Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

July 15 -- Eighth Sunday after Pentecost



Sisters and brothers in Christ: grace to you and peace from God who creates us from the clay of the earth, from Jesus who redeems and showers us with mercy and love, and from the Holy Spirit who both comforts and challenges us...and always sends us outward in service to our neighbor.  AMEN.

[whining] “Ah man, we just got started.  And now this?”  Ever gotten going on a project or a job or just a new day and hit a massive speed bump, a real glitch, and stumbled and fallen?

Here we are in Mark’s gospel: Chapter 6.  Last week in the 13 verses that preceded these today, Jesus inaugurates ministry together.  Remember that?  He told the disciples as he sent them out in pairs (no one goes alone): “Take only the basics.  Count on people to welcome you and prepare to receive their hospitality and partnership.  But also, expect resistance.  Shake off the dust from your sandals if you’re not well received. And keep going.  Go!  Be my disciples for the sake of this world, heal the sick, preach the good news, comfort the despairing!” 

And then we have the is interruption, to put it mildly.  What is going on?  “Ah man, we just got started.  And now this?”  Immediately after Jesus has empowered the disciples, this horrific episode takes place in Herod’s palace.  Herod and is wife want John the Baptist dead, but Herod has this fear about John.  But once he’s sunken into a chair belly-stuffed, intoxicated (I imagine), his daughter comes in and dances, old Herod’s fears about John quickly fade into seduction and he offers her “whatever she wants”.  It’s just grimy stuff, at the top echelons of power in Jesus day.  It’s excess and gratuitous and evil. 

Scholars in recent years have named this episode “Herod’s Banquet of Death”.  And it’s contrasted clearly—which is all part of Mark’s narrative arc—against what is immediately after this:  In the very next verses comes, what some have called  “Jesus’ Banquet of Life”...i.e., the feeding of the 5000.  
      “Herod’s Banquet of Death” vs. “Jesus’ Banquet of Life”  
At Herod’s banquet of death, we’re not out in a deserted field, like the feeding of the 5000, we’re in a palace, a lavish banquet hall.  This is where the rich and powerful dine with the king.  A true power lunch, that’s not for the multitude, but a select few.  And there is more than enough for this few.  It’s a feast of excess — excess food, excess drink, excess entertainment, excess space, excess violence.  The select few gorge and imbibe and get entertained as the multitudes starve outside the palace gates, and in the hills and countrysides...  

At Herod’s banquet, women are made to dance and entertain the men.  Women are objects of amusement and pleasure, only to be thrown out with the trash, like greasy paper plates when the pizza party’s over.  Herod’s daughter, it says, pleased him greatly with her dancing...so much so, that in a drunken and reckless state of ecstasy and excess, Herod promises her whatever she wants.  At which point, her evil mother whispers in her ear, “The head of John the Baptist.”
And immediately John is executed and his head is brought in on a platter, like a final course, like a grand finale.  I imagine everyone cheering when the cover of the platter is lifted and John’s head is revealed for the guests to see.  Can’t you just smell the excess -- the sweat, the meat, the death?  This is empire.  

The moral compass has been completely lost to a power-drunk king, and an elite crowd cheers at this retaliatory violence and terror… meanwhile so many others are made to suffer, simply because they are overlooked or not really a concern.  The multitudes of poor and hungry are not Herod’s concern in the least.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad asks:  “Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? [pause] The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death – even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.”
In the very next verse Mark tells us of Jesus’ Banquet of Life.  This happens, not in palace grandeur, but in the open air — in an open field.  Not lavish but simple.  

In Jesus’ Banquet of Life, everyone is fed; there is enough.  Everyone has enough.  (Do you? Does your neighbor have enough?  What is enough?  Is there bread we can share, like the little boy who shared his loaves and fishes?  These are questions we’re invited to pray about in these days, even and especially here at Bethlehem...where our very name means “House of Bread”.)  In Jesus Banquet of Life, everyone is treated with respect and dignity, men and women, young and old, gay and straight, black and white, immigrant and native, the list goes on...In Jesus Banquet of Life peace and forgiveness, love and justice rule the day, and there is no place for terror and violence.  In Jesus’ Banquet of Love, we trust ultimately in God, not in money or weapons or power or fame.  In Jesus’ Banquet of Love, trust in God always trumps fear.

So what’ll it be for us sisters and brothers in Christ?  Herod’s Banquet of Death or Jesus’ Banquet of Life?  That’s a very Markan question to pose.  Jesus is very clear-cut in Mark.  It’s always this way vs. that.  No fuzzy gray areas: “Well, it’s complicated.”  No!  For Jesus in Mark, it’s either good or evil.  It’s God or the devil.  It’s Jesus’ way or the empire’s way.  It’s bread or weapons.  It’s life or death.  What’ll it be for us, Bethlehem?
Here at Bethlehem, I’m afraid to say, and I’m wondering if you might agree with me: Here in my two weeks already, I’m really sensing, in some ways, death pressing in around us.  Not this extreme, Herodian, debaucherous, banquet of death, but just the attitudes and the fears and the despairs that “death” can bring. 

With all the things that are going on here lately.  With a normal amount of conflict, but conflict nonetheless, in your history here... and now another new pastor.  With steady declines in membership and youth and participation in general: there’s been some mourning over this, I’ve heard.  Others have actually left.  It’s too much for them and they’ve moved on.  
Who doesn’t long for the past if it’s a memory of a better day?  Do you ever feel, with me, like death has been pressing in on Bethlehem Lutheran in Fairfax?    

And of course the rips and tears and broken glass and scratches of hateful words.  There it certainly feels like death, like John the prophet has been taken down and Herod is winning…
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But sisters and brothers in Christ (not in Herod), sisters and brothers in the Gospel of life (not the shadows of death), sisters and brothers of good (not evil) — God has not abandoned us!  

Death does not have the final say here or anywhere...because of Christ.  Jesus is here [table] in our pain and confusion and terror and decline.  The Holy Spirit moves in our midst and fills us with new breath, and with new bread (not the excessive meat and drink of Herod, but the the bread of life and wine of forgiveness, a feast of love and not terror).  God picks us up as we pick up the pieces, even as we may trip and fall, right out of the gate.  “Ah man, we just got started. Now this?” 

Friends, we have a God who is good, with a peace that endures, a Christ who abides, a Holy Spirit that comforts us when we’re down and challenges us when we’re complacent or paralyzed by fear.  

This is our God.  And our God will grant us, each of us, wisdom and courage for the days ahead, for the new directions we take, for the peace and forgiveness we will practice with each other, and for the love that we are called to share.  That love, peace, forgiveness, courage and wisdom is yours now, through Christ who strengthens us, today and always.  


Welcome to Jesus’ Banquet of Life!  AMEN.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

July 8 -- Seventh Sunday after Pentecost



Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace from Jesus the Christ who calls us outward, sending us into new territories and new adventures — new missions and tasks!  AMEN.

How exciting to be with you, here at last!  Amen?  And yet, what absolutely shocking and so terribly tragic events have accompanied us in these transitional days and weeks!

I couldn’t have chosen a better Scripture text around which we are first gathering than this one (that the lectionary chooses for us) from Mark 6!  This is where the mission together begins in Mark’s Gospel.  Jesus has been impressing everyone on his own until now:  this is where Jesus sends us/disciples out.  And it’s where Jesus reminds us that things might not always go well as we go about the work of spreading the Gospel of God’s grace and peace and healing.  
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One of our daughter Katie’s favorite songs is “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift.  It’s been out for a number of years and so I remember not too long ago, little Katie jumping around the living room trying to get us all to dance, “Shake it off.”  (Just an image for us…)  Despite all the things going on in our lives, in our world, in the news — little Katie pulled us up to dance. 

Jesus, in a similar way then, is taking us by the hand and calling us in these challenging times: “Shake it off.  Shake it off!  Shake off the dust from your feet when trouble comes your way.  Shake off of the death and the hatred and the fear that is all around, and ‘keep on’ in doing the work to which I have called you.  Just because you’ve been met with vandalism and violence, just because you’ve had windows smashed in, pew seats ripped, hateful-horrific words written on your walls doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong,” Christ encourages us, his modern-day disciples.  In fact the opposite: “You are doing something right.  Following me just isn’t all that easy.  Following me and embracing the welcome, love, justice and peace that I desire for you, for this nation, and for this whole world is going to bring with it — always — some serious push back!  So, take a deep breath.  Shake it off.  Join hands — [I love how he pairs up the disciples: we don’t do this alone] — join hands and let’s go,” Jesus says.
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New friends in Christ, God is most definitely here and with us.  The Holy Spirit is swirling around, even as we reel.  God’s still got us.  And Christ still sends us out.  

I’m not saying anything I haven’t seen you all at BLC aren’t doing already.  I have already been so moved, impressed, encouraged, inspired as I’ve already watched you all respond to these recent break-ins and hate crimes.  

I’ve witnessed, first of all, deep sorrow and pain:  In a culture that often bottles up emotions and chokes back tears, I’ve already seen here Christ himself weeping in your midst.  In response to words of hate and harm, come words of love and healing, and tears of longing...for a world where such violence will be no more.  Mark’s gospel describes Jesus laying hands on these who are ill.  It’s that laying on of hands that shows the compassion of Christ, the pain of the cross.  Gashes in the seat cushions ~ gashes in Christ.  As tears of longing and sorrow at “what is” filled this community, it was as if Christ is laying on hands and healing the broken, despite all the other things that were going on… 
Did you catch this in the reading?  It said Jesus could do no deed of power...EXCEPT...to lay his hands on a few and heal them.  Tears at the world’s violence are the laying on Christ’s very hands in healing.  Our tears are cathartic, yes.  But it’s more than that: it’s the breaking in of hope for a world-as-it-should-be...not choking back and settling for the world-as-it-is.

I’ve witnessed your deep sorrow and pain; and I’ve witnessed that you all “show up” despite it:  Christ calls us to be here for one another and for this hurting world...in these days.  

That terrible morning after the last break in, I was amazed at how many just kept arriving and taking it in.  “People just keep showing up,” I whispered to my father-in-law who was here too for the first time.  He’s a retired pastor and has served many congregations—a great mentor to me.  “That’s the sign of a strong church,” he whispered back.  This place is small-but-mighty.  That’s precisely what Jesus needs in his disciples!  Not brute force, but mighty hearts and healing tears.  Not     burly arms and souped-up arsenals, but simply & profoundly robust faith — faith that stands the test of time and terror.  Faith that “shows up”.  God is here among us as we “show up” to make our stand together against the evil and wrong-doing all around us.

Jesus gives his disciples “authority over the unclean spirits” in verse 7.  This is a radically welcoming community, but there is no place for hatred and violence here.  Christ gives us too — as we stand together in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters (both Lutheran and non) — AUTHORITY over the unclean spirits of our time and community.  That is to say: “Unclean spirits!  You have no power over us.”
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Back in seminary — you have to understand: I had been a Biology major as an undergrad so I liked charts and graphs — so as we were studying the Gospel of Mark, I kind of threw my professor for a loop when I decided to graph Jesus’ “power potential” (as I named it) on the y-axis as time passed through the Gospel of Mark on the x-axis.  I did the same thing with the disciples’ “power potential.”


And faithful Christians might have found my results surprising: 

As I had hypothesized, and as I believe the author of Mark intended to communicate: as time passes in Mark, as you read through the Gospel, Jesus’ power potential declines dramatically, and meanwhile, the disciples gain more and more ability, or power potential.  This text today is that critical turning point, where — in a foretaste of what happens on the cross — Jesus is emptying himself in order to fill up his disciples.  In this text, it says Jesus could do no deed of power, and yet by the end of our text, his disciples — that rag-tag gang of busy and broken bodies is “healing, casting out demons and preaching the word of life and love.”

This is our God.  Showing up in weakness, in moments of sorrow and pain, and filling us with potential.  

Friends in Christ, as we look forward to the days, and hopefully many years of life and ministry together here at Bethlehem Lutheran, know that Christ meets us in our most vulnerable times.  These are things we preachers say all the time, but — I don’t know about you, but — aren’t we feeling that far more profoundly in these challenging days?  Christ meets us in our tears and our pain, and fills us with the ability to cast out demons, heal the sick and share God’s love through words and deeds.  This is good news of great joy, and this is our great news this day and forever more...no matter what.

Thanks be to God — who never leaves us; who made us for goodness, and to be together, and to go outward; and who shines brightly even and especially now!  AMEN.
     

HOD - #726 “Light Dawns on a Weary World”

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Welcome

Grace and peace, everyone!  This blog is the place I'll be posting my sermons.  You should also be able to access the audio and the podcast from here too.

May God go with you as you venture forth in doing the work Christ has sent you to do.

Pastor Dan.