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Remembering God: Jeremiah 31:31-34 Lent Covenant Series “Standing on the Promises of God”
April 19, 2018, 12:05 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Jeremiah 31:31-34 

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

I have this necklace from when I was a girl. The charm on it is a piece of a heart. It fits together with another heart, like a puzzle. Engraved on its face is “Best Friends Forever.” I wore one half. My best friend wore the other. Our necklaces reminded us that we belonged together- they were a sign to the world that we were connected.

 

A few years later I had another necklace. This one had a heart in three pieces, to be split with my new two best friends. Best Friends Forever was an expression of the depth of relationship in that moment, which is worthy of being treasured. We couldn’t know at that time everything that would happen in the months and years to come. At age 8 or 10, it was hard to imagine forever in time.

 

Our relationships change. People move. Interests change. There doesn’t have to be betrayal or bad feelings. It’s just what happens.

 

Our faith lives can be the same way. One person might be raised in faith, supported into daily prayer, family devotions, and attend the full course of Christian Education. Another might have a mountaintop experience or a tragedy during which God becomes incredibly real and important. But then other things happen. Life gets busy. Faith practices like church participation don’t seem to give the high they once did. Situations change. Commitment fades.

 

We’ve been reading through the Old Testament stories of God making promises to God’s people. These promises have been God’s ways of entering into a relationship with people. By the time we get to the book we’ve read today, Jeremiah, the people have had times of great trust in their relationship with God. They’ve also had times during which their faith has grown cold and faltered. They’ve thought their neighbors’ gods might be more helpful. They’ve forgotten God.

 

Jeremiah tells us what God does to people who lose faith. Jeremiah says what God will do with those whose commitment fades and those who ignore God.

 

God remembers them. God’s remembering is a re-membering, a re-putting together, putting together again us and God, even when we thought we left God behind.

 

God comes to those whose faith has faltered. God comes to those who have become too busy to go to church. God comes to those who have forgotten they have a God. God comes to those who feel afraid that they aren’t worthy, that what they’ve done has made them too bad or what they’ve become isn’t good enough.

 

The way God comes to you is by becoming a part of you, entering your life, taking up residence in the center of who you are. God promises, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God puts that promise relationship of God for us inside of us, so that it can never be removed.

 

God has put God’s presence within God’s people. We sometimes talk about Jesus in our heart. When Laila was little, she would talk about Jesus in her tummy. That’s actually a little closer to what this text says- God in our tummy and our heart. Whatever you imagine as the center of your identity, the place that directs your emotions and your actions, that’s where God has come to be. From within you, God inspires you towards faith, draws you back into relationship with God, and will bring you into life with God.

 

Through the prophet Isaiah, God asks, “Can a nursing mother forget her child?”

As a once nursing mother, I can tell you there is no way to forget that child and her needs- even if your head or heart were to choose to ignore her cries, your body could not. We may forget God, but God will not forget us.

 

If anyone has a good memory, it’s God. Yet here in Jeremiah, we read that for the sake of relationship, God has a selective memory. God promises, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” God promises not to remember the violence of humanity that led to the flood. Not to remember the unfaithfulness of Abraham and Sarah as they laughed at God’s promise of a child in their old age. Not to remember all the broken commandments. Not to remember the complaints of the freed slaves who wanted to return to slavery in Egypt rather than walk God’s path to a new life.

 

God chooses not to remember every thing you’ve ever done against God, every choice you’ve made that diminished life, every action you’ve taken that’s hurt creation. God chooses not to remember all the times you’ve chosen yourself over someone else. God chooses not to remember that you haven’t always wanted God to be your God.

 

God’s choice not to remember means God’s not keeping score of wrongs. God’s not marking tallies for every wrong, weighing your bad against your good, preparing for a final judgement at the pearly gates of heaven. God is choosing to forget.

 

We know what it is to remember the sin of others. Holding on to grudges, remembering how you’ve been wronged, is what sours a relationship and keeps it from ever being healed.

 

I knew a family* out in farm country. Three generations all lived within a couple miles of each other. The mother in the middle generation was dying. Her husband was angry. Not only to lose his wife, but it was anger also towards his parents and his brother. The inheritance had been split years before, and he felt he had been wronged. When the parents moved into town, the brother had received the farm. He had been given some cash, but seeing the corn prices rise and the fields produce fed his calculations that his brother had been given much, much more than he had. As he looked at his kids, he imagined all he could have given them if only he had had the farm. He began to feel that his brother had stolen not only from him, but from his children. As he looked at his wife, he wondered if she might not be dying if only his fortunes had been different. This man’s choice to remember the wrong he felt had been done against him robbed him of relationships. His grudge robbed him of his brother, his parents; robbed his children of their grandparents and uncle; robbed his wife of another family of support.

 

Keeping score of who got more, who did what to hurt you, who said what however many years ago- all that stuff just destroys relationship. That’s why God forgives. None of that junk gets in the way of God loving you. We can respond to others in our lives with that same forgiveness and live in the freedom of being in relationships that don’t track tick for tat, but simply love.

 

There are times when it would be wise not to forget. Times when it makes sense not to restore a relationship with another person. In a situation of abuse, when someone keeps hurting you or taking from you, when they might find healing apart from you, then don’t forget. You don’t need to be like Jesus in putting yourself in dangerous situations just to prove your ability to forgive and to love. God’s choice to forgive and forget is a gift for you, not a burden to bear in your relationships with others.

 

God remembers and God forgets, all so that God can be in relationship with you. God washes away all that would break down relationship in the waters and promise of baptism. Your body takes in Jesus in the bread, wine, and promise of communion. In Jesus, we are re-membered into One Body. We are each made members of the Body of Christ. Jesus has become an inseparable part of who you are and you have become an inseparable part of who Jesus is.

 

*Like any of my stories, this is not an actual story of a real family, but a compilation of many issues faced by real families and a seasoning of imagination*

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Signs, Signs… 10 Commandments – Signs for Life Sermon for Lent Exodus 20:1-17
March 5, 2018, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Sermons

“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign… do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” As I prepared for this Sunday, I couldn’t get this song from the 5 Man Electrical Band out of my head! “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign… do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

When I visited my last parish during the interview process, one of the first things I noticed were the signs. All along the fellowship hall, on each Sunday School door were big posters in the shape of road signs with quotes, “Obey the Lord!” “Stop- sinning!” “Yield to God!”

Once you got past the door, inside the classrooms were lists of the 10 Commandments, described as rules for life.

Signs, signs- rules, rules. A quick glance around told me that was what was important in this community. It was a German church and with it’s focus on telling kids the rules and expecting them to follow them, it fit my stereotype of my own German immigrants grandparents. I immediately had flashbacks to my grandfather telling me never to touch the white walls with my dirty fingers, or learning from my grandmother to vacuum in a straight line so that the vacuum marks lined up just so. Order and rules.

That church isn’t alone in elevating the Ten Commandments to a central place. Groups try to get monuments of the commandments next to the courthouse as a way of saying, “here is God’s law” and it had better be upheld by civil law. Rules are how we order our society. At my church and many others, it was convenient and holy to teach kids to behave by saying these are God’s rules and you’d better be good. Treating the Ten Commandments as rules serves to try to keep people in line, but I don’t think it serves the central purpose of the Church.

More rules, even holy ones, don’t give life. They don’t create faith. Posted as a list of ten thou shalt and thou shalt nots- dos and don’ts- they are nothing more than a scolding finger wag, fodder for rebellious songs.

When we focus on the Ten Commandments as rules, we lose sight of the promise. God’s promise gives life. God’s promise creates faith. Proclaiming the promise is the work to which the Church is called.

These commands begin with and have their foundation in God’s promise, “I am the Lord your God.” They begin with God’s faithful action. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God is affirming, continuing the promise made to Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, “I will be your God.” God describes how God has already been faithful to them by hearing their cries during their enslavement and freeing them.

The Commandments are all about relationship and gift. The commands, “you shall have no other gods” and “you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” both center on the value and gift of God’s establishing relationship with us. God has come to us to be god to us, giving us access to be able to call on God. We can claim God God as OUR God because God has decided to make that relationship with us.

The command to “remember the Sabbath day” recalls the promise that we are made in God’s image. Just as God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, those created in God’s image are to reflect God’s day of rest in their own weekly rhythm.

The long list of “you shall nots” lifts up the gifts of God that include life, commitment, relationship, and property. God has given us all we have, from life to donkey, this is all a gift of God’s love for us.

Martin Luther wrote his small catechism to help parents teach the faith in their homes. As he explains the Ten Commandments, he begins each explanation, “We are to fear and love God, so that…” Luther wanted people to understand that we follow these commands in response to a relationship with God. One does not honor and love someone unknown. It is the relationship God has created with us that drives our desire and ability to live into these commands.

Relationship with God means a changed relationship with all that God has created. Drawn into relationship with God, we are not alone, we do not live to ourselves. We are joined to all of creation. We live, as Jesus does, for the sake of others. Embedded within these commands is a radical care for the other, especially those who are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit.

We can miss this protection for those at risk when we read that the commandments include an assumption that the faithful would own slaves, or that a man’s wife is understood to be his property. There is a historical context in which these commandments were received that thankfully is not our context today. But given that some lives were valued more than others in that time period, the commandment’s encouragement to care for these lives is all the more powerful.

To see how God built into the commandments special care for those who are most vulnerable, let’s look back again at that commandment to remember and keep the Sabbath day holy. We read, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The Sabbath is not a day of rest only for the rich landowner whose wife or servant is cooking supper. It is a rest for all – children, slaves, immigrants, even the animals!

The relationship God brings us into is a relationship marked by care for all God has made. It’s never just a me and my God thing. It’s always about me within a whole community that God makes beloved and chooses to care for. So the commandments are not rules that tell me if I’ve gotten in good with God, but are guides to shape how we live out the relationship God has gifted us with- a relationship with God and all of God’s creation. God doesn’t need our faithfulness to these commands, but our neighbors do.

This perspective expands the Ten Commandments from a negative checklist of things I can’t do into a reorientation of my life that is guided by a desire to reflect God’s love by asking, “What does my neighbor need? How can my living make a positive impact on my neighbor?” Luther’s explanation to “You shall not murder” is, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Instead of a minimal threshold of the Commandments as providing us protection from each other, they are expansive in guiding us to care for each other.

The 10 Commandments are not meant to be posted on signs in order to add to guilt and judgement. Understanding them as rising out of God’s relationship to us and God’s gifts for us guides us into an alternative use. The 10 Commandments are meant to be signs. They are not meant to be signs that push people away, but signs that point to God.

They are signs that identify those who follow them as people set apart. God’s people, the Israelites, were conquered by a neighboring empire and many people were taken away to be held in a distant land. While they were there, and even back at home, there was pressure to forget God and live like everyone else. These commandments, especially the remembrance of the Sabbath, are signs of identity that help the community hold together and hold on to their faith. They live differently from others because they have a different relationship, they know God.

Today, our living into the Ten Commandments can serve to point others to God. Instead of using these commands as rules to shout at those who don’t recognize God, they can be ways of life that show the compassion, care, and love of God. They can start curiosity and questioning.

If our congregation and us as individuals are known for working for the well-being of our neighbors, we can explain that as our way of living out the commandment, “you shall not murder.” If we are known for advocating for family leave or sick time, we can explain that as our way of living out the commandment, “honor the Sabbath.” If we stand up to predatory lending or work for fair living wages, that can be our way of living out the commandments, “you shall not steal and you shall not covet.”

We might surprise the world into a curiosity about faith if we don’t use these commandments as something to post on walls with an attitude of judgment, but rather use them as guides into God’s new creation in which there is justice, peace, and well-being.

 



Gospel Fishing: Mark 1:14-20
January 22, 2018, 3:09 pm
Filed under: Sermons

 

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

At the very beginning of my ministry with you, I had the privilege of being in the Unbinding the Gospel class Dave Thornton led. The purpose of Unbinding the Gospel is to loosen Christians from whatever is holding us back from sharing the gospel with the world. In one of the first chapters, the author talked about our fear of the e-word- Evangelism. There’s a lot of baggage around that word, but we were encouraged to get past that and realize that we’re called to simply be aware of and share our reasons for faith, our joy in Christ, our experience of grace.  Pastor Joyce brought you this study because she saw in you a readiness to share with your neighbors what you’ve discovered through this congregation: the good news of God, meant for the whole world.

 

We open the Gospel of Mark and hear a new beginning in the story. What has come before has set the stage, and now Jesus steps forward as the central actor. Jesus is beginning his work, proclaiming the good news of God.

 

What is this good news?

 

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t begin with Jesus makes a speech detailing the good news of God. Mark shows us the good news embodied in Jesus’ life through these next — chapters. Jesus does say, “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near…” Jesus is the good news of God in the flesh. It’s good news that God has chosen to be among us, good news that God loves us, shows us mercy, and is bringing into being a new way of life that is marked by the end of death, disparity, and suffering. Throughout the gospel, we’ll learn more about what this good news is as Jesus lives good news for the world.

 

How does this good news described in the Bible matter to us today?

 

That’s the question each of us need to be able to answer if we’re going to be able to move forward in our momentum as a congregation. We want this congregation to grow, but the only way we’re doing anything that matters is if we want growth because it’s a sign that we’re living the good news in a meaningful way that inspires others to want to join us.

 

In a previous congregation, we were closing a Bible study and someone brought up their disappointment that there weren’t more people at church. I’m sure you’ve heard it before- I wish there were more people here. Why don’t people come anymore? That was a great Bible study, why doesn’t anyone come?

 

They were upset that even their adult children, who had been raised in the church, brought every Sunday to Sunday School and worship, confirmed, and maybe even married in the church had simply walked away. So, I thought we’d start with what we do have. I asked why they were there. Something had led to their choosing to set aside time to participate in worship and Bible study, maybe that would help us connect with others who weren’t.

 

I heard that they had been taught that going to church is what you do- you’re supposed to go to church on Sunday. They were there out of an ingrained pattern, an obligation. I can honor that, but if you’re wondering how to encourage people who don’t have a rhythm of coming to church, that’s not going to mean much for them.

 

So, I turned it back to them again. If you have a habit of coming to church, that’s great, but can you identify another compelling reason that might also be a compelling reason for someone else to want to be a part of the community?

 

We built on their initial answer. If church attendance is an obligation, is there anything deeper about your obligation that could make sense to someone else? We don’t feel an obligation to someone we don’t care about, so behind that initial answer of “we come to church because we’re supposed to” might be a life-changing relationship.

 

They were there because of a relationship with God and with the people of the congregation. The compelling reason for church isn’t just because I have to, but that I come because I have a sense that God is here. God has cared for me in many ways and I want to both meet God and honor God with my thanks. I come because these other believers give me hope, they care for me, and I do the same for them.

 

That relationship based reason opens up the opportunity to tell stories of a life of experiencing the good news. In telling that story, my church member might be able to connect with someone who doesn’t go to church. Sharing the real effect of church helps that other people see the value church has had and consider how it might make a difference in their own life.

 

When I talk about a compelling reason, I mean something that effects change. Some fact, belief, statement, or experience that matters enough to you it informs the choices you make. What is God’s good news for you? How does that good news matter enough in your life to make you want to live in response to it?

 

On your tables or near your seats you’ll find pens, sticky notes, and a good news sheet. Now, throughout worship, and into this next week, you’re invited to write two notes. One is for you to briefly describe what the gospel is for you. What is the good news God speaks to you? The other note is for your compelling reason. Why are you here this morning? Why church? Why participate in the community that is Our Savior’s?

 

While you think about your own experiences of God’s good news for you, I’ll share my own. God’s unconditional, faithful, unending love for me and for all is at the heart of my sense of what the gospel is. My compelling reason for church is that I want to be in a community that proclaims God’s love and lives God’s radical love for others. I need worship so that I can experience God’s love for me, especially through communion. When I physically eat bread and wine and hear the promise that this gift of Jesus is for me, I can’t possibly think that somehow I’m not included in God’s good news of love for all. I’m smelling and tasting God’s love in my own body. I need the church community so that I can work with others as we encourage each other to live in love, practice loving each other, and love the world through action that supports, heals, and works for justice.

 

I first claimed the importance of this gospel of God’s full and faithful love when I was in junior high, transitioning from childhood into adolescence. I had always assumed love was forever, but I was seeing it was more fragile than I thought. When I heard more about God’s love and God’s showing love through Jesus, I was captivated. God shows a love that continues through rejection and is shown through loving service.

 

God’s constant love is good news for me, and I continue to be a participant in church because this is the community attempting to proclaim and reflect God’s love for the world.

 

 

After declaring the good news, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He starts with some fishermen. He calls them to use what they know as they join him in living the gospel.

 

When you go fishing, you go where the people are. If you’re somewhere you’ve never been, you talk to the local people, hire a guide, or simply observe so that you can see where others are fishing, where others are catching, so that you know where the fish are gathering and biting.

 

For a long time, the American church hasn’t had to be a missionary church. We were fed by waves of immigration, ethnic loyalties, and a Christian empire that equated good citizenship with church attendance. We’ve coasted on that through the last century. Our mindset has been that if we just open the doors, put out a sign, have an internet presence, then people will come. People will come to us.

 

That’s no longer the world we live in. Although it’s hard on church budgets, I think it might be for the best for the sake of the gospel. It forces us to have greater clarity on our identity and purpose. It pushes us towards lives of active discipleship.

 

It’s time to go out of this place, to figure out where people are, to listen to what good news they are hungry for. Where does the gospel intersect with the lives people are leading?

 

The type of fishing the soon to be disciples were doing was with nets. I’ve never tried that, but I have done a bit with a hook and a bobber. Lately, though, I’ve been doing more child-friendly pretend fishing. This is the best illustration of the kind of fishing we’re called to do. In pretend fishing, we have a fish with a metal piece and a fishing pole with a magnet. That fish is created with a ready attraction to the magnet. The properties of fish and magnet mean there is a force of attraction pulling them together. When we think about the call to fish for people, the fish are people, the magnet is Jesus, and the force pulling people and Jesus together is the Holy Spirit. God uses our sharing of our compelling reasons, our witness to the good news, as the carrier of the Holy Spirit, so that God can work to bring people into the connected relationship with God they were created for.

 

Jesus call us to live into the good news kingdom God is creating by following Jesus today. God has come into the world. God invites us to be a part of making the kingdom of God real today.



Flee Immorality: Build the Kindom Lectionary 2
January 17, 2018, 3:49 pm
Filed under: Sermons

1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20] 

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 

John 1:43-51 

 

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

As I read through the texts for this week, I knew pretty quickly which one I wanted to avoid. First Corinthians. What an odd and random little piece of writing! I thought about skipping reading it altogether. When there’s a tricky text, I think it’s hard to have it read and then just leave it hanging without any commentary. But preaching on it means we’d be going from a sermon talking about happy face stickers one week to prostitutes the next.

It seems like God sometimes pushes us toward thinking about things we’d rather avoid, and so I find myself, with the help of the Tuesday morning Bible study group, focusing on that confusing text from Paul to the church at Corinth. When we try to figure out the relevance of the Bible for our lives today, the early church is a great place to start. The church at Corinth is no exception.

These believers lived in a pluralistic world, with many forces pulling for their attention and allegiance. Corinth was a city of commerce, diverse and eager for wealth. There were people with lots of money who enjoyed all that money could buy. There were people in poverty who couldn’t get by. People came from all around the world, bringing their customs and their gods. Paul himself was one of those outsiders who came with a new religion.

Paul pointed the people towards Jesus. With the good news of God’s unconditional love came an expectation. Paul expected that people’s lives would change. He expected that their relationships with each other and the way they interacted in society would change. Within his letters, we read Paul’s disappointment and frustration when they don’t.

For Paul, being baptized, being claimed by Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit changes who you are and to whom you belong. Your life isn’t yours any longer. That’s why we get this jarring reference to prostitutes- every thing we do matters, not in some tally of right and wrong that’ll prove us worthy of God, but because we’re God’s people who have work to do.

When you’re claimed by Christ, the way your live your life, the company you keep matters.

I don’t mean this in an holier than thou mindset. I’m not encouraging you keep away from people who will taint you. I know plenty of Christians who think distancing themselves from others is a holy choice:

I had a boyfriend who would quote, “do not be yoked with an unbeliever” to tell me he was going against his faith and better judgement to date someone who didn’t belong to his sect of Christianity.

I had parishioners who declared their need to leave the ELCA after we voted to allow congregations to call gay clergy as their pastors, because even if their congregation never had a gay person in it, they felt they would be stained by another’s inclusion in the community.

When I say the company you keep matters, that’s not what I mean. It’s not about who you stay away from, but who you seek out and embrace. God’s image is reflected on each face. God’s spirit dwells within each body. If we cut others out, we miss the reflection of God they shine onto the world.

Paul writes to the Corinthians because they aren’t living in to their identity as a community in Christ. The way they’re keeping company with each other isn’t reflective of the kingdom community God is creating. Within their church community, those who are rich are trying to keep themselves separate and above those who are poor. There are some who claim they are special disciples of certain teachers, as if being baptized by one pastor makes you better than being baptized by another. In the church and in the wider community, they are choosing to continue to live with the divisions the society upholds rather than the unity Jesus creates.

The problem for the Corinthians is that they aren’t recognizing God’s choosing to make others worthy, beloved masterpieces of the creator God. They don’t see that each person has the status of temple of the Holy Spirit. They’ve treated each other as less than human, less than those formed out of the humus, the fertile soil God formed and breathed into, and more like something that soils, dirt.

Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” If God has determined that you are a worthy carrier of both God’s image and God’s spirit, then that is what you are. No other indicator of your importance matters. God’s gracious choice is the foundation for our honoring of all other people. Other bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Other faces mirror God’s own.

Paul often writes about the body, sometimes meaning the body of Christ, and sometimes meaning the body of Christ as the community of God’s people. One person alone does not wholly reflect God, nor one body carry all of God’s Spirit. We are each diverse members of one body, necessary, different, and beloved.

That’s a counter cultural claim for the Corinthians and for us. Our culture rewards division. Too often we follow the culture. We simply do not live up to Jesus’ call to love our neighbors and form our communities in a way that reflects God’s valuing of all people. There’s a play on words that I’ve found helpful in thinking about God’s vision for community. Instead of KINGdom, it’s KINdom (K-I-N)dom. We are kin, family, siblings. The culture tells us to live according to a kingdom mentality with people divided into levels of importance. God calls us to live according to God’s kindom with people honoring each other as siblings.

Christians are called to a new way of life, marked by a commitment to living into the new KINdom God is creating. It’s in describing this new life that Paul speaks of being united with a prostitute as being incompatible with being united with Christ.

Prostitution is a pretty graphic image of using someone completely for your own pleasure. It’s completely denying their own personhood and deciding that the other person is a commodity, some thing to be bought.

Engaging in a system in which people are treated as commodities is to live in an way completely opposed to God’s kingdom vision. Paul is calling the Corinthians to flee this way of life that is all too prevalent.

It’s a way of life that has stained our history and our present. We have turned people into things. Things to be bought. Things less than human. Things in need of being civilized. Things meant to produce for others. Things to be thrown away, locked up, turned back.

We’re called to stop living the way the systems of this world would encourage us to live. Flee the immorality of this present age, with its seductive promise that you are better than others, more deserving of comfort, safety, citizenship, and wealth. Paul writes, “…you are not your own. You were bought with a price…” God has plucked us out of the systems of value, expectation, and debt that pressure our actions today.

Tomorrow we celebrate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and remember the ongoing struggle for equity and dignity. God called The Rev. Dr. King to be a prophet like Samuel, speaking judgement for the ways we have dishonored what God has declared holy. We have not honored the holiness of all God has created, nor have we treated other people as the bearers of God’s image.

We need prophets willing to speak the uncomfortable truth in a way that guides us towards God’s intention. I know that I live trapped in this system of immorality, of willfully ignoring the holiness of others, choosing to profit from whatever is cheapest and forming a community of people who don’t challenge me and my lifestyle. It’s easy to point to the exaggerated immorality of others so I feel better about myself, but I know… I know I’m not where I need to be.

We need people like Philip, who invited Nathaniel into a new relationship with someone he was quick to write off. “What good can come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel doesn’t think highly of Jesus’ hometown, and yet, when he meets him, he will become his devoted disciple and will witness the power of God coming through this one he would have cast aside.

It’s easier to skip over God’s call to expand our circle of community. It’s tricky to know how to start, how to unravel the stereotypes and prejudice, how to make choices that benefit more than myself, who to listen to, and how to be welcomed. For now, I pray for courage, for people to invite me to learn from them, and for God’s kin-dom to come. Our call to new life rises out of God’s loving action and sure promise: you are a beloved child of God, claimed in Christ forever, a temple of the Holy Spirit.



Sticking a Sign of God’s Love: A Sermon for baptism of our Lord John 1:43-51
January 11, 2018, 12:50 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

I’ve always been a poor speller. Spelling tests weren’t much fun as a child. I must have had some prescient knowledge that there’d be spell-check by the time I had to write any serious papers.

There was one good thing about spelling tests. It’s what kept me writing out those words every night after school.

Stickers.

Big shiny stickers. Smiley faces. Scratch and sniff. “Good job!” “Way to go!” “You’re the best!”

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Those little affirmations kept me encouraged.

Eventually, I grew too old for stickers, or at least, my teachers thought so. Grades were good enough, signs of work well done. But then, graduation after graduation after graduation, there weren’t any more.

Who will tell us those words of affirmation we need to hear?

 

The Gospel of Mark briefly tells us of Jesus’ baptism. John the baptizer is out, doing his thing, preparing people with a baptism of repentance and a proclamation that a greater person is coming. Jesus came and was baptized, and then he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus saw and heard the ultimate in affirmations.

The Gospel of Mark is so brief, so concise, it only says the most important of things. There’s no baby in a manger or wise men following a star for Mark, it’s just John preparing the way, and then Jesus, baptized and affirmed. We begin this book knowing that whatever unfolds for Jesus, Jesus is the one God has claimed as God’s own beloved son.

The Gospel writer doesn’t seem to think anything else is as important for Jesus as this blessing. Jesus will move forward into ministry with God’s promise ringing in his ears. Will he feel God’s blessing as he teaches and heals? Will he hold on to God’s claiming him when all others reject him?

We don’t know. But I think the Gospel includes this scene because the writer knows how vital it is to be claimed, loved, and validated. Jesus’ ministry rises out of his knowing who he is: a beloved child of God, sent on a mission.

 

As adults, we may be told we’re too old for stickers. We’re not supposed to need to depend on anyone else to assure us of our worth. But I think we’re still looking for that validation. We’re still needing to be told, “Good job!” “Way to go” and “You’re the best!”

Maybe some of us have had bad experiences with stickers- or not getting them. Maybe grades weren’t so good, or people weren’t so nice. Maybe we’ve never been recognized for what we’ve done well. Or we just can’t seem to do what others are ready to reward. Maybe you don’t think you need anyone telling you good things about yourself. Maybe not. But I do think we need a sense of who we are so that we can live out of that sense. And that person you are is worth being honored. You’re meant to live as a person of value, you are a person the world needs.

So here’s the thing. In the church, we’re here to give each other the validation- the yes- each of us needs. But it’s not like all the other times we’re judged or evaluated or measured up to the standard people have set. In the church, we’re just amplifying another’s message- another’s judgement. We’re proclaiming God’s grading- and it’s so much different from anything else we’ve ever experienced.

See, God’s not grading you based on you. That sounds a bit like cheating, doesn’t it? And maybe it is. God’s evaluating each one of us based on Jesus. We’ve just read what God thinks of Jesus- Jesus is God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is pleased.

In our own baptisms, God unites us with Jesus. We are wrapped in Jesus’ righteousness, Jesus’ standing as perfect in God’s sight. It’s not that weve swapped our papers, taken our tests and erased Jesus’ name and put in our own. It’s that Jesus has done the swapping for us. And God’s the teacher watching it all happen and smiling because that’s the way we were always meant to be graded.

Instead of focusing on judging us, God focuses on loving us. Jesus has put his holiness onto us so that our sin- our failures, betrayals, and mistakes- won’t separate us from God. But I don’t think we’re invisible to God. It’s not as if who we are as individuals doesn’t matter to God. God still knows us. Wants to know us. Rejoices in our living into our particular way of being who we were created to be.

When we baptize, we amplify God’s voice so that we can all hear God proclaim: You are a child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever.

We don’t get stickers, but we do have signs. Water, flame, and oil become signs for us, means through which God’s grace is felt and seen and known. There is something about us that needs to be assured through more than words, and God gives these signs as assurance for us. They are physical means through which we experience God’s promise.

The water in the baptismal font points to God’s cleansing us, to God’s drowning and raising us to new life, to God’s birthing us into a new family.  In many churches, the font is always open and filled, so that everyone can splash in its water,  retrace the cross on their foreheads, and be reminded of the promises of love and life God spoke at baptism and continues to speak each day.

The flame of the Paschal candle points us to Jesus’ resurrection, into which we are baptized. It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit, the God who enters our lives and creates faith within us. The flame of the Paschal candle lights a smaller taper that is given to the baptized. It’s meant to be relit as we remember that God’s active love is continually rekindled in us.

Oil is used to mark the sign of the cross onto the baptized, recalling the anointing of prophets and kings, as we are each called by God to live in response to God’s love.

In this space, as this community, we proclaim the affirmation of God. God says yes to you! We proclaim this at baptism, at the open table of communion, and we proclaim it in every time and way we gather. Each person is a beloved child of God, wrapped in Jesus’ love and righteousness, called to live a life reflecting God’s love for all creation. The very fact that we gather as one community, united in our diversity, is a sign to the world of God’s yes to all of us. We are a community that welcomes all people, celebrating our different histories, our different life experiences, our different families, our different struggles, our different joys. We are made one community, free of judgement and full of welcome because we all rely on Jesus’ grace alone as the reason for our acceptance.

When Jesus is baptized, he sees the heavens ripped apart. That’s a sign for him and for us, of God’s way of loving. God’s love dissolves the barriers that separate us. The dome separating the earth and the heavens, the home of people and the home of God, is shattered. There is no more distance. In the heaven’s tearing, and in his being sent, Jesus is shown that God so values creation that God chooses to be in and among creation, to know and love all that God has made. Jesus is sent from his baptism knowing he is loved, and that all creation is loved. His mission is to live out of the love he knows by sharing that love and dissolving divisions.

We are meant to begin each day, move forward in our lives, confident that whatever else happens, we are beloved children of God.

 



Do not be afraid: A Sermon for Christmas Eve: Luke 2
January 2, 2018, 1:32 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Do not be afraid!

 

These are the words spoken by an angel startling shepherds as they watched over their sheep.

 

Do not be afraid.

 

Confronted with an image of God’s glory and a messenger from God, who would not have been afraid? It was unlike anything they had ever heard or seen- the very air crackling with the energy of God’s presence.

 

The angel repeated, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…”

 

As if this news wasn’t awesome enough, suddenly the angel is joined by a multitude of the heavenly host. These aren’t holiday card chubby baby angels with tambourines. A host is an army. They are the power of God envisioned with armor and flaming swords. Columns and rows as far as the eye can see- and with one voice, this force praises God and declares peace on earth.

 

Power speaks peace. So unexpected.

 

Those with the potential for such strength direct the shepherds to their leader. The head of this army is unlike any other. The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord- he has arrived, but not in glory and power. He is fragile and dependent and small. The broker of this peace is a baby boy, being laid to sleep in a manger.

 

This force is doing battle like no other. It’s victory hinges on vulnerability and compassion. It’s choosing to set aside power and to be present and patient for peace to be won.

 

Perhaps the shepherds heard something of new and different way of peace in the angels’ proclamation. Maybe that’s what kept them listening rather than running. Despite the host’s insistence, “do not be afraid,” they must have been an awesome and unsettling sight.

 

Any encounter with raw force unsettles me. It’s never made me feel any safer to enter an airport and see heavily armed security, or to travel abroad and see armed guards stationed every couple blocks. I wonder about the strength of the threat they seek to counteract, and the force they are prepared to show.

The peace those shepherds lived under was the peace of the empire, an imposing power that achieved order through violence and rigid social structure. Surely they must have wondered what sort of peace this legion of winged warriors was bringing.

 

The peace the angel army announces is a peace that begins with the birth of a child. Within this child is concentrated all of God’s power and hope. As he grows and matures and claims his place as the Messiah, he will show a different way. He will grow peace through love, inclusion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

 

God’s answer to fear is not greater force, but a diffusion of violence. This army and the warrior-infant it follows will break apart the myth that threat and fear sustain peace. This Messiah will march towards the cross, and in choosing to suffer and die will expose the human tendency to choose violence as an answer to fear. Jesus will choose to receive that violence and in doing so, will dismantle its lure. Jesus will destroy the power of violence and death as he is raised from the dead. Then life and love will be shown to be the greatest power.

 

Do not fear. A new path to peace is being opened. It’s heralded by the angel army and sustained by the Messiah who enters vulnerability in both infancy and death.

 

In a moment, we’ll sing the hymn “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” One verse especially describes the scene in Luke:

Rank on rank the host of heaven

Spreads its vanguard on the way

As the Light of light, descending

From the realms of endless day

Comes, the pow’r of hell to vanquish

As the darkness clears away

 

This hymn’s militaristic language has always made me slightly uncomfortable and confused. Today, I see a new truth in it. The ranks of angels open up to reveal the Light of light, descending not in anger or force, but in love and gentleness. It is a wonderful surprise. Our God upends expectations of violence and anger. Instead, God shows us peace and love.

 

 

The angels have come to announce God’s peace. It will be won through Jesus’ victory over death. In our time, we do not see the angel hosts appearing above us, but we hear their chorus echoed in word, song, and action. We come here to church to listen to their message.  For us, they proclaim God’s invitation, “Do not fear!” The answer to fear will be found in love and hope and maybe even fumbling and failure as we try out this strange path that turns away from strength in force and centers on a different strength in compassion.

We may not always be able to live into the peace to which God calls us. We may let fear drive us to division, push us towards the familiar safety of force. But little by little, God is transforming us. God is creating faith within us. God will teach us to trust in God’s promise of peace, and to trust that God has the power to fulfill that promise and make peace. Trusting and hopeful, we will number ourselves among God’s peacekeepers, working for the well being of all creation.

 

On this night, we gather to join the angels in proclaiming an end to fear. God is unraveling all that would cause us to be afraid. We light a candle against the night as a sign of hope. Each flickering light is a glimpse of the light that is to come, as we wait for the dawning of God’s peace, a day of joy that will never end.



Brave: A Sermon for Advent 4
January 2, 2018, 1:30 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A poem

Denise Levertov’s “Annunciation”

 

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always

the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,

the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,

whom she acknowledges, a guest.

 

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

courage.

The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

 

She was free

to accept or to refuse, choice

integral to humanness.

 

____________________

 

Aren’t there annunciations

of one sort or another

in most lives?

Some unwillingly

undertake great destinies,

enact them in sullen pride,

uncomprehending.

More often

those moments

when roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from

 

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

 

____________________

 

She had been a child who played, ate, slept

like any other child–but unlike others,

wept only for pity, laughed

in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence

fused in her, indivisible.

 

Called to a destiny more momentous

than any in all of Time,

she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’

and gravely, courteously,

took to heart the angel’s reply,

the astounding ministry she was offered:

 

to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry

in hidden, finite inwardness,

nine months of Eternity; to contain

in slender vase of being,

the sum of power–

in narrow flesh,

the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,

push out into air, a Man-child

needing, like any other,

milk and love–

 

but who was God.

 

 

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

 

A breath unbreathed,

Spirit,

suspended,

waiting.

 

____________________

 

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

 

*****

 

This poem raises up for me a new richness in Luke’s telling of the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel invites Mary into a most awesome task. Mary is invited to join in God’s restoration of the world by carrying the Savior to birth.

 

No longer only Mary the meek and mild, Mary who quietly ponders, our introduction to Mary shows us Mary the brave and courageous. She is willing. She says yes to something beyond her experience. She says yes to God’s derailing of her assumed life path.

 

I can imagine her life was going along smoothly. She’s got her family- parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone knowing the family’s expectations of them and knowing their place. She’s got her marriage lined up. She’s entering adulthood and can envision the life of household, children, and growing into the place intended for her. She’s got this.

 

And then God appears. God shows up in a new and yet recognizable way and suddenly, she has a choice: to live the life she’s always assumed, or let herself be swept up into this new and crazy thing God is doing. She listens, she questions, and then she accepts, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

There’s good reason Mary is revered as a saint. Hers is a brave faith. She trusts the angel’s promise, “nothing will be impossible with God,” also hearing that Gabriel doesn’t promise that everything will be easy.

 

It will not be easy for her. Why does she feel the need to run away to her cousin Elizabeth’s home at the beginning of her pregnancy? Where are her family members when she travels to Bethlehem and has to give birth under a desperately begged for shelter? The priest who greets her infant son will warn her of a broken heart. She’ll feel that brokenness most especially as she watches her firstborn die on the cross. Answering God’s call will not ensure her happiness.

 

And yet- she gets to be there. She gets to know first hand and front row the love of God breaking through all barriers between human and divine, God coming down and among us, restoring us to the image we were meant to reflect. She carries within her body the infinite God, birthing this greatest gift into the world. And then, when it seemed the end had come, and her child was no more, she is there, among the first to hear that most wonderful news: the tomb is empty and angels declare, Jesus is not dead, he is alive.

 

In her bravery, Mary accepts God’s call to participate in God’s work of loving the world. Her life gets turned upside down, and she receives a glimpse of the way God is turning the world upside down so that it is righted again.

 

We’ve been singing parts of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, every Sunday this Advent. Mary sings this song as she greets Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s pregnancy is the backdrop in our reading today. When our text begins, “in the sixth month,” it means in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

 

Both women have experienced miracles in conception and are gestating those who will upend the structures of society and assumptions about God that have separated people from each other and separated them people from God.

 

Mary’s song speaks of God lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and remembering mercy. Her song points to God’s toppling of powers that grab and take and leave nothing for the rest. Mary’s life has been upended through her acceptance of God’s call. She courageously lives into the new thing God is doing. Her bravery makes it possible for her to be open to the overthrowing of the way things are for the sake new thing God is doing in creating a new kingdom way of life.

 

Siblings, we are called to follow in Mary’s example of brave faith. This passage of the poem invites our self-reflection:

 

Some unwillingly

undertake great destinies,

enact them in sullen pride,

uncomprehending.

More often

those moments

when roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

What about -those moments- in your life?

 

“Ordinary lives continue.”

 

But might we have the joy of more fully being there as God transforms the world if only we step forward in courageous faith? Let’s be brave together.

 

God is entering the world and inviting us to be caught up in God’s work of building a new way of life. In the vision God is bringing into focus, there is no more hunger, no more suffering, no more violence, and no more rejection. Life and wholeness and peace are on the horizon. God’s going to make that happen. “Nothing is impossible with God.”

 

May God empower you with the witness of Mary, Elizabeth, and the saints of your own community, so that you might be brave in answering God’s call to do a new thing in creating the new way of life God is bringing for all.