As we start the journey to Holy Week on this First Sunday in Lent, there are two important things revolving around this final sign - or miracle - Jesus performs. First, this sign is actually what puts him on the path to the cross. Right after this scene, although some of the bystanders believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities. It is because of Jesus’ action here that those leaders decide definitively to put him to death. The way to the cross and Jesus' own tomb starts here, where Jesus is most impossibly and lovingly life-giving.
The second important thing about this sign is that it foreshadows pretty heavily what is to come: death is real, but death is not final. We get all the “realness” of death here - sealed tombs, the stench of four days of decay, people gathered, weeping, even the questions we throw at Jesus when death happens: why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you do something?
It is what Martha and Mary both ask of their Lord.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke Martha or Mary for what they say. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival, Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again. Death is real; death is not final. Martha answers, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day!” It is, by all accounts, absolutely the right religious response.
Our own first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection as a distant promise, a hope of salvation, an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven one day.
And yet, Jesus seems not quite satisfied with leaving it there in the future. Jesus responds to Martha with another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus points to the future resurrection, for sure, but he also adds more. He pulls the hope of resurrection into the present, promising abundant, eternal life that begins here and now. He is resurrection. He is life.
That’s not often what we think of when we hear “resurrection,” but the Gospel message should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now… right? The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
Jesus is resurrection and life, now. And, believe it or not, we have a role in that life. See, after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns to those who had gathered. He says to them, “unbind him, and let him go.” In other words, the community of faith is told to participate in God’s action, to bring life to its desired outcome, to join with Jesus in redemption! Sure, raising Lazarus from death to life is entirely Jesus’ work - I know I can’t do that - and yet, Jesus invites the community to participate, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
We have a role to play in resurrection life right now. And there are ways we as St. Philip are doing it right now. Here are a few stories.
A few years ago, all the soup kitchens in Myrtle Beach shut down on the weekends due to financial and other restraints. That meant the hungry and homeless would have to go from Friday lunch to Monday breakfast without anything to eat. An active group of volunteers started preparing small bagged lunches to pass out; then a small pot luck lunch. Now several churches help in making sure hungry people are fed each weekend. St. Philip is one of those churches. We gather volunteers, we prepare food, we set up tables. And we serve. We welcome. We make sure if someone is hungry, they have something to eat. We give them baggies to take with them - healthcare items like a toothbrush and chapstick; there are snacks like crackers and granola bars. And more than that, we make sure people aren’t just fed physically, but through our conversations and interactions, we feed them spiritually, too. Because of you, people aren’t hungry. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
All across the country, but particularly in Horry County, there is a major opioid epidemic. People are dying. It is something that has even hit us at St. Philip, losing one of our own young people because of it. So, it’s not just a problem “out there.” It’s a problem that really affects us as a community. And yet, St. Philip opens up four nights a week to host Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Time and space is offered up for people to gather. People need help; they know they can’t do it alone. So, they come to this place for community, support, a system which holds them accountable. When they gather, they confess their lives are broken; they turn themselves over to a higher power; they seek to make amends; they find encouragement, care, discipline. It keeps people from using. It keeps people from dying. Thanks to you, people are living clean lives. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We support Lutheran World Relief, which just so happens to be our benevolence for the first quarter this year. Beyond providing assistance and relief after a natural disaster, LWR works to build sustainable relationships and partnerships across the world. One way they are doing that is through fair trade coffee. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, and the people who farm it live in some of the poorest communities. As such, those farmers are often taken advantage of. They don’t normally get paid enough to support their family. But Lutheran World Relief provides fair, sustainable payment. Through LWR, parents can earn enough so their kids can go to school. There is daily bread. They have safer, better, more efficient equipment that produces better coffee beans. Help goes directly to the very community of the farmers. Because of your support, people can actually live. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We at St. Philip recruit, gather, and support Reading Buddies, a program where a volunteer meets one on one with a young child at a local school to help improve their reading. Reading is crucial to life and is a huge indicator of how future life will be. For example, did you know police departments pay close attention to reading scores - particularly, third grade reading scores? They do this because the number of kids below reading level in the third grade is a good indicator of how many jail cells they’ll need in a few years. Reading Buddies helps to inject hope where there may be none. They bring relationship where there may be none. They bring a bright future where there may be none. Thanks to you, some kids won’t go to jail. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
Those are some of the ways St. Philip works to bring resurrection and life to our community and beyond. And as you give, as you participate, as you hear Jesus’ call to “unbind and let go,” you help to bring resurrection and life, too. Are there ways to do more? Sure! We can live it out in our daily lives in conversation on the golf course (you know the weather’s getting nicer) or at the grocery store or at lunch or wherever. Listening, pointing to Jesus and the hope and promises he has - that brings resurrection and life.
So, I encourage you: spend a few moments today looking at the week to come and think about where you might be able to follow Jesus’ command to “unbind him, and let him go.” Where can you participate with God in resurrection and life?
It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be).
It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it might).
It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be).
Opportunities to unbind and let go abound. Jesus is calling us to make a life-giving difference to those around us. Because, while death may be real, death isn’t final. And God uses us - us! - to bring about resurrection and life.
Nothing is ordinary in the Gospel of John. For example, this is no ordinary healing story. We have a blind man - who never asks to be healed - gaining his sight. Which seems like a good thing on the surface, but the story continues on for another 30 some-odd verses after the man could see. That makes me think that healing isn’t really the point of the story; the healing is the launching point for something more.
Kind of like last week with the woman at the well, there are so many places to go with that “something more.” This story opens up on so many levels.
There is the literal and metaphorical “seeing” in this passage: seeing Jesus there and seeing Jesus for who he really is.
There could be conversation about community and what it means to care for others.
There is the topic the disciples bring up about Sin and disability.
There are the foils to Jesus - the religious leaders and how we sometimes react like they do.
But in it all, the idea that sticks out most to me is transformation. When Jesus comes, he changes things.
When Jesus arrives on the scene and in our lives, everything changes. Limitations fall by the wayside. What kind of limits bound the one who can turn water into wine?
The way things are (and have been) changes. There is no longer a need for sacrifice because the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is present.
Divisions between peoples, like Jews and Samaritans, fade away in the presence of the one who offers living water gushing up to eternal life.
And the one who can heal even a man born blind is the one who offers not just life, but life in all of its abundance.
When Jesus comes on the scene, he transforms things. It’s great! It’s positive! It’s moving forward! It’s terrible to do!
We hate it. And you know it.
We like the familiarity of what “is” - and hate the unfamiliar “could be.”
Look at how nearly everyone else in the story reacts to this change from a man who was blind to a man who can see. Some don’t recognize him. Others don’t believe it. The man has always been blind; this guy who can see can’t be him. Can they really not accept the fact that he can see? “What could be” is resisted and rejected, no matter how good it is.
We do something similar. We’d much rather stick with what we know than be transformed, be changed. Kind of like the blind man, we’re fine with how things are. And even if we’re not “fine,” we’ve become accepting of the situation. Things are set.
We may have some brokenness - but it’s our brokenness. We may be set in a routine where faith doesn’t make much of a difference - but at least we don’t have to engage people we don’t know. We may be the same as we have always been - but at least we know how to handle that.
Sure, “what could be” could be good - but it could also be bad! We don’t know which it will be. At least right now we know what to expect. We have the stability of knowing. We much prefer a known problem to an unknown solution. So, just keep things as they are - even if that means blindness. Or limitations. Or a less than ideal situation. At least we know, and we don’t have to do adapt, change, grow, be transformed from “what is.”
But, still, Jesus - that pesky Jesus - comes and changes things. And we aren’t sure what to do with the changes. And so, for the most part, we resist. We won’t do anything different. We won’t be different. We won’t, even if the change is good and gracious and ideal. Because we like the familiarity of what “is” - and hate the unfamiliar “could be.”
We get wary when we hear that Jesus will come and change things. It is an unknown. It is new. It could be transformative. And we don’t want it.
And so the question then is, “is it worth it?” Is it worth letting Jesus change us? Living as if he changed us? Seeing things a new way?
What would Jesus say about it being worth it?
When Jesus comes, he changes things.
He comes, and without asking, changes us. He claims us with water. He comes to us in bread and wine. And in that coming, he transforms our identity. We are children of God. We are beloved. We are his, defined not by what was, or what is, but by what Jesus does for us. Jesus comes to bring us life.
And this life… well, it ain’t easy. We are called to live, not in fear of truth, not resigned to the way things are, not stuck in blindness simply because it is familiar. We are called to live in a new way, a way that moves us, a way that helps us see Christ anew, a way that frees us for discipleship.
When Jesus comes he changes things. And those changes can be hard. He calls us to see things differently.
It is our standard procedure to be fearful of what we don’t have, but Jesus calls us to see the abundance that he loans to us.
Jesus transforms us to build relationships, real relationships, with people - all people from all walks of life.
Jesus changes us to let go of whatever defined us before to now living out our new identity as children.
Over the course of the past year, this congregation has started to be honest about where we were and what was defining us. And though how we saw ourselves wasn’t bad, we knew that Jesus was calling us to more. Jesus was showing up without asking and starting to transform us! And Jesus continued to come, to bless us, to try to change us. And to a certain point, that meant no longer resisting transformation. We had to let go of what we knew and what was comfortable simply because it “was.” We are in a period of change, moving Forward in Faith.
One of my seminary professors used to say that this type of change is like someone standing up and changing seats in a canoe. You freak out when someone tries to stand up in a canoe.
But sometimes we have to change seats to keep floating forward. To stop from paddling along in a circle; to change the cycle and move farther along.
That kind of stuff is hard. The stuff Jesus comes to tell us to do is hard. The transformation Jesus makes in our lives is hard. But, goodness, it is also life giving. Because that’s what Jesus wants for us. Not just survival. Not just persistence or getting by or any other way we’ve settled and excused our lives. Jesus wants life - full, rich, abundant life for us. This is the kind of life that that knows the risk of change is worth it because, no matter what, we will always be God’s beloved child. And by changing, we can be that beloved child now in better, more life enriching ways.
And so, I hope you can see that this story of a man born blind is about more than healing. It is about a transformation that disrupts our lives. It is about a God who isn’t satisfied with who we were or how we are, but rather continually comes to us to transform us. That transformation is hard - hard for us, hard for others, hard on us when others are transformed. But this kind of transformation continually happens. God constantly calls us to more. To see. To live.
To, like the blind man, be transformed into the children of God.
This story is kind of overwhelming. It’s loooong. It’s such a long, sustained story that the narrative moves through many various levels. When I read it, my mind goes a dozen different directions. There are 42 verses to choose for a sermon!
On top of the stuff that happens in this scene, this follows right after our story of Nicodemus from last week. These two stories are quite different, and the differences are probably more noticeable because they are back to back. Last week, we had Nicodemus:
a man with a name,
respected and powerful,
a Jewish insider,
who comes to Jesus under the cover of night to question him.
We end knowing nothing about how he responds.
Contrast that with this week’s supporting actor:
an unnamed woman,
who had no status in that day and age,
a Samaritan outsider,
who is approached by Jesus in broad daylight,
and engages him in his longest sustained conversation in the Bible.
She leaves and boldly declares her faith in this man who is truly the Savior of the world.
While these stores are so different, there is one thing that draws them together. And that is Jesus’ use of word-play. Last week, we heard “born from above” or “born anew.” Nicodemus takes it in the literal sense, though Jesus means it otherwise. This week, Jesus uses the phrase, “living water.”
This Living Water is key, I do believe, to wrapping our minds around this whole 42-verse-long chapter of the Bible. So, let’s look at how everything flows from Jesus being Living Water.
Living Water, as I mentioned, is a double entendre. The first meaning can refer to what we might call “running water” - water from a spring or a river rather than water sitting stagnant in a vessel or a puddle. It moves, it lives.
So, it should be no surprise that Jesus, this living, moving water goes where he pleases - societal boundaries notwithstanding. Much like living water carves out a path through dirt, rock, and stone, Jesus goes, erodes away the barriers which try to keep his rushing water at bay. The boundaries which should keep these two people apart are washed away by Jesus. The woman is wary of him at first - questioning him, putting up her own boundaries of sorts. But Jesus is not restrained. He keeps going, even to the point of taking the Living Water phrase and expanding it, deepening it.
Beyond the more literal meaning of running water, “Living Water” can also have a metaphorical meaning - water that gives life. Jesus employs this double entendre to move the woman’s focus from the literal, physical level of meaning to the spiritual level. He is the Living Water that gushes up to eternal life. This point is crucial. It all starts with Jesus and who Jesus is. The rest of the narrative flows directly from this.
When someone says they have water that will never leave you thirsty, you’re curious. It will be a spring within you that gives life. And so the woman asks for some of that living water.
Jesus takes this as an opportunity to dive into the woman’s personal life, a life which seems more tragic than anything. Some have said that she lived immorally, but Jesus doesn’t say that. Instead, the whole focus seems to be on being honest with who she is. It is an observation about one of the most personal things in her life - her closest relationships.
That is where Jesus, the Living Water, flows. Not only does he cross the boundaries of man/woman, Jew/Samaritan, but he crosses the boundaries we ourselves put up. He seeps deep into her life, to those personal things that bring up heartbroken memories, to the places that are dry, parched, thirsty - even to those places that may be so closed off that they’ve become layered with dust. Jesus, the Living Water, flows there, to the intimate, personal places. He springs up there to nourish, to water, to grow relationship, to change things, to make it live.
And so, think of those personal places in your life, those intimately personal places that only a couple of people or one person or no one else knows. Jesus wants to spring up there, too. Living water flows into those places. Jesus gets into the personal things in our life, because Jesus is there to nourish, to water, to grow relationship, to change things, to make it live.
But letting Jesus into those personal places is hard. We don’t necessarily like it; we put up our walls and dams to hold the living water at bay and keep Jesus at arm’s length. It’s fine for Jesus to be near us from time to time, or tell us nice things, or even forgive us once in a while. But we don’t really want to let him in to everything about our lives. I mean, really? Have Jesus nourish and influence our relationships? We like things as they are - don’t want to ruin a good thing by bringing in Jesus. Or, let Jesus into our daily routine? We’d rather know where and when we can find Jesus when we need him, like church on a Sunday morning. Have Jesus spring up in how we decide to use, spend, donate our money? We definitely don’t want Jesus in a personal matter like that.
But, as we’ve seen, those barriers we put up don’t stop Jesus from coming. Jesus keeps flowing toward the personal, meaningful places, our personal, meaningful places. And the more personal he goes, the more squirmish we get. But as we see from this woman at the well - when Jesus seeps into those places, everything seems to turn. Jesus was there with her, Jesus knew her. Living water bubbled and gushed and filled her up. And everything changed.
Living Water seeped into even the most personal pieces of her life - to a point where she states that Jesus entirely knew her. And by this water springing up in her life, she began to see things differently. She began to let that water flow from her. Jesus gave her a gift, the gift of truth that leads to worship and relationship and becoming a conduit for Living Water. She grew in faith, grew closer to Jesus, and wasn’t satisfied keeping it for herself. She had to share this living water, this Savior and Messiah.
That is why Jesus, the Living Water, doesn’t stay stagnant. He wants to bring life to every piece of us - not just the surface, but the deeply personal pieces.
It’s how Jesus makes a true difference in our lives - by watering those things most personal to us, the places we don’t necessarily want Jesus to mess around with. But by coming, he begins to create a spring of water, gushing up to life. From that, everything changes. That is how Jesus shapes us for the Kingdom.
We start to see that relationships matter - and having Christ in them makes them matter more. Our daily lives are guided by a Living Water that knows no bounds - it flows wherever it wills. And we start to see the places and ways we can share that Living Water. Even the most personal of things, like faithfully using our money and possessions, can contribute to a deepening of our own faith and enhance God’s work in the world.
Because that is the point. Jesus comes. Jesus is water for us, nourishing even the driest places of our lives. And not simply so that we may live, but so that we may be filled and changed - and that this living water may flow out of us, too, in ways that are giving, gracious, barrier-breaking, relationship-building, and always flowing toward love.
Today we get one of the, if not THE, most famous verses in all of Christian scripture. And the temptation for you and for me is to focus only on that one, single verse. But, while it may be a great summary of the Gospel, it’s not put out here all alone. This verse is in the context of something else - in the context of this encounter with Nicodemus. So, why is the most famous verse ever stuck HERE? Why not at a good summary or thesis point? Why not at the very end or the very beginning? Why not right after Jesus dies or rises? Why here, why with Nicodemus?
But before we get to that question, it’s probably important to see what got us here in the first place. Knowing that context around Nicodemus helps us understand a little more about his situation.
So far in the narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus has been introduced to us by John the Baptist. He points out Jesus as the “lamb of God.”
In the next scene, Jesus turns water into wine - a sign of the superabundance and top-shelf quality of God’s grace. God’s grace is like gallons of the best wine when you were only expecting a glass of the cheap stuff.
Then, last week, we get Jesus entering the Temple and driving out the money changers and those selling sacrifices. He does this to show the reality of the true presence of God’s grace, manifest in Jesus. There is no need for any other sacrifice; to do so is to miss the embodiment of love and grace right here in your midst.
And so, it is into this context that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, comes to see Jesus. He’s curious - and I can understand that. Jesus has caused quite the stir! His actions so far surely would’ve been talked about - especially those in the Temple. Yet, his signs… Nicodemus confesses that no one can do these things apart from God.
And so Nicodemus comes to question Jesus, to learn more, to land at some sort of conclusion about him. In the midst of this encounter, Jesus uses it as a teaching moment. He states that unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what Jesus is pointing to - God and God’s Kingdom. In typical Gospel of John fashion, the person conversing with Jesus misunderstands what he is saying: “How can anyone be born who has grown old?”
This opens the door for Jesus to teach and preach… and boy, what a teaching and preaching it is. The Son of Man has come from heaven, born from above, to be lifted up as a sign that God loves all the world. Even though the world opposes him, the Son still has come to demonstrate God’s love and to lead those who believe into new life.
Nicodemus’ questions are the catalyst for Jesus to lay it all out there, as simply and plainly as possible. God flat out loves. God loves the world so much that God gives us the Son.
This love of God, this sending of the Son, this gift of eternal life causes a crisis for everyone Jesus encounters. See, the word “judgement” in verse 19 is the Greek word, “krisis” - which can also be translated as, well, crisis. Which I think fits better. It’s a moment, a point in time, a reaction. Those who do evil: will they flee the light or embrace it and change, learn, grow?
Those who confess: will they stay in the light or squench back into the cover of darkness?
This is the crisis for Nicodemus when faced with the most famous verse ever. Signs and the Temple, what he’s known forever and new life... Does he believe? Does he follow? Does he run away? We don’t really know. The scene ends, and we fade to black without finding out. But the point is made. Jesus comes, bearing a superabundance of the best grace around; he embodies God’s love in a way that comes to humanity, encountering everyone, saying you don’t need any other thing. Nothing else. Jesus’ presence is disruptive; it demands one’s attention.
That is what Nicodemus learns.
So, contemplate that scene for a moment. Reflect on it. Because this scene happens week in and week out in our lives. Each Sunday morning - and maybe more often than that - we, too, are reminded of the superabundance of grace. We, too, are confronted with the presence of God’s love in our light and in our dark. We, too, are told to behold the lamb of God as we taste and see, hear and share the Good News that is poured upon us every time we gather. We are told that God loves us - just flat out loves us.
Jesus claims us wholeheartedly. God loves. And then comes our crisis: what do we do next? We either embrace that love, goodness, grace, and security - or we look elsewhere. As we leave this place, we will be offered countless other options - status, power, possessions, and more. And they all, too, promise us life and demand our allegiance in return.
And while maybe it’s easy right now to be receptive to the greatest message there is, once we step out of here, we have a tendency to look elsewhere. Sometimes we step back into the dark, to carry on as things were, not fully trusting the gifts and life God share. Not embracing the love God flat out gives. We don’t live, we don’t give, we don’t share, we don’t accept, we don’t welcome, we don’t see who we are in light of the Gospel message that God has given us everything. We can get moody about all this. Yet, we are are loved. Flat out loved.
This past week, Jonah (our six-year-old) wanted oatmeal. So, we zap it in the microwave and stir it up and it’s ready to go. Then Jonah - and this may be too much information here - but Jonah had to poop. And he didn’t want to go poop because he didn’t want his oatmeal to get cold. We protest. Just go! Just go to the bathroom! The oatmeal won’t be too cold. We can figure it out. Just go!
So Jonah goes, but he pouts. He’s mad at us, particularly Dana, for this. And he’s pouting and Dana keeps trying to talk to him. Jonah keeps saying he’s angry, and he’s mad. And Dana, with the kind of patience and persistence I don’t quite have, just took his anger and said, “it’s ok. I still love you.” He ate his oatmeal, mostly in silence, aside from some grumps here and there - and then desert time came. Jonah, still pouting, asked for a particular piece of candy. Dana, even though she didn’t want it really said, “I wanted that one. But I’ll let you have it. You know why?” And something about that - whether the persistence or the gift of candy or the playful nature - something about that consistency broke Jonah’s poutiness. “Because you love me?” Because I love you! Light shines in the darkness.
See, John 3:16 and the whole Nicodemus story, is a declaration of fact, persistently telling us about God’s love for the world. It’s not so much of an option on our end: would you like to receive God’s love and grace? God’s judgement has already been rendered: “For God so loved the world.” Instead, like the love of a persistent mother in the face of a pouty 6-year-old, it declares what God’s decision already is: God loves us and all the world, like it or not. Now, the crisis: what are we going to do with that?
God loves you, like it or not. What are you going to do about that?
Sometimes we respond in earnest, with our best, with faith and love and trust. Other times, it takes us a lot longer to come around. But, each and every day we respond to God’s judgement of love. And no matter what we do in our crisis, God is pretty persistent, sending us the Spirit to guide, feeding our faith at Christ’s table, washing and forgiving each day. Why? Because God’s judgement is made: God so loves the world. Including you.
First impressions sure do mean a lot. Which is why such an outside-the-box introduction like Jesus overturning tables and getting a whip out is so surprising.
For the past several weeks, we’ve walked with Jesus through the Gospel of John, but everything up to this point has been pretty private and unseen. Jesus spoke one-on-one to some disciples, telling them to, “come and see.” Last week, Jesus turned water into wine - but he did it on the down low. Only the servants recognize the miracle. Everyone else simply marvels that the host saved the best wine until the end.
But today is Jesus’ big debut to masses of people. Jerusalem is bustling with people for the Passover festival. People come from hundreds of miles for this religious celebration. And, of course, being such an important holiday for the Jews, the Temple is probably quite full. As he enters, Jesus finds what one would expect during such a festival. The shops and people are in place for the exchange of money, animals, and grains - ready for the required sacrifices. And then Jesus goes ballistic. Flipping tables, releasing goats, cracking that whip. Seems Jesus wasn’t on board.
Yet, sacrifices are important to Jewish religious life. One needs certain animals to obey the laws. They’re what is done for repentance, for remembrance of all that God has done! Since they are this important, and it is super hard to carry a goat or some doves with you hundreds of miles by camel, this buying and selling was more of a service to those who had to travel. They simply picked animals up at the Temple. If you wanted to offer a sacrifice, it’s kinda what you had to do. In that way, the marketplace was essential.
And it wasn’t so much that people were being cheated here - there is no “den of robbers” as in the other Gospels. Something else was going on, because not giving people access to their sacrifices would impede their religious life, their sense of God, and forgiveness.
So, why does Jesus do this? And why does he do it right out of the gate - as his introduction to public ministry?
He does it because he wants to make the right first impression: the Temple and sacrifice are no longer what matters.
See, the Temple was seen as the unique place of God’s presence. It was where God lived. Going to the Temple literally meant you were going to meet with God, go to God’s house. And what Jesus is saying with his actions is, “God has broken free from that box.”
So, if God has left the building so to speak, where then is God? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word became flesh and lived among us… in Jesus. The Son makes the invisible God known, and he comes onto the scene precisely to reveal God to us and to the world.
God is right in front of you. God is personal, relational, here and there, present in Jesus. That’s the point of this scene Jesus makes. He wants people to see him, to know that he, the guy right in front of you, Jesus shows us God is here, now. Jesus brings us God, helps us know God, embodies God in this world - that’s something the Temple or sacrifices couldn’t do. Instead of closing off people’s religious life, Jesus wants to open it up.
I think we can handle that, right? God’s not in the Temple. God’s not stuck in that building. No problem. But if God’s not in that building, what about this building? What about Church?
More than that: what would Jesus come in here and flip over? What would Jesus crack his whip at? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
And it really makes you wonder what the point of this one hour is. Do we come here to get our shot of God for the week? Do we come to offer our sacrifice, our duty, our habit? I mean, why come here if our churches can’t contain God any better than the Temple? I just spent 5 minutes getting to the point that God isn’t stuck in a box - even if it has nice stained glass windows. So, what’s the point of this?
A few thoughts on that.
First, I think we come here to be reminded. We need to be reminded - reminded of our need, reminded of what God has done, reminded of the gifts God gives to us. That is what we gather to do - to remember. Instead of coming to offer whatever “sacrifice” we have to God, we come to be reminded of the sacrifice God made for us. Instead of trying to fulfill some transaction we think we owe God, we are reminded of all that God has given us. God turns sacrifice upside down, because God in Jesus gives it all for us. To us. And so, our lives are shaped by God. We get to remember that when we come here.
And being reminded of all that God has given for us and for our world, we get sent out to see where God is out there, outside of this building. The point of coming here is to learn to see God everywhere, not because church is the one place where God is. We come because at worship, in church, we can hear, see, and taste God's Word in a way that helps us see and experience God in the rest of life. We get training, learning, community to help us be on the lookout for God - and encounters with God - outside of this box. Instead of closing off our religious life, Jesus wants to open us up.
We need this time. At best, we spend one hour a week in worship; the other 167 hours are spent with the world giving us its perspective on
what is valuable and
who is valuable and
what we have to do so we can be more valuable.
We need to be reminded of what God in Christ has sacrificed for us - that our value - everyone’s value - comes from what God has given. We need to be reminded of what God in Christ has sacrificed so that we see and live and act according to Jesus’ actions in the world.
We need to be reminded so that when we are asked to follow or do or give, we know we aren’t paying God back, but instead are living lives shaped by Jesus - the one who welcomes, who gives, who loves, who forgives, who goes out into the world. We are fed by Christ, washed by Jesus, brought together with him in one body - all so we can see God working outside the box.
So, maybe if Jesus were to show up and flip over some tables and crack a whip, he might be doing it to drive us outside. Pushing us to grow in faith - trying to get us to recognize where God is, in each and every day. Maybe we should try to meet God out out there.
Because God is there, outside the box, sharing love like you wouldn’t believe. Giving grace in great amounts. Forgiving folks here and not. And see, that’s not based on any demand of us or sacrifice from us - not even going to the right place at the right time. It’s all up to God, who shows up in our lives and in our world with moments of pure Godliness. Let’s not lose sight of that, even when we’re pushed outside the box.
Back in the day, a wedding was a time of celebration, not only for the family, but for the whole village. On top of that, the celebration typically lasted a whole week. A whole week! This length of time is why the host would usually serve the good wine first; guests could actually taste what they were drinking, and the host wanted it to make sure it tasted good. I doubt they had French Bordeaux back then, but like a nice bottle of that. Only after a few days of drinking would the guests be served the Franzia boxed stuff.
Wine was, and still is for many people, a celebratory drink. So, you can see the dilemma when the celebration was out of celebratory drink. The party would’ve ended.
So, Mary goes to Jesus; Jesus talks to the servants; the servants do as he says; the steward is impressed by the wine the hosts were holding back. “You have kept the good wine until now!”
This was the first of Jesus’ signs. Now, in the Gospel of John, what we would call “miracles” are instead called “signs.” Why? Well, what does a sign do? A sign tells you something, points the way beyond itself. It is a marker not to be adored in and of itself, but it is supposed to push us along to a different destination. In other words, the miracle itself is not really what we are supposed to see.
So, then, what are we supposed to see? We’re supposed to see God, of course. Water into wine - so much wine - shows us God’s generosity and abundance and goodness. To pull in last week’s sermon a little bit: Jesus’ signs don’t just tell you but help you experience what abundant grace is. The Word becomes flesh in order to show us what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like. And here Jesus is pointing us along, saying God’s grace is like the best wine when all you are expecting is the cheap stuff.
So, having Jesus’ sign here, I wonder about where we fit in to all this. Or, to say it another way, what’s our problem? Where are we running out? Or are we already out of festive drink? Do we have a scarcity problem? Or are we oblivious to it, ignoring the situation, hoping it will resolve itself? Do we take our problems to Jesus?
I mean, so many questions, and each one can apply. And maybe some of those questions do apply to you. I hope by asking it out loud, by raising those questions, by naming it, it helps you see situations in your life, acknowledge them, and then trust that Jesus can, does, and will provide abundant blessings in those places. But consider that part your homework.
Because while I wish I could write 100 different sermons to address each of you individually, I also like to see my family and sleep some. So, in a sermon I tend to look at our problems more from a communal perspective - either from the perspective of humanity or our world or our congregation. And our congregation has been on my heart and mind a lot lately… the last six months or so in particular.
And when I think about this text and our congregation, and I take those questions I listed before… I just don’t think they’re quite where we are. We’ve undergone a lot of changes with our Forward in Faith Vision Plan. And the thing is, that plan had its start because of the festive feelings of celebration we’ve had the past several years. There’s been more to celebrate. More people, more energy, more excitement and community and outreach. We’ve got some festive drink flowing in this place. It may not be 30 gallons worth, but we’ve got enough to have a good time. Somehow, Jesus provided a festive, energetic atmosphere in a place that, for a long while, seemed like it was running out, if it wasn’t out already.
Along with that, the whole process of planning was a discernment - going to Jesus for conversation among the congregation and leaders and me and you. It was intentionally done by going to Jesus. In worship, we brought questions. Our Council meetings were rooted in Bible Study. And out of this, we found that there were problems we couldn’t ignore. To put it in terms of our lesson: some of our stone jars were really low or even sitting empty. And that was a problem; the celebration couldn’t continue like that. The Forward in Faith vision is meant to address some of those places where we were running out or empty.
So, you can see my - our - situation. When it comes to taking those questions, it seems we’re on it: Jesus, empty jars, festive drink. We, like Mary, are aware of the situation. We, like the servants, have done some good work of trying to fill some jars. We’ve got a good thing going; let’s not mess it up, but plan, ask, hope for Jesus to act.
But here’s where I think the story speaks to us, as a congregation and as individuals, today. We don’t believe it. Now, I don’t think we doubt that Jesus turned water to wine. Jesus can do what he wants. What I mean is, we don’t think he still does it, so we need to do it all.
See, we hedge our bets. We do, do, do and plan and strategize and make sure we hire a better wedding planner. We plan, we work, we position ourselves so good things happen. We’re awfully reliant on ourselves to produce results. Somehow the ongoing celebration is all up to us. And why wouldn’t it be? But see, by ourselves we run out of wine - our very best effort means we’ve filled up a few jars with water.
Instead we should notice how Jesus takes what little we do and somehow, someway, gives us the best wine ever. Jesus and only Jesus can take our jars of water and make it into an abundant celebration. We can’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus is here, guiding us, and making miracles.
One example of that: feeding homeless guests in our fellowship hall. Now, I don’t want to scare anyone off from helping next time this rolls around, but everytime we do it, something comes up. Something happens so that it isn’t a smooth morning. Nothing dangerous, just inconvenient. This past time, the bus which normally brings the homeless from Chapin Park to us was absent. No bus, no guests. But, when the news was heard, people stepped up with their own cars to provide a caravan. We ended up transporting and feeding 60 people that day.
Now, you may be thinking, “oh, that’s just what someone should do.” And maybe you’re right. But what I saw that day was people listening to Jesus. Things were empty; and they knew what Jesus was telling us to do in that situation. And so, they filled their cars to the brim, and we had a festive lunch with an abundance for everyone.
Listening to the Word made flesh brings about an abundance - an abundance! - of grace, hope, and life. Jesus creates abundance . Wine upon wine, blessing upon blessing, joy upon joy, and grace upon grace. Whenever Jesus is on the scene, we know abundance is right around the corner.
So, we here at St. Philip have done our best to listen to Jesus. We’ve filled our jars with water, setting a hope and a vision for better wine that is to come. And we’ll keep on listening to what Jesus says. He says, “fill ‘em up.” So, we each keep on filling in whatever ways we can - but as we fill, as we give, as we work, as we listen... we trust God is one of abundance and goodness. The ongoing celebration? It’s God’s. And we’re invited to take part. To fill. To drink. To celebrate as we get to see abundance out of scarcity, joy out of sorrow, and, eventually, life out of death.
Has anyone seen the new Star Wars movie yet? Jonah and I went to see it the weekend it came out. Nearly all of the reviews are quite positive for the movie, but a lot of the hardcore fans really don’t like it. But it’s Star Wars, you know? There are epic ship battles, plot twists, and the Force. The story really moves the plot forward, setting up the third movie in this series to be an epic battle between the Light and the Dark sides. I could tell you more about it and my experience with it, but really it’s up to you to see it and experience it yourself.
Or, did anyone watch the Gamecock game last Monday? (I bring this up instead of a certain orange team’s loss. Plus, there are probably enough Ohio State fans here that are pretty happy Michigan went down.) After not playing so well in the first half, the Gamecocks came back from 19 to 3 deficit to win by a touchdown. If you didn’t see the game… it had drama, momentum swings, defence, long balls... it was as exciting as it was nerve wracking. If you enjoy football, you should at least look up highlights.
Did you see how easy that was? I wanted you to come and see these things that I experienced, hoping that you too might experience some of the same emotions, feelings, connections I did. That’s what happens in our text for today. One disciple after another encounters Jesus and has an experience that makes him want to tell others so that they too will “come and see” this man and be changed by that experience. Come and see.
We start off where we left last week’s text: with John the Baptist. He sees Jesus walk by and points him out as the “Lamb of God.” Because of John’s testimony from last week, we, and those who have read through chapter 1, know something about this title. And yet, that title, “Lamb of God,” provokes curiosity. Don’t you want to know what that means? Don’t you want to know what happens to Luke Skywalker? Don’t you want to see that 60 yard touchdown pass?
And with this curiosity, the disciples start to check it out themselves. Jesus notices them and asks a question, “what are you looking for?” Which could be a straightforward or a rather deep question. The disciples don’t come up with a great answer. “Uhh… where are you staying?” They ask a question.
The same is kind of true of us. See, we all come with questions. Some questions are deep and profound, like “what are you looking for?” Others… not so much: “where are you staying?” No matter who we are: seniors, millennials, empty nesters, teens, new parents, and everyone in between… we all have questions about life and church and Jesus and religion and living and what we’re to do and what we’re not to do and what we have to do. We all come looking for something, asking, wondering.
And when we ask, we want answers. And some people are all too happy to give you those answers. Some churches are all too happy to give you those answers. They tell you exactly what to say, think, do, give, be. And if you don’t, you aren’t experiencing Jesus rightly. You better watch out!
But here’s the interesting thing about questions. Jesus doesn’t answer them. Jesus doesn’t give an answer to the disciples’ question. There’s no home address, no directions to where he is staying. Instead, in the midst of the asking, Jesus offers an invitation. It’s an invitation to follow, to stay with him, to form relationship, to see for yourself, to get experience with this Rabbi Jesus. Come and see.
Our questions, whatever questions they are, don’t build a wall between us and Jesus. If we have questions, we can still follow. We don’t need to have all our questions answered for discipleship to start. No. We start with our questions and bring those questions to Jesus. And Jesus invites us to come and see - and thus experience what he has to offer.
Jesus wants us to encounter the answers, not just hear about them. To Jesus, answers aren’t so much “words” and “sentences” as they are experiences and relationships. The answers aren’t about right/wrong, black/white, exact GPS coordinates. Jesus just wants us along. Jesus wants us to see, feel, interact with him and his mission. Come and see. That’s Jesus’ answer.
Much like me telling you the ending of The Last Jedi versus you watching it for yourself.
Much like a description of an amazing touchdown instead of you experiencing the throw, catch, and run.
Jesus says, “join in.” Experience it. Experience what being in relationship with me is like. Participate. Come. See.
He invites us to come and see for ourselves, to experience Jesus in ways that may not answer our immediate questions, but we get answers of a different sort. The answers are lived. Shown. Surprising. Transforming.
This new year brings a lot of questions to our congregation. We have a vision for where we want to go. We have plans for action, for mission, for moving forward in faith. A lot of this is new for us. The old answers we had weren’t working like they once did. And now, we’re left with questions about what will be. Who will do this? How is that going to be done? Can anything good come out of this? Jesus says, come and see. I say, come and see. I want you to know that there is invitation to relationship. There is invitation to community. There is invitation to walking together in faith. There is invitation to something meaningful, something deeper than a legalistic, take-it-or-leave-it answer. There is an invitation to walk with Jesus.
We trust that Jesus is here, even when we don’t get a verbal answer. Because along this journey, we’ll get to see and experience what Jesus is up to in this particular community of faith. Each step we take, more and more the rabbi is revealed to be the Messiah. And as Jesus is revealed, we get to grow, be nurtured and fed at his table, shaped as we move forward in faith. Jesus invites us to come and see.
And if an invitation over an answer is good enough for Jesus, I suppose it should be good enough for us, too. The disciples caught on pretty quick: Philip, instead of explaining everything to Nathaniel, simply says, “come and see.” Come, experience Jesus.
We should embody the answers for others. We should be the answers of Jesus without needing to use so many words. We should live out grace, love, forgiveness, invitation. It’s our calling. Our task. Our mission. Not to give the end-all, be-all of answers, but to invite people to come and see Jesus in our community of faith. Come, see Jesus in our lives. Come, see Jesus in this place. Come and grow. See and be nourished. Come, see, and move forward in faith.
The image many of us have of John the Baptist is one of a fiery prophet, an Old Testament like figure who wears clothes made of camel’s hair, eats bugs and honey, preaches a message of repentance, and baptizes all who take his message to heart. That is the figure we know most and find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The Baptist we find here in John, however, is a bit different. His introduction says nothing about his clothes, his food, his push for repentance, or his baptismal activity. Instead, this introduction focuses on his testimony. Kinda lame, right? What happened to the John we know and love - and are glad doesn’t come preaching to us?
Anyway, the arrival of priests and Levites set the stage. They come looking and asking questions - maybe even hoping for the answer they want. Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? Things could get really interesting! But John’s reply is: “No, no, no.”
“I am not the Messiah. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
The priests and Levites and the Pharisees who sent them aren’t satisfied with these answers. They keep pushing John. Well, if you aren’t those things, why do you baptize? Why are you wasting our time if you’re not the One? They were looking, waiting, watching. John seemed to fit the bill.
However, John knew his role. John knew his role because he knew what - who! - he was looking for. The priests, Levites, and Pharisees didn’t. Are you the prophet? Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? “Look at the Lamb.”
Once again, LAME. No one is waiting for a lamb. That is not who we’re waiting for. It seems John’s Baptist has lost all that made him memorable.
Remember the fire he had? The way he described who was coming? That’s what we want. We want our political figures to be strong and square-jawed. We want our preachers to have some fire and conviction. We want our saviors to fight and to win. We want them to command a certain respect. We desire them to be prominent. We need them to be… not a lamb.
But John knows something we don’t. John knows something about how God works that we often forget. And because of that, John knows where to point. Which may be helpful to us in this day and age who like loud over reasonable; who would rather have immediate over lasting. John knows how to use his voice. Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The lamb. Not the politician. Not the warrior. Not the fiery preacher. The lamb.
What John knows, what John sees, what John proclaims is that God comes, not as those things we of the world expect, not as those things we hold near and dear, not as those things we think will make it all right again. God comes… differently.
The lamb imagery we think of as so feeble and unconvincing points us to the great story of the Passover. The Israelites celebrate their salvation from slavery in Egypt by remembering and sharing the sacrificial meal of the passover lamb. Here, John presents Jesus as another saving act of God; this time, though, God will liberate the world not just from slavery in Egypt, but save us from Sin.
This is bigger than what the Levites and priests were thinking. This isn’t a mere revolution, a pretty politician to undo all that Rome had instituted. This was freedom of a different sort. Freedom from all that shackles us in this world. Set free from expectations - our own or those placed on us. Liberation from the bonds of Sin that keep us from truly being with God.
And the best part is, this liberation is a gift! Rather than come demanding repentance, John notes that the point of Jesus is forgiveness. The lamb simply takes away the Sin of the world. And this isn’t just saving us from individual sinful acts, but it is a liberation from the whole sinful condition that alienates us from God - the whole mess we find ourselves in. Christ is giving and forgiving. Christ comes as unexpected. Christ is the focus.
All this shapes John and his ministry. We think this John is a weak, restrained prophet, and yet John clearly and certainly points to God, to a saving God, to a forgiving God, in everything he does. Even his familiar description of Jesus’ baptism is a way to point beyond himself to a God who gives the Spirit. He baptizes not to cleanse people from sin but to reveal God’s presence in the world.
John the Baptist has a clear sense of who he is and who he is not, of God’s presence and revelation when he sees it, and of his life’s work as a testimony to that revelation. It’s not wrapped in the flashy packages of the other Gospels, which maybe makes us gloss over his message a bit. And yet, John shows us that what we do reveals to others what we believe about God. Do we think God is lame? Mean? Vindictive? Loving? Forgiving?
What we do reveals to others what we believe about God.
Which is a pretty daunting task. But we have an opportunity to live like John and not like the scribes, levites, pharisees, or world. We have a chance to show that Christ has come, forgiving the sin of the world. We have a chance to live in the unexpected way Jesus did. The world may see that as lame. We may see that as lame. But, for those who know Christ and Christ’s purpose, life, and way, each time we act, we point to Jesus, we proclaim Christ, we share the love of God.
So, what does that look like? That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked. There are, of course, ways we can serve and point: feeding the hungry, giving donations to mission, engaging in bible studies and small groups that challenge us and shape us. Those are all well and good - ways that we step down as the focus and instead let God’s love guide what we should do.
But also, each of us has opportunity each day to point to Christ, and for each of us, it’s different. I can’t tell you what to do each and every day. But, the driving force behind our actions should be a God who takes away all that separates us from God and each other - and not by condemnation or violence or superiority, but by humility and sacrifice and love. By being the Lamb. If those things guide us, then we will truly be pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world.
John knows his role. It’s not the role the world expects of him. Rather, his role is shaped because he knows who Jesus is. He knows what Jesus came to do and how Jesus was to go about it. Jesus is the Lamb. The lamb revealed in forgiveness. Revealed in bread and wine. Revealed in humility, service, grace. It’s not always what we’re looking for, but it is how God works. It is how God saves. It is how we see the Son of God, who takes away the Sin of the world.
That first Christmas was beautiful, wasn’t it? When you look at Renaissance paintings or Hallmark cards, you get a sense of just how special it was. Close your eyes, just for a second, and I know you can see it. Mary, perfect powder blue dress, kneeling by her child - her head tilted just so. Joseph, standing proudly and, yet, curiously behind her. Animals of all various barnyard types looking on inquisitively. There is a certain glow being cast, not only upon, but seeming to come from the stable where they are gathered. Palm trees dot the landscape as angels and smiles surround the eight pound, six ounce newborn baby Jesus - who, despite being only hours old, seems quite at peace.
It is a perfect image. And that kind of picturesque scene reminds me of the yearly family Christmas cards that get sent out. We get dozens of them each year; I’m sure you get many yourself. There is a collage of the family on the front, dressed to the nines, sometimes all wearing matching holiday sweaters. There’s mom and dad, each holding a kid standing in the middle of a field when the sunset is just right. (Around here, there are a lot of pictures involving Christmas trees on the beach.) The kids have sparkling eyes and bright smiles. Maybe the family pet even makes it into the picture - and even the pets are smiling! Christmas cards often look perfect.
But, if you’ve ever had your pictures taken with the intent of using them for your Christmas card… you know the chaos that surrounds that one, brief, picture-perfect moment. Imagine trying to get everyone dressed in matching holiday sweaters, and, because you have to get these cards designed, printed, and mailed by December, you’re usually wearing those sweaters in August. Mom can’t find the right boots to wear. Dad keeps yelling to hurry up. Daughter spills juice on her dress. Son has a snotty nose he keeps wiping on his sleeve. The dog just pooped. The kids won’t leave each other alone. “Stop!” “It was an accident!” “No it wasn’t!” And so you plead with them. Just smile, just be good for ONE ONE-HUNDREDTH OF A SECOND so we can get a picture! Everyone always leaves a bit cranky on picture day. But, in the end, you get your beautiful, picture-perfect card.
And that’s what the Christmas story is about. No, not pictures. It’s about reality. About OUR reality. That’s what Christ is born into. We have this ideal, beautiful image of Christmas, but that first Christmas was anything but perfect! Nothing was ideal.
Mary, the mother, was an unwed teenager. Joseph wasn’t the father of the baby. Both were traveling a long way to a place they didn’t even know; they were foreigners in that land. And when they get there, there isn’t anywhere to stay. They were turned away at each place they went. Rejected. They were sent out back to the shed to deliver their baby, their first born son. There they were, in a stable, with real animals who smell and hay that isn’t as soft as you might think. It’s not beautiful. It’s kind of tragic.
Christ was born into this.
Christ was born for this.
See, Christmas cards and intricate paintings are great - they are an opportunity to tell a story, but it’s never the whole story. The reality of the first Christmas is that Christ was born for the whole story, not just the stuff we want people to see.
In the Christ child, God enters into our reality, into all of our reality. God enters the chaos, the imperfections, the craziness, and somehow makes it beautiful. God comes to this. Because God comes to this, like this, we can trust that God is present in any piece of our life, not just those worthy of a postage stamp. We know God is present in the brokenness and imperfections of our life, because God didn’t shy away from the brokenness and imperfections of Bethlehem.
That’s the gift of Christmas. God enters our lives - our real lives - and promises something beautiful.
As we gather tonight, some of us may feel like our lives are beautiful, while others of us may see nothing but brokenness and imperfection. Chances are, we’re somewhere in between. But we gather tonight to hear again the promise that, no matter what, Christ is born - born for you!
God is present in our lives. God is here in worship, giving us gifts of bread and wine, of song and word, of light and life. But the gifts don’t stop here. They don’t stop tonight. They don’t stop when we leave this place. God promises to carry on through into tomorrow and the next day. God promises to be born in our lives, no matter their shape. That includes the moments we put on Christmas cards, and those moments we don’t.
And more than that, God promises to work out something beautiful where we didn’t think it could be. As we think back to that first Christmas, the scene itself isn’t all that great. But we remember it fondly, not because it was pretty or perfect, but because God was present there. God’s presence is what makes the difference.
The baby born this night will show us the full extent of what God’s presence means. God will be present, in good and bad, but through it all, God promises to bring life. To bring grace. To bring forgiveness. To bring an empty tomb. To bring beauty despite whatever else is going on.
Our savior is born into this. Our savior is born for this.
And that is what we celebrate. God doesn’t shy away, but God comes. And God works. God works to make something beautiful where it didn’t look like it could be. Like a picture on a card. Or a birth in a barn. And even in our lives every day.
That’s the gift of Christmas. And it’s beautiful.
The book of Isaiah is broken up into three distinct sections. Without getting too much into the nitty gritty, I simply want to let you know that our lesson for today, Chapter 55, comes at the end of the second section of this book. As such, it’s kind of a summary of all that has gone on since Chapter 40. The focus of “Second Isaiah,” as it is called, is Israel returning home from exile, so things are upbeat, exciting, and hopeful.
However, as a summary of earlier statements and prophecies, it’s not quite as cohesive as what it’s summarizing. It bounces quickly from theme to theme, so it’s a bit hard to follow unless you’ve read straight through from Chapter 40, and I didn’t want to make Linda read all that. We’re pulling together lots of threads here, and lots of threads make it harder to understand. There is the beginning in verses 1 and 2 with imagery of food and drink. Then we all of a sudden jump to the restoration of the Davidic line in 3, 4, and 5. Then we are told in verses 6 and 7 to seek God. Verses 8 through 11 reflect on God’s unknown ways of working. Finally, the chapter concludes with all of nature rejoicing at the return of Israel to their home.
There’s already a lot to do the week before Christmas; adding “write a cohesive sermon incorporating all five of these themes” is supposed to make the list, too? Well, I’m going to have to ask you for forgiveness, because I’m not going to do that. The five themes piece, that is. I totally am going to try to have a cohesive sermon. And to help with that, I just want to focus on one piece.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
Is it an understatement to say God’s ways are surprising?
Throughout scripture, we human beings often have a hard time seeing or understanding why God is doing one thing or another. Generally in the Old Testament, our confusion revolves around something negative: a flood, an enemy winning, the chosen person is some outcast from regular societal norms. “God’s ways sure are peculiar,” say we the people.
Even today, we paraphrase this verse in the midst of negative situations that happen in our lives or others’ lives. In times when we don’t really know what is going on we say:
“It’s all in God’s hands.”
“The Lord knows.”
“Give it to God.”
It’s like God’s purpose is to make a bad thing happen just so we could be reminded that God can do what God wants. Deaths, disasters, destruction are all meant to remind us that we aren’t God. Which is kind of like having a bully for your god. He’ll shove you into the lockers just because he can. What’s the purpose in that? “Oh, God’s ways are not like our ways.” It’s almost unthinkable.
On the other hand, sometimes it is the complete opposite. Sometimes, God’s unknown ways are squarely placed in the context of something overwhelmingly positive. That is the case for Israel in today’s lesson. They are returning home! God’s unknown ways are providing blessing!
Again, to bring it to our context, often when something good happens, who gets the credit? We do, of course. We worked for it. We strategically placed ourselves in the right place at the right time. We’re good enough, smart enough, talented enough. We are deserving of the good things that happen. That’s the way we think.
But what if we’re wrong on both accounts? What if we’re wrong that God makes all this bad stuff happen to put us in our place AND we’re wrong about God taking a back seat when something beneficial happens in our life?
If God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, as high as heaven is from earth, well… what is the driving, motivating factor for God? What is God’s end game? I think it all comes down to purpose, to plan. The next few verses of Isaiah 55 help explain it.
God’s purpose is to bring life. Just as rain and snow descend from the skies, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seeds and food, so will God’s words go out and produce good things, growing things, life-giving things. God’s word accomplishes that which God purposes. And God’s purpose is to be like rain, to water, to nourish, to bring about life - life in every unpredictable circumstance there is.
That’s the key, there, I think. It isn’t just that God rolls some Divine Dice in heaven to see what will happen to you today. The world is random enough on its own. It’s that in all of those pieces of everyday, God is working to bring life. Often, we forget that piece of God’s quote/unquote plan. God’s plan to bring life. In the blessings, God is creating life. In the routine, God is working to create life. In those negative, not good, never-want-to-experience places, God so desperately wants to bring life.
And God says that the word that goes out will not return empty. It will accomplish that which God purposes, no matter what. That ties back into God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We see reality - not what could be. We see limits - not opportunities. We hope, but things don’t go as we planned. But God’s ways are not our ways. God can do more than we can. God is persistent through things we aren’t - through things we can’t be. God’s word will not come back empty.
The persistence of God’s word is the story of faith. A stable and a manger didn’t stop God. A betrayal didn’t either. Nor did friends fleeing. Not even a cross stopped God’s word. God sends the Word to accomplish life. God’s ways are not our ways. God will succeed in doing what God purposes. Who would’ve thought.
If God works to do that, to do the unthinkable, then surely in everything else God is on our side, working to make good. We don’t need to be bogged down in what is unknown about God: we know what we need to know. You are loved, loved to heaven and back. Loved an unthinkable amount. Loved with a purpose.
The people to whom Isaiah was preaching were hearing this Good News and being energized by it. This message is one full of potential. Anything is possible. God has set you free - and God will work to bring something new here. God will bring life, life in a new way. They don’t know exactly what that looks like - it’s all new - and they get to be part of that with God! And they know they are loved with a purpose.
And as we embark on our daily journey through life, with all the unpredictability of good and bad, we can trust that God’s promise in all things is to send the Word to accomplish life. We plan, we vision for the future. But God’s ways are not our ways. And sometimes, although things don’t always turn out like we plan, sometimes, just sometimes, they turn out wildly better. We don’t know exactly what is instore for us over the next weeks, months, or years, but we know what God’s purposes are: to bring life in unexpected, unthinkable ways. And we get to be part of that. We are loved with a purpose.
Bringing love and life to every situation is hard work. But God is committed to it and will not give up. In Christ we see the outcome. In Christ, we see God’s purpose. Life wins. Grace wins. Love wins. Who would’ve thought.
A quick bit of history on the prophet Ezekiel: Ezekiel preached and prophesied during a difficult time in Israel’s history. They had been overtaken by the Babylonians, deported out of their land, and banished into exile. They lost everything that ever meant anything to them: land, temple, family, identity.
Throughout Ezekiel’s ministry, he has visions - visions that weren’t just prophecies but metaphors for Israel’s situation and life. Today, we get probably the most famous vision: the valley of dry bones.
God’s call comes to Ezekiel, and God’s spirit leads him to a valley strewn with bones. It looks like the aftermath of battle; corpses are slain everywhere. But, they aren’t corpses anymore; they’re nothing but bones. There were bones all over the place - dry bones, picked clean of their flesh by scavengers, bleached out by the sun. These people were long dead. Not just sort of dead. Very dead.
Upon hearing this vision described, Israel would’ve said, “that’s us! We are lifeless in exile. We are nothing but a pile of bones.” Fragile. Apart from God. Empty. And the vision continues.
God says to Ezekiel, “prophesy to the bones.” And as he prophesies, there is this rattling noise, noise of bones moving and snapping together. Kind of creepy. Then there are sinews and muscles and skin. A little more creepy… There is wind from the four corners, and then there is life. Life out of a pile of dry, dead bones!
God concludes, "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil." Ezekiel's message is the promise that God's spirit will one day reach out and bring the people back from exile. That feeling of lifelessness will be gone. God will be present, bringing about something new and full and spirit-filled.
To which Israel says, “Amen! We can’t wait for that day!”
This is a remarkable vision Ezekiel shares. It is the promise of home while the Israelites feel so far away. It’s the promise of full presence in the midst of a feeling of emptiness. It’s the promise of life among that which was bone-dry.
And when we as Christians get this story, we can’t help but look at it through the lens of Jesus. We know what God did for Jesus - he who once was crucified, lifeless, laid in a tomb. God brought life out of death. And so we hear the prophet’s promise for Israel as a promise for us, too. Because of Jesus, one day, we won’t be dead, but alive! We won’t be dry bones but living beings! God promises to bring life out of bone-filled valleys, sealed tombs, and burried caskets. One day.
To which we say, “Amen. We can’t wait for that day!”
In this season of Advent, we wait - we wait for the promise to be fulfilled.
But… and I’m going to go against the theme of Advent here a bit… You don’t have to wait until you’re dead for the spirit of God to come. Because God’s Spirit is right under your nose.
See, there is an interesting thing about this passage. There is this one word that comes up a lot in the Hebrew - 10 times in 14 verses, actually. It’s the Hebrew word, “ruach,” which means spirit, breath, and wind. We translate it all three ways in our passage for today. We have spirit. We have breath. And we have wind. But those words don’t mean the same thing to us.
For example, breath and spirit are almost completely opposed to each other. Breath is just air flowing in and out of lungs. It’s routine. It’s mechanical. We can control it - mostly. Breathe in, breathe out. Spirit is quite different. It’s abstract. It’s unpredictable - crazy even. We can’t control it, no matter how hard we try. God’s spirit blows, and we never know what is going to happen. They’re not the same!
Yet, they are the same. In Hebrew, to Israel, in scripture, they are the same thing. We are supposed to hear them as the same thing - or at least super duper close to the same thing. One reminds us of the other. The clearest example of that probably happens in Genesis 2, where God gets down and crafts a human being out of the mud. But it was just mud until God breathed breath into it. God’s breath gave the dirt spirit. God breathed and the mud had God’s ruach. God breathed and there was life.
Where God’s spirit is, where breath is, there is life. New life. Resurrected life. In these bones of the valley, God’s spirit brings that life. In the mud-man God creates and breathes spirit into, God brings life. Into a stone-sealed tomb, God’s spirit brings resurrected life.
So, maybe we should abandon our English language differences between spirit and breath and hear “ruach” for what it is meant to be. Breath is spirit. Spirit is wind. It is all God’s ruach.
Which means as we breathe, each breath is God’s spirit coming in and out.
Which means God’s spirit flows in us and through us in rhythm.
Which means God is as near as the next breath you take; God is right under your nose.
Which means you don’t need to wait until you’re dead for the spirit of God to come.
If you’re breathing, you’ve got God’s spirit. And where God’s spirit is, God is creating life, new life, resurrected life. God’s spirit is close, doing all the things the spirit does - all the unpredictable, crazy blowing about - but also coming in a methodical, rhythmic, steady, life-giving way.
Knowing this, how does that change our lives? God is with us. Instead of turning faith into something we hope for, something we want to happen one day, God’s spirit says, why not right now? In how we live and move and have our being, God is with us. In all the uncertainty and change in our lives and in our congregation, God is present, bringing about something new and full and spirit-filled.
God gives us the spirit in routine, rhythmic ways and also in big gusts of change, all to bring life to what once was nothing but dirt and bones. It is a wind at our backs that moves us forward, to live out our faith now in ways we haven’t had the motivation, creativity, or plan for. It is a spirit of hope and excitement and newness, energizing us to invite, welcome, participate, and share. It is a breath, a promise of life, a gift of God’s presence, right under our nose.
God’s ruach is giving you life, giving you forgiven life, giving you new life. Transforming ordinary things into life-giving things.
God comes to the dirt and creates life. God comes to the valley and turns bones into living beings. God comes to bread and wine and gives us a meal that fills us with grace. God comes to water and the spirit grabs ahold of us forever. God comes to what was lifeless and gives it breath. God comes. And not just one day, but to-day.
So breathe. Let God’s spirit fill you. Trust that God is working now as much as God will work one day to come. Because without God, without the Spirit here, we’re nothing but bones.
Instead, God chooses to give us life. Life that is right under our nose.
And to that we say, “Amen.”
Donald Trump’s hair.
Barack Obama’s ears.
George W. Bush’s ears.
Bill Clinton’s nose.
In political cartoons, all these things get exaggerated. They are meant to mock - sometimes kindheartedly, but most of the time not. These cartoons typically combine artistic skill, exaggeration, and satire in order to question authority and draw attention to corruption, political violence, or other social ills. Their point is to poke fun at our political leaders - to make us smile or laugh or roll our eyes in the midst of things that might make us want to cry. The humor and mocking of political leaders helps us personally defend against feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.
Our story for today is full of such hyperbole. Believe it or not, this story of the Firey Furnace is a political cartoon of sorts. All of it is meant to mock the powers that be. In some of the verses we leave out, long lists of officials are repeated over and over; the numerous musical instruments are listed several times; the furnace is heated to seven times normal. These are all meant to mock the pomp and arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar - and pretty much any other king. It’s satire. It’s humor. It’s meant to tease earthly rulers, reassure listeners, and shed light on a different truth.
As the story begins, King Nebuchadnezzar has built a massive golden statue. It’s ninety feet high - and only nine feet across. Again, mocking. Wouldn’t a statue like that look ridiculous? But, regardless, the King commands that all must bow before it. Everyone must worship his statue! And thus, the conflict begins. This command directly challenges the faithfulness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The King then tells them, “If you don’t worship the statue, you will be pitched into a roaring furnace. Who is the god who can rescue you from my power?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faithfulness to God is exemplary. While the narrator mocks, these three are serious saints. They say, “Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, God can rescue us from your furnace - and anything else you cook up!” Pretty amazing. What examples. What icons of the faith!
So, remember the lesson which has been passed down via our Sunday school classes: have faith, beloved disciples of 2017! Do as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did! Stay perfect in faith and God will save you from everything! Trust and furnaces won’t hurt you! Believe and you won’t have difficulties! Have faith so great that God will save you, even from politics!
Ah, now it is me who is doing a little bit of mocking.
Even though following this admirable faith example is probably what we learned growing up… that can’t be right - at least, that can’t be ALL. Is salvation, is “being saved,” a mere formula? Are the results really in our control? And if we don’t get the desired result, did we not input enough faith?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith that God could save them is exemplary, but that is not the point of the chapter. And if not that, then what is?
Three little words open this story up for us. After the three assert what their God can do - God can save us! - then they say, “but if not…” But if not. In the midst of mocking our world and its leaders, this story takes a sober turn into something very real. “But if not,” cuts to a deeper truth that frightens us a little bit, but maybe in the midst of mockery we can hear it for what it is.
Who can save you, this cartoon character of a leader, or the God of Israel?
While Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t put their trust in the earthly leaders, it seems that they aren’t all that confident in God to save them either. “But if not,” expresses doubt, doesn’t it? But I see it a different way. God can save us, but if not, we still trust God to do what is right, to have us, to be who God is. It is confidence in God either way. It is trust that God has them, fire or not. It is faith, no matter what happens to them, even in the face of earthly arrogance and narcissism.
Yet, this faith is not a transaction with God. God is not a vending machine into which we insert our faithfulness and out comes the reward we are seeking. “If we do this, God, then you have to do that!” Instead, what these three show is an absolute faith, trusting in God and in God’s salvation even in the trials, pain, and fires of this world. They aren’t in it to gain anything for themselves. They know God is God, and God isn’t absent in those firey times, no matter what happens.
“But if not…” We don’t include that phrase too often in our prayers, because it is hard. “But if not” is hard to pray when faced with a firey furnace. “But if not” is hard to pray in a hospital room. “But if not” is hard to pray when we so desperately want something else.
But if not… God still has you.
God can save, heal, deliver. But if not... God still saves, heals, delivers.
Look at the life of Jesus. If faithfulness is what keeps one from pain, suffering, and death, well, Jesus should’ve qualified for a pretty cushy life. And yet, the Son of God, the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth, and the Life was put on trial, wrongly convicted, suffered at the hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. “Let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed the night before. But if not… But if not, I know you still have me.
The lesson we learn today isn’t that our faithfulness saves us. Only God can do that type of saving. Instead, we learn to trust God’s promise in the midst of it all. Trusting that promise, no matter what, gives us hope - hope that in all things, through all things, despite all things, God will save. That kind of faith frees us, gives us the ability to mock those things in our world that pretend to save us. Because they can’t. They won’t.
And more so, in a way, this story is less of a lesson and more of a promise. God and only God can spare us from the firey furnaces of this world. And sometimes, God doesn’t take away the difficulties in our lives. And if not, the promise is God is with you in the fire. And even more than that, God’s purposes can even be accomplished in, with, and through the fire.
We want to be saved from the furnaces, from the powers, from the crosses of our world.
But if not, God still has us.
But if not, God is still present, standing with us as flames are all around.
But if not, God has a way of rolling back tombstones.
But if not, God resurrects something new.
In this Advent season, we await a coming King who can save, does save, will save, once and for all. We know the promise; we trust the promise; we hope for the promise to be fulfilled. And so we stand, faithful in the midst of a world that calls us to worship other things, strengthened by a common meal, forgiven and loved, sealed by the ultimate “but if not” sign of the cross. A sign that shows us God still saves, heals, and delivers.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the time change, but I’m still surprised that it gets dark at 5:30 in the evening. Those who have brushed up on their solstices and equinoxes know that the days are getting shorter and shorter. Night time - the dark - is longer and longer.
There is something about darkness that unsettles us. Think about walking down a dark street at night. There is isolation, vulnerability, and threat. You can’t see as well, so your other senses get heightened. You hear every noise, and every noise makes the mind race about what evil could be lurking in the bushes. Imaginations get heightened in darkness, too. Even as adults, we’re not too different than the four-year-old who sleeps with her closet light on.
It’s amazing what just a little bit of light - a full moon, a night light, a lone candle - can do in darkness.
This is the image Isaiah sets before us today. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Isaiah is preaching to a people who truly live in dark times. Threats, empires, and powers surround Israel, and the people are afraid. There are weapons of violence and injustices all around. They don’t know how things will be for them. But there was a bigger issue at hand: God was silent in the face of their threats. The darkness of evil surrounds them, and they are in the dark about what God was going to do about it. The uncertainty, the caution, the vulnerability set in. Which is something we can relate to, too. We don’t like to be in the dark.
But that is where we are a lot of the time. You can pick any example from a long list of issues in our country and world where darkness casts its gloom. The problems of “then” are still the problems of now: misuse of power, unbridled violence, subtle and overt injustice. Darkness overshadows. In our own lives, we wrestle with our own problems. Sometimes it’s the darkness of disease we do our best to fight. Other times darkness barges into our lives, caring not for our thoughts or feelings on the matter. Sometimes things are outside of our control, leaving us without a clear view of what will happen next. Darkness leaves us helpless.
From our own personal struggles, to issues in our country and world, we wonder where God is. Why the silence? Why the violence? Why the distance? Why the darkness?
We are people who walk in darkness.
It’s amazing what even a little light will do.
And God doesn’t give us just a night light. God gives a great light; light shines in the darkness.
God sends this light to bring joy where there was none. Oppression will be defeated. The yoke, the staff, the rod will all be broken. The violence, the pain, even the marching boots and garments soaked in blood will be burned in a brightly glowing fire. What once was damaging and detrimental, God will take care of. The old ways of battle, injustice, and oppression will be transformed to peace and righteousness and light forever.
The Good News is this promise is for us, for all people who have walked in darkness. For a child has been born for us. A son given to us. God’s light comes in the form of a child. True authority rests on his shoulders. This authority is not a in yoke or a bar or a staff like what this world brings. Instead, he is the Prince of Peace, and his peace will be endless.
We know this to be true because God, the Lord of hosts, will do this.
When Isaiah was proclaiming this salvation oracle, in his mind, this soon-to-be-born child most likely was a king to come. He thought this because that is what he knew. He knew kings. And, in a way, he was right. But God often has a way of taking our good ideas and doing something great with them - something even greater than we can imagine.
It’s amazing what even a little light will do.
And God doesn’t give us just a night light.
God gives a great light; light shines in the darkness; God gives us Jesus, the light of the world.
Jesus is the light God gives. Jesus is the light that brings a vivid sense of hope and life into our world of darkness. Jesus is the light that brings peace to chaos. Jesus is the light that helps us see God’s plans for us. Jesus is the light that shows us darkness is not forever. Jesus is the light that shows us God.
In darkness, God shines. Out of emptiness, God promises. Out of the cross, God raises.
It’s amazing what even a little light can do.
Jesus is the light, but Jesus gives us his light, too. Why do we light a candle at a baptism and hand it over? Because we are given the light of Christ to share and shine in our dark world. There are things we know can bring some light. Whatever the thing you do that brings a little light and life to this world, now is the time to do it. Find courage in the gift of Christ who shines within you. Find hope in promise that darkness is not all there is. Find life in shining - not because it is always the best or brightest, but because God gave you that light to shine.
In our lives, as a congregation, as people of faith, God shines light - light that says what was, what is, that isn’t all. God’s light gives us hope. God has something new in store - something greater than we can imagine.
Hear the promises again: The Lord of hosts will do this. Will do this for the people who walked in darkness. A Son is given for us. Given for you. Every time we hear those words, “for you,” we are reminded. These words are full of hope, shining God’s light into our lives, giving us a sense of purpose, direction, life - things darkness doesn’t offer.
It’s amazing what a little light can do. So, let it shine.
Amos isn’t a very familiar prophet to most of us, but today we get probably the most famous line: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It was a common verse and theme used by Martin Luther King Jr., which may be why the verse sounds so familiar.
But there is a lot going on before we get to that line. So, let’s look.
We start off getting Amos’ first prophecy, and it isn’t a good one for the Israelites. The Lord roars; God is like a lion. The pastures of the shepherds wither. I mentioned a few weeks ago that shepherds are often associated with kings. It appears that the king’s rule is about to wither. Carmel, the place that is about to dry up, is the mountain at the border of Israel’s territory.
All in all, things aren’t looking good.
In verses 14 and 15 of chapter 5, Amos encourages Israel to repent. Turn from your ways of evil; do what is good; establish justice. That kind of stuff is always good to do, but particularly in this context it is. The wedge of inequity was being driven through society. There were the haves and the have-nots, and it was getting worse, not better. There were different classes of citizens, and the wealthy landowners played a big role in keeping it that way. Thus, Amos’ plea to repent.
In the last section, starting at verse 21, God speaks. And if you thought the first two sections were kind of harsh, look at this third piece. God is not happy.
“I hate; I despise; I take no delight in; I do not accept; I do not look upon them with favor; I do not listen to the “noise” of your hymnody.” Ouch. God is berating the Israelites over their worship.
But the Israelites love worship! They really enjoy it. They aren’t pouty or anything. Nor were they doing anything wrong. They aren’t worshiping idols. They do all the right things in their worship service - and do them sincerely! They have festivals and solemn assemblies. They offer sacrifices and sing all the old favorite hymns. They love it!
But God is remarkably harsh. So, what’s the problem, God?
The problem is worship doesn’t affect their lives. The people do all of the right things, but their daily practices are not shaped by God’s justice and righteousness, which genuine worship enforces. The inequality present in society is case in point.
This issue I now bring before you. God says worship should change us, shape us, mold us into living out justice and righteousness. There should be a connection between what we do right now and, say, Tuesday at 4:30 in the afternoon. Our actions in here should shape and inform what we do out there. In short, what difference does what we do in worship make?
Let’s start with an easy one. Communion. It is the meal we celebrate as Christians. For us as Lutherans, it’s an important piece of worship. We commune at Jesus’ table; Jesus is the host. He feeds us and nourishes us. He gives us what we need for our stomachs and our souls. And based on who Jesus ate with during his lifetime, we take that as an example for our practice. Jesus shows us that anyone is welcome at his table, and so we welcome everyone. All are welcome. That’s the theological, worshipful part. Now, what difference does that make, not just here and now, but in your life?
I think what it does is it shapes other meals in our lives, particularly meals with and for the outcast, the lowly among us, the ones who aren’t welcomed very often. As an example of living this out, we open up our fellowship hall to feed the homeless. We set the tables, we serve, we feed. But we do more than just give them food. We interact with them. We feed their souls as well as their stomachs. We invite any and all to the meal. All are welcome to eat. We do for them what Jesus does for us. We welcome, we feed, we nourish. That is how worship transforms one aspect of our life.
How about something a little harder?
Confession. We often confess our sins on a Sunday morning. We read together a confessional prayer and hear again the promise of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. It’s a time when we are verbally reassured. We remember again the foundation of our relationship with God. We often are pointed to the fact we are joined to Jesus in the waters of baptism. Because of baptism, we have the visible reminder that God continually comes to us through the Holy Spirit, offering a forgiven new life each day and forever. In confession, we are free to let go of what was, created anew to grow into the promises of God.
And surely, you can confess each day. No problems there. But aside from that, what does it mean that you are a baptized child of God? Each day, we have the chance to remember that gift of grace. Water - a splash, a shower, a drink, a rainstorm - water makes invisible grace visible to us. The more we remember our forgiven status, the less we carry around the weight of guilt, hurt, or questions on our standing with God. Instead, we remember we are fully known and fully loved. And as we remember this gift is for us, we start to see it as a gift for others, too. We live out the grace we have received - through our interactions, through our giving, through being more like who God made us to be - which might just mean striving for righteousness and justice - being gracious to those people we sometimes think don’t deserve it. It’s a daily walk of forgiveness.
Ok, now let’s flip it around. Let’s take a life issue and see how worship informs us on that. How about the shooting in a Texas worship service last week? Yet again, people dug in their heels pretty quick on the opposing sides. No surprise. But how does worship shape us in this situation? There are lots of ways to go with this, and some of you might get a little squirmy during this conversation, but hang in there.
First, one of the things that gets said a lot after a shooting is “thoughts and prayers.” Now, we pray during worship; it is good and right to. In fact, Barb has a petition ready to go to pray for those families and the community. But my issue is, “thoughts” aren’t prayers and “prayers” aren’t thoughts. Prayer is conversation with God - and if it is conversation, that means God speaks, too. In prayer, God works to shape us, to help us see God’s will with the intent that our will starts to align with “thy will be done.” Prayer should cause us to live more like God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, not just be nice thoughts in our head.
But worship can help inform us in another way, too, and that is through community. Community is an important piece of worship - gathering with the faithful. We gather with neighbors from all walks of life, to share joys and sorrows, to support each other, to learn and grow together, to be one Body. It’s a gift to be part of a community.
And here’s where a worshiping community can inform our lives: we can love our neighbors out there as we do in here. And not just in the metaphorical, across the world kind of neighbors. But our literal neighbors, those in our community. So often these days, we don’t know who is in our community. We’re so fixated on our individuality, we don't know how to balance that with our need for community and the responsibility to look out for one another.
Worship gathers all people as part of God’s family. So, each day, we can live like the body of Christ with those who are in proximity to us, doing what we do as a community of faith - checking in on them, loving them, supporting them. So often, these are crazy guys with no support system; what would it look like if we could support someone who was struggling, or hold accountable someone who thought violence would solve an issue, or walk with someone who simply needed a human connection?
I’m not saying that this will stop all mass shootings ever til the end of time. But loving a neighbor can’t hurt anything, right? I’ve never heard that there was too much love in the world. So many people desperately need acceptance and love; not having that wreaks havoc in so many ways. Worship is a place where we learn to accept and love someone else because God accepts and loves them, too. Maybe it is time to live that out in our daily lives.
At the end of the day, worship is meant to point us to God’s righteousness and justice - things that we strive for, even though we know our best won’t quite get us there. And so, we come to hear the promise that we are in God’s hands, and God has set the victory in motion. We leave this place, doing our best to be living testimony to that fact, fed and nourished, forgiven and claimed, welcomed and accepted. Now and forever.
For all the saints.
Today is a day in which we remember the saints in our lives. While there are some days in the Church calendar dedicated to certain historical people, today is less about heroic figures of faith and more about people we ourselves have known and loved. We celebrate those in our lives who have told us the story of God through living their own story. It’s not just about famous people church buildings are named after; it’s about your mother. Your husband. Your children, your siblings, your friends. Your saints.
The flipside of this day is that their story has ended. Because today isn’t just a day when we remember saints in our lives; it is a day we remember the saints in our lives who have died.
Not an All Saints Sunday goes by that I don’t think about my grandmother who died back in 2001. Not a funeral goes by without me thinking about her, for that matter. For numerous reasons, she is the saint I think about most often. Maybe it was the way she was so involved in church; maybe it was her cutting out little prayers from the newspaper and encouraging me to read them at Thanksgiving; maybe it was just the first real loss I had in my life… or maybe it’s that she is a saint who showed me God in ways I didn’t even know. She’s the saint I most often remember. You might have someone like that, too.
In particular, the tradition today is to name those who have died in the past year who were members of our faith community. It’s not that the other saints don’t matter; they do. We remember some of them today, but we surely can’t remember them all.
And it’s not that grief disappears after twelve months. Surely it hangs around. But there is something particular about grief in the first year. Old habits have a bit more pain to them; the stories are more colorful and vivid; the empty seat at the table seems a little more prominent. There are all the “firsts” without them - first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary.
Grief. It is palpable. What we wouldn’t give for God to intervene, to reverse the pain, to ease the sorrow, to let us feel normal again. We ask God to rewrite our current story, to appear in our lives in ways that will convince us that everything is going to be alright. We want God to move mountains - or at least show up.
This is where Elijah’s story can be helpful to us. Elijah is on the run, afraid, grief-stricken over his situation. He wants God to show up. In his flight away from Jezebel, he ends up at Horeb, the mountain of God. This is the very same mountain Moses ascended and received the 10 Commandments. Surely, God will intervene, right?
Elijah is instructed to stand on the mountain because God would indeed come - just what Elijah wanted! A powerful sign, a convincing presence, a mighty deed to assure him that everything would be OK. He wouldn’t need to be grief-stricken any more.
Then there was a strong wind - so strong that it broke apart rocks! But God was not in the wind.
Then there was an earthquake, shaking the whole mountain! But God was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake was a fire, blazing and burning. But God was not in the fire.
Where was God? And then, nothing.
The sound of sheer silence.
A gentle and quiet whisper.
A still, small voice.
At other times, to other people, God had shown up in magnificent, miraculous, impressive ways! But here, God chooses another way, a way very different from those other ways.
As we grieve, we want the fires, the earthquakes, the winds; we want the grand moments to prove to us that God is bigger than what we feel. However, God chooses to be present in places, ways, and people that aren’t quite as flashy. God is present in the silence. God is there in the stillness. God is there when it seems like nothing is there.
We may feel abandoned by God, but nothing is farther from the truth.
Elijah is just one example of God showing up in ways we don’t think. Christ on the cross is another. At the point when Jesus feels the most abandoned, God is not distant. Even when it feels like all was lost, and death won the victory, God shows up with resurrection, new life, and an empty tomb. Death writes one story; God writes another.
Now, for sure, resurrection isn’t as quiet as a still, small voice, but it shows God continues to work in any and all circumstances. In the ultimate silence that is death, in the small stillness that is grief, God whispers one.
God speaks. God continues to show up in ways that surprise. God sticks to the promise to be in our lives - to give us life! - no matter what happens.
Jesus lives to tell us that promise. Death is not the end. It does not take us, or the saints, away from God. Instead, Jesus gives us hope - hope that we, too, can follow the example that has been set for us. We can be faithful, a model for others in our own lives. We are part of the saints of God - forgiven, claimed, promised life.
That is the heart of the Gospel, isn’t it?
The Good News is that God has and does show up to give us promise, silently, loudly, with a whisper and a wide open tomb. God has an amazing way of grabbing ahold of sinners and transforming them into saints, taking what was broken, misplaced, even dead, and turning it into something new, something full of hope, something resurrected. Every single day.
It is what God does through baptism: washing us and claiming us so we continually die to our broken, sinful selves and rise up as the saints of God. God feeds us with bread of life, sustaining us so we can continue our journey. God provides what we need - both in tomb-busting events and still, silent ways - all so God can bring life.
For Elijah, God tells him to go back. He’s not alone. There are thousands more. His story is not over. And, because of God’s work in Christ Jesus, that also is the story of the saints. That is our story, too. In our grief, in our death, God keeps writing. God writes the story of love that transforms us, transforms us from lonely, broken human beings into the forgiven, redeemed saints of God.
That story gets whispered. It gets sung. It gets shouted. It gets told. It is the story, for all the saints.
If your Baptist friends think you’re Catholic,
and your Catholic friends think you’re Baptist,
you just might be Lutheran.
I stole that joke from a newspaper article Barbara Myers gave me. I don’t know if I could’ve been that clever.
Here's how clever I got. To honor Luther’s famous words when he was asked to recant his position and fall back in line with the Catholic church, I wanted to change all the “we stands” in the bulletin to “here we stands.”
But enough of the silly chit-chat. Today is a pretty big day!
On October 31, 1517, right at 500 years ago, a monk teaching at the university of Wittenberg posted a set of 95 theological arguments on the door of the castle church in order to invite an academic debate. This was not terribly out of the ordinary. 99.9% of the time, it would have occasioned little more than an opportunity for academics to do what they love to do most: argue about things no one else really cares about.
But this time was different.
Because of a strange overlap of circumstances – religious, political, societal, cultural, and even technological (think “printing press”) – this teacher’s theological theses eventually went viral and was the spark that started the whole blaze we know as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, the monk in question, ended up being one of the most pivotal figures in Western history.
And on this 500 year anniversary, it’s good to reflect on what the Reformation is all about.
For some, it’s saying “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” to Catholics. We’ve got it right, you’ve got it wrong. We are justified by grace through faith, not by works, or prayers, and especially not by purchasing it. But division isn’t good; it isn’t what Martin Luther wanted it. And having that kind of attitude stalls any sort of reconciliation to being the church as God intends.
For others, the Reformation shows that the church should always be reforming, creating, changing. Which is nice in theory, but we hate putting it into practice. It hurts to change, to reform - even if what is on the other side of the reformation is full of hope and promise. We still have to leave something that “was” or “is” to get to “what will be.”
Some don’t think any more about it than a day in history. Some celebrate it because of heritage. Others for the theology. So, what is the Reformation about?
And after going around and around, I finally decided to let the Bible tell me. Good pastoral insight, right? After all, Luther changed the world because he read his Bible; maybe I should do that, too. And looking at our Scripture passages for today, I think they point us in the right direction.
Reformation is about the freedom we have in God’s love.
Which is a really hard message to preach, actually, and that’s based on a couple of things. First, it is hard to preach because our American idea of what freedom is rubs up against what Jesus and Luther think freedom is. We think freedom is being able to choose: choose an opinion, choose a career, choose what you want on your hamburger. That’s not what Jesus or Luther were talking about. We’ll get to more on that in about six minutes.
Second, saying that God’s love sets us free means that we weren’t - or aren’t - free. Which can be pretty offensive to us self-made, independent people. To get an example, look at Jesus in John’s Gospel.
Jesus offers the Jews who were following him freedom. Made insecure and offended by the implication that they are not free, they push back. “We don’t need your freedom; we’ve never been slaves!” (Apparently forgetting about that whole Egypt thing.) We, too, have a desire to justify ourselves and exclaim, “we’re not slaves!” But maybe we aren’t as free as we think. Sin binds us - and not just the little, petty, wrong things we do, but Sin being the lack of trust in God to provide, in God to guide, in God to accomplish for us. In Sin, we are bound as slaves - slaves to hiding our wrong, slaves to needing to justify our actions, slaves to our own distorted truths.
But Jesus comes to give us freedom. Those chains are gone. We are not bound by them anymore. We know we are welcome in God’s household, because Jesus has set us free from all of that.
Reformation is about freedom from self- justification.
Jeremiah tells us how God frees us from our past. Israel was pretty unfaithful to God, breaking their covenant. A past like that can define us. The past can trap us, hold us hostage if we’re not careful about it. It can remind us of our shortcomings and failures and regrets. It limits us. It holds us back. It dangles our disappointments over us. It convinces us that we have no hope and drowns us in guilt. Yet, God will - and already has - forgotten all our sin. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” And here’s the thing: no memory of the past, no memory of sin, and so the future is open. You’re free.
Reformation is about freedom from what was.
Paul in Romans reminds us that we all fall short. It’s the difficult truth of being slaves to Sin. It’s the past we carry around with us. And yet, even though all have fallen short, we hear the gracious news that we are now justified by grace as a gift. An unearned, undeserved gift that no amount of effort on our part could get. God gives us exactly what we need to be saved, to be justified, to be set apart for life with God, now and forever. This is a gift that changes our lives, our Church, and the whole world.
Reformation is about freedom from wondering about what we have to do.
From Jesus setting us free, to freedom from our past, to freedom to be who we are as saints and sinners… Luther’s hammering of his theses against the Wittenberg Church door reminds us that grace has the final word. And that grace is a gift, given because God loves us. We don’t need to do anything, earn anything, say anything, accomplish anything, or buy anything to earn God’s love. We are free from all that. We are free.
We are free to be the children God created us to be.
And here’s where our sense of freedom starts to rub up against the call of what freedom in Christ is. We aren’t just free for us. We are free for others, free to love, to serve, to share, to give, to be bold in the Gospel. And the best way to do that is to be the Church. To be the Reformation Church. To be God’s Church of freedom in God’s love and grace, and to always, always, always have that at the forefront of who we are.
God keeps giving us gifts to remind us - bread and wine, water and Word, even 500 year anniversaries - to keep pointing us back to the promise we have in Jesus Christ. You are free. Free, not to look back, but to look forward. Free to be the Church now, and tomorrow, and to set the path for the next 500 years. You are free, free to be formed into the image of Christ. Free to set the world ablaze with the Gospel of God.
You are free. You are loved. You are God’s own.
That is what the Reformation is about.
David is a pretty popular guy in the Bible. His story takes up most or all of First Samuel, Second Samuel, and First Chronicles. It is the longest story about one human being in the entire Old Testament. It also just happens to be one of the most important theologically.
As David’s life progresses, he is promised much - his heir will reign forever! And as David’s story unfolds, we have to wrestle with what exactly that promise means. As the one Kingdom splits into two; as the prophets come preaching promise and repentance; as Jesus of Nazareth is born as the Messiah - all of it comes back to David and the promises God made to him.
Last week in worship, left off with a young boy named Samuel in the Temple, called by God to be a prophet and proclaim God’s promises for what was to come to Israel. What was to come was a king.
The first king of Israel was Saul, but it wasn’t long before power went to Saul’s head. He was supposed to meet regularly with the prophet Samuel to offer sacrifices to God and get instruction; he decided to go it on his own. When Samuel confronted Saul about this, Saul denied and deflected, made excuses and blamed everyone else. Words got heated, and as Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed for him and tore the prophet’s robe. Samuel knew that Saul could no longer be king, and the two never met again.
Right after this incident is where we pick up today. Samuel is grieving over the failure of the first king.
God, however, is ready to move on. God wastes no time in telling Samuel to go anoint the next king. All Samuel knew was that it would be one of the sons of Jesse, which narrowed it down to eight people. So, Samuel took the trip up to Bethlehem and asked Jesse to meet his sons. One by one, they came before him, and each time Samuel thought, “Surely this one is it!” But seven sons later and God still hadn’t given the OK. Samuel then sent for the youngest son, David, who was out tending the sheep.
Here lightbulbs should be binging on in our heads. Even if you don’t know that David indeed is the one to be anointed king, there are two big clues. First, “shepherd” is one of the oldest and strongest metaphors for king in the Bible. This is because, at their best, a king should do what a shepherd does: protect, feed, provide for, gather his people. What was David doing? He was out shepherding.
Another key here is that David is the youngest of Jesse’s sons. While normally it is the oldest who gets all the goods, God has already displayed a fondness for the youngest at other moments up to now: Able instead of Cain, Isaac instead of Ishmael, and Jacob instead of Esau, and now David instead of everyone else.
Young David, the shepherd boy, comes on the scene, and Samuel is told to anoint him as king.
God inverts the usual way of proceeding. God chooses the youngest, the smallest, the least likely. God explains the choice: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Yay, God! You don’t look at the outside. It’s what’s inside that counts!
What terrible news! At least it is terrible news for those of us who have thoughts and feelings. I mean, sure, it’s bad to do bad things, and it looks bad when you do bad things, so we try not to do bad things. But think about all the things you have in your heart that you don’t do or say. God looks at that! Think of all the commandments you’ve broken in your heart. All the revenge and anger, greed and desire, judgment and selfishness, wishing harm yet coveting goodness. Think of all the ways you are probably worse on the inside than on the outside. It’s not so pretty when we get honest about it. God SEES that. That’s what God looks at.
We, however, try our best to differentiate between head and heart; we THOUGHT those things, didn’t feel them in our heart. We didn’t really want to do those things. They just kinda popped in out of nowhere. They were passing, fleeting feelings that don’t define me as a person. Hmmmm. Nice try. See, Biblically and in Hebrew tradition, there is no difference. The heart drives those thoughts and feelings into the head. Separating the two is just our little loophole to make us feel better about ourselves.
We can avoid it; that’s up to you. It’s might be easier that way. But avoiding it doesn’t fix anything. To fix something, to change something, like anything in life, first we’ve got to admit that there is a problem. We have to admit something isn’t working.
And this is where David can be a positive example for us and for our relationship with God. See, David did some pretty bad things, both inside and out. If you know anything about the rest of his story, you know that he was an adulterer, schemer, and murderer. And when confronted about his actions, he… admits it. He feels remorse. He knows that he needs forgiveness - and more than forgiveness, he needs a clean heart, a new spirit.
David could admit it. Sometimes we can’t. (Hence all our excuses and parsing of what “counts” and what doesn’t.) But David gives us an example in Psalm 51; he desired to be changed. He asks God to do something to change him. And if we take a good honest look, we’ve probably got some things in our heart that need cleaning.
For us, admitting that is hard. But as we do, as we begin to open up to the ways God is already changing our hearts, we grow into the new spirit God puts in us. We become more attune to what is not right with us, and more easily allow God to create.
And the thing is, God already knows us. God already knows our outward appearance; God knows our hearts, too. God know us, through and through. And even in the face of that, God loves us. That’s where the Good News lies. Not that we can hide our bad parts from God so that God loves the fake facade of us, no. The Good News is that God loves us despite our bad bits.
It can be a turning point to recognize that. It’s not what we do or don’t do; it’s God - God who loves us despite it. And God loves us so much that God works on creating in us new hearts.
God creates in us clean hearts through forgiving us, assuring us that we are loved and cared for. It frees us to be truly upfront and honest with ourselves and God. It opens us up to change. We mess up. We do, we think, we feel ways that aren’t in line with God. And God has mercy on us.
God creates in us clean hearts through challenging our status quo. By urging us to move beyond what simply “is” or “what has been,” God creates clean hearts. We’ve been talking this month about growing in generosity. As we grow, as we are led forward, as we take on spiritual disciplines of prayer and study and tithing, we lean less on outward appearance
or what’s in our pockets
or what’s in our hearts
or ourselves in general…
and lean more on the goodness and grace of God.
God creates in us clean hearts through worship - worship where it is less about us making God feel better though our praising, but instead where God makes us feel better, be better through words of life. God feeds us through community; God nourishes us through song; God sustains us with the bread of life; God provides a life-giving promise of hope, grace, and love.
God creates clean hearts. God puts a new spirit within us. God draws us into His presence. God sets us free so that we can be renewed and restored.
God sees us for who we are, inside and out. And still, God in Christ promises to restore to us the joy of salvation. God welcomes us into the Kingdom, with a king who reigns as was promised - forever & ever.
Today we read the call of Samuel. It’s a story some of us may remember from our childhood. Indeed, we tend to try to teach this story to children because it shows that God speaks to, and even calls, children. It lets them know they have a place in God’s story, too.
And that is important. I wholeheartedly believe that. But while the sentiment is true, I don’t think that this story is really about Samuel - at least not yet. Up to this point in chapter three, this has really been Eli’s story. Our lesson for today is the turning point where Samuel begins to become the main character; but, for now, let’s focus on the other guy for a bit.
So, Eli... Eli is not good at his job. He’s a priest in the temple, a teacher, a prophet! And each chapter so far in the story tells us about some way Eli has screwed up.
In chapter one, we meet Hannah, a barren woman. She desperately wants a child with her husband, but so far that hasn’t happened. So, she goes to the temple to pray. As she prays, she does it silently, only her lips moved. In walks Priest Eli. He sees Hannah and you know what he says? He jumps to the conclusion that she is drunk! “Sober up, woman!” Really? A woman in the temple and the priest’s first thought is she’s drunk? When Hannah explains that she is not drunk, only praying, Eli quickly shifts gears and offers a blessing.
Hannah does get pregnant, by the way. She bears a son and calls him Samuel. And somehow she still sends him to work with the crazy priest, Eli.
In chapter two, Eli is in charge of his two sons who are also priests. Let’s just say he didn’t do a good job training them. They are so bad at being priests, a prophet was sent to condemn the house of Eli.
And now here in chapter three, we get Samuel’s calling - except Eli, the PRIEST, doesn’t know it is God calling. If anyone in the story should be attuned to God - or at least THINK about God some - it should be Eli. But, for some reason, it takes Samuel coming three times to say, “Here I am” for Eli to think maybe God is doing something here.
But maybe I’m being too hard on Eli. Maybe he was doing the best he could. Priests and pastors often have lofty expectations set upon them, and at some point they/we miss the mark. So, next time I see you and ask if you’re drunk, you’ll have to forgive me, right?
But back to Eli. Maybe I am being too hard on him. We start off our lesson hearing, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It seems God didn’t show up as much, was not as prominent, not a whole lot of activity. But is that any reason for a priest to lose sight of God?
Maybe Eli wasn’t all that great to start out with, but maybe another piece of the puzzle is that Eli got complacent with how things were. He stopped looking and listening. He stopped challenging himself and moving forward. In short, he stopped growing.
Not that we ever get complacent about faith and life with God. Settled. Comfortable with where we are or who we have become - individually and as a community. The routine is simple, the status quo is nice, complacency is easy.
But does God call us to an Eli-like faith? Or does God encourage us to grow, to keep striving to see and hear God - even when it seems like God has been quiet for a bit? I think God wants us to keep growing in faith so we can see and hear.
Let me give you something of an example.
I get up and get to the gym every weekday morning at 5:30.
Ha! You believe that? It’s not that early. It’s more like 5:35.
It’s not too crowded at that point in time, but we do have the gym regulars every gym has: There’s the guy that does too much weight and so he swinging the giant dumbbells around. There’s the guy who doesn’t ever really do anything but he puts his hand on some of the machines as he talks to people.
And for a long time, I just went to the gym and walked around and was like, “This machine looks good!” I’d choose a weight and do some moving of metal. Then I’d move on to the next thing. I was there! I was working out! It was something - and something is better than nothing, right? Some days I’d walk in there and I was maybe a little lazy, so I’d pick up a small weight. Other days I was motivated enough to do more. I could’ve carried on that way, and it’d be fine. But that’s it. It was just fine.
I decided I really wanted getting up at that hour to make a difference in my life; I wanted to grow in taking care of myself. So I did some research on proper techniques, different exercises, and I came up with a routine. I would write down what I did and how many times I did it. I wrote it down so I could try to do better the next time. Isn’t “doing better next time” what we call growth?
Now, I’m not going to be Mr. Universe or anything like that (I like beer too much). But I do weigh a more appropriate amount than I would if I didn’t work out at all - and even when I went to the gym but just kinda did whatever. I’d probably be an even more appropriate weight if I didn’t like beer so much.
And it’s not just with gym or health. Faith needs to be worked out and challenged from time to time. Unchanged status quo can lead to complacency and missing God where and when God shows up. This month we’ve been talking about “Growing in Generosity.” Today, Linda talked about practical ways to grow; evaluate where you are right now and take a practical step to do a bit more. Because if we are the same week after week, year after year, decade after decade… well, we start to sound like Eli. We become unchallenged and complacent. And so we stop growing. When we stop growing, we stop noticing the new ways God comes on the scene.
And not just with giving - though that might be the most challenging place for us to grow. But spiritually, Biblically, faithfully there are opportunities in this very community to grow and encounter God anew. Bible studies, Small Groups, personal devotion - all are ways to grow as individuals.
Then as a congregation, what would it take for us to grow? And not just numbers or financially, but what would it take for us to grow spiritually? To grow in mission? To grow in ways that we can’t necessarily write down? Where has the word of the Lord been rare to us for a while and so we stopped paying attention and let the stagnant, status quo go on? Where is God speaking, urging us to change our default and see what happens?
Eli’s story tells us that God shows up in the midst of our complacency and static state of affairs. And God speaks in order to get us to grow, to move, to see - and not just for the sake of shaking things up, but so that we can better see God’s promises.
God speaks to Samuel, calls Samuel with a promise, a promise that the status quo couldn’t fulfill. Samuel, Eli, the people of God grew a little on that day, and in growing were able to see the promise of what was to come. And along the way, God would provide what was needed: leaders, presence, prophets. God called them forward, promising the way things are now aren’t the way they will always be.
And in Jesus, God doubles down on that promise, showing us that the way things are now aren’t the way they will always be. It’s something the Pharisees missed in their satisfied condition. God promises more. Jesus sends the Spirit to us. Jesus brings life for us. Jesus brings promise of what could be to reality.
Jesus wants us to see that reality now. And we see better as we grow in faith. As God feeds and nourishes us. As God forgives us and raises us up each day. As Jesus walks with us, day in and day out. Because of that, we grow, and we start to see God around us in ways we never had before.
God doesn’t call us for status quo; God calls us for promise. For life. For blessing for us and for blessing the world.
God speaks. God speaks.
Keep on speaking, Lord, for your servants are listening.
Things in the past are always better. Even if they weren’t.
That is where we are sitting today with the Israelites. Because we had our Reformation hymn sing last week, we missed where the Israelites were before today. We didn’t get to hear that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. And not like “boy, they had to work really hard” kind of slaves. Like really slaves: owned as a piece of property and told what to do and when to do it with no exceptions ever. But, God sends Moses to Egypt to say, “Let my people go!” After some back and forth, the Pharaoh of Egypt finally does just that. He lets them go.
So, with girded loins and unleavened bread in hand, the Israelites take off for the Promised Land. God freed them! And when it looked like trouble was coming in the form of horses, chariots, and an Egyptian army, God pulls the miraculous stunt of splitting the Red Sea so the people could walk through on dry land. They were slaves, but now they are free! They were stuck in Egypt, but now are on their way to the Promised Land!
Today we pick up with the Israelites in the midst of their second month of freedom. That’s just over one month of being free after 400 years of slavery. One mere month of walking toward what God promises after making brick after brick after brick every single day of their lives. And that’s when the complaining begins. “I wish we were back in Egypt. At least we had food there. Are we there yet?” Things in the past are always better - even if they weren’t.
Do you get what they’re saying? They are looking back on their time as slaves with a nostalgic glow. As terrible as things were, they still long for that, hold on to that, even if going back there would preclude them from the new adventure God promises is in store. There is no way that is better! After the miraculous things God has done, and despite what God promises yet to do, you’re going to wish things were like they were? It seems it’s always hard to move forward.
God doesn’t handle their complaining like many road-tripping dads would: “I’m going to turn this whole Exodus around if you don’t shape up!” Nope. God frees them. God feeds them. God promises them more. God gives them what they need. God keeps urging them onward; the past is not the future for them. God has something better - way better - in store. So, God provides what they need to keep walking. Even if it is hard. Even if they don’t know what’s coming. Even if they kinda miss what was.
It’s a good thing the Church is nothing like the Israelites.
Oh, wait. I mean, the Church the exactly like the Israelites.
God frees us from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. God brings us through the waters of baptism to a promised new life. God feeds us with the bread of heaven, Jesus Christ. God calls us on to promises we have yet to realize, on a mission to be God’s people from here on out. And what do we do with that freedom and food? What do we do with that baptism and calling?
Do we complain that things aren’t like they were?
Or do we walk ahead with God?
Many of us still long for the “it” of days of yore. We still long for it, hold onto it, including whatever slavery is attached to it. We look back with longing - even if looking back keeps us from starting on the new adventure God has in store. Sometimes walking with God means leaving our fleshpots and bread of slavery and moving toward God’s heavenly manna in freedom, mission, and ministry. Or to say it another way: as long as we feel our best days are behind us, we’ll never move forward to where God is calling us to go.
At this point, some of you are squirming a bit. Getting a bit hot under the collar. Maybe a bit irritated. Frustrated. Mad? You think I’m talking about you and the “it” you wish we still had.
I am. And I’m talking about the “it” of the person next to you, too. And my “it.” We all have something we long for, something we won’t have, can’t have anymore. And holding on to whatever “it” is keeps us stuck. Makes us complain instead of grow. Makes us stop instead of move forward.
Walking with God, moving forward, trusting God doesn’t mean we lose everything we loved about what was. We’re in the midst of a month where we are celebrating 500 years of Reformation. Our past is important in shaping us as a community. We won’t lose that. On the other hand, nor should we move in a “keeping up with the Joneses,” just-because kind of way. We aren’t them; they aren’t us. Instead, we move forward with God, trusting that God promises something as we walk. Walking with God means we will experience something new - which just might be ok. Heck, it might be even better if we’d just trust that God is present, providing, and the principal driving force.
As long as we feel our best days are behind us, we’ll never move forward to where God is calling us to go.
We are at a point in the life of the Church, this church, where God is calling us forward with a promise of raining bread from heaven. God is calling us to a future the likes we’ve never experienced. We cannot have the past as we want it to be. The question for us is, can we step into a future that we can’t really even imagine yet? Can we live into, walk forward to a future that can only be lived into by faith?
Instead of looking back, longing for the past, clinging to what was, can we learn the new skill of walking with the Lord now? Can we depend on God as we take a step?
Because, if it is up to God, God will provide us what we need to keep moving forward, to keep moving to God’s chosen destination, not our own. Even if it is hard. Even if we don’t know what’s coming. Even if we kinda miss what was.
But instead of thinking like that, can you imagine what the possibilities could be? What could God do with us, with this community, with these people, with people who aren’t even here yet but could be? We could be the place where we, where our kids and our grandkids, look forward to coming to, where they are fed and nourished and grow in faith and love of Jesus. They could be excited to come here and participate and learn and worship.
The people, the community, the worship, the music could point us to the holy presence of God in our midst, where our singing and joy fills this space and overflows out into the streets.
We could be a place of radical welcome and acceptance and hospitality and invitation for people from all walks of life. We could be a people who reach out to our neighborhoods to be the presence of Jesus. We could even stoop down to serve the least among us, serving as Christ has served us.
We could be light for the world, salt for this earth, a city on hill. We could be like the manna God sends - purposeful, constant, nourishing for those who come and even for those who don’t come.
We could. We can be.
God will continue to take care of us. That is the promise of manna. But clinging to fleshpots in Egypt is not trusting God to take us to a new place. God was present in what was, that is for sure. But God promises also to be present in what will be. And God will be there in between it all, too.
We are not in this on our own. We go with God. We are fed by Jesus. We are led by the Spirit. All for the sake of God’s promise that we can be people who bless the world.
In light of that, let’s take a walk.
You may know someone like Jacob. They are wily, conniving, and somehow always seem to come out a little bit ahead. If you don’t know someone like Jacob, then it’s probably you. Ha! Just kidding. Or am I?
We’ve fast-forwarded in the Biblical story a bit since last week. Last week, Isaac was a young boy; this week, he’s an old man who can’t see. He asks Esau, his older son, to go hunting and prepare a meal for him. Esau goes, but Rebekah (Isaac’s wife) overhears the conversation and goes to Jacob (the younger son) with a plan.
If Jacob could pass himself off as Esau, his blind father might be fooled into giving him the blessing instead. So, Jacob dresses as Esau - toupees for his forearms and neck included. The scene plays out kind of like Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf pretends to be the granny:
“What hairy arms you have, Esau!”
“All the better to be your oldest son and receive your blessing, father!”
Jacob succeeds in fooling his father and stealing the blessing of inheritance from Esau.
When Esau returns, he is… mad. The way things worked back then, this deal was final. Official verbal statements such as Isaac’s were as legally binding as written contracts are today. Nothing could be done. Jacob manipulates and steals his way to riches. Of course Esau is mad.
So, that’s Jacob. He’s a trickster from a family full of dysfunction. There is deception, covering up, evasion, playing favorites. And Jacob, a deeply flawed human being, is right in the middle of it all.
This, by the way, is the family that is meant to carry on God’s blessing for the whole world. At this point in the story, it seems that pretty much isn’t going to happen. God’s promise can’t carry over to this guy, can it?
But, this is where the second part of Jacob’s story comes into play. Jacob had to run from from his family and his home because Esau was going to kill him - and not in a rhetorical way. Jacob is on the run. And he finally has to stop and sleep, using a rock as his pillow.
That’s where God shows up. And where God shows up, there is promise. Then God renews the promise once made with Abraham. God even kinda doubles down on the promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
That’s the thing about God’s promises. Every time it looks like it is going to fail, it doesn’t. The promise, by human eyes, was endangered from the very beginning. Abraham and Sarah were too old to have kids, and yet, Isaac was born. Isaac was almost given as a sacrificial offering. And now Jacob is remarkably undeserving and a terrible human being. And yet, God still fulfills the promise.
God is so faithful, so devoted, so full of grace that God won’t let the patterns of the past determine the future. God’s promise is what determines the future, even in a case like Jacob.
Which is good news, right? Stories like this show us that God doesn’t work with perfect people, but real people. Real people like you and me, and God’s promises are true for real people like you and me.
We can handle this type of good news. Despite our screw ups and mishaps; in those times where we act a lot like Jacob; even in those times we purposely, knowingly do something wrong, God keeps the promise. As we go along, no matter what happens or what we do, we can always find ourselves in God’s story, and we can count on God to hold true to promises made.
But that’s not a fair way to do it.
I mean, sure, from time to time we mess something up or we lose our temper. But we can justify or explain it! We were tired or hungry or we ate some bad sushi. We’re not that bad. We’re easy to forgive. I mean, it’s not like I dressed up as my brother and stole an inheritance! Sheesh.
If Jacob, who is a shyster, a cheat, a terrible son and human being gets God’s promises, surely we do, too! Deservingly, even! What really gets our goat is that this promise is for those other people we know don’t deserve it; those others we like to blame and scapegoat and favorably compare ourselves to. They get the same promise as we get? Even though they did that? That’s not fair. Grace is for us, not for them, right?
Well… two things.
First, when we’re honest with ourselves, (like, really honest) even we are undeserving of what God gives.
In our Wednesday night small group this past week, we were discussing the 10 Commandments. They do more than tell us what we should try not to do; they - along with Luther’s explanations of them - point out that we can’t live up to God’s standard. We try not to steal - which we may not do - but we still hold on to too much and forget to give for the betterment of all. We try not to kill, but we often fail at building up the life God intended for others beyond our immediate family. We fail in our relationship with God and with neighbor. Our selfishness over God’s grace only proves the point. To paraphrase our confession for today, we like grace for us, but not so much for other people. We miss the mark in so many ways. We want to be fair, but fair in our favor.
Turns out, we’re not as deserving as we think.
Second, God’s promises aren’t founded on what we can’t or won’t, should or could do. God promises something despite us. We don’t live up to God’s standards, but we are promised grace anyway. And so are they. So is Jacob. So is everyone.
And that is the challenge for us, a place for us to grow. The Gospel promise is as true for them - whoever “them” is - it’s as true for them as it is for you. Our sinfulness doesn’t want it to be so; it’s not fair that way. But God is there - even when we don’t know it or want it.
That’s the point of God’s promise. That’s why we read Jacob’s story. It’s not up to us; and it’s not only for us. A promise, God’s promise, is the declaration that something is going to happen. It depends solely on the one making the promise, not on who it was promised to.
The book we’re using on Wednesday nights provides an example about donuts to drive home this point about God’s promise. If someone promises you that a delicious box of donuts will be delivered to you on Monday, you aren’t required to go to [Kripsy Kreme], shell out some cash, and deliver them yourself. A promise is only a true promise if the promiser is the one who delivers the goods.
We see, we know, that the shyster Jacob cannot make blessings happen. And honestly, neither can we. But God can. God makes the promise happen. The Gospel is not fulfilled by us, but it is fulfilled by a God who takes on the entire burden apart from anything we can do - and more often, despite what we do do.
We see that promise most clearly in Jesus. Even in Jesus’ life, the cross looked like the place where God’s promise would fail. But, it doesn’t. God’s promise is as alive as Christ is. It is in that cross and empty tomb that God takes on all the effort of fulfilling the promises and giving us blessings in Christ.
The promise holds true only because it is God who makes it. It is God who upholds it. It is God who follows through. It is God who will not leave you until God has brought that promise to fulfillment. It is God who is with us, even undeserving us, because that is the unfair promise. Forever.
Last week in our adult Sunday school class, we got on the topic of Old Testament stories. They are often stories we, in our older, more mature age, tend to gloss over or avoid. We know if we dig too deep into stories like Noah’s Ark or David & Goliath, we’ll have to deal with some pretty violent, unsettling stuff. So, we prefer to stick with slingshots and rainbows and our Sunday school understanding. You can keep your mean God of the Old Testament; I’ll take the loving, cuddly Jesus of the New Testament, thankyouverymuch.
Today is one of those stories we try to avoid.
Because, really. What kind of God asks you to sacrifice your kid?
But before we get to an answer, we need to spend some time talking about beliefs and religion of the time.
Long ago, humans came to the realization that they needed things like water and food to live. And for food to grow, it required just the right amount of rain. Too much and all the plants would wash away. Not enough and they would die. Same thing with sun. Too much or too little and the plants would die. All this brought humans to the idea that they were dependent on forces beyond their control. They believed that these forces - the gods - were either on your side or they weren’t. Your crops grow, or they don’t. Your animals are healthy, or they’re not. You have kids, or you don’t.
So, how do you make sure these gods on your side? Well, next time you have a harvest you take a portion of that harvest and place it on the altar as a sign of your gratitude, because you really want those gods give you what you need to live. Now, imagine what would happen if you gave this thanksgiving offering and then the sun didn’t shine or the rain didn’t come or you were still unable to have children. Obviously, you didn’t offer enough.
So, you offer more. And then more. And then more. Which would produce a lot of anxiety, right? You don’t where you stand with the gods, and you don’t know how much is enough, so you just keep giving more and more. The gods are angry, they are demanding, and they will punish you if you don’t make them happy.
On the other hand, what if things are going well? You have gotten the right amount of sun and the perfect amount of rain. You want to make sure things keep going well. So, you offer the gods thanks. But how would you know if you offered enough thanks? Since you don’t know, you offer more.
If things take a turn downward, obviously you didn’t offer enough, so you offer more.
If things keep going well, offer more, just in case. Why ruin a good thing?
You’ve got anxiety either way.
So, the answer - no matter if things were going well or not - the answer is always sacrifice more. You want to be in good standing, keep the rain and the sun coming, so you offer part of your crop. You offer a goat. Some birds. Maybe a lamb. Maybe a cow. Everything keeps escalating because of this anxiety over where you stand. So, you offer more, more, more. And what is the most important, most valuable thing you could offer the gods to show how serious you were? A child.
Can you see how we got here? Can you see where this anxiety takes you? It takes you to a place where you’d offer that which is most valuable to you.
Now, to the story of Abraham and Isaac.
When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham is not surprised. The gods demand that which is most valuable to you - and if you don’t give it, there is hell to pay. So, there is no rebuttal. No questions asked. Abraham gets right to it. He knows what to do.
He goes, and he travels, and when his caravan gets to the mountain, Abraham stops his crew and says, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there. We will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
Wait. Abraham is going to offer his son, right? But “we’ll” be back? Something’s not right with the story. Our ears kind of perk up at this part. Maybe he’s just trying not to scare Isaac and his companions. Either way, we’re paying a little closer attention now.
On the way up the mountain, Isaac asks, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Your heart breaks at Isaac’s question, doesn’t it?
And Abraham replies, “God will provide.” It’s an answer that doesn't tell the whole truth.
And then Abraham gets ready to offer his son, but he doesn’t because God stops him, and then God gives a ram instead. Then, in the verses just after this story, the angel of the Lord repeats the promise that God gave to Abraham so many chapters ago: “I will bless you, and I will make your family great. By you all nations of the world will be blessed.”
So, back to the original question: what kind of God asks you to sacrifice your kid?
Now the answer: Not this one. Other gods may demand your child, but not this one. This God is different, so very different.
So if God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, why the charade? Why the drama?
First, the drama helps prove the point. Abraham knows what to do when God asks, because that is where religions go and that is what gods do. At first, God appears to be like all the other gods: demanding, fickle, never satisfied. To the original audience, it’s predictable and familiar.
But then it’s not. The story takes a shocking turn. The story tells us that God does something new that can open our minds, change our hearts, shift the way we see the world.
God disrupts the familiarity by interrupting the sacrifice. Gods. don’t. do. that.
Then, God provides the offering for Abraham. Gods don’t do that, either!
Worship and sacrifice was about you giving to the gods. This story is about this God giving to Abraham. A God who does the giving? A God who provides?
And God is just getting started. God is going to bless Abraham with such love that all nations on earth will be blessed. This God isn’t angry or demanding or unleashing wrath. This God provides. This God blesses. This God loves.
And what does Abraham have to do to earn that favor? Nothing. Just trust. Have faith. Be in relationship. No sacrifices needed.
This God, our God, provides all we need. Our God is not like other gods. It’s not about us giving, us doing, us sacrificing, but about God giving to us. Blessing us with grace. Giving us forgiveness. And, as we see in Jesus, sacrificing himself for our benefit. That’s what we trust.
Our faith lies in a God who gives us blessing, the blessing of life. And not just way back when, but here and now. God gives us new life and forgiveness in a baptismal washing that continues throughout our life, reminding us that we are always, everyday made new. God feeds us at Christ’s table - a table of remembering the loving lengths God will go to for us. A table of Jesus’ presence with us here and now. A table that spans the generations of time and place.
And we can live, knowing that the promises to Abraham are true for us, too. We are blessed. We are loved. We don’t need to be anxious about where we stand with God, because we know that God stands with us.
And so when we give, we don’t do it out of anxiety about where we stand with God. We do it because we are loved and we want to love.
We serve, not trying to appease God, but because God has served us.
We share, we worship, we live this way, not out of guilt or payment or sacrifice. We live this way because this is who God blessed us to be.
Our God is not like other Gods. Our God gives. Our God gives life. Our God gives life eternal. Our God does something new that opens our minds, changes our hearts, shifts the way we see the world. Now, we live in that blessing - to be a blessing for the world.
In the beginning… God created. God separated, God gathered, God spoke, God brought order to the chaos. This Creation Story is meant to tell us about who and why.
This is a good thing to remember, especially when creation is all over the news. The chaos of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes has been on every tv station and inundating my news feed. In the midst of this, we have lots of questions. Why did this happen? Why didn’t God stop it? They are questions you’ve asked, I’ve asked, and questions that we don’t really have satisfactory answers to. In haste to explain things, some people will say that these types of events are God’s way of warning, testing, or punishing; I say don’t listen to that malarkey. It is unhelpful and harmful. Trying to say God causes human suffering doesn’t tell the truth about the God we know through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Connected to our lesson today of creation, it’s through Jesus, through God’s Word Incarnate, that all things came into being, and without him, not one thing was made. What came into being in him was life.
We hear today that God made everything with the intent of goodness. It’s the refrain that we repeated over and over again. Sky, seas, sun, moon… it is all good. And then, God made us, you and me, in God’s own image. We are the crowning achievement at the end of the sixth day. And notice that the sixth day is a bit fancier with the language? Not just “God spoke and it was so,” but poetically, “God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And the end is not just good, but very good.
Each step of the way, each day in the creation process, God was taking chaos and making something very good. God intends to order all that is formless. God wants to fill all that is a void. The Creation story answers some questions - not all questions, but some. Who created? God. Why? For goodness. That’s the point.
But God wasn’t finished.
God didn't stop creating. In the beginning, God contained the chaos. God shaped the formless and filled the empty. God made LIFE. And God kept doing that, kept fending off the chaos we and our world bring. We know throughout the rest of the story, God keeps working, keeps creating newness, keeps holding back the things that prevent relationship, life, and goodness. God creates light in darkness. God creates goodness out of chaos. God creates ways for life, true life, to rise.
And as part of God’s creation, we get wrapped up in what God creates. In this time, in this place, in the midst of all the chaos around us in our lives, the lesson we can learn from this is that we, in fact, we are co-creators with God. Not only are we creative, artistic, musical, idea-generators, but we along with God create goodness in this creation. God's work in the beginning was containing the chaos; that's our call, too.
We know that God does not shy away from the pain and hurt in our world; the cross shows us that. God faced the fullest human experience of loss — suffering an unjust and cruel death — out of love for us. God is present: not causing chaos but entering into it. Not sending calamity but suffering through it. Not standing over us but holding tightly onto us and promising never to let go. Wherever there is human tragedy and pain, God is there. As chaos comes, God is present, working to create. And when we see chaos in our world, we, too, can be present as God is, working to create love, hope, life, order, goodness. It's our God-given, creative duty to do so.
Yes, even we can help God create, as broken, limited, and chaotic as we ourselves can be. But that is the grace and blessing of a God who never gives up. Even through us, God can work, and Christ can be present. God created us for such a task as bringing goodness out of chaos. And we can do that by donating to agencies like Lutheran Disaster Response. We can, as the time becomes right, travel to Houston or other places to assist with relief work.
We’ve already got a group of High Schoolers planning to be in Houston this summer for the National Youth Gathering. We can support them and empower them to live out God’s creative and redeeming Word. As the needs become more clear, we can collect clothing or food. We can create goodness in many different ways because God created us to do so.
And beyond the chaotic disasters of hurricanes and earthquakes, we as the people of God here in Myrtle Beach can create goodness. As we as a congregation grow in excitement and purpose, as we look to the future, as we get a better sense of what we were created for, we get the opportunity to ask, “what can we create together with God?” What goodness can we share with our community, with those less fortunate, with kids and elders, with parents and people, with all who come and all who don’t. What can we create together with God?
Asking the question gives us a chance to come up with answers. We can strive to be a community of welcome and care. A way to point people to Jesus. Offer a worshipful space, place, and time away from the chaos of the everyday. We can be a way to make a difference and reinvigorate a feeling of the holy. We can help answer the questions “who” and “why.”
It’s an awesome question. And in our world, we need to be the answers. God created us, created us in God’s image, to bring goodness and to bring “God-ness” to our world and to each other. We are called to be present in the chaos, to live out the order of love and grace God bestows, and create and re-create with God.
And whatever our answers, we can trust that God is present, creating in us and through us something very good.
It’s not surprising that Jesus was killed.
I mean, if you go up against Rome, what else do you expect? You’re a threat to the kingdom, and kingdoms don’t like threats. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew tells us how far Rome will go to stop such danger. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, when he was heralded as the newborn king, Herod ordered the murder of all the children under two in hopes of eliminating this “king.” It’s often referred to as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” I can’t think of a more heartbreaking yet appropriate title.
Rome put it in regular practice to make examples out of people. That is what crucifixion and crosses were all about: being a public example of what not to do. The cross signifies a warning. It is a sign for what happens when power is crossed.
No, it’s no surprise that Jesus was killed.
Of course, Peter doesn’t want that to happen. Last week, Peter was the good example, the rock. “You are the Messiah!” “Blessed are you, Simon; on this rock I will build my church.” This week, Peter is the bad example, the stumbling block. He got the title right but the job description wrong. He had expectations and hope in Jesus to set things right. Maybe Jesus would lead the insurgency against Rome. Maybe he, himself, was an ultimate ninja warrior who could do it single handedly. Or maybe he would just give them a good, decent king again.
Peter’s expectations aren’t unreasonable; in fact, it’s kinda what we all want. But the process for getting what we want reminds me of a game I used to play growing up. One of our friends had a fairly big dirt mound in his backyard where we would play a game called, “King of the Hill.” The idea is simple: you try to be the only one at the top of the hill. Everyone starts at the bottom, and on “go” everyone would run up and try to keep all the others from getting to or staying at the top. If someone else is up there, you try to run up and knock him off. Once you’re there, the goal is to stay up top for as long as possible until someone eventually knocks you off.
It is a microcosm of life, both then and now.
In Peter’s mind, in the disciples’ minds, Jesus the Messiah King comes in to knock the current guy off the hill. Again, Peter’s expectation isn’t that unreasonable; we all want our guy, our team, to be on top. The problem, though, is that playing this game doesn’t change anything about our world. Sure, Jesus could be on top… for now. He’s king of the hill until someone a little bigger, stronger, or luckier comes along. Then the next one comes, and the next. It’s just a cycle. The same game, getting the same results. Nothing changes.
It’s not surprising that Jesus was killed. Rome saw their way of life being threatened, Jesus “coming up the hill” so to speak… so, let’s make an example out of this guy. It’s not surprising.
What is surprising, however, is resurrection. What is surprising is God’s affirmation of Jesus’ way of life through raising him from the dead. What is surprising is the challenge Jesus brings to the system: a life powered by forgiveness, mercy, and love, not by revenge, violence, and force.
Our world keeps playing the same ol’ “king of the hill” game. At least we know what to expect. And so, we work on getting a little more force or security or wealth or status or comfort or whatever so we can stay where we want to be for as long as we can. We’ve learned to play, to adapt, to acquiesce all so we can save our life.
And when we do that, we’re knocking Jesus off as king of our hill and saying we prefer the other way. Rome’s way. America’s way. My way. Think about it. How many choices do we make, how many paths do we walk, how many things do we say to which Jesus would utter, “Get behind me. You have your mind set on human things!”
And even so, even though that is the way we most often choose, what’s surprising is that Jesus still offers something more. He invites us to live differently - just as he did to those first disciples who knew what they wanted in a Messiah. Jesus invites us to take up our cross.
While today we look at the cross and it gives us hope, remember that in this instance right here, the disciples have no idea the cross is actually coming. The cross still has this standing as a torturous example of what NOT to do. I can’t imagine that Jesus is intending this to be a hopeful image. Instead, this is a realistic message about what really following Jesus’ way of life means. It is a symbol for the difficulty of living the way of the Messiah. The cross should remind us that we are Christians; which means, the cross is the call to do the hard thing.
Think about how hard it is to truly live the way of Jesus in our “king of the hill” world.
It’s hard to love someone who isn’t like us. Moreso, we live in a time where loving your neighbor has become politicized. Welcoming the stranger is vilified.
It’s hard to offer forgiveness when someone has wronged us.
It’s hard to be open-handed; not just give, but give generously out of the resources we’ve been blessed with.
Or seeking joy through serving rather than acquiring.
It’s hard offering our future to God rather than controlling and justifying everything ourselves.
But taking up the cross means we’ve accepted that the world’s game isn’t the way to play.
Living the way of the cross isn’t about perpetuating our ways of life, but an acceptance that God’s way, Jesus’ way, is the best possible way to live.
At first, living this way may feel like death in and of itself, feel like a cross to bear. Giving out of our first fruits - before we take care of ourselves? Responding in care, not ONLY after a disaster, but making sure all are cared for all the time? Lowering myself voluntarily to the bottom of the hill? Sure does sound like death. And it is death... all before God uses these things to raise us to new life.
The cross is hard, but it leads to life. True life. The life of Jesus. Through these things, God raises us into that community of Christ. Crucified, drowned, dead with him in the waters of baptism, God raises us up from those waters to a life shaped by the cross. A life we live with God and with each other. It’s a life that Jesus lived and now forever lives. And we do, too.
One little ol’ sermon isn’t going to change the world; it may not even change you. But that’s ok, because God has already changed everything. God has changed the way the world works. God has changed the meaning of a cross. God has changed death to life. And God will keep working on us. Each day. With a reminder. With a splash of water. With a taste of bread and wine. With forgiveness. With grace. Every day, God has changed and will keep changing you and me. And, not surprisingly, God will keep doing that for the sake of the world.
*Play the audio with the above player, or download the file here.*
Jesus asks who people say that he is. Lots of answers are thrown out. Elijah. John the Baptist. Some other prophet. All of whom, to be frank, are dead.
Then Jesus asks the question, “who do you say that I am?”
And Peter pipes up to answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Oh, Peter. Bless his heart. I say that because we know Peter’s story. In just a few verses, Peter is going to completely misunderstand what being the Messiah means. (We’ll see that next week.) He gets rebuked by Jesus; called Satan and a stumbling block. And we know what else happens with Peter’s story arc, right? Move to the end of the Gospel and Peter, despite his vocal commitment, ends up denying that he even knows Jesus. Then he deserts his Master and leaves him to trial, crucifixion, death, and burial.
We point out all the wrong things Peter does. It’s kind of what we do in this situation. We look at Peter as a glass, half-empty.
But forget about all that for a minute. Right now, in this moment, Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It’s quite the revelation. He’s right. The Messiah is here. And instead of skipping over it and looking at what else Peter did or didn’t do, it makes sense to simply pause. We pause right here and give thanks for God - present, visible, alive. Jesus himself acknowledges how big of a deal it is. “Blessed are you… On this rock I will build my church… Hades will not prevail…”
For us, there is so much going on. So much that is negative. So many opportunities to proclaim Jesus. So many ways and times and places that we as individuals and as a faith community and as a nation and as a world fall short. And in the midst of it all, we are asked the same question, “who do you say that I am?” We are called to confess Christ, the Messiah we know and follow.
Sometimes, we, like Peter, misunderstand who Jesus is and what it is exactly he came to do.
Sometimes, we, like Peter, deny we know Jesus in front of others with words, but truthfully, we do it more often with our actions or inactions.
Sometimes we desert Jesus and his call to us.
Sometimes, we are half-empty Christians.
And yet, Jesus is here asking if we see who he is, who he really is. He’s not some dead prophet, but alive! Not a forerunner, but THE Messiah. Not only crucified, but risen!
And sometimes, sometimes there are moments when things do come together perfectly. There are times when we actually DO say the right things. There are opportunities we seize to live out our calling. It’s in those moments that we clearly recognize Jesus for who he is; where God works in us and through us; where the Holy Spirit fills us with joy and awareness.
“Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” God is at work, even in us, even at half-empty or half-full. God was at work in Peter, too. Yes, Peter would screw up big time, but in this moment, God was at work - and God would even be at work later, too! And when this happens, instead of looking at the half-empty ways we fail, we should notice what is there! God is there! Christ is here! The Son of the Living God is revealed to us! When we are gifted with that revelation, it makes sense to pause and give thanks.
And so, where do we see God at work in and among us? Where does God show us Christ?
Let’s celebrate that we fed 50 people a few Saturdays ago. And not some lame leftovers or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on week-old bread. This was a spread. Good food. Hospitable hosts. People were cared for, fed, and sent with items to help them on their way. Christ is present, proclaimed, pointed out in moments like that.
This summer, we had a very full Vacation Bible School. Many people pulled together to help make it happen. Let’s celebrate that kids, youth, and even adults came to experience this place, people, and learn about Jesus’ love through slapstick Star Wars skits. Christ is revealed.
The names on our Angel Tree from Christmas in July were gone in just a couple of weeks. Presents were bought for boys who do not have families, who probably have very little hope and very little joy. And yet, out of generosity, we provided a little joy through unexpected gifts. Christ is present in those presents.
God works through WELCA Reading Buddies at Myrtle Beach Elementary. God is revealed in fellowship and prayer at Men’s Breakfasts. God gives a sense of new life in the gift of a newly renovated nursery.
Instead of seeing all the other stuff, just for a moment, let’s notice where God is at work. Let’s be bold about pointing out when and where we see the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Let’s lift up, celebrate, and give thanks for those things where we sense the presence of the God who brings life.
This isn’t overlooking all that still needs to be done. It isn’t ignoring the new ways and places God is calling us. This isn’t saying that all those ways can’t be made better with more involvement from more people. But it is to give thanks here and now for the ways God reveals Jesus to us and to those around us.
We give thanks that God reveals Jesus in our community of faith.
We give thanks that God reveals love, grace, and life through a cross and an empty tomb.
We give thanks that God reveals forgiveness and welcome through bread and wine.
We give thanks for the we ways we proclaim, “Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God.”
We don’t do it perfectly. Not fully understanding or living into what we confess. Not totally free from confusion or fear when it comes to living out that confession. Yet confessing nonetheless, speaking and acting in ways that are only possible because we are empowered - not by flesh and blood, but by the Loving, Faithful, Living God.
*Play the audio with the above player, or download the file here.*
This is quite a story as far as Gospel stories go.
It’s hard. It’s painful. Jesus treats this woman terribly.
She comes to him, crying out for mercy for her daughter. Jesus does not answer her at all. He ignores her. The disciples gang up on her, trying to send her away. Jesus seems on board with that, but she will not be ignored and pleads her case again. This time, Jesus insults her. He calls her a dog. I mean, man. It’s tough. It’s awful. It’s not at all like the Jesus we expect.
A lot of other people throughout history have thought the same thing. Surely Jesus isn’t being mean… right? The traditional interpretation of this story is that Jesus isn’t really being cruel to her; he’s testing her. He is seeing just how faithful this woman is and how badly she wants her daughter healed. Then, when she passes his test, Jesus gives her an A+ by doing what she asks.
Honestly, I don’t buy it. That runs up against pretty much every other story of Jesus we have. He serves. He gives. He heals without question. He is usually the one - the only one - who goes toward people like this. Then all of a sudden he has a life-or-death pop quiz without even trying to explain himself? So, no, I don’t buy that whole “testing her” theory.
Instead, what I see is a very focused Messiah. He is so focused on what he feels God is calling him to do, that he can’t do anything but. This woman comes along and challenges what Jesus thinks his mission is. She replies to him, “Yes, but even the dogs get crumbs.” It’s her way of saying, “Even I have worth. Even my daughter has worth. Even I am a child of God.” In a way, she acts as a mirror for Jesus. She reflects Jesus’ ministry back to him, and he can see things in a new way - maybe in a way he hasn’t seen before.
Now, I realize that is kind of hard for us to imagine. Jesus needs someone else to show him ministry? Jesus changes, grows, learns? Surely Jesus had to learn throughout this life. Why should that have stopped? Here, Jesus learned more about what God had in store and adjusted his own mission appropriately. I can’t think of any explanation that takes Jesus from “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” here to, at the end of the Gospel, “Go to all nations, baptizing and teaching…”
Jesus’ mission - or his view of his mission - changes, grows, expands, gets blown wide open because of this woman. And because of this woman, Jesus sees God’s mission for what it is. Each person is a child of God. Each person does have worth. Each person is wrapped up in God’s plan for love and blessing.
It’s so easy for us to think that God is on our side, looks like us, talks like us, likes the same flavor ice cream as us. That our mission in life is the same as God’s mission for us. And in a way, God looking like us is helpful. That is a key point of Jesus becoming flesh - to be like us. The infinite becoming finite, the invisible becoming visible… it helps us relate to the God we cannot see. But problems arise when we think of God as only like us, liking what we like, not liking what we don’t like, etc.
And I think we already know that; we’re aware that God isn’t only like us. We know that Jesus is concerned about us, and he is concerned about others, too. But sometimes just knowing it isn’t enough. Sometimes, it needs to be said. In times like these, it needs to be said. What happened in Charlottesville last weekend with the loss of life, the anger, the vitriol... Racism is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. Supremacy is not a Christian value. It’s 2017 and I have to preach that Nazism is bad?
Jesus’ mission is bigger, broader, way more open than that. The Canaanite woman reminds us of the essential, challenging, and life-giving truth: God loves all people and calls us to stand against those who deny human rights and dignity to anyone. Anytime you draw a line separating yourself from others, Jesus is on the other side. In times like these, it needs to be said.
The lines we draw of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or class do not define us. While deep-down we know it, we don’t speak it often enough. If the oppression, injustice, or pain isn’t happening to us or in our house, or if it doesn’t impact our race, gender, class, or sexuality, then we often ignore or dismiss it - maybe even wonder why it’s such a big deal to them. But it is times like these that we should not retreat, but boldly proclaim that God does not segregate. God’s love, grace, and mission is to all and for all. And saying that God favors an agenda of bigotry or hatred or one type of person over another is absurd. In times like these, it needs to be said.
Silence doesn’t share the Gospel. One of the more famous Lutherans was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who actually was executed by the Nazis because he was vocal opponent. He said that “silence in the face of evil is evil itself… Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” So he wasn’t silent. He proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Silence doesn’t share the Gospel. Our mission is to speak up as Canaanite woman did, as Bonhoeffer did, to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love for all people - particularly in a world that wants to divide, belittle, and make “them” out to be inferior.
What if the woman would’ve been quiet after the first time she was ignored? Would Jesus have seen things the way God intended? Or would he have continued on a more narrow mission? Would she have been left with guilt? Her daughter still with the demon?
But she didn’t retreat. She spoke out for her worth as a person - not as a woman or a Canaanite or as someone from a different religion or as a burden. She spoke up as a child of God. She spoke up as one God includes. She spoke of up as one who has worth.
And Jesus saw her as so.
And if Jesus does, we should, too. We belong to Christ, where there is a place for everyone. All are welcome and accepted; all are fed and nourished. All are created in the image of God. In times like these, it needs to be said.
The job of Christ’s people today is to celebrate the diversity of God’s creative work and embrace all people in the spirit of love, whatever their race, ethnicity, economic status, or gender. God’s love cannot be contained by the lines we draw or the hate that is present. God’s love cannot be contained, not even by the grave.
So let’s not try to contain it; let’s shout it, loud and clear.
*There is no audio for this sermon because the pastor forgot to press the record button!*
Walking on water. Peter does the impossible there with Jesus, if only for a little bit.
And because I have never walked on water - and I’m guessing you haven’t either - it’s hard to know what Peter was going through; it’s hard to relate. Since we can’t connect to that miracle, we instead try to figure out what the story is about in ways that do relate to us. So, we pull a lesson out of the story that is comparable to our lives in certain respects. Such as…
This story is about Peter’s example. He overcomes his trepidation. He gets out of the boat. And only because he gets out of the boat does he do the impossible. Without his initiative and courage, this great thing never would’ve happened. This story is an invitation to take risks, to get out of the boat.
Or, this story is about the storms of life. We are like the disciples, caught in the midst of lightning, wind, and waves, being tossed to and fro. These storms pop up out of nowhere and cause fear - fear of what will happen to us, fear of death, fear of loss, fear of nuclear war, fear. Fear. Fear.
This story is about keeping your eyes on Jesus. While Peter had his eyes on Jesus, he walked. When he took his eyes away, even for a second, he began to sink. He noticed the waves instead of Jesus. He became aware of the winds instead of staying in that moment. Keep your eyes always, unwaveringly on Jesus so you won’t sink.
This story is about the amazing things that happen through our faith and trust in Jesus. We will have faith to move mountains, to walk on water! We need the faith to boldly ask Jesus for the ability to do the impossible, like Peter did.
All these things surely apply to our lives. And none is wrong, per se. In fact, at certain points, those ways of looking at the story can be helpful for us. Of course it is good advice to keep your eyes on Jesus. These interpretations of this Bible story are familiar, tangible, relatable.
But, I don’t think I need a Bible story to tell me that life is hard. I have enough evidence of that.
That our world sometimes is scary. Watch the news lately?
That taking risks and going outside of my comfort zone can be helpful to me. Thank you, Dr. Phil.
We look for Bible stories to relate to us. And often times when we do that, we tend to turn the stories into what we do, should do, or have to do. However, the Bible wasn’t written to give us a morality lesson or self-help encouragement. The Bible was written to tell us about God - about a God who creates, who saves, who leads, who is present with us. This story here is no different.
So, if this story isn’t meant to teach us something about our world, or about us, or about an easy 4-step plan to lead a miraculous life, what is it telling us? Let’s look at it again, not looking for ourselves, but looking first for God - because good theology always starts with God. So, to borrow a cliche phrase from a couple decades ago, “what did Jesus do?”
Now, there are lots of things Jesus does. Even in this brief passage, there are several places where Jesus is the subject of active verbs. Each one of these actions tells us something about Jesus. Jesus sends the disciples on ahead in a boat. Jesus goes up a mountain and prays. Jesus comes to the disciples. Jesus speaks comforting words. Jesus invites Peter out. And on and on.
Any of those could be a sermon, but the big thing Jesus does, at least the thing that “grabs” my attention most, is that when Peter loses confidence, when he loses faith and begins to sink… when Peter fails the test and is floundering as one of little faith, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him.
Jesus reaches out, grabs him, and raises him up. That is Jesus’ action. That is what Jesus does. While it may seem like a subtle difference to notice Jesus before ourselves, it really puts the whole story in the right perspective.
Today’s story doesn’t try to teach us a lesson about the storms of life but tells us Jesus is there in the midst of them.
It isn’t trying to instruct us on having enough faith to walk on water but points out our Savior when we are sinking.
It’s not even about how well we keep our eyes on Jesus. It’s about how Jesus has his eyes on you.
All the lessons we try to glean from the Bible, all the morals and all the self-help we find - they’re good lessons. They are helpful. But they’re not Gospel. It’s not Good News. It doesn’t convey a life-giving word. When it’s dependent on us, it’s not grace, love, hope. Because we fail our lessons. We know what we should do, but we can’t fully live it out. We come up short. When it is up to us, we sink.
This story is meant to relay God’s will, God’s love, God’s grace for us. Jesus will reach out and grab hold of us, even when we falter. Even when we fail. Even when we lose sight of that truth. Jesus will get us; God won’t let us go. THAT is Gospel. That is Good News that gives us hope and comfort and life. We aren’t just in a storm. We aren’t just left to sink. We aren’t just told what to do. Jesus yanks us out of there. Grabs us, holds us, raises us up.
God will never give up on us. God is with us and for us. God, in the end, will do what we cannot. THAT is Gospel that gives us hope. That is Good News of a love bigger than we are.
And along our sailing through life, we keep learning about God because God keeps telling us and showing us. God gives us stories of miracles and salvation - all the ways God has worked throughout history. God feeds us a meal to remember the promise and be filled again with the Spirit. God grabs us and raises us out of the baptismal waters so that we might live a new life. That is Gospel.
Now, seeing what God does here, how does that change us and shape us? How does it make us want to relate to Jesus? How does it inspire, teach, enlighten us? Knowing what Jesus will do, how do we respond? And our answer isn’t so much a lesson learned as a formation of faith and relationship. Maybe we… step out of the boat, even in the midst of storms, doing our best to keep our eyes of Jesus. Maybe we do it, not because we were instructed to, not because we were coaxed to, not because it is about us… but because we trust the Gospel. Even though we may fail, we trust Jesus will reach out and grab us, too.
We find ourselves in this story, not as an actor, not as a student clamoring for lessons, not as a self-improvement guru. No, we find ourselves in this story as a recipient of grace.
We find ourselves in this story as the one Jesus reaches out and grabs.
We find ourselves in Jesus’ hands, raised up.
We find ourselves in the clutches of the Gospel message.
That is always a good lesson to learn.
*Play the audio with the above player, or download the file here.*
Notice that the disciples go to Jesus with a problem. That’s a good lesson to learn. When we have troubles, issues, shortcomings, go to Jesus for help. He is the one that can solve it.
Except, he doesn’t. He gives the problem right back to the disciples. He puts it squarely on their shoulders by asking them what food they have. What are your assets? What do you have? And when they offer up a few fish sandwiches, Jesus takes and blesses what they bring. He uses it - and them - to feed thousands.
Jesus invites them to share in ministry. He encourages them to take responsibility. He accompanies them in the midst of the challenges that face them. He asks them to assess their loaves and fishes. And then Jesus blesses what they have. In this way, Jesus involves them in the miracle - which is a miracle in and of itself.
Regular ol’ people are involved in Jesus’ Discipleship Training 101 class. Jesus teaches involvement and giving.
Despite the simplicity, the beauty, the miracle, the obvious connection to what we should do, we still see “only.”
We look at limits.
We see what we don’t have.
We are the disciples on that hill, taking our problem to Jesus for him to fix, not thinking we can make a difference.
Scarcity runs our lives. This past week, the DOW hit a new record high, surpassing 22,000 for the first time ever. And yet, we are afraid it’s not enough. We’re always afraid there’s not enough. In the midst of records, all we see are limits. We are afraid to let go.
And yet the truth of this story is that God does what God has always done: God provides. God produces. God uses what we have - but not “only” what we have; God uses it all, us all, to produce miracles.
This story hits us in two places, neither of which we like.
The first place it hits us is in our stuff, our budget - both personally and as a church.
The disciples begin with a half-empty mindset. They are in this deserted place with thousands of hungry people. So, of course, the conversation immediately goes to money. “Send them away so they can buy food for themselves!” We don’t have enough! There is complaining and whining and seeing “only” what they had. Their trust in Jesus falls. Their anxiety over the situation rises.
A lot of churches, us included, do that. We’re afraid to let go and give… that any more we give won’t make a difference. But Jesus knows that the resources are there. What we need for ministry, what we need to make miracles happen, is present among the gathered disciples. Jesus helps them, and us, see, recognize, use their “only” for ministry.
While we as the Lee family were away at Lutheridge a couple of weeks ago, our Bible study leaders challenged us on this idea of scarcity. We adults met in a pretty large room, about 50 feet long. Pretty big. Once we were in our small groups (about 5 people in each group), our challenge was to line up all the stuff we had ON US AT THAT MOMENT to stretch from one end of the room to the other. No people, no shirts or pants. Only the other stuff.
Of course, we’re at camp. One tends to carry around less stuff when you are in a place like this, so immediately we all freaked out. How in the world are we going to do this? We don’t HAVE anything! But we started with what we did have.
Bibles, name tags, one belt… not even close to the other end of the room.
Shoes, socks, shoelaces out of the shoes… still a ways to go.
Car keys, cell phones, loose change, all lined up from one end of the room to the other. We were almost there! And once we were almost there… “Now try to make it back to the first wall!”
Scarcity hit again. Holy cow. How? HOW!
We kept giving what we had. Glasses off our face. Sergio took a tissue he had in his pocket and tore it into strips to make it go further. Some of us even took off our wedding rings to get us three-quarters of an inch closer.
In the end, we made it. Down and back. We made it. It was impossible, but we made it. And I think most of the teams did.
Translated into our story for today, when we have a willingness to share who we are and what we have in the community of faith, God can do amazing things. God can do amazing things, so why not trust God to do so by offering it up? There is enough if we are willing to share. God is at work in what we have, in our “only,” in us.
So, the first place this story hits us in our stuff, our finances, all those things we don’t have enough of. The second place this story hits us is in our stability, our comfort, our keeping things the same.
Jesus doesn’t let us just sit back. Which is what a lot of us prefer. But this is more than getting involved in a committee. See, Jesus calls us to be open to God’s way of doing things as opposed to our way. The disciples had their preferred method of handling the situation; they wanted the hungry people fed, so the people should be sent to where they can find food. Jesus had a different idea. “You give them something to eat.” You do something. Don’t pass in on to someone else. You bend a little bit and make it happen.
In a couple of weeks, our Congregation Council will sit down again as part of our visioning process. That’s part of what the green and blue sheets were a couple months ago with questions for you to fill out. I’m going to be honest, a lot of the answers on those sheets are good answers. They are about growth, about families and kids, about mission and ministry. But here’s what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that a lot of the answers were written with the idea that someone else will take care of it and “I” don’t need to adjust my ways.
Like the disciples, we want these good things to happen, but we want to pass that work onto someone else. Maybe Jesus will just make it happen? But Jesus has a different idea. Guess what that idea is? Yup. You do it. You do it.
Which is scary for us. We can’t stay the same and expect these things to just get done. Just like the disciples couldn’t hoard their loaves and fishes or sit tight in their seat and still expect the people to get fed. Jesus calls us to be involved, to move, to change, to act. Which is scary, I’ll admit, especially when we look at things through the scarcity lens as we tend to do.
But our call in this text, in our visioning process, in our life as a congregation and a people is to see things God’s way instead. To see what we have, to asses how God wants to use us, and then take part with God in carrying that out. What is God calling us to do?
God is calling us to share. To give. To move. To serve. To take action. To be generous. To welcome. To go to Jesus. To eat and be filled. To live in grace. To be children of God. And to invite others into that life.
God will do what God has always done: provide. Provide a love and and grace that makes miracles happen. Provide a way for us to share those miracles with others. Provide a way for us to see things in a new way.
God provides. And knowing that, what is God calling us to do?
*The audio quality for this sermon is a little less for this sermon due to the location of the recorder. It improves toward the end. The story should still be audible. Unfortunately, there is no text provided for the story. You are encouraged to listen!*
This past week, the Lee family celebrated Christmas. We spent the week at Lutheridge - a Lutheran camp just outside of Asheville, NC. We sang carols, read the Christmas story, and had a generally jolly time.
At the beginning of the week, all the campers gather in one spot by the lake for our evening worship. It is then and there that Pastor Mary tells us a story.
This is the one she told this past week; it’s called, “Grandmother’s Love.”
Each time she touches
Feel her grandmother’s love
Little girl took it everywhere
Until finally it was all worn out
Climbed up into to her grandmother’s lap and said, looks like enough good material here to make a…
Story of a button that came from a ribbon, that came from a...
At Christmas, we think we need the stuff.
But the stuff isn’t the story. Which is why today, a hot day in July, we celebrate. We don’t need cold weather or decorations or long lists. We don’t need the things that wear out or wear us out. We just need the story - the story of God being born among us.
That is the story we hear, the story we tell;
Christ is born for us.
God is with us.
Love is given to us.
God shows up in our world - and not just on the special days but every day. God brings hope to our lives, not just one day, but THIS day. God makes the impossible possible, today. Even today. Our stuff doesn’t make it any more or less true.
Today, we get a chance to really tell the story and remember.
And every time we tell the story, we feel our Father’s love.
Every time we hold the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, we feel our Father’s love.
Every time we sing a carol, share a gift, hear the angel say, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” we feel our Father’s love.
Every time, we feel our Father’s love.
Because that is what Christmas is all about.
Jesus doesn’t often explain his parables, but today he does.
His explanation is about dirt: a path, some gravel, weed-infested, good soil. The end result is encouragement to be good soil. Which is weird because the parable itself is about a farmer who throws seed with reckless abandon. Sure, the type of soil is mentioned, but really my question about the parable itself is, “why in the world is he throwing seed there in the first place?”
There is a big shift when we move from parable to explanation.
To dig a little deeper, when we look at the parable itself without reading other things into it, what we see is a farmer who is ridiculously generous with the seed he is planting. Not only does he throw seed on good soil but also in places even people with not-so-green thumbs know isn’t a good idea. It’s not just generous but borderline wasteful. The parable itself emphasizes this amazing abundance that is thrown everywhere, willy-nilly. This abundance is a characteristic of the Kingdom of God.
Yet when we get to Jesus’ interpretation, the generosity-slash-wastefulness of the farmer and the amazing abundance of seed isn’t even mentioned. Instead, the focus shifts entirely to the soil, drawing an analogy between the different qualities of soil and different kinds of believers. The implication seems clear: we should pray and strive to “let my heart be good soil.”
So, which one is right? Do we doubt Jesus as to what his own story is about?
Parables, it turns out, aren’t always so obvious. And that’s probably the point. Parables - good parables, at least - tease the mind into active thought. We see, hear, learn different things each time we hear it. Something new stands out that never has before. An event in our life helps us see a word, a phrase, or a point from a different angle.
This past Tuesday as the opening devotions for our Council meeting, we read this parable - just the parable; no explanation. I asked the members to listen for a word or a phrase that stood out to them. What connected with them? As I read, they listened intently - as one does when the pastor is speaking. Right?
And then we had conversation about what sprouted in their hearts and minds.
What stood out for some wasn’t about the parable at all but the setting for Jesus’ teaching: the beach. That connected with them for maybe obvious reasons.
Others recalled how they themselves try to sow seed. There were stories of personal invitation to coworkers and friends. Some around the table even were part of our coordinated effort to go around knocking on doors, inviting and passing out St. Philip brochures.
There was reflection on the need to pull weeds.
At least a couple picked up on Jesus’ call to listen - and to it more often.
And then they asked me if I had enough for my sermon.
Back to Council’s responses: you probably had responses and reactions to the parable, too. Which direction did you hear today? Maybe more than one. As we can see, parables - good parables, at least - tease the mind into active thought.
The parable is a proclamation of unending, over-generous, boundless grace; the interpretation is encouragement to persevere, to strive, to till, to work. Which to choose?
And the beauty of this parable is we don’t have to choose. There is room for emphasis on the reckless abandon with which God shares the Word and also room for encouraging us to allow that seed to take root. And having multiple ways to look at this parable proves the point that God is bountiful - especially in the ways the Word reaches us.
God reaches us in numerous, abundant, encouraging ways.
Which is good because it seems our world does very little of any of that.
It seems like there is so little. At times, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Things and people try to choke the life out of us… It is good to be encouraged that a harvest will come - a harvest beyond our wildest dreams. And we can be part of that, part of something good and big and worthwhile. We, ourselves, are just a tiny plot of earth, and yet, you can grow. You can produce fruit. You are good soil.
But there is also encouragement in the fact that if there wasn’t a farmer who threw seed so generously and abundantly, it wouldn’t even matter what kind of soil our hearts are.
Without God sowing so much, there wouldn’t be anything growing at all. God doesn’t hold back, but throws seed where we never would.
While our world is concerned about “having enough,” God isn’t worried about running out of seeds of grace or love.
While our world says to pick, choose, hold the party line, do it my way, God says it’s both, it’s all, it’s everything!
While our world grows hard and weedy, God decides even there is an appropriate place to toss a ridiculous amount of seeds.
Why would God do such a thing?
Because there is enough. More than enough. Abundantly enough.
God reaches us in numerous, abundant, encouraging ways.
The promise of the parable is that it is ultimately up to God, the farmer who sows with reckless abandon out of love. And with the encouragement, teaching, and presence of Jesus, we can work on our soil:
we can infuse our lives with prayer;
we can make Christian formation and Bible study a priority;
we can be nourished by Jesus at his table;
we can partake of spirit-filled worship;
we can follow God’s example and give generously.
We can do all these things - indeed it is good and right to do - but they’re nothing without God, without Jesus’ promise that God will keep on throwing seeds and showering us with grace, mercy, and love. And God will always keep at it.
God reaches us in numerous, abundant, encouraging ways.
There are many ways to see this parable, many lessons to learn, and various words or phrases which stand out. Having multiple ways to look at this parable proves the point that God is bountiful - even in the ways the Word reaches us. And the beauty of it is we don’t have to choose just one way. God is present in them all, choosing to sow seeds galore in our soil - whatever soil that may be. God sows with the hope, with the promise, that the harvest will grow. It will grow.
So, knowing that God’s seed has been sown, may you have a sense of all the numerous ways in which God is working and sowing in you every single day.
May your faith be encouraged enough that you tend your soil to grow what God plants.
May you be surrounded with the abundant, generous, lavish grace of God that produces life beyond your wildest dreams.
“To what will I compare this generation?” Why, they are like spoiled children, whining to their parents.
Amen, right? Kids these days. And technology. With no respect. “When I was kid…” Get off my lawn. Huh-rumph.
Jesus sounds like a grumpy old man.
Except, and you probably figured this out already, Jesus isn’t a grumpy old man, and he isn’t talking about “kids these days.” In fact, he isn’t talking about kids at all. When Jesus talks about “this generation,” he means the people living right then and there. He’s talking about those disciples, those new followers, those who were just hearing, those who have yet to hear. He’s talking about people like you and me. Heck, not “like;” he IS talking about you and me.
We are spoiled children. Nothing pleases us. The example Jesus gives to the people is of John the Baptist and himself. John came fasting and they complained that he was crazy; not relatable enough. He won’t sit down and have a meal or a drink with us. Then, Jesus came, meals and drinks galore and they called him a drunkard, a friend of riff-raff, hanging out with “those” people.
So, the people rejected these prophets - and thus, they rejected the God these prophets pointed to.
Of course, WE aren’t like that. Jesus is OK in our book. Mostly.
See, I’m not quite convinced “spoiled” is the right word. That has more of a connotation of entitlement and pampering. Instead, I think we have more of a Goldilocks syndrome. You remember Goldilocks, right? This porridge was too hot, this porridge was too cold. This porridge is juuuuust right.
This prophet is too severe. This prophet is too gracious. We like our religion to be just right - which usually means just like us. Just like what we know. Just like what we prefer. Just like what makes us comfortable.
When it comes to Jesus, that action is too open; this teaching is too gracious; these pieces are too holy or spiritual or hard. But this other part is juuuust right.
Think of the beatitudes - blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. It’s too unrealistic.
We push aside the sayings and parables about possessions and treasures and wealth. It’s too personal.
We conveniently forget not only who Jesus spent his time with, but who Jesus calls us to minister to. That is too radical.
You know what’s just right? Jesus being a hands-off, let us be, pat us on the head kind of guy. He just leaves us alone and only comes around to rescue us when something bad happens to us or someone we love, because, overall, we’ve pretty much got this. Tell me what I want to hear, and do things the way I want them done. Yeah, that prophet is just right.
Which begs the question: do we recognize, do we follow, do we like Jesus or not? All of Jesus? Jesus says we don’t. We’re picky. We’re biased. We’re… ok, we’re spoiled.
Jesus calls the people of this generation out. Jesus calls us out. He says we don’t know him. We don’t want him. Give me God, a Savior, religion just the way I like it.
Jesus lays that out there, plain and simple. We reject Jesus, what he stands for, and who he is.
And then he says, “Come to me.”
Are you tired? Come.
Do you not know what to do? Come.
Are you burnt out on spoiled religiosity? Come.
Have you had it up to here with carrying your heavy preferences, biases, burdens? Come.
This is a word of grace to the same people he was just saying “woe” to. This is grace in the midst of misplaced preferences, grace despite choosing the wrong things. This is grace to “this generation.” This is grace to us.
Jesus yokes himself to us. He offers us rest in the midst of troubles. To lighten our burden through with his presence. To teach us how to live and grow. To be a gentle presence in the midst of turmoil - even though that’s not necessarily what we want.
We often prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than one who helps us cope with them. A God who destroys our opponents rather than enables us to make peace with them. A God who eliminates our challenges rather than equips us for them.
That’s where our disappointment lies. On this side of the kingdom, we will be let down when our preferences aren’t met. But God doesn’t pander our Goldilocks-like ways. Instead, God shapes us, changes us, reforms us through yoking us to Jesus.
First, Jesus offers rest. He offers rest from the burden of our preferences; he offers rest from a weary world; he offers rest from having to do it all.
After he gives us rest, then he offers to teach us - for us to learn from him. We learn from Jesus that there is not A right way to do this - any of this. But there are faithful ways.
We learn faithful ways are ways where we walk with Jesus, yoked, joined, together with him.
Faithful ways are authentic ways of worship, of serving, of being Christ-like in the world.
Faithful ways are watching how Jesus lives and then working with Jesus now.
That’s what it means to be yoked to Jesus.
We learn how to live - not in a right or wrong, too hot, too cold kind of way, but in a faithful kind of way. Being spoiled isn’t good for anyone. Being faithful and learning from Jesus is. That means it’s less about what we prefer and more about what Jesus prefers.
Jesus prefers forgiveness. Being yoked to Jesus, resting in Jesus, we see a forgiven life for us where our burdens of guilt and inadequacy are lifted.
Jesus prefers community. We live in a community to help share grief, questions, doubts, fears. He wants us to do this all together, with him.
Jesus prefers care for those who aren’t here yet, especially for those who don’t have the same advantages we do. This butts up against some of our preferences, but it is a faithful way to live.
Jesus prefers eating and drinking. Yes, Jesus comes to us in a simple meal of bread and wine to remind us of God’s love. Where we get to see and touch Jesus with us.
We still may be particular, preferential, and persnickety - set in our own ways. And that can get pretty tiring, heavy, burdensome. But Jesus is here saying, “Come to me, all that need rest. Come to me, those that want to learn to live faithfully. Come to me.” Wherever we go, whatever happens, Jesus is yoked to us, preferences and all.
And that yoke fits just right.
Good ol’ fashioned hospitality.
Not only is it a hallmark of the South, but it should also be a hallmark of the Church. It’s our mission, isn’t it, to be hospitable to those who come to us?
Be a good host.
Serve them. That’s what it means to be hospitable, right?
Looking at Jesus’ words today, it seems that we are to be hospitable. Which should be doubly easy for us Southerners (transplants or not).
Except, there are a couple of challenges in this brief passage. First, Jesus isn’t telling us to be hospitable. At this point, he isn’t telling the disciples what they are supposed to do. Nope. See, he is in the midst of sending them out. So, it’s not about the disciples extending hospitality; it’s about them being visitors. The blessings, the welcome is on the part of those the disciples are sent to. Jesus says we disciples are sent to be guests.
This may go without saying, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. For the most part, we would rather be the ones extending hospitality to others. We can handle that. It’s not that it’s less work; it actually takes a bit of effort to host someone. When I say we would rather be host, I mean we like to control the situation.
When we host, it’s about me and my space. It is my house, my music, my meal choice. I can make the spaghetti sauce the way I like. I mean, some people put mushrooms in it! When I host, I can make my sauce the way I like and not have to fish out fungus. (Mushrooms seem a little less appetizing now, right?)
We even pride ourselves on being good hosts here in the Church. We do our best to be welcoming. We wait on others to come to us, and we make sure they are greeted. We do our best to ensure they know how to use the hymnal and know how to get up to communion and back. Our house, our music, our meal.
I’m not saying being a good host is bad. It’s rather important, I think, both at home and at church. But what I am saying is we often find our identity - we feel more important - in being the host. In reality, Jesus says being sent out to be hosted is just as important; our identity lies in relying on others.
Maybe being sent out is a tad bit disappointing to you. I mean, we want to be good disciples - but we also like taking the easiest way to be one. And what could be easier than sitting back, waiting on people to show up at your door, then offering them a cup of water or a glass of wine? Doing Jesus’ work by hardly leaving our chair!
Yet, Jesus challenges us to be the opportunity for OTHERS to be disciples through hospitality. As we go, as we are sent, as we let go of having to control everything, others get the chance to offer grace. Others get the chance to share a cup of water. Others get to welcome us - and as they do so, they welcome Jesus.
They welcome Jesus.
That, Jesus says, is our first challenge: going out to allow others the opportunity to be hospitable.
The second challenge is trusting Jesus is present even in the small actions we don’t think make a difference. Whether we are hosting or being hosted, Jesus is present. In fact, he’s more than present. Whatever we do - whatever someone else does - it is done to Jesus. He is the recipient of hospitality whenever it is given. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.”
He is there, even in those little things like giving a cup of water. That’s part of being a disciple. Discipleship, in other words, doesn’t have to be a huge and heroic hospitality effort. Even offering a cup of cold water counts.
And if even offering a cup of cold water counts as discipleship, then we can quickly add to the list ways to be disciples in Jesus’ hospitality mission.
We can offer school supplies to a teacher who has had her budget cut or to a student who doesn’t have the means for a whole new set of supplies.
We can put some change in a noisy offering can that helps people with everyday, practical needs.
We can collect items to fill the baggies: travel shampoos, snacks, bars, razors. All will help someone in need.
We can deliver Mobile Meals - a hot meal for someone who needs it.
We can get a name off the Angel Tree and buy a gift for a boy you’ll probably never meet.
Those are all small gestures, I know. They probably won’t change the world. And yet, in the Kingdom of God, there are no small gestures. There are no small gestures because in each one, Jesus is present. As we give, we give to Jesus. As we welcome, we welcome Jesus.
It is all part of being a disciple. Being a disciple means meeting and sharing Jesus. It means being sent out by Jesus to receive the hospitality of others. It means welcoming Jesus and hosting Jesus through our actions to and for others.
Our challenges, therefore, are to trust Jesus when he sends us out. We trust his promise that he shows up in the little things of life. Jesus promises us that each and every small act - from being sent to offering water - has significance, has a purpose, has the chance to make a difference beyond what we see. In it, we work with Jesus in the kingdom, helping him to share God’s love, blessing, and salvation for the world. Jesus promises this.
And it isn’t like Jesus himself doesn’t do all this for us. We follow Jesus by following what Jesus does for us. He hosts us at his table. He feeds us. He offers us grace and love and forgiveness. So we host, too.
We follow Jesus by following what he does for others. He goes out into the community around him. He meets others. He talks, he shares, he doesn’t stay put. So, we don’t stay put either.
And the promise for us, the promise Jesus makes in both those challenges, is he shows up. And if we know Jesus shows up as we do those things, why not do them more? Why not face those challenges head on? The challenge is really a promise.
A promise that Jesus is with you.
So, may you have the courage to let go of having to be host and allow others to show you the presence of Jesus.
May you welcome any and everyone, trusting that even in the smallest of actions, Jesus shows up.
May you welcome and receive the presence of Jesus, and there realize the good ol’ hospitality of God.
When we hear the names of those disciples listed off, we may wonder where we fit into all this. These are important guys, and all this happened a long time ago. It is easy to feel left out or inadequate - or, at the very least, distanced. That’s how I felt when I read our lesson for today. I wondered where I fit into all this.
Two thousand years from now, would anyone remember Pastor Jason or St. Philip Lutheran Church? At first I thought, “Not with THAT attitude, they won’t!” But then I got a little more realistic and started feeling left out again.
But part of my job is to not give up on Bible texts, so I kept going back and reading. (Between getting hit with pool noodles and eating animal crackers. And let’s be honest: that didn’t really help with the sermon writing.)
As I thought and reflected, I slowly started to see myself in this story - but I wasn’t with those famous disciples, no. Instead, I saw myself as part of the crowd - I was “harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd.”
Pool noodles aside. Never mind the controlled chaos of VBS that happened this week. I felt like one of the crowd that Jesus would encounter on his journeys. Harassed. Helpless. A sheep without a shepherd.
Because there’s always something, isn’t there?
There are always new challenges in life, in this world. It’s true for each of us in our own ways. Lately in the Lee household, it’s kids who want to test and push the limits. (“Oh, not them!” you may be saying. “They’re so sweet!” Yes, them.) Then I feel guilty because I lose it after they pushed my buttons one too many times. And I know I’m not alone in that. Generations of parents have been at their wit’s end with their kids - strained, stressed, hassled, harassed.
But it’s more than just kids for me - and probably for you. There are life changes in health, in jobs, in deaths, in relationships. We wonder, “what’s the next step? Where do things go from here?” Things are good; then they’re not. Life is predictable, then it’s not. There are places, times, moments where we feel, where we are helpless. I mean, just think about it.
We are like sheep without a shepherd.
And it’s ok to admit that. Unlike most places in our lives, here we can be real and honest. Sometimes we are harassed and helpless, feeling lost, dismissed, uncertain, unvalued. But feeling this way isn’t a sign that we are failures; instead, it’s a sign that we’re human. We’re part of the crowd.
And admitting this truth, owning that truth can help us hear the other truth in this passage: Jesus sees us and has compassion for us. That is also true. See, Jesus didn’t come primarily as a teacher, trying to instruct us in having better attitudes. He didn’t come to judge us for having down yet real moments. Jesus came to bring the compassion of God to us and to the world. Jesus came to show God’s compassion in word and deed. Jesus came to live - and die - so that we would know, feel, see God’s compassion.
We hear the truth that we are helpless and harassed. We are lost. And that opens us up to hearing and being changed by the second truth: God has compassion for us, even in our harassed and helpless state.
In a world where pressure is exerted on us to display perfection in each and every way, we get the chance to tell the truth, acknowledge our truth. We aren’t perfect, and God is still for us. Jesus sees us, and he has compassion for us.
And now, knowing those truths, we can look at the rest of this passage a bit differently. It isn’t only a “long time ago” type of story full of super-disciples doing miraculous deeds. It is actually regular people sharing the compassion of Jesus.
Jesus compassionately sees us, summons us, and then sends us. But we aren’t sent on our own, trying to live up to some impossible standards, hoping that we keep a positive attitude the whole time.
Here is where we fit into all this: Jesus gathers and sends us out to share compassion - the same compassion he has revealed to us, just like he did to those disciples. Therefore, we aren’t trying to fix people we think are broken. We aren’t trying to adjust their attitudes. We aren’t trying to overhaul someone’s life. We’re sent to reveal Christ. And revealing Christ looks like living Jesus’ compassion through sharing how Jesus’ compassion shows up in our stories.
We tell of the forgiveness he gives when our last button gets pressed.
We share the support we receive in a difficult life change.
We live out the truth: we’re loved even when we have the wrong attitude; when we feel undervalued; when we are lost, lost, lost.
Our Shepherd has compassion for us. Love for us. Grace for us. Life for us.
And we get reminded of those truths here. We hear in word and in song: “remember! Jesus came for you. Everything he did and said was for you! Hang in there!” (That’s a paraphrase; we won’t really sing that.) We get to touch water, a reminder that God has claimed us forever in baptism - always promising us compassion no matter what is happening in our lives. We get to taste and see that the Lord is good. Christ shows up in bread and wine, again giving us forgiveness and grace. Then, he sends us out to a struggling world who needs to hear the truth of God’s compassion.
Today is about,
worship is about,
VBS was about hearing the truth of God. That truth equips us to let our light - and light sabers - shine, showing compassion and care. In our lives. In our ministries. In our gathering.
That’s where we fit into all this.
God has compassion for us. Compassion enough to love us where we are; compassion enough to gather us, equip us in our lives. Compassion enough to send us out to make a difference in the world God loves so much.
And we’re part of that. That’s where we fit in. We’re loved. We’re sent. We share. We do the same as Jesus.
The Sunday after Pentecost is known as “Trinity Sunday.”
The idea is that we’ve met the three persons of God throughout the church year, so now let’s talk about them together. To recap: God the Father gets a lot of the behind-the-scenes credit. The Holy Spirit - at least in mainline protestant churches - gets acknowledged on the one Sunday of Pentecost. And the star of the whole thing is Jesus, the Son. Manger, cross, empty tomb. Today is about all three of them at the same time.
The problem with all this is I don’t think there ever has been a sermon explaining the Trinity in which the congregation returns home exclaiming, “Wow! That really helped!” I mean, the early church had to invent words to explain what they were trying to say. Not so easy to put into a sermon.
So, though I know you all will be thoroughly disappointed, I’m not going to even try to explain anything about three-in-one or one-in-three. But I will say this: the early church was simply trying to put into words how they experienced God.
And that idea, I think, is way more helpful for us than anything I might look up in a book or try to explain to you. What someone else tells you pales in comparison to our own experiences, right? God has become manifest to us. God shows up in some obvious and less-obvious ways. And does understanding Latin words help us experience God? Some of us, I guess.
But how about the rest of us? How do we experience God?
Writer Anne Lamott hits the nail on the head when she writes, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”
For some of us, we do experience God in the beauty of creation, like those magnificent redwood trees. Or the vastness of the ocean. Or sunrises and sunsets. Mountain top views. Cells, atoms, quarks; balls of fire light years away. We experience God there.
Others encounter God in the intangibles of life: the way music makes us feel. The way art connects with our different moods. The way a poem evokes emotion. We experience God there.
Some experience God in people. It is family. It is relationships. It is connection and dependence and bonds. Experience of God is built on love between us.
Still others meet God by serving others. As we give, as we share, we know that is God-like. That is how we experience God.
And even more than that, we see God in comfort. We know God is present when we are consoled. God is there in forgiveness and reconciliation. God is there in promise. In promise.
While we experience God, meet God, see God in many and various ways, today, we hear God - the Triune God - is present in a promise. While our Gospel reading is Trinitarian in that it says, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” that is about as far as it goes. There are no explanations or supporting statements. Except a promise. And the promise is the heart of who the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are: it is a promise of relationship. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Promise is at the heart of any authentic, genuine, and nurturing relationship. It is a promise a whole lot like Jesus’ promise: I will be with you. I am for you. I’ve got your back. Let’s see what we can do together.
The Trinity announces that God is with us. The Trinity affirms God’s presence. The Trinity means that no matter what we experience, God is in relationship with us. God will be there in all our experiences, no matter what we experience. That is the promise.
And if that’s the promise, how does that change us? How does relationship with God affect our experiences going forward? If God as Trinity is the promise that “I will be with you,” what will we do, what will we say if we truly believe that?
In our lives, knowing that God has said, “I am for you,” how will we act toward each other? How will we speak about each other? How will we live together? Maybe it is listening, not assuming. It is opening up instead of closing down. It is trusting in God over anyone or anything else.
In our congregation, how does knowing that God says, “I’ve got your back,” change us and shape us? Maybe it allows us to be more bold in who God made us to be since we know we are not alone. It encourages us not just to welcome people, but invite people to experience. It allows us to loosen our grip so that we can give, receive, bless, and share.
In our ministries moving forward, God says, “let’s see what we can do together.” What does that open us up to? How does that challenge us? How does that assure us?
That’s the big one, right?
Seeing what we can do together with God is hard because it isn’t necessarily going to be done our way. Nor is God going to magically make things happen for us. It will take time, it will challenge us, it may be difficult, but in it all, God is there. In relationship with God, we are sent to do things for the sake of the world.
And that looks like taking our experiences of God - the ways we have known God in our lives - and getting those experiences out. In relationship, in service, in music, in forgiveness, grace, and love… those are ways God comes to us; we are tasked with sharing our Godly relationship.
What more can we do? Well, we’ve started that conversation. We as St. Philip are intentionally looking to where our experiences have brought us - and looking ahead to where they will take us. The congregation has given input. Council has met. Staff has talked. We are learning about where we are as individuals and as a congregation. And we will move forward, sharing our experiences and creating new ones.
And it would be good for us to remember, all things are done with God present. Going, making disciples, sharing our experiences is going with God. And God is with us always, everywhere, in each experience. And that should shape us.
We are claimed in baptism. We are fed at the table. We are reminded of God’s promises each time we gather. God is with us always.
So as we start along this path, let’s expect God to be present. Let’s start with the acknowledgement that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are actually in the room, in our church, in our lives, in our world. We aren’t alone; we are in relationship with the one who creates, saves, and sends. And in our past experiences, in our current situations, in our paths yet untrod, we know that God goes, too. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost, some churches use special effects to try to dazzle the congregation. They bring in fans, fireworks, or flamethrowers to dazzle our senses, hoping to replicate the feeling of that first Day of Pentecost.
I haven’t done that. Instead, I use stained glass. In what has become a little bit of a tradition on Pentecost, we take some time to look at our windows.
To me, this is what stained glass should look like. The most prominent window is this one in the back - the huge, 30 foot tall window.
Some people have asked me if that is St. Philip, which is a good guess, but no, it’s Jesus.
It’s full of symbols for us to remind us of who Jesus is.
There is a shield which has NIKA on it, a Greek word meaning “victor.”
Near his right foot, there is the book with the four crosses, symbolizing the four Gospel stories about Jesus.
And over at the other foot is a lamp, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world and a light upon our path.
Up the left side is a pillar, much like the poles they used to strap prisoners to when they were whipping them, reminding us of Jesus’ suffering.
And on the right is a vine going up the entire right side, reminding us of Jesus’ words, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
At the top is the cross and crown - promise and hope for us as Jesus is victorious.
It’s a beautiful window - even more so when the sun is a couple hours from setting and the light pours into this room with a kaleidoscope of colors. It is beautiful in here.
Over here we have three windows for the Trinity.
Father, with the star of David, and the eye and hand, and even, if you look just right, the words, “I am who I am.”
The Son, with the lamb carrying the victory banner and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding us that Jesus is the beginning and the end.
And the Holy Spirit - with an image of a Bible up top. The Spirit calls, enlightens, and sanctifies us through the Word. There is a descending dove at the bottom.
Over here we have the windows which display the seasons of the Church year. We start on the left with Advent and Christmas with the manger and a shepherd’s crook. Moving to the right we have a Star and Three Crowns for Epiphany. We keep going and we get to a cross in the middle with a crown of thorns for Lent and Holy Week. Then a butterfly in the top - a symbol of resurrection with Easter lilies down below. And finally, the last window is the Pentecost window with flames stretching through this window and into the other panels. Fire, like the tongues of flame we heard about in our story from Acts.
The windows are full of symbols to remind us and help us in our faith.
At first, they seem less impressive than a flamethrower. And, I’ll admit, the windows don’t quite have the showmanship of a concentrated flame spraying out over the congregation.
But here is the thing about the windows: they’re always here. They’re always around. They are always subtly reminding us of God’s presence, of Jesus’ presence, of the Spirit’s presence.
Flamethrowers can make us feel awesome. Flamethrowers, though, come and go. But God’s Spirit is always here. And that is the beauty of what Pentecost is about.
See, a lot of things in our world are driven by how we feel. We have to feel good. We have to be appeased. We have to feel energized or filled or happy. That is what our world is based on. It’s what some Churches are based on: conveying a feeling. Flamethrowers are impressive; but then what’s next?
God is a window.
We have to be careful not to relate God’s presence to how we feel. What if the next thing isn’t as impressive? What if the next surprise isn’t as surprising? What if the next sermon or song or statement doesn’t make me happy? If I don’t get that rush, if I don’t get that sense of excitement or joy, what does that say about me? About God? Our world is built on causing and giving an emotional reaction. It is a fear they can fend off; a joy they can supply; a need you didn’t even know existed until they brought it up can be filled.
Jesus is stained glass.
What happens when you don’t feel how the world tells you you should feel? What happens when the impressive, new, over-the-top thing doesn’t bring joy, leaves something lacking, is revealed to be merely presentation? Our feelings come and go. Our happiness goes up and down. And if God shows up in the flamethrowers, what about when our candle is snuffed out?
The Spirit lets in the light.
Flamethrowers come and go. But God’s Spirit is always here. And that is the beauty of what Pentecost is about.
Here is the thing about the windows: they’re always here. They’re always around. They are always subtly reminding us of God’s presence, of Jesus’ presence, of the Spirit’s presence.
When we come in here on a good day, we can see the light pouring in through those windows and give thanks to God for a beautiful day. The Spirit fills us again, and we give thanks to God for love, grace, and forgiveness.
When we come in here on a bad day, when we aren’t feeling happy, we get the reminder of the Spirit’s presence in something we can see, in something that is always here and always present. The Spirit can lift us, prompt us, refresh us with the Good News that even in our crummiest, God is here. The Spirit is here.
And, of course, not just here - but in the world, too. In the midst of everyone and everything trying to tell you how to feel, what to feel, when to feel… God is there, whatever you feel.
To help us out in the world, Paul tells us what to look for. The Spirit produces fruit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Those are the stained glass windows in our world. When we see love, we know the Spirit is there. Where there is peace, the Spirit is present. In a show of faithfulness, the Spirit is near.
In those fruits, God’s Spirit is working, is at hand, is with you.
Today, six of our young people will affirm their baptism, saying that they will do their best to continue to live in the baptismal promises God made with them. The Spirit is present! Now, how many of you were teenagers once? How many of you, as teenagers, would think that today is a flamethrower kind of moment? That the Spirit is super obvious, scorching the hairs of our head? Not many of us.
But is the Spirit present? You bet your britches.
Sometimes, the Spirit is obvious and exciting and too hot for our little hearts to handle. But God’s Spirit isn’t always a flamethrower. Sometimes, the Spirit is a single candle burning in the midst of our darkness. Sometimes, the Spirit is a tiny fruit of love or patience that took time to grow. Sometimes the Spirit speaks the words, “this is given and shed for you.”
Sometimes the Spirit is a splash, a remembrance, a calling. Sometimes the Spirit thrusts us into God’s future - urging us to take what we receive here and produce fruit out there. Sometimes, the Spirit is a stained glass window - always there and rarely noticed or understood.
Flamethrowers come and go. Our feelings come and go. But God’s Spirit is always here. And that is the beauty of what Pentecost tells us. God is a window. Jesus is stained glass. The Spirit lets in the light. And God is always here. With us. Up or down. Left or right. Happy, sad, or exuberant.
God is here. God is here. Throwing flames for the sake of the world.
What a way to start off a Bible text! “You foolish Galatians!” Other translations aren’t any more kind, using words like crazy, witless, and stupid. Insults, we understand. The rest of this passage, maybe not so much. What is Paul so upset about?
Well, he’s carrying on the argument we heard last week. While the argument was level headed and balanced in chapters 1 and 2, it seems Paul finally hit the breaking point with the Galatians’ confusion. What is it that saves us: the Law or God?
How can you start with God’s Spirit and now move on to customs and rules? “How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue in this craziness? Only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was started by God.” (The Message)
Paul then takes his argument to the beginning of Israel’s story - the founding father, Abraham. If you remember way back to Abraham, he was out, minding his own business when God pops up and says, “Abraham, I’m going to bless you! I will make of you a great nation! Through you, all the families of the world will be blessed!” Paul notes that God promises this before Abraham does anything. It wasn’t a conditional promise: if you promise to get circumcised, if you follow the Law, then I will bless you.” God promises to bless him and bless the world through him; Abraham simply trusts God’s promise.
Until that world-wide blessing arrived, the Law was given to be a nanny. We, apparently, needed a babysitter. Paul’s point is this: between the time of Moses and the Messiah, Israel needed looking after.
But now, one has come who is mature, who is able to handle things on his own without the need for a babysitter. The Messiah himself comes to bring God’s promises to fulfillment - no nanny, no disciplinarian, no babysitter required. Jesus has come.
That’s Paul’s argument. In a kind of difficult text, hopefully I did more clearing up than muddying of the waters.
Yet, as I was going through this passage, I kept thinking, “so what?” It’s a hard Bible passage to understand, to connect with, and to write a sermon on.
Some of you know that I spent the beginning of the week down in Charleston at the South Carolina Synod Assembly. The Synod Assembly is a gathering of all the Lutheran churches in SC to share the ministries that are going on and do the business of the church - like electing Council members and whatnot. Those days at Assembly are already long, but this year, I was asked to be the Chaplain. I helped lead worship and I did a lot of out-loud praying for the 300-plus delegates gathered. I was kind of on edge the whole time because at any time the Bishop could say, “Now we’ll have a prayer from our Chaplain.”
When I sat down to write this sermon, I felt as if I used all my good words early in the week and didn’t save any left.
On top of being emotionally tired this week, I didn’t connect to where the Galatians were coming from. The whole bit about no distinctions between us wasn’t news to me. I felt like I had heard, read, and preached this all before. It felt long, tedious, conventional. Maybe you are feeling the same way?
But then I thought, maybe I was trying too hard to do it myself.
Back in the late 1800s, there was a famous tight-rope walker, Charles Blondin (or Blon-deen, depending on how French you want to get). He would set up his rope 1,100 feet across Niagara Falls and walk across several times - with a balance pole, no pole, blind folded, forward, backward. He would sit on a stool, use stilts, even cook and eat breakfast while out on this rope.
But his most famous trick was when he asked if anyone would volunteer to be carried across on his back. One thousand, one hundred feet. Over the gigantic Niagara Falls. On a rope. In a surprising move, one man volunteered to do it. (Paul might have insulted, “you foolish man!”) They both made it across, by the way.
But, suppose halfway across that man who was being carried said, “This is all going quite well. But, I’m starting to not trust you. Why don’t you let me down, and I’ll finish the rest myself?”
That is what doing it on your own looks like. That is leaning on the Law and what we can do instead of leaning on the Messiah. That is what Paul was arguing against - finishing ourselves what God starts in us.
In baptism, God starts something in us. God starts us across that rope - but we aren’t out there on our own. We are carried by Christ. We depend on Jesus. No matter how good we think we are, we need someone to bring us from one side to the other. To do anything else is foolish.
Jesus does this for us, not because of our well-demonstrated balance or our superb rule following, but because he loves us. He brings us into his family, to a place where we belong, where we all belong, no matter who we are.
Christ carried Scarlett today to new life. She was welcomed into the family of God through water and Word. She’s so little - yet loved so much. Baptized into Christ, she (like us all) is clothed in Christ, covered by Christ, surrounded with Christ’s love.
She didn’t do anything to be loved. She didn’t earn the promises God gives. God simply promises - promises love and blessing. Her parents, grandparents, godparents, we all are there to help her learn to trust those promises as she grows.
In our baptisms, we, too, are placed in Jesus’ arms - or, more accurate to the story, we are hoisted onto Jesus’ back. Once we’re hoisted up there, we simply trust that Jesus has us, and he will get us where we need to go. The same was true for Abraham. He got the promise, and he trusted. God made sure that promise was fulfilled.
We like to do it on our own. But, we can’t. The Law, the rules, even we ourselves won’t get us across that rope. Sometimes, we aren’t feeling it. Sometimes, we aren’t our best. Sometimes, the words just won’t come. Sometimes, we are emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually tired. And if it is up to us in moments like that, we most certainly would fall.
But it is not up to us, is it? Instead, we trust God to do what God promises. And God promises to bring us home. God promises that Jesus has us. We aren’t nannied by the Law anymore, but carried, lifted, held, moved by Christ. We believe, we trust that God will do what God says God will do. Never alone, never on our own, but with each other. With Jesus.
And we know that God finishes what God starts. God has started a promise - a promise of blessing for the entire world, a promise of blessing for you and for me. No matter how we feel, how we walk, who we are.
All of us are in the arms of Jesus.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard stories of the early Church. We’ve heard of the welcome that was extended - and the controversies that happened because of that welcome. The main issue was the entry of non-Jews into the Christian faith. Did they need to become Jews before becoming Christian? That is, did they need to follow the Law and be circumcised to follow Jesus?
The leaders of the early church - those people you probably have heard before: Peter, James, John, Paul, and so on - decided that the Law did not hold. It is Christ who makes us right with God, not works of the Law.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he drives home that argument. After giving some brief introductory and autobiographical statements in chapter 1, he goes full bore into the situation at hand in chapter 2.
The issue is hypocrisy. Cephas, better known to us as Peter, would visit Churches, eating and worshiping and celebrating with many Gentile Christians. But when certain Jews were around, Peter would back away from such table fellowship. He was switching positions depending on who was watching. This was confusing for some new Christians and set a bad example for how the Church and Christians should live.
They said one thing: “We are justified by Jesus!”
Yet, they did another: follow the Law.
How hard it is to leave it all up to God. Peter, the Rock of the Church, still fell back into the ways of the Law. Surely, (surely!), we have to do something. Maybe not follow all the Law, but some of it, right? A piece? Food or circumcision or boundaries or pray or accept or something? It can’t all be left up to God, can it?
To us, it is a simple conditional statement: if we do X, then God will act on our behalf. If we follow the Law, if we say the right prayer, if we have the right religious ceremony, THEN God will save, love, welcome, do God things.
That is what Paul argues against here in Galatians. It isn’t up to Law or fellowship or belief. It isn’t up to us. It is up to God. The conditional gets flipped. It isn’t even a conditional anymore. It’s not “if/then.” It’s a statement of fact. It’s all “because.”
Because God works, because God loves, because God sent Jesus… therefore, we are justified. Remember last week when I said that good theology starts with God? It still holds true this week. It doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t start with our “ifs.” It starts with God. It always starts with God.
Because God, because Jesus… therefore, we…
The question Paul essentially is raising is, “what do we trust in to save, to really save?” Do we trust in the Law to save us? Do we trust in what we can do? Or do we trust in God?
Paul’s argument is that we cannot be justified by us doing something. We are justified in Jesus, because of Jesus. Chapter 2, verse 16 makes Lutherans smile: “Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
He even takes it a step further to make sure we know that we can’t do anything. Paul states that we have been crucified with Christ. Crucified. Killed. Dead. Died. Kaput. In another letter, Paul talks about how in our baptism we are buried with Christ. In Christ, we are dead.
Now, tell me, what can you do if you are dead? Nothing. You’re dead. That means it is totally up to God to raise. It is totally up to God to justify. It is totally up to God to bring us to life. What is true of Jesus Christ is true for us. Yes, we die with Christ. We are buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.
What is true for him is true for us. We belong to Jesus’ family because of what he did for us. Because God has done all this, therefore we are justified and made right with God.
If it isn’t up to God and God alone,
if we still need to do something to earn it,
to make it true for us,
then Christ died for nothing. Here I stand.
Because God raises us up to new life,
Because God makes us right apart from the Law,
Because God saves, loves, forgives, justifies us,
therefore we… we what?
We sit here? We feel good about ourselves? We oblige God by showing up for church once a week?
While we don’t have to do anything to earn the life we’re given, we do get a chance to participate in the life of God now. We aren’t just forgiven, but sent. We aren’t just blessed, but called to participate and be with Christ. We share in God’s mission and ministry for the life of this world.
Usually here in the sermon is where there are some examples of ministries or a call to action, a way to live out faith in a tangible way. But today, you get to think about that. This is our “therefore.”
Because God justifies us, therefore we… we do what?
In your bulletin is a green slip of paper with some questions. They are fairly open ended but written with our “therefore” in mind. God has gifted us with all the intangible things we cannot earn; therefore we respond with tangible actions. Take a moment to review and answer those questions now.
The life we live, we now live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. Therefore, we do what?
Therefore, we live. Now and forever.
All because God...
At stake is the future of the church.
What it will look like? Who will be in? What is acceptable and what is not?
Unless you become circumcised, you cannot be welcomed. (Right there I guess we’d lose about 50% of you.) Our story from Acts today is one of the biggest issues in the early church. Did Gentiles have to be circumcised to be fully welcomed into the church? Did they have to submit to the same preconditions as the Jewish followers of Jesus? It is a question that will shape the future of the church.
Some expected “yes.” Yes, they need to circumcised. There is a history to all this; they need to be included in that history, in the Law that has preceded. It is only then that they can be fully welcomed.
Others disagreed. No, they said. This is something different! Bigger! More! Those old expectations don’t hold to them.
St. Philip a pretty friendly church, I think. At least, that is what I hear. Of course people are nice to me; I’m the pastor. I hope they are nice to you, too. (And now that I’ve said that, everyone better be friendly!)
Our friendliness is a common theme I hear in new member classes. It is part of the reason why people want to partner with us in ministry. I also hear it from snowbirds - those who come down from Ohio or Pennsylvania or some other frozen tundra for one, two, three, or more months during the winter. They keep coming back because of the people, the community, the friendliness.
Maybe a friendly, welcoming church is surprising to some. Maybe it is expected.
And we have expectations in return, don’t we? We expect that they understand how to do the Lutheran aerobics of standing, sitting, and kneeling. We expect that our good order will hold out. That means no “amens” in the middle of the sermon. We only say what is printed in bold! Amen?
We do have certain expectations, a certain way of doing things, a certain threshold that must be passed to be part of this community. And yet, I think we’d say we’re open for all to come. All are welcome. But somehow we have to assimilate them into us - kinda like what the pro-circumcision party was trying to uphold. All are welcome, but you have to adapt to us first.
There generally have been two modes of Evangelism and growing the church for Lutherans. One is to make more Lutheran babies. The other is marry a Baptist and convert them. (Baptists make good Lutherans.) But that isn’t working as well anymore.
As a pastor, welcome and assimilation is something I wrestle with. Lutherans have traditions. We have beloved hymns and liturgical pieces. There is a history to all this. A lot of that is important to pass along and teach. But at the same time, we hunker so far down into ourselves that our circle stays the same… or shrinks, even. How can we as a community of faith - of Lutheran faith - be faithful to what has been, honor our history and all that has preceded, and yet open up to people who have not been Lutheran all their life?
We expect our ways of bringing people to God are consistent with how God wants us to bring people to God - like the circumcision advocates. And yet, God often seems to do things differently than we are used to, than we want, than we expect.
We have expectations. God has expectations, too.
Acts makes this conflict resolution stuff sound really easy. It’s not. But the early church can model something for us. They listened to God.
From our perspective two millennia later, it’s easy to look back and think, “God did a new thing! Therefore, the church should be a new thing!” The inclusion of Gentiles is obvious to us - most of us being non-Jewish Gentiles, ourselves.
But I am not convinced God was doing something new here. God is doing what God has always done: show mercy to all, invite and welcome all, gather a people of all types to be in relationship.
God isn’t doing something new with Gentiles. It’s the same thing God has always done. It is we as the Church who adjust to what God is doing. And that’s hard for us who have certain expectations.
This episode in Acts shows us that it can be hard. But those first apostles keep pointing to God. Look at all that God has done. God chooses. God gives the Holy Spirit. God makes no distinction between in and out. God does all that to Jew and Gentile alike. God’s mercy knows no bounds. God even extends the circle to include Gentiles and Lutherans and never-been-Lutherans and even those who put their hands up during songs. We are beneficiaries of God widening the circle. We are included.
Because at the end of the day, it is about God.
(If you’ve been around me, you’ve heard me say this before.) Good theology starts with God, not us. God calls. God creates. God saves. God sends. God does stuff. Our task as children of God, as people of faith, is do our best to tag along with what God is doing.
Acts looked to where God was moving and decided to open up to that. It wasn’t a strategic decision to help the church grow or modernize. They followed God. They joined into what God was already doing - and what God continues to do now.
God keeps expanding the circle and welcoming people into relationship. As we discuss and share and chat and vision and hope and work through the summer, it’d be good for us to remember this. God is already moving in and among us and in and among people who aren’t here yet. Our task is to position ourselves in a way that is ready to receive them, to share with them, to be friendly to them, to partner together in ministry, to help them in their relationship with God.
That is at the heart of who we are as Lutherans. That is the message we have. God has opened up wide the circle, not on account of what we have done or how well we do what we do. God has done this out of love for us. God has given us the grace to be included.
God chooses us. God gives us the Holy Spirit. God makes no distinction between in and out.
So, expect God to work in us and through us.
Expect God to speak to us.
Expect God, not to do a new thing, but to do the same thing God has always done: pour out grace upon us.
And with that grace, with the gift of the Spirit, with the assurance that God chooses and includes us, it is we the Church who adjust to what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
Welcome to preschool Sunday. Let’s talk about eunuchs!
Maybe that’s not the smoothest intro to a sermon I’ve ever had, but I wanted to get that out there. Yes, there is a eunuch in the story.
Those of you who have brushed up on your history of eunuchs may already know this, but eunuchs were often employed to guard the women’s living areas or hold high positions in women’s administrations. While some were born this way, more often than not they were castrated - made to be eunuchs. This ensured a supply of non-threatening people to have those aforementioned positions of the queen. They wouldn’t make sexual advances, like men might. And since a eunuch by law could never be king, there was no threat of a coups. Eunuchs were in a “gray” area, meaning they often didn’t have a real place or real welcome anywhere.
Now, that we’ve got some background, let’s place this character into the midst of a bunch of unlikely events.
Philip gets sent out from all the important church activities in Jerusalem to go to this desolate, wilderness road. It is literally in the middle of nowhere.
There is this eunuch from Ethiopia, who looks way different than Philip does. An employee of the high court, he is dressed nicely and riding in a chariot. On top of that, he is reading a scroll of Isaiah (hopefully he wasn’t scrolling while driving). Then, after Philp runs up alongside this chariot, out of the blue he asks, “do you understand what you’re reading?” After a little sermon about Jesus, all of a sudden there is water. In the middle of the desert.
It all seems a bit coincidental and out of place. Nothing should work in the story. While in the middle of the desert, it just so happens that the one guy who knows stuff about Jesus runs across this other guy who just so happens to be reading Isaiah. And then there just happens to be water.
The out-of-place prophet encounters the eunuch who has no place.
And that is where God shows up. Like so many other stories in the Bible, this one is again meant to tell us that God shows up in ways, in places, in people we don’t expect - maybe even don’t want - God to show up in.
God leads us to those places. To nowhere. To wilderness. To places we question.
God leads us to those people. To people who don’t have a place. To people who are outsiders. To people who get shunned, or boxed in, or hurt.
God shows up there, with those people. Even when “those people” are us. See, we know ourselves. We know us. We know what goes on in our heads and our hearts. We know where we’ve been hurt - and where we’ve hurt others. We know when we’ve been too sure and when we don’t have a clue. Maybe, most days we think we’re fine. But there comes a day, a time, a period where we’re wandering in the wilderness, completely out of place, stuck in the middle of nowhere.
God sends Philip to that middle of nowhere to say there is a place for the eunuch - a place of welcome, acceptance, love, grace. That place is with God.
And that’s what God says to you today, too. God says there is a place for you. The same place of welcome, acceptance, love, grace, forgiveness, life. It’s there for you, as surprising and unexpected as you may think it is.
To paraphrase the eunuch’s question, “what is to keep us from that kind of welcome and love?”
Honestly? We are what keeps us. We think we’re too lost or too broken or too foreign to all God offers. We close ourselves off to seeing the coincidences of God. We head further down our wilderness road, trying to make heads or tails of all that is going on.
And God keeps showing up. No matter the place we are in our lives, God comes to us - as unlikely as it may seem, as out of place as it may seem, as much as it doesn’t seem things are working out. It just so happens that those are the places God shows up.
Like Philip to a eunuch: a stranger who shifts our perspective, who opens us up to see things in a new way. God shows up in moments like that.
In water - in a splash to remind us that we, no matter who we are, are claimed forever. God shows up in the welcome of a baby who can't even do anything. God shows up in the building of a varied, colorful, open community in the Body of Christ. God reminds us that we are washed clean, forgiven every time, all the time.
God shows up in an unlikely meal of bread and wine. God feeds our souls as well as our stomachs. God uses that meal to sustain us as we are sent to the varied places of our world.
God shows up in the unlikely place of a cross and, even more unlikely, an empty tomb. Because God shows up there, because God shows up in resurrected life, we know that even death can’t keep God away from us. And if death can’t stop God, then nothing will. If God can show up despite cross and grave, we are certain that nothing can or will keep us away from God’s welcome, love, and grace.
In Jesus, through Jesus, because of Jesus, God ensures we have a place, no matter who you are. In Jesus, God finds us, shows us, proves to us that God’s love is more than coincidence. It is the heart of who God is.
We have a place.
Philip, the eunuch, we, you have a place, as unlikely as you may think it is.
Because it just so happens, that’s how God works.
Hot on the heels of the Gospel of Luke is the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is a sort of sequel to Luke, picking up right where the Gospel ends. It tells the beginnings of the church and all of its messy, beautiful, tragic, hopeful struggles. What we hear and learn from Acts can be easily seen in today’s Church, our church.
There are fond memories of the early church. As things were just getting started in the early chapters, Acts tells of all the great and wonderful things that were going on.
They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Great awe fell on everyone, and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles … And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being rescued.
The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common … and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. (Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-34)
It was beautiful and hopeful. It’s no wonder people wanted to join up with them. Those types of situations and memories can draw people into the community of faith. We, too, have fond memories of faith, worship, and community. It is those memories that kept us coming or got us here in the first place.
We as St. Philip are beginning a visioning process. It’s so exciting, and it is so scary. We’ll start by taking inventory of who we are. We will listen to what God is saying. We will do our best to follow God’s call. And we will envision steps to take as a community so that we can follow God’s call for the next five, ten, even twenty years. What we do right now impacts each step going forward.
Part of that process is recalling memories and experiences, because those shape us. (Here is where the sermon transitions from “traditional talking head” to “audience participation.”) In your bulletin, you have a blue sheet of paper with some questions on it. At this point in time, I’d like you to look at question #1: “What is your favorite experience of church?” Take a minute or so to reflect and write something down, whether it happened decades ago or a week ago.
It doesn’t matter if you are a member here or not, but please do put your name on it. Yes, you’ll turn it in. We’d like to read each response. Council will use these responses as a starting point for our conversation in early June.
So, yes, we have fond memories, as did the early church. But, all of a sudden, the earliest church doesn’t look much like the ideal model. This is where the beautiful and hopeful opens to include some of the messy and tragic. There are the beginnings of divisions and hurt feelings. The original Apostles are starting to become overwhelmed with all there is to do. Turns out, they aren’t super-human. They’re just regular-human dealing with real problems.
And so, the Church adapted. This is where we pick up in our lesson today. The Church adapts. Understanding the situation, the original apostles looked around at what they had, who they had. And they used their assets to support, to grow the community of faith. They brought in further leadership - Stephen being one of these new leaders, and the one we hear about today.
Stephen was gifted, brimming with God’s grace and energy. He did wonderful things among them, pointing to God. The Apostles and the early Church adjusted their strategy, using who and what was with them. Which brings us to question #2: “What has God placed in our midst that can be used to build our community of faith right now?”
Take a minute to reflect and write down your answer. If you are visiting with us today, think about your home church - or if you’re familiar enough with St. Philip, you can use us.
Now we’re starting to see the messy, beautiful, tragic, hopeful church. Because as things shift around, as Stephen begins his ministry, people get upset. Though Stephen did some great things among them, the people start to argue and complain. He spoke with wisdom and the power of the Spirit. Still, there were splits and rifts. People quarreled, bickered, and squabbled.
Those who have been around churches know that we aren’t immune to this kind of stuff. In some ways, because people feel it is so important, these types of things happen more often. In our story today, the arguments led to trying to throw Stephen out. There were false testimonies. Eventually, there was an uprising, a few rocks were thrown, and then death.
Which is messy and tragic, no way around it. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, killed because of his faith.
But this messy and tragic part of the story isn’t without hope for beauty. Standing there, watching the whole thing, was a young man named Saul. Spoiler alert: he’s a pretty important guy going forward.
But, at this point, the future is uncertain. No one knows what the next steps will be, how things will work out, what the plan of action is. Movement from what “is” or “was” to the unknown “what-will-be” can be painful, sure. But God is present, calling, urging us forward.
In the midst of death, God promises new life. God resurrects. Cross to empty tomb. Broken hearts to burning hearts. Uncertainty to Mission. Just as God was present in the early church, not letting it flounder, God is present now. And because God is present, we can move on with hope.
We can and should have dreams going forward. In the midst of our current situations - be they to you messy and tragic or beautiful and hopeful - God calls and gifts the Church to continue on. How will we do that?
And so we look at question #3: “What is your deepest wish for the future of St. Philip Church?”
Or you can answer for the Church in general. Take a moment to answer now.
Past, present, future… God was there in the early church through controversy and calling, through martyrdom and mission. And God was there with us, too, in our best memories and the toughest days.
God was there because God is faithful, no matter if we the Church are messy, beautiful, tragic, or hopeful. God is here. Jesus feeds us. The Spirit supports us.
And God always will. God will call the church forward, in all that happens, despite all that happens. God sends us to share the love and grace that we have received in new, reforming, relatable ways. God calls us on to be the Church. That is the exciting and scary part of it.
It can be messy, beautiful, tragic, and yet, we always have hope.
We have hope because God is here, and God is faithful. And God always will be.
The week after Easter can be such a let down.
Sure, we’ve still got some “alleluias” in the bulletin; white adorns the chancel; instead of confessing, we’re giving thanks to God for new life in Christ. All this points to Easter resurrection.
But there is a little more room in the pew today than there was a week ago. Nearly all of the flowers from last week are gone. All that remain are a couple of lilies, which, to be honest, I wasn’t sure would make it until today. We’re back to our regular, routine way of doing things. It can feel so hum-drum.
As a preacher who didn’t take the week after Easter off, the emotional high of last week can make this week feel inconsequential. Uninspired. Mundane. Christ is risen. What else is there to say?
And into the weary, idea-exhausted pastor’s lap plops the Emmaus story. This story is brimming with sermon fodder. Every line is carefully crafted by Luke, with all the emotions, scenes, and analogies a preacher needs to knock a sermon out of the park. Sorrow, suspense, puzzlement… the gradual dawning of who this is, unexpected actions, presence, a meal, recognition, excitement! All this in one story! There’s so much!
“Having so much” can hurt a coherent sermon more than help it.
I had hoped that this sermon would come easily. But everything was still going on. All the events and activities continued on despite my emotional state. Things didn’t work out like I planned, like I had hoped. Sometimes, we just don’t have the heart.
Despite all the things that had taken place over the past few days, I needed to finish (or start) a sermon. So, I started my writing journey - trying to go somewhere on a path that would take me to Emmaus. In each paragraph I was writing, I just kept shaking my head. I tried to organize this way and that way. I wrote and deleted a lot, trying to make sense of all the things that happened on the way to Emmaus. But things weren’t working out like I had hoped.
Then on Thursday night, we had a friend over after the kids went to bed. It was getting kinda late, but Dana and I encouraged our friend to stay and hang out a bit more. So, we were chatting with a couple of beers, eating the kids’ Easter candy, sharing stories of life and work. And then he asked me a question, “how long does it take you to write a sermon?” And I spilled it all - pretty much all that I’ve told you already today. I replied, “Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it is hard. I wanted this one to be easy, but blarg!” (You’ve already heard of my frustrations and dashed hopes.)
I had hoped to make it a great sermon. I had hoped to make it easy for me. I had hoped that all this great stuff would happen! And it didn’t. And then I realized my foolishness and slowness of heart in writing the sermon. My eyes were opened.
Jesus was there with me. All through my week, even in my frustrations, in the sharing of food and drink and conversation, Jesus was there. Through all that happened; through all the stuff I wish I would’ve gotten done; even through my journeys heading the wrong direction. Jesus was there.
That’s the heart of the Emmaus story.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us all the time, even when we don’t know it.
As my eyes were opened, my heart started burning - in the good way. My task isn’t to wow and dazzle, but simply point to Jesus when I see him. And maybe, let you know that sometimes I don’t see him. Sometimes I miss his presence because I’m so concerned about me and all that has happened to and around me. But Jesus is there. Jesus walks with us. Jesus shows up.
We are more like these two on the road than we acknowledge. We have our plans; we have our hopes that are dashed. We walk along; we journey from one stop to the next. And in it all, often unbeknownst to us, Jesus is there. Jesus is with us in our stories, in our journeys, in our every day and hum-drum. And we don’t see him. Yet, like Cleopas and his traveling partner, in our frustrations, in our plans gone awry, in everything: Christ walks with us.
And that is what matters. That is the Good News. That is the heart of the Gospel.
The resurrected Lord is with us always. And he can be with us always because we know that nothing can keep Jesus from us. If we’re a tax collector or sinner, Jesus is there. If we are well or ill, Jesus is there. If we’ve had a crummy or fantastic week, Jesus is there.
Who we are, what we do, what we see or don’t see; nothing separates us from Jesus. Not even hanging him on a cross and placing him in a tomb keeps him from us. In Christ, God conquers all that separates us - those things like sin and death which we have no shot at defeating. God does it for us out of love, out of grace, because God wants to be with us, wants to walk with us, now and forever. Jesus gives us the Spirit, tells us the Good News, feeds our faith with his presence. He wants to take our broken, uninspired, dream-crushed hearts and set them on fire.
And so we keep telling the story. We tell the story that Jesus told. We tell the story that we’ve been telling, week in and week out. We tell the story because the story rekindles the burning in our hearts.
We share the meal because Jesus is there, hosting, present, inviting, blessing. Opening our eyes to see him yet again. Helping us to see that he was with us all the time.
Even in the crummiest, most tiring, uninspired weeks, Jesus is there. And not just for pastors and preachers, but for you. Jesus walks with you.
I got that lesson this week. Jesus’ presence isn’t based on what I believe or how I feel or how good a sermon is. Jesus’ presence is a given. We just don’t always notice. Simply telling the story, sharing a meal - that helps us to see him again.
Christ is risen. Christ is present. Christ tells us the Gospel story. Christ opens our eyes in the breaking of bread.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us all the time, even when we don’t know it.
Whatever kind of week you had, may you know that Christ is alive.
Whatever kind of week you will have, may you know that Jesus walks with you wherever you go.
Whatever happens in life, may Jesus take your broken heart and set it on fire.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
So goes the traditional Easter acclamation Christians have used for centuries to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. It gives voice to our faith and joy at Christ’s triumph over death, over the grave, and over all that stands between us and eternal relationship with God.
And while we will say, “alleluia” about 6,000 times today, there were zero alleluias at the tomb that first Easter morning. (Maybe they lost their place in the bulletin and didn’t know how to respond.) They didn’t have any “alleluias” because they went to the tomb with no expectation of finding anything other than a dead body. They didn’t have anything resembling faith and joy. Rather, at daybreak on the first day of the week, they walked slowly and sadly to perform one last act of devotion for their beloved Lord.
They did not expect resurrection. They did not expect joy. They did not expect celebration or hope or new life. No. They came looking for death because that is what they had seen on Friday.
They went to the tomb as we would have gone, with heavy hearts and broken dreams.
What is done is done.
Until two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Because he is not living; he’s dead. We saw him crucified with our own eyes!
And then the men say, “Remember what he told you? Remember?”
And it all comes flooding back for the women. It’s like the montage at the end of the movie as the surprise twist is revealed; the images and scenes from before flash through their brains, making them wonder why they didn’t notice it before. They remember him saying, “He must go. He must suffer. He must die.” But he also will be raised. They remember. They remember and then they go and tell, go and share, and maybe even utter that first alleluia.
Remember. While we think we come here today to celebrate, to sing songs and hymns, to give thanks… really, today we are like the women who come to the tomb. We come here today and get reminded.
We need to be reminded in our own bright and dazzling way that Jesus is risen. Hear again that the impossible is possible; the unthinkable is now our hope. Death has been defeated, once and for all. Our greatest enemy crumbles under the depth and breadth of God’s love - a love that won’t ever stop.
That is a reminder we need regularly. Today, right now, this very moment, in this room, sure, we remember. But day to day, we forget. In our world, in our lives, in the midst of all that is opposed to resurrection, love, grace, and life, we need this reminder: God is bigger than it all. God is more loving than we can be. And God shows us that love in raising Jesus from the tomb.
It’s not that we don’t know it; we just don’t remember. Think of it like this: I know my mommy loves me. (Yes, a grown man just said mommy.) My mom loves me, but I don’t always remember it. I don’t always process it. If I get a reminder, like I talk to her on the phone, or get a text, or Facetime, or she likes something I post on Facebook, or she sends my kids a card, THEN I remember. But usually, day to day, I don’t remember.
I’m not always conscious of her love. I forget it, for lack of a better word.
The same is true with what God has done in Jesus. We know God raised Jesus from the dead, but we forget it in our day-to-day lives. Even those women who were with Jesus for a majority of his ministry, who followed him, who heard his teachings and parables, who saw the miracles and healings, even they needed a reminder. Lucky for them they got it - in sparkly clothes, no less.
They got their dazzling prompt, and they remembered Jesus has changed everything.
We, like those women, often need a prompt to remember, even something as great as a resurrection.
Which, like I said, is why we gather today - and yet, not just today, but week in and week out. Gathering together reminds us that Jesus is alive. And I don’t mean gather to sit in a pew, but to see others, to form relationships, to support and care and pray. To see someone who has been through hell and back. To know people who have faith stronger than I ever could. To connect with all ages and stages of what life offers - or throws - at us. These people are around when we gather, and their stories remind us: Jesus has changed everything.
Worshiping in word and song prompts us. We are confronted again with the realization that if God can do this, if God can overcome death, what else can God do? We are injected again with wonder and mystery of a God who can raise the dead and wants us to know that new life is true for us, too. Music, movement, color - all of it hits different emotions. All of it reminds us: Jesus changes everything.
As we share the meal of communion, we do it in remembrance of Jesus. We remember his life and death; we remember that he is raised. We remember: because he is raised, he is here with us in the meal, here in bread and wine. Alive and present, bringing with him all that Jesus is: love, grace, forgiveness, perseverance, life. Not just now, but forever. The meal reminds us: Jesus will change everything.
Remembering shapes us, changes us.
Back to the analogy about my mom’s love which I don’t always remember… I still don’t always remember it, not mentally, not there between my ears. But, in a way, I do remember it each day, because I live out her love. Her love, whether I knew it at the time or not, shaped me. And now, things beyond the obvious phone calls and snail mail start to remind me. Her love comes out in how I live, in how I try to interact with my kids, in how I want to immediately put dishes away and not leave them on the counter or in the sink. My mom’s love shaped me - even if I don’t always remember.
And that is how resurrection is. It shapes us, even when we don’t know it. It gives us promises, even when we don’t remember them. It helps us live a new life today and gives us new life to come.
God has changed everything, even if we don’t remember.
But remembering… boy. Remembering really does prompt us to be different.
To expand the bounds of our own love, because God’s love knows no bounds.
To have hope that we will overcome, because God in Jesus has already overcome the worst.
To remind others of the love and promise of God, because God loves and promises us more than we know.
Remembering. It just might get an extra alleluia out of you. Let’s see.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed.
Less than one week ago, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem in praise. Cloaks were strewn about. Palm branches were waving. My, how quickly things change.
In the midst of only a few days, the chief priests and scribes have rallied, conspired, and begun to act.
Tonight, all the threads that have been running through Jesus’ story get pulled together. Some of those threads reach far back; others only a little ways. But tonight, each one gets dragged toward one, dark end.
One thread that shows up tonight is the thread of evil, the strand of Satan. This thread reaches way back in Jesus’ story to before his ministry even started. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness where he was tempted by… Satan. Jesus, of course, fended off such temptations. The devil departed from him until an opportune time. Tonight, it seems, is that time.
Another thread is the thread of preparation - just like Jesus prepared his disciples for entry to the city. “Go and you will find a colt tied…” Now Jesus sends two ahead of him. “Go and you will find a man carrying a jar of water…” They are to go to an upper room and prepare the Passover meal. Tonight, we prepare.
There is the thread of Passover, and with it, a recalling of all that the Passover means. The Passover is the central celebration of the Jewish faith. It is the festival that cements them in their identity as God’s beloved people. They are set free from the bonds of slavery and delivered to the promised land. Throughout Jesus’ life, he has pointed to a new kind of passover. He fed hungry people in the wilderness as God did. He conversed with Moses and Elijah on the mountain top, discussing his own “exodus.” Even his teachings speak of “being ready” in the same way those slaves in Egypt were to be ready. Tonight is the Passover.
There also is the thread of sharing meals. Think of all the meals Jesus has shared in Luke: a dinner interrupted by a woman at Simon’s house; a meal shared with five thousand on the hillside; eating with Mary and Martha; dining with Pharisees which elicits parables about inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame; and eating with tax man Zacchaeus shortly before entering Jerusalem. Tonight, Jesus shares yet another meal.
All of this - the strand of Satan,
the thread of preparation,
the theme of a new exodus,
the string of meals…
all of this is tied together tonight.
And oh, how we wish it were tied together in a pretty bow. But we know better. There is one more strand we’ve yet to add: death.
Jesus spoke of his death several times, teaching his disciples about what will happen once he goes to Jerusalem. He will suffer. He will die. This, he has told them over and over, this is what it means to be the Messiah. And as much as we try to drop that thread, it keeps intertwining itself into this story.
Tonight, as Jesus and his disciples gather to celebrate a meal on Passover, Satan has prepared Judas to turn Jesus over to death. As far as making pretty bows out of all the thread, God’s Messiah has failed - and failed miserably.
As we wait what will come, there are knots in our stomachs.
Though in the midst of tangles and fraying faith, Jesus shifts our perspective. Jesus takes those threads that have been running, some of them his whole life. He takes those threads, and he weaves them together. He takes the tangle and turns it into true covenant.
He takes the thread of a meal and ties it to more than sustenance for our stomachs. “This is my body,” he says. This is Jesus. Jesus is present here. In this meal, in this bread, in this cup.
He stitches the thread of the Passover meal to a new covenant in his blood. He takes a memory of what God has once done and joins it to the cup - a new covenant, an ongoing promise, that you are free from whatever has hemmed you in.
Even in the face of Satan and death, Jesus says, remember me. And as we remember, the thread that runs through this meal is every meal Jesus has ever shared. We remember the radical, unconventional welcome. We remember those with whom he ate. And we see Judas at the table now.
Drawing, sewing, stitching together the threads of his life, Jesus taylors for us a new meal, a new covenant. This meal, Jesus says, this meal prepares you to serve. It is not a meal to lord over others; it is not a supper of exclusivity; it is no cup for greatness. This is food for service.
This is a meal of presence.
This is bread and cup for remembrance, for welcome, for promise, for servanthood. It is Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood, Jesus’ presence, for you.
For you. Those two words, perhaps as much as any in the Bible, point to the heart of the Gospel. All this: this meal, this story, this night, tomorrow, the days that follow, the threads Jesus pulls together, is for you. All for you.
All so you can know a love that welcomes everyone, and welcomes you, even when we feel threadbare.
All so you can hear the promise that nothing changes that love, not even what is to come.
All so you can serve, can love, can share the covenant promise as Jesus patches us together as the body of Christ.
As we gather Tonight, we will join together at the table. As we join, we don’t just remember these threads, don’t just hear the story of Jesus and his disciples. See, Jesus didn’t just pick up his own threads on the night in which he was betrayed; Jesus also promises to stitch our story in. Your thread, and your thread, and your thread… Jesus gathers them and weaves them into one story, into God’s story of covenant. Of promise. Of relentless, unstoppable love.
Lived, given, shed for you.
It’s Palm Sunday - a day of celebration and festivity. Our first reading outside is full of reasons to celebrate: Jesus sets the scene. Coats line the streets to prepare the way. Crowds upon crowds see Jesus enter the city. The rocks will shout if we won’t. The King is coming! Our role today is to praise Jesus!
But have you seen how we celebrate? Bless our hearts, but we’re not very good at the Palm Sunday part of this day.
We hold these branches, but we only half-heartedly wave them.
We reluctantly stand on the front lawn, pondering what those driving by are thinking.
We wonder where to put our stuff while we are outside.
We’re anxious about getting our regular seat once we get back inside.
The bold type in the bulletin instructs us to welcome the coming king, and so we do what we are told. But it’s forced. Our “hosannas” are weak and tepid.
But we play our role. We wave, we walk, we tepidly shout.
Were we taught that this isn’t how grown-ups act? We play our role in this day quite reverently - as if reverence is diametrically opposed to joy. (It’s not.) Is waving palm branches not an adult thing to do? Perhaps our own parents shushed us one too many times in the pew, and we’ve learned the “keep quiet” lesson too well. Don’t show too much emotion; it’s not respectable to be excited after a certain age.
As a kid, I remember the excitement of Palm Sunday. How cool it was to start worship outside, to hold palm branches, to take part in a parade! I felt like Jesus was there, like it was THE Palm Sunday. Everyone around me had palms. The crowd seemed bigger out on the lawn than when we were all shuffled into our pews. It was awesome!
The differences in the way I remember Palm Sundays growing up and the way they play out these days got me thinking about our role in Jesus’ story.
Back 2,000 years ago, I’m sure it would have been easy to get caught up in the moment - like at any big event where your team, your guy, is getting ready to take the field. (Few things get grown men to toss grown-up conventions out the window like watching other men in matching clothes playing a game.) I’d like to think I’d be that excited on the first Palm Sunday. But would I have been?
Even as a pastor, I often do my best not to hit people in the face with my faith. For example, way back on Ash Wednesday, the ashes came off my forehead pretty soon after service was over. I often take my collar off if I’m stopping by the grocery store. Things like that. It’s not that I mind people knowing I’m a Christian (my name is on the sign of a church, afterall) - it’s just removing the bold “attention grabbers” is how I feel most comfortable. So, let’s just say I wouldn’t have been on the front row of that parade with palms in both hands screaming my head off.
I guess I’m not the ideal Palm Sunday attendee.
These days, what role do I play in welcoming Jesus? While I tried to put a little extra gusto in my “hosanna” this morning knowing I was going to be talking about this, there is more to “welcoming Jesus” than vigorous palm waving. My role, your role, is to welcome and praise Jesus wherever he is, wherever he goes. Jesus’ actions shape how we play our role.
Where does our childlike excitement in welcoming Jesus lie now, today?
Maybe we need a little more childlike wonder and enthusiasm in our lives, in our worship, in our ministries.
And if I get honest, our lack of excitement hasn’t suddenly dropped off the map in the past two or three Palm Sundays. Child me simply didn’t notice the people who unenthusiastically waved their branches and said “hosanna” with only a slightly-louder-than-normal voice. It’s been a long, long time since we’ve lived up to the Palm Sunday role the first crowds set.
And I think I know why.
It’s hard to get excited knowing what we know about how this whole parade thing ends.
That’s the rub with today, isn’t it?
It’s hard to have a parade when you know where that parade leads.
As we continued the story inside, we picked up right where we left off outside, now with tears, with overturned tables, with plots to kill. We end today on an ominous note with lots of reasons to tread carefully. Jesus’ actions shape how we play our role today.
And Jesus’ actions put us in a tough spot.
Therein lies the challenge for us, for this this day, this week, and for each day of our lives. Today and for the next several days, we reflect a bit on our role in all of this. We reflect on our role in the climax of Jesus’ story. And we ask, what role do we play in Jesus’ story now?
We have the ideal: celebration, praise, following, staying close to Jesus.
All the disciples and followers had the best of intentions. And yet, they all played their roles… poorly. The same is true with us. Despite our best intentions, we don’t live up to the ideal. We trade childlike excitement for adult practicality. We know what will ensue before this week is out. The deafening silence of what will come has already muted our joy.
Jesus’ actions this week shape how we play our role. We get a chance to be honest.
Today, we can admit that we don’t praise as we ought, but only as we are able.
This week, we can admit the roles we play half-heartedly - or even leave unfulfilled - as we follow Jesus from a distance on his way.
And while I put a lot of emphasis today on “us” and our roles in the drama that will unfold this week, the Lutheran part of me wants to remind you that our roles start with God. We react to God’s love shown in Jesus. Jesus’ actions shape more than our role in some play, but shape us forever.
Jesus’ actions today rain on our parade.
Jesus’ actions this week cause us to question, betray, deny, and hide.
Jesus’ actions do not leave us feeling warm and fuzzy; he doesn’t pat us on the head and tell us he loves us. No, not today.
And yet, no matter how we play our role - childlike, ideal, practical - this week it is Jesus’ actions that show us he loves us. And those actions forever shape us with promise, shape us with hope, shape us for the wonders of what love can do.
Last week we read some of the most beloved of Jesus’ parables. Luke 15 is affectionately called the “Lost Chapter” because it’s all about things that were lost, but now are found: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. We read the entire chapter, all 32 verses, and no one complained to me about it being too long! That’s because we like those stories. They make us feel good, comfortable, warm. Jesus finds us! Jesus loves us! Yay!
Chapter 16, though, is a different story. Notice the Lectionary did not choose for us to read the whole chapter, even though it would be a verse shorter than last week. Hearing our parable for today may give some insight about why. While chapter 15 is warm and fuzzy, chapter 16 challenges us and makes us uncomfortable.
Chapter 15 makes us happy; chapter 16… doesn’t. I’m reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” That is exactly true today.
Yet, maybe I’m assuming too much. This parable only should bother us if we don’t use all we have to alleviate any sort of need in the world and thus, don’t identify much with the rich man. But something tells me we don’t like it when Jesus talks about money. Or poor people. Or hell.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
When I read this text Monday morning, I had the usual preacher dread before any money sermon.
When I read this text Monday afternoon, I had gotten over that. We need to talk about faithful use of money at some point and if not at church and with Jesus, where else? Plus, I had several days to carefully choose my words.
When I read this text Tuesday morning, I really started to think about how to apply this parable to our daily lives.
When I read this text Tuesday afternoon, I still had no idea how to apply this to our lives.
Then I looked out the window.
Sitting in my office, my window looks out at the stop light here at 62nd and Kings. And there he was: “Mr. King.” Or “Walkin’ John.” Or “Johnny Walker.” Just standing there on the corner, like he often does.
Those of you who have been around this part of Myrtle Beach for even a little while know who I’m talking about. Up until recently, he used to walk blocks - miles, even! - up and down North Kings Highway - hence how he got all his nicknames - pulling his cart of Rubbermaid tubs. There are rumors and legends about him - about why he walks, what his former life used to be, and so on.
Lately, instead of walking, he’s been picking a corner somewhere on this block. Sometimes he's over by the Dollar General. Other times, he's in front of the BP. But for the past couple of weeks, he's been here on this corner - “our” corner. And he just stands all day. Rain or shine, warm or cold. Sometimes he paces, but never too far from his dolly. He tends to mind his own business.
Here I was, sitting in this large, nice house - a house of the Lord, but a house nonetheless. And there he was, LITERALLY out our front door.
When I read this text Wednesday morning - and after I donned my purple and fine linen for Lenten worship - I knew I had to go try and talk. I had to try to form some relationship. I had to try something. The Bible, this parable, convicted me that I was not to just pass him by. I should not pretend like he doesn’t exist.
Wednesday afternoon, the cops were called over, and they met with him. Now, they didn’t arrest him or anything because he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was standing on a sidewalk. But he did say, apparently, that he’d find another corner the next day.
When I read this text Thursday morning, I looked up and down our block of Kings Highway. I didn’t see Johnny Walker.
And so there I was. The same as the Rich Man, only noticing the poor man outside his gates enough to give him a name. Nothing more. Were my good intentions well-intentioned enough to put me on the right side of the great chasm?!?
How about everyone else that passed him by, day after day?
I’ve never had such a literal interpretation of a parable in front of me as I have with “us” in this big, nice house and Johnny Walker standing on the corner. While I was gearing up for a “money sermon,” having this practical, tangible application made me realize that this parable isn’t about money as much as it is about relationship.
I’d heard from others that our man on the corner won’t take any thing. He won’t take money, won’t take a coat, though on occasion he will take food or drink. But that only underscores the point: I have “heard from others,” not through any connection I personally made with him.
There is a chasm - a separation - between “them” and “us” - not in the afterlife, but already, right now. Avoiding those outside our walls only reinforces the chasm that is already there.
This parable calls us to accept, welcome, and engage those people who make us uncomfortable. We are to face these people head on, look them in the eye, learn the hows and whys, the whats and whos. We are called to minimize the chasms present in this world.
While this parable isn’t about money, money is often a big cause of chasms. Money seems to instantly divide, because instead of seeing it as a tool or a gift from God, we see it as what’s mine and not theirs.
And while this parable can be spun in a way that says, “give money to the church,” I think that is an unfaithful interpretation. Instead, this parable is about more than the 10% we give to church. It’s also about the other 90% of our money.
But it provokes with more than “send a check here; donate there.” It challenges us to make a difference with all we are. We are called to act with justice, to love tenderly, to cooperate, to meet, to be community, no matter what side of a wall they are on. Because that is how the chasms here on earth are bridged. That is how “they” become “us.”
That is how anxiety becomes eased.
That is how we live as followers of Jesus.
Following Jesus means doing what he does, going where he goes, living as he lives.
Think over the examples Jesus sets for us. Jesus interacted. Jesus went. Jesus did all the things he possibly could do to bridge the chasms here on earth. And he did it by being there, showing up, and going to places that make us uneasy, to the people who make us uncomfortable - even if they’re just standing there.
But by going, by doing, by looking only to God, he also bridged the chasm that we never could cover. Jesus’ cross bridged the chasm between us and God, giving us access to life abundant and eternal. Jesus brings us over to life.
The question is, does any of that make a difference in how we live now? Does our faith in the risen Lord help us see those we would prefer not to see? Does it help us regard those around us as worthy of compassion, respect, and honor…or not? Does the One who conquered death and called us to follow make a difference in how we live now?
This parable is about the character and quality of our life right now. I would even argue that here, eternal life isn’t a distant reality at all. It starts now, each time we embrace the abundant life God offers in and through those around us. So, while this parable is a warning not to overlook those around us in need, it is also an invitation to live into fuller, more meaningful, and more joyous life by sharing ourselves – our time, talents, and certainly our wealth – with those around us, here and now.
As we do, we live into the kingdom God has shared since Moses, up through the prophets, and now makes alive and available to all in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I didn’t want to be found.
I didn’t want to be found, because I didn’t think I was lost. I knew full well what I wanted and what I was doing. I was going to be my own man, to live on my own terms. My father’s farm was doing well and all, but I knew I could do better if I left. So I did.
But before we go forward, let’s go back and let me tell you a little bit more about my relationship with my dad. Dad always told me I was special. “Younger sons always are,” he’d say. Growing up, he was always telling me about the Biblical younger sons: how righteous Abel was. Isaac was faithful. Jacob was clever. Heck, even great King David was the youngest of his brothers.
If I was so special, why didn’t he let me be special? I was always having to help out in the field like my older brother. Special people don’t work in the field.
So, I learned early on how to get out of manual labor. I knew what to say to dad to get my way. I could pretty much get whatever I wanted out of him. I liked to convince him to let me go to the market; it’s a lot more fun to goof off without pops around. He’s such a fool.
Then one day, the idea hit me. I could get out of this place if I just had some seed money. But how was I going to get that kind of cash? Inheritance. Inheritance! It’s pretty much mine already.
And don’t look at me like that. There is nothing bad about asking for one’s inheritance early. It’s not a sin. There’s nothing in the Law about it. You may see it as mean spirited; I see it as getting what I deserve. Besides, I framed it as an opportunity for me to make him proud. (I told you I knew just what to say to get my own way.) At first, he didn’t bite. But after I explained a bit more about the investment opportunities and school and threw some “God” language in there - yeah, he caved. A few days later, I had what was mine and I got as far away from there as possible.
And finally, it was just me. I only had to worry about me. It was peaceful. Idyllic. I rode my donkey as far away as I could, to some distant land, far from that paltry life as my father’s son.
Good thing I had a plan. In the market, people are always exchanging goods - as well as ideas. I knew I could find the local market, talk my way into some upper level job, or invest what I had and live out my life in relative ease. But first, I needed a vacation. Doesn’t everyone deserve a vacation? I earned it!
The first few nights were pretty good. I had some good meals, some good wine, some good company. I stayed at some pretty nice inns and earned some brownie points with the locals by buying round after round. I looked at it as an investment for later. They’d owe me, right?
Then the famine hit. Food was scarce. My money - well, what little money I had left at that point - wouldn’t go very far. I had to make choices - a place to stay or a meal? I tried to cash in some of those favors I built up among the townsfolk. No one would help. Excuse after excuse. “We don’t have money for that type of thing. We don’t believe your story. We wish we could help.” Some looked at me weird, like, “how dare I ask for help? Why don’t you pick yourself up?”
Finally, one guy - one guy! - offered some help. He gave me a job feeding his pigs. Pigs. A good Jewish boy like me, feeding pigs. I took it. I had to. Instead of dying, I fed the pigs.
As I was out there in the slop one morning, starving, longing to eat even what those pigs were eating, I knew I had to do something. I had to go back.
“Oh, good for you!” I bet you’re thinking. “You’ll go back and everything will be just the same as it was!” I say you’re crazy. This is less about repentance are more about me saving my own skin. Who other than that old fool would be willing to help me now? I sure as heck am not going to be stuck working those fields again. I’ve gotta play it right. And, if I do play it right, I bet I could get a little bit more money out of ol’ pops.
So, how can I say it so it comes off just right? I need to be convincing, but not over the top. I’ll tell him, “I’m sorry, father. I didn’t mean to hurt you!” No, no. Too straightforward. I’ll grovel a bit more. He always liked it when I talked about God… maybe, “I’ve sinned against God and against you!” Yeah. There we go. He’s a sucker when I sound religious.
I rehearsed my speech all the way from the pig farmer’s house to my own home, figuring out the perfect dramatic pauses. I hoped I could get a tear coming, too. That’d probably seal the deal.
As I made my way down that familiar lane toward our house, I remember growing up there, playing “Israelites and Philistines” with my brother in those fields. Those were some good times. As I snapped out of the daydream, I noticed someone running toward me. Could it be? It was! It was my dad! I wasn’t ready yet. I hadn’t started getting worked up or anything. Before I could even really remember where I was supposed to start, he was right there.
“Father!” (Ah, that sounded a little too formal. Try to soften it up.) “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you! I am no longer worthy to be called your son!” (I begged for those tears to come!)
But he grabbed me in one of those bear hugs only dads can give. He held on, lifted me up, didn’t care what I was saying or if I was sincere or not. What. A. Fool.
This was going to be easier than I thought.
But he didn’t stop. He kept hugging. He kept holding on. He directed me home. He called to one of the slaves to bring me a robe and ring. And then he - HE - cleaned me up. He washed me. Rinsed me. And he never said a word. He never let me finish. Never said anything about forgiving. He looked at me. He cared for me. His eyes sparkling and that smile of his spread across his face. That’s the smile he got when he was so pleased. And though he didn’t say it to me, I knew it. It was like I was dead… but now I was alive.
He set a meal before me. My cup was filled - overflowing even. It was a banquet fit for a good son, certainly not me, not the way I am. The table was set; he was there. He was with me.
He is a fool. But in that moment, in the meal, I realized: he is a fool who loves me. A fool who will do anything for me. A fool who runs to see me, who gives me gifts I don’t deserve, who lavishes me with a grace that makes me a bit embarrassed to accept. He didn’t want an apology. He just wanted me. He wanted me back in the family. That was good enough for him.
And now, it turns out, it’s good enough for me. It’s as if he understood everything - knew my plans all along - and loved me anyway. And that kind of love changes you. It’s an unconditional love. It not only loves you when you’re there, it loves you when you blow your inheritance. But more than that, it is a type of love that makes you want to be there, to experience it, to share in it. Somehow, even though you know you can’t, that kind of love makes you want to live up to it.
I didn’t deserve a party. But I got one anyway.
I didn’t want to be found. But I was anyway.
I’ll always be my Father’s child. Nothing will change that.
I’m always welcome home. And not just welcome, but foolishly, warmly, lovingly welcome.
And I know you are, too.
In our lesson for today, things are bad. I don’t know how else to say it. We are confronted with horrific events - blood of Galileans, towers falling on people, cities that kill prophets. What is going on?
These events are being brought up to Jesus so he can answer the age old question, “why do bad things happen?” The people are wondering what those others did causing these these terrible things.
Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, he gives a more general overview stating bad things happen all the time, everywhere. Do you think these people suffered because they were worse than all others? No. Do you think they were worse offenders than everyone else? No.
Not the most fun topic for the Sunday morning after a time change, is it?
When it comes to the happenings in our world, we have a tendency to focus on all the trees; we notice the individual, bad events happening to others. Jesus zooms out to see the whole forest; he takes a bigger perspective. Bad and evil are not restricted to certain people in certain places because they did (or didn’t do) certain things. Lots of bad things happen. Brokenness happens. Death happens. And it’s going to happen to you.
(Everybody’s Sunday still going ok? )
It’s important to face that reality. It is what we start the season of Lent saying, after all: “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Mortality, bad things, broken lives, broken people, broken world. Unfortunately, that type of news bombards us. It’s not hard to find disaster, suffering, tragedy. Instead of giving you the laundry list, I’ll trust that you are aware this type of stuff really happens.
Our world is broken. We are broken. Sin and death have their hold. That is the big picture. That’s what Jesus sees. That is what, he hopes, we see. This big picture brings a clarity which avoiding the mess of life doesn’t give. Avoiding the pain and brokenness doesn’t make it non-existent. Often, our ignoring it exacerbates the issues. And so, Jesus brings it out to the open. In this world is pain. Here is cruelty. There is hurt.
(One more check-in. Everybody still enjoying themselves?)
But Jesus doesn’t leave us with only bad news. He uses two images revealing what God is doing in the midst of our reality.
The first image is of a fig tree. Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t produce figs. What good is a fig tree that doesn’t produce figs? Cut it down! “But,” says the gardner. “Let me do some work. Dig around it. Give it some fertilizer. Then we’ll see what happens.” Avoiding our reality is like a do-nothing fig tree. In avoiding the truth, we don’t produce fruit - fruit of repentance, fruit of good works, fruit of faithfulness for the Kingdom of God.
It sounds kind of scary and threatening at first - that Jesus holds up this stark reality in front of our face. “You better bear fruit while you still can!” But really, Jesus is just encouraging us to be honest - and then honestly be who God created us to be. Why waste our precious, limited time on things that don’t matter, things that don’t produce fruit, things that don’t further the Kingdom?
Jesus knows we all have time limits; so there is no time like the present to do something good for a neighbor, to repair broken relationships, to love, to forgive, to repent, to be fruit producing people. There is no time like the present. And even if we aren’t producing the fruit we should, God isn’t waiting with the wood chipper. Instead of chopping us down, God is patient with us. God creates conditions in which we might bear fruit. God tends to us so that we might repent. God gives us what we need so that we might notice the pain around us and do what we can to alleviate it.
In the midst of our broken, sometimes fruitless realities, God isn’t hasty about getting rid of us. God does whatever it takes to help us bear fruit worthy of the Kingdom.
The second image Jesus uses is that of a chicken. Which sounds like a feeble image. I am taken back to scenes from the Back to the Future movies where Biff says, “what’s the matter, McFly? Chicken?!” Not the best image for encouragement, is it?
“But it’s not just any ol’ chicken. It’s a mother hen,” you may say. Which is worse. Why not pick a mama bear or something ferocious? At the very least one of those super annoying mother geese that’ll chase you while honking? Something - anything - that might give us some confidence!
But Jesus chooses a chicken - a mother hen - on purpose. While we would prefer someone or something to fight off danger and scare away enemies, Jesus instead gives an image of comfort. He wants to reassure us.
As we’ve established, he knows that bad things are going to happen; they happen to us all. Evil will come. Death prowls around. To deny that is foolish. But Jesus, our mother hen, is there with tenderness. With care. With presence. We are not alone. Christ is there. Jesus is present; Jesus comforts - no matter what is going on around you.
Jesus brings us under his wing - not to drive away all that is bad, but to assure us that, even in the midst of the bad, it will be alright. Jesus has us. It all will be alright.
And that is the heart of the Christian message, isn’t it?
Bad things will happen to us. Just as bad things will happen to Jesus as he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. During this season of Lent, we walk with Jesus toward that end, toward his pain and suffering, toward his death, toward those bad things that are still present in our world today. And yet, despite all the wrong, all the bad, all the tragedy, Jesus tells us that God’s love is bigger than those things. God’s love doesn’t fall away when times are hard, sad, or tragic. God is there. God’s love persists. God is present, even in the midst of this world, our world. Jesus is here with comfort, with grace, with promise - promise that though this world’s tyrants rage, they cannot win the day.
Life wins. Love wins. God wins. And because of that, we win.
For now, we gather together under the wing of our Lord and Savior, hearing again his promises that no matter what, he is with us. We are fed and nourished by God - given Christ’s body and blood to help us grow deeper roots and bear Kingdom fruit. In our realities, in our brokenness, we are still loved, still comforted, still tended to by God.
That makes today, and every day, a little better.
Through the Waters.
So, baptism, huh? That’s what we’re exploring through the season of Lent.
Baptism is the foundation of Christian community. Baptism joins us to Jesus. Baptism washes us clean. Baptism creates in us a spring that continually waters our soul. When we confess, the reminder that God already claims us as children are the words of comfort and absolution. There are many merciful images and many means of grace found in the waters of baptism - not just that one time, but every time we remember.
We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Forever.
Since it has such importance, we’re going to take our time, immersing ourselves in baptism. Each week during Lent, we will gather to make public profession of our faith. We will return to the promises God made with us in those waters and dig deeper into what it means to be a baptized child of God. We will touch the water and remember.
Today, we start with the first line of the promise we soon will say together: we intend “to live among God’s faithful people.”
As I’ve already said, part of what baptism does is draws us together as a community. We are the community of Jesus, members of the body of Christ, joined as one. And here’s the hard part: we have to live together.
Often when I think about community for more than a few minutes, I remember my best friend in high school, Paul. From about the 10th grade on, we did everything together. When it came time to graduate, we both were accepted to Newberry College and decided to be roommates.
Community, it turns out, is harder than it seems. Over the course of our first college semester, Paul and I drifted apart. It became worse the next semester: we were confrontational with each other. We yelled, we fought, we weren’t considerate of each other - sometimes purposefully. Before that freshman year was out, I ended up moving to another room; Paul ended up leaving Newberry at the end of the year.
Is that what community is? On the surface, community is this thing that sounds great and lovely. We long for the positives of what community can be, but we resist the demands that community makes. So, our community feels inadequate, especially when we look at how “Kumbaya” everything was in the early church.
All the believers lived in wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple, followed by meals at home - every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful - as they praised God. (Message translation)
I like y’all and all, but man. It doesn’t seem like we’re anything like that. Are we failures at Christianity? At Community? At living among God’s faithful people?
What we hear in the second part of our lesson for today is the ideal community. What we fail to realize is this type of community is only possible when it is based on the first part of our lesson for today.
Peter here just finished telling the people that “God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, him who your crucified.” Peter points them to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This, as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit, helps the people see something about themselves and about God. God has done something here - done something that allows for new possibilities.
God forgives us. God turns us in a new direction. God sends to us and seals us by the Holy Spirit. God marks us with the cross of Christ forever. This is God’s new thing for us.
Peter then describes what living among faithful people looks like in God's new possibility.
It is a community of repentance. Repentance is a change of mind, a turning of direction, an understanding that something is new.
It is a community of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t an earned reward but a gift freely given! For-give.
It is a community gathered by God in the waters of baptism. God makes it happen in us, through us, because God gives us the gifts necessary.
This is what it means to live among God’s faithful people: we know we are are forgiven. We turn to God. We are Spirit-gathered, Spirit-led, Spirit-sealed. That gives us the chance to live with each other and with God in faithful, communal ways - like what we hear today. Our selves are taken out; God's Spirit takes over. Giving, sharing, supporting.
So, will we always live as this type of community? No, not always. Sometimes we revert to a collection of individual churchgoers, ignoring the new gifts of God for life together.
But a gift of actually living among God's faithful people is that we have others to point us back to the cross. There we see again the promises of forgiveness and mercy that shape us - as individuals and as a community. In the cross, God gives us new understanding and a fresh reminder of what God has done for us. And pointed again to that cross, pointed again to Christ, we see ourselves as united in identity, purpose, Spirit.
We repent. We forgive. We live in the Spirit - the very same Spirit God gave to the early church.
As for my room mate Paul… well, preaching on “living among God’s faithful people” can be pretty convicting. So, I sent him a message. I don’t know if we’ll get back to our 10th grade selves, but who knows what the Spirit has in mind.
God brings us together. And that means we try. We repent. We forgive. We live in the Spirit. Through the waters.
Which one are you?
That is our mode of interpreting this and other parables of Jesus, is it not? Which are you? And, to be sure, there is importance in finding ourselves in the story of scripture. We learn something about how to live; we glean a new perspective on life; we are convicted about our falling short.
Here, in particular, there are nice neat categories in which to fall. Are you the priest who passes by? Are you the Levite who refuses to give aid? Are you the Samaritan who is moved with pity and stops to help? The ideal, the lesson, the moral is we are the Samaritan. We see a need and help, no matter who it is.
But why is it that such easy lessons are so hard to actually live out? Why is it that we come up with excuse after excuse not to help someone? We must justify the help we give. We blame the one to be helped for their circumstances - poor life choices and all. We question their motives in receiving the monetary help we give and feel good when we don’t give because we aren’t enabling a certain lifestyle. We judge based on some form of “box” we put them in: country of origin, physical abilities, if they are one of us or not. Yet, the lesson is simple: help anyone, anywhere, no matter what. And we don’t do that.
On top of that, what makes us think that we are the ones to help anyway? How come we’re not the one in the ditch? Are we always so put together and on top of it that we obviously don’t need anyone to pull us back up? To heal us? To care for us? I’m not so sure about that.
So, which one are you? All of them. Which isn’t really a helpful answer and makes for a really long sermon.
The more I went around and around with the parable in my head this week, I kept wondering if I was asking the right question to learn what Jesus meant. Which one am I?
But I kept coming back to the idea that parables are more than moral lessons. Jesus didn’t need to craft these stories simply to teach right from wrong. Jesus instead used the parables to tell us something about God, about the Kingdom, about the way God operates. It’s nice to try to find ourselves in the parables, but sometimes, it just isn’t about us. So, instead of asking, “which one am I?”, the real question should be, “which one is Jesus?”
Asking the right question might clear some things up for us.
Which one is Jesus? He’s the Samaritan. In telling this story, Jesus chose a Samaritan to act how he would act. Which is significant. Samaritans and Jews were not the best of friends. In fact, they saw each other as unclean, heretical outsiders. Each rejected the other. To get a little sense of the animosity, look at the Lawyer’s response after the parable is over. Jesus asks, “which was a neighbor?” The Lawyer can’t even say, “The Samaritan.” Instead he replies, “the one who showed mercy.” On top of that, if you were here for Ash Wednesday, you heard from the end of Chapter 9 that Jesus planned to go to a Samaritan village, but they did not receive him. James and John had no qualms about asking for fire to be cast down to demolish the city. Who needs Samaritans around anyway?
And yet, despite all this, Jesus chose a Samaritan to play his role in this story. Was it merely to shock the audience? Or is there something more?
Jesus is trying to tell us God often shows up where we least expect God to be - even where we don’t want God to be. No one expects God to be present in the outcast or outsiders or enemies. No one expects God to reveal glory through a cross. No one wants a God to show power through service, vulnerability, and suffering. It’s not the way we would’ve done it. And yet, God is there - right where we don’t expect (don’t want) God to be.
That is why Jesus chooses a Samaritan. It shows this self-justifying Lawyer (and, perhaps, the self-justifying part of us) that there is no self-justification possible. We can know all the answers but still fail in their implementation. We try so hard to justify our behavior. Our categories, prerequisites, and biases take over. We ask, “who is my neighbor?” instead of “how can I be a neighbor?” Jesus tells us when we are out to justify ourselves, we miss the places and the people where God is present.
So, we might ask, who do we have the hardest time imagining God working through? Where is it least likely for God to be? And then we should probably expect God to be right there.
But this isn’t just a lesson about looking out for God. There is also promise.
Because God shows up for the least, for the fringe, for the people and places we steer clear of, we know there is no place God won’t go. There is no person God doesn’t care for. There is no group or category God avoids.
If there is no one God avoids, then it goes to show that God comes for everyone. God comes for all. For the self-justifying Lawyer and outcast Samaritans. For those who are hurting, for those who help, and for those who turn away. God comes for you and for me. God surprises us by showing up for those we least expect - even when we least expect it for ourselves.
In Seminary, one of my professors gave out bumper stickers with the word, “WIGIAT” on it. You may have seen it in my office. WIGIAT stands for “where is God in all this?” It’s an important question. We don’t ask, “is God here?” The question assumes God is present, but in a way or a place we haven’t noticed yet. Where is God in all this?
The parable of the Good Samaritan is much like WIGIAT. It tells us that God shows up - and in ways, at times, in people we least expect.
And in each time, in each place, God shows up with grace and mercy. And the more we are aware of this, the more we notice God. The more we notice God, the more we participate in God’s Kingdom. The more we participate in God’s Kingdom, the more we act like Jesus.
Jesus again draws us to see the God who shows up in places we don’t expect - even in places we don’t want God to be - because the Kingdom isn’t about us. It’s about how God operates. How God loves. How God’s glory is shown.
In this journey through Lent, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. There he will hang on a cross - an unexpected place for a Savior to be. And yet, that shows us how far God will go to bring an unexpected love.
Which one are you? You are the one for whom God shows up. You are the one God has claimed forever. You are the one to whom God has shown mercy. You are the one God calls to go and do likewise.
Like it or not, the Transfiguration is part of Jesus’ story.
On the one hand, it’s an awesome thing. Jesus shines. Jesus dazzles. Jesus flashes brighter than Ocean Boulevard on a July night. What’s not to like?
Peter certainly likes it. He likes it so much, he wants to stay. “Let’s build some tents, Lord!”
Let’s stay here a little bit more.
Let’s hold on to this, just a tad longer. This is good!
The figures of Law and the Prophets are present. God speaks. Jesus is glorified. What’s not to like?
Well, what’s not to like is Jesus doesn’t stay there. God doesn’t speak as much as interrupts Peter in the midst of his monologue to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The disciples hear it. Jesus hears it. And instead of basking in glory up on the mountain top, Jesus heads down. Down the mountain to cast out demons, to remind of the betrayal that is coming, to carry out his mission. He doesn’t stay in the cloud; he doesn’t dwell in the light; he leaves.
Like it or not, this is where we are.
Most of us, I’m sure, have heard all of this before. Jesus doesn’t stay at the top. He heads down the mountain for ministry.
I am acutely aware of this understanding of the Transfiguration.
This is the scripture passage that was used at the end of one of my first summers working at Lutheridge. For those who don’t know, Lutheridge is a Lutheran camp outside of Asheville, NC, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For me, working at camp was an important, transformative time. I got to form relationships, I got to work with kids, I got to worship, I got to be at the top of this mountain - both literally and figuratively. In a lot of ways, it was like the Transfiguration. How good it was to be there!
And yet, no matter how hard we counselors fought it, the end of Summer came. In the closing worship service, Pastor Mary talked about the mountain-top experience we had that summer. It was a great and glorious time. But we couldn’t stay. We had to go down the mountain - go back down to the rest of our lives. Sure, we could share the story of what happened on top of that mountain, but we couldn’t stay there. Like it or not, you’ve got to go down the mountain.
I’m sure you’ve had your own mountain-top experiences before. Times you’ve truly felt in awe of what God has done, or you were certain you felt God’s presence. Be it on a literal mountain or not, we’ve had some form of mountain top experiences. But we couldn’t stay there. Like it or not, Jesus leads us back down the mountain.
And we get that. We understand that. We even come to expect that. Our whole lives can’t be mountain top experiences. We - we and Jesus - come down, have to come down the mountain for ministry. We come down to this world, and we share what we’ve seen and heard.
But something struck me this time through that hasn’t struck me before - at least not in this way. While it is easy to say, “Jesus leads us down the mountain,” it is hard to say, “Jesus leads us to change.”
Change. That’s the word we churches hate to hear.
And yet, that is what Transfiguration is all about. “Change” is built into the name; “trans” means “change.” We’re fine to give a nod to the fact that we come down the mountain - you know, to do ministry and stuff. We’re not so fine with change. We’ve constructed permanence - things far more permanent than the tents Peter wanted to build. Permanent structures behind whose walls we can dwell without disturbance. Permanent ways of doing things. Permanent rules - both spoken and understood.
If we go down, if we let go, if we change, we might not get it back - whatever “it” is.
Jesus is much less concerned about “it.” He heads down the mountain to that “faithless and perverse generation.” He casts out demons. He tells the disciples again: things are going to change. “Let these words sink into your ears.” The Son of Man is going to be betrayed.
Like it or not, Jesus changes our expectations of what the Messiah is to be. He’s not stuck; he adapts. He isn’t about drawing people up the mountain; he goes down to them - as faithless and perverse as they are. He doesn’t avoid hard conversations; he instead trusts God to work no matter what is going on.
And this, this is the hard part of what the Transfiguration holds for us. We know what Jesus is - what Jesus could be. We’ve seen it! But he chooses another way. And we can’t - don’t - move on from that. We keep trying to hold on to that glory at the top of the mountain and stay firmly put. We resist letting go of what was and cringe at the thought of changing for what God is up to next. We’d much rather stay there, build a tent, and keep things as they are. It’s much easier to remember past glory with affection than it is to be excited about an uncertain future.
So, what are we as the Church - as A church - to do? Scrap the whole thing? Do we get rid of anything that even remotely resembles a mountain top experience all in the name of change?
No, I don’t think so.
See, here’s the thing about the Transfiguration. It’s not about the glory. Nor is it about some sort of “get over it and come down the mountain” lesson on change. Like it or not, it’s about both. And to have one without the other misses the whole point.
Of course we need to know God’s glory. We need to remember it, we need to point to it, we need to experience it. It is what maybe brought us here to begin with - some experience we had with God on a mountain top. We need to know, to believe that is who God is.
But we also need to love the world enough to reach out to it. To be present in it. To serve it. To open up to it. And that kind of stuff changes us. Our expectations change. The ways we see God change.
The place where God’s glory and the lesson on change meets is called faith. Faith is trusting in who God is - and then living it out in many and various ways. It is seeing the glory that shone, but also knowing that glory needs to get translated to a people and generation who don’t “get it” quite yet.
Faith is the scary sense that change is necessary, but in all the change, God is present.
So for us, here and now, we can and we do come here to experience God’s glory. To not only hear music, but feel it, sing it, take part in it. We experience a meal that spans not just across this building but across all time and all space. We experience a glorious love that forgives us when we want to stay put, that shows us the greatness of God, that sends us out as changed people to change the world. We hear the story of how God has gloriously worked in the past, and we get the promise that God will continue to work now, even at the bottom of the mountain.
Jesus leads us down the mountain to places and ways we might not be able to handle. But we know the promise. Like it or not, God’s not finished.
How much have you been forgiven?
Are you in the 500 denarii camp? In the 50? Or less?
How much have you been forgiven?
I’m not sure we think about that too terribly much. And yet, that is the question we ponder here today. Our story helps us explore our level of forgiveness a bit.
Simon, a Pharisee, invites Jesus over for dinner when they are interrupted by an unnamed woman who is known to be a sinner. She begins to weep, bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair. She kisses and anoints his feet. Simon is taken aback. Jesus, not as shocked as Simon, uses the opportunity to tell a parable.
There are two debts owed to a creditor; one is 10 times the amount of the other. When neither could pay, both are forgiven the entirety. Which of them will love him more? Simon knows he is about to get trapped. “Well, I *suppose* the one who was forgiven the most.” I can almost see Simon’s eyes roll.
“You have judged rightly!” Jesus’ point is made. This woman surely was the one who was deep in the hole but was set free from the debt. This woman was forgiven much!
Which could have been enough. Jesus could’ve stopped right there and the same message would have been conveyed. Her huge debt is forgiven.
But Jesus doesn’t stop right there. He goes on. It’s not just that this woman was forgiven much; she was forgiven much so she loves much. He goes on. He points out that those who are forgiven little love little. Jesus doesn’t say this with judgement or Law in his voice: “if you love little, you’ll be forgiven little!” No, Jesus just describes the truth as he knows it: “those who are forgiven little love little.
To me, though, it’s not really that people are only forgiven little; it’s that they don’t notice they have been forgiven at all. Perhaps, they don’t think they need it. They haven’t done anything really wrong, have they?
and if they’re ok, that’s pretty good.
And people who are pretty good don’t need forgiveness. Forgiveness is for people like the woman in the story who is clearly a sinner, clearly in need of someone to forgive them. But them? Need forgiveness? Please...
So, again, how much have you been forgiven?
And I’m not trying to guilt trip you in any way. I simply want you to think about it.
Now that I’ve pressed you a little bit, maybe you’re scrambling through your brain, coming up with the list of missteps you had this past week. Let’s see, I lost my temper that one time… I stepped on the cat’s tail (but that wasn’t my fault; if the stupid thing would just leave me alone when I’m trying to do the dishes…). Um, I called the cat, “stupid.” How much more of this? I’m at three, I guess. How much denarii is that worth? Probably not 500.
But there’s a problem with the way we count our sinfulness. We often think of all the sins we do. Big ones count more; little ones count less. So, holding up a bank or planning a genocide - those are big. Calling someone names or talking behind their back: little sins.
We like this process because we can count it, quantify it, compare it to everybody else. Which leads us back to where Simon was. He probably didn’t think he had that much to be forgiven for - especially compared to that really bad woman who was there. If we just do all these little things, they don’t really add up to much.
This sounds a little weird, but my favorite way of understanding “Sin” takes a different slant. Sin isn’t “doing something wrong” as much as Sin is “missing the mark.” Sin, then, is not just breaking a rule or a law; Sin is missing the point of what God intends for us and what Jesus models for us.
Taken that way, we are steeped in Sin. How often do we miss the mark of what God wants for creation, for humanity?
Did God intend for us simply not to murder someone, or does God intend for us to foster and build up life? Not nurturing and enriching life for our neighbor is missing the mark. It’s Sin.
Did God intend for us to merely refrain from taking things that aren’t ours, or does God intend for us to help others improve and protect their property and income? Not helping others is missing the mark. It’s Sin.
And we could go on and on.
Sure, Sin encompasses things we have done; but it also entails those things we have left undone. We miss the mark all the time.
We often think we are ok. And if we’re ok, we don’t need God, we don’t need forgiveness. We’ve got this on our own, Jesus, thank you very much. But we are in need; we do miss God’s mark.
One more time: how much have you been forgiven?
50? 500? Too much to count? We’re all there. We all fall short. We all miss the mark. And what we proclaim is that Christ covers it.
That despite all our sins, despite every time we miss the mark, despite our knowledge of need or not, Christ covers it. Jesus takes care of it. God forgives it.
The point for today, then, is knowing that we are in need of forgiveness. And once we know we are in need, we can truly know we are forgiven… much. The good news becomes Good News. Grace abounds. Jesus says to us, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And knowing that we are forgiven much, we love much. We live out the great love that we have been shown. We focus on hitting the mark as best we can: not just living out the letter of the law, but the intent of God.
God’s forgiveness for us creates a love where we foster and build up life, like through serving a meal to those who are hungry.
Forgiveness initiates a love where we help others improve their state in life by providing essentials.
Forgiveness launches a love by which we shift our mindset from “don’t do bad things” to “do loving things.”
And when we are down, when we know we miss the mark,
we hear the Good News of God in Christ Jesus: your sins are forgiven.
We again take our place at the table and eat with Jesus,
and hear that his body and blood is given and shed for you.
We look to the cross, the place where we as humanity really missed the mark with Jesus,
and hear that God wiped the slate as clean as an empty tomb.
The more we know we miss the mark, the better that Good News is for we who need it. For we who are sinners. For we who are pharisees. For we us who are pretty good and for we who are pretty broken. For we who are too confident and too ashamed. For we who stand tall and for we who are on our knees. For we all need forgiveness.
And we all are forgiven in Jesus.
Your sins are forgiven.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
In what ways do our convictions about how God should work in the world lead us to disappointment?
It’s a pretty sharp question, cutting deeper than we care to admit.
How are we disappointed... in God?
I ask this question because we get two examples of disappointment today.
The first is with John the Baptist. John should be good to go with the whole, “Jesus as Messiah” thing. Every time we’ve met John in the story - from leaping in his mother’s womb to preaching on the banks of the Jordan - John has expressed delight in the one coming. But now, there seems to be a bit of questioning.
The last time we saw John, Herod had him locked up in a jail cell. It seems he is still not free at this point, so he is resigned to get “reports” from his disciples. And the reports do not match up with what John preached. Remember way back in chapter three? The Messiah would come with “a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John is convinced that this is how the Messiah will be known.
But John is not getting reports of winnowing forks and unquenchable fire, it seems. While it may be stretching a bit to say John is disappointed, I can say with confidence his expectations are not being met.
So, he sends two of his disciples to Jesus: “are you the one?” But Jesus doesn’t answer - at least not definitively. Jesus replies, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news.”
John’s convictions about how God should work in the world lead to disappointment.
The second example of disappointment comes from the, quote, “people of this generation.” And to summarize what Jesus says about them, they are a bunch of whiny, unsatisfied little babies. Nothing is good enough for them.
The first tidbit about the children in the marketplace shows the people to be unreceptive and critical. Why wouldn’t they dance when a child plays the flute? Is the preschooler’s music not up to your superior standards? Being judgmental about the way the Kingdom presents itself is the one sure-fire way to not see it at all.
The same is true of their opinions of John the Baptist and Jesus. John doesn’t celebrate enough; he doesn’t eat enough bread and drink enough wine. Jesus, on the other hand, he is always eating and drinking. What a glutton! A glutton and a drunkard! The people know the perfect level at which to consume bread and wine in a celebratory manner. Their standards are quite specific and quite high. All they want is the perfect manifestation of their preconceived notions. Anything less is offensive.
Their ways and expectations are so ingrained toward one way, could God really be present in other ways?
The people’s convictions about how God should work in the world lead to disappointment.
And so, for us, in what ways do our convictions about how God should work in the world lead to disappointment?
Are we more disappointed like John, wondering why people don’t get their just desserts? Wouldn’t it be easy for God to, you know, winnow-fork them away? When we look around at the world we see people instilling fear to get their way. We hear about those who inflict pain, injury, and death in order to keep the existing state of affairs. If we’re convinced that this is wrong, aren’t we disappointed that God doesn’t do some smiting?
Or are we more disappointed in other ways? Are the people of “that” generation now more accurately simply the people of “this” generation, where we have strict expectations of how we experience God. When anything outside of our comfort zone shows up, we dismiss it. We wait for our perfection before we see God in the world around us, before we are able to praise God in the pew, before we acknowledge Jesus is here.
If I’m honest, I’m both of those. Some days, I can’t wait for the Messiah to come, to clean us of the riff-raff, and just stop us from all this petty, selfish, no good nonsense we humans do to each other. I want that day to be today. I’m not satisfied with how God chooses to let us be so… mean.
And, I’m often pretty cynical when it comes to how other people experience God. Just this past week I had a Minister’s Alliance breakfast and I sat with a pastor of one of the other mainline protestant churches. We proceeded to have one of those “really?” conversations about one of the more trendy churches in the area. “They really do that in worship? Really? And, really, they don’t even do this? Really?” My personal convictions of church, of worship, of Jesus made me cynical instead of celebratory that the Kingdom could be present there. And maybe, just maybe, I could learn something if I wasn’t so daggum convinced in my own ways. (You got me, Jesus.)
Maybe you’ve been there: convinced - and then convinced you’re wrong. Jesus can do that to you.
Except, when the truth hits us that our thoughts, words, or deeds aren’t in line with God’s Kingdom, Jesus doesn’t point it out as much as he points us onward. Jesus responds to our convictions by ignoring them. Instead, he says, “go and tell.”
It’s not hard-nosed condemnation, it’s not messianic disappointment, it’s not a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire. Jesus redirects us from focus on our mistakes and mistaken convictions to instead see that he fulfills the mission he was sent for. He brings the good news of the Kingdom of God. He heals, he restores, he cleanses, he raises the dead.
The Good News is we don’t have to “get it.” We don’t have to have the perfect disposition, the perfect attitude, the perfect expectations for Jesus to bring the Kingdom. That’s up to him, not up to us. That’s the best news.
Instead of wagging his finger at us, he says, “Look! Go! Tell! Here is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus brings love to this world, to this church, to our lives and tells us to go and discover it - discover it in a variety of meaningful yet unexpected ways.
Jesus comes to us - and when we are blinded by our convictions, we may miss him. But, as we are open enough to see, we proclaim, “there he is!” There is Jesus - at the table with bread and wine, just like he always is. There is Jesus, in the promise of love remembered with a splash. There is Jesus, in a relationship formed. There is Jesus, in our neighbor, in songs, in our unexpected places.
No matter our status, no matter our disappointment, God in Christ enters in. God brings the Kingdom of grace. God brings inescapable love. God brings release from convictions - all so that we can see what Jesus has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
Go and tell and what you have seen and heard. Jesus promises you won’t be disappointed.
While we think of Jesus’ miracles as being miraculous, I think he has a different take.
For example, last week we heard of Jesus’ power to heal a man’s withered hand - though the point wasn’t the healing; it was more of an interpretation on the Sabbath. A couple of weeks before that, we had the great catch of fish - which wasn’t about catching fish at all; it was about catching people.
As Luke tells the story of Jesus, he continues to give us moments where Jesus does something miraculous - but the focus isn’t on the miracle, on the power, on the unbelievable. It’s always about something else.
I think that is true, even today, even with the most miraculous of miracles: raising the dead. On the surface, it seems like surely the point has to be that Jesus is master of life and death. Jesus has power to raise, power to give life, power to conquer our ultimate enemy! Death has no hold. Jesus is victorious!
That certainly can preach.
End of sermon, right?
Is it possible that the point of this story, much like all the others, isn’t about Jesus’ power - even his power over death? Surely, this widow dies. The people carrying the stretcher die. The mourners and the crowds? They die. Even this man whom Jesus raised up will end up dying again.
So, let’s step back for a moment.
I mentioned that all these miracle stories are about more than “Jesus has some cool party tricks.” They are supposed to point us to God and the Kingdom, sure, but they also invite us, in some way, shape, or form, to take part in God’s Kingdom now. Disciples catch people. Sabbath is but another opportunity to live out Jesus’ mission.
These stories are here, told and re-told throughout the generations, not only because of what they say about Jesus’ mission but also because of what they say about our mission.
So, what is our mission in this story? Is our mission to raise the dead? Of course not. We can’t do the miracles that Jesus does. But we can do other things that Jesus does. Here, in our story of death to life for today, the word that stands out for me, for us, for the people of God gathered here today is, “compassion.”
Jesus has compassion for this widow who lost her only son. Jesus’ response to this woman’s grief is not abstract; he doesn’t send thoughts and prayers. He feels her despair deeply, deep in his gut. This compassion motivates action, motivates the miracle. Jesus has the guts - the compassion and the courage - to go directly to where the hurt is, regardless of the political, social, economic, or religious boundaries and barriers in his way.
Jesus’ compassion is gutsy. It is one that moves alongside another, no matter what.
Which may be a little different than we tend to think of it. To us, compassion means “helping those less fortunate than we are.” Being compassionate is writing a check for a natural disaster or giving away stuff we don’t want anymore to a charity. And to be certain, those can be very helpful and valuable ways to serve and help others. There is a piece of compassion in giving.
But as we maintain our distance from those we serve, our actions draw closer and closer to “pity” rather than compassion. We stay divided - we and they; haves and have nots; the less fortunate and more fortunate. Of course, we’re always on the better side of that equation, aren’t we?
But that’s not how Jesus does it. Jesus’ compassion moves close, stands alongside, is present with, even to suffer, grieve, and mourn together. Jesus’ compassion calls us to run counter to culture’s cry to compare. That takes guts.
Jesus first has compassion for the widow. He is present, there, with.
Then he serves. Then he heals. Then he raises.
I don’t need to think too hard for examples where we as St. Philip have the opportunity to live compassion.
Deacon Peter shared with us the ministry of Community Kitchen - serving hungry people. It doesn’t matter who they are; if they’re hungry, they eat. We can support that with our benevolence dollars, and if you want to, I’m sure, you can show up to serve. Compassion is presence.
Today is the Souper Bowl of Caring. For the past several weeks, we’ve been collecting food for Helping Hand. We have several people who volunteer there on a regular basis. After worship today, youth will be collecting money. They’ll use it for hands-on ministry with those in need, serving several organizations. Compassion is walking alongside.
We’re filling baggies with essentials, like snacks and toiletries. We are collecting all these things, placing them in a ziploc bag, and will hand them out. You can either take a few to personally hand out to those in need, or we, as a congregation, will do it later. Compassion is moving close.
We’ll hand out most of those baggies when we open up our doors to the homeless for a meal on March 4. Not only will we give people a warm, home-cooked meal, but we have the opportunity to hear their stories, to look them in the eye, to sit, stand, and walk with them. We will be present with them, be alongside them, no matter what. Compassion is gutsy.
It’s not that giving to a ministry or a cause isn’t helpful. It certainly is. What will go in the baggies if no one brings stuff to put in them? But the compassion of money goes one direction, keeping us on the safe side of division. As a community that is to embody Christ, giving from a distance isn’t all Jesus models for us to do. He calls us to embrace, to stand by those the rest of the world looks at as lowly, least, less.
It’s what Jesus does. He goes to where the woman is. And even more than that, Jesus goes to where you are.
Yes, Jesus even comes to us. See, Jesus is God. We, on the other hand, are broken - dead in sin. He could say from a distance, “you are forgiven!” and stay away, stayed there with the Father and the Spirit. But isn’t our healing, isn’t our being raised, isn’t our forgiveness, isn’t our life so much better and deeper because he comes to us? That he comes to touch our world and our lives? That he dies and rises? We get to live and experience all this with Jesus alongside us.
If anyone has the right to stay away from us, it is the Son of God. But Jesus shows compassion in that while we are still broken, he has the guts to show up. He comes to us. Jesus is alongside us. And no matter what is going on, we know that Jesus has the power to overcome it.
That’s the Good News we hear today. We know Jesus can overcome whatever comes our way - illness, pain, grief, separation, sinfulness, even death. Jesus looks upon us with compassion, not pity. He comes alongside us. And because he is here, we get to see, touch, taste grace and love.
That is Good News, and this Good News is more than a distant statement. It is Good News that comes close to us and urges us to act, to be like Jesus, to have the guts to do what is compassionate.
I’d say that is pretty miraculous.
That is what I thought when I first read the our text for today. Who cares? We certainly don’t care about the sabbath.
We Christians haven’t observed the sabbath - that is, Friday sundown through Saturday sundown - as a day of rest for thousands of years. Even more than that, in today’s world, not only are we comfortable ignoring the sabbath, but we kind of have to ignore the sabbath. We use our days off to mow the lawn, pick up the prescription, and/or go out to a nice dinner. We understand the need for rest, but we don’t care about a whole day of sabbath rest. Who has time for that?
Second, when we look at the text, it seems like the Pharisees are a bunch of knit-picky rule followers. Priggish, Puritanical, Punitive. Lighten up! They’re just hungry! I’d say grabbing a few grains of wheat is barely work. And healing a man’s hand? Hardly a bad thing to do. The Pharisees’ arguments hold no water for us. So again, we are left saying, “who cares?”
To we enlightened, complex, and modern individuals, the answers are crystal clear. The sabbath is old school law that doesn’t apply anymore.
And now, I, as the preacher, am left with two avenues for the rest of the sermon.
The first is to lambast you heathens for not merely breaking but not caring about one of the 10 Commandments. Those are a pretty big deal! And to dismiss one outright because we’re “kinda busy” shouldn’t be any sort of excuse. But, considering many Christians think that Sunday is the sabbath, and many Christians also think that Sunday is the only day pastors work, I figured it would be kind of hypocritical. I blow off the sabbath - the actual sabbath - as much as anyone else.
So, the second avenue for preaching today is to try to make us care about the sabbath - or, at least, look at the sabbath in a new way. And to do that, we need to start over.
Well, for starters, God cares. There are reasons God didn’t merely suggest the sabbath but gave it as a commandment. One reason is that this is the example God sets for us at Creation. Work for six days, rest for one. As followers of God, we should do our best to emulate God. God explains another reason in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there.” Essentially, God is saying, ‘remember when you were slaves? You couldn’t take a break. There were no days off. But now, I set you free. And in this freedom, you have the gift of a day off.’ It’s not that they have to rest, it’s that God makes sure they get to rest.
Who cares? God cares. Anyone else care? Why, yes. The Pharisees do.
While it seems pretty obvious that the Pharisees care, they’re worth a second look. We’ve been conditioned over the years to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys. In a lot of the Gospel accounts, the Pharisees do seem bad from our perspective, but they’re not as bad as we characterize them to be. The Pharisees, believe it or not, were a lot like the mainline Protestant denominations of today. Their mission was to teach people how they could be connected to God in an individual and personal way - no need to have a mediator like the fancy-schmancy clergy. No need to run to the Temple to be holy. Living the Law - and thus experiencing God - was something anyone could do anywhere.
So when this new-fangled preacher out of Nazareth comes and starts doing things in a different way, of course they’re a little flustered. If their mission was to help people weave a fabric of faith, it seems Jesus’ mission was to rip it apart.
So, sure, the Pharisees care. Anyone else? Who else cares? Jesus cares.
Jesus cares about the sabbath because Jesus cares about life. Jesus wasn’t pushing the idea that old rules don’t apply or that new rules have taken their place. He knows that the sabbath isn’t about rules or restrictions; the sabbath is about life - about ways to foster, create, and share life. And that is what Jesus came to show us.
Bringing life is fulfillment of the sabbath. And get this: there is life in rest, in feeding, in healing. Life is fulfillment of the sabbath. Life is what Jesus brings. Life is what Jesus welcomes us into.
Jesus came to show us life and, more than that, Jesus came to BE life. Jesus came to reveal God’s intent for humanity. While the cross and empty tomb show us that in the ultimate way, even here, Jesus is pointing to life: life that full, life that is healed, life that goes beyond rules to the heart of God. That was the intent in the first place - that we would have life, and have it abundantly.
The rules aren’t what bring us life. The rules aren’t what define us. Nor are we defined by societal constructs or religious norms or ancient law. Jesus defines us. The Lord of the Sabbath defines us. The Lord of Life defines us.
Jesus came to foster, create, and share life. Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, shows us what sabbath should be.
Following Jesus means we do our best to emulate him - in fostering, creating, and sharing life. Sometimes, that means sabbath is a day of rest; sometimes that means sabbath is feeding hungry people. Sometimes sabbath is healing for us; sometimes it means we heal others.
Sabbath can be done by anyone, anywhere. All it takes is the life of Jesus. Where he is, there is life. And so, here in worship, there is life. In a day of rest, there is life. In service to others, there is life.
Our task is to point to the Lord; to know we are defined by him; to see that our fabric isn’t being ripped apart, but maybe dyed a different color. To feed, to heal, to foster, create, and share life. To embody the life that Jesus gives. That is fulfillment of the sabbath.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus binds us up. Jesus cares. Jesus cares about ways to foster, create, and share life - for you, and for the whole world.
Luke 5:1-11 - January 22, 2017
In the Sundays leading up to today, we’ve heard a lot about crowds gathering. A few weeks ago, crowds gathered, not for Jesus, but for John the Baptist. Then, crowds gathered to hear Jesus preach - and throw him off a cliff when he offended their sense of good order and identity. And now today: today we have the familiar story of Jesus calling his first disciples.
Jesus walks by the lake where he wants to teach the crowds. He asks the owner of one of the boats to push out a bit from the shore so he can more easily preach. Afterward, he tells the fishermen to cast their nets out one more time, even though they went all night without a catch. They do, and this time there is a huge catch! It’s a miracle that there are so many fish! When Simon Peter realizes what is going on, he falls down on his knees, but Jesus isn’t having any of that. He calls Peter to follow: “You won’t be catching fish anymore. Now you will be catching people.”
Not catching fish, but catching people.
All this made me recall the times I would go fishing with my grandpa, whom I affectionately named, “Deede,” when I was just learning to talk. Before Deedle and I headed to the pond, we’d stop at a store which may or may not still exist to pick up a small bucket of crickets. Upon arrival, we’d climb out of his truck and grab the bamboo fishing poles from the back and head to the bank. We’d find our spot underneath a tree and I’d let - ok, I’d make - Deedle put a cricket on my hook. No way was I touching one of those things! Then I’d swing the newly-hooked cricket out over the water, plop it down, and watch that red and white bobber. When I saw a little action on that floating ball, I’d yank on the pole and have me a fish. I’d quickly swing it back onto the land where I let - ok, I’d make - Deedle take the floppin’ fish off my hook. No way was I touching one of those things. We’d keep it in a bucket until we were done fishing for the day.
Afterwards, we would load everything back into the truck - poles, can of crickets, and bucket of fish - and head home. Once we got to his house, Deedle would carry the bucket of fish to the edge of the woods where he had an old, rusty table. It probably wasn’t really as rusty as my memory makes it to be, but it was definitely old. He’d then proceed to *thwack* cut off the fish heads, and *sccrrraaapppe* the scales off, and toss all the guts into the woods. Again, I “let” Deedle do that.
That’s my fishing story. And when I put my fishing story next to the story we hear today, I can’t help but think, “a caught fish is a dead fish.” Which is pretty terrible since Jesus wants us to go catch people like we catch fish. Surely, we don’t follow through completely…
At first, I thought I had reached the metaphor’s end. I had pushed it too far - far beyond what Jesus means. We aren’t meant to catch people to die; catch people and then dip them in beer batter, fry them up, and serve them with french fries. Too much!
So, then I got to thinking, well, maybe Jesus means, “catch and release” - it’s sustainable, no dying is involved. And it kinda fits - catch people for Jesus, then release them to do the same. But even there, we have limitations. For one thing, when you “catch and release,” usually you catch the fish, take a picture of you holding it, and then put it right back where it came from. Nothing is different for you or for the fish. Surely, Jesus can’t mean ‘have a photo-op with would-be Christians and then let them go like nothing ever happened.’ Is nothing different after one is caught?
But catch and release can still apply. Releasing means so much more than “return unharmed from which it came.” Release also means “set free from what was holding it back,” - released from what is past, released from the old, released for something new - something new like following Jesus. Being released means the old things that were holding you back are no more.
So, maybe “a caught fish is a dead fish” holds true. Jesus catches us, and we die. Maybe it’s not a “thwack” kind of die, but once we are caught by Jesus, we don’t return to the way things were; things can’t be the same. We die to the old ways, we die to our old, sinful selves.
As we look back at this passage, this is precisely what happens to Simon Peter.
After fishing all night with nothing to show for it, Peter is caught by Jesus - caught by hearing his message, caught by seeing the works Jesus can do, caught by being in Jesus’ presence. And in that moment, Peter realizes something. Peter falls to his knees, probably a bit afraid. He’s fearful of the, “if onlys.” If only Jesus knew his inadequacies, if only he knew the failures, the times he missed the mark. His life is not what it could be, not what it should be, not what God hopes and intends it to be. Peter’s response is not awe and “let me follow you.” Instead, he tries to send Jesus away. “Go away from me, Lord!”
That, to me, is a very honest response. It’s a response of knowing that what we’ve done, who we are, isn’t up to Jesus’ standards. That fear can hold us tight.
And I love what Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid.” Have no fear. Peter is caught in fear. But Jesus knows he is caught for something more. Jesus catches him, and Peter’s fear dies. The old ways die. The past dies. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore.
We don’t have to be afraid to let the trapped, inadequate, “missing the mark” parts of us die.
We don’t have to be afraid of death.
We don’t have to be afraid of being able to follow Jesus.
Peter has been caught and dies, and yet, death does not have the last word. Resurrection, salvation, life always show up when Jesus is present. So, true to form, Jesus raises him up. And in this new, raised life, Jesus gives Peter something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined. Peter is caught, he dies, and he is raised to follow.
Jesus does the same with us. Wherever we are right now, we also have missed the mark. But rather than it having hold of us, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” It’s a word of love and life and invitation. Our old selves, our hold-on-to-the-old-ways selves die in an encounter with Jesus.
And while that is scary (death is always scary for us), Jesus says, "Don't be afraid. I've got better life for you." And we rise; we follow.
That is what we say in baptism. In those waters we die. Our old selves die. Drown. There, we are caught by Jesus, and we die. A caught fish is a dead fish. But death isn’t all we proclaim, is it? We are brought through those baptismal waters to new life. Jesus died and was raised; in baptism, are joined to Jesus - we die and we rise. We rise to follow.
God raises us to live a new life. God raises us to be with and for Jesus. God raises us so that we do not need to be afraid. God raises us to follow.
We’re caught fish. But we are far from dead. We are alive, alive with the new life of Jesus, alive to follow, alive to be disciples. And so we do. We go. We cast a wide net and we bid others: come and die… die to all the talk and rise to action; die to the hold of inadequacy and rise to gracious love; die to the ways where we miss the mark and rise to a life of forgiveness.
So, maybe “a caught fish is a dead fish” isn’t too far off the mark. Maybe when we are caught by Jesus, we do die; but in death is the promise of resurrection. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “From now on, you’ll live.”
If someone tells you they have good news and they have bad news, which do you want to hear first?
I’m pretty much a “good news first” kind of guy. So, lucky for me, in Jesus’ first sermon, he starts out with good news - though he doesn’t really ask which the congregation wants to hear first. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Oh, wow! The people were amazed! I’m amazed! What the prophet Isaiah spoke is finally coming true. Jesus is the one! We knew the day would come!
Truly, this is good news. The Israelite faithful had waited and waited for the one who would come. Generations had passed. And now, finally, God comes through. This surely is good news!
But then, the bad news. Wait - there’s bad news? I forgot about that. What’s the bad news? The bad news is the good news isn’t for you. If the Synagogue had a record playing back in the First Century, I’m sure it would’ve done one of those super-dramatic “scratch” sounds. The good news isn’t for us?
What started out as amazement at Joseph's boy turns into rage and anger by the end.
And maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Because Jesus didn’t say that the good news isn’t for them; instead, Jesus said that the good news isn’t ONLY for them. It is for those others, too.
Jesus uses examples of famous prophets to drive his point home. Elijah visits the widow at Zarephath. There were lots of other widows God could’ve sent Elijah to - Israelite widows, even - but God sent Elijah to none of them. God sent Elijah to this outsider.
The same can be said for Elisha and Namaan. Namaan wasn’t an Israelite, and yet Elisha was able to cleanse him of his leprosy. Lots of lepers in Israel, but God chose this one.
This is why Jesus isn’t doing all those signs and wonders here in their presence. He is following a precedent God has already set; Jesus is taking the Good News beyond everyone’s comfort zone. And the people were kind of cranky about it.
This upset the normative status quo. They were there, present, dedicated - many of them faithful for a long time, if not their whole lives. They did things the right way. They learned and participated regularly. Despite everything, they stayed faithful. And when these others get special treatment, it really boils their blood. When you’re used to being the privileged, anything less feels like an insult. The long-time faithful should not get the same as all those heathens out there.
Which, on the surface, seems a little petty of these people. We, surely, don’t think such a villainous thing. Why would they be so enraged at Jesus opening up to others? “Go, Jesus,” we say. Go to the others and convince them about you and bring them back here to join us! What’s the big deal? We, for the most part, are open to evangelism and having people meet, see, and experience Jesus. We know he is not just for us. Through the years, we have gotten used to the fact that Jesus is for everyone… at least we’ve gotten used to it in the general sense. See, we’re more like that original crowd than we care to admit.
We still have this notion of ownership over Jesus - like he’s our hometown boy. It’s fine if he goes elsewhere, but we know he’s really ours. He goes out to bring people in to fill our pews. That’s what’s fair, after all. The Church is where you have to go if you want the good stuff Jesus offers.
Jesus challenges that idea. He didn’t say he came to bring good news to those who gather at 10:00 on a Sunday; proclaim release for the comfortable; recover traditions lost. The Good News isn’t for us. Jesus isn’t ours. And that is offensive to those of us who do our best to remain faithful and present.
But in our offense is the goodness and grace of God. Like I mentioned, we generally get the idea that those who aren’t like us are loved as much as we are. The ones who stand for fundamentally different ideas than we do receive the same grace that we do. As we put faces on it, though, it gets a little harder. Can God’s goodness and grace really be for Dallas Cowboys fans?
For people from Mexico yet living in the US. Those from Russia.
Hillary Clinton supporters.
Donald Trump supporters.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump themselves.
Recently sentenced to die, Dylan Roof.
Where do we draw the line? Where does God draw the line?
The outsiders and unchurched and mega-churched and pacifists and patriots and elites and working poor and the dirty and the lepers and the widows and you and me… we are all under the same God and Father, Jesus goes to all, all are loved, graced, forgiven, clean.
God is so unfair.
And maybe that gets more to the heart of it. We don’t mind God being unfair… in our favor. It‘s when God is unfair in the favor of others - others who aren’t here like we are, doing our duty by standing and sitting here each week. Even them? Even those? Yes, even and especially those.
When we see church as a club through which we are privileged with special benefits, we are offended by what Jesus says and does. It goes against what is fair and decent in our minds. Surely, not them!
But instead, when we see the Church as a group of people living like Jesus, then we know the Spirit is truly upon us. It means we exist not for ourselves but for those who aren’t here. We shine light in their darkness; we point them to God’s open arms; we tell the old, old story. We help Jesus bring about fulfillment of the Scriptures. How? “We bring good news to the poor. We announce release to the prisoners and sight to the blind. We set victims free and announce God’s special favor.”
And we do that today.
Jesus does, at least. He says, “today, scripture has been fulfilled.” Where Jesus shows up, there is fulfillment. Where Jesus shows up, there is salvation. Where Jesus shows up, there is Good News. Not because we are open and ready, not because we are in a special club, not because of us. Salvation is present when Jesus is present.
Today, Jesus shows up with us - he is here in a splash of water, a taste of bread and wine, a prayer and a song known by heart. He is here. Today, the scripture is fulfilled. Salvation has come. And then, Jesus goes to fulfill scripture elsewhere, to be salvation elsewhere. Are we offended that Jesus goes out? Or do we join him?
The Good News Jesus brings is not only do we belong, not only do we have hope, but they do, too. All do, too. And when we really start to see that type of inclusion as Good News, well, then we’re living like the Spirit is upon us, too. And to follow Jesus, to claim that Jesus brings salvation, is to trust that it is true even in places and for people we don’t necessarily like.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, a time of remembering service and welcome for others, I can’t think of a better message for Jesus to tell us. The Good News is for them, too. We, as followers of that very same Jesus, are meant to live it. To live it in real ways, for real people whether we like them or not.
So, do you want to hear the good news or the Good News? Because that’s all we’ve got.
We are loved; we are loved and so are they.
I guess the old adage is true: “they grow up so fast.” I know because I have experienced it with my own kids. They are already losing teeth and picking out their own clothes. It sure is quick. I wonder if Mary felt the same way; it seems like just two weeks ago that we had a baby in a manger. Now Jesus is thirty years old. Time flies.
Yet, here we are on the cusp of Jesus doing all those things that angels announced, Elizabeth prophesied, and Mary sang. Jesus is on the scene. And yet, today, the first day of Jesus’ adult and public ministry, we only get about two verses on him. The other 20 are about John the Baptist.
Before we get to Jesus, it seems today is about John.
John is introduced as a prophet. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and this important guy and this other guy you should know, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.” It’s the same way the prophets of the Old Testament get introduced: the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There is a marker of time, a note of all the rulers of the day… and God comes. God comes.
And not only is John introduced as a prophet, but he speaks like one, too! We know that because he preaches truth that people don’t want to hear. Name-calling aside (you brood of vipers), John speaks about repentance and bearing fruit worthy of said repentance. There is a call to change ways and a note about the forthcoming penalties if there isn’t a change. Again, all very prophetic.
John teaches the crowds about repentance and also gives them practical ways to live. Share your extra coats. If you have extra food, do likewise. Do your job justly, without stealing or bullying. John teaches.
John also engages those outside of the normal circles for religious folk. Here he is, talking with tax collectors (often seen as greedy) and Roman soldiers (often seen as oppressive). He reaches out to everyone, even if others would look down upon such an action. John engages outsiders.
John baptizes people with water for the forgiveness of sins. Crowds would come out to the wilderness to be baptized by him. People were filled with expectation. John baptizes.
Surely, John is a prophet. But the thing about prophets is… they aren’t the ones to fix things. They aren’t the One. Every prophet points beyond themselves to God, to God coming. Isaiah, Jeremiah, now John, all point to God’s action.
John does all these prophetic things, because he knows he’s not the one. Like all good prophets, he points beyond. “Someone is coming who is stronger than I. I don’t deserve to untie his sandals.”
John points to the one coming.
By the time we get to Jesus in verse 21, we are well prepared. John has done his job. But John is absent from the baptism.
“That can’t be so,” you may exclaim. But it’s true. John gets locked away in prison before we even get to the baptism scene with Jesus. The other Gospels tell the story as John performing the baptism - even as he questions doing it. However, Luke separates John from the baptism, getting him out of the way, because Luke wants us to remember something: John isn’t the story. Jesus is. God’s action is.
At the time of Jesus’ baptism,
John’s body is replaced by the Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove.
John’s voice crying out in the wilderness is replaced by a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved.”
Baptism isn’t about the baptizer: it’s about God.
Just like this story isn't about John; it's about who John points to: Jesus.
Luke wants to tell us, despite all those verses we read today, John isn’t the main character; John isn’t even a main actor. He sets the story, but he is not the story. Because One is coming who will teach with authority and power, more so than John. One is coming who not only speaks to tax collectors and soldiers, but dines with them, heals them, and calls them to follow. One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, a baptism far, far greater than John’s.
And John, like all good prophets, knew this. He’s not the story, but he sets the story. He points to Jesus. But that didn’t stop other people from searching him out, asking, putting hope in him. And while I do my best to stay away from three point sermons, there are three things we can learn from this.
First: sometimes we can get caught up in the messenger - like a pastor, either good or bad. We have preferences things like a building, either small or grand. We even get caught up with the WAY we do church. We have a tendency to lean on moods and feelings about what brings the message, when what really matters is the Message, which is true despite moods and feelings. That message is, “Jesus is God’s son, the beloved.”
Second, we often forget that we are prophets of God, too. We help set the story, prepare the way, preach and teach. We point beyond ourselves. We point to the places where God shows up. We point and act and live.
Third, baptism is about God, not about us. It doesn’t matter if you are dunked or sprinkled: you are God’s child. It doesn’t matter if you are a baby or fully-grown: you are Beloved. It doesn’t matter if the one doing it is the best prophet ever or some curly-headed pastor: with you God is well pleased.
Baptism is God sweeping everything else away and grabbing ahold of you - dousing you with the Holy Spirit, gathering you into loving arms, and saying, “you are mine.” Baptism is what makes us prophets. Baptism is what makes the message matter over messenger. It is that tangible thing that we can touch to remember, to know, that God has acted "for you." Water helps us remember we are part of God's story, helping God to bring about the salvation started in Jesus, continued through the Spirit, and lived out in Myrtle Beach and beyond.
We are claimed, just as we are. We are God’s.
And so we, like John, point to the one who makes that story possible for us. We point to the one who is coming. The one revealed. The one born. The one crucified, died, and buried. The one raised. That’s what today - and everyday - is all about.
For years, Dana and I headed to Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp just outside of Asheville, to lead Bible study for a group of high school campers - until our kids came along. We then had to put our camp trips on hold for a few years. But now that the kids are older, we can all go for a program called “Family Camp.” And whether we go as leaders or as participants, we always go the same week in July. The week we choose to go is Christmas week. And I love it.
It is actually the inspiration for St. Philip’s now-traditional “Christmas in July” worship service. It is all the best parts of Christmas without a lot of the “other” parts of Christmas. We sing Christmas carols. We read the Infancy narratives. We gather and eat and sing and worship and decorate. And while consumer-Christmas has creeped earlier and earlier into October, it hasn’t quite made it to July. So, we do all these things without all the commercialism, without all the stress, without all the debates over “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” It’s just Christmas. And I love it.
Today - actual Christmas Day - is like Christmas week at camp to me. Today, we brush aside a lot of the extra details - even some of the more treasured details - and focus only on one thing: God’s presence with us.
Rarely in our world do we get this type of opportunity.
We are often so distracted by other things - both good and bad. We hear of all the brokenness in our world; all the greed and all the need. We hear of - maybe even experience - death, illness, loss, grief, pain, shame. There are people at places in their lives who see no other way to live than to commit crimes, to hurt, to steal. Sometimes the brokenness is too much to take. Sometimes, the brokenness of this world overshadows God.
On the other hand, sometimes even those things that are meant to help us distract from the story. Shepherds and animals and stables and mangers and magi and stars - even babies - can screen the light. They help paint a picture and fill in the details for a story but frequently at the expense of losing the forest because of the trees. We lose sight of ‘God with us’ in search of that romanticized first Christmas.
Today, we brush aside a lot of the extra details - even some of the more treasured details - and focus only on one thing: God’s presence with us.
God is present with us. And at Christmas, we celebrate that God entered THIS world, a world where brokenness and goodness sit side by side. God entered our world - our world where sometimes the brokenness shatters the goodness; sometimes it is the otherway around.
It is into this world that God’s light has shined.
It is into this world that God interrupts the status quo.
It is into this world that God has come.
God doesn’t tweak things from afar, but enters into our world and into our lives. God in Jesus comes smack into the middle of our goodness and brokenness.
What kind of God does that?
Our God. Our God does. A God of love. A God of relationship. A God of action on our behalf.
And the beauty of John’s opening which we read today is that it isn’t just a story that happened. It is a story that still happens. The light shines in the darkness. The light shines in the goodness. The light shines in the brokenness. The light shines, and darkness did not - does not - will not - overcome it.
In our lives, God is present. We are not alone. We are never far from grace, truth, and love. In our brokenness, in our goodness, God is present, grieving and rejoicing, comforting and encouraging, creating and sharing. God is present with gifts of life now. God is present with the promise of hope - hope that our brokenness does not stay broken but that God will do a new thing. God always does a new thing.
Today, we brush aside a lot of the extra details - even some of the more treasured details - and focus only on one thing: God’s presence with us.
So, sit for a moment. Use this day and this time to remember, reflect. Right now, it’s Christmas. Just Christmas.
God lives among us. Jesus comes to us. Christ is born for us.
We have seen his glory in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of the cup.
We have seen his grace in the forgiveness offered, in the lives made new.
We have seen his truth - truth that enters in, truth that shines in darkness, truth that does not avoid but enters, comes, lives, dwells.
This is the light God shines. This is the light of Christmas.
God lives here. With us. Now. Always.
We’ve got many characters in the Christmas story, don’t we? We may remember them from all the Christmas pageants we’ve participated in or seen over the years. Maybe right now you’re running through them in your head. Don’t forget any!
One of the things we do with the Christmas story is we often try to find our place in it. To do so, we try to connect with one of the aforementioned characters, see which one we feel like or which one fits our life, our calling, or our situation.
For example, the most common Christmas Eve sermon analogy is that we’re like the shepherds. We’re just minding our everyday business when we get this great news about a Savior. So, we drop everything - we’re compelled to go and worship - and then we are sent out to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen. Makes sense, I guess. But we’re not a whole lot like the shepherds. We already know what we’re coming to see, even to the point that we have expectations about tonight and traditions that must be upheld. No angels appeared to us, at least not to most of us. And when it’s all over, we hurriedly depart Christmas Eve worship - maybe with a smile, but rarely do we leave “glorifying and praising God” for all we have heard and seen. That’d be one heck of a sermon, huh?
So, if we’re not that much like the shepherds, maybe someone else in the story fits us better? Maybe someone like Mary. You know, the virgin pregnancy and relatable things like that. But she also had an angel show up. She got answers to her questions and had tremendous favor upon her - so much so that her cousin Elizabeth called her blessed for the fulfillment of what God was going to do. While I do nice things from time to time and I trust God the best I can, rarely am I called “blessed is he who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.”
Ok, so not Shepherds, not Mary. Joseph? The guy who hauled his 9-months-pregnant-but-not-by-him fiancee about 70 miles through the desert to pay some taxes? Yeah, I don’t quite relate.
Are we the Innkeeper who turned away a really, really pregnant lady and made her sleep in a barn with animals? I guess the argument could be made that we turn Jesus away all the time, but, I’d like to think that I would do all I could within my innkeeper abilities to ensure warmth and safety.
Wise men? They’re not even in this story.
Angels? Who am I kidding?
Animals in the stable?
The donkey Mary rode in on?!
Who are we?!
Well, we’re… Us. I’m me and you’re you.
We’re none of those characters in the story. None of us fit those molds. Which may not sound like like a very Christmas-y message. In fact, that’s the same thing we hear every other day of our lives: it’s the story of division - us VS them. The story of exclusivity - the haves and the have nots. The story of telling us who is in and who is out, what we need to do to make sure we are in and NOT out, a story that shapes us more than we care to admit.
So, on the surface, we may seem left out. That this story is simply something that happened to a bunch of people a long time ago in a country far, far away. But Christmas is the complete opposite of that. It tells us a different story.
Sure, we’re us. And they’re them. But the Good New is that Jesus is born for us, too. The angel announces, “I am bringing Good News of great joy for ALL people: to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Jesus is born for us, for YOU.
In all your particularities, in all your characteristics, in all your attributes and annoyances and anomalies, Jesus is born for you.
Whoever you are - whoever you really are, Christ is born for you.
You don’t need to be as blessed as the mother Mary; you don’t need to be from the lineage of the greatest king of Israel like Joseph; you don’t have to be angelic or wise or shepherd-ish. Jesus is born for you.
God shows up, even in our lives. The Incarnate one comes to us, is born to us, as regular and un-biblical as our lives may seem. God isn’t reserved for the exclusive; instead, God embraces our regular, even painful, entering our human community without having to sterilize everything first.
Because, when you think about it, Mary, Joseph, Shepherds… all of them were pretty regular until God showed up in their lives. Christ was born for them, and that made all the difference. Christ is born for you, and that makes all the difference.
God shows up in our stories. Christ is born… for you. And that means, for you is grace. For you is life. For you is God’s presence. For you is forgiveness. For you is community and love and redemption. For you, there is a place. There is always a place with God. At the table. Here and now. Christ is born for you.
No matter where we find ourselves in the story,
no matter the joys or sorrows in our personal story,
no matter if we feel special or sad,
on Christmas, Christ is born for you.
And that story is good news of great joy for all people.
For many months now, we’ve walked through the Old Testament - you can see the story through the kids’ canvases here on the wall. There is a big build up of what God has done - and promises of what God yet will do. And now, we’re on the cusp of promises fulfilled.
We began in September with Adam and Eve and God’s glorious intent for creation. We heard God’s call to Abraham and the faith and power God gave to Joseph. We read stories of Passover and Golden Calves; of promises fulfilled for Hannah; of a Kingdom unified and divided. Through it all, God’s grace and mercy continued to come to a people who often were lost, broken, and undeserving.
The prophets continued to point to God’s actions and God’s promises - we heard from prophets like Elijah, Jonah, and Isaiah. Jeremiah tells us that God promises a new covenant, not like the old. Joel says the Spirit will be poured out. In the midst of this all was waiting. The Israelites were waiting - and we were waiting with them - waiting on God’s fulfillment.
It’s a discipline to wait. And often, we don’t like to do it.
I know that “waiting” has changed dramatically over the years. Even just a few years ago, when I was waiting on my oil change or going to see the dentist, I used to have to read random magazines or talk to strangers. Now I’m immersed in my phone, which essentially means I don’t wait any more. I am always doing something - responding to emails, liking pictures, or exploring what home renovations cost.
Can you really call it “waiting” if you’re so preoccupied with something else that you kind of even forget fulfillment is coming?
It’s a discipline to wait, to live in this moment with expectation and anticipation.
Mary’s story is another time when we must wait. All too often, we rush through this narrative. We just want to get to the good parts: “nothing is impossible with God!” and “Here am I, the servant of the Lord!”
I know, I know, we’re sooo close to having Jesus here; it’s what we’ve been waiting for. So, the temptation is huge to just look to Mary only as mother of God, to use her as a mere stepping stone to get where we want to go. But it’s kind of cheap. And jumping ahead leaves us feeling unfulfilled and inadequate in comparison, because Mary is, well, MARY. She’s impressive, faithful, strong, exemplary. We’re just us.
But this is where waiting benefits us. Instead of fast forwarding through this announcement like DVRed commercials, we can be disciplined and wait. And as we wait with Mary, as we take this journey with her, the deeper meanings start to shine forth. We hear the angel’s statement of “nothing is impossible with God” as good news - no, more than that, as Gospel - for US, not just Mary.
As we wait with Mary, we start to see all the impossibilities that were there.
Barren, elderly women, like Elizabeth, could not be pregnant.
Young women from towns in the middle of nowhere are never favored.
And angels do not show up with absurd announcements.
Mary ponders, wonders, debates. “How can this be?”
“Me? Who am I? Why am I favored?” We may look back at Mary and wonder how she questioned; I mean, an angel is standing in front of her. But I feel like this is a genuine reaction - to not put a lot of hope in the impossible. She knows her role. She knows who she is. She knows how the world works. It’s a broken place, full of angry people who exert power over others through fear and force and finances. They don’t just hand over their throne to anyone - and especially not to a son from the likes of her. Her question shows the hopelessness of the situation. It’s impossible.
And her questions still resonate. As we wait with Mary, we see how her question pops up in our lives and in our world today. How can this be? How can God’s promise be true in a world like ours? Our world, too, is full of angry people: wars, constant wars, in places like Syria. Bottom lines matter more than people or planet. There is a lack of water, food, and basic medicines in places far away and around the corner. The stuff God promises, the way God asks us to live, the means by which God redeems, saves, and heals the world is not practical. Every single force within us and within our world fights against it. It’s impossible.
And in our own lives: all the grief, all the poor decisions, all those things that shouldn’t have happened... Maybe we’re a little bit more like Mary than we thought. Who, me? Why am I favored? We ponder, wonder, and debate. How can this be - not just in this world but for me? We know those things about us no one else knows. We know who we are. It’s hopeless. It’s impossible.
But notice how the angel responds to the question of impossibility. He states clearly that God is going to show up anyway. The Holy Spirit will come upon you. Despite the impossibilities. Despite your reasons. Despite the hopelessness. Because all those things we list are only true when God is absent. Here, God promises to show up.
God’s presence makes the difference. God comes to Mary to ensure the impossible will happen. She will bear a son and he will be great. He will take the throne of David. He will reign forever.
God’s presence makes the difference.
See, God is present, even with a lowly woman from a town in the middle of nowhere; God does not shy away. God is present, despite the impossibilities of the situation, despite the questions that arise. God is present.
And God is present with us. God does not shy away from the likes of us, either. God is present here, as impossible as it may seem. Like Mary, God knows us, chooses us, favors us. God is present in the impossibilities of our lives; God is present with good news - Gospel news - for us. God is present - coming to us as the Son of God. And that makes all the difference.
And we know that presence, even as we wait for fulfillment of promises. God is present because God came to you and claimed you forever in the waters of baptism. The Holy Spirit is upon you; the power of the Most High is with you; in all things, God is present.
As we gather at the table, we get a foretaste of the feast that has no end, because God is present in Christ - feeding our souls so we can face the impossibilities of our world with grace, truth, and life; so we can make true God’s impossible ways of love and forgiveness - for ourselves and for our neighbors.
God is the difference between impossible and possible,
between hopelessness and fulfillment,
between “how can this be?” and “let it be with me according to your word.”
God’s presence makes the difference, for Mary and for us.
For now, we wait with Mary just a little bit longer. As we wait with anticipation, as we wait with impossibilities all around us, we know that God is here, making hope possible. Making life possible. Making love possible.
God is here. And that helps us say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Maybe you’ve heard that phrase; maybe you’ve used it yourself. I find it lacking something. To me, it’s not really who you know; it’s who knows you. Who cares who we know? What matters is that people know you.
I bring this up because it is good to be known, but it’s also good to be known for the right reasons. I remember a couple of decades ago learning the difference between “famous” and “infamous.” The prime example of the day was OJ Simpson: famous for his football accomplishments but infamous for the death of his ex-wife.
It’s not just what you know.
It’s not just who you know.
It’s not just who knows you, but why they know you, the defining characteristics; that is most important.
The prophet Isaiah mentions “being known” in our prophecy for today. In verse 9, he shares God’s words: “Their descendants will be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.” God says we will be known among the nations, among the world. So, in this day and age, how is it that we are known? How are we as Christians, as a church, known?
At this point in my sermon writing, I stopped for a bit. I had one of those gut-check moments. I stopped because it is unfortunate how we are known. It seems that they will know we are Christians by our hypocrisy, not our love.
We’re known more for fighting over coffee cups than we are for fighting on the side of the poor and oppressed.
We’re known more for our bumper stickers than our actions.
We’re known more for looking inward to preserve what what we have (or once had), rather than looking outward for the sake of the world.
And, to be brutally honest, a lot of how we’re known as a collective is accurate. We often shout when we should listen. We often sit when we should stand (and not just liturgically). We care more about how one hour on Sunday goes for us than we do how the remaining 167 hours of the week go for others.
It’s not that we don’t do good things as individuals and as the church; we do!
And it isn’t that worship isn’t important; that is what centers us, recharges us for the rest of the week. It is crucial to life and community.
The problem is the issues we engage ourselves with tend to be more about our preferences than about another’s needs. And when we do pick up a cause for our neighbor, we tend to do at a certain distance, the mailing of a check, and the hope that someone else does the hard work.
We pick and choose how and when we love; how and when we serve; how and when we care. We are complacent enough with ourselves to disengage - to do what we want, when we want.
Excuses and justifications are already lined up in our heads. “Well, yes, but…” Limitations, deservedness, fear - all plausible, all real, all reasonable, but none should be our defining characteristics.
Luckily, Isaiah tells us how we as God’s community should be known. Isaiah gives us our defining characteristics. He speaks the promises of God to those then and to us now.
God’s promises are clear:
God anoints you; the Spirit is upon you.
God sends you to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind the brokenhearted.
God sends you to proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners.
God sends you to comfort those who mourn, to put garland around them, to praise them.
That is how we should be known. We should be known as the people who do those things. Imagine it. Imagine if that is really what we did. Imagine if those were our main attributes.
No more would we be known as, “the church on the corner of 62nd and Kings,” but instead, we are “those who proclaim freedom to ones who are captive.”
No more, “we’re the Lutheran church,” but “we care for the needs of all who mourn.”
No more, “we meet at 10:00 on Sundays,” but “we bring the good news to the oppressed.”
“We stand up for those who need it. We bring messages of joy. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. We welcome. We share. We go.”
What a way to be known.
It is possible to read this passage, though, as a promise that is too good to be true, as a mission too hard to live, with characteristics too lofty to attain. It’s a prophet, afterall, preaching about life beyond this world. It’ll be fulfilled, one day.
The thing about prophets, though, is that the visions they share and the claims they make seem so very far off - but they name them anyway, share them anyway, live them anyway. And they do that because God is active anyway. Despite our excuses or exceptions, God is active anyway. And God still works in and through us anyway. God pours out the Spirit!
Which means, while we are here, awaiting God’s fulfillment of the vision, we don’t sit like bumps on a log. We don’t wait for ourselves; we wait while actively believing the promise that will come. We hope in what God is bringing so much that we take part in making it happen. We live the vision we want to see right now. It’s kind of the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We work with God to make it true today simply because we expect it will be true one day.
God sends us as Spirit-anointed messengers, and so we go as those messengers.
God sends us to heal and announce and set free, and so we go to heal and announce and set free.
God sets the vision, God tells us who we are, how we are defined, and we go, do, be that - even now, even in this world.
All the while, we know one day God’s vision will truly be the way things are.
And we live now, waiting - waiting on the One who will make it all happen in fullness, who will bring God’s vision in a perfect way.
We live now, bearing the characteristics of God now, because we know that one day, our excuses won’t matter. God, who loves justice, will bring it.
And in the meantime, how will people know us? Hopefully, they’ll know us as
God’s own children,
recipients of the good news,
healed of brokenheartedness,
liberated from bonds of sin and death,
comforted beyond belief.
They’ll know we are Christians by our love.
And they’ll know it, because we do love for them.
Because we serve.
We bring good news.
We heal the brokenhearted.
We set people free from what holds them down.
We build. We repair. We feed. We give. We love.
They’ll know who we are because we live like who God defines us to be.
Who God made us to be.
Who God saves us to be.
Uncertainty. That is what I feel connects the life of the prophet Joel (and the Israelites of his time) with our lives today. Uncertainty lies in the midst of all that is going on. It is a major player in each scene, both past and present.
As I mentioned, Joel was a prophet. And if you know anything about prophets in the Bible it’s that God always sends them for a reason. The usual reason is the people aren’t following God in the ways they should be. In particular, they’re not living out the Law in service to God and neighbor. So, the prophet’s job, for the most part, is to bring news of repercussions if things don’t change. The day of the Lord is coming, says Joel as a prelude to our text from chapter 2, and with it, repercussions, which looks like a swarm of locusts, devouring and ruining, encompassing everything in sight. Pretty scary. Pretty creepy. Pretty devastating.
So, in the verses before our text for today, there is uncertainty. The uncertainty lies in the questions and mixed feelings over this day of the Lord. How much time? How many must repent? Does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch? Isn’t this hardened justice a little cruel? Where is the mitigating grace to balance? And there aren’t answers - none from the people and none from Joel.
The day of the Lord is coming, like locusts to devour. What will that mean?
For us, we may not worry about quite the same swarm of locusts coming, but uncertainty, on many levels, still rules the day. The upcoming month of celebrations brings a bag of mixed emotions for many people. Our family life or other relationships may have changed dramatically since this time last year. What will this normally festive season look like this year?
Beyond that, what about the months and years ahead? Health, family, finances… it all can change in an instant. And not just for us alone, but the country. There are deep divisions which only serve to heighten the uncertainty. How about the world, and our neighbors near and far? How do we help when we can’t even agree on what the problems are? Each day is a new challenge for many of us, and we just go, day by day, with emotion, fear, mourning, and uncertainty. We have hope, but we are also realistic. What will it mean?
Uncertainty then. Uncertainty now.
“Yet even now,” says the Lord. “Yet even now, return to me.”
For Joel and his people, the only thing certain was change; things would have to change. The status quo of how things were was about to be upset, regardless of if the cause was a change in people’s ways or a swarm of locusts. But for the prophet, the answer to any issue, especially in the midst of uncertainty, was always to look to God.
When you don’t know where to turn, return to the Lord your God.
One of the easiest things for me about preaching is I don’t have to make stuff up. I read what the Bible says and basically I try just to say that again in ways that might connect with you and me. Unlike a novel or short story, I am not trying to think of a plot, not trying to tell a story I create, and surely not trying to make up anything new. Instead, I just try to make connections and try to say what the Bible tells us.
For Joel and all the other prophets, I think it’s something similar. Their job of bringing potential bad news is hard, for sure, but they just say what God told them to say. And God always has a little more to say than the bad news. And that “little more” God says through Joel is, “return to me.”
“Return to me,” says the Lord.
And here, if we slow down a bit and really listen to what God is saying, this is more than just an emotional cry for us to come back. God says, “I know you; I want you to come to me.” See, returning isn’t a superficial, outward thing - like rending one’s clothing, changing an appearance. It is a deep, inward thing; it is returning to God with all our heart. It is rending what is inside of us, it is opening up wide what is buried deep.
The thing about rending open your heart is you are bringing whatever is in there, all the emotions and feelings - weeping, mourning, uncertainty. Fear. Joy. Whatever the doctor says, whatever the length of the wait, whatever the results, whatever the number of empty seats at dinner, whatever brokenness, apprehension, and uncertainty is there inside, even now, God knowingly, lovingly, certainly says, “return to me.”
God knows. And when you don’t know, return to the Lord your God.
In this time of Advent, we wait. We wait in particular for the day of the Lord. We wait for the Lord to come and show us what we and generations already know: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. On that day, we will see how God chooses to judge the world. On that day, we know we will be changed; things can't stay the same. On that day, we know dreams and visions will be certain. On that day, God’s love will be made flesh.
God says, yes, the day of the Lord is coming, but be certain it is being brought by a God who is gracious and merciful. Be certain that God’s arms are wide open, waiting for us to return. Be certain that God fully knows what is in our hearts - all that is there - and God will take it, take us, no matter what we’ve buried deep.
Be certain, that because you have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism, you are always and forever God’s own. Be certain, that God feeds our souls at the Lord’s table, and you are always welcome. Be certain, that the Holy Spirit is poured out on you, giving your visions and dreams life in this day and in this time. Be certain, that the day of the Lord is coming. And even now, God still comes to us with grace, mercy, and steadfast love.
It is certain, but we still wait, don’t we? We wait for the child to be born; we wait for the Lord to come; we wait for our dreams and visions; we wait. But let us not wait with uncertainty. Because even there, God comes with certain promise: you are certainly loved. You are certainly known. You are certainly mine.
Even now. Even always.
As things usually go with writing a sermon, I try to start reading a lot of articles and books early in the week and let all those ideas sit with me for the next several days. Then, on Thursday morning, I close up the doors to my office and use the readings that I have distilled over the past several days and just go. If all goes well, I have some semblance of a sermon that I work on over the next few days. Editing usually is way easier than writing.
But this week, I just wasn’t feeling it. We have two passages from the prophet Jeremiah: the first part is a story many people have never heard before and the second part is so overly familiar it becomes… trite. Simple. Even mundane. Everything I read sounded the same to me; nothing stood out. God is the initiator. God does it. God upholds our end of the covenant. Like, it's a nice thing but it felt so... simplistic to me. I guess I’m really in a bad mood if the Gospel message doesn’t inspire me.
And that is precisely what Jeremiah is talking about.
In the first part of our lesson, we have Jeremiah instructing his friend Baruch to deliver a scroll of his prophecies to King Jehoiakim. Think of this as God’s Word being hand delivered to the king. And what does the king do? The king tears it up and throws it in the fire. He disregards it.
Which made me wonder how we do that. I don’t think many of us use quite as tangible of a way of disregarding God - tearing out page after page of our Bible and throwing it into a fire. That’s a little too… blatant. We’re much more subtle in the ways we disregard the Word of God.
We do that because the Word of God is a pretty thick book. There is a lot of stuff in there. And we all have favorite passages, unknown passages, obsolete passages, and interpreted passages. We have quick ways to justify our actions - or non-actions - and we can back it up with the Bible! So, yeah, we may not be as overt as King Jehoiakim in disregarding God’s Word, but we sure do filter it, domesticate it, and pick and choose what we like and follow. Sometimes, we just aren't “feeling” how God is truly calling us to live.
But the days are surely coming.
That is the promise. That is the hope. That is the Gospel.
God responds to the ways we’ve disregarded God and the Law, and God’s response is Gospel.
God persists. God continues on. God makes a new covenant. God doesn’t tear us up and throw us away - as we often do with God’s way. God doesn’t discard us, also as we often do to people who turn from us. God doubles down. God promises something new. God makes a new covenant, not written on paper or stone, but written on our hearts. God is persistent.
The Israelites broke the old covenant - repeatedly. We aren’t exemplars of living a godly life, either. But God doesn’t stop. God takes the best parts of the old covenant - the relationship, the love, the “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” But God does something new with all that; God makes the deal that it will be written on our hearts, the very center of our thinking and doing and being. No more will it be left up to our interpretation or our learning or even if we “feel like it.” God will write it so intimately in us, that it will just be who we are and what we do. We will be programmed with God’s law.
We see and hear and know that promised new covenant through the Word of God. But see, the Word of God is more than mere words of the Bible. The Word of God is Jesus. All things came into being through him; what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Jesus is God’s new covenant in flesh and bone.
In Jesus, God shows us what it looks like to forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more. In Jesus, the covenant takes flesh. In Jesus, the covenant lives. The covenant forgives.
We see the new covenant in God’s Word, Jesus Christ. But also, here and now, this very day, we see that covenant in the meal we share. Jesus, like God and the prophets before him, is betrayed. And yet, Jesus says that this cup is the new covenant. It is a new covenant - shed for you and for all people. Despite our actions, despite our betrayals, despite our feelings on the matter, despite our fleeing from following Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus seals the deal.
We have the promise of this new covenant - a promise that endures through betrayal and cross and tomb. The promise is raised up and lives. The promise is shared each time bread is broken and wine is poured.
And for us in this time and this place, our challenge is, maybe, letting go of God’s Word in paper or tablet form, in order to live the Word of God in our actions and words.
What would it look like if instead of limiting to a particular phrase, verse, or story, we took the whole story?
What would it look like if we did, not simply what Jesus did in a particular verse, but if we did what Jesus’ entire life taught us to do?
What if we did what was right, not what was written?
Do what is loving and grace-filled and forgiving, not what we remember or look up.
Do what is written on our hearts, not what is written on a scroll.
Do God’s law because we are really feeling it.
But of course, we aren’t quite there yet, are we?
I’m reminded of my Ethics class back in seminary. In the very first class of the semester, our professor, Dr. Bell, talked about how Ethics, that particular class in and of itself was sinful. It is sinful because we have to think about what is right and good and best. See, the Law isn’t written on our hearts just yet. The fact that we have to weigh options and process doing good for each other shows our inherent sinfulness.
We don’t have God’s Law written on our hearts yet, but we do have a God who is persistent. Who comes to us, who forgives our iniquities, who forgets our sins, who dies and rises, who opens up eternity for us, who always does something new to make sure we know we are loved.
I started out the sermon talking about how I just wasn’t “feeling it” this week. I guess that just goes to show that the Law, the new covenant, isn’t written on my heart yet. Even we pastors sometimes feel disconnected - yet, God’s promise is still there. Even for us. And for you, too.
Yet, as we come to places where the Word is written and shared, preached and broken, splashed and sung, well, we get to feeling a little bit better. It’s a time that God writes on our hearts yet again. God persists. God doesn’t give up. God writes on our hearts. And God always will.
While the Biblical title of the book is simply, “Jonah,” we like to think there are two main characters to the story: Jonah and the whale.
Jonah is a prophet of God. He self-identifies himself as a Hebrew who worships the Lord, the God of heaven. But there is a little more to him as a character than simply being a prophet. Essentially, he’s one of us. He’s from our crew, our family, our side. But, boy, is he bad at being a prophet. God calls out to him, “Arise, go to Ninevah.” So Jonah sets out to Tarshish, which is the exact opposite direction.
The natural question to ask is, “what will happen to Jonah?”
Jonah doesn’t want to do what God asks. It is obvious he has some character flaws, but because he is “one of us,” we tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you read it from an honest perspective, this insider gives all of us a bad name.
He doesn’t help the sailors row while they’re in the storm. He doesn’t pray when everyone else on the boat is. When he finally gets to Ninevah, he only walks a little ways into the city, where he preaches a pretty terrible sermon - and not just terrible because it is eight words long. He doesn’t even want the city to be saved. He is pretty indifferent and apathetic about the whole thing. What will happen to Jonah? What will happen to the sailors? To Ninevah?
Contrast this insider character with the outsider characters.
For example, Jonah encounters sailors along his journey. The sailors all worship different gods. That is the code language for “not one of us.” During the storm, they all pray; Jonah, as we know, does nothing. When they finally figure out Jonah is the root of all the trouble, Jonah says, “throw me overboard.” Which the sailors don’t do - not at first, at least. They just row harder. Eventually, after praying for mercy because of what they are about to do, they reluctantly throw Jonah into the sea. And when the storm stops, they offer a sacrifice and make vows to the Lord. The sailors, those outsiders, do the right thing.
But our guy, Jonah, has done the wrong things. The story very easily could end here, with him tossed into the sea. And that would teach us a lesson, wouldn’t it? It’d be a 2x4 to the face kind of lesson, too: do not disobey God! Remember what happened to Jonah who did! That’s if the story ended here.
But, as you know, the story doesn’t end here. We bring in our second character. No, not the fish. While cool and miraculous and even a colloquial title character, the fish is only mentioned a handful of times. But you know who is mentioned a whole lot more than the fish? God. God is the other main character.
God has been there the whole time. God calls out to Jonah to go to Ninevah in the first place - Nineveh, that wretched city whose inhabitants hate the Israelites and whose wickedness rivals no other. But, for whatever reason, God cares enough about Ninevah to send Jonah there. And while God has been here the whole time, now is really where God works. And now is where we get a lesson, though not a 2x4 to the face kind. We get a lesson about God’s character.
God isn’t one to give up so easily. God maneuvers things so Jonah gets a second chance.
God is one to care - even about outsiders. Jonah doesn’t care one bit about what happens to Ninevah.
Jonah runs away. God is one to be present.
Jonah gives things a half-hearted effort. God does whatever possible - sometimes even impossible - to make sure love and grace (a second chance) are present.
We see God’s character shine through a lackluster prophet and his terrible pastoral skills. Sailors and Ninevites change their ways and worship God, even though Jonah tried his best not to do a thing.
This story is meant to challenge us. Jonah, the insider, is the worst character in the story. He is supposed to be a model because he represents us, though he is anything but. The outsiders are the ones who respond to God appropriately.
Maybe we who are insiders don’t give enough credit to those outside of us. Maybe “we” judge the character of others based on preconceived notions. Maybe “they” aren’t so bad afterall. Maybe “they” are who God sends us to and “we” do our best not to do a thing. It is definitely a challenging idea, that our character flaws keep us from doing God’s will toward others. And I really think that is a key to the story.
But there is another aspect just as key; this story can challenge us, sure, but it can also comfort us. It not only shows us our character in the form of Jonah, but it shows us God’s character in all it’s tenacious and gracious glory. The Jonah story shows us we are never outside of God’s presence. What should’ve happened to Jonah? What should’ve happened when he ran away, when he was on a stormy sea, when he was thrown overboard?
What should’ve happened, didn’t. Because God is present. Because God is forgiving. Because God does miraculous things to keep us headed on God’s mission.
There is nowhere God won’t go. There is nothing God won’t do to be with us and save us. We see that in the character of a lousy, half-hearted prophet. We see that in a big fish. We see it in walls falling between insiders and outsiders. We see God’s character in a cross. In an empty tomb. In a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. God goes, God comes, God shows up, all so we know God’s presence is never far from us. There is nowhere we go that God can’t have us, doesn’t have us.
Unsurprisingly, this is my son, Jonah’s, favorite Bible story. And while it is probably more because he can have a book with his name on the cover, I hope his reasoning ends up shifting away from vanity and more toward the insight of never being outside of God’s presence. My personal favorite verses actually have the same theme. Romans 8:38-39 say, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
On this All Saints Sunday, we remember those who are far from us - so far we can’t get to them. They were the characters in our lives who shaped us and loved us and formed us and guided us. We miss them, we love them, but we can’t get to them. Yet we know they aren’t outside of God. We know they are not outside of God’s presence. We know nothing separates us from God - not running away, not storms, not half-heartedness, not lame sermons, not insiders or outsiders, not even death. Nothing can take us away from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m convinced.
Today, as we remember the Saints who have gone before us, we remember them in light of God’s character. Today, we remember what is true for Jonah is true for us; and what is true for us is true for all the saints, whether insider or out. Today, we remember God’s story: The story of Jonah and God’s mercy. The story of us and God’s grace. The story of all the saints and God’s inescapable love.
I’ve heard it said that winners write the history books. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Long ago, if you were the loser, most likely you not only lost, but you were obliterated in some sort of way: enslaved, expelled, or even executed. No history for you. That leaves the writing of history to the winners. Generally, kings of the day would hire someone to write the story of their conquests - embellishment encouraged - so that they could go down in history as the greatest ever.
But God’s story - God’s history, if you like - is a little different. It’s not so much about the victors or the elites; God’s story is about those whom typical histories don’t remember. Today’s story is a perfect example of that. In the book of First Kings, a book that we’d think would be exclusively about, well, kings, God takes a moment to highlight some people outside of the elite. We hear of the prophet Elijah, a widow, and her son.
We start the story with Elijah confronting King Ahab (you knew there had to be at least one king, right?). Ahab was a bad dude, bringing in other gods for Israel to worship all because his wife, Jezebel, was so persuasive. This confrontation starts and ends with Elijah saying that it isn’t going to rain until he says so.
God then tells Elijah to high-tail it out of there; kings don’t like it when they aren’t the ones setting the agenda. And God sends Elijah to a wadi way outside of town where the ravens bring him food. But, eventually, the brook dries up.
So, God then tells Elijah to go to Zarephath in Sidon where a woman will feed him. But the widow doesn’t seem to have gotten that message. At first, she refuses to feed Elijah, fearful that if she feeds him, she and her son won’t have anything to eat. This is her last supper. Elijah then becomes the messenger of God yet again: “Do not be afraid. God will provide. The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty.” The woman goes and does as Elijah asks. And it turns out just as he said - daily food for her and her son. The jar of meal doesn’t run out and the bottle of oil doesn’t become empty. Even with what little was there, God made sure it was enough.
I promise I did not pick this text in particular for our Commitment Sunday. It seems too perfect, doesn’t it? The widow is worried that if she gives, she will run out, but somehow she never does. In the midst of fear of scarcity, Elijah says, “do not be afraid. God will provide. There is enough. There is more than enough.” So, the same should be true of our monetary gifts! Give and your pockets will never be empty! Who cares if you are on a very limited and fixed supply? Use it all for God’s mission in the Church and you’ll be taken care of. It is perfect!
Maybe too perfect.
I mean, it’s a good sentiment and all, to trust God to provide, because God will and God does. God gives us all we have - whether much or little. And our call is to trust in God - trust that God will continue to provide our daily bread. That part I can totally get on board with. But I can’t shake this feeling of irresponsibility in this “perfect” analogy. Maybe it’s because my faith isn’t as strong as this woman’s, or maybe it’s because I’m not as great of a prophet as Elijah, but I want to say to you, if you only have enough for one last meal with your son, please, please, please, do not give it all to the church. Instead, let me know after worship and we’ll make sure it’s not your last meal.
And that, maybe, is what we (we who are pretty sure we’ve got more than one meal left) can learn from this story of radical giving. We can still be faithful to God’s call - still trust in God above all else - by providing for others out of our abundance, even when we think it is scarcity.
Not to sound cliche’, but “sharing is caring.” Or, to say it in a less trite way: as we share what we have, blessings abound in terms of relationship and grace and love. Sharing connects us to one another. Without that widow sharing what she had, her relationship with Elijah would’ve been kaput. And, most likely, her relationship with her son would’ve ended in premature death. But when she shares what she has, blessings abound for Elijah, for her son, and for her.
God does provide. As we share what little or large gifts we have, we bless others, we share grace, we inject life into deathly circumstances. This whole month at St. Philip has been about sharing God’s work we do and have done - what blessings and relationships and joys have been shared, despite what our meal jar and oil jug have in it. We’ve done a whole lot of very good things.
And beyond that, beyond the very specific idea of giving money, this passage as a whole has something to more to say to us, particularly we who identify ourselves as Lutheran Christians.
Today, we also are celebrating the 499th anniversary of the Reformation - the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door and kicked off a movement of rediscovering God’s grace and love in our worship and church and Bible. I feel God called the Church to move - to move on from where it was to a new place.
Just like Elijah by the wadi, the Church was fine where it was. But God knew that water wouldn’t last. God knew Elijah - and the Church - needed to move on. So, God tells Elijah to go and visit the woman in Zarephath to be fed. It’s as if God never meant for Elijah to stay in one place forever; God moves him along. And Elijah trusts each step of the way.
And so for us as the Church, we know that God doesn’t intend for us to stay in one place, comfortably stationary; it’ll end like Elijah by the stream. For us as St. Philip Lutheran Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we in recent history have been by dried up creeks - maybe we even stayed there too long. But now, I feel God has moved us on, moved us ahead. God is sending us to forge relationships, to share our flour and oil (our lives) with each other. God is bringing us to a new place.
God keeps moving us along. Moving us forward to live in ways we never have; to proclaim the message Elijah preaches, “do not be afraid,” in places we haven’t yet gone; to let go of the things that are drying up; and to reform us again into people who are reliant on God every single step of the way.
It’s exciting, but man, oh, man, doing what God says is scary and unknown.
The Reformation was scary and unknown.
And the woman giving when all we see is scarcity is scary and unknown.
The only thing to do is trust God - trust in who God is.
And if we know anything about God, it is God is one who provides.
When a creek dries up, there is a widow with some flour and oil. God provides.
When the Church loses its way, there is a monk with a hammer and a Bible. God provides.
When we are weak and afraid, there are words of promise from prophets and angels, “Do not be afraid.” God provides.
When we are empty in mind, body, and spirit, there is a table set for us.
When we journey to the cross, there is an empty tomb not too much farther.
When we are all but forgotten by the history books, we are remembered by a God who named us and claimed us; who died for us and rose again; who gives us life and breath and the grace to live again - and not only again, but forever. God provides.
Oh, yes, God provides. God provides the grace:
to always move on,
to always be formed in new ways,
to always open up our jars for the good of relationship,
to always make life where all we see is death.
Do not be afraid. God moves. God provides. God always provides.
Our reading for today may sound kind of convoluted and rambling, but, believe it or not, it is one of the most important passages in all the Bible. I say, “believe it or not,” because most of us don’t recognize it - maybe we don’t even remember hearing it. Ever.
When we think of important passages in the Bible, we first think of the ones we can remember; obviously. But we remember them because they are quick and simple, easy to memorize and tell us a whole lot about God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” kind of stuff. Even if we’re pushed beyond John 3:16, we can come up with other important stories, some of which we’ve read this year as we go through the Bible: the covenant with Abraham (I will bless you and you will be a blessing) or the Passover and Exodus from slavery (let my people go!).
But this? A kind-of-hard-to-follow passage from Second Samuel about building - or not building - a house? And yet, this passage is the key promise that shapes the rest of the story going forward. This is the point where we start to see God’s plan for forever.
We start off with the king, David. His life is one of the more familiar in the Bible. He has humble beginnings as the youngest of Jesse’s sons, but he gains notoriety on the battlefield, first with his sling against Goliath, and then later with armies, conquering those stinkin’ Philistines. He is a king, but not just A king - the king of the golden era. He’s not perfect; he’s a flawed human being. But he has a heart that loves God and wants to do God’s will. A key example of that is the Ark of the Covenant - yes, the same Ark from the Indiana Jones movie (well, maybe not the same ark). David recovers it from the Philistines and brings it to Jerusalem.
This is where we are at the start of chapter 7. David lives in a house (a house of cedar just means it’s a nice house). And while David has his nice house, the Ark of the Covenant, God’s seat among the people, is stuck in a drafty ol’ tent. “This isn’t right!” David exclaims. “I want to build a house for God!” Sounds like a pretty good idea. His buddy, Nathan the prophet, agrees. “Go, do what you have in mind. God is with you”
But that night, the word of God comes to Nathan. And God says, “I don’t want a house. I don’t need a house.” God shuts the house-building down. And maybe you can imagine the disappointment David might have felt the next morning when Nathan got around to telling him. This isn’t what David expected.
David’s intent was to do something for God - a way to say “thank you for all you’ve done for me.” It's like when someone gives us a gift and we want to reciprocate - partly to be kind, sure, but it is also partly that we want to be on the same level as the gift-giver; we don’t want to owe anyone anything. Or, if you really want to delve into the psyche of gift giving, maybe David was trying to soften God up a bit to ensure God will keep the good favor coming. Most likely, David’s motives are somewhere in the mix of all of that. But God isn’t interested in what David can do for God. God turns it around. David is told what God is going to do for him, even long after David is gone.
To paraphrase what God says: “You’re going to build a house for me?! I think not! I’m going to build a house for you!”
This is the promise.
Why is God building a house such a big deal? Because the house God will build is on a different level. It isn’t a home of cedar, or a chateau amongst the olive trees, or a bungalow by the oasis. This house is one of people. It’s a lineage. A dynasty. After recounting all that God has already done for David - taking him from shepherd to king; protecting him from enemies; making his name great - God lays out the future.
And this future is forever. An heir of David’s will rule forever. And nothing - nothing - will change that. In fact, God says that when - not if! - when the son commits iniquity, he will be punished (as those things go), but God’s steadfast love will not depart from him. God would always be faithful.
Here, God promises fidelity. Which may not seem like a big deal to you. The Bible is full of God promising stuff and then coming through. But what makes this promise different from the others is the unconditional nature of the promise; David does nothing before or after the promise. Abraham was given a promise - a deal cut by God and then marked by circumcision for all the guys in Abraham’s family. Israel was freed from slavery and then handed 10 Commandments to guide them. Don’t get me wrong - God is the initiator; God did something for the people before they were in any way deserving, but God would also say to them, “I saved you like I promised, so c’mon guys. Do a little better.”
But here, there isn’t even anything that David is supposed do in return. In fact, God doesn’t expect anything but failure, wrongdoing, and iniquity - and yet the promise still will hold true. A Son of David will rule forever. And this is true. For generations this was true. The Davidic line did go on ruling as king for over 400 years.
But 400 isn’t quite forever.
Which conflicts with what we know about God. God keeps promises, right? And if this promise is as big of a deal as I am making it out to be, then surely, God didn’t drop the ball, right?
No, I don’t think God did.
God’s promise, if you you remember, is on another level. But it is even on another level than we were anticipating. David’s heir, who is a Son to God, would reign, but in a way we don’t expect.
We don’t expect a manger. We don’t expect a king who serves. We don’t expect God to come to us as one of us. We don’t expect God to keep promises with a cross. We don’t expect an empty tomb. But God keeps promises, even if it means raising people from the dead. Despite our iniquities and wrongdoings, God has kept true to the promise.
Jesus, heir of David, Son of God, is the King of kings. God is building something through David’s lineage, and it’s not a house: it’s life - life that is ruled by God, life that is promised, life that is forever.
We are brought into that lineage by being joined to Christ in baptism. We are heirs of the same promise God made: I will not take my steadfast love from you. No matter your house, no matter your lineage, no matter your failures and flops. I will not take my steadfast love from you. Promised life is yours.
We hear that promise. We have a King forever. And we have a God who wants to build something through us. Because God, as we see here, knows there is a time and a place for buildings. But what God primarily wants is to build something through us.
God wants to build something through us, with us. God wants to build life, a life for all, a house where all can dwell, a place where the cross shows us how to serve, a lineage of love and grace. God gives life that is promised; life that is forever. And God does it now.
That is God’s vision for us. That is God’s promise for us. That is God’s love for us.
It is, as I’ve said, a love that is on another level.
And for that, thanks be to God.
Last week… last week, we were supposed to get the golden calf. Nothing sets a preacher up for a fire and brimstone sermon like a golden calf. It’s like a fastball, straight down the middle - easy to knock out of the park. Well, easy in the “there is a whole lot of things we can compare the golden calf to” kind of way - and it shows up in the midst of our Stewardship Campaign, nonetheless. But Hurricane Matthew had other ideas. I guess we’ll have to wait on that fire and brimstone.
So, we need to go back two weeks to when we last gathered, where we had just read about the Passover - the meal, the event of God’s saving from slavery in Egypt. Once the Israelites were free, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, with all the trials that brings - the golden calf being one of them. The book of Exodus ends with the people on the cusp of entering the promised land. The book of Joshua (while not the next book in the Bible is the next book in the history), continues the story as the Israelites enter the Promised Land - and all the battles that went along with that. History continues with Judges - individuals to rule and guide the Israelite people. The book ends with the verse, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
Up to that point, God was the King of Israel. There was no earthly monarch, no king on the throne, because there was no throne. But the Israelites started to look around and realize all the other nations had kings. They wanted one, too. And that is where we pick up today - but not with a king; we’re still a few years away from that. We start with Hannah.
And Hannah is a special woman. See, there was this question, this issue for Hannah, that was with her wherever she went. What do you do when your mind and your will wants something so badly, but your body just doesn’t follow suit? What do you do when who you are isn’t just characterized as a disappointment to your husband, but maybe even a disappointment to God? What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough? What do you do?
Here’s a little more to Hannah’s story (this is what we miss in those first 8 verses of 1 Samuel): Hannah is the first wife of Elkanah. And she is constantly teased by Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah. Hannah had no children, whereas Peninnah had many. And so it was, that Hannah, day by day, felt the sting of criticism by Peninnah. Every year, Elkanah would make a trip to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice to God. And after he sacrificed, he passed helpings from the sacrificial meal around to his wife Peninnah and all her children, and he always gave an especially generous helping to Hannah because he loved her so much. But Peninnah still would taunt her, rubbing it in that God had given her many children, yet Hannah had none. So, every year, every day even, Hannah felt ashamed of who she was, despite her husband’s affection and love for her. What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough?
And with that question in mind, we look at where our Scripture passage starts today: “After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose…” What do you do? Hannah rose.
And in her rising, she went to a particular place, to do a particular thing. She went to the temple. She presented herself to the Lord. And there, she prayed to be remembered. “Remember me. Do not forget your servant.”
And guess what? God remembered. Hannah went on to bear a son - and not just any son, but a son who would be the change, not just in Shiloh, but in all of Israel. Samuel would be the one who would usher in a new era of stability and hope in an uncertain time - one who would grow and continue to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.
Hannah rose. Hannah prayed. Hannah trusted God. What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough? You let God raise you up. See, God not only answered a prayer here; God accomplished more than simply saying “yes” to a request. Because at the right time, in the right way, a human need and a heavenly need aligned here. And when that happens, there is a “rising” situation. When human needs and heavenly needs align, there is a rising situation.
God remembered, for sure, but God also did something with that remembering. God started the Kingly line, because Hannah’s son, Samuel, was the prophet who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul, and then Israel’s greatest king, David.
All this caused Hannah to break out in song - “there is no Holy One like the Lord…” The song praises God because of the unexpected, gracious gift of life. When a human need and a heavenly need align, there is a “rising” situation. Hannah rose; God raised Hannah.
And if all this kind of sounds familiar, it’s because this also happened to a young woman, with whom we’re a bit more familiar, named Mary. After unexpected news, Mary rose. Mary, too, breaks out in song with a very similar theme to what Hannah sang. Mary was overwhelmed with the news the angel brought - so overwhelmed with the Spirit that she had to sing. Mary went on to bear a son - and not just any son, but a son who would be the change, not just in Bethlehem or Israel, but in all the world. One who would usher in a new era of stability and hope in an uncertain time. When a human need and a heavenly need align, there is a “rising” situation.
And that Son, Jesus, is the one who came to bring together the needs of humanity and the needs of God. And you know what happened to him. For some reason, we didn’t think he was good enough. We put him on a cross.
We had our needs and desires in a savior;
and God had needs and desires to save us… and when they meet, there is a rising situation. Because, though he was killed, died, buried, Jesus rose. Though the tomb was sealed tight, Jesus rose. Even when there was nothing more that we could do, Jesus rose. God raised Jesus from the dead.
And so, when the world is down on us, we can rise, too. What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough? You let God raise you up. Because that is what God does. In all these situations, when who we are isn’t good enough by whatever standards, God raises. Hannah rose. Mary rose. Jesus rose. And we can rise, too.
Trusting in the God who raises from the dead, we know we are raised now. Each day, through the water and word of our baptism, we are raised up to live a new life.
We bow our heads in prayer, but raise them to see the new life God spreads before us.
We kneel around the table, but raise our hands to receive the body and blood of our Lord, and we feast on the goodness and mercy of a God who raises us up.
We are down, broken, ashamed because of our situation in life, our health, our job, our any number of things… but we don’t stay down.
We rise. We are raised. We will live.
When we are down, we rise. We rise because God raises us out of those things we cannot raise ourselves from. God raises us up. That is our God; that is who God is.
Where our needs and God’s needs intersect, raising, blessing, and life are always involved.
We ended Genesis last week with a nice ending: Joseph and his brothers made up and they all lived together happily ever after in Egypt. The second book of the Bible, Exodus, doesn’t start off quite as cheery. Sure, Israel’s descendants were still in Egypt and they had taken God’s advice to heart and were fruitful and multiplied.
But, eventually, a new Pharaoh arose “who did not know Joseph” (1:8). This new king enslaved these rapidly growing Israelite foreigners because he was afraid of their increasing numbers (1:8-14). After many years of slavery, the LORD called Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt (3:1-10). Moses reluctantly went. The LORD sent plague after plague upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians in an effort to persuade Pharaoh to set the Israelites free, but Pharaoh kept refusing, time after time (chapters 7-10).
Finally, the LORD prepared the Israelites for one final and somewhat terrifying plague: the killing of all firstborn Egyptian children and animals (11:4-8). The firstborn of the Israelites would be spared the deadly effects of this plague by participating in the Passover meal and spreading the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their homes. Our lesson for today describes that Passover meal.
For us, this is just another story of God saving. For Israel, for the Jewish people, this is the most important event in their history. The Passover meal is the remembrance of the LORD’s deliverance from their slavery in Egypt. God is the one who brought them out, saved them, freed them.
And so they remember. They remember by sharing a meal and telling their story.
Each time they share the meal, they remember. They remember the lamb, sacrificed. They remember spreading the blood on their doorposts. They remember the hurried way in which they were to eat. They remember God.
They remember God’s promise. And that’s what it’s really about. It isn’t really about the lamb or the bread or the blood. Those aren’t magical, protective things on their own. A lamb won’t ward off destruction. Blood by itself doesn’t provide protection from evil. What is important is the word that is attached, the promise associated with the sign. The blood is a sign “for you.” A sign of divine promise: God commits to passover the blood-marked houses. Israel can rely on God being faithful.
The bread is just bread - simple bread without leaven - but it’s that way because of what the LORD did. It is that reminder of the day on which they came out of slavery, because the LORD brought them out from Egypt by the strength of hand. Israel can rely on on God being faithful.
Why do you need the blood of the lamb? Blood is how we know we are saved.
Why do you need the bread? The bread is how we remember God set us free.
Which brings us to the questions, why do we need the blood of the lamb? Why do we need the bread? The blood of the lamb is how we know we are saved. The bread is how we remember God sets us free.
This story reconnects with Jesus. On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus celebrates this very same Passover meal with his disciples. Yet ,he takes that meal and reinterprets God’s saving actions. Not only does God deliver from the chains of slavery in Egypt; God, through Christ, will take it even further. God will deliver us from the bonds of sin and death.
Jesus takes the bread of Passover, the bread of remembrance, and says, “This is my body. Do this for the remembrance of me.” We eat, we drink, we proclaim the good news of what God has done. Jesus tells us to remember; to take and eat; this is given for you.
Then, Jesus himself becomes the Passover lamb - our Passover lamb. God’s only begotten son is sacrificed - not to save simply/only the firstborn - but to save us all. Because of Jesus’ blood shed, we are set free; because of Jesus’ blood on the posts of the cross, judgment and condemnation and bondage must pass over us.
But in Christ, God does even better. Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t simply an exchange - one life to save another; blood shed here so it won’t be there. The lamb who was slain has begun his reign by rising from the dead. Jesus leads the exodus out of the tomb, out of the grave, out of death - not simply for himself, but for all of us who are covered by his blood. God will pass over our our sinful ways. His death shields us, but his life leads us out. His resurrection means we are not bound to the old ways of enslavement to sin and death. Jesus, risen from the dead, leads us to God’s promised land.
This is our story. This is God’s work.
In the Passover, the story and the rituals are so interwoven, they cannot be understood properly in isolation from each other. You need to tell the story AND eat the meal - and by doing that, it is more than mere memory; it is God’s action now. And for us, too, we don’t just remember Jesus or Passover or a meal. It’s not just a mind game; we’re not trying to recapture something that is past.
We remember God’s promise. And that’s what it’s really about. God makes those promises tangible for us now in the meal we share together. At the Lord’s Table where we gather, Jesus is present - helping us to remember his sacrifice for us, giving us again the promise of love and life for today. We don’t simply remember that God has saved; we are participants in God’s saving. God delivers us. God is faithful. It’s so real you can taste it.
Why do we need the blood of the lamb? Why do we need the bread? We need them to remember. We need them to be saved. We need them to be free.
This is salvation, given for you.
This is life, given for you.
This is Christ, given for you.
Let’s eat. Let’s drink. Let’s remember. Let’s live the story.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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