Monthly Archives: December 2014

Sermon for Sunday, December 21st: Holding the Holy

Sermon for Sunday, December 21st (Advent 4)

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Luke 1:26-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.”

The beginning of the good news…

A few weeks ago in Advent 2, we heard the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the good news of Jesus.  Mark began with John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord.  Last week, in Advent 3 we read the gospel of John, which begins with Jesus as the word of God, present at creation.  Today, our gospel message comes from the first chapter of Luke.  And Luke begins his story from his own unique perspective.  He begins his gospel in this way, with a dedication to Theolphilus, or literally, lover of God.  “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

After Luke investigates the complete story of Jesus, he begins his gospel with Mary’s story.  Luke’s gospel is the only one to include Mary’s story and the story of her family including her cousin Elizabeth, her husband the priest Zechariah, and of course their son John the Baptist.  It makes one wonder where this additional part of the story came from?  Who was this mystery source?  Maybe Luke was able to track down Mary herself, to tell her side of the story of Jesus.  By the time Luke’s gospel was recorded Mary would have been a very old woman, if she was still living.  Or maybe her story was passed on to her other children, or to a community that she was a part of.  But maybe for a moment we could imagine Mary a frail but bright woman telling of the birth of her mysterious and divine son.  Luke sitting at her feet, addressing her as the, “blessed Mary, mother of Jesus” with the utmost respect and humility….  Hanging on her every word as she recounted the day that the angel Gabriel appeared to her…

Notice he would not have addressed her as, the virgin Mary- as virgin implies not only purity but can also be translated as young girl in the Greek.  In fact, no one in our scriptures personally addresses Mary as the virgin- rather it was one of the descriptive details of the story.  It was not central to her identity, but central to the story of God doing the impossible!  Rather Mary was addressed as, “Favored One” by the Angel Gabriel.  As the Message paraphrase puts it, the angel Gabriel proclaims,

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

Elizabeth later addresses Mary saying, “Blessed are you among women.”  And Mary sings of herself, “all generations will call me blessed.”  Not Mary the virgin, not Mary the young girl, but Mary the Favored One of God, Mary the Blessed one among women, Mary the blessed one for all generations.

Certainly, Luke would have listened with reverence as she recounted the events around the birth of Jesus.  Mary would be known through the scriptures for her boldness in her resounding yes to God’s plan of salvation.  Mary would be known for her joyful song of redemption.  Mary would be known for her faithfulness to God and to her son, until the very day that he died- and beyond.

Mary- the one chosen to bear God’s son to the world

Mary- (the theotokos) the God-bearer

Luke’s story begins with Mary and the conception of Jesus- because it tells the truth about Jesus.  Jesus is from God.  His birth is an ordinary human birth- and yet it is exceptional.  It is messy- and it is holy.  God is brought to birth through a woman, just as all people are…  And yet this woman had a radical encounter with God that sets this birth apart for all of history.  Mary’s story illustrates this truth.

The Angel Gabriel tells Mary that, “the child born will be ‘holy.”  Mary hears this news with wonder.  The name Jesus, literally means Yahweh saves.  Mary will bear God’s son to the world.  She will hold the holy in her womb, in her arms.  And God’s work of redemption will flow through her.

Mary bears the holy. Mary cradles the holy. Mary shares the holy with the world.

This is God’s call for her, announced through the angel Gabriel.  And this is the call for each of us this Advent and Christmas season.

But how would Mary respond to the angel’s pronouncement?  Mary blessed?  Highly favored Her? She is only a peasant girl and never had anyone call her blessed or favored.  A teenage girl, unmarried pregnant…  Would anyone believe that an Angel of the Lord appeared to her?  This angel had told her that she is to bear a Son, God’s Son.  A Son who is the one her people have been waiting for.  One who will sit on the throne of David, a promised Messiah!  She could hardly believe it herself!

At times we may question with Mary, “How can it be?” How can I be God’s chosen, God’s beloved?  Maybe we are a lot like Mary.  Many times we may view Mary in a class above all of us.  But as we read the story again this Christmas, we see that she was an ordinary person, but by saying yes to God, God worked extraordinary things through her.  “Nothing is impossible with God.”  Mary was blessed and blessed others because of her YES to God.  And we can do the same. Mary holds the holy.

Imagine for a moment holding the most precious thing you can imagine in your hands. 

Some may imagine- the holding that precious newborn in their hands.  Pure gift.  Pure holiness- entrusted to you.

Some may imagine- the hand of a beloved…

Some may imagine- a tiny seed- the beauty of God’s creation…

Some may imagine- any number of important things

We have done little to create these gifts or earn them- all we can do is open our hands and hearts and accept God’s gifts to us.

And as a community we also live out- holding the Eucharist, the body of Christ every Sunday.  God’s holiness in our hands…  In essence taking the body, spirit, teaching, of Jesus and taking it within our bodies- ingesting it.  Holding the holy.  Each of us- not only the ‘good enough’ ‘old enough’ ‘trained enough’ ‘spiritual enough’ among us- but all of us- holding the holy- just as Mary with no training, a poor young girl did.  And this season we imagine with Mary that we hold the Christ child, as she did.  Even as an old, frail woman- I’m sure she could remember vividly the moment she heard the angel tell her that she would bear a holy child within her.  I’m sure she could picture the moment after all of the pain, blood, sweat, and tears- that she held the holy child in her arms.  Holding, cradling, sharing the holy…

We may never know the mystery of Luke’s source for Mary’s story.  But we do know that Mary’s story brings the gospel message in a different form.  It puts flesh on the good news.  It makes it even more earthy, messy- even more real.  God really among us.  God with us.  The holy brought as close as our own two hands.  It also helps us to see the holy in the world around us.  God in the stranger- God in the person in need- God in those seeking justice- God in those imprisoned.  The mystery of Mary’s story is our story too.  God has called us to bear the holy- to hold the holy- and to share the holy with the world.  This Christmas, may we share in the work of bearing the Christ Child to the world and recognize the holiness of God among us.

Look Mom, Baby Jesus!

Look Mom, Baby Jesus!

My son Bennett is loving Christmas this year.  He cannot get enough of the lights, the trees, the music, and gift wrapping.  He is also keenly aware of every Baby Jesus around.  On our ride home, he will point out every manger scene and glowing nativity.  In fact, sometimes he sees the Baby Jesus even when I cannot see him.  What a beautiful illustration of how our children can be our teachers in the faith.  This Advent season, one of my spiritual goals was to slow down a bit.  Of course my schedule is busy with ministry and family, but even with the busyness, there is really no reason for me to be in a rush all of the time! So I am working on taking deep breaths and living in the moment.  And Bennett is there to help me.  Like when I tried to rush us home this week after work.  There were some flakes of snow hanging in the air, and Bennett was entranced.  He would not be rushed.  He wanted to examine the snow and catch it on his tongue and walk through it slowly.  So I tried to go with it!

Getting meals ready is another time that all parents know can be busy and stressful.  Usually by the time the food is on the table, I’m distracted and tired.  So I grab a bite as I am putting my plate down.  “STOP MOMMY- DON’T EAT!”  Bennett said to me this morning at breakfast.  “We need to pray,” he said.  Oh yeah I think- pray… that’s a good idea.  He also makes me sit down next to him, rather than standing to eat.  After he says his prayer (very loudly I will say, we are working on his inside voice), he exclaims, “Let’s eat!”  And we enjoy our waffles together.  Nice.

I love these moments when I take the time to enjoy life with my children.  Their wonder and excitement can teach us so much, especially around the Christmas season.  Granted, Bennett would eat his boogers if I let him, so I don’t recommend taking all of your life lessons from two-year olds.  But when it comes to enjoying life without so much worry- they know where it’s at.

Bennett set up our Little People nativity beneath our tree.  And he insisted on including all of the other animals including the lions and tigers and turtles because they love the baby Jesus too.  Somehow even Batman made it into our manger scene this year.  And I love it.  There are no presents under our tree right now- just our very diverse manger scene.  This is partly because I am pretty sure Bennett and Brandt would rip them to shreds if I turned my back, but I think I like the spirit of it in the end.

When we go home tonight, Bennett will be on the lookout for the Baby Jesus again.  And I will too.

May you and your family be blessed with the baby Jesus showing up in unexpected places!  Merry Christmas!

photo credit: dgfumc.org 

The Hardest Sermon

I borrowed this title from another blogger, “The Broady Bunch” who posted her sermon from yesterday.  I felt called to preach about racism in our country as many people of faith have felt called to speak out from whatever platforms they have.  It was not an easy thing to do. (which may be why my introduction took so long) There were times when my voice trembled because of the emotion involved in this subject.  This word is a work in progress, but hopefully it will serve to continue the much needed conversation in our churches and our country regarding racism and inequality in our nation.  

The beginning of the good news…  The beginning of the good news….

You want to know about Jesus?  Okay let’s go back to the beginning.  Because you have to hear the whole story to truly understand this good news.  Each gospel writer starts the story at a different point.  Luke and Matthew begin their stories at the birth of Jesus, a seemingly logical place to start.   The gospel writer John truly goes back to the beginning.  He begins his story at the creation of the world, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”

The story of Jesus for you and I also begins at different places.  When someone asks us about our faith story, we all would start at different places.  Some would start the story with the day they were born, sharing how we were all born as God’s children, made in the image of God.  Some would start their story, with the day they were baptized- the day that they were welcomed into God’s community of the baptized saints.  Some would start their story at a point in their lives when they claimed they faith as their own, or turned their life around, or had a radical spiritual encounter with God.  We all begin our Jesus stories a bit differently.  And when the gospel writer Mark begins his story- he begins with John the Baptist, with the baptism of Jesus and his testing in the wilderness immediately following the story we heard today.  It is no surprise that Mark cuts to the chase to get to the story.  After all Mark’s gospel is truly a drama.  There are very few stories where Jesus is not on the scene.  The adverb immediately occurs throughout the gospel and there is a fast paced narrative focusing on the week of Jesus death as the largest part of the story.  The beginning of the good news…  to Mark- it begins with preparation.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the Lord’s paths.” 

In order for Jesus to begin his ministry, preparations had to be made.  And John the Baptist was a key figure in this need.  Someone had to straighten a path for Jesus, to clear a way, to call people first to repentance, so they would be able to hear the good news of Jesus.  Someone had to be the Elijah figure that the Jewish people had been waiting for before the Messiah came.  Someone had to stir things up.  Someone had to baptize Jesus, and prepare him for his calling.  Someone had to be the voice in the wilderness crying out….

Prepare the way of the Lord.

In Advent and Christmas we take special time to tend to the presence of God in our midst.  We are on the look out for God incarnate.  We acknowledge that God has come to pitch a tent among us, and dwell with us in the presence of the tiny Christ child.  God next to us!  And we also recognize that this was not a one-time event.  Now that God’s kingdom has broken into our world, Jesus is still found in our midst.  The parables of Matthew we heard this fall reminded us of this.  They reminded us that when we care for the least of these, the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the imprisoned, those in any need- we truly care for Christ.  When we serve others- we tend to God.  This is a radical way to think about our faith.  We often say that we are the hands and feet of Christ- that we are little Christs (as the name Christian implies)… but when we recognize Jesus in the face of the other- they become God.  They are Jesus.  We do not need to come into the church building to find the presence of God.  Rather God is out and about in our neighborhoods.  We prepare the way of the Lord when we serve those in need.

Prepare the way of the Lord. 

In addition to Advent being in the past and in the present.  Advent is a hopeful time of anticipation- and this implies future time.  There is the hope of God’s promised future where the kingdom is fully realized.  But what are we to do in the meantime as we wait for this promised future?  A pastor friend Katherine Pater is doing a blog series entitled Advent with Romero.  I feel especially connected to this series, in part because he was from El Salvador, and our church has a mission connection to El Salvador.  And in part because it seems so relevant for our world today… Oscar Romero, An unofficial Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, was a, “defender of the poor, the oppressed, and the voiceless.”  Pater noted that he began his term as archbishop of San Salvador from a position of privilege.  There was a great deal of turmoil in the area and he could have chosen to stay safe and hidden within his privilege, but instead he felt compelled by the gospel speak and act on behalf of those in need. Ultimately it cost him his life.  Romero spoke of our time of Advent waiting as a time to, “organize a world according of the heart of God.”

This is how we are to prepare the way of the Lord– to organize our world according to the heart of God.  And in God’s heart we find love, compassion, faithfulness, justice.

Last year, I had a weekend intensive class at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.  “Dismantling Racism” was the name of the class. And it made me a little uncomfortable.  Talking about racism in this country is not something we do often or well.  So as a white person, I was nervous spend an entire weekend talking about racism.  Yet, it’s often in our discomfort that we hear the voice of Christ most clearly.  And this was true of my experience. During the weekend I heard voices that I often do not hear.  I heard prayers from Jackie in her Native American language.  I heard stories of resilience of overcoming racism from people who had lived it.  I heard a confession from a white man who admitted he was a racist.  The greatest lesson I took away from this class was being reminded that even if I don’t commit racist acts- I am benefitting from a system that is oppressive to others.  I am first.  And as followers of Christ we are called serve rather than be served.  Racism is still a powerful source of evil in this world.  But it is often hidden.  Through speaking truth we bring it into the light and diminish its stronghold.

Prepare the way of the Lord.

It is hard to turn on the news today without seeing the stories about Ferguson… and now New York, and Cleveland.  Although the stories are just now coming to light- there are many and they are common.  The story of racism in our country is as old slavery.  It has taken many forms throughout the history of our country evolving from slavery, to the Jim Crow laws, to modern forms of racism.  But it is the same story.  That is why the twitter movement #blacklivesmatter is springing up everyway.  Protestors around the country are protesting police brutality and the killing of unarmed people of color.  And yet these individual cases are more the symptoms of a large, systemic problem in our country.  Inequality.

Our presiding bishop, Bishop Eaton released a pastoral response saying, “We come together at the cross.  It is our only hope.  And, resting in the conviction that we are redeemed, we can begin the hard work of confronting the reality of systemic racism in our country.”

We come together at the cross…  A fitting place to assembly considering that the cross was the place that Jesus, an unarmed man of color was hung.  If we are to truly see Jesus in the face of the other, the stranger, the hungry, the imprisoned as our scriptures urge us to do-we must see Jesus in the face of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.

Prepare the way of the Lord.

The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ is the story of our faith.  It is an incarnate gospel, a living and active gospel.  Good news among us.  And we must allow it to speak to the current events happening in our world.  We cannot come here and experience God’s word and presence in the sacrament of communion, and leave the gospel in this building.  This good news of salvation is bigger than that.  This good news is for all people- and it is meant to create a world in line with the heart of God.  Not only for us- and those who look like us- but for all of God’s people.

The good news of Jesus Christ invites us to dream of a world without inequality…  To imagine what God may be up to in our midst today within this turmoil in our country…  The good news invites us to prepare a world organized “according to God’s heart.”

The beginning of the good news…

The beginning of the good news is preparation.  And preparing the way, in our scripture reading today begins with repentance.  “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  We are called to communal repentance.  As God’s people, we repent of benefiting from systems of inequality, we repent from indifference, we repent from ignoring those in need.  We do this so that we can make room in our own hearts for the good news- but even more so, so that we can make room in our communities and our world for the love, peace, and justice of Jesus Christ.  Amen.