtrodden, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, they will be called oaks of righteousness and display the glory of the Lord. They will rebuild. It won’t be exactly what they remembered before, but new life will come out of what was once lost.

We rejoice always because joy is about more than just happiness. Joy is about more than just good things. Joy is found in the deep and abiding presence of God in the world. Joy is found in God’s resilience, in God’s completed promises, and even in the promises of God yet to be fulfilled. Because they most certainly will be fulfilled.

So, as we enter this final week of Advent: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen.

 

A Wilderness God

Below is my sermon for December 10, 2017, the Second Sunday of Advent. It focuses on our Gospel reading, the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t start where we typically remember Jesus’ story beginning, with his birth. Instead, Mark begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness.

After you’ve read the sermon, and if you feel comfortable sharing: have you ever been in a wilderness? What helped you while you were there?

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

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” The beginning of Mark’s gospel doesn’t take place in the way we expect. There are no genealogies, no lists of the ancestors of Mary and Joseph. There are no angels, no miraculous births foretold. There are no shepherds in the hills, there are no kings searching for a star.

Instead, just this: 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.

We start in the wilderness, with John the Baptist. I’m not sure it would make for a great children’s pageant, that’s for sure. But this is where Mark begins, and this is where we begin in Advent, with the voice of one crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Prepare the way, not just for an adorable baby, but for an adult Jesus, whose coming and message demands our preparation by way of repentance and confession.

There’s a lot to say about John’s message, but I’d like to focus first on his location. John is the voice “in the wilderness.” The wilderness is those places beyond human civilization and order, where things are not in control, where things are not orderly. John is not the first person in the Bible to go there, either.

Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the wilderness, and there they found an angel of God, and unexpected blessing and promise. Moses and the Israelites had to cross the wilderness after fleeing Egypt, and it was there, in their wanderings in the desert, that they learned how to be not just a people, but how to be God’s people. It was in the wilderness that received the promises from God in the covenant.

David fled to the wilderness when Saul was king, and his experiences there made him ready to take the throne and lead the people. Elijah the prophet, chased and harried, escapes to the wilderness and experiences the voice of the Lord coming to him.

And in Isaiah, we hear that voice crying out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” The way that the exiles will return from Babylon will be a wilderness way. The desert, as wild and unpredictable, and unhospitable as it is, the desert is God-filled.

We don’t need to go to a physical desert, to the wilderness landscape to look for this God experience. We all experience the wilderness in our lives sometimes. Some of us may be in one right now. Times of grief, confusion, and depression can feel like we are in a wilderness. We feel like we are outside of society, outside of our own lives, even when we are still right in the middle of them.

The holidays can be a wilderness for so many of us. We are surrounded by cheer and joyfulness, and yet our emotions don’t match up. It can be very lonely and isolating. The wilderness is not a place for the faint of heart.

There are wilderness places in this world that have little to do with the landscape. It is where God’s people are crying out– crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination have excommunicated them. Crying out from behind the borders where profiling and bigotry have ejected them. Crying out from the confines of silence where sexual harassment and sexual violence have expelled them.

The wilderness is not an easy place. But it is where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. Outside of all comfort and norms, outside of regulations and restrictions. God’s good news is found on the edge…of everything. It goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. Jesus’ story begins not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines.

God’s good news of grace announces God’s presence on the fringe, on the outside. We don’t need to get through our personal wildernesses in order to find good news again. In order to find peace or joy again. It is there, in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the wilderness. God is there.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins with the recognition that there is no place that God will not go for us, no place too far, too desolate, too deserted. That, in and of itself, is good news. It is good news to know that even when we feel like we are alone, we are not. It is good news that nowhere, even the darkest places and moments of our lives, is too dark for God.

We prepare ourselves this Advent to receive a God who is not afraid of the wilderness. A God who does not shy away from the dark places in our lives, or in our world. We prepare ourselves for a God who is prepared to receive all of us—even the wilderness places we don’t always like to acknowledge.

It is just the beginning. The beginning of the good news. It starts in the wilderness, but it doesn’t end there. God doesn’t stop in the wilderness, in the brokenness, or in the pain. God continues to walk with us through those places.

Sometimes coming through the wilderness demands the repentance and re-ordering of our lives that John the Baptist preached. It demands a serious look at where we ourselves, and where our world, our society, does not match up with God’s vision of who we ought to be. Of how we ought to treat each other. Of how we ought to treat ourselves.

This doesn’t sound like good news right off the bat. It sounds like hard work, like uncomfortable work. But it is the beginning. It is the beginning of being made ready to receive a God who changes the world. When we encounter we cannot help but be changed. We cannot help but repent and confess.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ: every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Everything shall be changed, including us, to make way for the God who appears in the wilderness. Amen.

Wake Up!

Below is my sermon from December 3, 2017, the First Sunday of Advent. This Sunday I was part of a pulpit swap with our partner congregation, Mediator Lutheran Church, and this is what I preached there. It focuses on the Gospel reading from Mark 13. Let me know what you think!

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

First, let me just take a moment to say how good it is to be here with you. This partnership has been one of the blessings of my ministry at St. Paul’s, and I am so glad that we are working to deepen our relationship, to be able to support each other in our mission to share the Good News of Jesus in our neighborhoods. I am thankful for this opportunity to be here with you this morning on the first Sunday of a new church year, the first Sunday of Advent.

And some of you may be wondering, why the heck on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation for Christmas, do we read this story of apocalypse from the Gospel of Mark? What does this possibly have to do, with Advent, or with Christmas?

The word advent simply means “coming” or “arrival.” We begin our Christian year, not just preparing for the arrival of a baby in a manger, but for Christ’s second coming. And how different those preparations are! There is such a difference between waiting for Christmas and waiting for Christ.

Obviously, we know Christmas will arrive and we know what it will be like when it does. We know the script, we know our parts in it, and all we need to do is follow it. But waiting for Christ to come—or to come again—requires something a little bit more of us, because we never know when he will appear.

“Keep awake,” Jesus says, two or three times in our gospel today. Keep awake. And I want to tell Jesus, I am wide awake! With all that there is to get ready for the holidays, both inside and outside of the church, nobody needs to tell us to “keep awake.” Personally, I sometimes feel like this is the time I should be telling people to slow down. This time of year, it seems like everyone is full of revved-up, overcaffeinated busy-ness.

But the season of Advent makes us be clear about one important fact: while the world’s busy-ness may seem to point toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child. In Advent, we are indeed asleep to what matters, and so we must heed Jesus’ call and wake up.

The meaning of the word apocalypse is literally: to pull back a veil. To pull away the rose-colored glasses and see things the way they truly are. What do we need to see more clearly? What do we need to wake up to as a society? When I started to truly ponder that question, I realized this might just be my longest sermon ever.

But we need to wake up, as a society, as a country, to so many things. We need to wake up to the reality that while all people were created equal by God, not all people are viewed or treated equally in this country. That depends on your skin color, your gender, your education, where you live.

When women finally feel safe to come forward with decades of sexual harassment and abuse, we need to wake up and listen to them. Even if it makes us uncomfortable. When a generation of young people is dying because of opioids, we need to wake up and ask why?

As I said, this could be a long sermon. I don’t have to tell you the problems plaguing our society, that we’d so often rather ignore than wake up and deal with. You know them. But I also need to ask, what veils do you need to pull back in your own life? Where do the rose-colored glasses need to come off? Because cookies aren’t the only things we like to sugarcoat at Christmastime.

We turn a blind eye toward relationship problems, because it isn’t nice to be alone at the holidays. We push familial strife under the rug and pretend everything is fine during Christmas dinner, but it doesn’t actually solve anything. We laugh at the antics of our drunk relative, but don’t ask ourselves whether they might need our help.

When we wake up to what is going on around us, in our own lives, when the veil is pulled back, when we take off the rose colored glasses, we might just be ready to cry out with the people of Isaiah, “Where are you God? When are you coming? Come now.”

Keep awake. Jesus tells us to be awake not just to our sin, not just to society’s sin, but we are to keep awake because we do not know when God will be entering into humanity. We need to keep awake, not just to the places that need God in this world and in our lives, but we need to keep awake for that shocking, surprising presence of God.

What will it be like when God shows up? “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” When God shows up, things are going to change. Things are going to be disrupted and reconfigured. There is going to be a shake-up.

We know what it will be like when God shows up, because we know the story of God’s first advent in Christ Jesus. It was wholly unexpected. God came in the vulnerability of the manger and the cross, right into the brokenness of human sin. And was not the sun darkened on that day at Calvary? Was not the power in the heavens shaken as the temple curtain was torn down the middle? No longer was God to be kept separate; God was loose in the world.

God has already begun the work of waking up this world. The first advent of Jesus has established for us the ways we are to be in relationship with God. Jesus has given us the way to the Father and God’s grace assures us that we are never alone. Is God’s reign complete? No, certainly not.

But we know that God doesn’t stop with sin and evil and darkness. We know that God refuses to let those things be the end of the story. They will not be the end of our story, and they will not be the end of this world’s story. That is why Jesus came in the first place. Because God would not stop working to redeem God’s people until everything had been done. Until God’s own self entered our brokenness to bring us to wholeness.

And that is why Jesus continues to come in our lives. Continues to show up in ways as unexpected as that manger was all those years ago. Are we awake to them? Are we paying attention to the places and the ways that God is showing up in our lives? To the people that God is using to speak to us?

Keep awake. Because God is not done with you and God is not done with this world. God will continue to show up, continue to surprise us, and continue to draw us into relationship with each other and with God’s own self. Let us keep awake this Advent, and prepare, not just for Christmas, but for the coming of Christ into our world and into our hearts. Amen.

The Face of Christ

Below is my sermon from Christ the King Sunday, November 26. At the end of the liturgical year, we typically have “end-times” readings, that is, apocalyptic stories or judgment stories. This year’s story, Matthew 25 of the sheep and the goats, can be particularly hard to hear, as we all know places where we have fallen short in our own lives. The good news is that ultimately, God redeems us from our shortcomings and failures and uses us to spread the kingdom message of love and care for the least of these.

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

When one of my seminary professors was working on his doctorate, he spent a year studying in Paris. He told us the story of how, when class was in session, he would eat most of his meals at the school. On the weekends, though, he didn’t have much money, so he tried to plan and use it wisely.

He would get a couple of loafs of bread, some cheese, and some meat, and that would last the whole weekend. But outside the bakery where he got his bread, there was usually this homeless man. He never said anything, or asked for anything, he was just there.

And eventually one week, my professor felt that he had to give this man something, that he couldn’t just walk by him again. So, very carefully, he broke off half of one baguette still inside his bag. He didn’t want the man to see how much he had, because he truly did need most of it for himself.

After he gave the man half the loaf of bread, he was walking away, and the man called him back. Wanted him to wait. His first thought was that this man probably wanted the rest of the bread. But when he turned around, he saw that the homeless man had broken the half in half, and was extending one piece towards him. “Do you want to share?” He asked.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me food.” My professor found the face of Christ that day, though he did so begrudgingly, reluctantly. This passage from Matthew, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, for me, is a very convicting passage. I feel convicted reading it, because I often do not help the least of these when I’m given an opportunity. I often pass by the homeless, as you might too. I know logically that it would be impossible to help everyone I meet, so I try to support organizations and policies that might help the entire homeless population. But still, when I hear this passage, I am convicted.

Once I can push past my initial discomfort though, and focus on the image Jesus describes, I find that I am surprised by the passage. In fact, I am surprised by the surprise. Both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, are surprised. They are surprised, not by their actions, but by the fact that they had encountered God and not realized it.

“When did we feed you,” the righteous ask. “When did we clothe you, or give you water, or visit you?” The unrighteous wonder the same thing—they had not ignored God surely, they had never even seen God.

This passage urges us to consider a couple, I think very related points. First: Where do we see the face of God? And second: How are we called to love and to live in light of that?

So, where do we see the face of God? This is Christ the King Sunday, where we celebrate and remember that all the earth is subject to God. But the God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being upon a throne up there above the clouds, or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.

God is our shepherd, says Ezekiel. God is among the people, caring for them, guiding them. God in Jesus in right in the middle of the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, among, us, particularly in our neighbors. Particularly in the one who needs us.

If we want to see the face of God, we must look into the face of one of the least of these: those who are vulnerable, those who are weak, those who are very young or very old. These are the ones you will find me with, Jesus promises.

It was certainly true during his life on earth: we found God not in palaces, but in stables. Not in kings or warriors in armor, but in a baby, clothed only in swaddling clothes. We found God not in courts and important places, but in the countryside, in the small towns, with small, unimportant people. We found God not in splendor and glory, but instead on the cross.

Where do we see the face of God? Often times, like for the sheep and the goats, we see the face of God in places we weren’t expecting to. And so, what does that mean for us? How are we called to love and to live in light of that?

I keep coming back to the surprise in the gospel story. The righteous in the gospel weren’t loving others, weren’t feeding or clothing or visiting others—in none of what they did were they acting with calculation or expectation. In fact, they were shocked to learn that had cared for the King of Creation.

God created the whole world out of an abundance of love. Like a fountain bubbling over, God is love and overflows with love. In creation, God gives of Godself, and in sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people, showing us God’s own self as well as who we are. We are created in the image of this freely giving God, and so we are called to freely share, because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.

In particular, we are called to love those conventionally considered unable to give back. But we don’t do so in order to earn God’s love or anyone else’s love, to curry favor, or to make sure we are considered righteous at the end of time. We give and we love as an expression of the love that is inside us, bubbling up, spilling over, and flowing out.

The righteous sheep are surprised to learn that they had cared for the King of Creation. They had simply shared who they were and what they had freely. How are we called to love? With abundance. Without expectation or calculation, but by sharing the love of God that is within us.

We are called to remember what Jesus said: that we will find him among the least of these. Among those society ignores, among those we rather wouldn’t have to see and deal with. We can’t help every single person we encounter. That is a fact of life. But what you and I can do, and are called to do, is not to ignore and overlook, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ.

Where have you seen the face of God lately? Where might you see the face of God this week?

Bridegrooms and Bridesmaids

Below is my reflection on the parable of the bridesmaids, or the wise and foolish maidens. We tried something a little bit different at church yesterday–a narrated service. This service included explanations of why we worship the way we do and what we believe happens in worship. Because of all these additions to the service, I kept my sermon very short–so the congregation didn’t feel like they were waiting and waiting with no end in sight!

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

As we planned this special service, one of the things I took note of in the instructions was where it said, “A brief sermon should be preached.” I did my best. It was hard, because we have such an interesting parable from Matthew’s gospel of the wise and foolish maidens.

Since I am trying to stay brief, I’ll dive right in. This parable doesn’t make a ton of sense without understanding the community to which it was told. Matthew is writing his gospel around the year 80. That first generation of believers, the ones who knew and walked with Jesus have died, and the church is beginning to wonder—we have the promise of Jesus’ return, how much longer will we have to wait?

This parable speaks to their situation—waiting without knowing when it will happen. They are warned not to be complacent in their waiting, but to always be ready, to always be on watch. Part of the struggle with this parable is that neither of these groups of women comes off looking too great.

We all know the types—there’s the ones who don’t prepare, who try to rush and do everything at the last minute. The ones who don’t pull their own weight on the committee or project, but expect others, who have worked and prepared to cover for them. These bridesmaids didn’t take any oil at all. It’s not that they ran out, they made no plans and anticipated no delay.

Then are the maidens who had enough oil. Good for them, we have to say, but couldn’t they have been a little nicer about it? There’s more than a hint of “I told you so,” in their response. Why couldn’t they have shared? Why do they assume there won’t be enough for everyone? The announcement of the groom’s imminent arrival has already been sounded, after all. At the very least, could they have propped a side-door open at the feast?

But when we get so focused in on comparing the maidens to one another, I think we miss the broader point of the parable. And that is the bridegroom. For Matthew’s first listeners, the point was that they ought to stay alert and active in the faith, even though the delay seemed long.

For Christians today, we are not anticipating the second coming of Christ any day now. In fact, we’re probably ok with a longer delay. For us, I think the heart of this parable is that the bridegroom, that Christ, arrives when least expected.

The love of God will continue to appear in our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, if we are paying attention. Jesus Christ comes when Christian people live in hope and never give up. Jesus Christ comes when faithful disciples express love and compassion and work for justice. Jesus Christ comes when critically ill people know they are ultimately safe in God’s love.

When God’s love breaks into our world, into our lives, when it wakes us from our slumber—how will we react? May we continue to announce with a glad shout the places we see God at work, those surprising, unpredictable places. And let us join in, lest we miss the feast. Amen.

 

Saints of God

Below is my sermon from All Saints’ Sunday, November 5. While it touches on a couple of the readings, it mainly focuses on 1 John 3:1-3. Who are some of the important saints in your life?

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

So my latest Netflix binge has been a re-watch of the show Mad Men. It premiered in 2007 and wrapped up a few years ago. The details of the show aren’t that important for this sermon, but something that happened in an episode I watched recently made me think about All Saints’ Day.

The main character’s fifteen-year-old daughter goes to a funeral for her friend’s mother, and he is quite upset. What he said to her, and what stuck in my head was, “I don’t want you going to funerals.” Now, no one ever really wants to go to funerals, but what he was implying was that he didn’t want her anywhere near anything to do with death.

And he is not alone in that. As a society, we make a lot of effort to avoid death. A lot of money is spent in chasing and prolonging youth. Deaths almost always used to happen at home, but now death is institutionalized, and sanitized.

All Saints’ Day, though, forces us to confront death, to acknowledge our own limitations and mortality. It is a day when we remember all the saints of God—the St. Paul’s and St. Lydia’s who give us examples in the faith—but also those names that may only be special to us, or our families. Those who have given us life and love and who now rest in God. The day forces us to be honest about death and loss in ways we often try to avoid, because it’s uncomfortable territory.

Yet, however much we want to avoid death itself, we remain fascinated with the afterlife. Images, imaginings of heaven and hell are too intriguing to turn away from. When a loved one dies, we wonder: what are they experiencing? What is it like? Can they see me? Are they the same?

But the Bible is frustratingly vague about this. None of the handful of people raised from the dead offer any descriptions or details. All Jesus has to say on the matter is that our expectations are woefully inadequate. And yet we wonder still.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying that “Some people are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” We can become so focused, especially as church people, on what happens after death that we don’t pay attention to what is happening right now.

This is what the author of First John is dealing with he writes that, “What we will be has not yet been revealed; but we are God’s children now.” We are God’s saints now. All Saints’ Day is not just about those saints who have claimed their eternal reward, but it is truly about ALL the saints of God. You and me included.

We are God’s saints here on earth. Those whom God has marked as loved and called and blessed. We will be celebrating with Ian McGuire(at the second service/in just a few minutes) as we make public witness to the ways that God loves him, and calls him, and blesses him in baptism. That is a calling and a blessing that we all share.

I think it is a lot harder for us to talk about ourselves as saints than it is to talk about the faithful departed as being saints. We know ourselves, and, when we’re honest, we know that we aren’t always all that saint-like. We hear this list of Jesus in the Beatitudes, and wonder if any could be used to describe us.

Blessed, holy, honored, Jesus says, are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus give us a list of characteristics that the world does not consider greatly honored and says, these are some of the people that God considers highly honored.

And we think, that doesn’t describe me. That list sounds like the perfect person, the perfect Christian, and that’s not me, at least not all of the time. Maybe not most of the time. That’s okay, because it doesn’t have to. Being God’s saints in the world right now doesn’t require perfection, or none of us would qualify. Instead, God uses us, and claims us, imperfect, fallible humans as saints.

All Saints’ Day requires a great deal of faith on our part, more than we as individuals can muster within ourselves. Instead of berating ourselves about the ways we fall short of perfection, let us give thanks and be grateful for how God’s love brings us to perfection.

Let us remember and cling to this grace: none of us is defined in the eyes of God by either the worst thing we have done or the best thing we have done. The eyes of Love do not view us as the sum of our virtues, minus our grievous errors. Instead, we are defined by the Living Word of love, which is Christ Jesus.

On this day, let us remember those saints who have gone before us and who cheer us on in our pilgrimage. Let us give thanks for the examples of faithful living that they have given us as they navigated the stormy waters of life. We give thanks for the fullness of eternal life in which those saints who have gone before us now partake. Yet, let us also rejoice in that we are also made saints, not by what we have done or left undone, but through what God has done for all people in Christ. We are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit for acts of faithful service now, in our own time and season of life.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, for that is what we are. What love the Father has given us that we should be called saints of God, for that is what we are. Amen, and Alleluia.

500 Years of the Reformation

Below is my sermon from Sunday, October 29, Reformation Sunday! This year (today actually) marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which in Lutheran circles meant lots of festivity, pomp, and considering what our past means for our present and future.

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

Happy Reformation Sunday! As we approached this day, the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther posting the ninety-five theses in Wittenberg and beginning what we now call the Protestant Reformation, I wondered what there could be for me to say on this morning.

So much has been said about the religious, cultural, and political change that Martin Luther began 500 years ago. Posting his 95 Theses, asking for debate and change in a church that he was part of, a church that he loved, Martin Luther got a lot more than he bargained for. He asked the church to consider its teaching about how people become justified in God’s sight. He asked the church to consider its impact on its most vulnerable members.

He wanted change and reform, but he never wanted division and schism. But his ideas took off, and they changed the face of Christianity, of Europe, of politics. There have been movies, PBS specials, new books, podcasts, and articles. I loved it; I loved hearing about Luther and Lutherans in the news and pop culture. But I wondered, what could be left to say after all of that?

On this Reformation Sunday, we look back on all of that—on all of the history, change, important movements in the church and in culture—but at the same time, we are not historians. We are not sociologists. We are the church, the body of Christ right now. And so, as we look back and remember and give thanks, at the same time we must lean forward, into what it means to be a Reformation people today and in the future. And what a wonderful day it is that we celebrate the future of the church with two baptisms of Mia and Tyler.

Looking back, and leaning forward. This passage from the Gospel of John is always read on Reformation because it has a lot to say, not only about Lutheran theology, but to us right now. Jesus, speaking to a group of people who believe in him says, “if you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

There’s a somewhat humorous aspect to their response: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” It seems they were forgetting about that time in Egypt. They were forgetting about the Babylonians, and the Greeks, and the Romans who were currently ruling over them.

But as much as we can chuckle at Jesus’ disciples and their selective memory, this idea of being enslaved and not knowing it, of needing to be made free, plays out time and again. In Luther’s day, it was what kicked off the whole Reformation. People thought that they could make themselves free from sin. Encouraged by the Church at that time, they believed that if they gave enough money—bought an indulgence, a papal assurance of salvation in exchange for money—or if they did enough good works, then they would be free. They had the power to control their own freedom. The ninety-five theses that Luther posted in 1517 were meant to start a debate around this very issue.

But we are not immune to the same struggles today. We may not be buying indulgences, but we too join in with the selective memory: “What do you mean we need to be made free, Jesus? We are the theological descendants of Luther! We understand that it all depends on God!” And yet, how often do we act differently?

The truth that will set us free actually requires two truths. The truth about ourselves and the truth about God. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous literature: the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

The truth of the Son, the truth that makes you free, the truth at the heart of the ninety-five theses, is that we are sinners. From our Romans reading, we are reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is not an easy truth to hear. We are God’s fallen, sometimes flailing, regularly confused, always imperfect children from birth to death.

No amount of indulgences, or good works, or good intentions, or job promotions, or good grades, or likes, or friend requests, none of it can redeem us from that simple fact. It’s the truth, even if we don’t like to admit it.

But the second truth follows from it: we are also those sinners who are simultaneously God’s beloved children, those sinners whom God calls blessed and holy, those sinners whose futures are not determined by regrets from the past but by the possibility created by the resurrection.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The truth will set you free: free from the bounds of sin, free from the worries of being enough, or doing enough, of always struggling to be good enough. The truth will set you free: you are enough, because you are God’s beloved child. That is what we will proclaim over Mia and Tyler today. And nothing more than that is ever needed to be enough for God.

As we look back today, we remember the wonderful inheritance of the Reformation. The discovering anew of God’s grace and love. But as we lean forward, we realize that it still applies to us today, just as new as it was five hundred years ago.

May this Reformation Day, may this momentous anniversary, be a reminder to you not just of the past, and where we have come, but may it serve as a reminder of God’s grace to you now, and the hope that remains before us. Amen.

When in Our Music God Is Glorified

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried:
Alleluia!

How oft, in making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleluia!

So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in ev’ry tongue:
Alleluia!

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:
Alleluia!

Let ev’ry instrument be tuned for praise;
let all rejoice who have a voice to raise;
and may God give us faith to sing always:
Alleluia!

To wrap up our week of hymn reflections is “When in Our Music God Is Glorified,” suggested to me by Barbara Curtin. It was written by Fred Pratt Green, a Methodist minister and prolific hymnwriter in England.

He was asked to compose a hymn to fit the tune Engelberg, which you also might know as “We Know that Christ Is Raised.” Hymns and tunes are often paired inseparably in our imagination, but are most often not written together.

My favorite line from this hymn must be, “adoration leaves no room for pride.” How often do we seek to out-do one another in, well, everything? Including worshiping God. Including church. Including prayer. But this line reminds us that true worship of God eclipses our pride and hubris. And thank God for that!

What a perfect hymn with which to close out this small series: one more reflection on the importance of music to our lives together as people of God. “Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise, and may God give us faith to sing always.”

When Peace Like a River

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billow roll,
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.

He lives—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought;
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to his cross and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Lord, hasten the day when our faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul.

This hymn, suggested for the blog by Barb Keyser, was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. He was a lawyer and professor of medical jurisprudence at Chicago Medical College and an active church member all his life.

This hymn has always been a favorite of mine for its beautiful poetry and the wonderful tune written for it by Philip Bliss. But I grew to love it even more knowing its story. Spafford’s wife, Anna Larssen, was ill and advised to visit a different climate. The couple, along with their four daughters, planned a trip to Europe. At the last minute Horatio Spafford stayed behind, planning to follow on another boat.

The boat that his family was on, the Ville du Havre, was hit in the Atlantic by another ship and sank. Anna was saved, but all four of their daughters drowned. Horatio Spafford wrote this hymn during his own ocean crossing, to join his grieving wife in Paris.

The hymn’s main point (made much more poetically than this) is that whatever experiences we might come across, we are not alone. My favorite line is from the second verse: “Christ hath regarded my helpless estate.” One of the most meaningful results of the great mystery of the Incarnation is, for me, that God fully and truly understands the human experience, both good and bad. God in Christ knows what it is to grieve, to feel anger and frustration, to experience joy and love. And God also understands the pain of losing a beloved child.

The hymn does not end there though—with the loss and pain. But it reminds us of the true end of Christ’s story and our story: the resurrection. Christ lives, and so too shall we live. And that is what gives the ability to say, “It is well with my soul.”

Prayer
Incarnate God, in Jesus Christ you took on our humanity, shared our experiences, and bore all the breadth of human emotion. We turn to you in both celebration and heartache, joy and despair. Be with us, we pray, in the midst of all life’s journeys until we celebrate with all the saints the fullness of your resurrection. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.