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Sermons from 03/15/2020 to the present are recorded on the church Facebook page.

Second Sunday in Lent - March 8, 2020 (Scripture: John 3:1-17 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

The older you get, the more you know – the more knowledge you have. My son Robby has reminded me of this. “When I am grown up and big like you,” he has told me, “I want to know how to drive a car, like you do.”

“Just how big and grown up am I?” I’ve wondered to myself. Well, maybe not so much in my own eyes. But in Robby’s eyes, the eyes of my son, yes… I am a grown-up as he likes to remind me. And one of the things grown-ups get to do, which Robby is already particularly interested in, is drive cars. “When I’m big like you, I want to drive a car too,” he says. As a rule, the older you get, the more you know – like knowing how to drive a car – as well as all of the other construction vehicles he plans to drive when he is old enough to know how.

In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus, a leader and teacher of the Jewish people, has a conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus is a religious teacher known as a Pharisee. He is an authority on the Torah, the Jewish Holy Scriptures used to instruct God’s people. Nicodemus has grown up learning and studying Torah in order to teach his people the ways of God. And Nicodemus rightfully has the knowledge and the authority to instruct his people according to Torah, the Jewish Holy Scriptures.

Nicodemus knows things. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss his knowledge of who he thinks Jesus is. Nicodemus even addresses Jesus as a fellow teacher when he calls him, “Rabbi,” for the word, “Rabbi”, means “teacher.” “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God [Nicodemus says]; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2 NRSV). We know, Nicodemus tells Jesus. We have the knowledge that you have come from God, based on the signs and the miracles you perform.

It might seem as though the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is off to a good start. After all, Nicodemus, the Pharisee and teacher of Torah, is offering what seems like a positive assessment of Jesus. We know you are from God based on what we see you doing, Nicodemus tells Jesus; so far, so good.

Based on Jesus’ reply, however, Jesus doesn’t seem to think that things between him and Nicodemus are headed in the right direction. “Very truly, I tell you [Jesus answers Nicodemus], no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3 NRSV). You see, Jesus doesn’t simply agree with what Nicodemus knows. Jesus doesn’t nod his head in agreement with Nicodemus and say you’re right about me. What Jesus does instead is complicate things for Nicodemus, by telling him, “…no one can [even] see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It doesn’t matter what you think you know; you can’t see until you are “born from above.”

What Jesus is telling Nicodemus, in effect, is your knowledge of me – what you think you know about me – is getting in the way. Your knowledge of me – what you think you know about me – is actually getting in the way of you seeing me.

What we learn from Jesus throughout the Gospel of John is that knowledge isn’t the same thing as sight – not when it comes to Jesus. In fact, what we think we know about Jesus can actually blind us rather than help us see. Again, knowing about Jesus – our knowledge of Jesus by itself – isn’t the same thing as seeing: as actually seeing who Jesus is.

As we become “grown-ups” in the eyes of our children and get older, we acquire knowledge. Not only the knowledge to drive a car or operate construction equipment, which of course is most important to Robby, but we grow in our knowledge of how the world works and the way things are.

We can assume according to our knowledge that our laws of supply and demand must always go hand in hand with God’s law. We can assume that our world’s ruthless speed and competition, our rampant consumerism, must be God’s will. To our knowledge, everyone always gets what they work for, if they would just work harder. But we forget how much help we ourselves have received to get to where we are.

We can assume according to our knowledge that we must always achieve and perform in order to avoid the fear and shame of failure. We can assume according to our knowledge of the way things are that wealth and success must always be praised and worshiped. And we can assume, finally, according to our knowledge of the way things are, and of the way the world works, that Jesus must simply nod his head and agree with everything we already know.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus doesn’t simply pat us on the back for all the knowledge we’ve acquired over the years. He doesn’t just let our knowledge of things stand all by itself. Instead, Jesus insists on telling us and Nicodemus about things that seem completely impossible to us; things like being born again, from above, by the power of the Holy Spirit, whose coming and going we can never control, like the wind.

And yet, the things Jesus is talking about only seem impossible according to what it is we already know. Like Nicodemus, we can’t conceive of being born after having grown old. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” we ask with Nicodemus. “Can one enter a second time into a mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 NRSV)…

We don’t easily admit when we don’t know something. But when it comes to Jesus, our knowledge – what we think we know about Jesus – can actually get in the way. What we think we know about Jesus can actually get in the way of us seeing him.

According to Jesus in the Gospel of John, then, it’s not our knowledge – it’s not what we know – that enables us to see. It’s actually believing and trusting in Jesus that helps us to see him.

For Jesus, it doesn’t matter what we know, or how much we think we know. When it comes to Jesus, seeing isn’t a matter of our knowledge and what we know.

Instead, to see Jesus is to believe in him. To believe is to see. Seeing who Jesus is depends, more than anything else, on our trusting and believing in him. To believe in him is to see him.

When Nicodemus comes to see Jesus, he comes to Jesus by night. Coming to see Jesus in the darkness of night made it difficult for Nicodemus to see him. Everything Jesus was saying about himself seemed impossible to Nicodemus. What Jesus says about us having to be born again, from above, seems impossible to us; impossible based on what we know about how the world works and the way things are: impossible.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? What we know or think we know can only take us so far…

What is impossible for us is actually possible for God and his Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To believe that God can do the impossible is to actually see Jesus for who he is.

To believe that God can do the impossible is to see that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17 NRSV).

To believe that God can do the impossible is to see Jesus actually do the impossible: suffer and die and perish so that we may be loved, and have life for eternity - Amen.

First Sunday in Lent - March 1, 2020 (Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

“A ‘god’ [according to Martin Luther] is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. […] Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord, p. 386).

So in "The Large Catechism", this is how Luther is defining what a “god” is: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

We can read the whole temptation story of Jesus in the wilderness in light of what Luther is saying here: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

In the wilderness the devil is trying to tell Jesus what his heart should be relying and depending on. The devil is trying to convince Jesus of who his god should be. And the devil is doing this at a point where Jesus is particularly vulnerable.

Jesus hasn’t eaten for forty days; he’s hungry. Jesus also hasn’t heard from God his Father for a while. At his baptism Jesus heard his Father say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” But that was forty days ago.

In the wilderness Jesus hasn’t heard from God. And God the Father hasn’t offered Jesus, his Son, the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world; but the devil has.

The devil is the only one speaking to Jesus at this point in the wilderness. And the devil is offering Jesus the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world, which not even his own Father has offered him…

What will Jesus’ heart rely and depend on at this moment? Who or what will be his god?

Well, we know going back to Adam and Eve, what their hearts relied and depended on. They like what they hear when the serpent tells them, “…when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NRSV).

With the words of that crafty serpent, the man and the woman’s heart turn away from God who had created and provided for them. And their hearts turn toward the tree and its fruit instead: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked…” (Genesis 3:6-7 NRSV)

The man and the woman’s heart relied and depended on disobeying God and possessing the fruit for themselves, in order to make them wise, like God. But in doing so, their hearts no longer relied, depended, or trusted in God. They no longer had God as their God; they had made themselves God…

And rather than be exalted as gods, the man and the woman – Adam and Eve – end up ashamed of their nakedness instead: hiding from God and hiding from each other instead. They end up afraid, ashamed, and blaming one another instead. All of this because their hearts no longer relied and depended on God…

Temptation always seeks to steal our hearts away from God. And the tricky thing about temptation is that temptation always uses something that is good for the wrong purpose. Temptation always uses something good for the wrong purpose: in the case of Adam and Eve, wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, and being like God. Those are not bad things in themselves. Or in the case of Jesus, bread to relieve hunger, reassurance from God, and the power to rule: again, not in themselves bad things.

But temptation uses things like money and power, as well as knowledge and success, in order to turn our hearts away from God.

Temptation uses good things for the wrong purpose. And the goal of temptation, and of our adversary the devil, is to steal our hearts away from God; so that our hearts no longer rely and depend on God; so that God is no longer our God; so that someone or something else becomes our God instead.

In today’s Scripture there’s an essential difference between Adam and Eve and Jesus, however. There’s an essential difference between Jesus and us, for that matter. For Jesus never once has his heart stolen away from God, his Father. Jesus’ heart never once relies and depends on someone or something other than God his Father. Jesus never once has anyone or anything as his God, except God himself, his heavenly Father.

Despite his hunger for bread, his need for reassurance, and the way he’s told he should get his power in the wilderness – despite all of that – Jesus already knows who he is. He knows whose he is; he’s God’s Son. And he trusts that his heart doesn’t belong to anyone or anything other than God. He can resist the devil’s temptations to steal away his heart only because his heart already relies and depends on God. Jesus has proven that God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is truly his God.

Despite the ways we find ourselves giving in to temptation along with our parents, Adam and Eve; despite having our hearts stolen away from God, Jesus nevertheless enters the wilderness and renounces temptation. And he does so for us.

That’s why Jesus is in the wilderness. He doesn’t have to be there. But he wants to be there for us.

Jesus wants to face the same and similar temptations that we do; the people and things that we’ve given our hearts to, rather than God.

Jesus wants to face and then resist those temptations for you and me, in order to reclaim our hearts for God.

Jesus wants God to become our God again, rather than our money and our success, our knowledge and our power.

Jesus resists temptation for us so that our hearts can once again rely and depend on God – so that his God may once again become our God – and we might live again as God’s beloved.

“Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God,” Martin Luther reminds us.

May we therefore be strengthened by the promise that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ also wants to be our God, and wants to reclaim our hearts, here, in the wilderness of our lives - Amen.

Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday - February 23, 2020 (Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ- Amen

Take a moment and imagine one of your heroes – someone you admire and especially look up to. Maybe the hero you’re imagining is a teacher you had, or a coach, or a member of your family – a parent or grandparent. Maybe they’re a friend or a mentor, an actor or actress, sports figure or musician, a favorite author or artist, a president or an exemplary leader of some kind.

Whoever they are, you know that they’re your hero. You look up to them, and want to be like them; perhaps you put them on a pedestal even. If you like them and admire them, the last thing you want is for your hero to somehow let you down. Granted, no one is perfect – not even the people we consider our heroes. But the last thing we want is for our heroes to go down, to topple from their pedestal, to suffer pain, to become disgraced and ashamed. We don’t want our heroes to fall…

Six days before Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, Peter thought he knew who Jesus was. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter evidently didn’t understand what it meant to be the Messiah. Jesus explained that to be the Messiah – to be the chosen king anointed by God to rule over God’s people for all eternity – meant that he, Jesus, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In Peter’s mind, however, suffering, rejection, and death do not fit the Messiah’s job description.

So Peter tells Jesus not to go through with it – the suffering, rejection, and death – that awaits him. Jesus, not to be swayed, reminds Peter that he’s not in charge, however. He calls Peter by the name of his adversary, Satan, and orders that he get behind him.

Six days later, after this frightening exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus nevertheless takes Peter up a high mountain with him. The disciples, James and John, come along as well. And you have to wonder, what will be revealed to them on the mountaintop? How will they respond?

Something happens on the mountaintop; Peter doesn’t know what to say. But in typical Peter fashion, Peter says something anyway. Before Peter even opens his mouth, however, “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

It is at that point that Peter opens his mouth, even though he doesn’t know what to say. Peter and the other disciples are terrified by what they see. And yet, they figure that Jesus shining in all his glory – his clothes having become dazzling white – must be the real Jesus. This Jesus, who’s displaying the glory of God, in the company of the greatest prophets of all time, Moses and Elijah; this Jesus is their Messiah.

It made sense that Jesus would display the glory of God in this way, even though it was beyond what they could have ever imagined, even though it terrified them.

Perhaps the power and glory of Jesus – terrifying though it was – would protect all of them atop this holy mountain. Perhaps once they got used to Jesus transfigured in dazzling white, they would never have to be afraid again. They’d never have to leave the mountaintop and return to the cold, cruel world below. They’d never have to leave the protection of God, of God’s power and glory displayed in Jesus, their Messiah. Perhaps Jesus, their hero, had brought them to the mountaintop with a terrifying display of God’s power and glory in order to save them, once and for all. Perhaps this had been their hero’s plan all along – to save himself and to save his chosen few atop the mountain – to save himself and to save them from the cold, cruel world below.

Peter, terrified, not knowing what to say and yet saying something anyway, turns to Jesus and says: “…it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter does have a point, doesn’t he? With God’s power and glory displayed on the mountaintop, why in the world would you want to go anywhere else, other than the mountaintop? Why leave, ever? Why not stay on the mountaintop where you can see the power of your hero, your Messiah forever; where you and your hero would never have to stumble, never have to fall ever again? After all, we never want our heroes to fall. For if our heroes fall, we fear what will happen to us.

For our sake, Jesus doesn’t listen to our fears, however. For our sake and for Peter’s sake, Jesus doesn’t follow Peter’s advice. Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop – he’s not interested in saving himself and a few of his followers from the cold, cruel world below.

For our hero didn’t ascend the mountain in order to escape the world and leave it behind forever. Instead the power of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop is God’s promise to the world living below in the shadows. The power of God’s beloved Son displayed on the mountaintop is a promise for you and me; for us who can’t escape the cold, cruel world and the power of our own sin.

Below the mountain, the cold, cruel world and the power of our own sin would appear to defeat him. He would not die a hero’s death, after all; he’d die the death of a criminal instead, on a cross, abandoned by God and disgraced by all. He’d appear to stumble and fall in the worst possible way, without any of the power he had displayed on the mountaintop. Our worst fears would appear to come true – should have listened to Peter and stayed on the mountaintop – should have saved himself and those he could up there.

Jesus didn’t follow Peter, though. He doesn’t listen to and obey our fears either. Jesus listens to God instead.

And having listened to God, Jesus the Beloved Son would die and then be raised from the dead by the power of God, the same power displayed on the mountaintop. Only this dying and rising would not be for his sake, but for ours and for the sake of the cold, cruel world.

Our hero is a hero, not because he used the power and glory of God to save himself. He’s a hero, as we’ll see, because he didn’t abandon our cold, cruel world.

He’s a hero because he did stumble and fall under the power of our sin; so that we wouldn’t have to stumble and fall away from him; so that we would be raised with him rather than abandoned by him; so that we might no longer want, in fear, to escape with our hero to the mountaintop, but join him loving and serving our neighbor here below instead - Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany - February 16, 2020 (Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ- Amen

The only time I’ve been overseas was a trip to Thailand I took during college. There was an opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity International in that particular country in Southeast Asian, halfway across the world, and some friends and I decided to go. As you probably already know, Habitat for Humanity provides decent, affordable housing worldwide. The future homeowners put in what’s called “sweat equity” as they work alongside volunteers and skilled builders to construct their own homes. The homeowners receive a no-interest loan, which they then pay back.

Jula helped to plan the trip. She talked with her family, including her father who is Thai and originally from Thailand. And her dad recommended that we go to his home country of Thailand; not only that, but to his hometown of Lampang in the northwest part of the country. As far as he was concerned, he wanted us to be safe there. There were some violent uprisings happening in the far southern part of Thailand. And along the borders with Burma and Laos was to be avoided as well; the closer you got to those particular borders, the less safe you were. Lampang, my father-in-law’s hometown, was a safe distance from any of the particularly dangerous areas. Safe, quiet, and uneventful was exactly what we were looking for.

After a twelve hour flight from Chicago to Japan, and another six hour flight from Japan to Thailand, we landed in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. I was exhausted, but not too exhausted to notice the soldiers gathered at the airport. The soldiers were wearing army fatigues and carrying AK47s. We learned that they were members of the Thai National Army, being deployed to the southern part of Thailand, near Malaysia, where they would be fighting against the violent uprisings.

Thankfully we knew about that ahead of time, and we were going the opposite direction. The soldiers were going south, and we were going north. But there’s nothing like troops carrying AK47s at an airport to wake you up, even after a combined 18 hour flight.

After a short night of sleep, we awoke early to see the sites around Bangkok. And then that evening, we boarded an overnight train that would take us 12 hours northwest to our final destination, the city of Lampang. After the sprawling, bustling, and crowded conditions of Bangkok, which is Thailand’s largest city, the little city of Lampang seemed more like a village. The almost three weeks we spent in Lampang and the surrounding area were wonderful.

Today’s second reading is from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. That particular church wasn’t facing any of the violent uprisings as there were in southern Thailand and along the borders. Paul himself would face persecution, and eventually so would the churches he helped plant. But the church of Corinth to which Paul wrote was still experiencing a conflict of its own, particularly infighting in the form of jealousy and quarreling among its members.

As we heard read today in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, some in the Corinthian church were saying, “I belong to Paul.” Others were saying, “I belong to Apollos” (1 Corinthians 3: 4 NRSV). The early Corinthian Christians couldn’t agree on whom to follow. They couldn’t agree on who was right, that is, on who, finally, they wanted to be their leader.

In his letter Paul shares his observations of their behavior, and then voices his disapproval: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,” Paul tells the Corinthian church, “are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:3-4 NRSV)

You see, being the church extends beyond what we say or do in our relationship with God. Being the church is a matter of both our relationship with God in Christ, and our relationships with one another.

In fighting over who their leaders should be – whether Paul or Apollos or someone else – their relationship with God and with one another was out of whack. Paul even agrees with Jesus who, according to today’s Gospel reading, tells his disciples to make things right – to be reconciled – with their brother or sister before coming to worship God. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,” Jesus says, “leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV).

As we know, the church is made up of humans. And humans have their inclinations and behave according to those human inclinations. Jealousy and quarreling occurred not only within the church of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, but in our day as well, and at every point in between. The violence and conflict within our own lives may be more hidden. But we can’t keep our more hidden jealousy and quarreling, our anger and hatred toward others, as far away as we’d like to believe. Our own conflicts with others aren’t as far away as those violent uprisings along the borders that my friends and I were trying to avoid while in Thailand. Instead, our own violence, anger, hatred, jealousy and quarreling is within our own hearts – much, much closer to home.

And yet, there is hope for us.

Even though our world is filled with conflict and violence – and the church often doesn’t look all that different from the world – even so, God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. God in Jesus Christ is in the process of making our relationship with God and one another right again. Along these lines of reconciliation, of God making things right with us, the Apostle Paul shares God’s perspective on the church of his day and our day…

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Paul asks. He then answers his own question: Paul and Apollos are “servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. […] The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose. […] “For we,” Paul continues, “are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9 NRSV).

Anytime we are fighting over who our leaders should be, or we are embroiled in any type of conflict that divides us out in the world; we need to be reminded of who we belong to. We don’t need to take sides, or have others take sides whether for or against us; we need to be reminded of who we belong to: that we are God’s field, God’s building, as Paul says, not our own. And as the church and servants of God, we have the privilege of planting seeds and watering them in people’s lives. But only God can bring the growth.

We can plant and water seeds of faith and healing and reconciliation, but only God can bring the growth. Only God can make the faith and healing and reconciliation happen, in God’s time, and in God’s way.

While building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Thailand, a safe distance from the borders, I got to do what Paul’s talking about here. We didn’t speak the same language, but we each did our part: mixing the cement, spreading it on the concrete blocks, stacking the blocks, and in this way, building the outside walls of the house. God was using everyone at that work site to help build that house. And at the same time, God was bringing the growth, bring us all closer to him, and closer to others halfway across the world.

Likewise you and I, as the church, all share a common purpose. We plant and we water seeds of faith and healing and reconciliation. And God, in his own time, and in his own ways, brings the growth - Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany - February 9, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ- Amen

Fifteen years ago in 2005, two researchers conducted a study of the common beliefs of American youth. A focus of the study was to what extent youth believed in God, and if so, what they believed about God. In a monthly column she writes for the magazine Living Lutheran, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, summarizes the results of that study.

The overwhelming evidence is American youth believe – and here I’m quoting Eaton – that “God exists, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, God does not need to be particularly in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem, and good people go to heaven when they die” (Elizabeth A. Eaton, “We are broken,” Living Lutheran February 2020, p. 50).

The researchers gave this widespread but thin belief in God a name, and it’s kind of a mouthful: “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (Eaton, p. 50). It’s moralistic in the sense that God wants us to be nice; it’s therapeutic in the sense that God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves; and it’s deism in the sense that God is pretty much far-off, hands-off, and only a part of our lives, if he plays a part at all.

If we believe this kind of thin soup about God – as a lot of American youth apparently do – then we believe God exists simply to reward us for our good behavior.

Or we believe God serves simply to remind us to do a better job next time of being nice to others, or to do a better job next time of feeling good about ourselves.

In other words, according to the “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deist” view of God, we are in the driver’s seat. And we are using God, if at all, to get us where we want to go. This is a far cry, however, from the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of the cross and the resurrection…

In today’s first reading from Isaiah, for instance, we learn that God doesn’t give out rewards to people for being good. God doesn’t exist to pat us on the back when we feel good about ourselves either. You see, according to Isaiah, God’s people desperately want God to reward them for their good works: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they cry out to God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” they demand of God (Isaiah 58:3 NRSV).

God’s reply, however, isn’t to tell his people how great a job they are doing as they fast from food, for religious purposes. Instead, God asks them: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” God asks. (Isaiah 58:5 NRSV)

The answer God implies, of course, is “No.”

“Look,” God tells his people, according to the prophet Isaiah. “…you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” “Look,” God continues, “…you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4 NRSV).

This isn’t at all the reward that the people want from God for their good religious behavior, their fasting. God’s response is just the opposite, in fact. God brings the hammer down by telling his people the truth, saying, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day… […] such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4 NRSV).

Our good behavior for which we expect God to reward us may not include fasting for religious purposes, as was the case in the prophet Isaiah’s day. Still, the good work that we do for God and other people is never purely good. Our worship, our prayers, and our acts of service at home, at school and work, and in the community are never purely for God, or for other people. We serve our own interests as well. We can even reach the point where we expect – and even demand – God and others to reward us for the good that we do.

And when no reward for our good behavior is forthcoming, or the reward is smaller than we’d like it to be, we may turn to God or other people, and demand of them: “Why am I doing all of these good things for you, but you do not see? Why am I humbling myself, going above and beyond the call of duty for you, but you do not notice?”

We’d rather God not tell us that it’s our own self-interest that has taken over at that point. We’d rather God not say that the good things we are doing are no longer good. But like he told his people through the prophet Isaiah, so God tells us: The good things that you and I are saying and doing for our own interests “will not make [our] voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58: 4 NRSV).

As much more than a prophet, Jesus in today’s Gospel also echoes the prophet Isaiah. And Jesus warns his followers as God warned his people through Isaiah hundreds of years before. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [the religious leaders],” you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NRSV).

Yikes! What is it about the religious leaders’ good and righteous behavior that Jesus is warning his followers? It’s the same issue God had spoken against through the prophet Isaiah. The religious leaders, as good as they looked on the outside, were the ones serving their own interests and oppressing others.

As far as Jesus and his heavenly Father are concerned, good outward behavior of any kind isn’t truly righteous – not if it’s done for recognition and reward – and to elevate ourselves above others.

So instead of tempting us to somehow earn our heavenly reward, or to somehow prove that we’re better than others, Jesus does something completely different. He gives us a completely new identity instead.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus declares (Matthew 5:13 NRSV).

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus insists (Matthew 5:14 NRSV).

And the thing about salt and light: Salt and light are absolutely no good on their own. Salt is only good when it’s used on food, to bring out the flavor. And light is only good when it’s shining on something, to illuminate the darkness. Salt and light are absolutely no good on their own.

In the same way, we are not any good on our own. As salt and light, we’re only any good when God is using us to season someone else’s life, when we’re using the gifts God has given us to serve them. Likewise, we’re only any good when God is using us to shine into someone else’s darkness, when we’re using the gifts God has given us to bring light to the darkness.

After all, we know how grateful we are for the people in our lives, the people God uses to be salt and light for us, when we are in darkness and have lost our savor.

We’re grateful that God isn’t a far-off, hands-off god that allows us to be in the driver’s seat…

We have a God who has enlightened and flavored our life in the person of Jesus, so that we may also be who Jesus says we are: salt and light for others - Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - February 2, 2020 (Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

At the end of last week’s Gospel from Matthew, we heard that Jesus called some fishermen to follow him. And just like that, they became his followers, his disciples. Immediately, Jesus took those new followers of his to a crowd of people to whom he proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. And as Jesus also cured the diseases and sickness of folks in the crowd, the healing power of God’s kingdom began to transform people’s lives. No surprise, then, that the crowds grew and grew as more and more people were drawn to Jesus. This Jesus—the one through whom more and more people had been experiencing the healing power of God…

What we have in today’s Gospel, however, is Jesus stepping away from the growing crowd for a moment. He goes up a mountain. And as he goes up the mountain his disciples follow him. Jesus, then, sits down and begins to teach the disciples. He preaches to them a sermon we know as the “Sermon on the Mount”—that famous sermon beginning with those familiar words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As I’ve thought about today’s Gospel, I’ve wondered what our Lord was responding to when he preached this sermon. I mean, what prompted him to preach this particular sermon, which later became known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, a sermon in which Jesus repeated over and over again the word “Blessed”—as in “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who mourn”?

I’ve wondered to myself what brought on this first of Jesus’ sermons recorded in the Gospel. And I’ve thought that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was intending, through this sermon, to teach his disciples—his first followers—something about the crowds gathered at the foot of the mountain. If so, perhaps Jesus felt he had to make it absolutely clear to the disciples that the poor, the sick, and the hurting were exactly the kind of people he had come to heal, the sort of people God had sent him to—even though these poor, sick, and hurting folks were in no way what you would call good, upstanding, religious people by the standards of Jesus’ day.

You can see the problem here. When it came to being religious, when it came to having faith, the crowds had nothing to show for themselves. And I’ll bet it was quite a shock for the disciples to see those crowds—to see crowds of people who were hurting, sick, and in need of healing. They must have felt like fish out of water, those fishermen.

After all, those crowds were not the sort of people they would have ever thought to associate with in their small fishing villages. Nor would have they, the disciples, have wanted to. Their religion taught them to avoid such people. Crowds of sick people were to be avoided. Poor people with no hope were bad news—their faith was apparently too weak. Indeed, God must be punishing sick hurting people for something they had done wrong, something they had done to make God mad.

This, at least, was the prevailing view in Jesus’ day. People were sick or poor or had lost all hope because God was punishing them. They were cursed. And good, upstanding religious folks stayed as far away as they could from those “cursed” people.

Things aren’t much different today, are they? We all have our own ideas of who is cursed and who is not. People, we feel, are cursed if they vote differently from us. They’re cursed if they disagree with us on a whole host of hot-button issues.

To be blessed rather than cursed is to believe that God is on our side. To be blessed is to believe that we have done something to earn God’s blessing, that we have something to show for ourselves, and that those who don’t—who don’t have anything to show for themselves—are cursed.

Perhaps the fishermen thought that Jesus had called them to follow him for that very reason. They might have thought they had something to show for themselves, something that made Jesus want to bless them, something that made them better than and superior to the sick and the hurting, the “cursed” crowds of people to which Jesus led them.

If that were true—if the disciples believed they were “blessed” and the crowds were “cursed”—then Jesus’ first sermon to them must have come as quite a shock. Honestly, it must come as quite a shock to us as well.

For, against what we believe to be our better judgment, Jesus teaches them and teaches us what God’s kingdom really is. The poor, the sick, the hopeless are not cursed but blessed in the kingdom Jesus brings, the kingdom of his heavenly Father. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, for they will be comforted. Jesus blesses the crowds—the sick, the hurting, the hopeless. God has come not to curse, but to bless those who have nothing to show for themselves.

And, shockingly, the ones who are cursed are not the poor, the sick, and the hopeless—the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Rather, the ones who are cursed are those who curse others. The ones God curses are the disciples when they’re convinced God’s only on their side—that they’re blessed, the only ones who’ve got anything to show for themselves. The ones God curses are us when we’re convinced God’s on our side—that we’re blessed, the only ones who’ve got anything to show for ourselves—rather than the poor, the sick, and those who’ve lost all hope.

But the thing about Jesus is that he’s intent on blessing, blessing us, even when we’re cursed, even when we insist on cursing others. In fact, Jesus our Lord has taken upon himself all of the curses we’ve uttered against each other, all of the curses that have cursed us. Jesus has taken every curse in this world upon himself; he has become a curse; he has suffered and died, a curse upon the cross; and he has removed the curse from us.

For God is on your side and on my side, not because we have anything to show for ourselves, but all for Jesus’ sake—because Jesus suffered and died and became a curse for us on the cross. Jesus died a curse, but God raised him from the dead, to remove the curse from him and from us.

So Jesus’ sermon today is for us as well.

We who are poor in spirit, we who are mourning our losses, we who are sick and are suffering are not cursed by God.

Jesus insists on blessing us instead.

And the mercy that he’s shown the crowds, his followers, and us, we get to show others.

We get to rejoice and be glad, even when others curse us.

For our Lord has removed the curse from us.

And Jesus has set us free to bless rather than curse—to show mercy—for the kingdom of heaven is ours - Amen.

Third Sunday after Epiphany - January 26, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him - Amen

The opening verse of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” goes:

“Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze” (John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

And then there’s the familiar chorus that goes:

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads” (John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

The opening line in the song has actually been used to promote West Virginia tourism: “West Virginia, almost heaven,” the song begins. “…almost heaven”: that’s a powerful line that has drawn people to admire and enjoy West Virginia’s wonderful natural beauty, in a state beset by so much economic hardship and poverty.

“…almost heaven”: there is nevertheless something about the beauty of the mountains and the valleys of West Virginia that is “almost heaven.”

Maybe West Virginia hasn’t been “almost heaven” for you. Perhaps you’ve never been there; of if you have, you’ve never experienced it that way. In any case, you might have had the experience of “almost heaven” somewhere else.

For me, it was the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. There was something “almost heaven” about paddling a canoe across one of many lakes, finding a campsite, setting up camp, and enjoying the view out across the lake, after a long day of paddling. The cry of the loons across the still water at sunrise and sunset; the sun’s reflection in the lake at morning and evening, along with a cool refreshing breeze coming off the water, brought so much stillness, peace, and calm. It was “almost heaven.” I can still remember it over twenty years ago…

I also remember this about the Boundary Waters: When I got bit by the first black fly of the morning, or felt the pin prick of the first mosquito of the afternoon, I was quickly brought back to earth. The wind had stopped blowing, and the flies and mosquitoes had returned in full force. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, we were even chased into our tents by a thickening cloud of mosquitoes. “…almost heaven”: not quite.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… […] From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:12-13, 17 NRSV).

Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah from long ago. The Gentiles, or non-Jewish nations and people, who have sat in great darkness and the shadow of death, will see a great light in the person of Jesus. They will have the light of Jesus dawn on them. The region of Galilee is the doorway to the Gentiles, who are the non-Jewish nations and people. And it is precisely in Galilee that Jesus starts proclaiming, to Jew and non-Jew alike, that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

You can bet that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, the two fishermen, would have already heard something about Jesus and his message. After all, people talked. News of Jesus and his message would have reached the fishermen brothers before Jesus himself did. News traveled by word of mouth faster than the messenger himself.

Still, what could “the kingdom of heaven coming near” possibly mean for the life of a fisherman, when every day was the same? Casting, hauling, and mending fishing nets; sailing, docking, and repairing boats; and, having to depend on there being fish to eat and to sell in order to feed your families?

How could life as a fisherman have anything to do – anything at all – with the kingdom of heaven coming near?

For that matter, what could Jesus’ message, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, possibly have to do with our day-to-day routines, with your life and mine? How could the kingdom of heaven possibly be near? How could the kingdom we hear Jesus proclaiming possibly be anywhere near life as we know it?

As much as we might want to idealize and romanticize being a fisherman in Jesus’ day, you can bet that those fishermen in today’s Gospel wouldn’t have seen it that way. Fishing was not “almost heaven.” Even if John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was around back then, no fisherman would have sung that song about their trade. Fishing was not “almost heaven.”

Nevertheless, the remarkable thing Jesus did was this: He showed up for Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew. He showed up for James and his brother, John. Jesus himself came near enough to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, so close that he could see them. Jesus could see the fishermen brothers; they were not invisible to him. He could see them, and he could see that they were fishermen, “casting a net into the sea” (Matthew 4:18 NRSV).

Jesus came near enough to see the fishermen brothers, and near enough to speak to them. The One who said “the kingdom of heaven has come near” was so close and so near as to speak to them – to single them out –to ask them to follow him. By bringing the kingdom of heaven near to them, Jesus even promised to make them a different kind of fisherman – the kind that fished for people.

You see, when Jesus entered these fishermen’s lives, the kingdom of heaven was brought near to them. Heaven itself was entering their lives; they were seeing a great light; a light that had dawned on their darkness and cast its light upon the death in whose shadow they struggled to live each day.

When Jesus entered those fishermen’s lives, they simply could no longer be the fishermen they once were. For Jesus’ own presence made them into a different kind of fisherman: fishermen without nets, without boats, without even a father to mend nets with. They were to fish for people, and Jesus was going to show them how.

Through our faith and trust in Jesus, our Lord is likewise near, and close enough to see us as he saw those fishermen. He sees you in your day-to-day routine. He sees you doing whatever you happen to think is insignificant. Jesus sees you doing whatever you happen to feel is farthest from the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus sees you as he saw those fishermen. And no matter how worthless you feel your life is, or how meaningless your work has become; Jesus nevertheless has brought his Father’s kingdom – the kingdom of heaven – near to you. So near, in fact, that he called you by name in your baptism and already asked you to follow him.

He’s promised to make you and me into a different kind of fisherman; or in our case, a different kind of boss or employee, a different kind of student or teacher, a different kind of parent, or a different kind of son or daughter, or friend.

In other words, to become followers of Jesus who look for opportunities to show others the good news of God’s love and light – a love and a light that breaks into our own darkness.

For we too can go about our work, and live our lives – despite all challenges and struggles – in a way that shows others how God’s light has entered our darkness, and how God’s love has dispelled the shadow of death in our own lives.

We can be agents of God’s light and love for others because of the presence of Jesus, now, in our own lives; Jesus whose presence has brought the kingdom of heaven near to us, here, today…

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23 NRSV).

This is what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Having the presence of Jesus shine into our lives, having him dispel our darkness and the shadow of death, we trust Jesus’ presence is a “foretaste of the feast to come”; or in other words, “almost heaven” - Amen.

Second Sunday after Epiphany - January 19, 2020 (Scripture: John 1:29-42 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ - Amen

In the quirky movie, School of Rock, guitarist Dewey Finn wants to be in the spotlight. He plays in a rock band that he helped start, but his band mates don’t want him anymore. They’ve had enough of his 20 minute guitar solos, his rolling around on the stage, his diving off the stage and attempts to “crowd surf.” His stage diving into the crowd doesn’t go well for him. Rather than catch him and hold him up, the crowd gets out of the way, and Dewey hits the floor.

Needless to say, at the beginning of the movie things aren’t going well for Dewey. He gets kicked out of the band that he started. He’s behind on his share of the rent, which he owes his friend Ned, with whom he is living. Ned’s girlfriend wants Ned to kick Dewey out of the apartment. But Dewey doesn’t have a job. He’s too busy trying to live his dream of being a guitarist in a rock and roll band that he hopes will win the annual “Battle of the Bands” – and the prize money. That’s been the money Dewey’s holding out for, the prize money for being voted the best band at the annual “Battle of the Bands.” But that dream has never come true for him. Again, he so badly wants to be in the spotlight – even as the rest of his life is falling apart… In any case, Dewey Finn needs a job to make ends meet, and to pay his friend Ned his share of the rent.

Ned, the friend and roommate, happens to be a substitute teacher. He gets a call one day from a school looking for a long-term substitute teacher – not just any school – but the best elementary school in the state of New York: Horace Green. Dewey answers the phone, since Ned isn’t home. They ask to speak to Ned. While speaking to the school, Dewey gets an idea. He’ll pretend to be Ned in order to get the substitute teaching job. He needs the money, after all.

Incidentally, Dewey does get the job. He doesn’t tell his friend about it, of course; some friend he is. And when Dewey shows up at the school for his first day of subbing, everyone thinks he is Ned Schneebly. They don’t know who he really is.

As you can expect, rather than teach his class of fourth graders the usual subjects – math, language arts, science, social studies – Dewey wants them to form a rock band. He discovers during their music class that they can all play musical instruments – and they’re good! They’re not at the best elementary school in the state for nothing!

Dewey, pretending to be Ned of course, gets right to work teaching his students all about his passion: rock music. He cancels all of their other subjects, and calls the class project they will be working on, “Rock Band.” They’re not to tell their parents anything about it; it will be a surprise.

Dewey gives each student an assignment for the band. Some play instruments, others sing, while still others operate smoke machines and lights, design outfits, come up with a band name, and generally oversee and manage everything that needs to get done.

Dewey, though, envisions himself as the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He will make the students perform his ridiculous song about being kicked out of a band that was his, and not being able to pay his rent. In other words, Dewey will be the one in the spotlight. And his students turned rock musicians will be the ones to help him get there – all the way to the “Battle of the Bands” and that prize money.

In today’s Gospel according to John, we hear from John, the one who baptized Jesus. Today’s Gospel story is not an account of John baptizing Jesus, however. Instead, we have John publicly witnessing to who Jesus is. As Jesus came toward him, we have John declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NRSV). We have John testifying to who Jesus is by saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32 NRSV). We have John whose intention was to reveal who Jesus is to the people of Israel (John 1:31 NRSV). We have John witnessing Jesus, and in reference to Jesus, publicly declaring: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34 NRSV).

Then something happens that I find very interesting and very significant. In the next three verses of Chapter 1 in the Gospel of John (verses 35, 36, and 37), we have this:

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, [John] exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ [John’s] two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus” (John 1:35-37 NRSV).

And we hear nothing more from John the baptizer after that.

You see, John is not like Dewey Finn, wanting to be in the spotlight, and wanting to use others to help get him there. Rather, John is willing to let go of his own disciples, so that they may follow Christ – and become disciples of Jesus instead.

Dewey wants the spotlight on himself; he wants all eyes on him in the movie I’ve been telling you about. John, on the other hand, in today’s Gospel wants all eyes on Jesus. John would even rather his own followers (for John himself had followers, you understand); John would even rather that his own disciples go ahead and follow Jesus instead.

Remarkably, when John and his own disciples are approached by Jesus, John doesn’t at all want to take the spotlight off of Jesus.

For us, sharing the spotlight is never easy. Neither is having the spotlight shine on others rather than on us. Like Dewey in School of Rock, we even find ways of using people in order to shine the spotlight on ourselves. We all want followers, people who shine the spotlight on us, and tell us how great we are. And if we’re not in the spotlight, we may still dream of getting the attention and the recognition that we think we deserve.

We may be hurt and angry that we’re not in the spotlight; and we find ourselves hating and resenting those who are. We may even resent that God hasn’t put us in the spotlight; or we resent God taking the spotlight off of us, when life doesn’t go our way.

That’s where Dewey Finn, the failed rock musician in School of Rock , found himself. He couldn’t live with himself being out of the spotlight. He was even willing to go so low as tell a lie about being someone else, in order to substitute teach and turn his students into a bunch of rock musicians to perform in his band, so he could win “Battle of the Bands.” It’s all very funny; but it’s very sad too.

However, something happens to Dewey. In fact, it’s his students who actually teach him. They begin to share Dewey’s passion for rock music. They write their own music. Dewey encourages one of the students to share a song that he wrote. And after hearing the student play his song, Dewey admits, “Your song is better than mine. We’ll perform yours instead.”

The band is no longer his; he’s shining the spotlight on his students instead. And the whole class, including Dewey, learns an important lesson. Even though they don’t win the “Battle of the Bands,” it’s about the music and performing a great show, which they do. They believe, “One great show can change the world", and it certainly has changed Dewey’s world and the students. He’s happier in his new position as teacher of the School of Rock, shining the spotlight on his students instead.

As Dewey learned to do for his students, and as John did for Jesus, we get to shine the spotlight on others.

We get to turn the spotlight on Jesus and on what he has done for us.

And rather than wanting our own followers, our own attention and recognition, we can help others shine.

We can help each other become followers of Jesus instead - Amen.

Baptism of Our Lord Sunday - January 12, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

All of a sudden, your name is called. You’re sitting in the audience, but now you know you can’t stay there. You know the drill; you’ve watched the show countless times. You’ve seen audience members whose names have been called look shocked and surprised, cover their mouths, jump up and down in place, and then run down the aisle and climb up on stage to join the other contestants. Again, you’ve seen it more times than you can count. But now it’s your turn…

Your name has been called. And all of a sudden you find yourself up on stage breathlessly whooping and hollering as Drew Carey welcomes you, puts his arm around you, and ask you your name and where you’re from. You hear yourself shout your name and hometown, and watch as the people from your hometown wave and shout back to you from where they’re sitting in the audience, where you once were sitting. But now you’re looking out upon the audience. You’re standing even with Drew Carey. You’re taking your place behind one of the podiums. You’re on stage; you’re no longer an audience member. A fancy-looking gas grill is being wheeled out on stage for you to bid on. And it gradually begins to dawn on you what has just happened: you have become the next contestant on “The Price is Right.”

You’re no longer sitting on your living room sofa trying to guess the price of the grill, as close as you can, without going over. Rather, you were just moments ago a first-time live audience member who was called out of the audience, to be the next contestant on the show. You’re going to tell everyone what you think the price of that grill is, without going over. Or if you think the two other contestants have overbid; if you think they have gone over what you believe the price to be, then you’re going to have to decide to cleverly bid $1.

In any case, as the next contestant on “The Price is Right,” you have a part to play. And others are depending on you to play your part. Who knows? If you play your part well, you might even win a new car. The point is to play your part as a contestant on the show; after all, you’re no longer a member of the audience. You’ve been called to the stage…

In today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah, the Lord is setting the stage for the one he calls his servant. God is making the announcement for his servant to come to the stage. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,” God says in our reading from Isaiah. Here is “my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” the Lord says of his servant. What is it that sets the Lord’s servant apart? And what will this servant of the Lord do? “I [the Lord] have put my spirit upon [my servant]; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1 NRSV).

God has put his spirit upon his servant, so that his servant will bring forth righteousness and justice to the nations. According to Isaiah, the one for whom God is setting the stage, the one whom God calls his servant, has been given the spirit of the Lord, in order to bring forth righteousness and justice to the nations. In this way, God has set the stage for his servant.

However, this is no “setting the stage” for the next contestant on “The Price is Right.” There is no loud announcement to come on down; there is no jumping up and down, whooping and hollering, on the part of the person who was called; no shouting out your name and where you are from. There is none of that. Instead, according to the book of Isaiah, God tells us something different about his servant. “He will not cry or lift up his voice,” God tells us. He will not “make [his voice] heard in the street…” (Isaiah 42:2 NRSV)

The one for whom God is setting the stage is God’s servant, Jesus. And, according to today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus comes from an obscure backwater region called Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan. Jesus comes to the stage God has set for him, not to perform a baptism, but to be baptized himself. John the baptizer is especially confused and taken aback about baptizing Jesus. “Wait a minute,” John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14 NRSV)…

It would be a little bit like Drew Carey, the normal host of “The Price of Right,” being called up from out of the audience to be the next contestant on the show, rather than hosting. “Who’s in charge here?” people would wonder. And John must have wondered the same about Jesus wanting to be baptized.

Nevertheless, the stage has been set. And Jesus, without crying or lifting up his voice or even performing a baptism himself, submits to John instead – and is baptized by John.

And then something happens. What we heard about God setting the stage for his servant back in Isaiah comes true. It comes true in Jesus’ baptism. Not as a master, but as a servant, Jesus submitted to John to be baptized him. Then, “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matthew 3:16 NRSV). In other words, here was God putting his spirit upon his servant; here is God doing for his servant what God said he would do, all the way back in Isaiah.

Prior to your baptism and mine, God has set the stage for you too. So when you are baptized, God puts his Spirit upon you – the same Spirit he put upon our servant, Jesus. God puts his Spirit upon you in your baptism as well. And you take the stage as God’s servant, following in the footsteps of our servant, Jesus.

We are no longer spectators or audience members sitting back and merely observing what God is doing. Rather because of our baptism, and because of the Holy Spirit that God has given us, we get to play our part as servants of God and followers of Jesus.

As Isaiah declares about God’s servant, Jesus, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4 NRSV). Not even in suffering and dying on a cross was Jesus crushed or defeated. For God raised his beloved son and servant from the dead, in order that he would continue, and one day fulfill, his reign of justice and righteousness.

So we, the baptized servants of God, the ones upon whom the Lord has put his Spirit, get to play our part as servants; servants who are led by God’s Spirit and empowered by God’s love to reach out to those needing light in the darkness; and needing encouragement to know they have a part to play, too - Amen.

Second Sunday after Christmas - January 5, 2020

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

Since I can remember, I’ve had this fascination with caves. It all started at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, which had a replica of a cave that you could walk through. I’d always want to skip all the other exhibits, which as far as I was concerned, for a kid of my age, required way too much reading. I hated reading back then. Instead, I wanted to get right to the cave exhibit, which didn’t require any reading. All you had to do was experience the cave: To look at the stalactites and soda straws hanging from the ceiling; the stalagmites poking upward from the ground; the smooth flowstones that were like frozen waterfalls; to feel the cool cave air; and to hear the echo of water trickling underground.

Years later, I went from walking through a replica of a cave in a museum to exploring a real live cave. Four hours south of where I grew up was Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the largest known cave system in the world. Amazingly, even today they continue to discover new passageways in Mammoth Cave. What I found absolutely fascinating about visiting the cave was that there’s this whole underground world existing in complete darkness.

And I couldn’t even imagine how dark the cave was until they actually shut off all the lights.

You know what I mean, if you’ve ever experienced it. I can still remember it vividly. I was standing there in this high ceilinged passageway, and the guide wanted us to have a moment in which we experienced the natural darkness of the cave. A few seconds later the lights went out, and I felt the darkness immediately pressing in on me. I mean, it was so dark it took my breath away. I felt my eyes straining to see, but everything was pitch black—so dark that my eyes began to hurt. Suddenly, in a brilliant flash that made me squint, the lights came on again. And the darkness immediately jumped back to the far recesses of the tunnel we had just passed through, which was now behind us. I shivered, for I had never experienced darkness quite like that before.

The Gospel of John, which we heard from today, talks a lot about light and about darkness, about seeing and about not seeing. John’s point is that just when we think we can see on our own, we’re most in the dark. Modern people, like us, especially like to think that we can see on our own, or at least get by on our own. However, as much as we might like to think that we can see on our own, it’s really more like we’re living in the darkness of a cave.

After all, we might think we know all about who God is, but we really don’t. Or we might think we know all about what true loveis, only to find out we really don’t.

We might think we know all about what we need for ourselves and what others need, but we really don’t. We might think we don’t need any help and can do everything for ourselves, or for someone else, only to find out we really can’t. We might think everyone else owes us everything we feel we deserve, when really, they don’t.

You see, it’s just when we think we know, and can do as well as see everything on our own, that we really can’t. For the truth is, we cannot see in the dark.

I once had a teacher in college who introduced me to reading the New Testament of the Bible in Greek, the original language in which it was written. My teacher had this sing-song voice that often made it hard to keep my eyes open in class. Though, I do recall one lecture during which he was particularly animated. We were looking at the beginning of the Gospel of John in Greek. The teacher was talking about John 1:5—“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” He became increasingly excited about the Greek word in that verse, which we translate as “overcome” in English. The Greek word there is “katelaben,” which is used elsewhere in ancient Greek literature to describe what happens in the sport of wrestling. It’s a wrestling term. John’s reference to wrestling was personal for my teacher, since he had wrestled in college. So he really got excited that the Gospel used what people in the ancient world would have heard as a wrestling term: “katelaben.”

What does the light do the darkness? “Katelaben,” he said.

So, then, what does “katelaben” mean? “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not “throw it down” (“katelaben”). The darkness could not finally throw down, and pin the light – that’s what “katelaben” means.

So the darkness that presses in on you, in which you strain your eyes to see to the point that your eyes only hurt and you still cannot see—that darkness will always jump back and out of the way when the lights come on. For, again, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not “throw it down” (“katelaben”).

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all wrestle with sin and darkness in our lives. And just because Jesus Christ, the light, has come to us, doesn’t mean that all the darkness simply goes away. Instead, the light of Christ continues to wrestle with us—pointing out just how dark our darkness is.

Still, Jesus Christ remains the light in our darkness.

And Jesus Christ is the only light by which we can truly see.

Just as those lights coming on again helped me to see the wonderful beauty of the cave…

For without the lights on, I wouldn’t have been able to see the stalactites and soda straws hanging from the ceiling. Without the lights on, I wouldn’t have been able to see the stalagmites rising up from the floor or the smooth flowstones that looked like frozen waterfalls. Without the lights on, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the world of the cave.

So it is with Jesus: Without Jesus, we wouldn’t really know who God is or what true love is.

After all, “no one has ever seen God.”

But Jesus reveals to us his Father’s own heart. Jesus helps us to see God’s heart for us.

We see that God would rather call us his children than have us live in darkness.

God would rather we be his children than remain sinners in the dark.

God would rather have the light of Jesus grow in us than have us grow apart from that light.

And, as if all that isn’t enough, God even promises us through his Son, Jesus, that the darkness will not finally overcome us.

To again use the wrestling reference, which would make my former teacher proud, God’s light in us—his children—will not in the end be thrown down, by any darkness - Amen.

Christmas Eve - December 24, 2019

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

How many of you were ever told to “count sheep” when you couldn’t get to sleep?

One, two, three four, five, and so on and so forth… until you got so tired of counting those imaginary sheep that you fell asleep.

I don’t remember it actually working for me – maybe it did for you. A really boring book tended to work better. I guess there’s just something about counting – not only sheep, but anything, really – that actually has the opposite effect on me. It actually keeps me awake rather than puts me to sleep.

Imagine the shepherds in tonight’ familiar, though no less amazing, Christmas story… They literally had to keep counting their sheep, again and again and again, on those hillsides outside Bethlehem. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8 NRSV), we’re told, after all.

As the shepherds kept watch over their flock of sheep, they had to keep counting them – again and again. The shepherds had better not fall asleep. Otherwise they would lose their sheep to some ravaging wolf. They had to keep counting, keeping watch, so that they didn’t lose even one of those sheep in their flock.

You can bet that “counting sheep” was the last thing that would have put those shepherds to sleep. Their livelihood depended on making sure all of the sheep were accounted for; that they reached the same number of sheep every time they counted them; that they didn’t lose even one sheep of their flock.

While you have the “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” in tonight’s story, you also have another count happening at the same time: a census. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. […] All went to their towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem… […] He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child” (Luke 2:1-5 NRSV).

You see, while the shepherds were counting their sheep, Emperor Augustus was counting everyone who occupied his empire, the Roman Empire. Mary and Joseph were among those who were being counted in this imperial census. And all of this counting on the part of Rome really came down to counting the taxpayers. The wealth and power of the empire depended on counting and then taxing everyone in the land.

What truly counted in the world into which Jesus was born was what you could count: sheep, people, and taxes. What truly counted was whatever you could count…

Maybe counting sheep or census populations aren’t what keep you up at night. Maybe it’s something else that you feel the need to keep counting, which makes you afraid and keeps you awake.

Perhaps you count the number of days someone you love has been sick and are beginning to worry with each passing day; or perhaps you count the number of friends that you have, and wish you could count more. Perhaps you count the amount of money that you owe, the debt that you have, and fear it is too much; or you count the amount in your bank accounts or your investments, or the amount of your salary, and fear that it is not enough.

Perhaps you impatiently count down the hours and the minutes of each day you are at your job; or you count the days of your vacation, or the amount of time until your next vacation. Perhaps you count the number of things you were able to check off your “to-do” list on any given day, and measure your success based on what you were able to accomplish. Or you count the number of things you were able to buy or get for Christmas; and that becomes the measure of whether or not it was a “good” Christmas.

We count anything from the amount of calories and exercise that we get, to the number of mistakes and regrets that we have in our own lives. And so much of the value of your life and mine depends on what we can measure and on what we can count.

We truly measure the value of our lives – the value of who we are – by counting.

What couldn’t be measured and accounted for, however, was what happened next to the “shepherds living in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified [or as I like in the old translation, sore afraid]” (Luke 2:9 NRSV)…

You see, at that moment none of the shepherds’ old fears could compare to the glory of the Lord that shone around them and made them tremble in terror. Their old fears of having to watch and count sheep – so they wouldn’t lose any of their flock – those fears were being overshadowed by the glory of the Lord.

And in the light of Lord’s glory on that dark hillside, the angel’s command to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid,” was followed by this great promise: “…for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10 NRSV).

This good news, it turns out, for the shepherds and for us, is greater and more powerful than any of our fears: the good news that “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11 NRSV).

Even the shepherds stopped counting their sheep. They simply had to “go [right then and there] to Bethlehem and see this thing that [had] taken place, which the Lord […] made known to [them]” (Luke 2:15 NRSV). “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16 NRSV)…

They stopped counting and keeping watch over their sheep; they left behind that old fear of losing their flock; and they went instead with haste to see the Christ child, the Savior, who had been born for them.

All of the things that we so desperately count in our lives – the things that we fear we either have too much or too little of, the things that we’re afraid of losing, or not having enough of – all of those fears, as powerful as they are in our own lives, don’t count as much for God.

This Christmas what actually counts the most for God, is you.

As Jesus, the child born for you in the manger, God has come to save you from everything that you are afraid of: all of the ways that you and I, on our own, try so desperately to make our lives count for something.

As Jesus, the child born for you in the manger, God has come to save you from having to be afraid. God has come to be your Savior instead.

The Christ child, born for you, also proves that as far has God is concerned, your life already counts. You don’t need to “measure up” to God, or to anyone, for that matter. For “to you is born […] in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Along with the shepherds, may you go now and trust that the Savior has been born, for you; which the Lord has made known to us - Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 22, 2019

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen

The word, “dismiss,” can have a number of different meanings. It can be defined in the following ways:

“Dismiss” can mean “to order or allow to leave; to send away,” as in you are dismissed, you may leave now. “Dismiss” can mean “to discharge from employment or office,” as in you are dismissed from your position or your job. “Dismiss” can mean “to treat as unworthy of serious consideration,” as in you dismiss people whom you think don’t know what they’re talking about – you don’t take what they’re saying seriously – you dismiss it. “Dismiss” can also mean that you simply stop thinking about something: you dismiss the thought. “Dismiss” finally can mean refusing to hear more of, as in a judge dismissing a case (Google Dictionary).

As you can see on the one hand, the meaning of the word “dismiss” can be pretty neutral (as in being dismissed at the end of a routine meeting at work, or dismissing the thought of what you were planning to have for dinner). On the other hand, the meaning of the word “dismiss” can be more negative (as in being discharged from employment or office – that is, unless you didn’t want to be there anymore; or, in another negative sense, being dismissed by your friends, as in not having them take you seriously – dismissing you – when you wanted to be honored and respected and taken seriously).

In today’s story about the birth of Jesus, told according to the Gospel of Matthew, the word “dismiss” shows up:

“When […] Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19 NRSV)…

Joseph planned to dismiss Mary quietly. He didn’t know where the child with whom Mary was pregnant had come from – it certainly hadn’t come from him. So Joseph resolved to dismiss her quietly rather than to publicly disgrace her and charge her with the sin of adultery, for which she could have been put to death by having stones thrown at her. And, I would add that Joseph planned to dismiss Mary quietly, so that he wouldn’t fall into public disgrace either. After all, there’ something in it for Joseph too – he doesn’t want the public scrutiny and shame of having been engaged to a woman who had been unfaithful.

So to quietly dismiss Mary – to break the engagement quietly – might have seemed like the best possible course of action. Little did Joseph know, however, that his plan to dismiss Mary was not at all part of God’s plan.

How often are we inclined to dismiss ourselves and to dismiss others – the very people whom God has given us in order to love and be loved?

We live in a generally dismissive world, a world where we can so easily dismiss our own importance to other people. Or we end up dismissing their importance to us. Things so easily can come between us and drive us apart, within our families, in our schools and places of work; in our marriages and our friendships.

Our religious and political views, our mistakes, our imperfections, and flaws divide us from each other; we label and dismiss people that we hardly even know. We even find ways of dismissing the people who are closest to us, and they dismiss us. When our families, spouses, coworkers, and friends don’t meet our expectations; when they don’t turn out to be the people we want them to be, how easy it is to simply dismiss them. They do the same to us, after all.

We all desire to dismiss and then distance ourselves from so many people. And like Joseph, we might not for a moment consider that God has placed us in each other’s lives on purpose, and not to simply dismiss each other. To not dismiss each other, even when we’ve done something wrong and messed up; or others have wronged us in some way. To not dismiss each other – for we oftentimes can’t grasp the bigger picture – and the role that God would still have us play together in God’s bigger story.

This week my family and I are heartbroken. We found out our family dog, Max, had lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes. And we made the difficult decision to put Max down yesterday, so he would be at peace and not have to suffer. Max was a Golden-doodle rescue that we got to enjoy for almost seven years. He had pneumonia early on in his life. We treated the pneumonia at our last vet with a powerful steroid that we were warned might shorten his life. The steroid saved his life; he enjoyed an overall happy and healthy nearly seven years with us; but we weren’t prepared for the cancer, and for Max’s end to come so soon, this soon.

As I was coming to terms with Max having cancer, and then preparing for his death, I found myself wanting to be alone and not wanting to talk about it. I could be dismissive of others and distant. Some of that is understandable; it’s how I grieve.

But like Joseph who was told by God not to dismiss Mary, I’m finding that the greatest comfort and strength as I grieve over a silly dog comes by not dismissing others. Sharing my sadness, talking about it with others, and allowing them to help bear the burden of my grief is truly what I need; not dismissing or distancing myself from them.

I’m not alone in this, I’m discovering. Anyone who has lost a person, or even a pet that you love, know it can help to have people listen to you and show that they care.

And when others have done that for you, you can do that for others in their grief: listen and show that you care. It’s truly the opposite of dismissing and distancing ourselves from each other.

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21 NRSV).

Praise God that Joseph didn’t dismiss Mary quietly, as he wanted to do, but did exactly what the angel of the Lord asked him to do: to take Mary as his wife.

And praise God that we don’t have to dismiss and distance ourselves from the people in our lives God has given us to love; the people who, by the grace of God, also love us back - Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent - December 8, 2019 (Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ - Amen

During my first year living in Minnesota, I was surprised to see so many Lutheran churches in one place. In the city of Minneapolis where I lived, there were two Lutheran churches within three blocks of each other. I had people describe to me how in certain small towns there could be multiple Lutheran churches, and two of them might even be across the street from each other. But I had never seen such a thing myself until that first year I lived in Minneapolis. While growing up in Ohio, I recall Lutheran churches being fewer and farther between, after all.

In my south Minneapolis neighborhood, the two Lutheran congregations within three blocks of each other had different backgrounds, of course. Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, located on the corner of 24th Street and Chicago Avenue, had been Norwegian. And Messiah Lutheran Church, located on the corner of 25th Street and Columbus Avenue, had been Swedish. Leave it to the Norwegians and the Swedes; I can say that since I am part Norwegian.

In any case, these two Lutheran congregations in south Minneapolis had different ancestries: one Swedish, the other Norwegian. Messiah Lutheran could trace its ancestry back to the Augustana Synod of the Lutheran church, which was Swedish. And Our Saviour’s Lutheran could trace its ancestry back to the Norwegian branch of the American Lutheran Church.

The Norwegian and Swedish cultural heritage was still important to these congregations. And the ethnic identity and the traditions, for some of the members, were still an important part of their Lutheran identity. It was a little bit like walking into a scene from Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” about the Lutherans in Lake Woebegone, Minnesota. But as he intended to do in the stories that he told, Garrison Keillor exaggerated when it comes to just how “Lutheran” Lutherans in Minnesota are.

Nevertheless, a church’s cultural heritage is important for each generation to remember, so that we realize – as a church – where we came from, who our ancestors were, and what traditions they wanted to share with each generation. Every couple of years at Augustana Lutheran Church in West St. Paul, MN, where I did my year-long pastoral internship, they had what’s called Elva Kaffe, which is Swedish for eleven o’clock coffee. Elva Kaffe was a huge Scandinavian heritage festival held at the church, celebrating Swedish Christmas traditions – from homemade ornaments to Swedish egg coffee and desserts to Swedish folk music, dance, and Christmas carols.

The Elva Kaffe heritage festival at Christmastime was a powerful reminder of where the congregation had come from, out of the Augustana Swedish tradition; and people, including myself, had a wonderful opportunity to experience the traditions of our ancestors. Think Christkindlmarket; what Christkindlmarket is for Germans, Elva Kaffe is for Swedes.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder, after today’s Gospel, how the prophet John the Baptist would have reacted to something like Christkindlmarket or Elva Kaffe – or anything having to do with celebrating a church’s cultural heritage or ancestry.

The words of John the Baptist that stand out for me this morning are those he addresses to the religious officials, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who want to be baptized. John tells these leaders and officials: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9 NRSV).

Again, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’” John warns the leaders who were coming for baptism. In other words, do not think you are worthy of baptism simply because you have ancestors who were faithful to God. Do not think you are worthy of Jesus, the coming Messiah, simply because you come from a family that believes in God. Do not for a moment think that the faith of your ancestors can be a substitute for your own faith, John seems to be saying.

John the baptizer is warning us here that no ancestor of ours or holy person in our lives makes us worthy of Jesus. No human being can believe for us or make us worthy of Christ. We can’t make ourselves or anyone we know worthy of Jesus, the coming Messiah, either.

No, only God, through the power of his Holy Spirit, can make us worthy of the Messiah, worthy of Jesus coming to us this Advent. Only by the Holy Spirit, can we become like trees that produce good fruit in our lives. As important as our ethnic background and cultural heritage may be, the traditions of our ancestors were never meant to take the place of God the Holy Spirit, who wants to turn us around in repentance, and bring each and every one of us back into relationship with God.

So having turned to God in repentance – having turned back to God who forgives us and accepts us – we can let God produce good fruit in our lives, just as a good tree bears good fruit.

According to John the baptizer, then, our baptism into the church of Jesus Christ is never something we are entitled to. Our baptism is never to be taken for granted. We are not followers of Jesus Christ simply because our families believe for us or because our ancestors happened to be faithful followers of Christ.

Rather, our baptism is a pure gift given by Jesus Christ, to each of us. And God the Holy Spirit has come to each of us in our baptism, turning our hearts of stone into hearts that live for God alone; giving us new hearts that grow toward loving and trusting God above all else; hearts that also willingly and freely serve others.

Rather than remain like stones, we become like trees that produce good fruit for the sake of loving God and serving our neighbors. This is what John the baptizer wants for us this Advent: to go from being a lifeless stone to becoming living, fruit-producing trees. This transformation from being a stone to becoming a fruit-bearing tree is what God intends to accomplish in your life and mine. For “God is able from these stones [out here in the wilderness] to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9 NRSV), John tells the crowds in today’s Gospel. And in fact, we are the stones that God has raised up so that we are no longer stones but God’s children instead.

Every year on the second Sunday of Advent, John the baptizer won’t let us forget: that on our own, we are not worthy of having Jesus come to us. On our own, we are not worthy of the Christ who is coming this Advent. It doesn’t matter where we come from, who our ancestors are, or how faithful our families have been.

Even our ancestry, our ethnic background and cultural heritage, whatever that may be, doesn’t make us worthy of having Jesus come to us. After all, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor…’” John warns us.

Still, let us also not forget what God is able to do for us: “…for I tell you, [John says,] God is able from these stones [out here in the wilderness] to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9 NRSV) – which is just another way of saying what God has done for us in our baptism through the Holy Spirit.

For you see, we are no longer lifeless stones.

God has raised us up to be his children, worthy of Jesus’ coming, bearing fruit for all- Amen.

Christ the King Sunday- November 24, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 23:33-43 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

In the popular reality show, Undercover Boss, which ran for nine seasons, CEOs went “undercover” to work on the frontlines of their companies. The CEO applied, interviewed, and accepted positions alongside the employees who didn’t know that the new hire was actually the CEO of the company.

The first episode, airing just after the Super Bowl in 2010 and drawing a record number of viewers, showed the CEO of Waste Management Inc. During each episode, hidden cameras captured the interactions between the undercover boss and his or her employees. It was always humbling – as you can imagine – for the boss to struggle to learn and perform the work that made the company what it was, much of which the CEO had been far removed from – whether that meant cleaning toilets, collecting trash, waiting and clearing tables, operating forklifts, or flipping burgers. The undercover boss was not above any of it.

In fact, the CEOs were no longer the boss. They had supervisors who trained them, told them what to do, and evaluated their performance. And sometimes the supervisors and fellow employees would get frustrated at the undercover boss’s lack of competence. You’d even catch the CEOs getting discouraged and frustrated at themselves. When nobody else was around, you’d overhear the undercover bosses say they couldn’t believe how hard or exhausting or unappreciated the work was. In each episode the boss would have a change of heart.

They’d develop more compassion toward the workers themselves, and see them as people whom the boss valued, respected, and depended on.

The moment of truth always came at the end of the episode when the CEOs blew their cover. The bosses invited into their office the employees with whom they had worked undercover. The employees were, of course, shocked to discover they had been working with the CEO of the company. They felt embarrassed and maybe even afraid in the case that they had told the CEO he or she was doing a lousy job. They might even worry whether or not they’d keep their job based on how they treated the CEO, without realizing who it was.

The powerful title and position of the CEO, who sat across the desk from them, understandably stirred up fear in the employees. Nevertheless, as the boss started speaking, the employees relaxed and took a deep breath. Some even cried. All in all, the employees were relieved and happy and encouraged to hear their boss express appreciation for them and the work that they do. They were grateful to receive a bonus or a better wage as a reward for their dedication and hard work. They were humbled by their boss’s willingness to go undercover and attempt to learn and do the work that they do, day in and day out. Overall, the encounter with their boss, who was no longer “undercover,” gave the employees value for what they do, which so often goes unappreciated.

In a way, on this “Christ the King” Sunday, Jesus is an undercover king. Above him on the cross is the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Anyone truly deserving of the title, “King of the Jews,” should not be suffering and dying upon a cross. As far as the people were concerned, no one worthy of the title, “King,” should have ended up on a cross in the first place. Kings led armies, gave orders, sat on thrones, and exerted power; they didn’t die on a cross between two criminals.

The people, therefore, refused to bestow on Jesus the title of “King.” They refused to treat him as such. They left the inscription on the cross with the title, “King of the Jews,” to mock him instead. They interviewed him for the position as he was hanging there, while assuring themselves at the same time that he would never get the job: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37 NRSV). They declared, “He saved others…” and then commanded that he “save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen!” (Luke 23:35 NRSV). Even one of the criminals hanging on a cross next to Jesus joined in the mock interview and asked him: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 NRSV).

Like the crowd gathered around the cross in today’s Gospel, we have our own ideas about people who should or shouldn’t have titles – people who should or shouldn’t hold positions of power. If they promise us the power and the control that we crave, then they’re fit to be our king.

On the other hand, if they’re the kind of leader who tells us that we don’t know what we’re doing, and that we need to be forgiven, we’re not going to want them to be our king. If our king can’t prove that he or she is powerful enough to save themselves and save us, then we’re going to write them off.

After all, we want the kind of king or leader that gives us more power rather than less power. We want people in power who can prove themselves powerful by giving us more power. That’s what we want. And that’s what the crowd gathered around Jesus was not getting from him: the power that they wanted.

But God had gone undercover in the person of Jesus. God had gone undercover in the person of Jesus – as Christ the King. God had gone undercover in order to set his people free, without them even knowing it – to set them free from the power of sin, death, and evil which had taken possession of them – the power of sin, death, and evil which possessed them to reject and crucify Jesus in the first place.

God had gone undercover to set us free from that same power which we desire, that same power which possesses us; that power of sin, death, and evil by which we let our undercover King be crucified, rather than worshiping him…

According to today’s Gospel, however, there was one person who stood apart from the crowd. There was one who did not question or mock the inscription that was written above Jesus on the cross, with the title: “The King of the Jews.” There was one who didn’t doubt the power of Jesus even as he was being crucified. It was that other criminal.

The other criminal knew that compared to Jesus, he was the criminal, not Jesus. And the thing this other criminal knew he needed most was not for Jesus to prove himself or to make him powerful. No, the thing this criminal knew he needed the most was for Jesus to remember him.

That was his prayer, after all, for Jesus to remember him. It was a prayer of faith, really; a prayer by which the criminal placed his hope and trust in the future he would share with Jesus, his King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the criminal prayed (Luke 23: 42 NRSV).

And in exchange for the power of sin, death, and evil that was crushing this criminal upon the cross next to Jesus – in exchange for all of that – Jesus gives him the promise of Paradise instead.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NRSV): This is our Lord’s promise for you and me and all who suffer the power of sin, death, and evil.

This is also the point at which the King blows his cover.

No longer undercover, he reveals himself to be Christ, our King- Amen.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost- November 17, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 21:5-19 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit- Amen

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:5-6 NRSV). So begins today’s Gospel…

When I was young, I used to love building cities out of cups and blocks in my basement. I’d pretend to build the Chicago skyline. When my family and I drove all the way from Ohio to visit my uncle in the city of Chicago, it always left such a big impression on me. I couldn’t take my eyes off all the big buildings. I even learned some of the actual names of the buildings, and I tried to recreate the skyline in my basement when I got home. I built the buildings out of those stackable cups as well as blocks and Lego’s. I was proud of how tall I could build some of the buildings without them falling over.

Eventually, however, the buildings I built had to come down. The buildings were taking up too much space in the basement, after all. We were having our extended family over, and the cousins needed room downstairs to run and play. They would inevitably knock it all down anyway. So I had to take down the towers of cups and blocks, ahead of time, before my cousins arrived. I had to take apart the Lego’s. I had to put them all away and clean up everything. After demolishing the buildings I missed going downstairs, turning the corner, and seeing the skyline of the city I had built, which was no longer there.

When it comes to our own kids, Jula and I have noticed that Robby is into construction while Natalie is into demolition. Robby builds and Natalie knocks down. They’re quite the team, except, however, when Natalie demolishes what Robby is trying to build. When the two of them can’t agree on what to build and what to knock down, that becomes a problem, as you can imagine. In any case, as Natalie reaches the age Robby is now – and probably before – she will become more interested in putting things together, making things, building and creating rather than demolishing and destroying.

We all want to build something. We all want to make something out of our lives, no matter how old we get. We all want to build our lives in such a way that they have meaning and significance for us.

According to today’s Gospel, the magnificent temple building in Jerusalem was significant to the faith of the people in Jesus’ day. The people could look at the temple and be assured that God dwelled there. The temple, as the place they worshiped God, gave the people confidence – confidence that their faith had meaning and significance, confidence that God would continue to bless them. The temple, after all, had been dedicated to God. And God, in his faithfulness, would remain dedicated to his people as they continued to worship him in the temple.

So it makes perfect sense that today’s Gospel reading according to Luke begins: “…some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God…” (Luke 21:5 NRSV). When you looked at the magnificence of the temple in Jesus’ day, you couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of it. You couldn’t help but see the temple as holy – as dedicated and set apart for God.

What would happen if the people ever lost such a beautiful and holy place as the temple of their God? It was unthinkable, unimaginable even. Jesus, however, says the unthinkable when he responds to the people who couldn’t imagine their lives and their faith in God without the temple. “As for these things that you see, [Jesus says,] the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6 NRSV).

Sixty short years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the temple would be destroyed. The Romans would destroy it. The enemies of God’s people would do the unthinkable; they would bring the temple of God to the ground. And with the destruction of the temple, which the people had built and dedicated to God; with the destruction of the temple of God, the people wondered hopelessly if they could ever build anything with God ever again. Would their life with God have any meaning and significance ever again, without the temple?

When we try to build our lives in a significant way, we seek God’s blessing upon all that we do. And we like to think that we are dedicating all of our efforts to God. All of our efforts to provide for ourselves and our families; all of our efforts to advance in our careers and to succeed in school; all of our efforts to get everything done on our increasingly longer and longer “to do” lists; we like to think that we can be doing it all for God; that God will give us his blessing for all of our hard work and all of our efforts.

But despite our best efforts, things happen, don’t they? Things happen that stop us short; things happen that interrupt our plans, that don’t make sense to us, that aren’t part of the plan, that are beyond our control even. We may dedicate our lives to God, but we still experience sickness and the death of our loved ones. We may dedicate our lives to God, but we still lose our job or struggle to make ends meet or can’t get along with members of our family. We may dedicate our lives to God, but we still never reach those educational and professional goals that we had set for ourselves all those years ago. All of this can and does happen to us and to those who know and love and care about.

When the temple building was destroyed, that which was dedicated to God was nevertheless brought to the ground. And it’s not only the temple Jesus is talking about. The whole world is shaken with wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues, as it continues to be to this day.

Despite dedicating the temple and our lives to God, our world remains destructive. Even Jesus suffered and died on a cross because our world didn’t want to build his Father’s kingdom. But unlike a building adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, a building that can still topple to the ground – unlike that – Jesus himself is raised from the dead and becomes for us the eternal temple of our God, never to be destroyed.

This Jesus, risen and alive, has a word of promise for us today – a promise that remains with us forever. His promise is still ours today, even as everything around us seems to be falling. Unlike a building dedicated to God, his promise to you and me cannot be destroyed.

“You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish,” our Lord promises (Luke 21:17 NRSV).

As far as our Lord is concerned, with him, we will never perish; we will never be lost to Jesus who knows the number of hairs on each of our heads. He is the one who gives our lives meaning and significance, even when our efforts to build our own lives – and make something out of them – doesn’t work out.

Jesus is the key to the meaning and significance of your life and mine. With Jesus, “not a hair of your head will perish.” That is his promise to you and to me, which can never be destroyed or taken from us.

It’s this promise that we rejoice over, the promise that God has given Ava today in her baptism: “Ava, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

It’s God’s promise to all of you, children of God, in your baptism; it’s the promise by which God dedicates himself to you and to me, come what may; a promise that we can finally build our lives on - Amen.

22nd Sunday after Pentecost- November 10, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 20:27-38 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit- Amen

The question that Jesus gets asked in today’s Gospel is a little bit like an ancient version of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”

A high-ranking group within Judaism, a group known as the Sadducees, asks Jesus the question, and right at the beginning of today’s Gospel we find out an important detail about this particular religious group. “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question…” (Luke 20: 27-28 NRSV). You see, we learn right away how the Sadducees are approaching Jesus. They already have their minds made up that there is no such thing as resurrection – that is, being raised from the dead, life after death. They’re already convinced that their ancestors in the faith – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – who lived many, many years before them and died a long time ago, are still dead.

There is no resurrection, the Sadducees believe. So their ancestors in the faith are still dead. Their long-dead ancestors will never live again; God will not raise them from the dead, or so the Sadducees believe. And when they, the Sadducees eventually die and go to the place of the dead known as Sheol, they will also remain there forever, dead.

So when the Sadducees approach Jesus with their complicated question in today’s Gospel, reminiscent of the twists turns in Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” they’re attempting to trap Jesus into saying something about the resurrection. Their intent is to trap Jesus into admitting that the resurrection is a ridiculous notion and therefore impossible to believe in.

Leading up to their question, the Sadducees offer Jesus this complicated scenario. According to the Law of Moses, they say a woman whose husband died without any children was permitted to marry her husband’s brother. That way she would not remain a widow without a husband and children to help take care of her.

Widows without children were among the most vulnerable of all in Jesus’ day, after all. The family itself, spouses and children, was the only form of social security, the only safety net that women had, in order to be taken care of. The brother of the deceased husband would fulfill the role of husband when the deceased husband obviously could no longer. And the hope, of course in those days, was that the former widow would have and raise children with her new husband, in order that the family name of the deceased might continue. Did you follow all of that?

Well, the Sadducees complicate the matter further when they ask Jesus to imagine this situation happening to the same woman six more times. After her first husband dies childless, she remarries one of her husband’s six brothers. But then he dies before they have any children of their own. And this continues – the woman is widowed and remarried six times – all the while without any children. She is unable to have children with any of the husbands. They all die, one at a time, while married to her. And then one day she herself dies. Are you still following? This situation sounds like something out of a play by William Shakespeare.

In any case, all of this is leading up to the question that some of the Sadducees have for Jesus. “In the resurrection,” they ask Jesus, “whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her” (Luke 20:33 NRSV). This is not an innocent question. In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?

For the Sadducees, the resurrection was not possible since it could not answer what they considered a logical question. If this woman and all seven of her husbands are alive again in the resurrection, whose wife would she be? They thought they had trapped Jesus into having to answer a question to which they believed there was no logical answer.

Jesus, however, does dare to say there is resurrection, even in spite of the trap set by the Sadducees. He doesn’t reduce the resurrection to a problem of logic. In fact, the only reason Jesus dares to say there is resurrection – people being raised from the dead, life after death – is because the resurrection doesn’t fit according to the ways of our world. The resurrection doesn’t fit with the way that we understand things.

Rather, according to Jesus, the resurrection is something altogether new and beyond our understanding. The resurrection changes all of our relationships – with God and with one another. The resurrection means we fully belong to God.

At our own resurrection, no longer will we see ourselves as the ones in charge, the ones striving for control, the ones at the center of our own lives. Instead, when we are raised from the dead, we will see God as he is. We will see God at the center of our lives. We will see ourselves as fully belonging to God. We will see God at the center of everything and as ruling over it all. We will see God as even ruling over the power of death, which is what the resurrection is all about.

This is too much for us to grasp on our own, like it was for the Sadducees. We tend to rely on our own understanding of what God can and cannot do. Like the Sadducees, we’d like to believe that God is capable of being as clever as we are. We’d like for God to simply respect and uphold our laws and our way of life. Like the Sadducees, we’d like God to agree with us, to share our opinions if we’re sincere enough, or to honor our views if our arguments are convincing enough.

But heaven forbid God change us or do anything “out of the box,” or so completely and altogether new as raise the dead – as raise us from the dead. If that’s true – if God raises the dead, raises us – then for sure we’re not the ones who are in charge and in control and at the center of everything. For then God would be, as One who raises the dead.

And God is, according to his promise to you and me in today’s Gospel. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ – our God – is a God of the living, not of the dead. Even as important as marriage is, Jesus teaches that in the resurrection, the age to come, the people who have been raised from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35 NRSV). In the age of resurrection – raised from the dead, life after death – marriage is no longer a primary relationship. Instead, our primary and most important relationship is as children of God, “Children of Our Heavenly Father,” as is the title of one of our most beloved hymns.

As children of God and children of the resurrection, as those who have been raised from death, which would have otherwise separated us from God, we no longer have to convince God that we understand him and his ways. “My ways are not your ways,” he has already told us elsewhere in the book of the prophet Isaiah.

And yet, even though God’s ways are not our ways, God’s Son Jesus promises us that his heavenly Father wants to be our Father too. God, Jesus tells us, wants us alive rather than dead; he wants to raise you from the dead rather than lose you; he wants to do a completely and altogether new thing for you called resurrection.

Thankfully, as with the Sadducees, he’s not going to wait for you and me to understand before he does it - Amen.

All Saints Sunday- November 3, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 6:20-31 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit- Amen

“What’s the good word?” is a kind of greeting and a way of asking someone, “How are you?” The question anticipates you having a “good word,” something good to share about what’s going on in your life.

Most, if not all of the time, when asked, “How are you?” we’ll say things like, “I’m good. Or I’m fine. Or I’m doing well.” And the truth is, even when we aren’t good or fine or doing well, we’ll oftentimes say that we are. “What’s the good word?” however goes so far to ask us what’s good in our lives. It comes from the word, eulogy, which literally means “good word.”

On this “All Saints Sunday,” we remember the saints in our lives, those about whom we have many “good words” to say. The eulogy spoken during a funeral, after all, is that “good word” about a loved one who has died. Again, that word, eulogy, is literally translated “good word.”

What’s the good word from Jesus in today’s Gospel on this “All Saints Sunday”?

Well, we might be surprised by Jesus’ word for us today. “What’s the good word?” Well, there’s blessing and there’s woe in the sermon Jesus gives in today’s Gospel. There’s both good and bad. There’s both the promise of blessing and the warning of woe – the warning of suffering and hardship – in the words that Jesus addresses to his followers today. What he has to say is not “all good” for his hearers.

When we ask ourselves, or others ask us, “What’s the good word?” we think about what makes our life good. We think about what makes us good. Well, our achievements, our accomplishments, our successes; aren’t those the things we’re told that make our lives good, make us good? Outward measures like how much money we have? How close we are to owning the house of our dreams, or to living the life of our dreams? Or what we have to do in order to get other people to love us and accept us, to make them happy with us, so that we can be happy ourselves? Finally, how we can make ourselves happier than we are right now?

We search – in our jobs, in our school, in our money and material possessions, in our relationships, in our accomplishments – we search for the answer in all of these places to make us happy, to make us feel good, to provide that “good word” about ourselves that we can tell ourselves and others.

However, in the sermon that Jesus preaches today, he warns us that happiness is not to be found solely in any of these places– not in the abundance of possessions, not in having our refrigerator packed full to the brim, not in having to smile and laugh all the time, not in having other people constantly speak well of us.

In fact, the shocking thing Jesus does is warn us – warn us that the things we desire more of (more money, more of an abundance of possessions, more pleasure, more laughter, more people speaking well of us more of the time) can actually frustrate and disappoint us. Our search for happiness, apart from God, can actually end in hardship, in suffering, in woe.

As Jesus reminds us: “…woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:24-26 NRSV).

In other words, we can end up searching, in all of these ways, for blessing and happiness apart from God. But we end up with grief, with disappointment, with woe instead.

We can so easily forget that, finally, it’s God who gives the blessing. It’s God who gives the good word we long to hear. It’s not our wealth, our accomplishments, or even the people we depend on to speak well of us and say good things about us – because they don’t always do. Rather, it’s God who gives us his blessing, the good word we long to hear, through his Son, Jesus…

The “good word” we desire about ourselves – the blessing that we long to hear – comes from God through his Son, Jesus…

Now, here’s the thing that’s significantly different about the good word that God has for us: God’s good word – spoken to us by Jesus – doesn’t depend on how good we are. God’s good word, spoken to us by Jesus, doesn’t depend on how well we are doing for ourselves – on our achievements, our accomplishment, our success – on how much we have. For God’s blessing comes as a promise to those who’ve got nothing to show for themselves. According to Jesus, God’s good word is for those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who are weeping, and those who are hated and excluded on account of Jesus.

“Blessed are you who are poor”; “Blessed are you who are hungry now”; “Blessed are you who weep now”; “Blessed are you who weep now”; “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you on account of me…” Jesus says (Luke 6:20-22 NRSV).

You see, God’s good word, God’s good word spoken by Jesus, promises – even to those who are poor, hungry, sad, hated, and excluded – that God will not withhold his blessing from them.

For the kingdom of God belongs even to those who are poor; the hungry will be filled; those who weep will laugh; and the hated and excluded will receive their heavenly reward (Luke 6:20-23 NRSV). God’s good word blesses those who have nothing good to say about themselves, nothing good to show for themselves.

This goes for you and me as well.

Precisely in those moment when we have failed – failed in our goals and our dreams, failed in our relationships, failed in our efforts to be happy and spoken well of by others – Jesus speaks his heavenly Father’s good word to us. Jesus blesses us with a promise that despite our own failures, we belong to the kingdom of God; despite our own hunger, God will fill us with good things; despite our own tears and our weeping, God will once again give us laughter and joy; despite others’ hatred of us, and our hatred of ourselves, God will bless us with his own heavenly love, a love beyond any we could ever imagine.

All of this, Jesus promises you and me, though we have nothing nearly as good to show for ourselves, nothing nearly as good to say about ourselves.

Perhaps, today, the saints for us are those whose lives, in some way, show us the goodness of God. Perhaps the saints are the people we know and remember who helped point us to a God who does indeed have a good word for us. Rather than point to their own success and accomplishments, the saints claimed the blessing of God who promised to love them, even when their lives were far from perfect.

“What’s the good word?”

Well, when I don’t have anything good to show for myself, or anything good to say about myself, God does.

And the people you and I consider saints help remind us of the good word that God has for all of us - Amen.

Reformation Sunday- October 27, 2019 (Scripture: Psalm 46; John 8:31-36 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

In Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel, Gilead, a Congregational minister named John Ames reflects on his life as he nears death. He writes down those reflections in a series of letters addressed to his son. In one of those letters written to his son, which I will read to you now, the minister, John Ames, recalls an experience he had with his father.

The minister’s letter begins: “I remember once when I was a young child my father helped to pull down a church that had burned. Lightning struck the steeple, and then the steeple fell into the building. It rained the day we came to pull it down. The pulpit was left intact, standing there in the rain, but the pews were mostly kindling. There was a lot of praising the Lord that it had happened at midnight on a Tuesday. It was a warm day, a warm rain, and there was no real shelter, so everybody ignored it, more or less. All kinds of people came to help. It was like a camp meeting and a picnic. They unhitched the horses, and we younger children lay on an old quilt under the wagon out of the way and talked and played marbles, and watched the older boys and men clamber over the ruins, searching out Bibles and hymnals. They would sing, we would sing, ‘Blessed Jesus’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ and the wind would blow the rain in gusts and the spray would reach us where we were. It was cooler than the rain was. The rain falling on the wagon bed sounded the way it does in an attic eave. It never rains, but I remember that day. And when they had gathered up all the books that were ruined, they made two graves for them, and put the Bibles in one and the hymnals in the other, and then the minister whose church it was – a Baptist, as I recall – said a prayer over them. I was always amazed, watching grownups, at the way they seemed to know what was to be done in any situation, to know what was the decent thing.

“The women put the pies and cakes they had brought and the books that could still be used into our wagon and then covered the bed with planks and tarps and lap robes. The food was all pretty damp. No one seems to have thought there might be rain. And harvest was coming, so they’d have been too busy to come back again for a good while. They put that pulpit under a tree and covered it with a horse blanket, and they salvaged whatever they could, which amounted mainly to shingles and nails, and then they pulled down everything that was still standing, to make a bonfire when it all dried out. The ashes turned liquid in the rain and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one from another. My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. ‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing cleaner than ash.’ But it affected the taste of that biscuit…” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, pp. 94-95)

The minister concludes: “…I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. […] It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, pp. 95-96).

On this Reformation Sunday – as we once again observe the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – we read together the words of Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns” (Psalm 46 NRSV).

Those are also the words from which the great church reformer, Martin Luther, drew inspiration to write his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which we also sang together.

According to the Psalm, and according to Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress”, and according to the story I shared that included people singing hymns amid the ruins of a church that had burned to the ground – through all of it – God is and God remains our present help in trouble. “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts,” the Psalms says. And yet the promise remains: “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge,” says the Psalm.

I am both haunted and inspired by the story of that congregation whose building had burned to the ground. After lightning struck the steeple on a Tuesday at midnight, the steeple fell into the building, and the church caught fire, the people of that church lost so much. They buried the Bibles and the hymnals that were ruined. They prayed over the books that they buried. They recovered the pulpit from the pile of ashes, and covered it up to protect it from the rain. They did the same with the Bibles and hymnals that hadn’t been ruined. And through it all – burying or preparing to burn what they couldn’t save, or retrieving what they could – through it all, they sang. The minister John Ames recalls the people singing hymns like “Blessed Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross”, “with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers”: remarkable.

Evidently, the people hadn’t lost everything. They still had God, their “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

The church’s pulpit, from which God’s Word is read and proclaimed, survived the fire; a reminder that God’s Word will remain with them, and with us, always…

We all have our own losses and our own grief. Every time there’s a change in our lives, we lose something, don’t we? We lose something big, small, or in between, whenever there’s any sort of change. We may gain something – a friend, a promotion at work, healing from an illness – only to lose something else at the same time: the death of a loved one, the consequences of a bad decision, or the loss of trust in someone we thought was trustworthy. Even our trust in God can falter and fade as the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; the earth melts and changes and the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; its waters roar and foam, the mountains tremble with its tumult.

A loss of any kind can change our whole world. But no matter what we lose – and it’s hard to imagine a loss anything like the congregation experienced in the story I shared with you – no matter what we lose, we never lose everything.

We never lose God who through his Son, Jesus, promises you a place in his household forever (John 8:35 NRSV).

We never lose God who remains “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

We never lose communion with our Lord and his church, as the minister John Ames discovered when his father fed him that biscuit, his hand dirtied by the ashes from the burned-down church, while the people of God sang on - Amen.

19th Sunday after Pentecost - October 20, 2019 (Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

One of the things we are especially conscious of – when we are the guests in somebody else’s home – is whether or not we are overstaying our welcome…

It all depends of course on how well the visit is going. If the visit is going poorly, it won’t take as long to “overstay” our welcome. That’s assuming we were welcome in the first place. On the other hand, if the time with our hosts is going well, then the point at which we’ve overstayed our welcome is going to take a lot longer to reach.

In any case, we are trained to not overstay. After the dinner and dessert dishes have been cleared, we may sneak a glance at our phone or take a look at our watch to see what time it is. We may accept our host’s offer to make coffee for us, or to move into the living room and continue the conversation. Eventually, though, there reaches a point at which the conversation pauses and starts to fade – or our hosts shift in their seats – a point when it’s customary for the guests to say, “Well, we better leave you to get on with the rest of your evening. Thanks so much for having us.” Or something to that effect…

As guests, after all, we don’t want to overstay our welcome…

It’s funny, however, to watch other people overstaying their welcome, like what you see in comedies on TV. A lot of shows seem to have at least that one character that is missing all the social graces.

There’s that one character who invites himself or herself over and makes themselves at home, even when they are not welcome. They overstay their welcome, even when they were not welcome in the first place.

I’m thinking of Steve Urkel, the annoying, laughable but somehow endearing nerd in the TV show, “Family Matters,” from a while back. Urkel is never welcome at the Winslow’s house, but that doesn’t stop him. In each episode of the show, Urkel comes barging in through the Winslow’s front door – as though he lives there. He’s greeted with an eye roll, a shake of the head, or the request to go home, Steve.

Urkel, however, keeps showing up. Carl and Harriet are like the parents he never had; their daughter, Laura, is his crush; and her older brother, Eddie, he imagines is his cool older brother. Occasionally, there are even touching moments between Steve and the Winslow family, when they are endeared to him. But those moments don’t last. Eventually, Steve goes back to making himself at home in the Winslow’s lives, overstaying his welcome – if he was ever welcome to begin with – and the show continues this way, episode after episode.

There’s a lot of comedy that plays with scenarios of guests awkwardly making themselves at home when it’s not their home, or of guests overstaying their welcome. Just think of Ray’s parents in the show, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Or for another classic example, think of Cousin Eddy who comes to visit the Griswold family in “Christmas Vacation”…

It’s funny to watch what happens when other people try to make themselves at home, or overstay their welcome; but it’s a different matter if we happen to be the guests ourselves.

According to the story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, the widow wasn’t welcome to begin with. She had an opponent, we’re told; someone who had treated her unfairly. We don’t know the specifics of the case – the details of what had happened between the widow and her opponent. Nevertheless, we do know that this widow has gone to a judge to plead her case. “Grant me justice against my opponent” (Luke 18:3 NRSV) the widow requests of the judge.

We know something about this judge, however, that doesn’t look good for the widow. He is an “unjust judge” “who neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Luke 18:2,6 NRSV). So when the widow comes to him with her request, he refuses to grant it. He refuses to grant her justice against her opponent.

However, there’s something remarkable about this widow. She doesn’t take this judge’s “No,” for an answer. She continues coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” And then we find out “For a while [the unjust judge] refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:4-5 NRSV). The judge doesn’t really want justice for the widow; he just wants her to stop bothering him. So he grants her request.

Yet Jesus is quick to make the point: how much more will God, who is not an unjust judge, listen to and grant justice to those he loves, who cry to him day and night? (Luke 18:7 NRSV).

Even though God is not an unjust judge, there is something about the widow and her faith that Jesus would have us observe. Persistence in her belief and her trust that God’s justice and righteousness would prevail, even when she had to face an unjust judge over and over again... Even when there were obstacles and barriers in her way, the widow persisted in her belief and her trust that God’s justice and righteousness would prevail.

If she had only been concerned about the unjust judge welcoming her and accepting her, the widow would have given up right away. If she had worried about overstaying her welcome, she would have left for good the first time the judge sent her away. She would have left and never come back if she had been worried about overstaying her welcome.

Instead, she persisted in her belief and her trust that God’s righteousness and justice would prevail.

Jesus challenges us here to approach our faith – our relationship with God – differently than we would our other relationships. Faith in God – trusting him – requires persistence on our part. God is not like the people in our lives who come and go; the people we only see once in a while; the people with whom we’re afraid of overstaying our welcome if we stay too long.

God is not the unjust judge who wants to get rid of us; the judge who doesn’t want us to bother him. That’s not God. Instead, God is the One we can always bother with our prayers, our praise and thanksgiving, and our concerns.

God is the One with whom we cannot overstay our welcome; the One who is always with us; the One because of his love for you in Jesus, crucified and risen, wouldn’t have it any other way than to always be with you – you never overstaying your welcome.

This relationship we call faith can be a wrestling match with God, as it was for Jacob in today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis. Faith can be a persistent prayer and a trust that God’s righteousness and justice will prevail against all odds, as it was for the widow.

In both cases, the blessing that Jacob and the widow receive comes out of a struggle, a struggle during which others might have given up, a struggle during which others might have figured that they had overstayed their welcome with God.

But by the struggle that is faith, Jacob and the widow both learn that they can never overstay God’s welcome.

And you know what? Neither can we - Amen.

18th Sunday after Pentecost - October 13, 2019 (Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

If you’ve ever acted a part in a school play, chances are at one time or another you played a minor character. Maybe you were part of the chorus in a musical, or played Shepherd #2 in your church’s Christmas program, before landing a lead role the following year. In any case, no church Christmas program is complete without a Wise Man #3 or a Shepherd #2.

In my limited acting experience (two years of high school musicals), I played a pirate as part of the chorus in “Peter Pan.” And the next year I played the Wizard (an advisor to the Queen) in “Once upon a Mattress,” the musical rendition of the fairytale, “The Princess and the Pea.” As a pirate that first year I had to sing and dance at the same time, which was no easy feat. And I had one line to say, actually not even a line, but a single word: “Something?” A one-word question: that was it. Talk about a minor role. The next year, as the Wizard, I had a few more lines to memorize and recite, but nowhere near the number of lines that the leads had.

Speaking of minor characters, I fondly remember one of the Charlie Brown Christmas specials. The child who plays the angel in the Christmas pageant has only one word to memorize for his part. “Hark!” is the word, as in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Everywhere he goes the boy rehearses that one word, “Hark!” Until the day of the play he gets stage fright, forgets the one word he’s supposed to say, and blurts out, “Hockey stick!” instead.

That’s what people were going to remember about that Christmas pageant… Never underestimate the importance of the minor character…

In today’s Old Testament story from 2 Kings, there are the lead characters as well as those who might be considered more minor. There is, first of all, “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram” (2 Kings 5:1 NRSV). Naaman, we’re told, is “a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man [Naaman], though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy” (2 Kings 5:1 NRSV).

We have the king of Israel who tears his clothes when he receives the letter from Naaman requesting to be cured of his leprosy. “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” the king cries out. “Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me,” the king complains (2 Kings 5:7 NRSV).

We have the great prophet of Israel named Elisha, otherwise known as the man of God. Elisha the prophet overhears the king’s complaint regarding Naaman’s impossible request for a cure. Nevertheless, Elisha asks the king: “Why have you torn your clothes?” (2 Kings 5:8 NRSV). The prophet assures the king: “Let [Naaman] come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8 NRSV). Elisha the prophet then sends a messenger to Naaman with the message to “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (2 Kings 5:10 NRSV).

Naaman, however, the important character that he is, commander of the army of the king of Aram, a great man and in high favor with his master the king, does not like that the prophet sent him a messenger. And Naaman doesn’t like what the messenger tells him to do – to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. In fact, “Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me [the prophet] would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” (2 Kings 5:11 NRSV). Naaman continues in his anger saying, “‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:12 NRSV).

These characters are the major players in today’s Old Testament story that I want to focus on this morning. Naaman, the king of Israel, the prophet Elisha: they’re the lead roles. And yet, one of the main characters has been stricken by the disease, leprosy, and everything in his life has ground to a halt. Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram; Naaman, a great man and in high favor with his master the king, is no longer great in his own eyes. Naaman has fallen to leprosy, a disease that he can’t cure himself.

Naaman, the once-mighty warrior, is suffering from a life-threatening disease. He is ashamed that he is no longer the powerful man he once was. He is enraged that he can no longer control his own life. Naaman cannot defeat the disease, the leprosy, as he could defeat his enemies in battle.

What’s more, the king of Israel is convinced that there is no cure for Naaman. And Naaman in his anger, his pride, his despair, doesn’t believe what God is telling him to do. Naaman doesn’t believe in the way that God wants to heal him and make him clean.

When we, like Naaman, get overwhelmed by life, we may not see – we may not be aware – of the ways in which God is still reaching out to us. A disease or an illness; the death of a loved one; the betrayal of a friend; our own failure to be great – our inability to “measure up” to our own standards of greatness; these kinds of situations and circumstances can make it hard to see God, to know that he’s there, to trust him…

Like Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram, a great man in high favor with his master the king, we’re used to winning, to being in control. But then life suddenly takes another direction, a direction which we cannot control, as it did for Naaman the mighty warrior when he suffered from leprosy. We are no longer playing the lead role in our lives as we want to be.

In fact, when we lose control of our lives in some way, as Naaman did, we are afraid that we might not get to play a part at all.

What we and Naaman don’t realize, however, is that God is the one directing the play. And to God, we’re all minor characters – minor but nevertheless important to God…

What Naaman didn’t realize was that God had been directing the play all along. God just wasn’t picking the characters that Naaman himself would have chosen. And Naaman didn’t always get to be the hero. For God was in charge of the storyline, not Naaman.

In God’s story of our lives, we have to pay attention to what we consider the minor characters. In Naaman’s story, there is a young servant girl from Israel who tells Naaman’s wife where Naaman should go to be healed of his leprosy. It’s this minor character, this servant girl, whom Naaman had captured, who directs him to the prophet Elisha. It’s the prophet Elisha who sends a messenger (another minor character) to tell Naaman what he should do – to go wash in the Jordan.

And then, get this! When Naaman doesn’t listen – he’s too mad that the prophet Elisha didn’t show up to perform the cure himself – and when Naaman turns away in a rage, his own servants (more minor characters) are the ones who convince him to obey the prophet anyway. “Father,” the servants say, attempting to reason with Naaman, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’” (2 Kings 5:13 NRSV). “So [Naaman] went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of [the prophet] the man of God; [Naaman’s] flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy” (2 Kings 5:14 NRSV).

The supposedly minor characters get what God is up to when the major characters – the leads, if you will – don’t get it. Just think about it! Without that servant girl at the beginning, then the messenger sent by the prophet, and finally Naaman’s own servants – all of whom God had picked – without all of those minor characters playing their part, Naaman would not have been restored to health. Most importantly, without the minor characters each playing the part that God had given them, Naaman would not have ended up with faith in God. But Naaman did because God was the hero of the story. God directed those minor characters who helped Naaman come to faith and say: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15 NRSV).

You see, we are all minor characters in the play that God is directing. We are all equally important to God in the minor roles that we play.

We also thank God for those people in our lives. The people who can so easily go unnoticed, but who are important enough to God that he uses them to help us...

The people who stand by your side and encourage you; the people who convince you to do the right thing rather than the easy thing; the people whom God uses to reach out to us when we are overwhelmed…

Thank God for them.

May we likewise play the part that God has given us to play – especially if all it seems to be is a minor part - Amen.

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