On this second Sunday of Advent, we get the much beloved, and super-well known story of… Esther. Ok, actually, it’s the opposite. Most people don’t have a clue about what Esther’s story is about, so don’t feel bad if you don’t know what in the world is going on. On top of that, how does this have anything to do with Advent?
So, let’s jump right in and answer some of that. Because our lesson from Esther is kind of confusing and convoluted, AND because we don’t really know anything about her story, I thought it would be good to tell the whole thing.
(8:30) In short, Esther is queen because she won the Old Testament era version of the King’s beauty pageant. (That’s the “G” rated version; if you want the PG-13 version, read your Bible.) Mordecai is Esther’s cousin who raised her, and he’s also a hero, having saved the King from an assassination attempt. Haman, who is only mentioned once in our lesson, is the bad guy who wants to kill Mordecai and all the Jews. We pick up the story where Mordecai is telling Esther to get the King to stop Haman. The trouble is, the King should not be interrupted by anyone (even the Queen) and the King doesn’t know that Esther is a Jew. A double whammy that could get Esther killed and speed up the elimination of the Jewish people. Esther goes from being quiet and afraid to standing tall in who she is and standing up for her people. It is at this point - “at such a time like this” - that the book takes its crucial turn. Esther saves the day for - and the lives of - the Jewish people.
(10:30) Thanks to the kids for helping us out by playing the roles and acting out the story for us. For the Children’s Message, though, we did leave out some of the more crass, demoralizing, and violent parts. Obviously, we streamlined it and skipped some of the subplots and many details, but I hope you get the main point. In our actual scripture reading for today, we are at that pivotal scene in the story where Esther goes from being quiet and afraid to standing tall in who she is and standing up for her people. It is at this point - “at such a time like this” - that the book takes its crucial turn. Esther saves the day for - and the lives of - the Jewish people.
Esther did something hard, against protocol, and not in-line with societal expectations to make sure people were protected from being killed. She stepped up, stepped out, stepped forward.
As I read through the story of Esther, I felt like I was reading a Shakespearean play. The characters are relatable enough to be realistic but just slightly over the top. The villain, Haman, I picture with a handlebar mustache that curls up at the ends, He’s always wringing his hands and has that evil “heh eh eh” kind of laugh. The King is shallow, superficial, and chauvinistic. Esther is way more than looks.
It’s a good story, full of those things we look for in stories: twists, surprises, drama, anticipation. But one thing this book is NOT full of is God. Go ahead. Take a look. God isn’t mentioned in our lesson at all. Not one time. And, not just in our little section. God isn’t mentioned in the entire book of Esther at all. Not once. No miracles, no formal prayers or songs, no law or prophets… God is missing.
So, what do we do with a text that doesn’t talk about God or Jesus - and not just in the immediate way, but in its entirety? As Lutherans, as Christians, we want God to be present; we need God to be present. We know in all things, it doesn’t depend on us; it depends on God. God is the initiator. God is the actor. God is the subject of active verbs. God does stuff. But here? It doesn’t seem like God is around or that God matters.
And maybe that hits a little close to home. While we want God to be there, to show up, to be a grand presence in our lives, our everyday reality doesn’t match up to that much. We may wish for a burning bush or pillar of fire or any obvious miracle, but most days, we (like Esther) don’t get those things.
Where is God in our place, in our world? Where is goodness? Where is grace? Where is peace? Where is God when we hurt? Where is God in oppression? Where is God when the forces of death and violence seem to be triumphant? Why is God not with us? God is hidden. Not there. Maybe non-existent.
God doesn’t show up in our story. It seems God does not show up in our lives.
But there is something there, something here, something subtle but present nonetheless: it’s promise. Promise.
Even though God doesn’t show up as a main character in the written story of Esther, God’s promise underlines the whole thing. God promised long, long ago to always be on the side of Israel. God would always claim them, God would always bring them home, God would always save them.
Way back in Genesis 12, God makes this covenant promise to Abram: “I will make you a great nation… through you all nations of the world will be blessed.” After the Exodus from Egypt, God promised Moses and the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” Prophets reiterated that promise, “I will be their God and they will be my people.”
Here’s what we know because we have seen it time and time again: God is faithful to promises. God saves God’s people, Israel. Over and over and over - in grand ways like parting a sea and in subtle ways, like through a strong woman who doesn’t always play by society’s rules. God promises to save. And God does, even if we don’t see it right away.
And since God is faithful to Israel, then God will continue to be faithful to those of us who, by God’s grace, are grafted into Israel through Christ. God promises to save us in grand ways, like resurrection, and in subtle ways, like a simple meal of bread and wine. God is present by overwhelming us with a love and a call, and in the subtlety of a light in our darkness. These are all parts of God’s grand promise.
In Jesus, God brings us into the whole covenant promise - to be with us, to make us God’s own, to save us in, through, and despite everything.
Esther’s story is my story, is your story, is our story.
When we look around our world, it often seems God is missing. Yet, underlying it all is the promise of God in Christ Jesus. It is this promise that claims us. That saves us. That gives us grace. That feeds us and nourishes us.
And it is this promise that helps us see our calling… for such a time as this.
For such a time as this.
We as people - individually and as a congregation - have different callings in different times.
in this season of Advent,
in this time of uncertainty about what the future holds,
in this time of already and not yet,
In this time of excitement about what can be,
In this time of growth in ministry,
In this time of capital campaigns,
In this time of busy-ness Monday through Saturday (and maybe even Sunday),
In this time of waiting and watching,
God’s promise is sure, and God’s promise calls us for such a time as this.
God has put us right here, for such a time as this.
God has given us gifts, so many gifts, for such a time as this.
God gives us the promise, for such a time as now. For right now.
God may seem to be too subtle sometimes, but that doesn’t negate the sure and certain promise that is there, has been there, and always will be there for us. We are God’s people. Named and claimed in water and word, fed and nourished in bread and wine. On the lookout for God and for the fulfillment of the promise.
We wait. We wait for those promises to be completed. And even as we wait, God calls us to step up, step out, step forward together… at such a time as this. And we can, because we know that God keeps, God fulfills, God works, God promises. Even still. Even now. Always.
We thank the Rev. Mary Finklea for preaching while Pastor Jason was away.
Your God is useless.
Forget about all those beautiful but empty promises about God saving you. Don’t let your king lead you to believe such nonsense. He has these pious sermons telling you to lean on God, but they’re all lies. Your God, as well as all the other gods of neighboring cities, is useless.
Rather, listen to the king of Assyria’s offer. He promises you a life of peace and prosperity - something far better. You’ll have wide open spaces, with more than enough fertile land for everyone. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you with this, “God will save us,” nonsense. Has that ever happened? Has any god ever gotten the best of the king of Assyria? Name one! So, what makes you think that your God will do any different?
That’s the gist of the speech Assyria’s messenger gives to the people of Judah. Assyria was wiping out everyone - Babylon, Samaria, countless others.
All who stood in their way of being the world’s dominant power were wiped out.
It’s war. And war is ugly.
My favorite comic strip of all time is “Calvin & Hobbes,” even though Bill Watterson stopped writing it when I was still in high school. In one strip, Calvin, the rambunctious kid, and Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who is alive to Calvin, are standing with army helmets on. Hobbes asks, “How come we play War and not Peace?” To which Calvin replies, “Too few role models.”
Another has Calvin going up to his dad in the first frame asking, “How do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?” Then we get two frames of his dad staring blankly in different directions, and ends with Calvin walking away saying, “I think grown-ups just act like they know what they’re doing.”
Those are lighthearted examples, but there are kernels of truth there.
If we kill more people on your side than you kill on our side, we get to implement our ideas and values. Just because we have bigger guns, extra soldiers, more destructive bombs, three times the military spending… does that really mean we have better values? War is all just survival of the fittest, and, well, we know who writes the history books.
It’s not like we don’t try to be peaceful. Despite our best efforts to unite, there are some who have more individual, selfish, destructive aspirations. We all will come up short. War is the way of our world. War is a force that defines us, gives us meaning. War is the story we tell, the story that has been used in just ways and unjust ways.
I don’t know if we can do anything but. Violence is our reality, our world, our story.
To that, God speaks promise, hope, peace. God gives us another story to tell, and God never relents in telling us that alternative story which brings life out of the death we cause.
In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.
God will settle things fairly between nations. God will make things right among the peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
It’s the promise. It’s the hope. God will bring a peace that we cannot.
In the days to come, one day, God will be the one to arbitrate among peoples. God will intercede for peace. God will teach what is right and what is wrong. And we’ll learn - learn to the point where we take action. We will turn weapons into farm tools; what was meant for destruction now cultivates life. Swords to plowshares. Spears to pruning hooks. Guns into irrigation pipes. Missile silos to grain silos. Bombs into harvesters. War into peace. We have hope.
And it is at this point that the world cries out in a loud voice in the language of our lives:
Your God is useless. Forget about all those beautiful but empty promises about God saving you. Don’t let your pastor lead you to believe such nonsense. He has these pious sermons telling you to lean on God. But they’re all lies. Your God, as well as all the other gods of neighboring cities… useless.
How do we respond? Do we believe God? And if so, how does that shape what we do right now?
Maybe we can’t reach world peace without the second coming of Christ, but I can’t believe all hope is lost. If we believe what God says, when we believe, since we believe, that should shape what we do. Though God’s kingdom is not ours to make, it is ours to practice.
We can change the weapons around us, what is within our control. The weapons of our words can be changed to words of cultivation and life. Our fists clenched tight on what is ‘rightfully ours’ can soften, can open, can be used for reaching out, for sharing, for lifting up. Instead of building walls of division between us and them, we can build a bigger table where all are welcome.
Under God’s instruction, all nations and many peoples will come. There is no more “other.” There is no more “we” and “they.” And that is the first step of what we can strive for. That is within our control as a community of faith and as people of God. Because God teaches us the ways of peace, we can live God’s welcome in our lives and in our world.
That welcome leads to peace. And, Isaiah says, God is taking us there.
So, come to the table Jesus sets for us - a table that does indeed span all times and all places, where all are welcome. Be fed, nourished, strengthened. Hold in your hand the presence and peace of Christ.
Remember the waters of baptism that stream from God, that flow over us in renewal and life. Be forgiven, cleaned, invigorated for bearing the peace of God to the world.
While it may be hard to change dictators or commanders of great armies, by hammering those weapons of war in our lives, we can practice peace - within ourselves, among our families, in our congregations, in our neighborhoods, for our world.
And by doing so, we prepare the way. We prepare the way for the One who does bring peace, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Did anyone hear it? Did you hear the faintest, tiniest, softest whisper of Christmas?
In our lesson from Micah, we get those glimpses - “Bethlehem.” “She who is in labor.” “He shall be the one of peace.”
And maybe it’s good that we get into the Christmas spirit. Food Lion has Little Debbie Christmas Trees out. Target has lights and stockings. Maybe even the phrase, “Alexa, play my Christmas Music Mix,” has been uttered a time or two in the Lee household. Why shouldn’t the church start getting ourselves ready for the big day? Bring out the manger!
But good news for you Advent and Christmas purists out there. These passages from Micah aren’t really about wrapping a baby in swaddling clothes or stars or angels. If we weren’t so conditioned to think of “Christmas” every time “Bethlehem” came up, we might get a better idea of what Micah is saying.
Today, we get a smattering of verses from the minor prophet Micah, including the famous one - which we will get to in a little bit.
Micah speaks to a people who have lost their way. The world, heaven and earth, men and women, animals and birds, the world is in ruins of a sort. Moral rubble. Spiritual disorder. God has become an object - some thing to obtain or control. Something to use for our benefit. Something we can manipulate.
Micah scorns all that stuff. For Micah, the fundamental issue at stake is the relationship between God and the people. What makes that relationship? What keeps it strong and healthy?
We’ll come back to the Christmasy part of our passage in a bit, but chapter 6 is really where things come to a head. This is where relationship with God is at the fore. And to get there, questions are asked.
The first few verses of our section from chapter six are the people talking, trying to speak their case. Essentially, they want to know how to please God. What does God want from us? What does God require to look favorably on us? The people are begging God, “just tell us your favorite offering, and we’ll surely sacrifice it!” The options offered up start off rather reasonably - these are things people already offered, like burnt offerings and calves. But they quickly escalate in grandeur, even to hyperbole.
How exactly *does* one gather ten thousand rivers of oil?
The excess here is meant to slap a little reality into us; to say, “you know better.” No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to offer enough to make ourselves worthy. Isn’t it kind of arrogant to think we’d be able to do so anyway? “Uh, here’s a cow you created. I did kill it and burn it though.” Arrogant, over-the-top sacrifices aren’t what God wants.
Alternatively, maybe knowing what God wants means we can eek through. What minimum hoop-jumping will count as faithfulness? How much - or how little - do I need to do, give, share, serve in order to still be considered “good”? Bare-minimum, arm-length relationships aren’t what God wants, either.
And yet, while we know all that, we still want blueprints. We still want tangible things to know we’re right. We want a way to quantify our goodness - to make sure we are satisfactory, or at the very least, acceptable. We are bent toward self-righteousness, toward doing things ourselves, toward proving ourselves to others and to God. Even though we know better, we still try to offer up something to make God smile upon us a little bit more.
But God doesn’t work that way. What does the Lord require of you?
Is it a type of sacrifice? Is it the volume we offer? Is it quality over quantity? Is it the type of things we give?
Or… is it the type of person that God wants? Is it you that God wants? Do justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God. Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and for the world God so deeply loves.
And we don’t do this to earn God’s favor. We do this because we are already favored. We do this because we are already part of the community. We do this because God has already saved us. We do this because we do want to walk closer with God, to better love, to enact justice more.
The hard part with this is that doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God aren’t things we can just check off a list. Doing these things are not single, measurable acts that we just do once and then leave them behind. We simply act toward others as God acts to us.
All the time.
The life of faith isn’t to reorient God; it’s a walk that reorients us - our hearts and our lives.
And maybe this is where we look back to chapter 5. Micah here is talking about the new ruler who will come. This person is not the stereotypical picture of a mighty leader coming from a place of privilege, wielding power and prestige. This leader feeds the entire flock, achieves peace in a different way, and rules in the name of the Lord. In short, his rule will embody doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
There’s a reason why we associate this passage with Christmas. Because when we read it, it clearly points us to Jesus. Not just in his birth, but in his life. In the way he lived. In those he taught, loved, ate with, died for. Jesus shows us the just, loving, humble way to walk.
God doesn’t want offerings and sacrifices; instead, God wants us. And to make sure God has us, God offers to us, God sacrifices for us, all for the benefit of the relationship. God offers forgiveness, God feeds us in bread and wine, God claims us as children - not demanding inordinate amounts from us, but instead offering to us. Because this ruler, this God, values the person, the relationship, more than anything else.
And so, Micah invites us to reframe our lives. Faith isn’t a transaction. Faith is a living, active thing that shapes us more for the reign of Christ.
God has told you, O mortal, what is good. Love. Justice. Walking with God. That is what God gives to us. For the sake of the kingdom.
In the fall of 2000, when I was a Sophomore in college, my grandmother died from Parkinson’s disease.
To be honest, it wasn’t really the Parkinson’s that killed her; it was more that Parkinson’s made her susceptible to other deadly things. Falls and other illnesses are eventually what ended up taking her physically from us. While not killing her, the Parkinson’s took my grandmother away long before she actually died.
Though she was there next to us, she couldn’t interact with us.
Though she was there with us, she couldn’t move around by herself.
Though she was there physically, she couldn’t even talk to her husband or daughter or grandchildren.
A faithful woman, a faithful family surrounding her, and yet… no healing. Her mind stayed trapped in her body until she finally died.
Contrast this with the story we hear today of Naaman. Naaman, as we hear, had a form of leprosy. He was a commander in a foreign army, not “one of us.” He hears of the miraculous works of God from a young girl whom he captured and enslaved. Sounds like he’s a guy we really want to root for, right? And eventually when he is told what to do in order to be healed by Elisha’s representative, he scoffs. He doesn’t believe it. And yet, he is healed. His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy.
An unfaithful warrior, not even a member of the people of God, and yet, he was healed. He was restored to health.
It seems sort of cruel to have this story today on All Saints Sunday. Why have a healing miracle on the day we remember those who have died? Why a miraculous restoring to health on a day in which we remember those who were NOT healed?
Let’s say it a different way.
Many of us have been in a situation like this: a family member or a close friend is diagnosed with some sort of illness which is life threatening. Things don’t look good. So we do the only thing we know to do - we pray. We pray for healing. And lo and behold, the person is healed. The cancer is gone. The surgery was a success. A miracle has happened!
But for every story like that, there are dozens, hundreds of stories like this: a family member or a close friend is diagnosed with some sort of illness which is life threatening. Things don’t look good. So we do the only thing we know to do - we pray. We pray for healing. And yet, despite how hard we prayed, how long we prayed, no matter how many visits the pastor made to the hospital bedside, our loved one died. The cancer won. The surgery didn’t work. A miracle never happened.
In this scenario, they were the opposite of healed; they died. We did everything we were supposed to do. We were faithful, we prayed, we sat for long hours and cared for and watched and hoped. And yet, they were the opposite of healed.
But is dying the opposite of healing? For us who have lost loved ones, it seems like it is. Death means we are separated. Death means we can no longer care for each other. Death means they are not a part of our lives, not a part of community. If healing means togetherness, death is separation.
Yet, today on All Saints Sunday, we get a chance to change our perspective on what healing means, to look at it through a different lens.
For us, not being healed means being separated, alone. Something else is victorious. And yet, through the lens of All Saints Sunday, that is not true. On All Saints, we celebrate the victory God has won over death in Jesus Christ. We celebrate this victory and remember those who have already died, especially in the past year. We celebrate this victory because in Christ, not even death wins. No one is separated from God and nothing can change that.
Not being healed no longer equals separation, because God in Jesus has removed any sort of barrier that would keep us distanced and alone from God. This is God’s promise and action seen in the love, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Because Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. Death is not the opposite of healing; death does not take us away from God or God’s love; death does not have a final hold over us. Instead, in God, we are healed to a new life with God and with the Saints.
This is true for all those who have died, for all those we remember on this day in particular, and also for those we remember in our own lives on a more routine basis. Being a Saint means always being with God.
And the Good News is that we are Saints, too. We are Saints now because God made us Saints. In our washing at baptism, God claimed us, God staked a claim on us, God said to us, “You are mine. Nothing will separate us. You will always be with me.” The baptismal waters show us, remind us of that promise. Being a Saint means always being with God.
In all of our emotions, God is with us.
Those of us who are still here, still living, still grieving… God is with us, too.
Those of us who are at a loss, out of hope, full of doubt… God is with us, too.
Those of us who worry about others, who long for the pain to end, who wish for a different outcome… God is with us, too.
We are not outside of God’s presence; we are not alone.
While we still miss our loved ones who have died, while we still wish that healing would’ve taken a different form, while we still hate that we are separated from our loved ones, God is with us. And in God’s presence is healing - healing for us.
God is there with reminders of the promise - reminders in favorite Bible verses, reminders in those stories that make us smile, reminders in that water splashed.
God is there with presence - presence through the community, presence in bread and wine, presence in a Spirit of Comfort.
No matter where we are in our healing process, God is still present with us. Nothing can or will ever separate us from God. Those who have gone before us are the Saints of God. We, too, are Saints of the very same God. In God we all are one, we all have healing, we all aren’t separated forever. In that is promise and hope.
In Christ, we see what is set before us. Not brokenness, but oneness in God. Not death, but new life. Not separation, but true healing. Healing for us. Healing for our loved ones. Healing for our world.
Nothing can change that - not Parkinson’s, not cancer, not heart problems, not grief, not anything - not even death - nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. For, we all are saints of God. Alleluia. Amen.
On October 31, 1517, a monk teaching at the university of Wittenberg posted a set of 95 theological arguments on the door of the castle church in order to invite an academic debate. This was not terribly out of the ordinary. 99.9% of the time, it would have occasioned little more than an opportunity for academics to do what they love to do most: argue about things no one else really cares about.
But this time was different.
Because of a unique overlap of circumstances – religious, political, societal, cultural, and even technological (think “printing press”) – this teacher’s theological theses eventually went viral and was the spark that started the whole blaze we know as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, the monk in question, ended up being one of the most pivotal figures in Western history.
Today is Reformation Sunday. And each year on the last Sunday in October, we get the opportunity to reflect on what the Reformation is all about.
For some, this reflection leads to saying “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” to other Christian denominations. We’ve got it right, you’ve got it wrong. We are justified by grace through faith, not by works, or prayers, and especially not by paying for it. But division isn’t good; it isn’t what Martin Luther wanted. And having that kind of attitude stalls any sort of reconciliation to being the Church as God intends.
For others, the Reformation shows that the church should always be reforming, creating, changing. Which is nice in theory, but we hate putting it into practice. It hurts to change, to reform - even if what is on the other side is full of hope and promise. We still have to leave something that “was” or “is” to get to “what will be.”
Some don’t think any more about it than a day in history. Some celebrate it because of heritage. Others for the theology. So, what is the Reformation about?
After going around and around, I finally decided to let the Bible tell me. Good pastoral insight, right? After all, Luther changed the world because he read his Bible; maybe I should do that, too. And looking at our Scripture passages for today, I think they point us in the right direction.
Reformation is about the freedom we have in God’s love.
Which, believe it or not, is a really hard message to preach. The difficulty is based on a couple of things. First, it is hard to preach because our American idea of what freedom is rubs up against what Jesus and Luther think freedom is. We think freedom is being able to choose: choose an opinion, choose a career, choose how to live your life, choose what you want on your hamburger. That’s not what Jesus or Luther were talking about.
Second, saying that God’s love sets us free means that we weren’t - or aren’t - actually free on our own. Which can be pretty offensive to us self-made, independent people. Offering someone something they already think they are can be kind of offensive. For example, “use this product and it will make you good looking!” It kind of implies that you aren’t so easy on the eyes right now.
That’s what Jesus does in our lesson for today. He offers these people true freedom. Rather than receive Jesus’ offer with gratitude, they get offended. “Well, I’ll be! Can you believe what this guy is saying? Offering us freedom; we’ve never been slaves to anyone!”
So, what’s going on? Why do they - and honestly, why do we - resist anything that threatens our perception of independence, our thoughts on self-sufficiency, our blissful illusion of our freedom?
The short answer is “sin.” The longer answer is seen in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Those who have come to the Romans Bible Study on Sunday mornings already know this, but Paul is hard to decipher sometimes. But here, Paul points out that we are under the Law. If we were free, we’d be able to live the law out, but we don’t. We can’t live up to the law by our own merits or works or abilities or freedoms. Our inability to live the law is because we are bound, stuck, trapped in sin.
This isn’t so much an accusation - pointing the finger. Instead, it is simply a description of what is. Even in our most beautiful moments, even in the most intellectually or artistically stimulating moments, even in deeply spiritual insights, even in the most intimate love, we still have not reached perfection… and we will not, through any of those moments, reach God.
This is what it means to be under the law. There is nothing that we can do. Every mouth is silenced. Through the law, we recognize this inability and our sin as well.
We can’t reach God. Instead, God reaches out to us. The Son makes us free.
That’s what God has done in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are now justified by grace as a gift. We are justified by faith apart from works of the law. This is how God frees us. There is nothing we can do, have done, will do that gets us to God. God comes to us to set us free, to show us God’s righteousness and goodness. We are loved and free in that love to live. Live without fear of hell. Live without fear of not measuring up. Live without fear of being bound to sin.
God sets us free from all the things we think we have to do to earn God’s love. Jesus has set us free; and since the Son has set us free, we are free indeed.
This freedom in God’s love has the capacity to change lives, change the church, and indeed change the whole world. When we hear that truth, hear that promise, hear that love, I don’t think we can be anything but reforming. God makes us free to change the world with that truth.
I’ve thought a lot recently about St. Philip - where it’s been, all that it has seen through the generations. Physically: the hurricanes it has withstood. The two feet of snowfall on a Christmas Eve in 1989. How the congregation has changed and evolved and the building with it - from basically a one, multi-use room to a whole complex for worship and teaching and fellowship.
But also, the ups and the downs in people’s lives. The joys and the sorrows, the weddings, baptisms, funerals, and goodbyes that have been shared in this room. The ministry decisions that have been made that shaped generations. Choosing to move forward in faith. The people we’ve welcomed, those we have lost.
And how, each step of the way, God has been here with the truth - the truth that in all things, in our brokenness, in our inabilities, in our celebrations, in our deepest sadness… God’s love isn’t contingent on any of that. Not how we feel, not how we perform, not what is happening to us or around us. God’s love has us and sets us free to do the best we can, to reform us into the people God is calling us to be.
I’ve been thinking about the past of St. Philip because I’ve been thinking about the future of St. Philip. And I trust that God has us still. God will have us through the next phase, whatever that looks like.
We look to history to remember, to help us reflect on right now, to encourage us for what is to come. God is still paying attention to us. We are free to follow, free to live in that love. Free to live out that love now. Christ has accomplished freedom for us, freedom to live in God’s love now. And the years to come. And - thanks be to God - for forever.
Today we hear one of the most famous verses in all the Old Testament: “choose this day whom you will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Some of us may even have a cross-stitched pillow or sentimental picture of that verse hanging in our house.
But the verse often leaves out the context in which Joshua stakes his claim.
The Israelite people have finally reached and secured the Promised Land. They are on the cusp of entering in. This is the very end - the final scene of this journey and conquest. And Joshua, the guy who took over after Moses died, speaks to the people. Though… It doesn't seem like it is Joshua speaking. Instead, he takes on the role of “prophet” here, speaking from the perspective of God.
All the mighty acts of God are recounted, starting long ago with Abraham. This speech emphasizes God’s doing. In fact, by my count, God is the subject of 23 active verbs - God took, God led, God gave, God brought, God rescued… God is the subject of active verbs. God gives to the forefathers. God sends Moses and Aaron. God frees from the Egyptians. God hands over land, towns, vineyards - all as a generous gift.
And it is only then that the question of serving is posed.
And it’s interesting to note that God doesn’t bring up any instructions, warnings, or criticisms. There is no mention of complaining in the wilderness. No allusion to a golden calf. No failures or wanderings away are mentioned. It’s almost like that’s not important to God. Instead, this is a straightforward, powerful narrative of God’s presence with and action on behalf of the Israelite people. And not just for those people then, but these people now.
God tells the story of salvation in such a way as to make history also the present. “They” and “you” alternate in a way that weaves the history of the ancestors with the identity of the Israelites now listening to Joshua.
"Afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea. . . When they cried out to the LORD, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt," (vs 5-7). God wants to tell, to show the people that they are part of a whole. They, too, are saved by God’s grace, even now, in full continuity with generations who have past.
And after all this, after all the reminding and telling and sharing and “God as the subject of active verbs,” then Joshua calls the question. In light of all that, who will you serve? How will you remember your history in your moving forward? Who will you serve?
At this point, we ought to see ourselves in a similar position as the Israelites. It’s not just what God did long ago for our ancestors. God’s actions for them are actions for you. You are a continuation of God’s work in this world, work to save and bring life, work to share and be gracious. God has been active in our lives, past and present.
God continues to work. Their story, is our story, is your story.
For us gathered here, God indeed has worked through those saints in the Bible - through Abraham, Moses, and Joshua…
Through Peter, Paul, and the disciples...
Up through historic church saints, like Augustine and Joan of Arc...
By people like Martin Luther to bring us back to center...
all throughout history, even as a group of Christians gathered in June of 1954 in the Myrtle Beach High School Cafeteria.
God brought them together to start St. Philip Lutheran Church and gave you leaders, Mission Developers, and pastors; musicians, directors, and volunteers. God gave growth, God gave community, God gave excitement and energy and creativity. God made this community of faith strong, giving it all it needed and more.
And when their time of struggle and difficulty and wandering in the wilderness came, God gave you patience to keep going. When they were wondering where this congregation was headed, God gave you guidance. When they were longing for the days before, God gave you a calming presence to bring you through. When they were about to give up, God gave you hope.
God brought them gifts - people, talents, passions. God brought them through tough times, impossible times, to a place where you now stand. And so, here we are, on the cusp of something new, something uncertain, something exciting. We don’t know quite what it looks like, but God, through all the ages, has brought us to this very place.
God gives us opportunity, a place, a community. God gives us things we don’t deserve. God gives us means of grace, a love that surrounds, a Spirit of service. By sharing stories of your generosity, we hope to tell you some of the ways in which God has been involved in our community of faith. And, hopefully, we see God has been involved each step of the way.
Knowing that, being reminded of all that God has done, who will you serve?
We each have options in how we respond to this God who has worked throughout history to save. God brings us here. How will you serve? God gives us everything. Who will you serve? God saves us in Christ. How will you respond?
I’ll just speak for myself - and maybe a little bit for my family - but we will do our best to serve the Lord. We’ve seen God moving here in the community of St. Philip, and I really want to see what God will do next. We will be involved in ministry and mission. We’ll give financially to support all that is going on - and hopefully take a step to do a little bit more. We’ll pray and serve as we can.
I hope that as you reflect on God’s history and blessings that brought you to where you are, you respond by taking a step in faith. By growing in how you live as a disciple through involvement and giving. By letting go of what we think fulfills us so the Spirit can fill us more. By hearing the story of “them,” but knowing God makes it your story, too.
God’s story shapes us. It forms us into God’s people. God's story promises that God is with us, each step of the way. Knowing that, let’s take the next step in faith - fully trusting in what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
Who remembers the board game, “Chutes and Ladders”? It’s a simple game of flicking one of those spinny things and counting out your spaces. If you land on a square with a ladder leading up - usually indicated by a child doing something nice - you could climb up a row or two or even more! On the other hand, if you land on one of the chutes - indicated by a kid doing something naughty - you would slide down a row or two or six! That’s what stealing cookies from the cookie jar got you.
Playing the game is simple, as is the metaphor for life. Do good things, follow the rules, and you’ll go up, up, up! Don’t follow the rules and you slide down.
Follow the rules and you win.
Today in our reading from the Bible, we get the 10 Commandments - by all accounts and purposes, “God’s Rules.” Most of the other laws that are found in the Old Testament stem from these Commandments.
They’re pretty famous, to say the least, and these are the rules most of us point to when we want to know what God wants from us. They’re also the rules we pull out when we want to justify how good we are. “I keep numbers 3 through nine pretty regularly!” “It’s been ages since I broke number 8!” Good for you, I guess.
We often look at the 10 Commandments as God’s game of Chutes and Ladders. We do good things, keep the commandments, and we get to move up the ladder. But if we do something bad, if we break a commandment, down the slide we go. (And don’t read too much into this, but it is way more fun to go down a big slide than to go up a long ladder.) In our minds, the goal is to do more good things than bad things so we can win the game, so we can go to heaven, so that God will be gracious and merciful upon our soul.
We want God to love us so we act like good little boys and girls and follow the rules. That’s our goal.
But is that God’s goal?
To have us climb up and slide down? To have us try and win? What is God’s goal in giving the Ten Commandments?
While some people look at these laws as the way to climb the ladder to God, to get in on God’s good side, let’s look a little deeper. What actually happens before God gives the 10 Commandments? It seems God has something a lot deeper in mind.
Going back to last week, we saw that God saved the Israelites from slavery. Plagues, Passover, the miraculous crossing through the Red Sea. God worked to save. Today, looking at Exodus chapter 19, God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” In chapter 20 verse 2, God reiterates the saving actions: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
I think God has a reason why these reminders are there. It’s because our behavior isn’t the primary goal. The goal is living in relationship. God establishes relationship through saving the Israelites, then confirms that relationship on the other side of the Sea, all before there are any laws, any rules, any commands. Relationship with God isn’t established by keeping laws and climbing ladders. God’s goal, then, is to teach us how to live in the relationship we already have with God.
Relationship is at the very heart of God’s gifts of covenant and commandments.
What this means is that our grownup game of spiritual Chutes and Ladders is inaccurate. God does not hand over the 10 Commandments or any of the other laws as a means of our getting into heaven, as a way of us working out our salvation, as a way of us establishing anything. We cannot win our way into God’s heart, because God has already brought us there.
If this is the case, why even give rules to begin with? If God is about relationship and not rules, why do this? Don’t we NEED rules? Yes, we do, but probably not for what we think.
The 10 Commandments are not about making ourselves better or keeping us out of trouble or having us move up the gameboard. The commandments aren’t about us. They are about our neighbor. The Law isn’t given so we can live our best lives now, but so that our neighbor can live THEIR best lives now.
That is Good News for our neighbors, right? God loves them so much that God tells us not to steal, kill, lie and so on. And it is good news for me and you, too. Because God loves us so much that God tells our neighbor not to steal, kill, lie and so on.
God’s law is about you, us, God’s people, and what we need for the best possible life. It’s about living in community with each other and with God, and how to do that better.
One of the things that Martin Luther does in his Small Catechism when it comes to the commandments is he expands on the idea about community. He turns the Commandments around. Instead of being told NOT to do something, Luther took the command as actually TO DO something more. For example, it’s not just “don’t kill”; really, it’s “support others in all of life’s needs.”
For Luther, it’s not enough to just NOT do something bad. The point is TO DO the good things that create life, foster hope, spread love, and generate community among each other, all in ways that point to God.
And while we as a community aren’t perfect, we are striving to be the best community we possibly can be. We are sharing, we are generous, we foster life and hope through worship and serving. And we’ve been getting the sense that it’s catching on. People want to be part of a community that isn’t just about “not doing things” but rather, one that lives out faith in a full way.
And in light of Luther’s nudging of the commandments “to do” instead of “not to do,” we have goals as this community. Our goals are to keep providing worship in a meaningful, uplifting, musically-filled way; goals to make this place more accessible to more people; goals to keep moving ministry forward for any and everyone.
And based off the survey results from a few weeks back, those goals seemed to be affirmed. We want “what is” to continue, grow, expand, and welcome more. Ensuring we have an organ for worship and music was top of the survey responses. Next was improving the parking, followed by addressing the problem areas in our worship space, all setting us up to do more ministry with more community.
So, to help achieve those goals, in our November annual meeting we will be voting on moving forward with raising the funds to help us accomplish those goals. Council has been talking for several months about a capital campaign, and from an informal poll taken, there was enough generosity among Council as a sample size to move ahead with confidence. And there is enough generosity among the whole congregation that I suspect we will need to start planning what our next goals are going to be.
God calls us to do, not to not do. And our “doing” isn’t about earning anything or winning any sort of game with God. Instead, God assures each and every one of us that you are redeemed. You are saved. You are brought through. You have relationship with God. So now, live with others. Share the life God has given you. Serve the community. Help each other. Grow in life, faith, and relationship.
To the glory of God.
The crossing of the Red Sea is one of the most important stories we tell.
While it’s cool, it may not be people’s favorite. Nor does it have any of the quotable, memorizable Bible verses, but that doesn’t change the fact that this event - the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea - is the most important event in the history of the Israelite people.
And so, since we again have skipped a lot of the Biblical narrative since last week, let’s catch up a bit. Joseph eventually does get out of jail (which is where we found him last week) and is appointed to Pharaoh’s court. There he saves the Egyptians and those brothers who sold him into slavery from a seven year famine. Happy times ensue. However, generations pass, and all this important, culture-saving history is eventually forgotten by the new Egyptian Pharaoh, who enslaves the Israelites. God hears the cries of the people and acts.
God speaks to Moses from a burning bush - “I am the God of your Fathers, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.” After reminding that the covenant made so long ago will continue, God sends Moses to set the people free. After rejection and plagues and a Passover of the Lord, the Pharaoh finally relents; the Israelites are free to go.
And now, we join with the Israelites in their journey to freedom. Except… they’re trapped! Trapped between an oncoming army and a giant sea. And God acts. God acts big. Last week, we had God present and acting quietly, softly; this week, God pulls out all the stops.
These are the lengths to which God will go to keep the covenant.
So Israel tells this story to remember the promise. Remember what God will do. Remember that God acts in amazing ways all to keep the covenant promise alive.
And this is such an important story because it is so clear that God acts. The people of Israel, they don’t do much. In fact, they’re scared. They complain. “What have you done to us? Why did we leave Egypt? What are we going to do?”
Moses doesn’t tell them what to do. He doesn’t tell them to fight back. He doesn’t tell them to scatter and run. He doesn’t kick them into fight or flight mode. Instead, he says, “Watch. The Lord will fight for you. You only have to keep still.”
Which is a wonderful message, full of Gospel. God will fight for you. God will do what you cannot. God will ensure the covenant of blessings will continue on.
But… that’s not the whole story. If you notice, we kind of jump from paragraph to paragraph in reading through this account - mostly to save some time, and we do get the gist of this miraculous story. But there is a verse we don’t read that I think adds to the complexity of this story.
In verse 14, Moses says, “just wait. God will do it.” Which is true, and it is the point of the story. But the very next verse, verse 15, God says, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”
Which is kind of confusing. To quote the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble; if I stay it will be double.” While it is a bit confusing, this is why we tell stories. There is ambiguity, uncertainty, but through telling this story, we might be better able to understand when to stand and when to go, and how God is involved in it all.
Because telling the story reminds us that other people have been in tough spots, and God gets them through. In our story, both Moses and God were right. The Israelites didn’t do a thing; they just moved forward trusting in what God was going to do. God did everything else. God makes a way. And that is the story that needs to be told over and over and over.
We tell this important story because it reminds, it connects, it draws us forward.
And this should encourage us to tell our own stories, because our stories can remind, connect with, draw others forward. Everyone has a story, and your story can be more than just an interesting tidbit; your story can actually nourish another person’s faith.
And so, we are going to work on telling those stories. A group of us did some training and meeting; another group of people were interviewed and opened up. And soon, we will be sharing those stories across the congregation. Some are dramatic, but not all. Some were “keep still,” but most were “go forward.”
And knowing some of your stories already, and reading some that we will be sharing soon, the stories that I hear are stories about how everyone is fed by being part of what is going on here at St. Philip. There are stories about how this place allows different generations to gather for faith. There are stories about how worship centers, uplifts, gives hope, reminds that they are beloved children of God. Maybe you see some of yourself in those stories.
And those stories aren’t just about where they were - but how God leads them forward. And hopefully, you see how God has done that for you.
Because sometimes we are in the midst of difficult things and we just want to go back to where we came from, back to how things were before.
Sometimes, we reach a dead end and think everything we worked for, everything we are supposed to be doing, is over.
Sometimes, we are called forward, even though we have no idea what that even looks like.
But, with the stories we choose to tell, we can hear again, be reminded again, that God makes a way. God doesn’t give up. God keeps working.
A few weeks ago, we as a congregation dreamed. We hoped. In some ways, we were like the Israelites - these are ideas about the promised land, but we still have a ways to go before we get there. There are miles to walk and seas to cross, but in it all, God is with us.
And that is why we are hopeful. That is why we dream. We tell and hear the stories of what God is already doing here at St. Philip.
Worship lifts spirits, gives hope, inspires. The goal is to have more people be nourished in faith through worship here, all while making it easier for all to join us and participate fully.
God is working among our youth and children; the goal is to provide them support where they can grow in faith and live that faith out in a way that gives a strong foundation for their lives.
God is already doing so much in us and through us; God has set us on this path.
And soon, we’ll be approaching the edge of the sea. And what will we do? Will we listen? Will we move forward? What does the path God will make for us look like? Do we have God sized dreams? Do we ask “why are we here” and want to go back?
God has brought us here to make a difference in the world. And we are doing that. Because of the ways you support mission and ministry here with your time and gifts and monetary donations, we are already changing the world around us. Starting next week, you’ll hear more about what your generosity is doing to share God’s Kingdom. You’ll hear more stories. You’ll hear more about goals.
Through everything, God is leading us. It can be hard to see the path - unless a sea opens up right in front of us. But surely we know that God calls us forward. From bondage, forward into freedom. From death, forward into life. From keeping still, forward to be more like the Kingdom.
That’s the story we tell. And it is important that we keep on telling it. For the sake of the Gospel.
I’ll bet this story is not one many Sunday school teachers spent a lot of time with.
As we continue through the story of the Bible, we are moving quickly through Genesis. A lot has happened since we left Abraham last week, including a lot of familiar stories with Isaac and Jacob. Joseph is the great-grandson of Abraham, if that helps put things on a timeline. And Joseph is integral in Israel’s story, but we will fill in those details when we get to our story next week.
But for now, we have Joseph. So, a little more context on his background: he was the guy who had the coat of many colors, given to him by his father Jacob. We pick up on Joseph’s story in the middle of his narrative, seeing that he has an Egyptian master - a master because he has been sold into slavery.
Which may make us ask, “why is Joseph in slavery?” The short answer is because his brothers were unfaithful to him. They betrayed him, beat him, stripped him of his fancy coat, and sold him. Joseph’s brothers used that coat of many colors as evidence, saying to their father that Joseph is dead.
Not a very good start to Joseph’s story. Which leads us to our story for today. He starts out as a slave in the first verses, and by the end he’s… in jail? Not really how we want the story to end, is it? And why is Joseph in prison?
The short answer is because Potiphar’s wife had been unfaithful. She betrayed her husband’s trust by trying to lie with Joseph, and then she betrayed Joseph by lying about the lying. She uses Joseph’s garment as evidence, saying to her husband that Joseph tried to rape her.
This guy does not have good luck with his wardrobe.
There’s a reason why many of us don’t know this story. It’s because our immediate response is to speed through the bad parts of stories and get to the good stuff, get to him being freed from slavery and jail and placed in Pharaoh’s mansion - which is what happens. There, he has honor and prestige and power. Hooray, a happy ending!
That’s how we often do things. We avoid the painful, unpretty places in the world around us and even in our own lives. Think of how our eyes move away from someone sitting at an intersection with a coffee can and a sign. We don’t like to see the unpleasant, let alone dwell in it. We try to ignore or hide or rush through - like what we do with Joseph’s story. Skip the sad parts, just get to the good stuff.
And yet, pain and hurt and uncertainty are part of all of our lives. To deny that is to be unrealistic - unfaithful, even - about our lives. We may not have been sold into slavery by our brothers, or been sent to jail for a crime we didn’t commit, but we have been in places where we are alone, unsure, shortsighted, broken hearted, suffering.
I’ve had plenty of those conversations with people at home, in the hospital, in my office about this very thing. And you probably have had those conversations, too.
Things change; the good ol’ days aren’t around - whatever those were.
Our health isn’t what it was, and that limits us from doing those things we enjoy - travel, yard work, even living independently.
Or our relationships are strained for various reasons; some are even severed by divorce, indifference, or death.
We often are in places in our lives where the future is uncertain and we don’t see light at the end of the tunnel - or if we do see light, are afraid of the oncoming train.
We don’t often sit with this type of difficulty and instead try to rush through it or ignore it, push it away or offer some platitude to cover it.
It is ok to feel it.
It is ok to express it.
It is ok to be in the moment of pain or hurt or loss.
God doesn’t plan bad things,
God doesn’t drop a pop quiz on us to see how we’ll handle some sudden tragedy,
And God doesn’t experiment with our faith by giving us terrible things to deal with.
Instead, God is present in the midst of that really crummy, crummy stuff.
In Joseph’s story, we have the theme of terrible things happening to Joseph, story after story of human unfaithfulness, unfaithfulness of which Joseph bears the punishment and pain. And yet, there is also the theme of God’s presence:
In verse two, “The Lord was with Joseph...”
Verse three, “His master saw that the Lord was with him…”
Verse 21, "The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love..."
Verse 23, "The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph's care, because the Lord was with him…”
God was present with Joseph, even in his suffering, pain, and loneliness.
And God’s presence is more than just existence, sitting there twiddling thumbs. God is there for a purpose, and that purpose is promise. That’s what it was for Abraham - blessing, promise, a great nation, all the world will be blessed. That’s what it was for Joseph - steadfast love, favor, consistency. And that’s what it is for us.
In our baptism, we are assured of God’s presence with us, that we are claimed as God’s very own, and that we are deeply, assuredly loved.
God uses baptism to remind us that these things that happen to us do not define us. We are not a diagnosis. We aren’t a severed relationship. We aren’t a screw up, a mistake, a lost cause.
We are loved. We are cared for. We are more than what happens to us. Through water and the word, we are children of God, blessed with the promises of God - promise that what “is” won’t always be. God promises more, and God is faithful. God’s promise, God’s presence, gives us hope - hope beyond where we are right now. Hope beyond tomorrow.
God has things in store for you, for us, for St. Philip, for this world. The hard part for us is we don’t always know what that looks like, and it doesn’t ever really happen on our timeline. But in it all, God is moving us forward, promising to use us to bless others.
That is what Joseph knew. He was able to surpass being sold and held in prison because Joseph knew God’s presence and promise was with him. More than that, God’s presence enables Joseph not to get sucked into unfaithful ways. God’s presence changed how Joseph acted in uncertain situations, all situations. He is not defined by another’s unfaithfulness or what happened to him because of it. He knows God defines him. That gives a sense of hope.
God’s presence in our lives enables us to see the things that happen in our world and respond like Joseph. We can say “no” to the unfaithfulness we see around us in our world. We can reject things that aren’t loving, that aren’t grace-filled, that aren’t faithful to the relationship God has with us. Instead, we give and share. We live and follow. We love and grow. We help others who suffer. We feed those who hunger. We support efforts to bring peace.
And we do it because God has shown us in Jesus that this is the best way to live. It is the most faithful way to live. God is with us as we do it, enabling us to be as faithful as we can be. God is present, feeding us, nourishing us, washing us, sending us into the world - sending us prepared and equipped.
God’s presence makes a difference in how we live, how we see ourselves, how we respond in life.
Those things - whatever “those things” are in your life - they don’t define you. God defines you. God calls you beloved. God calls you child. God is present with you. Wherever, whatever. Now and forever.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” - Frederick Buechner (theologian)
As we continue in the story of the Bible, we come across a man, Abram - who, you may already know, ends up being renamed Abraham a few chapters from here. Abram and Sarai are on the older end of life, no kids, probably pretty settled into their routines. And then, God shows up.
The story we have today is Abram’s call story.
Usually when we have these types of stories for our preaching passage, I reflect on my own call story. And while I’m not going to get much into mine today - since it was so very different from Abram’s - I was reminded of a quick little anecdote.
Shortly before graduation from Newberry College, and when seminary plans were already in place and deposits paid, I was walking through campus when a man stopped me. He wasn’t a student, and I don’t really remember why he started talking to me, but the conversation turned to my soon-to-happen graduation and plans thereafter.
“I’m actually going to seminary.”
“Oh, that’s great news!” replied the man. “When were you saved?”
That’s when the Lutheran in me squints its eyes and tilts its head. Lutherans don’t talk like that. And even if there was one particular moment when I went from unbelieving heathen to pious disciple, the whole Lutheran lingo just doesn’t jive with the “when were you saved” language.
So, I said, “about 2,000 years ago when Jesus died and was raised.”
Well, this guy didn’t like that answer. “No, no, no. When were you saved?” And I repeated something similar, pointing to Jesus’ salvific work in the cross and empty tomb. I still didn’t sway him. After a little back and forth, he was getting a little more flustered, and I wasn’t changing my tune. So, he finally ended the conversation with, “well, when you get to seminary, I hope you find God!”
Different people hear God’s call differently. So, how do we hear what God is calling, promising, telling us to do?
With a lot of stories in the Bible, the call seems pretty clear to us. And even those called people - whether they immediately listen to God or not - at least they know that God is talking to them. For us, it’s not always so clear.
And this call of Abram is another pretty clear call. But maybe digging into Abram’s story a bit can help us better hear God calling in our lives.
The defining piece of Abram’s call is God’s promise. God’s promise is what fuels everything. Even though the first word God speaks is a command - “go” - the promise is not far behind, and the promise is what gives Abram the trust, the faith, the confidence to listen.
This promise is true grace given to Abram. See, this isn’t a covenant - not yet. That doesn’t happen for a few chapters still. Here, this initial calling of Abram in Genesis 12 is pure grace, given for no apparent reason whatsoever.
There is no agreement, no treaty, no contract, no covenant. God doesn’t require anything from Abram in return. There are no obligations because this relationship is founded on God’s commitment and promise to Abram, not Abram’s promise or commitment to God. The selection of a barren husband and wife to be a blessing to others only proves that is first and foremost God’s power, initiative, and promise that will see it through.
Go; I will make you a great nation. I will bless you. I will make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you. In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. And so, Abram went.
It is important to notice the ordering of the material here. Of course, human obedience is involved from the very beginning – God says, “Go…” and “Abram went.” But the promise comes before the response. Abram trusting in God to actually do what God promises produces the energy and - maybe more importantly - the will to follow God’s commands.
If the response came before the promise, then the promises wouldn’t be promises. They’d be dessert - a reward for doing what you were supposed to do.
Instead, God’s promises do something in and for Abram; they generate that faith in God, that trust in God, that will to follow God’s command to “go.” God’s promises shape not only Abram, but his family, his nation, the whole world.
Abram heard what God called, promised, and told him to do.
How do we hear what God is calling, promising, telling us to do?
This past week at our Council meeting, we talked about calling versus a job. And as you reflect on the differences between the two, probably some of the same ideas come up as did at our meeting. A calling is a passion, something that fulfills, so forth.
I also shared a story about President John F. Kennedy. He went to visit NASA one day and was talking to employees there. He met one man in the hallway. “What is it you do here?” JFK asked the man, who was part of the custodial staff. The employee responded with, “I am working to put a man on the moon.”
Clearly this man carried a vision of something much greater than the daily tasks for which he was responsible.
We all have been and/or are called to various jobs, careers, and vocations, and those calls have changed as our seasons in life have changed. And God, indeed, calls us to those.
But God also calls us to more than a job or a task. God calls us to proclaim the love and saving power of Jesus Christ in this particular time and place. God calls us to live out resurrection and life. God calls us to carry into the world the vision that we are made new through the forgiving and transforming presence of Christ our Lord.
How do we hear what God is calling, promising, telling us to do?
I think a lot of it starts with us hearing that we, like Abram, are called for the sake of the world. God calls us to reflect God’s promises to the world, to benefit the nations, to be a blessing for all people.
God’s call makes us look beyond ourselves. And while we certainly are part of our own call, it is not about us; it is about the world, about the promise God made in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We get to continue to share the good news of life, blessing, and promise to the world.
When that happens, I think we hear what God is calling us to.
Last week, we did some dreaming for this congregation of St. Philip Lutheran. We hoped about what could be. Now, it’s time to reflect on what God is calling us to - what does God see as our future? Of course, these hopes and dreams aren’t about any one of us; instead, how will these bring the blessing and promise of God to the world? How are we called to move forward, to act, so that the love and promise of Christ is seen, shared, and supported?
And of course, even through uncertainty, God calls us with promises that are sure and certain. Promises of blessing, promises of life, promises that Christ is present with us, even to the end of the age. And we get reminders of that promise each and every week as we gather for worship, as we sing those beloved hymns and hear God’s story, as we hold in our hands bread of life, as we taste the cup of salvation, as we splash the waters of forgiveness.
In all those things are God’s promise to claim you, to grace you, to forgive you, to give you life. God promises those things for us, for you… and calls you to be a blessing for the world.
For those who haven’t worshiped with us before, or in a while, or in case you just forgot, now that we are back into the full swing of things with September, we are also back with the Narrative Lectionary. A lectionary is a selection of Bible texts that are to be read during worship each week. The Narrative Lectionary strives to do what its name suggests: read the Bible as a narrative story, with one main reading each Sunday.
So, we start at - or near - the beginning with Genesis. Throughout the Fall season, we will work through Old Testament stories - many familiar, some not so much. At Advent, we will hear from some of the Prophets as they foretell the coming of God’s love. Then, at Christmas we will switch to one of the Gospel stories and read through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection chapter by chapter until Easter, after which we will hear from Acts of the Apostles and some of Paul’s letters.
And we start off this cycle with one of the most well-known of all the Bible stories. From the smallest child to the oldest adult, Noah’s Ark is beloved. Cute crafts of animals two-by-two and boats and rainbows abound. God gives us a covenant promise in that rainbow.
But, the thing with this story is we often gloss over - or forget - the beginning of the story. We misremember the wickedness of humanity and the flood God sent that, yes saved, but also destroyed.
I’d like to think that God could’ve been a little more creative with the solution to the world’s problems. You know, have a little moral finesse instead of wiping things out. But we do get to see a struggle within God. There is a struggle between God’s justice and judgment up against God’s faithfulness and mercy. God looks at the wickedness in the world and wants to start over.
But God doesn’t “start over.” There is a glimmer of hope and mercy, despite the judgment that comes. God saves a segment of creation - the very same creation that was there in the beginning. And it seems that this choice to save impacts God. That little bit of mercy wasn’t enough. God vows, from then on, to take a different route, to make different choices. God commits to a different way of renewing and healing creation. No more wiping it out; instead, God promises to act differently, very differently, in the future. God will do something new.
And this covenant promise isn’t because humanity somehow changed during their boat tour. Noah and his family still carry that little bit of corruption which plagues the earth. All throughout history, poor human choices continued.
See, after the flood, God changes and chooses to do things differently. God judges, but God also choses to redeem over and over and over again. The rainbow is that sign to us. God chooses to live out faithfulness to all of creation. God is willing to put in the hard work. It’s the moral finesse I was talking about earlier.
God acts differently. When human sin and corruption again became so great that they threatened to overwhelm the world, instead of sending the rain, God sends the Son. God sends Jesus to our world. God does the hard thing and works to fix the brokenness, fix the world, fix us. Instead of the rain, God sends the Son to show once and for all that God is passionately committed to creation, to the world, to us.
There is a new beginning, secured with the promise of God.
And while we are far from being able to live up to God’s standards, we do recognize that new beginning, that promise of God, and the opportunity for us to respond in new ways.
We don’t need to look too far to see that even in the present day, poor human choices - and their consequences - are all around us. In fact, today is a day we don’t gloss over or forget; today is a day we will never forget. September 11, 2001 is, for those of us who lived through it, a day that is seared into our brains. The pain. The hurt. The death.
It is a reminder and a show of the wickedness of humankind. And of course, there were calls of revenge, for a flood of destruction upon our enemies.
But if the Noah’s Ark story is to teach us anything, it’s that in the end, the way of God is to redeem. And so, while it took us time, and while we don’t forget the 3,000 people killed, we in this church have also added to this day a time of service, a day to honor, a day to share and give and serve.
God’s work, our hands is how we try to put into practice a little bit of what God does. Bad things aren’t the end. It’s a chance to move on, move forward, move to something new. God acts differently; God does something new; God redeems; therefore, we do, too.
It’s here that I want you to pull out that purple sheet of paper in your bulletin. Maybe you’ve had a chance to look at it already.
As much as I’d like to say that we are in the same boat as Noah… we’re not. We are not in danger of a literal flood or even a metaphorical “going under.” It’s kind of the opposite. We as St. Philip Lutheran Church are in a good spot. We have faithful people (you) who volunteer their time, energy, and finances to God’s mission through our church. We have talented staff who are great in their areas of expertise. We are growing and expanding our congregation and the ministry and outreach of St. Philip.
So, instead of drowning, it’s like our boat has landed on dry land. We are given the gift of being here, and we get to say, now what? We’ve got God’s promise, blessing, and covenant; how do we live that out? What do we need to do now to ensure we keep living out God’s mission to the best of our abilities, not just now but for the years and decades to come?
God has placed us right here, right now, with blessings and gifts, with promise and hope, with energy and life, with water and word, with bread and wine, with a call to live in covenant with God… what could be? What can be?
On that sheet of paper are potential projects that we gathered from Council and from the Teams and Committees here at St. Philip. Maybe you’ve already been in on the conversation. But this is a list of hopes, of dreams, so that we can - not just do what we are doing at the present moment - but do more; welcome more; worship, serve, minister more.
So, what I’d like you to do is circle between one and four things on that list that you hope we could do. Don’t worry about the “how” or the “when” - just dream. Just hope. If there’s not something on there that you think would improve ministry, add it. And then at some point, put the sheet in the basket in the back.
Just as God calls Noah to something new in order to preserve life,
God calls us to new things so that we can proclaim eternal life.
Just as God put Noah on dry land to live out covenant,
God has put us right where we are supposed to be to share that covenant with others.
Just as God gave Noah and all creation the sign of a rainbow to remind of God’s promise and love from here on out,
God has given us a sign, too.
God has given us the cross, and the sign of the cross is a reminder for us, that no matter what, no matter how broken, how confused, how hurt, how much flooded or dry land there is, God will work in new ways to ensure life. God has put too much blood, sweat, and love into it to see things go any other way.
The cross is a sign that God handles things differently. In new ways. And God calls us in new ways, too. Always. Now and forever.
This passage from the Gospel of Luke… well, it’s not fun. It makes me wonder why I didn’t just take this long weekend off and have someone else deal with this text. Alas, that is not meant to be.
I think the first reaction here is to try to soften Jesus’ words. To, in some way, shape, or form, say, “he didn’t really mean it that way.” Surely there is some form of spiritual gymnastics that we can do to get around all of this so we don’t need to be challenged. Or changed. Or directed. Just keep on doing what we’re doing.
That’s why I’m here, right? To make everyone feel better? To explain this away, give out the simple checklist, and send you on your way. I wish.
This text is so hard partly because it is so clear. There isn’t wiggle room to get around the hard parts. There isn’t an easy out. There isn’t that simple checklist for us to substitute in lieu of what Jesus calls us to.
Jesus calls us to be disciples. And we cannot be disciples if we don’t hate father, mother, family. We cannot be disciples if we don’t carry the cross. We cannot be disciples if we stay put and do not actually follow Jesus. Being a disciple isn’t as easy as we think it is.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate…” Hate. No one considers “hate” as a fruit of the Spirit, do they? It’s, like, the opposite of love. And maybe Jesus is being a bit hyperbolic here for emphasis, but it still sounds harsh. Maybe his point is that the life we build for ourselves isn’t the most important thing. Maybe there is more to it than just our little bubble.
Following Jesus has to be more important than any- and every- thing, even those things and people we hold most dear. And I think the cross conveys that point further. With a cross, there is no going back. With a cross, there is a definitive end. With a cross, there is singularity of purpose. Jesus calls us to carry the cross, to follow him, to have the same singular purpose he does.
And so, he tells us to weigh the cost of what it means to follow. Estimate what it will take to follow through. Much like a man building a tower or a king who is about to go to war, consider what following Jesus really means.
We don’t want to fail at counting the cost.
We might not complete the project and then will suffer ridicule at incompetence and shortsightedness.
We might not have what it takes to battle in the long-haul, and then it’s too late to turn back.
Following Jesus isn’t pure passion and reckless abandon; following Jesus - really following Jesus - takes forethought and reflection, dedication and gumption, a willingness to acknowledge what has greatest value and leaving the rest behind.
So, all of this is hard so far. And I’m sure we’re all waiting for the good stuff. When am I going to tell you it’s all alright? That we should try, but it’s ok if we don’t really do what Jesus says. Hmm. I don’t know if today is one of those types of sermons. Again, I think Jesus is kind of clear in this passage. Following him isn’t easy.
So, maybe instead of going against what Jesus is saying by telling you it’s easy, or that it’s alright if you don’t do this or that… maybe the message is, “it’s worth it.” Following Jesus, despite how hard it is, is worth it.
To say this another way, we’ve counted the costs of following, but what about counting the benefits? What is the benefit of following Jesus, even if it is hard?
To answer that, we need the wider Gospel. We need more of the story. We need to hear where following Jesus leads.
Yes, Jesus is headed to the cross, but not just to the cross; Jesus is headed through the cross to life, to life eternal. Jesus knows this pathway to the cross is the hardest thing ever, but he knows it is worth it. He trusts God enough to believe that the cross is worth it. And on the other side, Jesus secures life for the world. He wins victory over the grave. He shows us that nothing in life or death is strong enough to keep us from God. He gives us grace.
In fact, he is so convinced of this, that while on his pathway to Jerusalem to bear the cross, he takes time to tell parables of just how amazing that grace is. Literally five verses from where our passage for today ends, Jesus tells three parables back to back to back, all about God never giving up. Lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. Nothing will stop God from looking and finding and celebrating with us.
Isn’t that worth it? Isn’t that type of life worth it? Knowing that, no matter what, God will constantly and consistently be there for you. You are treasured so much that God will stop at nothing to make sure you are in safe keeping.
That doesn’t make it easy at this point in time, but it just might make it worth it. Besides, we have a community of faith to help us.
In our lesson for Deuteronomy, God sets two paths out in front of us - life and death, prosperity and adversity. Of course, God encourages us to choose life. Choose the way of life. And to connect that to our Gospel lesson, choose life, even if it is the hard way.
And God urges, choose life, not just for you, but so that you and your descendents may live. See, this life isn’t just about us. It isn’t just about what am I going to do, what am I going to give up, how might I be blessed in discipleship. It’s bigger than that. It’s about what kind of world do I want to live in? What kind of world do I want to leave behind? What choices do I make so that, not only do I feel and embody the kingdom of God, but so that future generations can feel it and embody it, too?
Because this community is where we learn to better live as disciples. It’s where we are trained and strengthened, where we are immersed in God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. It is where God shapes us in ministries of worshiping, stewardship, serving, listening, teaching, visiting. The more we are immersed, the better we are able to live as disciples now, and change the world for generations to come.
Following Jesus is hard. But the life we are called to live and share with the world is worth it. Plus, we’re not in this alone. We live in this community, with the nourishment of bread and wine, hearing the promises of God for us all, and we live in the forgiveness we need to be given. We are forgiven. Taught. Fed. Sent.
As a disciple of Jesus, there is promise, there is Gospel for us, in that while we are called to carry a cross, it is a place that Christ has already been, a place that Christ has conquered for us. It is the Christian paradox of life out of death, of Law and Gospel, of forgiveness and call to action.
We are called to be different from the world.
We are called to bear the cross.
We are called to be disciples.
It might not be easy; but, by God’s grace, it’s surely worth it.
This sure doesn’t sound like much of a parable. Instead, what Jesus is saying sounds more like advice. It’s almost common sense. How much better is it to present yourself as humble and lowly and then be invited to a higher seat rather than run the risk of embarrassment by appearing arrogant because of where you sit.
We get it. It makes sense logically. No one likes someone who is full of themselves. No one likes the hot-shot know-it-all. That is clear to us. It’s a good life lesson.
And this advice probably played pretty well with the people Jesus was eating with. In that day and age, there was a place for everyone, and everyone had their place. It’s kind of like high school. Do you remember the pecking order at high school? How important it was to sit at the right table? Jocks, nerds, band kids, and so on? Yeah, kind of like that.
The first-century world was ordered around honor and shame. Status was everything, and the way you gained status was through a system of favors. It was an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world, and a seat of honor at meals was a great way to scratch someone’s back.
So, when Jesus starts talking about not overreaching in terms of social status - instead, aim low and get invited up - heads were probably nodding in agreement. It would have been humiliating for the host to ask you to move to a lower seat; yet, totally great to be invited to a higher seat. This made complete sense and would likely have been followed, if not from a sense of humility, at least in recognition of the practicality of Jesus’ wisdom.
Humility. Yes, be humble.
And here is yet another reason how I know that we as human beings need redemption. We take this lesson as saying that we should be humble, because that is what is good, right, and Christian. AND, if we’re humble, then we get seen as being humble and people will say nice things about how humble we are. We will get affirmation and approval and acceptance. Look how humble we are! And even better, GOD will see how humble we are, and we will earn brownie points with the head honcho! And we get moved up to a seat of honor!
We take Jesus’ lesson of humility and twist it into self-exaltation. Can you imagine the scene where people fight over the lowest seat, ears bent toward the host waiting to be called to the seat of honor? “Oh, no, after you.” “No, I insist, after you.”
We’ll do what it says (even though we don’t like it) because in the end, it will serve our egos.
It’s a good thing Jesus adds the second part of the parable… and this part probably doesn’t sit too well with anyone. To the one who invited him to dinner in this culture of shame and honor, Jesus advises his host to invite and welcome anyone, especially those who could not repay him - the poor, the lame, the blind.
To the people of this society, this idea is crazy and offensive. Jesus is challenging the status quo. Who would squander the opportunity to gain a favor, doing something for someone who could never repay? It’s absurd and foolish.
Which probably lets us know that it is truly from God. God’s logic doesn’t ever really seem to match ours. Jesus proclaims here that in the kingdom of God, there are no pecking orders, no uninvited, no lower tables. None. Zero. Zilch.
At first glance, this sounds like Good News. However, it throws everything we know and live by out the window. While the shame and honor dimensions of our culture aren’t quite as explicit, we’re still pretty conscious of our social status. We know who we have to rub elbows with if we want a promotion or a favor or a nice meal. We know at which table we’re sitting, we know at which table we’d like to be sitting, and we know at which table we’re glad we aren’t sitting. Again, think of high school.
But Jesus does away with all that. No status, no order, no hierarchy. And if our social pecking order is gone, if we can’t work the room, if the process of knowing how to get what we want is gone… if getting a good seat at the table doesn’t depend on us, then there’s nothing left for us to do.
And that hurts a bit. If there’s nothing about us that earns our spot at the best table, if it’s not us that earns the invite… then the only thing left is God’s grace and God’s grace alone. In every other thing in this life, it is up to us. Grace takes some getting used to.
And Jesus doesn’t just tell us, or teach us about God’s Kingdom. Jesus actually embodies this by giving us all that he has, even though we cannot ever repay. That’s what the cross is all about. Jesus gives up his claim to power, authority, prestige by willingly going to the cross to show us how far God will go for us, how much God loves us. Jesus will give up all authority in heaven and on earth, and humbly give his life for this world - an honor the world cannot repay.
And now, Jesus still selflessly gives us himself. Jesus hosts us for a meal, invites us all to the table, gives us each a place of honor, raises us up out of our sin, out of our sorrow, out of our shame… all so we can live a new life now. A new life that was started in baptism. A new life that James, Silas, Hudson, Eve, and Renna all were welcomed into this morning.
We are invited to the table of new life, and now we get to invite others as well. And we did that by setting up the fellowship hall yesterday for some of the least among our community, and serving, conversing with, welcoming anyone who is hungry… that is kingdom life. That is what Jesus would want.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll be serving a meal to first responders. Now, are we doing them a favor so they’ll keep a more watchful eye on us? No, not at all. Instead, we’re living and giving gratitude, grace, generosity. Letting them know we appreciate who they are.
Sharing who we are and what we have for ministry; inviting someone to sit at your table; living like Jesus, not because we get something, but because we’ve already been given everything… those are kingdom ways. Those are ways we listen to Jesus. Those are how we make room at the table for everyone.
Jesus embodies what he teaches, laying aside everything for those of us who cannot pay him back. He opens up a table for all of us - a place where all of us are invited and welcomed. Christ treats us with dignity and worth and welcome, even though we didn’t do anything to deserve it, nor could we ever. And now, he continues to work within each of us, stirring us to live out this new vision and this new way, where there is no first or last, no honor or shame, no tables to move up or down.
There is only each other, bound to one another in God;
there is only Christ, where each of us has a place,
There is only the blessing of sharing in God’s abundant welcome, love, and grace.
In our Gospel story for today, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. He is teaching on the Sabbath day, notices her, calls to her, and then heals her. At this miracle, the leader of the synagogue is indignant. “Really? Did you really just do that? On the Sabbath?! There are six other days in which to do work, but the seventh? That is for rest!”
We are already expecting what happens next. Jesus reprimands the leader for this hypocrisy and lack of care for another human being. That’s right, Jesus! Down with the Law! (Oops. Did I just say that out loud?) I mean, no one really likes all that Law stuff anyway, so aren’t we glad that Jesus shows us how to ignore it here?
Or at least, shows us how to pick and choose what we want to ignore. We can ignore the law about the Sabbath because, well, because Jesus ignored it. So, we work on the Sabbath. Even if we don’t go to the office, we drive, we prep meals, we do laundry, we do something that would be considered work. We’re just being good little Christians and following our Lord. Oh, and all those dietary restrictions and the clothing laws… there’s wiggle room there, right? So, we can eat and wear whatever we want. Go bacon! Yay for moisture wicking synthetic fibers! This whole not-following-the-Law thing can get pretty fun, right?
How about we up the ante a little bit? Since Jesus picks one of the 10 Commandments to ignore, why don’t we pick one? Coveting! Coveting for everyone! Well, maybe if you just, like, think it and don’t express your coveting outright. Maybe that’d be ok. I mean, we can’t control our thoughts, right? Let’s put coveting on the “sometimes OK” list. How about stealing? Well, probably not. That’s bad, so we should keep that one. Honoring your mother and father? Murdering? Adultery?
It seems we do have a line about what laws are ok to break.
But let’s be honest here for a minute. As Lutherans, we put a lot of emphasis on grace and God’s work on our behalf. And as such, the Law gets pushed from a way to live out God’s holiness to some sort of selective morality guide - and each one of us has our own preferences as to what should be on that list.
There is a lot of disagreement among Christians, Lutherans even, about how to live out God’s Law. And that’s not even talking about political, governmental laws and what role faith plays there. Should Christians be against the death penalty? What type of end of life care is appropriate for Christians? Should Christians be opposed to war, or is there a way to justify it in some situations - ways to have a Just War? What about support and help to immigrants who did not follow traditional immigration channels?
I’m sure we’re all over the map. And this just goes to show that we all pick and choose the laws that we like to enforce. Why is it that we clutch on to certain things and don’t bother with others? Because someone down the line told us we should? Because we do something a certain way, so others should, too? Because we don’t do something, so others shouldn’t either? Or is it because deep down inside, we don’t really trust this whole “grace” thing and think that if we stick to a few of the big ones, we’ll cover our own, well… our bases.
We struggle to keep the laws we like! Imagine if we prioritized wrong! God’s Law is something that we do not have a good grasp on, something that we hold others to more strongly than ourselves, something that when we do compare ourselves to see that we obviously fall short of. It kind of terrifies us.
But this is where Christ enters the picture. In the face of what was right according to the Law, Christ comes over, heals her, lays his hands on her, and she stands up. All that mattered in that moment was the new life that she had. I doubt she was thinking too much about breaking the Sabbath or rules of purity or anything like that. Those things don’t matter much in the face of such a gift, in that moment of grace.
It’s not that laws aren’t needed anymore; it’s that in that very moment, the Law couldn’t do what grace did. Grace actually creates life. Grace gives life. Grace restores life.
The law shows us where we fall, but grace gives us the chance to stand back up.
The law provides order for our lives, but grace is what saves, uplifts, redeems.
The law is important for living, but grace… Grace creates life where there once was none.
That is what Jesus has done for us. We know we are recipients of grace. We have new life because of Jesus. Jesus shows us we have relationship with God because God deemed us to be more important than the law.
Those are the promises given and proclaimed at baptism. We are washed, cleansed, welcomed, given new life. We are incorporated into God’s family of grace, always welcomed, always forgiven, always lifted up.
Now, it may sound like I’m throwing the Law out with the baptismal water, but, as I said, the Law has an important role. The Law is not our judge, but our guide. The Law is not a hammer to beat us down, but a mirror showing us our situation. It shows us how we really are in all honesty - reflecting back to us our brokenness, anxiety, and faults. It shows us what is bent over, what is not upright, what isn’t on the straight and narrow.
And what this does is turn us back to Jesus. When we see ourselves up and against the Law, we can’t help but go back to the one who offers us life, grace, and healing. Jesus feeds us with himself in bread and wine, Jesus is the one who washes us again with forgiveness, Jesus is the one who makes us right with God. We see clearly through the Law that we can’t stand up to what God wants, but we also see that nonetheless Jesus comes to us with healing, forgiveness, and life.
From our story, we see that the Law was not going to set the woman free from her condition – only Christ can do that. Same for us, the Law – the individual morality guide – does not set us free from our sinfulness or our lack of relationship with God; only the Gospel – only Jesus Christ – can bring us healing and freedom.
We live under love, not under Law. Which in a lot of ways, is much harder. There aren’t hard and fast rules, no black and white, no definitive lines - there’s only love. Only trust. Only hope. Only the promise that Jesus comes to us in whatever state we are in to heal us and help us, because that is how love works.
Does Jesus have your attention yet? He seems so angry and divisive. This is not the Jesus we know and love.
And yes, we can read it that way - that Jesus is pretty mad about something and taking it out on his listeners, both past and present. And while Jesus is indeed bringing the heat, I don’t really think that Jesus is angry.
Instead, Jesus is passionate; he has an intense desire to see the world change. He knows it isn’t living up to what God created it to be, and he’s giving an emotional speech to invoke some change. “I came to bring fire to the earth!”
The fire Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change. And while we often associate fire as negative - it burns, right? - fire means a lot more throughout the Biblical story. Fire connotes God’s presence - burning bush, pillar of fire, tongues of flame! God is there in the fire! John the Baptist at the beginning of Luke’s story says that Jesus will come, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. Fire purifies and refines; it’s a symbol of repentance. It’s no wonder Jesus is so eager to strike the match. He wants the fire of God’s justice to burn.
Of course, Jesus’ vision doesn’t set the world on fire in a way that brings everyone on board. It creates division. It divides people, splits families even.
Division isn’t peaceful.
Division is hard.
Division means conflict.
Division is a no-no. We don’t like division! Why does Jesus say he comes to do that? What about peace, love, and unity?
Well, there’s division in the community because Jesus has a vision for what should be. You want to know the only time there is no division in a community? It’s when there is no vision. No division because there is no vision for setting a course, nothing pulling you forward, nothing inviting (or demanding) change. And that’s the rub: change. That is what creates division.
Jesus came with a vision of God’s coming kingdom. It’s a kingdom that is very different from the status quo kingdoms of the world. Rather than valuing the strong and rich, God’s kingdom values the poor and vulnerable. Rather than prioritizing power, it lifts up compassion. Rather than coming by force, it comes in weakness and vulnerability. God’s kingdom challenges the existing state of affairs, saying things around here need to change; and that makes people nervous, uneasy, uncomfortable, even angry. Maybe change even makes us nervous, uneasy, uncomfortable, and angry.
Because God’s kingdom is hard. Living God’s kingdom is hard. What we have, where we are - it’s easy; and if it’s not easy, at least it’s comfortable. We know how to do this.
Yet in our comfort and ease, we often mistake our impurities as just fine things to have. We protect ourselves from having to change, from acknowledging our faults. We avoid the refining, the repentance, the turning, the change that Jesus is calling us to. He wants us to leave the status quo ways in our lives and instead kindle in us the kingdom of God.
It is here in our lesson that Jesus shifts gears a bit - maybe piggybacking some on the division stuff. He has been teaching about his vision for what God wants, and yet, people still don’t quite see it. Why do you not know how to interpret the present time? How can you know so much about what is going on, and still miss what is essential?
Jesus uses examples from the everyday: we see clouds and prepare for rain; we feel the wind blowing a certain direction and know a heat wave is coming. We hear Ed Piotrowski on the news, and we know a hurricane is coming!
And yet… and yet, we miss what he is trying to tell us about love. We miss all the miraculous ways God is present. We miss the invitation to life. We miss the command to love each other as God has loved us. We talk behind each other’s backs rather than guard each other’s reputation. We grow jealous of another’s accomplishments or possessions rather than give thanks for all the good things in our lives. We enjoy things exactly the way they are and resist the change, the future, the life God is calling us into.
And here’s the thing: way more often than not, we actually do know what is right, but we fail to do it. Why? Because we are fearful; because we are insecure; because we want to be right and would rather trust ourselves over one another or even God. And our world and society doesn't help. Our world only amplifies our anxieties and feeds us the lies we like to hear.
It is hard. Really hard. Because the peace Jesus brings is a hard change to make, to see, to endure. Because that peace is transformative, but it is also refining. The fire of God’s presence should leave our egos singed… and yet, we are comforted and warmed. Afflicted and a bit consoled. Rebuked and still very much loved.
Jesus is passionate; he has an intense desire to see the world change. Jesus is saying now is time to live out the kingdom. But despite the passion, Jesus doesn’t enjoy this either. He, too, is under stress. He was baptized by John and the Spirit at the opening of his ministry, but that baptism has not yet reached its culmination. The baptism of which he speaks, in fact, will only be completed at his cross.
So, why does Jesus go this route? Why stir the pot, why strike the match, why endure the pain and stress and suffering that such a message, such a baptism entails?
Because that is how important it is - not just for him to say it, not just for us to hear it, but for Jesus to accomplish it for us.
It is through his journey that we all will be wrapped up into the vision God has for the kingdom. It is this way, this difficult way, that God draws the whole world together by sharing, showing, and living the vision of love. It is only by this way that we are given the life that Jesus has shared through his own life and ministry, through his death and resurrection, through his grace and spirit.
For Jesus, this way is worth it. It’s that simple, that hard, that wonderful. Not easy, mind you, but worth it nonetheless, because this is the way we have a full, clear vision of the scope of God’s love.
Jesus calls us to take part in God’s vision for the world. To grow beyond where we are, to repent from the things that keep us away, to live in the present time, hoping for the kingdom of God. It’s not easy, and yes, there will be divisions, but, thanks be to God, we will be following someone who knows the way to the kingdom.
Jesus has a lot to say in today's rather brief Gospel lesson.
Passages like this one are tough on a preacher - not because of what Jesus says, but more because Jesus says so many things. It would be much easier if Jesus told one coherent parable or focused on one short and sweet topic for the day. It would help the flow of the sermon, and maybe have us better retain some of what Jesus is telling us.
So, what is a preacher to do? Pick one thing and explore it up and down, back and forth? That makes a lot of sense. And that is often what I try to do - go from point A to point B without too much jumping from topic to topic. It is, to me, usually the best option.
But by my use of “often” and “usually” there, you may be picking up that today I’m going to try to cram it all into one sermon. But don’t worry! I’m aware of what I’m doing, so hopefully that means I won’t ramble on too much. Plus, I think there is actually a nice flow to what Jesus is talking about, even if it isn’t too apparent on the surface.
Jesus’ words here move from fear to treasure to being prepared. Fear, treasure, being prepared. I think there is a good logic there, a good analogy to what the life of faithful discipleship actually looks like.
So, let’s start with the first one: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” These words are promise. Promise for those Jesus was speaking to, promise for us.
In fact, those words “do not be afraid,” so common throughout scripture, essentially are a way of saying, “Hey, perk up. What’s coming next is Good News!”
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Do not be afraid, for I will make of you a great nation.
Do not be afraid, for to you this day is born in the city of David a Savior.
Do not be afraid, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
In the midst of our lives, our world, of all the uncertainty and fear we have, Jesus starts with the promise of Good News for us: God wants to give us the kingdom. God wants this new way of life to take root in our real, lived experiences. God wants God’s intentions for this world to take place on earth as it is in heaven. And why? Because that’s God’s good pleasure. God wants to give us good things. It is definitely good news and a reassurance before moving on to other material that could ruffle feathers.
It’s feather-ruffling because Jesus doesn’t really pull any punches. Sell your possessions. Give alms. Make purses that don’t wear out. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
It’s a little impractical, right? Because if we all sold everything, no one would have anything left to sell to anybody else. But the point Jesus is making is to let go of the things that don’t last, the things that deteriorate, the purses that wear out. Instead, where your treasure is, your heart will be also.
We hear that and think that means give money to those places we care about - the places where our heart is. For some, we financially support our college or university. Those places were formative for us, they hold fond memories for us. We love that place, so we’ll give some money. Or we do that with camp. Or to fight a disease. Or even church. We give because we love the place or the people.
But that isn’t what Jesus says to do. He doesn’t tell us to give money to the places where our heart is; instead, he says our heart will go to the place we give or spend money. Our heart follows our giving. So, spend all your money on yourself, guess where your heart will go. Give it to those in need, your heart will go where God wants it to go. Moreover, your heart will be opened God in the process.
This also means we can train our hearts and our ways of thinking through the use of money. Are we, to use the phrasing from the verse before, afraid and thus keep or misuse our treasures? In uncertainty, does our fear direct us and our treasure? Do we listen to our fears… or do we listen to Jesus: “Do not be afraid” and thus, let our treasure lead our heart? Jesus wants us to see that how we use our treasure is how we understand ourselves to be in relation with God, others, and creation.
And use of our treasures is a way in which we move to the next phase of what Jesus is talking about: we prepare for Christ.
Because preparing for Christ to come isn’t a passive thing; it is diligent, intentional, attentive preparation for Christ’s arrival!
And the example Jesus uses about having lamps lit is a good thing for us to note. These days, “having our lamps lit” looks like flipping a switch. Boom. Lights. We can take it easy for a bit. But back then, having not just a lamp but lamps lit required work. Oil, wicks, refills - checking on them to make sure they didn’t get blown out by the wind. It required activity. In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions, waiting for the right time is not going to cut it. Faithfulness in this case requires some diligence. Keep those lamps lit!
We prepare for a surprise - the surprise of a master who chooses to serve dinner to his servants. And we prepare for the surprise of a return that sort of resembles an act of breaking and entering. Either way we look at it, Jesus’ emphasis is on the surprise of his return, whether every fear is calmed at this moment or not.
Because, despite the good news announced as “do not be afraid,” there are still things we as humans will be fearful of. But what Jesus is trying to do here is assure us and shift our mindset. Even in the midst of our fears, Christ comes with Gospel promise.
We know, we have seen the certainty of God’s love for us - revealed, lived, died, and raised in Jesus. And it is only after this promise that we can even remotely imagine any sort of concept of what our true treasure might be.
It is this promise that allows us to trust, that allows us to let go of fear, that allows us to have faith. And that is a faith Jesus wants to foster. That is a faith that Jesus wants to secure in us. That is a faith that we put in Jesus himself. And this faith frees us to be generous; this faith enables us to leave fears behind; this faith gives confidence about a future not by our own efforts and abilities, but a future secured by God and God alone.
Jesus invites us into faithful discipleship by announcing a promise: Like parents who love their children deeply, and desperately and want all good things for them, so also is it God’s good pleasure to give God’s children the kingdom. Promises create a future. Promises create relationship. Promises create faith. Promises create hope.
Our discipleship isn’t based on fear, but promise. All of what Jesus teaches us about the Christian life – whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more – is anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Everything flows from that promise, so that we can live ready to serve, now and forever.
We thank Rev. Hank Moody for preaching while Pastor Jason was away.
There is no text available for this sermon.
I like meat.
When people come over to our house for a meal, be it family or friends, we often put something on the grill. It could be anything from burgers and hotdogs, steaks and salmon, chicken wings, or even an all day, low and slow smoke of a big piece of pork. Even for Thanksgiving this past year at our house, I smoked a turkey on the grill.
Here’s the thing: the grill is obviously outside. And aside from those abnormally low-humidity, not sweltering hot, perfect summer evenings, usually everyone else is inside while I tend to whatever’s cooking. I don’t mind being busy by the grill. (Dana the vegetarian sure isn’t going to do it.) But I do get to pop inside here and there. I can interject a witty comment now and then. I can reply, “no, not really,” when someone asks if they can help me with anything.
I know I’m probably missing some funny stories or deep conversations happening, but the meat’s gotta be cooked. Cooking and cleaning are ways I show love to those who come over to our house.
I say this because, I don’t want to be overly-critical of Martha, even though it seems like that is what Jesus is doing. Why does he get on to her? All she wanted to do was be a good hostess. NOT being a good hostess would mean disrespecting Jesus! Who would want to do that?
Whenever this lesson comes up, we often seem to divide ourselves and pick a side. The busy people pick Martha, the introspective people pick Mary. Who did it better? Jesus seems to lean toward Mary, as she “chose the better part.” It makes all the Marthas a bit sad.
But this story comes on the heels of Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan where he stopped, bandaged, hauled, and literally served to the extreme. Besides, if we rule out Martha’s role all together, we end up with an image of faith that never actually does anything for anyone else.
So, what’s the deal? Why is Jesus critical of serving here?
Maybe Jesus gets onto Martha because she tries to make her own way of serving necessary for someone else to do, too. Not that we ever do that. Do we ever serve Jesus and then complain when others don’t? I do this and that around here; why aren’t they? I go to church; why don’t they? My way is the right way. That’s the temptation we face.
Yet when we compare what others do to what we do, we overlook the gifts others have, the calling that God has given to them, and we assume that God can only work in our one, defined way, rather than through all the various ways in which the Holy Spirit does work.
That narrowmindedness indeed would be a reason for Jesus to correct Martha. But it doesn’t seem like that is the rationale for critique here. Jesus doesn’t say, “not everyone is like you, Martha. You do you; let others be themselves!” No, instead, Jesus lifts Mary up as an example; he says Mary chose the better part.
So, what is this better part that Mary chose? Well, Mary is listening to Jesus. Soaking in his presence. Letting Jesus provide for her, give to her, feed her with his lessons and teachings. Maybe that’s the problem with Martha’s actions. Martha only sees what she is doing - what she is doing for Jesus, that she busies herself with pleasing Jesus, that she needs to provide for Jesus. But Jesus is providing the one thing that she needs. Jesus IS the one thing she needs.
Jesus is there, right there in front of Martha, and yet, she misses him in her zeal to serve him. He is inviting her to be filled up, to grow, to be free of the burden of “have to.” He is not saying her care and hospitality is unneeded. Instead, he wants Martha to be in his gracious presence, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God.
Jesus wants Martha to know that there is life - true life - present, and she is free to take part in that life - in, with, under, and even during her responsibilities.
It seems like true life happens in the interruptions, when our regular busyness and to-do lists which consume us get blown to bits. This past week for me it was: instead of hanging a ceiling fan, going to the pool with the family. (The ceiling fan got hung later.) Instead of reading emails, reading a book with the kids. Instead of any number of things that we just have to do, finding the little joys that interrupt our life… that is how God provides something much bigger and more meaningful.
Maybe, just maybe, that is part of what is going on here. Jesus is urging Martha - and even all of us - not to miss those moments where God’s grace bursts through our never ending duties. Because that grace comes to surprise us, to remind us, to point us again to the depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus invites us, all of us who are worried and distracted by many things,
to sit and rest in his presence,
to hear again his words of grace and truth,
to know that we are loved and valued as children of God,
to be renewed in faith and strengthened for service.
There is need of only one thing: to pay attention to our guest, who surprises us with words of grace and life, even in the midst of all that we have going on.
And on top of that, our “guest” is really our host. As much as we think we serve Jesus, he is the one who continues to relentlessly give to us. Whether we see him or not, whether we are busy or not, whether we want to do it my way or not… Jesus still is there. He is present. He is announcing a love that breaks through. He serves us himself in bread and wine. He claims us forever in the waters of baptism. He comes to us with everlasting love, whether it is on our to-do list or not.
Luke’s story of Mary and Martha is left unfinished. We do not know what happened next — whether Mary and Martha were reconciled, whether they were all able to enjoy the meal that Martha had prepared (out at the grill?), whether Martha was finally able to sit and give her full attention to Jesus.
But what we do know is that Jesus was there - and is here - with blessings of love and grace. Jesus provides the one thing that we need. Jesus IS the one thing we need.
The Good Samaritan is one of the most recognizable parables Jesus tells. We know the story. A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is robbed, beaten, and left for dead in the ditch. A couple of people we expect to help him do not; they pass by on the other side. Then, the one who is least likely to help does exactly that. He stops, bandages the wounded man, takes him to an inn, and pays for all the expenses.
So which one are you? Are you the “holier than thou” priest? Are you the purity-law abiding Levite? Are you the unexpected and unlikely rescuer, there to save the day? Are you this one or that one? Which one are you?
That’s usually how we look at this parable. We see what Jesus is up to. He’s pointing out that we usually pass by when others are hurting; instead, he is teaching us that we should expand our ideas of who our neighbor is and help anyone we come across.
This lesson through story is sprung from when the lawyer asks the question, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by defining “neighbor” not in terms of proximity (the person next door) or tribe (the person like me), but rather the person in need. The guy in the ditch is my neighbor. Even if it is contentious, helping is always the right thing to do.
This interpretation of the parable is useful and important. It helps us see another fellow human being, and it calls us to put their needs above all other considerations - something that is sorely lacking in our world today.
But here’s my issue with this being THE way we interpret the parable - not just “a” way, because, like I said, we can learn something from that interpretation. But we often leave this as the one way we interpret the story Jesus tells, as if he’s only teaching us how to be a better Christian.
Here’s the thing with that: growing up and all through seminary, I was taught that Jesus told parables in order to explain something about God, God’s kingdom, God’s love. He didn’t share parables primarily to tell us how to behave. Of course, there is our response, our change - something we learn to do because of what God has already done, but usually what we humans do with any morality lesson we receive from God is… we fall short of that standard.
It may be my stubbornness in holding fast to what I was taught, but I don’t think Jesus is trying to set up yet another standard we will fail to achieve - even if that is the easiest way to hear the parable. I truly think he is trying to explain something about God to us.
Jesus wants us to know God, know how God acts and responds and loves. Jesus teaches us that God acts first, God does things, and we, then, do our best to live into what God does for us and for our world.
And looking at the parable in that light, in light of Jesus wanting to tell us about God, it opens up the fourth option: we’re the one in the ditch. It almost makes too much sense.
Of course God is the one who stops. God is the one who cares for us, for you, when it seems like no one else wants to. God is the one who goes above and beyond to make sure you are safe, healed, have all you truly need to live.
Because, when we really think about it, we are in need more than we like to admit. We might think we are doing just fine on this road through life, but sin doesn’t just let us walk on by. We are broken, beaten, poor, and unable to help ourselves. Eventually, we get beaten down, stripped of our power and control. We are broken by sin, left for dead by the side of the road, unable to make ourselves better, make ourselves right and continue walking, unable to do much of anything at all. We need help.
We need someone to come along and be our neighbor, someone to come and help us. The things we think should be our neighbors - things of this world that we think should make us whole and acceptable, things like money, status, possessions… they just walk by on the other side. They can’t save us in our time of greatest need.
Instead, we are saved by an unexpected character, in a very unexpected way - a way as unexpected as a cross. A cross? Surely not. No way. And yet… It is from this surprising place that we receive the only help that can truly make us whole. From this gift of grace, we receive the true healing and wholeness that we so desperately need and long for.
God helps us in unexpected, surprising, and shocking ways. God has saved us from our ditch - our ditch of brokenness, despair, and death.
Looking at the parable this way gives us a wonderful image of who exactly God is. God isn’t defined first and foremost by power or might or the need for praise, but rather, by God’s concern for each of us, no matter where we find ourselves. God is less a dictator and more a loving parent; less a law giver and more a love giver; less a standard keeper and more one who simply desires that all God’s children are cared for. And, it seems to me, that Jesus’ entire ministry - his healings, his parables, even including his death on the cross - it all was to display to the world God’s tremendous love for us, showing us exactly how those in the Kingdom of God live.
Jesus comes to us in so many expected and unexpected ways. He comes in bread and wine to feed us and nourish us. He comes in water and word to claim us and welcome us. He comes in familiar stories we know, but he teaches us again about the extent of God’s love.
So, which one are you? Which one am I? We are the recipients of grace. The recipients of Christ’s care through the cross. The recipients of mercy and new life.
God acts on our behalf, saving us, healing us, and caring for us. Now, go and do likewise.
I have always been pretty organized and orderly - some might say regimented - but I also pride myself on not getting too flustered with chaos. I like having a routine, but if something goes haywire, my stress level usually doesn’t usually overtake my ability to be in control.
Like when I worked as an Area Director at Lutheridge - a Lutheran camp near Asheville, NC. I would oversee counselors and their cabins of eight kids each. When onsite at the camp, things pretty much ran themselves. But on outing day - like to a waterfall or on a hike or places like that - that’s when things could get crazy. There were a lot of variables -
from cooking frozen hamburgers on a grill in the middle of a national park while it was raining,
to people on family vacations trying to enjoy their trip to a swimming hole when two bus loads of kids show up,
to cuts, bruises, sprains, and even one person getting “bitten” by a fish…
I didn’t mind controlling that chaos because I would build chaos into the plan. In a funny way, knowing it was going to be chaotic allowed me greater control.
That’s not to say things always went super well. One time I gave the bus driver wrong directions. That wasn’t something I planned for. So, instead of a petting zoo we ended up at a fish hatchery (where the aforementioned fish biting happened). Even in the chaos, things weren’t so bad.
But the thing is, even then, I never really felt out of control. Things happen, we deal, and we have fun along the way.
And it’s kind of been that way my whole life. There hasn’t been too much that has gone wrong, that has been something I feel I can’t control. The senior pastor I worked with in Pennsylvania would say that’s because I haven’t lived long enough. And deep down, I know he’s right. Our world is chaotic. There are going to be times, times of hurricanes or floods or storms, illness or injury or death, something is going to happen at some point where I’m not in control.
And I don’t know how I’ll react. Maybe I’ll lose it; maybe I’ll focus all the more on the things I can still control.
I think we’re all like that a bit. And so, we work really hard to maintain control of the things we can - even if we build in a little flexibility for the chaos. Since this “control” piece is part of each of us, at least a little bit, maybe that’s why there are so many various reactions to Jesus in this week’s Gospel lesson. It seems there is always an excuse not to follow Jesus, and a lot of those excuses revolve around us keeping control.
When Jesus calls people to follow, they say, “Yes, but…”
The first someone approaches Jesus and says that they will follow Jesus “wherever you go,” even, presumably, to Jerusalem. Jesus warns that there will be a lot of “roughing it” associated with following him.
A second person is called by Jesus to follow, and says, “But first I need to bury my father.” A third offers to follow Jesus, and adds, “But first, let me say my goodbyes.” To these two, Jesus essentially says, “first things need to be first things.”
There is no particularly good, no right, no perfect time to start following Jesus. We’ve always got an excuse not to follow - a “but.”
You just do… or you don’t. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a very straight line if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. You might as well not plow at all.
Jesus calls them, calls us, to a mission that matters, to a mission that makes a difference. He expects people to take that seriously, to drop everything and follow. Anyone who doesn’t see the importance this difference makes isn’t fit to be a disciple.
Which then leads me to ask, is Jesus’ mission now important to us?
Does the grace, love, and mercy of God seen in Jesus overrule our plans and shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?
Do we want to leave the results up to God or control them ourselves?
We so desire to be in control, to maintain some semblance of order in this chaotic world. Yet Jesus is pretty straightforward with us. He says his mission comes first - before us and before our plans, even those plans that seem pretty reasonable.
Again, why? I think it’s because Jesus knows that we aren’t really in control. He knows that control is an illusion and that an accident or chemo or addiction or a 9/11 or a pandemic or supply chain issues or a mass shooter or any one of a million other things can crush our hopes and dreams - as well as any plans we have made. There is no “right time” for those things.
And so Jesus invites us to, what? Give complete control over to him?
That sounds tempting - and rather pious - but I’m not so sure that’s what he means. Jesus isn’t saying he will take control of our lives if we turn things over to him. Jesus isn’t about control. I mean, he’s not heading to Jerusalem to take charge, to control things. Instead, he’s going to fully embrace the out-of-control-ness of our world. He’s fully entering into the chaos... and then coming out the other side.
Here, instead of taking control, Jesus is saying to trust him. Trust him to be with you in the chaos. That’s the promise of the Gospel - not that we’re in control of our destiny. The Gospel message is that Jesus is with us in our chaotic, out-of-control world; God holds on to us through it; and God brings us out the other side.
And so, Jesus here is calling us as disciples to let go of a little bit of our control, to give up on the illusion we have, to see his mission as most important, to trust his promises, to follow him into this world that God loves so much, and then know that God will join us on the adventure.
There are few things more chaotic than Vacation Bible School. And yet… God’s love and grace abound in those five evenings. Older generations connect with younger ones, faith is taught and passed along, fruits of the spirit of love, joy, patience are lived and seen. There are tons of reasons not to, but we had so many volunteers step up and share the love of Jesus with our kids.
There is never a right time to be hungry, and we are working to make food more available to those in need. Just last month, we donated over 500 pounds of nonperishables to Helping Hand. Monthly, we feed people with home cooked meals and give him a hospitable, welcoming place to eat it. And soon, we will have our Blessing Box out and available - all the time ready to help someone with food for them or their kids. There are tons of reasons not to, but we trust Jesus is working through us to fill stomachs as well as hearts.
We might have a lot of excuses, but Jesus calls us to a mission that matters, to a mission that makes a difference. We may not know what the future holds, and we are doing wonderful things in Jesus’ name, but how can we continue? How can we ensure hope, grace, and gospel are well-shared in word and song and worship? There are tons of reasons not to, but we can build on the blessings we have been given to better share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in worship, in welcome, in our space.
Maybe that’s what faith and discipleship looks like. It looks like trusting God’s presence in and through all things, living and acting like it’s true, and knowing that God will bring us through. It looks like trusting we are in God’s hands, even when we don’t have control of a single doggone thing. It’s knowing that Jesus has been there - and has come through the other side.
God has embraced our chaos before. And God’s love wins out. God’s life wins out. That should give us hope. And because there will never be a right time to start, there’s always a reason not to, our hope in Jesus means there’s no better time to start than right now.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday - strategically placed just as we culminate the major lessons of the church year. This is the transition Sunday between the main readings and what we call “ordinary time” in the church calendar.
We started out in the Fall, focusing on the Old Testament readings - readings about Israel, hearing about the God revealed in the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and giving the 10 Commandments, who worked through regular people and not so regular prophets. At Christmas, we transitioned to the story of Jesus, God’s Son, who traveled and taught and died and lived. Then last week, we heard the story of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, riling up the disciples and encouraging them to get out and spread the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
So now, we’ve heard the whole story of who God is: God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Put ‘em together and what have you got? The Trinity. The three persons of God, inseparable but distinct. Today we celebrate and acknowledge more than usual our one-in-three, three-in-one God.
And I have to admit, this is a tough one. Especially since everything I have ever read about the Trinity has some sort of footnote, excursus, or chapter devoted to explaining how our language and minds are woefully inadequate to describe the glory, complexity, and paradoxical nature of the Trinity. A lot of preachers at this point say, “I’m going to try anyway!” and spend the next 15 minutes boring and confusing everyone in the room - themselves included.
Well, I’m not. Not really. Instead of trying to explain the Trinity, where NO explanation is really adequate, I’m going to invite you to do some theological thinking. Instead of today being about regurgitating Doctrine, where all we do is assert something about God, we’re going to do Theology, meaning, we’re going to take what we know about God and apply it to our life and context. What we say about God somehow has to matter for our lives, right?
Who is God and why does God matter? We need to think through who God is as revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then figure out why that matters in our lives.
Let’s first look at the first part of that question, who is God? God is relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are relationship - connected, loving relationship. The three persons are bound tight in a relationship of love. Our God, at the heart of who God is, is about being connected with another, about loving and being loved. They are the perfect relationship - one that loves and gives and shares so intimately that they are one, literally one.
That is who God is.
And now, for the second, theological part: why does God matter? How does “God as relationship” matter to me, for me?
Well, because God is relationship, that tells us a lot about God’s motives. God didn’t need to create us in order to have a partner, in order to have someone to love, in order to have a relationship with another. Instead, God chose to create us, God chose to redeem us, God chooses to love us.
Instead of God seeing how good this love and relationship is and keeping it for God’s self, God just had to share this love, just had to share this relationship. That is why we were created - to share in that love that God has. God desperately wants to share with us this ultimate love and best relationship.
That means, we weren’t created so that God could lord over us from afar, or toy with our emotions about whether we are in or out. We were created so that we could know and have what God has, so that we could share in beautiful and glorious love with God and with each other. The only thing that makes love better is sharing it with others.
We were created to be in that type of relationship. And God will do whatever it takes to make it so. That is the whole story of the Bible. God will do whatever it takes so we know we are loved.
Paul the Apostle might be the first theologian, taking what he knew about God and doing more than describing. Paul had to make sure who God is made a difference in our very existence and life with God.
For Paul, God’s action in Jesus was God walking the walk, not just talking the talk. God did something about our sorry state. We humans are pretty bad at relationships. Even our very best relationships have moments of frustration and discord - not to mention the discord we created with God. But God wanted us anyway. God wanted relationship with us, wanted to share love with us, so God mended our relationship.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “We are justified.” God justifies us. God makes the relationship between us and God right again, before we even know it needs to be made right.
See, justification is nothing less than the promise that God accepts you as you are -
not because of WHO you are or what you have accomplished,
not because of what you MIGHT become or COULD do,
not because of who you have promised to be or what you have pledged in your heart.
God accepts you because that is who God is, and that is what God does: God makes relationship.
And what this does is it brings us peace. No fear about where we stand. No moments of having to be “on guard” with God. There’s not even a new self-help manual. God justifies us so that we might be able to have peace. And if we have peace, we have relationship; and if we have relationship, we know we are loved.
We are justified to God because God wants us to know love. That is who God is.
Which means, since our relationship with God isn’t about us getting it right, isn’t about us having all the answers, isn’t about us being able to meet God standard for standard, we get some freedom and relief. We get the chance to grow and change. We get the opportunity to try our best and not worry about where we stand.
And because God promises us relationship, we have permission. We have permission to try things in faith, even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going. Because the idea isn’t that we already have it all together perfectly. We aren’t “there” yet. We’re allowed to have a holy curiosity as we explore and engage who we are as people of God. That’s part of how we grow as disciples. We learn and grow and experiment in ways to help others and help ourselves grow deeper in relationship with God.
Over our history here at St. Philip, we’ve taken that seriously, stepping out in faith. We tried new things, set lofty goals, changed the way we’ve done things - all because we knew God promised to be with us, and God wants more for this community of faith than staying where we were or are.
God continually calls us forward, to better live into that relationship with God, to better share God’s love with the world, to better be a reflection of all who God is to those around us. And we will do that - in ways we’ve done for decades, in ways we try out for a while, and in ways we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
And because of God’s relationship with us, we have hope about what will be.
Paul insists that because we have peace with God, we can endure whatever this world throws at us - and not just endure but build character, grow stronger, thrive despite what is happening. This just reinforces who it is that holds us, no matter what. This is our hope.
Because of who God is, God brings us into relationship and love before we even know we need it. We don’t live in fear of God, but we have peace with God. And if we have peace, we have relationship; and if we have relationship, we know we are loved.
That is why God matters. But even more than that, that is simply who God is.
*Please note that the first half of the sermon discusses the stained glass windows at St. Philip Lutheran Church in Myrtle Beach. The sermon will only generally follow the script written here.*
We have a tradition of talking about the stained glass windows on Pentecost. It kind of snuck up on me this year, but I remembered in time!
My favorite thing about this building is the stained glass. To me, it is what stained glass should look like. The most prominent window is this one in the back - the huge, 30 foot tall window.
Some people have asked me if that is supposed to be St. Philip, which is a good guess, but no, it’s Jesus. It’s full of symbols to help remind us who Jesus is. Jesus is holding a shield which has NIKA on it, a Greek word which means “victor.” Near his right foot, there is the book with the four crosses, symbolizing the four Gospel narratives about Jesus. And over at the other foot is a lamp, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world. Up the left side is a pillar, much like the poles they used to strap prisoners to when they were whipping them, reminding us of Jesus’ suffering. And on the right is a vine going up the entire right side, reminding us of Jesus’ words, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” At the top is the cross and crown - promise and hope for us.
It’s a beautiful window - even more so when the sun is right about there and the light pours into this room with a kaleidoscope of colors. It is beautiful in here. And while that is the most prominent of the windows, we also have these on the sides.
Over here we have three windows for the Trinity. Father, with the star of David, and the eye and hand showing us that God sees and gives everything. And then, if you look just right, the words along the bottom, “I am who I am.”
The Son, with the lamb carrying the victory banner and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding us that Jesus is the beginning and the end.
And the Holy Spirit - with an image of a Bible up top. God calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies through the Word. Then a dove at the bottom, much like the Spirit descended as a dove at Jesus’ baptism.
Over here we have the windows which display the seasons of the Church year. We start on the left with Advent and Christmas with the manger and a shepherd’s crook. Moving to the right we have a Star and Three Crowns for Epiphany. We keep going and we get to a cross in the middle with a crown of thorns for Lent and Holy Week. Then a butterfly in the top - a symbol of resurrection with lilies down below. And finally, the last window is the Pentecost window with flames stretching through this window and into the other panels. Fire, fire like the tongues of flame we heard about in our story from Acts.
Newest additions, paintings behind the lectern and pulpit which were created by Lori Dauphin, member here. Meant to fit in with the rest of the stained glass.
Word and sacrament. Go with the one that is a little easier to understand first - the one that has communion elements on it. There is the chalice and host, grapes and wheat - fruit from the earth, given by God’s hands.
Then on the other side we have the four authors of the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are known as the Evangelists. They are often represented with their symbols: the Angel for Saint Matthew (Jesus incarnate, a human), the Lion for Saint Mark (kingly, royalty), the Ox for Saint Luke (service and sacrifice) and the Eagle for Saint John (lofty, high, name above every name).
We use these windows and the symbols on them to teach us, to share the story, to remind us of all that God does.
Here are sermons from St. Philip. Many more of our sermons are archived over on our Youtube page.
A few notes for you:
The sermons are put up with the newest at the top. For older sermons, scroll down.
If you are looking for a particular date or scripture passage, it may be best to use the "Find" function. To do this, hold Ctrl and press F. Type in the date or scripture you wish to find.
If you would like to print a sermon, it may be best to copy the text (highlight and then Ctrl+C) and paste it (Ctrl+V) in a separate word processing program. Alternatively, if you do print from this website, make sure to only print the appropriate 2-3 pages.