Filed under: Sermons
As a child, the thing that most terrified me were thunderstorms and tornadoes. They were the epitome of destructive power beyond my control. I’d be ready to grab a blanket and hunker down in the basement at the first warning beep through the radio or TV. I’d want to close my eyes and pray that nothing bad would happen. So far, I’ve been lucky.
Have you ever seen a town after a tornado? Or a flood? Or a fire? Maybe you’ve walked where the path of destruction cut through homes and businesses?
(image by Laura Griffith http://www.freeimages.com/photo/tornado-1245789)
I can’t recall walking through recent devastating damage. I’ve seen plenty of pictures, but I’ve never had to stand in a driveway and look at the collapse of someone’s entire world, a home turned to a heap of ruble, a bustling downtown razed to the ground.
The Israelites, God’s chosen people, are not a people who have a sustained, independent kingdom for long. The Old Testament contains plenty of stories of victory as the Israelites enter the Promised Land, but once the reign of kings is in place, it does not take many generations before there is a division, a collapse, and the kingdoms are conquered.
The part of Isaiah we read this morning is written after the Israelites have been conquered. They have watched their temple destroyed. Many of the important people and leaders were taken away into exile in Babylon so that the empire could place its own chosen rulers in power. They are a people broken and defeated.
Their homeland is a place of desolation. The way the Babylonian Empire did things, they would destroy places of power and disperse the powerful so that they could set up their own power while receiving goods and taxes from the ongoing production of the communities and farmland. So the Temple, where the God who sustained and protected the people dwelt, is destroyed, because this conquering empire wouldn’t want the people to have hope that their God might still be powerful enough to save them. The kings and the prophets are killed or captured, brought far away, so that they cannot rally those who remain to rise up and fight. The writings of this time tell the story of a people taken away from their homeland, trying to remember who they are and cling to their identity and their God even while being pulled to assimilate with the culture around them. When a new Persian empire rises and defeats Babylon, God’s people see this as God’s saving action. They are able to return to their homeland. But it is not the same homeland they remember at its height. It is a place of destruction, rubble overgrown with recent growth.
The thing is, the destruction itself is not all so recent. It’s about fifty years that people are in captivity in Babylon. But the people who remained in the Promised Land haven’t been able to completely restore things.
It might be more like what I’ve seen, years after damage, when you know something isn’t right with the scenery, but can’t quite put your finger on what it is. I visited a college campus a year or so after a tornado swept through. All the buildings and landscaping looked pretty enough. But there was something strange feeling about all the green space. It wasn’t until later, when someone told me about the tornado, that I realized what it was- all the trees were saplings, there were no great oaks under which to study. All you could see was the beginning of new life, so fragile and young, covering up the stumps and scars of the damage.
Many of us live in homes and communities that look safe and secure. But we may carry the scars of destructions in our hearts and minds. Those are less easy for people to see, and sometimes less easy for people to understand or know what to do about. Most disappointments won’t be fixed with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, breakups aren’t healed with a night on the town, and grief doesn’t stop when the sympathy cards do.
Other people may not know the hurt your carry, but God does. Our God doesn’t shy away from suffering. God doesn’t need you to heal any faster than you’re able to.
When you grieve a loved one, most people will give you a timeline; they think you should keep your grieving to a set schedule. For a few weeks, maybe months, people will be understanding if you suddenly cry or you feel down. But eventually, people start to forget, they expect you to move on, and they feel awkward when you’re still suffering.
It’s like it’s up to the grieving or hurting person to do what’s most comfortable for everyone else, so you’re told to keep smiling or to get over it.
Faith isn’t about being happy all the time. God makes holy your times of sadness by being willing to be with you in grief and struggle, for as long as you are there. God continued to sustain the laments of the people of Israel for generations, even as God also gave them songs of hope and visions of a new future.
Because we have a God who does not shy away from suffering, even to the point of entering that suffering fully by dying on the cross, we can also accept the God who creates joy, with greater abundance than we could hope for. Because God does not cover up sadness or gloss over grief, the joy God gives is likewise not only at the surface level, but goes deep. It is real, not another mask to put on.
God gives you God’s full presence in the midst of struggle, and God gives you an overflowing measure of joy.
God promises the Israelites joy, even as they are struck by the destruction before them and wonder how life could ever regain its color and vibrancy again.
God provides the wedding guests joy, creating high quality wine in ridiculous quantities. This is the first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel of John. The story opens with the detail about it being the third day. The third day is a sign of the resurrection, when death will be transformed into the portal to greater life. The wedding and Jesus’ rising are tied as Jesus’ work is shown to be about gladness, abundance, and lavish giving so that all might have joy.
God raises the dead into life, finally stomping out all pain. The surest fact of life, that it will end, is destroyed by the power of the life that we are given. This life from God is so much that it cannot be contained in our span of life, but draws us ever forward into eternity.
As we gather in worship, we are given an opportunity to receive this joy God creates out of and in the midst of suffering. This central experience happens when we celebrate communion. When we come to the communion table, we come to a feast. Here at Cross, we just finished a yearlong study of Holy Communion. As we went around our group, sharing what Communion means to us, forgiveness of sins was the most common answer. That’s a fine answer. But it isn’t all. This is a feast of joy, meant for all people.
There are two tables around which my understanding of communion was formed. The first was at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Racine. This was a mission church, a small church, in which everyone was important and necessary. Every Sunday, we stood up and gathered around the table, and we really gathered around it. We wouldn’t all fit at once, but the circular shape and continuous serving helped us practice the open and ongoing nature of God’s invitation to the table. We were all invited and we would all need to return again and again to receive this gift of life, this gift of joy.
The second was the larger circle of the table at St. Olaf College. As my home church also had, this table showed me the continuous welcome of Jesus. The table was set with a huge, fresh and fragrant round loaf, and as communion was served, wine was ever ready in full pitchers. There was always more than enough of the really good stuff. Overflowing feast, open welcome, abundant joy.
When I hold up the bread above your outstretched hands, and meet your eyes, what will I see there?
It’s not often I see a smile.
Usually, if anyone comes to the table smiling, it’s the children. Sometimes my heart is broken because it’s the children who won’t be welcomed who are the ones who are most eager and excited to come to the table. They know what it is to be a part of what everyone else is doing, they know what it is to open their hands and ask for something long before they can vocalize their desire, and they look forward to the feast. What happens that so many of us lose this joyful eagerness as we grow older?
When we come to this table, sometimes kneeling, we place ourselves in a downcast position. Certainly, we do come to the table undeserving of the gift we are about to receive. There is a place for recognizing our sin, our brokenness, our inability to do it all on our own. But there should be a turning moment, when you recognize that this gift really is for you, and it is given to you out of God’s great love, so that you might grow in joy. “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you”- this is good news of Jesus’ great love for you, the you that you bring up to the table: faults, failures and all.
Here at worship, we practice joy. It is true joy that doesn’t come out of pretending we are happy, but that acknowledges our suffering and our brokenness with hope that it will be transformed.
We do not need to cower in fear or give up in the midst of destruction. Our God is with us in suffering, empowers us to hope, and brings us to a new future full of joy. As the Israelites looked forward to rebuilding the temple, as Jesus transformed the water into delicious wine, as God comes to us today at Jesus’ table, God provides the means for our abundant joy.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
The other morning, I was rushing around, grabbing socks and blankets to pack the kids up for school and daycare. I don’t know why I was rushing around, I had been up since 5:30, but 7:40 always comes quicker than I expect it to. So I’m scanning Lydia’s room, looking for any last items I may have forgotten, while Laila’s thoroughly brushing her teeth in the bathroom next door. She’s playing with my cabinet drawers, which have been overtaken with toddler hair clips and kid’s jewelry. I’m barely paying attention at first, but then I’m jarred by her words. She’s saying, “Mommy, next Christmas, I want a kit to make me beautiful.” I had this sinking feeling… I called back to her, “you are beautiful just the way you are.” But then she went on to say she needed nail polish and whatever else she could put on to make herself beautiful.
I was in too big of a rush that morning for taking the time to have my own mommy meltdown. But I am horrified that at 4, my daughter is starting to not only absorb messages about what makes her beautiful, but wants to do whatever the world tells her she should do in order to form herself into the image she’s told she should be.
This is the last thing I want for her. But I’m afraid it’s something she sees modeled in our home. I’ve been pretty bad at it. There’s so much pressure to be the person other people expect you to be.
As a leader, I want the community to be happy. I felt called to the ministry because I wanted to be a part of God’s bringing people to faith, witnessing the holy in the midst of the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of life. I didn’t fully appreciate how much being pastor would mean being the moveable piece in any congregation- the person who should change to satisfy any dissatisfaction. The weight of responsibility to fulfill the community’s need for happiness can be overwhelming.
I have a friend who’s a pastor in another church. When she came to her congregation, she put on her robe and stole like she always had at every other congregation she served. Some people remarked on it, mostly saying things like, “oh, how pretty.” But not long into her call, some of her leadership told her she had to wear normal clothes like their previous pastor. Her get up was making her too inaccessible. So, being new and not wanting to be out of a call in record time, she found something else in her closet for the next Sunday. Not two weeks later, another couple people pulled her aside and told her she wasn’t dressing professionally enough- didn’t she care about her new congregation? Wasn’t she taking this call seriously? The next Sunday, she stood in front of her mirror. What would it be? Maybe a robe and stole for half of the service and a skirt for the rest? Maybe a stole and a skirt with no robe? That might be a good half-way point. As she smoothed down her stole, her eyes caught her nails. She hadn’t painted them this week. Were they too plain? Should she have gotten a manicure? Or would they think she was too vain? Or maybe that they were paying her too much if she could get her nails done? All of it wore away at her, until she was frozen, unable to make any decisions, unable to serve and to lead. She had given away control over her sense of self. She lost her identity and her call.
As a woman, I think I’ve been especially conditioned to try to make myself the person others seem to want. I was born later than the generations of wives who had to have dinner on the table and a cocktail ready when their breadwinning husbands came home, but still my generation struggles with the need to be smart but not too smart, to claim, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.”
But that’s not just my issue. To some degree, we all try to live up to expectations of who we should be- whether they come from media, or our parents, or our friends, or the next interview panel we imagine ourselves standing in front of.
Even Jesus dealt with this. We opened Luke this morning to hear John the Baptist preparing the crowd for the coming Messiah. The way John’s envisioning him, the messiah will baptize with fire, clearing away the chaff to be burned. John spreads his vision of the messiah to all who come out to listen to him, so the whole crowd has this same picture of the messiah growing in their minds. The messiah demands repentance and destroys the unprepared.
This picture was drawn before Jesus came on the scene. No one asked the messiah if it matched his vision for his ministry. Who knows if he had even heard it? Is that who he’s willing to be?
In today’s text, we read this amazing moment of affirmation after Jesus is baptized, while he is praying. God speaks to him, “You are my beloved” and the Spirit of God hovers over him in the form of a dove. Bathed in the love of God, Jesus knows who he is.
But is the crowd ready for who he will be?
At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus goes to read at the synagogue in Nazareth and the people hate what he says. Jesus has so disappointed and challenged them that they try to run him off a cliff and kill him. The people try to make Jesus fit into their image of who he should be. When he doesn’t, to call it conflict is to put it mildly!
When John is in prison, his ministry at an end, he sends his disciples on a search with a disappointed tone. They come to Jesus and ask, “Are you the messiah, or are we to look for another?”
Jesus points them to the work he has been doing, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,… the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them…”- he does not back down from claiming his ministry. It looks different from the ministry John prepared people to accept. But Jesus doesn’t try to make it fit, he doesn’t try to spin it or apologize.
What makes Jesus so sure of his identity that he is able to stand firm, staring down a crowd wanting his death, pointing to his ministry rather than backpedalling to make it sound similar enough to John’s expectations?
Jesus knows who he is. This surety comes from his baptism and his prayer. These are the same channels open to us.
In baptism, you are united with Jesus and given a new identity. You and Jesus are made one. That means you receive everything he has: life and relationship with the Father. In prayer, you grow in that relationship with God. This relationship tells you who you are.
The night Jeff proposed, I had been busy with my work-study job, sweeping and mopping all the staircases in our academic halls and dorm. In a gross t-shirt with dust clinging to my hair down to my shoes, I sat down to a steak dinner he cooked in the dorm kitchen. He gave me a binder full of our letters, written through months out of the country, summers at camp. It was a reminder of the growing of our love and a pledge of the love that was yet to come, contained in these words on a page.
This is the function that prayer and Bible study play in our lives. Opening the Bible flips open the love story God has written for us. There we are reminded of God’s choosing a beloved people, of God’s coming into creation, and Jesus’ death to expand the beloved community to all. The Bible trains our ears to hear God’s voice when we listen in prayer. We know that when we open our hearts to God, phrases like, “I love you.” “You are mine.” “You are beautifully and perfectly made” “You are forgiven.” “I will never forget you” all come from God. The Bible helps us learn the language of God’s love so that we know that when we hear God speaking love to us in prayer, it is God speaking to you and me. When we can’t hear God speaking, we can look back at the Bible, as I look back at my love letters, and we are reminded of who God is and what God has done to love us- and we can be certain that even in an experience of God’s silence, God is still playing God’s love song for us. Prayer helps us hear God’s certain love for us.
Baptism is an act of God’s making us beloved. I’ve been enjoying our book club book, “A Hypnotist’s Love Story,” maybe a bit too much. I’m fascinated by the imagery the hypnotherapist protagonist uses in her work. She has people relax and visualize images that are meant to help them deal with the problems in their life, from pain or fear of public speaking. As I come to this text of Jesus’ baptism, I find myself wondering how I might visualize the power of baptism in our lives.
Could you imagine the water dripping on your head like a gentle waterfall covering an entrance- a threshold you can step over as you enter a new space. This new space is the new identity you’ve received- as beloved child of God. The cross marked on your forehead glows through you, around you, a shield of light that is Christ’s light shining into the world through you, pushing back the darkness of hate and judgment and shame.
Or maybe an image doesn’t work for you as well as music. I don’t know if kids make each other playlists anymore, but when I was younger, you’d make a mixed tape for your friends, boyfriend or girlfriend, to express your friendship or love or help them get into a different emotional place if they were down. How might baptism become our playlist? Would it include songs like “Shake it Off” and “Let it Go” when other people were getting us down, trying to make us live into their expectations rather than God’s given identity? Would it help us get to a different mindset with “God Makes Beautiful Things?”
Make yourself a playlist this week- of scripture and of song. Fill it with things that remind you that you have been united with Jesus. You are a beloved child of God with whom God is well pleased. Share it with a friend. Share it on our Facebook page. Let others listen in to the prayer you’re having with God. Be a part of freeing others from the pressures to live up to the world, so that they can be freed to live for God.
This is hard work. To live with the joy and freedom that is ours through Jesus Christ. That’s why I’m glad you’re here. We come to church where we splash in the water, we eat the bread and the wine, because we need them. We need to wash off all the labels and judgments and expectations of the world. Today, once again, God washes you clean and frees you, so that you can be you. The you God created you to be: God’s own beloved child, with a style and a mission that comes from God alone.