Sermon: Lament leads to hope (Feb 18, 2018)

Lent 1 (NL4)
February 18, 2018
John 11:1-44

INTRODUCTION

The raising of Lazarus is one of the most famous stories about Jesus. It is, of course a story about God’s glory and power. In fact, God’s power is so apparent in this story, that it is what finally moves the Jewish authorities to arrest Jesus – they feel that Jesus is a threat to their power. Immediately following this miraculous sign, they begin to plot Jesus’ death. It is an amazing moment, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb!

But today, as we begin our Lenten focus on healing and wholeness, we would be wise to consider what comes before that moment of glory. Just like the story of the man born blind that we heard last week, the actual event of the raising of Lazarus only takes a couple verses, at the very end. Most of the 44 verses we are about to hear are dedicated to the events and feelings of the surrounding circumstances: in particular, two devastated sisters and their friends, grieving, weeping, and even assigning blame in order to make sense of this tragedy. As you hear the story, take note of those feelings. Consider whether you have ever felt such feelings in the face of tragedy. And, consider what God can do with those feelings. Let’s hear the story.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

            When we decided last fall that this year for Lent we would focus on healing, we knew it was a timely choice. We all have various sorts of brokenness in our own lives, whether that is an active illness or injury from which we seek healing, or painful relationships, or past hurts that we are still trying to work through. And we all have heavy hearts about the state of the world right now, whether your concern is with world hunger, or the environment, or the largest refugee crisis since World War 2, or tension with North Korea, or the decline in civil discourse and rampant fear and blame going on in our own country. All of that… and then, as if to hit home the immense need for healing in our communities, this past week, on Ash Wednesday, we learned of yet another school shooting, the 44th mass shooting this year alone. The picture that accompanied the Washington Post article showed a woman weeping in the arms of another woman who had an ashen cross on her forehead. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – those words she heard that day as she received that cross should not have become so real to her so soon and so tragically.

Our hearts are broken. This world is broken. The world is in desperate need of healing.

            Enter, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Here is a story in which grief is palpable. As I mentioned, the actual raising of Lazarus doesn’t even happen until the last two verses. Everything before that is the immense grief that accompanies pain, loss, death – the grief that accompanies brokenness. It is Martha, begging Jesus to ask God to fix it. It is Mary, weeping at Jesus’ feet, even, accusing him of not coming sooner. (Don’t we always want to do that in the face of tragedy? Assign blame to someone or something, in an effort to make some sense of it?) It is even Jesus himself weeping openly over the loss of his friend.

            It is so important not to gloss over this grief. Maybe we’d like this story just to be about the raising of Lazarus, but it isn’t. We’d like for it to go like this: “Jesus learned that Lazarus, whom he loved, was sick. So he immediately traveled to his friend, but he was too late. Only a little too late, though – no sooner had Lazarus died, then Jesus raised him again! New life! And everyone was happy. The end.” That’s how we want our own stories of loss to go, too. Immediate return to normal. No time to dwell in sadness. No time to fight about it. Just move on, and pretend nothing happened.

We as a society do not like to leave space for lament. And yet, the raising of Lazarus shows us that healing and new life must begin with lament: lament over the loss of something we loved, lament over the pain we and our loved ones feel, lament over things no longer as we wish they were. Only after we have done this, can we truly hear those words, “Unbind him and let him go!” as good news, and enter into the new life God has in store for us.

This focus on lament is one of the gifts of Lent. I often hear grumbling about Lent, with its sad hymns and focus on sin. As for me, I love that about Lent. Life so often demands that we put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine, even when it really isn’t. But here, we have the chance to admit to God, “No, everything isn’t fine. I am broken inside. I need some Jesus. I need the mercy and compassion of a loving God. I need healing, and freedom from my dis-ease.” Lent is a time when we can stand at the foot of the cross, and ask God to call us out of the dark tombs we find ourselves in, and to remove from us all that binds us, all that keeps us from living as full and abundant a life as God wants for us. It’s a time when we can listen for God to demand the bindings that keep us from freedom be unbound. Lent is not a time to wallow and stay still and throw up our arms and say, “There’s nothing that can be done. It is what it is.” No, the lamenting we do during Lent necessarily calls us out of the tomb, out of despair, and into hope and new life.

This morning, I’d like to start with you that process of recognizing what we need to lament, what we need freedom from, in hopes that once we can recognize it, we can be called out from under it. If you need help thinking about that, in your bulletin you have a green sheet that outlines different sorts of health and wholeness that we as followers of Christ strive for, including some suggestions for how you might address those types of healings if you find you are not where you’d like to be in any particular area. I hope that you will take the time to pray over that, and really consider how, concretely, you might seek healing during this Lenten season.

But for now, we’re going to enter into this through prayer and liturgical action. When you came in, you should have received a strip of cloth. I imagine these cloths as reminiscent of Lazarus’ bindings, what kept him dead and in the tomb – the very thing about which Jesus said, “Get rid of that and let him go!” Today, let these strips be symbolic of whatever it is that binds you, whatever keeps you in the tomb, living in dis-ease, whatever keeps you from living a whole and healthy life with God. In a moment, I’ll lead us through a prayer, and as you pray, bind yourself in your strip – wrap it around your arm, or your hand, and feel it constrict you.

And then, we will enter into a time of healing prayer. During that time, you are invited to come forward to the cross, and pin your cloth – and with it, whatever binds you and keeps you in dis-ease – pin it to the cross. Leave it here for Jesus. Pray that he would take it from it.

The healing time will be several minutes. If you’re not pinning what binds you to the cross, then enter into some other types of healing prayer. You can meditate on scripture [or images] or pray on your own, or you can talk with someone else. Or, I will be available for healing prayer and anointing, which is an ancient healing practice of the church. I can pray with you for personal healing, however vague or specific, and I can anoint you or not – your choice.

However you use this time, let it be an entry point into a season in which lament and grief are okay. Let it be a time to talk to God about where and how your life could be more abundant, and ask God to guide you in that direction. We’ll play some music during this time – when you hear our hymn of the day being played on the piano, that will signal the time to come back together.

And now, I invite you to take your strip of cloth, and let us pray…Lord God, we are bound. We are bound by our sins, things done and left undone. We are bound by our fears. We are bound by our insecurities. Unbind us, we pray. Help us to see what sort of healing you desire for us, and then help us to pursue it. Unbind us, so that we could walk out of our tombs, and into the newness of life that you promise. Unbind us, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Ash Wednesday 2018 sermon: At the doorstep

Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
John 10:1-18

INTRODUCTION

Normally when we hear today’s passage, it is divorced from its context, that is, from the sign that appears just before this that precipitates Jesus discourse. But this time around, we are hearing it in relative sequence – the context was this past Sunday’s reading. Anyone remember the story we heard on Sunday? It was about the man who was born blind, whom Jesus healed and no one could make any sense of it. The formerly blind man’s friends don’t even recognize him now that he can see. The Pharisees are put out by Jesus having healed on the Sabbath, saying he is a sinner. The formerly blind man insists that Jesus can’t be a sinner if he can heal like that, and the Jewish authorities kick the man out of the synagogue. It’s a story of being in, and being out, a story of what it means to be blind, or to see, and a story of how resistant we can be to someone offering something different from what we have always known to be true.

So now, what we’re about to hear is the discourse that follows that sign and the people’s reaction to it. Jesus will offer us some familiar images, calling himself the Door (which is translated here as Gate, to fit better with the pastoral imagery) and then the Good Shepherd, but let us remember as we hear them the context to which he offers them: a man has received his sight, but been thrown out of his community, the bystanders aren’t sure what to make of someone completely shifting their worldview, and the Pharisees have just been told that although they think they can see, they in fact still live in sin (which for John mean, they lack an abiding relationship with Jesus). Now, let’s hear what Jesus has to say about that. Please rise for the Gospel acclamation.

[READ]

A friend of mine from high school spent a year studying aboard in Brazil. My mom had been sort of a mentor to him, and so to thank her for helping him see some of his potential, he brought her a gift from Brazil. It was a photograph he had taken of a door. It wasn’t especially beautiful or ornate, but it was stunning in its color, its ruggedness, and in the fact that it did not seal very well so you could see the light shining around it. As I’m imagining it, I remember it maybe even being slightly ajar. When I picture the image of that door in my mind’s eye, the word that comes to mind is: possibility.

Perhaps that image is responsible for my intrigue with doors. Beautiful or plain, large or small, rugged or ornate, they all carry that same potential – when you walk through them, you walk into something different. For better or worse, what you find on the other side of the door is different from where you currently are. Inside to outside, narthex to sanctuary, hallway to classroom, cold to warm, dark to light… I often stand outside my kids’ bedroom door (they share a room), and listen to them talking together in their toddler gibberish, realizing that on the other side of that closed door they are in their own world, where they play games and have conversations to which only they are privy… and then I walk through the door and they greet me with their beautiful grins and welcome me into their world.

Walking through a door always brings with it that potential of walking into something new and amazing.

In today’s Gospel reading, we might be focused on the known and loved good shepherd image. But before Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he calls himself the door, or the gate. He calls himself that thing by which one enter into a new possibility, a new reality. “I am the door,” he says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And then he goes on to explain what it means to be saved: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

It’s what we’ve been hearing from Jesus since he turned that water into wine even before his ministry began. When Jesus is involved, there is abundance. There is life. There is the possibility of walking through a door, and entering something new, abundant, and life-giving.

There is a particular church in the South Bronx – in a neighborhood that is high crime, and high poverty, a “bad” neighborhood. The church is located below street level. They never finished construction on the church building; they just roofed over the basement, and all that appears on the street is: a door. To some, perhaps that is all that it is – just a door – but to others, it is a very special door. For when you enter that door, you leave the peril of the street life, and you enter into a different realm: a realm in which people have identities, where they are called by name, where there is compassion and mutual support. You leave the high-tension street environment, and go into a reality of love. That door is much more than a door. It is an entry-point into a different life.

Jesus said, “I am the door.” There it is.

I find this door image to be an incredibly powerful one for us as we begin this Lenten season. A moment ago you came forward and heard those words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” as an ashen cross was traced over the oil cross you received at baptism. That’s pretty profound. I mean think about it, you willingly came up here and let me say to your face, “You are dirt,” and then smudge that reality across your forehead. Your willingness to do that tells me that in your soul you know something very important: that the only way you can ever have abundant and eternal life, is Jesus. That the only hope you have is to step through The Door that is our Lord. That if you truly want to live life abundantly, you must walk through that Door, again and again.

Today, on Ash Wednesday, we stand on the doorstep. We have gotten this far. This season of Lent is a time when we focus on what it will take to step on through the doorway. The mood and practices of the Lenten season make space to do that: It is a time when we lament and grieve where we have fallen short of our calling as disciples of Christ. It is a time when we repent of these shortcomings, and return to God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It is a time when we keep our focus on the cross. All of these things help us know how to take that step through the Door.

As I mentioned before, this whole exchange about Jesus being the door happens by way of explanation of his healing the man blind from birth. How perfect that we are beginning our Lenten journey this year with a healing story, since our focus this year is on healing and wholeness. When we hear Jesus say, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” we must think about that formerly blind man. For him, the healing he craved that would offer him abundant life was to be able to see. It compels us to think for ourselves: what sort of healing do I crave? What sort of healing would help me to live into the abundant life that Jesus came to give? Or said another way, what brokenness is keeping me from walking through that door? What brokenness keeps me from having as full and abiding relationship with God as I could? In the coming days and weeks, I hope you will join me in reflecting on these questions for yourself, and seeking during these 40 days how you might find healing in whatever brokenness you experience, whether it is of body, mind or spirit. Could it be healing in an important relationship? Could it be deepening your prayer life? Could the healing you seek be in the form of more gratitude or generosity in your life? Or in seeking forgiveness for yourself or someone who has hurt you?

Christ came that we would have life and have it abundantly. Let us walk through the Door this Lenten season, following in the way of our Good Shepherd, so that we might also walk into the newness of the whole, healthy, and abundant life that God promises us in love.

Let us pray… Christ, our Door, we stand at your doorstep, eager to step into the abundant life you offer. Be with us in this Lenten season, showing us the way toward health and wholeness. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Wiping mud from our eyes (Feb. 11, 2018)

Transfiguration (NL4)
February 11, 2018
John 9:1-41

INTRODUCTION:

Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Transfiguration. Normally, we hear a story that can be found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in which Jesus goes with three of his disciples up a mountain, and he is transfigured before them, becoming bright white, and Moses and Elijah appear with him. The disciples are terrified by this glory of God being revealed, and Peter says, “It is good for us to be here!” and says he wants to build a dwelling for everyone, so they can stay forever. But then everything returns to normal, and they all troops back down the mountain and, we come to find out, start heading toward the cross. It is the hinge that brings us from Epiphany, the season of light, into Lent, the season in which we prepare for Christ’s passion and resurrection.

Well today is Transfiguration, but we’re reading through the Gospel of John, and that story doesn’t appear in John. Why not? Perhaps it is because John’s entire Gospel is about God’s glory and light being revealed through Jesus’ signs. That blinding light already appeared, in the manger at Christmas, and has appeared several times since, including, we will see today, when Jesus heals a man who has been blind since birth. So far, the presence of that light on earth has not caused too much trouble – today, all of that changes, as we see the impact that change and healing really can have on us. This reading is 41 verses long, really longer if you count the discourse that follows (which we will hear on Ash Wednesday), but the healing itself only takes seven verses. The remaining verses are dedicated to the aftermath, to people trying to place blame, assign logic, and understand what exactly happened and what it means. Of course, Jesus told them outright: it means that he is the “light of the world,” sent to scatter darkness and bring healing and wholeness in ways that transcend logic, and might even transcend what we are comfortable with. Let’s see what happens… [READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There was a woman who lived in Charlottesville, VA for many years named “Anna.” She told people that she was in fact Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of the last Czar of Russian. Many people believed this – it was such a compelling story! After she died, researchers acquired remains of her DNA from a Charlottesville hospital. They compared her DNA with that of members of the Romanov family in North America and in Europe. And guess what? She was an imposter, not Anastasia, and not a member of the Romanov family. She was a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness. One of her neighbors, however, didn’t want to give up the story. He believed that she was who she said she was, and so when he was told of the DNA results, he immediately responded, “I don’t believe it,” and proceeded to list reasons why the DNA test must be inaccurate.

It’s called cognitive dissonance: when reality does not confirm expectations, and so people continue believing what they believed previously, even against evidence to the contrary. This is not an unfamiliar concept to us. We see it in politics, in our families, in our neighbors, and if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves. No one likes to admit that something that they ardently believe could be wrong! We don’t like to have our worldview challenged, much less debunked. So we choose to interpret the evidence in such a way that it fits with what we believe in our heart to be true.

That cognitive dissonance is what makes up the bulk of today’s Gospel reading. The disciples start us off by indicating their worldview: if this man was born blind, he or his parents must have done something to deserve it. They must have sinned, because that’s the only way such a tragedy makes any sense. And so when Jesus not only says, “Nope, that’s not true,” but also heals the man (and on the Sabbath, no less!), their reality is shattered. They scramble to explain: maybe this isn’t the man? Maybe he wasn’t really blind? Maybe Jesus is a sinner. Surely, there is a way to fit this into how we know the world works! They couldn’t accept the possibility that, not only was this man transformed from blind to seeing, but their very understanding of how life works was also transformed.

What an interesting commentary on human nature this is. The new worldview that Jesus offers is a life-giving one: one in which light wins over darkness, in which sin does not get the final word, in which healing is possible. It is one not bogged down by keeping the letter of the law, but rather, lifted up by the promise of eternal relationship with God. These are good things! But with the exception of the man who was formerly blind, everyone, even his own parents, refuse the transformation.

And this may very well be the case with us, too. We do not like things to be different from what we already know so well, even if what we know is not really all that good. And so we might look at ourselves in the mirror and see ourselves not for our potential, but for everything that has ever been wrong with us. We are held back by our failures, our setbacks, our disappointments. Or, we look at others this way, only seeing them for who they were, how they failed, mistakes they’ve made or people like them have made, rather than for what they could contribute to the world or even to our lives. Isn’t it interesting that when the man suddenly can see, his own friends don’t even recognize him! They knew him only as the man who was born blind. How could he possible be anything else?

How does that feel, to be placed in a box like that? How does it feel to be labeled, and for people to assume that this is all there is to you? How does it feel to do that to yourself? I’ll tell you how it doesn’t feel: it doesn’t feel like life. It doesn’t feel like hope. It doesn’t feel like wholeness.

This week begins the season of Lent. Our theme for Lent this year is Healing and Wholeness. I spent this week writing several reflections on this topic for our Lenten devotional. One was on the story toward the beginning of John, where Jesus comes upon a man sitting by a pool, who has been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks him what he is doing; he says he is hoping to be healed. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” I was so captivated by this question! It’s so obvious: yes, of course I want to be made well! Why do you think I’m sitting here? Why would I want to continue in this way of dis-ease? And yet, how often do we look at our lives, see the areas in need of healing – in our bodies, yes, but also in our hearts, our minds, our work satisfaction, our relationships, our finances, our perspectives on life – we see where we need healing, and yet do nothing about it? Do you want to be made well? Well yes, but only if I don’t have to change. Only if I don’t have to face the fear of something different from what I’ve known for so long. Only if it doesn’t mess with the worldview to which I’ve grown accustomed. Only then do I really want to be made well.

Sound familiar? It is to me! Quick example: After holidays and the cold weather preventing me from getting out and moving as much as I’d like, I decided I could stand to lose about 5 pounds. Easy, right? And so every day, I get up, do exactly what I’ve been doing, eat the same food, and dutifully check the scale. And it’s the funniest thing – that number hasn’t changed yet! Go figure, right?

But if there is one thing we have seen again and again as we’ve read through John’s Gospel, it is that when Jesus shows up… things have to change. Lack turns into abundance when water is turned to wine. Former ways of worshiping are literally turned on their sides when Jesus enters the Temple. Centuries-long divisions between Jews and Samaritans are broken down. The despised become the beloved. Eyes and hearts are opened, indeed, they are transformed. When one encounters Jesus, things change, and life becomes abundant.

It sounds good… until we realize how very disruptive even a positive change can be. It is much less disruptive just to keep on keeping on in the same patterns we’ve always had, damaging, stifling, or unhealthy as they may be, rather than risk even the new life Jesus offers.

After worship today, we will hold our annual meeting. We will discuss several topics that have stemmed from a need for change. For instance, how we structure our ministry here, our council and committees. What we’ve done has worked for many years… but does it continue to bring life to this congregation? What does “life” even look like in terms of a congregation’s ministry structure? To me, it looks like joyful service and listening to the Spirit’s movement, and stepping out in faith. Does our current structure do that? What could? Another topic is the role of the pastor in a shared ministry. Bethlehem has had many fruitful years with a pastor serving solely at Bethlehem. The Spirit led Bethlehem into a covenant relationship with another congregation, which brought new life – but also necessarily changed the role of the pastor. So we will be talking today about how that looks. Part of it looks like the possible need for an earlier worship time, which we have been trying out for several months already. This, too, is a change that maybe some have been resistant to. But is it a change that could bring new life?

Not all change is good. Sometimes God’s voice is heard in our resistance to it. But whatever it is we face that is challenging our old worldview, or the way we see ourselves or other people, Jesus calls us to examine: where can life be found most abundantly? Where can the light of the world most brightly shine?

I hope that during our meeting today, and in this upcoming Lenten season, that you will take some time to reflect on these questions, for us as a congregation, and also for yourself. Next week I’ll be inviting you to make some healing goals for yourself to focus on and pray about during Lent. Where is Jesus smearing mud on your eyes and telling you to wash, so that you may see? What aspect of your life needs healing? What worldview are you clinging to, that may be keeping you from being able to enter new, abundant life?

Let us pray… Life-giving God, open our eyes to see where you might be working to transform our worldview. Give us the courage to step into a new life, into a deeper relationship with you. Help us to say, with the man born blind, “Lord, I believe.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Living Waters that Break Down Walls (Feb. 4, 2018)

Epiphany 5 (NL4)
February 4, 2018
John 4:1-42 (Samaritan Woman at the Well)

INTRODUCTION:

John begins this story by telling us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” A look at the map will reveal… he didn’t. Or rather, he did, but it was a vocational need, not a physical one. Why does this matter? Well let’s review about the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans share the same roots, but after Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split into North and South. Jerusalem was in the southern kingdom. You may recall from a couple weeks ago, that Jews believed that God could only be found… where? In the Temple in Jerusalem. So that was the only place to properly worship. So without access to Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom (including Samaria) went rogue – they came to believe God could be properly worshiped on Mount Gerizim. Furthermore, these Samaritans married outside of the Jewish cult, meaning they were not racially pure like the Jews, and that they had developed some foreign religious practices. Over the years, the divisions grew deeper, because they were racially and religiously different, and leaders of both groups forbade contact with the other. There was a proverbial wall between these two groups, the Jews and the Samaritans, which no one was to cross. All of which makes John’s seemingly casual comment, “Jesus had to go to Samaria,” suddenly much more ominous! The reader thinks, “Oh no, this can’t go well…”

What follows is an encounter that gets more and more surprising. Jesus not only approaches a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman, and one that appears to have, shall we say, a checkered past. And she actually engages in dialogue with him – the longest dialogue in the New Testament, in fact – and asks him the most pressing theological questions of the day. There’s much to be learned and observed in this encounter, so… let’s get to it! [READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, St. Martin held the first in a series of Community Conversations. Our first conversation was on the drug epidemic, and featured a wonderful panel of people who work in the recovery movement in various capacities. We had a great turnout – this is truly an area where people are thirsting for information and for hope – and I think everyone there left with some valuable nugget to think about. The nugget that I left with was one that was shared several times and ways by multiple speakers: that the opposite of addiction is connection. The opposite of addiction is connection. In other words, addiction is not so much about the pleasurable effects of substances, but rather about the inability of the user to connect in healthy ways with other human beings. It isn’t a substance disorder; it’s a social disorder. All of the recovery efforts our panel talked about focus on helping people make those meaningful, human connections, on seeing people who struggle with substance use disorders as real people with something valuable to offer, on building trust, and on not shaming or disregarding people for the struggles they face.

I’ve been thinking about this as I have studied this week’s Gospel story about the Samaritan woman at the well. Here we have a woman who lacks connection. She’s had five husbands, which means five men have either died or divorced her, and probably the latter means she is barren. This all means she is viewed by her culture as worthless, unable to have kids, or at least as damaged goods, and no one will have her. The guy she’s living with now is probably her dead husband’s brother, according to levirate law. She is probably more talked about than talked to. No one goes to the well at midday, at the hottest part of the day, unless they are trying to avoid seeing anyone, and so that is when she goes. And then she states herself how inappropriate it is for Jesus to be talking to her – not only a woman, but also a Samaritan. It is clear that this woman has every reason to be suffering. Indeed, she thirsts: thirsts for connection, for belonging, for acceptance… all thirsts we know something about.

So how does Jesus respond to her thirst? Well, first of all, he goes to her. John tells us that Jesus “had to go to Samaria” – was it to go to this particular woman, at this particular place and time? Maybe. More importantly, I think, the point is Jesus had to go to Samaria to see that the wall erected by centuries of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans had to come down. It had to be chipped away at, penetrated, deconstructed. Later in John, Jesus prays to God “that they [we] would all be one,” and so to break down that wall was indeed necessary for his mission. To Jesus, the fact that Samaritans were a different color, had different religious practices, and had different customs – none of that mattered so much as it mattered to make a meaningful connection with these “others,” in his effort that we would all be one.

And so Jesus goes to Samaria. He crosses that boundary. He goes to this marginalized woman. And the first thing he does is to make himself vulnerable to her, by asking for a drink of water. Suddenly, they are together in their thirst. He thirsts for water, she for connection. They stand together.

Going back to our community conversation last week, one of the most powerful things about it was how authentic and vulnerable the conversation was. A couple of the panelists got choked up as they shared their stories of walking with loved ones who are struggling. At one point, one of the panelists had everyone in the room stand who had lost a loved one to addiction. A third of the room stood, as people looked around and simply noticed: I’m not alone. Then she had everyone who has a loved one who has struggled with addiction stand up, and nearly everyone in the room stood. It was a powerful moment, in which we all recognized the importance of seeing one another as being on the same plane. Connection is powerful.

How else does Jesus connect with this woman and respond to her thirst? He goes to her, and then he engages her in conversation. How remarkable that this, the longest dialogue in the New Testament, is between Jesus and an unnamed, vulnerable, Samaritan woman. After Jesus approaches her, she is emboldened to ask him some questions, even about the hottest theological issue of the day: where one should worship. And he takes her seriously. He in no way dismisses her, or hurries away. He gives her his time and attention. He listens to her. He sees her. He connects with her. He quenches her thirst.

And she, in turn, becomes the first evangelist – running into town to tell everyone she meets, all these other Samaritans, “Come and see the man who has told me everything I have ever done.” Come and see the man who truly saw me, and truly knows me, who truly connected with me. Come and see the man who quenched my deepest thirst, by giving me living water. She invites others to Jesus simply by sharing her own story, and people are intrigued. They say, “We were interested by your story, but now we believe because we have seen for ourselves.” They, too, connect with Jesus, and have their deepest thirst quenched.

This is a story about how Jesus crosses borders and tears down walls. It is a story about how Jesus goes out of his way to meet the religious and racial other, meaningfully connect with them, come to know them, and quench their deepest thirst with the good news of his presence dwelling among us. It is a story about how the lowliest and most despised among us, when given the chance to be heard and valued, could become the most effective trumpet for declaring the good news of Jesus Christ.

And all because Jesus dared to cross the forbidden borders – across gender, religion, and ethnicity – opening doors instead of building walls, genuinely connecting with those in need, and quenching the deepest thirst of those whom he met. We are left to consider: if we are to be followers of this loving, connecting, thirst-quenching Jesus, then which walls do we need to break down? Which “others” do we need to seek out, to hear their stories, and share ours, and genuinely connect? Is it those of a different gender or ethnicity, like the Samaritan woman? For example, immigrants or refugees among us, or some of the millions of women with a story to share about sexual harassment or assault who have until now not been believed? Or to go back where we started, could it be those who suffer from a substance abuse disorder? Who else could it be? What walls and borders need to come down?

I’m excited about the community conversation series at St. Martin, because I think it will help us to learn about some of the “others” in our own community who are in need of connection, who are in need of some living water to quench their deepest thirst. I hope you’ll consider coming to future conversations. And I also call us all into prayer, prayer that we would be aware of what walls and borders we have around us as individuals or the church, and how Christ would have us cross them, so that we might be emboldened to genuinely connect, in the name of Christ, with those in need of living waters.

Let us pray… Thirst-quenching God, grant us courage and trust in you, as we encounter walls between us, and those who differ from us. Help us to follow you across the borders made by humans, so that we could live into your hope that we would all be one. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: Faith in the midst of not knowing (Jan. 28, 2018)

Epiphany 4 (NL4)
January 28, 2018
John 3:1-21

INTRODUCTION

A word about interpreting John’s Gospel: We should understand that each of the Gospel accounts shows Jesus fulfilling his mission in different ways. For example, in Matthew, we have the sense that we are “marching toward Zion,” but we’re not yet there – that’s in the future. In John, however, we get the sense that Jesus’ very presence among us has brought the kingdom of God to earth. Jesus sort of pulls a kingdom of God canopy over the earth. The result is that, down here is flesh and darkness, and up here is light and spirit. There’s no way to get from down here to up here except through Jesus (remember, I am the Way, the truth and the life?). We can catch glimpses of it through Jesus’ signs, but we cannot fully grasp it until Jesus is lifted up and brings all of humanity with him.

Because of this, John’s Gospel is wrought with misunderstanding. Frequently when Jesus talks to people, it looks like this: someone asks a question of earthly significance, Jesus answers from up here in the kingdom, and the person responds with something stupid. Question, answer, stupid response – which then prompts Jesus to explain further. We see it with Nicodemus: he observes something about Jesus, Jesus says something about being born again, and Nicodemus says, “Uh, can I crawl back in my mother’s womb?” No, Nic. You missed it.

Still, it’s not so bad for the reader, because it shows us how very different our earthly understanding is from a heavenly understanding, and urges us to think differently than the world would have us do. So, watch for that in our reading, and see what you can pick up about the reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus is describing. Please rise for the Gospel acclamation. [READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“St. Augustine is walking along the beach when he sees a little boy digging a hole in the sand and running back and forth from the ocean to fill the hole with water. Curious, Augustine asks the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ The little boy replies, ‘I’m putting the ocean in this hole.’ Augustine says, ‘Little boy, you can’t do that. The ocean is too big to put in that little hole.’ The boy, who is really an angel, responds, ‘And so, Augustine, is your mind too small to contain the vastness of God.’”

That’s how I feel when I read John’s Gospel, and today’s story is no exception. How desperately we want real, concrete, understandable answers, just like Nicodemus! We want to understand God and God’s ways. We want to be certain about the questions of faith – like, why bad things happen to good people, why good things happen to bad people, who is going to heaven and who isn’t, and what the purpose of being here even is. All good questions – to which only God knows the answers. And the smallness of our minds compared to the vastness of God’s makes it impossible for us to know or understand.

Today’s story about Jesus and Nicodemus shows us just how much we don’t, and can’t, know. There is so much going on here, and much of it is so cryptic, and a lot of it sounds really judgmental. And yet in the midst of it all is probably the most famous verse in the Bible, a word of immense love, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believed in him would not perish but have eternal life.” The Gospel in a nutshell, as Martin Luther called it, and it’s true: it says succinctly the whole purpose of this faith: God loves us so much God didn’t want us to die, but to live forever in God’s care.

And yet this verse of love – as well as several other verses in this passage – have been used over the years not to include people in God’s embrace, but to exclude them. The “born again” imagery has been used by evangelicals to say that unless you have had a believer’s baptism – one in which the one being baptized is able to confess his or her own faith, as opposed the infant baptism – then it doesn’t count. The verses that follow John 3:16 are also judgmental ones: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” It’s enough to make us all squirm a little – because even if you yourself do believe in Jesus, you probably have someone close to you who doesn’t, and we all want our loved ones to be with us in heaven. The fear that it could be otherwise is sad and unsettling.

So what do we do with all this? We come back to those tough questions of faith – who is saved, why do things happen as they do – and the fact that we simply cannot know. Our minds are the small hole in the sand, and we are that little boy, trying to fit the ocean in there.

But that doesn’t stop us from digging into God’s word and trying to understand. So first, let’s look at that word, “world.” The Greek word John uses there is kosmos, and throughout John’s Gospel, this word refers to “that which is hostile to God.” It is the “down here,” not “up here,” the thing that Jesus entered to ultimately bring it to himself when he is lifted up. So we could translate John 3:16-17 this way: “God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and, “God did not send the Son ‘down here’ to condemn even this world that despises God, but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” It is hard for our small-hole-in-the-sand minds to grasp such audacious and unexpected love as that!

Well that sounds good, you say, but what about all the stuff that comes afterward about condemnation for those who don’t believe? Ah yes, that is difficult. But take a look at it – nowhere does it say that God is the one doing the condemning. It says simply that their lives are in darkness, that they must endure all the things that darkness brings. In other words, life is better when you are living it with Jesus, and if you aren’t living it with Jesus, you are already suffering the negative impact of that. The consequence of not believing isn’t necessarily an eternal one – Jesus says later in John that he came to draw all people to himself, up into the “up here” – but rather, the consequence is right now.

(How’s that small hole in the sand doing? Is the ocean fitting? Mine is already overflowing!)

Maybe you’re thinking about now, “So, then what’s the point? Why believe if just anyone can get into heaven?” To that, I have two answers. One is: my mind is just as much hole in the sand as yours is. Who knows if anything I just said is true. I hope it is, but I don’t know! This is all way beyond me. It was way beyond Nicodemus. It is way beyond anyone who isn’t God, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. God and God’s ways cannot be understood. The fact is: we don’t know what happens in the final judgment, but one thing we do know is that it is up to God, not us. And if God welcomes someone into heaven that I wouldn’t have let in if it were up to me, that doesn’t in any way diminish my own experience of heaven. It’s just not worth worrying about – all we can do is the best we can, living into this life in the way Jesus teaches us how, by loving God and neighbor with all that we are and all that we have.

But my other answer is a testimony. If your question is, “What’s the point?” then let me tell you what is true for me. Here is why I believe in Jesus Christ: I believe in Christ because it makes my life better. I feel full. It gives me hope when I am in despair. It gives me strength when I am weak. As much as I cannot and will not ever understand about God, my faith still helps me to make sense of the joys and the challenges of this life. I believe in Jesus because that relationship makes me want to be better. It moves me every day toward living more and more authentically into life as a baptized child of God, a life of looking to the needs of others, a life of self-sacrificial love, a life of speaking out for the needs of the oppressed and vulnerable. I believe in Jesus because the story of death and life that God tells through Christ is one that I have seen to be true in my own life. It is a story that, because I know it is true, I am compelled to search for it. I am moved always to search for life, even in the darkest of deaths. And this keeps my head above water, and makes my life worth living. It gets me up in the morning and puts me down at night. And I tell other people about this, I share the good news, not because I want them to go to heaven (though I do!), but because I want them to experience the life right now that I experience by having a relationship with Christ. I want other people to feel the fullness and love that I experience by my belief in Jesus. For me, that’s the point.

We cannot know about things to come. Our minds are small holes in the sand, and we can only fit so much ocean into them. What we can know is this: that God loves us. God loves us so much, that God sent God’s only Son so that we could have a glimpse of that love, a glimpse of what is yet to come. God loves us so much that God doesn’t want us to live alone in the darkness of this world – with all its sin, death, loneliness, hunger, and want – but rather, to live in the light of knowing that God dwells among us. God loves us enough to provide us a Way into a life of fullness and light and love. That’s the point.

Let us pray… Lord of light, we thank you for your self-giving love. Help us to live with unanswered questions. Help us always to pursue your light. And help us to share your love and your light with all whom we meet. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Flipping over our false securities (Jan 21, 2018)

Epiphany 3 (NL4)
January 21, 2018
John 2:13-25

Introduction to the Story:
To understand today’s text, we need a bit of background on 1st century Jewish worship practices. In 1st century Judaism, it was understood that God dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. And so around certain feasts (such as Passover), faithful Jews would travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. An important part of worship was animal sacrifice. And so the scene that we are about to see with people changing money and selling animals was a necessary one. They are selling worship supplies, just like today we buy communion wafers, or oil for candles or hymnals. Travelers from Galilee, for instance, couldn’t haul with them a goat or a dove to sacrifice. They also couldn’t use coins with Caesar’s face on it to pay Temple tax, so they had to change the money when they got there. So while the system may not have been perfect, those tables that were set up were there to enable people to worship God in the way they understood to be correct. All of which makes Jesus’ response to the scene all the more surprising.

Another interesting point about this account is that, while the cleansing of the Temple is a story that appears in all four Gospels, the other three all place it at the end, right before Jesus’ passion – in fact as the event that precipitates his arrest. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as if setting something up for us as we continue to witness his ministry. What is he setting up?

Some things to think about as we hear this story! Now, please rise for the Gospel acclamation.

[READ STORY]

I gotta say… I like this Jesus. I like him because I can’t relate very well to a Jesus who is meek and mild and always keeps his cool, who’s never riled up. That just can’t be true about someone who is fully human. I like him because he shows us that righteous anger is okay, that God gets angry about injustice and that this can be holy if it drives you toward working for justice. Most of all, I like this Jesus because as he is whipping around those cords and turning over tables, he is fighting his way out of the box that we so want to keep him in: the box in which Jesus is always gentle and kind, in which Jesus – and with him, God – is domesticated, palatable, understandable, and easy to take. God is not those things, and so neither is God-made-flesh, and this text shows us so in no uncertain terms.

And I think that is what John is trying to show us by putting this story right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is making an important statement about who he is, and what is different now that he is around. And namely, in this encounter, what has completely changed is the way people meet and interact with God. Until now, it was understood that the Temple was the one and only dwelling place of God. Synagogues were all over as places to pray and to hear scripture read and interpreted, but God wasn’t there – God could be found only in the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s why people took such pains to get there, and why this whole system of selling animals and changing money had developed, to accommodate that practice. But now that Jesus is here, where does God dwell? What did we hear on Christmas about that?… God dwells “among us.” Among us, in the person of Jesus Christ. So that is why Jesus is making such a fuss at the Temple: it is to tell people, “All this mess is unnecessary! Why are you making this a marketplace? You don’t need this Temple. I am the Temple! You don’t need to come here and buy sacrifices and change your money to meet God: God is standing right here in front of you!!”

How unnerving that must have been! For someone to stand there and tell you (with whip in hand!), “This thing that you’ve always done, this way you have always known to interact with God, this thing that you’ve been telling yourself is right and good – it’s not! It’s way off!” I can imagine Jesus wasn’t the only one who was mad at that moment! Even today, we have a hard time accepting change to things that we have done a certain way for a long time. Even here – we started doing worship a little differently, using a different set of readings and presenting them differently, and I know that a lot of people have had some trouble with that. I get it! I also love to be comfortable and know what to expect. I also wouldn’t appreciate someone coming in the door with a whip, turning over tables and saying, “Nope! You’re doing this wrong!” We like to stay in our comfortable boxes.

And not just in worship. We don’t like disruption in any of the things that bring us a sense of security, whether that is change in our families, or change in our town, or change in our country. I listened to a piece this week on “This American Life” about the town of Albertville, AL, which has experienced a dramatic increase of Latino immigrants over the past few decades. For 8 months, the show interviewed locals, immigrants, business owners… and the response from the locals was just what you would expect. The underlying current was, “It’s not like it used to be, and I don’t like it,” (with, of course, a healthy dose of blaming!). Despite their perception, however, the influx of immigrants, many of them undocumented, had actually improved the economy in the town, providing more and better jobs for longtime locals, not fewer. In fact, the town is thriving today. So they were right – it wasn’t like it used to be – but in this case, that wasn’t a bad thing. It was different, and that takes getting used to. No one likes to have their applecart, or their tables, overturned.

But perhaps our desire for keeping things the same, even if “the same” is ultimately an unhelpful system, like that of the Temple, is putting our faith and trust in powers offering false security. As one pastor writes, “I read the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours.” Ouch – I definitely see some of myself in that list! Maybe we need Jesus to take his whip and his words right into our hearts!

Well. It is easy to focus on the table-turning. This is the dramatic, and the difficult part of the passage. But you see, Jesus doesn’t turn over those tables of false security and then drop the mic and walk out. No, he shares with them a new reality, a deeper sense of security. No longer do they need this system in place, because he was offering them something new: he was offering them the presence of God dwelling among them, full of grace and truth. He was offering them direct access to God, wherever they might be, wherever they might need God’s presence. He was offering himself to them as the Temple, a Temple which could not be destroyed, but would always be there to give them access to the God of love and grace.

Change is never easy, that’s for sure – perhaps especially when it is presented to us so dramatically. But Jesus’ radical reaction shows us that while seeking and finding our security in God, rather than any number of false sources, can be at first unnerving, shocking, and uncomfortable… it can also bring light and life to our darkness. That Jesus could be the presence of God dwelling among the people required a complete shift in thinking for a people who only knew God to dwell in the Temple, and this new reality was utterly astonishing… just like it might be uncomfortably different and utterly astonishing for us to find God at work among us, in our day-to-day life, not only in our best and most admirable moments, but also in our difficult decisions, our most embarrassing failures, our lowest points. But the good news is that God sees us in all those places, the good and the bad, and loves us still. God sees and knows what we do and say, and still forgives us for our shortcomings. And a God who dwells among us, dispelling our darkness with God’s light, is life-giving news indeed.

Let us pray… Present God, we often seek our security in false promises and beliefs. Help us to see you dwelling among us, and to place our trust in only you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: God fills our emptiness (Jan. 15, 2018)

Epiphany 2 NL4
January 15, 2018
John 2:1-11

Introduction to the story:

Today we continue our journey through John’s Gospel. Until now there has been a lot of set-up: on Christmas Eve, we heard the prologue of the Gospel, where John identifies Jesus as “the word made flesh,” God incarnate, God here, concrete, among us. Then John the Baptist points him out, and people start following, and inviting others to “come and see” God among them. Today we will hear about Jesus’ first public act of ministry, which John will call his first “sign.” So before we get to that, let me ask you: why does John call it a “sign”? What is a sign? … Just like a sign on the road directs you or points you toward something, Jesus’ “signs” in John point us toward something. What is that something? … God! Today’s is the first of seven such signs. Some of the signs are miracles, like today’s, but the most important thing is that they point us toward some truth about God. They help us to see and understand something about God – which makes them perfect to think about during Epiphany, during a season when we talk about “God made visible.”

We’ll read the story now. As you listen, think about what this story has to show us about who God is for us. Please rise now for the Gospel reading.

[READ]

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I learned this week about a book called, Let’s Kill Sunday School Before it Kills the Church. Dramatic title, certainly catches the attention! In it, the author talks about how to put faith instruction back into the home, how to help families talk about faith around the dinner table, or before bed. The core of this effort is called Faith5 – five steps to guide a multi-generational, faith-forming conversation. It’s pretty simple and straightforward: you begin by sharing your highs and lows from the day, the best and worst parts of your day. Then you read together a Bible story. Then you talk together about where God’s story, the Bible story you just read, might speak to your highs and lows. In other words, where was God during the course of your day? Then you pray together, thanking God for the highs, and asking God to be with you in the lows. And you finish with a blessing, even something as simple as, “God be with you.”

I’m pretty excited about this way of engaging with scripture – and I warn you, this will not be the last you hear of it! And I think it is a really cool way to read scripture during the season of Epiphany, because Epiphany is a season during which we are always looking for ways that God is made visible, and this is a really down-to-earth way to watch for that. I was so taken with it, in fact, that I found myself applying it to my own week, which was a week with some very high highs, and some very low lows. And so this morning, I hoped you might come along with me, as we see together how you can apply this earthy way of engaging with God’s story to the story of your daily life. Wanna come? Okay, let’s go.

First, highs and lows. I had a lot of highs – got to see a lot of people, had a lot of laughs – but by the end of the week, the lows were more heavily on my mind. The week started off with a funeral that was difficult because I really loved the woman, and ended with a funeral for someone I did not know but who died quite young and tragically. Both were emotionally draining, for different reasons. In between, I had several late nights out in a row, I barely saw my family, I had several things I had looked forward to doing that I couldn’t even start, and on top of that, 1-year-old Isaac decided it would be a good week to cut some new teeth, which caused loss of sleep for all of us. Although there were many moments of joy and laughter during the week, the overwhelming feeling when I got to the end of it was fatigue. I was exhausted. My heart and my body ached, I was irritable, impatient, sad and discouraged. Anyone else ever felt like that when you get to the end of a long week? Exhausted, irritable, and impatient? Yeah, I thought you might relate.

Enter: the story of the wedding of Cana. To recap, Jesus goes to a wedding, and by the third day of the celebration, the wine has run out. At an event that should be the picture of celebration and hospitality, the very symbol of those things has run dry. At the urging of his mother, Jesus has some folks fill up some empty jugs with water, 150 gallons, and miraculously this water turns into the finest wine!

So there, you’ve heard the two stories – my story, and God’s story. Now: where do you see my story in God’s story, or God’s story in mine? Any ideas?

This is where I saw my story: in those empty jugs. I saw it in the lack of wine, the lack of blessing and celebration and grace. I saw it in the “not enough” where the story begins. I asked before if you’d ever felt at the end of the week like I did – exhausted, irritable, and impatient. Maybe you’re feeling that way today. Do you look at those empty jugs and think, “Yup, that’s about right”?

Yes, that is where I see myself in God’s story.

But it isn’t where I see God.

Where I see God, is in the fact that those jugs didn’t stay empty. The wine situation did not remain. The jugs get filled up, and by Jesus’ power, what once was empty, what once was lack, suddenly becomes full of grace and blessing. God took the emptiness and filled it up with blessing.

Having recognized this, let’s look back over my story, through the lens of recognizing that God takes emptiness and lack, and fills it with grace and blessing. Here’s my week: I had the opportunity to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to aching people, to speak a word of love and grace into brokenness. I was blessed to visit with several other people going through various trials, and offer them the hope that is in Christ. I taught some teenagers about praying with the Psalms, and not only did we laugh a lot, but I also caught a glimpse of some of their hearts that I had not seen before. I heard people’s raw and real stories, and prayed with them. And in the middle of the night, I felt the soft breath of my son on my chest, and smelled his hair, while my daughter asked me to hold her – what gifts!

At the wedding at Cana, we usually say Jesus turned water into wine. But the story that I read this week, is that Jesus turned emptiness and lack into blessing and grace – just like I now see God turned my emptiness and fatigue into blessing and grace. God turned my exhaustion into opportunity. God turned my lack into abundance.

I asked you before you heard the reading to think about what this sign is pointing to, what it tells us about God. Well, this is it, at least part of it: It points to the abiding truth that God fills us up, taking our emptiness, our brokenness, our lack, even our endings and deaths, and turns them into fullness, wholeness, blessing, beginnings and life. Sometimes we don’t see that come to its full fruition in the course of a few days like I did this week. Sometimes we don’t even see it come to fruition in the course of a few years, maybe not even until we are at the gates of heaven. But eventually, it does happen, because that is the business of God: to fill up the emptiness with love, grace, and blessing.

You see how transformative this “Faith5” process can be! I hope you will take it home and give it a try. Share highs and lows, read a Bible verse or story, talk about how God’s story can speak to your story, and then pray together and offer one another a blessing. See how God might be working to transform your life, as families, and as brothers and sisters in Christ. And now, let us pray together…

God of abundance, we give you thanks for being with us during the highest points of our days, and ask that you would be with us also in our lows. Help us to see how you are present and visible to us, and in all things, grant that our emptiness and lack would be filled up by your love and grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Star Gifts Sermon 2018

Baptism of our Lord/Epiphany
January 7, 2018
John 1:35-51

This first Sunday of the year, we always have to decide whether to recognize the Baptism of our Lord (and with it, the gifts of our own baptism), or Epiphany (and with it, the gift of God being made known to us and to all). Either festival draws us to think about gifts of God – the gift of new life, and the gift of God-with-us. In both, we have the gift of seeing and experiencing how God works among us, bringing light, life and salvation.

And this strikes me as a good thing to talk about as a new year dawns. Even if you’re not one for making New Years resolutions, it is hard not to feel, at the turning of the year, a sense of potential. A new year, a new opportunity. What will this new year will bring, and what changes would you like to make in your life in order to see those new things come about?

Perhaps that is why, when I read our Gospel text for today, the question I was drawn to was Jesus’ question to the disciples who are following him: “What are you looking for?” he asks. For what are you searching? What longing fills your heart that you are trying to fulfill? It strikes me as a good question to ask at the beginning of a new year. What are you looking for in your life this year, and in particular, what are you looking for in your of life following Jesus? What in that relationship do you seek? What do you crave?

The disciples’ answer is just as telling: “Rabbi,” they say. “Teacher. Where are you staying?” Or better translated, where do you abide or dwell? Abiding, you see, is a really important theme in John’s Gospel – to abide with someone indicates a deep and intimate relationship, like Jesus’ relationship with his Father, and like the relationship Jesus wants to have with us. So for the disciples to ask, “Where do you abide?” is to say, “What we are looking for, is you. What we are looking for, is to be in a deep and meaningful relationship with you. What we are looking for, is to see you and know you.”

And just as Jesus issues his invitation to the disciples, he issues it to us: “Come and see.” Come and see what a relationship with Jesus looks like. Come into this year and this life of discipleship with your eyes and hearts open, ready to see God at work. And here I can’t help but think about our star gifts, because the whole point of that exercise is to help us keep our eyes open to how God is made visible in whatever one particular aspect of life we happened to draw last year. And the hope, is that in noticing God there, we might also be drawn into a deeper abiding relationship with God.

So I’d like to move now to sharing star gift stories, sharing how we have seen God made visible in the past year. To get the ball rolling, I’ll share with you about my own star gift. I drew perseverance, and boy was it a year where I had my eye out for that! It was a year that delivered no slow-news days, where every week or every day seemed to be yet another outrageous something or other, where every day we were reminded of our divisiveness as a world, a country, and a community. It was a year where I dreaded checking the news each morning, fearing, “What now?” But in the midst of all of that, I also saw emerge people who actively sought peace. Whether in one-on-one ways in their local communities, or on a larger scale by community organizing, some worked very hard to bridge divides: to help create space for conversation, to learn about people who are “other,” to create space where people are heard and valued and where restoration, not division is sought. We believe in a God whose very being is relationship – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and so when I see people persevering against the dominant culture of divisiveness in their effort to build and restore relationships, I see God, beautifully manifest.

How about you? Where did you witness God at work this year? Where was God made manifest?

[Leave space for others to share…]

“Come and see,” Jesus says. He calls his disciples by name, just as he calls us by name in our baptism, and invites them and us to come and see. And they do. And they invite their friends to do the same. “Come and see.” Come and see how God has been made manifest in my life. Come and see how God is made manifest in my worshipping community. Come and hear the story of faith, my story, our stories, and see how God is working among us.

Thank you for thinking of your stories from last year. I hope you will share them also outside of this place, with others who might be looking for what Jesus has to offer. I’d like now for us to draw star gifts for next year. [Ushers…] As you pick your star – don’t look! – trust the Holy Spirit that this is indeed where God has in mind for you to see him this year. Hang our star on the fridge, or put it on your dashboard, or somewhere else where you will be reminded regularly to watch for God through that gift.

[Once everyone has one…] Hold onto your star, and let us pray…

God, we acknowledge that we are not always ready to receive your best gifts for us. You have given us an epiphany word in order that our searching will bring us to you. It is often our habit to turn aside, stumble over, or even reject experiences and encounters that we later understand to have been precious gifts. Help us to be open to the gift that you offer us now through our star words. We acknowledge that we do not fully understand what this word might mean for our faith, but we receive it from you with gratitude and pray that your Spirit will enable us to live into our word with intention and faithfulness. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christmas Sermon: They found him!

Christmas Eve Sermon
December 24, 2017

A great joy for me this season has been that my daughter Grace, at the mature age of 27 months, is old enough to start to understand parts of the Christmas story. Even though she refused to wear a sheep costume for the pageant (instead opting for a mismatched “outfit” that only a 2-year-old could love), she has had no lack of fascination with the Christmas story itself. After reading her stories, singing songs, and acquiring a cloth nativity set for her to play with, Grace has become quite enamored with the story, always keeping an eye out for what could be Baby Jesus and his family, and pointing him out when she does. Like so many throughout the generations, she is fascinated by the incredible story about a baby who was God being born to peasants in a stable, among animals and angels, with shepherds and kings among his first visitors.

Grace’s nativity

Grace loves her little nativity set. But I believe we owned it for all of two days before… we lost baby Jesus. And at church, of all places! We brought it one Sunday for the kids to play with quietly during worship, but when it came time to leave, though we looked high and low, we could not find Jesus. For two days afterward, Grace would occasionally ask, arms spread wide, “Where’d Baby Jesus go?” I couldn’t tell her. We had lost him.

Really, it’s not hard to do during this season of hustle and bustle, is it – to lose sight of Jesus. Cookies and decorations and parties and gift-giving and -getting crowd out that part of the celebration – you know, the main part. I think a lot of us are so busy preparing a lovely Christmas for everyone else, not to mention making sure all the beloved traditions happen, that it can be difficult to prepare the way for Christ in our own hearts, let alone to find a place for him to stay there (though I’m told even Mary and Joseph had that problem). Yes, in the midst of all the wonderful activities of the season, losing Baby Jesus is a real risk.

Now, for Grace’s little nativity, it wouldn’t be too hard to replace the little figure of Baby Jesus. I contemplated calling the company and ordering a replacement, or even just whipping up a new one in my sewing room out of felt and a sharpie… Then I recognized, with chagrin, that this is all too often the solution to losing Jesus: we simply replace him with something else. We try to fill the lack, the emptiness, the Jesus-shaped hole in our lives with any number of other things – some not inherently bad, and some that we know are not good for us, yet we gravitate toward them anyway. We replace going to church with going to sporting events, or sleeping in, or brunch, telling ourselves that these activities are better for our developing a sense of community, or for our families, or for our own self-care. We replace prayer and a spiritual life with seeking advice on social media, or with self-medication, whether that “medicine” is alcohol or shopping or working more. We replace trusting in God with trusting in ourselves. All of our replacements seem much easier than continuing to look for Jesus who sometimes, if we’re being honest, can be a bit elusive.

I wonder if that is how the shepherds felt in the fields that night? I wonder if they had grown weary of searching for something they could never seem to find? As a child and even into adulthood, I always imagined the shepherds as faithful, gentle-spirited men, who were doing hard but important work. In pageants each year, shepherds were always played by the coolest boys, so I assumed the real shepherds must also be pretty cool. Turns out: not so much. Turns out, shepherds were the opposite of cool. They were in fact among the most despised in society, physically and socially on the fringes. In some ways their reputation was earned, as some shepherds were careless and irresponsible. But many were victim to a stereotype, that shepherds were untrustworthy scoundrels, dirty, lowly, and a menace to society. Because of their reputation, they were often denied charity or even civil rights. One written Jewish law even went so far as to say that if you found a shepherd who had fallen into a pit, you are not obligated to help them.

Being a shepherd was a tough life, physically, socially, and emotionally. And so I can’t help but wonder if they ever questioned whether God might be absent from their lives? Did they ever feel like they had lost God, and that it was too taxing to keep looking… so they either sought some insufficient replacement, or abandoned entirely the hope of God’s love in their lives?

How remarkable – and how appropriate – that it was to these lowly, despised shepherds, that the angels first announced the entrance of God into the world. Generations have asked, “Why the shepherds? Why not the powerful? Why not the faithful? Why not the clergy?” But the answer, I think, is obvious: the angels came to the shepherds because it was they who most needed to find God. The angels came to the most in need of love, the most in need grace, the most in need of a savior, to announce that on that night, that which they craved and sought had arrived, and he was called God-with-us.

And so it should also be no surprise to us that the shepherds would abandon everything they were doing to see it for themselves. Let us go now and see!” they say. They rush into town, running through the dark streets of Bethlehem, until they find the even darker cave where the holy family was staying – and find that its darkness has been filled with the light of love. “They went with haste,” Luke tells us, “and found … the child lying in a manger.” They found him. They found love. They found grace, and peace, and hope. They found their hearts’ deepest desire. They found Jesus.

I don’t want to leave you hanging about the saga of our little nativity. Last week, I was walking through the sanctuary… and there, sitting in the pew, was Baby Jesus: unassuming, quiet, just waiting to be found. “Baby Jesus!” I exclaimed, with what perhaps seemed disproportionate enthusiasm for those standing nearby. My heart filled with joy and relief. I eagerly returned him to Grace when I got home, and she, too, excitedly exclaimed, “Baby Jesus!” and then, “You found him!” She immediately ran to find his manger and place him tenderly inside. “Jesus in the bed,” she said, contentedly. She knew right where he should go.

The next day, I caught Grace eyeing another nativity we have in the house. This one looks much different from hers – it’s made of wood, and does not have movable characters. I asked if she knew who it was, and she correctly identified the people. Then suddenly she gasped and ran out of the room, and came back with Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus from her own nativity. She held Jesus up and exclaimed, “Same!” She recognized Jesus, even in a place she did not previously know to look for him.

And announcing her recognition of Jesus in that place was just the right thing to do – for once we have found Jesus, we must look at everything else with the intention of finding Jesus there, too, and then telling others about it. That way, we will never lose him; he will always be found.

So, where should we start looking? Well, the angels announced God’s birth first to the shepherds because they were the most in need of hearing the good news. So now we know to look for Jesus among the lowly and despised, or among those who sometimes feel that way. Jesus was born to peasants who were not welcomed in a place far from home, and who were pushed aside and dismissed. Now we know to look for Jesus among the poor, the stranger, and the refugee. God came to earth during a particular moment in history in which the government was oppressive and the poor were heavily taxed. Now we know to look for Jesus among the oppressed, among those who, due to forces outside of themselves, lack what they need to thrive.

This old and loved story has much to teach us about where to look for – and where to find – the God of love, who came to bring peace on earth, goodwill among people, and the knowledge of God’s abiding presence.

And so my hope and prayer for us this Christmas, is that we might take a cue from a toddler hearing this story for the first time: to react with enthusiasm, genuine joy and delight, whenever we find Jesus in the world; to rush to find a place for him in our hearts, and place him tenderly there, and continually to search for him in those places we might not have thought to look, to hold him up to what we see in the world around us, and to announce it when we do, marveling at the ways God continues to come among us, at Christmas and every day. May it be so.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Breathing the life-giving breath (Dec 10, 2017)

Advent 2 (NL)
December 10, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I got some positive feedback last week about offering you some context before the reading of the lesson, so that you have a sense of where it sits in the arch of the biblical narrative. So once again, I’d like to offer you some context for our reading.

Ezekiel was a prophet during the period of the Babylonian exile – similar time to Daniel, from whom we heard last week. The Babylonian exile happened in a couple waves: the first wave of deportations happened in 597 BC. This sent primarily leaders and educated elites out of Jerusalem and into Babylon. Ezekiel, who was a priest in Jerusalem, was among those first deported. He begins his career as a prophet during this time, prophesying a lot of doom and gloom, judgment against Israel and Judah, especially leaders in Southern Kingdom. But then about 10 years later, Ezekiel learns of the fall of Jerusalem. This is devastating news for him and for the other exiles, because Jerusalem was more than a beloved city. It was the very center of their worship life, the only place to properly worship the one true God. With the destruction of that city and the Temple, the people had some very serious religious and spiritual concerns. And so at that point, Ezekiel’s prophecies turn away from judgment, and more toward hope and restoration. Today’s reading, the Valley of Dry Bones, is probably his best-known prophecy, and it is one of immense hope.

Last week I also mentioned the literary style of our story from Daniel. This reading from Ezekiel, we should understand, is a vision, not a literal event. Many of Ezekiel’s prophesies are visions, allegories, or otherwise symbolic. That should be pretty obvious, but – just making sure!

Okay, here’s the story. [read story]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

One of my family’s many Advent traditions growing up was to light the Advent wreath at dinner, and sing this hauntingly beautiful Advent hymn before we prayed. I have been singing it since before I can remember, and those words came out of my mouth before I had any clue what they meant or the story behind them. I was a teenager or young adult before I really thought about what they meant. It suddenly occurred to me, “Why are we singing ‘Rejoice’? This sounds sad. I don’t know what all those words refer to, but I know mourning isn’t good, and lonely is definitely not good, and captive sounds pretty bad, too. Rejoice?”

Now I recognize this as a story very familiar to me – both because I know better the biblical story, and because it is a story I see in my own life, metaphorically speaking. That is, it is a story in which sadness and despair find their hope in looking toward the salvation that is to come.

The biblical story is a long narrative – the whole Bible, really – but is well captured in today’s reading. Here are a people, the Israelites, who are captive to strange rulers and a strange way of life, who are lonely in exile, and mourning the loss of their homes and all that they know and love. Without the Temple, and with Jerusalem destroyed, they were riddled with questions like, “Does God even care about us anymore? Can we reach God from all the way in Babylon, and can God reach us – and does God even want to?”

And so they cry out, “O God-with-us, Emmanuel, come! Come be God-with-us!” Do something to get us out of here! Or in the words of those dry bones, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely.” Come here and do something, O Emmanuel!

Of course, this carol wasn’t written yet in the 6th century Before Christ, but Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is in its own way an answer to that cry. It starts off like the verse of the hymn – lonely, captive, mourning. Those bones are dry, so dry. It is truly a dire situation, in which hope is completely lost. As Ezekiel takes us along for the ride, looking around and around that valley full of dry bones, our hearts, too, plead: O Come, Emmanuel! Do something to release Israel, captive to this death and hopelessness. They mourn in lonely exile here!

But then… the rattling. At God’s Word, those bones start to shake, and move. They come together, bone to bone. Sinews form, and skin – it is remarkable! Yet for all that, they are still a valley of cadavers – there is no life in them. That doesn’t come until… what? What brings life? Ahh, the breath! The very breath of God! Just as God once breathed into the nostrils of a mud-made Adam and brought him to life, so the Spirit of the Lord comes into the army of cadavers, once a valley of very dry bones, now rejuvenated, transformed, indeed, resurrected, into a vast multitude. Hope is restored and life is once again a possibility. With God, life is always on the horizon.

I said I see this story even in my own life. There are several ways, but this week, I’m thinking about my Isaac, who celebrated this week his first birthday. Isaac, I’ll confess, was not a part of my plan – at least not yet. I had a 6 month old and was not ready for another baby, I was tired, and I was not especially pleased to be pregnant again. It didn’t help that the time I was pregnant with him was an emotionally trying time for me for other reasons. Now, of course, I couldn’t be happier that he is ours! But then, I didn’t really know what to do with this reality.

Since his birthday was this week, I was thinking a lot about that night I spent laboring him into the world. I had just sung in two remarkable and demanding concerts with my choir, pieces so difficult that I had spent hours hammering them into my head. So it was no surprise, I guess, when I felt that first serious contraction in the darkness just before midnight, that a refrain from that concert popped into my head. It was in Latin, so I didn’t think much about the meaning, but the rhythm of the words was what echoed through my head as I rocked and breathed my way through the pain. That’s what you quickly figure out in labor – when the pain starts, breathe deeply. Pain must always be accompanied by breath, the deeper the better. Breath is what makes it possible to get through the pain.

Later, I looked up the Latin, and discovered that the refrain meant this: “Know ye that the Lord is God: he made us and not we ourselves.” And so it was on that refrain, and that breath, that my Isaac made his speedy appearance, just as the sun was rising, and took his own first breath of air before being placed in my arms. And there, with his first breath – a new life began, and my heart reached a new depth of love.

When the pain starts – start breathing deeply. That is one lesson we see in Ezekiel. When the hopelessness seems to overwhelm – breathe in deeply the breath of God. When your cry is only of lament – breathe deeply. When you mourn in lonely exile, waiting for release – breathe deeply. Then we shall know that the Lord is God, that God made us, and that God has the power to remake us, to enliven us again, to transform our dry old bones into newness of life.

Where does your story meet this biblical story? Perhaps you feel your bones are dead and dry far beyond life. Maybe the demands on you and your time and energy are so great that you fall into bed each night bone tired. Or you watch the news and feel the energy and hope drain from your heart. Maybe the clutter in your life – your home, your schedule, your thoughts – leave little room for self-care, or for prayer. Or you look at your finances and wonder how you can possibly crawl out from under this much debt? As the world around us rejoices with Christmas cheer, maybe you find yourself feeling sadder than ever, as you grieve the losses of your life, the people you wish were still here, the time of life now gone by. Are there so many demands pulling you this way and that, that you find it impossible to find the time to nourish your spiritual life?

Whatever place in your life feels dry and hopeless… what would it take to once again experience life there? In what area of your life do you need the breath of God to restore, renew, or resurrect you? Where do you crave a transformation from death and hopelessness, into life?

For me, I experience dryness in the search for peace – peace in my life, peace in the world, peace in my heart. And so the words of our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton, in the most recent issue of Living Lutheran, our ELCA publication, really resonated with me. She writes: “Here we are in Advent. This season doesn’t exist in secular culture, where everything is barreling toward Christmas. No time to wait, no time to notice, no time to be present. Not this. Not now. All of a sudden we will find ourselves on the day after Christmas not knowing how we got there. Advent is a holy season, a season that bids us to be present, to be still. So much is evoked in this season – hope, longing, the bittersweet awareness that the world is beautiful and broken. Consider all of these things. Sit with them. Pray with them. Be aware of this time of great promise that comes … when night is longest.”

What beautiful and timely advice. It is just what I need at this time to remind me to breathe in that life-renewing, restorative breath of God. It is just what I need to remember that although we wait in this season for the Prince of Peace to come, we also already have the gift of that Spirit of peace. It is a gift that has been given to God’s people from the beginning of time – first moving over the chaotic waters of creation, then blown into Adam’s nostrils, then continually active throughout time, even to enlivening a valley full of very dead, very dry bones.

And so let this be an Advent gift also to us today. In a moment, we will have an opportunity to breathe in the breath of God in whatever way best suits you. If you’re anything like me, time for quietly sitting and breathing deeply can be hard to come by. So, following the sermon, you are invited to breathe in the life-giving breathe of God by meditating on images, or quietly sitting and praying, or coloring this page. Maybe if your brain is as busy as mine, it would be useful for you to have a mantra. One of my favorites is simply to breathe in and think, “Breath of God,” and breathe out and pray, “Breathe in me.” Or the one Bishop Eaton suggested in the piece I just quoted is, “Just this. Just now.” Maybe you will consider offering a particular prayer you have for this day and this time – if so, write it and include it in this basket, and we will pray it during the prayers of intercession.

Now, I know, maybe this may feel silly to you. It is different than what we usually do, and maybe you feel embarrassed. But Advent is all about anticipating the greatest disruption to the “way we’ve always done things” that the world has ever known. Imagine – God becoming human! I’m sure that wasn’t comfortable, either. So I hope you will engage in this few minutes in whatever way you are able, and that you will find in it that God’s breath restores some of the dryness in your spirit, and/or that it will encourage you to bring that practice home. May we all experience the life-restoring breath of God.

Let us pray… Breath of God, as you breathed into those very dry bones and brought them to life, breathe into us today. As you restored the hope of a lonely, mourning people in exile, restore our hope today. As you promised to bring your peace to all the earth, bring your peace to us today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Following meditative time (from Dag Hammarskjold):

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art, Also within us.
May all see Thee – in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee.
May I thank Thee for all that shall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldst that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand, And in Thee is all power and goodness.
Give me a pure heart that I may see Thee,
A humble heart that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith that I may abide in Thee. Amen.