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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.
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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.
BibleGrace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I grew up as the only young granddaughter in my family.
This certainly had some advantages. I occupied a very special soft spot in my grandmother’s heart.
It also had some disadvantages-after receiving gifts from grandma, it wasn’t as fun to race around the house swinging my hair bow while my cousins zoomed their toy cars.
I figured I could play most anything that my cousins enjoyed. For the most part, we did play together and had a lot of fun. Climbing trees, playing in the sprinkler, making crafts… but there was one thing I never got into and actually scared me quite a bit: wrestling.
My cousins were a household of four boys, three older than me and one younger. They would get into fights. One way they had learned to work it out was through body to body full on angry matches. They grab each other and pull. From oldest to youngest the span between them is maybe 10 years and you can imagine that at 8 and 11, those couple years mean a lot when it comes to size and strength. So one might hold on simply to show his strength over the other, until the order of the pack was restored.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t understand the drive to hurt a sibling. I didn’t understand how they could be buddies again after this. I didn’t like the noise or the lack of control. I didn’t like the conflict.
Watching my girls together, I have to say that grabbing and pushing and holding and pulling are not activities that are reserved only for boys.
As we move into these texts, I want us to keep this image of wrestling in mind, and my own avoidance of it. We’re going to move into the idea of wrestling in the church, wrestling with each other, wrestling with God, and wrestling for the sake of the other.
The Genesis text drops us in to the storyline of Jacob and Esau. They were born wrestling, twins, with Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel. Jacob is the one who wrestles his brother’s birthright blessing away from him. He’s a trickster, and yet, the one whom God chooses to bless and through whom God builds the chosen nation.
We meet him tonight as he prepares to meet his brother. He’s sent his family on, hoping to keep them safe through the separation. As he lays down to sleep, and a unknown man comes and they wrestle until dawn. Pulling, pushing, grabbing on and not letting go. At the end of this tussle, Jacob is blessed, and also limping. He is named as one who wrestles with man- and with God.
The wrestling in these texts isn’t something to fear or avoid.
We have been experiencing a wrestling match in our pews.
The wrestling in our congregation leaves us limping, but also has the potential for us to clarify who we are. Wrestling involves holding on to each other- giving and taking- asserting and then giving space for the other.
Of course this image only goes so far. Aggression with a goal of forcing the other to yield isn’t what we want in the congregation. But engagement is. Coming to the mat together means being willing to test each other out- hear where we’re coming from- and allow those values to interact with our own.
I’m not advocating violence, but tenacity and interaction- holding on, being engaged, and working towards a goal.
We’re not conditioned for wrestling in the church. We want peace and welcome. We’re better prepared for sweeping things under the mat than showing up at the mat to work things out. No wonder we feel exhausted and uninterested when faced with values and strategies that push against each other!
When my girls are getting crazy with each other, I know that the laughter can easily turn to tears. It starts out with grabbing on – giggling arms holding each other in a bear hug. Then one of them lands on the other and the laughter gets wilder. Then someone smashes her head or gets an elbow to the nose and they are upset with each other. If I haven’t gotten them to calm down before, it’s with tears and blame that they come to me. And I turn them towards each other, to say sorry- it got out of hand- I love you- and I’ll play with you again.
That’s the turn we’re trying to enter here at Cross: I’m sorry- I see you’re hurting and I know I played a part in that. I love you- I’m going to hold on to you as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m committed to continuing to engage with you. Jesus is the reconciler who makes it possible for us to be brought together, even after hurt. Jesus gives us the strength and the vision to keep coming together to discover how we can work together for the kingdom of God, creating a shared vision for our congregation’s future in this community.
Can we hold on and push together to discover what God has in store for us? Can we wrestle the powers of this world together, for the sake of those most in need, holding on to God’s vision for creation?
In the Luke text, a widow is wrestling with a judge. Widows had little power in her time. But here she is, holding on to her demand for justice. She will pull justice out of the one who is unjust. Through her we see a vision of Luke’s proclamation that God is turning things upside down in order to right them up- the one who has no power will grasp it, and restitution will be wrested from the powerfully unjust.
Jesus frames this parable as telling the disciples to keep praying, and not to lose heart, wondering aloud if when the Son of Man returns at the final, complete coming of the kingdom, he will find faith on earth.
Think of wrestling as holding on and prayer as holding on to God’s promise and never letting go. Jesus’ telling the disciples to wrestle- to hold on to the promise. God is making all things new. God will restore justice and raise mercy. Tears will be wiped away and violence will end. All peoples will be brought together. The kingdom will come.
Do we have the stamina to keep on – to keep holding on- to keep hoping on- connected in prayer and trusting God will fulfill God’s promises?
Jesus will pull us forward. Psalm 122 speaks hope to us who are weary: “I lift my eyes to the hill, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” We don’t look to ourselves. It’s not up to us alone to bring healing to this congregation, justice to the oppressed, or the kingdom down to earth. This is God’s work. We’re invited to join in to experience the joy of being on the edge of its coming. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is the One who promises to raise us to life. Even out of the pain of this present moment, God is birthing something new.
Hold on. Stay engaged. You may be limping today, but we will be blessed.
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Bible Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I’m so glad you’re participating in worship today. When we gather here for worship, we’re joining the worship in heaven. Have you ever thought about that before?
Whenever we prepare for communion, as part of the Great Thanksgiving, I say a prayer that closes, “with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn” and you all jump in to sing “holy, holy, holy”- praise described in the book of Isaiah as the song being sung by the angels to God.
What we do here mirrors what’s going on up there.
What’s going on up there is joyful worship and celebration.
Today’s gospel helps us to see what’s got God celebrating.
There are two groups of people hanging out with Jesus. One group is those who think they have figured out how to live the way God wants. The other group is those that first religious group thinks aren’t living the way God wants. We might call them the righteous and the sinners. But if we do that we might be missing the point of Jesus’ stories.
Jesus tells them two stories, one for the men and one for the women, to be sure everyone can relate. A shepherd lost one of his sheep and then ran around looking for it. When he finally finds it, he calls together all his friends and family to celebrate with him. A woman lost one of her coins and sweeps the house looking for it. When she finally finds it, she calls together her friends and family to celebrate with her.
Jesus concludes by declaring there is more joy in heaven over the lost who are found than those who never needed to be found in the first place. That’s his answer to the religious grumbling, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The religious people who are following Jesus are voicing their expectations that Jesus should allow only the right people to be with him. Especially in their time, with whom you spent time, with whom you ate, said a lot about who you were. Your company could put you to shame. In some way, their grumbling is a protective warning- “Jesus, if you want to be a respected leader, don’t go hanging out with the wrong people. That’s not what a good rabbi should do.”
We often reflect their concerns. We want to protect Jesus, to keep him holy. We come to think of ourselves as the ones who deserve to be in Jesus’ company, and bar the way for those we’ve decided are less deserving. We want everyone to prove themselves worthy of receiving Jesus. The thing is, Jesus doesn’t need our protecting. Worrying that too many people have been allowed into the party and focusing on all the reasons they don’t deserve to be there keeps us from enjoying the celebration. Can you imagine the dinners that must have happened- with Jesus sitting and laughing with the tax collectors and sinners while the Pharisees and scribes recline next to him, scowling the whole time because they are counting all the ways those other people aren’t worthy of Jesus? They’re closing themselves off to the celebration at hand!
So how do we move away from a mindset of righteous judgement and into an attitude of celebration? We realize that we actually need Jesus- we can’t be righteous on our own, and we give back to Jesus his job- to judge the living and the dead.
Ask yourself- Am I willing to admit that I’m the sheep that’s wandered off and the coin that’s found a cozy hiding spot with the dustbunnies in the darkness? Acknowledging my guilt reminds me I’m no better than anyone else.
Remember, the sheep and the coin aren’t things that have the power to make decisions to move themselves. The sheep is guided by instinct, try to eat enough to stay alive, and the coin has no mind of its own at all. Am I willing to admit I have no power on my own to choose God and keep from evil? Acknowledging my powerlessness turns me to rely on God.
That’s the key to the spirit of joy that makes celebration possible. We have to let go of our need to be the righteous. We have to let go of our power to judge people and keep them out. We have to let God be God and let God do the work God intends. Only Jesus is good. Only Jesus gets to decide who he’s going to go seeking and bringing back and celebrating. Those are both the so called righteous and sinners.
Jesus has decided that we’re worthy of being found. Our being found is worth celebrating.
I’m exploring Brene Brown’s work in preparation for our synodical church leader’s fall theological conference. She researches shame and vulnerability. Shame is what keeps us from living whole lives. What defeats shame is a sense of worthiness. In her famous TEDTalk, she says, “you know what- you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” Worthiness is an ability to say, “yes, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve done things wrong, but I am worthy – worthy of love.” If there was ever a brilliant secular explanation of the gospel- this is it.
You and I have messed up- we’ve chosen to be lost- we’ve chosen to judge- we’ve chosen to break apart community. Jesus knows that all, and acts in reckless love. Jesus has made us worthy. Jesus has acted because he’s decided you’re worthy. You’re worth his life!
I’ve read plenty of commentaries about why this coin is worth so much to this woman, but honestly, when I read the gospel, all I can think is- who cares about a dropped penny?! If you open your wallet and a bill flies out of it into the wind, how much does it have to be worth for you to go wildly chasing after it? (I suppose it depends how much is left in your wallet.)
When I was little, one of my jobs was to clean my dad’s car. It wasn’t a hard and fast command, but an opportunity. If I cleaned the car, I was allowed to keep any coins that I found.
I would carefully sort out the mess of papers, fast food bags, and clothes, digging down under the seats to remove those receipts trapped there, all in hopes of finding a few quarters. Every coin counted! By the end of my time, I would be very happy to have a baggie full of change and my dad would be very happy to have a clean car.
Today, when I vacuum my van, sometimes I realize that chunk of crystallized fruit snack I just sucked up was attached to a quarter. When it’s time to empty my shop vac, and I look down into that pile of dirt, I remember that there is some money down there. I’m less attached to each quarter than I used to be. (Ok, I’ll be honest, I really do still stick my hands in there and dig out the quarters – the only difference now is that I soak them in bleach before putting them in my wallet.)
The thing about the gospel is, sometimes you might feel like you’re about as worthwhile as a penny. Pennies pretty much cost more to make than their actual value as currency. You might be that fruit snack and goldfish coated penny that’s lived on the floor mats through the entire winter, but Jesus has still decided to scrape you off, clean you up, and make you his.
When Jesus tells his story, he’s talking to people who know their values- some of them know the world sees them as pennies and the others $100 bills. Jesus welcomes – and values- all of them. He’s going to get down and dirty on the cross to show just how much each of them is worth to him.
As Jesus’ followers, we’re called to reflect what Jesus has done in valuing all people, through our loving action for their well-being.
As we celebrate “God’s Work our Hands” Sunday along with ELCA congregations across the country, we celebrate that God has called us to join God’s work in this world. God works through our hands to reach out in love, welcome, and healing. Today also marks the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country. This morning the Sunday School thanked our Ixonia Fire and EMS Department. Every day these servants go into the community to help those in need, without weighing the worth of the ones calling for help. On that tragic day 15 years ago, servants and strangers entered collapsing buildings because they believed that others were worthy of their help- even to the point of giving up their lives. As then, today emergency responders continue to serve and not one of them stops to say- maybe you’re not worth saving, if you hadn’t been speeding, or you hadn’t been drinking, you wouldn’t be in this problem. Their job is to serve without hesitation or judgment.
We’re freed to be God’s hands, reaching out to others without judging their worth, because we know that Jesus has made us- and them- worthy. We’re freed to worship in great joy because we know ourselves to be those once lost and now found- who are continually becoming lost and being found over and over again.
There’s a party going on in heaven because of you. God is so happy to have found and claimed you that God’s throwing a party. We’re invited. The party is happening right here- right now. That’s why we gather as a church. We’re here to celebrate that Jesus has come in love to find you- and you- and you- and all the world.
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Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I’ve learned a lot about myself and how society works by watching my children play. I see them trying out labels- she’s a girl, he’s a boy- forming and rejecting alliances- he’s my best friend, she’s not my friend – and creating groups.
The favorite in our household right now is “Team Elsa.” Elsa’s the main character in Disney’s Frozen, a movie that continues to capture the hearts of some young girls in my family. L* will run up to her friends and shout, “Team Elsa!” and they’ll all respond “Team Elsa!” This battle cry unites them as it strengthens their identity- “we’re together, against the bad guys!”
As a parent who’s trying to form my children to play nicely with others and get along, I question her when she talks about people who aren’t part of her team. What do you do when someone wants to play with you, but doesn’t want to play Elsa? How can you make sure no one is left out? How do you feel when others don’t let you play with them?
Parenting has forced me to recognize some realities about the way humans function in groups- and given me hope that I might have some limited power and responsibility to make the future better.
I don’t like the way I see communities forming themselves into battle lines.
In this season, we’ve seen it at the cinema. Batman vs. Superman. Iron Man vs. Captain America. We’ve seen it in our politics. Republican vs. Democrat. Progressive vs. NeoLiberal. Conservative vs. Tea Party.
We’ve let it happen in the church. We do it on the big stage: Protestant vs. Catholic, Evangelical vs. Mainline. We do it within our tradition: WELS vs. ELCA. We’ve done it, as much as we may have not wanted to, here at Cross, as discernment begins about our experience, expectation, and identity around issues of welcome, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
When the hope, “can’t we all get along” is trite and naive, what’s left for us?
Is the world left the way it is? Is this the inevitable entropy- all things declining into disorder and division? Are splits the only way new churches are born? An argument over the true preaching of the gospel was, after all, the birthing of Cross.
Or, might God have the power to move us into a new future? Could this very moment in our lives be precisely the moment into which God’s powerful promise speaks? Could there be reason to hope, not in our own ability to get it all together, but in the God who works reconciliation, bringing together far off groups and making them one? Certainly the God who raised Jesus from the dead can work miracles.
The New Testament is a witness to the power of this life-restoring, relationship-restoring God. As the good news about what God has done through Jesus moved through and outside of the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, and became embraced by those who weren’t part of the chosen community, the wideness of God’s plan of salvation for all people became known.
We trace this initial spread of the gospel through the book of Acts. Today, we hear the story of a disciple who has died. This disciple has built up a community through her acts of charity, caring for those who were on their own. We learn that she has two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. Tabitha is an Aramaic name, the language the Jewish people would have spoken. Dorcas is a Greek name, the language of the wider culture, written by the educated, especially spoken by people beyond the Jewish communities. Through the community that gathers around her deathbed, variously lamenting their friend called Tabitha, their friend called Dorcas, we see that she is the first of many to bridge cultures in her witness. God has worked through her to bring together within diversity a community unified by the Spirit.
In the book of Revelation, John records a vision of hope for a community uncertain if God has the power to work good for them in their difficult situation. The part of the vision we read jumps in after an image of the 144,000 who have been sealed as servants of God, a specific, finite number from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After this finite number, out of tribes that often were fractured factions of what was meant to be one people, we hear that John sees a multitude beyond numbering. He writes, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Can you imagine- all tribes, all nations, all peoples and languages- being brought together by God?
Tribe’s a word that’s growing in usage today, to refer to one’s own group. It’s about focusing in on my people- pushing towards groups that share similar experiences- age, gender, socioeconomic status, education level, and political leanings. Tribes are a reflection of our whittling down our potential social sphere until we are surrounded only with people who look and think like us, who validate each other’s beliefs and strengthen our position. We learn to only feel safe around the familiar.
There are plenty of destructive jokes that get at our typical attitude of tribalism’s exclusion. It didn’t take me long on the internet find one: The story is told of some Christians who have just arrived in heaven and are being given a grand tour. Everywhere they go they see happy people, rejoicing and celebrating with loud songs of praise. But then, their guide leads them down a long hallway and tells them to keep very quiet. “Why?”, the people ask. That’s when the tour guide answers, “We have to be very quiet down this hallway, because all of those other Lutherans are in that room, and they think they are the only ones up here.”
It’s a joke meant to demean one group – the other Lutherans- while making the group telling it – maybe us- feel better about themselves. But it also gets at a destructive mindset- a sense that our tribe is the right one, the only one who has gotten this faith thing right. It’s a pointed satire that hits each one of us who may have ever assured ourselves that we’re on the right side while others are in the wrong.
The vision of God, recorded in Revelation, is that all the tribes who spent their life’s energy defining and strengthening their positions over and against the other- are finally brought together, into one, around the Lamb- Jesus- the God who died to achieve their unity.
When we are gathered around Jesus on that great day will there be surprise? Disbelief? Joy? as we recognize among those brought together people we spent our lives feeling so very distant from? God’s purpose is to bring us all together to experience the love and life God so freely gives us through God’s own work in Jesus. We are meant to join together as the beloved community who worship the one God.
This is the community into which M* is baptized today. God is placing her firmly among the varied people who are made into one in Christ. This is the promise that is for her as it is for all of us- that God will bring us to a day when we will be gathered up together by Jesus in love and unity:
“(we will be) before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter (us). 16 (we) will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike (us), nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be (our) shepherd, and he will guide (us) to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes.” (Revelation 7: 15-17, pronouns shifted)
For us who live in the present reality- as we celebrate that God has already been victorious in Jesus’ death and resurrection even while we are not yet at the new creation in which our unity is made complete- for us who live in the already but not yet- we continue to live in hope and trust that God will fulfill this great promise. When Jesus declares, “No one will snatch them out of my hand,” he is including you as one to whom he holds on so tightly that you will never be removed from his community. Not your beliefs, not your anxieties, not your tribe, not your faithfulness- nothing will pull you out of Jesus’ grip on you. Jesus will never lose you.
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Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.
My Aunt Becky’s a writer. She’s published a number of Christian Romance novels.
She’s been starting a blog. A recent post came to my mind as I studied our text from Acts.
My aunt reflected on how we don’t always know how things in life will work out, but how God works all things for good. God carries us, even though tragedy, to a better future. She used the refrain “because of this…” to trace life’s ups and downs into the joys she’s experienced.
I think of God’s action not as God making good things happen or bad things happen in order to get us to do a certain thing, but more about encountering God through the joys and struggles of life. God is with us in all things, the Spirit works within us to recognize God in our daily lives, and we discover more about who God is and what God intends for us as we encounter the world through prayer, the lens of Bible and tradition, and the community of faith.
In this Easter season, we get the opportunity to follow the book of Acts and see God working a path forward for the disciples and the early church. We listen to their stories so that we can become more aware of how God is calling us forward into a new future, shaped and directed by the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus was killed and he was raised to life.
Because of this, his disciples were confused, afraid, and in awe. They stepped back into the ordinary things of their lives, like Peter’s fishing, in order to make sense of their world being shaken. Then Jesus meets them, on the shore, in a locked room, wherever they are stuck, to show them his real body, scarred, but resurrected. When he leaves them, he does not leave them alone, but sends his Holy Spirit.
Because of this, they are empowered. They preach and heal. The Spirit works within the listeners. The Church is born. Thousands of people are baptized into the new community that follows Jesus.
Because of this, the religious establishment, the powerful institution, feels threatened. Some of those within it believe Jesus is evil, and those who follow him must be stopped before his story leads good people away from the true faith.
Because of this, a man named Saul approves of and presides over the violent killings of those who follow Jesus. He gets authority from the religious establishment, so that he can go into their local worshipping communities and search out those leading people astray by teaching about Jesus. He has the power to arrest them, so as to root out the cancer of Christians.
On his way, Jesus Christ meets him. “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks, speaking in the powerful voice of God.
Because of this, Saul’s understanding of who Jesus is dramatically changes. In this encounter, and in those that follow, God changes Saul.
When Saul meets Jesus on the road, it’s in a blinding light. Saul emerges with a changed purpose and limited abilities. He cannot see. He doesn’t really know what to do next, Jesus just told him to wait until he hears from him again.
Because of this, he has to rely on others. He has to trust they are who they say they are. He has to put his life on hold, because he’s not continuing on the path towards attacking Jesus’ followers, but he doesn’t know yet what Jesus has in mind for him. It’s not the best position to be in. He’s already made a lot of enemies, especially among those who follow Christ, with whom he now wants to learn and pray.
There’s a man name Ananias who’s a follower of Jesus. His name is on the list in Paul’s bag, the one giving Saul power to arrest and kill false teachers. He knows Paul is coming after him, breathing threats and murder. Then Jesus appears to him in a vision, telling him to go to Saul. They have a little back and forth- Ananias isn’t so sure God’s in the know about who this Saul guy is- and what a bad guy he is, but eventually, Ananias goes.
Because of this, Ananias walks up to the person who meant to harm him and calls him brother. Saul is welcomed into the Christian community with baptism. Saul becomes Paul, one of the most influential apostles, bringing word about Jesus to people all over the region, writing letters that still define God and faith for believers today.
Peter, Paul, Ananias, all their lives were shifted into new directions because of the work God was doing through Jesus Christ. They might not have ever imagined they’d end up with the adventures and priorities they did because of Jesus. Who could have guessed God would enter into creation? Who could have guessed God would not only become incarnate, but would die? Who could have guessed that for Jesus, death would not be the end? Or that because of Jesus, death is not the end for us, either?
As you live into Easter, take some time to reflect on your life’s path. How are encounters with God nudging and shifting you closer to God’s desire for your life? How is the death and resurrection of Jesus changing your life?
Let’s begin with the experiences I hope you share:
God has claimed you as God’s own child, most loved, a sibling to Jesus, connected to all those whom God loves, in the water and promise of baptism.
You’ve been welcomed into a community where we worship and serve, learn and celebrate.
Jesus has invited you and made you worthy to sit and eat at his table, so that in bread and wine you would receive into your body his own life giving body and blood.
The Spirit has come into your life to bring you to Jesus and gift you with all you need to do his work in the world. God loves you unconditionally and forever.
Jesus has died and been raised to give his life so that you would have life. God has a new future planned for all of creation, in which death is not the end and pain is no more.
So… because of this?
Because of this, all God has done for us, what matters changes. We don’t have to be afraid of the future- of the church, of our lives. The scope of our purpose is broadened beyond the individual and the present moment. No longer do we live for ourselves only, but we live for Jesus and in living for Jesus, we live for our neighbor and our work and our life does not end with our death.
Because of this, the scales over our eyes that have built up from years of living according to the self-centered vision of this world begin to fall away. We begin to see with God’s sight, focused not on what we can gain to build up ourselves, but how God is including us into God’s great redemptive work of bringing hope, healing, and joy to all creation.
Because of this, the meal we are about to serve and enjoy is not about impressing our neighbors, earning a specific dollar amount, or breaking record attendance, but is an experience of the kingdom of God, in which each person works together for the sake of a shared celebration of all God has given us.
Because of this, people we once condemned or feared have become our beloved family. God pushes us into relationships with people we might not otherwise choose to share community with, and even in the midst of challenge, we discover the joy of growing in trust and love within the richness of a diverse community.
Take some time this week to write, share, or pray about your own encounters with God and the ways God has been working in your own life.
How are you being shifted into a way of being that is ever more closely aligned with God’s intentions for you?
How is God showing love and hope to you through the community that walks with you through life’s adventures?
We are being transformed. It can be scary, it can be uncomfortable. It’s God’s work, and God will accomplish it. If we take anything from Saul’s story, and Ananias’ story, and Peter’s story- if we learn anything about God from Jesus’ death and resurrection- it’s that God works life-changing, boundary shattering good even when we least expect it. Welcome change is coming.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.