Sermon for Sunday, January 11th The Baptism of our Lord

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Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Sermon for Sunday, January 11th The Baptism of our Lord

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

The heavens are torn apart.  Many times when we think of baptism we envision a very peaceful scene.  A peaceful sleeping baby with glistening water droplets on their forehead….  But Jesus’ baptism from Mark’s gospel is quite wild, untamed, maybe even chaotic.  The scene which nearly begins the gospel of Mark, starts with John the Baptist in his camel’s hair, eating locusts as he preaches about repentance. Throngs of people come out to be baptized in the river. And Jesus is of them.  Jesus’ baptism only gets wilder.  As God looks at the Son the heavens are torn apart.  The love and pride and passion of God is so great, the entire heavens are ripped apart.

Maybe you have an idea of what that feels like, as you have looked at your beloved.  Maybe you’ve looked at your child and have loved them so deeply, you feel as if you have been torn apart.  This little piece of your soul walking around the world…  The love and fear nearly overwhelms you.   Your heart is torn apart… the heavens torn apart as you look at them- my beloved.

This is the deep and excruciating love that God has for the Son, and that God has for each of us.  That resounding voice declaring: YOU are my son, the beloved; with you I am well please.  YOU are my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Jesus’ baptism is a dramatic event: with the tearing apart of the heavens, the voice of God, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.  John tells the people, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  We have been baptized through Jesus, with the Holy Spirit.  As Martin Luther says in the small catechism, “It is not water that does these things, but God’s Word with the water and our trust in this Word.  Water by itself is only water, but with the Word of God it is a life-giving water which by graces gives us the new birth through the Holy Spirit.”

Clearly, our baptism is different than Jesus’ baptism.  Jesus’ last command to his disciples is to go into all the world baptizing in the name of the father and of the son and of the Spirit.  After his death and resurrection- baptism takes on a new meaning as the entrance into the Christian life of discipleship.  Still, in our baptism we too have the same spirit of God breaking into our world.

Still, maybe you do not feel that your baptism was as exciting or dramatic as Jesus’ baptism by John.  Perhaps, because you were just a baby and not aware of what was happening.  Or maybe you didn’t feel any different after your baptism.  And yet, every baptism done in Jesus’ name has power.  Something powerful has happened.  God calls us to baptism and God’ works through baptism, whether we fully realize it or not.

I had the privilege of seeing this holy power up close and personal in a baptism I was a part of.  Here at our church Pastor Rick and I baptize.  That is part of what you call us to do as your spiritual leaders.  And yet in an emergency ANY Christian can baptize.  After all it is God’s power and Spirit that do the work.  Before I was ordained and called as your pastor, I baptized someone.  During Seminary I was working as a chaplain in a hospital and a young boy came in who had drowned.  He was on life support and I was caring for his family.  His parents had not been to church in a long time and so he had not been baptized.  They asked me to baptize him.

As I dripped the water on his forehead I was overcome by the irony of the water- the very cause of his immanent death- now proclaiming his new life in Christ.  I marked the cross of Christ on his forehead and called him a child of God.  It was a holy moment for his family.  When there was nothing in the world to offer this little boy, no money or medical treatments could save him-  Baptism gave a gift to his family.  One holy moment surrounded by all of the grief and pain.

As our team of chaplains later debriefed with the staff and nurses, I became even more aware of how incredible this gift was.  Three of the nurses shared stories of spiritual experiences relating to the baptism.  I myself had a powerful dream about the family of the little boy.  We were in the hospital after the baptism and yet the little boy was well and we were all hugging and celebrating as if we were long lost loved ones- as if we had done his baptism at church like any other baptism.  It gave me a glimpse of the power of God’s kingdom breaking into our world.  An unexplainable peace and love, which transcends all boundaries…

Here I realized the spiritual power of every baptism in the name of Jesus.  It also helped me see how influential our own baptisms can be in our own lives.  Scholar Timothy Wengert, wrote about Martin Luther in this month’s issue of the Lutheran.  In it he debunked some myths about Luther the man, and he also referenced Luther’s writing and teaching about baptism in the Large Catechism.  He quoted Luther writing, “Baptism is not a work that we do but … a treasure that God gives us and faith grasps.  …In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life. …Thus, we must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way that we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say… ‘But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body…”

The one-time event of our baptism is a promise of God’s love for us that lasts forever.  That is why we feel it is so important to remind ourselves of our baptisms, and to support those who have been newly baptized and their families in their Christian faith.  Because baptism is not simply a fuzzy-feeling ritual.  Rather it is the initiation into a life of discipleship with Jesus Christ.  It is a rebirth into our new spiritual selves.  It is something we must rely on daily as a sustaining source of grace and forgiveness in our lives.

And as we see in Jesus’ baptism it is often something that takes place in the wilderness of life.  Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” where he would spent forty days tempted by Satan.  Maybe it was the power of his baptism and the confirmation in the Spirit’s presence that sustained him, along with the angels, during that wilderness time.

In our baptism we see the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children.  God’s love for us tears open the heavens. It is wild and unpredictable.  It comes in surprising ways.  It can reach across any divide to give us the forgiveness, healing, and love that we are searching for.  The Spirit at Jesus’ baptism is the same Spirit of God present at creation- and the same Spirit present in our church community today and at each of our baptisms.  This Spirit proclaims good news to the poor and oppressed, offers healing to those hurting, and sometimes drives us into the wilderness to endure the difficult trials of our lives.  Still, through it all God’s promise of grace and love in our baptism is forever.

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.

Advent- what is it anyway?

Dear Hope-fuls,

Yesterday, our church year concluded with Christ the King Sunday.  You can breathe a sigh of relief because the parables of Matthew will subside for a few years 😉 This coming Sunday we begin the new year.  The new year is a time to make room for what is most important in our lives- God’s presence.  In Advent we make room for God’s coming.  We anticipate celebrating Christmas, we acknowledge the ways that God is present in our midst everyday, and we look to the day when God fully comes to restore this world.

To give you a great sneak peak into the meaning of Advent, check out this busted halo video, Advent in 2 Minutes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S02KOlw7dlA

<a href="/channel/UCKYZOHnWG_5lVhke0NxsljA" class=" yt-uix-sessionlink     spf-link  g-hovercard" data-name="" data-ytid="UCKYZOHnWG_5lVhke0NxsljA" data-sessionlink="ei=gEVzVPGCMNT8rgaK9ICgDA">bustedhalovideo</a>

Advent is about:

expecting, waiting, hoping, & praying

Advent is NOT about frenzied Christmas shopping, and buying more stuff that we don’t need.  Consider this as you prepare for Christmas this year.  What giving brings me joy?  Keep doing that giving.  What giving stresses me out?  Consider talking with family, friends, and co-workers about ending these Christmas exchanges or opting out for the year.  Instead, use some of the money for a better cause.  For you, that cause may be paying down your debt and trying to get off hamster wheel of consumerism.  Or it may be finding a family truly in need this Christmas.  Or donating to Good Gifts from the ELCA…  https://community.elca.org/ELCAGoodGifts  Whatever you do, do it in the spirit of Advent & Christmas!

While watching CNN yesterday, a commentator kept referring to Black Friday as Good Friday.  (And I kept puking in my mouth...)  Let me set the record straight.

Black Friday– the day of shopping after thanksgiving (the black in the name refers to the true spirit of the day)*

Good Friday– the day we commemorate the death of Jesus (which is truly a good thing because through his death on the cross comes the resurrection of God and all of us as well!)

But now we are getting way ahead of ourselves on the church year!  So let’s get back to Advent, shall we?  Advent: hope, joy, peace, love.  NOT Advent: buying, stressing, only singing songs in minor keys.

Here’s to hoping we may all find a bit more peace and joy in this season of Advent!

prayers around the cross candles color

*I say that tongue in cheek, please don’t email me! 🙂 

Why read the Bible???

Why Read the Bible:

A Response to A Year Without God

empty chair

Some of you may have heard the story of the former Christian Pastor Ryan Bell.  His story lit up the blogosphere at the beginning of 2014, when he announced he would try atheism for a year.  His blog, “A Year Without God” shared his journey.  At the beginning of this experiment, he had already come to see that he lived his Christian life like a functional atheist.  He claims that most American Christians do too.

So what do you think? Do most American Christians live their lives as if God is real and active in the world? Do people of faith pray? Do American Christians read the Bible?  And if not, why should they?

As we have learned through post-modernity, humans are narrative beings.  Our existence and meaning is shaped by the stories around us.  Think of the narrative of the American dream.  It is the storythat tells us we can achieve our dreams if only we work hard enough for it.  And the story of the American melting pot tells us that people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities become united in America. Other stories of our American culture are not so rosy.  Think of the message that we get from consumerism: You are not enough- UNLESS you buy this product!  You are not beautiful- UNLESS you look like this!  You will not be happy- UNLESS you achieve a certain amount of wealth and status!  Some of these stories may not be true in their essence, and yet they all have a real impact on our lives.

Yet there is another option rather than the story of consumerism.  The Judeo-Christian heritage has a rich biblical story that tells a different story. This story is tells us of a God who created the world and saw that it was good.  This God created humankind in the divine image.  This God speaks of love and justice and faithfulness even in the midst of human suffering, violence, and war.  And through this God we see the picture of love in the person of Jesus, born to show the world God’s love.  In this story we can find our true identity as beloved children of God.  In this story we can find hope.

In the pages of the Bible all people can find a source of meaning and love in their lives.  In the pages of the Bible are stories that inspire, delight, and intrigue.  In the pages of the Bible are the stories of people who love with boldness, dare to defy the religious and political authorities, and rise above human limitations to connect with the divine.  And in the stories of the Bible we can find our own story, our own identity and our purpose in life.

But anything with a reward so deep and worthwhile requires commitment.  The pages of the Bible also include many stories that leave us outraged, offended, and just plain bewildered.  The Bible invites us into a story with people that are selfish and cruel.  The Bible invites us into a story that exists in a different time and place that has different cultural values.  The Bible invites us into a story that took place in a time where patriarchy was the norm.  So how do we deal with the difficult passages of the Bible and still make sense of it?

To do this, we need to read the Bible for its overarching narrative and central themes.  As people of faith we need to stop using the Bible as a weapon.  We cannot simply take one verse from the Bible and use it to prove our point.  The Bible is meant to share the story of God and God’s people.  It is not meant to be a pointing finger or a source of condemnation or shame.

When we read the Bible as a long and winding narrative from Genesis to Revelation (the first book to the last book), we begin to see the story of God in a big way.  In this story God has created a good world and yet this world is often separated from God.  So God works to show the world how loved and cherished it truly is.  God goes to extraordinary lengths to do this.  And then the Bible paints an incredible picture of what restoration and reconciliation truly looks like!  In the end, when we are reunited with God all of creation will be restored and all people will be drawn together in love.

The overarching themes of the Bible paint a vision of justice.  The prophets of the Bible call for the rich to take care of the poor and accountability in leadership.  Jesus teaches us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves and models a way of non-violence.  These themes can help us in our personal ethics and also help us to create a world where justice and peace are the central standards for living in community.

So people ask, “Why read the Bible?”  And yet when we get to the heart of it we may start asking, “How can we NOT read the Bible?”  I do not know how blogger Ryan Bell’s year of atheism will end.  Yet, even without a religious faith, he will still have stories that shape his lives.  He will still find his identity in these stories.  The question will be- will these other stories give him a sense of meaning and purpose in life?  Will these other stories ring true to his experiences?  Will they inspire, encourage, and challenge him to live the life he desires?  And if not, he may want to consider taking another journey for a year- a journey through the biblical story.  He may find coming back to this very old story was just what he needed to rediscover his identity and his view of God and the world.

chair with bible

Sermon for Sunday, November 2nd

Matthew 5:1-12

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Blessing

Blessed- it’s a word we use a lot in our church, and a word that is used a lot around Thanksgiving.  And it appears in our gospel reading today in some peculiar phrases.  I want to take a moment to think about what this word truly means and to examine what it means in the context of this scripture and in our lives today.  The word blessed in this passage comes from the Greek word Makarios.  This word is translated as blessed, but it can also mean happy or fortunate.  This is not only a superficial happiness- but a deep-seated contentment and fulfillment.  Blessed implies that God’s favor or benefits have been extended to someone.

The word blessed is found in the psalms many times.  And this Hebrew word (ashrei) can also be translated as blessed OR happy or enriched.  Like psalm 1:

Psalm 1

The Two Ways

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Like Trees planted by streams of living water….   Yielding fruit and prospering.Blessed and happy.

There is a song  by Casting Crowns I have been inspired by lately that uses an image from psalm 1.

Song

Thrive by Casting Crowns

Here in this worn and weary land
Where many a dream has died
Like a tree planted by the water
We never will run dry

So living water flowing through
God, we thirst for more of You
Fill our hearts and flood our souls with one desire

Just to know You and to make You known
We lift Your name on high
Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide
We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives
Its time for us to more than just survive
We were made to thrive

Into Your word, were digging deep
To know our Fathers heart
Into the world, were reaching out
To show them who You are

Joy unspeakable, faith unsinkable
Love unstoppable, anything is possible

The songs speaks of thriving instead of merely surviving.  What an important contrast.  We may ask ourselves,“are we thriving in our lives- or simply surviving?”  I think we have all been at points in our lives when we are in survival mode: overly stressed with work or school, or simply trying to pay the bills each month.  And on this All Saints Sunday we are reminded that many are surviving losses- losses of loved ones, the loss and grief of losing a job or going through a divorce, dealing with addiction, the overwhelming work of beginning a new job, or moving to a new place, or staring a new school.  In survival mode, we can hardly focus on the blessings around us because we are just trying to make it through the day.  Maybe you are in survival mode right now.

At some points in our lives, we have no choice. But doesn’t God want more for us than to stay in survival mode as our norm?

The song lyrics spoke of that tree that was planted by streams of living waters.  In the same way, when we are in relationship with God we receive the living water of Christ.  This living water provides for our spiritual needs and gives us an abundance of God things in our lives like joy, peace, love, hope.  These spiritual fruits pour out of us as God’s spirit pours into us.

We thrive like the tree planted by living water.  Maybe this idea of thriving is similar to being blessed.  But of course this thriving (this blessed happiness) is not as the world often views happiness.  We can look to the witness of the saints who have gone before us for proof of this.  Some of the most famous saints are well-known and loved to us because of the sacrifices made and the difficulties they endured in life.

  • Many of Jesus’ disciples and the first followers of Jesus gave their lives as martyrs to live out and share the message of Jesus with the world
  • Mother Teresa gave her life to serve the poorest of the poor in the streets of Calcutta
  • Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his work to end racism and fight for the poor in America
  • During the plagues of Europe- Christians were known to care for the sick- risking their own lives. And now today Christian medical missions are volunteering to help with the Ebola crisis in Liberia.
  • These are BIG examples…. But I think if we consider the saints of our own lives we may see this thread as well.
  • My grandmother Dorothy was an inspiration to me in my life and in my walk of faith. As the mother of 9 children and 25 grandchildren- her life was not always an easy one but she always had such love and joy emanating from her spirit.  She may not be remembered by the history books but she will always be loved and remembered by her family as an example of God’s love.  And I think the same is true for many of the saints of our church and our families that we remember in love today.

These saints show us that thriving is less about being successful and prosperous in the world’ eyes.  Instead, it is about having significance in life.  Significance means that we have a purpose- that we are working within God’s mission for this world… that we are a part of something larger than ourselves.  Here is where we find true fulfillment- here is where we find ourselves thriving.  Here is where we are blessed by God.  We move beyond surviving (not because we are without hardships or struggle) but because we are living lives of significance fed by living water.

Jesus’ blessings

When Jesus walked away from the crowds and taught his disciples this Bible lesson we read in Matthew’s gospel- it would have been quite shocking to hear.  Because all of the people that Jesus spoke of- were not blessed, happy, or fortunate.  Those who were considered blessed were the rich, the powerful, those with many gifts of children, land, food, and livestock.  The exact opposite of Jesus’ words seem true…

Those who mourn are not happy or comforted

Those who are gentle do not inherit the land

Those who hunger for justice are left unfulfilled

The peacemakers are pushed aside

The persecuted suffer

And yet Jesus makes a radical pronouncement with these blessings.  Things are changing…  The kingdom of heaven- the way it is in God’s kingdom- is breaking into this world and upsetting the balance of power.  Now that Jesus, God in flesh, has arrived on the scene- things are revealed through God’s eyes.  The kingdom of heaven is breaking through in the person of Jesus.  And in this new order: the poor, meek, the mournful, peacemakers, and those hungering for justice- are blessed by God. This pronouncement comes to speak the true of the present moment.  It is not a list of things to strive for – it is simply a revelation of God’s truth- these people are blessed.  They are happy, they are fulfilled, they are thriving.  They have significance in God’s kingdom.  The wonderful gospel news brings this new reality.  This new reality is present in Jesus and it continues through the lives of Jesus’ followers and in the church and in the world and wherever the Holy Spirit works.

And God’s radical blessing breaks into our personal world too.  God reveals that when you suffer, struggle, and mourn- you are not alone.  God sees you in your pain and is with you.  God proclaims that you are blessed.  God promises to provide living waters to refresh you.  Because you too are one of the saints of God.  And together we are the saints of Hope Lutheran- supported and surrounded by the many who have gone before us.

In our church of Hope Lutheran- we have a vision that we will go beyond survival mode.  We will move beyond only focusing on paying the bills.  We will move into God’s calling of mission for our church.  This calling is to a vision of significance- of making a difference in the community- of continuing of current ministries and expanding them to reach more people.  It will not be without its struggle- but we will not be alone.  We will have God’s abundant love and blessing to fuel our service.  And each of you will be a part of this big vision and this work for the kingdom.  May God bless us in our work.  Amen.

Pastoring and Mothering

IMG_4886-2

Pastoring and mothering are similar calls. They are both calls with great responsibilities. The burdens are great, and yet they are burdens of love. As a mother there are times when I would do just about anything for a little breathing room- a little space away from the babes. And then the babysitter comes and that last squeeze is so precious you can hardly leave. “I can’t leave now,” I think, “They need me! And I need them! Who am I without these little tinies attached to me?” And the same is true for my congregation. Just as I am walking out the door, someone in need calls and the love surges through me. Some may say you should not find your identity in your role as a mother or your role as pastor, but for me it is intricately woven into my identity. It is as tight as the latch of the newborn to his mother. I do exist somewhere without these roles, but many times we are too close to call the end of one and the beginning of another. And that is really the true beauty of being a mother/pastor. You can be so close to another soul. You are so close you are pretty sure your heart is toddling around playing trains and building towers rather than doing whatever unimportant things your adult body has found to do.

The birthing of a sermon is a labored process. It starts out as a seed of scripture and grows all week long, adding the fat of stories and experiences and finally brought into world through the spirit. The spirit is a strong midwife. She pushes and pulls, sometimes as tough as that coach from high school that made you run killers until you puked. Other times she is as gentle as your mother stroking your hair when you are sick. Sermon writing is indeed a labor of love. And then comes the week when you are not writing the sermon. You rejoice! You think of all of the things you may do on a Saturday night instead of agonizing over your message and waking in the wee hours of the night to pray and tend to it. And then there is the emptiness… But who will remind me of God’s promises this week? Will I tend to the scriptures seeds or let them lie fallow this week? Who will share God’s gospel news with MY little flock this week? Will they do it with the tender care and knowing that I do?

Someone asked me at church one day this week, ‘are you working today?’ “No I said. Well not officially. Well kind of I guess,” with a sheepish smile. As a pastor you are always on call. Not always because you are literally ‘on-call’ this weekend, but because pastoring work is not logged. There are times I have ‘office hours’ the whole day and feel as if I have not worked a minute. There are other ‘days off’ at home where I spend most of my energy pastoring. This is not to say one should not take Sabbath time away from pastoring. Of course this is true. One must refuel. One must rest. One must have other hobbies and interests and commitments. Of course. So when I am not pastoring, I am usually mothering.

My life is not very balanced right now, and I’m okay with that. If there is a pastoring mom out there with a perfectly balanced life, I would like to meet her. Maybe she can give me some advice. But for now I have come to peace with the fact that this is a time in my life where things are a bit out of balance. After all, I have two tiny people who are very needy right now. I also have a newborn first call that is quite needy as well. Someday there may be time for long jogs and hours of prayer or yoga, but for now there are long hours in the rocking chair. My meditation is the swaying back and forth. I think on the tiny fingers and stare in utter amazement as one tiny thumb has recently developed little rolls of fat. Wow, the splendor of God’s creation! The splendor of my own little creation! My service to the community is my nursing. My exercise is carrying a baby and chasing a toddler. My time with my husband is spent laughing at bath time and curling up together on the couch when both of the little ones are finally in bed (if I haven’t fallen asleep yet). And when I’m relaxed enough, I am actually able to find much joy in this. Joy and amazement.

I thank God every day for the calls of pastor and mom. It is something I have aspired to my entire life, and now I am living it. They are two of the most difficult things I have ever dared to do. Two labors of love worth all of the labor.

Inspirations:

Photo credit: Beth Sprotte Photography, Birthing the Sermon Edited by Rev. Dr. Jana Childers, Mamastery.com, http://lilliankeil.tumblr.com/post/99411163279/breastfeeding-and-the-eucharist

The meaning of hope…

From the Miriam-Webster Dictionary:

1hope

 verb \ˈhōp\

: to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true

This is the English definition of hope. And yet, if we look at the Greek word for hope (elpis) we see a much stronger meaning.  The Greek word conveys expectation and eagerness.  One commentator wrote that, “Hope is expectation expressed in faith, confidence, patience, endurance and eagerness.”[1]  As Christians we not only want something to happen or think it could be true- we are certain in our faith.  Maybe the English word trust conveys more of this meaning.

In the Greek:

Hope (Elpis)

: to eagerly and joyfully expect in faith that something will happen

In the scriptures the source of our hope is God, and the fulfillment of our hope is in Jesus.  There is no question about this.  We do not live like those who have no hope.[2]  Our hope in God shows in the fruits of our lives.  When we are tempted to give in to cynicism, depression, or hatred- we remember that we are people of hope.  When the news seems to be all bad news- we trust God is with us.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:2)

[1] The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Sermon for Sunday, October 12th: Invitation to the Feast

Sermon for October 12th

Scriptures: Matthew 22: 1-14, Philippians 4:1-9

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Imagine for a moment that you just received an invitation- an invitation to a royal wedding.  Originally, you were not invited, although you wished you had been.  And at the last minute as you sat imagining what it would be like, one of the king’s servants comes to extend an invitation to you.  You rush to the wedding, after all the feast is ready and the king is waiting.  You join the mass of people entering the banquet hall, smelling the delicious aroma of roasting meat.  Everyone is seated and the king arrives.  The king looks out at the banquet hall and scans the guests, and then his eyes seem to land on you.  He comes toward you and says, “Friend, how did you get in here without wearing a wedding robe?”

And you are speechless.

We have all been there.  It’s that moment when you realize everyone is wearing stilettos while you are rockin’ kicks, guess you didn’t get the memo.  Those nightmares come true when you are naked at the party, on the spot at school, unprepared for work…. at the wedding without a wedding robe.  And your deepest fear has been realized- everyone has found you out.  They have seen the real you and they have rejected you.

Here at church we all come like this.  We all come, insecure- wanted to hide our sin and shame- afraid of being exposed.  Yet it is this very place where our true nature is revealed.  We are in bondage to our sin and we cannot free ourselves.  And although it is terrifying to be truly vulnerable and revealed, after we admit this, we can breathe a sigh of relief.  No more posing as a good church person- as the perfect mother, brother, councilperson, Sunday school teacher.  We can be honest with our faults and failings.  And for the first time in a long while, we can show our true selves.  We do not have to hide, pretend, or pose any longer.

When we enter this sanctuary, often, the very first thing we do is our liturgy of Confession & Forgiveness.  It is as if we say- wait!  Before we worship God, before I stand next to you as my brother or sister in Christ, before we do one more churchy thing- let’s be real, let’s be honest.  Let’s do what we need to do and confess our sins to God and one another.  Let’s be honest about our true need for God.

This scripture today, exposes that true need.  We may ask- why does there have to be judgment like we see in our scriptures?  Why does God judge people, including us?  Without giving an honest judgment about ourselves, we will never find the truth of who we really are.  A world without judgment does not takes seriously the sins and suffering, and war that we see all around us every day.  Without judgment, there can be no justice.

On our own, we all stand before God and each other without our wedding robes on.  On our own, we are thrown into the outer darkness.  On our own, we are left to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Yet in this crazy, beautiful thing of our faith, we believe something miraculous happens.  We believe that in our baptism God clothes us in Christ.  Although our sinful nature never disappears, we also have a new identity in Christ.  We are sinners and saints at the same time.  During baptism we wear white or receive a white cloth to symbolize this new identity.  And this white robe stays with us throughout our faith journey as a symbol that we are baptized in Christ.  We wear it again as we are confirmed, as our ninth graders will do in just two weeks.  Our leaders wear it in worship.  And in death as the white funeral pall is placed on the casket or urn- our baptismal robe again surrounds us as we are commended to God.

Clothed in Christ, we can be in true community with others.

Our parable today is another violent, dramatic, and unsettling teaching of Jesus from Matthew.  It is the third parable of judgment Jesus tells to the Pharisees and chief priests.  Here Jesus uses this ‘once upon a time (hyperbolic) story’ to shock his audience.  He is trying to prove a point to the religious leaders.  Yes, you are invited to the feast of God- but you also have a responsibility to care for the people in your flock.  You are called to justice and love.  You are not beyond God’s judgment simply because you are in charge.

There is clearly judgment and law in this parable.  But there is also gospel.  There is a wild and disruptive theme of inclusivity.  The king invites all to the banquet.  He has his servants scour the city for the good and the bad.  This gives us a vision of the kingdom of God.  God is out to invite all to the feast.  God searches our cities for the homeless, unemployed, mentally ill, outcast, imprisoned, strangers, the last of all the last- and extends an invitation to them. Wow! It is such good news, it is almost impossible to believe.

As I was traveling in my car this week, I was listening to WPR on the radio when I heard a story that people had a hard time believing.  It was the story of a Roman Catholic nun who secretly ministered to transgender people.  Somehow this nun, Sister Monica, had showed compassion to one person, and found her calling.  People would call her or email her out of the blue and say, “Do you really minister to trans people?  Are you really a nun?”  No one could believe that this nun would help people that seemed so far out of norm of the ministry of the church, especially the Catholic Church.  But she did.  Sister Monica felt that ‘loving God makes us more human’ rather than our spirituality separating us from people.  She shared that what touched her most was that the transgender people she worked with loved God just like she did.  She provided pastoral support and spiritual direction to people as they faced the many difficulties that comes with being a transgender person.  The show reported that 40% of transgender people in one study had attempted suicide.  What a staggering and saddening statistic!  Sister Monica continues this ministry she believes is central to the gospel, even though it could get her into trouble.

‘When we try to live by the gospel we sometimes get in trouble,’ one of the nuns who worked with Sister Monica said.  Maybe we get that today at Hope Lutheran Church.  This gospel is a dangerous thing.  It is not politically correct.  It shines light on ourselves as sinners.  It calls the world into judgment.  And it reaches out to those not usually invited to society’s table.  It is radical and at times impossible to believe.  But we come to church asking, “Is it true?”  Can God love me as I am?  Can I be forgiven?  Can I be accepted by a Christian community?  And we find in our baptism, a resounding “Yes!” and a beautiful robe to wear to the banquet.