If someone comes to you and says they have good news and they have bad news, which do you want to hear first?
I’m more of a “good news first” type of guy. I like to start off on the right foot. And luckily for me, Jesus starts out his sermon for today with good news, even though he doesn’t really ask us which we’d like to hear first. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Wow! The words that the prophet Isaiah spoke so long ago are finally coming true! Jesus is the one! The day is finally here!
And now, the bad news. Uh oh. We forgot there was bad news. The bad news is that the good news isn’t for you. Wait - what? The good news isn’t for us? But you’re Joseph’s boy! You’re one of us! What in the world do you mean that the good news isn’t for us?
And maybe I’m being a bit dramatic here, but Jesus doesn’t actually say that the good news isn’t for these people listening, and he doesn’t say that the good news isn’t for us. Instead, he says the good news isn’t only for us. It’s for others, too.
Jesus goes on to list examples of what it is he means.
He talks about Elijah and how he was sent to a widow - a non-Israelite widow - in Zarephath.
He mentions how Elisha cured the leper, Naaman, even though there were lots of Israelite lepers to be cured.
Somehow, some way, God has always widened the circle beyond those who think they’re in. God’s favor and love and grace doesn’t privilege one people, one home, one country, and God’s people and prophets aren’t always playing the roles we expect them to play.
This is why Jesus isn’t doing all those signs and wonders here in their presence. He is following a precedent God has already set; Jesus is taking the Good News beyond everyone’s comfort zone. And the people are kind of cranky about it. They want to hurl him off a cliff.
They react this way, I think, because they see Jesus as their own. They’re the ones who have been faithful their whole lives. They are the ones whose history is full of troubled times and difficult moments. They are the ones who do things the right way. They should be the recipients of the great miracles. They should see the wonders and might. They should be the recipients of good news.
Not that we ever react like that. Over the years, we’ve gotten used to the idea that yes, Jesus comes for us, but Jesus also comes for other people. We’ve gotten a bit comfortable with that idea, and it doesn’t really offend us all that much. We actually want Jesus to love everybody, because we want Jesus to bring them to us so we can welcome them in. That’s the good news - that you’re welcome here!
But Jesus doesn’t say that is the good news. Instead, Jesus proclaims good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. And the thing about proclaiming good news to the poor is, that often means proclaiming discomforting news to the comfortable, like us. Proclaiming good news to outsiders means the insiders, like us, aren’t exclusive.
When one is used to being privileged, anything less feels like an insult. And Jesus doesn’t treat them as privileged insiders. Us either.
The Good News isn’t only for us. We are all under the same God and Father; Jesus goes to all; and all are loved, graced, forgiven, clean, regardless of if we’re here, if we’re well-off, if we’ve been almost good enough.
God is so unfair.
And maybe that gets more to the heart of why we might be a little uncomfortable with Jesus’ Good News. Jesus says that God is unfair. And we don’t mind God being unfair… when God is unfair in our favor. We get upset when God is unfair in the favor of others - others who aren’t worshiping like we are, doing their duty by dedicating an hour each week. Even them? Even those? Yes, even and especially those.
That is a hard pill to swallow sometimes. And yet, Jesus means just what he says. And in spite of hard hearts and violent mobs, Jesus shows up with good news - regardless of whether it is received.
As a preacher, sometimes it is hard to know if what I say makes much of a difference. I mean, Jesus preaches here and everyone gets upset. On the one hand, no one has tried to throw me off a cliff, so I don’t know if I’m actually doing it right or not. But on the other hand, if Jesus can’t get through to people, then maybe I’m in good company, even if the good news I proclaim doesn’t immediately change everyone’s hearts and minds.
Instead, I guess I should just follow Jesus’ example and keep proclaiming God’s Good News and trust the Spirit to work. Because the scripture has been fulfilled, ready or not. And come cliff or cross, it won’t be stopped. Not by hate. Not by white supremacy. Not by selfishness. Not by nationalism. Not by violent mobs or those who stir them up. Not even death stops God’s Good News for all people. That these things don’t have a place in God’s Kingdom surely is Good News.
And as we limit ourselves to seeing and hearing only what we want, we fail to see what God is trying to reveal to us and transform for us.
Jesus says, “today, scripture has been fulfilled.” Where Jesus shows up, there is fulfillment. Where Jesus shows up, there is salvation. Where Jesus shows up, there is Good News. Not because we are open and ready, not because we are in a special club, not because of us at all. Salvation is present because Jesus is present.
It is Jesus’ presence that makes a sermon a sermon. It is the Spirit being here that opens our hearts. It is God’s Good News that changes our lives for life. And by the power of the Spirit, Jesus continues, today, to proclaim release, recovery, favor to all people.
So, do you want good news or the Good News?
Today, the Good News has been fulfilled because Jesus is present.
On a day when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, it sure seems like we talk a lot about John.
John is introduced to us by Luke as a prophet. He is introduced in the same way prophets from the Old Testament are introduced. People the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel are all placed in a specific time frame with specific, important people of the day named. “In the fifteenth year of this Emperor and that important guy ruled that area…” Once the historical time frame is established, the word of God comes.
And not only is John introduced as a prophet, but he speaks like one, too. He says and preaches a truth that people don’t like to hear. Name-calling and insults aside (you brood of vipers), John speaks about repentance and bearing fruit worthy of said repentance. He calls the people to change their ways and notes the forthcoming penalties if there isn’t a change.
John teaches any and all - tax collectors to Roman soldiers - giving them practical ways to live. Share your extra coat. If you have extra food, do likewise. Do your job justly, without stealing or bullying. People listen and are filled with expectation and hope. They want to be baptized by John with water for the forgiveness of sins.
Surely, John is a prophet - an important person! But the thing about prophets is… they aren’t the ones to fix things. They aren’t “the One.” Every prophet points beyond themselves to God, prepares others for God’s coming. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and now John. They all point to God’s action.
John knows he’s not the one. Like all good prophets, he points beyond himself. “Someone is coming who is stronger than I am. I don’t deserve to untie his sandals.” John points to the one coming.
By the time we get to Jesus in verse 21, John has done his job. We are well prepared. But John is absent from the baptism.
“That can’t be,” you may exclaim! But it’s true. John gets locked away in prison before we even get to the baptism scene with Jesus. The other Gospels tell the story as John performing the baptism - even as he questions doing it. However, Luke separates John from the baptism, getting him out of the way.
John’s body is replaced by the Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove.
John’s voice crying out in the wilderness is replaced by a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved.”
Luke tells it this way because Luke wants us to remember: John isn’t the point. John isn’t the story. Jesus is. God’s Word is coming. Jesus is the story.
As much of a role as John plays here, this story isn't about John. The story is about who John points to: Jesus. This baptism isn’t about who performs it; it is about God’s actions in and through this baptism.
And what does God do through this baptism? Well, if we look at the story through what John does, it is about forgiveness of sins. Which complicates things for Jesus, him being sinless and all. Of course, we can look at this as Jesus is baptized so that he could identify with us. He is baptized so he can stand in solidarity with us. And this can connect to the cross, too, that though Jesus was sinless still suffered death. Throughout his life, from his birth and baptism to his suffering and death, Jesus stands both with us and for us.
That’s Good News and comforting, but that’s not what I think Luke is getting at here. Remember, Luke makes a point to remove John from this baptism so that we can focus on Jesus, focus on God and God’s actions, in and through baptism.
And so back to the question at hand: what does God do through this baptism?
God speaks. God speaks directly and intimately: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” What powerful words to hear. Jesus is baptized because through his baptism, God gives identity - “you are my beloved Son.” God gives affirmation of who he is, his value, his worth - “with you I am well pleased.” How important are these words, especially at the outset of ministry.
And God sends the Spirit. With John faded to the background, all that is left is Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is baptized so that he may receive the gift and power of the Holy Spirit in a tangible and visible way.
Identity, affirmation, Spirit – this is why Jesus is baptized, I think, and also why we are, too.
In baptism, we, too, get the gifts Jesus received. God looks upon us and says, “you are my beloved, my child. With you I am well pleased.” God grabs ahold of us and showers us with the Holy Spirit. God names us and claims us. God gives us our identity and affirms who we are. And through baptism, God makes us into prophets, ones who point beyond ourselves to God’s work, action, and love.
Identity, affirmation, Spirit - these are gifts of baptism.
And no matter the other stories that get told to us or around us,
no matter the falsehoods and misinformation,
no matter the violent stories of power, corruption, and greed,
no matter the stories that divide a people and a nation,
God's story is what matters. God's actions are what claim us. God’s love is what defines us.
Luke tells us the story of God. And we, as prophets - identified, affirmed, and Spirit-blessed in baptism - we tell that story, too, in words and deeds. It’s the story that matters most.
We point to the one who is coming. The one revealed. The one born. The one crucified, died, and buried. The one raised. That’s what today - and everyday - is all about.
Thank you to the Rev. Dick Albert for filling in while Pastor Jason was away.
Christmas is a bit different at the beach.
Northerners have their feet of snow and evergreen fir trees. They’re all bundled up in hats and scarves and mittens. They do things like sledding and skiing and have snowball fights. It’s the kind of stuff we see in classic movies. It’s what we think of as a “normal” wintertime scene.
Here, we have some not-normal things at Christmas. The most perfect example I can think of is palm trees with Christmas lights. I remember our first Christmas here how amused I was at that sight. It is just so unexpected and yet… so perfect. Christmas still happens at the beach, even if it doesn’t look like the “normal” Christmases in photos and movies.
A normal Christmas. Not this year, I’m afraid. We all know this, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. We long for “those days” - the gatherings, the festivities, the pre-pandemic way of life, when things were just… well, normal.
Aside from our usual family traditions on Christmas, many of which are changed this year, we have always had this worship service, too. For as long as we’ve known it, Christmas Eve was in a pretty church, with lots of loud singing, and very full pews. And though being here (or watching and worshiping from home) may bring us a little bit of that nostalgia of Christmases past, there is enough that is different. There is enough where it just doesn’t feel normal.
Throughout this entire year, we’ve had to wrestle with what is normal. Without our regular places and routines, we’ve had to reimagine most of our life - from not being able to visit mom or grandmom in the nursing home to altering how we shop for groceries to even a shift in our faith and how we worship, see, feel God.
In years past, if we wondered where God might be showing up, we’d think in a fancy building like this. Through people who wear funny robes. By community singing Silent Night. Those are the normal ways and places where we expect to see God, where we expect God to show up. But we’ve had to rethink all that. And Christmas is and should be a time that has always had us rethink the normal places we look for God.
Because this Christmas - and the first Christmas - isn’t about God showing up in what we think is the normal way. The normal place for a Savior, a King, to be born is in a palace or a hospital or something like that. That’s normal. It’s not normal to be born in a barn and laid in a manger. Not a King. Not the Savior. Not God.
And yet, God shows up in the unexpected not-normal. We look to the places usually reserved for the creator of everything, but God also shows up in water and bread and wine. We generally focus on the high and mighty, but God shows up in regular people like you and me. We normally behold fancy, ornate cathedrals, yet God shows up in a stable, in a manger, in the arms of an unwed teenage girl.
Maybe this was God’s intent all along. Maybe this is why God chose to become one of us - to upend what we and what our world sees as “normal,” to shake us free from what was and what always has been, so that we can wake up to the dawn of redeeming grace. God has greater plans than we can even imagine. Maybe God wants to show us that the normal we create isn’t the normal that God wishes for us.
The normal we create isn’t the normal God wishes for us.
It is God in the flesh is who is in the manger. God doesn’t demand we ascend up to heaven, but instead God comes down into our lives, our situations, our sufferings. God comes down for us, not to simply be an example, but to change our very selves, lives, and world. God comes down for us to show us a love and a grace that births in us new opportunities and new possibilities for seeing God with us. And if God is with us - With. Us. - then so is God’s love and grace and life.
This is the normal God wishes for us.
In Christ, in this birth, the world has changed. We are recipients of God’s love, light, and life. We have good news of great joy, for us, this day, is born a Savior, the Messiah. Our normal way of connecting with God has changed, and it has changed because God came down for us.
There is no going back to our normal. There is no going back to normal once the Word became flesh. No going back to normal when Jesus sent his disciples out to all the nations. No going back to normal when the women found the tomb empty.
No, this Christmas won’t be very normal for many of us. It might be like, to people who live elsewhere, a palm tree with Christmas lights - so unexpected but so perfect. Perfect because this Christmas might be more like that first Christmas than any other in our memory. We won’t find ourselves at any of the normal places, like an inn or a palace, but instead at a stable, kneeling by a manger, waiting for our world to be changed, to be graced, to be reborn, never to be normal again.
Today we hear about the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary. And boy, does it have a lot in it.
While in normal timelines, this announcement should’ve happened about 9 months ago, the Gospel of Luke moves quickly from this scene to the manger. So do we, as this week we will again remember the birth of Christ and welcome the Savior of the world.
But, to the story at hand. As I mentioned, there is so much here for reflection and a sermon.
We hear that a barren, elderly woman is actually pregnant.
We see an angel of the Lord appearing.
We learn that the nobody of Mary is actually favored.
Mary’s question is appropriate: “How can this be?” This type of stuff doesn’t just happen. They aren’t regular occurrences. In fact, some would say, they’re impossible. And that is the common theme that binds all these pieces together: the impossibility of the whole situation.
And yet, God gives possibility.
Today, we’re about 9 months into living with this pandemic - and it hasn’t moved quite as quickly as Mary’s pregnancy in Luke’s Gospel. We’re confused, afraid, divided. For us in this time and in this year, we are facing the impossibility of having a Christmas like in the past. This year, what is the same? What will be good about this coming week?
Some of you are here right now who didn’t plan to be. You had planned, hoped, to be somewhere else with family, with your kids and grandkids and siblings. How can this be... for Christmas isn’t the same without gathering together.
There are some whom we wish were here but aren’t, and we are left alone, left to our shock, surprise, and grief. Loved ones are gone from our celebrations, stolen by disease, death coming before we were ready. Many Christmases may have passed since, or this may be the first without them, but it’s not, never will be, the same. How can this be… for Christmas isn’t right without all of us here.
And our world loves to capitalize - and cash in - on those impossibilities. It gives us the quick fixes to glam-up our holiday, to overcompensate by over-giving, to even create community from afar. And sure, it is nice to have the technology to see people from a distance, but it’s impossible to make Facetime like giving a hug.
In the absence of relationships, in the absence of normalcy, in the absence of worship like we are used to, it almost feels like there is an absence of God. How can this be… Christmas? How can we not be afraid? How can we still know God’s favor? How can the impossible still be possible even in the midst of all this? How can this be?
It can be because it is God who gives the possibility. And not just the possibility, but the promise. God has indeed sent the Spirit to be present, to make possible the impossible. And what we hear today reminds us that God turns our “how can this be?” into “let it be with me according to your word.”
In this text, we see Mary transition from a girl to a prophet,
from unwed teenager to mother of God,
from denial to discipleship.
And as we see the Spirit move Mary, we know that the Spirit helps us transition from Advent to Christmas. In Advent, we wait for God’s impossible promises to come to us; at Christmas they come in the most unexpected of ways.
The Annunciation helps us, along with Mary, move from question to affirmation of how God works in our broken, limited, impossibly-minded world. It helps us transition from absence of God to full on presence in flesh and blood. To shift from a disappointing Christmas to a Christmas full of promise and hope.
Mary’s story moves us from all the impossibilities and disappointments around us to see again who God has called us to be - favored ones, named and claimed in the waters of baptism. We know that God has given the promise to break down the impossible barriers of sin and death that separate us from God and each other.
What may seem like an impossible Christmas in our world and in our lives right now… well, God gives the possibility for something great and surprising. While it is impossible for us to have a Christmas like those of our memory, and things will feel and be different this year, the promise of God is still there, still present with us. The promise of God fulfilled is what makes this time truly Christmas.
Through all this, God still gives the possibility. The promise. And in a few short days, we will see promise fulfilled in a baby, laid in a manger.
Even in this Christmas, God helps us see the promise, the presence, the Spirit. What we see as impossible is really just an opportunity for God to deliver the promise of salvation, hope for all people, and joy to the world.
Waiting. It is something that we’ve all had to do in our lives. And sometimes that waiting is easy. Like waiting for your meal at a restaurant. Do you remember when that used to be commonplace? Order, chat a while, wait for your food. Or waiting in line to get on a rollercoaster or something. Sure, it usually takes a little longer than we want, but it’s not terrible. It’s just waiting.
But other kinds of waiting are harder. We wait to hear about the test results. We wait at the bedside of a loved one. We wait. And the waiting can wear us down.
As we have walked through the Bible since September, we may not have known it, but we were waiting. We were waiting on God. Which seems a bit odd for me to say as I’m pretty sure God was mentioned in every Bible lesson we’ve read in worship.
God was there - saving the Israelites from slavery, fixing issues and problems, giving them grace, life, and covenant. God was there! What do you mean we were “waiting” on God?
Essentially, we were waiting on God to do something a bit more. Up until now in the stories we’ve read, each and every time, we the people mess it up. God comes in to save, fix, and give. This is the covenant that God made with the people. God would be God, and we would be God’s people. We would try our very best to be a light to the nations, to bring God’s Good News to the world, to set people free from their bondage - whatever it is that holds them back from truly being God’s child.
This is the covenant promise that we hear week in, week out. And while this covenant is a brilliant display of God’s faithfulness, it was kind of limited. God comes and saves, fixes, gives… and we rejoice! And then next week, we the people mess it up again. We do something that doesn’t live up to God’s ideals and God has to come in again and save, fix, and give. It seems like we were stuck in our brokenness, and God would come and bail us out, giving us another chance to get it right - or not. This went on and on and on.
But today is a turning point. Today, everything changes. Today, we hear the promise. The promise of a new, everlasting covenant. This is the promise of one who is to come, through whom God would save us yet again - but not in a temporary, run-the-bad-guys-out-of-town type of way. Instead, this would be a second Exodus; a freeing, not just from earthly difficulties, but setting our whole selves free from bondage to sin and death.
This is the covenant we were waiting on.
We were waiting on God to
bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
to comfort all who mourn;
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
Today is the turning point.
Because it’s no longer only about what God has done. This covenant isn’t a new set of rules, guidelines, or self-help axioms. This covenant isn’t about a distant, overseer type of God - merely swooping in from time to time for rescuing, fixing, or giving. This isn’t like the old covenant where we could screw things up.
This covenant is so much more than that. This covenant is what God promises to do to set things right forever. This is about God’s grand, glorious vision of what true redemption looks like. This is an honest-to-goodness in-breaking of God’s self - of God’s justice and blessing and salvation.
God will send a prophet, someone to do for us what we have not, cannot do. This prophet will bring good news, proclaim the Lord’s favor, give a garland instead of ashes… will bring life out death.
Life. It is the promise. It is what we cannot bring. We cannot save ourselves. But God promises more.
This turning point is truly good news. It is good news for people who have had failure after failure. For people who cannot escape their brokenness. For those of us whose bonds to sin are too strong for us to break.
For God will set us free. Jesus will set us free. It all turns on Jesus.
In the next several weeks, we will hear about and see that promise coming to us in a manager, turning our ideas and our world around. And today, we get a glimpse of what God promises to do for us.
God will make an everlasting covenant with us which goes beyond the boundaries of the old. It expands to welcome us all, extends even beyond death, encompasses us all in God’s justice - justice for we who are broken in heart, mind, or soul; we who are in bondage to worldly ways; we who wait for promises to be fulfilled.
For some things it is hard to wait. But thank God we don’t have to wait to hear these words of promise. We don’t have to wait to see hope. To feel love. To taste grace. To know that we wait together. And together, we rejoice in the consistent, faithful promise of God.
Uncertainty. That is what connects the life of the prophet Joel with our lives today. Uncertainty lies in the midst of all that is going on. It looms large in each scene, both past and present.
As I mentioned, Joel was a prophet. And if you know anything about prophets in the Bible it’s that God typically sends them for a reason. The usual reason is that people aren’t following God in the ways they should be. In particular, they’re not living out the Law in service to God and neighbor. So, the prophet’s job, for the most part, is to bring news of consequences if things don’t change. “The day of the Lord is coming,” says Joel as a prelude to our text from chapter 2. And with that day also comes consequences - which, here, looks like a swarm of locusts, devouring and ruining, encompassing everything in sight. Pretty devastating.
So, in the verses before our text for today, there is uncertainty. The uncertainty lies in the questions and mixed feelings over this “day of the Lord.” How much time do we have? How many must repent? Does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch? Isn’t this a bit harsh and cruel? Where is the grace that balances this out? And there aren’t answers - none from the people and none from Joel.
The day of the Lord is coming, like locusts to devour. What will that mean?
For us, our uncertainty doesn’t revolve too much around locusts - though it still is 2020, so who knows what could happen. But uncertainty still rules the day. I’ll fill in that picture with the obvious COVID concerns. While some people choose to shrug it off - carpe diem and all that - others are worried about themselves or loved ones or just being a decent person and not spreading a disease. A vaccine on the horizon still leaves us with questions of efficacy, a timeline, and if we ever will be back to normal.
But other pieces of uncertainty are starting to pop up during this time of year. A joyous time for many can be one of the saddest for others. People’s lives have changed dramatically since this time last year. What will this year look like?
In the days, weeks, and months ahead… what will things look like? Our country will undergo changes. New problems will arise. Old problems won’t go away. Each day is a new challenge for many of us, and we just go, day by day, with emotion, fear, mourning, and uncertainty. We have hope, but we are also realistic. What will it mean?
Uncertainty then. Uncertainty now.
“Yet even now,” says the Lord. “Yet even now, return to me.”
For Joel and his people, the only thing certain was change. Things would have to change. The status quo was about to be upset, regardless of if the cause was a change in people’s ways or a swarm of locusts. But for the prophet, the answer to any issue, especially in the midst of uncertainty, was always to look to God.
When you don’t know where to turn, return to the Lord your God.
One of the easiest things for me about preaching is that I don’t have to make stuff up. I read what the Bible says and I basically just try to say that again in ways that might connect with you and me. Unlike a novel or a short story, I’m not trying to think of a plot, not trying to tell a story I create, and I’m certainly not trying to make up anything new. Instead, I just try to make connections and say what the Bible tells us.
For Joel - and all the other prophets, I suppose - I think it is something similar. Their job of bringing potential bad news is hard, for sure, but they just say what God told them to say. And God always has more to say than the bad news. And that “more” God says through Joel is, “yet even now… return to me.”
“Return to me,” says the Lord.
But it’s not just “return,” but return with all your heart. Rend your hearts, not your clothing. Which might be a bit harder. We may even be uncertain as to what exactly that means.
So, as we slow down a bit and really listen to what God is saying, we know that God knows what is in our hearts - otherwise why would God ask for a change? God knows what is in our hearts, but God wants us to rend those hearts - to open them up, take a good, hard look at what we are carrying around in there.
The thing about rending open one’s heart is, by doing so, we bring out whatever is in there, all the emotions and feelings - weeping and joy, mourning and delight. Uncertainty. Fear. Hurt. Whatever the doctor says, whatever the results. Whatever the number of empty seats at dinner. Whatever virus petrifies. Whatever brokenness, apprehension, and uncertainty there is inside, even now, God knowingly, lovingly, certainly says, “return to me.”
God knows. God knows. And when you don’t know, return to the Lord you God. Yet even now.
In this time of Advent, we wait. We wait in particular for the day of the Lord. We wait for the Lord to come and show us what we and generations already know: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. On that day, we will see how God chooses to judge the world. On that day, we know we will be changed; things can't stay the same. On that day, we know dreams and visions will become certain. On that day, God’s love will be made flesh.
God says, yes, the day of the Lord is coming, but also be certain it is being brought by a God who is gracious and merciful. Be certain that God’s arms are wide open, waiting for us to return. Be certain that God fully knows what is in our hearts - all that is there - and God will take it, take us, no matter what we’ve buried deep.
Be certain that because you have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism, you are always and forever God’s own. Be certain that God feeds our souls at the Lord’s table, and you are always welcome. Be certain that the Holy Spirit is poured out on you, giving your visions and dreams life in this day and in this time. Be certain that the day of the Lord is coming. And even now, God still comes to us with grace, mercy, and steadfast love.
It is certain, but we still wait, don’t we? We wait for the child to be born; we wait for the Lord to come; we wait for our dreams and visions; we wait. But let us not wait with uncertainty. Because even here, God comes with certain promise: you are certainly loved. You are certainly known. You are certainly mine.
Even now. Even always.
“But the days are surely coming.”
That is one of my favorite phrases in all of scripture. “The days are surely coming.” It is full of hope and promise; it uplifts and assures. It is good news to people in the midst of turmoil, uncertainty, and pandemic. The days are surely coming.
And what is interesting about our lesson for today is we read this on the heels of King Jehoiakim tearing up Jeremiah’s scroll and throwing it in the fire. Except, “the days are surely coming” when God will “make a new covenant” and “write it upon our hearts” actually comes before this little incident with the King. I tend to think the lectionary assigned the lesson this way so that we Lutherans could end with the Gospel, with Good News, instead of leaving the lesson hearing again how we humans fall short over and over.
But taken in the original order, King Jehoiakim tearing up the scroll and throwing it in the fire does indeed show just how short we fall, despite whatever phrases of promise and hope God gives to us beforehand.
But the days are surely coming, right?
When we, here and now, look back at what the King did, we might think the horror was him cutting up the scroll - which had God’s words on it! - and throwing it in the fire. Cut it up and let it burn! But maybe that is less the atrocity than ignoring what the words said.
Now, full disclosure here: Jeremiah wasn’t the happiest of prophets. In fact, most of his words were doom and gloom, so maybe it is a bit understandable that the King wouldn’t be too receptive to what Jeremiah was saying via this scroll. Move this forward to our day and time, and we can make the comparison with the Bible. People aren’t very receptive to truths that they don’t want to hear.
I don’t know many people who tear pages out of the Bible and burn them, but people throughout history have always skipped over some parts of God’s Word they didn’t like. Thomas Jefferson literally cut the pages of the New Testament and pasted together his own book that suited him better. Modern day televangelists often skip over passages that call into question their second private jet.
And even you and me… well, we play favorites, pointing to this scripture or that passage which fully supports what we already believe. Oh, and that one passage over there that lands a little funny with me, well, here’s how we can explain it away.
See, we fall short because we can’t do, live, believe, say, interpret rightly the whole entire Bible. We just can’t. We are stuck in “learning and referencing” mode. By that, I mean we still discover new passages in the Bible. And we keep going back to hear those old stories again to remind us of what they say. We think and interpret and process what different Bible stories mean to us in a given situation.
Think of it kind of like learning to ride a bike. Having taught someone in recent history, I know the kind of tears and failures that come. You instruct and teach and tell and repeat - pedal, pedal, pedal! And the one learning is constantly in their brain going: “pedal, pedal, pedal, keep the handlebars straight, don’t look that way, pedal, pedal, pedal.”
The learner is constantly referencing the right way to ride the bicycle - thinking, interpreting, processing. This is what we do with the Bible; this is us under the old covenant, with words and scrolls and us picking and choosing. We have to consciously process God’s Word if we are to have any chance at riding well.
But the days are surely coming.
The days are surely coming when we won’t look to God’s word in the Bible, but to God’s Word who is Jesus the Christ.
The days are surely coming when we won’t be faithless and sinful, breaking covenant, but instead rely on the new covenant in Christ’s blood, that is shed for you and for all people.
The days are surely coming when we will all know the Lord, and we will be God’s people forever.
The days are surely coming when we all will follow Christ, who is the King, a different king, who doesn’t throw us away into the fire, but always welcomes us.
The days are surely coming when we will have this new covenant written on hearts, lived out in our lives, and we will know the Lord.
To maybe understand having this covenant written on our hearts, think again of learning to ride a bike. Once you “get it,” once you can ride that bike, what is your brain doing? Not thinking about every little motion your body is making. Not “pedal, pedal, pedal.” You’re just riding. Riding a bike has become ingrained, part of you; it has been written on your heart.
When God’s Word is written on our hearts, we won’t think of who is right or wrong, who is in or out. We won’t question love or grace or faith. We will know God - not know about God, but know God. Because it will be written on our hearts. We will live out God’s Word, as naturally as riding a bike.
Oh, yes, the days are surely coming.
This is the hope and the promise we have. It uplifts and assures. It is good news to people in the midst of turmoil, uncertainty, and pandemic. The days are surely coming when we won’t need a book, but instead we will know exactly and fully God’s love for us. We will know Jesus, our King. And we will have God’s Word in our hearts. Until then, though, Christ our King comes to us in water, in the meal, in regular ways we don’t always fully get… but it always ends with the Gospel. With Good News. And it always will. Until the days have surely come.
Here I am, send me!
That is not the usual response we have… unless it is for an all expenses paid trip to some tropical island. And even then, some of us might wonder, “What’s the catch?” before we jump, hand raised, squealing, “here I am! Pick me!”
But that isn’t a typical scenario discussed in a sermon, now is it? Instead, sermons are much more about God or the Spirit or the pastor calling. And even then, rarely do we jump at the chance to say, “Here I am, send me!”
Yet, that is what happens today in our lesson from Isaiah. God called and Isaiah said, “here I am. Send me.” It seems so… heroic and awesome.
And maybe you look at me, here up front, wearing these fancy robes, and you think to yourself, “well, you obviously said yes. You’re a pastor! I’m just little ol’ me here in the pew.”
We’ll get to “little ol’ you” in a minute, but let me just tell you that my journey to becoming a pastor wasn't at all like Isaiah’s calling. Or like Jonah’s calling. Or Moses’. Or John the Baptist’s. It wasn’t like anyone else's; it was much more mundane.
We as a family had always gone to church, and aside from when my dad was stationed in the Philippines, we had always gone to a Lutheran church. I have fond memories of being an acolyte and in youth group. I felt comfortable in church.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to be a camp counselor at Lutheridge, a camp outside of Asheville, NC. It was a place I enjoyed, with good friends, intentional community, and opportunities - opportunities to lead, opportunities to work with kids and pastors and church leaders, opportunities to live out and try to make connections between God and what we were doing at camp.
In my second year on staff, a few pastors who were there for the week pulled me aside during one of the sessions and asked if I ever considered seminary. And I said, “Here I am. Send me!” NO, I DIDN’T! I said, “No way. Not for me.”
“You have gifts,” they told me. Gifts? I was just putting chocolate pudding on my face and making up silly hand motions to songs. But somehow, that conversation stuck with me. It didn’t leave my head or my heart as I returned to Newberry College when the summer was over. I decided to check out a religion class or two. They were pretty interesting.
As the next two years developed, so did this nagging feeling that seminary actually made a little bit of sense. And so, one Sunday afternoon, driving from my parent’s house to back Newberry, I decided I was going to figure it out, come up with an answer. I turned off the radio in my car and thought. I guess one could say I prayed, since I kinda was asking God to let me know what to do. And over the course of that 30 minutes or so, I came to my conclusion: “Sure, why not.”
“Sure, why not,” was my, “Here I am. Send me!”
Do you see how un-amazing that is? How I basically hedged my bets and just gave in? There wasn’t anything miraculous. There was no burning bush or big fish or searing coals. It’s just that God worked through people and places in my life and… and that is pretty amazing. And it is not like anyone else’s story.
See, there are amazing, special things in our lives when we stop to look at them. There are things that are unique to us, unique to the way that God uses us and calls us. And God is working in us, through us, and with us, even before we say, “Sure, why not.”
With Isaiah, he was already called and equipped; he just didn’t feel that way until a coal touched his lips.
With me, I was already called and equipped; I just didn’t feel that way until the phrase “you have gifts” became “I have gifts.”
With you, with little ol’ you, you are already called and equipped, too.
And what will make you feel that way? Well, that’s up to God and you. But God has worked and continues to work in people and places in your life, and that is amazing. And yours is not like anyone else’s story.
You have gifts. Gifts that are wonderful and awesome. And God calls to you to use those gifts to be hands, feet, and lips proclaiming Christ crucified and risen. And we all do that in different ways, but one particular way we do it is through this community of faith.
For me, like I said last week, in this community, my job is to point to a God who loves you,
who is gracious and merciful,
who has claimed you and gifted you in the waters of baptism,
who feeds you and blesses you in the communion meal,
who calls you to be who you are in a world that needs your gifts.
And if I can do that in a way that someone appreciates it or is inspired or hopeful or uplifted even just a little bit, well, it’s amazing. It’s like grace upon grace.
For you and for us, God calls us to this community, to use all our gifts to love and serve the Lord. And I have seen God do amazing things with your gifts.
We have talents for praising.
We host meals on a regular basis for those who are hungry.
We provide food, clothing, and school supplies to kids in the poorest neighborhoods.
We have created a place, that even in the midst of pandemic and distancing, still proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ - not just in words, but with deeds.
And I can tell you, that in each of those ways your gifts have been used, someone has been helped, touched, inspired, brought closer to God, and it is amazing. It is grace upon grace.
So, even if your response to God’s call is something less enthusiastic than, “Here I am. Send me,” know that God still works through you. God still calls you. God still gives us the gifts and talents we need. And then, through ways that are awesome and amazing, God gives opportunity to say, “Here I am. Send me.”
*We apologize for the audio quality in this video. It seems the microphone wasn't working properly.*
What a year this week has been.
This week, maybe many of you wanted to run away like Jonah, just get away from it all.
And while that is a cute idea we can pull from this story, there is actually a little bit more here than simply wanting to run away. There is something that hits maybe even a little bit more close to home: it’s the “us versus them” mentality.
We may not see it on the surface, but dig just a little bit into the history of Hebrews and Ninevites and we see that this story has loads of lines drawn, teams chosen, and “you are with us or you are against us” mentality. On the one hand, we have Jonah, the Hebrew, the Good Guy; he is one of us. Yay, Jonah! On the other hand, there is everyone else: the Ninevites and the sailors. They are the bad guys, the ones we see as antagonists. And these two sides… well, they pretty much hated each other. Boo, everyone else!
So, we hear this story, and we pick our side.
Jonah is one of us; everyone else is one of them.
Jonah is God’s prophet; everyone else doesn’t go to church.
Jonah, good; everyone else, bad.
Jonah is our guy!
...Even though Jonah is the worst person in the story. Hear me out. First, he doesn’t go to Ninevah, as God tells him to. Remember, Jonah hates those people and doesn’t want anything good to happen for them, including hearing about a gracious God. So, instead, he boards a ship and heads toward Tarshish. Then, while on the boat, all the sailors pray during the storm, yet Jonah hides out in the bottom of the ship, not praying. When Jonah finally ends up in Ninevah after the whole “big fish” incident, he only goes a little way in and gives an eight-word sermon to try to get the Ninevites to change their ways. Not a very good effort there, Jonah. In terms of prophet performance, that is pretty putrid.
And yet, we like Jonah! Sure, he’s got a little room to grow as a prophet, a little rough around the edges, but he’s on our side, so that’s good enough for us. But have you seen what those Ninevites did? Boy, and the sailors, well, you know the words that come from their mouths. And, anyway, the Ninevites are all mixed up in this funny business…
Because Jonah is “one of us,” we tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. And because everyone else is one of “them,” they should burn in hell.
I racked my brain, thinking and thinking of some way to bring this story of division into modern day times…
Oh, that’s right! Half the country hates the other half. You are blue or red, you are with us or you are our enemy. If you are on our side, you get all the benefits of all the doubts; if you are on the other side, you can burn in hell. Does that sound accurate?
And maybe, maybe that is a bit of hyperbole, but I don’t think I’m that far off. There are very few people on either side looking at the other, and going, “well, they do have a point.” There is very little self-reflection. There is loads of “bearing false witness” and very little interpreting in the best possible light. And we’re all guilty. We’re all culpable. I know I’ve rolled my eyes more than once in the past several days.
And yet, despite Jonah’s hate of the Ninevites, despite his half-effort and pessimism, despite Jonah doing his best to make sure Ninevah burns, God works within and around Jonah’s ineptitude and still accomplishes God’s purposes through him.
And that work isn’t just to redeem Jonah, redeem the guy from “our” side, but God redeems Ninevah, too. God’s love doesn’t pick sides. God’s love crosses divides. God’s love redeems us all.
And maybe this story can help us put things in our current situation into perspective. In the midst of all the division in our country, from all the apathy to disdain to hate, God can remind us again that God’s love doesn’t pick sides. They aren’t as bad, and we aren’t as good as the caricatures we have in our minds. We all fall short, and yet we all are loved, redeemed, saved through a God who’s got the whole world in his hands. God’s love doesn’t pick sides.
That is a love that God shows to us, and a love that God tells us to go share. Despite Jonah’s hate for the Ninevites, God made sure love was proclaimed. And maybe that is what God is calling us to do, too. That even if we have legitimate differences and perspectives, God still calls us to proclaim love - a love that doesn’t come from our political leaders or parties.
We may not like it that “they,” too, are loved by God, but it is what God calls us to say and show.
So, how do we do that? How do we, who are reluctant and angry, who show up covered in fish vomit and mumbling under our breath, how do we announce unity in love when we don’t even like the people on the other side?
I wish I had an easy answer for you. I wish I had an easy answer for myself. All I know is that God works despite our feelings, whether we are winners or losers, whether we are reluctant or not. Because our unity isn’t in a side or a color or a president. Our unity is in Christ.
This may sound pollyannaish, like our reality doesn’t matter. But I don’t think unity in Christ is easy. It’s actually pretty hard. It’s hard because unity in Christ doesn’t mean we all win - at least not winning as we think of it. Unity in Christ means we are joined to Jesus. Unity with Christ means we are crucified with Christ. We die - die to ourselves, die to our sinful ways, die to any other faction we are part of. We die, we lose, all so that God can give us the win to something greater.
And in that death and loss, God’s redeeming love goes to work. God brings unity and life. And God will not stop, and God definitely won’t let our reluctance stop that love from being known.
What I say isn’t going to change anyone’s political mind, but that’s not my job. My job is to point to a God who loves both sides, who redeems both broken sides, and who wants us to look beyond hate and disgust and pettiness to a life together that reflects and embodies what that love of God looks like. Point to a love that works despite imperfect people. Remind of a love that knows no hate for the other side.
Our brokenness makes it hard to do that sometimes, but our brokenness doesn’t exclude us from God’s love. And it doesn’t exclude “them” either. God has a love for us all. And maybe through this story of big fish and lousy prophets, we can hear and see the themes of our lives and our world, and know that God is working to redeem us all.
Sometimes God comes through
in the most unlikely of places,
by the most unlikely of people,
and in the most unlikely of ways.
It’s easy to say it; it is hard to trust it.
That is the theme of today and today’s scripture passage about Elijah. God will work, even when things are at their worst. Elijah had a couple of instances of that, just in these verses.
First, God commands Elijah to head out, east of the Jordan River to hide out for a while. See, Elijah was saying some pretty harsh things to the powers-that-be and needed to lay low for a bit. But head out to the middle of nowhere? Trust God! Easy to say, hard to do.
But God promises to provide food from ravens and water from a brook. God provides through unlikely ways. But eventually, the brook dries up because of drought. It probably was less easy for Elijah to trust God at this point; all the provisions are trickling away!
So, God tells Eljah to go to Zarephath where a woman who lives there will feed him. God comes through again! Except, when Elijah shows up, the woman is about to use all her remaining resources to make a final meal for her and her son. How will this woman be able to provide food for all three of them? Trust God! Easy to say, hard to do.
So, God ensures that the flour and the oil will not run out before God sends rain and ends the drought. And it is so! God’s promise was fulfilled to the letter, exactly as Elijah had said. They all had daily food, enough to eat.
This is our daily reminder that God comes through. Even when it seems like God didn’t or doesn’t or won’t. We trust that God works, even when things seem the worst. The brook runs out of water, yet God comes through. The woman was running out of oil & flour, yet God comes through. This story shows that God provides.
Here I am, saying to trust that God will keep coming through,
in the most unlikely of places,
by the most unlikely of people,
and in the most unlikely of ways.
It’s easy to say it; it is hard to trust it.
It’s hard to trust it, because we see lots of examples where it seems like God isn’t providing. There isn’t protection; there are wars and shootings and accidents. There isn’t provision; there is hunger and greed and scarcity. There isn’t unity; there is division and anger and self-serving agendas. There isn’t relationship; there is death and funerals and grief.
Despite it all, do we still say, “God comes through.”
It’s easy to say it; it is hard to trust it.
Today is a day where we proclaim the audacity that God does indeed come through - in spite of everything. Today is All Saints Sunday, a day in which we remember and celebrate all the baptized people of God, living and dead, who are the body of Christ. We remember all who have died in Christ. At the Lord’s table we gather with the faithful of every time and place, trusting that the promises of God will be fulfilled and that all tears will be wiped away. We announce the Good News that Jesus Christ has come through death and grave, and because he lives, we, too, shall live a new life. God does come through.
Today is not a day where we celebrate a sort of “Christian Hall of Fame.” Rather, All Saints Sunday is a day to celebrate that all of us are made holy in Christ Jesus not by our own merits, but by the free grace of God in the Son, Jesus. It is a day to remember those saints who are living now - including those not here. We remember those saints who have died in Christ - especially those very dear to us and those who have died in the past year. It is a day to remember those promises God has given to us - promises to provide, to come through it all.
When the water ran out, God provided.
When the flour ran out, God provided.
When our life runs out, God provides.
Every Sunday, and today especially, is a day we remember, in it and through it all, God comes through. When our earthly life runs out, God still comes through. It is true; it is true, even when it is hard to trust that promise - even if it is hard to say it out loud. It’s true because it is not up to us. If it were, we’d waiver and waffle and dwindle - like the brook, like the flour, like our life. But, thanks be to God, it is in God’s hands, not our own. And God always comes through.
God provides what we need. Ultimately, through everything, we are taken care of. Provided for. Kept safe. Brought together with God. God gives life.
Sometimes God comes through
in the most unlikely of places,
by the most unlikely of people,
and in the most unlikely of ways.
It’s easy to say it; and by God’s grace we will grow in trusting it.
But because on our best days we trust God’s promises, we work to take care of others.
See, God works in the most unlikely of places, people, and ways - including through us, the Saints of God. We don’t become a saint upon our death; God has made us saints now, to provide for those in need, to keep others safe, to bring unity, to point to the life God gives. We are God’s hands and feet.
God has given us opportunity, blessings, the Holy Spirit - God provides for us! God provides so that we can work to come through for others, to live out the Good News of Christ, to help others see, that even in unlikely places, people, and ways, God is present, God is here, and God is bringing life.
And yes, sometimes it is still hard to trust it. But as God reminds us and shapes us and provides for us, the more we grow in that trust.
God works in unlikely places, people, ways - even in a cross. God works unexpectedly through an empty tomb. And because of Christ, we are made holy - not by being unwavering in our trust, but by the gift of grace. And in that grace, we can see how God has worked through our loved ones here with us, how God was shown forth in our forebearers in faith. And we even see how God comes through us, the Saints of God.
On Reformation Sunday, there are always a lot of directions to go with the main point of the sermon.
There is the tried and true theological aspect: "a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law..." It’s something we Lutherans get giddy - and maybe a bit arrogant - about when we hear it. How can everyone else be so wrong?! A bit of our sinful boasting comes out when we start comparing ourselves to others.
And yet, this is the theological point we as Lutherans hold as central to everything about God, church, worship, faith… that human beings cannot be justified before God by our own powers, merits, or works. We are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith.
Surely any Lutheran pastor worth their salt could go on and on and on about those few sentences. The hard part is unpacking all that faith, belief, justification, and righteousness in a way that everyone’s eyes don’t glaze over in boredom.
Looking elsewhere, our Gospel lesson from John talks a lot about “truth” and “freedom.” This lesson is selected for today probably because Martin Luther rediscovered the “truth” of the Gospel. It was a truth that the church at the time had come to ignore for their own financial gain. This Gospel Truth sets us “free” - we are free in Christ.
The themes in this John passage seem very contemporary to us in the week and a half before a national election. Which candidate is truthful; which isn’t? Which candidate is a proponent of freedom and which isn’t?
While on the surface that passage seems highly relatable, our American ideals interfere with what Jesus is really talking about. While we are accustomed to who or what is “most true” (because hardly anything we see or read is completely true), Jesus is talking about THE Truth - the truth that will make people of all political persuasions a little upset because those ideals, shockingly, aren’t the savior of the world. And freedom in Christ is pretty much the opposite of our American freedoms of choice and doing whatever we want to do.
Yet as crucial as these themes of justification, truth, and Gospel are, today I can’t seem to look beyond any other theme than “reformation” itself.
Generations of Lutherans preachers have stood in the pulpit and said that the church needs to always be reforming, changing. It isn’t a new concept; it’s something that has always been talked about on Reformation Sunday. The problem is, very few times has such change been forced upon us like it has this year.
I never thought that as a pastor I’d be telling people not to come to church because it might get too full. I never thought we’d all be wearing masks in our pews. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to shake hands, hug, enjoy fellowship and being together. I never thought about a lot of things that happened this year. And I don’t like very much of what 2020 brought us. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you probably don’t either.
But if there is something that the Reformation can teach us, it’s that it is not about us. Not about me. Not about you. As much as we so desperately want it to be.
See, the whole Reformation was and is an attempt to shift our attention away from ourselves - away from our piety, our works, our faith, our failures, our merit, our glory, our shame. The Reformation was and is an attempt to shift our attention toward God, to the God who is gracious and merciful, to the God who delights in justifying the broken, welcoming the outsider, healing those in need, and making free those who are in bondage.
When we get bogged down in how things were or are or should be,
When we focus on our own preferences and what we think would be better,
When we know we are truly justified in our opinions,
we lose sight of the God who, with love and grace, is in the midst of it all - in all of it.
And today, maybe especially today, when things are so unlike Reformations of the past, we can be still and know that God is here. This day isn’t about us anyway. It is about the God who loves us so much that God gives us the gift of salvation.
Because no matter how right or true, no matter how just or free, we all fall short of the glory of God. If we want to talk about ourselves, we should start there. But again, this isn’t about us. It is about God and what God does, despite us all falling short.
The truth is, God gives us the free gift of salvation, seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus shows us the lengths to which God will go - to the cross, to the tomb, to defeating sin, death, and anything that keeps us in bondage. And God doesn’t do this because we’ve proved our worth or earned our way or shown God how good we are. Not because of who we were or are or promise one day to be - God does it because that is who God is. God is one who is gracious and merciful, who bestows upon us righteousness, who justifies us and makes us right - not to our standards, but to God’s.
We so easily want all these stories and verses and days to be about us - our truth, our freedom, our means to justify ourselves. But, the truth is, it is about God and God’s gifts of life and salvation to us. It is all about what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
God justifies us, makes us right, through the free gift of grace. God makes us free, free in Christ to love as God has loved us.
The Reformation, even this Reformation Day, reminds us that it is not about us; it is about God. Though we have sinned and fall short, God forgives us, renews us, and leads us. God justifies us, makes us righteous, and sets us free. Through God, we are formed and reformed so that we can point to Jesus and proclaim the gift of grace, grace that is the truth for us all.
Part of what we do here at St. Philip during worship each year is we go through the narrative story of the Bible. We start in Genesis and work our way through the Old Testament. Around December we get to Prophets, and at Christmas, we start at the beginning of one of the Gospels - Jesus’ birth and all that. We read through that Gospel until Easter, and then transition to Acts and some of Paul’s letters. It’s a lot to get through in a year, and I should let you know that we don’t cover everything. Far from it.
We have to skip a lot of the story. And today is a good example of skipping a lot. Last week, we were at the bottom of Mount Sinai along with a golden calf. This week, we jump over six books of the Bible to get from last week’s story to this one. So, to summarize what happened between, the Israelites settle into the Promised Land and yet live in borderline mayhem. They are led by eccentric people called Judges. And God still works through it all - in unexpected ways through unexpected people.
Today’s story turns the page on all that craziness and is the very beginning of a Golden Era for Israel. We get the beginning of the monarchy - kings to rule and unite Israel.
But before we get any kings, we get Hannah, a woman with no children. It seems to be a common theme in the Bible. Most notably, we heard a few weeks ago about Abraham and Sarah, to whom God promised as many descendants as there were stars. They were childless well into their nineties, yet God, almost unexpectedly, comes through.
In the first part of our story today, Hannah prays to God for a child. And not just prays, but prays and cries and kind of makes a scene in the temple. But she is not afraid to tell God exactly what she wants. God answers her prayer.
Obviously, this is not always the case: there is no simple formula that if we want something enough and pray for it hard enough, God will give it. And particularly around children and birth, God doesn’t always answer it the way we want. People don’t always get what they ask for, and that can be really hard for us. But here, God does answer Hannah. A mother's prayer results in an unexpected beginning to kingship; she gives birth to Samuel.
Hannah’s response to God answering her prayer is to pray again. And while she doesn’t really ever say, “thank you” to God in this prayer, she does something more. She talks about God’s power to reverse situations, to turn things upside down in unexpected ways.
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces, while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts, while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children, while the mother of many is without.
God can reverse human situations of status, circumstances, and power.
Hannah’s prayer is similar to Mary’s song in Luke. After Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she will be the one to bear the Messiah, she responds by praising the God who brings down and lifts up, who sends the rich away empty and fills those who are hungry - the same theme of unexpected reversal we see in Hannah’s prayer.
And I guess that is that is good news - in theory. It sounds nice that sad people become happy and stuff like that, but what about the well fed becoming hungry? What about those who have worked hard in their lives and are sitting on top comfortably? What about we who have been conditioned with a “might makes right” mentality, that we prevail by strength and power?
Do we like that trade off? My guess is no. See, we are broken enough to know that without God, we are nothing, and yet… we still somehow convince ourselves all the time that we are in control. That we can do it. That we are independent and strong. By our own might, we will prevail.
But what Hannah reminds us of today is that “not by might does one prevail,” but by the power of God. And that power is seen in the unexpected. It is seen in doing the opposite of what the world does. God turns things upside down in unexpected ways.
We see it in Hannah’s prayer. We see it in Mary’s song. We see it in Jesus’ cross.
For not by might does one prevail. God turns things upside down in unexpected ways.
To the world, the cross is the symbol of death and despair, a show of power over anyone who stepped out of line. To the world, every time you looked at a cross, you saw death and fear. What has more power than death?
Well, God has more power than death. God turned the cross into a symbol of life and hope, a show of power over anything that would take us away. And now, to us, every time we look at a cross, we see life and grace.
It is the unexpected way of God. God didn’t come with power, with guns ablazin’ and bookoos of money. God came in humility, in a lowly prophet, in service to the least of these. And the world took God to the cross, it’s own place of ultimate power and might. But not by might does one prevail.
God raised Jesus to life, to show ultimate power, to show ultimate life, love, and grace to a world that seems to have a lot of upside down ways.
For not by might does one prevail. God turns things upside down in unexpected ways.
Hannah prayed it in the temple. Mary sang it in the home of Elizabeth. Jesus showed it from the cross.
As people of the resurrection, it is the prayer we sing, too. It is the promise to which we cling: “Not by might does one prevail.” We prevail because God turns things upside down: barrenness to fullness, cross to empty tomb, death to life for us all.
I think I know how God feels. God is frustrated. Disappointed. At the wit’s end.
In the events that unfold just before today’s story of the Golden Calf, Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai, where the Israelites hang out for a while before continuing their trek to the Promised Land.
At this point, Moses has already made a few trips up the mountain to get the 10 Commandments (and the replacement tablets after he broke the first ones). These Commandments start off with the declaration, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Shortly following are commands about idols and worshiping other things and taking care of each other. The Israelites agreed; of course they understood. You are the God who brought us out of Egypt! And so the Lord follows up the 10 Commandments with instructions on building a tabernacle or tent, in which God would dwell with them as they traveled. God would be with them - not in clouds or fire or plagues, but actually with them in this tabernacle.
If one reads the story straight through, we are set up to expect that the Israelites will begin building this tabernacle, God’s home among them. But… that doesn’t really happen. Suddenly and unexpectedly, all these positive expectations are thrown out the window. Instead of a grand tent adorned with gold, the Israelites make a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai and bow down and worship the idol.
In summary, God just got done leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, laid down some ground rules, and then the Israelites go and make a golden statue of a cow. Come on! Didn’t I just tell you what not to do? And you did it anyway?!
I think any parent has probably said something very similar, which is how I relate. I JUST TOLD YOU. Wear shoes when you’re outside. Clean up your room. Don’t hit your sister. Why don’t you listen to me!? I just told you that. I tell you every single day not to do it.
And then comes the big, overreaching punishment. Fine, no more iPad. You can stay in your room the rest of the day. No dessert for a week. I think most parents fall short of claiming to wipe their kids off the face of the earth, though.
Yes, God seems to act a lot like any parent who is at their wit’s end. God even pulls the “your kid” schtick with Moses. Much like the mom asking the dad, “Do you know what your son did today?” God asks, “Hey, Moses, you see what your people are doing down there?”
So, yes, I relate to God in this scenario. I want to be loving, to be there for my kids, and try to teach them ways to be better, to form good habits. And sometimes it seems like it is all for nothing. The information and teaching and love goes in one ear and right out the other. It’s enough to make any parent go a little crazy and lash out. I guess if God does it, we’re in good company.
But God doesn’t go through with the punishment. God relents. God forgives. All because Moses does three things.
First, Moses reminds God of the truth. “These aren’t my people, God, they are yours. You brought them out of Egypt.”
Second, Moses uses the “what would the neighbors say” defense: Think of your reputation, God. You proved yourself more than powerful over the gods of Egypt. Now what will the Egyptians say if it looks like you saved your people only to destroy them in the wilderness?
Third, Moses points to who God truly is: a God who keeps promises. Moses reminds God of God’s own promises that began with the call of Abraham way back in Genesis 12. And that promise was reiterated several more times to Isaac and Jacob and their descendants.
Because, here’s the thing: above all else, God is faithful. God’s mind changes here because God’s faithfulness is what never changes. God will not break promises. God will uphold the covenant, even when we don’t.
Oh, yes, that’s right. Like the Israelites, we don’t uphold our end of the covenant, either. See, as much as we may relate to God in this scenario, more often, we are like the Israelites - in one ear, and out the other. We don’t listen. We create false idols.
For sure, not many of us melt down our gold and cast it in some bovine form, but we have our idols. I’m sure you know the typical laundry list of things: money, when it is seen as the utmost goal, the fixer of every problem. Power, when what we have isn’t enough, when it causes us to abuse or belittle. Career, as it defines who we are. Anything we put in place of God - heirlooms, aspirations, sports teams, and yes, even people we… idolize. Those are idols, and those are things we are all guilty of looking to for safety, meaning, inclusion, and comfort.
And even beyond that, there are things that we associate so much with God that we worship them instead of God. The building, the old liturgy we remember, some piece about the way things “used to be.” And while COVID has forcibly shaken us from that by necessitating a change in the way things were done, we still long for the way things were.
And yet, God is present, more present to our senses when the idols of our lives are removed. Nothing finite can fully capture the infinite God. And even though we still slip up - we have God’s words slip right through one ear and out the other - God is faithful to us.
In Jesus we see how faithful God is. God is faithful to us, no matter what. God will keep the promise, to have us pass over from death to life. God will uphold the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sin. God is faithful, even when we aren’t.
It is stunning and surprising, for sure, but God is nothing if not faithful to us. It is God’s character, who God is.
In the end, I often change my mind about the punishment for my kids. I end up trying to be a faithful father, forgiving them because, well, they’re my kids, you know? And while there are consequences, I often relent from my initial frustrations. And if I can do that, how much more does God do it. Because of course, God is more faithful. God keeps promises.
We have a God who keeps promises. Sometimes keeping those promises means God has to forgive rather serious sins. But that is the nature of the One who has named us and claimed us forever. God is faithful. And God does what God promises.
Today we hear the story of the Passover, which is the essential story for the Jewish people. It is God’s major saving action, rescuing them from slavery.
That is what happened to the descendants of Abraham between the end of Genesis and the start of Exodus in the Bible. As Genesis ended, Joseph had welcomed his brothers into Egypt as refugees to escape a famine in their land. That is the story we heard last week.
As the book of Exodus begins, the Hebrews, as Abraham’s descendants were known then, have been enslaved. It seemed the Pharoahs over the years had forgotten who Joseph was and only saw the growing Hebrew population as a threat to rebel against the powers that be.
Today we pick up just before the enslaved Hebrews were to be freed. God chose Moses to head to Egypt, confront the Pharaoh, and declare that God says, “Let my people go!” Very predictably, Pharaoh says, “nope.” So, God sends plagues to Egypt to pressure Pharaoh into freeing the Hewbrews - maybe you remember some of them - frogs, locusts, rivers to blood, and what we read today, the death of every first born.
Except, God will pass over certain homes - homes that share the meal, that spread the blood. God’s judgement would pass over them so they could pass over from slavery to freedom. It is a story of God’s liberation.
No wonder it is so important to the Jewish people. It shows that God is one who sets free. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners. God is one of justice and liberation. And all through the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, this event often describes who God is. God is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt.
Because this event so clearly shows who God is, God tells Moses and the Israelites to share the story. To pass it on. To teach it to your children. Tell the story to every generation. It becomes a family ritual to share in the Passover meal.
But this ritual isn’t just remembrance as much as it is participation in the act of salvation by God. The meal makes it real. Those who celebrate the Passover meal experience all the history, the bitterness and sweetness, the ugliness and beauty. They gather, remembering the need for community and rediscovering the presence of God-with-us in life’s troubles. The meal makes God’s salvation real, then and now.
Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was shaped by this story of liberation. Every year he gathered around a table to remember these events and to form his life in the ongoing passover from slavery to freedom. While others used their gods to defend an unjust status quo, Jesus believed in the God of justice and liberation, of freedom and salvation.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so - not just annually, but for as often as you eat and drink. It is through the meal of bread and wine that they would join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free.
The meal makes it real. Those who celebrate the Passover meal experience all the history, the bitterness and sweetness, the ugliness and beauty.
For us as Christians, we hear the story of the Passover and see that it is the first victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh, but it is by no means the final victory. We know there is more for God to set us free from. And in Jesus, God indeed sets us free. Jesus passes over from death on a cross to resurrected life eternal. The Lamb of God dies so that we may live, so that we may pass over from the bondage of sin and death and live in the new life God has prepared for us. God’s judgement passes over us, setting us free to live with God.
We tell that story of passover from death to life, week in and week out. We tell it to those who know it best, because we all could use the reminder of the great things God has done. We tell it to those who’ve never heard, all to help set them free from the power of sin. We tell the story, because it is the story of how God ensures we pass over from slavery to sin into freedom in Christ.
And to help make it real, we often gather around food - bread and wine. Because we know that as we gather, the meal makes God’s salvation real to us. Jesus comes to us and joins with us, to set us free through forgiveness and through his grace which empowers us to set others free, too.
It is not just remembrance but participation in what God is doing. The meal makes it real. Those who celebrate the Passover meal experience all the history, the bitterness and sweetness, the ugliness and beauty. And Jesus continues to give us as community victory over the bitterness and ugliness that life throws at us - like in elections, coronavirus, racism. Jesus is the sweet bread and beautiful wine given for you - to remind you that God is here, to claim you, to love you, each and every one of you. God comes to set you free.
The Exodus is God’s passionate and fierce claim on all of God’s people. The bread and wine, the water and word… they show us ways that God passes over judgement, ways God causes us to pass over to life, ways that God makes salvation real for you, now and forever.
“When someone wrongs us, we rarely (if ever) want to do the same thing back. Why?
Because we want to do something more harmful… when someone insults us, our instinct is to search for words that will be more insulting. Revenge always escalates.”
(Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God)
We want to hurt someone more than they hurt us.
It is hard to let things roll off our back. Our world has shaped us so that we want vengeance for the wrongs done to us, get revenge against those who hurt us. It is our own version of justice when we feel justice hasn’t been served.
Now, I know some of you listening are searching your memory banks for when you took revenge on someone - when you destroyed someone’s favorite possession, or called someone names, or sold your youngest brother into slavery. (We’ll get to that last one, don’t worry.)
And it’s probably true; we don’t take revenge in ways that look like that all too often. We’re much more passive aggressive than it. We might simply make someone else’s life a little harder in subtle ways - not responding to calls or emails, not pulling our weight at work or home, not going out of our way - in any way - to improve the situation. That’s our petty, non-violent form of revenge.
But sometimes we allow others to take out vengeance on our behalf - let other people carry out their own forms of justice against things we feel go against us in some way. In these cases, the consequence is often worse than the offense - which is what vengeance is, isn’t it - doing worse to someone than was done to you? When we allow that to happen, it makes us complicit in revenge.
To get around us feeling bad about taking vengeance, we often phrase it with something like, “It’s a shame that *blank* happened, but they shouldn’t have been doing *blank.*
Like, “Yes, protesters got killed, but they started looting first.”
Or, “I’m sorry he was murdered, but he shouldn't have been running through that neighborhood.”
Ah, yes, an eye for an eye… judge, jury, and executioner, all rolled into one. And we seem to be OK with it.
The world is broken, and our need for vengeance continues the cycle of pain, suffering, and brokenness. And even the apathy which follows after vengeance takes place continues the same cycles.
Revenge is a way of saying that we can handle it better than God can.
Vengeance is us saying, “God, I don’t trust you to handle this in a way that satisfies me.”
Revenge continues the cycle.
Unfortunately, we don’t get many examples of “good” in our story from Genesis today.
I’m going to be frank: Joseph was kind of a punk. Do you see how he acts? He gets a nice coat, is obviously daddy's favorite, and then decides to elaborate on a dream where all the other brothers bow down to him and pay homage. It’s no wonder the rest of the brothers wanted to shut him up.
“It’s a shame that Joseph was thrown into a pit and his brothers faked his death, but he shouldn’t have been running his mouth like that.”
The brothers take out vengeance because of the wrongs inflicted on them by their father and youngest brother. And even Reuben, the oldest brother, though he tries to curb the vengeance, can’t shake the feeling of apathy, can’t force himself to stand up strong enough against his brothers to stop all the revenge nonsense.
The world hasn’t stopped taking vengeance into its own hands. The cycle continues.
There is a long break in our story today, and we are put in a new scenario at the end. The tables have turned. Joseph has risen up the ranks in Egypt and now controls the fate of his brothers. It would be so easy for Joseph to retaliate, to seek vengeance, to get his sweet revenge.
Yet, through the grace of God, and Joseph listening to and living out the promise – he tells his brothers, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
Revenge is a way of saying that we can handle it better than God can.
Joseph says that we aren’t in the place of God. And God chooses to start a new cycle.
Instead of retaliating against us because of our sin, God starts a new cycle of forgiveness. God breaks the vengeance routine and establishes a new pattern. And I’m not sure we truly get that sometimes, because it goes so far against everything we see around us. And yet, God doesn’t give us our just desserts. God gives us a new start, a new life, a new way of being.
Because God knows that revenge doesn’t create relationships, which is all God wants with us. God wants us to trust, to love, to be in relationship - not constantly looking over our shoulder, waiting for the score to be settled. God instead resurrects relationship and allows life and love to grow.
God doesn’t deal with us the way we deal with each other. And by God establishing this new pattern of living, it frees us to do the same.
God's love, grace, and forgiveness frees us so we, too, can break the vengeance cycle and forgive. "Forgive us... as we forgive those who trespass against us..." Forgiveness breaks the cycle. And each time we forgive instead of retaliate, the vengeance story is changed, little by little. Swords are turned into plowshares. Fights are turned into meals. Revenge is turned into life.
This is God’s way, a way that God continues to share love and grace through us to the world, so that the world can know it is loved.
Thank God that God doesn’t deal with us the way we deal with each other - either in vengeance, or revenge, or apathy. Instead, God loves, actively loves. God forgives. God brings new life to an old cycle. The pattern that we established doesn’t define God’s pattern going forward.
We don't get retribution. We get love.
We don't get vengeance. We get forgiveness.
We don't get just desserts. We get life.
We don’t get what we deserve. We get Jesus.
Last week we ended our story about Creation and Fall with the question, “so, what is God going to do about it?” Then I talked about Jesus, about the cross and an empty tomb, about God’s persistence and protection. Which is all true. But a whole lot happens between Creation and Christ. Today, we get the first step on the journey to Jesus; and the first step begins with a promise. God makes a promise.
The story of Abram (later, Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah) is the very start of God’s chosen people who will be known as Israel. They were old (Abram was 75 when God first made this promise) and, up until then, they were an infertile couple. They had no heirs and were an unlikely choice to be the father and mother of a nation - they weren’t likely to be father and mother to ANYONE. And yet, God chose them. Did I mention he was 75?
Some time has passed since God’s initial call to Abram back in chapter 12. Here in chapter 15, we still have no baby, and Abram and Sarai aren’t getting any younger. God has seemed silent, but we get the reiteration of the promise here today. God reassures Abram that “I am your shield; your reward will be very great!”
Abram wants to believe, but he does a couple of very human things: first, he questions and complains. What will you give me? I still don’t have an heir! I have no offspring, despite your promises. And second, he hedges his bets - you know, just in case. I’m still childless, God, so I’ve made sure Eliezer of Damascus will carry on when I go. Abram probably hopes God will come through, but he was preparing in case things fall apart.
And then God takes Abram, the pragmatist, out into the dark of night and has him look up at the stars. “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? This is how many descendants you will have!” The stars are an object lesson for the promise.
And this is what convinces Abram. Abram believes the Lord. God shows the stars; Abram believes. The sign of the stars in the sky doesn’t just reiterate the promise, but magnifies it, intensifies it. God is so committed to the promise that the Lord dazzles Abram by showing him what he couldn’t at first see. There is no way Abram can bring this about. It is all about God.
All this got me thinking about how much like Abram we are, especially when it comes to God. See, I don’t think Abram doubted that God could do what God promised - and I don’t think we doubt God can do it either. We’ve got the promise of God, and we pretty much trust it, but… we hedge our bets. We plan and figure out our solutions to make sure things are done. We have to do something to make it happen, right? God’s promise to us can’t be that good! We are reasonable and practical, pragmatic even.
Unfortunately, the things we do often shield our eyes from the promises of God.
As an object lesson for ourselves, try looking up on a clear night. What do you see? Stars, right? Well, some stars. We don’t quite get the view of the Milky Way that Abram did. All the man-made lights actually hinder what we can see. We have put up our own lights, our own things, our own ways, and it actually keeps us from fully seeing God’s promises.
Now, don’t read too much into that metaphor. Lights at night are generally a good thing in real life. But I do think this is a way we can talk about how our human actions make God’s promises harder for us to see. Much like the way parking lot lights keep us from seeing all but the brightest stars above us, our practical, pragmatic, reasonable ways to salvation often sparkle right in front of our faces, keeping us from seeing the stars of promise.
When it didn’t seem like God’s promises were going to work out, Abram made his own arrangements for an heir. Our experiences in life, too, sometimes have us believe that God’s promises may not be lining up. So, we find our salvation in other things here on earth. We look for any other shiny light we can.
Abram questions and complains to God. He doesn’t see any evidence that this promise is true. We, too, don’t always see the evidence. We question and complain.
God promises life and hope and a future, yet the worldly lights flash in: to get those things, we need to prove and earn and accomplish. On top of that, the world then flickers questions of doubt in our face. Difficulty, disease, and death overshadow it all. If God brings peace, why are we so divided, full of hypocrisy and self-serving ways? God is healer of our every ill, and yet we’ve been stuck apart as a virus spreads. Jesus is risen, alive, victor over the grave, and yet, we still have to say goodbye to people we love.
We try to look to those promises of God, but our present just seems so full of incandescent, harsh, blinding light. Where are God’s stars in our sky?
And in the midst of our human temper tantrum, God reminds us: “Do not be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” The God who made the promise then to Abram makes a promise to us in Jesus: yes, you are loved. Yes, you are mine. Yes, you will be with me forever. Nothing you can do will make it happen or not happen.
The promise is there, always there, just like stars. Even when we don’t see them, they are there.
And God still breaks out the object lessons for us. Abram had the stars in the sky; we have the foretaste of the feast to come, the table that spans all times and all places, the meal of Jesus’ presence and grace. When it is hard for us to believe that God’s promises are true, Jesus sets a table before us in the presence of our doubts, our questions, our pragmatism. Take and eat, take and drink. This promise is for you. For you.
This meal doesn’t simply reiterate the promise, but magnifies it, intensifies it. It’s a promise that brings us outside of ourselves, a promise that shows us the magnitude of God’s love, a promise that spans beyond where we are, a promise that in no way we can bring about; we’re too practical and reasonable for that.
God’s promises aren’t practical and reasonable. God is not a pragmatist. God is love. God’s promises are over the top. They are like the number of stars in the sky. God pulls us outside, shows us the grandeur of love, and says, “I will do it.” We don’t have the foggiest idea of how or why, but we trust. That is faith. We have faith that God is there, that God’s promises are there, despite whether we see it at this point in time or not.
That’s the promise. Whether you're 5, 35, 75, or 105… God’s love is like the stars in the sky. Always there. Too big to count. And yet, for you. The promise is for you.
It was really hard to write a beginning to this sermon today. It was hard because we are beginning something new today - or rather, beginning something old that we haven’t done in a while. For the first time in about six months, people are gathered together in this building for worship. Welcome back to those of you who are here.
But what makes this a hard beginning is that not everyone is here. Some people are still worshiping with us online. They are present with us, too, just not here in the room. They are getting a new camera angle for the first time in a while, but for the most part, this isn’t new to them. It’s not a beginning but a continuation of what has been.
And I feel stuck in the middle. Not in a bad way, not at all. It’s just different. It’s new. It’s not like it was, and it’s not like it used to be. I don’t think it will always be like this, either. It’s just right now, it’s new. It’s a beginning.
A couple of weeks ago, when we were discussing coming back together again on this day, I looked ahead to the reading and saw that the lesson was Creation. “Oh, that’ll be easy,” I thought. “God created something new, we’re doing something new, that’s Good News!” And then when sermon writing time came, I sat and stared at my computer screen for a long time.
Because as much as I want to think of today as a big giant step toward new creation, I’m just not there at the moment. And I don’t think this text is leading me in that direction either, at least not at this point in time.
And so, instead of writing a disingenuous sermon, I wrestled with what to say about this creation story, which is familiar but not quite as well known as the other creation story from Genesis 1. What does this story have to say to me, to us, now - in this time of something new, but still very hybrid.
And the thing that keeps popping in my head is that we are in this together. It is what this time is telling me. It is what this text is telling me. It is what gathering online and in-person is telling me. We have a shared responsibility. We are created to work with God, and we are created to be with, care for, and work with each other.
First, we work with God. We are God’s creation. God made us out of the dust of the earth, breathed life into our nostrils, to till and keep the land, to serve it, to preserve it, to be partners with God in helping it flourish. God created us to be images of God, be like God, in this place and in this world.
I think that looks like reflecting the image of God to the world around us. It looks like sharing who God is in tangible ways - feeding others, sharing what we have, loving beyond measure. God wants us to live that way, in relationship with God so closely that when the world sees us, they see the image of God.
And God doesn’t want us to do it alone. So, God makes for the first human a helper and partner to aid in the work God has given to humans. God creates us for community and relationship. We share the responsibilities God gives to us - to keep the land, but also to keep each other. We are intimately linked together as human beings; our care for others ripples out, affecting the world.
The flip side of the coin is that our lack of care and concern doesn’t just affect ourselves, but it affects others, too. Eating the fruit of the tree didn’t just affect the woman and the man (who was right there with her the whole time), but it had an effect all the way down the line - all the way to us. Many of our choices, too, don’t just have an impact on our own lives, but our choices impact others. Small choices, like littering, to big choices, like what we as individuals and a county choose to spend money on, all impact other people and the world.
This is why we have so many precautions for our in-person worship. Masks and distancing and no singing... Our choices affect other people, and we are trying to make the best choices, not just for ourselves, but for others.
We have a shared responsibility in all that life throws at us – in all that this year is throwing at us. Because that is what God created us to do and be - to live in relationship with each other and with God.
Our story today is about God creating us to be partners and us choosing what that looks like. Sometimes we choose the wrong way. The tree is just one example of that. But what we don’t hear from our lesson is, what does God do about it?
Not to ruin the rest of the story, but: God gives us Jesus.
Even when we choose the wrong way, God gives us the cross. God gives us an empty tomb. God clothes us in Christ at baptism. God claims us with water and word. God feeds us at the Supper. God still calls us to be the image of God to the world. God still breathes into us the breath of life. God still desires for us to be partners in mission and ministry. Because God so desires that relationship with us.
God created us to care for each other and the world God made. Sometimes, we choose the opposite. And God knows that about us. Has from the beginning. And yet, God doesn’t give up on us. We mess things up on page 4 of God’s story. The next thousands of pages are all about how God keeps coming back for us.
That’s what God’s story is: a story of God acting with love, despite whatever path we choose,
a story of God showing up, even in the midst of our hiding,
a story of God still writing,
because, as we know, with God, there is always a beginning.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
That seems like a very appropriate verse, not only for today, but for the past six months or so. We have spent a long time gathering as two or three - or maybe only one. We’ve been distanced from each other, apart from this place, not gathering with other people for worship in full. And yet, when we hear that “where two or three are gathered,” we know that Jesus is there.
Soon, as in next week, we will open our doors to worship together again. For those who come to in-person worship, things will be different. Masks will be worn, pews are taped off, hymnals are missing. And not everyone is busting down the door to come back. Some will choose to still worship with us online, something we plan to offer for the foreseeable future. And what this verse tells us is that whether here or not, whether at home or at 6200 North Kings Highway, Jesus is with us, with you, as we gather. We gather in Jesus’ name.
That interpretation gives us the warm fuzzies, but, believe it or not, Jesus wasn’t talking here about the efficacy of online worship in the time of COVID-19. Strange, I know. While this verse applies particularly well to our current circumstances, Jesus makes this statement to challenge us. It’s a lot harder than just knowing Jesus is there. Makes this statement to encourage us to have conversation about life and relationship within the church. And that life and relationship is built on forgiveness and reconciliation.
At the beginning of our lesson today, that is what Jesus is talking about. And even in the verses following our lesson, Jesus doesn’t stop stressing forgiveness, but he keeps telling more to his disciples by answering questions and sharing parables. Forgiveness is the theme of what Jesus is talking about.
That is the true meaning of what “when two or three are gathered” means. That when the hard work of forgiveness comes, we aren’t alone. In fact, forgiveness can’t be done alone. We have community, and, more important than that, we have Jesus with us. Jesus is with us as we face the difficult tasks of living more fully into the community of Christ. Jesus sets the bar high for us, and he does not let us off the hook - emphasizing that we communicate, listen, share, and reconcile with each other. And his promise to be with us, through whatever comes, is a promise that helps each of us to live up to that calling.
Now, here’s the thing with that. We know pretty well when we’re the ones who have been harmed, don’t we? We know when someone offends us, says something against us, posts things that are malicious or uninformed. But here’s the problem: we often forget that our actions and words harm others, too, even if unintentionally. Perhaps the hardest part of this passage is the fact that the finger points at us as much as at others.
We’re complicit in systems and processes that seem to maximize opposition and minimize solidarity. We are broken people, and as good as social media can be, it often magnifies our brokenness. It seems everyone’s got a problem, not just with some things but with everything. There are lies, arguments, and calling people out.
I don’t see a lot of words that build others up. I don’t see a lot of civil conversations. I don’t see honest disagreements. I see wedges driven between people. I see lies that spread way too easily. I see closed minds, closed ears, and thus, closed hearts. I see a lot of calling other people out.
Pointing out the fault, as Jesus says, is a necessary part on the road to forgiveness and reconciliation. But part of what that means isn’t just “calling someone out,” but “calling them in.” “Where two or three are gathered…” means calling people into relationship. And I don’t see that on social media these days.
Calling us into relationship is what Jesus does for us, what he offers to us...
to we who stand convicted, condemned, and yet forgiven at the foot of the cross. Jesus calls out our brokenness and sinfulness, but doesn’t leave it there. Instead, he comes near to us, calls us in, and creates new life, new relationship. And as we call others in, as two or three are gathered for forgiveness, Jesus promises to be present to create the same new life and new relationship in reconciliation.
Maybe this text is holding a mirror up to us and asking us to consider what we see. We live in a remarkable moment defined by conflict and polarization. It is so easy to feed into that, to draw lines, to force people to choose a side, and cast them away if they elect a different way.
But Jesus proposes something different. Jesus encourages us to tend to our relationships by bringing reconciliation; by calling people in, not just calling them out; by erasing the lines drawn by others.
Maybe next time as we are involved in conflict and conversation, we ask ourselves a couple of questions:
Do my words - spoken or typed - do my words build up the body of Christ and nurture relationships... or not?
Do our critical words cast our neighbor in the best possible light, as Luther’s interpretation of the eighth commandment urges… or not?
Do we call others out and point the finger, or do we call them in, and open the door to do so?
While I don’t have a lot of hope for much civility in the next several months - sinners gonna sin, you know - I do have hope in Jesus. He knows that all fall short, all the time, and yet, he relentlessly keeps showing up. He keeps coming to us, forgiving us, teaching us how to live as does, encouraging us to keep our mouths shut from time to time - and when we do open it, open it with the hope of new life and new relationship. For it is he who saves, and not our arguments on Facebook.
It’s hard to live that way, but nothing is really easy about following Jesus. And while we do get comfort from knowing “where two or three are gathered,” I get even more comfort from knowing that Jesus doesn’t cast me away when I fail or I fail to forgive. Instead, he calls me in, he calls you in, and offers life, relationship, and grace, something that our world, our leaders, our pithy comments can’t do.
But Jesus can. Jesus does. Jesus calls us in. To relationship. To life. Now and forever.
For the month of August, we’ve looked at this funny acronym: WIGIAT. WIGIAT reminds us that God is here, with us, doing things to create life in every moment and situation, no matter where we find ourselves.
Where is God in all this? It isn’t just a question; it is also a promise - a promise that God is there. The “where” isn’t an accusation - “where are you God?!” The question instead turns us toward the promise - “ok, God, I know you’re here. Where are you in all this?”
And through the past several weeks, we’ve helped to unpack that WIGIAT question. We’ve done it in God moments. You shared with me where you’ve seen God working in your lives through physical distancing and pandemic. We had a service of healing, asking for God to be present and heal our world, country, selves. We gave thanks to God for all the blessings and gifts - all that God continues to do for us each and every day - our daily bread, as we pray.
Last week, we did give thanks, and we heard Peter’s confession of who exactly Jesus is. He is the Messiah. It is the ultimate thing that we give thanks for - that Jesus saves us. He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Indeed, we surely give thanks for that.
This week, however, we get the other side of the coin. Last week, we heard confession; this week, we see failure. The thanks and praise and glory of last week’s confession is matched this week by failure and disappointment and disbelief.
It is enough of an opposition that Jesus actually rebukes Peter. Can you imagine doing something so misguided that it draws a rebuke from Jesus?
By Jesus rebuking Peter as “Satan,” I can’t help but think of when else Jesus rebukes Satan. Satan wanted Jesus to use his power for his own purposes, not for God’s. He tempted Jesus to put his mind on human things, not on divine things.
But, Jesus refuses, rebukes Satan’s ways.
Instead of using his power to turn stones into bread to feed himself,
he uses his power to feed the hungry multitudes with only a few loaves.
Instead of calling on God’s angels for his own benefit,
he calls on God to restore the lives of those who are sick, suffering, blind, and lame.
Instead of claiming worldly power and authority,
he leads the way to the Kingdom of God through serving, through welcoming, through love.
And here, he doesn’t avoid the path ahead of him - the path that leads to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed. He doesn’t avoid the human sin and violence toward an innocent person. He doesn’t avoid looking like a loser to the ways the world works.
Peter’s disappointment in Jesus can easily connect with ours. We, too, often want a God who is strong, who will come in and wipe out any enemy, situation, or problem that we have to deal with. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t want to sacrifice. We don’t want to lose our life. It’s hard to accept a savior who comes in vulnerability and suffering and death.
Where is God in all this? Where is God in failure? Where is God in suffering? Where is God when sin seems to win?
God is leading the way, leading the way through failure, through sin, through death... to life.
See, our own vulnerability and suffering and death is exactly where Jesus meets us. It is where we most clearly see our need for God, and where Jesus shows us there is a way through. In the cross, Jesus relates to our suffering and pain, and then Jesus leads us onward.
“Get behind me” is also a way of saying, “follow me.” Jesus steps out in front of us. As we follow, Jesus leads. Jesus leads the way, shows us the way, through death, suffering, and pain to lead us all to resurrection life. He is the first one to defeat the worst that the world can do.
Where is God in all this? God is leading us to life. Jesus puts his own life on the line ahead of all who follow him. Whether to barren places in our lives - like the wilderness of temptation - or to worldly places where might and authority rule, Jesus is there. Has been there, and promises to always be with us with abundant life.
It was the promise at the beginning of the story. When Jesus is born, he is named, “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” It is the promise at the end of the story. As Jesus ascends to heaven, he tells his disciples, “I am with you always to the end of the age.” And it is the promise here: that Jesus will lead us on, showing us that, no matter what, his way leads to life.
So, no matter what we are going through right now, we have the promise that God is with us, God is leading us, God will bring us through. God knows, Jesus knows, what we’ve been through. We literally cannot save our own lives, and our attempts to do so often take a toll on ourselves and others. And as we again ask WIGIAT, we again hear God’s promise. And we discover that those things which seek to take our lives are no match for the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Where is God in all this?
That is the question we’ve been looking at the past several weeks, and it’s a question that has probably popped up in your mind a few times the past several months, even if it wasn’t those exact words.
The last time we gathered for worship together in this building was March 15. That was five months ago. Five months! That’s a long time. For many people in our community and around the world, this time has taken a physical toll of disease and death, of displaced jobs and disrupted schedules. And even if that’s been OK for you - if you haven’t gotten sick or didn’t lose your job - there is still the emotional toll that we all have been through.
We’ve had to adjust to a completely different way of life. Things we love have stopped happening. Trips were canceled; there is less travel. We don’t have parties. We aren’t hugging or shaking hands. Kids are at home all day, all the time. Then, there is no communal gathering for worship. Instead, you’re worshiping from home - which may be more comfortable but is definitely less than ideal. You can see the stained glass on your computer, but it’s not the same. You can hear the organ play, but you don’t feel it - unless you have some pretty big speakers at home.
It’s all pretty inadequate. Most aspects of life right now feel pretty inadequate. And we’re worn out from it all, stressed out about what the future looks like, tired out from this back and forth between scientists and politicians and your crazy friend-slash-acquaintance who posts the stupidest stuff imaginable on Facebook.
A lot of us are done. We want it all over with. Where is God in all this?
This negativity and emotional drain was the driving force behind wanting to plan this service of healing, which then, led to the broader theme of WIGIAT for this this month. Because we need to acknowledge all this about ourselves, be honest about it all, and then focus again on God.
Today, on this five month-a-versary of not gathering for worship, we will receive a word of blessing and prayer. The order for healing is a special piece of worship where all who sense the need for God’s healing in any aspect of their lives may join in prayer for others and themselves. In normal times, this service involves laying on of hands and anointing, symbols similar to what we do in baptism, to remind us that we are named and claimed forever by God, held always in God’s holy hands.
This isn’t meant to replace medical professionals, nor does this promise cures or an end to suffering, pain, or COVID, but instead, we celebrate God’s presence, God’s strength and comfort in our suffering, God’s promise of wholeness and peace, and God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ and the whole Christian community.
We know that healing comes in a variety of physical, spiritual, and emotional ways. So, in our prayers, we don’t just lift up, but we listen. We hear the promise that God is with us, even now. Where is God in all this? God is present. God promises something more. God heals.
And it is appropriate that our text today is about a healing. And while there are lots of other issues in the passage - Jesus’ attitude, his calling her names, whether this all was just a test for the woman - we’re going to keep focused on the healing and what we can learn from Jesus and from this woman.
First, and I think this is the obvious thing, is that Jesus heals. Jesus has the ability, authority, and power to cast out demons and, from what we know from other stories, heal all sorts of ailments. Jesus can and does heal.
And in that fact is hope. There is hope for us, there is hope for our family members, there is hope for friends and neighbors and others. Because Jesus heals.
As I mentioned earlier, healing, though, isn’t always what we think or want. Healing comes in different ways - through peace, through comfort, through acceptance, through rest, through openings, through relief, through medicine, through resurrection. Jesus heals diseases, yes, but Jesus also heals us entirely. It is what Jesus does.
And because of that, this second piece of the story seems obvious but needs to be said: the woman turned to Jesus. She looked to Jesus. She went to Jesus. Because she knew that Jesus was the only way for true healing. For mercy. For life.
Jesus showed up in her life - in her broken, hurt-filled, teary-eyed, painfully alone life - and she looked to Jesus for what she needed.
WIGIAT? Jesus comes into our lives with the presence of God, no matter our needs, our hurts, our pains. And today, knowing that Jesus is there, is here, is present with us, we will do the same thing as that woman. We will turn to Jesus. We will look to Jesus. We will go to Jesus. Because we know that Jesus is the way for true healing. For mercy. For life.
Jesus, in and through all things, promises us life. In his own pain, hurt, and death, Jesus shows us the true healing that God, and God alone, can bring. Cross and tomb lead to resurrection. It may not be the healing that Jesus had in mind, but it is healing that truly makes us whole. It is healing that shows God has us, no matter what, even when prayers seem unanswered. It is healing no matter what the world throws at us.
And yet, we still pray, and hope, and turn to Jesus now. And Jesus helps us - sends the Spirit to be with us, forgives us of our burdens, turns us again toward new life. In our stressed out, emotional, physical, spiritual hurts, pains, and dis-ease, we turn to Jesus. We look to Jesus. We go to Jesus. And he gives us life. Now and forever.
God Moments #1
Today’s worship service is a little different - as you may already see. In our quest to answer WIGIAT - Where is God in all this? - I asked for where YOU have seen God working over the past several months. I got many responses; some that aren’t in today’s service, but I always love hearing about where YOU see God in our world and in your lives. Thank you to those who sent me your stories.
Where is God in all this? Well, you answered. For many of us, the easiest place to see God is in service to others. When we help out another human being, we know that God is there in the moment, God is calling us, supporting us, filling us as we serve. Here are a couple of stories:
We became new members of St. Philip right before Covid-19 escalated, the beginning of March. Prior to that, things were going along very well. We were enjoying the services, getting to know our new church family, and trying to get involved in church activities. Then all the sudden, it came to a screeching halt, giving us no chance to get to know our church family or dial into church activities and participate in groups that we so desired to be a part of. The worldly circumstances left me feeling sad, angry at the situation, confused and wondering - what will happen next?
We were fortunate to keep our jobs throughout the quarantine. One day I realized, or, rather, God whispered in my ear, YOU CAN DO SOMETHING to help at church and still be involved. I am healthy, have a car, and am out and about every day. I was put into contact with a couple from church I had never met who needed groceries delivered. Since this started in March, we have made this a weekly occurrence.
What I have gained from this experience is meeting two dear people that I care about and have become fast friends. Also, I realized that there are people within the church family and community that need help. A simple gesture on my part may mean the world to someone else.
Where is God in all this? God is present in new relationships and meeting needs.
Here is another story about God being present in serving.
Every city has them – the homeless. Who are they, and why are they here? Well, they are somebody’s daughter or father or brother – just like all of us, but the one thing they all have in common is that they have been driven to the street. Maybe they lost a job, or the job did not pay enough to provide a home and pay the utilities and put food on the table and clothes on the body, insurance, transportation, school supplies and all the things most of us take for granted. Maybe they just couldn’t pay the rent. Maybe they just don’t know how to manage money. Maybe they just drink too much or are hooked on some other drug, and the family had enough and had no answer except to just push them out. Most all have some kind of mental or emotional or physical handicap. They are homeless, have nothing, and most, after a while, are just caught in a cycle, and they have lost all hope.
St. Philip is one of five churches in the area who host meals for these people, and as such, we serve a meal every 5th Saturday and at other needed times. And always, like every other church, we ask: Can we do it again? Will our people respond? Will enough people help? Will we have enough food? And always the answer is YES! YES! We’ll have more than enough! Each Saturday we help, whether it be 50 or 75 or whatever, all are fed a nutritious, wholesome, sustaining meal, and each person usually carries with him or her a plate or bag full for a later meal. So, Jesus is there, right? Jesus is with the hungry people being fed, right? Of course, he is there. But that’s not all.
If you have eyes to see, you will see Jesus in the person in the grocery store picking up extra food because on Saturday St. Philip will be providing a meal for others.
And you will see Jesus in that person planning the meals, those persons setting up the tables and chairs.
And you will see Jesus in that person standing over the stove giving precious time to prepare a dish.
And you will see Jesus in that person who drives to the church and packs the bags and helps get the meal together.
And you will see Jesus in that person who cannot physically be there but sends dollars to the church for others to use so that the meals are provided.
And you will see Jesus in those with gloves and masks who hand out the food to hands so ready to receive it.
Yes, if you have eyes to see, you will see Jesus in every person who enables that meal to happen, because in and through those people, God is working. And on that day, those who eat have had a taste of God’s love and have been given just a bit of holy hope.
WIGIAT? God is in feeding those who are hungry.
But sometimes God shows up in service - not of our own doing, but in others doing for us.
Where is God in all this? God is in others serving us. Like in this story.
There is a reason I would have done better in Middle School were I allowed to attend Woodshop classes instead of Home Economics. I have little talent when it comes to sewing. So when, early in the COVID-19 crisis, we were encouraged to make and wear cloth masks, I panicked. Following an online suggestion, I cut strips of cloth from an old sheet and fashioned a covering held in place by rubber bands. This seemed a temporary solution - but not one for the long haul, and at that time, online mask orders were taking weeks to fulfill. So I put it out on our community Facebook site: “Is anyone in the area making masks for purchase?”
I soon received a recommendation and contacted a neighbor in a nearby development. She operated a hair salon which remained closed as we sheltered in place. To stay busy, she was sewing masks at home, offering them for the cost of materials but also making them free to anyone who could not afford to pay. When she heard my husband and I were in the “at risk” age group, she put our orders on rush and had them ready the next day.
We never met.
She left the masks on her front porch rocker where I left my payment and a small appreciation gift. Perhaps that helped fund masks for others in need.
Where is God in all this? I like to think the One who spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” this One also cares about those who cannot sew and those who have no money for masks. This young neighbor proved to be God’s hands and heart; and her generosity was as contagious as COVID-19 could ever hope to be.
Where is God? God is in service to others.
God Moments #2
WIGIAT? Where is God in all this? During this time of pandemic and isolation, there are some who have not been able to isolate themselves, but instead, their vocation calls them to care for others in all types of ways. One “God Moment” gives thanks for our healthcare workers.
Where would we be in this Covid-19 world without our doctors and nurses? The medical community, nursing home workers, and those giving tests to identify the infected have given hours & hours caring for those who have been and are afflicted with this terrible virus. Some would say “they are doing their job.” But they are exposing themselves to the virus for the sake of others. That is selfless love.
God is present in selfless love that cares for another. And that type of work can be tiring. But knowing God is there, and adapting our habits, can be a way that we see God working through us all the more.
I work in the hospital and over the past few months my days have been longer, harder, and more stressful than any of the rest. I made two changes in my daily routine that have helped me cope. First, I pray every morning on the way to work and add a special part at the end: “Your words, my lips”. It’s a reminder to myself that everything is in God’s hands even when they are literally my hands treating the patient. Additionally, I write down something positive that happened each day before I go to sleep.
Last week, I helped a grieving family cope during the death of their loved one. Although it was painful for them, and also for me, I know the experience was better for them because God led us through it. In the past few months I’ve gone to sleep and woken up with a sense of peace knowing God directs my work each and every day, and that is truly where God is in all this!
God is in caring for others, even in difficult times. But one doesn’t have to be a medical professional for us to care for another. Here is another story of God being present in caring:
The Bible asks us, “Who is your neighbor?” We check on our widow neighbor frequently. When I called her recently, we learned she had been feeling sick for a few days and made herself a doctor’s appointment. She is 83 years young - and sick - so I offered to be her driver. When we arrived at her appointment, she was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and was taken by ambulance to the hospital for what became a two-week hospital stay. What caused me to call her that morning? I believe it was a “God Moment.” She is now home and improving.
God is present when we reach out to our neighbors. And this is true if they are close or far. Here is another story of God’s presence in showing care for a neighbor.
Last week, I called my friend from back home. We have known this friend and his wife for over 40 years. We attended church together, our kids grew up together in school, Sunday school, and confirmation. Thanks to email and texts, we have stayed together over the years, especially since we left in 1997. We talked and caught up on the kids and grandkids. Little did I know that one week later, Jesus would call my friend to his eternal rest. His son called me Sunday, August 2 to let me know his dad had died and to say my call meant so much to his dad. Our families have so many memories together. I’m glad my instinct, my God moment, had me call my friend “one more time”. Rest in peace, dear friend. God promises we will be together again.
God is present, even in our loss. God is present as we care. Here is another story where God nudged someone to act:
For the past 15 years I have been playing golf with my neighbor, Ray, and others. In the last several months there have been changes in his mental state. We all thought it was due to old age, as all of us experience. Lately, he would drive out in his car, stop and talk a little but had trouble telling me where he was going. One day when he was coming back in his car, I asked where he had been. He said, "to the beach and the people there were living in caves and I took my mother." Note: His mother passed away 30 years ago.
Well, since that day, all the neighbors and I have been praying Ray would not drive out and go through a red light and get killed. We called his brother in Georgia who had a medical evaluation done on Ray. He was diagnosed with severe Alzheimer’s Disease. Ray has since been moved to a care facility in Georgia.
I am sad because I did not have a chance to say good-bye to Ray, but I thank God I was able to alert his brother to get Ray help. God is the one who guided me through this difficult time. Every day that goes by, I thank God for helping me get through this.
God is present when we care for another. God is present in relationship. God is present in hope, even when the times are toughest, because God in Jesus Christ promises to be with us always. Where is God in all this? God is present in comfort, in care, in healing, in life, in love, now and forever.
God Moments #3
We work closely with several organizations locally and around the world. We can reach out to help them during this time, too. In a world of suffering, you can do a world of good. WIGIAT? God is present in your generosity. Here is a story of Christmas in July that shows just that:
God was so present with our Christmas in July giving this year! Because of the pandemic, we were not able to do our decorating and shopping for gifts. Having “Christmas in July” is always special. Being able to celebrate Christmas without all the other pressures of the holidays… just celebrating Christmas. Traditionally, the first week in July we select an ornament from the Angel Tree. You have to be quick to pick one because most of the ornaments are gone the first week. It’s always a mystery to me some of the things the kids have on their wish list! After announcing how we were going to do it this year, our church family stepped up as they always do. With a goal of collecting $1,500, we finished the month with $2,250! Even though we could not be present in church, we still came together as our church family always does to support this wonderful ministry. All the children that will benefit from this generosity…that is God in action.
And beyond this one event, God has been present through this whole time of physical distancing in your generosity to St. Philip and beyond. Here is a story that tells the broader picture of God being present in generosity:
Very often we think about seeing God when we come into Church—where we pray, praise, and worship Him with our fellow believers. But, all of a sudden, things changed! We were told that we could become ill if we continued to come together and worship. In fact, we could get sick if we were close to anyone who had Corona virus disease.
I am thankful that we are still provided a way to worship - with music, bulletin, prayers, and hear the Word of God. I see God working through us as we met in our homes to connect to our church.
Another way that I saw God was how He instilled in us the need to support our church through offerings—even though we were not present in church. We had a good year in 2019, and through July 2020 we have given more than we gave at this time last year. This is a wonderful testament to how important our church and its ministry are to us. Pastor Jason reminded us of our benevolences to which we contribute all year. I’ve seen God urge us to be thankful for our blessings and to share with those who are less fortunate—a total of over $5,000 so far in 2020. Also, God has worked through us for the past few years to share with children and youth who need our help through Christmas in July, to which we gave an overwhelming response.
I see God working through a congregation of people who are very thankful for their blessings and who reach out and dig deep to help those who are less fortunate. Many thanks to each one of you!
God is present in so many ways. God is working in us and through us - in service to others, in caring for one another, in our generosity to church and beyond.
God is with us, dear friends. And I hope these stories have inspired you to look for God, to ask, WIGIAT in your own lives. Because, yes, God is there.
Where is God in all this? This is a question I learned to ask in seminary - but actually, what is more memorable is the acronym for the question: WIGIAT. WIGIAT just sticks with you a bit more than the full phrase, but both point us again to look for where God is in our lives, our circumstances, in everything.
I have a WIGIAT sticker in my office that hangs where I notice it often. (Check the Children’s Church video if you don’t believe me.) It helps me to remember, in the midst of everything, to look for God and what God is doing.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m starting out a sermon using a made up, funny sounding word. Well, for this month of August, we are going to do things a little differently on Sunday mornings and offer some different experiences for worship.
We’re going to ask WIGIAT, and hopefully, see how God is and has been involved and working. This time of isolation and being away from the church building has brought many feelings and emotions with it. It is appropriate and good to recognize these feelings, and along with it, know that God still is here, in all this. God has still been working in our lives and in our world.
So, next week we will be sharing our God moments - times that we have seen, noticed, felt God even in pandemic times. If you have a brief story you’d like to share as part of worship, please send it to me and we will use them anonymously.
We will have a service of Healing, where we will pray for our world, our country, each other, and ourselves.
We will offer up thanksgiving for how God continues to provide for us and promises to bring us through tough times.
We will do these things, ask WIGIAT - where is God in all this? And we will hear some stories, answers, moments in the midst of our uncertainty and impatience of how God has indeed been present, how God indeed has worked, how God indeed still is bestowing love and grace and life.
Our lesson for today is a good way to warm-up our WIGIAT asking and answering. It is a wonderful miracle story. And when we ask where God is in this story, I think we all can come up with an answer! But, before we get to the obvious, let’s look at a more subtle way God shows up.
When we first join in the story, we see that Jesus has withdrawn himself because of John the Baptist’s death. We can see God in Jesus’ feelings and emotions. See, Jesus is God, God in the flesh, and Jesus feels the same things we do. So, when we have those feelings of grief, of pain, of hurt, of sadness, we can take comfort in knowing that God has those feelings, too.
When we suffer and raise our prayers to God, we can trust that God will hear our words, see our suffering, and that God will care - God will feel compassion for us. Where is God in our hurt? God is with us, sympathizing with us, understanding first-hand what our hurt is like.
We can take comfort in knowing that God isn’t a stoic, feeling-less being, but intimately knows us - and God doesn’t disappear when our going gets tough. God remains. God comforts. God knows.
So, yes, that may not have jumped off the page, but I think it is a good example of WIGIAT. God isn’t always in the big, flashy, and obvious. Sometimes, we don’t even notice what God is up to.
But, if you do want an example of big and obvious, we get that today, too. Where is God? God is in the miraculous feeding. God is in action on behalf of others. God is in doing the impossible in order to create and sustain life.
And God is in the miracle of using us to do all that. Jesus involved the disciples in feeding - “you give them something to eat.” Jesus takes and blesses what they bring and uses it - uses them - to feed thousands.
Jesus invites his disciples, and invites us, to take responsibility in ministry. Jesus accompanies us into the challenges that we face. Jesus blesses us and what we have and involves us in miracles. God is in the invitation to ministry, to serve, to give, to be disciples of Jesus Christ. And God is with us as we go.
We’ll talk about this more in a few weeks, but your generosity during this time has been felt, and felt deeply. However little you think you have given to ministry at St. Philip, however small a donation you think you’ve made to our benevolences, however tiny of an impact you think you’ve made with your gifts… God has done wonderful things. We’ve given more to our benevolences now than at any time in the past. We crushed our goal at Christmas in July, giving young men and women something they don’t have very often - a feeling of happiness and joyous surprise. And even if you haven’t given money, you’ve given support - through prayers, through cards, through messages on Facebook. Those have given me - and probably Arthur, too - a sense of making a difference, of sharing the Gospel, of seeing exactly WIGIAT - where God is in all this.
Because this is what we learn from our story today: God is in the little bit, the next to nothing, that we sometimes have or give. And especially lately, maybe we all feel like we’ve got next to nothing left. Next to nothing left on patience, next to nothing for ministry, next to nothing for family and friends, next to nothing left for right now.
The Good News is that “next to nothing” is Jesus’ favorite thing to work with. God is even present in our little bit, next to nothing, nearly empty selves. God is present in the common, making it sacred - water, bread, wine... and God uses it for miraculous things.
Maybe you saw other places in our story for today about WIGIAT. And maybe, as we start asking the question, “where is God in all this?,” we start to notice that God has been working this whole time. God has been present with us, in our ups and down. God has been calling us to work with Jesus. God has been using our little bit, next to nothing, to make miracles.
Normally when it is Christmas in July here at St. Philip, my family and I have just returned from a fantastic week at Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp just outside of Asheville, NC. We pick this week because it is Christmas week up there. We celebrate the birth of Christ, sing our carols, do the candlelight service… the whole thing. There aren’t any commercials or toys or stressors as with the “normal” Christmas time, so it is refreshing and inspiring and, well, wonderful.
At camp one of the Program Directors, Pastor Mary, used to tell stories before she retired. And there is one story that stuck with me since she told it a few years ago. It’s a story that I actually have told on Christmas in July services in the past, but I feel it is appropriate to do so again today. And while some of you have heard it before, we are in different circumstances and maybe there are others who haven’t heard it.
So, I’m going to try to tell it, even though it may be harder without people here. The story is called, “Grandmother’s Love.” (NOTE: Below is just an outline for the story. Use the video linked above to hear the story in its entirety.)
Once a little girl was born… she not only had a mom and dad, but also grandmother. Grandmother had talent - needle & thread and enough good material, she could make just about anything. And when this girl was born, grandmother made a great big wonderful quilt.
Each time she touches
Feel her grandmother’s love
Little girl took it everywhere
Until it was all worn out
Climbed up into her grandmother’s lap and said, looks like enough good material here to make a…
Story of a button that came from a ribbon, that came from a...
We think we have to have the stuff to make things special, but more often than not, the story can be just as, if not more, meaningful than the stuff, because every time we tell the story of a baby born in a manger, we can feel our Father’s love.
It’s why we celebrate Jesus’ birth, today of all days. Because we don’t need the stuff. Despite us putting up a few decorations, we don’t need those to tell the story of God’s love, to have it be meaningful, to evoke feelings in our hearts of promise and hope.
And normally, I think that is where I would leave the sermon for today. It’s not about the stuff; it’s about being able to tell a story that is more meaningful than all the stuff in the world. Because normally, that is what we need to hear. But this year… this year, we’ve been without so much for so long.
No gathering of community. No regular routine. No relaxing at a restaurant with groups of friends. It’s not even the “stuff” stuff… it’s just nothing is the same. It’s enough to make us all. worn. out.
We are all worn out. And it is times like these, times like today, that we can take what we have, take what is all worn out within us and climb up into God’s lap. And there, in God’s hands, we can look at it again and know, God will make something new and wonderful - even out of worn out things, worn out us. God makes beautiful things out of us.
That is the promise of Christmas, isn’t it? That God comes among us to make things new, make things beautiful, make things that remind us of love. God plans the next steps from what is worn. God’s story goes on, keeps getting told, no matter what.
When we are all worn out, we know that God can recreate us - through songs and carols, through a meal of bread and wine, through promises told in the story of a child born for us, a son given to us.
For every time we tell the story of Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace… every time we tell the story, we tell of God doing what God promises.
We tell the story of something new out of what was all worn out.
We tell the story, and we can feel our God’s love all around us.
Last week’s text was all about seeds and soil. And today, we get another parable about seeds and soil, but this one takes a little different slant. Instead of four categories of dirt, we are one of two types of seeds - either wheat or weeds.
In the parable, the farmer goes and spreads seed in order to grow wheat. But, during the night, an “evil one” comes and spreads seeds that grow weeds. When the seeds start to sprout, the servants question the quality of seed the farmer planted. But he is certain he planted only good seed. He immediately knows that an enemy has done this. And instead of pulling up the weeds then and there, for fear of uprooting everything, the farmer waits until harvest to separate the wheat from the weeds.
It seems pretty cut and dry. Simple and straightforward. You are one or the other. No inbetween. You are, or you aren’t.
The parable makes it seem that whatever you start out as, you stay. Planted as wheat? Good, you’re wheat! Planted as a weed? Oops. Too bad.
Boy, do I wish life was that defined and easy. But I’m afraid it’s not. When ever has the world been this straightforward? Our world is full of half-truths and “lesser of two evils” kind of options. There are pros and cons, good and bad, up and down about everything - about choices, about policies, about people.
Much like last week, I’m not so sure we are one or the other, but rather, we are more like the field in its entirety. We each have both wheat and weeds. We have good and bad. We have seeds God planted and seeds that the evil one plants. I don’t know if I can wholly categorize myself as one or the other - and I dare not try to do that to anyone else.
Add to this confusion the people we see throughout the Bible, the children of God who consistently do things that seem super weedy.
There’s David - Israel’s greatest King and a man after God’s own heart. He unified Israel and led them in their Golden Era. He also got another man’s wife pregnant and then, to cover it up, sent the husband off to the front lines to ensure he would be killed. Wheat or weed?
Peter, perhaps Jesus’ most famous disciple, proclaims him the Messiah! And then, just a few chapters later, denies he even knows Jesus as trial and crucifixion loom. Wheat or weed?
Or Saul, who was the Pharisee who persecuted the church and was responsible for many deaths of Christians. Wheat or weed? Oh, Saul, by the way, ended up having a “come to Jesus” moment, changed his name to Paul, and became a pillar of the church, starting congregations across the world and whose letters we still read to this day. Now what’s your answer? Wheat or weed?
These are some of the most famous people in the Bible, and they are all a mixture of wheat and weeds. And yet, God didn’t declare them weeds to be cast into the fire, but instead God forgave them, brought them in, and used them for sharing the kingdom in this world.
Back to us. We who feel, think, and hope we are wheat often have moments where we act a lot more like weeds. Martin Luther would say that we are both Saint and Sinner, that we are both holy and broken at the same time. Even those positive things about us have a touch of sinfulness to them. Humility can easily turn to pride over how humble one is. Any benevolent act or giving itches for some kind of recognition in return, be it praise, thanks, or even a tax write-off. Even our wheatiest of moments can have a sprout or two of weeds.
So far, it seems like I am disagreeing with Jesus and his parable. I don’t think that usually ends up too well. But maybe I’m not disagreeing as much as I am mixing the metaphor a bit. And while I do think we all have some weedy parts to us, maybe Jesus’ point is bigger than what I am getting at. The whole world is full of wheat and weeds - and yet, God planted you, YOU, to be wheat in this field.
While it is true that we are Saint and Sinner, God planted us here to be Saints. And that is good enough for God. See, we so often think that we have to, that we CAN do something - do something to make ourselves better soil, do something to be loved and saved, do something to become wheat. But we are already what God planted. We are God’s wheat, set to grow.
So, maybe this parable isn’t a call to action about being less weedy. It isn’t imploring us to change others or change the world or even change us.
Instead, Jesus is giving us a statement, proclaiming that we who are planted by God, we are simply meant to be wheat and trust that God will pull the enemy’s weeds in due time. For now, just be as wheaty as we can be. Because we can’t change others. We aren’t to pluck out the weeds. We’re just to grow.
And since we trust that God has planted us, we also trust that God gives us the things we need to grow.
We are fed and nourished by God - fed through the Lord’s Supper, fed by God through stories of faith, stories of people who are a lot like us, who grow and through whom God produces the kingdom.
We are watered - watered in baptism to remind us of who we are, who we are planted, named, and claimed to be.
We are in the light of the sun. The Son of Man shines on us to give us grace and mercy and life.
And so, along with God planting us to grow as wheat…
And God nourishing us, watering us, and shining upon us…
God also promises that God will sort things out in the end. God relieves us of bearing that burden, because, truly and honestly, only God can make the right judgment anyway. And I trust God. I trust God to do it in a way that is more just, more gracious, more loving, more right than even I could at my very best.
Perhaps this also allows us to live in ways that aren’t as judgmental, based on looks or beliefs or political parties - and instead just grow as Jesus intends us to do. Produce Fruits of the Beatitudes and Fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace; meekness, humility, grace; mercy, patience, righteousness. All this chaos, all this disruption is beyond what we can fix. We want to weed the garden and the gardener simply says, “Wait. Watch. Be. Be wheat for the kingdom.”
One day, God will gather us all. God will uproot all that keeps us from being the true harvest. God will pull the weeds which currently infest our lives; they will be taken away, allowing us to be as God intended - to be included in the one harvest, gathered all together. The farmer has a plan. God has intentions. And God will bring a good and bountiful harvest.
Dirt isn’t the most exciting thing to talk about, but that’s exactly what Jesus does here. As is typical, he talks about pretty mundane things to make his point. It’s relatable, understandable, but also like God’s kingdom, it’s all around us even if we don’t notice.
Today’s parable is one of Jesus’ more famous stories.
A sower went out to sow. He was throwing seeds all over the place. They went everywhere.
Some seeds fell on the path where he was walking. That was easy pickins for the birds.
Some seeds fell on rocky ground. But because the roots couldn’t take hold, the plants withered rather quickly.
Some seeds fell among thorns and weeds. The plants grew up but the other, less-desirable plants overcrowded and choked out the new growth.
And some seeds fell among good soil where the seeds took root and grew, producing much grain.
So, what did you hear?
Where are you in this parable?
Where do you want to be?
We’ve probably all picked one out, right? We think we know where we are and where we want to be - and I imagine (but tell me if I’m wrong), but I imagine that we all want to be good soil. But up and against where we feel we are, particularly at this time in the world, that may not be the case. We may be a path or rocks or thorns.
But I think picking only one does a disservice to the parable, to Jesus, and to us. Maybe rephrasing the question will help. Instead of, “where are you in the parable?” we should ask, “when have you been each one of these soils?” I think that is a much more honest question to ask, because we have all been each of the examples. We have responded to God’s Word in each of these ways.
When have you felt like a hardened, worn path?
When have you felt like shallow, rocky soil?
When have you felt like the thorns take hold of your life?
When have you felt like good soil?
Which soil are you today? Which soil will you be tomorrow?
Right now, I don’t know what I am. I so want to be good soil, but I’m getting fatigued from the restrictions (or lack thereof) and worry and - maybe what I’m really fatigued by is the stupidity and polarization and name calling and lack of care for others.
I feel hardened by the neverending grind that we are going through right now.
I feel walked over, trodden upon by the lack of care and responsibility some people have for their neighbors - for me.
I feel shallow; I run out of patience easily. My energy drains quickly.
I feel the thorns poking me with every ignorant social media post, choking any hope I have of getting through this soon.
Typically we want to hide all those things. Only show or claim the good little patches of our dirt and ignore the rest. Because all the other places of our lives feel inadequate, broken, not good soil. I want to be good soil, but I just don’t think I have it in me. Not right now, at least.
And maybe that is the point. Or part of the point, at least.
See, dirt doesn’t “do” much. It can’t really make itself different. Someone else has to do that… like a holy horticulturist, so to speak.
I’m not a farmer, but I was around my grandad’s garden enough to know that good soil doesn’t just happen. It takes work. Good soil is dirt that has been tilled and raked, dug up and turned over, plowed through and *ahem* fertilized, if you catch my drift. Even good soil doesn’t always stay “good.” Its nutrients are sapped by the constant growing and tilling, so good soil needs to be worked, fed, broken up. Good soil is broken soil.
While we try to hide our imperfect dirt, God works to break us up and open us to the seeds God is throwing.
It’s the cracks that let the seeds in. It is the plow that comes through that turns us up. It is the farmer who takes what is hardened, rocky, weed-filled, and breaks it up - turning it into good soil. What we see as inadequate or incomplete, God sees as an opportunity for good soil.
So, even where we are right now has potential for God to grow something wonderful.
Because we are, each of us, in our own ways, broken soil - turned over and over in all kinds of ways throughout our everyday lives. And this brokenness, which we often so desperately try to hide, this brokenness that we think disqualifies us in some way from God's love - this brokenness is the very thing that allows the seed, God’s Word, God's love to take root in us.
God is throwing seeds. God is planting, wastefully sowing love and grace, just waiting on it to take root. God doesn’t care where the seeds fall - especially if they fall in the places we consider broken. Because there, that is where God will work.
Whatever soil we are today or were yesterday or will be tomorrow - we trust that God isn’t giving up on us. Where we are broken, there is a chance for God to plant a seed. And then, God works in ways to till up good soil in us. God is just looking for an opportunity, tossing seeds on whatever soil our lives may be.
And while part of the point of Jesus’ parable is about our soil, what kind of dirt we are, really the true promise is that, ultimately, it’s not up to us but to God, the farmer who sows abundantly out of love. We can’t simply decide what kind of soil we are, but we can trust Jesus’ promise that God will keep sowing seeds, keep showering us with the word of grace, mercy, and love.
God will keep planting seeds, no matter what soil we are. Because God has this unconditional, reckless love for us, right now, right here, just as we are. God will never give up on us.
And while it may be hard, thorny, or shallow, even that doesn’t mean seeds won’t grow. Go check your driveway or the sidewalk outside your house. Notice any green stuff there? There are plenty of remarkable pictures of trees growing out of rocks and flowers that push up through the pavement. These tenacious plants offer signs that the word of God will continue to find a way to grow even on the days when we feel beaten down, or overcome by thorns, or at our rockiest.
Because a sower went out sow. God comes out with love and grace. And God will keep planting seeds. Now and forever.
“To what will I compare this generation?” Why, they are like spoiled children, whining to their parents.
Amen, right? Kids these days. With no respect. “When I was kid…” And technology! Always have their face in a phone… er, well, good thing for technology and phones right now, huh? Anyway, get off my lawn! Huh-rumph.
Jesus sounds like a grumpy old man.
Except (and you probably figured this out already), Jesus isn’t a grumpy old man, and he isn’t talking about “kids these days.” In fact, he isn’t talking about kids at all. When Jesus talks about “this generation,” he means the people living right then and there. He’s talking about those disciples, those new followers, those who were just hearing, those who have yet to hear. He’s talking about people like you and me. Heck, not “like;” he IS talking about you and me.
We are spoiled children. Nothing pleases us. The example Jesus gives to the people is of John the Baptist and himself. John came fasting, and they complained that he was crazy - not relatable enough. He won’t sit down and have a meal or a drink with us! Then, Jesus came, meals and drinks galore and they called him a drunkard, a friend of riff-raff, hanging out with “those” people.
So, the people rejected these prophets - and thus, they rejected the God these prophets pointed to.
Of course, WE aren’t like that. Jesus is OK in our book.
See, I’m not quite convinced “spoiled” is the right word. That has more of a connotation of entitlement and pampering. Instead, I think we have more of a Goldilocks syndrome. You remember Goldilocks, right? This porridge was too hot, this porridge was too cold. This porridge is juuuuust right.
This prophet is too severe. This prophet is too gracious. We like our religion to be just right - which usually means just like us. Just like what we know. Just like what we prefer. Just like what makes us comfortable.
When it comes to Jesus, that welcome is too open; this teaching is too gracious; these pieces are too holy or spiritual or hard. But this other part is juuuust right.
Think of the beatitudes - blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. It’s too unrealistic.
We push aside the sayings and parables about possessions and treasures and wealth. It’s too personal.
We conveniently forget not only who Jesus spent his time with, but who Jesus calls us to minister to. That is too radical.
You know what’s just right? Jesus being a hands-off, let us be, pat us on the head kind of guy. He just leaves us alone and only comes around to rescue us when something bad happens to us or someone we love, because, overall, we’ve pretty much got this. Tell me what I want to hear, and do things the way I want them done. Yeah, that prophet is just right.
Which begs the question: do we recognize, do we follow, do we like Jesus or not? All of Jesus? Jesus says we don’t. We’re picky. We’re biased. We’re… ok, we’re spoiled.
Jesus calls the people of this generation out. Jesus calls us out. He says we don’t know him. We don’t want him. Jesus lays it out there, plain and simple. We reject Jesus, what he stands for, and who he is.
And then he says, “Come to me.”
Are you tired? Come.
Do you not know what to do? Come.
Are you burnt out on spoiled religiosity? Come.
Have you had it up to here carrying your heavy preferences, biases, burdens? Come.
Jesus gives a word of grace to the same people he was just saying “woe” to. This is grace in the midst of misplaced preferences, grace despite choosing the wrong things. This is grace to “this generation.” This is grace to us.
Jesus yokes himself to us. He offers us rest in the midst of troubles. To lighten our burden through his presence. To teach us how to live and grow. To be a gentle presence in the midst of turmoil - even though that’s not necessarily what we want.
We often prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than one who helps us cope with them. A God who destroys our opponents rather than enables us to make peace with them. A God who eliminates our challenges rather than equips us for them.
That’s where our disappointment lies. On this side of the kingdom, we will be let down when our preferences aren’t met. But God doesn’t pander our Goldilocks-like ways. Instead, God shapes us, changes us, reforms us through yoking us to Jesus.
First, Jesus offers rest. He offers rest from the burden of our preferences; he offers rest from a weary world; he offers rest from having to do it all.
After he gives us rest, then he offers to teach us - for us to learn from him. We learn from Jesus that there is not A right way to do this - any of this. But there are faithful ways.
We learn faithful ways are ways where we walk with Jesus, yoked, joined, together with him.
Faithful ways are authentic ways of worship, of serving, of being Christ-like in the world.
Faithful ways are watching how Jesus lives and then working with Jesus now.
That’s what it means to be yoked to Jesus.
We learn how to live - not in a right or wrong, too hot, too cold kind of way, but in a faithful kind of way. Being spoiled isn’t good for anyone. Being faithful and learning from Jesus is. That means it’s less about what we prefer and more about what Jesus prefers.
None of us has had what we prefer lately, and as we transition back to in-person worship, we’re going to have feelings and thoughts and preferences. It’s too soon. It’s been too long. Why can’t we do this anymore? Why are we doing things that way? And to those questions and preferences, all I can say is we are trying to be faithful and learn from who Jesus is. That means it is less about what we prefer and more about what Jesus has taught us about care for others.
And though we are in this in-between time, a time that feels a bit odd or off, we know that Jesus is still with us, giving us rest, teaching us, and showing us more and more what he prefers.
Jesus prefers forgiveness. Being yoked to Jesus, resting in Jesus, we see a forgiven life for us where our burdens of guilt and inadequacy are lifted.
Jesus prefers community. We live in a community to help share grief, questions, doubts, fears. He wants us to do this all together, with him.
Jesus prefers care for those who aren’t here yet, especially for those who don’t have the same advantages we do. This butts up against some of our preferences, but it is a faithful way to live.
We still may be particular, preferential, and persnickety - set in our own ways. And that can get pretty tiring, heavy, burdensome. But Jesus is here saying, “Come to me, all that need rest. Come to me, those that want to learn to live faithfully. Come to me.” Wherever we go, whatever happens, Jesus is yoked to us, preferences and all.
And that yoke fits just right.
Today we get a super short lesson from Matthew. It’s only three verses! This bite-sized chunk of text should be simple to find out what Jesus is saying to us. Right?
So, what does this text tell us to do?
Because, of course, the Bible is a rule book, a set of commandments, God’s little instruction book. What do Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 tell me to do?
Most people will hear Jesus’ words and conclude that he is telling us to welcome the stranger. have hospitality, be open and warm, ready to receive anyone and everyone. It’s easy to see.
When Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” this means that I am supposed to welcome the stranger - and by doing so, I am welcoming Jesus and the one who sent Jesus.
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” This means that I am supposed to welcome the prophet, and then I will receive a prophet’s reward. (But fair warning: you might not want a prophet’s reward, since most of the real prophets were rejected!) Same thing with welcoming the righteous.
And since Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple ... [will not] lose their reward,” this means I am supposed to offer “a cup of cold water” to the needy and oppressed in order that I might not lose the reward.
It all seems straightforward. And it might seem that way because we asked the wrong question. Now, I’m sure plenty of people want to know what the Bible tells them to do. They want direct, clear, easy to understand answers so that they can just do it and move on with their life.
But not all passages in the Bible are commandments. Not all are laws or rules. Not all are instructions. And, even more upsetting than that, not all the passages are about you. Shocking, I know. But, they’re not about me, either.
Now, none of the things I mentioned above are bad if you do them. In fact, you may be called from time to time to do them. But before we get there, let’s ask a different question. Instead of “What am I supposed to do?,” let’s ask, “What does this text mean?” and then, “What does it mean for me?” It’s a little different way of looking at the Bible, and it is one that can really help us see that we’re not always supposed to save the world - or even save ourselves.
The first clue in this text that we aren’t the ones doing anything comes in the first line. Notice the word, “you.” Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Jesus is placing the ones hearing this message not in the place of the ones offering welcome, but rather in the place of the ones receiving welcome.
So instead of being a commandment, this text is a promise. It is the promise that Jesus is with us as we are welcomed, that God is with us as we are welcomed. And not just “you” but “y’all.” See, Jesus is talking not just to “you” but to “all y’all.” You aren’t alone in this. Jesus is with you. God is with you. All of us are with you.
But of course, in order to be welcomed, we need to go somewhere. That is what Jesus has been prepping us to do since the beginning of chapter 10. He’s been making the disciples, and us, ready to go out on this missionary journey.
Jesus sends us out with authority and instructions.
Jesus warns us of the difficulties we will face.
Jesus tells us, “do not be afraid.”
And then he gives us this promise.
As we follow Jesus on his mission, we have the promise that we will find welcome.
We have the promise that Jesus is there. God is there. All y’all are there, too.
We have the promise that we are not alone.
Of course, we all want to know what this means in this time of COVID - a time when we aren’t really supposed to be mixing it up with a bunch of random people. I never thought Jesus’ words were easy to follow, but it sure seemed easier when we could actually go out and give other people a chance to offer us welcome, you know?
The whole mission thing… all of what Jesus has been saying to us the past three weeks or so… it’s hard to know what to do when things are so screwy. Weird. Foreboding.
But maybe it is good to be uncomfortable, uncertain, to not have the easy answers. Because even the things we think are easy aren’t always so, especially when it comes to following Jesus. The first disciples knew that. And maybe we got too comfortable with the easy answers we’ve used for decades, if not centuries.
This passage comes to us at this point in time to force us to reflect a bit on what it really means to be sent by Jesus. What it means to follow. What it means to welcome. Because we can’t “DO” a lot of it right now.
So, maybe we don’t “do” big and instead reflect on the promise.
Maybe a prophet’s reward isn’t some heroic haul, but instead the assurance that Jesus is with us.
Maybe it is small acts of compassion and gestures of grace - an extra monetary donation, a phone call or a card or note, an act of slowing the spread through mask-wearing and sitting tight… maybe it all is a way we bring love and grace to this world. Because there is no small gesture when we act with the love of Christ for another.
We like to “do.”
We like easy answers.
And we really like when it is about me.
But sometimes Jesus doesn’t go that route. Sometimes, he simply calls us to be faithful, to follow, and to hear the promise that he is with us. This unusual, challenging time is showing us an enduring, hard, grace-filled truth - our mission is not defined by our ability to gather but by our ability to serve and welcome others, for the sake of the world.
And as exhausting as it is to be ever-adapting, we're pushing forward collectively, in love and in hope. Because Jesus promises, wherever we are, as we are on his mission, he is with us. He is with you. He is with all y’all. Thanks be to God.
So, have no fear. Easier said than done.
It seems hard to not have fear with the state of the world these days. It’s confusing, overwhelming, discomforting.
Last week, you remember how Jesus was sending the disciples - and us - out on a mission? This is still part of that pep talk. Between last week’s lesson and this one, Jesus gets a bit more real. He lays out the difficulties they will face. Today, he is reminding them and forewarning them, but he is also trying to comfort them.
The thing about it for us, though, is we tend to forget the comfort and only focus on the warnings. I mean, who noticed anything comforting in this passage today? We focus on the bad things - the swords, the separations, the discord among families, the denials… These warnings kick us into fight or flight mode - none of which is helpful when proclaiming the God of grace. And so, we start to be afraid. And when we start to fear, we look for simple, easy, immediate answers - answers the world is all too happy to give.
The world tells us what to do. You, and only you, matter. TV ads and products are made just for you. They will make you happy. News stations and websites tell you exactly what you already think and know to be true. They validate you; you are more informed than everyone else.
See, you do belong. You are not alone. And if anyone says otherwise, it’s easy to insult their intellect, or their looks, or anything, really. It makes you feel better by making others feel worse, and, remember, you’re the only one that matters. You’re far superior to them - and here’s why: bank account, power, control. You can get it, and have it, but at any moment, it could all go away.
Those “answers” are what surround us day after day after day. Those messages dominate our lives. They tell us who we are and what we should be. And if we don’t listen to them, if we don’t follow their lead - there is no place for us. Our greatest fears will come true. We’re nothing, nobody. We don’t matter. You’ll never be happy. Our world, while pretending to offer answers, only stokes our fear.
But remember what Jesus says.
He says, “have no fear.” Do not be afraid. It is the message of angels and prophets and now the Christ: Do not be afraid.
Do not fear those who will oppose you, Jesus says. In time, the truth will come out.
The world tells us what to do to fit in. And yet, God says, “You already belong.”
The world tells us how to become valuable. Jesus says, “You are of the greatest value.”
The world tells us what is important. The Spirit reminds us that to God, WE are important.
Fear dominates our lives. And it seems that Jesus follows these words of hope with even more fear, but this is more about naming our fears out loud. The world, the authorities, other people and things - they can harm you, but they cannot affect your eternal destiny, your salvation, your place in heaven. God can. And so all fear - more in the sense of holy awe rather than terror - all respect and honor should be directed toward God.
Then Jesus says, “Don’t listen to them.” In his word is promise. Because while Jesus names our fears, these fears are permeated with that phrase of hope: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. This sentence always leads to good news.
This same God, the one we are to honor and revere and look to, the God who has power over our immediate and eternal lives, this God loves us above all things. More than all the sparrows. All the details about who you are, all the ins and outs, all the hairs on your head are counted and known. You are loved. You are formed into the new family of God.
All this is Good News which flows through and around everything, even our fears. But the Good News of Jesus is more than just how he starts by telling us not to be afraid. The Good News is also how Jesus finishes the story in his actions.
Jesus encountered our world, and he stood up to those things which we still fear.
He went against the pressures that told him he must fit in to how the world works - he must do this or that to belong. He knew that he belonged to God.
He went against the powers which preferred order, adherence, and hierarchy. He upset the applecart by loving and welcoming and sharing a meal with anyone.
He even faced one of the greatest fears any human being has, and that is death. And under the threat of death, Jesus loved God.
In all these things, Jesus went against the answers our world tries to give. He went to places we dare not go, he did things for people whom we dare not even recognize, he stayed true to God’s Kingdom when most of us would sing a different tune at just the mention of a hammer and nails.
All this because Jesus knew what was important: we all belong to God and nothing changes that. We are all beloved children, more valuable than anything, with all the hairs of our head counted. And in Jesus, we see how God deals with fear, with our world, with us in our good times and in our bad.
If God can use something as awful as the cross to work redemption, then God can and will work through all our hardships - big or little - for the sake of life. Instead of condemning the world, God decided to save it. Instead of being a God of fear and scaring the hell out of us, Jesus came to show us inescapable, overpowering, unconditional love.
So, instead of fear, as has been our default for so long, maybe we actually live out the mission Jesus sends us out to do with joy. Anticipation. Hope.
Have no fear - the world does not have the last word.
Do not fear - Jesus has faced the worst our world can do.
Do not be afraid - God has you. Forever.
In a time like this,
with a text like this, it is hard to start a sermon.
Not that there isn’t anything to talk about; it’s just, where do I start?
See, this text from Matthew is all about mission. Jesus is sending the disciples out to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, and so forth. Jesus gives us authority to go and do, go and fix, go and tell others.
It’s what we generically call “mission.” Tell other people your Good News wherever, however, you can. But in times like these, I wonder if that fits our situation. It’s not that we can’t or we shouldn’t “talk” right now, but is that the message we need to hear?
Maybe today we look at this text a little differently. See, we like to be the ones going and doing and helping, so that’s how we understand texts like this. We are the Good Samaritan, the one who does. We are the disciples, the do-ers, the helpers. But maybe today, we don’t do that.
Maybe we don’t see ourselves as help-ers, but as help-less. Like “sheep without a shepherd,” as Jesus says. Because I feel kind of lost right now. In this time of pandemic, right when we start thinking about getting back to normal, our state and our county explode with cases of COVID-19. Any plans we had about gathering in-person again get kicked down the road.
There are protests and race conversations-slash-arguments and none of it is new. I still remember seeing video of Rodney King being beaten when I was about 10 years old… and, my, how nothing has changed. We say - and have been saying - “just be nice to each other.” We see how that has worked out. Obviously, it takes way more than that. I’m lost about what I can add as a white man preaching to a congregation in the whitest denomination in the US.
On top of that, the uncertainty and pains of the rest of life rage on. Health, jobs, death, relationships… it all comes, changes, goes.
It’s a chaotic world. And in a chaotic world, it’s ok to admit that we are like sheep without a shepherd. This is most certainly true.
Unlike most places in our lives, in worship, with God, we can be real and be honest. Sometimes we are harassed and helpless, lost and uncertain. But feeling this way isn’t a sign that we are failures; instead, it’s a sign that we’re a broken human, stuck in a broken world with other broken humans. We’re part of the crowd.
And admitting this truth, owning that truth, can help us really hear the other truth in this passage: Jesus sees us as we are and has compassion for us. This also is most certainly true.
Jesus didn’t come as a motivational speaker, trying to instruct us in having better attitudes.
He didn’t come only as a teacher, giving us “four easy steps” to solve the world’s problems.
He didn’t come to judge us for having defeated, broken, hurting, yet very real moments.
Instead, Jesus came to bring the compassion of God to us and to the world. Jesus came to show God’s compassion in word and deed. Jesus came to live - and die - so that we would know, feel, see God’s compassion for us.
“That though we still were sinners,” as Paul writes - though we don’t have it all together nor do we know all the answers - “Christ died for us.” That proves God’s love for us. We don’t have to know it all, do it all, perfect it all. Christ has already died and been raised for us.
And that can help us hear, see, know the compassion of God for us. Though we are helpless and harassed, God has compassion for us.
This text is usually used as inspiration - rile us up so we want to tell others - go out on a mission! But maybe our call right now isn’t so much to “tell” as it is to “be told.” To listen. Sometimes, mission looks like listening.
In this mission of listening, we hear again that we aren’t perfect, we don’t have all the answers, even our best falls short of God’s intentions, and sometimes we’re just flat out lost... and yet, God is still for us. Jesus sees us, knows us, and he has compassion for us. Even knowing who we are and how we feel, Jesus still assures us that the Kingdom has come near to us.
In this mission of listening, we pray. We wait. We often like to help on our own terms and in our own ways, don’t we? But right now, we listen, and we keep others safe with distancing and masks. It is ok to err on the side of caution, to look out for the well-being of others, even as it puts us at an inconvenience.
In this mission of listening, we hear others’ stories. We educate ourselves on issues of race. We read. And then we listen again. We learn to see whatever racial biases - overt or not - we have. And we keep listening. No rebuttals, just listening. It may make us uncomfortable to hear others’ stories, but our “being uncomfortable” isn’t worse than someone else’s experience of racism.
In this mission of listening, we learn to respond to suffering and the suffering of others - not necessarily by trying to fix it, because some things we can’t fix - but we can point again to the truth, our broken truth and God’s gracious truth. And because of God’s grace, even our difficult times of pain, hurt, and loss can produce positive outcomes. That is healing. That is growth. That is restoration. That is the promised Good news.
To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus. To listen. To point. To proclaim grace. Jesus embodied God’s truth - compassion, grace, life. And as we listen to God and hear what God is saying to us, we can better hear and know that truth for us, and for each other. It’s a truth that shapes us, changes us, inspires us to go out, to listen to others, to be like Jesus.
Our Shepherd has compassion for us. Love for us. Grace for us. Life for us.
These are chaotic days. And yet, the Prince of Peace has come. And Jesus is sending us into the chaos. But we aren’t lost and alone. God has compassion for us. Jesus knows us fully. The Spirit gives us hope - hope that does not disappoint us.
As has become the tradition here at St. Philip, on Pentecost we talk about the stained glass windows. Now, some of you - many of you - may not know that the stained glass windows are not original to the building. They weren’t put in until 1977, about 20 years after the building was initially built.
The most prominent window, obviously, is this huge, 30 foot tall window. Normally, when you’re here, you don’t get to see it all too much, but over the course of these past few months, we’ve tried to give you glimpses of my favorite thing about the building.
Some people have asked me if that is supposed to be St. Philip, which is a good guess, but no, it’s Jesus. The window is 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 red 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, like the tongues of flame we heard about in our story from Acts.
These windows are subtle reminders of God’s story, God’s presence even. And normally, we take them for granted. We walk in here, they grab our attention a bit, and then we start to focus on other things - people, bulletins, our seats.
But many of us long to be in this building right now. We just want to be there, together for worship. We’ll never take those windows for granted again!
We have a lot of feelings right now - and not many of them are all that good. We are depressed about being stuck, anxious about what all these people flocking to the beach means, at a loss for words about riots, befuddled over there still being racism, overwhelmed by a culture that glorifies violence, helpless about what we can do, uncertain when - or IF - things will ever get better… And in these questions, we start to wonder and doubt.
We can’t access the things we normally do which give us comfort and peace and reassurance. All the reminders we have here in this space - the grand ceiling, the pronounced cross, the bright windows - these are all the subtle things we long for and need right now. And right now, they seem missing. Taken from us.
But, just because “things” are taken away - even good things - it doesn’t mean that God is gone. In fact, all the more, it is a time when we can feel God with us without as many distractions. It’s a time to rely more directly on God, similar to the spiritual disciplines of tithing or fasting. We don’t need the stuff as much as we need God. We can learn to connect with God in new ways - and even appreciate the old ways more, once we return to them.
Jesus, too, was taken away from everything that gave him comfort. He was alone. Abandoned. Nailed to a cross. And it is only through God’s persistent presence, grace, and love that we are able to see anything more than death when we look to the cross. God never was gone. Instead, God took something that was terrible, horrible, no good, very bad and turned it into life, into something new.
And if God can do that, then God can give new meaning to the times we feel lost. Because God is always with us, even now.
Though we feel stripped of all we know about “church,” though we feel lost and alone in so many ways, God is present, and God’s spirit is sending us, holding us, even outside the building - much like that first Pentecost. The Spirit filled the disciples while they were all inside, in all the comfort and familiarity of people and things - and then the Spirit pushed them out to experience something new. And where would we be if that hadn’t happened?
So, what is God up to this time?
God is still present. The Spirit is still working in each of us. And I think God is working by helping us bear witness to Jesus Christ - maybe in an even more public way now than showing up to hang out inside a building. We are doing something new - not coming to church, but still being the church. Interacting online, as we know, is a very public thing - a way that we can point to Jesus.
There is a post going around clergy circles on Facebook right now, and I feel like I need to jump on the bandwagon, otherwise you won’t think I’m a cool pastor: the Church isn’t closed. The building is, but the Church isn’t.
No, the Church isn’t. Because we still proclaim Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
We still make connections with people. We are still loving, caring, giving - to our neighbors who may not look like us. We share meals. We donate food. We have generosity in giving beyond ourselves. The gifts you have, the gifts you give, are all proof that the Church isn’t closed. God is still working.
The Church, the stained glass, the building… it isn’t who we truly are. Those can be helpful and comforting, but the Spirit has so much more in store for us.
God is with us. God is with you. Let’s let God’s light shine through us… kind of like these windows. Let’s keep being the Church.
Last week, we read the “wedding text” from First Corinthians. You remember: love is patient, love is kind, and so on.
This week, we go to the other end of the spectrum and have one of the more famous funeral texts: “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is interesting that this is where Paul ends his letter because we aren’t so keen on talking about death, even though it is all around us. We deflect; we cope; we put on flowers and makeup to soften death’s sting. And yet, death still does sting. Death does come. Death is certain.
Right now, there is death, and fear of death, because of COVID-19. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of concerned or not, this disease has shaped the narrative of our country and world for the past several months. If fears are real or exaggerated does not matter. Death has a way of demanding attention, whether we ignore it or not, and it doesn’t matter how you feel about it. Death cannot be avoided.
This weekend, too - a time in which we celebrate and remember - it has death at its center. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day when we remember those who have died while serving our country. We give honor and prestige by calling it “sacrifice” - and it surely is! But “sacrifice” is just a way of nicely getting around the fact that these men and women - and oftentimes kids - died.
This June, just a little over two weeks from today, will be 16 years since my cousin was killed in Iraq. Thomas was 20 years old when he died. And yes, all he wanted to do was serve his country. And yes, he sacrificed his life. But he still died. We still had a funeral. We can still go visit his grave. He’s still dead.
And yes, surely, there are way less extreme deaths - deaths of routine, death of friendships, death of community. Did you know this is the tenth Sunday service we’ve done online? We began streaming in Lent, worshiped online through Holy Week, celebrated Easter Sunday physically distanced, and now, believe it or not, we are in the last Sunday of the Easter Season.
What started out as painful has become almost normal. At first, we denied it was happening; not gathering for worship was excessive - unnecessary, even. Then maybe we got angry about the need to change and be apart. Many of us even went through a type of depression. Gathering for worship, in a sense, died. It is a death of something near and dear to us - and something that we had to work through. Some of us may still be working through it. The pain, the time, the help needed… it’s all different for each of us. And maybe by this point now, some of us are adjusted. We long for the day when we will be reunited, but we have accepted where we are… and maybe will miss wearing our PJs to worship. Or muting the pastor. Or pausing for a bathroom break.
Death is a brutal force that we have to deal with in many aspects of our lives - from literal to metaphorical, personal to communal.
But death is not all there is. It is not the only certainty. And this is what Paul wants to remind us of.
Paul, here at the end of his letter, really is giving more of an argument - stating his case that Jesus really was raised from the dead; it’s not that Jesus just died and then, kinda, you know, “appeared” to people. Paul is emphatic that Jesus was dead - like dead-as-a-doornail dead. But then, he is even more emphatic that Jesus was raised. Because if Christ wasn’t really, truly raised from the dead to live a new life, then neither will we and all this stuff is just bologna.
Paul is convinced, passing along what was first given to him, about the Good News of Resurrection. Christ is the first fruits of those who have died. There is more to come! We, too, will be raised to new life.
For God has defeated death.
The same death that causes us fear.
The same death that we try to avoid and pretty up.
The same death that changes, ruins, ends our lives.
The very same death that has a hold on us.
God in Christ has won over death. That death. All of death. The tomb can’t hold us. A grave will not win.
We will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For we will be raised. We will be new. We will have life!
Death, where is thy victory?
In Easter, we celebrate that life. And though this is the last Sunday of the Easter Season, we can’t stop, won’t stop; we celebrate because Christ is risen from the dead. And because he lives, we too will live a new life.
Where, O death, is thy sting?
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. For we will gather with God, with each other, beyond the reach of death, forever and ever.
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Yes, we will be changed at the trumpet. Resurrection changes us - will change us, but we are changed now, too. Even the little deaths of our lives - like not gathering - will one day be changed. We know, even this, even where we are, death will not win. New life, new gatherings, new community will happen. One day.
Here and now, the deaths we die are only temporary. We will meet again - and we will gather again. And while death does hurt us, while we may lash out at another, or we may become depressed, or we avoid the pain, or we pretty it up… though death still comes, the promise in Christ’s resurrection is that it lasts only for a bit. Easter happens, not because of us, but because of God. In Christ, life is certain.
It is interesting that Paul follows the “love chapter” with one about death… and life. But it is the mystery Paul brings ups. I think Paul knows that love, life, death, resurrection… God’s got it all. And in each of these things, we can glimpse God. We can glimpse life. We see faith, hope, and love. God’s new life is on the horizon. God’s is the victory. And God shares it with us, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally! We get some uplifting, familiar, loving words in the midst of this pandemic. It’s not that the previous several weeks have been void of grace and God, but this passage, this one today, conjures up fond memories for many of us.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
This text from First Corinthians is a reminder of happier times - of weddings and romance and gatherings. There are flowers, fancy clothes, and beautiful music. There is food and dancing and celebration. All these things get wrapped up into this love passage.
Yes, today, we get something familiar, something comforting, something that sets us in a better place.
The irony, of course, is that this text has very little to do with the love we associate with marriage. We heard last week about how Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians because they were divided. They were pitting themselves against one another. There were different groups, different factions, who each claimed their way was the best - maybe the only - way.
Paul wants to remind them that there isn’t anything wrong with specialties and differences.
Some can speak, some can prophesy, some are super faithful - and that’s great! But, if in the process of using your gifts you forget about love, well, those things end up being worthless.
Love shapes one’s life. Love shapes one’s relationships. Love shapes one’s community, one’s church.
Maybe that is a message we should hear again, particularly in this time and place. We aren’t gathering together in a building to worship. We aren’t having committee meetings. We aren’t dividing tasks to make sure the altar is set up and the kitchen is cleaned and the conference room scheduled. It’s not that those things are bad; in fact, they are quite practical and important.
But maybe, we’re also reminded that a building doesn’t make us a church. Nor does habitually coming together. Nor really do committees or kitchens or stained-glass. Yes, those things can help us in faith, but those things aren’t the point of being God’s community. They do not give the church the shape, the drive, the purpose that God desires.
And in this period of not gathering, maybe we can again focus on the point of Christian community. In our pursuit of these otherwise wonderful things, we must not forget that we are called to practice love.
But how do we love if we can’t gather? How do we feel patient and kind and not envious if we aren’t even around each other? How can we love someone we’re not near?
Well, I think we’ve got ourselves a little bit of an English problem. See, in our translation, love is described by some rather static adjectives (“love is patient, love is kind”). But what Paul is really saying is that love is an active thing. Love “shows patience” and love “acts with kindness.” The point isn’t a flowery, sappy, theoretical description of a feeling, but instead Paul tells us what love does.
And we can still love even when we are apart. In fact, maybe the act of being apart is showing love right now. Love lets us know that we have a different responsibility - not for ourselves and our gifts and our own wants, but we act on love for one another.
Which is why we’re going to stay apart for now. We will practice patience about when to gather. We’re not just going to insist on our own way, only love ourselves, but we are going to actively love our vulnerable neighbor by not gathering for a while longer. Right now, we love by distancing. In this moment, we love by wearing masks while out in public. We love by keeping others safe. Love isn’t our feeling; it’s our action for others.
And yes, distancing is hard. But love as an action is hard, too.
But even though hard and even though distanced, you have loved through generosity. You have loved greatly through giving to this church and to our benevolences. In the month of April, you gave over $1700 to charities and organizations who make a big impact in this community. You loved generously by giving so kids, veterans, homeless, and unemployed people could eat and live.
You have loved through giving nonperishable food to Help4Kids and Helping Hand. You gave out of love. And I know you will continue to do that.
Love brings the light of Christ to people in darkness. As a community, though physically apart, we love, we share the light, we bring Good News. And maybe sharing the Good News through action is a little easier right now; we can do it literally with the push of a button - share, like, comment. Even now, God’s loving light can shine.
Paul wants to tell us not what love is, but what love does. Paul says love isn’t abstract, but active. I have seen you love just like that.
Paul tells us so many things about what love does, and the last thing he says is that “love never ends.” It is always there. It was there when we last gathered; it is here, now; it will be there still when we return. And of the three great things that define the church - faith, hope, and love - love is the greatest, and the only one that won’t end.
See faith... faith will end. One day, our faith will turn into sight.
Hope, one day will end, because our hopes will be fulfilled.
But love will remain. Will always remain. Because God’s love will not fail, will not fall, will not falter. Because love for God isn’t some commodity to give out, some resource to deplete, some feeling God has. God IS love. Jesus is love. And God, love, will never end.
This is what God draws us into - not just love, but God draws us into who God is. This love, this God is what shapes us so that we can love as we do.
Because, as we know, God doesn’t leave us to love on our own, but welcomes us in love and then actively loves us all the more. God knows us - fully knows us - and still loves us. God teaches us through Christ. God loves us by giving us life. By overcoming anything that will stand in the way of relationship. By raising Jesus from the grave. By working in us to make our lives look more and more like this busy, active, tireless love. By even letting love overcome distance.
God makes our loving possible.
Because God, who fully knows us, first showed us patience.
Because God first acted with kindness.
Because God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Because God first loved us.
And that’s the greatest.
Today we continue on with Paul as he is on his travels to start churches. Last week, we were with him in Thessalonica; here he is in Corinth. We also get to read part of his first letter to the Corinthians.
As I mentioned last week, Paul’s letters are “occasional,” meaning they were written for a specific occasion. The occasion here is that the Corinthians are fighting over differences and divisions. They were picking sides, going around saying, “I’m on Paul’s side,” or “I’m for Apollos,” or “Peter is my guy.” Thankfully there were at least some who said, “I’m in the Messiah group.”
Paul wants to reiterate to the Corinthians that he isn’t out to get followers for himself, but to preach the message of what Jesus has done and collect a following for him.
Paul is writing about the unity they have, we have. Don’t focus on the less-important, even fictional separations. Paul encourages them instead to focus on the cross of Christ - not on a particular preacher, not on who baptized whom, not on these types of divisions. Know you are one in Christ because of the cross.
And here is where, under normal circumstances in the sermon, we would poke fun at churchy conflict. You know, what color the carpet should be. Whether the flowers were pretty enough today. Why we sang this hymn instead of that one. Everyone would chuckle and be loosened up enough so that the preacher could then drop in a line about something that really was dividing the church - a previous pastor, budget issues, guitars and projection screens.
But that all seems insignificant right now. For many of us, this truly is an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” type of situation. We’re willing to overlook all that petty stuff because we miss it so much, flaws and all. We just want to gather, in the building, with each other. Who cares if you wanted blue carpet.
Instead, we have conflict of another sort. We are fearful - fearful of disease, fearful of what will happen as we open up, fearful of what will happen if we don’t open up. That’s the conflict we face right now, that is the issue at hand, that is what is dividing us.
Masks, distance, arguing over what is really going to kill us. It’s complex, and people want easy answers.
But there are no easy answers here, no eloquent wisdom. We as St. Philip, we will take our time in order to be safe. We will continue to learn and listen. Just because we had to rush in closing our building does not mean we should rush to come back. Now is a time to pray and plan and hope.
No matter where we are, what we feel or fear, in conflict great and small, my job is similar to what Paul said to the Corinthians. I point to the unity and life we have because of the cross, because the cross helps us see things in a different way.
Since we are all in need,
since we all fall short,
since we all are broken,
since we all need a savior, we look to the cross, the power of God, for any hope we have. The cross unifies us in our need and gathers us for life in its once-and-for-all action. All of our differences mean nothing when we are all in need.
So, the cross not only unifies us in need, but also it shows us the lengths that God will go for us. Because of Jesus’ cross, we know there is no place God cannot be. God does show up, even if it seems like God can’t be there. What looks like defeat, what seems like foolishness, is actually a way to show God’s power - a way to take our world’s brokenness and turn it to life. In the cross, we know death is defeated. In the cross, we are set free. In the cross, the loving creator meets us where we are - in our weakness, fear, loneliness, suffering, even in our death.
Whatever our differences on issues big and small, we gather around the cross of Christ, where we hear Good News of forgiveness, resurrection, and abundant life. It is quite foolish, isn’t it, that in our confusion, uncertainty, and differing perspectives, we can still come together at the foot of the cross? That is the power of divine love.
The cross shows God does not give up on us. This is the Gospel Paul is sent to proclaim. And this is the great part: Paul is convinced that it should be a simple message. It doesn’t need to have a bunch of fancy rhetoric or eloquent wisdom. It should be easy to hear, easy to remember, otherwise, the message of the cross might be emptied of its power.
So, in a world without easy answers, Paul writes that the cross says it simply. The Gospel gives us the easy answer: Jesus loves you.
Jesus loves you.
And Jesus loves them, too.
Isn’t that, when we get right down to it, isn’t that what it’s all about? Jesus loves you.
It’s not about us. Not about differences or preferences. Not about who did what or didn’t do that. We are linked in our brokenness and need, yet, even more so, we are united in Jesus’ love.
Jesus loves you; we see it in the cross.
Jesus loves you; we see it in baptism.
Jesus loves you; we see it in an empty tomb.
Jesus loves you - in your need, in your fears, in your isolation, in your eagerness to return to normal, in you being no one but you.
If we base the Gospel on anything else, we’ve lost our way.
Jesus loves you.
You are a baptized child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit.
You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.
You are a beloved child of God.
Jesus loves you.
And if you ever need the reminder of unity,
a reminder that we are all in the same need,
that we are all recipients of an amazing and unconditional love,
you’ve got a cross ready to be traced.
You’ve got water ready to be splashed.
You’ve got the Gospel that rests entirely on God’s sure and certain promises.
I guess the easy way to say it is, “You’ve got Jesus.”
OK, let’s point out the elephant in the text from Acts: I’m in it! This may not be a big deal to you Marys or Josephs or Jonahs out there, but for a Jason, it’s a pretty big deal to be named as one of Paul’s contemporaries.
But, alas, a sermon all about me probably wouldn’t be worth your time. There is, of course, more to the story. There is my story, sure. But there is your story and, most important, there is God’s story.
And today, we get a chance to hear those stories a little differently than we normally do. From Acts of the Apostles, we get some history. We get context to what the founding of the church at Thessalonica looks like, and we also get to see how Paul speaks to this particular church in First Thessalonians.
Paul’s letters are “occasional letters” - not meaning that they were written occasionally, but that they were written for an occasion: To answer questions. To clear up controversy. To give hope. To point to God. To rename the promise. See, Paul wasn’t there with the churches. He was, shall we say, physically distanced. He couldn’t be there in person to provide care, so he wrote letters.
I find myself in a similar boat. I can’t be with people who may need a pastor. We can’t gather together for conversation and hugs and worship. And while I, like Paul, have used the tools available to me through phones and the internet, today, I’m going to take a page from his book and write a letter. Preach a letter? Anyway, here is a letter from me to you, church.
I am grateful, thankful!, for all the ways you have remained faithful. For the generosity you have shown to this church and its outreach ministries. For the prayers and phone calls. For the community we are still able to share virtually. I give thanks to God that we can still be connected in this time.
Because I know it is hard. It’s so very hard right now.
Some of us are alone. We maybe get to see a neighbor and wave from a distance, but that’s only for a minute or two out of a long, long day. For some, we lost our partner some time ago, so we’re used to being alone, but not like this. This is oppressive loneliness. Our connections, our relationships, our life seems to be stripped down to nothing.
Others of us are not alone. Instead, our relationships are being put to new tests. It’s nice to be a couple, a family, but sometimes, we just want to be in our own heads. Be independent. Be unbound from the needs of others. The constant needs and asking and questions and messes can quickly turn an OK morning into a stress-filled disaster of a day.
It’s hard. It’s so very hard right now.
But here is Good news. In the midst of it all, God chooses you. This is what Paul wanted the Thessaloninas to know in his letter; it is what I want you to know in mine. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, because the Gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.
We are reminded today of the heart of the Gospel message. That despite what is happening, what you have done or left undone, in isolation or stress, God chooses you. No matter what. God chooses you.
It’s kind of like this:
Remember recess back when you were a kid? Let’s say you and your classmates were going to play kickball. The two hot-shots in class would be team-captains. There is fear and worry about being picked. Would you be last - or worse - not picked at all? Left out? Who’s going to be stuck with me? And in situations like that, do you remember what it would mean for someone to say, “I choose you.”
It is that simple. God says, “I choose you. I want you. I claim you.” And nothing changes that. Jesus, the Messiah who suffered and rose from the dead, made certain of it. Nothing can overrule God’s choice. God chooses you. Forever.
I read First Thessalonians and about their church and about how in it all, God chose them to be the church there, in that time, at that moment, as hard as it was.
And of course I think about us now as the church. God chooses us to be the church right now, even in these difficult, challenging circumstances. And while where we live, we aren’t being pulled from our homes and persecuted, we are facing a different kind of hardship. We are being told to stay put. We are limited in what we are able to do, bound from gathering, restricted in how we can worship. It’s a hardship of a different kind, but, boy, does it weigh on us. It has changed so much of what we know how to do. We have questions. We wonder about what tomorrow will bring. Will we ever be able to gather publically again? When? How long?
And so, in our isolation, we can take initiative to reach out. If we’re waiting on others to give us a call or send us a letter and it hasn’t come, maybe they need to be checked on; they need to be on the receiving end of a call or letter. We can reach out with the Good News that they are not alone; they are lifted up in prayer; they are claimed as a child of God.
In our forced togetherness, we can see God working in different ways than we once did. Instead of God only being seen on Sundays at church, where is God in your own backyard? Instead of rushing around (and being late to) many over-scheduled activities, we can spend time in creation and work on building relationships. We can have a short time of prayer before or after such activities.
We can remember what it was like, and we can wait and long for that day to come again. But also, we know that God chooses us to be church even when we aren’t at church.
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, we see that despite the hardships, the church thrived. In the Spirit, it grew. They were faithful. God chose them to be the church in that time and in that place. And we can also know that, right now, despite our hardships, God chooses us. And God is using us, shaping us. God is giving us the Spirit.
Yes, I am in the story today. But so are you. We are all in the story. Because God has made sure that we are all in the story. And no matter who we are, or what circumstances we find ourselves, you are in the story, you are the Church, you get to share grace and love.
All because God chooses you.
When I first read our lesson from Acts, I had no idea what to preach. That isn’t too out of the ordinary. But when I read it a second time, I started to feel a bit uneasy, like I was being taunted by the story. What we read about today is a miraculous healing, something that we ourselves are longing for right now. It’s like a punch in the gut to have this miracle when we see all the fear and disease and pain and worry around us.
And then they all go into the Temple to worship. Together! Probably closer than 6 feet! It is another affront! This is exactly what we want to do but can’t!
OK, that may be a bit petty, but we’ve been doing this whole physical distancing thing for over a month now. The last time we gathered in this space to worship was March 22 - and even then things felt weird. No touching. Lots of space. Communion was different.
We are begging to be made better, to have our world made better. We are longing, day after day, for things just to be normal again. We need healing from pain, from illness, from grief and worry and anxiety. We need to be comforted. We need to be welcomed. We need to be brought back into community.
It’s hard to preach “healing” at a time like this.
And the more I had this passage tumble in my heart and mind, the more I started to see how this man, crippled from birth, had adjusted to his situation. This was his normal, his way of being. Each day, get carried to the Beautiful Gate, sit and beg, and then do it all again tomorrow. It’s not ideal, but it is his normal.
And I realized I have kind of adjusted to this normal. As I said, we’ve been doing this for over a month now, and that is plenty of time to establish a new routine. I’ve become accustomed to my odd schedule. To quickly setting up the technology for streaming. To preaching to a piece of metal and glass. Sure, this isn’t ideal, but it is my new normal.
It helps to know that there are people out there - that YOU are out there. I appreciate the words and comments and emails of encouragement. It helps to know that you understand why we have to do things this way. That though this isn’t ideal, we still have some semblance of community and worship. Maybe you’ve adjusted to this new normal, too.
But just because we have adjusted, much like the crippled man adjusted, that doesn’t mean that this normal is what God plans for us or wants for us. God wants us to know a people and a place who support us and welcome us and love us. God wants us to have a people and a place for community - so we know that we are not alone. God wants healing and life - get up, walk! Get up, be raised! Get up, have new life!
As adjusted as I am, this new normal stinks. But, we are still loved. I have felt that from you. And knowing that you are loved, despite what stinky thing is happening, well, that can change everything.
And so, please know, that whatever your normal looks like right now, no matter the isolation, no matter if worry paralyzes you, no matter what, you are loved. Even now, God is reaching out to lift you up with love, with words, with hope of a new normal - a normal that is shaped by resurrection, not death. That is shaped by healing, not disease. That is shaped by fellowship, not isolation.
Resurrection is God’s act to prove that life gets the final word. And God continues to be at work.
Life is being given through healing, like in the story, and in ways not like the story. Healing is coming through people passionate enough, knowledgeable enough, caring enough to help others heal - physically, emotionally, spiritually. People are responding by giving - giving food, giving money, giving time so people are fed. People are housed. People have life.
And even when death gets the upper hand, God’s promise of resurrection persists. The promise doesn’t go away. It never goes away. Because Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too will live a new life. A new life. A new normal. Resurrection is our new normal, even right now.
And since that is the case, what signs of resurrection do you see in your current normal? And more than that, since God has given us the new normal of resurrection and healing and life, do we want to go back to the old normal? Well, some of it, sure, but what has this period of time taught us?
One thing I know I’ve learned is the importance of loving each other. Because knowing that you are loved, despite whatever stinky thing is happening, can change everything. As I mentioned, I feel that from you. But more than that, I’ve seen that love, that life, in action through our community.
Through prayer. In sharing resources. By picking up groceries. Delivering meals. Calling neighbors. Listening to our friends who are at their wit’s end. Showing extra compassion, patience, and understanding. Making an impact as we can, where we are, in our community, in our houses, in our church. That is love. That is compassion. That is healing.
Having seen what God wants for us, why would we go back to the way it was?
This community of Christ is here to point us to a love that can heal - maybe not always like the beggar, but sometimes in ways that we need it more. Knowing you are loved - and you are so beloved by God - knowing that you are loved, despite what is happening, can change everything. Can bring new life. Can raise us up to a new normal. Forever.
When this all started, this physical distancing, this time of not gathering, we - I - wasn’t really sure what to expect. We were all trying to flatten the curve and keep the spread of the virus to a minimum. “Surely, this won’t be too long,” we thought. Surely, things will go back to normal soon. Surely, we won’t have to wait.
But we did. And we have. A couple of weeks turned into longer. We set new hopes for a gathering - next week, by the end of the month, surely by Easter!
Well, as you no doubt know, Easter Sunday has come and gone - and along with it Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. We’ve told the story, we’ve sung the songs, we’ve driven through to get communion, and through it all we’ve waited. We’ve waited for this to pass. We’ve waited for the “all clear.” We’ve waited for the time to come.
It is hard to wait, especially when you’re waiting for something so good, so meaningful, so comforting. Christ is risen, and we can’t go to church? God has done wonderful things, and we can’t celebrate together? God has done so much, and we are told to wait. Not yet. Stay where you are.
But this period of waiting has and can shape us and influence us positively. Think back to the disciples we hear about in our lesson from Acts today. They are fresh off of seeing a resurrected Jesus. They know God has truly done something amazing and that the kingdom of God is quickly approaching. They want to help that kingdom spread in all the earth! They are full of excitement and passion and are eager to help. And so Jesus tells them “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there.”
The disciples, straight off the strangest Sunday they’ve ever had, are made to wait. Sit tight. Stay. And they don’t know for how long; they aren’t given a schedule. Just wait.
But the waiting was key for them. Yes, they want the kingdom to come, but waiting helped them see that the kingdom isn’t theirs to bring; it’s God’s. And by having them wait, it gave them time to see, to recognize, to understand that the kingdom is established by God, empowered by God, ruled by God, and sustained by God. As much as the disciples may have wanted to rush ahead, this waiting encourages them to let God do God’s work of establishing the kingdom in God’s way.
And in this time of waiting, maybe we learn to see church in the same way.
What does God want church - the Church - to do, to be? I think for a lot of people, going/coming to church was the point. It’s what God wanted, so we did it, and it wasn’t too bad, you know? Showing up on Sunday morning is what it means to be the Church.
But that never really was what God wanted. A church service wasn’t supposed to be the goal. Rather, it is a means, a way to help us get to the true goal of living out God’s kingdom.
The service is meant to shape us for service.
We receive forgiveness that we pass along to others.
We are fed so that we may feed others.
If you’ve noticed, while we are doing a lot of the same things we usually do in a Sunday worship service, we aren’t doing things exactly the same. And that is intentional. For one, there is no way to recreate the same worship experience online; it just doesn’t work. But two, it acknowledges that the way we “do church” isn’t the point of the kingdom. The way we do a worship service, as much as we love it and find comfort in it, the way we do a service isn’t the end goal. The goal is to be shaped so that we serve God and serve others, that we live out the kingdom of God we and all disciples are waiting for.
During this time of waiting until we gather back, I don’t want to just help us all see the church. I want to help us be the Church.
And while things are a lot harder to do right now, we can still be the Church.
We have a phone tree set up to call and check in with people on our membership rolls. But even if you aren’t one of the official callers, you can still make phone calls to those you know. You can offer encouragement, support, and prayer.
People are sick and hurting and dying. I’m thinking particularly of John and June Holshouser. I’ve asked if I could share this, which is why I am mentioning them specifically, but in a time when people can’t come and gather around them, phone calls and cards and letters offering prayer and support can be very, very meaningful.
Also, we at St. Philip work closely with several organizations locally and around the world. Starting today and moving forward, each week during the time we normally take up offering we will highlight one of our local benevolences or something we as St. Philip are doing to help God in the ways of the kingdom. So, you’ll hear a little bit about Helping Hand, Help4Kids, Lutheran World Relief, and Meals on Wheels.
We can reach out to help them during this time, too. Many people are receiving stimulus checks from the government. If you are in the situation where that money isn’t essential for you, you might consider sharing it with some of the local agencies we support. Tithing is a good spiritual practice to begin with, and this extra money can be a wonderful way to go above and beyond in generosity.
Giving to and supporting these places is a way we can still be the Church. You can add it to your regular giving and make note of it on your envelope when you send it in. Or you can make a one-time gift online. Go to the website and when you click the “Give to St. Philip” button, make sure you choose “Benevolence” in the “Give to” line. It’s right underneath the amount you are giving.
It’s hard to wait, it’s hard not being present. But that isn’t an excuse to not be the Church. Because even now, we have promises from God.
The disciples waited, but not alone and not without a task.
They received the Holy Spirit, to comfort, to guide, to support, to draw them together in the mission of God.
They prayed. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
We wait, but not alone and not without a task.
We, too, have the Holy Spirit with us. To comfort, to guide, to support, to draw us together in the mission of God, to be the Church.
And we pray. We pray for those in need. For our world. For God’s mission to be fulfilled.
Even while we wait, we are the Church. And even while we wait, God is at work bringing the kingdom. It’s not, after all, ours to bring. But God has named us and claimed to be the Church, to share in bringing love and grace and life. And though our methods have changed, God can, does, and will use us to bring about the kingdom.
*For video of this service and sermon, please visit our online worship page.
It is pretty well known that Lutherans are rather stoic. We don’t get too excited about things. People look at us funny if we clap or raise a hand or say “Amen” at a time when the bulletin doesn’t say we should. And some of that could be tradition or a sense of formality while going to church - or we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Like I said, we don’t want people to look at us funny. So, we do what we think we should to maintain some sense of decorum.
But, today is a little different. See, there’s no one here. And there’s probably no one there with you - aside from people you are really, really comfortable with. So, I’d like to try something. We’re going to do the traditional Easter greeting, but we’re going to do it big and loud and un-Lutheran.
I’ll say “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and you say, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” But do it loud, as loud as you can. You can stand up, raise your hands, whatever, but be excited! No one is going to see you. You don’t have to be ashamed or proper. You won’t embarrass yourself. Besides, some of you are wearing your PJs to Easter service; now that’s embarrassing! So, big, loud, ok?
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Ah, but even that is a little disappointing, right? It feels good to say those words, but it’s not the same. It’s not like being together. It’s not like being in the presence of 100 other people who are singing, with an organ playing so loudly you can feel it in your chest, with flowers and banners and candles… it’s all a little disappointing.
It’s kind of like that first Easter, actually. What we read from Mark today is almost the opposite of a happy ending. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
There is no resurrection appearance, no commissioning of the disciples. There is only confusion, fear, silence. The women ran away scared. This is hardly the satisfying Easter ending we hoped for.
We want closure; we want the loose ends in the story tied up and brought to a satisfying conclusion. Most of all, we want a happy ending. We want to see Jesus, touch him, and rejoice with the disciples that he is alive! But the risen Jesus does not appear in Mark. We are left, along with the women, in confusion, emptiness, and fear.
Our current circumstances don’t help that much. Isolated, unable to come and gather… there is no way around it. This ending, this Easter, doesn’t feel right. It is pretty disappointing.
But this Easter story can actually be helpful for us in this time of self-quarantining and distancing. It’s definitely more real, more close to things we have experienced. When are things ever perfectly wrapped up besides in fairy tales and sitcoms? Our lives are full of unfinished stories and questions and uncertainty.
Mark’s Gospel is startling in its realism. Yet despite its unsatisfying ending, it creates anticipation and gives us reason to hope, even in the midst of our disappointment. Why? Because despite everything, the tomb is empty. Jesus is out, Jesus has been raised, Jesus is beyond death’s reach. The women have received the message: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (16:7).
Mark’s story has given us every reason to believe that what Jesus promises will be fulfilled, because his word has already been fulfilled in so many ways throughout the story. He suffered and died and was raised, just as he said. Judas betrayed him, the other disciples scattered, and Peter denied him three times, just like he said. So, we trust that Jesus’ promises here will also be fulfilled: Jesus will meet his disciples in Galilee, and the good news will be proclaimed. The women must have spoken eventually, after all; otherwise we would not have this story Mark tells.
The Gospel creates a momentum that goes well beyond this ending, these circumstances, and sends us into the future. The story is not finished, and it won’t be until Jesus returns.
We live now, between resurrection and return. We are living in God’s resurrection story. And we cling to the promise that Jesus goes ahead of us, and we will see him, despite all the fear and confusion and disappointment we may have today.
Because how we feel doesn’t change the fact that, Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Even if we aren’t able to be here at the church, it doesn’t change the fact that, Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Even if you’re in your PJs or didn’t shout out all that loudly or are sick and tired of watching church services on your computer, it doesn’t change the fact that, Alleluia! Christ is risen!
So, we can trust that even in this chaotic, confusing time, God can and is creating something new, something good. God is still bringing life out of death. God is keeping promises.
Easter, life, resurrection has come, is here, and will come again.
This is the ending God is writing. God will bring to completion the life-giving, grace-filled work already begun in Jesus Christ, just as God promises.
And because of that, we can shout with confidence:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
*For video of this service and sermon, please visit our online worship page.
We didn’t know it was going to be the last time.
We didn’t know it was going to be the last time we shook hands with someone or gave them a hug. The last time we leisurely walked around the grocery store. The last time we had a meal out with friends.
We didn’t know it was going to be the last time. And if we did, if we did know that, how differently would we have done things? What would we have said or done differently? Would we have lingered in that hug just a bit more, squeezed a little tighter? Splurged a bit on the snack foods that no one really needs? Ordered an extra round of drinks, just to make the evening last a little bit longer?
The disciples, it seems, didn’t know it was the last time they'd be sitting down to a meal with their teacher, mentor, friend. Their behavior isn’t that of people who know what’s coming. They are sharing the Passover meal, like they had probably done before and like they would do again next year - at least that’s what they thought. Desert you, Jesus? No way. Deny you, Jesus? Over my dead body. None of this is going to happen, none of it is true, nothing about this is the end, the last time.
And that, I think, is the only reason why the disciples aren’t more pent up about what is about to happen. They don’t believe this is the last time. They don’t know what exactly it is that will happen later tonight, let alone tomorrow. Why else would they be so confident in their abilities? Why else would they fall asleep when Jesus needed them the most? They don’t know… this is it. The last time.
But Jesus knew.
He knew it was their last supper. He knew they would desert him. He knew Peter would deny. He knew he was going to be killed.
Jesus knows what tomorrow will bring. He knows what is coming. His prayer is so true. It is full of anxiety and fear and grief. Please, let this hour pass from me. Please, take this cup away! It is a stressful, terrible, frightened moment; his friends have all fallen asleep and left him alone. Alone. On his last night. Jesus knew.
What would we have done differently if we had known it was our last time?
For a lot of us during this era of physical distancing, we didn’t know it was our last time. Our last time going to our favorite restaurant, our last time giving that hug, our last time going to the store without fear. We don’t know when things will be better. We don’t know when we’ll be able to gather. We don’t know when we’ll stop cloroxing our groceries. We just don’t know. And that spins our insides. Anxiety twists our stomachs. Fear weighs on us. Grief overtakes us.
I know, for me, trying to navigate this uncertain time has kept me up some nights. My fuse is much shorter with my kids and with my wife. Many of my good habits - gym, social activity - have been taken away and replaced with things - foods and drinks - that are much less healthy. It’s coping. Just trying to get through a stressful, grief-filled, anxious time. How long, O Lord? Please, let this hour pass from me, from us. Let this sadness, let this fear, let this worry pass.
Jesus knew. Jesus knows. Jesus knows our fear, our anxiety, our grief.
My fear. My anxiety. My grief.
Your fear. Your anxiety. Your grief.
And we know that God has the power to overcome it all.
But this week, particularly today and tomorrow, we can also get comfort out of something else that is true: Jesus has been where we are - alone, anxious, grieving, questioning. Jesus knows.
Perhaps that isn’t what first comes to mind when we think of God; maybe it isn’t even what we want from God… that is, until we are distraught, grieved unto death, and afraid. Until we, also, are forced to be alone and yet desperately want others nearby. Until we, too, throw ourselves in desperation to our knees in prayer. At those moments, we need a God who not only is with us, but who knows us, who is one of us, who has walked in our shoes, who has faced everything we have faced - and everything that we will face.
Jesus doesn’t know all this in theory. He knows because he has experienced it himself. He has lived it, and he knows. He knows how we feel, and he loves us still. He is with us still. And, no matter what we feel, we know that God has us. And that whatever is right now, isn’t always what will be.
The Last Supper became Jesus’ own meal to feed us, his followers.
Peter isn’t the denier, but the rock upon which the church is founded.
Death isn’t the final word, but resurrection and life.
And even this, even now, even our pain and anxiety and all that weighs on us; this is not the last.
Through this week, Jesus shows us God’s power over everything - sin and death in particular. But Jesus also shows us God’s understanding and love, a love that knows us, inside and out; a love that carries us through grief and anxiety and fear; a love that makes sure it’s never the last time.
We didn’t expect this for Palm Sunday, now, did we? This isn’t how it is supposed to be.
We aren’t gathered but instead isolated in our homes, waving some strips of palm branch if we happened to stop by the church yesterday afternoon to grab one. If we’re honest, today is not what we expect of Jesus, either. He the one whom we announce as king, and yet, is anointed for death. Everything about today falls short of our expectations.
Palm Sunday is typically one of my favorite Sundays of the year. It’s fun for lots of reasons; it’s a little different liturgically, and preaching on a day like today is generally exciting. I can do something different - play with our expectations and point out how Jesus doesn’t meet them. Today... every Palm Sunday... is generally about how our expectations aren’t lived up to. But not like this, never like this.
When it comes to Jesus, the disciples had big plans. It’s what the military parade into Jerusalem is about. It’s what the acclaim is about. It’s what the branches and cloaks and Hosannas are about. There are expectations of Jesus.
Think of how the disciples would’ve felt: there are these grand ideas of what Jesus has come to do. He is the Messiah, the Lord, the King! And then… he doesn’t do anything. He walks to the center of Jerusalem, the Temple, and then looks around a bit and heads out because it’s a little late? What was all the buildup for?
Wouldn’t that crush your spirit a little bit if you were one of those disciples? You want Jesus to do what you know he can do, but then… nothing. Nothing! Not a thing.
There were expectations of Jesus, of the Kingdom.
There were expectations for this week, for our lives.
There were expectations for a normal life.
And right now, we have none of that.
When our expectations aren’t met… how do we deal?
I think it’s ok to acknowledge that things aren’t OK right now. That we are anxious and sad and miss our friends and family and normalcy. That our trips and our plans and our expectations are not going to happen. It doesn’t feel good, not one bit. We’re let down; the disciples are let down. They’re confused; we’re confused. What is up with all this?!?
But if there is any Good News in the disappointment, if there is anything that Palm Sunday tells us year in and year out, it’s that salvation does not look like we expect. Today is not about unmet expectations. Today is, and always has been, about how God rises above our expectations.
Jesus enters Jerusalem with a purpose. And his purpose is not our own. He is bringing his Kingdom to the center of the world with a vision of what will be - and, in fact, what has already come. And nothing - nothing! - will stop it. Not cross. Not tomb. Not death. God rises above our expectations.
After his entry to Jerusalem, Jesus eats a meal at Simon the leper’s house. We don’t know if Simon is cured at this point or not, but regardless, it seems that “once a leper, always a leper.” The expectation is to stay away, stay clean, stay holy. And yet, Jesus was there with him, accepting his hospitality, blessing him with presence. God rises above our expectations.
The woman’s act of devotion doesn’t meet our expectations. Why waste so much? Why not put that ointment to better use? Why is she preparing for his death? And yet, Jesus knows it’s not about the money or the ointment or the wasting. It’s about this woman’s faith - doing what she could to honor Jesus. Jesus sees this as service. As giving. As good news. God rises above our expectations.
Jesus fails to meet our expectations and crosses boundaries to be with those who are cast out and in isolation. He shows up not only where expect him to be, but also where we don’t expect him to be. And maybe - truly - that means Jesus is with us here and now in our unmet expectations.
In our disappointment. In our confusion. In our isolation. In our fear. Jesus is here. Jesus is there. Crossing over the boundaries and distance to remind us that God rises above our expectations. God does that through life. Through love. Through care. Through forgiveness. Through grace. No matter our expectations, God comes through.
And so, in our time now, in all the things that aren’t living up to what we had hoped, we can respond with anger and fear, or we can trust that God will again do something wonderful through all this. It’s so easy to be down; but that is why, especially now, we need the reminder that God rises above our expectations. God unexpectedly gives life, and blessing, and a sense of peace, even when we think it is not possible.
The disciples, Jesus’ followers, all those who shouted praise… they were thoroughly disappointed on this day and in this week. A powerless entrance; a fruitless visit to the temple; a bewildering anointment; a trial and crucifixion; a death? Where is God in all this?
Well, God unexpectedly shows up. God unexpectedly brings the Kingdom. God unexpectedly brings life out of suffering. Salvation rarely looks like we expect. Because in it all, as we are reminded today, God. rises. above our expectations.
We all want to know “when.” When can we get out? When can we get back together? When can we go to church? When can we be normal? Tell us, when will this be?
And the best answer I can give is, “not yet.”
We’re anxious as we wonder. Some say it’ll be soon. Some say it is still a long way off. The lack of clear answers makes us uneasy. Things are a lot simpler when we know, when things are cut and dry, black and white, definitive. But all we have right now is, “not yet.”
When I saw what the Gospel lesson was for today, I was tempted to change it. It’s full of destruction and end times, and I just didn’t want to deal with that. I wanted a text that would point us to something more positive, something hopeful, something uplifting during these uncertain and unprecedented times. You know, I wanted to fix things, make it all seem better, give you answers.
But one of the beauties of using a lectionary is that I don’t pick the lessons. (Otherwise, you’d hear a lot of the same stuff over and over.) This forces us to hear not just the pieces of scripture I want you to hear, but instead we get to hear a more well-rounded view of all of scripture. And yes, that includes even tough passages like this one.
And another beauty of using a lectionary is that somehow, someway, God speaks through these lessons at particularly the right time. See, while I thought this lesson wouldn’t have anything to say to us, it’s actually almost perfect for us to hear in our circumstances.
The disciples want to know “when.” When is it going to happen? When will things be better? When will you fix everything? When?!?
After Jesus elaborates some, he says, “The exact day and hour? No one knows that, not heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So, keep a sharp lookout.”
In the parable that follows, the point isn’t to have a specific time so you can be ready only then; the point is to wait always. We don’t know when, so wait always. We are invited to be ready all the time. To be on the lookout all the time. To live always anticipating the activity of God.
Because the answer to the question about when God will act? When will God do something? The answer is, “right now.” Now, God is acting. In our uncertainty, in our anxiety about what is to come, in our distance from each other right now… God is still active and present. Our circumstances do not change the fact that God is here, God is there where you are, and God is still working.
Jesus is calling us to pay attention. We are invited to be ready all the time. To be on the lookout all the time. To live always anticipating the activity of God.
I get it; it’s really, really hard right now. But I think it was hard for early Christians, too. For those who had to stay isolated from the larger community out the threat of death. Those early Christians who gathered in their homes, away from public places. Those early Christians who knew God had worked in the death and resurrection of Jesus, knew God was present in the Holy Spirit, and knew God promised to come again in glory.
They kept looking for how God was working in their lives, in their circumstances. In the big ways and in the little ways. God is regularly and relentlessly at work in countless ways to bring creation to fulfillment. God is all around, but are we looking? Or does our anxiety get the better of us?
So, where do you see signs of God’s activity? Again, this is an opportunity to use the circumstance we’re in. You can comment and let people know where you have seen God the past couple of weeks. Was it in little ways, like the buds on a fig tree or the flowering azaleas? In the relationship, conversation, and trust of a friend, no matter the physical distance? In people willing to support each other through a phone tree, running errands, or offering toilet paper? In smiles. In comforted tears. In gathering, though not in person, but gathering and worshiping, all because of the thanks we have for a Savior who loves us so much that he promises to be with us always.
In a lot of ways, this passage is meant to help us anticipate God’s work always and at every minute, but also this passage sets us up for God’s work in what lies ahead in the Gospel story. Jesus is inviting us to look and see that God is working, even in denial, trial, crucifixion, death… and resurrection. Even through those things, God works… and God still works. God comes in our moments of service, need, and vulnerability. Eventually, the anguish, the hurt, the distance all gives way to new life, to new creation. And can you imagine that day when it happens?
This is God’s promise, a promise that is true. A promise that is fulfilled completely… and also “not yet.” But it all will be fulfilled. In time. In God’s time. We’d sure like to know when, but that is not our calling. We are called to live now, allowing God’s promises about the future to infuse our every present moment with hope and life. Because when we live looking for the activity of God here and now, a funny thing happens - we begin to see it. God shows up in all kinds of places, working with us, for us, through us, and in us. Even from a distance.
We - even impatient, anxious, questioning us - we have hope, based on God’s promises coming true despite the impossible. That means our watching and waiting don’t need to be full of fear and dread, but rather, we can be hopeful and purposeful as we wait.
When will this happen? Now. Even here. Even there. Even now. Thanks be to God.
Something about this all feels woefully inadequate. I feel inadequate. I’ve never pastored in a pandemic like this; I haven’t even been alive in a pandemic like this - and probably you haven’t either. What we do as the church really feels like it should be done in person. Much of what we do depends on presence, on touch… a handshake and a hug on Sunday mornings. The sacraments are ways that we can touch, feel, taste God’s love. We gather to sing and hear Good News together.
But doing that isn’t responsible right now. COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. We are practicing social distancing, doing our best not to interact with other people, trying to reduce the spread of disease. It has forced a lot of things. It has forced most of us to slow down, something we don’t normally choose to do. It has forced changes to schedules - no school, no restaurants, no routine. It has forced us to figure out a new way of being community.
In the midst of a pandemic, how are we the Church? How do we stay faithful?
Jesus gets asked the question, “Which commandment is the most important?” He answers with, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our mind, and with all your strength. The second is like this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The two separate passages Jesus cites were and are well-known. The first piece comes from Deuteronomy, chapter 6, and is called the Shema. The Shema is an important, memorable, guiding text for Jews - kind of like the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians. And while it is important for Jewish faith, the Shema is important for us, too. It clearly states and reminds us of who God is. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Everything that follows in this scripture passage and in life comes from who God is, who we are in light of God.
When the Shema was first used, it was in the context of God bringing the Israelites through their prolonged wanderings in the wilderness. They were stuck wandering for 40 years! And yet, God was faithful through all of that time. It is the not-so-subtle reminder: see? See who God is? God was with us, God is with us, God will be with us. Through it all. Through everything. This is who God is. And because it tells us who God is, we also know who we are because of God.
God will not leave you. This God is your God. That reminder for us is so important as we are socially distanced from each other. The Lord is God, is our God. God is with us, even now, and God will bring us through.
It reminds us, it comforts us, it gives us a bigger, broader context for our lives. The more we can remember that... the more we know God was with us, is with us, will always be with us. If you keep reading the Shema from Deuteronomy which Jesus quotes, you’ll see that we are to remember these words “when you lie down and when you rise.” And maybe, in this time of awkward uncertainty, that can be something we hold on to, something to ground us in faith.
As I mentioned earlier, we are forced to slow down at this time, involuntarily required to take on a new routine. Which may not be all that bad if we can build that routine on God.
Right now, we are all trying to figure out what this means and what faith formation looks like. And I have to say, people are stepping up with loads of resources and videos for all of us to use in the morning and in the evening. There are Bible Studies and devotions and Jesus galore! I’ve shared some options on our St. Philip Facebook page and will continue to do so, all to help us “Hear O Church, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.” Circumstances have changed how we deliver the message, but it hasn’t changed the message.
And as we incorporate these moments of remembrance and acknowledgement more into our lives, as we lie down and when we rise, as we eat and as we play, as we slow down and as we find new routine... we are reminded more and more of our identity in God, in a God who is with us always, in a God who is with us in the wilderness of uncertainty, and who loves us through it all.
And then we get to the second part of Jesus’ answer - loving our neighbor - and that seems a lot harder right now. It’s hard to love when we can’t be there for someone. But right now, with precautions and disease, love looks like an empty building. Love looks like a phone call to check on our neighbors. Love looks like a lasting good deed for another. See, things we have done in the past can still bring light and love even in a time such as this. For example, this week, even this week, one of our backpacks was handed out. These backpacks were filled weeks ago with clothing, food, and hygiene items, but given right now. Even right now there are ways we can love and will continue to love.
One of the things this social distancing has forced upon me is to reflect more on what it means to be the Church, especially when we can’t gather. And I strongly encourage you to do the same, reflect on what it means to be the Church, children of God, during this time. How do we love God and love neighbor right now? How do we live out our identity as someone so beloved by God that nothing takes us away from that love? How do we establish new rhythms and routines so that we can better remember who and whose we are?
One of the benefits of having this video online is you can actually respond. You can type ways, share ways of loving God and loving neighbor in the comments. You can be the Church. And by doing that, Jesus says, you are not far from the kingdom of God.
Hear O Church, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.
Hear O Church, the Lord is God, and God is never far.
Hear O Church, the Lord is God, we are God’s own forever.
If you stop to think, just for a second, this parable, while crazy, is pretty obvious.
The landowner is clearly God, and the vineyard represents Israel. The Tenants are the religious leaders of the time - the Pharisees, the chief priests, the scribes, etc. The servants the landowner repeatedly sends are the prophets throughout the years, and the Son is Jesus.
The tenants/Pharisees obviously think they know what is best and are selfish and greedy and will do anything they can to keep what they have - even kill those whom God sends, even if it is the beloved Son. It’s pretty clear - and I guess it has to be since the chief priests knew it was about them right away. What a crazy parable about a bunch of crazy tenants.
It’s sooo obvious. So, Amen, I guess?
And then I thought, maybe it’s too obvious. Could it really be that simple? And if it is that simple, where do we fit in? Which ones are we?
Are we simply “the others” God gives the vineyard to? Are we the new tenants? And if so, is this parable a warning for us not to do the same?
Do we handle things differently than the tenants in the parable?
Or are we just as guilty of the same sins?
What messengers of God have I rejected? Have you rejected? Have we all rejected?
What is to stop God from getting fed up with us and tossing us out?
What a crazy parable!
And now, it’s not so easy.
When you view the parable in this way, one of two things happens: 1) we distance ourselves from the parable’s message because we aren’t crazy like those tenants, and thus, it has zero impact on our lives. It tells us nothing. Or 2) it becomes one rabbit hole after another - full of questions and convictions and more questions about our status and our failures in God’s vineyard; then it becomes integrally important to our lives.
But if we were to look at this parable from a different perspective…
Maybe it isn’t about crazy tenants after all; it’s about a crazy landlord. I mean, really, who would send servant after servant after servant, only to have them beaten and cast out, some hit over the head, some killed - and then after all this happens, send his own beloved son into that type of mess?
I would think that the right thing to do in that situation is to send in the police! Or an army or ninjas or something. What a crazy landlord. He doesn’t do things the way we smart, non-crazy people would.
So maybe that, THAT is the point of the parable. It is meant to show us the gap between what seems right in our eyes and what God would do. It shows us God’s tenacity, God’s seemingly illogical persistence.
This parable, when viewed not looking for ourselves first and foremost, but looking first for God, shows a crazy perseverance that keeps on coming, even to sending the beloved Son. It is enduring, tenacious, unrelenting.
Now, some of you astute Biblical scholars out there may have noticed the end of the parable where the landlord will come and clean house. He destroys the wicked tenants and gives the vineyard to others. God is persistent, but only to a point it seems according to the parable.
Except, in real life, God never does destroy the Pharisees or Israel or any of it. At least, God hasn’t yet. The parable ends, but God keeps coming. Also, in the parable, the son is killed - end of story. But in God’s story, the Son is killed, and raised. God keeps coming.
The entire parable foreshadows what is about to happen. While the parable itself points to death and rejection, Jesus continues and points a little further down the road. He hints that there is more to the story: “The stone that the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone” - the cornerstone to a whole new way of life. God keeps coming, and, instead of rejecting everything outright, God builds something new. Instead of death being the end, God raises up something new.
So, why the difference? Why is the parable only a part of God’s story? I think it again can highlight the way we would do things and the way God does things. While God is the landowner in the parable, God is so much more, more gracious, more loving, more everything than what the landowner is. God is tenacious, and God is tenacious with love. Love is the motivating factor - love is why God keeps coming. Love is why the cornerstone is laid. Love is why God doesn’t give up on us. Love is why death isn’t the end, why death is defeated. A crazy love leads to crazy persistence.
God doesn’t reject us, but keeps coming.
God keeps coming, expecting that even right now we are tending the vineyard, doing what it is we’re supposed to be doing. That is where we are in the parable. We are tilling and planting. God is still the landowner who gives us everything so we can work, care, and do our God-given duties. And of course, God expects a share - expects us to share - expects that all may have a share.
And yes, that is true, even right now in these uncertain times. Even now is a time when we should live and act as faithful people of God, like taking care of ourselves and each other with precautions and safeguards. In a brief video released this week, Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, noted that these changes in worship come during the season of Lent. She adds, “Lent is a time of more intentional practices of prayer, reflection, silence, and scripture study. Circumstances are forcing changes to our behavior, but let’s see this as an opportunity to pause and reflect, to breathe and to think about what it means to be the body of Christ.” We may not be able to do things we way we’re used to or the way we’d like at the moment, but we can use these times to ponder about what it means to be the Body of Christ right now. What is essential that we do? How can we best care for God’s vineyard and the other workers in it, now and in the months to come?
God still desires justice and righteousness and all that a proper, holy vineyard should produce. But in the end, this is a story about the enduring, tenacious, illogical, unrelenting, crazy actions of God, which in Christ we see are born out of love. God sends messenger after messenger, and when all else fails, God sends the beloved Son. And this Son shows us a God who loves us beyond our understanding and imagination, no matter where we find ourselves in this parable.
God sends the Son to us. To show us how to live. To teach us about the kingdom. To feed us in the meal. To wash us clean. To convince us that God’s ways are the best ways. To die, to rise, to build something new. To keep coming, to keep building, to keep raising us up. That’s crazy. That’s crazy love.
A couple of weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday, we heard Jesus’ first comments about his impending death. “The Messiah must go, suffer, die, and rise.” Peter, who had just exclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, chastises Jesus (which is rarely a smart thing to do, I’d think). He protests, saying, “this can’t be!” Jesus then rebukes Peter as “Satan.” It is a terrible failure in discipleship.
Today, we get a similar story.
Jesus says he must suffer and die, and the disciples completely miss the point. Apparently, James and John think this is the right time to ask Jesus for an itsy-bitsy, tee-tiny little favor: to sit at his right and left hands when he comes in glory! They are looking for positions of privilege as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. How dumb do the disciples have to be? What is behind their ignorance?
Perhaps they are in denial, like Peter was. There’s no way Jesus is serious about all that dying stuff. This denial is probably fueled by all of the previous success. Jesus has been healing and teaching and miracle-ing all over. They can’t imagine any other outcome but triumph and glory.
Or, maybe they could be in self-preservation mode. Jesus announcing that he is on the road to his death causes the disciples to fall into a time of confusion and shock, and they react by looking out for themselves. Not only do they ask for prime seating, but they pull Jesus away from everyone else to do it. It’s like they know that the other disciples would be upset if they asked these questions. But self-preservation means if they ask now, they can get their foot in the door first, edging out the others. There’s not enough glory to go around, you know.
They don’t know what it means to follow Jesus.
But are we any different?
How often do we mis-interpret what it really means to follow Jesus? We rarely sacrifice much in the name of following Christ. We look for the good things, the mountain tops and miracles, and gladly follow Jesus there. But following him to dark valleys? To pain and suffering? To death? We’re much more comfortable here in this nice, little sanctuary with pretty stained glass. But sometimes even one hour a week is too much. No suffering, no crosses. Those don’t lead to winning.
Our world paints a wonderful picture of the life we deserve. We know what glory looks like. It’s power. It’s money. It’s fame. It’s being better than everyone else. It’s self-preservation, looking out for ourselves. In this world, there is only so much, so you’ve got to get your foot in the door first, edge out the others. There’s not enough to go around, you know. You’ve got to compete for glory.
We don’t know what it means to follow Jesus.
And the remedy Jesus gives to help us see what it means? Serve. How do you become truly great? Serve. How is glory really shown? Serve. Power is demonstrated through service; greatness is shown in vulnerability; achievement comes through compassion.
How… odd. Could you imagine what the world would be like if our leaders behaved like this – competing with each other to see who could best serve the needs of the vulnerable? Raising money not for TV ads and campaigns but instead for the least among us? Holding debates about the best way to come in last so that others could come in first? It seems absurd.
Well, let’s make it a little easier… or a bit harder. What if we lived like this – measuring our achievements not in terms of dollars or possessions but in terms of lives touched? Or assessing our “net worth” not in terms of bank accounts and stock markets but in terms of acts of compassion?
The whole talk of following Jesus in “go, suffer, die, rise” is hard for us to wrap our minds around, hard for us to connect with, hard for us to comprehend, but we can understand what it means to serve.
And there are ways we as a congregation do just that.
We feed people who are hungry. We invite them in off the street and give them a meal, give them a seat at the table, give them some dignity.
We read to kids at schools where, according to what the principal said at a breakfast I was at a couple weeks ago and to some documents I found online, 80% of them are considered to live in poverty. We help boost their confidence in learning so that they can have better lives.
We give to disaster response, local charities, and worldwide organizations to help relieve some of the pain and suffering in our world.
That’s just some ways we as a church serve; I’m sure individually, there are ways you serve - and as you serve, you share God’s glory.
The servant way isn’t always easy; there are voices around telling us how dumb it is to put others first. Grace, mercy, and forgiveness don’t change anything. Why give away and suffer rather than embrace safety and security and stuff?
Sometimes those voices make a lot of sense to us. But sometimes Jesus’ voice slips through. Sometimes we hear Jesus’ voice to follow. To serve. And Jesus keeps calling us.
Jesus is out ahead of us leading the way on this mission to serve. He calls us to follow him, to follow along the road to the kingdom and to the cross, to follow in the way of service. But no matter how hard we think it is, the Good News is that he leads the way. He won’t ask us to go somewhere he himself hasn’t already been, and he won’t abandon us to go anywhere without him. Wherever we are, Jesus has already been, and where he is now, we will be someday.
And yes, it is difficult. It was difficult for his first disciples, and it is difficult for us now. But Jesus keeps telling us about his suffering and death that leads to life. He keeps telling us through those around us. He keeps telling us in opportunities to serve. He keeps telling us in bread and wine. He keeps telling us in an abundance of blessings. He keeps telling us through music and worship. He keeps telling us through a love that won’t stop, never stops.
Love, grace, service are the ways of the kingdom. Sometimes, we who follow just can’t believe what we hear, can’t understand why it is so backwards to our world. And yet, Jesus keeps on calling us to follow us on the path to the cross. And he always will, leading us to the place we cannot go on our own, to bring us through death to life.
Our Gospel lesson for today is one of the hardest texts for us in all of scripture. It’s tough news for we who live in a society that is predicated on buying, having, and getting “stuff.” And because it is hard for us, the temptation is to avoid it completely. Let’s deny we even heard it. Preach on the psalm, pastor!
But, we’re going to talk about it. Even if it is hard.
And believe it or not, there is something even harder than preaching and talking about this lesson of the rich young man, and that is don’t squirm to try and get out of it. Don’t try to soften the message. Don’t try to explain it away. Which is what happens most of the time.
We have come up with loads of excuses to keep this text at arm’s length. Jesus was talking only to this particular man, not everyone. This prescription is for him and him alone!
We’re not rich! Not like the Jones’ down the street! Now, they’re rich.
It’s not that the man had a lot of stuff, it’s that he loved his stuff too much!
Wealth isn’t bad; we need things to live!
Besides, Jesus gives us the ultimate out: Nothing is impossible with God. Whew! Good news! We can still go to the mall afterall.
Anytime we try this hard to make a Bible passage irrelevant to our lives, well, maybe we should pay closer attention to why we’re doing that. None of our excuses really measure up.
See, money is a faith issue. Putting our faith into this box over here and our money in that box over there does a disservice to our own discipleship and what Jesus is trying to teach us.
So, let’s go into this passage and assume something: let’s assume Jesus means what he says. Let’s not try to weasel out of this, but instead listen to what Jesus really says, what he really means.
We start off with this man asking a question about eternal life. Now, we don’t learn that this fella is rich until the end of the story, but knowing that information can give us some insight into what he asks and why he asks it.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If he brings this question to Jesus, it must mean that wealth, what he has, did not lead to spiritual enlightenment or the abundant life he wants. But, it was - and is - common to think that’s the case. Wealth was considered a sign of blessing in the first century, much like we think now. Don’t we idolize people who have lots of wealth if for no other reason than they have lots of money? And how often do we refer to the things we have as “blessings”? We like to think that God blesses us with our stuff.
Jesus’ answer to the man, at first, makes it seem like he is upset with him - “why do you call me good?” - but I don’t think Jesus is upset but instead trying to make a point. No one is good - like really and truly good - apart from God. Jesus continues, “keep the Commandments.” “I have, from the beginning!” replies the man. The man asks the question, gets an answer, and he says he has done everything.
Keep the commandments? Check. Be blessed with lots of stuff? Double check. Surely, that’s good enough, right?
Well, no. If one starts to think that eternal life is something we inherit or earn by being good enough or keeping all the commandments, then they’re heading down the wrong path. No one is “good enough” to inherit eternal life, and entering the kingdom is not about “being good” in the first place.
So, we’re back to square one. Wealth isn’t the blessing to eternal life, nor is keeping the commandments. In fact, nothing we do or have will be good enough.
I’d even argue that giving away all our possessions wouldn’t make us good enough to get us into the kingdom.
So, why does Jesus bring up this money thing?
Jesus brings it up, I think, because God cares about what we do with our money. This is what I meant earlier when I said that money is a faith issue. Money affects our faith, and our faith affects what we do with money. And God cares about what we do with our money for at least two reasons.
First, how we spend and use our money greatly impacts the well-being of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just say, “sell everything,” but he adds, “and give the proceeds to the poor.” Jesus invites the man and all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of wealth, charged to use all that we have to best care for all the people God has given us as neighbors and companions along the way. Our wealth, our possessions, everything we have is not for us, but for building up the Kingdom of God through giving, tithing, and sharing.
Second, what we do with our money and possessions impacts our faith. If we’re full of things, there is no room for God. If we’re always wanting more, we’ll never be satisfied. Our hearts begin to be drawn toward what we have (or don’t yet have); our trust, our hope, our faith for safety, security, and life starts to be placed in those things, not in God. Jesus, of course, would like us to put our trust in him. How we handle the pressures of consumerism and wealth impacts our discipleship and faith.
I think Jesus knows that the things we own can easily begin to own us, which is why Jesus offers the extreme way forward, the way to truly rely on God. But Jesus doesn’t ask us of anything more than what he asks of himself, giving not just his wealth but his very life for the sake of the world, including this man, and you, and me.
And there’s another piece to this lesson that is key in hearing this text differently. After the man asks his question and says he has done everything, Jesus does something - something that isn’t all that unusual for Jesus, but it is something we often overlook. Jesus looked at the man and loved him. He loved him.
And that makes all the difference. Because when we look at this lesson, and we try to find ourselves in it, and we get squirmy because we are the rich man here, you can know that whatever Jesus asks of you, he will ask out of love. Whatever path Jesus has set out, asking you to follow, he is asking out of love. He asks you because he loves you.
And the difficult thing, the honest thing, is we don’t often love like Jesus does, so we don’t often do what Jesus asks. We’re back to explaining it away or trying to get out of it. But another difficult, honest thing is that sooner or later, we are going to lose all the things we cherish - to age, to bad luck, to circumstance. And when that happens, Jesus will still be there to love us, just as he loves us now. His call is to help us see and live in that love better right now.
Maybe this sermon didn’t solve all the answers about what Jesus means and what his words mean for you and me. But I do know that we fall short of the bar Jesus sets, and Jesus loves us anyway. And maybe that love sets us free a little bit to try a little better, a little harder, to love and give and share a little more.
Because nothing we can accumulate in this world – not riches, not honor, not commandment keeping, not status – gets us God’s love. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But thankfully, God looks at us and loves us. Thankfully, that love is unmerited and unconditional. Thankfully, our God can do the impossible.
Sometimes, often times, It’s hard to listen. There’s so much noise in our world. Important things and important people in our lives and in our world are drowned out. Noise from 24 hour news cycles and endless Social Media don’t calm and clarify things, but instead they cause everyone to shout louder. In our world, the loudest voice - no matter how right or wrong - the loudest voice seems to win.
So, today, on this Transfiguration Sunday and Bold Women Sunday, we’re going to hear voices from those we don’t always hear. We’ll listen to voices of women throughout history who were bold in their actions and bold in their faith. Listening to these quieter voices can shape us to be bold in faith, too.
I once was barren, grieving over that fact, but God changed all that. I am living proof that, “with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37) For God blessed my husband and me with a child.
In the sixth month of my pregnancy, Mary, my cousin, came to visit. Mary had just conceived in her womb, in a miraculous pregnancy, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I looked at Mary and said: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:42-44).
Our baby was soon born, and we named him John - not after his father, as our family and friends thought.
Do you know who I am? I am Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, mother of John the Baptizer. I lived boldly in my faith by influencing, teaching, and mothering the one who was to “prepare the way” of the Messiah. I trusted that God would provide and fulfill promises made. God chose me, a woman of bold faith, to rear and teach an important prophet.
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus’ journey. And today in our Gospel lesson, we get a milestone: Jesus’ transformation on the mountaintop - the Transfiguration. In it, we see Christ’s glory; we know God has done something special; we are excited about what Jesus will do! But this Transfiguration is kind of like another loud voice. If it is all we pay attention to, we miss things that are more important.
When God speaks from the cloud, a voice declares, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” Now, with such a spectacle, we might expect God to say, “This is my Son... obey him, serve him, worship him, give him your deepest allegiance! Pay attention to this moment!”
But that isn’t what God says at all. God asks us to listen to Jesus. And I don’t think God means only right then, but instead, listen always.
This is the sign of a God who wants to communicate with us, to talk with us, to have relationship - not throw flashy events and bark commands. So, maybe part of what we do in our world is tune out the noise, turn off the screaming voices, and listen. We listen to God. We listen to the stories of friends and family. We listen to stories of those who aren’t always on our radar, because in those stories, we might hear and learn from bold acts of faith - like from this other bold woman.
I had a hard life, but I was blessed with five children. One of them, however, was sold away. My son, Peter, was only five years old when he was sold to a white slave-owner. But I put up a fight and was one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case to get my child back.
Then in 1851, I attended the First National Women’s Rights conference. I wasn’t planning on speaking, but when I heard them carrying on like they did and not wanting to give us women our equal rights, well, the spirit moved me. In a speech that is now known as, “Ain’t I a Woman,” I demanded equal human rights for all women, as well as for all blacks. Advocating for women and African Americans was dangerous and challenging enough, but being one and doing so was far more difficult.
Who am I? My name is Isabella Baumfree - or maybe you know me better as Sojourner Truth. I changed my name one Pentecost Sunday when the Spirit of God called me to “preach the truth.” I told my friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” And so I did - taking along only a few possessions in a pillowcase, I traveled north, preaching about the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
The calendar of saints of the Lutheran Church remembers me, Sojourner Truth, together with Harriet Tubman on March 10.
God calls us to listen to Jesus. And that listening shapes us. Because when we listen to Jesus, we hear words of grace and forgiveness - and not just for us individually - for me and I - but for all of us, for the whole world.
Sojourner Truth once told of her mother telling her to pray to God that she might have good masters and mistresses. Surprise, surprise, but she did not have good slave-owners. She would question God, “why didn’t you make my masters be good to me?” Sojourner even admitted that she had once hated white people because of that abuse. But she also says that once she met her ultimate master, her savior Jesus and listened to him, she was filled with love for everyone.
When we listen to God, we hear words of grace and forgiveness, not just for ourselves, for but everyone else, too. And that can shape how we see others, how we treat others, how we live our lives in relationship with others.
Listening to Jesus tell us how much we are loved, even though we may question it or wonder if it’s really true, when Jesus tells us how much we are loved, we start to listen differently.
I worked as an aerospace technologist, and moved up to the Spacecraft Controls Branch.
I started work in a pool of women known as, “computers who wore skirts.” We read the data from black boxes found on planes and carried out other precise mathematical tasks.
At NASA at that time, women weren’t allowed to put their names on any of the reports… until I finished a report on analytic geometry for the flight research team and my name appeared on it.
I calculated the curve and direction for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. And I calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission.
When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, Glenn asked for me specifically to review the numbers. He refused to fly unless I verified the calculations.
An author at the time stated, "So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South… as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success?"
And I said, “yes, that’s right.”
Do you know who I am? My name is Katherine Johnson. You may have seen me portrayed in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.”
I have received honors such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for my influence as a pioneer in space science and computers.
God tells us in our lesson to “listen to Jesus.” And along with that, I think God is telling us to listen to stories of people being bold in their faith - especially stories that may not be the loudest or get the most attention.
The Bible tells many of these subtle stories - stories of bold women who believed and trusted in God. Our world is full of these stories, too, of women taking bold steps, sometimes alone, all to live out God’s message that we all are worthy, loved, gifted, and accepted.
Other voices in our world may be louder, more prominent, more obnoxious than these we heard today, but through the faith of these women, we got to hear examples of how God works, transforms, and transfigures our world. Because of that, we are encouraged to act boldly, too.
So, take God’s advice: listen to Jesus. Listen as he tells you you are loved, and so are they. Listen as he gives himself for you in the meal. Listen to the water of forgiveness splashing from the font. Listen to how Jesus shapes us with words of grace, love, and forgiveness.
Because in the noise and confusion of this world, what else is better to hear?
Here’s something that many of you probably don’t care about: baseball is almost back. Yes, pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training this past week. Soon, the rest of the teams will join them, and after several meaningless matches, they’ll be off on their 162 game season. I’m not as into baseball as I was when the Braves won 14 straight division championships, but I still check the scores and follow the standings.
One of the more interesting things about baseball is that it seems there are a lot of rituals that happen. It’s not that athletes in other sports don’t have things they do ritually, but in baseball it seems there is a whole lot more of them.
They do the same thing every time they step in the batter’s box. They tap home plate, they adjust their helmet, they rough up or smooth out the dirt with their cleats. And those are just the normal ones! There is anything and everything out there - from the same chicken dinner before games, to wearing the same pair of underwear, to talking to the baseball to let it know where you want it to go.
So, why do these rituals exist? Is it something about comfort? Settling in and forgetting about what is all around? Did they do it once and good things happened, so they keep doing it again to make sure more good things happen? Probably a little bit of all of the above. But rituals aren’t exclusive to pro sports.
The Pharisees, too, had their rituals. We hear about them washing their hands before eating. (Which actually doesn’t sound that bad.) And ultimately, we who gather to worship have our own rituals. Why do we do those things we do, week in and week out?
We kneel for prayers. We stand and we sit. And we stand. And we sit. (called Lutheran aerobics!) We have our un-assigned assigned seating. Even at baptisms and in the communion meal we have ritual. Rituals are not bad, by any means. They bring a sense of comfort and familiarity to our lives and to our faith. That is important.
But rituals can also take away meaning. Doing something because we are “supposed to do it that way” turns a holy moment into a superstition. If we do this, then that will happen. It is empty. It is mechanical. All that matters is that we follow the guidelines to the letter of the law. And if we do, then we get favor from God. If we do it this way, then good things will happen. Rituals in this sense are nothing more than formalized empty gestures.
But before we blame the Pharisees for all these empty rituals that take away any meaning, we should note that the Pharisees believed washing their hands before meals was a way of making mealtime sacred. They wanted everything that any Jew did to be connected in some way to God and God’s law. But what happened is the “how” of the ritual started to be more important than the “why” of the ritual. The focus shifted from God’s way to their own way.
The problem is they put ritual in front of relationship with God. Relationship turned into a set of rules instead of genuine compassion. And when relationship with God is built on rules, well then, we’re the ones who have to make ourselves right.
We turn to our own abilities, to our commitment, to our memory to try to establish and keep relationship with God. When we rely on strict ritual to make and keep that relationship with God, we are relying on what we do. When we rely on what we do, we are doomed to fail.
So, what do we do? Do we get rid of everything that even has a hint of ritual to it? Some have. I don’t think that’s the way to go. Instead, I think we listen to Jesus. We hear the heart of what he is saying: be bound to God, not bound to the ritual. Do not be fixed in the way of doing things, but be fixed in Christ.
Rituals have this amazing way of comforting us and assuring us. They have a way of carrying us when we can’t carry ourselves. Words and actions can shape us! But they are meant to point us to God, not be god.
In baptism, it doesn’t matter where we stand, where the water is from, what the pastor’s wearing, or if the baby cries. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a baby! What matters is that there is water and that God is there. And so instead of focusing on outside ritual, we focus on God creating us anew. We focus on God’s saving work for us through water and Word. We focus on how God promises always to be present with us, to work on us to make us new each day, to make us into new creations - drowning our old selves and raising us up to new life.
In the communion meal, it doesn’t matter if there are little cups or one cup, fresh bread or wafer, what age we start communing, if we come up the stairs to the rail or commune down on the floor. What matters is Jesus’ presence with us. We gather to share in the meal that gives our faith nourishment. We eat the bread of life. We drink the wine of welcome. We are a community - sharing - loved.
God is there, present in and despite our rituals - if we believe every word of the Creed or sometimes question, if we stand and kneel or just sit, if we remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer or one day we can’t. God is there, because it doesn’t depend on us, our abilities, or our actions.
It’s up to God, not us. And God puts relationship before ritual.
For sure, ritual can remind us of God’s promise. And to the extent that we allow God’s presence to be our central focus, the more the ritual can shape us in love and grace.
But ritual for ritual’s sake isn’t the point. God is the point. God is there, and God works in our ordinary, yet broken lives. God’s actions are reminders and assurances for us so that our focus can be taken off of ourselves and if ‘we’re doing it right’ and instead focus on how God’s love breaks into our world to shape us and mold us for the relationships and community around us.
God puts relationship before ritual. It’s up to God, not us. And for that I say, thanks be to God.
When we look at our Gospel lesson for today, there is a safe, easy way and a not-so-safe, harder way to go with the sermon.
The safe way is to focus on the first half of this lesson - you know, the part with Jesus teaching and healing, even if not everyone is enthralled by who he is and what he does. A lot of preachers can readily pull a sermon out of their back pocket about Christian mission and Christian life - how we’re called to community, we depend on God, and we show welcome and hospitality. Wrap it up by talking about how Jesus calls, sends, and equips, and boom, there’s a sermon.
In fact, as I was typing this up, you almost got that sermon; it just started to flow out! But then I remembered there is a hard way to go. And that hard way is the beheading of John the Baptist.
It’s hard on one hand because so many of the characters are named similarly - Herod with Herodias and Herodias’ daughter, also named Herodias… But more than that, the topic, the plot, the outcome is hard to stomach. To make it even harder to preach a sermon, Jesus isn’t even present in the narrative! He’s not there!
At this point, maybe some of you out there are curious to hear how anything good comes out of that story. Others may be wondering what a sermon on an execution would be like since there is nothing good there. And still others of you might just want to watch me struggle. Try your hand at that one, preacher boy!
When I saw what the lesson was for today, I knew what would have to happen. You can’t read the story of John’s beheading and then preach a sermon completely ignoring it. So, as to not disappoint you, we’re heading down the hard path.
How do we talk about this? How do we relate? I’ve never been beheaded. I doubt you have either… so, no connection there.
But I do think there are a couple of ways to look at this story.
First let’s look at Herod - or, more specifically, let’s look at Herod’s power. Now, Herod is a man who can do whatever he wants and can get whatever he wants. After making a ludicrous promise to his stepdaughter, Herod is conflicted between protecting John and keeping his honor, his word. Ultimately, Herod uses his power not to stand up for what is right, but instead he uses his power to save himself from shame.
While this sounds totally like a fictional story that only happens on TV, the truth of the matter is this abuse of power happens all the time.
In our world.
Even right now.
This type of power is absent of mercy. It is power that manipulates others. It is power that only looks out for the self. That type of power is power in its most destructive form.
When given the opportunity to do the right thing, it often isn’t done, because “the right thing” doesn’t serve the ones who have power or their purposes. The powerful are accustomed to getting what they want; they are willing to do most anything to keep or advance what they have; and those who stand up to them - advocate for the oppressed, or dare to inspire people to imagine that life can be different - those people usually get trampled. There is lots of precedent - even if you only look at the past 7 days. I’ll let you conjure up your own examples.
This type of power has its own purpose, its own rules, its own way of doing things - money, self-interest, manipulation, elimination - anything to keep the control, keep the power. It’s the kind of power that leads to heads on platters.
This here is a gross misuse of power by Herod, one that we can see flashes of today.
Mark is encouraging us to take seriously that this is, indeed, the way of the world.
And even though Jesus isn’t mentioned here, there is no way to read it and not see that beneath this story of John is the story of Jesus. In fact, the cross looms big in this story.
There are numerous connections between John and Jesus here, but at the end of the day, we can summarize it simply by saying that both of these preachers were executed by the powers-that-be in order to maintain the status quo.
The powers of this world don’t have time for such prophetic nonsense - especially not mercy. Not love. Not grace. How does that help them? That type of stuff only helps the other guy.
But, even if you don’t know what happens with Jesus at the very end of the Gospel story, there is a hint about what God will do. There is an assumption here - people say that Jesus is “John raised from the dead.” We know that’s not the case, but it prepares us for what God does do after Jesus’ own clash with the very same Herod and ensuing death on a cross.
This story shows us the way of the world. But it is also only one side; it is not the whole story. Jesus, even though not mentioned or seen, is waiting to carry the story on. Jesus comes precisely to show us that there is something more. There is resurrection. There is life. There is the power of God, shown in quite the opposite way than that of the world.
Mark is encouraging us to take seriously that life is, indeed, the way of God.
Through resurrection, we see that Jesus is Lord, not Herod. Jesus has true power, not any earthly leader. Jesus is alive, Jesus has conquered death, Jesus is Lord. And therefore everyone else is not.
The ways of this world, those in power in this world, will use any tool and weapon they can to make sure things stay as they are - fear, oppression, lies - and the ultimate weapon they use is death. And yet, the point of resurrection is that death has been defeated.
Resurrection is not sweet frosting merely covering up the taste of death; it is an out-and-out ousting - and with that, an ousting of those whose power depends on it. The ways of this world do not stop God’s powerful love, life, and salvation from coming.
Jesus is Lord, over Herod, over our leaders, over our world, even over the power of death itself.
Jesus’ power doesn’t end life; it creates it. It makes life flourish. It turns life into something abundant. No matter our power, or what powers over us, God’s power is greater. God’s power wins. God’s power creates life. Jesus came to show us God’s power - through love, through grace, through mercy. Now and forever.
So, we have encountered another healing story. This makes 3 out of the past 4 Sundays where Jesus healed someone. This story, however, is a bit more complex than the others. It involves two interactions with various people, woven together across several scenes.
There are a lot of important things to note in these two sandwiched-together stories:
There is the diversity of clientele with whom Jesus interacts: the young daughter of a synagogue leader and a nameless woman with a chronic ailment.
There are the interruptions during Jesus’ mission and how that must’ve made both this woman and Jairus feel.
There is the vulnerability of each of these desperate people, stepping out of their comfort zone.
There is the tug-of-war between faith and fear in both the woman and Jairus.
And of course, there is the miracle of it all, that Jesus heals - and more than that, Jesus enters into where death is real. It shows us the possibility of what God can do, despite whatever is happening to us or around us.
Any one of these ideas could be a sermon. In fact, I have taken some of those approaches in the past. But this time around, none of them really stuck with me. (Sorry to you if you were really hoping for more on something I just said.) And as I wrestled with various avenues to take in writing, something struck me: I love the Jesus we get in today’s story.
I love this Jesus, the way he acts, what he does. It’s like the epitome of who I think Jesus is. I love that he leaves a big crowd of people who adore him just so he can go take care of one little girl. I love that when the woman touches him with an intent to be healed, he stops everything to ask who did it, to interact with her - as if she is the only important thing in the world. I love the way the disciples are like “Jesus, buddy. We’re in a big crowd. Who didn’t touch you?” And I love that when news reaches them that the girl has died, Jesus’ response is, “Don’t fear. Just believe.” It’s like Jesus puts his hand on Jairus’ shoulder, looks him intently in the eyes, and says, “just trust me.”
And as I thought about what it actually is that these stories convey to me that the other stories don’t, it started to be clear to me that Jesus actually cares, really cares, cares enough to come close, to touch and be touched.
“If I but touch his clothes…”
“He took her by the hand…”
While in the other healing stories, Jesus simply speaks the word for healing (quite powerful!), here Jesus touches to heal. Here, it is closer. More intimate. More personal. Touch is what heals.
Touch is important. Touch shows care in a way that using only words doesn’t.
Giving your kids a hug or wrestling (all of you still do that with your kids, right?) or even an affectionate rub on the head is way of expressing care that words alone can’t.
Would your spouse believe you loved them if you never embraced or held hands - no matter how many times you say it with words?
Even with friends, you shake hands or high five or do something beyond looking at each other and talking.
Touch communicates to another that they are valued, needed, loved. And that is what Jesus does for this woman and this little girl with his healing touch.
But that isn’t easy to translate into our lives, is it?
We look around and see that we still struggle with legitimate pains and hurts, chronic and acute, still bloodshed and death. Maybe we feel like Jairus; we wonder what is taking Jesus so long to come and give us and our world a healing touch.
And that’s hard. It is hard to wait. There is no way to explain it away, no way to alleviate the pain with my words, though I wish there were. It’d come in pretty helpful as a pastor - and not just for this sermon.
All I can do is point to Jesus who offers example and promise. To Jesus who came to people and healed them, over and over and over. To Jesus who cares enough to come close, to become human, to see and experience and be with us.
Jesus shows us what God’s Reign is like. And the Good News is that this promise, this vision, this in-breaking of God’s Kingdom didn’t end when Jesus died. Instead, this promise is opened up even more, made even more true through resurrection.
The promise is not just that one day we will be healed, but we will be more alive than we ever have been before. Because Jesus is raised, alive, whole, we have the promise that we will be raised, alive, and whole, too. Because Jesus chose to come close, to touch our world with his presence, we will live resurrection life.
And while we wait on this resurrection for us, for Christ to come to us, grab us by the hand, and raise us up, we do have the words of hymns and scripture and liturgy which do speak to us. But we wait with more than spoken promises and mere words of comfort. God promises to come to us in a more physical, tangible way right now.
In the sacraments, we can touch, taste, feel, see, smell the promises and love of God. Christ comes to us in the meal, in baptism, through bread and wine and water to let us know love in a way that words alone don’t. Again - it’s not that the words aren’t important; they are extremely important - that this meal is given and shed for you. That you are marked with the cross of Christ forever. Those are words we need to hear all the time, weekly, daily.
But in the bread and wine of communion and in the waters of baptism, we get something to touch. God promises a closeness in these holy things - something where you can know, where you can feel that love for you. It’s a hug, an embrace, a way in which God’s love touches us.
Jesus cares enough to come close.
Jesus invites you to the table; Bread in your hand. Wine you can taste.
Jesus proclaims you are God's child - a splash of water.
Jesus claims you, and you are marked, touched with the cross on your forehead.
Through it all, we can hear, we can see, and we can feel the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Are you ready to be honest with yourself and with God? Because I think that is essential if we are going to hear and experience the heart of our Gospel lesson today. Are you ready to be honest with something?
Here it goes: What within us resists the presence of God in our lives?
For many of us, I suspect that we’re already a little confused, because, of course we’re honest with ourselves and God, AND because nothing resists God’s presence in our lives. In fact, we try our hardest to be closer to God.
But I wonder sometimes...
Our story today begins with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee to go to the land of Gentiles, where he is greeted by a man who has quite a large number of unclean spirits possessing him. Jesus then drives out the unclean spirits - as if there was any question about who was in control here. He gives the demons permission to take possession of a herd of nearby pigs and they run down a bank into a lake and drown.
I asked a question about resisting God at the beginning. So, where is the resistance in this story?
Well, of course there would be some resistance from the demons. We see that in their little dialogue back and forth with Jesus. They are the antithesis of what and who Jesus is. Of course, they would resist the presence of God.
But maybe the man had a flicker or nervousness, too. Who knows how long he has been like this. If things changed, if he were healed, would friends, family, the community still welcome him back? Would his past continue to haunt him? (We do, afterall, still call him the Gerasene Demoniac, though he has been cured for 2,000 years.) It’s hard to forget one’s past; maybe he would resist Jesus’ help, Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ healing. It’s easier to keep things the same.
But it’s hard for me to buy into the man’s resistance for too long. The good just so outweighs the bad. And it seems the man knew it, too, based on the way he reacts after all is said and done. He sits quietly and calmly. He wants to follow Jesus. He is eager to share the good news.
Perhaps we think that is how we resist the presence of God - we think about it for a second, but then let God work. And sure, sometimes we probably do that.
But, there are more characters in this story, ones with whom our attitudes might be a little closer.
Not unsurprisingly, Jesus’ actions draw a crowd. This crowd is frightened by the outcome and ask Jesus to leave. They resist the power and presence of God.
At first, I think, “why?” It’s kind of like the initial reaction I had to the question I started the sermon with. What within us resists the presence of God in our lives? Nothing. So there must be something wrong with these people - you know, “kids these days,” or whatever. But then I started to think about all the reasons that they would want to keep Jesus away, out of their lives, out of their community, out of their personal world - and a lot of their reasons line up with ours.
Yes, they are upset over pigs. But it’s more than just pigs - it's what the pigs represent.
And I could go into a few things - animal cruelty, the environmental impact, the increase of disease because of all decaying pigs, the ruined water supply, or the travesty of lost bacon. And while those may upset some of us enough to push Jesus away, there is one more thing that gets a bit more to us.
That, I think, is the economic impact. Do you know how much money Jesus just wiped away by killing that many pigs? This was people’s livelihoods. The people didn’t care that the man was healed; their pigs are gone. The drowning of their pigs concerns them more than the drowning of their demons.
Translate that to us, and I can’t help but think of all the ways we resist Jesus just so we can live more comfortable lives. We want to get rid of bad things, but we don’t want it to cost us anything.
Think of all the demons in our society and world. Short-come gains are priority over long-term health of economies, countries, and the planet. We want the newest things for less money - even if people here or afar don’t get paid a living wage. We may rebut and say, “not me!” But I fear we all play a role in a society that is perpetually unhappy with what it has.
Think of the demons that cause homelessness and keep people trapped in that cycle, the demons that prevent people - kids, even - from getting daily meals, the demons that don’t provide clean water in the USA and abroad. Education, food, water, shelter, mental and physical health… What would Jesus do about those situations? And how do we resist what Jesus would want so that it doesn’t cost us anything?
I asked if you were ready to be honest… it seems we all have demons that resist Jesus - at least a little. Or a lot.
So, let’s change the question a bit. What do you, what do we as a community, as St. Philip, as the USA, as the world, what do we need to be set free from so that we fully welcome, see, and live out the presence of Jesus?
Because until we really see and name that, I think we’ll keep resisting. We don’t go to the doctor if we don’t think we’re sick; we don’t read the instructions if we think we already know how to do it; we don’t want Jesus if we’re comfortable with how things are.
God has different priorities than we do. And that is why we resist. That is why we turn away, ask Jesus to leave and not interfere in our lives. To admit that, to be honest about that, is hard.
But here is the beauty of who Jesus is. This is the wonder of Lutheran theology and how we view God through that Lutheran lens: we can be honest about that. We can admit that our priorities don’t always match up with what God wants. Sometimes, often times, we miss the mark in our lives, in our relationships, in what we say and do.
In other Christian circles, this honesty is sometimes framed in such as way as to say, “yes, you’re broken. Change it, and God will come to you.” If you do this, then God will do that.
But what we know and what we see here and in all of scripture is that Jesus shows up despite our ailments and priorities. This man with the demons didn’t get them under control before Jesus healed him. He did nothing! Jesus just came and healed. So it is with us. God’s love for us isn’t dependent on us getting it right first. We don’t need to hit the bullseye to be worthy of love. God already loves us.
We are more than what resists God and pushes Jesus away. We are more than our mistakes and failures and hurts. Despite it all, whether we are honest or not, we honestly are God’s beloved children, and so God sent and still sends Jesus.
Jesus was sent to our world, sent to people on both sides of the sea, sent to people who appreciated him and didn’t, to share and show God’s love. And now, Jesus is sent to us in a meal of bread and wine, in community and conviction, in grace and forgiveness, all to share and show God’s love.
And the fact is Jesus does still show up, to we who resist, who have different priorities, Jesus shows up to give us courage, to help us trust, to coax us, to call us, to change us. Jesus continues to come and give love and to remind us of the promise to be with us and for us, now and always.
Today we get a whole bunch of Jesus’ parables, conveniently all in one chapter. The most famous one, I would say, is the one we begin with - the parable of the Sower.
So, since it is so familiar, and because Jesus says that we have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, and because there is the very obvious line of insiders (you’re here) and outsiders (those who aren’t here), this will be a pretty short sermon. You’ve already got this. What more can I say? You either know, or you don’t.
But surely, that isn’t really what Jesus means, right? That he speaks in parables so that some won’t understand - and thus be outsiders? What kind of teacher does that? Why would Jesus want to confuse his audience?
But here’s another wrinkle: we may actually be OK with inside/outside thing - as long as we’re on the inside. This whole secret exclusive thing is just fine as long as we can sit in the comfort of knowing we’re in and others are out.
But get this: the disciples don’t understand. They don’t get the parable! And if they - who are face to face with Jesus, following him, hearing him, watching him do all those amazing things - if they don’t get it, what is it that makes us think WE in a non-agrarian society 2,000 years later will get it?
So, maybe the whole parable thing is worth another look. I guess the sermon isn’t over. Lucky you.
Let’s start with the parable of the Sower itself. As the title implies, it’s about a man who goes out to sow seeds. He is indiscriminate, either wasteful or extremely optimistic, throwing seed all over the place, on any type of soil there is. The soils, on the other hand, are what they are. They are hard, rocky, weedy, or good.
The story is focused on the sower - the reckless, irresponsible, excessive farmer who doesn’t so much sow seeds as throws seeds. Three-quarters of the seed won’t take root, but that’s not the point. The farmer sows so much seed that eventually some will take root and grow and be harvested in abundance. Jesus tells this parable to describe a God who is similarly reckless, irresponsible, even wasteful when it comes to showering people with love.
This is what the kingdom of God is like. It is everywhere, it is abundant, it is even wasteful in the hope that something good will grow. The kingdom of God surprises.
And looking to the other parables, Jesus continues his point. The kingdom spreads like mustard from one tiny seed. The kingdom grows secretly. He tells the parables in such a way as to direct them at those who think they’ve got God all figured out. It turns the tables on those who think they are insiders, who think they are the ones who understand fully, and who think they bring about God’s kingdom. The good news for them - if they choose to see it that way - is that it is God’s kingdom, not theirs.
So, let’s go back to the parable of the sower - or rather, to Jesus’ explanation of it. The wonderful thing about parables is that they invite more than one interpretation. There’s not one right way.
And so Jesus unpacks the parable: Some people have no depth, and so the word is easily snatched away. Some people have no roots, and so when challenges come they give up. Some people can’t seem to give over the everyday cares of life and so have faith choked out of them. And some hold the Word fast, take it seriously, try to live according to it and so grow and bear fruit.
The typical way to hear Jesus’ explanation is to hear it as a kind of moral exhortation, with the encouragement (and sometimes demand) to be “good soil.” This is often followed by a list of things that good-soil Christians do or should do.
But here’s the thing with that: soil is soil. Dirt is dirt. And dirt doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t do anything to become shallow or infested by weeds and thorns; it just happens. It just is. And Jesus doesn’t give us any tips on how to change our soils. On top of that, as good as I may think my soil is, I know I’ve got some pretty shallow places where it is hard for God’s seed to grow. I’m full of thorns in places, the rocks aren’t all cleared out, and even some of the places where I am “good soil” is only because I’m full of… fertilizer.
If we hear Jesus’ explanation and only Jesus’ explanation, we may wonder if we are good or bad soil. We’re left with more questions than we started with. Maybe worse, we’re left with doubt that God could do anything with this thorny, rocky piece of dirt.
So, we hear Jesus’s explanation. And we hear what Jesus says within the parable itself. And holding both, we pray, “Lord, let my heart be good soil.”
Because yes, we are called to be good soil, to do those things that till us up, that feed and nourish us, that pull our weeds and remove the rocks. But we do it in light of the promise that we have a God who flings seed with careless abandon - even on the worst dirt around - all in the process of bringing the kingdom of God.
In this parable - and in all the others we hear today - we remember the promises they tell us: ultimately, it’s not up to us, but up to God. We can’t simply decide what kind of soil we are, but we can trust Jesus’ promise that God will keep sowing seeds, keep showering us with words of mercy, grace, and love, all as part of the kingdom God brings.
And with that, one last parable to add to the mix, though you won’t find it in scripture.
I saw a video online recently of a toddler helping his dad shovel the driveway.
In typical winter toddler attire, he was in a full snowsuit with boots and gloves and a stocking cap with a pint-sized snow shovel. The dad is in the background scooping up big shovel fulls of snow and tossing it aside as the kid was toddling around, every now and then putting the shovel down and scraping it across the concrete. He was mostly just pushing tiny bits of slush around - moving it from here on the driveway to there on the driveway. The video ends with the kid falling face-first into a snowbank, rear end up in the air, not able to do anything: not able to shovel, to help, to even get up out of the pile of snow.
Then, I saw the comment at the top of the video: “Us helping God bring the kingdom.”
The Kingdom of God comes like a toddler helping his dad shovel snow.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
The kingdom of God is like a farmer who went out to sow.
The kingdom of God is… not ours to bring.
Instead, God throws the seed of the kingdom everywhere, on good and bad, and God works to make it grow. It’s not ours. We help only in the smallest, insignificant of ways. Instead, God brings it. God sows. God grows. Abundantly. Wastefully. Fully.
Could you imagine being there? Being at the house where Jesus was preaching? Or, maybe let’s push it a little bit further. What if Jesus was at YOUR house? You had heard of him, so you invite him over to chat with a few friends. But then, “a few friends” turns into an overwhelming crowd - something your little house cannot handle. The place is packed! People are peering through windows and clogging up doorways. There is little room to move - and definitely nowhere else to sit. A sense of contentment - maybe even a little pride wells up you. Yes, Jesus is at MY house! And as soon as those feelings start to settle in, “Hey! My roof!” And these four guys lower someone through the newly created human-sized hole in your ceiling.
But I don’t think destruction of property is the point of this story. Instead, there’s a different controversy a-brewin’. This is the first real conflict Jesus has had thus far in the Gospel of Mark. Sure, there were little things that alluded to conflict - Satan in the wilderness, a note about John the Baptizer’s death - but nothing yet like this.
But before we get to the conflict, there is this miracle, this healing. These four friends, unable to get through the front door because of the crowd, dig through the roof, which was probably thatch and mud, and lower their friend on his mat to Jesus.
"When Jesus saw their faith," Mark tells us, "he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.’” We are told nothing about the faith of the paralyzed man; Jesus responds to the determined faith of this man's friends. He does not begin with physical healing, but first pronounces the man's sins forgiven.
That is exactly what causes the controversy. Jesus' pronouncement of forgiveness does not sit well with the scribes, who begin "questioning in their hearts" and accusing Jesus of blasphemy. After all, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" But if you’ll notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive your sins,” but instead, “your sins are forgiven.” Which may be worse. It seems Jesus simply declares him forgiven, claiming to speak for God. There were no “proper channels,” no going to visit a priest, no offering appropriate sacrifices. Jesus just says, “you’re forgiven.”
The scribes call it blasphemy; Jesus claims to do what God alone can do. This breaks the boundary between God and human, the created raising themselves up to be even with the Creator. Such an act, according to the law in Leviticus, is punishable by death. Maybe this foreshadows a little bit of what will come?
But Jesus proves he does have the authority to forgive by also having the authority to heal. Jesus is who he says he is, the Son of Man, the one who brings the Kingdom of God. And the man gets up at Jesus’ command, takes his mat, and walks right through the crowd.
This story tells us Gospel. It gives us Good News. But it’s not the Gospel we think.
See, when we often think of “the Gospel,” we think of God’s love. Which is great. In fact, if you listened to last week’s children’s message, you’ve already heard this. God’s love is first, and God’s love is a great place to start. But God loving us isn’t all.
See, love is good and nice. It’s welcoming and accepting. And yes, God’s love is that. But it’s not just “love;” Gospel is way more powerful than that. God’s love also changes us. God’s love forgives us. God’s love heals us, restores us, transforms us.
The best summary I’ve heard of this idea comes from a Max Lucado book I read about 20 years ago. It is called, “Just Like Jesus.” In it, Lucado wrote something that maybe you’ve heard before - and maybe you’ve even heard it from me before: “God loves you just the way you are, but God loves you enough not to leave you that way.”
And that, I think, is the point of this healing/conflict story. It’s the point of the Gospel. God’s love comes to us just as we are, but it doesn’t leave us this way.
For the paralyzed man, he is loved. Jesus shows him that love through forgiveness, through healing, through a holistic approach. It’s not one or the other; it’s all, both, everything. That’s how big and strong God’s love is. It won’t leave us broken. It won’t leave us hurting. It won’t leave us to death. God’s love comes to us just as we are, but it also won’t leave us this way.
And what follows this story in the rest of our lesson shows how love transforms - tax collectors and sinners, welcome to the party, new wine.
The Gospel in its entirety sets us free to be healed, to be in community, to do for others what has been done for us. The Gospel lived out looks like four friends stopping at nothing to help and support their friend. And now, that paralyzed man - having encountered a Gospel of love, forgiveness, and healing - is more likely to do the same for another.
That’s what the Gospel does for us. It isn’t an ending point - God loves me, the end. It’s a starting point, a place where we know we are loved, forgiven, set free so that we can share God’s Gospel with others.
I say it like it’s simple, and looking around at our community, our nation, our world, we see that it isn’t. And yet, it really is that simple, and it’s the way it should be. People looking out for each other, ready to take a little bit of a risk for each other, and God responding to our needs. It’s maybe a little over-simplistic and childlike to think that, but it is how I understand the Christian community and how we share God’s Gospel. As we look out for each other and take care of each other, we get surprised by what God might do.
And who knows? The way God surprises us, we just might be able to live a little bit of the Gospel out here and now with our neighbors near and far. Just because we aren’t always that type of people right now doesn’t mean God can’t change us with Gospel. Through water and word, through bread and wine, through a love that comes to us just as we are… we hope, we trust, we know that God won’t leave us the same.
As we read the first twenty verses of the Gospel of Mark last week, we weren’t given many of the details. But in their stead, we were encouraged to focus on Jesus. Mark, as I mentioned before, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the details. Mark does, however, move at a breakneck pace. As soon as one thing is finished, Jesus is on to the next.
Possessed by the Holy Spirit, fresh off successfully confronting Satan in the wilderness, bringing the kingdom of God, and now in the company of at least four followers, it’s time for Jesus’ public ministry to gather momentum.
In other words, it’s time for a fight!
OK, it’s less of a fight and more of a healing spree, but “fight” sounded so much more interesting.
Today there are three separate stories of Jesus healing: first a man with an unclean spirit in the Synagogue, then Simon’s mother-in-law at Simon and Andrew’s house - which is followed by a multitude of the sick with various diseases or demons, and finally the cleansing of a leper.
Sticking with the way Mark does things, none of these healings are very involved. With the unclean spirit, the contest doesn’t last long, since this is not the fairest of fights in terms of the strength of the combatants. Simon’s mother-in-law is simply lifted up by the hand and healed. And third, with a touch and a word, Jesus demonstrates that his healing is stronger than the contagious power of leprosy.
Any one of these stories could be used for a sermon. And, maybe more than that, any one of these stories could’ve been used by itself in Mark to get the point across. Leaving two of these healing miracles out wouldn’t disregard or overlook the fact that Jesus can heal. In fact, maybe Mark could’ve spent a little more time on the one story, building it up a bit?
But like with anything that is written down, Mark purposely chose to put all three of these scenes in the Gospel story. And not just put them in, but put them in back to back to back. It’s a three-peat of Jesus’ victories.
And while each of these healings tells us a little something about Jesus, when we take them all together as Mark presents them, I think it tells us a lot more about Jesus. Together, they point to something bigger. Namely, that the authority and healing power of Jesus are not limited or reserved. Jesus’ love is deep and wide and goes anywhere to anyone in any circumstance.
In these stories, we start to see the breadth of Jesus’ ministry. It is public, like in the synagogue; it is private, like in Simon’s home. It comes to male and female. It is stronger than demons and diseases. The unclean spirit and unclean leprosy do not cast Jesus outside, as they do to others. Instead, Jesus brings what was unclean back into community and cleanliness and wholeness.
And all this shows us what Jesus means when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus is showing us what the kingdom of God looks like. It looks like coming near. It looks like community. It looks like love.
It is Good News spiritually. Communally. Physically.
Being set free from those things that restrict us in those areas is indeed Good News.
But is it good news for us?
Because if we’re honest, many of us don’t live in this type of world. We aren’t possessed by unclean spirits; a fever can usually be taken care of with a few over-the-counter pills; leprosy isn’t a disease we’re worried about. It is good for them, but what about us?
And that’s when we can look a little more closely. See, because of the span of these healings, coupled with the anonymity of the afflicted characters, we can easily place ourselves in any of their situations. And we can do that - we can honestly do that - because each of us has something. Each of us is captured, controlled, afflicted by something.
Whether it is public like a disease or
sometimes private like an addiction,
if it is our outward need to be noticed or
our inner desire to be accepted,
if it is something that someone else did to us and the shame that comes with it;
or if it’s something we did to another and the guilt and hurt we feel,
we aren’t neutral in this world. There are powers and evils that take hold of us, drive us, shape us, often in ways we don’t really want. We aren’t as free, as clean, as raised up as we would like to think. Something gets ahold of us on some level.
And in this series of scenes, what Jesus demonstrates is that his authority and healing power are not limited or reserved to one place, one person; instead Jesus goes anywhere, to anyone, in any circumstance. You are included.
You are included in the wideness of Jesus’ ministry. Whatever public, private, demon, disease, un-kingdom thing has you, Jesus is stronger than that. God’s love is stronger than that. Jesus brings you back into cleanliness. Into community. Into the kingdom of God.
This is the witness of Jesus, the power of the Gospel, the gift of Baptism: we are clean. We are brought into community. We are joined to Jesus, cleansed from all of our uncleanliness, and made new each and every day through forgiveness. In the gift of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, God makes us clean again from the inside out, gathering us again as a community in Christ..
What we hear today in these rapid-fire stories is that Jesus goes anywhere to anyone in any circumstance - you are included. And while we long for the days when our diseases will be cured, our aches cast away, our tears dried, we do have the promise that God’s Kingdom has come near in Jesus. And that those things that keep us apart, those things that once held us back, well, they no longer do. There is no limit to what God can do through Christ, no boundary Jesus won’t cross - to the point that not even death keeps us out of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus even crosses to death to bring the Kingdom.
And so, wherever we are, whoever we are, in whatever feelings or circumstances we find ourselves, we can trust that Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes near to those in need. To heal. To raise up. To welcome. To love. Always.
So, what makes a good story? I’m not necessarily talking about a classic novel or a multi-volume narrative, so check all of your fancy English literature jargon at the door and just think about what makes a good story. Some things that come to mind for me are engaging presentation, coherent plotline, a surprise twist maybe. And then if you do want to talk about good books, then you start to want more details on the scenery, the characters, the events. All of this creates a visual in our minds and helps make the story real to us.
And if you look at our text for today, it doesn’t appear that the writer of the Gospel of Mark is much of a storyteller. There are hardly any details. There is minimal conflict. There are a few supporting characters, but no interesting subplots. We get about six separate stories crammed into these twenty verses. That’s hardly a way to say anything meaningful.
Or is it?
Without all that extra detail we are left to focus on one thing - or should I say one person: Jesus. We see what he is about, what he does, what he says. This stripped-down, no detail storytelling reminds us of how quickly we can lose our focus.
If we had these stories from one of the other Gospels, say Luke, for instance, we would most likely get bogged down in the devil coming and the miracles he asks Jesus to perform. We would be sidetracked by all the ways we get tempted and tested. We would be held captive by all the extraneous details and not captivated by who the story is really about. The same could be said about Jesus’ baptism, calling the first disciples, or his birth for that matter.
Mark gives us the bare bones story. And that can help us focus.
Despite the point of the season, at Christmas time, it is really hard to focus. There is so much going on outside of Jesus’ birth - family and friends and festivities - we sometimes lose the point. And even when we hear the story, the meaning is often hidden by the sentimentality of it all. There are kids wearing cute costumes! Of course, we’re going to be distracted!
But, if you’ll notice, today is still Christmas in the Church. And while the rest of the world has moved on, we get a chance to focus. We can strip away the unnecessary details that can distract us, and we can focus on Jesus.
Which is pretty appropriate, don’t you think? We hear today, on this first Sunday of Christmas, who Jesus is: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We hear today, on this first Sunday of Christmas, of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, pointing us to the fulfillment of all of God’s promises from before.
We hear today, on this first Sunday of Christmas, what it is Jesus proclaims: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
We hear today, on this first Sunday of Christmas, an emphasis on God’s Son, the beloved, who brings the good news of God.
This is an invitation to focus our attention on Jesus without all the noise and distractions of other stories, of secondary details, or of societal pressures that Christmas usually brings. Without the crowds, without the commercials, without the commotion. What we hear today, what we can let sink in, what we can really focus on is the good news of God, that in Jesus the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.
The Gospel of Mark isn’t about the details. Mark is about making Jesus Christ known. So, with this lesson for today, we don’t need to know all the storied details right now. We don’t need to get caught in questions. There are appropriate times and places for those things. What we are called to do today is, simply, focus on Jesus.
We focus on God’s beloved Son, not on our lists of things done or left undone. We focus on Jesus bringing good news, not on headline news. We focus on God’s kingdom, not on what fights to rule our world and our lives. All that other stuff - there is a time and place for that, too. But for now, since we have the chance, as a refresher, as a reminder, as a re-presentation, we focus on Jesus.
On Jesus coming. Jesus coming to us. Coming to us to bring God’s good news. God’s Gospel. Gospel for you. For you. We’ll share in the meal, where Jesus is given for you. Shed for you. It’s the body of Christ. The blood of Christ. God’s new covenant. God makes everything... new.
This is what we refocus on now. This is what we trust in now. We focus on Jesus coming to us, sharing with us God’s good news, and trust that it is indeed true for us. Yes, true, even for us.
As we are on the cusp of a new year, many people look at this as a time to start something new - a new, good habit or a change of a bad habit. So, maybe we try to do something like this with our spiritual lives. Something like focusing on Jesus. Trusting in God’s good news. Stopping, just to refocus, recenter, remind, re-present God’s Gospel to our own lives. Trusting in God’s kingdom, God’s rule, God’s presence with us forever.
Maybe just for a moment or two each day - strip out some of the noise. Find something that you can use as a trigger, a reminder. Something you do often, everyday - like when the coffee is brewing, or you’re brushing your teeth, or when you sit down for a meal, use that routine moment to remember God’s promises, remember God’s beloved Son coming to us, remember Jesus brings God’s kingdom and makes us part of that kingdom. Each day, just take a moment or two to focus. To trust.
As for the extras, the questions and details, I encourage you to take part in groups and Bible studies - places and times where those, too, are addressed and discussed - a great example is the mid-week small group or Sunday school where we will go deeper into what Jesus coming to us really means for us. Because, along with focusing and trusting, the questions and details are important, too.
But, for today, for right now, we focus and trust. At Christmas Jesus comes and Jesus is God’s good news for us, news that God’s kingdom has come, is here, and will forever be near.
As we start the journey to Holy Week on this First Sunday in Lent, there are two important things revolving around this final sign - or miracle - Jesus performs. First, this sign is actually what puts him on the path to the cross. Right after this scene, although some of the bystanders believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities. It is because of Jesus’ action here that those leaders decide definitively to put him to death. The way to the cross and Jesus' own tomb starts here, where Jesus is most impossibly and lovingly life-giving.
The second important thing about this sign is that it foreshadows pretty heavily what is to come: death is real, but death is not final. We get all the “realness” of death here - sealed tombs, the stench of four days of decay, people gathered, weeping, even the questions we throw at Jesus when death happens: why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you do something?
It is what Martha and Mary both ask of their Lord.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke Martha or Mary for what they say. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival, Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again. Death is real; death is not final. Martha answers, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day!” It is, by all accounts, absolutely the right religious response.
Our own first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection as a distant promise, a hope of salvation, an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven one day.
And yet, Jesus seems not quite satisfied with leaving it there in the future. Jesus responds to Martha with another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus points to the future resurrection, for sure, but he also adds more. He pulls the hope of resurrection into the present, promising abundant, eternal life that begins here and now. He is resurrection. He is life.
That’s not often what we think of when we hear “resurrection,” but the Gospel message should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now… right? The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
Jesus is resurrection and life, now. And, believe it or not, we have a role in that life. See, after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns to those who had gathered. He says to them, “unbind him, and let him go.” In other words, the community of faith is told to participate in God’s action, to bring life to its desired outcome, to join with Jesus in redemption! Sure, raising Lazarus from death to life is entirely Jesus’ work - I know I can’t do that - and yet, Jesus invites the community to participate, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
We have a role to play in resurrection life right now. And there are ways we as St. Philip are doing it right now. Here are a few stories.
A few years ago, all the soup kitchens in Myrtle Beach shut down on the weekends due to financial and other restraints. That meant the hungry and homeless would have to go from Friday lunch to Monday breakfast without anything to eat. An active group of volunteers started preparing small bagged lunches to pass out; then a small pot luck lunch. Now several churches help in making sure hungry people are fed each weekend. St. Philip is one of those churches. We gather volunteers, we prepare food, we set up tables. And we serve. We welcome. We make sure if someone is hungry, they have something to eat. We give them baggies to take with them - healthcare items like a toothbrush and chapstick; there are snacks like crackers and granola bars. And more than that, we make sure people aren’t just fed physically, but through our conversations and interactions, we feed them spiritually, too. Because of you, people aren’t hungry. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
All across the country, but particularly in Horry County, there is a major opioid epidemic. People are dying. It is something that has even hit us at St. Philip, losing one of our own young people because of it. So, it’s not just a problem “out there.” It’s a problem that really affects us as a community. And yet, St. Philip opens up four nights a week to host Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Time and space is offered up for people to gather. People need help; they know they can’t do it alone. So, they come to this place for community, support, a system which holds them accountable. When they gather, they confess their lives are broken; they turn themselves over to a higher power; they seek to make amends; they find encouragement, care, discipline. It keeps people from using. It keeps people from dying. Thanks to you, people are living clean lives. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We support Lutheran World Relief, which just so happens to be our benevolence for the first quarter this year. Beyond providing assistance and relief after a natural disaster, LWR works to build sustainable relationships and partnerships across the world. One way they are doing that is through fair trade coffee. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, and the people who farm it live in some of the poorest communities. As such, those farmers are often taken advantage of. They don’t normally get paid enough to support their family. But Lutheran World Relief provides fair, sustainable payment. Through LWR, parents can earn enough so their kids can go to school. There is daily bread. They have safer, better, more efficient equipment that produces better coffee beans. Help goes directly to the very community of the farmers. Because of your support, people can actually live. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We at St. Philip recruit, gather, and support Reading Buddies, a program where a volunteer meets one on one with a young child at a local school to help improve their reading. Reading is crucial to life and is a huge indicator of how future life will be. For example, did you know police departments pay close attention to reading scores - particularly, third grade reading scores? They do this because the number of kids below reading level in the third grade is a good indicator of how many jail cells they’ll need in a few years. Reading Buddies helps to inject hope where there may be none. They bring relationship where there may be none. They bring a bright future where there may be none. Thanks to you, some kids won’t go to jail. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
Those are some of the ways St. Philip works to bring resurrection and life to our community and beyond. And as you give, as you participate, as you hear Jesus’ call to “unbind and let go,” you help to bring resurrection and life, too. Are there ways to do more? Sure! We can live it out in our daily lives in conversation on the golf course (you know the weather’s getting nicer) or at the grocery store or at lunch or wherever. Listening, pointing to Jesus and the hope and promises he has - that brings resurrection and life.
So, I encourage you: spend a few moments today looking at the week to come and think about where you might be able to follow Jesus’ command to “unbind him, and let him go.” Where can you participate with God in resurrection and life?
It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be).
It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it might).
It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be).
Opportunities to unbind and let go abound. Jesus is calling us to make a life-giving difference to those around us. Because, while death may be real, death isn’t final. And God uses us - us! - to bring about resurrection and life.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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