I have always been pretty organized and orderly - some might say regimented - but I also pride myself on not getting too flustered with chaos. I like having a routine, but if something goes haywire, my stress level usually doesn’t usually overtake my ability to be in control.
Like when I worked as an Area Director at Lutheridge - a Lutheran camp near Asheville, NC. I would oversee counselors and their cabins of eight kids each. When onsite at the camp, things pretty much ran themselves. But on outing day - like to a waterfall or on a hike or places like that - that’s when things could get crazy. There were a lot of variables -
from cooking frozen hamburgers on a grill in the middle of a national park while it was raining,
to people on family vacations trying to enjoy their trip to a swimming hole when two bus loads of kids show up,
to cuts, bruises, sprains, and even one person getting “bitten” by a fish…
I didn’t mind controlling that chaos because I would build chaos into the plan. In a funny way, knowing it was going to be chaotic allowed me greater control.
That’s not to say things always went super well. One time I gave the bus driver wrong directions. That wasn’t something I planned for. So, instead of a petting zoo we ended up at a fish hatchery (where the aforementioned fish biting happened). Even in the chaos, things weren’t so bad.
But the thing is, even then, I never really felt out of control. Things happen, we deal, and we have fun along the way.
And it’s kind of been that way my whole life. There hasn’t been too much that has gone wrong, that has been something I feel I can’t control. The senior pastor I worked with in Pennsylvania would say that’s because I haven’t lived long enough. And deep down, I know he’s right. Our world is chaotic. There are going to be times, times of hurricanes or floods or storms, illness or injury or death, something is going to happen at some point where I’m not in control.
And I don’t know how I’ll react. Maybe I’ll lose it; maybe I’ll focus all the more on the things I can still control.
I think we’re all like that a bit. And so, we work really hard to maintain control of the things we can - even if we build in a little flexibility for the chaos. Since this “control” piece is part of each of us, at least a little bit, maybe that’s why there are so many various reactions to Jesus in this week’s Gospel lesson. It seems there is always an excuse not to follow Jesus, and a lot of those excuses revolve around us keeping control.
When Jesus calls people to follow, they say, “Yes, but…”
The first someone approaches Jesus and says that they will follow Jesus “wherever you go,” even, presumably, to Jerusalem. Jesus warns that there will be a lot of “roughing it” associated with following him.
A second person is called by Jesus to follow, and says, “But first I need to bury my father.” A third offers to follow Jesus, and adds, “But first, let me say my goodbyes.” To these two, Jesus essentially says, “first things need to be first things.”
There is no particularly good, no right, no perfect time to start following Jesus. We’ve always got an excuse not to follow - a “but.”
You just do… or you don’t. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a very straight line if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. You might as well not plow at all.
Jesus calls them, calls us, to a mission that matters, to a mission that makes a difference. He expects people to take that seriously, to drop everything and follow. Anyone who doesn’t see the importance this difference makes isn’t fit to be a disciple.
Which then leads me to ask, is Jesus’ mission now important to us?
Does the grace, love, and mercy of God seen in Jesus overrule our plans and shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?
Do we want to leave the results up to God or control them ourselves?
We so desire to be in control, to maintain some semblance of order in this chaotic world. Yet Jesus is pretty straightforward with us. He says his mission comes first - before us and before our plans, even those plans that seem pretty reasonable.
Again, why? I think it’s because Jesus knows that we aren’t really in control. He knows that control is an illusion and that an accident or chemo or addiction or a 9/11 or a pandemic or supply chain issues or a mass shooter or any one of a million other things can crush our hopes and dreams - as well as any plans we have made. There is no “right time” for those things.
And so Jesus invites us to, what? Give complete control over to him?
That sounds tempting - and rather pious - but I’m not so sure that’s what he means. Jesus isn’t saying he will take control of our lives if we turn things over to him. Jesus isn’t about control. I mean, he’s not heading to Jerusalem to take charge, to control things. Instead, he’s going to fully embrace the out-of-control-ness of our world. He’s fully entering into the chaos... and then coming out the other side.
Here, instead of taking control, Jesus is saying to trust him. Trust him to be with you in the chaos. That’s the promise of the Gospel - not that we’re in control of our destiny. The Gospel message is that Jesus is with us in our chaotic, out-of-control world; God holds on to us through it; and God brings us out the other side.
And so, Jesus here is calling us as disciples to let go of a little bit of our control, to give up on the illusion we have, to see his mission as most important, to trust his promises, to follow him into this world that God loves so much, and then know that God will join us on the adventure.
There are few things more chaotic than Vacation Bible School. And yet… God’s love and grace abound in those five evenings. Older generations connect with younger ones, faith is taught and passed along, fruits of the spirit of love, joy, patience are lived and seen. There are tons of reasons not to, but we had so many volunteers step up and share the love of Jesus with our kids.
There is never a right time to be hungry, and we are working to make food more available to those in need. Just last month, we donated over 500 pounds of nonperishables to Helping Hand. Monthly, we feed people with home cooked meals and give him a hospitable, welcoming place to eat it. And soon, we will have our Blessing Box out and available - all the time ready to help someone with food for them or their kids. There are tons of reasons not to, but we trust Jesus is working through us to fill stomachs as well as hearts.
We might have a lot of excuses, but Jesus calls us to a mission that matters, to a mission that makes a difference. We may not know what the future holds, and we are doing wonderful things in Jesus’ name, but how can we continue? How can we ensure hope, grace, and gospel are well-shared in word and song and worship? There are tons of reasons not to, but we can build on the blessings we have been given to better share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in worship, in welcome, in our space.
Maybe that’s what faith and discipleship looks like. It looks like trusting God’s presence in and through all things, living and acting like it’s true, and knowing that God will bring us through. It looks like trusting we are in God’s hands, even when we don’t have control of a single doggone thing. It’s knowing that Jesus has been there - and has come through the other side.
God has embraced our chaos before. And God’s love wins out. God’s life wins out. That should give us hope. And because there will never be a right time to start, there’s always a reason not to, our hope in Jesus means there’s no better time to start than right now.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday - strategically placed just as we culminate the major lessons of the church year. This is the transition Sunday between the main readings and what we call “ordinary time” in the church calendar.
We started out in the Fall, focusing on the Old Testament readings - readings about Israel, hearing about the God revealed in the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and giving the 10 Commandments, who worked through regular people and not so regular prophets. At Christmas, we transitioned to the story of Jesus, God’s Son, who traveled and taught and died and lived. Then last week, we heard the story of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, riling up the disciples and encouraging them to get out and spread the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
So now, we’ve heard the whole story of who God is: God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Put ‘em together and what have you got? The Trinity. The three persons of God, inseparable but distinct. Today we celebrate and acknowledge more than usual our one-in-three, three-in-one God.
And I have to admit, this is a tough one. Especially since everything I have ever read about the Trinity has some sort of footnote, excursus, or chapter devoted to explaining how our language and minds are woefully inadequate to describe the glory, complexity, and paradoxical nature of the Trinity. A lot of preachers at this point say, “I’m going to try anyway!” and spend the next 15 minutes boring and confusing everyone in the room - themselves included.
Well, I’m not. Not really. Instead of trying to explain the Trinity, where NO explanation is really adequate, I’m going to invite you to do some theological thinking. Instead of today being about regurgitating Doctrine, where all we do is assert something about God, we’re going to do Theology, meaning, we’re going to take what we know about God and apply it to our life and context. What we say about God somehow has to matter for our lives, right?
Who is God and why does God matter? We need to think through who God is as revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then figure out why that matters in our lives.
Let’s first look at the first part of that question, who is God? God is relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are relationship - connected, loving relationship. The three persons are bound tight in a relationship of love. Our God, at the heart of who God is, is about being connected with another, about loving and being loved. They are the perfect relationship - one that loves and gives and shares so intimately that they are one, literally one.
That is who God is.
And now, for the second, theological part: why does God matter? How does “God as relationship” matter to me, for me?
Well, because God is relationship, that tells us a lot about God’s motives. God didn’t need to create us in order to have a partner, in order to have someone to love, in order to have a relationship with another. Instead, God chose to create us, God chose to redeem us, God chooses to love us.
Instead of God seeing how good this love and relationship is and keeping it for God’s self, God just had to share this love, just had to share this relationship. That is why we were created - to share in that love that God has. God desperately wants to share with us this ultimate love and best relationship.
That means, we weren’t created so that God could lord over us from afar, or toy with our emotions about whether we are in or out. We were created so that we could know and have what God has, so that we could share in beautiful and glorious love with God and with each other. The only thing that makes love better is sharing it with others.
We were created to be in that type of relationship. And God will do whatever it takes to make it so. That is the whole story of the Bible. God will do whatever it takes so we know we are loved.
Paul the Apostle might be the first theologian, taking what he knew about God and doing more than describing. Paul had to make sure who God is made a difference in our very existence and life with God.
For Paul, God’s action in Jesus was God walking the walk, not just talking the talk. God did something about our sorry state. We humans are pretty bad at relationships. Even our very best relationships have moments of frustration and discord - not to mention the discord we created with God. But God wanted us anyway. God wanted relationship with us, wanted to share love with us, so God mended our relationship.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “We are justified.” God justifies us. God makes the relationship between us and God right again, before we even know it needs to be made right.
See, justification is nothing less than the promise that God accepts you as you are -
not because of WHO you are or what you have accomplished,
not because of what you MIGHT become or COULD do,
not because of who you have promised to be or what you have pledged in your heart.
God accepts you because that is who God is, and that is what God does: God makes relationship.
And what this does is it brings us peace. No fear about where we stand. No moments of having to be “on guard” with God. There’s not even a new self-help manual. God justifies us so that we might be able to have peace. And if we have peace, we have relationship; and if we have relationship, we know we are loved.
We are justified to God because God wants us to know love. That is who God is.
Which means, since our relationship with God isn’t about us getting it right, isn’t about us having all the answers, isn’t about us being able to meet God standard for standard, we get some freedom and relief. We get the chance to grow and change. We get the opportunity to try our best and not worry about where we stand.
And because God promises us relationship, we have permission. We have permission to try things in faith, even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going. Because the idea isn’t that we already have it all together perfectly. We aren’t “there” yet. We’re allowed to have a holy curiosity as we explore and engage who we are as people of God. That’s part of how we grow as disciples. We learn and grow and experiment in ways to help others and help ourselves grow deeper in relationship with God.
Over our history here at St. Philip, we’ve taken that seriously, stepping out in faith. We tried new things, set lofty goals, changed the way we’ve done things - all because we knew God promised to be with us, and God wants more for this community of faith than staying where we were or are.
God continually calls us forward, to better live into that relationship with God, to better share God’s love with the world, to better be a reflection of all who God is to those around us. And we will do that - in ways we’ve done for decades, in ways we try out for a while, and in ways we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
And because of God’s relationship with us, we have hope about what will be.
Paul insists that because we have peace with God, we can endure whatever this world throws at us - and not just endure but build character, grow stronger, thrive despite what is happening. This just reinforces who it is that holds us, no matter what. This is our hope.
Because of who God is, God brings us into relationship and love before we even know we need it. We don’t live in fear of God, but we have peace with God. And if we have peace, we have relationship; and if we have relationship, we know we are loved.
That is why God matters. But even more than that, that is simply who God is.
*Please note that the first half of the sermon discusses the stained glass windows at St. Philip Lutheran Church in Myrtle Beach. The sermon will only generally follow the script written here.*
We have a tradition of talking about the stained glass windows on Pentecost. It kind of snuck up on me this year, but I remembered in time!
My favorite thing about this building is the stained glass. To me, it 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 supposed to be St. Philip, which is a good guess, but no, it’s Jesus. It’s full of symbols to help remind us who Jesus is. Jesus is holding a shield which has NIKA on it, a Greek word which means “victor.” Near his right foot, there is the book with the four crosses, symbolizing the four Gospel narratives about Jesus. And over at the other foot is a lamp, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world. 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.
It’s a beautiful window - even more so when the sun is right about there and the light pours into this room with a kaleidoscope of colors. It is beautiful in here. And while that is the most prominent of the windows, we also have these on the sides.
Over here we have three windows for the Trinity. Father, with the star of David, and the eye and hand showing us that God sees and gives everything. And then, if you look just right, the words along the bottom, “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. God calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies through the Word. Then a dove at the bottom, much like the Spirit descended as a dove at Jesus’ baptism.
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 lilies down below. And finally, the last window is the Pentecost window with flames stretching through this window and into the other panels. Fire, fire like the tongues of flame we heard about in our story from Acts.
Newest additions, paintings behind the lectern and pulpit which were created by Lori Dauphin, member here. Meant to fit in with the rest of the stained glass.
Word and sacrament. Go with the one that is a little easier to understand first - the one that has communion elements on it. There is the chalice and host, grapes and wheat - fruit from the earth, given by God’s hands.
Then on the other side we have the four authors of the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are known as the Evangelists. They are often represented with their symbols: the Angel for Saint Matthew (Jesus incarnate, a human), the Lion for Saint Mark (kingly, royalty), the Ox for Saint Luke (service and sacrifice) and the Eagle for Saint John (lofty, high, name above every name).
We use these windows and the symbols on them to teach us, to share the story, to remind us of all that God does.
On Monday morning, I saw online that a church where one of my friends is the pastor was having a vigil for most of the afternoon. He is in Newberry, SC - a pretty small town I’m familiar with because it’s where I went to college, plus he is my friend, so I was curious about what the vigil was for. Four highschoolers were shot and killed over the weekend, and the community was in mourning. Come to the church to “Sit, pray, light a candle, just be with God.”
Those highschoolers carry the consequence of our brokenness, our sin.
Thinking that would be shooting I found out about this week, I, unfortunately, was very, very wrong. 19 children, two teachers in Texas. I dreaded writing this sermon because 1) what does one say? And 2) I worried I might spiral out of control because of my sadness, anger, bewilderment as to how this keeps happening. Repeatedly. Over and over. Time after time. Again and again. It might also have a little something to do with the fact that Jonah and Anna are in third and fourth grades, the same as those kids.
Those elementary school kids, those teachers carry the consequence of our brokenness, our sin.
And this weekend is Memorial Day, a day not set aside for grilling, not for honoring veterans, but a day set aside for remembering those who were killed in the line of duty. We like to soften the language a bit and say “sacrifice” but they were killed in war - a result of humanity gone awry.
Those men and women we remember carry the consequence of our brokenness, our sin.
So much death. So much sadness. So much that can be prevented. And yet, we don’t.
There is a line in our passage from Philippians that stands out to me: “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” It stood out even before the events that took place this past Tuesday. It’s just now, there is an even more stark contrast to prove that we do not have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.
Paul, in verses 5 through 11, describes Jesus’ life. In what is called the “Christ Hymn” Paul borrows verses from what is believed to be a fairly well-known-at-the-time hymn that circulated around the churches. It’d be like if I used a verse of “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace” in my sermon to back up a point.
And when we look at how Paul describes Jesus, we fall short. As if the deadly examples before didn’t convince you, when we compare ourselves to Jesus, we fall short. This is the ideal, and we don’t measure up.
But I don’t think Paul inserted these lines to point fingers and force comparison. Instead, this is Gospel. This is Good News. Because Christ did this - but not to show off, not for himself. Christ did this for you. Christ humbled himself, Christ became human, Christ died on a cross. God exalted him. God gave him the name that is above every name. God made Jesus Christ Lord. For you. To save you. To give you life. All that you have needed, God’s hand has provided. That’s the Gospel. That’s the Good News.
Of course we don’t measure up to that! But Jesus did it for us out of love, on behalf of others. That Gospel, that love, that life of Jesus Christ is our formative element; it transforms who we are.
As Pastor Beth Neubauer mentioned last week, this letter of Paul is brimming with joy. Joy in this Good News of what God in Jesus Christ has done for you. But this joyful, gospel-filled letter is also sent to a church in the midst of sin, suffering, dissention. It was sent to a real church in the real world. Yet Paul wants them and us to know that God has planted the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this church, in this real world, too.
What do we in this real world do with that Good News?
When it comes to guns, what do we, as Gospel recipients do?
There is obviously something wrong in America. There are competing ways that pull on us, that form us, shape us. Be like this, be like that, be like… and if you’re not, then you’re terrible, stupid, unAmerican. Where do we get our role models? Our guiding principles for life?
The Gospel cuts through all that. The Gospel gives us a different center. As a Gospel-centered people, we are formed to have a different way of looking at the world. The Gospel is formative and transformative. Service is of value. Giving of oneself is of value. Humility, regarding others as better than yourself, looking to the interests of all others. That, the Gospel says, is true value. This is what it means to have the same mind as in Christ Jesus.
So, that probably means rejecting the loud, immediate voices. It means fighting off the grip that dualistic political parties have over us, being drawn back to what centers us: the Gospel message. It means looking beyond extremist culture and preconceived positions, and instead humbling ourselves for the sake of the other. Instead of using fear - threatening more violence as an answer to violence - as people of faith, we hold on to our belief in truly caring for our neighbors. And guess what, caring for others is pretty hard - it requires self-sacrifice - yet that is what it means to have the same mind as in Christ Jesus.
When it comes to Memorial Day, when our fallen humanity is why we even have a day like this, what do we do with the Good News?
We remember those who were killed. We honor their service. And we don’t give up our work in striving for justice and peace in all the earth. We keep working so that maybe, one day, no new names are added in Memorial Day celebrations. That is a bit pie-in-the-sky and rather unlikely, but peace and reconciliation are the mind of Christ. And any steps in that direction are steps toward life and not war.
When it comes to us, we who are the congregation of St. Philip Lutheran in Myrtle Beach, SC, what do we do with the Gospel message?
One thing we can do is realize we are a community. Paul says to “be of the same mind,” which I don’t think means for us all to be exactly the same, but that we all function together in proclaiming Jesus through our words and actions and goals and gifts.
We are a community, not just for ourselves. The Gospel calls us to be a community for others - for others who aren’t here yet. A mind that is in Christ Jesus is a mind that looks to others - those we will invite to join us, those who find us aside from our invitation, those who come even after we are gone. What are ways we can do that?
It’s a big question, but a question we are poised to answer. How can we carry the Good News, how can we live the Gospel message, how can we make sure we do it for years and decades to come? How can we look to others and make sure they know the love of God?
We’ll have different ideas, but as long as Christ is what binds us together, we know God will be working in us and through us. And that is what we all are reliant on anyway.
We need the Good News of Jesus Christ to call us back to our center - a center which is
pardon for sin and a peace that endures,
God’s own presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today, and a bright hope for tomorrow.
Blessings for you, and ten thousand beside.
Through the Gospel, God shapes us to live those promises, recenters us in grace and love, and forms us to the mind of Christ, to the glory of God the Father.
We thank the Rev. Dr. Beth Neubauer for preaching and presiding while Pastor Jason was away.
Many of you know that for my first call at a church, we lived in Pennsylvania for about 6 and a half years. There were things like hills and seasons and cold and snow - snow that sometimes wouldn’t leave; you know, things we don’t have too much of here at the beach.
While in PA, we were pretty close to places like Lancaster, Bird in Hand, and other towns with colorful names that I don’t feel comfortable saying from the pulpit. In those towns were a lot of Amish.
Of course, there are the farmers markets and the smorgasbords and the horse-and-buggy tours. One can get a peek into the life of the Amish when visiting that area. But that’s the thing - it’s just a peek. The Amish are not assimilated into the life that we live. They are separated from it, shying away from technology, wearing simple clothing, and avoiding much of society.
That is how they choose to live out their faith. The ways of the world, to them, are things that distract from what is important: family, faith, devotion. Removing themselves is how they safeguard their values. They live apart from the world, evading, avoiding, even ignoring, all that is going on.
I bring this up because 1) there is a lot of conviction and dedication to a lifestyle like that. It is not easy to do. But also 2) that’s not what Paul does in our lesson from Acts.
Paul doesn’t avoid the world in which he lives; he doesn’t pull away from the good or bad things that are all around him. Instead, he uses what he sees to point to the true God.
Let’s recap real quick, shall we?
Paul is in Athens, a city that was infested with idos. In his perusal around the city, of course he is “deeply distressed” by the city’s over-the-top idolatry. That idolatry led him to go all about Athens and argue his case, causing some Greek philosophers to call him a “babbler.” However, instead of ignoring or lambasting the people, he uses what is there as a springboard to communicate his own faith.
It is here that Paul, mentioning an altar he had seen dedicated to an ‘unknown god’, delivers one of his most memorable sermons. Their “catch all,” unknown god, Paul uses and explains. He tells of his God, of the Jewish God, of the Christian God. He tells of God’s invisibility and yet, how God made everything. God gives life and breath. God is not contained in or by gold, silver, or stone; God does not need things from us. In God we live and move and have our being. And God will one day judge the world through Jesus, a man who has been raised from the dead.
Paul wasn’t watering down God by condensing God into one of their statues; Paul instead takes God beyond an image, into the unknown, and then squarely in the known. He, essentially, offered up a new way to talk about God and the world, a way that focused on Jesus.
Our world, like theirs, is variously, oddly, sometimes stupidly religious. Anyone who thinks idolatry is dead in contemporary culture has not been paying attention to what draws recognition, dedication, and trust: prices, earnings, money; power, prestige, winning; control, influence, Law.
And so, Paul shows us - teaches us - something today. Paul models for us a way to engage with the culture around us, not withdraw from it. That’s not to say it’s easy to do. There is definitely challenge there.
It is easy to be different. The challenge is to be different in a way full of promise.
Do you remember the blissful, pre-COVID utopia? Everything was perfect right? But then, we were forced to do things differently, not just in life, but in the ways we shared the Good News. Things changed dramatically. But in all things, we did our best to be faithful to the Gospel, to what has been handed on to us. Changing how we do things didn’t change what we were proclaiming. Methods, means, ways changed; the message didn’t.
The Gospel sounds different in every time and in every place it is told. The challenge here and now is to tell it in a way full of promise.
There is a saying that often gets attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It goes, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words when necessary.” Paul shows us that the Gospel can always be pointed out. He tailored his words to his audience. We are also called to tailor our Gospel-like words and actions to our audience. So, when we share the message with kids and teenagers and young adults and grandparents, it’s all a little different. The same is true when we “preach the Gospel always” to the hungry. To the homeless. To the shut-in. To those in memory care. We do this in the way we live.
It’s easy to live our lives. The challenge is to live them in a way full of promise.
For a long time, church was a place one went on a Sunday morning. You come to church, you go to lunch, you live your life for a week, you go back to church the next Sunday. But now, church can be accessed anywhere via the internet and social media. And sure, we can bemoan all the terrible things that being connected all the time does - all the arguing and negativity and things no one should see. Yet we take part, and we share. Do we withdraw or do we use the tools available?
In the midst of all the facades and fake idols online, we can point to God. We can share God. And sure, we as the St. Philip Facebook page can do that with videos, live-streaming, and Bible verses, but we all can do that. Every single day. We don’t need to be at the church to be the church.
It’s easy to share things online. The challenge is to share things that are full of promise.
There are some things in our culture that we will accept. There are things we will reject. There are things we will adopt, and there are things we will create. But it should all be toward the goal of pointing to God in the midst of it all.
And even if we don’t understand the unknown ways of God, there are ways in which God is made known. God is made known in and through the person of Jesus Christ. Even if we don’t understand fully, we see that in death and resurrection, in love and grace, in life and forgiveness, God gives us a way full of promise.
We who are flesh-and-blood creatures look to a flesh-and-blood Savior, one who has conquered sin and death, who is with us always, who promises to come again. And in those moments of the unknown, God gives us the promise of presence - in bread and wine, in water and word… God is there. God gives us life, God gives us grace, God gives us the challenge to live our lives pointing to Christ.
Paul teaches us that we always have an opportunity to share what we know about God. And what we know is Christ, what we know is God conquers those things we cannot, and we know that because of Jesus, God gives us a way full of promise.
Last week, we heard about Saul the oppressor’s conversion to Paul the evangelist. The beam of light, the blindness, the scales falling from his eyes. Christ worked wonders. Today, we catch up with Paul and his buddy Silas. They are out spreading the Gospel message - which is what one does when Jesus knocks you off your high horse, I suppose.
The two apostles encounter a young slave girl who has the gift of fortune telling. She quickly begins following Paul. Now, I get why Paul would be super annoyed by this. First, it sounds like she’s doing his job for him - maybe even better than him. And two, she probably was one of those people who have no personal space - like right up on Paul, yelling about the Most High God right in his ear. But, for whatever reason, Paul commands, in the name of Jesus, for the spirit to come out of her. This shows that Jesus has power over all the spirits of the world.
Now, we might expect the people who witness this exorcism to react with awe, wonder, and even faith. Instead, there is greed, hate, and hostility toward Paul. The owners of this slave girl are upset because now they aren’t going to make any money off of this human being they looked at as property. The crowds mocked their Jewishness. There are inaccurate charges against the apostles. The authorities end up throwing our heroes in jail.
It seems as if false narratives, selfishness, and the worldly way has won the day. The Gospel message can’t be shared if Paul and Silas are locked in chains! But we’ve already had a hint about what is to come. Jesus has power over the spirits of this world. Do you really think a simple jail cell is going to stop him? What comes next sets out to prove that point.
First, Paul and Silas sing praises to God - not laments for their suffering, which would be understandable, appropriate, and even Biblical. Instead, they sing praises for the privilege of being God’s servants, even in the face of injustice. It is praise in the midst of despair; it is freedom despite being locked up. Paul and Silas point to Jesus with their surprising songs. They know the powers of this world aren’t really in charge.
Then comes the earthquake - an earthquake that sets free instead of crushes and traps. All the jail cells are unlocked. The chains and stocks spring open! But this is an escape story without an escape. Paul and Silas don’t leave. Their presence shows Jesus’ power.
Even in difficult circumstances, the Gospel encourages Paul and Silas to be present. To stay, even though it is hard. Because the Gospel doesn’t always mean escape from what we’re going through. Love doesn’t always mean it’s going to be easy. Grace doesn’t always mean we’re going to be comfortable. Instead, the Gospel means that God is present, even when we are in difficult spots. As servants, disciples, and apostles, Paul, Silas, and we get a chance to be the voice, hands, and feet of Christ in those places and at those times.
By remaining present, they are able to save a man - both from the suicide Roman honor expected upon failure and save him from a life without faith in Christ. That is the power of Jesus. But it’s not the miracles that show this guard Christ’s power to save.
This jailer knew of the casting out of the spirit from the slave girl.
He felt the shaking of the ground.
He saw the doors and the chains open.
But none of those miraculous things changed him, created faith. All those powerful things occurred, but they didn’t make a difference. What did make a difference was seeing the apostles present - knowing they refused to escape. They didn’t act with the usual self-preservation prisoners usually do - especially with freedom handed to them on a silver platter.
They were the visible sign of Jesus’ presence. Not miracles or earthquakes. Two prisoners standing there with the doors wide open before them. The message of God’s grace came alive in the disciples at that moment, and that simple thing is what prompted the jailer’s question.
There are lots of miraculous things in this story, but the most powerful, the one that actually saves is the simplest: presence. Jesus has the power to do anything, and the most surprising thing that he does with that power is he shows up. He shows up with us, despite us, in us, through us.
In all things, he is present. He doesn’t beeline for the exit as soon as he gets the chance. He is with us, despite hundreds of reasons to do otherwise. He chooses us, chooses to be with us, no matter what. And sometimes, we get a chance to re-present Christ to others, as Paul and Silas did. Other times, Jesus shows up despite us.
To be a Lutheran pastor, one the things you have to - *ahem* “get” to do - is Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE for short. You spend the summer as a chaplain in a hospital or nursing home, making visits and providing pastoral care when and where it is needed. It’s a fantastic lesson on being present.
One night, I was the on-call chaplain at the trauma hospital when the pager went off. Now, some people are built for that kind of stuff, both of the medical persuasion and the spiritual persuasion. Not I. For either. So, when that pager went off, my stomach sank.
I reported to the desk where I was directed to the private Family Waiting Room. I knocked and went in, and there were probably 8-10 people, some sitting, some standing, all looking distraught. And after a little bit of information on who I was and learning about their situation, I said, “let’s pray.” And so they all got up, and before we join hands I’m wiping the sweat off them because I’m so nervous. How am I going to point to Jesus here? What am I going to say that will make everything better? How am I going to save the day? My mind is pulling together thoughts. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and then… someone else started praying. The family prayed. And they prayed real good.
They weren’t in a cell, but they were held hostage by grief and uncertainty. And in the midst of that, they gave prayer, thanks, and praise. Jesus was present. And I, the one who is supposed to be doing his job, just stood there in awe of Jesus’ power and grace coming from this family.
It was a lesson on being present. I’d like to say I brought Jesus into that room, but Jesus was already there. All I did was show up and stand there. And Jesus worked, worked to show me what faith, praise, and prayer looks like.
Maybe the most miraculous things in our lives aren’t the miracles, but instead the hope we have. Hope that despite all things, Christ is present in it, and Christ has power over it.
Presence, power, and grace are not always exorcisms and earthquakes. Sometimes it’s a hymn. It’s being there. It’s bread. It’s wine. Water. Song. Community.
It isn’t always the miracles, but instead hope that shows us Jesus. Hope that in all things, Jesus is present. Christ has power over it. He comes to us, stays with us, brings the power of grace to our lives.
That’s the power of Jesus.
After four months of walking through the Gospel of John, we move along in the narrative of the Bible to the book of Acts of the Apostles. Acts tells the story of the early church after Jesus was crucified, raised, and ascended. And while there are a few important things that happen earlier in the book, the first scene we discuss is the Road to Damascus. It is Saul’s call story.
This conversion and call is about as dramatic as you can make it. People knew about Saul, and followers of the Way were rightfully afraid of him - he has, afterall, been dragging Christians out of their homes, throwing them in prison, and petitioning for their deaths. Yet, in a split second, his life turns from “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” to becoming the foremost preacher of the Gospel of his time. This oppressive Saul becomes the evangelist Paul - the writer of letters, the planter of churches, the pastor for people then and now.
Can you imagine? Going along when light shines in your eyes and a voice speaks. Then there is blindness, a laying on of hands, scales falling, baptism, preaching, founding, spreading.
Perhaps your call story looks like that. If so, I’d really like to hear your story. Or, perhaps you think that because I’m a pastor, MY call story looks like that. But, to be honest, mine was far less dramatic. No burning bush like Moses. No giant fish like Jonah. No angels like Mary. No light like Paul. I’m not trying to say it wasn’t meaningful or powerful, but it was no Acts 9.
So, again, maybe your call story looks like that, but, my guess is for most of us, it isn’t. For the most part, I’d guess that many of us have been “born again” pretty much our entire lives. We can’t point to one specific moment - no bushes on fire, no giant fish, no road to Damascus. We’ve just been doing this Christianity thing for a while.
And stories like this can sometimes make us feel left out. Since God didn’t talk to us in a beam of light, we’re not special. Or since we don’t have this big, dramatic story, we don’t have a role to play. Since we aren’t traveling the known world proclaiming Jesus, we can’t make a difference.
But, as you may have guessed, nothing could be farther from the truth. For proof, notice that Paul isn’t the only one who receives a call in this passage. There’s one we overlook - forget, even - but it’s a calling that is just as important. It’s the calling of Ananias.
When we first meet Ananias, all he knows of Saul is the evil that he has done. Yet, the Lord comes to him and says, “Get up and go.” Ananias didn’t know what had just happened to Saul. He didn’t know that the risen Christ had come to Saul on the road to Damascus. “That man is bad. That man kills. That man wants Christianity to end.” You can hear the hesitation in Ananias’ voice.
But… he goes anyway. He trusted that God was calling him appropriately, that Christ would use Saul as an instrument for his name. Not to over-dramatize this event, but Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street to lay hands on Saul was a decision to risk his life in order to do the will of God.
And the result of that risk is that Saul’s eyes are opened, and he is baptized. Saul becomes Paul, a part of (and eventually a prominent leader of) the very church he tried to wipe out.
Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the Bible, and it has inspired people from every generation. But, this story often overshadows the encouraging story of Ananias, one that we can more easily relate to. We don’t know what else Ananias did in his life. We don’t know his job, his mission work, his giving. We don’t know where his discipleship took him. All we know about him is that he heard the Lord calling him to pray with another, to do something within his means. It took some guts to go pray with Saul, for sure, but this allowed Saul to do what he was called to do. Without Ananias’ companionship and prayer, Saul spends the rest of his life as a blind man wondering what his life could’ve been.
Regardless of the level of drama involved in our own life of faith, we all are called by Christ. We are claimed by the waters of baptism, named a beloved child of God, and called to play a role in God’s story. We may not feel like we can do anything, nothing dramatic, at least… but we can all tell about the love of Jesus.
Since I kind of left you hanging earlier, let me tell you a little bit about what brought me to be standing here in front of you wearing this funny outfit. The whole thing really hinged on a question asked of me. But let’s start a little before that.
As I hinted at earlier, I’m one of those people who was born “converted,” if there is such a thing. I’ve been Lutheran my whole life long. We, as a family, went to church week in and week out. I was at Sunday school. I was in youth group. I was an acolyte, crucifer, and banner bearer.
Then in college came my time working at Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a time in my life where I got to have fun and lead and participate and grow in an intentionally Christ-centered community - but mostly, I just had fun. Then, in my second year on staff, came the question. It came from one of my pastors growing up who had brought kids to camp that week.
We were chatting a bit between sessions, and he simply asked, “have you ever thought of being a pastor?” I answered like anyone would answer: “No.”
No burning bush. No flash of light. No voice from heaven. Just a simple question from someone I knew.
And the thing is, I didn’t feel like anything was different after that moment. The only thing that happened was that a seed was planted. But that seed took root and grew - grew to the point that I was having conversations with friends about it. Then professors and mentors. And then Seminary Admissions people. And then call committees. And then… here I am.
In some ways, my calling is even less dramatic than Ananias’. And whether you are a pastor or not, we all are called to play a role in God’s story. You are called. And regardless of the level of drama involved in whatever your calling looks like and how you got there, we all can tell the love of Jesus. You can tell the love of Jesus.
And that is just what God calls you to do, especially you who don’t wear the funny clothes.
You are called to live, to tell the love of Jesus just simply by being who you are. Sometimes, sure, it may be more overt - telling the story. Maybe it’s asking a question. Other times, though, like Ananias, it is simply being who you are, using the gifts you have, where you are - and that enables others to do what they can do.
God calls us, every single one of us. God calls us to share the story. Calls us to new life. Calls us to the table. Calls us to mission. Calls us to pray. Calls us to be who we are and do what we can do. God calls us to love. And by loving, we can do unbelievable things to the glory of God.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
That’s us, right? We haven’t seen Jesus and yet, here we are! We are worshiping, we want to nourish our relationship with God - to be reminded, be fed, be forgiven, receive God’s grace. We believe these things are important, and we believe Jesus is the one who does those things - and more! - for us.
Now, of course, this statement from Jesus comes after Thomas doubts. After Thomas says he won’t believe - unless! And ultimately, after Thomas does believe.
If you’ve heard a sermon or two on this text before, you’ve probably also heard that Thomas gets a bad wrap. And I wholeheartedly believe that. His nickname of “Doubting Thomas” comes from this one, post-resurrection incident, whereas there’s no “Denying Peter” or “Deserting Disciples” - even though those mistakes happened while Jesus was still right there.
Who really would believe that Jesus rose from the dead?
Last week, we heard Mary Magdalene didn’t believe it - not with open tombs, angels, or even when Jesus was standing there. It was not until Jesus spoke her name that she came to believe. So, yeah, I think Thomas gets a bad wrap.
Add to it looking at what else Thomas has done throughout John’s Gospel, and we see he’s a pretty admirable disciple, far superior to the “doubting” nickname.
Thomas first appears in the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). When Jesus proposes to return to Judea after hearing of Lazarus’ death, the other disciples plead with him not to go (v8). Why would he go back to the place where the Jews threatened to stone him? Lazarus isn’t really that bad off, is he? But Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (v16)
The next appearance of Thomas is in John 14, where Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for his followers. Thomas responds to this statement of Jesus by saying: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (v5). At first, it sounds like Thomas is wishy-washy, but really, he just wants to know where Jesus is going so he can follow.
Together, those two stories show a disciple who is committed to following Jesus, first to death, and second to places unknown.
And today we get the third story of Thomas, where, at first, he isn’t even there. Where was he? Was he hiding? Maybe - but so were the other disciples. And why would he hide alone? Wouldn’t there be safety in numbers? What else could he have been doing? Out, still doing ministry? Teaching about the man he knew as Jesus? Picking up groceries?
Anyway, eventually Thomas gets his chance, and when Jesus does appear to him (like he did to everyone else), Thomas gives the deepest, most theologically accurate, most passionate response: “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas now won’t just follow Jesus to death, but beyond - beyond death to resurrection and new life. The resurrected Christ, who meets him in his confusion and doubt, changes Thomas.
And now, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I don’t think Jesus is deriding Thomas with this statement, but instead speaking to us, to you and to me.
We are blessed, because somehow, we believe. We are blessed because the Holy Spirit has worked in our lives to help us see the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We are blessed because we had mentors - parents, grandparents, pastors, youth directors, someone - who shared a message of God’s love with us. We are blessed because, in big ways and in little ways, God has proven that love for us - that while we still were broken and sinful, Christ died and was raised for us. We are blessed because we get to carry out Jesus’ mission through invitation, welcome, love, service, and more.
And now, for us… what does carrying out Jesus’ mission look like? Now that we are moving past closures and into our new normal… What does God want us to do now? What does life as St. Philip Lutheran Church look like? How can our ministries and programs and space better carry out Jesus’ mission, not just now, but for lifetimes to come?
One of the key things we as a congregation strive for is to be welcoming to all people. It’s part of our vision and purpose for this community of faith. And I think we do a fairly fine job of welcoming all people - even if we’ve been more socially distant lately while doing it. While we as people do a fine job, however, I’m not sure everything about our space is as welcoming to all people as we may want.
How many people remember - and this was a while ago, so you might have to dig deep into your memory banks - how many people remember coming up to the rail for communion? It’s part of the tradition, part of our piety, one of the things that hasn’t yet come back after COVID.
And I want to be honest here: it’s not just COVID that has kept us from coming back up to the rail. It’s the stairs. Stairs are not able to be navigated by everyone - there are people who can’t - and people who shouldn’t - use these stairs. It’s like a self-imposed limit on fully welcoming everyone to one of the central pieces of our gathering - sharing in the meal of God’s grace and forgiveness.
And of course, the assisting minister and I will accommodate those who need communion in the pews, but what if the communion rail was more accessible to more people? Wouldn’t that fit the vision of this congregation - to not just say people are welcome, but to have holy space that actually allows for it? That all could come to the rail and receive the body and blood of Christ? It’s worth wondering about - and in fact, over the years, some of us already have.
Our worship is aided greatly by a variety of music, hymns, choirs, and instrumentalists - especially as we experienced last week. It helps us experience God’s holy presence in joy and awe. But, it’s getting cramped in the choir loft, and if there are extra musicians… whew. The organ… it isn’t getting any younger. As much as worship lifts us up, there’s a lot of creativity to pull it off given our limits.
I imagine we all want our worship to continue to be a launching point for the week ahead, a familiar and uplifting place for all to gather - locals, visitors, long-time members, and first-timers. It is worth wondering what will need to happen to keep our worship full of reminders of God’s joy, love, and grace, sending us out into the world to serve.
Now, does Jesus’ resurrection call us to more than being a welcoming place? For sure. But we’ll save that for another time, otherwise this sermon will start to reach Baptist preacher length. But gathering here in a space that is welcoming to all in word, deed, setting, and worship enhances who we are as the people of God; gathering is a springboard for living out resurrection in our words and deeds beyond this place.
Like Thomas, it’s hard for us to wonder about new possibilities because what we have, where we are - it’s just how things are - and, in fact, some of us may not believe it until we see it, touch it. But Jesus shows up in our doubts, in our questions. He sends us out with the Holy Spirit for ministry - not just for today, but to ministry that lasts, ministry that goes beyond death, ministry that shares resurrection.
As Easter people, we are called to look beyond death, beyond limits we are given, beyond ourselves. Just as Jesus gives Thomas a vision of what can be, we as a community are called to share that vision with others. We are called to share that love, that vision of Jesus, in all we are, in all we have, and not just today, but for years to come - beyond even death.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are we, because we get to share the Good News of Jesus, and by God’s grace, we can do it now and for generations to come.
I don’t want to jinx anything, but… this feels kind of normal. Or, at least as normal as we’ve had for a couple of years.
Back on Easter of 2020, there was a grand total of three of us in this building. We used a cell phone to live-stream our service so that we could again hear and share the story of resurrection. We held drive-through communion after the service, where many of you came in your cars and were handed paper bowls containing communion elements. Sure, it was a little bit like the Chick-fil-A drive through, but the body and blood of Christ was still given and shed for you. We even got some pretty cool pictures put in the newspaper about that.
Last year, we gathered inside but it was far from normal. Masks were on all the time, we had green tape marking off pews, there was limited singing - only a verse or two of each hymn - and, everyone’s favorite, the prepackaged communion wafer and grape juice that often took a couple of minutes to get open.
But this year, it’s kind of… normal. Sure, things aren’t 100% back to pre-pandemic ways, but we are pretty close. It is our new normal.
As I reflect back on the past two years, everything was so crazy and different. The only normal thing, the only thing that was consistent before, during, and after the pandemic was all the bad stuff that would happen. There were concerns over family, school, work. There were diagnoses and cancers and unexpected surgeries. There were family members, friends, spouses we lost.
When all the world changed, the only ‘normal’ was that death still had its hold.
Death is our normal. Death is real. Death doesn’t stop, even when everything else does. It’s the rock-bottom reality. It is so ingrained in our world, so prominent, so… normal that we just accept it. We can’t fathom anything else but death.
And that was true for Mary Magdalene, too. Death, while it pains us, while it causes us to grieve, while loss of a loved one is so very hard, death is normal. It just simply is. It is so normal, that Mary didn’t expect anything different when she approached the tomb early that first Easter morning.
Death is so entrenched as reality that Mary couldn't even fathom that something other than death could happen. Even though throughout his entire ministry, Jesus kept saying that he was going to the cross - but, don’t worry, he’d be alive again - Mary still doesn’t believe it. Death is the norm.
Even though when she shows up and the stone is rolled away revealing an empty tomb, she still doesn’t believe it. Death is the normal way things work.
Even though angels show up, sitting where Jesus’ body was, she still doesn’t believe it. Death is what is normal.
Even though Jesus is standing right there in front of her, she can’t see the new normal. The old normal, the normal way of death, is so ingrained, she doesn’t - she can’t, we can’t - know anything different.
What changes things is Jesus says, “Mary.” Jesus speaks her name. It is then that Mary believes. When Jesus declares he knows her, resurrection faith is created. When Jesus speaks, new normals happen.
Which is why we gather together again this morning, right? We hope that Jesus will speak to us, call us, name us, so that we can have this resurrection faith, so we can escape the normal ways of this world. And, boy, do I wish I could make that happen, give you that one-on-one facetime with Jesus so you could go and announce to the world, “I have seen the Lord!”
But that’s above my paygrade.
What I can do, however, is remind you of the promised ways Jesus does come to us, speak to us, call us now. He promises to be present to us, in and through these ways, just as he promised he would rise from the dead.
Jesus promises to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us through the Word, through telling and remembering and hearing the story. In the Gospel read and proclaimed, Jesus speaks to you, Jesus says your name, and Jesus calls you to resurrection faith.
Jesus promises to feed, forgive, and nourish us through the Meal, through eating and drinking. In communion, Jesus gathers us with all the saints, Jesus gives himself for you, and Jesus calls you to resurrection faith.
Jesus promises to name, claim, and gift us with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, through water and word. In the waters of baptism, Jesus washes us clean, Jesus draws us into his family forever, and Jesus calls you to resurrection faith.
Jesus promises to love us, love us to the grave and back. Because of his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has given us a new normal - Life. Love. Forgiveness. Forever. When Jesus speaks, new normals happen.
And though it is hard to believe anything other than death because all around us are signs telling us what is normal, God, on this Easter Sunday, reminds us, promises us, proves to us that death doesn’t have the final say. What Jesus says is what matters, and when Jesus speaks, new normals happen. He is the one who gives the last word, and that word is love, a love that is stronger than death.
Easter has changed the world. Our normal of death having hold is replaced. Life doesn’t stop, even when it seems like the old normal has won the day. Christ is alive. Love is normal. Resurrection is real. That is the rock-bottom, rolled-away-stone reality. Because of Easter, God has ingrained this world with life.
God’s new normal for us is love and life. Because when Jesus is raised, when Jesus is alive, when Jesus speaks, new normals happen. Today, God shows us life, God shows us resurrection, God shows us love. And it is anything but normal.
What must have been going through Mary’s head as she knelt at the foot of her son’s cross?
The pain, the grief, the shock, the… memories. From holding her son for the first time, to the wobbly toddler’s walk, his first words, skinned knees, him refusing to eat what she put on his plate for dinner. The hugs, the smiles, how proud she was of him. Of course she knew he was special this whole time, knew he was bound for great things… and now he hangs, dying, struggling - gasping - for breath, blood running from his wrists, his feet, his head.
Such pain, not just in losing her son, but in losing all that Jesus could have been. No one expected the cross. Not the disciples, not his followers, not Mary. The cross invalidates - puts an end to all of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. What, after all, can be more final than putting to death the one who claimed to bring abundant life? No one saw the cross coming.
What must have been going through the beloved disciple’s head - the disciple whom Jesus loved - as his teacher and mentor tells him, essentially, “take care of her”?
Because he has been there the whole time. This disciple whom Jesus loved was there at the dinner where Jesus washed feet, where he gave them a new commandment. In fact, he was reclining right next to him as Jesus laid out all that was to happen. He was with Peter around the charcoal fire as Jesus was being interrogated and Peter was denying. He was there at the trial, watching as Pilate said, “here is the man; here is your king”!
And now, Jesus says something very close to what Pilate said. While the Roman official used these words to mock and abuse, Jesus, with similar words, instead comforts: “Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.”
No one expected the cross. Jesus is dying, and yet Jesus is still teaching, still leading, still wanting love and care to be the words and actions of his legacy. Yet, how would they go on without him? Without his life, without his presence, they would be lost, alone. No one saw the cross coming.
What must have been going through Jesus’ head as he hangs on the cross?
“It is finished.” No one saw the cross coming, no one except Jesus. This is why he came. And when he says, it is “finished,” he doesn’t mean “it’s over” with a cry of despair. He means, it is completed. I finished it. It is done! The cross is about Jesus finishing what he came to do. He hands over his life, gives up his spirit. The work is done.
John’s entire story of Jesus’ life has been leading to this moment. The cross is the ultimate enthronement for Jesus - he isn’t hung on a cross. He is lifted up. He is glorified. He has accomplished exactly what God sent him to do - and he finished it.
Because here, in this moment, in the most pointed, pivotal way, Jesus shows us God’s intention for the whole world - to share and show self-giving love. Love is what the cross is. Love is what Jesus’ purpose is. Love is completed.
Nothing will ever be the same again. Everything has changed, and Jesus, by giving himself, by completing God’s mission for the world, Jesus is the one who accomplishes that change.
And now, on this first night of the great three days in the Church, what is going through our heads? What does this story of sacrifice and love and crucifixion and community mean for us?
For one, that despite everything, despite the unexpected-to-us crosses, no matter what, Jesus is in control. He gives of himself purposefully, intentionally. We see how far he is willing to go on behalf of those whom he loves.
Even from the cross, Jesus understands what is going on in the lives of those he loves; he cares for them; and he encourages them - us - to care for each other.
Around the cross, Jesus forms a new, caring community. But far from merely portraying Jesus as exercising his executive ability, John also paints a picture of the Christian community as being a family. It’s a family of faith - a family joined together not simply by bloodline, but by the blood of Christ.
And so, we know that even in tough times, when we are at the foot of a cross we didn’t see coming, we know we are loved, we are welcomed, we are cared for, we are known by Christ. And Jesus tells us to care for others. We ourselves are shaped and molded by Jesus’ sacrificial death. We are brought into Jesus’ family. We are changed by what Jesus has done. We truly are marked with the cross of Christ forever.
In a world where more and more people are simultaneously very connected and very lonely, we have something more to point to, we have the cross that brings us together wherever we are. And as we gather in worship and service with others, we are again and again received into the body of Christ and the family of God.
At times of loss in our lives, when we have so much running through our heads - the pain, the grief, the shock, the memories - relationship and community matter so much. We not only have family and friends, but we have the family of Christ. We aren’t just supported, but we are reminded of how our life is shaped by the cross of Christ.
And like any good family, we share a meal, a meal that every time we eat and drink, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We share the story of what the cross means, we are nourished with bread and wine and the presence of Christ himself. We are forgiven and made new so that we can go from here, truly fed and formed into the family of Jesus.
The cross changed everything. It shows us that suffering can lead to healing, that death is not as powerful as life, and that what we see as defeat may be God’s means of accomplishing victory. It’s hard sometimes to see with all that is running through our heads. But there it is: Jesus’ defiant, triumphant cry that, in his cross, a new family is created, love is still the way, and everything that God intends is and will be.
We are given life. We are renewed. We are forgiven, blessed, resurrected. Because of the cross of Christ.
Today is the day it all begins.
We’ve been waiting for this day for a while. The crowds who gather have been waiting for a while, too. Since Jesus started his ministry, the crowds have wanted him to be king. This one who can feed with five loaves and two fish, this one who can make the blind see, this one who can even raise Lazarus from the dead - this is the prophet, the king that is to come. Several times already, the crowds have tried to crown Jesus, but somehow he always got away before that happened. It seemed Jesus wanted no part in it.
But today is different. Today is the day it all begins. Jesus is coming to take his throne. It is the festival of Passover in Jerusalem, so lots of people are already there, coming from all over to celebrate. And Jesus comes. Today is the day. Jesus is going to be king!
Now, of course, the chief priests and the Pharisees know this, too. It’s no secret that they aren’t big fans of Jesus. Sure, he draws crowds, but in their eyes, it's for all the wrong reasons. They’ve tried in the past to trap him and plot against him. They even want to kill him. For Jesus to show up in their city would be a direct, in-your-face challenge to their authority. And his arrival is exactly what all the buzz is about.
The crowds gather and wave palm branches to greet their king. It’s a victory parade. The triumphant Psalm 118 is quoted: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel!” The crowd has their king, their long-expected, national, messianic king.
They have come from miles and miles for this historic event. It’s time for the showdown, time for the revolution, time to overthrow the status quo.
And we participate along with the crowd. We wave our palms. We give our hosannas a shout. We come with our grand expectations. We wouldn’t be here for a looser; we’re here for a king!
And with each branch that is waved, with each hosanna that is shouted, with each step toward Jerusalem, our expectations get higher and higher. Jesus isn’t backing down this time. He isn’t slipping away anymore. He is heading right in. His hour has come to be crowned!
But the donkey gives it away. This isn’t a horse of war, but an animal of humility. Of peace. Jesus falls short of the crowd’s expectations - and ours. Jesus comes humbly, not dolling out miracles or intimidating his opponents. The branches start to lower.
Jesus’ entrance makes it clear that he is indeed a king, but he will have no part in meeting our expectations. Jesus will have no part in being our kind of king. Jesus is committed to being God’s kind of king.
You can almost see the crowd’s disbelief. Their excitement turns to confusion. Their praise begins to tail off. The branches go even lower - some probably even dropped to the ground.
Is what Jesus is doing here really going to lead to victory? Is this truly a triumphal entry?
Jesus isn’t our kind of king.
And that is the Good News. Jesus isn’t our type of king. He’s God’s type of king.
And how quickly we reject that.
Here is your king. Hail, King of the Jews. Crucify him. Crucify him! Kill him!
So, they take Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull. They crucify him there with two others. Above his head, a sign: “Jesus of Nazareth. The King of Jews.” Whether he is mocking Jesus or antagonizing the religious authorities, Pilate proclaims Jesus as King in the three languages of the day. Now all the world may witness Jesus’ coronation.
Our king has come, throned upon the cross, nailed to beams, and lifted up.
Today is the day it all… starts to end. The good news today isn’t as good as it usually is. It’s hard when our expectations aren’t fulfilled. We don’t get what we want, what we hope for. Instead of the uplifting message, we might leave today with a bit of disappointment - which is understandable after the excitement of how we gathered. Some people just don’t live up to our expectations. We don’t get the news we were hoping for. Instead of our king, we get… God’s king.
This week, we again get the opportunity to hear the story of God’s king. We will celebrate on Thursday - Jesus’ last words, the Lord’s supper, the stripping of the altar. On Friday, we will relive the events of Jesus’ final day through scripture, song, and darkness. And then… and then…
Our king has come.
Pilate isn’t finished yet. He will try one more time to set Jesus free. He flogs him first, hoping that will count as sufficient punishment. He also allows his soldiers to ridicule and torment Jesus.
Of course, the soldiers and Pilate do this to mock the King of the Jews. To them, he’s silly; the taunting is meant to degrade this man before them. But in their mocking, they unknowingly reveal the truth. Jesus is king - but not just of the Jews. Jesus is the King of the world.
And as King, Jesus has power and authority. He should be able to negotiate, defend himself, escape the situation so he himself can live, rule, be free. But by all appearances, Jesus’ authority has reached its end. We know this because he is humiliated and mocked; kings aren’t humiliated and mocked. Jesus is standing before Pilate, the one person with power to release or crucify him. He was flogged, dressed up, and crowned, without a single ounce of retaliation. In our eyes, he truly has lost everything.
On the other hand, Pilate, as we heard, has the authority here to release or kill. Set a man free, or hang him on a cross; it all comes down to this one decision. Control of life and death is power, the ultimate marker of authority. And all the power is in Pilate’s hands.
But… about this whole power and authority to release or kill thing. Pilate has actually tried to release Jesus a few times. Even here, after a flogging and some mocking, Pilate thinks that’s good enough for this preacher boy. He brings Jesus out to the crowds saying he finds no case against him. If he sees Jesus is innocent, and he has the power to release him, why doesn’t he?
Hmm... it seems Pilate’s authority does have some limits. And one of those limits is job security. What would the Emperor think if he set free a man who claimed to be a king? Fear over what may happen causes him to draw back from the truth. And so, despite believing what he does about Jesus, Pilate turns him over to be crucified, all so he can save himself.
So, should we deride Pilate since he decides to throw Jesus under the bus, so he can have an easier life? Where’s your fortitude, Pilate? Your truth? It’s easy to point at Pilate and mock him from the comfort of our pew, but man oh man, do we do the same thing.
Jesus tells us, shows us how to live as disciples. Jesus shows us Truth. Yet, we have no problem ignoring Jesus all so we don’t have to change anything about ourselves. We, like Pilate, brush Jesus aside to save our lifestyles.
There are moments in our lives where following Jesus doesn’t sound so appealing anymore. Say you’re enjoying a nice evening out on the town and someone who looks like they haven’t showered in a couple of weeks starts walking toward you. We do our best to avoid eye contact and just keep on walking; we have plans for the night, afterall. In that moment, we hand Jesus’ way over to save ourselves.
Our pragmatism and practicality stop the truth Jesus shows us. It’s not practical to live like Jesus does. Love enemies? Not feasible. Forgive instead of hold a grudge? Nonsense. Plus, if we really listened to Jesus, we’d be giving away our hard-earned stuff. We have no king but our things!
We become fearful of what others might think of us, so instead of living the way Jesus would have us, we avoid the outcast, the neglected, the bullied. Avoiding those situations alleviates our fears, doesn’t put us in spots that make us uncomfortable, and preserves our way of life. Crucify him!
There are so many ways we place ourselves over
what Jesus says is true,
how Jesus says to live,
who Jesus says to love.
Think of any issue and how we come at it from our personal, American point of view instead of Jesus’ point of view. We have our practical, appealing, fear-free ways of viewing these things, and, like Pilate, we choose the way that preserves our way of life instead of letting Jesus free. We could let Jesus loose in the world, but we choose to brush Jesus aside, sending him to the cross.
Jesus has a way of revealing the character of whomever he encounters. And unfortunately, this usually discloses our human fallibilities, shortcomings, and selfishness. Pilate has pretensions of being powerful and authoritative. The truth is, he isn’t. The Jewish Leadership claims to be faithful to God alone. Truth is, they hold the Emperor as their king. We assert many godly things, but we often fail because that’s just not the way things work around here. Everyone comes up short.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but… this also shows us the character of the people for whom Christ came to die. He died for this world. He died for these people. He died for you and me. Here’s where Jesus’ authority lies: in God’s love. For God so loved the world, that God sent us the Son, the Lamb of God, who as John the Baptist said in chapter one, “takes away the sin of the world.”
I mentioned earlier, control of life and death is power, the ultimate marker of authority. And all the power was in Pilate’s hands. But it’s not really in Pilate’s hands - never was. See, all through John’s story of Jesus’ life, Jesus has been in control. Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He is going this route, the way of the cross, of his own accord. He lays down his life knowingly, willingly.
This is no accident. This is Truth. And in this case, the truth is that Jesus is truly the Lamb of God, the one whose death covers us, the one who removes our sin, the one who saves us, the one who lays down his life. He is in control of his life, of his death, and his life again. Control of life and death is power, the ultimate marker of authority, and Jesus has it.
Death, the cross, the tomb are not the end, but this is the way Jesus’ true authority, his kingship over the whole world, is seen. Jesus’ authority has not reached its end in this scene. Jesus reveals the truth about God: that God sent the Son out of love for the world, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
As often as we choose ourselves over Jesus, Jesus still has the authority to choose what happens. And he chooses to love us. He chooses to die and rise for us. He chooses to give us authority - authority to reveal the truth of who he is, authority to let Jesus loose in the world with our words and our actions. Jesus chooses to love us so we might share that love with the world.
The truth is, Jesus does have all authority in heaven and on earth, and Jesus uses that authority to save, to love, to give us life. Now and forever.
This statement from Jesus really gets me wondering:
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
I don’t know how often we’ve really thought about Jesus’ kingdom. Maybe we have a little bit - thinking about heaven or something like that, but Jesus is here, and his kingdom isn’t? Jesus simply says, it is “not from here.”
I think there is a bit more to it than just location. There is a sense that Jesus’ kingdom is foreign, not just in locale, but in the way it acts, the way it goes about doing things. Jesus cites evidence for this. If his kingdom were from here - were it to act the way worldly kingdoms act - his followers would be fighting for him. Instead, those from Jesus’ kingdom don’t act that way.
It’s kind of like the response city folk get while out in the boondocks: “You ain’t from around here, are ya?” Jesus’ kingdom gets looked at funny when it shows up in a worldly kingdom.
Just think of all the interesting, upside down ways Jesus has shown God’s kingdom of love and grace, pointing it out wherever he went. The Kingdom is like gallons of the best wine when all you were expecting was the cheap stuff. The Kingdom is being able to see everything clearly after being born blind. The Kingdom is life - life from a deathly sick little boy and a tomb that has been sealed for days.
Jesus’ kingdom achieves all these good things through ways other than the ways of the world. It’s not that his kingdom is somewhere else, in some heaven lightyears away; it’s that his Kingdom operates in such a different way.
On the other character front, Pilate knows how kingdoms work. Despite his wishy-washy responses here, he is known historically as a pretty violent leader. He fought each step of the way for what he had, and fighting is how he held on to what he had.
Beyond that, we also know what this world’s kingdoms are like. We don’t need to look for very long to see an example playing out right now with Russia. Might makes right. It is a world of power and oppression, of manipulation and backstabbing. In this world, it’s ok to use violence as long as the ends justify the means - any means, as long as the ends are “to keep the peace.”
We can't imagine a kingdom that isn’t built by war, fighting, or power. We try to imagine it, but all too often our imaginations are controlled by what we’ve seen and experienced. It shapes us. The only reply we have to violence is more violence. All the kingdoms of our world lead to death.
Yet, Jesus comes to show us something different, be something different for us.
Since Jesus and his kingdom are not of this world, he will not use violence, but love. Jesus will not establish his claims by force, but by service. Jesus will not make followers through brutality, but by forgiveness.
Jesus lives this kingdom out in front of us. Maybe to say it more accurately, Jesus dies living out God’s Kingdom, because our world can’t handle that kind of stuff. The world’s response to Jesus is violence, the cross, killing. And yet, God vindicates Jesus and the way of love through the resurrection.
Resurrection is God’s stamp of approval to that way of life - a new way of seeing, a new way of living, a new way of loving. We see where Jesus’ kingdom leads - not just TO death, which is where all our kingdoms lead. But Jesus’ kingdom leads THROUGH death to life. To forgiveness. To peace. Jesus’ kingdom is here, shaping we who are in this world, changing the way we look at things, empowering us to live a new way. Through it all, Jesus’ Kingdom brings us life.
This is the Kingdom we are called to see, live, point to. This is the Kingdom we are baptized into and share around the table. This is the Kingdom we do our best to witness to.
Just yesterday, we hosted a meal for the homeless. So many in the world want to move them along. You can’t sit here. Go on your way. Don’t make eye contact. The homeless are left in hunger and loneliness. And yet, we had 23 different people sign up to bring and/or do over 80 somethings - from bringing food to helping set up and clean up. But even if you didn’t sign up to do or bring anything, your generosity to St. Philip allows us to have plates and utensils and a roof and electricity. Giving of time, food, money - it makes a difference and people are treated graciously, lovingly.
The Kingdom is not of this world.
We collect food and other items to help those in need. Right now, we are collecting old Bibles to give away, to share the Good News. We are collecting food for snack bags so kids (yes, KIDS) have food to eat when they aren’t at school. And when you give benevolence money to support Help4Kids or Helping Hand, it goes to actually help people live, eat, get medicines they need.
The Kingdom is not of this world.
We gather for worship in a beautiful space - but it’s important to know that people join us in worship wherever they are, because we have decided the message is too important to stay in here. We have music to lift our spirits, an organ that fills the room and our souls, voices that raise our hearts to God. And even if parking can be a bit of a hassle once we get here, being part of community in whatever shape or form is a way we know we are part of something bigger than just “me”; it’s not a lone wolf mentality; we are nourished in community and worship, not just for us, but for each other.
The Kingdom is not of this world.
Together, we share a meal. Together, we celebrate. Together, we grieve. Together, we state the truth about ourselves and our world. The world spins, hides, only shows what it wants others to see… but we proclaim God can handle our honesty, and loves us all the same.
The Kingdom is not of this world.
Jesus shows us what God’s kingdom looks like: power through weakness, strength through service, justice through mercy. Jesus builds the Kingdom of God not by fighting, but by embracing a broken, hurting, violent world. And though that embrace brought death, rising again reminds us that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all good things are possible.
Jesus shows us God’s kingdom - not simply a place, but a way, more about style and substance than anything else. This isn’t achieved by the violent ways we know, but by the way of sacrificial love. This love changes things. It creates things. It brings life - life that is not of this world.
As we continue to walk with Jesus toward the cross, we pick up the story having skipped several chapters since last week’s foot washing. He and his disciples have now finished their upper room dinner where Jesus gave some last teachings, said his farewells, and headed out to a favorite hangout: the Garden of Gethsemane. It is there that Judas brings a detachment of soldiers to arrest Jesus.
Our story today starts as Jesus is on trial before the high priest. Peter and another disciple have followed.
Jesus is asked questions and openly answers about his disciples and his teaching. Nothing he said was in secret. In fact, his answer is, “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said; they will tell you about it.” Which is a good idea. Let’s do that.
And who better to ask than Peter? He has followed Jesus nearly since the beginning. He’s seen the signs, heard the teachings. He’s the one who refused to let Jesus wash his feet - that is until Jesus said he would have no part if he were not washed. “Then not only my feet, but my hands and my head!” Yes, he is a good disciple - the best disciple. Let’s ask him about Jesus.
But… when Peter is asked about Jesus, Peter… fails. Denies. And he doesn’t just deny being Jesus’ disciple, but Peter denies being in the garden. Peter denies any relationship with Jesus. Peter denies all links to the disciples. Peter fails in his little mini-trial. The cock crows.
Jesus’ words echo in Peter’s silence: “Ask them! They will tell you what I said…”
The one disciple you would think could do it,
the one follower who could answer the call,
the one apostle who, yes, could tell you about Jesus…
he is the one who fails dramatically. He was asked and did not say a word.
So, what do we take from this scene? I guess one thing we could do is start listing all the ways we deny and fail Jesus. All the idols we place ahead of following Jesus. The over importance of “self” - self-preservation, self-made, self-above-all-else. The hypocritical nature of our faith and our actions. The opportunities we squander to explicitly say, “I know Jesus, and here’s what he said.” The cock crows in our lives, too.
Bummer, man. We’re left with this sense of failure. If this can happen to Peter, it can happen to any of us… it does happen to us. Our clearly voiced commitments and nice church clothes don’t seem to be enough.
Because, yes, sure, we all do what Peter did in various ways. We all hear the cock crow and think, “Ahh… I should’ve handled that way differently.” We can commiserate with Peter.
While misery loves company, all this does is leave us with a “do better” kind of message. We get the lesson of, “just be aware that you’re prone to failure, and you’ll be able to do better next time.” There’s some truth to self-awareness, but might I remind you that Peter was made well aware of his forthcoming denial. Jesus told him shortly after washing his feet, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
It seems like if Jesus told you that, in a setting like that, you’d be a little more aware. It appears our own awareness, our own knowledge, our own selves can’t make us better, can’t keep us from hiding or denying.
We focus on Peter and identify with him - how we’re so much like him. But… that doesn’t do anything for us besides give us someone to throw a pity party with. “Do better,” is not the Gospel message. And, more than that, when we focus on Peter, we’re not focusing on Jesus, and not paying attention to Jesus is yet another way we deny who he is.
So, as we shift our attention from Peter to Jesus, we pay attention to what Jesus says and does.
What he says is true. As the cock crows, we know that Jesus’ earlier words to Peter about denying him are true.
And throughout his public ministry, people heard, people testified to the truth. The woman at the well: “He told me everything about my life.” The official’s son: “Your son will live.” Raising of Lazarus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And so much more. All that Jesus says - has said - is true.
But if Jesus only speaks the truth, how do we rationalize him saying, “ask those who heard what I said” set right next to Peter denying to answer? How are both true? Along with that disparity, Jesus is about to die. The time is up for lessons and motivational speeches. No more “do better” teachings.
But what Jesus says is true. Jesus knows it is true, because Jesus looks to future, not to failures.
Jesus knows this isn’t the end - even as ominous as things seem.
Jesus knows what God’s love and faithfulness can do. God’s love and faithfulness lasts through betrayal, denial, and death. And God’s love gives another chance - changes, transforms, resurrects another opportunity for relationship and life.
Because of that kind of love, because of that kind of faithfulness, Jesus knows that even the betraying, denying disciples, no matter how bleak things look right now, one day they will share Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ love doesn’t stop. Despite everything, his unconditional love doesn’t leave the disciples. Jesus doesn’t cut ties. Jesus doesn’t betray. Jesus loves them. Even as they denied, Jesus remained faithful to them. And because of his love, the disciples are able to be redeemed, able to share the Gospel message, telling the world of all that Jesus has done.
See, Peter, though he denied Jesus three times, is redeemed at the end of the story. Huddled around a different charcoal fire, three times a resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?” This leads to Peter and all the disciples proclaiming God’s faithfulness, love, and forgiveness. Jesus’ love brings a different future; it doesn’t leave us at failure.
Even as we deny, Jesus remains faithful to us, too. We trust that we are forgiven even as we have failed repeatedly and hear the cock crow in our lives. No amount of ambition or awareness on our part can change that. But Jesus loves, and that love is what makes the difference. That love is what leads to resurrection. That love is what brings life. That love is what keeps relationship intact through anything, despite everything.
Jesus turns denial into Gospel. Jesus turns failure into life. Jesus turns us into faithful disciples. And he does it through love. Through redemption. Through resurrection.
As we focus on Peter, we get the wrong message - a nice message, maybe a helpful message, but not the Gospel message. For the Gospel, we focus on Jesus. And that message is loud and clear: Jesus is faithful. Jesus loves us. Jesus transforms us. Jesus resurrects us to a new life, a life where his teaching is in our hands. “Ask them; they’ll tell you what I said.”
And because of that, there is hope. Hope that even we can love and share and bear witness to God’s relentless, abundant, life-giving love for the world.
What does it mean to let Jesus love us?
If you’ve been worshiping with us regularly as of late, you know we have been going through the Gospel of John. Here in chapter 13, we get a turning point in the story.
Chapters one through twelve covered three years of Jesus’ life and ministry, but from this point onward, all the remaining 9 chapters or so fit into three days. This illustrates how everything in John’s portrayal of Jesus has been leading to this, the time of his passion. And while normally we experience Jesus’ passion story during Holy Week, this year we live that passion story through the entire season of Lent. We are dwelling 5 weeks in Jesus’ final 3 days.
With that as the background, that this is the beginning of the end, we get Jesus washing feet.
And what does this story show us? What does this story mean? It is a story of love and service.
We can tell that love and serving is the point because Jesus isn’t following a formula or an etiquette book. All the irregularities in his actions show that Jesus is doing this on purpose, with intentional meaning. There are several things that stand out because of how Jesus conducts himself.
First, the normal practice of the time was for people to wash their own feet. A host would provide water, sure, but the actual cleaning was done yourself. Now, if you were up the societal ladder a bit, then you may have one of your servants wash your guests’ feet, but certainly never like the way Jesus does it. The person of lower status should wash the feet of the higher status. Jesus flips it.
Second, foot washing would happen as soon as the guests arrived. It’s kind of like our, “can I take your coat?” when people come to your house. But Jesus waits until everyone is already around the table. Jesus purposely disrupts the routine of the meal to wash feet.
Third, this should be a simple and unobtrusive thing. Something that doesn’t take away from conversation and fellowship. Instead, Jesus kind of makes a scene by going around the table, talking during and after the washing.
When he’s done, Jesus acknowledges that he has broken the normal protocol. “You call me teacher and Lord…” and I have “washed your feet.” He does this as an example for them to follow. I am your teacher, and I am teaching you. This is what love looks like.
It’s all very… different. Odd. There is something too intimate, too vulnerable, too uncomfortable in the way Jesus does this. Which is why Peter acts the way he does. “You’ll never wash my feet!” And there is a lot to say about Peter, but we can dive into that next week. For now, I think Peter’s reaction is the place where we can relate. It is what spawned my opening question: “what does it mean to let Jesus love us?”
Not just have the idea that Jesus loves us, not just kinda think it’s true, but really feel it, really let Jesus love us.
Because we know. We know everything about ourselves. And the obvious analogy is feet. We know what is callused, what is hurting, what is stinky, where the bunions of our life are. And these days, we do a good job of covering it up. But underneath our fancy shoes, we’ve still got feet. We know. We know everything about ourselves.
Of course, we don’t want Jesus anywhere near our feet - our real selves. What does it mean to let Jesus love us?
And yet, Jesus washes. Jesus knows. Jesus doesn’t follow a formula or an etiquette book. He breaks protocol when it comes to loving us. All the irregularities show that Jesus loves on purpose, with intentional meaning. Through serving, through dying, through giving himself, to being raised again. The way Jesus goes about life and death draws so much attention to the fact that this is done out of love.
It truly can be hard to believe that Jesus washes us, loves us, serves us. I’m sure it was hard for the disciples - it definitely was hard for Peter - to let Jesus love them in such a self-conscious, close kind of way. But Jesus stoops down, Jesus takes hold of those things that we are embarrassed by, and tells us, “not even this keeps me from loving you. Not even this keeps you away from God’s embrace. Not even this.”
Jesus washing feet shows us again and again that he is willing to do the unexpected to show and convey God’s love to the world.
And yet, it is sometimes still hard to accept that we are Jesus’ own, that we are continually washed, that he is always there with us, cleansing even the parts of us that we consider the most unworthy, most stinky, most hidden. Even when we are defiant and won’t let Jesus love us… somehow, Jesus finds a way. Jesus’ love changes us - changes us to follow his example of love and service.
That love of Jesus makes it so we, too, can serve. In washing feet, Jesus shows us something about power and weakness, about service and care, about loving our neighbors.
I wonder how our conflicts would end if we washed the feet of one another instead of picking up weapons.
I wonder how ministry would look if we did things like Jesus did - reaching out to the ugly parts of our world.
I wonder how disagreements would turn out if we could see - not just the other perspective, but see from kneeling in humble service. That’s a whole different vantage point.
It’s what Jesus teaches. It’s what Jesus shows. It’s what Jesus does.
What does it mean to let Jesus love us? Maybe that’s the wrong question.
Because it isn't about us letting Jesus do it, but Jesus loving us regardless of if we let him or not. God, who sends light to our darkness, who is full of grace and truth, who became flesh and lived among us - God is not daunted by our brokenness. Instead, God breaks the protocols and loves us.
And that is humbling. It humbles us into service as Jesus has shown. Humbles us to love others, by washing the dirtiest parts.
That is the way Jesus lives, and that is the story John tells. All of John is the story of God’s love for the world, and John 13 is that love displayed in tangible action. Jesus humbles himself, and humbles us, by kneeling before us, showing us that mysterious, vulnerable, live-giving love.
May God love us enough that we can’t help but go and do the same.
Emotions. So many emotions.
It’s been a long… insert your own time frame here. A long week, a long 2022, a long pandemic… and all of this has made us feel our emotions a little bit more.
We are about one week shy of a two year anniversary where COVID-19 changed our world. On March 15, 2020, we shut things down. Online worship, nothing at church, school, or work. We adapted, like it or not. But it dragged on. Then there was light at the end of the tunnel. Then Delta. Then Omicron. And now, right when we really start to feel like we’re done, we’re just about through with this worldwide pandemic, Russia invades Ukraine and all the world is just in disbelief. Confused. Aghast.
Someone joked online that we went straight from pandemic to World War 3 and skipped over the roarin’ Twenties.
Pandemic and war definitely bring many emotions: pain, grief, helplessness, exasperation, loneliness, and more. And all this is on top of what regular life seems to bring with it.
Beyond missiles and masks, we’ve felt deep emotions in the rest of our lives because the rest of our lives kept on with all the stuff life always throws at us. There have been diagnoses and surgeries and lifestyle changes. There are struggles with addiction, depression, or loss of meaning in our lives. There is hurt and anger at changed relationships, a separation, a divorce.There are emotions of mourning, sorrow, and loss at the death of a sibling, a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child. There’s exhaustion, there’s worry, there’s a longing for the world to stop - stop spinning so fast, stop being so chaotic, just stop.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Our story for today is full of very real emotions that, I dare say, we all have experienced. We read about Mary, Martha, Jesus, and others in their deep, wild emotions of pain at the loss of Lazarus. There is wailing and weeping and questioning. These are emotions that bubble up in us - maybe even burst out from us when we are grieving. There is confusion and anger about where Jesus was; why didn’t he stop this? Where was he? And even Jesus isn’t immune to such emotions. He was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” to the point that he was weeping.
And much like what I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, I feel like this is real, this is honest. We cry, we weep, we question Jesus. Why didn’t you do something? Why aren’t you doing something about disease? About war? About none of this being fair? This story gives us a chance to name our emotions and see them represented. This story, in a way, gives us permission. It says, “it’s ok to be mad, be sad, to question.” To do so, to feel this way, is human. It is real. It is honest.
We can take all our frustrations and anger and asking to Jesus. And thank God we can. It’s been a long… insert your own time frame here.
But in addition to this honesty of emotion, we also get to hear three of the most powerful words of faith. These words, this phrase, is full of hope, promise, and trust. It’s a good reminder to us in our emotions, whatever emotions.
But it isn’t Jesus who gives this faithful phase. The miracle probably should fit the bill of hope and promise, but instead of Jesus, these words come from Martha. They come from a place of her own emotion and pain and loss. She says, “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died.” And then, that phrase of hope: “But, even now…”
But even now.
Those are powerful words in the midst of loss, death, grief. But even now. It expresses honesty AND faith. It acknowledges what is going on, and yet looks to God because God is still present, God is still there, God still promises something out of, despite, what is going on.
But even now.
My hurt weighs me down, but even now, you hold me up.
I am tired and worn out, but even now, you walk beside me.
We are confused about our world, but even now, you’ve got the whole world in your hands.
I’m at a complete loss in my life, but even now, you find me.
My emotions are swirling within me, but even now, you call me out for life.
But even now.
These are words of hope. These are words of promise. These are words spoken in truth. Because whatever is going on, even now God is working, God is faithful, God promises more.
Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. This foreshadows the journey we are on during this season of Lent. It points toward what is to come. Death is real, but even now, death is not final. Despite appearances, despite the sealed tombs and the stench of decay; despite somber gatherings, obvious weeping, and pointed questions, even now, we see the promise of what will be: tombs will be opened, mourning will be no more, and we will gather together again as the whole people of God.
But even now.
Even now, God is working. Even now, Jesus is present with us. Even now, the Spirit can handle our emotions.
Even now, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. In everything - in pandemic and pain, in wars and worry, in life and in death… even now, we are held and loved and shaped by the risen Jesus. Not by death, not by pain, not by emotion: Jesus. Because Jesus isn’t one who can just restore life, but he is life itself.
Jesus is the place where death ends and life begins. We still struggle, we still have to wrestle with what that means, we still get worn out by feeling so many heavy things so much over the past couple of years. But even now, Jesus gives us promise, Jesus gives us life, Jesus gives us hope.
Even now. And always.
“The Lord is my shepherd…”
Few lines in scripture are more meaningful or familiar than that one. The poetic words of the psalm speak to us wherever we are. The images are vivid and clear: My cup overflows. Lush, green pastures. The comfort of a shepherd’s protection. No matter where - through dark valleys, near pools of water, God leads us home.
Because it is so relatable, so comforting, this psalm is often read as part of the funeral service. The promises maybe are heard a little more acutely in those moments. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… for you are with me…
The sheep and shepherd imagery goes beyond just this scripture passage to be included in other ways of our funeral service, too. Near the end when we are commending our loved one to God, we proclaim, we pray, we say that this one, this one is… a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
It hits me everytime I pray those words as we gather to grieve and yet proclaim resurrection.
Because those words are so real, so honest. It acknowledges who we are - we are frail, we are limited, we are broken and sinful, we are dust… yet, we are God’s own. We are part of God’s flock. We are redeemed. We are the sheep of God’s pasture. Always God’s sheep.
In dark valleys, sheep.
In hospital rehab, sheep.
By still waters, sheep.
In a hospice care center, sheep.
When stuck at home, sheep.
Gathered here, sheep.
Whether in life or death, sheep.
I don’t know how much of Psalm 23 was going through Jesus’ head when he states that he is the Good Shepherd, but it is the perfect sequel. Jesus continues the shepherding story, and assures us even more that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
He is the Good Shepherd.
And what makes him “good” as opposed to just a “regular” shepherd?
Those other, regular shepherds, any other shepherd, does his job… but, Jesus says, they only do them to a point. All around us are such shepherds, promising to care for us, to have our lives flourish without a drop of want in them: from the political, to the celebrity, even to the religious. The things around us promise fulfillment, a new life, an endless array of joy and happiness - and we buy in, to some extent. They guide us along, and they might stave off a wild beast here or there, but at the end of the day, they see “the wolf coming and leave the sheep and run away.” These shepherds do a self-serving job, so they don’t - can’t - rescue us in our true time of need. So, we’re nothing but deceived sheep, promised this goodness yet scattered and left for dead. They cannot save. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
So, again, what is it that makes Jesus, not only our shepherd, but our Good Shepherd?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he brings all sheep into his fold.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he knows his sheep and calls them by name.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he lays his life down for his sheep.
Jesus is the one who lays his life down. And then, he takes life back up again.
That is what makes him, not just a shepherd, but the Good Shepherd.
That is what makes this, not just news, but Good News.
He lays his life down for his sheep. He gives everything for the sake of the sheep. He knows the sheep, and the sheep know him. It is that type of relationship that makes him truly the Good Shepherd.
We are broken, death has a hold, and not we - nor anything else posing as our shepherd - can do a thing about it. But our Good Shepherd transforms our death by giving his life first. Jesus laid his life down for us, his sheep. And he picked life back up, all so that we, too, may have our lives picked up, raised, lifted, set free.
And no matter what, no matter what thieves try to take us, no matter what unworthy shepherds attempt to guide us, no matter even if ashes and death arrive, our Good Shepherd promises to lead us home, to bring us into God’s fold, to give us abundant, eternal, flourishing life - a new life brought by the deep security of knowing our Good Shepherd.
I have always thought that today is the most honest day in all the church year. Today is a day of reality, of truth telling, of admitting who exactly we are. And ashes, dust, death, brokenness - “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s all true, especially on a day like today.
But, Jesus is our Good Shepherd, especially on a day like today. Today’s not just about our truth, but it is also about the truth of our Good Shepherd, and how Jesus relates to us despite our sheepliness. Our Good Shepherd calls us by name and leads us home, where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And because of that, the Good News maybe feels a little more true, the promises maybe are heard a little more acutely, especially on a day like today.
In dark valleys, we are his sheep.
When stuck at home, we are his sheep.
Gathered here, we are his sheep.
Whether in life or death, we are his sheep.
As the cross gets placed on your forehead, we tell the truth.
You are dust. But the Good Shepherd leads you, comforts you, prepares a table for you.
The Good Shepherd gives you life, because you are his.
That’s what makes him, not just a shepherd, but the Good Shepherd.
That’s what makes this, not just news, but Good News. Forever.
When I was in the 5th grade, I played my first season of baseball. I was never really all that good at it - not an all-star or anything - but I had a good time playing. My specialty was being out in the field. Over the course of the season, I ended up playing a little bit of everything: first base, out field, pitcher. I liked being out in the field because I felt like I could hold my own. It was the hitting that was the problem for me.
The most common complement I got when I was up to bat was, “Good eye, Jason. Good eye!” Thank you. What, I get a compliment for moving out of the way of a baseball that was flying at my head? Great. I have some kid - who is probably just as uncoordinated as I am - throwing a ball at me as hard as he can, and I’m too scared to swing so I hear, “Good eye, Jason. Good eye!” That’s the irony of it; I DIDN’T have a good eye. I was scared to death up there.
Life and faith are like that sometimes. We don’t see - don’t see in the ways we should, and so our lack of sight, our blindness leaves us feeling afraid. Lost. Not knowing what to do.
The Pharisees in our story don’t see Jesus for who he is. The ironic thing is, the man who was born blind does see Jesus for who he is.
Our story for today is long, and there is a lot in it. It’s a miracle story, it’s a story of conflict, it is about living a new life because of what Jesus has done. But ultimately, this story is about seeing Jesus - having a “good eye” for who Jesus is.
Now, the liturgically proficient may notice that today is Transfiguration Sunday and yet, there is no mountain top experience. There is no Moses and Elijah, no dazzling white clothes, no voice from heaven. So, what’s going on?
Well, we have been journeying through John’s Gospel since Christmas. And here’s the thing: John doesn’t have a transfiguration story. It’s hard to read John’s account of the transfiguration if he didn’t include one. But that doesn’t mean John doesn’t tip his hat in that direction.
See, at its heart, the Transfiguration is about revealing who Jesus is, who he really is. It sheds light on his true identity and helps us see that Jesus truly is from God so that we would worship him. And to be honest, that is what John’s entire Gospel is about. There’s not a single Transfiguration story in John, but those themes are woven throughout the entire story - light, glory, seeing who Jesus truly is.
In that light, this story of the blind man fits perfectly with the point of the Transfiguration. Despite this whole episode taking up 41 verses, this man’s sight is restored right near the beginning - in verse 7 to be exact. Now he can see - but the rest of the chapter deals with his increasing insight into who Jesus is. This man who was born blind begins to see, truly see, who Jesus is.
If we pay attention closely, we can follow along his vision journey.
At the beginning, he doesn’t see Jesus at all; he’s blind. And even after he is cured, the only way he can describe his healer is, “the man called Jesus.” Then, once the Pharisees catch wind of this, they ask this man who was born blind, “what do you say about him?” Now the man says, “he is a prophet.” Hmm. Interesting.
Then, after the Pharisees question him a second time, he proclaims that Jesus is from God, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Then, finally when he meets Jesus again, he acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of Man, and he worships him. “Lord, I believe.” I see you.
We get to journey with this man in his path from not seeing to seeing to really seeing. And we, too, come to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and we worship him.
Back to baseball for a minute. Like I mentioned, I wasn’t ever really a great hitter - I was ok at making contact, but never great. But one time, one time I saw that ball, and I crushed it. In that moment, I really had a good eye, and I hit a deep, opposite field flyball all the way to the fence. It wasn’t a home run, but I got an easy triple out of it. Man, what a rush. Really seeing, having that eye.
And with Jesus, sure, sometimes, oftentimes, we don’t see. We miss. We’re afraid. We’re confused or alone or worried. Maybe we don’t feel we’re great at this. But even then, that doesn’t change who Jesus is.
Then there are times when we do see Jesus - moments of pure grace, excitement, love: a birth, a reunion, a reconciliation, an answer, a friend, an undeserving gift. Our eyes open, and we get the rush of seeing who Jesus is in that moment.
The rush like the moment the disciples had at the Transfiguration. I see. Lord, I believe.
The rush like when this man born blind began seeing - and really seeing who Jesus is. I see. Lord, I believe.
Sometimes we are better at it than others. But like in baseball, where practice helps hitters to have a better eye for the ball, practice in our faith helps us to better see who Jesus is.
We practice our faith by participating in the faith community. There are service opportunities to put faith in action, to see others as beloved children of God. There are hands-on ways to be the body of Christ, putting into practice what we see Jesus doing.
And beyond that, in this day and age, there are ways to be strengthened in-person and online. Not only are there numerous ways to get devotions by email or text message or through apps, but we at St. Philip have expanding opportunities to participate in small groups and Bible studies in hybrid ways - in-person and online at the same time. We can gather as a community, no matter where we are, to grow and practice faith together, and to help each other see Jesus in new ways. I see. Lord, I believe.
And of course, we worship, a place and time where we see Jesus clearly in each other, in praise, in sacraments. But hopefully this is just practice for seeing Jesus out in the world. Because Jesus isn’t just seen in particular moments of glory, but in all times and in all places. Jesus is always who he is. And as we practice, we can see Jesus - not in one giant blaze of light, but throughout our entire story, just as John does with his Gospel.
And that includes trying to see Jesus when we don’t think Jesus is there, when we can’t see him - because he promises he is there.
We can see Jesus as present in our pain and in the pain of the world. Because he promises to be light in our darkness.
We can see Jesus in those we think Jesus can’t be with. Because he is always trying to show us God’s works.
We can see Jesus in places like the cross. Because for John, that is the ultimate place where Jesus shows us his glory. I see. Lord, I believe.
When we take part in this community. Lord, I believe.
When we celebrate our forgiveness. Lord, I believe.
When we are reminded that we are a child of God. Lord, I believe.
When we walk through the darkest valley. Lord, I believe.
When we see the cross. Lord, I believe.
When the light of Easter dawn breaks through. Lord, I believe.
Sometimes, we may not have a good eye for where Jesus is; sometimes we are blind.
But we have a God who does miraculous things. Lord, I believe.
The Gospel of John really puts a preacher through their paces. John, as you may notice, is very different from the other stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. While there are definite similarities, John goes his own way, using images and analogies throughout.
Today, like almost always, is more of the same. It’s another hard, convoluted, literal and figurative speech from Jesus. John quotes Jesus as saying one thing, but rarely does what he says only mean one thing. There are layers and angles and depth. It really makes us work a bit!
The benefit with today’s passage, though, is we’ve already seen much of this language. In John 4, where Jesus meets the woman at the well, Jesus says he will give a spring of living water that gushes up to eternal life. Last week, from John 6, we heard Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus is the one who satisfies hunger and thirst - literally and spiritually.
We also get a familiar character back: Nicodemus. He reappears after his secret visit to Jesus at night back in chapter 3. At that point, Jesus talked of Spirit and water and birth, themes that are brought up again today.
Jesus gives water to the thirsty. On the surface, this is simple enough. But much like last week with the bread of life, we can focus on a couple of meanings - both of which can be true.
First, a drink for those who are thirsty is something good. We’ve had that be true in our own lives when we were parched, but it was particularly true in Jesus’ time. You don’t need to know a whole lot about geography to know that when and where Jesus lived, it was hot. It was arid. A drink was hard to come by. No faucets, no plastic bottles, no easy way to get something to drink. Plus, there’s the bright, shining sun. There’s lots of walking. There’s dust and sand. All things that make one pretty thirsty, I’d say.
And into that context, Jesus says he’ll give you a drink. He’ll make sure you aren’t thirsty. That's good news, very good news. Jesus gives drink to the thirsty.
But also like last week, where bread wasn’t just food for eating but connected to something more in communion, this living water imagery flowing out, connected with the Spirit… it spills over into baptism.
It is in baptism that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. It is in baptism that we are washed free from sin and death by being joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism, God incorporates us into the body of Christ, the Church. And because of God’s once-for-all action in Christ, baptism is for all, for all time.
Yes, baptism is all that, means all that. But here, Jesus focuses on the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the emphasis. Because, to rehash some of what I said last week, “just water” is not Gospel. And so Jesus promises us more than just a drink - he promises living water and Spirit.
Because without the Spirit, water is plain water. But with the promises of God, baptism is the grace-filled water of life and a bath of new birth in the Holy Spirit. It is God’s work through that water by which we are given these promises. Everything depends on the promises of God.
Ok, so that was a lot of theological jibber jabber. And to be fair, I quoted a lot of Martin Luther and the ELCA’s “Use of the Means of Grace.” But what I think John is doing here is connecting who Jesus is as water-giver, life-giver, and spirit-giver to our life as baptized children of God.
Like I mentioned earlier, rarely does John ever have Jesus say one thing and only mean it one way. There is always something deeper. John is saying that Jesus gives us the water we need to live - live now and life forever. And it is through baptism - through water and the Spirit - that Jesus promises to take care of us, to claim us, to cleanse us and nourish us.
Because the baptismal promises are forever, we can always remember, always affirm, always trust those promises of God. And passages like today give us the opportunity to remember the promises God makes, the gifts God gives, and the Spirit that flows in us and through us and from us.
And I emphasize “always” because all this baptismal talk comes at the beginning of our lesson. It’s not the climax of the passage; it’s the starting point. Because as Jesus wraps up his promise to give water, the crowd starts to question. They become divided. They get angry, even.
It reminds us that birth through Spirit and water doesn’t always mean the rest of it is going to be smooth sailing. There will be confusion, disagreement, people angry, us angry. It is the broken life we live.
And this is a bit of a turning point in John. While there are lots of threads that are pulled together in this text from weeks past - past characters, familiar themes, and so on - now we start to look toward what is to come. We lean toward Lent; these small grumblings are the first steps on the journey to the cross. The cross which is the ultimate sign of our brokenness.
But even now, God’s promises are true. Always.
Even at the cross the promises of God remain true. The cross isn’t the end for Jesus. Death doesn’t win. The tomb doesn’t stay closed. There certainly is new life, resurrected life, eternal life. Because God’s promises are true. Always.
Those are the promises we, too, receive from God in baptism. That we are joined to Jesus through the Holy Spirit and that whatever is true for him is true for us. Though tough times appear, though death comes, though our faith may feel parched, God’s promises remain true. Always.
Jesus gives us living water in baptism. Living water that quenches our questions about if we belong or not. Living water that satisfies our souls. Living water that flows out through the Spirit.
And here’s the thing about water - particularly living water – it never stays in the same place. Water, both literal and figurative, shapes and changes the area around it. The whole face of the earth has been and continues to be shaped by water that flows, streams, and moves.
The same is true for us because of baptism. Not only are we given promises of forgiveness, belonging, and life always, but our lives continue to be shaped and guided by the flowing, living water of baptism. And these waters don’t just just change us, but change the world around us because these waters flow out from us. The living waters of Christ flow through us, out into the world through our words and our actions, through our generosity and support, through service and care for our neighbor. God’s living waters flow through us to change the world.
Baptism is the starting point - the starting point of God’s promises to you. Despite what happens from that point of water and spirit, God’s promises always deliver.
Water is just plain water, but with the Spirit it is the promise of life that flows. Always.
The cross is just a couple of wooden beams, a tool of death, but with the Spirit, it is salvation. Always.
And we are people who have been given that same Spirit, the Spirit that flows, the Spirit that saves, the Spirit to make us children of God. Always.
I have many memories of my grandmother, and a lot of them revolve around food. There were Sunday dinners after church and fancy meals like on Thanksgiving. I had my seat on the corner so my left elbow didn’t knock into someone as I ate. (I still look for the appropriate spots on the corners for meal time.) The food was always enough: turkey or ham or pot roast; plenty of southern vegetables - corn (on the cob if in season), butter beans, green beans with the potatoes in there, dinner rolls. And, if it was my birthday, a chocolate pound cake with chocolate frosting. A lot of my memories of my grandmother revolve around food.
But there are other memories, too, lessons she taught me - not so much by sitting me down and talking, but more her example in life - who she was and how she lived. Her involvement with church. Her cutting out prayers from the newspaper for me to read at meals. Her demeanor, her presence, her self.
She made me comfort food and taught me how to behave. Which is just like Jesus. Is Jesus a grandma? He feeds us and teaches us how to live.
So, let’s get some context for our passage from John. This sermon from Jesus comes right after he miraculously fed the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread. Here, Jesus is speaking to people he has already fed. He is elaborating and explaining what that miracle means after they are already physically full.
I think that is important to know. Because Jesus isn’t saying, “don’t worry about your next meal; only focus on spiritual things. Don’t worry about putting food on the table, just think about me.” No, Jesus has already fed these people - fed them abundantly - there’s extra food, more than they could eat! He knows we need to eat.
But then he uses that meal as a springboard to say, “there’s more.” Jesus feeds them, then starts teaching them how to behave, how to live the life of faith that God draws them and us into. Jesus lets them know that there is more than just “more and more” of what you already have.
Because “just food” is not the Gospel. “Just bread” is not Good News. But the Bread of Life… that IS good news.
He uses the examples of the Israelites and manna. For a little refresher, after the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. God provided manna daily. But, Jesus said, those who ate that bread still died. The bread Jesus gives provides eternal life. In fact, Jesus is both the giver of the bread that feeds them today and IS the bread that nourishes unto eternal life.
Jesus does give bread for day to day living, but Jesus is also the bread of life, the living bread who makes us alive, now and forever. There is life (pulse, heartbeat, brainwaves) and there’s LIFE; there’s living (punching the clock, going through the motions, day-to-day routine) and there’s LIVING.
And Jesus gives both. Jesus is both.
Jesus saying that he is the bread which came down from heaven,
That he is food that is better than manna,
That he is the bread of life… well, that got people grumbling and complaining at the beginning of today’s text. When people complain or are confused about something we’re saying, we usually try to make the point more gently, more acceptable, more clear, less open to objection. Instead, Jesus makes the claim even more bold, graphic, and somewhat offensive.
At the end of our text, Jesus defines the bread that he will give as his own flesh. Such a statement seems designed to make people nervous and worried about just what following Jesus might involve.
But Jesus gives us himself. His body. His flesh. For the life of the world. This is both a surprising fact and a meaningful promise.
It’s surprising because it’s not expected. Even though we know what is going to happen before this gospel story is complete, Jesus giving his literal body is still a shock. But Jesus does it for life, for life that lasts. On the cross, he offers up his body, his flesh, and because of that, we have true life.
But also, we hear this and we immediately think of communion, too. The eating and drinking language will do that. But in the communion meal, Jesus gives us himself, he is truly present. His life is in us. Jesus abides in us, and we abide in him. We get that life Jesus promises - life for now (our daily bread) and life eternal (living bread).
The Bread of Life gives us what we need for now and for forever.
And I think it is fitting that Jesus comes to us through eating and drinking in a special meal.
When I think of communion, I think of those special meals in my life - like the ones I mentioned earlier with my grandmother, or the ones I have now with extended family, and even the ones where it is just the four of us around our little kitchen table. Those meals shape me, they feed me - they feed my stomach, but they also feed my soul. I am fed with wonderful food, I am fed by being around those who are special to me, I am fed by the love and community that is there… in that meal, at that meal. That is living and that is life. And it is just a foretaste of the feast to come.
At communion, we as the family of God, from all times and all places, are gathered together. Jesus feeds us - feeds our stomachs and feeds our souls. Jesus feeds us love and community to strengthen us as we live. And in the meal, Jesus shapes us, nourishes us, and teaches us. And as we continue to eat and drink, as we gather to be fed, we find our spot at God’s table. We always have our spot.
Jesus as the Bread of Life is a full, dense passage. But at the end of the day, it’s about Jesus giving us himself so that we may live. It is about Jesus giving us his flesh - on the cross, in the meal, so that we may be fed and that we may live, live now, and live forever. It is about us living, and it is about more than just living. It is life.
Jesus feeds us.
Jesus gives us life.
Jesus teaches us how to truly live.
And we live, through him, with him, in him, because he is the bread of life.
Our Gospel story for today is an analogy for the life of faith.
This is a miracle story, or rather, a “sign,” as John’s Gospel calls them. Today, Jesus returns to Cana, where he previously turned gallons of water into wine. He is encountered by a royal official whose son is near death.
Abundant, celebratory wine is one thing; healing a boy from near death is another. While both of these signs are meant to point us to God’s glory, this healing shows us even more about what God wants and desires.
But it didn’t seem like Jesus was actually going to do it. Like at the wedding in chapter 2, Jesus is a bit put off by doing something impressive. He snipps at this guy similarly to how he snips at his mother. “You won’t believe unless you are dazzled by a miracle!”
It doesn’t seem to take much to convince Jesus, though, because just one, short sentence later, Jesus tells the man, “go home. Your son will live.” Jesus just speaks the words, makes this miraculous healing happen from a distance. It is a sign, not just that Jesus and God can heal, but they have power to do it from afar. It reveals God’s glory and power.
I opened the sermon by saying that this story is an analogy for the life of faith. And I think some people will hear that and connect “faith” with “healing.” If we have faith, we or a loved one will be healed; more faith means more healing.
Because isn’t that what this story is about? Healing would be a sign for us, right? A sign to have or to secure our faith?
We all look for signs:
signs that we are on the right path,
signs about what we should do,
signs that our faith is validated.
But we can be distracted, obsessed by these signs, which may be why Jesus is so flippant about them. Wine? Healing? Jesus doesn’t want us to see the sign and the sign only. Jesus’ mission isn’t to give us what we want, but rather, what we need. “Y’all won’t believe unless you are dazzled by a miracle!”
Faith in this story isn’t created because of the healing. Nor do we see the healing because Jesus saw this man’s faith. Faith and healing aren’t all that connected. Instead, faith is what happens after Jesus makes the promise.
Faith is what happens after Jesus makes the promise. “Go. Your son will live.” The man has zero proof that this is true. And he has to walk all the way home without actually knowing if the promise is fulfilled or not. We don’t know how far he had to go - a short ways or a long ways, but either way, it probably felt like it took a lifetime. But he starts out, even though he can’t see or verify; he just trusts that what Jesus says is true.
And that is the analogy to our life of faith. That is what hits home for me.
We live in the middle of this story. We are told of the promise, told of what Jesus proclaims, told that God so loves the world… and then we journey through life, hoping in that promise, living as if that promise of life is true. And we have to walk without actually seeing the outcome, without actually knowing what we’ll find when we go home. That’s what it means to live by faith.
And I sure wish it was easier sometimes. I wish I would get more signs that slap me in the face and let me know exactly how things are going to work out along the journey - miracles to help me avoid pitfalls, signs to direct me forward, something to let me see and know and have a whole-hearted, without a shadow of a doubt, iron-clad, locked and loaded faith.
But Jesus doesn’t give us what we want. Jesus gives us what we need.
And at the end, this man finds life. The man arrives home, and he finds it just as Jesus said. Jesus gives him the word, the promise of life, and yes, of course it is true. Of course Jesus upholds the promise. There is life at the end of this man’s journey.
His journey along the way, like our journey now, was one of faith in a God who brings life.
In the end, it means life. God always means life.
And the thing is, we have even more of the story than this royal official did. Sure, meeting Jesus face-to-face is a check mark in his favor, but we know more of the story - more of what God truly has in store, more to know that nothing - nothing in life or death - will stop the life God promises.
In the ultimate “we get the sign we need, not the sign we want,” Jesus dies, dies on a cross. There is no way that is the sign we would be looking for to show us that Jesus is the Savior of the world. In fact, the cross was a big sign for death. It read, “the end.”
And when Jesus didn’t act the way humanity demanded, we made an example of him - a sign to others to fall in line or this is what happens to you. And God took our sign of pain and death and fear, and God turned it into the sign that shows us life, life eternal.
What once was a sign of pain and suffering, God turned into healing and victory. God gives us the sign we need, not the sign we want.
Here’s another way God does this: In a simple meal made of wheat and grapes, Christ is present. It’s not fancy or expensive or rare even - things we might think of as “special.”
Instead, communion, like Jesus’ presence, is earthy, common, easy to come by. Communion is the promised way Jesus dines with us, feeds us, nourishes our faith. The bread and cup are the glory of God, signs that point us to the love and life Jesus promises. Jesus gives us the sign we need, not the sign we want.
In healings, signs, miracles, sacraments, community, song, story, cross, empty tomb… each step of the way, Jesus has shown us that life is true, the promise is true. He doesn't just want to give us what we want, but truly what we need. And what we need is the life he offers. We need what Jesus promises to us.
And of course, Jesus’ promise is true. It is true for this man, who finds life at the end of his journey. And the promise of life is true for us, too. God in Jesus promises life. And God promises it for us, maybe not in ways we want, but in ways that are true, ways that we need. In healing. In the cross. In an empty tomb. All for life. All because that is what we need.
In a lot of ways, our story for today is the opposite of what we heard last week. In the previous chapter of the Gospel of John, he introduces us to Nicodemus, a Jewish, priestly man, who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night.
The character who stands with Jesus at center stage of Chapter 4 is a woman who comes at high noon. We don’t know her name, but we do know she is of Samaritan descent. Even if we don’t fully grasp what all that means, John goes out of his way to tell us. First, Jews and Samaritans don’t get along (see verse 9); second, women and men generally keep a safe social distance from each other (see verse 27).
One similarity between these two encounters, however, is that Jesus speaks to both metaphorically, offering spiritual truths via concrete symbols and images, meant to lead us into a deeper understanding of the truth about the abundant life God offers.
And we, again, get differences after our characters hear these metaphors: Niccodemus leaves, still in the dark about who Jesus is. For this woman, however, the light comes on, and she clearly sees Jesus for who he truly is.
Her revelation all starts when Jesus asks for a drink of water. This woman is surprised for the reasons I mentioned earlier: Jews don’t associate with Samaritans, and men didn’t associate with women. She voices her shock, and Jesus offers her living water.
After some more dialogue where Jesus tells about this living water and describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet.” Now, in this Gospel, “seeing” is often connected with “believing.” We can go back to the night and day metaphor with Niccodemus and this woman; it is hard to see at night, when Nick leaves still uncertain. But when the sun is shining, all is clear as day. It’s easy to see, to believe. This is a confession of faith from the woman.
And why? What made her see? What made her believe?
Well, Jesus has seen her. He has recognized her for who she is, where she is. He has spoken to her, with her. He has offered her something of tremendous worth: acceptance of who she is, past and all.
Now, a lot of people look at this woman and see someone really immoral, someone with a shady past. Yet if we read what is written and don’t bring in our own bias, we discover that there is nothing in the passage that makes that an obvious interpretation. Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus, at no point, invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed, been abandoned, been divorced, or married off to her dead husband's brothers, as was the law. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.
And Jesus sees the heartbreak. He sees what she has been through. He sees how the world looks at her differently. In telling her that one thing, Jesus sees her. He notices her, pays attention to her, counts her as worthy of his attention and concern. He sees her, not as a Samaritan or a woman, but as a fellow human being and child of God. And to someone who has been overlooked all of her life – and is again dismissed by the disciples – this is, indeed, everything. Jesus sees her.
While she comes for mere water, Jesus offers her something lasting, something eternal, something living. When Jesus speaks of her past so knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. She confesses her faith. She believes. She gets so excited she has to go tell others about it.
What is surprising is that when the woman goes, she leaves her water jar behind. I mean, that’s the whole point of why she came to the well in the first place, to draw water and take it home. Yet she leaves it behind, not only failing at her chore but abandoning her jar altogether.
Which is, of course, John’s point. In meeting Jesus, this woman has discovered living water and, just as Jesus promised, she will not need her water jar anymore. And so she leaves it behind in her great excitement to tell others what she has found.
Jesus sees you. Jesus sees you. He sees where you have been, where you’ve had heartache, where things haven’t gone your way. He sees where you’ve messed up, where you wish things would have gone differently, where you are running on empty. He sees you. Jesus sees all of you.
We often go to the wells of our world to get filled up, but we all know we’ll be back. We know that what the world gives will satisfy… for a bit. But then, we’re right back, looking for the next thing the world tells us will fill us up. But Jesus meets us, Jesus sees us, and Jesus offers something that lasts, truly lasts.
Jesus offers you living water. He offers you life. He offers all that we normally work for, hope for, strive for, sacrifice for. He offers all we need, and Jesus continues to offer it to us with a spring of water, gushing up to eternal life. No need to return to the world’s well. Eternal life, eternal satisfaction, eternal peace.
Jesus sees us, and he gives us what we eternally need: acceptance, welcome, being truly seen, and being truly loved. That kind of knowledge and love truly is life giving. And with Jesus, we are filled forever.
When that truly sinks in, when we get it, when the light comes on… we can’t help but react like this woman - leave those things we think we need - and go tell the world the extraordinary news of the one who sees us truly and deeply, loves us as we are, and then commissions us to share this news with others. Because of what we share, others can also be seen, known, and counted as worthy, too.
And maybe, as that spring of living water in us continues to flow, we don’t just tell about Jesus, but we start to be like Jesus. We start to notice others, see others. Like Jesus, we can slow down and take the time to really see our friends, our children, our spouse, our co-workers, our neighbors, and those we don’t even know. When Jesus does it for this woman, he changes her life. What lives can be changed because of the living water in us, flowing out and filling another? By seeing another and offering love, acceptance, grace?
If we can do this, who knows what may follow!
Jesus sees, Jesus knows, Jesus loves someone as unlikely as this nameless Samaritan woman - someone as unlikely as us. Jesus gives us all that we need for eternity. And because of that, we can go and bear witness to the one who enlightens our lives, who fills us with eternal life, who is living water - water enough to satisfy even our deepest thirst. Forever.
As we have already seen in our short time with John’s Gospel, it is distinct from the other three stories of Jesus’ life in a number of ways. Mostly, it follows a different plotline than the other ones, who all seem to follow Mark’s original work. John seems to follow his own path.
We see this divergence early on in the story. After being heralded by John the Baptist, Jesus turns water into wine in what appears to be an impromptu miracle - or, rather, in John’s gospel, a sign of God’s activity in the world showing us Jesus’ identity and purpose. This “sign” is only documented in John.
Then, last week we heard about Jesus’ driving the moneychangers out of the Temple. This happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end (like in the other Gospels). There could be many reasons for John placing that story there, but regardless, it is a different pattern than what we are used to.
And then finally, if you were wondering where I was going with all this, John also introduces us to characters we don’t meet anywhere else, characters like Nicodemus.
Now, there are two things that grab our attention in this passage. The first thing, which actually comes second, is the world’s most famous Bible verse. “For God so loved the world…” And the second thing, which is actually the first thing, is Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus.
Nicodemus, John tells us, is a Pharisee and leader of the Jews. And he is curious about Jesus. Little wonder. Jesus has caused quite a stir. His actions in the Temple would have been unheard of, yet his signs and wonders, as Nicodemus confesses, testify that he has come from God. And so Nicodemus comes to question Jesus, to learn more of him, and to make some decision, we gather, about him.
And he, like we most likely, get distracted by Jesus’ answers.
Born from above? What in the world does that mean? Nicodemus assumes Jesus is speaking about rebirth - “born again” - which, as he points out, is absurd if taken literally. Jesus goes on to explain his meaning. He clarifies that being born “from above” does not mean “again” but rather being born of “water and the Spirit,” making it plain that he is not speaking of physical but of spiritual birth. That kind of language - especially in Lutheran circles - has us scratch our heads and grabs our attention.
And speaking of grabbing attention, what does that more than John 3:16? It’s almost as if nothing else in this passage matters. This verse proclaims God’s salvation for the world, founded on divine love. The focus is on how God’s love is manifested. This is the way in which God loves the world: God gives us Jesus. Wow. That is something to focus on.
Both the beginning and the ending of this passage draw our attention, control our gaze, and distract our thoughts from other pieces of the text. It’s confusing, ethereal, spiritual… it’s deep, it’s giving, it’s love. Such heady, deep, attention-grabbing subjects.
And I do think the open and close of this passage distracts us. The convoluted conversation of “born again” and the deeply meaningful, famous verse each draw our attention from a subtle line right in the middle: “if I tell you of earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” It’s subtle, but it is real, tangible, earthy.
God starts with the earthly, so that we may glimpse the heavenly. In fact, both these attention-grabbing pieces of our passage have their roots in something tangible and real.
Being born from above isn’t about an untouchable occurrence; it’s about water and the Spirit. It’s about the presence of God in water, water that washes, water that claims, water that rebirths you as a child of God. Baptism is the place, the actual point, the physical thing - whenever we see water, a font, we can know and definitively say, “yes, God has claimed me. God has made sure I am born of the spirit.” It’s about something tangible and something real.
In John 3:16, the love isn’t shown from afar with words or well wishes; it’s not a lecture or a mere declaration; God’s love comes to us in a human, in THE Word becoming flesh. Love is seen in incarnation and the cross, tangible things that show us divine love of a fallen world.
It is through the earthly things that we get a glimpse of the heavenly things.
And God still works that way. Despite the ways we get distracted - be it through convoluted theological concepts or brief, profound moments - God still shows up in the humble, earthly ways so that we can experience heavenly love and grace.
God does this in sacraments - in baptism, in the meal. God forgives us, renews us, heaps goodness upon us. God is seen in community, in support, in care from another human being. God wants us to see and feel what heaven is like, not just in extreme ways, but in everyday ways. God delivers in real bread, real wine, real water, real stories.
Now, back to Nicodemus for a bit. As he talks with Jesus, even at this point in the story, Jesus is aware of what is going to happen, of the crucifixion that is coming. It’s why he uses this image: “Like the serpent lifted up in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
It’s more heady, deep, theological ponderings. But Jesus is preparing Nicodemus to see the heavenly even in the worst part of the earthly. That even there, even on the cross, God’s love for the world is shown. It’s a pattern that has stretched through time - from creation, through the Israelites and Moses, to Jesus.
And Nicodemus must’ve picked up on that pattern of divine love in earthly ways. Because at the end of the Gospel, he’s there, taking Jesus’ body down from the cross and helping to lay it in the tomb. He makes public affirmation of his faith in Jesus through his actions. Through tangible things.
And that just might be an example for us. Like he does for Nicodemus, Jesus points us through the distractions, points us to all the ways, all the earthly, physical, present ways he is working, even when it seems like he isn’t. Even when we miss his subtlety. Even in the earthly.
And our response is to live out that faith with action. To live out love in the best ways we can, in whatever circumstances we are in.
We adapt our plans for providing food in the midst of an ice storm.
We share grace in the midst of sadness and grief.
We display patience as we know God will work.
We proclaim love with how we respond to others.
We respond to the love that God has shown the world; we live that love out, then we step back and see what happens. Sure, sometimes we get distracted and don’t live out love in ways that are earthy, tangible enough. But sometimes we do. Sometimes, the Spirit nudges us just enough that our new birth and new life show up in earthy, tangible love - a love that helps others - and us - to see the heavenly.
The wedding at Cana is a wonderful story, full of life and joy. Yet it is also one of the more difficult texts in John’s Gospel, not because of its basic themes, but because of the way Jesus treats his mama! A southern boy would never get away with speaking to his mother that way. Bless his heart, right?
But in all seriousness, that is just one of the areas where we can focus in this miracle story, a sign of who Jesus is and what Jesus comes to do.
But back to Jesus’ relationship with his mom: there is more to it than just his seemingly rude behavior. Jesus appears to distance himself from her, but the key point is that Jesus’ “hour has not yet come.” What does he mean?
Another area of focus could be that Mary knows. Mary knows. Despite how Jesus speaks, the mother of Jesus acts as if her son has given her a clear “yes” to her request. With complete confidence, she tells the servants to go ahead and “do whatever he tells you.” It shows her faith in Jesus.
We could also ponder why this is such a big deal. Not the actual miracle part, but the “why do a miracle” part. In that day and time, if this family ran out of wine for their party, it would be shameful. They would be forever known as “that family” - you know, the ones who ran out of wine. It would be like in high school. You get toilet paper stuck on your shoe one time and it is forever remembered.
Then, of course, there is the whole miracle of the situation, the fact that Jesus turned hundreds of gallons of water into the best wine in an instant. No extra grapes. No fermentation time. New wine. Just. Like. That.
And there is even more - the eucharistic, communion aspect.
The fact that in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mom only shows up here and then at the foot of the cross. Wine is instrumental in both scenes.
The pondering of what this “first sign” leads to - a foretaste of what is to come.
All this runs through a preacher’s head. But to me, at least this week, this story is all about abundance. Abundant goodness. Or, as John has already mentioned in chapter one, it is about “grace upon grace.”
And it is not just abundance, but good abundance. This is no three-dollar bottle you find in the discount section, but the best, the top shelf, and plenty of it. It is more than quantity; it is quality, too. This is the type of abundance that Christ gives. This is what Christ ushers into our world. This is a demonstration of God’s abundant goodness and grace in a wonderful, joyous way.
As we transition into a new year, we often reflect on the year that just came to a close. We look back and take it in. And what a year it was. I’m sure you’ve already done some of your own reflecting - what was good, what was bad, what was painful, what was abundant.
And so, as we at St. Philip start to get a fuller picture of last year, it was obvious that one thing that was abundant was your generosity. Thank you for the ways you moved the mission forward, despite all that was going on in our world and in your lives.
Your generosity was indeed abundant - so abundant that giving surpassed our budget expectations and expenses. We ended the year in positive financial territory. And that’s nice, for sure, but really what that means is your generosity did good things; quality things; Christ-like, abundant things.
Kind of obviously, we kept the building functioning and staff paid. But that translates to a space that not just was open, but even freshened up here in the sanctuary and elsewhere. We were able to share worship online (nearly) every single week, sharing Good News with people who couldn’t make it, can’t make it in-person. We had quality, beautiful, uplifting music as we worshiped. We were able to adapt bulletins and the service to accommodate for changing protocols, done by a Parish Administrator who sees her job as ministry, not simply making copies of stuff. And all that helped keep a certain curly-headed pastor somewhat sane. Your generosity was a reflection of God’s abundant goodness and grace in a wonderful, joyous way.
But beyond us, your abundant generosity gave a safe space for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol to gather and to get support so they could stay clean and live better, healthier lives. Your abundant generosity provided a space for the homeless to sit, rest, and be served a warm meal without being told to “move along.” You helped give St. Philip Preschool a chance to grow and teach kids from all walks of life - and now our school is thriving in creativity and excitement and quality education.
Your abundant generosity made good ministry happen, continue, and set it on the path to grow and expand even more than it already has.
And not to sound like the late night TV ads, but wait! There’s more. You were generous above and beyond even what I’ve already mentioned. Yes, we kept ministry going quite well in the past year, but even more than that, you gave beyond St. Philip Lutheran Church. This past year, we donated more money to outside groups and benevolences than we have in the eight years I’ve been here - maybe ever.
Not only monetarily, but you continually gave food for Helping Hand. Hundreds of pounds of food. People could get food they needed, as well as make sure their heat was on for another month. Your gifts make differences in the lives of real people.
You ensured Help4Kids was able to provide school supplies and food for the weekends. You supported Mobile Meals and Meals on Wheels to make sure homebound, elderly, and veterans had a meal delivered to them - and, maybe just as important as a meal, they had human interaction, care, and a smile. Christmas in July brought joy and hope to dozens of kids in foster care and at foster homes. Those kids’ lives are difficult, and you were able to give them gifts to bring happiness and light.
That’s not even everything! Your generosity was abundant, living out the quality, goodness, and abundance that Jesus shares. Your generosity made a difference, a quality difference in the lives of - no exaggeration - thousands of people.
But, that is what God calls us to, and that is what God models for us. Jesus shows us God’s abundant, quality and quantity blessings. And once God starts blessing, God doesn’t know when to stop. The wedding feast keeps on going.
And we will keep on going, too. We will keep pointing to Christ in worship. We will keep opening our building for those who need support. We will keep giving beyond ourselves to make a difference in the lives of people in Myrtle Beach and beyond. And we will do it abundantly, in the best ways we can, in ways that surprise maybe even ourselves. And we do it because we want to point to, reveal, show the abundance, grace, blessings, and life of God.
Because God first gave us abundance, grace, blessings, and life. God gives, despite whatever our circumstances are - if we are out of wine, out of hope, out of life. God blesses abundantly. God gives life and life in abundance. That reveals God’s glory.
So, moving forward in 2022 and beyond, we know that God heaps abundance on us in so many ways, filling our stone jars to the brim with the best wine. I look forward to seeing the abundance of God we get to share in 2022, all in the name of Christ.
Do you know the feeling of reading a good book? Not one that you had to read for class or maybe as a training course for work, but one that you picked up for fun and you simply could not put down? You enjoy the rise and fall of the story and become attached to the characters so much that you just have to tell someone else about it.
Or how about a new TV show that you really enjoyed? You laugh, you cry, you are on the edge of your seat, you are comforted at the resolution. You have to tell other people about it and want them to experience it for themselves.
The same thing can be said about sports games, video games, movies, and restaurants. There are so many good things to experience, and we often don’t have any trouble at all telling people that they need to experience it for themselves. We hope that they, too, might experience some of our emotions, feelings, and connections.
That is precisely what happens in our lesson for today. One disciple after another confronts Jesus. He has an experience that makes him want to tell someone else so that they will “come and see” this man and be changed by the experience. Come and see.
We continue from where we left off last week in John’s Gospel, with John the Baptist proclaiming, “here is the Lamb of God!” Because of John’s testimony last week, we know a little something about this. And yet, that title “Lamb of God” provokes curiosity. Don’t you want to know what that means? Don't you want to know how the book ends? Don’t you want to see that show?
That curiosity causes the disciples to go check it out for themselves. Jesus notices them and asks them a question: “what are you looking for?” I guess the disciples were surprised because they don’t really have anything good to say. “Uhh… where are you staying?”
Now, the interesting thing about these questions is that they can be read on two levels. There is the ordinary, straightforward way to look at them, with the mundane, everyday answers. “We’re looking for you.” “Oh, I’m staying about two blocks down, right next to the potter - across from the blacksmith.”
But there is also a deeper, spiritual level to them. “What are you looking for?” The Messiah, salvation, hope beyond hope. What is it we are looking for in our lives, in our faith? What are our deepest longings?
Even the disciples’ question back has more to it than meets the eye. They think they are asking “where are you staying?” but the way they phrase it, they literally ask, “Where do you abide?” Well, it is going to take the whole rest of the Gospel to determine that. That word “abide” will come up a lot in the next few months.
But I think this translates well into our lives and our world. We all have questions. Simple questions. Deep questions. Straightforward. Intricate. Difficult questions, easy questions, and difficult questions disguised as easy questions. Questions about life and church and Jesus and religion and living and what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do and what we have to do.
And when we ask, we want answers. We want someone to lay it all out. And there are places, people, and business operations that will gladly give us their answers. You’ll be told exactly what to think, say, do, give, and buy. These are the answers to your questions - deep or straightforward. Sometimes churches are even all too happy to give you those answers. If you don’t do things this way, then you aren’t experiencing Jesus correctly. You better watch out!
But here’s the thing about the questions the disciples asked: Jesus doesn’t answer them. There is no home address, no directions to where he is saying, no definitive answer. Instead, in the midst of their questions, Jesus offers an invitation instead of information. It’s an invitation to follow, to come, to form relationship, to see for yourself, to experience life with this Rabbi Jesus. Come and see.
Our questions, whatever questions they are, do not keep us separated from Jesus. A lack of answers isn't a wall between us and Jesus. Questions, instead, are the first step to invitation. We don’t need to have all our questions answered for discipleship to start. We bring our questions to Jesus. And Jesus invites us to come and see - and experience what he has to offer.
Jesus wants us to have a holy curiosity - a sense that we can take our questions and journey with Jesus as we encounter the answers. To Jesus, the answers to our questions aren’t so much words and sentences, something we can look up in a book. Instead, Jesus’ answer is, “just come along. Come and see.” Jesus wants us to see, feel, interact with him and his mission. That is Jesus’ answer.
Much like, instead of me telling you how the book ends, you read it for yourself.
Instead of me describing the amazing scene from the movie, you watch it yourself.
Instead of me telling you what it is, you get to feel it, be part of it.
Jesus says, “join in.” Experience it. Come. See.
Jesus invites us to come and see for ourselves, to experience himself in ways that may not answer our immediate questions, but instead gives us answers of a different sort. These answers are lived. Shown. Surprising. Transforming.
This new year brings a lot of questions with it to our lives, our world, and our congregation. Questions of COVID and what’s next, questions of when will we do this or why not that? But in the midst of the questions, we know that Jesus is present, and he says, “come and see.” Come and see the invitation to relationship. Come and see the invitation to community. Come and see the invitation to worship and serve and walking together in faith. Here is an invitation to something meaningful, something deeper than an over-simplistic, 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 this 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.
We don’t start with answers. We start with questions and an invitation. This is what the life of faith looks like; it’s a willingness to walk with Jesus. It’s a chance to experience God’s answers, not just be told.
So maybe we should embody the answers for others. We should be the answer 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 be filled with life.
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 the Gospel of 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 Pharisees who sent them are NOT 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 to 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 deliverance 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, eccentric package like 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? There are, of course, ways we can serve and point: feeding the hungry, living out generosity in what God has allowed us to use, engaging in worship and small groups and devotions that challenge 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 opportunities every 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 from 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, the Lamb who takes away the Sin of the world.
Luke, chapter 2, is the classic Christmas story. It is part of our DNA as Christians. As I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, we need the shepherds and angels and a manger to really make it feel like Christmas.
And now, Christmas eve is here. We have heard the story once again - some of us for nearly the 100th time. And yet, no matter how many times we hear it, no matter how many Christmases come and go, we still have emotions and feelings and expectations.
There is wonder and beauty from the lights and decorations. There is joy - joy seen in kids ripping paper off packages to find out what is hidden inside. There is love - love we share among family and friends. There is peace - peace as things calm down, peacefulness inside us as we sit and listen to the melodies of favorite carols. Christmas is a time where these emotions are felt a bit more regularly.
And I hope that those emotions are here tonight, that you have these feelings as we celebrate this night. But, if we’re honest, those probably aren’t the only feelings we have. It’s been a long year since last Christmas. Our own families have had various stresses and surprises - new additions to the family, or the loss of someone near and dear.
Beyond that, our world kept grinding on with positive steps and then a downward turn. There has been so much disruption and difficulty, unfulfillment, loss of experiences and people. There is weariness and fatigue from COVID, with a news cycle that keeps churning, causing people to vacillate between panic and indifference. We’ve come so far, yet we still haven’t made it to where we want to be.
So many emotions, so many feelings, so much weariness.
We come to the Christmas story with our emotions, all of our emotions, ranging from excitement to fatigue. I think in reading this story, hearing it again, bringing all those emotions is appropriate. As we journey with Mary and Joseph, there is excitement over the baby to be born. There is weariness from a long, seemingly never ending journey. There is love in their family, and there is pain and confusion about what is and what will be. And as they reach the end of their journey, as they finally knock on the door… the door stays closed. Yes, of course. The way things are going, this is not surprising at all. We’ve come so far, yet we still haven’t made it to where we want to be, neither us nor Mary and Joseph.
In the frustrations and weariness and uncertainty, can God still show up? Can God really still act? Can God be with us in the midst of all that we feel?
Yes, God shows up.
Yes, God acts.
Yes, God is with us in the midst of all that we feel.
That is the hope we have from the Christmas story. God is born into the midst of everything we feel. God unexpectedly works around it all. God meets us in our darkness with a ray of light. God speaks into our silence with the cry of a baby child. God responds to our human experiences in a way that gives hope and life.
For you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
God does this to bring us hope. Tangible hope. Hope that is present in flesh and blood, skin and bones, and it is lying in a manger.
Against all odds, in the face of all that seems hopeless, in spite of long emotional journeys and closed doors, God brings the thrill of hope, and the weary world rejoices. God’s hope creates new possibilities. God’s hope gives us a savior. God’s hope gives us a promise, the promise of something we cannot do.
Jesus is God’s hope for us, and it all starts at Christmas. And now we see, we really see, that no matter what may come, no matter how our emotions sway, no matter what, God will prevail. God’s love will win. God ensures life.
Our lives are full of emotions, emotions we can create, share, and sometimes control. But hope, that ultimate hope, it only comes from God. That is the gift of God in Jesus Christ. That is the gift of Christmas. Hope in a way we can see, hope in a way that lives, hope that God always has the last word - and that word is good news of great joy for all the people.
In Jesus, we have hope in a God who is stronger than this, stronger than death, stronger than how we feel. I don’t know what next Christmas will bring. I don’t know what next week will bring. But, tonight, I know we have hope. We have hope because of that baby born in Bethlehem. Hope because God opens the doors to everlasting life. Hope because God is with us on the journey, hope because God will carry us through, hope because God will never stop.
May the God of hope
Fill you with the hope of Christ
this Christmas, and forevermore.
Can you imagine a Christmas without angels? Without shepherds or wise men or stars? Without Mary or Joseph or a manger? That is hard for us to do. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas when the gang’s not all here. We love to see children dressed in sparkly halos, construction paper donkey ears, and over-sized shepherd robes. Hearing them belt out the first verse of “Away in a Manger” or “Go Tell it on the Mountain” – that, for many people, is Christmas, stage-frightened children included.
But you don’t see many children’s Christmas pageants based on John, chapter 1, do you? And probably for good reason. What does the costume look like for “the Word”?
Though we aren’t quite there yet, John tells us a different kind of Christmas story. It’s more of a prologue to what is to come. It has less to do with characters and virgin births – less about painting a picture in our imagination – and more about those things that hit us in the heart and soul. John tells the Christmas story in a way that highlights God’s actions from the beginning of all time to here, today, and now.
John begins with creation, repeating the opening line of scripture. “In the beginning, God created… In the beginning was the Word…” John, like the author of Genesis, is talking about creation, a new creation in Christ.
God’s Word has been present since before creation; and now, God’s Word has come to take on flesh and bone and dwells among us. God did this to bring life. Here’s another way to put it: we needed light in the darkness of this world. God’s Word comes to contend with that darkness, to combat darkness with the light of true life. And, as verse five says, “the darkness did not overcome it.” God’s Word brings light.
Because there sure is darkness still lurking, causing pain and grief and uncertainty. In our lives, in the lives of our families, in our world, darkness obscures our hope.
It is into this darkness that God gives the promise of light. Christmas is the promise that God’s Word shines in the darkness, that God’s Word shines in OUR darkness and in our lives, no matter what. Because now, we are no longer defined by what shadows are cast around us, but defined by God’s only Son, who is full of grace and truth.
And not only does light shine, but this light changes those who see it. This light brings the power to be children of God, to be created new. In the beginning, God created the world; and now, through God’s Word, we are created again, created to be children of God.
This is the new creation story John tells – the new creation story of us as God’s children. The important thing about Jesus’ birth aren’t stables and shepherds and mangers. What is important is that in Jesus’ birth, God comes to us, God gives us himself in a very particular, specific, and intimate way. It is a way that is hard to put into a Christmas program, but a way that means light and life for us. God’s Word creates life.
[The following paragraphs were removed from the recorded service.]
Because of God’s light born into our world,
no longer are we born of blood and only subject to human frailties;
or born of the flesh which often sabotages us by our misled desires;
nor are we born of the will of man, subjected to other’s urges and notions.
We are born of God. Created anew to live God’s intended purpose, live as God intended creation to be.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…”
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The darkness will not overcome it.
John tells us of this hope, of this promise as we wait for Christ to be born, for Christ to come, for Christ to come again.
[The recording resumes.]
This is the heart of Christmas for John – that God’s Word is born into this very world. God’s light pushes away the darkness, not just once, but always and forever. God’s glory has been shown to us in the Son. And really, the birth we celebrate isn’t just Jesus’. We celebrate OUR new birth as children of God. John makes it clear that because God’s Word comes and dwells with us, we are children of a loving and gracious God. And we are able, now, to see ourselves in that way.
We are called to reflect upon what God has indeed done for us – what God does for us. Through familiar Christmas hymns and festive music, through kids in costumes and things not always going to plan, on this day, on Friday, on Christmas Day, everyday God’s Word comes to us, encounters us, drives away our darkness with the promise that we are children of God.
To us, it may seem that John gets a lot of the details of the Christmas story wrong - or forgets them all together. But he does know what the heart and soul of the Incarnation is: that because Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s grace, takes on human flesh, we get to know the unknowable God and thus see ourselves as beloved children.
This is the gift of Christmas: a new identity, a new opportunity, a new humanity… all through God in Christ.
So, on this day,
may you be blessed to see Christ’s light through whatever shadows surround you.
May you be created anew, again, this day and everyday, through the light of life.
May you see God’s glory, glory as of God’s only son, full of grace and truth. Here, now, and forever.
Everyone has a favorite holiday activity. And at this point of December, we are in the throws of them all. There are those who love to decorate. On, after, or even before Thanksgiving, the boxes come out of the attic or the closet and lights, greenery, and tinsel are everywhere.
There are those who love the festive music and spirit of the season. Whether they be traditional Christmas carols or a modern take on an old Christmas song, having music in the background tips the mood in a festive slant.
There are those who love the gift giving aspect of this time of year. Whether online scrolling or going to an actual store, the hunt for the perfect gift is on! And while gift giving has never been my love language, as our kids have gotten older, it has brought me so much joy to watch them open up something I know they will love. And this year, we got them a… oh, wait. They’re here. I can’t tell you.
If I were pushed to pick my favorite thing about this time of year, it would have to be the foods and the meals. There are Christmas parties, and for the church-nerds, ADVENT parties because they happen before December 24th. In the Lee house, we do a lot of eating and celebrating this time of year: there is first Christmas, then a birthday, then real Christmas, then another birthday, and some years even a third Christmas. Plus, there is all the other stuff we are invited to do in between. Cookies and cakes, turkeys and hams (and tofu and beans), wine and festive drinks, chocolates and peppermints, meals and meals and meals.
Having many of those things as the setting of our lives right now, and standing at the cusp of the Christ child being born, here in worship we wrap up our journey through the Old Testament for this year. Isaiah gives us a whole lot to chew on.
There is a lot packed into a little bit of space, and one may wonder what in the world all this means. There are a few things Isaiah says that may stand out: foods like wine and milk, King David and covenant, my thoughts are not your thoughts, joy and peace and the word “myrtle” because, well, we’re in Myrtle Beach.
So, what is Isaiah getting at here? And why did I start off the sermon talking about Christmas parties? Well, the point of both is to highlight “abundance” - particularly, in Isaiah’s case, God’s abundance.
All throughout scripture, the main metaphor used for the abundance of God is a feast. The feast relays the abundance of God in a way that people of that time could easily connect with.
“Come and eat!” Isaiah says. Come, even if you can’t pay. This is good news for a people who had to struggle and work hard for food; good news for a people who only sparingly had rich foods, foods that were hard to come by and in limited supply. Come, everyone! God provides abundantly to everyone who thirsts, everyone who is hungry. God will provide food that is good, food that is rich and flavorful so that we can delight. It seems like those diets will have to wait.
Even toward the end of the passage, God is not stingy. God sends rain and snow to water the earth so that it will bring forth food, seed, bread. Good things will grow because of God’s abundance.
And surely there could be other metaphors for God’s abundance. It could be castles or fine clothes or piles of money. But the Bible doesn’t use those; Isaiah doesn’t use those. And for good reason, I think. What makes a feast abundant isn’t just the food. It’s more than that. God’s feast, like our festive meals and parties, are the context for something more.
It really is the people - the relationships - that make our feasts and God’s feast special. Eating a whole plate of Christmas cookies by myself isn’t all that much fun. It’s delicious, but not fun. A feast needs people, relationships, a gathering.
And that is what God provides, what God promises. God provides abundant food, but God also provides abundant life, relationship, and love.
Between our pieces of abundance - the feast and the earth producing - God promises an everlasting covenant - a steadfast, sure love. God is going to keep the promises made to David so long ago. God promises that the Word of God will do what God intends. And God intends abundance in so many ways.
God’s steadfast, sure love is an abundant feast. God’s steadfast, sure love is new, beautiful growth. God’s steadfast, sure love will not be cut off; God’s Word will do what God intends. And God intends abundant life.
Isaiah promises that God will do something new in place of the thorny, briery, bare offerings of the world. And in this season of Advent we wait for that promise to be fulfilled.
In a lot of ways, this passage is the most hope-filled we have heard over the past several weeks. Because right now, we can only get a foretaste of this feast. Our festive meals - while fun and filling in so many ways - in our homes, these feasts only come so close to what God offers. We could burn the pumpkin pie! Or, more seriously, our family could be divided, argumentative, even aggressive. Maybe family is missing. Maybe our favorite relationships won’t be gathered for decorations, cocoa, and cookies.
But God promises a feast, a true feast with food and life and relationship. And God accomplishes that by putting love at the center of the meal, a love so abundant, so rich, so wonderful that the table will span beyond our abilities, beyond our griefs, beyond our life and our death. God puts relationship at the center of the feast - a relationship founded on God’s Word, a word that is light and life, a Word that is Good News for all people.
And while we only get a foretaste, we do get a foretaste, a promise, a glimpse, a tangible way to hold in our hand God’s love and grace. Our Christmas feasts do give us a glimpse and a feeling of the fullness of God’s love and welcome. In communion, God promises to nourish us, to gather us, to set the table for us to be together. As we eat and drink, we are filled now with grace and love, and reminded of that abundant feast to come.
And in the Christ child to be born; in Christ who was crucified, died and buried; in Christ who now sits at the right hand of God and promises to come again, we see the fullness of God’s abundant promise of love. That though our tables fall short, though our feasts may miss a piece, though our meals might be really, really good, but still just a foretaste, there will be a feast - and not just food, but people, relationship, love. Jesus has and will make sure of that.
Because God puts abundant love at the center of the feast.
In Christ, we see the outcome. In Christ, we see God’s purpose. In Christ, we know God’s abundant love, now and forever.
This passage from the prophet Ezekiel is heavy, ominous, creepy. It can start off making us kind of squeamish, so let’s start by taking a big deep breath… in… and out… Hopefully that calms us a bit and orients us toward what God is doing here.
OK, so let’s jump in.
When we meet Ezekiel here, he is called by God out to a valley. The valley was strewn with dry bones. It is like a cinematic, post-war scene - bodies everywhere. Except they weren’t bodies any more. They were just bones - picked clean by scavengers, dried up by the hot sun. These people were not just sort of dead, but long dead. Dead as a doornail dead.
Ezekiel was relaying this prophecy to the people of Israel, the same Israel we heard about last week through the prophet Jeremiah. This same Israel who was exiled, apart from all they knew, distanced from God and wondering how long this would last. This people would hear this prophecy and immediately connect with it. For them, they are dead - and have been dead for a long time. Fragile. Empty. Lifeless.
But the vision continues.
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. And as he prophesied, there was a noise, a rattling. The bones moved and *snap* came together, bone to bone. We can hear the rattle and clicking of the bones as they rise up and form together. Kind of creepy. Then there appear sinews and muscles and skin. Even more creepy. And finally, there is wind from the four corners, wind that becomes breath, breath that gives spirit to these chunks of meat and bones. And they lived and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude of them.
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 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 - the one 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 buried 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 against the theme of Advent here a little bit… we don’t need to wait until we are a pile of dry bones for God’s spirit to come. In fact, God’s spirit is here, right now, right under your nose.
See, there is an interesting thing about this passage. In these 14 verses, Ezekiel uses the Hebrew word “ruach” 10 times. Ok, interesting, sure. But I don’t see any important word used 10 times. True; you probably don’t. That’s because in English we translate “ruach” as three separate things: spirit, breath, and wind.
To us, these things are all so different. 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!
But in Hebrew, to Israel, to Ezekiel, they are the same. For example, in Genesis, God’s ruach hovered over the waters at creation. God breathed ruach (breath) into the mud to create a man with ruach (spirit). This one word has all those connotations. And we are supposed to hear these words as the same thing.
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.
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.
So, how does this shape our lives? It is the constant reminder to us that God is near. God’s spirit is within us. God gives us life, new life, right now. It’s not something that happens only after we die. God works and is life-giving right now. In all that is going on, in the unpredictability and uncertainty, in our dry valleys, God’s wind blows giving us spirit and life.
Here at St. Philip, new life is springing up. In the routine and rhythmic ways of worship, through familiar pieces of the liturgy, in your consistent generosity, God’s life is breathed into us and into ministry.
And, of course, God also sends us gusts of change to bring life in ways we haven’t had. God’s wind is at our backs moving us forward to help us live out our faith in ways we haven’t had the motivation, creativity, or plan for - at least not in a while. There 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 comes to 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 baptismal waters and the spirit grabs a hold of us forever. God comes to what was lifeless and gives it breath. God comes. And not just one day, but to-day.
So take a breath. 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.”
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This line is one of the more famous verses in Jeremiah, and maybe even in all of scripture. It is used as comfort and inspiration. It’s a hope and a promise that God’s got this.
And that fits with the theme of the scripture passages we have read over the past couple of weeks. God’s justice and righteousness will come like an everflowing stream. God will shine light into the darkness of our lives with the child to be born for us. These passages are indeed hope-filled. And today, with this verse, the theme continues.
Or does it?
While Jeremiah does comfort, there is an important piece he also emphasizes. Essentially, Jeremiah says, “surely I know the plans I have for you… but you’re going to have to wait a while.” No one puts that part on a coffee mug.
While we hear this famous verse aloud and internalize the good part about God planning the details of our day, we miss the verse right before it. The verse about waiting. The verse about “not yet.” The verse about holding on for seventy years for fulfillment. Settle in. It’s going to be a while.
Which isn’t the news we expect when we hear that God’s got this. We want God to do it right now. Finish it right now. Make that promise true right now!
But, God doesn’t work that way.
The Israelites have already been waiting. They’ve been kicked out of their home country, shipped off to exile. They were forced to change their way of life. All they want is to be home, to feel home. “Home” is that word that encapsulates all that I mean: safe, welcomed, comfortable, accepted, loved, familiar. That’s home, and that is what Israel wants.
And they’ve been given hope - justice, righteousness, a child! Hope for home! But it’s been a long time since they’ve heard those promises. And Jeremiah wants to acknowledge those feelings. It’s hard to wait. To settle in. Live life as best you can. Because even while we wait, God is preparing a future with hope.
We aren’t good at waiting either. While we aren’t exiled from everything we know and love, we still don’t do a very good job of waiting for fulfillment. We rush it, do whatever we can to bring in those quick-fix, warm and fuzzy feelings. We like the immediate gratification and don’t do well with long waits for fulfillment.
RIght now in the church, it is the season of Advent, the time where we wait for Christ’s coming. This season looks beyond a baby born in Bethlehem and really anticipates Jesus coming again in glory. But while that is a piece, for the most part in our lives, Advent just stands in the way of Christmas coming. We wait, we mark time with candles, we hold back on those traditional celebrations. Except, we don’t wait.
We jump into Christmas with all the restraint of a four year old - which is to say not much. Christmas is good and it makes us happy! Now, I’m not pointing the finger at you. In our house, we’ve already opened a bunch of Christmas presents, you know, for practical reasons. We’ve had Christmas songs playing on our speakers. Gingerbread houses, trees, ornaments, lights. It’s all there.
Get this “waiting” stuff out of my face! Let’s get to the good stuff!
And this is kind of a silly example of waiting/not waiting. But waiting is not always so frivolous. Sometimes, we can’t speed up the waiting. Sometimes, we are forced to sit. Stay. Settle in for the long haul. And that’s when it is hard.
Diagnosis. Treatment. Recovery.
Pandemic. Uncertainty. Waiting.
Surgery. Recuperation. Did it work?
Illness. Fall. Hospice.
Job. Unfulfilling. Stay or leave?
Funeral. Empty seat. Will it ever be home again?
Like it or not, we all have been waiting for “home” again, for normalcy. And even if we bypass how our world has changed the past couple of years, maybe our “home” is different than it was, than what we remember. Maybe it won’t be the same ever - at least, not until we wait, we settle in, and God fulfills in God’s own time.
There are no easy words in the midst of waiting, in the midst of waiting to be home. These words from Jeremiah invite each of us to think about how we are all waiting for “home” in some way, shape, or form.
But Jeremiah does offer hope - hope for what God promises yet to do, but also hope for right now. He speaks on behalf of God, who encourages us to live life in the midst of waiting. Build houses, plant gardens. Enjoy family and friends. Seek welfare for others. Pray. Don’t fall for quick-fix, shallow good news. Because, even while we wait, God does have this, all to give you a future with hope.
Life can still be meaningful in the wait. Joy can be found while we wait. Hope, even a hope that appears only on a long horizon, still provides energy and motivation not to give up.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Those words still ring true. God does desire our welfare and offers hope.
We don’t wait in vain. Hope will be fulfilled. In the meantime, we will continue to taste God’s presence, splash in God’s waters, and hear God’s call through word and song.
In this season of Advent, we wait for God to fulfill plans. We wait for Christ to come, to come again, to bring us and the whole world home. And in the midst of that waiting, there is still work, joy, love, grace, peace, and hope.
Throughout this fall, we have been moving through the Old Testament story. We started at the beginning with creation and moved to Abraham and Moses and Jacob. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we started hearing from the Prophets, though we may not have really put those pieces together since the prophets didn’t, you know, prophesy.
We heard about - not from Elijah, but about Elijah. God appeared to him in the silence, the still small voice.
Last week we did hear from the prophet Amos, and he told of God’s justice and righteousness. Amos taught and told the Israelites about what God wanted - for worship to change them and shape them.
Teaching and reminding of what God wants is part of what a prophet does.
But today we get a passage that feels very “prophet-y” to us. Isaiah comes and tells us about the situation and then says what’s going to happen: a child. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
Ah, this feels more like what a prophet should do. And today, at the end of the Liturgical Church year and on the cusp of the Advent and Christmas seasons, Isaiah points us to the promise.
This promise is made, as he says, for the people who walked in darkness. People not only walking but dwelling - dwelling in deep darkness. We don’t need to hear any more. We know that this isn’t a good thing.
But then things are changed. Darkness gives way to great light. Walking is transformed by seeing. The land of deep darkness is transformed through light given to them.
There is rejoicing - like at a harvest, like winning the battle! The burden, the bar, the yoke which held the people back is destroyed! Rejoice and be glad! For a child is born!
Seems pretty good. I’m glad a child is born. Because this child will bring endless peace, Isaiah says. Peace is good. Peace is really good, especially in times of war. Peace is good when your country is being invaded. Peace is good when your king has made an alliance with the Evil Empire of the day so as to neutralize lesser threats at your borders. Peace is good when literally everything is in a perilous, deadly situation.
That is the darkness, the anguish Isaiah is referring to here. And I think that has absolutely nothing to do with our lives right now. We aren’t in the midst of a warzone. No invading armies are coming to Myrtle Beach. Things are relatively peaceful.
So, how does this passage connect with our current lives? What is our darkness, our land of deep darkness?
I mean, we can talk about wars, because surely, wars have not ceased to exist. And while some of us have actually been in that situation, for most of us, it is too distant. We’ve seen it on TV or in movies, and it has always been “over there” anyway.
Or how about COVID? While it has been a dark, anguishing time, it’s not quite the same thing, especially now at we are seemingly, hopefully beyond the worst of it.
Our own health issues? While serious, it is only applicable to some, not all. Loss, pain, grief, sadness, violence, injustice… it all fits as darkness but none of it is quite strong enough to stand on its own and cover us with the deep darkness that Isaiah talks about. And maybe that is the difficulty and the truth of this text.
Our darkness is not the same as the Israelites. We dwell in a land of deep darkness that is different from what Isaiah was talking about. Our darkness is not their darkness. And yet, for the Israelites and for us, the Good News is the same. It’s the same because the Good News of a child isn’t some willy nilly prophetic shot in the dark. It is a promise based on the past already fulfilled promises of God.
Note how the second person “you” is used starting in verse 3. Isaiah stands on the side of the people saying, you, God, you have done this. You HAVE multiplied the nation. You HAVE increased its joy. These verses are statements of faith, trust, and gratitude for what God has already done. In other times of deep darkness, God, you have shown up. You have done something, you have promised more.
So, even now, while it appears that the powers of this world have a firm hold, God again promises something more. And we can trust that promise of “something more” because of what God has already done.
So what this means is, it doesn’t matter what your darkness is. I don’t mean that your darkness doesn’t matter; the pain, hurt, grief, worry, and battles of our lives matter a lot. Darkness is present in all of our lives but what is deep darkness for me may not cast a shadow at all in your life. What hurts me, pains me, burdens me may not be the same for you.
While we all have darkness, it doesn’t matter what casts those shadows, because God promises more.
God is in your darkness, and in my darkness, and God shines a light. God sends a child. God promises someone who will bring light and life and hope to a suffering people, dwelling in a land of deep darkness. God promises more.
No more yoke of burden. No more bar across the shoulders. No more rod of oppression. God has dealt with them - broken them, burned them away. God promises more.
God comes to us in the birth of a child who is a sign of God’s presence among us. Divine authority rests upon his shoulders. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
He will live up to what no earthly king ever has or ever will.
He will be light for those in deep darkness.
Hope for those who feel defeated.
Peace for those at war within themselves.
God promises you more.
This Good News, this holy promise, is bigger than any one, specific darkness. While I may not know our world’s darkness, or your deep darkness, or even my own darkness, God does know. And God handles it.
And we trust because of what God has already done. For the Israelites. In the birth of a child. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God has done it all, fulfilled it all, shined light in our darkest places. And God promises to shine that light, from this time onward and forevermore.
Amos is not 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 verse and theme commonly used by Martin Luther King Jr., which may be why the verse sounds so familiar.
But there is a lot going on before that line, so let’s take a 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. Shepherds in scripture are often stand-ins for kings. It seems the king’s rule is about to wither away. Carmel, the place that is about to dry up, is the mountain on the edge of Israel.
All in all, things aren’t looking good.
We then jump to chapter 5, verses 14 and 15. Here, Amos encourages Israel to repent. Seek good and not evil. Love good, establish justice. That kind of stuff is always good to do, but particularly in this context it is. See, the wedge of inequality 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.
Then we get to the last section for today. Starting at verse 21, God speaks. If you thought the first two sections were harsh, hold on to your hats. 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, teaches, and instills. The inequality present in society is case in point.
This issue I now bring before you. It raises questions: Why do we worship? Who is worship for? Is it for God or for us? Do we offer something to God or does God offer something to us, for us?
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, this morning, and say, Tuesday afternoon. Our actions in here should shape and inform what we do and how we live out there. In short, God wants worship to make a difference in our lives. And how does that happen?
Let’s start with an easy one. Communion. This is the meal we celebrate as Christians. For us as Lutherans, it’s an important piece of worship. 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 our 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: baptismal waters, where we are joined to Jesus. 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.
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 - people who are like us and many who are different from us. Worship gathers all people as part of God’s family. In worship, we are the Body of Christ.
But, we are the Body of Christ out there, too. 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. We’re so fixated on our individuality, we have forgotten our need for community and our responsibility to look out for one another.
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. Because 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, living out God’s justice and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
For all the saints.
Today is a day in which we remember the saints in our lives. While there are some days on the Church calendar dedicated to a particular historical person, today is less about the heroic figures of faith and more about the people we ourselves have known and loved. We celebrate those in our lives who have told us the story of God through living out their own story. Today is not just about famous people church buildings are named after; it’s about your mom. Your husband. Your grandparents, your children, your siblings, your friends. Your saints.
The hard part about this day is that we only get to remember them because their story has ended. Today isn’t just a day when we remember the saints in our lives; it is a day we remember particularly the saints in our lives who have died.
Not an All Saints Sunday goes by without me thinking about all the saints in my life - related to me and not, because I surely have been shaped by a great cloud of witnesses. But the one that is most saintly to me was my grandmother - my mom’s mom. For numerous reasons, she is the one I think about most often on days like today. Maybe it was the way she was so involved in church. Maybe it was the way she cut out little prayers from the newspaper and had me read them at Thanksgiving dinner. 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 at the time. Maybe you have someone like that, too.
In particular, the tradition today in worship is to name aloud those who were members of our faith community who have died in the past year. It’s not that grief disappears after twelve months. Surely, it hangs around - in some ways forever. But there is something particular about that first year of grief. 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. Then there are all the “firsts” without them - the first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary.
And it’s not that the other saints who were not part of St. Philip don’t matter; they certainly do. And we will remember some of them aloud today, but we surely can’t list them all. We all have saints who will only be named in our hearts today, but the grief is real.
Grief. It is palpable. What we wouldn’t give for God to intervene, to reverse the pain, to ease our sorry, 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 - and in a big way. In his flight away from Ahab and Jezebel, he ends up at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. This is the very same mountain Moses ascended to receive the 10 Commandments. Surely, God will intervene and save the day, right?
Elijah was instructed to stand on the mountain because the Lord 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 anymore!
Then there was a strong wind - so strong that it broke apart the 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! There is this huge buildup where we expect God, but God is not in any of those grand gestures. God shows up in ways that Elijah - and we - don’t expect. 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 how we feel. However, God often chooses to be present in ways, places, 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 else 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, most distant from God, God isn’t missing. 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 quite the same thing as a still, small voice, but it shows that God continues to work in any and all circumstances. In the ultimate silence that is death, in the stillness that is grief, God whispers one. More. Word.
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. God speaks to us, calls us, like Elijah, to continue on - with promise, with presence, with hope.
Jesus lives, is alive, and shows 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 examples that have been set for us. We can be faithful, be models 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 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’s the promise in baptism. We are washed and claimed so we continually die to our broken, sinful selves and rise up as the saints of God. At Communion, God feeds us with the bread of life, sustaining us so we can continue our journey. God provides what we need - both in tomb-busting events and in still, silent ways - all so God can bring life.
For Elijah, God tells him to continue on. 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. This is the story, for all the saints.
Today is Halloween, a day where we wear masks and eat too much candy. Or, to say it another way, today is a day where we keep doing the same things we’ve been doing for months now - wearing masks and eating too much candy.
Halloween is intentional with the costumes and the masks. There are some very elaborate outfits - from scary to realistic to humorous. Babies as Elton John, kids as aliens, adults as inflatable dinosaurs. Through it all, we get to escape from who we really are, at least for a little bit.
Today is also Reformation, a day we in the Church - the Lutheran Church, in particular - celebrate Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, 95 things he felt the Church needed to change, move on from, or reform.
The Reformation and our celebration of it helps bring us back to what is important - freedom, righteousness, grace. Through it all, we don’t get to escape from who we really are; instead we hear what God does fully knowing who we really are.
So, today is a day of dichotomies. Halloween and its pretend dress up, and the Reformation and its unmasked truth. And I think these two ends of the spectrum do a good job of giving us lenses by which we can look at our situations in life.
I joked about Halloween with its masks and candy basically being our lives for the past year and a half. But it’s deeper than that. We often hide who we really are. On social media, we hide our flaws; we project a different image of who we truly are. In our social circles, we do our best never to show weakness or missteps. At work, we display competence and confidence even if we have no clue what in the world we are doing. Even here at church - a place where we should be the most honest - even here we always want our best foot, best face, best spirituality to be shown first.
And you want to know what? None of this is new. Part of this masking our true selves is what the Reformation was about. The Church at the time had a certain image to uphold, and there was manipulation of the masses in order to keep the Church’s mask in place.
Paul spoke of our desire for self-justification and our indulgence for self-righteousness. In reality, they are fake masks we put on to make ourselves feel better.
Even Jesus had to change people’s minds about what freedom really means; freedom isn’t the buffet of choices to be whoever we want to be, put forth whatever image we so choose.
Our propensity to metaphorically dress ourselves up, cover our true selves, mask our ugliness has been around basically since time began.
And a lot of people see hiding our brokenness as a skill to hone - which only goes to exacerbate the situation. If someone can tell we are masking something, then we obviously need to do a better job at hiding our flaws! We know we aren’t who or what we are supposed to be, but they aren’t supposed to know, so we try even harder to hide, cover up, dress up our true selves. But the harder we try to cover up our brokenness, the more fake we become. We so want to be good, competent, holy, accepted, affirmed, that we will do whatever it takes - even not be ourselves - to get it.
When we’re honest - at least as honest as we should be - this is a truth that hits close to home.
There is a quote that I am sure will resonate with some of you right now. This quote has been a book title and used in songs and even the psychiatrist in the TV show Ted Lasso used it. “The truth will set you free, but first it will…” [make you very, very upset.] The real quote has more colorful language. You can use your imaginations.
The truth about us is that we are broken, not right, miss the mark, hurt others and hurt ourselves - and we do everything in our power to hide, cover, mask that truth. We try to justify ourselves, make ourselves righteous, live up to the perceptions of the Law - but we can’t. Eventually, our masks get seen through. Our self-justification just doesn't work. As Paul says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Which is kind of a downer for such a special day. Masks and candy sound pretty good right about now. But the Good News is, our failure at covering up our real brokenness isn’t the only truth we hear. Our situation isn’t the only true thing that has been around since time began. We hear the truth about us, and we also hear the truth about God.
Because right after Paul says we all fall short, he proclaims that we are justified by God, by grace, by this gift. We don’t self-justify, pretend, or cover up our way to God’s good graces; God gives us that relationship. God writes the law on our hearts. God will be our god, and we will be God’s people. We don’t have to fake our righteousness; God instead shows what true righteousness is by knowing us - really knowing the true, honest us - and welcoming, loving, gathering us in. God sets us free - free from our fears and worries about our status, free from having to cover up every mistake, free from the mask we use to hide our true selves.
This is what Jesus means when he talks about freedom. It’s not that we are free to do and be and look however we want. Instead, in God’s freedom, we are free from our burdens and brokenness, free from having to cover up or disguise, free to be who we truly are. We are free because we are accepted as we are, and simply because God loves us.
This isn’t an award for having the best costume, but it is a gift of sheer grace. It is given to us in Christ Jesus, through whom even death was defeated. This proves that God’s love is more powerful even than the thing that laughs in the face of our attempts at hiding and covering up. We can’t out-smart, out-justify death, and because of God’s grace, we don’t have to. Life, grace, and righteousness are all given to us out of love.
God knows us - despite our attempts to justify ourselves by hiding our flaws. God loves us, accepts us, affirms us. Not the person we pretend to be; not the person we want to be. God loves, accepts, and affirms the person we really are. And so God forgives those things we do and those things we leave undone; God gives us grace so that we can rise to new life each and every day, knowing that we are loved; who we really, truly are is loved.
So, on a day we celebrate not being who we are, let’s also remember that with God, we can be honest and open about who we are because God already knows. God knows. And God loves you all the same.
Generosity in the Past, Present, and Future. That is the theme for today’s sermon. Many of you received a letter recently beginning to lay out what we were doing today in worship. And so, through this sermon time, things will be a bit different than usual. You’ll still get to hear me talk - lucky, right? - but we’ll break up our theme of Generosity by singing a verse of “Praise and Thanksgiving” between each section. I’ll try to cue you up so no one - especially Mr. Arthur - gets lost.
Let’s start with an introduction to generosity. As with most things in church and theology and Lutheranism, let’s use this introduction to start with God.
Several weeks ago, we celebrated our 65th Anniversary as a congregation by looking back to Creation - the fact that God created everything way back when, and God brought together this community of faith who has been active and working in the Grand Strand since 1956. We remembered that God didn’t just “play a role” in all that is, but without God we would have and we would be nothing.
God gives us everything - everything we see and everything we don’t see. God has shared with us so much - our life, our breath, our stuff, our relationships, our passions, our talents, our salvation, our calling. And God shares it all with us out of love, generosity, and a hope that we will partner with God to build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Through the story of the Bible, we hear all that God has done from the beginning. We hear of the incredible love and generosity of God at every time and at every place.
And so, today we will retell the stories of our past, seeing how through the decades, the people of St. Philip shared in God’s gracious mission.
We will remind each other of the present, of how in the uncertainty of our current world, the people of St. Philip are inspired, filled, and called by God’s generosity.
We will reflect on what all of God’s gifts for us mean for our calling into the future.
Each part, founded on God’s own generosity toward us, shapes our own life of faith and generosity. But before we retell of generosity, let’s sing verse one of our hymn.
Generosity in the past.
To kind of lead us into past generosity, I have a question. Did anyone here donate any money to build this sanctuary? Or give to pay for the stained glass windows? The pew you are sitting in? No?
This building is a prime example of the generosity of our ancestors in the faith. We get to worship here because of their generosity. Those who began this community wanted a space to gather and worship, not just for them, but for generations to come. These gifts from the past, from the people who came before us, allow us to have a place for worship here today.
And this goes beyond the building. We have endowment funds - more generous gifts from the past. These funds allow us to do outreach and service ministry above and beyond what we budget annually. They allow us to give scholarships to some of our Preschool students because we believe that finances should not be a barrier to getting a solid education. These funds allow us to be stewards of this building - to care for problems should something unexpected come up.
We are the recipients of this tremendous gift, all gifts based on the generosity of those who came before. These gifts enable us, equip us, inspire us for mission and ministry now and in the future.
And so we retell the story of our past - the story of how God was so present in the lives of the people in this congregation that they wanted to make sure this community could continue to make God known in word and deed, through worship and service and holy, consistent presence.
We retell of God’s generosity, ever so present in our lives.
Let’s sing verse two.
Generosity in the present.
First, I think I need to define what I mean by “present,” because it can be taken very literally as in riiiight now. And now. And now. But what I mean by present is our present time, our current situation with COVID-19. So, I guess when I say “present” I really mean our recent history.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, your generosity was evident.
When COVID first started, we had a phone tree going where many of you would give of your time to make phone calls to check in, to visit with others over the phone. It was important to have a connection in the midst of all the uncertainty and isolation.
We continued to make, share, and give meals to our homeless brothers and sisters. There was creativity in the way we did it - packing and serving looked a lot different, but the generosity and giving were there, as always.
Then, there has been the outpouring of generosity with financial gifts for Help4Kids through the noisy offering and the monetary donations for Christmas in July. Because of your generosity, kids in our area had things they needed - school supplies, food, clothing. And they had some of the intangible things we all need: joy, happiness, surprise, blessing. You gave those gifts to those kids.
Your generosity in the present time has been tremendous. It has kept us as a congregation on track, able to live out our calling in offering hope, grace, and Gospel to a world that needs those things so very much.
We remind each other of God’s generosity, even now. It is a generosity that is seen in our own generosity of time and talent and gifts.
Let’s sing verse three.
Generosity in the future. So, what’s next?
As those in the past have done for us, how do we push the mission toward the future, sharing God’s love in word and deed? The generosity of past and present have brought us here; our call is to keep moving forward.
One of the hallmarks of St. Philip has been hospitality and welcome. Maybe it is because we are a resort town, but we know how to make people feel welcome. However, the way we have to do that has changed over the past 18 or so months. In 2019, our welcome looked like shaking hands, a specific word of welcome, having conversations at fellowship, seeing all of peoples’ faces. There was a personal touch to the way we welcomed long-time members and first-time guests .
Now, however, there is a lot less of that kind of welcome right now - and it probably won’t return to what it was for a long time. Habits have changed. So, we hope to show welcome in new ways - ways that happen before anyone even sets foot inside the building. Hospitality and welcome happen in ways like a new sign that is bright, attractive, and clearly states who we are as a Lutheran congregation.
We hope to focus on other aspects of our building, particularly outside, so walking up on a sunny Sunday morning keeps our mind focused on God’s beauty - not if the flowerbeds need weeding. Repairing and beautifying what has been passed on to us is good stewardship.
Worship is central to why we gather as a community. Over the decades, we have shared wonderful worship through preaching and sacraments, organ and piano, people with gifts of voice and violin and trumpet and more. We hope to grow upon that by welcoming other musicians to lead worship with us. One plan is to offer a music scholarship to a Coastal Carolina student who can be here on regular occasion to share in the music ministry.
Ultimately, God calls us to use who we are, who God created us to be, and all that we have to help people know God’s love in Jesus. And any barriers we can take away from people experiencing that love; any bit of inspiration or help or reprieve or hope or service we can offer; any way we can more clearly point to Jesus - that is a way we move mission and ministry forward. Our generosity in the future helps St. Philip transform this little corner of the world with Christ’s love, starting with us.
We reflect on what God’s generosity to us means for us and for our calling into the future.
Let’s sing verse four.
Recently in worship we have heard a lot of call stories - Moses, Samuel, David, Israel’s next steps through the wilderness. And today, God is calling us as a congregation.
God is helping us retell the stories of our past, seeing how we continue God’s mission, passed on to us in this place.
God reminds us that in the midst of all the uncertainty present right now, God is here, helping us along the way.
God’s gifts to us cause us to reflect on how best to use all we have and all we are for God’s glory through mission and ministry at St. Philip, now and in the months and years to come.
The retelling and reminding and reflecting is all about making Christ known in love, in action, in generosity.
So thank you for making ministry possible in this place. Thank you for telling the story of God’s love in the past, the present, and the future. Because this story is one that needs to be told. This story is one that connects each and every one of us.
This story of God is one that you and I know and tell. It is one that our parents and grandparents and great-great-grandparents knew and told. It is a story that those gathered in this very room sixty-five years ago knew and told. It is the story that Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and David and Paul and Mary and Jesus knew and told.
This story has been known and told in the past, in the present, and because of your generosity, it will be told in the future, in new, ever-expanding, and changing ways.
God has been generous to us, and God will continue to give us what we need. God calls us, God gifts us, and through all our gifts together, we get to share the story of God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What does it mean to be called by God?
Is it something that only happens to a few of us, or is it part of each of our lives as Christians? Is it sudden and spontaneous or drawn out and quite the process? Our story for today helps shed some light on what God’s call means.
The lesson from 1 Samuel is set early in the life of the nation of Israel. Israel has had strong leaders in Moses, who led them out of slavery in Egypt, and Joshua, who helped them enter and settle into the Promised Land. After this, the Israelites were led by a series of judges who rose up during difficult times. At this point in the story, Israel is not an organized nation. In fact, as the book of Judges is ending and 1 Samuel is beginning, things are pretty rocky. Things are far from perfect, even though the people are in the Promised Land.
Samuel, the boy we meet today, is the prophet who will help with Israel’s transition from tribal groupings to one nation.
And so, we jump into the story learning that Samuel was ministering to the Lord under the tutelage of Eli the priest.
Samuel is lying down in the temple while Eli sleeps in another room. The boy then hears a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He goes to Eli to ask what he wants. Eli sends him back to bed. This happens three times. We know that this is God calling the boy, but he does not. Even Eli doesn’t understand what is happening - at least not right away. Eventually, Eli tells the boy to respond to God saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
This is a call story, but it is very different from the call of Moses we heard a couple of weeks ago. There is no dramatic scene, no burning bush, no flash of light, no knocking someone off their donkey. It’s a voice. It’s understated. It’s subtle and easy to miss.
What does it mean to be called by God?
Sometimes being called by God means repeated, consistent nudges, like Samuel.
Going to and through seminary, a lot of the call stories I heard were very similar to Samuel’s. While occasionally people could point to one event in their lives that changed everything, most people felt their call was much more of a quiet, slow awakening to something. There is this period of uncertainty about exactly what was going on and why - or if - God was calling them.
My story of how I got here standing in front of you right now falls into that type of category. There were no flames, lightning bolts, or major life crises. Instead, there were building events that took literally decades for me to see as part of my call.
Being an acolyte and crucifer at church: part of my call, part of God speaking.
A family who was active and engaged in the congregation: part of my call, part of God speaking.
Going to Lutheridge as a camper and counselor: part of my call, part of God speaking.
Having people, pastors, those I respected say things about gifts they saw in me: part of my call, part of God speaking.
It was a long process, and looking back, it definitely took God more than 3 times to get my attention.
What does it mean to be called by God?
Sometimes being called by God means simply being at the right place at the right time, even if we aren’t certain about what is going on, like Eli.
And still, sometimes, I feel like Eli. I feel like I missed something. I feel like I should have known sooner. Like I don’t communicate the actions of God very well to others God is calling.
A little more background on this priest: at first, it might just seem like he wasn’t understanding Samuel’s call because it’s literally the middle of the night. Like when any child wakes up a sleeping parent, there is a certain level of fogginess in those initial responses. But if we dig into Eli’s story through chapters 1 and 2, we see that is he pretty incompetent. He mistakes Samuel’s mother’s prayer for drunkenness, he lets his two sons do whatever they want in the temple, and he hasn’t heard God or nor communicated about God to Israel in quite a while.
So, Eli is not on top of things - not even a little bit. He was unaware of his role. And yet God used him to help Samuel understand his call. Eli was part of the community God brought to surround Samuel, to encourage Samuel to listen and speak with God.
What does it mean to be called by God?
It means we are wrapped up in God doing God things, whether we are aware of them or not. And this message isn’t just for me, but for you, too.
God does indeed speak to us. God calls each of us in ways that we might not really expect. God’s call reaches us even when we don’t know what’s going on or even when it takes us a while to figure it out. God calls. God speaks. God is present.
We all are called by God in various ways in various places. And each of us have Samuel moments and Eli moments. Each of us is called to something we are gifted at doing, and each of us is placed into situations where we are unaware of our role.
We may or may not know God is calling us. We may or may not feel up to the tasks. We may or may not understand what exactly it is that is going on.
But the Good News is, if God is doing the calling, God will follow through. God will bring it to fruition. God will accomplish what is needed.
And part of God’s call happens in worship - we hear again who God creates us to be. We get to hear God speaking to us. We are encouraged and strengthened and sent out from this place to all the roles and vocations we have in the world.
And in those roles and vocations, God speaks to us. God calls us. God sends us to help others hear their callings. God equips us with gifts of grace, with interests and talents, through bread and wine, water and word, speech and song. God calls us to ministry at home, in the community, in our workplace, in the church. And whether we hear or not, whether we understand or not, whether we feel competent or not, whether we are Samuel or Eli or a mix of the two… if God calls, God will equip us, and God will bring it to fruition.
What does it mean to be called by God?
It means that God works on us, in us, through us, and even despite us. Being called by God means we are wrapped up in God doing God things for the sake of the world.
May we hear, may we follow, may we say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Things in the past are always better, even if they weren’t.
That is the story we hear today. Moses, as we heard last week, was called by God to go spring the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, and that is exactly what has happened. After Ten Plagues and a Passover, a miraculous crossing through the Red Sea, and teeny bit of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites are now on their way to the Promised Land. There is only one way to go - forward into the unknown world.
We are just over one month into their journey. It’s been just one month of freedom after 400 years of slavery. One mere month of walking toward God’s new promises after making brick after brick after brick, every single day of their lives. And after one measly month, they start complaining. “I wish we were back in Egypt. I’m hungry. Are we there yet?”
Things in the past were always better, even when they weren’t.
Do you get what they are saying here? They are looking back on their time as slaves in Egypt with a nostalgic glow! As terrible as things were, they long for that, hold on to that, even if going back would preclude them from all that God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do. After all the miracles and promises, you’re going to wish things were like they used to be? It seems it’s always hard to move forward.
But 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 their future. 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 is exactly like the Israelites. We often think things in the past were always better, though that issue may expand beyond the Church to humanity in general.
As the people of God, we have faith that 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 take our next steps with God?
We long for the days of yore.
We look back upon some Golden Era of memory.
We might even complain that things are not like they were back in whenever.
We do this even if looking back keeps us from starting on the new adventure God has in store. It seems our best days are behind us.
These days, there is a different type of longing and complaining - for routine, for changes and precautions to stop, for no masks, for post-COVID normalcy. Yes, I’m nostalgic for those types of gatherings, too.
In all of it, though, God was still with us. God provided. And God helps us move onward. We look back to Egypt, back to our own histories, and think it was better because nostalgia is comfortable and familiar. We all have something we long for. We all miss something we can’t have anymore.
But holding on too tightly keeps us stuck. Makes us complain instead of grow. Makes us stop instead of move forward. Makes us miss God in this moment.
Walking with God, moving forward, trusting God doesn’t mean we lose everything we loved about what was. Our past is important in shaping us as a community. We won’t lose that. 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 even be 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 can look back, but God is urging us forward. We don’t know what the next steps will be. Even I don’t know what the future holds! (Shocking, I know.) But what I do know is that God is calling us forward with promise. God is calling us to a future, the likes of which we have never experienced.
There is a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. that I think fits. “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” To adapt this quote a bit to fit our text and our situation a bit more, how about we say, “Faith is taking the next step forward, even when we’re not sure of the destination.”
We can question or long for the past or cling to what was - or we can trust that God provides each step of the way. We can walk with God now, even if it is an uncertain future, because we have the certainty that God is there.
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.
It’s kind of scary, but it is also kind of exciting! Can you imagine what the possibilities are? What can God do with us, with this community, with these people, with people who aren’t even here yet?
Looking back, yes, we have been a place for everyone to come and worship. But what are our next steps? How do we involve all people of all ages in participation and learning and worship?
Looking back, our worship and music have pointed us to God, have lifted our spirits. But what are our next steps to inspire joy and faith, where our worship and music isn’t just for this time in this room, but overflows into the streets and throughout our weeks.
Looking back, we have generously given of time and treasure in service to the least among us. But what are our next steps in serving our neighbors, in being light for the world, a city on a hill? How can we be like the manna God sends - purposeful, constant, nourishing - for those who come and even for those who don’t come.
Our past is not our future. God has something better - way better - in store. So, God provides what we need to keep taking next steps. Even if it is hard. Even if we don’t know what’s coming. Even if we kinda miss what was.
God will continue to take care of us. That is the promise of manna. 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.
Are we there yet? No, not yet. But we aren’t in this on our own. We go with God. We are fed by Jesus. The Spirit leads us. All for the sake of God’s promises.
So, in light of that, let’s take a walk.
The burning bush scene from chapter 3 of Exodus is one of the most famous in all of scripture. It is definitely in the top 10 - if not top 5 - of well known Bible stories.
And a lot of that might have to do with a certain famous movie starring Charlton Heston which was released in the mid-fifties. It is a powerful moment in scripture - made even more so by Academy Award winning special effects.
But if the special effects and devilishly handsome Moses are all we remember, then maybe it is good we actually read it in worship together. Because this story is much more than what we see on the surface.
A lot has happened since we left Jacob last week. After running away from his family and dreaming of a ladder that stretches up to heaven, Jacob has yet another encounter with God - one that causes him to leave with a limp and a new name: Israel. Israel has twelve sons - the tribes of Israel as you may recall - and eventually, these tribes all move to Egypt to escape famine. They live there for generations and do well in that land. That is until a Pharaoh rose to power who didn’t remember all the history of Israel’s tribes; this Pharaoh decided these Hebrews were a threat to national security and enslaved them. They made bricks for no pay.
Despite these Hebrews being enslaved workers, they continued to grow in number. Pharaoh thought they might rebel, so he orders a genocide by decreeing that all male babies born to the Israelites should be thrown into the Nile River.
Moses was one of those babies. And through a series of events involving a basket of reeds, Pharaoh’s daughter, and God, Moses the Israelite ends up being raised in the privileged household of the Pharaoh.
So, Moses - an Israelite by birth but an Egyptian by culture - wasn’t accepted by either group and ended up leaving Egypt. After a long time, that Pharaoh died and the Israelites began to cry out to God for help.
Which is where we pick up for today.
God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush that is not consumed. God calls Moses to go to this new Pharaoh and bring God’s people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. To which Moses says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
This story is one of being chosen and not wanting to go - which actually is like a lot of the stories in the Bible. “Who am I to go and lead this exodus?” Moses doubts God has chosen the right person - which is understandable, considering. He wasn’t trained to lead, nor was he an expert in hostage negotiations. Maybe if he had stayed in Egypt and taken a few of those leadership classes the Pharaoh College offered, then maybe he’d be qualified. But not now, not with his skillset, not at his age, and not with so much on the line.
Moses avoids, argues, challenges, fretts, opposes, resists, delays, protests, doubts, evades, dodges, and ducks God’s will and command. What qualifies me? In his own eyes: nothing. And here are the reasons why!
How does God answer this? How does God convince Moses to go? Does God say, “Sure you can do it! You’re great - better than great!” No, God doesn’t give any sort of pep talk or motivational speech. God simply says, “I AM with you.” God assures Moses of the divine presence. “I’ll be with you.” That is God’s answer.
Moses is assured that his success should not be counted upon in his own human abilities, but instead because of the God who sends him and the God who is with him.
To God, that is good enough. But it is not good enough for Moses because he doesn’t stop there. The next question Moses asks is, “Well, who are you? What is your name?”
I AM WHO I AM.
I AM WHAT I AM
I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE
I HAVE BEEN WHAT I HAVE BEEN
or… any number of difficult-to-translate-into-English versions of the verb “to be.” When it comes to the name of God, any language we humans use is limited.
Books have been written on God’s name and what it means or how to put it into comprehensible English. The bottom line is, the way God states God’s own name leaves it able to mean lots of different things. So, to me, it seems God didn’t actually give a definitive name, but instead, gave the promise of being. The promise of presence. The promise of relationship.
So, to get back to Moses’ question: “who are you?”, God simply responds again with “I AM the one who is with you.”
In the end, we know that Moses goes. And not to spoil too much of the story, but Moses frees the Israelites from Egypt and leads them toward the promised land. (But more on that next week.) It seems God has an answer for everything.
I mentioned earlier that this story is like so many other stories in the Bible: God calls; people say “no;” yet, God has an answer for everything. But this story is also like so many stories that aren’t in the Bible, stories and callings to people and congregations now and today.
God hasn’t stopped showing up in the middle of our nowhere and asking us to go, lead, follow, free, feed, shelter, serve, and love. God keeps calling us to more - to more welcome, to more service, to more Good News shared. God comes and God calls us to share the news that we are free in Christ, free from the burden of having to do, free from having to be good enough, free from the questions... free because God simply answers, “I AM with you.” That is the news we are called to share in word and deed.
And yet, we often have a whole lot of excuses to go along with God coming and calling. We have questions and doubts about ourselves; we have difficulty acting or speaking on behalf of a God we don’t fully understand; our skill sets may be lacking in certain areas; plus, there is always the hope that God made a mistake and really intends for someone else to serve. I mean, who are we to do any of this?
It seems God has an answer for everything. Because God tells us the same as Moses, “I AM with you.”
But I don’t know if we can do that.
“I AM with you.”
But we’re so limited in so many ways.
“I AM with you.”
But what if…
“I AM with you.”
God, in the midst of everything - our questions and doubts about ourselves, our brokenness and sinfulness, our life and even our death - God has an answer for everything. And that answer is I AM with you. I am with you forever. I am with you, even until the end of the age.
God is with us. God doesn’t leave us alone. Like God bringing Aaron in to walk alongside Moses, God, too, brings us into community and companionship as we carry out our call to share the Good News of Jesus. God is present and sustains with bread and wine. God is present and forgives through the waters of baptism. God is present and transforms us to be greater expressions of the body of Christ. God does this through one simple answer: “I AM with you.”
God calls us; we have excuses for sure; and yet, we know, God has an answer for everything.
You may know someone like Jacob. They are wily, sneaky, conniving, don’t have a sense of what is fair, and somehow, someway, always seem to come out a little bit ahead. If you don’t know someone like Jacob, then maybe it’s you!
We’ve jumped ahead in the Biblical story a good bit. Last week, Isaac was a young boy. This week, he is an old man who can’t see. Isaac asks Esau, his oldest son, to go hunting and prepare a meal for him. Esau goes to do what his father asks. However, 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 - even going as far as putting animal fur on his arms and neck. Esau was quite the hairy man. 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 steals the blessing of inheritance from Esau. I told you Jacob was conniving.
When Esau returns, he is, shall we say... mad. The way things worked back then, this deal was done. It was final. Official verbal statements like 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 is Jacob. He is a trickster from a dysfunctional family. 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 God chose to carry out blessing to the entire 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? Shouldn’t God have higher standards?
But this is where the second part of Jacob’s story comes into play. Jacob had to run from his family and his home because Esau was going to kill him - and not in a rhetorical kind of way. Like, he was going to actually kill him. So, Jacob was on the run. And he finally has to stop and sleep, using a rock as his pillow.
That is where God shows up. And where God shows up, there is promise. God then renews the covenant once made with Abraham. God even kind of 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, looking through human eyes, was endangered from the very beginning. A promise of descendants was made to Abraham and Sarah who were too old to have kids. Yet, Isaac was born. Isaac was almost given as a sacrificial offering but was saved. 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.
Where we have trouble is when God’s promises are for real people not like you and me. Because, if we’re honest, real people are jerks. Sometimes they are jerks on purpose! Real people aren’t always sorry. They’re stubborn cheats, are sneaky and conniving, and somehow, someway, always seem to come out a little bit ahead, even though they don’t deserve it. It’s not fair.
But us? We’re never jerks - and certainly not on purpose! And if we were jerky a little bit, we probably have good reason for it. OK, from time to time, we may lose our temper, but we can explain it. We were hungry or tired or stressed out. We’re not that bad. We’re easy to forgive! It’s not like I dressed up as my brother and stole his inheritance! It’s only fair that we get God’s promise.
But when we’re honest with ourselves (like, really honest), we are real people - not the imaginary people we portray ourselves to be. We are real people, with real shortcomings, and even we are undeserving of all that God gives and promises.
We may feel more deserving because we compare ourselves to other people we meet or see on TV or in the news, but we still fall short of the glory of God.
Our measuring stick for this is usually something like the 10 Commandments. It’s a list of things that we don’t do. But these commandments are more than that. As Martin Luther explains in his Catechisms, we can’t live up to God’s standards.
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 desire to limit God’s grace only proves the point. We miss the mark in so many ways. We want to be fair, but fair in our favor.
Maybe we aren’t as deserving as we think. But that just might be the point.
See, God’s promises aren’t founded on us - on what we should or could do, what we can’t or don’t do. God keeps promises despite us. It’s about God, not about us. We don’t live up to God’s standards, but we are promised grace anway. And so are they. So is Jacob. So is every real person - aka, everybody.
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.
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 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.
So, I’ve got a few questions...
The binding of Isaac is a story from the Bible that we know, but we often gloss over. We don’t really talk much about it in church or Sunday school - and for good reason! It’s horrific! It’s shocking that God would ask Abraham to give up his son, his only son, after the promise to him that he’d be the father of a great nation - that his descendents would number the stars.
That promise has just started to be fulfilled with the birth of Isaac, as we hear in the beginning of our lesson today. And now, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son.
This is not at all how we view God, what we think God would be doing or asking. Last week, we heard about creation - the God who creates life and wants it to flourish, who continues to create new ways to share life and love. Now God wants to take life away? We thought God would be totally against such barbarism.
Then we look at Abraham's situation. Does he disobey God or kill Isaac? Both options seem pretty bad.
So, what do we do with this story?
For both Jews and Christians, this story actually is pretty central and foundational, even if it is one of the most difficult in all of scripture. It has conjured up questions through the millennia - from rabbis and Jews early on, to Christian scholars, to lowly pastors like me who are preaching this week, to maybe even you listening to this text read just today.
It is hard to see how any of this is OK. The story just brings so many questions.
Why would God demand a child sacrifice in the first place?
Where was Sarah? Why wasn’t she involved? Did Abraham tell her what he was going to do? Would she have permitted Abraham to leave with Isaac?
What was Abraham thinking and feeling as he journeyed three days with his son? Did he have doubts? Did he want to turn back?
Why didn’t Abraham say anything or protest? After all, he had negotiated with God just a few chapters earlier over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why not now?
Why did God test Abraham anyway? Was it for God’s benefit or for Abraham’s?
And here’s the thing: none of those questions are new. They’ve been asked for generations.
And here’s another thing: there aren’t any easy answers.
I want to assure you that it’s ok to ask difficult questions of Bible stories. Because God is big. God can handle them. And questions don’t reflect doubt as much as a desire to understand, to stay committed, to be in relationship. Questions are a way to engage with God and take the relationship more seriously.
So, in an effort to engage with God and to try to live into the relationship more seriously, let’s dig into some questions. And the main one that comes up is the “why” question: Why did God test Abraham?
Did God need to learn something about Abraham? Did God need to see more commitment, more faith, more gusto out of this father of all nations? Did God need Abraham to realize who was in charge? All valid questions.
But shortly after the “why” comes another question that I think is slightly more interesting. That question is, “did Abraham pass or fail the test?”
Because ultimately, we’ll never really know “why” God tested Abraham. Why do we see various things in our lives as tests? But a question we can ponder and maybe gain some insight from is whether or not Abraham did the right thing.
Is sacrifice really what God wanted? Did God expect Abraham to obey whole-heartedly, repressing any paternal feelings toward the long awaited and promised son? Did God expect Abraham to ignore morals and ethics and instead commit murder?
Or did God expect Abraham to ask some questions?
What if Abraham did ask questions? Gained insight into what God really wanted.
Because the sacrifice was stopped, it proves that killing isn’t at all what God wanted. While Abraham may deserve credit for his motivation and devotion, his actions were stopped and corrected in order to save a life. All God wanted, really, was for Abraham to stop being so wishy-washy about his trust in God.
So, while Abraham is often lifted up as a model of faith, in some ways, I do think he failed the test. He took all that he had previously known about God - the God he trusted, a God of relationship, covenant, keeping promises, life-bringer - and threw it out the window.
This God who saves and preserves life is much more consistent with the God Abraham met way back in Genesis, Chapter 12. When everything seemed to contradict that, Abraham failed to ask questions and gain insight - insight which he now has through a traumatic experience.
There is no doubt about it; this moment changed Abraham. Abraham now knows, in the most profound of ways, that life with God is a gift, and God’s blessing is freely bestowed. He need not do anything – God will provide—generously, bountifully, wondrously.
From the very beginning, and especially at the end of the day, God is one of life. God is one who provides. God is the one who stops death and gives a covenant of blessing. God isn’t wrathful or demanding or commanding of sacrifice. If Abraham would have stopped to ask a question, maybe he would have seen those truths sooner.
Instead this God provides. This God blesses. This God loves.
And what did Abraham have to do to earn those things? Nothing. Even in the midst of misplaced ways to appease God, God just wants trust. Have faith. Be in relationship. No sacrifices needed.
This God, our God, provides all we need. Our relationship with God is not about us giving, us doing, us sacrificing, us being question-free. Instead, it is all built on God giving to us. Blessing us with grace. Giving us forgiveness. And, as we clearly see in Jesus, God sacrifices 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 with Christ in the communion meal - a meal that we share with Jesus, a meal where our relationship with God is strengthened.
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 question where we stand with God, because we know that God stands with us.
And knowing that, our questions can turn away from “what do we have to do” to appease God toward “what do we get to do” because of God? How do we share the blessings we have? How can we point others to the covenant love God has for this world?
And so we share, we serve, we worship - not to gain or earn or put forth an infallible answer, but because we know that God has indeed blessed us with a covenant promise. God stops death. God gives life. God blesses us to be a blessing.
On this 65th Anniversary of St. Philip Lutheran Church, we start at the beginning.
In your bulletin, you’ll find an insert with a brief history of St. Philip. It hits most of the highlights, the changes, the evolutions that have taken place over the past 65 years. It talks about the staff and pastors through the decades, the building renovations and additions, and the purchase of a “computer system” in the 1980s.
Even if you aren’t a history buff, it is pretty interesting to see where we came from and how things have changed through the years.
We celebrate today and give thanks for where we’ve been.
Sixty five years was eternity ago; just think of everything that has changed in our lives and our world. I don’t want to sound like Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but there is a lot that has happened since 1956: technology, cell phones, internet, space travel, civil rights, medicines, art and music, and so much more…
Though not everything that happened was good: numerous wars, 9/11, COVID19 - just to name a few that are still in our headlines today.
Could those first 66 people who chartered St. Philip even imagine where we are today?
We give thanks for those people who gathered, and for where we as a congregation have been. God’s spirit has
guided from the very beginning of our time as a congregation,
been active in ways that helped us see love and grace,
been present throughout the ups and downs of history
so that this little community of St. Philip could, throughout the decades, point to the love and grace that has sustained us so well.
Today, we pair our history up with the story of Creation, the truth that God created everything we see and everything we don’t see. It all starts with God. God was thoughtful, careful, and creative. God included everything—light, universe, stars, sun, atmosphere, sea, land, plants, animals, humans.
It is an interesting juxtaposition - looking at our beginning and also at our beginning. And it is indeed right and salutary that we should do so. We celebrate the founding of St. Philip and all that happened since, but we also look at it through the lens of God the creator.
Because in the context of Creation, sixty five years is not really that long. God has been doing this creative stuff since time began. And holding these two histories together, there are two things that stand out.
First, it all starts with God. God is the creator, God does it, God speaks everything into being. God calls people together in community. God gathers the faithful for ministry. God enlightens us with gifts for mission. God was there in the beginning, and God was there in St. Philip’s beginning.
And second, God’s not done - not done at all! That is evidenced by God not hanging it up four billion years ago. God kept engaged, God kept working, being present, sending the Spirit. God worked through all of history, from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Moses to Prophets and beyond.
God wasn’t done an eternity ago, and God is not done now. God’s Word is still speaking - the same word who was in the beginning with God. This Word is light and life for all people, this Word is present and alive in our world.
God continued to create by sending Jesus to show us new ways of relating to us, to give a tangible way to see the promise of grace, forgiveness, and life.
God continued to work by, as Paul said, making us all new creations in Christ.
God worked, even in 1956 when St. Philip began to gather. And God kept working because you are here. God kept working by creating new things, new people, new ideas, new ways to be the Church.
God continues to create by washing us anew each and every day through the waters of baptism. We are named and claimed, once and for all, but each day given new life - a life we will affirm in just a little bit.
God continues to work by feeding us and forgiving us, giving us the communion meal. This meal nourishes our souls as well as our stomachs. It gives us the sustenance to be the people God keeps creating us to be.
God is not done with us as individuals, as a people, as a congregation. This God - who was, and is, and forever will be - is present with us. We who have a past, a present, and a future know that God is working in it and through it to help us grow more fully into the people and community God wants us to be.
The little document in your bulletin may gloss over some of the rough patches we as a congregation had over the years. Yet, even then, God wasn’t finished. God called good people to continue in ministry despite it all. There were times where St. Philip walked through the wilderness of tough, empty times, yet God wasn’t absent. And even now, we aren’t at the promised land where everything is milk and honey, but we are poised and positioned to do some wonderful ministry.
As you may know, last month we stepped up to host a meal for our homeless brothers and sisters on short notice because another church had to back out. It turns out that the congregation had to back out, not just for that month but for the foreseeable future. We as St. Philip are stepping up and hosting more because people here are passionate and generous. This is an opportunity to do a bit more than we have in the years past.
Your generosity in giving financial support has put us in a place where we aren’t just maintaining what is going on. Instead, we are in a place where we can dream a little bit moving forward. We can see what God has given us and ask bigger questions about how God may be calling us to better serve God, neighbor, and the world God loves.
We have a Council, Staff, and volunteer base who work well together. And while things are going well, even in the midst of a pandemic we keep looking to the horizon to see where God is pointing us next.
But while we do look ahead, and remember back, today we get grounded again in truth.
It all starts with God. It all comes from God. It all is created by God. We celebrate the founding of St. Philip and all that happened since, but we also look at it through the lens of God the creator.
God created a community who started by gathering in a High School Cafeteria and used a foot-pump organ that is small enough to currently sit inside my office.
God created generous disciples through the decades so that we now gather in a room with beautiful stained glass and an organ we can feel in our chest.
These ancestors were dedicated people who passed on the faith, ensuring that the Gospel could be shared in the Grand Strand for generations to come.
God continues to create our world, us, our congregation because God wants us and our world to know and share abundant life.
God continues to create this small gathering of Lutherans in a very un-Lutheran part of the south.
God continues to create us
And to be with us.
God never has let us go and never will.
God wants us to see the Truth of that life and relationship - in where we’ve been, in where we are, and in where we will go.
It all starts with God. God’s not done. Our life, our love, our congregation… It all comes back to God.
And as the called and gathered community of St. Philip Lutheran Church, we will affirm that relationship God has with us. It all starts with God. From 65 years - an eternity! - ago, to now, to forever.
For many years of blessings and ministry, and for many more to come, thanks be to God.
We thank Rev. Dr. Beth Neubauer for preaching while Pastor Lee was away.
All this fuss over washing hands before dinner? It feels like my house!
Dana never washes her hands!
Ha, I got you! You thought I was going to say that the kids never wash their hands, but I tricked you! Actually, we’re all pretty good at it; Dana’s probably the best about the whole germ, cross-contamination thing.
But I digress.
The Pharisees are upset over Jesus and his disciples not washing hands before the meal. After all, it is tradition to do so. Jesus, however, says holding to human tradition over God’s commandment is the wrong way to go.
And normally, the sermon would jump on that train and ride it until the end. “Stop doing things just because that’s the way it’s always been done. ‘Tradition’ is just peer pressure from your ancestors. Focus on what God wants to do, not how humans did once upon a time.” The main point would be to follow God’s will, way, and work instead of what humans decided was neat at some point in time.
But… maybe we empathize with the Pharisees a bit more now than we would under normal circumstances. A lot of our traditions have been taken away. Singing, a hallmark of Lutheran worship, is being downplayed in our gatherings. Communion in premade packets doesn’t come near to the experience of before. Peace sharing and fellowship have taken a backseat. While a lot of tradition is still there, so much has changed.
We don’t want to lose those things that were meaningful traditions. But while this time of COVID has changed so much, it has also helped us focus on what is important, and maybe even reflect a bit more on why and that they are important. Maybe the importance doesn’t come from “how” we do it, but comes from God’s grace and love seen and shared.
And maybe that is what Jesus means here. It’s not that he is ripping tradition out of the hands of the Pharisees, saying, “Never!” Instead, he’s saying tradition by itself is empty. Tradition alone misses the active love of God. Tradition without a change of heart is pointless.
“This people honors me with their lips [and their actions], but their hearts are far from me.”
Traditions should help shape our hearts, should fill us with God’s love, should direct us away from the external “how do we do it” to the internal examination and change of our own hearts.
Which is the second part of our lesson for today. Jesus says, it’s not what is outside that defiles, but what is already inside of us - what is in our hearts - that makes us unclean. And while Jesus makes a bit of a jump from tradition to eating certain foods, I think both are true. It’s not what we eat or the “how” of tradition that makes us clean or unclean; it’s what is already in our hearts that does that. And indeed, from our hearts and from our mouths come all kinds of harmful things.
And so a call here might be to make as little room in our hearts for the bad stuff as we can. And the way to do that is to fill our hearts with good stuff.
And this is where I think tradition can be helpful. Often, traditions do bring comfort. Peace. A sense of security. I’ve heard it said that traditions carry us when we can’t carry ourselves. And that is true. Things like the Lord’s Prayer, familiar hymns, communion… I’ve been to many visits where people don’t/can’t hold a conversation well but do pray the Lord’s prayer, sing Amazing Grace, take great comfort in bread and wine. These things are like anchors in a storm. Tradition can help fill our heart with good things.
Beyond that, we can fill our hearts with prayer instead of spiteful words. Bible study instead of propaganda or partisan websites. Sabbath instead of overextending. Generosity instead of keeping it all.
To expand on that last one a bit, especially when it comes to our hearts’ desires: It may just be that by being generous, we find that we start to want less - and what we once thought were “needs” really were just “wants” afterall.
That is one place where this congregation has excelled lately. I am pleased, grateful, amazed by just how generous and giving everyone has been.
We held a meal for the homeless here yesterday - and it all happened on very short notice because another congregation had to back out. The signup sheet to bring food, set up, serve, and clean was filled in no time.
Last week, we collected money through a noisy offering for Help4Kids. Now, giving money isn’t quite as fun as giving the stuff - you know, going shopping, picking things out, seeing the difference we are making; but please know, you made a difference in the lives of those kids.
All this is above and beyond our regular, usual giving to ministry - a sign that hearts are filled with generosity, grace, and love. So, even though Jesus says that it is from within that evil desires come, our human hearts aren’t 100% bad. We can and do do good things. Yet, even our holy habits have limits.
We each are still broken; we all have fallen short; evil intentions rise up in our own heart, mind, and soul. And while we aren’t 100% bad, we aren’t 100% good either. Martin Luther said that we are both Saint and Sinner - holy and broken, forgiven and repeat offenders, grateful to God and yet very self-centered to go along with it.
While we do good, we still need to be saved - we need to be saved from ourselves. We are caught in that struggle of good and evil, of hope and hopelessness, of saint and sinner.
And yet, the Good News is that Jesus knows that. Here, Jesus points it out. And plainly, at that: “All these evil things come from within.” And yet, he doesn't turn away from us or leave us. He sees right through the highly polished versions of ourselves which we display to everyone around us. He knows what festers in our hearts, and yet, he loves us still.
And he has proved that love time and time again. He touches those considered unclean. He loves those who are social outcasts. He gives his life for all people - tax collectors, sinners, lepers, scribes, Pharisees, you, me. He, on the cross, opens his arms to all.
And this Good News is greater than whatever is in the depths and darkness of our hearts. This Good News claims us forever, names us a saint of God, fills our hearts with good things, loves us to life eternal, and calls us to the goodness of God. This Good News gifts us with the Spirit, who continually overflows our hearts with good things, with holy habits, with a grace that washes over us each and every day.
Because of this Good News, we can go and get our hands dirty serving others, sharing the love that we have been given. Because following Jesus isn’t about having clean hands but about a heart that is cleansed and a life that is shaped by the self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
For the fifth Sunday in a row, we find ourselves in the sixth chapter of John. Today, this long chapter about bread and life finally comes to a close. This stretch of texts comes up every three years. Each time, it is always a challenge to make it through all the Sundays without repeating paragraphs of previous sermons. But if I did, would you even notice? Maybe I did it last week!
I didn’t. And I don’t plan to. But I do have to admit, I am glad we will be moving on to some new scenes next week. For now, though, we are wrapping up this long account; and as we do, we get some surprising reactions.
The big surprise here is that after Jesus’ miraculous feeding and long explanation of what it was he was doing, people start complaining and grumbling! I guess his sermon went a little longer than 11 minutes.
But the complaining and grumbling isn’t really the surprise here. It’s WHO is doing the complaining. We’re used to Pharisees or Religious Leaders complaining, but the complainers here are “many of his disciples.” What!? Why are disciples bothered by what Jesus said? Normally when people complain about Jesus, we’re OK with it because they’re not one of “us” - they’re stubborn and obtuse hippocrates. But the reference to “his disciples” hits a little close to home.
Well, maybe they have a good reason to grumble, right? It seems that Jesus is teaching something that is too hard. Looking at their complaint, they seem to understand what Jesus means about his flesh and blood; it’s just they don’t accept it, don’t believe it, don’t trust it.
The grumbling isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of faith and trust that Jesus means what he says. It’s quite similar to the story of the Israelites and manna in the wilderness Jesus has been referencing. God provided manna, bread from heaven for them, everyday, morning and night. But that wasn’t good enough for the people. They grumbled about it - which was fine. God keeps on providing. But what turned the whole thing was that they took more than they should have and tried to keep it - just in case. They didn’t trust God to continue to provide, to feed, to give them this bread from heaven, even though God promised to do so. Grumbling turned to lack of faith and trust which led to them doing it their own way.
Hmm. Now maybe these disciples sound a little bit more like us than upon first glance. Because we do follow Jesus, and we like most of what he says and does… except for these few things over there that we ignore or gloss over. Sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands - keep a little more for ourselves than we should. Be more sensible than associating with those folks. Satisfy some of our fleshy desires through quick fixes and short-term perks. It’s the way the world works, Jesus. Sorry.
Maybe we don’t grumble against Jesus as much as straight up ignore him.
But, as has been Jesus’ habit throughout this and other conversations, he meets the objections by raising the bar rather than lowering it. He sharpens the point instead of appealing to our dulled sense of faith and trust.
Here, Jesus acknowledges that this is offensive and hard. But guess what, he is the Son of Man, the one who ascends and descends from heaven. In him, heaven and earth are linked; he is the one who brings the Word of life and of spirit. Jesus doubles down on all that he has been saying: he is bread, he is life. In him, because of who HE is, we are full of the things that matter, and apart from him, our faith starves to nothing.
Our flesh is weak. Our flesh is useless. Our flesh prefers the normal, sensible, quick fixes that our world so gladly, gladly gives. But that’s easy. And short. And we are left empty.
Which is why we need Jesus’ flesh and blood. Jesus brings spirit and life. Jesus is the true bread from heaven. It’s not easy to abide with Jesus, to abide with his difficult teachings that lead to him on the cross, to abide with him through pain and hurt. But doing so leads to eternity. To goodness. To the fullness of God’s love and grace.
Being a Christian, being a disciple, isn’t easy. If it is, then we’re doing it in the sensible, quick fix, wrong way. Instead, Jesus knows it’s hard. Knows that following him, truly following him is a tough pill to swallow.
But the Good News in this is that God is there to give us everything that is needed, and no matter what, God keeps on providing. We get caught up in how hard things are for us, and we miss those things that Jesus promises that are Good News. “It is the Spirit who gives life; we don't create it.” “The Father grants us, gives us access to Jesus.” “I am the Bread of Life.”
God is the one who calls us, gathers us, enlightens us, and makes us holy and faith filled. And God keeps on doing it, even if we grumble or complain.
And so, here is where the rubber meets the road. Faith comes as the Father draws us to Jesus, and yet, Peter and the others (and us, too) are asked for our response. “Do you also wish to go away?” And notice that Peter doesn’t answer with a Yes or a No. Because faith isn’t a simple yes or no answer. Faith and unbelief aren’t binary answers to a one time question. Instead, faith is a grateful acknowledgement and trust that God has indeed drawn us to Jesus through the Spirit.
So Peter answers the only way one can: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Chapter six begins with a huge crowd that needs to be fed and is interested enough to track down Jesus across the lake, but soon becomes disenchanted and grumbling. Many of his disciples who stay around through the long sermon, in the end, cannot accept it. At the end of the chapter, only twelve are left, and even then, one of them will betray Jesus. Peter will forget and stumble and deny. They all will scatter instead of remain during the trial and crucifixion. As far as our flesh is concerned, this is not a promising trajectory.
Yet, what we hear today is that God keeps working life in the midst of our grumbling, failure to understand, and outright rejection. And we as disciples, as Christians, as the Church, we are called to see God still working in our world. The Word and the Spirit are doing work around us, among us, and through us. It’s hard. It’s difficult. We may be tempted to leave, deny, betray - do anything we can to avoid the difficult cross. And yet, the Word, the Spirit, and the Father continue to call us, enlighten us, and draw us toward life.
The Gospel of John stands out from the rest of the New Testament. It has a different way of telling the story of Jesus than the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. A lot of this is because John was the last Gospel to be written down - and being the last to be written down, there was more time to process the stories, finding more meaning and theological insight to what happened. While the other Gospels, like Mark, simply tell the straightforward events, John adds more detail, dialogue, and depth to each of the stories.
And in John, chapter 6, that is precisely the case.
If you remember back several weeks ago, this chapter started off with Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the loaves and the fish - one of the very few stories that appears in all four Gospels. And while the other Gospels leave the miracle as a stand alone event with minor interpretation, John has been telling and expanding the meaning throughout the entire chapter.
And today, in our fourth week of the Bread of Life discourse, we get a move toward eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus - an obvious nod toward Holy Communion. But, this scene isn’t the Last Supper. Jesus isn’t close to the cross. He hasn’t even been betrayed yet! And yet, this definitely sounds like last supper language!
Allow me to let you in on a little secret. There is no “Last Supper” scene in John’s Gospel - at least not like what we think we remember. Yes, Jesus and his disciples gather for a final meal, but there are no words of institution, no “took bread. He gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them saying, ‘this is my body, given for you.’” Instead, the way John tells that scene, Jesus washes feet and serves on his last night.
As I mentioned, John and his community had more time to process events, make connections, and draw together theological threads. And here, John ties the feeding of the 5,000 with Jesus as the Bread of Life. Jesus feeding, Jesus as bread, Jesus saying, “eat my flesh, drink my blood…” The connection to the Eucharist is undeniable.
So, what is John doing here? Why change the story around, moving Communion language from Jesus’ death to this point in the story?
Maybe John wants us to see Communion differently. While there is nothing wrong with aligning Communion with Jesus’ sacrificial death, John might be pointing us beyond that one, isolated view to something new, a different way of seeing and experiencing communion.
If the Bread of Life discourse is John’s “Last Supper celebration,” then communion isn’t only stuck alongside Jesus’ death. Instead, it is placed squarely in the middle of Jesus’ life. And since that is the case, what difference might it make in how we understand the sacrament of Holy Communion?
We get to look at communion through the lens of LIFE. Jesus is the bread of LIFE. Communion is connected to the living, alive Jesus, not just a dying Jesus or the Jesus of memory. Here, Jesus offers his flesh to eat in the middle of his life-giving ministry.
And it is life-giving because it is Jesus who gives it. It is life-giving because it is Jesus himself who is given. Holy Communion is about giving life, giving us life, because in communion, Jesus draws us deeper into relationship with him; Jesus abides in us and with us, and we abide in him.
Now, this isn’t to say that John’s telling is totally void of Jesus’ death - because without his death there would be no true life eternal. The very words of “flesh” and “blood” point us to the cross, where Jesus’ flesh will be broken and his blood will be spilled. It is, indeed, on the cross that Jesus will totally give his whole self for the life of the world. It is through his flesh and blood, on the cross and in the communion meal, that we have eternal life, and Jesus will raise us up to life on the last day.
Life. It is what communion is about. And that is why John tells the narrative in this way. He points to the communion meal here, in the midst of miracles and teachings and life. So, while the cross and tomb are a piece, Jesus promises more.
And that’s another interesting thing about Jesus here and about the communion meal. Jesus doesn’t explain how this happens or for whom it’s allowed. Jesus just promises. He feeds them all the miraculous meal and he just promises. Jesus promises that whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood has eternal life now and will be raised. Jesus promises to provide food for the life of the world, which is his own flesh and blood. Jesus promises to nourish the whole world with the gift of himself. Jesus promises life, life for us, life for all, life for the world.
And so, as we gather to share in the communion meal, in, with, and under that bread and wine of Holy Communion, we are taking in Jesus. Jesus is abiding in us, as we abide in him. And since Jesus gives us the gift of himself, he promises to nourish our faith, forgive our sin, and strengthen us to be a witness to the Good News. Even though right now things are pre-packaged and not quite like we want them to be, communion still is a celebration of the abundant life of God now.
This abundant life is given and shed for you, for right now, not matter what sort of ups or downs, life or death you are experiencing. In and through the meal, Jesus sustains you; reminds you that God provides, and life is abundant. Eternal life isn’t just something that will happen one day but is a promise for right now, for the present.
In it all, John wants to remind us, Communion is about the life Jesus gives, and the Bread of Life abiding in us and with us now and forever.
So, we just finished up the Olympic games in Tokyo, with the closing ceremony happening this morning at 7 a.m. eastern. Every time the Olympics roll around, we watch these athletes compete against each other - swimming or running or jumping - or all of the above. And in a lot of these races, they finish within moments of one another - hundredths of a second. For some races - like 100 meter dash - the whole thing is finished, start to end, in under ten seconds.
And because everything is so close, because everyone finishes so near to each other, we often don’t quite get how good these athletes actually are at what they do.
So, there has been an idea that has been floated around - and maybe you’ve heard it elsewhere - that they open up one extra lane and put a regular, average person in these Olympic races. It’s someone who they find in the stands or on the street or who complains on the internet about the athletes’ performance. That would give us some perspective on how remarkable these athletes are. We don’t see these athletes’ greatness because they only win by the narrowest of margins.
All that is a roundabout way of saying that the crowds in our lesson don’t see Jesus as special. To them, they don’t see his greatness; they only see who he once was - Joseph and Mary’s boy. He’s just regular Jesus. When he says that he is the “bread from heaven,” they can’t believe it. He can’t be from heaven! I’ve known him since he was “this big”!
They saw Jesus as ordinary, and ordinary just isn’t good enough when you’re looking for a savior. They know what ordinary looks like; it’s their life. It’s bad hair days and stubbed toes. It’s simple and mundane. It’s tension and misunderstandings. It’s flaws and shortcomings. It’s doubts and fears. It’s broken promises, petty grudges, foolish prejudices. Ordinary is not enough; common won’t cut it. If Jesus, the Savior, is just a human like them, then they’re doomed.
And maybe we feel like that, too, about church and worship and religion. Where are the special miracles? I don’t hear voices from heaven. I want to see the Spirit moving in a way that sets our hearts on fire. Many of us come, week in and week out, to a pretty yet ordinary building, surrounded by ordinary people. There’s nothing striking to convince me of any grand, heavenly, omnipotent God. It’s all pretty common. Regular.
And maybe that is the whole point. Jesus was common, ordinary, mortal like you and me. And yet, he is also uncommon, divine, the very Son of God, the bread from heaven. THAT is what offended the crowds on that day; gods don’t “do” ordinary. And for some, it might even be a bit offensive or unlikely today. God doesn’t come in the usual ways we think an all-powerful deity would. God shows up in much more ordinary ways.
God doesn’t come with invincible might, but instead, God comes in the weakness of a human being. God doesn’t come with lightning bolts shooting from his fingers, but ends up with nails through his hands. God doesn’t dangle us over a firey pit, waiting for our failure to staunch laws.
Instead, God comes committed to relationship - a relationship based on grace, forgiveness, and mercy - what any good relationship in our lives is based on.
God Almighty does not shy away from the ordinary and common, but instead, God seeks these normal ways to achieve the promise of life.
Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became regular, ordinary human flesh. In Jesus becoming one of us, God gives us a promise - a promise that what is true for Jesus is true for the rest of humanity. What happened to him will happen for us. Jesus and we hold death in common; but because Jesus was raised from the dead, we hold resurrection in common, too. It’s ordinary turned miraculous.
God Almighty does not shy away from the ordinary and common, but instead, God seeks such normal ways to achieve the promise of life. This is what lies at the heart of the sacraments. God doesn’t shy away from the common elements of water, bread, and wine.
The water in our baptismal font is just ordinary water from the tap - the same water we drink and brush our teeth with. Yet, when God’s Word is present, it has the power to save, to forgive, to remind us that we are claimed forever.
Our little communion wafers are nothing more than wheat flour and water. There’s nothing special there. And the grape juice we have in these little pre-packaged kits? Nothing fancy or all that special. Just crushed up grapes. But in these common elements of the earth, Jesus promises to be present, to nourish our souls, to strengthen us, and send us out in faith.
God Almighty does not shy away from the ordinary and common, but instead, God seeks such normal ways to achieve the promise of life. And that includes regular, ordinary ol’ us. God doesn’t shy away from us, either. We have the promise in the sacraments, in Christ, that God won’t abandon us. God will, instead, take hold of us and make us God’s own, never letting us go.
And even in common, ordinary us, God can work to bring that promise of life. We bring hope and joy and life through welcoming kids from our neighborhood to Vacation Bible School. Through donating to Help4Kids so that kids without much can have what they need to do the best they can in school. Through offering our space to people from all walks of life so they can find support and welcome. Common, ordinary us… God uses us to bring the promise of life.
God is working, drawing us to Jesus - and maybe not in ways that we’d opt for or ways we’d expect, but ways that connect with us; ways that we can see, touch, and taste; ways that come into our lives and and our world.
All this, like the manna in the desert for the Israelites, all this is a gift from heaven. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is that gift for us. It helps us remember that the ordinary, our ordinary, can be turned into the miraculous. Common, ordinary us… God uses us to bring the promise of life.
“But Pastor, you’ve just spent the past several weeks alternating back and forth between being here and going on vacation. Aren’t you well rested from being away?” Those who are asking that must not know what it is like to go on vacation with kids or to eat and drink way too much or to stay up way later than you’re used to because you’re with friends and family you haven’t seen in a long, long time.
I’m also tired because we are moving this week. Not far - only point seven miles that way - but that is a stressor and a huge energy drainer. Living among boxes isn’t really rejuvenating.
I’m also tired because tonight our Vacation Bible School starts and it brings its own craziness to my schedule. It’s loads of fun, but it takes its toll.
I’m also tired because of the state of the world. This is probably the biggest thing, and if this wasn’t in the mix, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as tired as I am. It all just seems so unrelenting.
As soon as we think we are coming out of all the COVID protocols, we hear advice that masks should be back on in some circumstances. The Delta variant spreads easily, even among vaccinated persons. I know several people who are quarantined who did indeed have their shots.
And Lutheridge, the camp where we spent this past week, after being open and safe and COVID free all summer, ended their last week of the summer a day early because of positive cases.
I’m tired of the dumb debates that happen over COVID, the hate and the anger and the outright dismissal of other people. I’m tired of the cynicism and distrust between science and politicians and supply and demand and fair wages and immigration and on and on and on.
I’m tired of the state of the world. It has been a long, hard, unprecedented road, and we may be adapting policies once again.
And yet despite how tired of it all I am, I do want to take a moment to say “thank you” to you all. I want to thank you for your patience and support during a most unusual time. And I’m saying this because I know of three friends, three pastors who just up and stopped - stopped being pastors because of the way congregations acted, fought, demanded things be. They didn’t move to another congregation; they just stopped. They are burned out and tired.
Through all of the pandemic, we have always tried to communicate that this, all the safety measures and protocols, all this isn’t about you and what you think or what you want. It’s not about me and what I think or what I want. It’s about the other. It’s about the neighbor. It’s about the least among us. And as Christians, we do things to protect and care for our neighbor. What is good for the other?
And while here at St. Philip, we have been pretty supportive and accommodating to these protocols, looking at our world, in leadership and on social media, to see Christians acting in a way, to see followers of Jesus demanding that their preferences override someone else’s needs… no wonder people don’t want much to do with Christianity anymore.
So, this week, if you haven’t yet noticed in this sermon, it all started to pile up on me, press down, overwhelm me a bit.
I’m tired, tired of it all. And maybe you are, too. And no, vacations didn’t help me escape the state of our world. Not much can.
And into my life, our lives, our world, today Jesus essentially says, “I’ve got you. I will provide.” I am the bread of life. I will sustain you and give you what you need.
Starting last week with the feeding of the 5,000 and for the next several weeks, the lectionary assigns us this Bread of Life discourse, and we will delve into various pieces over the next few Sundays. But today, we get a pattern of question and answer. There is what the crowd wants to know and asks, and there is the answer that Jesus provides.
I say it that way because the crowd wants to know something, but Jesus answers with a different kind of information. The crowd wants to know who Jesus is in light of that miracle they just experienced. But their questions don’t really seem to be taking them to that goal, so Jesus tries to redirect them with his answers.
“When did you get here, Jesus?”
“I will give you food that endures forever.”
See how the question is dumb and the answer points to something way bigger?
And because Jesus gives different answers to the questions being asked, maybe the crowd should ask different questions. Maybe WE should learn to ask different, better questions.
In all those things I’m tired from, in all the questions and uncertainties, am I asking the wrong questions? Am I asking for and working for and fretting over the food that perishes, rather than seeing the food that endures for eternal life?
With the crowd, we, too, might ask, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” - which sounds like a good question, right? But it often quickly slips more into us and our preferences. How do we know if we’re doing it right? How much do we do? What if someone doesn’t like it? What if we’re tired?
And Jesus responds in a way to bring us back to center, “This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom God has sent.” To believe is to trust that God is doing something beyond what we ourselves can do. To believe is to, in everything, be sustained by God’s saving work in Jesus. To believe is not so much about what we can or should or don’t do; it is about being open to what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
Being open to what God is doing in Jesus means we might not get to do what we want, might not get our preference, might have to let go of some of our choices. Because being open to God and submitting to Jesus means it is not about you; it is not about me. We aren’t in charge and definitely not in control. We don’t provide the things that last, the things that matter; God does.
Here’s the good thing about community. When one of us starts to waiver, to tire, to ask random questions, there are others there to help point again, to ask better questions, to remind us that God provides, Jesus is our bread, and God sustains us so we can care for our neighbors. Caring community reminds us we are sustained by God so that we look beyond ourselves to our neighbors.
We care for our neighbors through Christmas in July, raising nearly $2,800 to help foster kids.
We care for our neighbors through meals for the homeless, sustaining them with good food.
We care for our neighbors through generosity and grace - all that has been shown through this pandemic time. We take those preventative steps not for us, but for our neighbors.
And it is so much easier to care for our neighbors when we trust that God has provided for us - not just in material ways, but in ways that give us life eternal. In ways that give us forgiveness from our past. In ways that heap grace upon us. Jesus is the bread that sustains in a weary world.
And even then, we question: “what sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe you?” And once again, Jesus answers in ways that we don’t expect and yet point us truly to the heart of God. What sign will he give us? He answers by opening his arms wide, is lifted up on the cross, and then is raised from the dead on the third day.
Jesus isn’t just bread, but the bread of LIFE, providing and feeding and giving us life forever. Jesus is the bread that fulfills all of our hunger, is bread that answers questions we don’t know how to ask. And he answers with love and grace.
And so we trust that this is indeed true, no matter how tired we are, no matter our questions. God provides. God gives. And we trust that Jesus is the true bread from heaven, sent to sustain us always.
It’s a fun day, isn’t it? It’s balmy outside, but we still get to sing our favorite Christmas carols and hear the story of Jesus’ birth. Back when we first started this Christmas in July worship service, that was part of the point. Everyone enjoys Christmas, so why keep such an enjoyable thing stuck to a couple of weeks in December?
But more of the point was to celebrate Jesus without needing all that extra stuff. Because, let’s be honest, Christmas time can be super busy. There are decorations and cards and parties and presents and family, all happening in a very short amount of time, all bringing with it a certain level of stress. With Christmas in July, we could celebrate Jesus without the hassle. Focus on the reason for the season without the trappings of the season getting in the way. We could clearly and plainly know Emmanuel - God is with us.
But… this year... we kind of want the stuff. We’ve been without for so long, we want people and gatherings and singing and a little bit of festivity. We kind of want to be stressed out with too many Christmasy things to do. We kind of miss our long lists. We kind of want so much on our plate that we feel normal again.
Even though we have been gathering and doing more things, even though most of us have seen our family and been a bit happier than we were last year at this time, even though things are kind of, sort of, almost normal… it’s not normal yet.
And a stressful Christmas is normal. What once was a “change of pace” with Christmas in July now just reminds us that we still have a ways to go until we are back in full swing.
And yet, there is a promise present in Christmas, whether we celebrate in December or July. The promise is: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter when or where or how… Christmas still happens. Jesus is still born among us. God is with us.
And as much as we long for what was or what will be, the truth of today is that God chooses to come to us. God chose to be born among us - Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. God chose to send the Light into our darkness. God chose to send Life, life for all people. Christmas is the simple, tangible act of God coming to us.
Christmas is the wonder of how deep God’s love is - not just on that one day, but every day. God changes the world in Jesus Christ and shines so brightly that not even death can stop the love of God. No matter if there is stuff and stress or not; the point of Christmas is Christ. God’s Word. Love Incarnate.
And so - maybe - no matter how we are feeling on this particular celebration of Christmas, maybe that love incarnate is enough. Maybe hearing again the joy and gift of Jesus, maybe we let that love be born in us anew. Maybe the simple, tangible God made flesh is enough to help us, to give us hope, to change us.
And it has, I know. Despite things being not normal for way too long, we as St. Philip have really tried to be tangible love. We have tried to incarnate God’s love for this world. There are numerous examples, but today the obvious one is our Angel Tree.
One day we’ll get back to buying gifts for these kids in foster care, but for now, know that any donation you made toward our Christmas in July Angel Tree is going to directly help a child. These donations will be used to get things these kids need - and part of our stipulation - since it is Christmas, after all - is to get something they don’t need but will bring joy. Headphones. Fishing poles. Crazy socks. Whatever.
Because for many of these kids, they live in group homes and families they may have just met. Many have been forgotten by biological parents, stuck in some downward spiral of being passed around from place to place.
These gifts, your gifts, will bring tangible love, joy, and light where there isn’t much. It is a simple yet real way to show them that someone cares, even where they are. We can share the love that God gives us, be a little light in the darkness.
And by simple, tangible ways of showing love, we remind ourselves and others of the love God gives us in the newborn Savior of the world.
And in simple, tangible ways, God’s love still shows up for us today: ways like bread and wine, familiar, favorite words heard and sung, community gathered to hear again the Good News of Jesus Christ. God shows us love, no matter where we are, no matter how we feel, no matter what we miss or long for.
The whole point of today is to say that God comes to us, in our world - and not just in long lists and immaculately wrapped presents; not just on the big, festive days we get stressed out over; not just in those things we miss and hope to return to one day, no.
God comes to us, gives love now, to us, to those in foster care, to everyone. Through that child in the manger, God brings hope to our lives in simple ways, in the every day. God truly comes to us, God really gives to us, God forever loves us. And the more we can hear that news - just that news, the more we know the love of Jesus in our everyday.
Today, on a hot day in July, we get a chance to tell the story again.
Because every time we tell the story, we tell of God’s love.
Every time we hold the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, we hold God’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 God’s love.
Christ is born for us. God is with us. Love is given to us. It’s the simple, tangible promise of Christmas. Now and forever.
Mark tells the tale of an intriguing triangle. He talks of Herod, his wife Herodias, and John the Baptist. Just for reference, the last time John was mentioned was way back in chapter 1 when he was arrested and just after he baptized Jesus.
In our current situation, Herod has married his sister-in-law, which went against the laws of the Torah, and so John the prophet called them out about it. Herod, though, admired John, believing him to be righteous and holy. Herodias, however, wanted John dead. Herod, to this point, was sort of protecting John from this deadly punishment by simply keeping him in jail and not killing him.
But, an opportunity arose for Herodias at one of Herod’s fancy dinner parties for her to get her revenge. Her young daughter “danced and pleased Herod and his guests.” Herod is so pleased that he promises this girl anything she wants. After consulting with her mother, the girl conveyed Herodias’ wishes: “I want John’s head on a platter — now!”
Herod was stuck. He was so caught up in how he appeared to people, he couldn’t back down from his promises, as asinine as they were. He can’t lose face, won’t admit guilt, isn’t even reluctant about chopping off a guy’s head. Sure, he was “deeply grieved,” but a fat lot of good that does for John. He’s not so grieved that he’ll place justice, mercy, or what is right over how he might look to his peers.
So, off with his head.
It’s an interesting story, is it not? But reading it on a Sunday morning during worship seems a bit… unnecessary. It’s pretty gratuitous in its details of plotting and dancing and violence. And it’s actually a pretty long story for the Gospel of Mark, which is all about telling you only what you need to know and then moving on to the next thing. And, to top it all off, Jesus isn’t even in our flashback scene. So, why is this here? Why do we read it? What’s the point?
Well, for one, this story contrasts our world’s power against God’s weakness. It shows how our world works, and how God works. It compares our ways with God’s ways; our desires of power and saving face and even the sometimes cutthroat ways we act when we feel threatened are cast against God’s desires and how God reacts.
And we don’t really like how God acts and reacts. We’re much more comfortable with being on Herod’s side. We would like to attend the fancy party, not sit in a jail cell. We like the chance to flex our power and our pocketbook, not appear weak and lowly. Strength. Authority. Might. It’s what we choose, the way we lean nearly every time. God’s way in comparison, just seems weak.
What is weaker than a prophet sitting in a jail cell awaiting his death? The only thing weaker than that is the Son of God being nailed to a cross.
This story, in the grand scheme of the Gospel narrative, does have a point beyond gratuitous violence. The story of John’s death foreshadows another death that is coming later on in the Gospel - from the rulers being impressed with the particular preacher, to both wanting to please the crowd above all else, to these leaders becoming pawns in a game they cannot control.
The death of John the Baptist points us ahead to the death of Jesus, showing that John truly was the forerunner of the Messiah.
In some ways, this Sunday is a lot like Good Friday. There is not a lot of Good News when we just read and remember the story put in front of us.
But thanks be to God, this is not the end of the story.
See, in our world, the story is over when we see the executioner’s axe, the cross looming, when the tomb is sealed. In our world, that is the end. Which is why we try so hard to avoid it. We use every tool we have - power, money, prestige… and yet, the end is the end. Those things only get us so far. Our power doesn’t keep the story going.
But not so with God. God is not finished, but has more. And God does it, not through the ways we prefer, but through ways we see as weak. Through giving. Through sacrifice. Through opening arms wide, not clenching fists tight.
These are things the world sees as weak. Yet God’s weakness wins over any power we think we have.
That is true in our story here, that is true with cross and tomb, that is true when it comes to the end of everything. Political powers, selfishness, might makes right - it doesn’t win, at least not for very long. Though power may seem to control, God’s weakness truly does something new.
What is weaker than a prophet sitting in a jail cell awaiting his death? The only thing weaker than that is the Son of God being nailed to a cross. But in that weakness there is true power and new life.
Through this weakness, God graciously gives us the gift of life, the promise that despite our own weaknesses, we are loved. Despite our failures, we are welcome. Despite what is around us, we are called to live differently than the world, to live out God’s weakness in word and deed.
So, we do things that the world looks at as crazy and weak.
We gather, not to combine powers and take over, but to see the image of God reflected in each other, to remind ourselves that we aren’t the focal point.
We give, not so the church makes a profit, but because God has already given us so much and we can share that to make our world and community a better place.
We serve at places like Helping Hand, not because it is a lucrative venture, but because it is a way we reflect God’s love.
We don’t get a good return on investment by having Christmas in July. Instead, we make it a point to give and to share, to offer a little bit of hope and joy to kids in foster care. The love God gives us helps us see that those kids, all kids, deserve to be cared for, loved, protected - not forgotten, not pushed aside. Our gifts through Christmas in July are but one way we can let them know they are cared for.
We do these things because we are convinced that the world’s ways are not God’s ways, that God’s ways are truly the better ways to live, and we as Christians are to show others God’s ways through giving and service.
So, on this day where we don’t get a lot of Good News, we are reminded that God’s love shows up in ways we don’t expect - in a prophet’s jail cell, in a cross and tomb, in what we wordly wanderers see as weakness.
What is weaker than a prophet sitting in a jail cell awaiting his death? The only thing weaker than that is the Son of God being nailed to a cross. And yet, in that weakness, God creates life for us, for free, forever. The grace of it almost makes one lose their head… at least for a moment.
Jesus? Yeah, I’d heard about him. Seems everyone had heard about him.
There were all these stories flying around town about this traveling Rabbi. Some said he taught with an authority, not like the scribes. There were rumors that he could cast out demons and heal all kinds of illnesses. There’s even this story going around that he stopped a storm - simply spoke a few words and the storm just stopped. Everything was still.
Of course, there were skeptics, too. They claimed he was a fraud - nothing more than a quick-witted carpenter, preying on people’s emotions and entertaining the crowds with stories - parables, he called them. Too bad no one understood them.
As for me, I wasn’t sure.
Until that one fateful day…
My daughter woke up one morning not feeling too well. And yes, she did look a little down, felt a little warm. My wife had her lie down in our bed and cared for her best she could. We prayed; the synagogue prayed. I made sure she had the best care. But as the days went on, my daughter didn’t get better.
My friend, who is a healer - the best healer I know - he said to me, he said, “Jairus, I don’t think she is going to make it.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard those words about your daughter. Lord, I pray you haven’t. They take the wind out of you. Your world starts to crumble. All that I had worked for, all the influence, all the advantages I had earned in my life… they were useless now.
This isn’t supposed to happen. What had I done to deserve this? What did my daughter do?! Nothing! I - WE! - are a faithful family. We do what we are supposed to. We live the Torah. We… are… faithful… And now, my little girl gets sick, really sick, maybe even sick enough to die.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did the one thing that made sense to me my entire life: I went to the synagogue. That one place that has been there for me; it is that one ritual that comforts me and centers me.
And on my way, looking out toward the sea as I often do, I noticed a large crowd gathered near the shore. “It must be that Jesus,” I thought as I continued to walk.
I only took a couple of steps more.
Jesus... Could he? No. No. I can’t. He’s an imposter - a false prophet. Right?
Besides, what would those in the synagogue think of me going to him for help?
Would it show that I don’t have my life under control? That I’m not the faithful leader I claim to be?
Could I do that - let myself be vulnerable like that?
It was worth it. My daughter is worth it.
And that is why I went to Jesus. Not because I believed in him, per se, but because I was desperate. I saw him as my only hope.
As I walked down the hill, I started to notice that the crowd was a little bigger than I thought. I didn’t know how I was going to get to him. And as I started pushing my way through the fringe, people started to actually move away. It’s amazing what people will do when they recognize you; I still had that going for me. I don’t know if they were expecting a theological debate when I got to Jesus or what, but I didn’t care. My daughter was sick. I needed his help, if he could give any.
As I twisted my way through the crowd, I rehearsed what I was going to say. “I’m Jairus, leader of the synagogue. My daughter is gravely ill. I request your assistance,” over and over in my head.
When I finally got through the crowd and stood right there in front of Jesus, all that I had rehearsed left me. I didn’t know what to do. So I fell at his feet. I begged. I didn’t inquire or politely ask. I begged. I was at his mercy, desperate. Half yelling, half sobbing, I cried out, “Come with me, Jesus. Come, heal my daughter.” He stood me up and looked at me with warm, deep eyes - those eyes - and he said, “Take me to her.”
Now with a little bit of hope, we went back toward home, me leading and Jesus and his band of followers tagging along. We had to fight a little through the crowd and right when we were almost through them all, he stopped. “Who touched me?” It’s a crowd, Jesus. Dozens of people touched you. Let’s go.
I don’t know why he had to stop. And then that woman came forward. That woman. I’d seen her around. A lot actually. She was unclean. She came to the synagogue a lot for purity rites and cleansings. She was the one holding me up?
I tried to get Jesus and remind him of the urgency in this matter. My daughter is sick. Things are already hopeless enough. Come on.
But he just stood there, this woman crumpled at his feet, sobbing that she had done it, blabbering on and on about this and that. And then he talked to her. This interruption was more important than my daughter’s life?!?
I felt disdain for them both. Not having time for this, I turned to leave. It was a waste of my time, of precious time. Then I heard him say to her, “Your faith has made you well.”
“FAITH!?” I thought to myself. Faith!?
I, as a leader of the synagogue, I know about faith. I, the head of a family, know about faith. I can tell you how faith is supposed to look, and this woman isn’t it.
I spun around on my heel and right as I was about to let them both have a piece of my mind, my friend showed up and placed his hand on my shoulder. When I looked at him, I knew.
He didn’t need to say anything.
But he did anyway.
“She didn’t make it, Jairus. She didn’t make it.”
As he kept talking, everything kind of went blank. Though I was in a crowd, everything was quiet. I felt cold. Weak. My eyes lost focus. I was still.
No. No, no, no, no.
I flashed back to all the memories I had with my little girl. The times, years ago, when she would wrap her little hand around my finger. The way her nose would wrinkle up when she smiled. And that laugh. I wouldn’t hear her laugh any more. Running and playing and stories at night. Gone. Gone.
I was too late. Jesus was too late.
His talking is what snapped me out of it. “Don’t listen to them,” he said. “Trust me.”
“What? She’s dead,” I protested. “You let her die! You and that woman over there.”
He turned back to me, looking me right in the eyes - intense this time, but still warm. “Believe.”
Then he told everyone to stay put except a couple in his crew.
When we got to my house, several of our friends had already heard the sad news. They were outside crying, comforting each other. Some were singing and reciting psalms. And when we got to the front door, Jesus said, “why are you all so sad? She’s only sleeping.”
And people laughed at him. They laughed.
I did not. There wasn’t anything funny.
I didn’t know what Jesus was going to do now. It was too late.
But he insisted and went in anyway. As my wife and I stood in the doorway to our room, my arm around her, we watched Jesus go over to our daughter, sit down on the side of the bed, and, just like he was waking up a sleeping child, say, “little girl, little girl. Wake up. It’s time to get up.”
And as her eyelids started to flutter a bit, my wife rushed from my arms, but all I could do was stand there.
That was no healing. That was life. Life in the midst of death.
Who is this who can even raise the dead?
For some reason, all I could think about was that woman - that woman who had caused this mess to begin with. Faith - Jesus noted her faith. Some things started to make more sense.
He wasn’t just healing her illness; he made her whole again. He did more than make her feel better. Physically, socially, spiritually, even - Jesus made her whole.
I think that’s what Jesus does. We have our cares and our worries - but Jesus has all of us. He doesn’t leave us where we are, but fixes things we don’t even know are broken. He raises us up - raises us up from death, from brokenness, from separation. It is a new life - a life of faith.
When my daughter was dead, I thought my world had ended. And in a way, it did. This world I myself had constructed and believed to be true, that did end. And Jesus, along with raising my daughter, raised me up to something new.
Now, I have hope. I have seen what God’s Kingdom looks like. It is unconditional love for a self-important man. It is abounding grace for an unclean woman. It is power to raise the dead. It is the promise that with Jesus, it is never too late… never too late...
So, yeah, I’ve heard of Jesus.
I hope you have, too.
Every so often, Jesus gives us a break. A break from the demands of our bringing about God’s kingdom. A break from us carrying the weight of ensuring God really does reign. A break from everything that we have to do so that earth looks as it does in heaven. Yes, every now and then, Jesus gives us a break from making sure God can do what God says.
Ok, so that’s a little tongue and cheek, because of course WE don’t bring the kingdom. But sometimes, we think we are the ones responsible. But Jesus, particularly in that first parable for today, gives us a bit of respite. It is a much needed rest from the constant persistence needed to ensure that the Kingdom of God is here, is our focus, is our goal.
Because every once in a while, we do need a break - or at least the reminder that it is not really up to us.
And this reminder couldn’t come at a more perfect time. Many of us are transitioning to summer schedules. The kids in our family unit are wrapping up school this week, and then it is off to summer vacation. With COVID protocols easing, more of us will begin to travel again - picking out new things to see or visiting those people and places where we haven’t been to in a long, long time. Even the work in our vocations eases up for some of us over the summer - with fewer meetings and a little more relaxed atmosphere - though for many of you, your retirement here in Myrtle Beach won’t change much.
God is at work, even while we go on vacation.
But, we don’t always let go so easily. We like the control, we like being needed, maybe we even like being busy. We like to make sure things go according to plan, are just the way they should and ought to be.
We do have good plans, you know?
But Jesus wants us to remember that our control, our sense of being needed, our busy-ness… it isn’t what brings the Kingdom. The earth produces, the seeds grow on their own. The Reign of God grows automatically, regardless of our intentions and efforts.
Now, this isn’t a pass from ever having to do anything supportive of God’s Kingdom. It’s not an excuse to always be kicked back in a lounge chair when there is work to be done. But it is Good News because it provides relief. It reminds us not to become over-reliant on our own energy, effort, excitement. Because once we start to think that we do by our own reason and strength bring God’s Kingdom, we have forgotten that we are talking about God.
Jesus doesn’t want us to tire out, to break, to lose ourselves over what we can’t control. The seeds will grow. And that’s the point of the parable. The seeds, God’s Kingdom, it’s going to grow.
And as minor of a lesson as that may seem, it’s a lesson that we need to be reminded of again and again. We can take a break, we can breathe, we can rest, because ultimately, it is not up to us. We’re not in control.
This past week, I got a little bit of a lesson in both - I got some rest, and I learned I’m not in control.
It was a pretty regular week in the office - not a whole lot of extra stuff to do - so I decided to take Tuesday morning for myself and go play disc golf - it’s like regular golf but you throw a frisbee into a basket instead of hitting a ball into a hole. I can talk your ear off about it if you want me to, but I digress. There is a temporary course set up at Arrowhead Golf Course - something new and novel. I met up with a friend and we walked and threw our 18 holes. A relaxing day.
Upon getting back to our cars, I couldn’t find my car keys. Wallet was there, but no keys. It seems I didn’t zip up my bag and they fell out… somewhere along that 18 hole disc golf/ball golf course.
So, of course, there is panic. Fear. Dread. Plans were pretty much ruined. So, after a bit of asking around, I started the trek on my second time around the 18 hole course. Long story short, a nice guy named John picked them up. There was grace and relief and thanksgiving at the act of a stranger. So, thanks, John. And thanks to friend, Ed, for helping out. Of course, I found John with my keys at the end of hole 7, so yeah, I pretty much had to walk the whole course back.
And my first thought, of course, was that if I could just control how I handle my car keys, none of this would’ve happened. I did the stupid thing of putting them in a pocket that I didn’t zip up and lost them. Be better! Try harder!
But then I thought, if I can’t even control my car keys 100% of the time, how much more true is it that I can’t control the Kingdom of God? While I am usually very, very good at these things, I guess I am not perfect. So, if the simple things I’m not perfect in, how can I dare to think that I can control what and when God does something?
The kingdom, Jesus says, comes on its own. We don’t know how, but it does come. As much as I try my best to be better, to be better at disc golf, pastor, family, ministry, car key keeper… I just sometimes need the reminder that I am dependent on God’s work and grace and mercy. God will bring the Kingdom in God’s own time, though I don’t know how or when.
And we’ve all been at a point of feeling out of control, of needing rest, needing the reminder… those reminders have come in dramatic ways, heartbreaking ways, subtle ways, inconvenient ways. But the promise to you, even in those times, is that God is in control. God has us. God will do it.
There is rest for us in these promises, because it is not up to us to bring the Kingdom. God does, God will. And God is faithful and trustworthy.
But as I said earlier, this isn’t an excuse for us to stay put in our lounge chairs; there is work for us to do. We do have roles to play. Farmers don’t make the seed grow, but they are called to plant, to tend, to wait, and to harvest.
And we, too, participate in the kingdom even though it isn’t in our control. We are free to go to work in the kingdom - to love, to give, to wait, to walk with, to pray, to persevere, to be the people of God - not because we have the burden of bringing the Kingdom, but because God has promised already to bring it and we want to be part of that.
So, in the meantime, we can remember God is in control. We can take moments of rest because it is not up to us. We can do our best to care for the little corner of the world in which we live. And we can trust that God will bring the kingdom, in order to save the world.
It seems Jesus is crazy. Like, very crazy.
So very crazy that his family comes to run interference. They’re worried about him. People seem to have begun to notice him and are starting to say all kinds of things about him. He’s become pretty famous - like a first-century rock star. But, as we all know, rock star status can push one over the edge. “He’s gone out of his mind,” the people were saying. That may very well be what Jesus’ family is thinking, too, during all this. They’re looking out for him. And yet, at the end, all they get for a word of thanks is, “who are my mother and brothers?” All they are wanting to do is make sure Jesus keeps his head on straight and doesn’t do anything stupid in front of the religious authorities.
Because, of course, they show up, too. They’ve been getting pretty upset about what Jesus has been doing and what he’s been teaching. All this crazy talk about God? Jesus must be possessed by a demon! No one who isn’t possessed could or would do the things that he is doing. Jesus heals on the sabbath! He reinterprets the law! He talks to those he shouldn’t. He eats with anyone. He gives a vision of a God who is so gracious and so merciful that we can’t regulate who is in or who is out.
Jesus is crazy.
But he’s not so crazy that he can’t quickly turn their argument on its head. If a prince of demons is giving Jesus the power to cast out other demons, that means the demons are turning on each other. If that is the case, they will not stand - their end has come! - and that ends up pretty good for us.
Instead of being bound by demons or Satan, Jesus is the one who does the binding. Jesus binds Satan. The evidence is seen in the miracles, the healings, in all that he has done so far. And he won’t stop - not yet. His work isn’t done.
Jesus is crazy. He loves with reckless abandon. He points to a God who doesn’t follow the rules. He redefines what it means to be family. He declares the end of Satan’s reign, mocks the religious elites, and declares them utterly resistant to God.
Based on how the scribes and Jesus’ family saw things, “demonic” and “crazy” are definitely applicable. Not only that, but those words also have the benefit of dismissing Jesus outright. “Don’t listen to him; he’s crazy!” Now they can hold on to their own worldview and are still able to regulate the “who” and “what” of God’s kingdom.
Which makes me wonder…
How crazy do we think Jesus is? Because, we “like” Jesus, but we also like to keep him at an arm’s length. We aren’t so keen on radical love but prefer more of a mainstream love. There are still lines drawn, still places we won’t go, still things we regulate to keep who and what out. We make following Jesus palatable for the masses, not requiring anything too terribly difficult or life changing. As long as people are happy, I suppose.
Somehow, in it all, we just can’t imagine God actually being the way Jesus says. Surely, the comfortable way we are used to doing things means we’re already doing things the right way. Surely, God doesn’t expect us to change, adapt, invest in making other people, places, systems better. Surely, we aren’t supposed to invite them, welcome them, make room for them.
We’ve got to draw lines. How else will we know who is in or who is out? There’s only so much to go around. That’s the game we’ve got to play if we are to survive.
There is no place in our world for an open, encompassing love like God’s. So, we don’t try. It’s crazy anyway. How can we possibly do something, change anything, be part of a thing as big as that? Is God really expecting us to believe it? It’s crazy; it’s impossible.
That is what Jesus offers. That is who Jesus is. Jesus proclaims this crazy, impossible love. Jesus IS this crazy, impossible love for us and for the world. Jesus turns things on their head, taking an abrupt left turn when we are cruising along just fine. He brings a revolutionary, open, abounding grace to this world - so gracious that when we see it, we go, “that’s crazy.” But calling it crazy doesn’t make it any less true.
And crazier still, he calls us to be part of it.
We are part of the family - not by blood but by water and the Spirit. We are named, claimed, adopted into the work of the Kingdom through our baptism. We find our identity, our community, in and through the relationship we share in God. All those who live and work for God’s kingdom are family.
Which means, it’s not coming here that makes one part of the family; it’s doing the crazy work of God out in the world. It’s living like Jesus, loving like Jesus, welcoming, serving, walking like Jesus. We show up and with arms wide open welcome every single person in every single circumstance because they are the image of God. We strive to revamp the brokenness in our lives and our world. We renounce division because Jesus’ family is as diverse as the day is long.
Lest you think you are on your own, know that you are possessed - owned, held, guided by the Spirit of God. This Spirit works, moves, blows us to be the family of God wherever we go.
And yet, wherever we go, we always have the opportunity to come back together and gather. We do crazy things here, like sharing a family meal while swapping stories of our brothers and sisters throughout every time and every place. We do the crazy thing of admitting our sins - acknowledging that we are broken people in a world that tries so hard to gloss over that type of stuff.
And we hear the crazy news that God loves us all the same. All of us are loved - not more, not less - in the midst of our brokenness. It is a love that is not regulated based on our rules or preferences - our whos or whats, our ins or outs. We are loved.
But then, after we gather, we are again sent out to continue the work of the Kingdom. It’s the kind of work that is hard - that will get you talked about, even called crazy. Heck, it got Jesus killed. But this kind of crazy love also raised Jesus from the dead. Resurrection is the ultimate statement that this kind of love simply cannot be stopped, not by violence, not by our wills, not even by death. And so, love - God’s love - will eventually win the day.
This past week, I was reading something completely not related to Mark, chapter 3, but it is very relevant - maybe even was a driving force behind this sermon. The quote reads, “one criterion for knowing that you are responding to God is sensing, even to a small extent, that what you are proposing is crazy. Were it not crazy and unusual, we would have figured [it] out ourselves…” (Rendle & Mann, Holy Conversations, pg 25)
Following a God that is this loving, this inclusive, this other-oriented is crazy. Jesus is crazy. And guess what. We’re called to be crazy, too, for the sake of the Gospel.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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