Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
When we were living in North Dakota, we had a very long laundry line that basically took up our entire backyard. About 15 feet on the other side of the line was our neighbor’s house. So if our neighbor was in his kitchen, doing dishes, and looked out, he could read the logos on our t-shirts hanging in the breeze.
I never hung any underwear on our line.
From childhood taunts, “I see London, I see France, I see Suzy’s underpants” to high school dress codes to admonitions in seminary preaching classes – “don’t show your exegetical undergarments”— I’ve been formed to know you don’t go showing what you’re supposed to be covering up.
The thing is, we all have bodies, we all have variously shaped underclothes to hold our variously shaped bodies, and there’s nothing new or surprising about that. I was surprised then, one day while watching one of my favorite shows- “Call the Midwife”- set in 1950s urban England- to see a scene of laundry hanging between the flats. I noticed that there were all manner of undergarments and I was surprised that I had reaction of embarrassment that was simply not shared by the people in that culture. People have clothes, clothes get dirty, they get wet when washed, and they need to dry, and the way you dry clothes is to hang them out, which has the side effect of being visible to your neighbors.
Those are the facts. There’s nothing really to be embarrassed about. It’s pretty pointless to try to hide what we all know about each other.
When we read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it feels a bit like we’re noticing their undies on the line. We’re hearing about those cracks in their community we think we’re expected to hide. But what if the invitation is not to hide from our humanity, but to acknowledge each other’s? And in recognizing that we all have things under the polished image we’d like the show the world, might we learn how to deal with those not so pretty bits- and even more importantly, might we discover grace and live in grace towards each other?
Let’s enter the text with humility and compassion- for the Corinthians and for ourselves.
Paul has just greeted the Corinthians with a typical opening, and reminded them of a vision of who they are called to be, as he writes:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
Within that thanksgiving are veiled references to the struggles Paul will address in this letter. It doesn’t take him much longer to become more direct.
We’ve only read 10 verses when we come to the first uncovering of the trouble in the community. Paul writes,
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Divisions? Disagreements? What’s this all about? He continues,
11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Ah. Factions have formed within the one community. The problem is that people within the community are claiming adherence to one teacher or another. In Paul’s culture, in which you might be a disciple of one rabbi or another, this is understandable. You might follow one teacher and interpret the scripture through that teacher’s lens. The problem is that they are using their affiliation as a source of justification and division. It’s like they’re going up to each other and saying, “I”m following the right teacher and yours is wrong.” Or- “You’re believing lies.” Or- maybe they’re trying to keep away from those who are interpreting from a different point of view.
Was there a pros and cons list followers were carrying around for Paul, and Apollos, and Cephas, and those “always have the right answer group” claiming Christ?
Paul calls them on it. He’s not interested in having his name used in their game, writing “thank God that I baptized none of you… except Cripus and Gaius…” (1:14). Paul knows it’s not about him. He may have been the one called to spread the word, but it’s been the word about Jesus, not about Paul himself. It’s been the word about the cross, not something wise or glorious, flashy or entertaining. Paul knows he’s human and has plenty of failings, and he’s ok pointing those out just to help the Corinthians break away from their focus on having the right group.
Your teacher, your pastor, your church affiliation, in the end, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is Christ. If Paul’s clear on saying he doesn’t want his name dragged into this argument, I can only imagine how clearly Christ would shout his disapproval.
I think we all can picture pretty clearly what it looks like to have a church broken up into factions. Many of us have ears ringing with memories of heated discussion and accusations. We also know what it is to weigh different schools of thought- different interpretations of the scriptures. Maybe some have not, but I think many of us have had plenty of time in prayer and study, discerning what teachings we want to live out of. We have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the Corinthian community. It can be pretty uncomfortable for this kind of division to be named and brought out in the open.
Frankly, I think many of us have found it embarrassing for this church to have its name spoken out in public along with phrases like, “they’re having problems” or “they’re leaving the ELCA.” But, I don’t think it has to be. There’s nothing new with having divisions within the church. There’s nothing new to being emotional or having a temper or turning away instead of working it out. We don’t have to be ashamed of having a problem that is pretty typical. We’re not called to hide away our struggle. But we are called to be open to God’s word to us:
We’re in the same boat as the Corinthians, and so, more than ever, from the page of the Bible to our ears, Paul’s speaking to us: “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13)
Is Christ a measurable quantity that exists to a greater degree in one church over another? Can one group claim Jesus and be right in saying the other does not have him? No, of course not. In Colossians we read that in Jesus “all things hold together” (1:17) and “there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (3:11)— all the groups into which we divide ourselves mean nothing to Christ, he transcends our boundaries. Further on in First Corinthians, Paul will talk of the Body of Christ, holding all the very different members of the body into one being. There might be differences among people, but there is one Jesus Christ who holds them all together- only one Jesus Christ who decides that each of them has a part in him.
The problem is that we tend to be afraid that Jesus will decide we don’t have a part in him. This makes us do crazy things. Our fear grows a festering sense of shame that divides community and pulls us away from Christ.
We don’t have to play the shame game when we realize there are divisions among us. We don’t have to let shame drive us to cover up by exposing other’s faults. So much of our lives is caught up in trying to look better than we are, to pretend we have fewer faults than our neighbors, to claim righteousness and holiness. Paul calls all that what it is: foolishness.
Because we who claim Jesus see things upside down to the way the world sees things. We claim something the world sees as foolish: the cross as the highest wisdom. We name the cross as the throne of our God. Looking through the cross, we see what seems wise is really foolish.
We’re so used to thinking according to the ways of this world that what God’s doing in the cross really doesn’t make sense. Why would God choose to be exposed in shame?
God goes to the cross to upend all our expectations about needing to hide the truth about who we are. On the cross, God declares:
I’m here for you.
You’ve gotten it all totally, horrible wrong, all my teachings, all my intentions, and yet, I’m still going to love you.
You can’t do anything nasty enough to make me budge, I’m not going to turn away from you,
I’m not going to turn on you.
All your lists of right and wrong, holy and sinful, are upside down and twisted around,
it’s time to realize I’m not a God about lists of naughty and nice,
I’m a God who keeps no score, who washes away sin,
who declares you beloved even while you are covered in the muck of sin, and who makes you new
I’m bringing you along on the path towards a more whole creation.
I’m here for you, because I know how very much you need me, and I’m willing to do everything to love you into life.
The foolishness of claiming affiliation to the one right teacher is exposed by the Jesus Christ who comes from God and hangs despised on a tree. Because that Jesus doesn’t do the “right” thing at all. He doesn’t follow the rules. He follows God’s love.
God’s love is a dangerous and wild force that rips out of our hands any tallies of in or out, right or wrong, welcome or not. God’s love carries us up out of ourselves and our preoccupations with self-righteousness and centers us in the wonder of grace.
The cross unravels our need for division. We align ourselves with the right group so that we can feel justified that we’re believing the right things and doing the right things, and so that we have an opposing group to point to as our foil. It helps us avoid looking at the things we don’t like in ourselves and keeps others from discovering how we are broken.
But if the cross is about Jesus choosing to stand with us in our brokenness, if Jesus already knows about everything we’re trying to hide, and if that hasn’t made him run from us, but is actually what is making him run towards us, then maybe we don’t have to be afraid or ashamed anymore. This is grace: that God loved us when we were most unloveable. Living in that grace, we can say with bold confidence, I am broken, but I am also beloved. We can look out- at those we’ve once pushed away- and know that about them: you are broken, but you are also beloved.
Living in grace, shame and judgement have no place. Without shame and judgement, division cannot be fueled. There will still be differences. The twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians is all about how differences are necessary. Different lens for interpretation, different ways of living out the gospel, different organizing structures, different styles, different gifts and different failings- but grace gives room for difference because it is centered in unexpectedly wide love.
We no longer have to hide what is a given about us- that in this life, we struggle. We can be outrageously open with the good news- that our struggle gives us occasion to learn even more deeply God’s love for us, and opportunity to live in to the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom that Jesus’ cross opens for us.
Display for your neighbors to see: you’re a work in progress, and the master craftsman is forming you into people who rely on God’s grace and who show that grace to others.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Grace and peace to you, people of God.
When’s the last time you went out to a restaurant or to a new place?
How did you decide to go there?
If I’m driving around in a new area, I’ll pull over and check out Googlemaps, read a number of reviews, and then pick out where I’m eating. I listen to what total strangers say and let them influence my decision.
As we prepare to move to a new city, I’m writing down and leaning on other’s recommendations for everything from professional services and contractors to the best way to get from place to place. I look to others as the experts in their homeland.
We go places, hire people, and try new things because others tell us about it. We take their word for it.
How much we trust them depends on our relationship and their authority. I’m going to trust a good friend or a trusted professional because of the former’s relationship and the latter’s position of expertise.
Our experience of following through on the recommendation determines if we tell others- and if we trust the source again.
The Gospel of John is written in beautiful poetic Greek. John chapter 1 was one of the first entire chapters I translated into English while studying Greek. Even as I read it in English, I am awed by how beautiful it is. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The first human character we meet is John the Baptist. “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
As much as I love the beauty of this chapter, I know others find it wordy, abstract, and hard to follow. I think it will be more accessible if you use this framework of seeking and following the recommendations of others. The book was written so that you would find and follow Jesus. Within this first chapter the major action is the Word Incarnate- Jesus- coming on the scene with an authority- John the Baptist- pointing him out and recommending him to others. This action then ripples out, with those who trust John the Baptist’ recommendation recommending Jesus to others.
John the Baptist is a teacher, a religious authority, who has a group of disciples who have formed a long and trusting relationship with him. When John points to Jesus and declares, “This is the Lamb of God,” his own disciples take his word for it. They follow his recommendation, invite others to join them, and go to see Jesus for themselves.
It strikes me that John is sending his own disciples to Jesus. He isn’t concerned with keeping his fame. There is no competition between John and Jesus here because John’s role is to prepare for and point to Jesus. They’re both working to bring people to the same God. There’s a lot for us to learn here, as we consider how we talk of fellow Christians and other churches. We’re all about the work of recommending Jesus to the world. We don’t need to create bad reviews of other congregations in an attempt to make ourselves stronger. John was confident enough in his faith to release his own power and prestige and encourage his followers to follow the one they had been waiting for. He’s willing to release his disciples into a new community where they will be formed in faith.
John uses his influence to encourage his disciples to seek out Jesus. His influence must be considerable. John points to Jesus, declaring, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” and two of his disciples leave John and, following his directions, find Jesus.
When John’s disciples come up to Jesus, we hear one of the most interesting phrases in this text. When the disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” it appears to be a simple question of “how can we find you later? Where are you going to be around dinner time tonight?”
Jesus takes the questions to another level. Instead of saying, “I’m at the inn on the corner, the one with the famous falafels,” Jesus says, “come and see.”
This, then becomes an invitation to disciples. “Come and see” – not only where I’m sleeping tonight, but see where I’m staying- where I’m dwelling- where I- the living God- can be found.
For the next few years, that’s what these disciples will do. They will be with Jesus, seeing how he shows up for those in need, those pushed aside, and those without hope. They will discover anew where God is found- and be amazed that God is active outside the boundaries they had assumed.
Sometimes, they will not like where Jesus chooses to dwell, and it will be hard for them to stay with him. They won’t like that staying with Jesus means sharing company with people they’ve been taught to stay away from. They won’t like that being with Jesus means they step out of the space in which rank and honor and being better than others gets you rewarded. They will scatter and leave when Jesus chooses to be in danger, in suffering, in humiliation, and in death. They won’t be able to believe the news when Jesus is found, not only in death, but in resurrection- new life. With his ascension, Jesus fills all places with his presence and assures us that there is no place with the power to push him out.
John chapter 1 is an invitation to us, to follow the recommendation of John and his disciples, of Jesus’ disciples and the early church, to seek out where Jesus is staying, to come and see, and enter a life of discipleship, dwelling where Jesus dwells, and sharing in his work. Cross- our community of faith- is the recommender and the accompanying disciples who help us discover Jesus and dwell with him.
We don’t create faith within ourselves, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit, but we can put ourselves in places where we meet Jesus. We can go to places where faith is created. That’s why we come here. The primary place Jesus dwells is in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, because Jesus has promised, “this is my body; this is my blood.” Jesus comes to us in Word read and preached. Jesus stays here among us, as promised, “I will not leave you abandoned.” (Jn 14:18) We’ve come here to meet Jesus and to be trained to recognize Jesus as we leave this place and enter the rest of our week.
Our annual meeting is a time to celebrate that this community of faith has been meeting Jesus. For us, Jesus has made himself present in bread and wine, divided and shared. Jesus has made himself present in the strangers and familiar faces we’ve served at Bread and Roses, Family Promise, and the Ixonia Food Pantry. We saw Jesus reflected in the eyes of children and adults working for a better future on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. We met Jesus in each other, as care, love, and forgiveness were expressed. People have met Jesus in you.
While we may trust that Jesus is present, it can still be hard to see him. Like a pop up party or a mob dance, Jesus appears where we least expect him.
I was listening to an interview with Veronica Chambers and Sarah Lewis who edited and contributed to a book about First Lady Michelle Obama, entitled The Meaning of Michelle. One of the vignettes told that Mrs. Obama would go for regular walks on the streets of Washington DC, and no one would recognize her. She wasn’t accompanied by all the fanfare one expects with the First Lady. She just looked like a normal black woman out for a jog, and so no one expected she was anything special. They didn’t give her a second look, didn’t ask for an autograph, didn’t really see her.
Sometimes we don’t recognize what we don’t expect to see. We see what we expect and miss out on what’s really there. If we don’t expect Jesus among the poor and oppressed, the sinners and the anti religious, the depressed and the dead, we will miss him. We won’t have the wonder of seeing that God’s love is so big, nothing anyone can do will push Jesus away. We’ll miss out on knowing that God values all people, and maybe we’ll live in fear that we might do something to make God value us less, to make God reject us.
Jesus dwells where we don’t want him to be. He is in us, knowing those places we hide from everyone else. He is in people and situations we don’t want to value and we don’t want to be near. Jesus has to be there, because that’s where the front lines of the coming kingdom are: where God is working to bring good news, healing, and justice. We might not want Jesus to be there, in the ickiness of life, because his being there calls us towards changed action. If Jesus is there at work, surely we should be too. If we’re disciples, we’re to be joining Jesus where he is active, mimicking his work.
This first chapter of John is all about this God who dives into the world, entering it fully, especially dwelling among the poor, the pushed aside, and the suffering, even filling the space occupied by death. Jesus comes into all this to bring his love and life to the whole world.
Jesus is found in scary, unexpected, messy places, and invites us to come and see what he’s up to. He dwells there to bring change, and calls us to be active in his work. It’s more comfortable to find Jesus in the woods, or in the beautiful sanctuary. We need each other- we rely on each other’s word- to tell us where Jesus is staying, so that we don’t miss out on finding Jesus. The glory of being a disciple is in being right next to the teacher, copying the teacher, becoming more and more like the teacher. Then the work of the master is work we also take joy in, because we’ve been there as it’s coming into being.
The movement of the Gospel of John continues today. We are called to be doing the work of John the Baptist and the disciples, pointing Jesus out and walking with others as they come and see where he is. Jesus invites you, and each child of the earth, to come and see that he already dwells right here, with you, and his presence is bringing joy and life, justice and well-bring, for now and forever.
Bible Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
Have you ever gone into a place after a disaster? A fire, flood, or tornado?
Maybe you were there to help, or to visit friends, or maybe it was home- before.
What was once familiar becomes a strange wasteland.
I’ve been lucky to not have my own home destroyed. I’ve seen pictures on the news, driven through areas after the storm. When I see a neighborhood filled with flood waters, I have a hard time imagining toddlers on their trikes and kids zooming on their bikes, up and down streets that are now a lake. When I see a house demolished- exploded- by a tornado, I can’t imagine sitting down at the dinner table.
But for the families who called those places home, what might be hardest to imagine is how the memory and the present reality could be one and the same place. How could it be that sacred, safe home is no more?
Once the shock wears off, and the fact that this is what it is hits, then how can one go forward?
You can look back into your memories and remember what once was- you can stand in the midst of the present destruction and see that it is so horribly different- but can you possibly believe there could be something good again?
That’s the place the people of God were at, when they heard these words of God through Isaiah, and when they came back in later generations to listen to them again. These texts give a vision forward. For the people of God who have been conquered by the Babylonian Empire, who lived in exile, everything they knew had been destroyed. Their homes, their government, even God’s temple– all destroyed.
How could they hope for a change for the better?
God gives them hope. God gives them an image to hold on to – and a promise that this image is a sign of their future:
“the desert shall rejoice and blossom”
“the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water”
Isaiah’s images are of a creation restored, brought to greater life.
These images challenge the resignation of “it is what it is,” they don’t leave room for, “nothing’s going to change.” They promise, “God’s going to change it all!”
The defining feature of a desert is that it doesn’t rain much, and so it doesn’t blossom often. The energy is only put forth when there’s enough water, when it’s safe. A blossoming desert is a land trusting God will continue to provide in abundance what was once scarce, life.
Imagine – if we have a God who can turn the desert into a lake- what else might God be able to do? What could possibly be too big for our God?
Our God makes the lame to leap, the blind to see, the deaf to hear. Those who are resigned to life as it is will be surprised in joy. That’s the promise God has for us.
The question is- are we ready to be open to hope? Will we look to God, trusting that God will fulfill our longing for healing and life? Have we found the one worthy of our trust?
That’s the question John the Baptist had of Jesus. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we look for another?” Jesus’ answer is to direct his attention to the signs around- just as promised through Isaiah, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
In their time, people living with different abilities weren’t completely allowed in to society, so these “healings” really meant being brought to greater life when it certainly seemed impossible that their lives could change.
Jesus himself is the final sign – the final proof- that we can trust in God. There’s nothing our God can’t do. God raises the dead. Jesus is alive.
Since God can make the desolate places become gardens, the pushed aside brought back into community, the dead man come to life, we have hope that the brokenness in and around us can be restored to life.
We can look back and remember the way things were, look now and see it isn’t as we need it to be, and look ahead through God’s promise to the good future that will be.
We live in the middle times. Where are you in the midst of desolation? Where do you look back and remember the way things were- and feel pain at the way things are today? Maybe you can’t even remember a time when things were good.
Look out ahead. Listen to God’s promise. Can you see the new future God intends?
We’re here to help each other see. When we feel like the path forward is a wall of fog, we gather here to hear God fill in the details of that path forward. We gather together to rely on each other’s strength. We can be like John’s disciples, bringing news of the signs that God is at work to restore all things.
The wasteland will become a garden, the devastation a welcome home, the broken whole. May God grant you hope in the meantime.
bibleGrace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the church. Sometimes, when the weather is nice, I walk around this place in which we gather, and I pray. I found my way out to the prayer garden and sat down on the swing.
I was praying for this community, for the hurt that’s been a part of recent conversations, and for each of you, for the joys and struggles I know about and those that I do not.
There are times in my prayers when I am really sad. I hurt in the love I have for you and this community, I hurt as I know your hurt. So I give it to the only one who can do anything about it. I place you, and me, and the world, into God’s hands.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m not a person who likes to give up or give over things I think I should be able to fix. It’s easy to say slogans like, “let go and let God,” but a lot harder to do.
After all, what do we really imagine God’s going to do with all the pain of the world?
I sat out there, challenging God to answer all that I had thrown over for God to catch. Gazing around the garden, I noticed all the flower and plants that had died back for the winter. All that was once green was brown, drooped. The perennials pull back their life, their energy and let go of all that isn’t necessary, waiting for the warmth to return, for it to be safe to bloom again.
The whole garden looked dead. Except for one plant. An Easter lily was in full bloom. Its delicate trumpets stood ready to proclaim: “life will come again!”
(Monty Python- “I’m not dead yet.” )
I’m not really a God sent me a sign type of person, but that lily was a reminder to me of God’s power for life. On Easter, we celebrate that God transforms a situation of grief into a cause for joy. Where there was death, there is life. New life comes out of suffering and death. This present moment isn’t all there is, but a new and better future is coming. Alleluia, Christ is Risen… and we shall arise.
But wow, it’s hard to trust that there will be new life when it feels like death. Or to look forward to healing when you’re sick. Or to think of planting a garden in peace when your land is trampled by armies.
Isaiah speaks of a shoot coming up out of the stump of Jesse. A tree cut down, and yet, somehow, coming back to life. This little twig of life holds the promise of a strong trunk supporting thick limbs. In due time.
The people of God have had plenty of times in which everything looked hopeless. They were a tiny nation, constantly conquered by neighboring nations who were stronger than them: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia… there were even wars between factions within the community. Through Isaiah, God promises that there will be life springing out of what was once cut down. The remnant will not be wiped out, but will grow.
This shoot from a stump, like my blooming lily, is a sign that life is not done yet. There’s reason to hope. God is here.
The lily’s blooming was out of season. Its trumpet didn’t wake all the other slumbering plants. It was a herald of things to come. There will be a full bloom in the garden this spring.
Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of what is to come. God will restore all things. God will bring all creation to life. This new life will be like Isaiah’s vision of the holy mountain, where even the natural need of predators to kill will be fulfilled with peace, and all creatures will be safe.
This season of Advent isn’t just about counting down to Christmas. We’re preparing not only for the baby in the manger, but for the Savior who will come again. We’re waiting and expecting Jesus to come and finalize his work.
What do we imagine God is going to do with all the pain of the world?
First, God feels it. God doesn’t just look down on us from some heavenly realm and feel bad for us. God comes into creation to share all of human life, including its pain. More than that, as Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus pulls onto himself all the pain of the world. Betrayed, rejected, cursed, banished, and tortured, Jesus- God in the flesh- feels all the worst. No matter what we experience, we are not alone, Jesus is there, not afraid to come near to our suffering, because he’s been there, too.
Today, God continues to carry our pain. Jesus walks with us, through whatever comes in life. We experience God’s support for us through prayer, worship, the sacraments, and our community. God puts people in our lives who embody God’s love and support for us. That’s part of the work we do here in this congregation for each other. As we care for each other, being there in both difficult and joyful times, Jesus loves through us.
One day, God will wipe all pain away. The world will be transformed. We will be transformed. There will be wholeness of life that will never end. The bloom of Jesus’ resurrection will spread over all of us, and we will know the joy of Jesus’ conquering of death, sin, and evil.
God’s promise to Isaiah’s listeners was spoken through images that translated their present pain into future joy. Where in your life do you need new life? This week, pray for God to give you a vision of what it would look like for God to heal struggle and widen joy in your life. Pray also for the eyes to see signs of that good future coming. May you have time to notice glimpses of life, even when you see life drawing back, and faith to trust that God will bring you into a fully bloomed creation again.
This is paired with a Gospel telling of John shouting at the crowds. While it might be fun to play the part of John the Baptist, it certainly isn’t fun to be yelled at.
But I know I yell when I’m afraid someone’s not paying attention and they might miss something that is life or death.
Of my children, the little one is a runner and the big one is a dreamer. Lydia would just as soon run away from me in the parking lot because she thinks it’s funny and she loves to be chased. Laila would be dancing around assuming everyone in the world is watching out for her.
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Bible Grace and peace to you, people of God. My husband, Jeff, is a list maker. I go to use a notebook and find it’s full of basketball stats. Ugh, March Madness and brackets. I go to another notebook and it’s football stats. Ugh. Fantasy Football. But then we went to his parent’s house while they were doing some cleaning and got handed notebooks from his childhood. And there were more lists! These were lists of birds, or plants… It’s taken me 10 years into our marriage to really understand what this is all about.
Every part of life can be a game. Jeff’s lists are contests won, points scored.
This includes place he’s been. His life goal is to go to every National Park Site. He keeps track of what states he’s been to and which are left to go. He mentally marks off which countries he’s visited.
And that’s where things get a little contentious between the two of us. What really counts as being somewhere?
While we were in seminary, we flew down to Guyana, South America, to study under the Lutheran pastors there. Our flight touched down in Barbados. We never got off the plane. We saw glimpses of the country as we descended, but we never left our seats on the airplane. So were we ever really in Barbados?
Jeff is convinced that because he was on his seat which is on the plane which is on the tarmac which is in Barbados, he has been to Barbados.
I’m more of an opinion that he hasn’t really been there, because all he breathed was the recycled air of the plane, and never set foot on that beautiful land. How can it count as being there if he hasn’t experienced anything of the place?
He’s convinced he can cross it off the list, but I’m fighting against it, hoping that eventually he’ll agree and see the need for a tropical island vacation someday….
This question of “are we there yet?” echoes throughout the season of Advent. How will we know when we’re arrived- and where exactly are we headed anyway?
Throughout this season, we’ll be reading from the book of Isaiah, and I’ll be centering on those texts for my sermons. Isaiah is written and compiled during and after difficult times for the people of God. They are surrounded by much more powerful nations and empires: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. At various times, these empires attack, defeat, and dismantle the Israel and Judah. The people hear from God words of warning as well as hope. Hope must have been a difficult thing when everything seemed destroyed. This text has meaning in each of these periods of defeat and struggle.
Take, for example, the Babylonian exile, when God’s people have been taken from the promised land and help captive in Babylon while the Babylonians rule over what had been their kingdom. The exile ends when the Babylonian Empire is defeated by the Persian Empire, and the people are allowed to return back home. Where we pick up Isaiah today, the idea that Babylon could be defeated is a weak dream, and the only thing that seems sure is that the people of God have been defeated.
The people to whom Isaiah preached were struggling to make sense of what had happened. No more promised land. No more promised king. No more temple in which to meet God. In a foreign land, they need to be encouraged to remain faithful to God.
It would be so easy to start to follow the gods of the peoples around them, especially when it seemed like God wasn’t able to deliver on God’s promises.
Isaiah preaches hope from God. Where now the Lord’s house, the temple is in ruins back in Jerusalem, “in the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains.” This God that seems defeated will rise again! The text goes so far as to declare a day in which war itself will end, “(the nations) shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Through Isaiah, God speaks right to the fears of the people, casting a vision for a better future, promising that one day it will come.
Today, God speaks to you. God speaks to your fears, inviting you to see the better future God is bringing you. In this season, we begin at the place where we most need God to act – even if it seems impossible that things might change.
Where is there brokenness in your life?
Where are things not right in the world?
That’s where God is at work!
Advent is the season to look at the impact of sin and see not the present destruction, but the new creation that will be. God brings life where there is death, health where there is sickness, forgiveness where there is hurt, reconciliation where there is division, abundance where there is scarcity.
In faith, we see things the way they will be. This isn’t blind naiveté, but trust. Trust that God will do as God has promised. Trust built on the knowledge that God has done the miraculous, giving life where there was only death. We know God’s power through Jesus.
In Jesus’ coming to us, in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and sin, and opened the kingdom of God to all. On Easter we joyfully declare, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” and this proclamation means that God has proven more powerful than all the forces of evil- more powerful than death.
I lead this triumphant proclamation, and yet…every Easter, in the midst of the celebration, I feel sad. If Jesus has won… why doesn’t it feel like a victory today? If God is more powerful than evil- if God heals all brokenness, why is there suffering today? How can there be: Families who won’t talk to each other. Children who don’t live a long life. Refugees who find no safe home. How can all this be if God’s kingdom has come?
As theologians, we use a phrase- “already but not yet.” “Already but not yet.” This is to say- yes, Jesus has already claimed the victory. But the new creation is not here yet. The final and complete healing has not come yet. Jesus’ resurrection shows us that it will come, but we’re living in the meantime… waiting… trusting.
So where are we? Are you more like me, seeing Barbados out my window but not feeling like I’m really there? Or more like Jeff, not caring that you can’t run on the beach, because you’re happy enough to be close?
The texts we read today talk about the nearness of the day of salvation. They say, “be ready” for the “unexpected hour.” Isaiah opens with “in the days to come” but then closes, “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Maybe we’re at that moment when we can glimpse the shoreline out the airplane window and the speaker is promising that soon the cabin doors will be opened. It’s ok to shrug off the winter jackets and switch out from boots into flip flops. We’re almost there.
God with us has come and is coming. The kingdom God’s bringing has come near and is almost here.
As I discussed this text with nearby pastors, Chaplain Nick came up with this image. “Maybe it’s like a mountain,” he said, “you can be on the mountain even if you’re not at the peak yet.”
As baptized children of God, we claim that we are living in the life Jesus gave us. Death has already been defeated for us. We live in two realities, this world, in which we sometimes suffer, get sick, and die, and in God’s realm, in which we have life now and forever, life that will never be taken away.
We might think of the cross of Jesus as the peak of the mountain. From that cross, everything is changed. Outcasts are welcomed. Sinners are made righteous. Dead are raised. We’re living in the time during which that transformation is taking place.
I’ve had the joy of visiting Glacier National Park twice in my life. I love the cool ice melt streams and waterfalls. The snow pack up high on the mountain slowly melts throughout the summer, and the water trickles down, down, down, finally flowing down to the base of the mountain and the open valleys. What happens up on the peak slowly transforms what is down below. Because of that snow melt, fields burst into bloom. There is abundant life.
God’s transformation of creation is flowing down from the peak of the cross. All the healing and joy we’ve been longing for is coming down to us. The texts of Advent call us to be alert and awake- on guard – so that we notice the signs of God’s kingdom coming into being. We name the brokenness so that our faith has space to name the healing God is bringing. We’re called to live as if we were already in that healing. Knowing God will make all things well gives us the courage to extend love and peace to others. If it is not reciprocated, we can simple remember that we’re not yet to that place where God will make all things better, but we will be there soon. But that doesn’t mean we stop living in love for all. We continue to live as if we were already there, in God’s perfect kingdom, and one day, we will be.
Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ,
Does anyone have their Christmas tree up?
You don’t have to be ashamed, no one’s here to judge.
Anyone? Anyone start decorating? Maybe some lights outside when we had that beautiful weather a few weeks ago?
We have entered the high season of tradition. This year, I’ve heard so many people talking about putting up their tree a little earlier than other years. They tell me they need something joyful in their lives. Especially with the election, the atmosphere has been angry and divisive. People are longing for the holiday more than ever because they want that cheer and goodwill. Maybe it will be good year for the Hallmark Channel- everyone wants a good story with a happy ending. We need to be reminded that we are people who care for each other.
Tradition and good stories call us back to what’s important. They remind us who we are. They renew us so that we have the strength to keep going.
In the Church, we are people who understand that. We need the foundational rhythm of worship and the Biblical stories that teach us who God is and who we are, so that we can face the next day with love and hope.
Today we read from Deuteronomy instruction for how to remember and respond to God’s action through the retelling of the story of God’s salvation and a worshipful action of living in response to God.
God has done something wonderful. The people were slaves in Egypt and God has freed them. Long before, the people had been promised their own rich land. But they did not receive it. Instead, they wandered as foreigners, sometimes living prosperously in land that was not their own, sometimes living as oppressed people, crushed by those who were more powerful. But now, they are about to enter this promised land. And they will soon have the richness of great harvests. They have been waiting for the day of that first harvest for generations. It will soon come. And when it comes, they will need to remember all that they have gone through. They will need to remember that it was God who made it all possible.
They are called to perform an act of faith. The first fruit of the harvest is to be dedicated to God. It’s not safely stored away in case a hailstorm comes or locust eat the rest of the harvest. It’s given to God. In giving it to God, the person offering remembers that it doesn’t belong to him in the first place. The harvest has always and only belonged to God.
The story of God’s freeing the people from slavery, leading them through the wilderness, and bringing them to a prosperous land is an identity forming narrative that shapes the way God’s people understand themselves, God, and how to live their lives. What we don’t hear enough of is all the ways this foundational story is used throughout the Bible to remind the people of how God wants them to act towards other people. It flows from the command, “Remember, you where once immigrants in the land of Egypt”
Listen to this:
9You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
21You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
There’s a direct relationship between the people’s history, God’s interaction with them, and God’s call for how they are to interact with others. You were immigrants. I saved you. There are immigrants among you. You know what that’s like. Treat them well.
The ritual retelling of the story of God’s saving the people out of Egypt reminds them of their moral and religious imperative to live justly with those who might be easy to oppress.
What is the story, ritual, and imperative in our tradition today?
We come together at church to continue to tell each other our story. The salvation story remembered in Deuteronomy is our story. It is repeated in God’s action through Jesus. We were once enslaved to sin and death, but God sent Jesus to lead us into freedom. Jesus has welcomed us in to a new kingdom, where every person is much loved, where the hungry are fed and souls are nourished. Through baptism, God unites us to Jesus and washes away our sin and destroys the power of death to hold us captive. At the Table, we receive Jesus’ body and blood as we claim our place at the table, make room for our neighbors, and are nourished by Jesus’ forgiveness.
We tell each other that God saves us, we do things like baptism and communion that enact God’s forgiveness and claiming of us, and we are called out in the world to serve.
Jesus’ call for our lives begins with “remember you are a baptized child of God…” We have received life freely, based only on God’s love for us through Jesus. It is a gift of great joy. We are called to increase our joy by living as Jesus does for the sake of the world.
In Freedom of a Christian, Luther writes that “the Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none.” He continues, “The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all”
When it comes to sin and death, we have been made perfectly free, because Jesus has given us his own victory. We are righteous, holy, and good, because that is what Jesus is, and he has made what is his, ours. When it comes to our neighbors, we are bound to them, responsible for fulfilling their needs.
If we remember that what we have has always and only belonged to God, then our care for others, our giving of resources, isn’t a burden but a cause for celebration. It’s a cause for celebration because our story reminds us that God is good and generous and has given great things to us.
We’ve been working to grow gratitude in this congregation. The fruit of gratitude is generosity. Look at what our gratitude has grown!
There will be lived changed because of your generosity. A child will go to bed with enough food to be able to sleep soundly all night. A student will be able to focus on school because she is not wondering where her next meal will come from. A marriage will be stronger without the stress and shame of not being able to provide dinner once again.
We’re a church remembering that we’re called to serve not because we want to make each other feel guilty. We’re not about badgering people into giving more because they better show God they’re grateful. We are a people alive in God’s story of salvation- filled with love and grace- letting that flow out of us in ways that bring life to others. Our tradition is about giving life. We are seeing God give life to the world. We are joining God by joyfully doing God’s work. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Filed under: Sermons
BibleGrace and peace to you, Saints and Sinners of Cross.
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. This isn’t a day only for those special holy people we’ve thought worthy of admiration. This is a day for all people- because Jesus has made us all saints. You are the saints of God.
I’ve also called you sinners. Not to make you take offense, but to name the reality of our lives. Even now that Jesus has claimed us and clothed us with his holiness, we continue to fall down. We continue to seek brokenness inside of us, and spew that brokenness out into the world. Our sin is to think that we can make ourselves saints. We choose to struggle our way into that lie rather than be at peace by relying completely on Jesus.
When we choose the path to self-sufficient sainthood, brokenness cracks out into everything we encounter. If we’re trying to prove that we’re worthy of being called saints, we’re occupied with justification. We work and work to prove we’re good enough. When met with our failure, we turn outward. Like Adam and Eve before us, we blame, declaring our fault is not our fault. We celebrate others’ sin, enlarging it so that our own seems insignificant in comparison.
If we’re sinners who try to pass ourselves off as saints, we always stand alone, an accusing finger pointed outward, to try to keep the truth about our brokenness redirected- away from ourselves. That finger will turn into a hand, and we will always push others away. We don’t even want God to come near, because to say we need God would be to admit we cannot do all things on our own.
But if we acknowledge who we are, and that we need help, we can rejoice that God is for us. If we’re sinners who know that we are truly sinners, and yet also receive a new identity as saints- as a gift of God- then we are freed for community. We are ready to embrace not only God, but all the others God embraces. Jesus brings us together.
Community is what this All Saints Day is about. Today we celebrate the connections Jesus has made within all creation. In stretching his arms out on the cross, he has pulled together all people. In dying and rising, he has buried our sin, buried our need to keep others distant, and raised up a new people, creating a community of saints in his body.
Ephesians speaks of the Church- the community of saints- as the body of Christ- and Christ as the one who fills all in all. Jesus has enters all the sinners of the world- present, past, and future, and transformed them into saints who are connected because they share Jesus between them. Jesus is the lifeblood pumping through me and you and your neighbor and the people worshipping in Africa and your great grandparents and the children who are yet to be born. Jesus has connected all of us to him for life.
If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then we congregations and individuals are parts of Christ. Awesome wonder! And it’s not an unbearable burden, because we are not individually the entirety of Christ. Just as we don’t have to prove our worth as saints all on our own, we aren’t called to be doing the work of Jesus all on our own.
Cross is not all there is. We don’t have to do everything, we are only called to be faithful to the task God has for us. We have been specially gifted for good work that is meant to be joined with the work Jesus is doing through many others, and through all of us, God will accomplish the healing and restoration God intends.
Because we don’t have to believe that Cross is all there is, we don’t have to be jealous of other congregations, but can see that we are all players on the same team. We can focus and specialize, freeing ourselves from the burden of doing what we are not called to do and leaving that task to others who are.
The question that will propel us forward is the question of what we are specially gifted and called to do. What role are we called to play? Who are we and what is our place in the body? If we can clarify who we are, then we’ll know how to move forward. We need to claim a mission we share. Jesus has a job for us to do, not to prove our worth, but so that we can catch the joy of working on the horizon of the new life Jesus is making for all creation. We don’t have to be the only- or the best- we don’t have to compare ourselves to others as if there was a competition in the body of Christ. We simply are called to be faithful to the mission Jesus has for us, and to trust that he values us.
It’s only when we let go of our need to prove our righteousness that we can accept that Jesus welcomes in those we’d rather be separated from. Starting from a place of wonder at God’s love, we can begin those difficult practices Jesus calls us into: loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us.
Knowing without a doubt that we are loved beyond reason makes it possible for us to love others recklessly. Jesus loves us into transformation.
When we embrace the reality that we are sinners, then we recognize others as sinners just like us. If Jesus has declared us worthy of love, Jesus has also made the other worthy of love. From a stance of humility, we can reach out with the love of Christ, even and especially to those who don’t want to receive or return that love.
Reaching out in love is a scary thing. We are a community that has experienced hurt over these past six months. Connection is a tender subject. We are missing loved ones from their regular seats in our pews. We hear echoes of words said that broke our image of who our fellow people of Cross were. Maybe we never allowed that they were sinners just like us, and seeing their brokenness wasn’t something we were prepared for. Maybe it showed us our own brokenness, and that was hard to see.
And yet, even if they do not return, they are not separated from us. Jesus holds us together.
The promise recorded in Romans 8 gives me hope: 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing will strip us out of Jesus’ grasp. Not church conflict, not self-righteous independence, not sin, not even death. Jesus even holds those who have died.
That’s maybe the most beautiful thing to remember today: even those we feel have been permanently separated from us, have not been. We who are connected to Jesus are still connected to those who have died, because Jesus continues to keep them in life. When we die, we are not lost. When we try to separate ourselves, we are not severed. Jesus holds us, Jesus never gives up on us, Jesus always loves, and Jesus will bring us all together into new life. And there, in that new life, our arms will be outstretched as Jesus’ are, and we will embrace each other. Our sin will be washed away, and we will fully love each other as the saints of God. We will live in certainty of God’s love for us, in community, forever.