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.
Most of you probably don’t know that I was a math minor in college. I was a Computer Science major, so I already had a lot of math classes under my belt, and adding one extra to get the minor wasn’t a big deal. Anyway, all this is to say that I’m not afraid of numbers. I can handle them, do math with them, even do math with letters (though probably less than I used to be able to).
I’ve always liked math. I like that it is orderly and predictable, yet at the same time, it comes with challenges and mysteries. I like that learning one little thing means you can solve innumerable problems. Math and numbers are interesting and fascinating. Despite what some of you think, numbers can be fun.
We mark our lives by numbers - what time is it? How old are you? What anniversary is it? Numbers matter. They mean something.
The same is true in the Bible. There, numbers often mean more than just what they are. For example, the number seven is not just the number seven. It stands for perfection, completion, wholeness. The number 40 is less about being exactly 40 and more about “as long as it takes.” Twelve is the tribes of Israel and the number of disciples - a nod to continuity. And then there are random numbers, like 666 (the mark of the beast) or the 153 fish that disciples catch on the other side of the boat in John 21.
Numbers in the Bible usually do more than tell us how many of something there are; instead, the numbers invite us to expand our thinking on what we’re hearing, to imagine and question and ponder and reflect about what more is God doing than telling us a straightforward count.
And so, when it comes to the number three…
When we ponder the Trinity…
When we hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…
We should probably dig deep into why in the world God would choose to be revealed and relate in this way and with this numerical representation.
Because three is a hard number, particularly when it comes to relationships. That’s important because every other sermon I’ve given on Trinity Sunday is about God as relationship. Relationship and connection to another is the heart of who God is. But three? That’s a difficult love triangle.
Think about it. Even numbers promote pairs, an easy split for conversation. Double dates. Couples. Pair off. Four sides to a table.
Even numbers seem to give us the order and predictability we come to expect from numbers. But odd numbers? The number three? Everything changes.
A group of three is much harder. There’s a whole different way to handle the situation when there are three of you. With kids, one plus one does equal two, but growing up with both a brother and a sister, two plus one does not usually equal three. It seemed to always stay at two plus one. Like most social activities, even as adults, add the odd person, and it’s the odd person out. Two seem to get along better without you, or you get along better with this one rather than that one. No one wants to be the third wheel.
When you have three, the dynamics of relationship change. You are forced to share a conversation, to be attentive to another besides the one right in front of you. You have to listen to more than one person, perhaps at the same time. You have to balance feelings and responses and reactions that have doubled. That’s the problem and promise of three.
Despite our difficulties with three, God saw fit to say, “I am who I am.” So, God must want us to learn something through this. Maybe God likes to throw us off. Maybe God thinks this is what relationships are all about. Maybe God is OK with things being a little imbalanced. Maybe deep, complex, selfless relationship is essential to who God is.
Because rarely do we have an even, balanced, easy way to understand any conversation about God. Rarely is it four sides to a table, pair off, have some direct back and forth. Usually, there is a third angle to consider, another view to ponder, something more to throw us off balance. It seems God wants us to consider the complexity of who God is and not be too comfortable with our finished view of God’s character.
Now, to those who paid attention to the Gospel lesson today, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get around to the good stuff; you know, the “God so loved the world” part. I get it. It’s a beloved verse, and we’d all be much happier talking about that rather than the confusing complexities of triads and the mystery of the Triune God.
Which makes this day all the more confusing. Because as complex and imbalanced and unpredictable as a triangular relationship is… this God, this Triune God… loves the world. Loves it so much as to save it from whatever condemnation and death and destruction was going to befall it.
That’s the Good News. This indescribable, hard to relate with, Trinitarian God does the very simple and direct thing of loving you and bringing you into relationship. Whether you comprehend it or not, whether you think you’ve got it or not, whether you are a third wheel or not… God loves you and loves the world so much that Christ came to die, rise, and save us all.
And God just does it. Not only loves, but gives the world the Son. As surprising as “God revealed as three persons” is, the fact that God’s love is so clear, direct, and unconditional is maybe all the more surprising.
That in and of itself might confuse us, have us question and doubt that any of it is true. This confusing, revealed, Triune God loves me?
And yet, that is what we proclaim. Today, every Sunday, every time we take a moment to be reminded. It is complex and yet simple, incomprehensible and yet understandable, unbelievable and yet… so very true.
Some how, some way, God makes the numbers work. God’s table doesn’t have only four sides; it’s always got room for more. God finds the ones who are out and brings them back in. God uses the simple things - water, bread, wine, relationship - to help us grasp the deep, complex love of God.
At the end of the day, what we need to know and remember is: God comes to us with love. With relationship. To welcome us into life. That is the beauty of the promise. For God so loved the world… that God counts you as included.
We have a tradition of talking about the stained glass windows on Pentecost. We’ve kept it going, even last year during the pandemic when no one was here but Arthur. I don’t have to hold my cellphone at just the right angle this time! Anyway, on to the stained glass.
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.
We use these windows and the symbols on them to teach us, to share the story, to remind us of all that God does.
I started doing this on Pentecost because it’s such a weird day for us Lutherans. We don’t like talking about the Spirit all that much because we aren’t much into speaking in tongues or charisma... or anything out of the ordinary, really. We shy away from the Spirit because we don’t like all the crazy signs that we think of when we hear “Holy Spirit.” Violent wind. Fire. Speaking in different languages. Not very comfortable for us. They make us nervous!
For quiet, calm, collected Lutherans, those attention grabbing theatrics usually turn us away. We like our calm, organized worship - not the chaos the Spirit brings. But those “crazy” signs were meant to catch our attention and point us again to Jesus.
But thankfully God and the Spirit are big enough to handle more than one way to come to us. As I said last week, we aren’t all the same even though we are all one. The Spirit speaks in much more subtle ways, too - ways like stained glass to remind. Ways like water and word to name and claim. Ways like the community of Jesus. Ways like bearing good fruit, fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Those are all ways - much less flashy ways - God works, ways the Spirit comes to us to create faith. And… these are all ways we are much more comfortable with.
This year, even, God has been at work, producing fruit in us and through us. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. I’ve seen it, and I can list numerous ways God has worked through this congregation.
But, in the spirit of the day, I think maybe I won’t do that. It’s too… passive. So, let’s bring a little chaos to the Lutheran service - which means it’ll still be calm and orderly, but it will be different. Instead of me listing the places I’ve seen the fruits of the Spirit the past year, when I name it, you just share where you have seen that fruit growing. Not a story, just a word or two. And just say it, say where you’ve seen the fruit of the Spirit.
Not too bad for the Spirit moving in a Lutheran church service.
God is working in us - in chaotic ways, in passive ways, in ways to remind us always of the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. So, when you see beautiful stained glass, when you see gusts of wind, when you see any fruit of the Spirit, you know that God is working. God is present. God is growing fruit in us for the life of the world.
Paul’s letters are fun to read. That may seem like a church nerd thing to say, but it’s true. Each time we read one of Paul’s letters in worship, there is something great to hear.
Last week, we heard that we are “justified by faith, not by works of the law.” Good news, succinctly said. This week, we hear, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The hits just keep on coming!
There are so many wonderful nuggets in Paul’s letters, and those nuggets help us hear how God has worked, is working, and promises still to work in our world.
But also as we heard last week, there usually is more than meets the eye. We hear these “greatest hits” and famous verses, but if we dig a little deeper… if we think a little bit more… they start to get real confusing, real fast.
To point again to last week, we heard about the faithfulness of Jesus and how God was doing something new - faith is what saves, not the Law. Neither circumcision nor food saves you; it is Jesus’ faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to you that saves you. That would lead people to ask, “is God doing something brand new in Jesus or is God continuing what God did for generations?”
Paul seems to anticipate this question, because today he wants to make the point that the Messiah is a continuation of what God has been doing all along. It’s not so new, after all.
Paul has to convince his hearers that God is indeed faithful to what God was doing through Israel and yet, also faithful to the new, present reality of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And to do that, Paul argues two things at the same time - first for continuity of God’s actions, and second for something new.
Let’s start with the continuity.
To be continuous, one must start somewhere in the past and work their way forward. And we can’t go any further back in Israel’s history than Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham is why there is Israel to begin with. Paul uses the example of Abraham and a quotation from Genesis 15:6 to ground his claim that God has a history of counting faith as righteousness.
If we remember back to the promise God made to Abraham, we hear God saying that God would “bless him; his descendants would outnumber the stars; all the world would be blessed through him.” If we really listen to that promise, it isn’t only about Israel. It was designed for all nations. For everyone.
Israel was part of that promise, recipients of that blessing. And now, Paul says, the faith the spirit brings makes you descendants of Abraham and part of that covenant promise, as was God’s intention from the get go. God has given the Galatians the Spirit, indicating that they, too, are God’s heirs - Abraham’s true children.
The Galatians, the Gentiles, you and me, we are part of Abraham’s family, not because of our stellar keeping of the law, but because God planned it that way the whole time. The spirit brings us in through faith, through trusting in God. The blessing of Abraham flows out to the nations in Jesus. God isn’t really doing something new, Paul tells us; God isn’t creating a new family and forgetting the old. This has been the plan from the beginning!
But God really is doing something new in Christ. I told you Paul was arguing two things at once.
While God is still faithful to that promise to Abraham which was made so long ago, and while God is consistent to the promise made long, long ago, God is also doing something radically new. And that something “new” is expanding the family beyond the distinction of the law.
The law had its role; it was a babysitter for a time, until Christ came. And now, it’s not that the law doesn’t matter, it’s just that it doesn't define who God’s people are. It is not a distinctive marker meant to set us apart.
Because that is what the law was. It was the marker of God’s distinct people. God’s people followed the law. In fact, some even thought that following the law not only set them apart but set them above, made them better than the others.
But now that Christ has come, those distinctions fall away. We all are one in being heirs of God, one in Abraham’s family, one in Jesus the Messiah through baptism. It is there in those waters that we are clothed with Christ, and our old distinctions are no longer relevant. Status in God’s family isn’t based on status in life. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.
Now, some people read this as we’re all the same in Jesus and our differences shouldn’t matter - that they should fade away. But I don’t think that is the case. I think our differences do matter. Our experiences do matter. Our gifts and our talents and who we are as individuals do matter. God doesn’t want a bunch of homogenous humans, but God wants us to be who we are, be who God created us to be.
I’m left handed. I have curly hair. I had braces as a teenager. All those things have shaped me and make me who I am today. It’s who God made me to be. It’s not that those things no longer matter. It’s just that these things aren’t the basis for my standing in Abraham’s family. Thank goodness, because all you straight haired people would be in for it.
Ok, just kidding. Paul’s point is that all these differences between us are still well and good, but they are not ranked when it comes to Christ or God’s family. It has been said that the ground is even at the foot of the cross. There is no distinction - nothing we are, have, or do saves us. In Christ, because of Christ, we all are in the same boat, we all are one.
Long ago, God promised to Abraham a single family that would bless the world. And in the Messiah, God continues to make that promise true in new and unbelievable ways. For you. For the world. Forever.
How do people know they belong? How do we know we belong to God? And if we do belong to God, how do others know?
Groups of people need boundary markers, both to identify themselves as a group and to identify that some people do not belong. It’s kind of like team colors, in a way. These markers and descriptors let you and others know to which team you belong.
It’s not so different in church. Aside from denominational “teams” like Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists, even in individual congregations there are boundary markers.
In a church where I was involved many years ago and who shall remain nameless because of video evidence, there was a Sunday school class named “Young Adult Luther League” - or the YALL group for short. The name was kind of a throwback to what the youth groups in Lutheran Churches were called back in the day. Now, this Sunday school class, as one might imagine, was made up of Young Adults. Except… most of them were in their forties. Some were even older.
Now, to some of you that might seem like a young adult, but to a seminarian who was in his early twenties, they were nowhere near young adult status. They had chosen their identifier long ago, and yet, now that identifier was no longer relevant. And, as a side note, if I had to guess, I’d say there is a pretty good chance that this group still meets with the same people under the same name.
That is a silly example of what it is Paul is talking about. He writes to the Galatians because there are some who are preaching and teaching that the primary identifier of a Christian is observing the Jewish law. Keeping the law, these teachers said, is how you know you belong. It is how other people will know you belong. These were the markers Jews used for centuries: the Torah and Law, the foods you ate or didn’t eat, the rules you followed, with circumcision being high up on the list.
But Paul says all these identifiers are out of date - no longer relevant - for what God wants to do, and they don’t properly define who we are as God’s family. Paul proclaims that Christ is the source of belonging for all - whether they are Jews, as he and Peter are, or Gentiles, as much of his readers are.
Paul insists that one does not need to physically become Jewish in order to belong to the Messiah’s family.
Paul begins his argument by recounting his past. He loved the Law more than anyone, the most zealous of them all. He even persecuted Christians. But after God revealed the Son to him, everything changed. He stopped killing and started proclaiming.
We then skip to Paul telling when he met Peter in Antioch. Their argument was over who had a place at the table. Did Peter belong at a table with Gentiles? Did they belong at a meal with him? When Peter waffled on answers to these questions, Paul called him out as a hypocrite. Surely, Peter knew better! To paraphrase what Paul says here, “We love the law, and yet even we know that keeping it doesn’t create belonging with God. Why hold others to a standard we don’t keep for ourselves?”
And then we get into the meat of this lesson for today. Not to let our Lutheran flag fly too high, but this piece really gets our hearts to sing: “a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The law doesn’t save; Law doesn’t make one belong to God. It is faith that does. Faith is the marker of belonging.
But it’s even a bit more nuanced than that. The English phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” doesn’t tell the whole story. In the Greek, it is much deeper than just believing something about Jesus. It’s not up to our faith alone, but up to Jesus’ faith, too.
Those who have heard me preach a good bit know that I don’t go into the Greek a whole lot. Doing that is simply an easy way to get your eyes to glaze over. So the fact that I’m talking translation right now must mean this is pretty important. So, in order to not get too technical, let’s just say we don’t have a good way to translate this phrase in English. Our words don’t capture the full meaning.
In Greek, this can actually convey two meanings at the same time. To use an example, it is like our English phrase “love of God.” Love of God. See how that can mean two things at the same time?
It can mean a possessive on God’s end: the love of God is God’s love, God’s love for us.
But it can also be my love; I have a love of God.
That is kind of what this “faith in Jesus/faith of Jesus” means, too. It’s a both/and. We belong because of Jesus’ faithfulness to God. Which makes sense because our faith in Jesus does nothing without what Jesus’ faith first accomplished - a faith that trusted God throughout all his life, even when trusting meant dying.
Jesus’ faith makes us belong. Christ, through his faithfulness, belongs to God, and we in turn have come to believe, we trust and have faith in what Jesus has done. Going the Law route just doesn’t work.
This belonging is so strong, so ultimate, Paul describes it as death and resurrection. It is no longer we who live - for we have died; instead, it is Christ who lives in us. And we live now by faith, faith that it is indeed Jesus who gave up everything for you and for me, who was faithful to the end, who lives in you so that you may live and belong. It is the faith of Christ that does it.
Getting into God’s family any other way just doesn’t work. Not law. Not food. Not circumcision. If righteousness could be achieved by following the Law/Torah, then the Messiah died for nothing and Jesus is unnecessary.
Paul is driving home the fact that God saves Gentiles by making them Messiah-people, not by making them Jews. The point is who you are in the Messiah. And so, our marker is one of faith. Not anything else like law or status or Young Adult Luther League.
God’s true people are summed up in one person, Jesus the Christ. He is the faithful one. He is the true Israelite. He is the one who makes us justified and welcomes us in.
How do people know they belong? How do we know we belong to God? And if we do belong to God, how do others know?
Paul tells us we belong because of Jesus. We belong, not because of what we’ve done or what rules we follow. We belong because Jesus lives in us, because Jesus has been and will always be faithful. Jesus’ faithfulness means we always belong. Because Christ surely didn't die for nothing. Christ died for you.
In some Bibles, different sections have different titles. For example, there are portions of the Gospels titled “Jesus Heals a Blind Man” or “Peter Denies Jesus.” It helps us scan through the text and quickly find what it is we’re looking for.
Well, when I saw that Acts 15 is titled “Council at Jerusalem,” I groaned a bit. Oh, joy! A church meeting! Like I said a few weeks ago, Acts isn’t all that much fun to preach on, and this chapter title does not inspire as much as others do. This is like preaching on a Synod Assembly or a Council Meeting. It’s not that it isn’t relevant; it’s just that it’s uninspiring.
There is no Gospel word proclaimed directly to us There is no overt, sweeping action of God. No proclamation of death, resurrection, and new life. What Good News we squeeze out is convoluted and impersonal. It is kind of the generic, “God loves everybody,” which, we know, is good and important for us to hear. But it lacks that certain something - that direct word that makes me feel that God indeed knows, loves, and cares for me.
I think we know somewhere up in our little brains that, yes, God does love everybody. It’s the most basic of Sunday school lessons. And if we look back over the past couple of weeks, God’s love for everyone is why Stephen was stoned. He proclaimed it; others thought it went too far. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch showed God’s love in a welcoming, open way.
But today, we get a bunch of church leaders... talking. Talking! Standing up in front of each other and talking. There’s not a lot of drama or fireworks to it. But this scene is kind of where the rubber meets the road. Who should be included? Who should be excluded? What can move one from exclusion to inclusion?
The debate at the time was whether or not Gentiles needed to become Jews before they became true Christians. That would mean following the Law and being circumcised first, and then they could be Christians. Or, on the other hand, could they jump over the whole Jew/circumcision part and still be fully welcomed into Christ’s community?
Having the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Church decided Christ’s community can welcome any and every one without heeding to the Law first. Because for them, those sitting around the table realized that they have been the beneficiaries of the wideness of God’s mercy, and they recognize God at work in extending mercy to the Gentiles, too.
And that is the Good News here. It is Good News for you, and for everyone else, too.
Now, make no mistake about it, Easter life is for you. God’s love is for you. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Grace has changed who you are. You are welcomed, loved, and sent out into the world as a beloved child of God. This Good News is for you.
But the Good News can’t stop there. If it is good only for you or only for me, it’s not the fullness of God’s Good News. This love and welcome needs to go beyond you and me. It needs to go out this door, go to the ends of the earth - and go all the way to the person right next to you.
The hard part, the sinful part of me and and us as a fallen humanity is we often do stop the Good News with us. Part of our brokenness is we tend to think of ourselves and want things to be how we like them. And so, our presentation of the Gospel is often one that looks like what we like, what we are familiar with, what we have seen and known and done our entire lives. This way, the Good News looks a lot like us and is for people like us.
But this Council at Jerusalem gives us an example changing from self-selection to really opening up God’s welcome and love. See, these church leaders knew that Jesus himself was a Jew. And the earliest Christian communities were steeped in Jewish scripture and tradition. It was what they liked, what they knew, what was like them. And yet, they saw that God was expanding the welcome. Jesus could be the Jewish Messiah and still bring salvation aside from the Law. God’s love could extend to the ends of the earth to include all people, not just those who were Jews first.
Those sitting around the table realize that they have been the beneficiaries of the wideness of God’s mercy, and they recognize God’s work in extending mercy to Gentiles, too.
And for us, as we realize that we - who most likely weren’t Jewish first - that we have been the beneficiaries of the wideness of God’s mercy, we will also start to recognize that everyone else is a beneficiary of God’s mercy, too. And God is working to help us see that - through stories like this one, as uninspiring as they may seem on the surface. God is working through creating a new community in baptism, where we are all joined to Jesus. God is working through a meal, a meal that spans all times and all places.
God is reminding us that we are invited and welcomed, and that they are invited and welcomed, too. As we will read from the apostle Paul in a few weeks, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
The Gospel tells us that we are always loved and welcomed and that nothing in life or death will change that. And that Gospel also moves us to consider that others are loved and welcomed and that nothing in life or death will change it for them, either. And as we start to see that truth more and more, it will truly become Good News for all.
We are a work in progress. We as the Church at large, as St. Philip, you and me as disciples, we are a work in progress. But Easter has made it so that the Good News has changed our world, changed how we view God, changed the Good News from Law to Grace. And all of that changes us to the glory of God.
As I mentioned last week, for the next several Sundays, we are looking at different passages from Acts of the Apostles. We heard about Stephen last Sunday and how he was one of seven appointed to the special task of making sure people were fed. In the end, he took on more than that one role with preaching and teaching.
The same is true here of Philip. He, too, is one of those seven appointed to make sure people were fed, and yet, it seems there is more to the job description than just putting food on a table. In the passage we read today, Philip gets put into a bunch of unlikely events.
An angel of the Lord calls Philip to go from his work and activities in Jerusalem to a desolate, wilderness road. It is literally in the middle of nowhere.
On this road, there is a eunuch from Ethiopia, someone who is very different from Philip. This eunuch is an employee of the high court, is dressed nicely, and riding in a chariot. On top of that, he is reading a scroll of Isaiah (hopefully wasn’t scrolling while driving). Then, after Philip runs up alongside this chariot, out of the blue he asks, “do you understand what you are reading?” After a little sermon about Jesus, all of a sudden there is water. In the middle of the desert.
It all seems a bit coincidental and out of place. Nothing in this story should work out the way it does. While in the middle of the desert, it just so happens that the guy who knows stuff about Jesus runs across this other guy who just so happens to be reading Isaiah. And then there just so happens to be water.
The out-of-place prophet has the unlikely encounter with the eunuch who has no place.
And that is where God shows up. Like so many other stories in the Bible, this one is again meant to tell us that God shows up in unlikely ways, in unbelievable places, in people we don’t expect - maybe even don’t want - God to show up in.
And yet, God leads us to those places. To nowhere. To wilderness. To places we question. God leads us to those people. To people who don’t have a place. To people who are outsiders. To people who get shunned, boxed in, cast out.
God shows up there, with those people - the most unlikely of people.
And that is a good lesson, a good reminder for us. God sends Philip to that middle of nowhere to say that there is a place for the eunuch - a place of welcome, acceptance, love, grace. That place is with God.
But that is also what God says to you, too. God gives you a place of welcome, acceptance, love, and grace. Yes, we need the reminder that God welcomes everyone, even the most unlikely of people; but we also need to hear that we, too, are welcomed. We, too, are unlikely. We, too, are “those people.”
See, we know ourselves. We know us. We know what goes on in our heads and hearts. We know where we’ve been hurt - and where we’ve hurt others. We know when we’ve been too sure and when we didn’t have a clue. Maybe most days we think we are fine. But there are days, times, moments when we’re wandering in the wilderness, completely out of place, stuck in the middle of nowhere. And in the most unlikely of ways, God says you are loved. You are welcomed. You are graced. As surprising and unexpected as you may think it is.
To paraphrase the eunuch’s question, “what is to keep us from that kind of welcome and love?”
Honestly? We are what keeps us. We think we’re too lost or too broken or too foreign to all God offers. We close ourselves off to seeing the unlikely coincidences of God. We head further down our wilderness road, trying to make heads or tails of all that is going on.
And God keeps showing up.
No matter the place we are in our lives, God comes to us - as unlikely as it may seem, as out of place as it may seem, as much as it doesn’t seem like things are working out. It just so happens that those are the places God shows up.
Like Philip to a eunuch: a stranger who shifts our perspective, who opens us up to see things in a new way. God shows up in unexpected moments like that and turns it into a sacred time, a sacred place.
In water - in a splash to remind us that we, no matter who we are, are claimed forever. God shows up in the formation of a varied, colorful, open community in the Body of Christ. God reminds us that we are washed clean, forgiven every time, all the time.
God shows up in an unlikely meal of bread and wine. God feeds our souls as well as our stomachs. God uses that meal to sustain us as we are sent to the varied places of our world.
God shows up in the unlikely place of a cross and, even more unlikely, an empty tomb.
Because God shows up there, because God shows up in resurrected life, we know that even death can’t keep God away from us. And if death can’t stop God, then nothing will. If God can show up despite cross and grave, we are certain that nothing can or will keep us away from God’s welcome, love, and grace.
In Jesus, through Jesus, because of Jesus, God ensures we have a place, no matter who you are. In Jesus, God finds us, shows us, proves to us that God’s love is more than coincidence. It is the heart of who God is.
We have a place.
Philip, the eunuch, we, you have a place, as unlikely as you may think it is.
Because, not coincidentally, that’s how God works.
Though the Bible puts the Gospel of John between them, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are one continuous story - a double volume from the same author. Luke is both an evangelist - telling us the story of Jesus as the Messiah - as well as the first church historian, since he narrates the beginnings of the church in Acts.
Through the second volume of his work, Luke continues to tell us how Jesus worked - not just while he was here on earth, but how he worked through the disciples and apostles. Today, and for the next several weeks, that is where we will turn.
And we start with Stephen.
When the work of the Twelve Disciples begins to be too much for them, they delegate seven others to take over some of the hands-on ministry - namely feeding widows. Stephen is one of those seven, who, though appointed to this one particular task, seems to have turned into a powerful speaker and teacher as well. Part of his teaching and preaching, which we don’t get much of today, is about God’s mobile presence, meaning that God is not limited to the Temple nor to Israel. This angers the Council, and Stephen is rushed out of the city and stoned to death, but not before he shouts out that he can see Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Stephen, much like Jesus, says a prayer for his killers. Standing there, watching the whole thing, is a young man named Saul. Spoiler alert: he’s a pretty important guy going forward.
Now, if you haven’t picked up on this already, let me just lay it out for you, plain and simple: Acts is not that easy nor that much fun to preach on. Stoning? Yay… If you play your cards right, you can end up just like Stephen and Jesus!
I mean, if you simply take what we have, it’s hard to find much Good News at all.
So, maybe what we can do, instead of looking at Stephen in particular, we look at Stephen and the Church and how it relates to us right now.
Like in the beginning, before we get to today, the early Church was doing what it should. It was proclaiming the Good News. It was feeding people. It was caring for others. It talked the talk and walked the walk. It was beautiful and hopeful. It’s no wonder people wanted to join up with them. Those types of situations can draw people into the community of faith.
I feel like a year and a half ago, we as St. Philip were in a great spot. We were giving and caring. We were proclaiming the Good News. We had a full sanctuary and were welcoming new people each and every week. We’d greet them, make them feel welcome, invite them to be a part of our community. We had a lot of ministry going on - meals, drives, studies, fellowship. I feel like we weren’t just talking, but we were walking the walk, and we were walking it well. So well, in fact, that we as Council were about to work on a second phase of our Forward in Faith visioning process. How could we ensure all this good energy didn’t just fizzle out, but push mission and ministry forward? How could we better be the church here and now, for us and for those not here yet?
And then, one day, everything changed. All that we thought was good… well, it stopped. Building closed. Energy redirected. It was like getting hit in the head with a rock. The ideal ways we were doing ministry were gone. Dragged away. Dead. Things suddenly got messy and tragic.
It was hard - IS hard - when things are humming along and then all of a sudden they aren’t. In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s death is the point where things aren’t so happy-go-lucky any more. This is the beginning of persecution and strife and discord for the early Church.
And while for us, our moment of COVID didn’t bring the same type of stone throwing, it was and still is a big disruption. It was a shift into a new reality for us. How can we be the Church in such a time as this?
Of course, then and now, the Church continued, despite it all. Despite everything stopping. Despite death, even. For the disciples of that time, the future was uncertain. They didn’t know what was coming next or how they’d handle it.
And for us, too, despite our hopes that we are almost back to normal, despite some of our regular things being incorporated back into worship, despite what we really hope will happen, the future is still very uncertain.
No one knows what the next steps will be or when we will take them. We don’t know who will be back or when that will happen. We don’t know the people we never reached, those we never got to welcome, those we never fed. We don’t know how long it will take until we are humming along in the ways we remember before.
What is coming is uncertain. But, what this martyrdom in Acts tells us and shows us is that God, even in the uncertainty, is present, calling, urging us forward.
In the midst of COVID, in the midst of downtime, in the midst of death, God promises new life. God resurrects. Cross to empty tomb. Broken hearts to burning hearts. Uncertainty to Mission. Just as God was present in the early church, not letting it flounder, God is present now. And because God is present, we can move on with hope.
While it isn’t wise to just yet to jump with both feet back to what was, we can and should have dreams about going forward - not just dreams about reverting to what used to be, but about moving to a new place, with new energy, with the hope of God instilled deep inside us. God is calling us, giving us gifts, to plan, to work, to continue on sharing the Good News in word and deed.
Past, present, future… God was always there in the early church. Through controversy and calling, through martyrdom and mission, through it all. And God is with us, too, in our fond memories of before and in the toughest days where nothing seems right.
God is here because God is faithful, no matter if we the Church are full, empty, open, closed, tragic, hopeful, messy, or humming along. God is here. Jesus feeds us. The Spirit supports us.
God sends us to share the love and grace that we have received in new, reforming, relatable ways. God calls us to be the Church. That is the exciting and scary part of it.
Because Church can be messy, wonderful, tragic, and yet, we always have hope.
We have hope because God is here, and God is faithful. And God always will be.
This story of a pair disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of my favorites in all of Scripture. It’s a great story, brimming with sermon fodder. Every line is carefully crafted by Luke, with all the emotion, scenes, and analogies a preacher needs to knock a sermon out of the park. There is sorrow, suspense, puzzlement… the gradual dawning of who this is, unexpected actions, presence, a meal, recognition, excitement! All this in one story! There is so much!
And, on top of there being “so much” here, it translates really well into our daily lives.
Jesus is with us, even when we don’t know it. Jesus is found in the scriptures. Jesus is seen clearly when we gather and break bread - especially the communion meal. Jesus is with us always.
That’s the heart of the Emmaus story.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us, all the time, even when we don’t know it.
Now, of course it’s easy to see Jesus in the good stuff - like all the things I mentioned: communion, scripture, fellowship. Of course, Jesus is there. But it’s important to remember that Jesus is there in the not so good stuff, too. Yes, these disciples are sad because they thought their friend and teacher was still dead, but there are three words in here that really bring this story from abstract to real.
As they are talking to Jesus, they say, “we had hoped…” We had hoped. Those two disciples - and every follower of Jesus at that point - had high hopes. They had hoped, day after day, that he was going to redeem Israel, that he was going to set everything straight. But that didn’t happen. The cross got in the way. Death got the last word. It put an end to any hoping that was going on. We had hoped.
It’s not too uncommon for us to utter those words, either. It’s the reality of our lives. I’ve heard them in hospital rooms: “we had hoped…” I have heard them at funeral homes: “we had hoped…” I have heard them a lot this past year about gatherings and normalcy: “we had hoped…” So many things in our lives, any unforeseen circumstance… we had hoped.
Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a short-story in six words. He supposedly replied by writing on a napkin, “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all the hoped-for what-could-have-been... but won’t be. Maybe you’ve been there, too, been at a place with a broken heart.
Loss and disappointment are real in our lives.
Dreams, sometimes, are *not* realized.
A bright future never materializes.
Hopes are not actualized.
Few things are harder for us to swallow than hopes or dreams or a future that is dead.
We are more like these two on the road than we acknowledge. We have our plans; we have our hopes that are dashed. We walk along; we journey from one stop to the next. And in it all, often unbeknownst to us, Jesus is there. Jesus is with us in our stories, in our journeys, in our every day and hum-drum. And we don’t see him. Yet, like Cleopas and his traveling partner, in our plans gone awry, in our dashed hopes, in everything: Christ walks with us.
And that is what makes the difference. That is the Good News. That is the heart of the Gospel.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us, all the time, even when we don’t know it. That presence rekindles hope.
The resurrected Lord is with us always, and that gives us hope beyond hope. And he can be with us always because through Easter we know that nothing can keep Jesus from us. If we’re a tax collector or sinner, Jesus is there. If we are full of hope or disappointment, Jesus is there. If we’ve had a crummy or fantastic week, Jesus is there. Even in life and in death, Jesus is there.
Who we are, what we do, what we see or don’t see; nothing separates us from Jesus. Not even hanging him on a cross and placing him in a tomb keeps him from us. In Christ, God conquers all that separates us - those things like sin and death which we have no shot at defeating. God does it for us out of love, out of grace, because God wants to be with us, wants to walk with us, now and forever. Jesus gives us hope, tells us the Good News, feeds our faith with his presence. He wants to take our broken, uninspired, dream-crushed hearts and kindle something within them.
And though we don’t always see right away, along our journey Jesus reveals himself to us. He meets us and we often don’t even know it. Call it hindsight if you will, but often when we look back, we can see that Jesus was with us the whole time, and we didn’t even notice. Were not our hearts burning?
And so we keep telling the story. We tell the story that Jesus told. We tell the story that we’ve been telling, week in and week out. We tell the story because the story rekindles the burning in our hearts.
We share the meal because Jesus is there, hosting, present, inviting, blessing, feeding our faith. Opening our eyes to see him yet again. Helping us to see that he was with us the whole time.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us, all the time, even when we don’t know it.
So, as you go along to Emmaus and elsewhere, with all that life brings your way, may Jesus walk with you wherever you journey.
May Jesus reveal his presence in your life - and the fact that he has been there the whole time.
May Jesus take your broken heart and set it on fire.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
OK, how do you think y’all did with that response? We Lutherans aren’t super good at going off script. Typically - even with a bulletin in front of a congregation - I hear a smattering of responses - a jumble of “Christ,” “he,” and “Alleluia” in almost the right places. Maybe even there is a “yeah, he is! Come on outta that tomb!” (Truth be told, I stole that from Mr. Arthur and today’s Children’s Church video.)
But this - or some form of this - is the typical, traditional Easter acclamation with which Christians have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus for centuries. It gives voice to our faith and joy at Christ’s triumph over death, the grave, and all that stands between us and eternal relationship with God.
But, while “Alleluia, Christ is risen” has been around for a long time, it wasn’t around on the first Easter. In fact, quite the opposite.
The story begins with the obvious: Jesus is dead, and his followers all assume that he is still dead. So, the women go to anoint the body and show proper respect to their dead teacher. But the women get news they weren’t expecting. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” When they go tell the apostles, it seems they believe that the women’s message is nonsense, nothing more than an “idle tale.” Death was death. Yet, the message so conjures something up in Peter that he has to go take a look for himself. What if it’s true?
The women are told that Jesus has risen,
the disciples are told that Jesus is risen,
but no one sees that Jesus is risen. Jesus doesn’t show up on his special day! All they are left with is a word, a message. One might think that God would work a little differently. It’d be so much easier for the women to show up and then watch Jesus walk out of that tomb. Or for Jesus at least to hang around long enough until his friends got a chance to see and verify. But no, all they got was a message.
All this might help us relate a little bit. It seems our situation is just like that of the women and other disciples on the first Easter. All we have is the word, the message of resurrection. I don’t see a dazzling bright Jesus anywhere, do you?
We are all given a message of resurrection, and that idle tale flies in the face of what we know to be true. It contradicts all that we see around us, especially this past year. The dis-ease from the pandemic, isolation, loss of lives... and loss of life as we knew it, political unrest, social unrest, and the on-going uncertainty of when, if ever, the unrest will rest… All the evidence we have teaches us that pain, sin, death wins.
And yet… here we are. Here we are, hearing a contradictory message: Jesus is raised from the dead. We know what death does, yet Easter pops in and says, “are you sure?” Jesus is alive. He lives! We, like the women, like Peter, hear the message and have to wonder, what if it’s true?
Easter raises us up from our belief in death to a new belief in life.
Resurrection helps us to question our certainties.
Jesus calls us out of our darkness into something more.
Life and resurrection brings with it a lot of questions, but what we get today is a word. A message. A proclamation of Good News in the midst of it all.
In Jesus, life gets the last word. Death is real, but it’s not final.
As surprising and as unbelievable as it is, Easter opens us up to a love that we don’t think can be true. God’s love is so big and so strong, even the certainty of death can’t keep it away. Easter gives us the hope that God knows us and has felt our grief, loss, fear, and our certainty that death has the upper hand. Yet God gives us hope that there is something else certain that we can hold on to.
Easter and resurrection point out that God does not abandon Jesus to death and grave, and if God doesn’t abandon Jesus, then the God who has worked so hard to show us love and life won’t abandon us to sin and death either.
Though it is hard to believe, though it goes against everything around us, today we hear the Good News that God’s love doesn’t stop. God’s love doesn’t end. God’s love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, is alive through all things. God’s love is victorious, even over the things we think are certain. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is raised. Life is given, and life is promised. For you.
Christ alive shows us who God is. Resurrection shows us what God wants for the world. Easter shows us what God wants for you and for me. We will never be outside relationship and life with God.
And while we may not be certain always in how to respond, God gives us sure and certain hope:
Alleluia. Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Long ago, God made a promise to a man named Abraham. “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you. All the world will be blessed through you. Look at the stars - so shall your descendants be.” Sarah, Abraham’s wife, laughed at this promise. Yet, a son was born.
Isaac was the son - the long awaited son, the only son, the nearly sacrificed son. Isaac was the heir to God’s promise - God’s continued promise.
Next in line were the twins - Jacob and Esau, quarreling from birth - favored and not, crafty and not, chosen and not.
Jacob grows up and dreams of a stairway; God renews the covenant with him - the promise the same as before - a nation with blessings. But Jacob struggled, wrestled. Asking, “who?, who are you?” Instead of receiving a name, he himself is re-named. “You are now Israel, for you have struggled with God.” Israel left with a limp.
Israel had twelve sons - twelve tribes to make up God’s people, to continue in God’s covenant.
Joseph - the youngest yet the favorite of the twelve - had the prized gift from his father: a coat of many colors. The other eleven were jealous and sold him to slavery in Egypt. Israel’s heart was broken.
In Egypt, Joseph rose up the ranks because of his ability to interpret dreams - surpluses were saved and famines were managed. The other tribes of Israel moved from their homes to Egypt to beg, to eat, to survive. Joseph, able to grant death or life, chose life. He provided food. Forgave. Family reunited.
But over time, the Pharaohs of Egypt forgot this history. The Israelites were no longer seen as citizens, but slaves. They cried out, “God, where are you? Have you forgotten your promise to us?” But, of course, God had not forgotten them or the promise.
A bush burned and spoke to Moses. “I AM the God of your Fathers. Go to Egypt and set my people free.”
“But!” resisted Moses.
“Tell them, I AM sent you.”
And Moses went.
“Let my people go!” Moses declared.
Pharaoh said, “No.”
So plagues to convince - blood, flies, frogs are just a few - and then, the Passover. Take your best lamb and kill it. Put its blood on your front door… when God sees the blood, God will know the lamb died instead of you. Eat the meal, the Pass-over meal, loins girded, sandals on, unleavened bread in your hand. Eat it quickly, for this is the Passover of the Lord.
The Israelites were sprung free from slavery - on their way to the promised land. God did not forget after all. God remembered, just as God had always done.
This is the story that Jesus and his disciples told and remembered there in that upper room. And as they told this story, they shared a meal, the Passover meal - each course filled with meaning, purpose, and history.
The Passover meal is a way of interpreting and remembering the story, the most important story for the Jewish people. As they eat, they live out again God’s promise to rescue and deliver them. It is the meal where they remember:
God doesn't forget.
God keeps promises.
God upholds the covenant.
And when this Passover meal among disciples and friends was over, when the story had been told and the promises of God remembered, Jesus took bread. “This is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took the cup. “This is the new covenant in my blood.”
A new covenant, a covenant we remember in the Communion meal.
In this meal, we remember - as Jesus remembered - all the works of God. This upper room experience calls back to the festival of Passover, which in and of itself calls back again to the specific moments of deliverance, of God keeping promises and upholding covenants. This is the story, these are the promises that we remember. With this one meal, we honor thousands and thousands of years of people understanding just how God relates to us, how God is active and alive, how God keeps the promise. We do this in remembrance of Jesus as he did it in remembrance of God rescuing.
On this night, it seems like God might have forgotten all that. Things are heading downward for Jesus and fast. In just a few short hours, he’ll be rushed through a trial and nailed to a cross. What more than death could make it seem like God forgot?
But Jesus knows what is coming; he knows there is one who will betray. And still, he says, “remember.” Remember what God has done. Remember all the saving acts of God. Remember - and not just by telling the story, but remember by eating bread and drinking wine. Jesus gives us a meal. He gives us love. He gives us a way to remember God’s new covenant.
Because, in this meal, God is doing something new, even if we’ve done it a thousand times. Yes, God is delivering us once again. Yes, God is setting us free once again. Yes, God is giving us a promise once again. But God is also re-membering us - bringing us together, making us part of something bigger, ensuring we are whole again, putting that covenant of life in our hearts. God re-members us as individuals and as a community. God is bringing all of this saving history together. We are made part of God’s ongoing story of salvation. Of life. Of love.
All because of the blood of the Lamb, through whom all nations, all peoples are blessed.
Whenever we eat and drink, God re-members us, God makes us whole, God gives us life through Jesus’ broken body. Given and shed for you. And we remember. We remember covenant. Life. Forgiveness. Grace.
With the holy ones of all times and places, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to us, God works to bring life, love, and salvation out of even the worst of circumstances. God keeps promises. God upholds the covenant. God doesn't forget. Never has. Never will. And because God always re-members us, we know that Jesus continues to feed us, nourish us, forgive us, be present with us, even now.
Throughout the whole story, our whole story, in life and death and life and everything in between, God re-members us all. Now and always.
Our plans for today are ruined.
Usually on Palm Sunday, we start outside, gathered in the front, palm strands in hand. Growing up, it was one of the coolest things I remember about church. It was always a fun day for me. Church! Outside! It was novel and exciting - a way to live out the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry.
But this year, we’re all inside, with minimal parading around. Some of that is practical - our cameras for streaming the service can’t catch what we do outside. Plus, with COVID still rearing its head, it’s best that we not mingle too much right now. So, the usual plans for today… ruined.
But I get the sense that not many here are all that upset about not marching around the front lawn. Stoic Lutherans don’t really do parades or waiving branches or anything, really, that draws too much attention. In fact, I expect to hear a lot less grumbling after worship because at least you’ve got your regular seat, right? No one else can sneak in front of you and get it.
But even though things aren’t going according to plan, at least it is a step up from last year at this time. Our plans surely were ruined. We were closed. The doors were locked, and it was just Arthur and me in this big ol’ room. We tried to replicate as best we could what the normal plans are, with me marching my cell phone down the center aisle. But when you’re the only one shouting “Hosana,” it’s not quite the same.
Yes, plans certainly were ruined.
But really, ruined plans are at the heart of what today is.
See, Jesus ruined a lot of plans on this Palm Sunday roughly two thousand years ago.
It seems like everything is set up for him to win, to be victorious. The crowds are behind him; he has lots of followers. He’s done marvelous, miraculous things throughout his ministry. Even in setting up this entrance, by all intents and purposes, he is in control. He knows about the colt and what its owners would say. He rides in while others wave and shout. He is the king, come to claim his rightful place.
It is what the crowds and disciples expect - it’s what we expect. That Jesus would win. How could he not? But with Jesus, all those plans are ruined.
Once he enters the city, he doesn’t do what a king should do. He weeps over Jerusalem. He laments its destruction. Then he goes to the temple, not to pray or offer a sacrifice, but to stir the pot and turn over all the things that the people had come to rely on. And that really upset people - leaders and regulars alike.
This surely isn’t what we would’ve planned. Today, Jesus ruins our plans. Jesus cancels any celebration we thought we’d be having.
But that is what this day is about. Unmet expectations. Ruined plans. “Hosanna” to “crucify him.” A king who loses.
Jesus doesn’t avoid death, as we would. He doesn’t play it cool or send others to do his dirty work. Instead, he goes on. He stays true to who God called him to be. He lives - and will die - trusting that God will not fail him.
The Good News today isn’t as good as it usually is because this Good News, God’s Good News, doesn’t go according to our plans. Jesus is not doing what any good King or ruler or Savior of a people would do. He’s not doing it the way it should be done. He’s not doing it the way we know it should be done. Our plans for a Savior don’t work out. What we hope for doesn’t happen. Today, on Palm Sunday, our plans for glory and honor and hosanas are ruined.
This week, we get the opportunity to hear again the story of our king. Our Savior. We will celebrate on Thursday - a new commandment, the last supper, stripping of the altar. On Friday, we will relive the events of Jesus’ final day through scripture, song, and darkness. And then… despite death’s best laid plans...
“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Often in sermons, preachers hold back a little something until the end. They/we save a piece of Gospel news to break out at just the moment when we feel all is lost. When it seems our brokenness, pain, and reality overwhelms, this tidbit of Gospel is the relief, the blessing, the surprise, the Good News in the midst of it all.
But because of the composition of our Gospel reading for today, we need something to draw us into the three distinct, separate stories we have - Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death, his healing of a blind man, and his encounter with Zacchaeus. The Gospel Message is the way to do that.
So, I’m showing all my cards right up front - not necessarily so you can go ahead and “check out” since you know the punchline of the sermon, but so we can better understand each piece of Luke we hear today.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
In the first section, Jesus again tells his disciples what will happen so very soon. This is the third time he predicts his death in Luke, and none of the times have the disciples actually understood him. Through these three passion predictions, Jesus implicates everyone - first go around, it was the religious leaders; second, it was human hands; third, it is the Gentiles. It seems everyone misunderstands who Jesus is.
We misunderstand God’s way of love, and our actions put a stop to the wide embrace God has for the entire world. We kill off ways that stretch our comfort zone. We bury the love that calls us forward. In that way, we, like the religious leaders and Gentiles of Jesus’ predictions, are lost.
And yet, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. And through fulfilment of Jesus’ promises of what will come, through the cross and empty tomb, we see that God does indeed work to save. In fact, this very way the disciples and the crowds and we resist is how God keeps seeking us, everywhere, no matter what. Nothing, not our lack of understanding, not our limits, not even death stops God from seeking, finding, and saving.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
In the second story, we have a blind man who calls out to Jesus as the “Son of David,” a kingly and messianic name, for sure. This blind man, who was sitting beside the road begging, was most likely kicked out of the community because he wasn't seen as whole. The disciples and the others who would’ve been seen as good and whole tried to get this blind man to stop yelling and drawing attention to himself. But he doesn’t; he knows, he sees who Jesus is. And though in Jesus’ eyes, he is already enough, Jesus decides to make him whole in our sight, so that we, too, might see who Jesus is.
We, like the crowds and disciples, don’t always see Jesus for who he truly is, either. We have an earthly vision of Jesus. Maybe our eyes deceive us, and we put Jesus in some form of box of our own making. Maybe he’s just like us. Maybe that’s just how we like it.
But Jesus came to seek and save the lost, even those who don’t see Jesus for all he is. And even though we don’t see, even though we have our blind spots, Jesus comes near and blesses us with the gift to truly see him. In ways we don’t always see - in bread and wine, in water and song, in promises and hope - Jesus gives us the gift to see. He finds us, even when we lose sight of who he truly is.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
In the third scene, we meet a short man named Zacchaeus. In fact, his stature is why he is famous. Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he! He also happens to be a tax collector. He is defined by his physical attributes and his job. In some ways, his job is overcompensation for his physical traits. He is a big man after all, since he has the power of the purse. Yet, that isn’t what Jesus wants. Today, salvation has come to this house.
We often get our sense of worth from what others think of us - our appearance, our car, our title, something that ultimately doesn’t matter. We get lost in trying to keep up with others; we work hard at crafting others’ opinions of us. But Jesus recognizes us where and for whom we are, and it is his opinion that matters.
We are lost in trying to project our perfect self to the world. Yet, Jesus knows the truth about us and saves us from who we think we are. Jesus invites himself into our lives with words of hope and promise. He comes to dine with us, is present in the meal, and brings salvation to us today.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
This is not a promise which is postponed until we die. It’s a promise for right now, no matter what. Because we do get lost in all of our various ways. Like with Jesus’ prediction of what is to come, we want to go our own way, not God’s way - because God’s way is often harder, even if it is the way to life. Like the story of the blind man, we who think we can see just fine often miss Jesus’ true self which is right in our midst. Or, like Zacchaeus, we sometimes let our jobs or physical attributes or abilities define us. But still, Jesus seeks us, sees us, and saves us.
He saves us for resurrection.
He heals us to see God’s glory.
He brings salvation for us for today.
Jesus comes to seek and to save the lost - those who not only don’t get it, but those who are a little too certain. Those who can’t see and those who think they do. Those who care a little too much about what others think and those who claim otherwise. Jesus comes to seek and save you and me.
In the midst of our brokenness, pain, and reality, this news, this Good News, that Jesus seeks and saves you, this is relief, is blessing, is surprise, is Gospel.
One year ago, everything changed.
In January and February of 2020, media outlets started reporting that a new virus was spreading around China. Most of us didn’t pay much attention early on, because, you know, it’s so far away. But then a case was discovered outside of China. Then it was in Seattle. Then New York. People started to get concerned.
More and more reports of people testing positive for the virus were showing up. Government leaders were beginning to get worried and started to consider measures to quarantine people who had traveled or isolate communities where the virus was spreading.
Still, many of us weren’t too concerned. That’s “there” and we’re “here.” But I remember what did it for me, what made me start to consider this as a really big deal. It was when the NBA cancelled their season. Not “cancelled a basketball game here or there,” but stopped their season completely. Professional sports organizations don’t just stop their season for willy nilly reasons; there’s too much money to be made. So to flat out stop, cancel it, meant something had to be serious.
Then, other things, other places started to follow suit. Like dominos falling, one after the other: conferences, stores, restaurants… churches. Closed. March 15, 2020 was our last in-person worship service without restrictions. On March 16, our building completely closed.
It seemed like life had stopped. What started out as a mini vacation where we were forced to stay home ended up creating a lot of anxiety, stress, and too much snacking. But over time we learned more about the disease, about living in pandemic times, and about what was safest, not safe, and what was cautiously safe. And while it did take some time, we began to adapt to what was.
But it took energy and time and pain. And all that energy, time, and pain changed us - individually, as a country, as a Church.
It is both so very easy and so very hard to remember all that we went through this past year. The isolation, the sacrifices, the mask wearing.
The strain, the burden, the sadness.
The fatigue, the lament, the loss of life.
But now a year later, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our marathon is nearly finished; at least, we think so. At some point, restrictions will be softened. We’ll take up the tape on the pews, sing more songs, see each other's faces, maybe even share conversation over a cup of coffee in the Fellowship Hall. But not just yet.
We want what “was” so bad, but do we ignore all that we went through? Does all the energy, time, and pain from this past year just go to waste? Right now it’s still at our doorstep; do we walk right past?
Or do we recognize the changes in us and in our church? As much as we may want to ignore the year we just passed through, that doesn’t do us much good. Instead, we should stop and recognize the difficulties that have been around us, because only then do we learn and grow.
Now, I must admit that this isn’t a traditional way of interpreting the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, but I think this way can still speak to us. Ignoring what was and what is only creates chasms that we can’t overcome. Maybe that’s what we need to hear today - that we should tend to the life that is around us instead of ignoring the difficulties and carrying on as normal.
As much as we want what was normal, the fear is we didn’t learn anything.
During this time of pandemic, some of us learned, for example, to properly wash our hands. That’s a good thing. Don’t forget that! But also, maybe we were forced to reevaluate aspects of our work lives or our habits - to slow down or let go of some things. That doesn’t mean we never leave our houses again or go right back to the old routine, but instead, as we pass through our gate to the outside, post-COVID world, we’ve learned better ways to be and do. We can focus on the healthy, important things and not simply all the things.
As a Church and congregation through this pandemic time, we learned the importance of community. We learned about different ways of worship. We learned to focus on essentials - Scripture, grace, hope, love, forgiveness - and not some of the other stuff that we once thought was essential.
We as Church learned that even though a chasm separated us, and we were isolated in our homes, kept apart for a long while, we could be together. Because being together in Christ is more than being in the same room. That whether rich or poor, alive or dead, in-person or online, God bridges the chasm. That all of us, no matter what, are held together by the love of God seen in Jesus Christ our Lord. God, not physical closeness, keeps our community together.
We as Church learned that discipleship isn’t coming into this building through those doors, but instead serving people who sit outside of our doors. With meals, with donations, with prayers, with so much, we learned to serve in new ways, in bigger ways, in ways and at levels we had never served before.
We as Church learned that Jesus meets us where we are, no matter where we are, and that Jesus will come through any chasm, cross, or pandemic to do so. It is not we who have to come to any particular place to make that love for us any more true.
We have what we need. We have Moses and the prophets. We have the scriptures. We have the lessons, stories, and songs of God’s care for others and the world God made. We even have Christ who is risen from the dead. And the question is, will we see? Will we learn? Will we grow as better disciples because of this?
Will we see God working outside these doors, in our homes, near and far? Will we see God working in a pandemic? In a cross? In the empty tomb?
And will we be the same because of it? Or will we be new creations? Yes, I think we will be. We are. Because we are shaped with the story and experience of God’s love that crosses each and every chasm for you, now and forever.
Two weeks ago, we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. That parable is super famous, very well-known, and a favorite among church goers. But if there was a parable that could wrangle away the top spot on Jesus’ greatest hits, it just very well could be the one we hear today. The Prodigal Son is a parable that keeps speaking to us, no matter how many times we hear it, no matter how familiar it is.
To summarize, Number Two Son asks Dad for his share of the inheritance, skips out of town, squanders all the money, and decides to come home only after he has run out of options.
Number One Son never shirks his responsibilities and does every single thing his father asks of him, but he resents his father’s gifts being lavishly showered upon his younger brother.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, with parables, we like to find ourselves. And here, we could hardly have two more different characters. It is as though Jesus tempts us to divide these brothers, one from another, inviting us to choose which one is more right, more welcomed, more dear to the father. But then, which one do we choose?
Which son needs to repent? Which son is beloved? Both.
Which one deserves the party of a fatted calf? Neither.
And yet, both are loved, welcomed, and invited to join in on the celebration.
And with this parable, part of the reason the story is so compelling to us is that we are never only one of the characters.
Who has not squandered in some way the love that we have been given?
Who has not felt the sting of insecurity and fear at being left out, the last to be invited?
Do we run away from something good? Do we demand rewards because of our behavior?
Whether we are full of rebellion or jealousy, if we want what is ours or feel we deserve more than we get, if we are welcomed home or offended by who else is welcomed, if we are the older son or the younger… we are missing the point of the parable.
If you’ve heard me preach on parables enough times, you might have seen that coming. While we can, like to, and should find ourselves in them, the parables aren’t ultimately about us. Older son? Younger son? We’re never just one of the characters in this parable, and even then our character isn’t what counts. God’s character is the point.
The point of the parable is that God comes to you. No matter who you are, God comes to you.
The father goes out from his house to meet, welcome, invite, love, show grace to both of the sons. He goes to meet Number Two Son on the road with grace and love. He goes to meet Number One Son out in the yard with welcome and encouragement.
The Father is not on one side or the other; he is on both sides. God goes to each of us as children, no matter where we are on the “younger/older son spectrum.” God comes with grace and love and encouragement, to surprise us with welcome and to shatter our expectations about who should be at the party.
This parable isn’t about following all the rules or avoiding poor decisions. It’s not about which way is right and which way is wrong. It’s not even about repentance and forgiveness. Instead, this parable wants to show us a God who welcomes each and every one of us, no matter what. We’re not going to earn our way back into the family, no matter what we do or have done; God simply wants us there, welcomes us in, and encourages us to celebrate with each other.
And while we aren’t, our character isn’t, the point of the parable, the parable truly is intentional about including us. Since we aren’t one or the other, only this one or only that one, we can more easily see ourselves in the spectrum of being welcomed. We can truly and honestly see ourselves as the recipients of love and grace. We are never only one of the characters. No matter which son we relate to more today, we see that we are loved, welcomed, greeted even while we are still on the outside and invited into the party.
Whatever is going on in our hearts, around our lives, in our world, Jesus has Good News for us. God wants us at the party, God wants us welcomed, God wants us to know that we are loved. God wants us at home to celebrate being together and know that nothing changes that - not our dumb choices, not our stubborn hard-headedness, not our feelings about what we deserve.
God runs to greet us. God invites us to the feast. And each week, we get to celebrate those homecomings - for us and for each other. All the sisters and brothers, number ones and number twos, all of us are welcomed with open arms. All of us are fed. All of us have a place at the party. God welcomes each and every one of us to come, to feel the love given and shed for you.
Which one are we? We’re never only one, never static, never defined by our character, never only this or that. But that’s Good News. It’s Good News because we are always in this story, always in this parable, and always as the one God loves and welcomes.
Of all the psalms in the Bible, perhaps none is better known than the 23rd Psalm. It is beloved by most, a favorite of many. It is comforting to us. It brings us hope. It assures us of God’s presence. There are themes, ideas, and images that resonate with us. It gives us language to put to words many of the feelings and thoughts we have as we journey through life.
We sometimes feel lost or afraid, like we’re in a dark valley.
We know God is with us, like a shepherd guards sheep.
We have what we need because God gives it to us - our cup overflows.
Generally, that is what poems do. Poems give imagery and language to the deep needs, desires, and emotions we have. It conjures up images which help us reflect on our past, current, or future situations.
This morning, we are observing Women of the ELCA’s Bold Women’s Day, which celebrates all women who have acted or are acting boldly on their faith in Jesus Christ. Some women are bold in their unceasing prayers. Other women are bold in their service to those in need. Still other women are bold in their advocacy or through their hospitality.
Today, we will merge these two ideas together - bold women and poetry - hearing from a couple of St. Philip’s own bold women about poets Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman. As Martha and Shanna give some details on these women’s lives and read from their poems, listen for themes, words, ideas, or images that resonate with you.
OK, so I know not many of us were English majors in college. Me? Far from it.
But there were words and ideas in these poems that stuck out to me.
From Maya Angelou, we hear that a new day comes. It comes, and we have courage to face it, despite what is or what was. And beyond that, we say with hope, “good morning.”
Amanda Gorman speaks similarly. She has seen changes in the world, and, in fact, the world always changes. And yet, despite the fear that change can bring, she has hope. Hope of what can be, hope for what will be. “For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it.”
And we hear from the poem Psalm 23 a theme of hope - hope because God is our shepherd. We have hope of what will be because God is by our side. We have hope that God intends good things for us, even if our world is crashing down around us. We have hope that God ultimately is who keeps us and guards us; God will bring us home, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
God is present no matter where we are. God walks with us, God leads us to good, hopeful places - to still waters and green pastures. And when we walk through the tough times, the hard times, the dark valleys, still God is there. God is with us. God is present. God comforts.
Because our hope is in God, we have courage to face the new day, despite what is or what was.
Because our hope is in God, we need not fear the changes that come our way.
Because our hope is in God, we trust what can be, trust what will be.
On this day, we give thanks for the ways in which we are reminded, reminded by bold women in particular, of the hope that is all around us.
It is hope that exchanges fear for faith.
Hope that is confident in the God who is always with us.
Hope that is built, not on ourselves but on the presence of God, our Shepherd.
We always like to find ourselves in parables. It makes us feel like we’ve learned something - or at least been validated in what we already thought we should be doing. And in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we’re the hero. We help. The lesson is simple: help anyone, anywhere, no matter what. It’s a moral teaching for us. This is the usual way of finding ourselves in this parable.
But I remember the first time I heard an alternate interpretation. I’m actually really surprised it took me as long into my life as it did, but it wasn’t until about 10-15 years ago, after I had already graduated seminary. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a “this is what every parable means” class when I attended.
Anyway, the new insight was: We’re the ones in the ditch. Plot twist! Years of Sunday school and confirmation and I never once thought I was the one in the ditch. Maybe you’re more blessed than I and you have heard this interpretation all your life, but when I heard the parable interpreted like this, I was blown away.
I had discovered new meaning to an old parable. One that was less about me doing and instead about me receiving. It taught me to open my eyes to see the unexpected places from where help could come.
Plus it made me feel better about all the ways I passed by on the other side; I can’t always be expected to be the one helping! Sometimes, you’re in the ditch.
Sometimes, we are in the position to help. Sometimes, we are in the position of needing help. And we never know who we will help or who will help us. And the thing that ties these two interpretations together is that it’s all about us.
In each of them, we look for us. It’s about us. Find us first.
If you paid close attention, during these interpretations not once have I mentioned Jesus or God or love or anything that goes beyond being a decent human being. These teachings could be taught by anyone from anywhere. Which, for a church sermon, leaves things a little short.
Is that why Jesus tells parables? To teach us generic, self-help, “how to be better people” lessons?
Or does he want to tell us a story about what the Kingdom of God is like? Does he want to tell us the ordinary yet surprising ways God shows up? Does he want us to understand in a deeper way the love that he has for us and for this world? I think that’s more to the point of Jesus’ parables.
Yes, we can find ourselves in the parable in a myriad of ways. And I think that is good. But if we don’t see God or Jesus there, then it’s just a morality tale; it doesn’t reveal to us what God’s love is like.
As we see Jesus in this parable, our role becomes less about “us” and more about the values of God’s kingdom. Which is probably what Jesus wants us to hear.
Let’s start over and instead of looking first for us, let’s ask, “where is Jesus?”
We begin with the one who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Does that sound familiar? Jesus is in the ditch in need of help.
So, if Jesus is in the ditch, how does that change our role?
On the surface maybe not much. We help anyone in need, just like we’ve always been taught. But there is a little more to it than just helping.
First, when we help anyone, we are helping Christ himself. It reminds me of a passage from Matthew’s Gospel: “just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” It still rings pretty true here. When we help anyone - food, water, clothing, care - we are helping Jesus. It changes our perspective on crossing to the other side.
But more than helping Jesus, we take on a role we don’t really want, that of the Samaritan. We are supposed to be the hero, but in reality, anyone who heard this parable in its original time would have been a bit upset in playing that role.
Being a Samaritan takes away our hero-ness. It takes away our privilege of being above the one we are helping. Before we help, we are to understand the role of being outcast and ostracized, of being lowly and lost. There are lines drawn by our world, our customs, our laws. “Don’t help them!!!” We are acutely aware of who the world says is my neighbor and who is not my neighbor. And then we help them anyway.
The Samaritan doesn’t act via the law or by custom; the Samaritan acts out of love. In the context of love, the question “who is my neighbor” is irrelevant because the answer is always “them.” Love helps us identify with the other, and by being forced into the role that we didn’t want, we learn more than how to be a better human; we learn to love like God does. Being the Samaritan means we learn to love like God does.
Now, how about we turn it around?
From a Jewish perspective, a Samaritan would be despised and rejected. In the story, he is also the one who heals and who will come again. Again, sound familiar? Jesus was rejected by those in power and authority, but ultimately is the one who heals, saves, and promises to come again.
If we think of Jesus as the Samaritan, then what does our role look like?
We are in the ditch, and if that is the case, we need rescuing.
Ok, so the Samaritan comes and we’d gladly take the help, right? Well, maybe. It depends on how much we need the help. If someone of “our squad” rolls up, we’re more likely to take the help - even on little things. But the “worse” someone is who comes along, the more desperate we need to be in order to accept that help.
If a Samaritan comes along, we don’t need their help. We’d rather try to get out of that ditch again ourselves. Surely, if we just try a bit harder…
Jesus wants us to realize how deep in the ditch we are. We need help. We are waiting on a powerful king or a mighty warrior to come save us; something obvious and grand! Are we ready for God to help through a lowly preacher? To be helped by one who is rejected, despised, and comes in a totally unexpected way? Do we want our savior to be a loser?
For it is in the most unexpected of ways that God sends salvation and healing to rescue us from our ditch.
In this parable, we do see the surprising love of God. God’s love comes to heal us and save us, even if we don’t want or think we need the help. God’s love doesn’t ask questions about who or what or where… God just loves. God’s love shows up, heals, rescues, promises to come again. God’s love shows us mercy.
And this is a love that calls us to go and do likewise.
An Ash Wednesday without any ashes.
Is it still Ash Wednesday if we don’t do the ash part? Isn’t it just “Wednesday” then?
I’m sorry if the lack of the Imposition of Ashes surprises you tonight, but hopefully with the way things are in our world, you knew that coming in. But whether you knew it or not, I’m sure there are emotions and feelings - disappointment, hurt, confusion. “It’s not the same. I miss it. It doesn’t feel right.” Trust me, I know.
Ash Wednesday has always been a powerful service for me. It drives home the point we all - Christian or not - know about tonight: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Being the person looking into your eyes, saying those words, thumbing ashes on your forehead… it makes an impact on giver and recipient alike.
But not tonight.
It may feel empty without them. It’s odd, but I think we kind of find comfort in the tradition of putting ashes on our foreheads, even if they are the symbol of our death. It’s something that we have come to rely on, expect. It’s something that will always be there, even if it isn’t the most heartwarming of messages. “Remember you are dust…” But now, that tradition, that expectation, that routine is gone. It’s taken away. It’s not the same; we’re missing something that is important and meaningful. It’s gone.
But death doesn’t care. Death doesn’t care. Because that is what death does; death takes away things - things we like, things we are comfortable with, even things that are kind of bad but at least are known.
When death comes, it leaves a hole in those left behind; things aren’t the same. Ask anyone who has had death sting their life. Ask those who wait at a bedside, stand by a casket, touch a gravestone. Ask people whose spouse has died if things are ever the same. Something is missing - always missing. There is grief, there are questions, there is hurt when life gets taken away. “It’s not the same. I miss them. It doesn’t feel right without them here.”
Do we need any more reminder of the havoc death brings than this past year? The lack of ashes tonight is but a microcosm of what death does all around us every day. We can scream, rage, curse, rant, rave, mourn, cry, and indulge in nostalgia… but death and emptiness are there, they come. Death is the unpleasant reality we try but can’t avoid. Death is the ultimate enemy. And it doesn’t come on our schedule or how we plan it. Ashes or not, death has still set its face toward each and every one of us.
This Ash Wednesday is different, no doubt. And not having ashes may actually force us to focus all the more on how quickly things can change. There is a sense of loss, of a change in tradition, an emptiness because something has been taken away… absent ashes makes this day a bit more real to us. Tonight we are reminded that nothing escapes death and dying. Tonight, we remember we are dust. Tonight, we start off Lent with this bold reality in a stark way.
But as is typically the case during worship, that is not all we remember. Because tonight we also remember that Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. He does this, knowing full well what will happen to him. In fact, we heard him mention it this past week after he came down from the mountain. “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” Just before the mountain top experience, he was even more direct, telling his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
We remember tonight that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing the suffering, pain, and death that awaited him. It will be Jesus’ bold confrontation with death, and he is going all in. He sets his face, but he sets his face with a purpose, a hopeful purpose.
We start off Lent setting our face squarely toward the disappointment and missing out on what death steals away from us. But we set our faces with hope, too, hope in Jesus. Hope in the one who died and rose again. Hope in the one who sends us the Spirit. Hope in the one who claims us forever with water and nourishes us with bread and wine.
While there is so much different about this day, it is a day that we remember God’s promises that cannot be taken away. That empty tomb gives us hope for life, no matter what death tries to take away.
All around us, death takes things away. We are reminded constantly that things are broken in our world. We don’t need much reminding there. But despite that, into this reality, God gives us hope, promise, life. And this is where the cards from the bulletins come in. These are for you to take home and put in your Bible or devotion book. Online, there is a link in the video description or you can browse to our website and find a link. I’ll post it on FB, too.
While a lot of people “give up” or “take away” things during Lent, maybe you can add one thing using this bookmark. As you do daily devotions or read scripture or take time with God, you have some space to write. And I think something good to write would be a hope or a promise we have from God. Something God gives. Something that shows life. Something God promises. It may come from your devotional reading or an experience you had that day or wherever. But it is a tangible, physical way to remember God’s life and promise for us.
The hope is that this will be part of your ongoing Lenten journey, a way to remember that, despite everything, God gives us hope and promise in Jesus Christ. And it will be evident on your card when, come Easter, there will be written forty good things God has done.
Ashes or not, the truth is still there. We are dust. We will die. But Christ transforms death. Christ gives promise. Christ fills us with life. In him, we are assured of what we will be - redeemed, raised, renewed - all because of the grace of God. And nothing - nothing - can ever take that away.
It’s hard to know what to do with a day like today. See, we have Jesus and some of his disciples on the top of a mountain. Jesus is transfigured before them, and God speaks a word of confirmation and delight. How good it is to be here. How good it is to have mountain top experiences.
Except, right now, there aren’t a lot of those in our lives. Instead of being at the top of a mountain, it seems many of us are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We’re tired, so tired. We’re fearful. We’re stressed. We want to go back to the place where everything was good, just a mere one year ago.
It seems since then that our life hasn’t just changed, but been transfigured, changed completely, fundamentally different. These days, we long for what once were simple things. Hugs. Meals. Gatherings. Seeing people’s actual smiles - not just their eyes squinting above a mask. We want to be back at the top of a mountain.
I think it is ok to admit that. I actually think we need to admit that. Even with vaccines being shot into arms, we’re still many months away from any sort of normalcy that we remember. There are people in this community of faith who, while still very connected, haven’t set foot inside this sanctuary for over a year. And there are people who used to be here weekly who won’t ever be in this room again.
Changing the rhythm of everything about our life doesn’t leave us without pain and hurt, without longings and fears and grief about what we’ve missed the past year, what we’ve lost, what will never be quite like we remember it on the mountain top of “before.”
So, yes, it’s hard to talk about the Transfiguration and all the glory and goodness we get atop that peak, if glory and brightness is all the Transfiguration is about.
Which, as you can probably guess, is not the case.
See, the Transfiguration does show us Jesus’ glory, but that isn’t the end of the story. We don’t wrap things up here. Jesus continues his ministry, not from this great height, but by coming down the mountain. The Transfiguration isn’t a story about us going up to see the glory of Jesus, but instead about the glory of Jesus coming down to see and be with us - all the way down from glory into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, loss, and hurt.
He doesn’t stay up there. He comes down here.
When this whole pandemic stuff started, my adrenaline kicked into high gear. There were things to figure out; ways to still stay connected; worship to ensure still happened, even if we were apart. Even if we couldn’t be here. Even if it was through an iPhone propped up by a bunch of hymnals - which it was at the beginning.
And then there were other things to figure out - Holy Week and Easter, new services which kept the adrenaline going. Then, figuring out safe ways to allow small gatherings for worship. Then Reformation. Then Christmas. And now, we’re on the cusp of one year of doing this. We started out in a sprint… then it turned into a marathon… and we are still sprinting.
And I’m not the only one. Our everyday lives changed. Getting groceries became much more of an ordeal. Regular errands needed a plan, not just willy nilly trips here and there. Isolation from friends and family took its toll, is still taking its toll on us. We are tired, we are weak, we are worn.
If the Transfiguration is about us going up the mountain, I’m afraid we won’t make it. We won’t make it. Our own drive and strength and dedication can sustain us for a bit, but if that’s all that there is… Thank God that is not all there is.
Jesus and all his glory comes down to us. He is not afraid about what is difficult in our lives. He won’t leave us or reject us, no matter how tired, stressed, broken, hurt we are. And we don’t need to pretend like we’re not those things. We don’t have to prove anything to Jesus. Regardless of where we find ourselves, he comes down to be with us.
I have a sign above one of the doors in my office that I think helps with this idea. It reads, “God doesn’t give us what we can handle. God helps us handle what we are given.” Jesus comes down from glory, down from the mountain, to be with us, to help us handle what we are given. He is alongside us. Healing us. Helping us. Pointing us ahead to the cross that is to come, where everything - everything, including life and death - will again be transfigured.
The Transfiguration is not about us ascending to the peak to get a full view of glory, but instead it is about the glory of Jesus coming down to be with us. The story of the Transfiguration is the promise to be with us as we continue on. It is the presence of God, helping us to handle all that we are given.
This doesn’t mean it is easy; rarely are things easy. But it does mean that it is worth it. It is worth it because Jesus is with us and promises that this, too, will be changed.
And we catch glimpses of those transfiguring changes to help us and others handle what they are given.
This week I received an email telling me the story of handing out one of our backpacks of food, warm clothing, and hygiene items. And while the giver held up traffic a bit to hand the backpack out, no doubt was Jesus’ glory seen.
We see glory in baptism today, where with a splash of water, Camila is welcomed into God’s family, assured of Jesus’ presence with her always.
And even in this past year, there are glimpses of Jesus coming down to help us handle our situations - and not just for pandemic times, but for the future of sharing the Good News of Jesus’ glory that is with us always. We have a way to reach people with the Good News of God where they are - home, work, traveling - instead of people only coming to us. Those who are homebound can worship. Those who have never been here can hear words of life and grace. People who wish they could be here can be here in a way. (Hi, mom!) Jesus helps us handle our situations and can transfigure them into ways to share the Gospel.
Even though we sprint through some of the darkest valleys, and are surrounded by fear, grief, loss, and longing, we have the promise. The glory of Jesus seen on that mountain top is with us; his glory and his power and his presence, they comfort us. Jesus prepares a table, and Jesus feeds us to nourish our souls, to help us handle what we are given.
Surely, Jesus has transfigured our grief into life, our brokenness into life, even death into life, because Jesus’ glory is with us all the days of our life. Jesus has come down to be with us, and he will dwell with us forever.
The people were amazed at the catch of fish. The people were amazed at his teaching. The people were amazed at the miracles all around them.
One of my favorite things about our lessons for each week is how they build on each other. While it may seem like a bunch of individual stories strung together like pearls on a necklace, Luke continually pulls themes through the entire Gospel, and each time the theme comes up, it is bigger or better or improved - changed in some way.
Looking at the stories from the past several weeks and our stories for today, maybe you’re already catching some hints and themes and how they’re building.
Looking at the first story we have today, we have a Roman Centurion. The Romans were outsiders, outsiders like the ones Jesus mentioned in his preaching in the temple we heard about a couple of weeks ago. Elijah and Elisha helped people outside of their clan.
But here is how the theme builds: this Centurion wasn’t just an outsider like the others; he was an enemy. He was part of the Roman occupation of Israel. And though the Jewish people had nice things to say, even a nice occupier is still an occupier. Jesus ups the ante on what an outsider is.
And then we have the miracle, the healing of the servant. And again, this miracle builds on the previous things we’ve seen. Jesus was present for the other healings and miracles. In what we read today, Jesus wasn’t even there yet and he healed. He was still a ways off and just spoke the word. It raises the bar on what Jesus has the power to do. This miracle is a bit more miraculous.
And again, to stick with the theme, there is amazement! But here is where things go sideways. Who is the one who is amazed? Jesus is amazed.
“When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9).
It seems that Luke has gone off-script. It doesn't fit the pattern. It doesn’t build on something else.
If Luke is shifting so far from what we expect, he must want us to pay attention to something. Why pay attention to Jesus’ amazement?
Well, the first thing to note is that Jesus is only amazed twice in all the Gospels - here and in Mark 6, where he is amazed at the crowd’s unbelief. Eek. I wouldn’t want Jesus to be amazed at my unbelief.
And that might be the point Luke wants us to focus on. Jesus is amazed at this Centurion’s faith - a faith that recognizes where he stands in light of Jesus, a faith that knows Jesus can do wonderful things, a faith that trusts Jesus. Luke holds him up as a model, an inspiration for us.
What would it look like for us to have such a faith? What in us is a model for others? What about our faith lives would amaze Jesus?
Oomph. That last question is hard. Intimidating. Maybe discouraging. I don’t know how I amaze Jesus!
But instead of looking at us first - or even at the Centurion first - let’s look at Jesus. Because that is where everything starts. Jesus is the one who does amazing things to begin with. He teaches with authority, he heals and raises, he is Lord. These are the things the Centurion sees, and these are the things that first amaze the Centurion. Jesus’ amazing works create the amazing faith in the Centurion.
And the same is true for us. We are amazed at Jesus because he is the compassionate presence of God in our lives. He is the one who does actually heal the sick and even raise the dead. He is the one who himself is killed for our sake but is raised from death to assure us that God’s love does indeed endure. That is the hope in which we live. And it is amazing.
So maybe the question isn’t what do we do that amazes Jesus, but instead, how are we so amazed at Jesus that our faith gets stirred up and put in him?
Maybe we are so amazed at the gifts Jesus provides us that we want to make sure others have access to the same good gifts of homes, clothing, utilities, and medicines. So, we share with Helping Hand and the Souper Bowl of Caring what God shares with us.
Maybe we are so amazed at how Jesus feeds others, ensuring they have enough, that we have enough faith to provide good, healthy, filling meals, too. We provide those meals to our homeless brothers and sisters, as we did just over a week ago.
Maybe we are so amazed at how Jesus welcomes everyone. He knows that each person can show us the kingdom of God. So, maybe we are more open and welcoming to seeing the Kingdom through a perspective that is different than our own.
Maybe we are so amazed at Jesus’ ability to speak to the heart of each individual person about the Good News of God that we are nourished and encouraged in faith to, ourselves, share that Good News in word and deed - an invitation or a story of God working.
Maybe we are so amazed at Jesus’ outpouring of himself - all he had, all of who he was and is - that our faith is inspired to give to the mission he has through this congregation - giving financially, physically, prayerfully, fully.
This story, along with showing us Jesus’ power, shows us that our faith is in an amazing Lord and Savior; and because of that, our faith can do amazing things - things that fill Jesus with amazement.
This story is meant to inspire our faith, our faith in Jesus, so that we, too, live out the amazing things Jesus has done. But, rest assured, that even if Jesus is sometimes amazed more at our unbelief or doubts than our faith put into action, that does not stop Jesus from healing, from raising, from loving. Because ultimately, Jesus isn’t amazed by what we do but by who we are - or, rather, amazed by who he is making us to be through the Spirit. Through bread and wine. Through water and Word. Through love and grace.
In our stories today, the bar is raised again. The story is bigger and better and improved… and yet it still just hints at what is to come. Because we know that Jesus doesn’t stop with healing someone who is just close to death. Jesus doesn’t stop even after death comes. It builds until Jesus shows us power over death in resurrection. And still, it doesn’t stop there; Jesus doesn’t stop there. The story builds and builds until this resurrection life includes you and me.
It’s amazing. Jesus has done amazing things. And in us and through us, Jesus inspires our faith, so that through us and in us and sometimes despite us, Jesus can keep doing amazing things.
With all that is going on in our world and our lives, who really cares about the sabbath?
It seems like such an inconsequential issue with everything that is going on.
We as Christians haven’t observed a true sabbath - that is, Friday sundown through Saturday sundown - for literally thousands of years. Besides, we kind of have to ignore the sabbath if we’re going to get everything done. Even with COVID restrictions in place, we still have things we have to do - like take out the trash, pick up prescriptions, fold laundry. We understand the need for rest, but we don’t care about a whole day of sabbath.
And on top of that, when we look at this text, it seems like the Pharisees are a bunch of knit-picky sticklers for the rules. Lighten up, people! They’re just hungry! I’d say grabbing a few grains of wheat is barely work. Are people not supposed to eat on the sabbath? And healing a man’s hand? That's hardly a bad thing to do.
The Pharisee’s stuffy, straight-laced statements hold no water for us. To us, who are enlightened, complex, and modern individuals, the answers are crystal clear. The sabbath is an old-school law that doesn’t carry the same weight it once did. It just doesn’t apply to us anymore. So again, we are left saying, “who cares?”
So that being the case, we now have come to the point in the sermon where I, as the preacher, have two options for the rest of our time.
The first option is to rake you heathens over the coals for not merely breaking this law but not caring about one of the Ten Commandments! Those Commandments, may I remind you, are a pretty big deal! And to dismiss one outright simply because we’re “kinda busy” shouldn’t be any excuse! But with many Christians thinking Sunday is the sabbath, and that pastors only work on that day, well, it seems pretty hypocritical. I do stuff on the sabbath - the actual sabbath - as much as anyone else… like preparing this sermon.
So the second option for preaching today is to try to make us care about the sabbath - or, at least, look at the sabbath in a new way. And to do that, we need to start over.
With all that is going on in our world and our lives, who really cares about the sabbath?
Well, for starters, God cares. There are reasons why God didn’t simply suggest a sabbath but instead gave it as one of the Commandments. One reason is that this is the example God sets for us at Creation. Work for six days, rest for one. And as followers of God, we should do our best to emulate God.
Another reason for the sabbath comes from Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there.” Essentially God is saying, ‘remember when you were slaves? You couldn’t take a break. There were no days off. But now, I set you free. And in this freedom, you have the gift of a day off.’ It’s not that they have to rest, it’s that God makes sure they get to rest. Sabbath is lifegiving.
Who cares about the sabbath? God cares. Anyone else? Why, yes. The Pharisees care.
In what seems like the understatement of the day, it’s worth a look to see why the Pharisees care so much. We’ve been conditioned over the years to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys. In a lot of the Gospel stories, the Pharisees do seem bad from our perspective, but they’re not as bad as the caricature we make of them.
See, this new-fangled preacher out of Nazareth comes and starts doing things in a different way, so of course they’re a little frustrated. They didn’t like change any more than modern day Lutherans. And Jesus came to change things.
But the Pharisees, believe it or not, were a lot like the mainline Protestant denominations of today. Their mission was to teach people how their lives could connect with God in an individual and personal way - no need to have a mediator like fancy-schmancy clergy. No need to run to the Temple to be holy. Living the Law was experiencing life in God, and it was something anyone could do anywhere.
So, sure, the Pharisees care. Anyone else? Who else cares? Well, Jesus cares.
Jesus cares about the sabbath because Jesus cares about life. Jesus wasn’t pushing the idea that old rules don’t apply or that new rules have taken their place. He knows that the sabbath isn’t about rules or restrictions; the sabbath, as God shows and tells it, is about life - about ways to foster, create, and share life. That is what Jesus came to show us.
Bringing life is the fulfillment of the sabbath. There is life in rest. There is life in connecting with God. There is life in feeding. There is life in healing. Life is the fulfillment of the sabbath. And life is what Jesus brings. Life is what Jesus welcomes us into.
Jesus came to show us life, and, more than that, Jesus came to be life. Jesus came to reveal God’s true intent for humanity. While the cross and empty tomb show us God’s intent in the ultimate way, even here Jesus is pointing to life: life that is full, life that is healed, life that goes beyond rules to the heart of who God truly is. That was the intent of the sabbath in the first place - that we would have life and have it abundantly.
The rules aren’t what bring us life. The rules aren’t what define us. Nor are we defined by what is normal or what is changed or what is ancient tradition. Jesus defines us. The Lord of the Sabbath defines us. The Lord of Life defines us.
Sabbath can be done by anyone, anywhere, because sabbath life is the life of Jesus. Where he is, there is life.
Following Jesus means we do our best to emulate him. We foster, create, and share life. Sometimes that means sabbath is a day of rest. Sometimes that means sabbath is feeding hungry people. Sometimes sabbath is healing for us; sometimes it means we heal others.
Our task is to point to the Lord, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of Life, the Lord of all. We do that by feeding, by healing, by creating and sharing and resting to bring life. To embody the life that Jesus gives. That fulfills the sabbath.
Jesus is Lord.
Jesus cares about ways to foster, create, and share life - life for you, and for the whole world.
Any time this “fish for people” text comes up, I always go back to the same memories: fishing with my grandad, whom we called Deedle. I can remember in sermons past, talking about some of our fishing trips to the pond, my fear of touching fish, and the rusty old table in the back where Deedle would chop off fish heads and throw their guts in the woods.
Yes, I have told some of those stories before, and kind of just did again, but today is a little different. Something about Jesus talking made me look at this text - and my memories - a little bit differently.
Jesus made me think about going fishing, particularly about what it looked like to go fishing with my grandad. We would grab our poles and crickets in a cage, load up the truck, and head on out. Once we got to the pond, we’d unload and get settled in. I’d grab my bamboo fishing pole and let Deedle put a cricket on the hook. Somewhere in the process, he’d tell me to keep quiet because we didn’t want to scare the fish away. And then, we’d spread out along the bank, cast away, and wait. We’d get a nibble, and then a bite, and then there’d be a fish!
Grab a pole. Be quiet. Get away from others. Catch fish! That’s fishing! Maybe some of you have similar memories. Maybe to some of you, throw in a cooler of beer and that sounds like the perfect day. But is that what Jesus means?
See, when Jesus says that we will be catching people, our image - probably because he was talking to fishermen - is about fishing. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus even says “fish for people” instead of “catch.” But back to Jesus’ intent: did he imagine us catching people like we catch fish? Out on a pond, lake, or stream with a pole, by ourselves, being quiet so as to not scare the fish away? No, I don’t think so.
See, fishing in Jesus’ time was very communal. One fisherman needed other fishermen. Those nets required many hands to operate. There was communication and talking and sharing; there were ups and downs and everything in between. They relied on each other to catch, to fish.
And I’m wondering if our modern fishing ideas have gotten in the way of what Jesus means when he says we’d be catching people. Because maybe it is less about that we catch, and instead how we catch. It’s less that we catch, and instead how we catch.
I don’t think Jesus intends for us to go by ourselves, keep quiet, and then surprisingly hook people in - a literal bait and switch. Some people do just that - they cast a line of fear and threats and consequences, with the promise of something sweet at the end if they just take a bite. And sure, that way will catch some. Usually, though, there is just a lot of pain and struggle. At that point at the end of the day, it’s just that you caught a fish.
And knowing Jesus, and knowing where and when and to whom Jesus was speaking, I’d like to think that he means more than simply “go catch fish.” I think he means, “let’s go catch.” Catching fish in his time was, afterall, a group activity.
And so maybe we go and catch with Jesus and with each other. We catch, not by being alone, but by being a community, the body of Christ together. Together we catch, not by being quiet, but by telling the story in words and deeds of how God has worked in our lives, in this church, in the ups and downs. Together we catch, not by offering a tasty morsel that hides our true intentions, but by offering something that truly feeds another in soul and stomach. Together we catch by following and participating in the love and grace that Jesus uses to catch us all.
I try my best not to use the same idea for the “grown up sermon” as I do in the children’s message. But in the video for today, this is pretty much what Mr. Arthur and I talk about. But there, we took it a step further. Because “catching fish” is so ingrained in our minds as something we do with a pole by ourselves, we thought about what else we can catch. To which we said, “a football.”
See, playing catch by ourselves isn’t fun. It’s supposed to be done with someone else, or even a group or a team. There’s communication, there’s relationship, there’s involvement. And while it is nice to have the goal of catching every single ball thrown our way, we’re likely to drop a few. But the idea is we do it together; we are all part of playing catch.
And while the ways to catch others right now are very different than what we are traditionally used to, we are now opened to new opportunities online. Our networks are readily available. Invitation to participate in the Good News is a simple message, text, or share away. Words of comfort, support, forgiveness, grace, love, and care can be cast to the entire world. And as we work, share, assist each other in that, the message of God’s love extends farther and the net is supported more.
I mentioned that every time this text comes up, I have memories. I used to think those memories were of me fishing. But really, those memories are about me with Deedle. I don’t remember catching fish without my grandad.
And that could well be at the heart of Jesus inviting us to catch. Not that we catch, but how and with whom we are catching.
We catch with others, so that every time catching comes up, we don’t think of ourselves, but we remember people. We remember love. We remember relationship. We remember welcome. Our memories aren’t that we caught or were caught, but instead we are overwhelmed with deep meaning, gratitude, and love because of with whom we are fishing. We don’t catch without Jesus.
So let’s go catch. Together.
If someone comes to you and says they have good news and they have bad news, which do you want to hear first?
I’m more of a “good news first” type of guy. I like to start off on the right foot. And luckily for me, Jesus starts out his sermon for today with good news, even though he doesn’t really ask us which we’d like to hear first. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Wow! The words that the prophet Isaiah spoke so long ago are finally coming true! Jesus is the one! The day is finally here!
And now, the bad news. Uh oh. We forgot there was bad news. The bad news is that the good news isn’t for you. Wait - what? The good news isn’t for us? But you’re Joseph’s boy! You’re one of us! What in the world do you mean that the good news isn’t for us?
And maybe I’m being a bit dramatic here, but Jesus doesn’t actually say that the good news isn’t for these people listening, and he doesn’t say that the good news isn’t for us. Instead, he says the good news isn’t only for us. It’s for others, too.
Jesus goes on to list examples of what it is he means.
He talks about Elijah and how he was sent to a widow - a non-Israelite widow - in Zarephath.
He mentions how Elisha cured the leper, Naaman, even though there were lots of Israelite lepers to be cured.
Somehow, some way, God has always widened the circle beyond those who think they’re in. God’s favor and love and grace doesn’t privilege one people, one home, one country, and God’s people and prophets aren’t always playing the roles we expect them to play.
This is why Jesus isn’t doing all those signs and wonders here in their presence. He is following a precedent God has already set; Jesus is taking the Good News beyond everyone’s comfort zone. And the people are kind of cranky about it. They want to hurl him off a cliff.
They react this way, I think, because they see Jesus as their own. They’re the ones who have been faithful their whole lives. They are the ones whose history is full of troubled times and difficult moments. They are the ones who do things the right way. They should be the recipients of the great miracles. They should see the wonders and might. They should be the recipients of good news.
Not that we ever react like that. Over the years, we’ve gotten used to the idea that yes, Jesus comes for us, but Jesus also comes for other people. We’ve gotten a bit comfortable with that idea, and it doesn’t really offend us all that much. We actually want Jesus to love everybody, because we want Jesus to bring them to us so we can welcome them in. That’s the good news - that you’re welcome here!
But Jesus doesn’t say that is the good news. Instead, Jesus proclaims good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. And the thing about proclaiming good news to the poor is, that often means proclaiming discomforting news to the comfortable, like us. Proclaiming good news to outsiders means the insiders, like us, aren’t exclusive.
When one is used to being privileged, anything less feels like an insult. And Jesus doesn’t treat them as privileged insiders. Us either.
The Good News isn’t only for us. We are all under the same God and Father; Jesus goes to all; and all are loved, graced, forgiven, clean, regardless of if we’re here, if we’re well-off, if we’ve been almost good enough.
God is so unfair.
And maybe that gets more to the heart of why we might be a little uncomfortable with Jesus’ Good News. Jesus says that God is unfair. And we don’t mind God being unfair… when God is unfair in our favor. We get upset when God is unfair in the favor of others - others who aren’t worshiping like we are, doing their duty by dedicating an hour each week. Even them? Even those? Yes, even and especially those.
That is a hard pill to swallow sometimes. And yet, Jesus means just what he says. And in spite of hard hearts and violent mobs, Jesus shows up with good news - regardless of whether it is received.
As a preacher, sometimes it is hard to know if what I say makes much of a difference. I mean, Jesus preaches here and everyone gets upset. On the one hand, no one has tried to throw me off a cliff, so I don’t know if I’m actually doing it right or not. But on the other hand, if Jesus can’t get through to people, then maybe I’m in good company, even if the good news I proclaim doesn’t immediately change everyone’s hearts and minds.
Instead, I guess I should just follow Jesus’ example and keep proclaiming God’s Good News and trust the Spirit to work. Because the scripture has been fulfilled, ready or not. And come cliff or cross, it won’t be stopped. Not by hate. Not by white supremacy. Not by selfishness. Not by nationalism. Not by violent mobs or those who stir them up. Not even death stops God’s Good News for all people. That these things don’t have a place in God’s Kingdom surely is Good News.
And as we limit ourselves to seeing and hearing only what we want, we fail to see what God is trying to reveal to us and transform for us.
Jesus says, “today, scripture has been fulfilled.” Where Jesus shows up, there is fulfillment. Where Jesus shows up, there is salvation. Where Jesus shows up, there is Good News. Not because we are open and ready, not because we are in a special club, not because of us at all. Salvation is present because Jesus is present.
It is Jesus’ presence that makes a sermon a sermon. It is the Spirit being here that opens our hearts. It is God’s Good News that changes our lives for life. And by the power of the Spirit, Jesus continues, today, to proclaim release, recovery, favor to all people.
So, do you want good news or the Good News?
Today, the Good News has been fulfilled because Jesus is present.
On a day when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, it sure seems like we talk a lot about John.
John is introduced to us by Luke as a prophet. He is introduced in the same way prophets from the Old Testament are introduced. People the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel are all placed in a specific time frame with specific, important people of the day named. “In the fifteenth year of this Emperor and that important guy ruled that area…” Once the historical time frame is established, the word of God comes.
And not only is John introduced as a prophet, but he speaks like one, too. He says and preaches a truth that people don’t like to hear. Name-calling and insults aside (you brood of vipers), John speaks about repentance and bearing fruit worthy of said repentance. He calls the people to change their ways and notes the forthcoming penalties if there isn’t a change.
John teaches any and all - tax collectors to Roman soldiers - giving them practical ways to live. Share your extra coat. If you have extra food, do likewise. Do your job justly, without stealing or bullying. People listen and are filled with expectation and hope. They want to be baptized by John with water for the forgiveness of sins.
Surely, John is a prophet - an important person! But the thing about prophets is… they aren’t the ones to fix things. They aren’t “the One.” Every prophet points beyond themselves to God, prepares others for God’s coming. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and now John. They all point to God’s action.
John knows he’s not the one. Like all good prophets, he points beyond himself. “Someone is coming who is stronger than I am. I don’t deserve to untie his sandals.” John points to the one coming.
By the time we get to Jesus in verse 21, John has done his job. We are well prepared. But John is absent from the baptism.
“That can’t be,” you may exclaim! But it’s true. John gets locked away in prison before we even get to the baptism scene with Jesus. The other Gospels tell the story as John performing the baptism - even as he questions doing it. However, Luke separates John from the baptism, getting him out of the way.
John’s body is replaced by the Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove.
John’s voice crying out in the wilderness is replaced by a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved.”
Luke tells it this way because Luke wants us to remember: John isn’t the point. John isn’t the story. Jesus is. God’s Word is coming. Jesus is the story.
As much of a role as John plays here, this story isn't about John. The story is about who John points to: Jesus. This baptism isn’t about who performs it; it is about God’s actions in and through this baptism.
And what does God do through this baptism? Well, if we look at the story through what John does, it is about forgiveness of sins. Which complicates things for Jesus, him being sinless and all. Of course, we can look at this as Jesus is baptized so that he could identify with us. He is baptized so he can stand in solidarity with us. And this can connect to the cross, too, that though Jesus was sinless still suffered death. Throughout his life, from his birth and baptism to his suffering and death, Jesus stands both with us and for us.
That’s Good News and comforting, but that’s not what I think Luke is getting at here. Remember, Luke makes a point to remove John from this baptism so that we can focus on Jesus, focus on God and God’s actions, in and through baptism.
And so back to the question at hand: what does God do through this baptism?
God speaks. God speaks directly and intimately: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” What powerful words to hear. Jesus is baptized because through his baptism, God gives identity - “you are my beloved Son.” God gives affirmation of who he is, his value, his worth - “with you I am well pleased.” How important are these words, especially at the outset of ministry.
And God sends the Spirit. With John faded to the background, all that is left is Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is baptized so that he may receive the gift and power of the Holy Spirit in a tangible and visible way.
Identity, affirmation, Spirit – this is why Jesus is baptized, I think, and also why we are, too.
In baptism, we, too, get the gifts Jesus received. God looks upon us and says, “you are my beloved, my child. With you I am well pleased.” God grabs ahold of us and showers us with the Holy Spirit. God names us and claims us. God gives us our identity and affirms who we are. And through baptism, God makes us into prophets, ones who point beyond ourselves to God’s work, action, and love.
Identity, affirmation, Spirit - these are gifts of baptism.
And no matter the other stories that get told to us or around us,
no matter the falsehoods and misinformation,
no matter the violent stories of power, corruption, and greed,
no matter the stories that divide a people and a nation,
God's story is what matters. God's actions are what claim us. God’s love is what defines us.
Luke tells us the story of God. And we, as prophets - identified, affirmed, and Spirit-blessed in baptism - we tell that story, too, in words and deeds. It’s the story that matters most.
We point to the one who is coming. The one revealed. The one born. The one crucified, died, and buried. The one raised. That’s what today - and everyday - is all about.
Thank you to the Rev. Dick Albert for filling in while Pastor Jason was away.
Christmas is a bit different at the beach.
Northerners have their feet of snow and evergreen fir trees. They’re all bundled up in hats and scarves and mittens. They do things like sledding and skiing and have snowball fights. It’s the kind of stuff we see in classic movies. It’s what we think of as a “normal” wintertime scene.
Here, we have some not-normal things at Christmas. The most perfect example I can think of is palm trees with Christmas lights. I remember our first Christmas here how amused I was at that sight. It is just so unexpected and yet… so perfect. Christmas still happens at the beach, even if it doesn’t look like the “normal” Christmases in photos and movies.
A normal Christmas. Not this year, I’m afraid. We all know this, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. We long for “those days” - the gatherings, the festivities, the pre-pandemic way of life, when things were just… well, normal.
Aside from our usual family traditions on Christmas, many of which are changed this year, we have always had this worship service, too. For as long as we’ve known it, Christmas Eve was in a pretty church, with lots of loud singing, and very full pews. And though being here (or watching and worshiping from home) may bring us a little bit of that nostalgia of Christmases past, there is enough that is different. There is enough where it just doesn’t feel normal.
Throughout this entire year, we’ve had to wrestle with what is normal. Without our regular places and routines, we’ve had to reimagine most of our life - from not being able to visit mom or grandmom in the nursing home to altering how we shop for groceries to even a shift in our faith and how we worship, see, feel God.
In years past, if we wondered where God might be showing up, we’d think in a fancy building like this. Through people who wear funny robes. By community singing Silent Night. Those are the normal ways and places where we expect to see God, where we expect God to show up. But we’ve had to rethink all that. And Christmas is and should be a time that has always had us rethink the normal places we look for God.
Because this Christmas - and the first Christmas - isn’t about God showing up in what we think is the normal way. The normal place for a Savior, a King, to be born is in a palace or a hospital or something like that. That’s normal. It’s not normal to be born in a barn and laid in a manger. Not a King. Not the Savior. Not God.
And yet, God shows up in the unexpected not-normal. We look to the places usually reserved for the creator of everything, but God also shows up in water and bread and wine. We generally focus on the high and mighty, but God shows up in regular people like you and me. We normally behold fancy, ornate cathedrals, yet God shows up in a stable, in a manger, in the arms of an unwed teenage girl.
Maybe this was God’s intent all along. Maybe this is why God chose to become one of us - to upend what we and what our world sees as “normal,” to shake us free from what was and what always has been, so that we can wake up to the dawn of redeeming grace. God has greater plans than we can even imagine. Maybe God wants to show us that the normal we create isn’t the normal that God wishes for us.
The normal we create isn’t the normal God wishes for us.
It is God in the flesh is who is in the manger. God doesn’t demand we ascend up to heaven, but instead God comes down into our lives, our situations, our sufferings. God comes down for us, not to simply be an example, but to change our very selves, lives, and world. God comes down for us to show us a love and a grace that births in us new opportunities and new possibilities for seeing God with us. And if God is with us - With. Us. - then so is God’s love and grace and life.
This is the normal God wishes for us.
In Christ, in this birth, the world has changed. We are recipients of God’s love, light, and life. We have good news of great joy, for us, this day, is born a Savior, the Messiah. Our normal way of connecting with God has changed, and it has changed because God came down for us.
There is no going back to our normal. There is no going back to normal once the Word became flesh. No going back to normal when Jesus sent his disciples out to all the nations. No going back to normal when the women found the tomb empty.
No, this Christmas won’t be very normal for many of us. It might be like, to people who live elsewhere, a palm tree with Christmas lights - so unexpected but so perfect. Perfect because this Christmas might be more like that first Christmas than any other in our memory. We won’t find ourselves at any of the normal places, like an inn or a palace, but instead at a stable, kneeling by a manger, waiting for our world to be changed, to be graced, to be reborn, never to be normal again.
Today we hear about the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary. And boy, does it have a lot in it.
While in normal timelines, this announcement should’ve happened about 9 months ago, the Gospel of Luke moves quickly from this scene to the manger. So do we, as this week we will again remember the birth of Christ and welcome the Savior of the world.
But, to the story at hand. As I mentioned, there is so much here for reflection and a sermon.
We hear that a barren, elderly woman is actually pregnant.
We see an angel of the Lord appearing.
We learn that the nobody of Mary is actually favored.
Mary’s question is appropriate: “How can this be?” This type of stuff doesn’t just happen. They aren’t regular occurrences. In fact, some would say, they’re impossible. And that is the common theme that binds all these pieces together: the impossibility of the whole situation.
And yet, God gives possibility.
Today, we’re about 9 months into living with this pandemic - and it hasn’t moved quite as quickly as Mary’s pregnancy in Luke’s Gospel. We’re confused, afraid, divided. For us in this time and in this year, we are facing the impossibility of having a Christmas like in the past. This year, what is the same? What will be good about this coming week?
Some of you are here right now who didn’t plan to be. You had planned, hoped, to be somewhere else with family, with your kids and grandkids and siblings. How can this be... for Christmas isn’t the same without gathering together.
There are some whom we wish were here but aren’t, and we are left alone, left to our shock, surprise, and grief. Loved ones are gone from our celebrations, stolen by disease, death coming before we were ready. Many Christmases may have passed since, or this may be the first without them, but it’s not, never will be, the same. How can this be… for Christmas isn’t right without all of us here.
And our world loves to capitalize - and cash in - on those impossibilities. It gives us the quick fixes to glam-up our holiday, to overcompensate by over-giving, to even create community from afar. And sure, it is nice to have the technology to see people from a distance, but it’s impossible to make Facetime like giving a hug.
In the absence of relationships, in the absence of normalcy, in the absence of worship like we are used to, it almost feels like there is an absence of God. How can this be… Christmas? How can we not be afraid? How can we still know God’s favor? How can the impossible still be possible even in the midst of all this? How can this be?
It can be because it is God who gives the possibility. And not just the possibility, but the promise. God has indeed sent the Spirit to be present, to make possible the impossible. And what we hear today reminds us that God turns our “how can this be?” into “let it be with me according to your word.”
In this text, we see Mary transition from a girl to a prophet,
from unwed teenager to mother of God,
from denial to discipleship.
And as we see the Spirit move Mary, we know that the Spirit helps us transition from Advent to Christmas. In Advent, we wait for God’s impossible promises to come to us; at Christmas they come in the most unexpected of ways.
The Annunciation helps us, along with Mary, move from question to affirmation of how God works in our broken, limited, impossibly-minded world. It helps us transition from absence of God to full on presence in flesh and blood. To shift from a disappointing Christmas to a Christmas full of promise and hope.
Mary’s story moves us from all the impossibilities and disappointments around us to see again who God has called us to be - favored ones, named and claimed in the waters of baptism. We know that God has given the promise to break down the impossible barriers of sin and death that separate us from God and each other.
What may seem like an impossible Christmas in our world and in our lives right now… well, God gives the possibility for something great and surprising. While it is impossible for us to have a Christmas like those of our memory, and things will feel and be different this year, the promise of God is still there, still present with us. The promise of God fulfilled is what makes this time truly Christmas.
Through all this, God still gives the possibility. The promise. And in a few short days, we will see promise fulfilled in a baby, laid in a manger.
Even in this Christmas, God helps us see the promise, the presence, the Spirit. What we see as impossible is really just an opportunity for God to deliver the promise of salvation, hope for all people, and joy to the world.
Waiting. It is something that we’ve all had to do in our lives. And sometimes that waiting is easy. Like waiting for your meal at a restaurant. Do you remember when that used to be commonplace? Order, chat a while, wait for your food. Or waiting in line to get on a rollercoaster or something. Sure, it usually takes a little longer than we want, but it’s not terrible. It’s just waiting.
But other kinds of waiting are harder. We wait to hear about the test results. We wait at the bedside of a loved one. We wait. And the waiting can wear us down.
As we have walked through the Bible since September, we may not have known it, but we were waiting. We were waiting on God. Which seems a bit odd for me to say as I’m pretty sure God was mentioned in every Bible lesson we’ve read in worship.
God was there - saving the Israelites from slavery, fixing issues and problems, giving them grace, life, and covenant. God was there! What do you mean we were “waiting” on God?
Essentially, we were waiting on God to do something a bit more. Up until now in the stories we’ve read, each and every time, we the people mess it up. God comes in to save, fix, and give. This is the covenant that God made with the people. God would be God, and we would be God’s people. We would try our very best to be a light to the nations, to bring God’s Good News to the world, to set people free from their bondage - whatever it is that holds them back from truly being God’s child.
This is the covenant promise that we hear week in, week out. And while this covenant is a brilliant display of God’s faithfulness, it was kind of limited. God comes and saves, fixes, gives… and we rejoice! And then next week, we the people mess it up again. We do something that doesn’t live up to God’s ideals and God has to come in again and save, fix, and give. It seems like we were stuck in our brokenness, and God would come and bail us out, giving us another chance to get it right - or not. This went on and on and on.
But today is a turning point. Today, everything changes. Today, we hear the promise. The promise of a new, everlasting covenant. This is the promise of one who is to come, through whom God would save us yet again - but not in a temporary, run-the-bad-guys-out-of-town type of way. Instead, this would be a second Exodus; a freeing, not just from earthly difficulties, but setting our whole selves free from bondage to sin and death.
This is the covenant we were waiting on.
We were waiting on God to
bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
to comfort all who mourn;
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
Today is the turning point.
Because it’s no longer only about what God has done. This covenant isn’t a new set of rules, guidelines, or self-help axioms. This covenant isn’t about a distant, overseer type of God - merely swooping in from time to time for rescuing, fixing, or giving. This isn’t like the old covenant where we could screw things up.
This covenant is so much more than that. This covenant is what God promises to do to set things right forever. This is about God’s grand, glorious vision of what true redemption looks like. This is an honest-to-goodness in-breaking of God’s self - of God’s justice and blessing and salvation.
God will send a prophet, someone to do for us what we have not, cannot do. This prophet will bring good news, proclaim the Lord’s favor, give a garland instead of ashes… will bring life out death.
Life. It is the promise. It is what we cannot bring. We cannot save ourselves. But God promises more.
This turning point is truly good news. It is good news for people who have had failure after failure. For people who cannot escape their brokenness. For those of us whose bonds to sin are too strong for us to break.
For God will set us free. Jesus will set us free. It all turns on Jesus.
In the next several weeks, we will hear about and see that promise coming to us in a manager, turning our ideas and our world around. And today, we get a glimpse of what God promises to do for us.
God will make an everlasting covenant with us which goes beyond the boundaries of the old. It expands to welcome us all, extends even beyond death, encompasses us all in God’s justice - justice for we who are broken in heart, mind, or soul; we who are in bondage to worldly ways; we who wait for promises to be fulfilled.
For some things it is hard to wait. But thank God we don’t have to wait to hear these words of promise. We don’t have to wait to see hope. To feel love. To taste grace. To know that we wait together. And together, we rejoice in the consistent, faithful promise of God.
Uncertainty. That is what connects the life of the prophet Joel with our lives today. Uncertainty lies in the midst of all that is going on. It looms large in each scene, both past and present.
As I mentioned, Joel was a prophet. And if you know anything about prophets in the Bible it’s that God typically sends them for a reason. The usual reason is that people aren’t following God in the ways they should be. In particular, they’re not living out the Law in service to God and neighbor. So, the prophet’s job, for the most part, is to bring news of consequences if things don’t change. “The day of the Lord is coming,” says Joel as a prelude to our text from chapter 2. And with that day also comes consequences - which, here, looks like a swarm of locusts, devouring and ruining, encompassing everything in sight. Pretty devastating.
So, in the verses before our text for today, there is uncertainty. The uncertainty lies in the questions and mixed feelings over this “day of the Lord.” How much time do we have? How many must repent? Does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch? Isn’t this a bit harsh and cruel? Where is the grace that balances this out? And there aren’t answers - none from the people and none from Joel.
The day of the Lord is coming, like locusts to devour. What will that mean?
For us, our uncertainty doesn’t revolve too much around locusts - though it still is 2020, so who knows what could happen. But uncertainty still rules the day. I’ll fill in that picture with the obvious COVID concerns. While some people choose to shrug it off - carpe diem and all that - others are worried about themselves or loved ones or just being a decent person and not spreading a disease. A vaccine on the horizon still leaves us with questions of efficacy, a timeline, and if we ever will be back to normal.
But other pieces of uncertainty are starting to pop up during this time of year. A joyous time for many can be one of the saddest for others. People’s lives have changed dramatically since this time last year. What will this year look like?
In the days, weeks, and months ahead… what will things look like? Our country will undergo changes. New problems will arise. Old problems won’t go away. Each day is a new challenge for many of us, and we just go, day by day, with emotion, fear, mourning, and uncertainty. We have hope, but we are also realistic. What will it mean?
Uncertainty then. Uncertainty now.
“Yet even now,” says the Lord. “Yet even now, return to me.”
For Joel and his people, the only thing certain was change. Things would have to change. The status quo was about to be upset, regardless of if the cause was a change in people’s ways or a swarm of locusts. But for the prophet, the answer to any issue, especially in the midst of uncertainty, was always to look to God.
When you don’t know where to turn, return to the Lord your God.
One of the easiest things for me about preaching is that I don’t have to make stuff up. I read what the Bible says and I basically just try to say that again in ways that might connect with you and me. Unlike a novel or a short story, I’m not trying to think of a plot, not trying to tell a story I create, and I’m certainly not trying to make up anything new. Instead, I just try to make connections and say what the Bible tells us.
For Joel - and all the other prophets, I suppose - I think it is something similar. Their job of bringing potential bad news is hard, for sure, but they just say what God told them to say. And God always has more to say than the bad news. And that “more” God says through Joel is, “yet even now… return to me.”
“Return to me,” says the Lord.
But it’s not just “return,” but return with all your heart. Rend your hearts, not your clothing. Which might be a bit harder. We may even be uncertain as to what exactly that means.
So, as we slow down a bit and really listen to what God is saying, we know that God knows what is in our hearts - otherwise why would God ask for a change? God knows what is in our hearts, but God wants us to rend those hearts - to open them up, take a good, hard look at what we are carrying around in there.
The thing about rending open one’s heart is, by doing so, we bring out whatever is in there, all the emotions and feelings - weeping and joy, mourning and delight. Uncertainty. Fear. Hurt. Whatever the doctor says, whatever the results. Whatever the number of empty seats at dinner. Whatever virus petrifies. Whatever brokenness, apprehension, and uncertainty there is inside, even now, God knowingly, lovingly, certainly says, “return to me.”
God knows. God knows. And when you don’t know, return to the Lord you God. Yet even now.
In this time of Advent, we wait. We wait in particular for the day of the Lord. We wait for the Lord to come and show us what we and generations already know: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. On that day, we will see how God chooses to judge the world. On that day, we know we will be changed; things can't stay the same. On that day, we know dreams and visions will become certain. On that day, God’s love will be made flesh.
God says, yes, the day of the Lord is coming, but also be certain it is being brought by a God who is gracious and merciful. Be certain that God’s arms are wide open, waiting for us to return. Be certain that God fully knows what is in our hearts - all that is there - and God will take it, take us, no matter what we’ve buried deep.
Be certain that because you have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism, you are always and forever God’s own. Be certain that God feeds our souls at the Lord’s table, and you are always welcome. Be certain that the Holy Spirit is poured out on you, giving your visions and dreams life in this day and in this time. Be certain that the day of the Lord is coming. And even now, God still comes to us with grace, mercy, and steadfast love.
It is certain, but we still wait, don’t we? We wait for the child to be born; we wait for the Lord to come; we wait for our dreams and visions; we wait. But let us not wait with uncertainty. Because even here, God comes with certain promise: you are certainly loved. You are certainly known. You are certainly mine.
Even now. Even always.
“But the days are surely coming.”
That is one of my favorite phrases in all of scripture. “The days are surely coming.” It is full of hope and promise; it uplifts and assures. It is good news to people in the midst of turmoil, uncertainty, and pandemic. The days are surely coming.
And what is interesting about our lesson for today is we read this on the heels of King Jehoiakim tearing up Jeremiah’s scroll and throwing it in the fire. Except, “the days are surely coming” when God will “make a new covenant” and “write it upon our hearts” actually comes before this little incident with the King. I tend to think the lectionary assigned the lesson this way so that we Lutherans could end with the Gospel, with Good News, instead of leaving the lesson hearing again how we humans fall short over and over.
But taken in the original order, King Jehoiakim tearing up the scroll and throwing it in the fire does indeed show just how short we fall, despite whatever phrases of promise and hope God gives to us beforehand.
But the days are surely coming, right?
When we, here and now, look back at what the King did, we might think the horror was him cutting up the scroll - which had God’s words on it! - and throwing it in the fire. Cut it up and let it burn! But maybe that is less the atrocity than ignoring what the words said.
Now, full disclosure here: Jeremiah wasn’t the happiest of prophets. In fact, most of his words were doom and gloom, so maybe it is a bit understandable that the King wouldn’t be too receptive to what Jeremiah was saying via this scroll. Move this forward to our day and time, and we can make the comparison with the Bible. People aren’t very receptive to truths that they don’t want to hear.
I don’t know many people who tear pages out of the Bible and burn them, but people throughout history have always skipped over some parts of God’s Word they didn’t like. Thomas Jefferson literally cut the pages of the New Testament and pasted together his own book that suited him better. Modern day televangelists often skip over passages that call into question their second private jet.
And even you and me… well, we play favorites, pointing to this scripture or that passage which fully supports what we already believe. Oh, and that one passage over there that lands a little funny with me, well, here’s how we can explain it away.
See, we fall short because we can’t do, live, believe, say, interpret rightly the whole entire Bible. We just can’t. We are stuck in “learning and referencing” mode. By that, I mean we still discover new passages in the Bible. And we keep going back to hear those old stories again to remind us of what they say. We think and interpret and process what different Bible stories mean to us in a given situation.
Think of it kind of like learning to ride a bike. Having taught someone in recent history, I know the kind of tears and failures that come. You instruct and teach and tell and repeat - pedal, pedal, pedal! And the one learning is constantly in their brain going: “pedal, pedal, pedal, keep the handlebars straight, don’t look that way, pedal, pedal, pedal.”
The learner is constantly referencing the right way to ride the bicycle - thinking, interpreting, processing. This is what we do with the Bible; this is us under the old covenant, with words and scrolls and us picking and choosing. We have to consciously process God’s Word if we are to have any chance at riding well.
But the days are surely coming.
The days are surely coming when we won’t look to God’s word in the Bible, but to God’s Word who is Jesus the Christ.
The days are surely coming when we won’t be faithless and sinful, breaking covenant, but instead rely on the new covenant in Christ’s blood, that is shed for you and for all people.
The days are surely coming when we will all know the Lord, and we will be God’s people forever.
The days are surely coming when we all will follow Christ, who is the King, a different king, who doesn’t throw us away into the fire, but always welcomes us.
The days are surely coming when we will have this new covenant written on hearts, lived out in our lives, and we will know the Lord.
To maybe understand having this covenant written on our hearts, think again of learning to ride a bike. Once you “get it,” once you can ride that bike, what is your brain doing? Not thinking about every little motion your body is making. Not “pedal, pedal, pedal.” You’re just riding. Riding a bike has become ingrained, part of you; it has been written on your heart.
When God’s Word is written on our hearts, we won’t think of who is right or wrong, who is in or out. We won’t question love or grace or faith. We will know God - not know about God, but know God. Because it will be written on our hearts. We will live out God’s Word, as naturally as riding a bike.
Oh, yes, the days are surely coming.
This is the hope and the promise we have. It uplifts and assures. It is good news to people in the midst of turmoil, uncertainty, and pandemic. The days are surely coming when we won’t need a book, but instead we will know exactly and fully God’s love for us. We will know Jesus, our King. And we will have God’s Word in our hearts. Until then, though, Christ our King comes to us in water, in the meal, in regular ways we don’t always fully get… but it always ends with the Gospel. With Good News. And it always will. Until the days have surely come.
Here I am, send me!
That is not the usual response we have… unless it is for an all expenses paid trip to some tropical island. And even then, some of us might wonder, “What’s the catch?” before we jump, hand raised, squealing, “here I am! Pick me!”
But that isn’t a typical scenario discussed in a sermon, now is it? Instead, sermons are much more about God or the Spirit or the pastor calling. And even then, rarely do we jump at the chance to say, “Here I am, send me!”
Yet, that is what happens today in our lesson from Isaiah. God called and Isaiah said, “here I am. Send me.” It seems so… heroic and awesome.
And maybe you look at me, here up front, wearing these fancy robes, and you think to yourself, “well, you obviously said yes. You’re a pastor! I’m just little ol’ me here in the pew.”
We’ll get to “little ol’ you” in a minute, but let me just tell you that my journey to becoming a pastor wasn't at all like Isaiah’s calling. Or like Jonah’s calling. Or Moses’. Or John the Baptist’s. It wasn’t like anyone else's; it was much more mundane.
We as a family had always gone to church, and aside from when my dad was stationed in the Philippines, we had always gone to a Lutheran church. I have fond memories of being an acolyte and in youth group. I felt comfortable in church.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to be a camp counselor at Lutheridge, a camp outside of Asheville, NC. It was a place I enjoyed, with good friends, intentional community, and opportunities - opportunities to lead, opportunities to work with kids and pastors and church leaders, opportunities to live out and try to make connections between God and what we were doing at camp.
In my second year on staff, a few pastors who were there for the week pulled me aside during one of the sessions and asked if I ever considered seminary. And I said, “Here I am. Send me!” NO, I DIDN’T! I said, “No way. Not for me.”
“You have gifts,” they told me. Gifts? I was just putting chocolate pudding on my face and making up silly hand motions to songs. But somehow, that conversation stuck with me. It didn’t leave my head or my heart as I returned to Newberry College when the summer was over. I decided to check out a religion class or two. They were pretty interesting.
As the next two years developed, so did this nagging feeling that seminary actually made a little bit of sense. And so, one Sunday afternoon, driving from my parent’s house to back Newberry, I decided I was going to figure it out, come up with an answer. I turned off the radio in my car and thought. I guess one could say I prayed, since I kinda was asking God to let me know what to do. And over the course of that 30 minutes or so, I came to my conclusion: “Sure, why not.”
“Sure, why not,” was my, “Here I am. Send me!”
Do you see how un-amazing that is? How I basically hedged my bets and just gave in? There wasn’t anything miraculous. There was no burning bush or big fish or searing coals. It’s just that God worked through people and places in my life and… and that is pretty amazing. And it is not like anyone else’s story.
See, there are amazing, special things in our lives when we stop to look at them. There are things that are unique to us, unique to the way that God uses us and calls us. And God is working in us, through us, and with us, even before we say, “Sure, why not.”
With Isaiah, he was already called and equipped; he just didn’t feel that way until a coal touched his lips.
With me, I was already called and equipped; I just didn’t feel that way until the phrase “you have gifts” became “I have gifts.”
With you, with little ol’ you, you are already called and equipped, too.
And what will make you feel that way? Well, that’s up to God and you. But God has worked and continues to work in people and places in your life, and that is amazing. And yours is not like anyone else’s story.
You have gifts. Gifts that are wonderful and awesome. And God calls to you to use those gifts to be hands, feet, and lips proclaiming Christ crucified and risen. And we all do that in different ways, but one particular way we do it is through this community of faith.
For me, like I said last week, in this community, my job is to point to a God who loves you,
who is gracious and merciful,
who has claimed you and gifted you in the waters of baptism,
who feeds you and blesses you in the communion meal,
who calls you to be who you are in a world that needs your gifts.
And if I can do that in a way that someone appreciates it or is inspired or hopeful or uplifted even just a little bit, well, it’s amazing. It’s like grace upon grace.
For you and for us, God calls us to this community, to use all our gifts to love and serve the Lord. And I have seen God do amazing things with your gifts.
We have talents for praising.
We host meals on a regular basis for those who are hungry.
We provide food, clothing, and school supplies to kids in the poorest neighborhoods.
We have created a place, that even in the midst of pandemic and distancing, still proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ - not just in words, but with deeds.
And I can tell you, that in each of those ways your gifts have been used, someone has been helped, touched, inspired, brought closer to God, and it is amazing. It is grace upon grace.
So, even if your response to God’s call is something less enthusiastic than, “Here I am. Send me,” know that God still works through you. God still calls you. God still gives us the gifts and talents we need. And then, through ways that are awesome and amazing, God gives opportunity to say, “Here I am. Send me.”
*We apologize for the audio quality in this video. It seems the microphone wasn't working properly.*
What a year this week has been.
This week, maybe many of you wanted to run away like Jonah, just get away from it all.
And while that is a cute idea we can pull from this story, there is actually a little bit more here than simply wanting to run away. There is something that hits maybe even a little bit more close to home: it’s the “us versus them” mentality.
We may not see it on the surface, but dig just a little bit into the history of Hebrews and Ninevites and we see that this story has loads of lines drawn, teams chosen, and “you are with us or you are against us” mentality. On the one hand, we have Jonah, the Hebrew, the Good Guy; he is one of us. Yay, Jonah! On the other hand, there is everyone else: the Ninevites and the sailors. They are the bad guys, the ones we see as antagonists. And these two sides… well, they pretty much hated each other. Boo, everyone else!
So, we hear this story, and we pick our side.
Jonah is one of us; everyone else is one of them.
Jonah is God’s prophet; everyone else doesn’t go to church.
Jonah, good; everyone else, bad.
Jonah is our guy!
...Even though Jonah is the worst person in the story. Hear me out. First, he doesn’t go to Ninevah, as God tells him to. Remember, Jonah hates those people and doesn’t want anything good to happen for them, including hearing about a gracious God. So, instead, he boards a ship and heads toward Tarshish. Then, while on the boat, all the sailors pray during the storm, yet Jonah hides out in the bottom of the ship, not praying. When Jonah finally ends up in Ninevah after the whole “big fish” incident, he only goes a little way in and gives an eight-word sermon to try to get the Ninevites to change their ways. Not a very good effort there, Jonah. In terms of prophet performance, that is pretty putrid.
And yet, we like Jonah! Sure, he’s got a little room to grow as a prophet, a little rough around the edges, but he’s on our side, so that’s good enough for us. But have you seen what those Ninevites did? Boy, and the sailors, well, you know the words that come from their mouths. And, anyway, the Ninevites are all mixed up in this funny business…
Because Jonah is “one of us,” we tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. And because everyone else is one of “them,” they should burn in hell.
I racked my brain, thinking and thinking of some way to bring this story of division into modern day times…
Oh, that’s right! Half the country hates the other half. You are blue or red, you are with us or you are our enemy. If you are on our side, you get all the benefits of all the doubts; if you are on the other side, you can burn in hell. Does that sound accurate?
And maybe, maybe that is a bit of hyperbole, but I don’t think I’m that far off. There are very few people on either side looking at the other, and going, “well, they do have a point.” There is very little self-reflection. There is loads of “bearing false witness” and very little interpreting in the best possible light. And we’re all guilty. We’re all culpable. I know I’ve rolled my eyes more than once in the past several days.
And yet, despite Jonah’s hate of the Ninevites, despite his half-effort and pessimism, despite Jonah doing his best to make sure Ninevah burns, God works within and around Jonah’s ineptitude and still accomplishes God’s purposes through him.
And that work isn’t just to redeem Jonah, redeem the guy from “our” side, but God redeems Ninevah, too. God’s love doesn’t pick sides. God’s love crosses divides. God’s love redeems us all.
And maybe this story can help us put things in our current situation into perspective. In the midst of all the division in our country, from all the apathy to disdain to hate, God can remind us again that God’s love doesn’t pick sides. They aren’t as bad, and we aren’t as good as the caricatures we have in our minds. We all fall short, and yet we all are loved, redeemed, saved through a God who’s got the whole world in his hands. God’s love doesn’t pick sides.
That is a love that God shows to us, and a love that God tells us to go share. Despite Jonah’s hate for the Ninevites, God made sure love was proclaimed. And maybe that is what God is calling us to do, too. That even if we have legitimate differences and perspectives, God still calls us to proclaim love - a love that doesn’t come from our political leaders or parties.
We may not like it that “they,” too, are loved by God, but it is what God calls us to say and show.
So, how do we do that? How do we, who are reluctant and angry, who show up covered in fish vomit and mumbling under our breath, how do we announce unity in love when we don’t even like the people on the other side?
I wish I had an easy answer for you. I wish I had an easy answer for myself. All I know is that God works despite our feelings, whether we are winners or losers, whether we are reluctant or not. Because our unity isn’t in a side or a color or a president. Our unity is in Christ.
This may sound pollyannaish, like our reality doesn’t matter. But I don’t think unity in Christ is easy. It’s actually pretty hard. It’s hard because unity in Christ doesn’t mean we all win - at least not winning as we think of it. Unity in Christ means we are joined to Jesus. Unity with Christ means we are crucified with Christ. We die - die to ourselves, die to our sinful ways, die to any other faction we are part of. We die, we lose, all so that God can give us the win to something greater.
And in that death and loss, God’s redeeming love goes to work. God brings unity and life. And God will not stop, and God definitely won’t let our reluctance stop that love from being known.
What I say isn’t going to change anyone’s political mind, but that’s not my job. My job is to point to a God who loves both sides, who redeems both broken sides, and who wants us to look beyond hate and disgust and pettiness to a life together that reflects and embodies what that love of God looks like. Point to a love that works despite imperfect people. Remind of a love that knows no hate for the other side.
Our brokenness makes it hard to do that sometimes, but our brokenness doesn’t exclude us from God’s love. And it doesn’t exclude “them” either. God has a love for us all. And maybe through this story of big fish and lousy prophets, we can hear and see the themes of our lives and our world, and know that God is working to redeem us all.
Sometimes God comes through
in the most unlikely of places,
by the most unlikely of people,
and in the most unlikely of ways.
It’s easy to say it; it is hard to trust it.
That is the theme of today and today’s scripture passage about Elijah. God will work, even when things are at their worst. Elijah had a couple of instances of that, just in these verses.
First, God commands Elijah to head out, east of the Jordan River to hide out for a while. See, Elijah was saying some pretty harsh things to the powers-that-be and needed to lay low for a bit. But head out to the middle of nowhere? Trust God! Easy to say, hard to do.
But God promises to provide food from ravens and water from a brook. God provides through unlikely ways. But eventually, the brook dries up because of drought. It probably was less easy for Elijah to trust God at this point; all the provisions are trickling away!
So, God tells Eljah to go to Zarephath where a woman who lives there will feed him. God comes through again! Except, when Elijah shows up, the woman is about to use all her remaining resources to make a final meal for her and her son. How will this woman be able to provide food for all three of them? Trust God! Easy to say, hard to do.
So, God ensures that the flour and the oil will not run out before God sends rain and ends the drought. And it is so! God’s promise was fulfilled to the letter, exactly as Elijah had said. They all had daily food, enough to eat.
This is our daily reminder that God comes through. Even when it seems like God didn’t or doesn’t or won’t. We trust that God works, even when things seem the worst. The brook runs out of water, yet God comes through. The woman was running out of oil & flour, yet God comes through. This story shows that God provides.
Here I am, saying to trust that God will keep coming through,
in the most unlikely of places,
by the most unlikely of people,
and in the most unlikely of ways.
It’s easy to say it; it is hard to trust it.
It’s hard to trust it, because we see lots of examples where it seems like God isn’t providing. There isn’t protection; there are wars and shootings and accidents. There isn’t provision; there is hunger and greed and scarcity. There isn’t unity; there is division and anger and self-serving agendas. There isn’t relationship; there is death and funerals and grief.
Despite it all, do we still say, “God comes through.”
It’s easy to say it; it is hard to trust it.
Today is a day where we proclaim the audacity that God does indeed come through - in spite of everything. Today is All Saints Sunday, a day in which we remember and celebrate all the baptized people of God, living and dead, who are the body of Christ. We remember all who have died in Christ. At the Lord’s table we gather with the faithful of every time and place, trusting that the promises of God will be fulfilled and that all tears will be wiped away. We announce the Good News that Jesus Christ has come through death and grave, and because he lives, we, too, shall live a new life. God does come through.
Today is not a day where we celebrate a sort of “Christian Hall of Fame.” Rather, All Saints Sunday is a day to celebrate that all of us are made holy in Christ Jesus not by our own merits, but by the free grace of God in the Son, Jesus. It is a day to remember those saints who are living now - including those not here. We remember those saints who have died in Christ - especially those very dear to us and those who have died in the past year. It is a day to remember those promises God has given to us - promises to provide, to come through it all.
When the water ran out, God provided.
When the flour ran out, God provided.
When our life runs out, God provides.
Every Sunday, and today especially, is a day we remember, in it and through it all, God comes through. When our earthly life runs out, God still comes through. It is true; it is true, even when it is hard to trust that promise - even if it is hard to say it out loud. It’s true because it is not up to us. If it were, we’d waiver and waffle and dwindle - like the brook, like the flour, like our life. But, thanks be to God, it is in God’s hands, not our own. And God always comes through.
God provides what we need. Ultimately, through everything, we are taken care of. Provided for. Kept safe. Brought together with God. God gives life.
Sometimes God comes through
in the most unlikely of places,
by the most unlikely of people,
and in the most unlikely of ways.
It’s easy to say it; and by God’s grace we will grow in trusting it.
But because on our best days we trust God’s promises, we work to take care of others.
See, God works in the most unlikely of places, people, and ways - including through us, the Saints of God. We don’t become a saint upon our death; God has made us saints now, to provide for those in need, to keep others safe, to bring unity, to point to the life God gives. We are God’s hands and feet.
God has given us opportunity, blessings, the Holy Spirit - God provides for us! God provides so that we can work to come through for others, to live out the Good News of Christ, to help others see, that even in unlikely places, people, and ways, God is present, God is here, and God is bringing life.
And yes, sometimes it is still hard to trust it. But as God reminds us and shapes us and provides for us, the more we grow in that trust.
God works in unlikely places, people, ways - even in a cross. God works unexpectedly through an empty tomb. And because of Christ, we are made holy - not by being unwavering in our trust, but by the gift of grace. And in that grace, we can see how God has worked through our loved ones here with us, how God was shown forth in our forebearers in faith. And we even see how God comes through us, the Saints of God.
On Reformation Sunday, there are always a lot of directions to go with the main point of the sermon.
There is the tried and true theological aspect: "a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law..." It’s something we Lutherans get giddy - and maybe a bit arrogant - about when we hear it. How can everyone else be so wrong?! A bit of our sinful boasting comes out when we start comparing ourselves to others.
And yet, this is the theological point we as Lutherans hold as central to everything about God, church, worship, faith… that human beings cannot be justified before God by our own powers, merits, or works. We are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith.
Surely any Lutheran pastor worth their salt could go on and on and on about those few sentences. The hard part is unpacking all that faith, belief, justification, and righteousness in a way that everyone’s eyes don’t glaze over in boredom.
Looking elsewhere, our Gospel lesson from John talks a lot about “truth” and “freedom.” This lesson is selected for today probably because Martin Luther rediscovered the “truth” of the Gospel. It was a truth that the church at the time had come to ignore for their own financial gain. This Gospel Truth sets us “free” - we are free in Christ.
The themes in this John passage seem very contemporary to us in the week and a half before a national election. Which candidate is truthful; which isn’t? Which candidate is a proponent of freedom and which isn’t?
While on the surface that passage seems highly relatable, our American ideals interfere with what Jesus is really talking about. While we are accustomed to who or what is “most true” (because hardly anything we see or read is completely true), Jesus is talking about THE Truth - the truth that will make people of all political persuasions a little upset because those ideals, shockingly, aren’t the savior of the world. And freedom in Christ is pretty much the opposite of our American freedoms of choice and doing whatever we want to do.
Yet as crucial as these themes of justification, truth, and Gospel are, today I can’t seem to look beyond any other theme than “reformation” itself.
Generations of Lutherans preachers have stood in the pulpit and said that the church needs to always be reforming, changing. It isn’t a new concept; it’s something that has always been talked about on Reformation Sunday. The problem is, very few times has such change been forced upon us like it has this year.
I never thought that as a pastor I’d be telling people not to come to church because it might get too full. I never thought we’d all be wearing masks in our pews. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to shake hands, hug, enjoy fellowship and being together. I never thought about a lot of things that happened this year. And I don’t like very much of what 2020 brought us. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you probably don’t either.
But if there is something that the Reformation can teach us, it’s that it is not about us. Not about me. Not about you. As much as we so desperately want it to be.
See, the whole Reformation was and is an attempt to shift our attention away from ourselves - away from our piety, our works, our faith, our failures, our merit, our glory, our shame. The Reformation was and is an attempt to shift our attention toward God, to the God who is gracious and merciful, to the God who delights in justifying the broken, welcoming the outsider, healing those in need, and making free those who are in bondage.
When we get bogged down in how things were or are or should be,
When we focus on our own preferences and what we think would be better,
When we know we are truly justified in our opinions,
we lose sight of the God who, with love and grace, is in the midst of it all - in all of it.
And today, maybe especially today, when things are so unlike Reformations of the past, we can be still and know that God is here. This day isn’t about us anyway. It is about the God who loves us so much that God gives us the gift of salvation.
Because no matter how right or true, no matter how just or free, we all fall short of the glory of God. If we want to talk about ourselves, we should start there. But again, this isn’t about us. It is about God and what God does, despite us all falling short.
The truth is, God gives us the free gift of salvation, seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus shows us the lengths to which God will go - to the cross, to the tomb, to defeating sin, death, and anything that keeps us in bondage. And God doesn’t do this because we’ve proved our worth or earned our way or shown God how good we are. Not because of who we were or are or promise one day to be - God does it because that is who God is. God is one who is gracious and merciful, who bestows upon us righteousness, who justifies us and makes us right - not to our standards, but to God’s.
We so easily want all these stories and verses and days to be about us - our truth, our freedom, our means to justify ourselves. But, the truth is, it is about God and God’s gifts of life and salvation to us. It is all about what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
God justifies us, makes us right, through the free gift of grace. God makes us free, free in Christ to love as God has loved us.
The Reformation, even this Reformation Day, reminds us that it is not about us; it is about God. Though we have sinned and fall short, God forgives us, renews us, and leads us. God justifies us, makes us righteous, and sets us free. Through God, we are formed and reformed so that we can point to Jesus and proclaim the gift of grace, grace that is the truth for us all.
Part of what we do here at St. Philip during worship each year is we go through the narrative story of the Bible. We start in Genesis and work our way through the Old Testament. Around December we get to Prophets, and at Christmas, we start at the beginning of one of the Gospels - Jesus’ birth and all that. We read through that Gospel until Easter, and then transition to Acts and some of Paul’s letters. It’s a lot to get through in a year, and I should let you know that we don’t cover everything. Far from it.
We have to skip a lot of the story. And today is a good example of skipping a lot. Last week, we were at the bottom of Mount Sinai along with a golden calf. This week, we jump over six books of the Bible to get from last week’s story to this one. So, to summarize what happened between, the Israelites settle into the Promised Land and yet live in borderline mayhem. They are led by eccentric people called Judges. And God still works through it all - in unexpected ways through unexpected people.
Today’s story turns the page on all that craziness and is the very beginning of a Golden Era for Israel. We get the beginning of the monarchy - kings to rule and unite Israel.
But before we get any kings, we get Hannah, a woman with no children. It seems to be a common theme in the Bible. Most notably, we heard a few weeks ago about Abraham and Sarah, to whom God promised as many descendants as there were stars. They were childless well into their nineties, yet God, almost unexpectedly, comes through.
In the first part of our story today, Hannah prays to God for a child. And not just prays, but prays and cries and kind of makes a scene in the temple. But she is not afraid to tell God exactly what she wants. God answers her prayer.
Obviously, this is not always the case: there is no simple formula that if we want something enough and pray for it hard enough, God will give it. And particularly around children and birth, God doesn’t always answer it the way we want. People don’t always get what they ask for, and that can be really hard for us. But here, God does answer Hannah. A mother's prayer results in an unexpected beginning to kingship; she gives birth to Samuel.
Hannah’s response to God answering her prayer is to pray again. And while she doesn’t really ever say, “thank you” to God in this prayer, she does something more. She talks about God’s power to reverse situations, to turn things upside down in unexpected ways.
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces, while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts, while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children, while the mother of many is without.
God can reverse human situations of status, circumstances, and power.
Hannah’s prayer is similar to Mary’s song in Luke. After Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she will be the one to bear the Messiah, she responds by praising the God who brings down and lifts up, who sends the rich away empty and fills those who are hungry - the same theme of unexpected reversal we see in Hannah’s prayer.
And I guess that is that is good news - in theory. It sounds nice that sad people become happy and stuff like that, but what about the well fed becoming hungry? What about those who have worked hard in their lives and are sitting on top comfortably? What about we who have been conditioned with a “might makes right” mentality, that we prevail by strength and power?
Do we like that trade off? My guess is no. See, we are broken enough to know that without God, we are nothing, and yet… we still somehow convince ourselves all the time that we are in control. That we can do it. That we are independent and strong. By our own might, we will prevail.
But what Hannah reminds us of today is that “not by might does one prevail,” but by the power of God. And that power is seen in the unexpected. It is seen in doing the opposite of what the world does. God turns things upside down in unexpected ways.
We see it in Hannah’s prayer. We see it in Mary’s song. We see it in Jesus’ cross.
For not by might does one prevail. God turns things upside down in unexpected ways.
To the world, the cross is the symbol of death and despair, a show of power over anyone who stepped out of line. To the world, every time you looked at a cross, you saw death and fear. What has more power than death?
Well, God has more power than death. God turned the cross into a symbol of life and hope, a show of power over anything that would take us away. And now, to us, every time we look at a cross, we see life and grace.
It is the unexpected way of God. God didn’t come with power, with guns ablazin’ and bookoos of money. God came in humility, in a lowly prophet, in service to the least of these. And the world took God to the cross, it’s own place of ultimate power and might. But not by might does one prevail.
God raised Jesus to life, to show ultimate power, to show ultimate life, love, and grace to a world that seems to have a lot of upside down ways.
For not by might does one prevail. God turns things upside down in unexpected ways.
Hannah prayed it in the temple. Mary sang it in the home of Elizabeth. Jesus showed it from the cross.
As people of the resurrection, it is the prayer we sing, too. It is the promise to which we cling: “Not by might does one prevail.” We prevail because God turns things upside down: barrenness to fullness, cross to empty tomb, death to life for us all.
I think I know how God feels. God is frustrated. Disappointed. At the wit’s end.
In the events that unfold just before today’s story of the Golden Calf, Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai, where the Israelites hang out for a while before continuing their trek to the Promised Land.
At this point, Moses has already made a few trips up the mountain to get the 10 Commandments (and the replacement tablets after he broke the first ones). These Commandments start off with the declaration, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Shortly following are commands about idols and worshiping other things and taking care of each other. The Israelites agreed; of course they understood. You are the God who brought us out of Egypt! And so the Lord follows up the 10 Commandments with instructions on building a tabernacle or tent, in which God would dwell with them as they traveled. God would be with them - not in clouds or fire or plagues, but actually with them in this tabernacle.
If one reads the story straight through, we are set up to expect that the Israelites will begin building this tabernacle, God’s home among them. But… that doesn’t really happen. Suddenly and unexpectedly, all these positive expectations are thrown out the window. Instead of a grand tent adorned with gold, the Israelites make a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai and bow down and worship the idol.
In summary, God just got done leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, laid down some ground rules, and then the Israelites go and make a golden statue of a cow. Come on! Didn’t I just tell you what not to do? And you did it anyway?!
I think any parent has probably said something very similar, which is how I relate. I JUST TOLD YOU. Wear shoes when you’re outside. Clean up your room. Don’t hit your sister. Why don’t you listen to me!? I just told you that. I tell you every single day not to do it.
And then comes the big, overreaching punishment. Fine, no more iPad. You can stay in your room the rest of the day. No dessert for a week. I think most parents fall short of claiming to wipe their kids off the face of the earth, though.
Yes, God seems to act a lot like any parent who is at their wit’s end. God even pulls the “your kid” schtick with Moses. Much like the mom asking the dad, “Do you know what your son did today?” God asks, “Hey, Moses, you see what your people are doing down there?”
So, yes, I relate to God in this scenario. I want to be loving, to be there for my kids, and try to teach them ways to be better, to form good habits. And sometimes it seems like it is all for nothing. The information and teaching and love goes in one ear and right out the other. It’s enough to make any parent go a little crazy and lash out. I guess if God does it, we’re in good company.
But God doesn’t go through with the punishment. God relents. God forgives. All because Moses does three things.
First, Moses reminds God of the truth. “These aren’t my people, God, they are yours. You brought them out of Egypt.”
Second, Moses uses the “what would the neighbors say” defense: Think of your reputation, God. You proved yourself more than powerful over the gods of Egypt. Now what will the Egyptians say if it looks like you saved your people only to destroy them in the wilderness?
Third, Moses points to who God truly is: a God who keeps promises. Moses reminds God of God’s own promises that began with the call of Abraham way back in Genesis 12. And that promise was reiterated several more times to Isaac and Jacob and their descendants.
Because, here’s the thing: above all else, God is faithful. God’s mind changes here because God’s faithfulness is what never changes. God will not break promises. God will uphold the covenant, even when we don’t.
Oh, yes, that’s right. Like the Israelites, we don’t uphold our end of the covenant, either. See, as much as we may relate to God in this scenario, more often, we are like the Israelites - in one ear, and out the other. We don’t listen. We create false idols.
For sure, not many of us melt down our gold and cast it in some bovine form, but we have our idols. I’m sure you know the typical laundry list of things: money, when it is seen as the utmost goal, the fixer of every problem. Power, when what we have isn’t enough, when it causes us to abuse or belittle. Career, as it defines who we are. Anything we put in place of God - heirlooms, aspirations, sports teams, and yes, even people we… idolize. Those are idols, and those are things we are all guilty of looking to for safety, meaning, inclusion, and comfort.
And even beyond that, there are things that we associate so much with God that we worship them instead of God. The building, the old liturgy we remember, some piece about the way things “used to be.” And while COVID has forcibly shaken us from that by necessitating a change in the way things were done, we still long for the way things were.
And yet, God is present, more present to our senses when the idols of our lives are removed. Nothing finite can fully capture the infinite God. And even though we still slip up - we have God’s words slip right through one ear and out the other - God is faithful to us.
In Jesus we see how faithful God is. God is faithful to us, no matter what. God will keep the promise, to have us pass over from death to life. God will uphold the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sin. God is faithful, even when we aren’t.
It is stunning and surprising, for sure, but God is nothing if not faithful to us. It is God’s character, who God is.
In the end, I often change my mind about the punishment for my kids. I end up trying to be a faithful father, forgiving them because, well, they’re my kids, you know? And while there are consequences, I often relent from my initial frustrations. And if I can do that, how much more does God do it. Because of course, God is more faithful. God keeps promises.
We have a God who keeps promises. Sometimes keeping those promises means God has to forgive rather serious sins. But that is the nature of the One who has named us and claimed us forever. God is faithful. And God does what God promises.
Today we hear the story of the Passover, which is the essential story for the Jewish people. It is God’s major saving action, rescuing them from slavery.
That is what happened to the descendants of Abraham between the end of Genesis and the start of Exodus in the Bible. As Genesis ended, Joseph had welcomed his brothers into Egypt as refugees to escape a famine in their land. That is the story we heard last week.
As the book of Exodus begins, the Hebrews, as Abraham’s descendants were known then, have been enslaved. It seemed the Pharoahs over the years had forgotten who Joseph was and only saw the growing Hebrew population as a threat to rebel against the powers that be.
Today we pick up just before the enslaved Hebrews were to be freed. God chose Moses to head to Egypt, confront the Pharaoh, and declare that God says, “Let my people go!” Very predictably, Pharaoh says, “nope.” So, God sends plagues to Egypt to pressure Pharaoh into freeing the Hewbrews - maybe you remember some of them - frogs, locusts, rivers to blood, and what we read today, the death of every first born.
Except, God will pass over certain homes - homes that share the meal, that spread the blood. God’s judgement would pass over them so they could pass over from slavery to freedom. It is a story of God’s liberation.
No wonder it is so important to the Jewish people. It shows that God is one who sets free. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners. God is one of justice and liberation. And all through the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, this event often describes who God is. God is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt.
Because this event so clearly shows who God is, God tells Moses and the Israelites to share the story. To pass it on. To teach it to your children. Tell the story to every generation. It becomes a family ritual to share in the Passover meal.
But this ritual isn’t just remembrance as much as it is participation in the act of salvation by God. The meal makes it real. Those who celebrate the Passover meal experience all the history, the bitterness and sweetness, the ugliness and beauty. They gather, remembering the need for community and rediscovering the presence of God-with-us in life’s troubles. The meal makes God’s salvation real, then and now.
Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was shaped by this story of liberation. Every year he gathered around a table to remember these events and to form his life in the ongoing passover from slavery to freedom. While others used their gods to defend an unjust status quo, Jesus believed in the God of justice and liberation, of freedom and salvation.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so - not just annually, but for as often as you eat and drink. It is through the meal of bread and wine that they would join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free.
The meal makes it real. Those who celebrate the Passover meal experience all the history, the bitterness and sweetness, the ugliness and beauty.
For us as Christians, we hear the story of the Passover and see that it is the first victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh, but it is by no means the final victory. We know there is more for God to set us free from. And in Jesus, God indeed sets us free. Jesus passes over from death on a cross to resurrected life eternal. The Lamb of God dies so that we may live, so that we may pass over from the bondage of sin and death and live in the new life God has prepared for us. God’s judgement passes over us, setting us free to live with God.
We tell that story of passover from death to life, week in and week out. We tell it to those who know it best, because we all could use the reminder of the great things God has done. We tell it to those who’ve never heard, all to help set them free from the power of sin. We tell the story, because it is the story of how God ensures we pass over from slavery to sin into freedom in Christ.
And to help make it real, we often gather around food - bread and wine. Because we know that as we gather, the meal makes God’s salvation real to us. Jesus comes to us and joins with us, to set us free through forgiveness and through his grace which empowers us to set others free, too.
It is not just remembrance but participation in what God is doing. The meal makes it real. Those who celebrate the Passover meal experience all the history, the bitterness and sweetness, the ugliness and beauty. And Jesus continues to give us as community victory over the bitterness and ugliness that life throws at us - like in elections, coronavirus, racism. Jesus is the sweet bread and beautiful wine given for you - to remind you that God is here, to claim you, to love you, each and every one of you. God comes to set you free.
The Exodus is God’s passionate and fierce claim on all of God’s people. The bread and wine, the water and word… they show us ways that God passes over judgement, ways God causes us to pass over to life, ways that God makes salvation real for you, now and forever.
“When someone wrongs us, we rarely (if ever) want to do the same thing back. Why?
Because we want to do something more harmful… when someone insults us, our instinct is to search for words that will be more insulting. Revenge always escalates.”
(Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God)
We want to hurt someone more than they hurt us.
It is hard to let things roll off our back. Our world has shaped us so that we want vengeance for the wrongs done to us, get revenge against those who hurt us. It is our own version of justice when we feel justice hasn’t been served.
Now, I know some of you listening are searching your memory banks for when you took revenge on someone - when you destroyed someone’s favorite possession, or called someone names, or sold your youngest brother into slavery. (We’ll get to that last one, don’t worry.)
And it’s probably true; we don’t take revenge in ways that look like that all too often. We’re much more passive aggressive than it. We might simply make someone else’s life a little harder in subtle ways - not responding to calls or emails, not pulling our weight at work or home, not going out of our way - in any way - to improve the situation. That’s our petty, non-violent form of revenge.
But sometimes we allow others to take out vengeance on our behalf - let other people carry out their own forms of justice against things we feel go against us in some way. In these cases, the consequence is often worse than the offense - which is what vengeance is, isn’t it - doing worse to someone than was done to you? When we allow that to happen, it makes us complicit in revenge.
To get around us feeling bad about taking vengeance, we often phrase it with something like, “It’s a shame that *blank* happened, but they shouldn’t have been doing *blank.*
Like, “Yes, protesters got killed, but they started looting first.”
Or, “I’m sorry he was murdered, but he shouldn't have been running through that neighborhood.”
Ah, yes, an eye for an eye… judge, jury, and executioner, all rolled into one. And we seem to be OK with it.
The world is broken, and our need for vengeance continues the cycle of pain, suffering, and brokenness. And even the apathy which follows after vengeance takes place continues the same cycles.
Revenge is a way of saying that we can handle it better than God can.
Vengeance is us saying, “God, I don’t trust you to handle this in a way that satisfies me.”
Revenge continues the cycle.
Unfortunately, we don’t get many examples of “good” in our story from Genesis today.
I’m going to be frank: Joseph was kind of a punk. Do you see how he acts? He gets a nice coat, is obviously daddy's favorite, and then decides to elaborate on a dream where all the other brothers bow down to him and pay homage. It’s no wonder the rest of the brothers wanted to shut him up.
“It’s a shame that Joseph was thrown into a pit and his brothers faked his death, but he shouldn’t have been running his mouth like that.”
The brothers take out vengeance because of the wrongs inflicted on them by their father and youngest brother. And even Reuben, the oldest brother, though he tries to curb the vengeance, can’t shake the feeling of apathy, can’t force himself to stand up strong enough against his brothers to stop all the revenge nonsense.
The world hasn’t stopped taking vengeance into its own hands. The cycle continues.
There is a long break in our story today, and we are put in a new scenario at the end. The tables have turned. Joseph has risen up the ranks in Egypt and now controls the fate of his brothers. It would be so easy for Joseph to retaliate, to seek vengeance, to get his sweet revenge.
Yet, through the grace of God, and Joseph listening to and living out the promise – he tells his brothers, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
Revenge is a way of saying that we can handle it better than God can.
Joseph says that we aren’t in the place of God. And God chooses to start a new cycle.
Instead of retaliating against us because of our sin, God starts a new cycle of forgiveness. God breaks the vengeance routine and establishes a new pattern. And I’m not sure we truly get that sometimes, because it goes so far against everything we see around us. And yet, God doesn’t give us our just desserts. God gives us a new start, a new life, a new way of being.
Because God knows that revenge doesn’t create relationships, which is all God wants with us. God wants us to trust, to love, to be in relationship - not constantly looking over our shoulder, waiting for the score to be settled. God instead resurrects relationship and allows life and love to grow.
God doesn’t deal with us the way we deal with each other. And by God establishing this new pattern of living, it frees us to do the same.
God's love, grace, and forgiveness frees us so we, too, can break the vengeance cycle and forgive. "Forgive us... as we forgive those who trespass against us..." Forgiveness breaks the cycle. And each time we forgive instead of retaliate, the vengeance story is changed, little by little. Swords are turned into plowshares. Fights are turned into meals. Revenge is turned into life.
This is God’s way, a way that God continues to share love and grace through us to the world, so that the world can know it is loved.
Thank God that God doesn’t deal with us the way we deal with each other - either in vengeance, or revenge, or apathy. Instead, God loves, actively loves. God forgives. God brings new life to an old cycle. The pattern that we established doesn’t define God’s pattern going forward.
We don't get retribution. We get love.
We don't get vengeance. We get forgiveness.
We don't get just desserts. We get life.
We don’t get what we deserve. We get Jesus.
Last week we ended our story about Creation and Fall with the question, “so, what is God going to do about it?” Then I talked about Jesus, about the cross and an empty tomb, about God’s persistence and protection. Which is all true. But a whole lot happens between Creation and Christ. Today, we get the first step on the journey to Jesus; and the first step begins with a promise. God makes a promise.
The story of Abram (later, Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah) is the very start of God’s chosen people who will be known as Israel. They were old (Abram was 75 when God first made this promise) and, up until then, they were an infertile couple. They had no heirs and were an unlikely choice to be the father and mother of a nation - they weren’t likely to be father and mother to ANYONE. And yet, God chose them. Did I mention he was 75?
Some time has passed since God’s initial call to Abram back in chapter 12. Here in chapter 15, we still have no baby, and Abram and Sarai aren’t getting any younger. God has seemed silent, but we get the reiteration of the promise here today. God reassures Abram that “I am your shield; your reward will be very great!”
Abram wants to believe, but he does a couple of very human things: first, he questions and complains. What will you give me? I still don’t have an heir! I have no offspring, despite your promises. And second, he hedges his bets - you know, just in case. I’m still childless, God, so I’ve made sure Eliezer of Damascus will carry on when I go. Abram probably hopes God will come through, but he was preparing in case things fall apart.
And then God takes Abram, the pragmatist, out into the dark of night and has him look up at the stars. “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? This is how many descendants you will have!” The stars are an object lesson for the promise.
And this is what convinces Abram. Abram believes the Lord. God shows the stars; Abram believes. The sign of the stars in the sky doesn’t just reiterate the promise, but magnifies it, intensifies it. God is so committed to the promise that the Lord dazzles Abram by showing him what he couldn’t at first see. There is no way Abram can bring this about. It is all about God.
All this got me thinking about how much like Abram we are, especially when it comes to God. See, I don’t think Abram doubted that God could do what God promised - and I don’t think we doubt God can do it either. We’ve got the promise of God, and we pretty much trust it, but… we hedge our bets. We plan and figure out our solutions to make sure things are done. We have to do something to make it happen, right? God’s promise to us can’t be that good! We are reasonable and practical, pragmatic even.
Unfortunately, the things we do often shield our eyes from the promises of God.
As an object lesson for ourselves, try looking up on a clear night. What do you see? Stars, right? Well, some stars. We don’t quite get the view of the Milky Way that Abram did. All the man-made lights actually hinder what we can see. We have put up our own lights, our own things, our own ways, and it actually keeps us from fully seeing God’s promises.
Now, don’t read too much into that metaphor. Lights at night are generally a good thing in real life. But I do think this is a way we can talk about how our human actions make God’s promises harder for us to see. Much like the way parking lot lights keep us from seeing all but the brightest stars above us, our practical, pragmatic, reasonable ways to salvation often sparkle right in front of our faces, keeping us from seeing the stars of promise.
When it didn’t seem like God’s promises were going to work out, Abram made his own arrangements for an heir. Our experiences in life, too, sometimes have us believe that God’s promises may not be lining up. So, we find our salvation in other things here on earth. We look for any other shiny light we can.
Abram questions and complains to God. He doesn’t see any evidence that this promise is true. We, too, don’t always see the evidence. We question and complain.
God promises life and hope and a future, yet the worldly lights flash in: to get those things, we need to prove and earn and accomplish. On top of that, the world then flickers questions of doubt in our face. Difficulty, disease, and death overshadow it all. If God brings peace, why are we so divided, full of hypocrisy and self-serving ways? God is healer of our every ill, and yet we’ve been stuck apart as a virus spreads. Jesus is risen, alive, victor over the grave, and yet, we still have to say goodbye to people we love.
We try to look to those promises of God, but our present just seems so full of incandescent, harsh, blinding light. Where are God’s stars in our sky?
And in the midst of our human temper tantrum, God reminds us: “Do not be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” The God who made the promise then to Abram makes a promise to us in Jesus: yes, you are loved. Yes, you are mine. Yes, you will be with me forever. Nothing you can do will make it happen or not happen.
The promise is there, always there, just like stars. Even when we don’t see them, they are there.
And God still breaks out the object lessons for us. Abram had the stars in the sky; we have the foretaste of the feast to come, the table that spans all times and all places, the meal of Jesus’ presence and grace. When it is hard for us to believe that God’s promises are true, Jesus sets a table before us in the presence of our doubts, our questions, our pragmatism. Take and eat, take and drink. This promise is for you. For you.
This meal doesn’t simply reiterate the promise, but magnifies it, intensifies it. It’s a promise that brings us outside of ourselves, a promise that shows us the magnitude of God’s love, a promise that spans beyond where we are, a promise that in no way we can bring about; we’re too practical and reasonable for that.
God’s promises aren’t practical and reasonable. God is not a pragmatist. God is love. God’s promises are over the top. They are like the number of stars in the sky. God pulls us outside, shows us the grandeur of love, and says, “I will do it.” We don’t have the foggiest idea of how or why, but we trust. That is faith. We have faith that God is there, that God’s promises are there, despite whether we see it at this point in time or not.
That’s the promise. Whether you're 5, 35, 75, or 105… God’s love is like the stars in the sky. Always there. Too big to count. And yet, for you. The promise is for you.
It was really hard to write a beginning to this sermon today. It was hard because we are beginning something new today - or rather, beginning something old that we haven’t done in a while. For the first time in about six months, people are gathered together in this building for worship. Welcome back to those of you who are here.
But what makes this a hard beginning is that not everyone is here. Some people are still worshiping with us online. They are present with us, too, just not here in the room. They are getting a new camera angle for the first time in a while, but for the most part, this isn’t new to them. It’s not a beginning but a continuation of what has been.
And I feel stuck in the middle. Not in a bad way, not at all. It’s just different. It’s new. It’s not like it was, and it’s not like it used to be. I don’t think it will always be like this, either. It’s just right now, it’s new. It’s a beginning.
A couple of weeks ago, when we were discussing coming back together again on this day, I looked ahead to the reading and saw that the lesson was Creation. “Oh, that’ll be easy,” I thought. “God created something new, we’re doing something new, that’s Good News!” And then when sermon writing time came, I sat and stared at my computer screen for a long time.
Because as much as I want to think of today as a big giant step toward new creation, I’m just not there at the moment. And I don’t think this text is leading me in that direction either, at least not at this point in time.
And so, instead of writing a disingenuous sermon, I wrestled with what to say about this creation story, which is familiar but not quite as well known as the other creation story from Genesis 1. What does this story have to say to me, to us, now - in this time of something new, but still very hybrid.
And the thing that keeps popping in my head is that we are in this together. It is what this time is telling me. It is what this text is telling me. It is what gathering online and in-person is telling me. We have a shared responsibility. We are created to work with God, and we are created to be with, care for, and work with each other.
First, we work with God. We are God’s creation. God made us out of the dust of the earth, breathed life into our nostrils, to till and keep the land, to serve it, to preserve it, to be partners with God in helping it flourish. God created us to be images of God, be like God, in this place and in this world.
I think that looks like reflecting the image of God to the world around us. It looks like sharing who God is in tangible ways - feeding others, sharing what we have, loving beyond measure. God wants us to live that way, in relationship with God so closely that when the world sees us, they see the image of God.
And God doesn’t want us to do it alone. So, God makes for the first human a helper and partner to aid in the work God has given to humans. God creates us for community and relationship. We share the responsibilities God gives to us - to keep the land, but also to keep each other. We are intimately linked together as human beings; our care for others ripples out, affecting the world.
The flip side of the coin is that our lack of care and concern doesn’t just affect ourselves, but it affects others, too. Eating the fruit of the tree didn’t just affect the woman and the man (who was right there with her the whole time), but it had an effect all the way down the line - all the way to us. Many of our choices, too, don’t just have an impact on our own lives, but our choices impact others. Small choices, like littering, to big choices, like what we as individuals and a county choose to spend money on, all impact other people and the world.
This is why we have so many precautions for our in-person worship. Masks and distancing and no singing... Our choices affect other people, and we are trying to make the best choices, not just for ourselves, but for others.
We have a shared responsibility in all that life throws at us – in all that this year is throwing at us. Because that is what God created us to do and be - to live in relationship with each other and with God.
Our story today is about God creating us to be partners and us choosing what that looks like. Sometimes we choose the wrong way. The tree is just one example of that. But what we don’t hear from our lesson is, what does God do about it?
Not to ruin the rest of the story, but: God gives us Jesus.
Even when we choose the wrong way, God gives us the cross. God gives us an empty tomb. God clothes us in Christ at baptism. God claims us with water and word. God feeds us at the Supper. God still calls us to be the image of God to the world. God still breathes into us the breath of life. God still desires for us to be partners in mission and ministry. Because God so desires that relationship with us.
God created us to care for each other and the world God made. Sometimes, we choose the opposite. And God knows that about us. Has from the beginning. And yet, God doesn’t give up on us. We mess things up on page 4 of God’s story. The next thousands of pages are all about how God keeps coming back for us.
That’s what God’s story is: a story of God acting with love, despite whatever path we choose,
a story of God showing up, even in the midst of our hiding,
a story of God still writing,
because, as we know, with God, there is always a beginning.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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