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Christmas Eve Services
Join us for worship at 5pm on Christmas Eve. Holy communion, children’s sermon, candle-lighting, and of course plenty of Christmas carols.
If you are unable to attend at 5pm, consider coming to our partner congregation, St. Martin, 813 Bay Rd, Webster, at 7:30pm.
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Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2018
On this Sunday of the church year, the week before Advent, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday – remembering with thanksgiving that Christ is the ruler of the universe and of our lives, more powerful than any earthly power. The texts for Christ the King present us with some strange, end-times imagery, looking forward to the time when Christ will return to sit on the throne and visibly rule over heaven and earth, even as they recall that Christ has always done this (as Revelation says, he is the one who is and who was and who is to come). It’s a day of tension, being both ominous, and thrilling. Really, it’s the perfect way to end the church year, and prepare ourselves to start thinking about Advent, and the first coming of God into our midst as a babe in a manger.
I also want to say a quick word about our Gospel reading, because today we jump back from Mark into the Gospel of John. This short reading places us in the midst of Jesus’ passion story, in the middle of his trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate, you may remember, was an incredibly violent and brutal ruler, known for his extreme punishments, which makes it all the stranger that in this text he seems to be trying to find a way to let Jesus off the hook! But Jesus is resolute, as he is throughout John’s Gospel, that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing what he needs to do. Their argument today is, appropriately, about whether or not Jesus is, in fact, a king, and what that kingship looks like. As many things with Jesus, it is not what the world might have thought or expected! Let’s listen and learn about what it means for Christ to be our King.
Grace to you and peace from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Well, here we are: my last sermon for you all. It is surreal to me that this is it, after seven and a half years of learning and teaching, praying and playing together, pushing each other to think more deeply about what God is doing in the world, and dreaming about what our role in God’s work might be. It has been a time full of blessings, and challenges, and joys, and disappointments, and encouragement, and learning, and most of all, a time of growth and faith – certainly for me, and I hope for you as well.
As it became clear that I would be leaving my position as your pastor, I really wrestled with when would be the right time to leave, especially with Christmas just around the corner. The way that the timing worked out, it became pretty clear that the right time to leave would be today, Christ the King Sunday. I know that leaves many disappointed, to leave right before all the Advent and Christmas events (me too, in some ways – this is my favorite season!). But it seems appropriate, not only practically in that it gives me a chance to grieve and process leaving you all before starting in a new call in the new year, but also liturgically and theologically. Next week is the beginning of Advent, a season characterized by waiting and hope, and a time when we give thanks that God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. It makes for a perfect time for a congregation to begin a period of transition and discernment, a time which will inevitably include a lot of waiting, but also will be undergirded by hope and an assurance of God’s presence.
But it’s also the perfect time to remember, with thanksgiving, that through all the changes of this life – whether a loss, or a move, or a new job, or a new pastor – one absolute constant is that Christ remains our king, our ruler, through all of that.
Christ the King Sunday is a day when we reflect upon what that means, to have Christ as our ruler, and what that reign looks like, especially compared to the reigns and rulers of the world. Jesus tells Pilate in today’s text that, “My kingdom is not from this world,” and that’s pretty good news! I would hope that God’s kingdom is something utterly different than this world, with all its tears, loss, pain, and sadness. But what exactly does that mean, for this kingdom not to be from this world? If not that, then what?
Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t think it is. I don’t think Jesus is talking about an afterlife, or what we often call “heaven,” and here’s why: because from the very beginning, Jesus was the one who brought God’s light and life into the darkness of this world. Throughout John, Jesus has been the light of the world, dwelling in and overcoming darkness – that’s what we celebrate each year at Christmas. By being that light in the darkness, Jesus brings God’s kingdom to earth, even as God’s kingdom remains something distinct from the ways of this world. And so, I think when he refers to his “kingdom,” he is referring not to some different, far-off location, but to a way of life – right now – that is of God. A way of life that is a light shining in darkness.
But the question still remains: what does that look like? I’m going to venture three suggestions. First, it looks like an abiding relationship with God. Through John’s Gospel, Jesus has made clear that living as a part of God’s kingdom means being in a relationship with God. That means, first of all, trusting that God does abide in us, and second, living by the commandment of God. It means regularly checking in with God through prayer and scripture study and faithful conversation with other Christians. We are so prone, aren’t we, to listen to the ways of the world, and let them be our guide. We want to fit in, or we want to let the world’s ways of fear and scarcity convince us to make choices or take stands that we know, in our hearts, are not what Jesus would have us do. Abiding with God is not always the easiest road, because it means letting go of some control, and sometimes even some good sense, and instead listening to where and how the Spirit might be blowing in our lives. When Christ truly reigns, we let him guide and be present in all that we do, even when it is not something our human, worldly inclinations would have chosen.
Second, living in God’s kingdom means seeking peace. I am so intrigued by Jesus’ comment to Pilate that, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” And yet just moments before this, Peter did exactly that, when Jesus was arrested. He pulled a sword, willing to fight the legion of soldiers who came for Jesus. So what Jesus must be saying here is not that his followers should have been fighting for him, but rather, that a true follower would not resort to such violence, but rather, seek a more peaceful resistance.
Ah, but it can be so much easier and more immediately satisfying just to fight, can’t it?? Especially in our divided society, where judgment of the other abounds. When someone says something awful or misguided, doesn’t it feel so good to come back with something snappy to put them in their place? Isn’t it good to fight for what we believe in, at whatever cost? And yet, Jesus’ kingdom demands a different way: not simply to avoid one another, nor to “agree to disagree,” but rather, to actively seek peace with the other. God’s kingdom requires that we seek to know and understand one another, to have compassion for one another, to be in relationship with one another, to love one another.
And that’s the real kicker for those who are citizens of God’s kingdom: we love one another. Just like Jesus has just told his disciples as he washed their feet: he commanded them to love one another, just as God has loved us. So simple to say; so difficult to live out! Not always – for example, I have found you all to be very easy to love these past seven years, even those of you with whom I know I disagree on some key issues! But it can be awfully hard to love people who have hurt us personally, or people who scare us, or whose mere presence threatens our way of life, or even just people in whom we simply aren’t that invested.
At this time of year, we often hear the catchy slogan, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I saw a meme on Facebook this week that really nailed it. It said, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and the unwanted child, care for the ill, love your enemies.” Because those are the things Christ is about! And those are the things that citizens of Christ’s kingdom are called to be about, too. Those are the ways we love one another. Love one another – those you do like and those you don’t, those who are kind to you and those who scare you, those who look and act like you, and those who bring with them a host of unknowns. Love one another.
It sure isn’t easy. And when it isn’t, that is when we can lean on God’s own, perfect love – to both show us the way and to catch us when we fail. For God so loved the dark and sinful world, Jesus tells us, that he sent his only Son, so that we would not perish, so that we would not fall into the abyss that is all that world can promise us, but would instead have the promise of eternal life – eternal life living in the light and life of Christ. Eternal life living in Christ’s kingdom.
You know, there’s one more reason this was the perfect Sunday to leave you, and that is that this is Thanksgiving weekend, the time we set aside to give thanks for all that God has graced us with. The biggest thing to be thankful for, of course, is exactly that love of which we are assured through Christ.
But as we bid farewell to each other today, my heart is full of thanksgiving also for each of you, and for all that you have brought to my life. I am thankful for how you welcomed me, and then my family, into your life so warmly. I am thankful for your grace and understanding as I went through two experiences with cancer – for too many meals to count, for telling me, “Go home and take care of yourself!” and for the ways you covered for me. I am thankful for how you surrounded my children with love and faith, always asking about them and gushing over them, and being a beautiful community of Christ as they were each baptized, Grace at Bethlehem and Isaac at St. Martin. I am thankful for your willingness to express when something I said or did was meaningful to you, but also when it wasn’t, when you needed more from me, because by this you taught me what it means to listen and respond and grow more faithfully into this strange and wondrous calling. I am even thankful for the times you made me really mad, because it was during these times that I was pushed toward the sort of self-reflection that helped me to grow the most, as a Christian and as a pastor. It was during these times that I learned what it means to live in Christ’s kingdom of relationship, peace, and enduring love. I am thankful for every prayer offered, every Eucharist shared, every baptism celebrated, every Bible text wrestled with. I am, absolutely, thankful for you.
And I will continue to be thankful to you, for helping to form me into the person and pastor I am today, and for teaching me as much about God’s love as any training I got in seminary. Thank you, people of Bethlehem/St. Martin, and thank God for you. Bless you as you continue growing into living in Christ’s kingdom of hope, peace, and love.
Let us pray… Christ our King, in this ever changing world, you and your love and your reign remain our constant. I ask your presence with this congregation as they embark on a season of waiting, watching, and hoping. I ask that you would assure them of your abiding presence. Keep us all focused on living into your kingdom, trusting that your love will guide and support us all along. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
November 18, 2018
Always at this, the end of the church year, right before Advent, we get texts that are about the end of the world and the destruction of the Temple – stuff that falls in the category of “apocalyptic literature,” about the end times. And every year I think, “Man, these horrifying texts could be describing what we experience today!” Well for Mark’s audience, they did exactly that. Here’s a little church history lesson for you: In Jesus’s time, the Jerusalem Temple was indeed a glorious accomplishment, huge and glimmering with gold. But this Temple, and Jerusalem with it, were destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 – which happens to be when Mark was writing about it. In other words, even as Mark is writing that Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple, Mark’s audience was watching this happen right before their eyes. So while it seems to us like Mark could be describing our world, he was, literally, describing his first century world.
I find some comfort in this, knowing that people throughout time have been dealing with one crisis or trauma or another, and that through them all, God’s word has stood as a solid beacon of hope. So as you listen to this collection of apocalyptic texts today, know that we can seek solidarity with people of faith throughout time, who have always looked to God in times of trouble. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In a world where the news is dominated by devastating fires, mass shootings, extreme poverty, and any number of things we need to fear, I have to say that today’s readings do not feel very welcome in my heart! Always these last Sundays before Advent begins, we get a lot of doom and destruction from the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. In fact, chapter 13 in Mark is known as Mark’s “little apocalypse,” describing a horrific scene that must be endured before the final and triumphant end of time.
That word, “apocalypse,” brings up all kinds of terrifying images for us, doesn’t it? Fire, brimstone, wars, famines – all the stuff described in Daniel and Mark. Yet that’s not actually what the word means, exactly. What apocalypse actually means, is an unveiling. It is pulling back the veil to reveal what has been hidden underneath – which often ends up being a lot of really terrifying stuff, stuff that we’d rather not have to deal with. We’d fooled ourselves into thinking things were better than they were, and when we see that dark underbelly, we are shocked and think, “What? I had no idea!”
I hear this sentiment a lot in our world today, especially in our country. After people of faith are shot in their place of worship, after yet another powerful man is brought down by sexual assault allegations, after literal Nazis march down the street chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” after another person of color is shot and killed for no reason at all… I hear this lament: “Is this who we are now?” And the answer is yes, but it’s also who we’ve always been. These sentiments, if not the acts themselves, have long been present in our society, it’s just that now, due to the 24-hour news cycle, or social media, or our leadership, or whatever, it is becoming apparent to us in a way that it hasn’t before. And we are shocked and appalled – by the acts themselves, as much as by the realization that we have been unaware of this reality all this time.
There’s a wonderful word for this: disillusionment. Preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.” Boy, painful is the word for it. I have tried to do some self-reflection on this this week, in particular on the question, “What lies and illusions do I mistake for truth?” and I find myself resistant to even going there! Because if I spend some time doing that, I might discover that something I have held dear, that has kept me safe, that even has helped to define me, might in fact just be some illusion, some lie I have been telling myself. I’d rather just keep up the illusion, frankly, and hold onto those things that have brought me comfort and a sense of safety all these years, even if they are mere illusions, because if disillusionment is anything like what Jesus describes here, even if metaphorically, that sounds like a pain I’d rather avoid, if possible.
Of course it is not really possible to avoid, is it? We all have experiences, some small, some significant, in which we were disillusioned, where we suddenly realize something is not as we thought it was. For me, I think of an awesome internship I applied for, for which I thought I was a shoe-in, and then I was not even offered an interview, though several of my classmates were. I think of a relationship with a guy I thought for sure was The One, only to discover he had a whole other life I didn’t even know about, including other long-term relationships. I think of when I was an invincible 15-year-old one day, and the next, I was a cancer patient, and almost overnight I went from being healthy and untouchable, to sick and fighting for my life. Each of those disillusionments was painful. In each, I felt a sense of destruction – in my heart, and in the way I saw the world around me. Each felt like a little apocalypse in my life.
And really – each was a sort of apocalypse, an unveiling, because each one showed me something I thought was true was not, in fact true. Each one caused me to doubt what I thought I knew about myself, and try to find the real truth. And each set me upon a path I needed to be on. Instead of that internship, I ended up here, where I got to work with all of you, and where I met my husband and started a family. Because of my relationship with that two-faced guy, I learned all kinds of important relationship tools that equipped me to be in the healthy and honest relationship I’m in now, as well as offer more effective counsel to others as a part of my ministry. Having cancer taught me countless valuable lessons about life, and perhaps even more, showed me with such clarity the power of the Body of Christ, and of prayer, and in many ways it set me upon the path to become a pastor. Each apocalypse, though incredibly painful at the time, was an unveiling that led me back toward living the godly life God has in mind for me.
Did you know, we actually experience a little apocalypse every time we gather to worship. It happens right at the beginning… the confession. Here, built into our worship, we have the opportunity to come before God and say, “Hey God, I’ve been hiding my sins, from you and perhaps even from myself, and choosing to live under the illusion that I am without sin. But now, I’d like to unveil my sin, to you. Disillusion me, O God. Pull back the lies I have been telling myself and others, and then help me deal with what is left there, so that I would be set upon your path, heading toward your will, rather than the path my illusions would lead me down. Forgive me, renew me, and lead me, so that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Holy Name. Amen.”
And then the rest of our worship is about the fruit of that disillusionment: it’s about stepping into the new life that is possible because of the apocalypse we have experienced. It’s about hearing the Word, the promises of God in scripture. It’s about holding in prayer and in love all those around the world in need. It’s about seeking peace and reconciliation between one another – between nations and between individuals. It’s about sharing a meal together, in which we remember and celebrate the incredible, self-sacrificing love of our God, as we come forward with hands extended, asking for a taste of God’s immense grace for us. It’s about being sent out into the world to share what we know about this love, this grace, this peace… this God. And it’s about praising and thanking God all along the way.
In the middle of Jesus’ words in Mark’s “little apocalypse” are buried these words that end today’s reading: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It may at first sound sort of ominous – just the beginning? How long must we endure this pain, O Lord? Having experienced the beginning of birth pangs a couple times now, I can resonate with that sentiment! There is physical pain, and there is fear and anxiety and uncertainty… but there is also excitement, and hope, and the palpable sense of possibility. The best thing someone told me about labor pains is that they are pain with a purpose. And so, as labor continues, there are inevitably moments when the one giving birth thinks, or even says or shouts, “I can’t do this!” Yeah, disillusionment, apocalypse, can be like that, too. But through it all there is a purpose. At the end of all that pain… life. Newness. Everything changed forever. A brand new path to walk, one that leads us toward God’s intention.
And most importantly, God is with us all along: in the initial awareness, in the unveiling, in the realization of a new normal, and all the life that comes from that. Disillusionment is no easy process. But as we approach the Advent season, when we celebrate a God who promises to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, we can trust that we will never be abandoned. As the Psalmist writes, “God will show us the path of life; in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and in God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Let us pray… God of grace, we would so like to feel safe, even if it means living under the veil of lies we tell ourselves. Disillusion us, O God. Help us pull back the veil so that through all the muck, we can see your purpose for us, and then lead us lovingly toward fulfilling that purpose. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.