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, January 13, 2019

January 13 -- Baptism of our Lord Sunday

John the Baptist was a truth-teller.

Known any truth-tellers in your life?  I think they tend to be kind of weirdos.  Truth-tellers.  “Awkward” is a truth-teller’s middle name.  Their words sear, but we try to ignore it, or laugh it aside.  Truth-tellers:  Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress.  They often seem a little unhinged.

Now, I don’t mean someone who is cruel with their words...and their cruel words somehow settle into your mind as truth.  I think of all the bullies that say mean stuff that their victims start to believe is true -- that’s not a truth-teller.  That’s a liar, in fact.  

I mean a real truth-teller.  Someone who truly says it like it is.  Sometimes very eloquently.  But often not from a position you’d expect.  Those are always the great movie characters, right?  The trash-man in the movie, who always speaks the true and wise word.  The seemingly crazy, old bag lady.  The blind beggar. The bartender. The child...truth-teller characters.

And it’s often tempting to want to prop up that truth-teller and have them (not you) just give a piece of their mind (i.e. your mind) to the big, mean opponent, or at least one who holds power over you.  Propping them up, puffing them up...

Puffing up a crazy, mouthy, articulate classmate to go after a professor. Tell him! Tell him!  (I’ve done it & had it done to me)
Puffing up a brother or sister to go after a parent.  Tell him!  Tell him!
Provoking a council member, puffing them up to go after the pastor.  Tell him!  Tell him!  Give ‘em a piece of our mind!  
Puffing a legislator up to go after a president.  Tell him!  

Then if the results go bad, if the response is negative, even hostile, well, it’s not your hide.  No one even needs to know you put ‘em up to it…

I guess what I’m saying is that we can take advantage of crazy truth-tellers.  They’re “out there” anyway, so the temptation is: “Well, may as well get them to work for us...or at least entertain us.”

You kind of get the sense that the people in Luke’s gospel, surrounded by the big, mean Pharisees, the Herodians and the Roman empire -- bullies -- opponents, higher-ups, to be sure, more powerful than they, were puffing John up to go after them.  Tell ‘em, John!  Go tell ‘em!
But all John does is tell the truth.  He doesn’t incite violence, he tells the truth:  “What should we do?”  Share.  Give a jacket away if you have two.  Give food to anyone who is hungry.  Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress.  And John calls us to share.  He doesn’t fall for the puffing up games people play.  

That’s it, John!!?  You’re not going to rip them a new one!!?  You’re not going to verbally lambast them?  You’re not going to declare war on them?    

“No,” says John, “just share; be kind to one another.  Everyone could use a little more of that.  Be gentle.  Do the right thing.  Be honest and upright in your business dealings.  Don’t extort money from people.  Don’t rip them off.  Don’t cheat...and be happy with what you have…

“And one more thing: [this gets us to our text here] This one Jesus, is it.  I’m going to engrave that into your consciousness by baptizing him.  
[slowly] This one Jesus is the embodiment of truth -- of what I’m challenging you to do: This one Jesus is the embodiment of sharing, of not cheating the poor, of welcoming the outcast and feeding the hungry.  This one Jesus, who I baptize is the embodiment of truth.”  John is a truth-teller and a truth-baptizer.  He baptizes the truth.  The truth is not cruel; the truth is love.

And you know you’re on the right track to truth, when the powers try to shut you up, when you are saying things that sear in their simplicity.  Truth-telling, truth-baptizing got John thrown into prison.  He told the truth about Jesus, and he told the truth about Herod’s adulterous wrong-doing with his brother’s wife.  Everyone else turned a blind eye.  

Ever been in situation where everyone is turning a blind eye, and it takes the innocence of a child or an outsider or a newcomer to say, hey, this is wrong!   (Clergy group: “There’s a lot of ego and competitiveness in this circle.”)

John the Baptist -- John the pointer (if I ever had a pointer dog, I’d want to call him either John or Luther) -- John the baptist simply points to Christ.  The true WWJD prophet.  Don’t extort, cheat, lie, hog the best for yourself.  Truth-teller.  Not mean, not cruel.  Just honest and clear-headed, even if a little “out there”.  Although interestingly, did you notice: doesn’t say anything here in Luke’s gospel about John eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair.  Maybe John was a little more main-stream, according to Luke.  

And friends in Christ, John was certainly in the main stream, the river’s main flow, to be sure, when it came time to baptize.  John preached repentance and new life, through baptism.  A changing of ways, the forgiveness of sins.  Through this water!  

You know, ancient teaching has us using cold water for baptism?  Luther missed this.  He warmed the water up for babies.  But baptismal water — especially practiced among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters — is supposed to be cold.  Stinging.  Because this Christian life is not an easy one.

Shane Claiborne: “My life was great...before I met Jesus (gave everything away, loved my enemies, prayed for bullies…)!”

The truth hurts.  It stings.  These cold waters of baptism make us jump a bit, cringe a bit.  John the Baptist’s long, pointy finger pokes at us and guides us to follow after this one Jesus.  The truth is eerie.  

This one Jesus -- the embodiment of all truth — is already out there sharing.  Already out there in the snow — on January 13, 2019 — Christ is already out there sharing warmth with all who are cold, nourishment with all who are hungry.  This one Jesus — to whom John points and baptizes — this one Jesus — upon which a voice from heaven comes booming down: “this is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” -- this one  Jesus is the embodiment of John’s truth-telling.

In an age where truth seems to be up for grabs (in a post-truth era), sisters and brothers in Christ, John calls us back, and sends us after Christ.  And in an age where truth seems to be a distant dream, our God — incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who is “already out there” always in and with the world, moving down the path — stops, turns to us, loves us, and beacons us to come and follow, to come and join this way of truth.  This love, this forgiveness, this walk of mercy and grace, this path of love is ours today and always.  For you too, a voice from heaven says, are God’s beloved child!  

Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

January 6 -- Epiphany Sunday

Highly quoted author, speaker and consultant in Lutheran circles, Peter Steinke (writes a great book called Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times), has noted the root of the word “disaster”.  Do you know what that word literally means?

It comes from the negative Latin “dis” (connoting not being able to do something, or a lack of something) and “aster” (star).  So literally a disaster is when you have no star to follow.  Fascinating, isn’t it?!  

So ancient sailors, loosing their way at sea in the fog and the clouds — no star to follow.  That’s a literal dis-aster.

Contrast that to this day’s text of the journey of the Magi. (btw, the text doesn’t say how many magi there were, just that there were 3 gifts, so artists have always assumed that 3 wise men went with those 3 gifts, but there could have been a hundred star-following wise women and men and their children all hiking through the sands from the East…) The point is, they had a star to follow, and they did.

Disaster is when we have no star to follow.  Problem is, there are lots of stars in the sky. [pause]

Which star are you (at least) tempted to follow this new year?  Is it the star of fame and glory?  The rock star?  The pop star?  The sports stars or military stars?  The political stars?  The gold stars of school and accomplishments?  Perhaps the shooting stars…like the housing/stock markets?  

It’s hard to find the star of Bethlehem amid all the competing stars.  
But here’s a clue:  STOP LOOKING UP.  [pause] For Christ always comes to us from underneath—from where you’d least expect—from the manger, from the shepherds, from the poor, from earthly stuff like wheat, grapes, and water.  From broken and flawed people, hurting congregations, tragic situations, from simple every-day moments amid hectic schedules and frightening seasons.  The magi, the text says, bowed down, to pay him homage.  Bow down, look around on the floor of our world, to find the Christ child.  Look to Bethlehem, that is, the most out-of-the-way, insignificant, underneath, little town.  And that’s where the star, the light of Christ, stops and stays.

This is such a wonderful story.  Because it has cosmic implications.  This love and presence of Christ, that comes from below, has the ability to move the stars!  To call people from all corners of the earth to gather, to praise, and then to go home by a different road: changed.

It means God’s love for you, calls you, as far off in a distant land as you might be—as downtrodden, or hopeless or sick or afraid as you might be.  God’s light, albeit hard to see at times, God’s star rises in the east—the bright morning star—symbolic of hope and a new day—Christ Jesus’ star rises in the east and lights your way this new year of 2019, this new year of life that God has given us!  (I see this as a year of healing here at BLC!)

The same star that world leaders saw, “Three Kings” as the songs and art pieces go, world leaders, the wealthy and powerful and wise—the same star that guided them, that came to them, and lit their path, comes to you and guides you…even today.  That’s how dear you are to God.  Not forgotten in some far-off land, but forgiven...and guided.  

What a gift that Bethlehem star, that eastern star in the sky is for us!  God’s love for you moves stars!  

And so in response — not because we have to — but because we can’t help it: in response, we bring our gifts — our gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  (What is that for you?  What are our treasures?)  And then, looking down, bowing down, kneeling down, we pay him homage.  How can we do that with our lives?  What can we bring?  How can we serve and give and trust evermore in this Christ child?

For we need not dwell in dis-aster.  For we have a star to follow!  A star of love, a star of life, a star of hope, a star of healing, and a star of forgiveness.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we too have been changed, by this star.  So changed, so transformed that we are about to pray for people beyond just those we like and love.  Prayers of intercession: have you noticed our ‘rubrics’ for the prayers of the people (p.14): “Having received the Word of God’s relentless grace and faithfulness, we can’t help but turn outward and pray for others.  The love of Christ compels us.”) Our prayers — and not just our prayers: our words and actions, our ministries here at BLC — aren’t just focused inward, it’s not just about us and “our” building and “our” people and our success and our failures, right?!  No, we can’t help — having received this relentless grace — we can’t help but reach outward to people and situations far from our own, even if those are people and situations right here in our neighborhood.  We can’t but turn outward to people from far-away lands (like the magi in the story).  

We even pray for our enemies.  For the “Herods” of our government and our world.  [pause] That’s how transformative this Christ light is!  

We have been changed, by this star.  So changed, so transformed that we have hope, in the midst of winter darkness.  We have a way, and that way is Christ, and that way is Love, and that way reaches beyond borders and oceans.  

Even when the world comes crashing down around us, God’s people, looking down, not gazing up, looking down at this earth, God’s people find the hurting, the oppressed, the sick and the lost, and there with them is Christ.  “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  That’s how changed we are!  [Rome, Isola Tiberina, Hospital Island]

We have been changed, by this star!  So changed that we go home now by another road.  So changed that we “gonna lay down our sword and shield, down by the riverside” as the old spiritual goes.  We’re gonna “hammer our tanks and our guns into stethoscopes and gardening tools”...to modernize Isaiah’s vision of hope.  We are so changed that now we practice peace (not just pray for it, we practice it).  We’re not going back to Herod now, the road of violence is not our road.  We’re going home by a different way.  

For God has given us a star.  We are free of dis-aster, sisters and brothers in Christ, for we have a star.  And in that star is the hope, and the salvation, of this whole universe.  And in that star is your freedom and everlasting life.  For in this star is peace.  TBTG.  AMEN.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

December 30 -- First Sunday of Christmas

If a child asked you what the word incarnate means, what would you tell them?  Take a moment...turn to your neighbor and give them an answer to this question:  What does incarnate mean?

[Willing to share?]

Today, on this 1st (and only) Sunday of Christmas, this 6th Day of Christmas, we have have the Christmas story and more, according to the Gospel of John.  (It’s better than 6 geese a-laying.)  It’s not the Christmas story we hear (and see) on Christmas Eve, from Luke, with the Gospel of Luke’s agenda -- Luke emphasizes God siding with the poor, and the left behind (young Mary, scrappy shepherds), God even becoming poor.  And it doesn’t have Matthew’s emphasis, with the wise men from the East: Emmanuel/God-with-us moving stars and world leaders to bring gifts from great distances, over and against the powers of the day.  No, John’s Christmas story (more abstract and cosmic) -- the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us -- emphasizes God becoming Jesus, it emphasizes the divinity of Christ.  There is no question, according to John that not only is Jesus God’s Son, but Jesus is God.  Wrap your head around that!  You can’t.  The mystery of the Divine, the unexplainable, becomes flesh and lives among us.  [ta-da]  Gospel of John.

Anyone remember that old song “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?  That song says...“If you're blue and you don't know where to go to — Why don't you go where fashion sits,
Puttin' on the ritz.”  (maybe some of you for NewYears’/Xmas)
But here with the Gospel of John and incarnation, it’s different… “If you're blue and you don't know where to go to
Then God comes close, and breathes our breath
Puttin' on our flesh.”
Incarnate literally means “in-flesh”.  God moves into our midst, and not just into our neighborhood (like a quiet neighbor that leaves us alone), but into our bones (like a circulatory system -- quietly giving us life), breathing our breath. The Divine, the mystery of the Triune God, imbedded right into our skin, right our flesh!  

Is that kind of creepy, or do you like the idea?  Either way, it is our truth:  God is deeply with us, sisters and brothers in Christ, according to John’s Christmas story....which, btw, also tells us that this has been the reality since the beginning.  For John, the Christmas story, and Jesus himself, is there at the very beginning.  Genesis is the Christmas story.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word...[pause] was God.  God’s been there all along, and God is Jesus.  

So what does this mean?  This abstract concept?  Who cares, right?  It’s great that some poet in 100AD thinks that Jesus is God and God is Jesus and this Jesus/God moves into our being and even into our flesh...but how does that shake out in our everyday lives?

Well for one thing, it reminds us that God is no longer confined to somewhere up there or somewhere, long ago.  (“long ago, galaxy far, far away”)  I don’t like it when people talk about God living way up there in heaven...as if God doesn’t live right here, right now.  When I hear that, I wonder, did you ever read the Christmas story?  God becomes flesh, and dwells among us.  Only at the end of the Gospel of Luke do we have the story that Jesus ascends up to heaven, and that happens almost in sync with the Pentecost experience, where the Spirit of God, blows into and through the people...another version of  “God comes close and breaths our breath, puttin’ on our flesh”.  God gets specific.  God puts on your flesh.
On one hand it’s abstract, but on the other God’s presence and love couldn’t be more concrete, imbedded into our everyday flesh and bones, our everyday lives.  Embedded into our everyday water, and everyday bread.  The everyday fruit from the vine.  

Thank God for this refresher in incarnational theology! Because it’s easy -- even today in 2018 (almost 2019) -- still to separate out nicely and neatly body and spirit.  The body is earthly, the spirit is heavenly.  But John’s Gospel, and our Lutheran faith upon which it is based, mixes all that up!  Christ incarnate and dwelling among us means that the earthly and the heavenly come together; that the body and the spirit are joined -- not just to be flashy and cool, not just to make new year’s fireworks and pizazz -- no, but for our sake, God does this: God joins heaven and earth, as the Divine chooses to live among us, right smack into our broken, dried out, bitter, cracked or covered up skin.  It means that God, in fact, was and is the one in the manger, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said.  God in the manger, the feeding trough, the slop bucket of our lives.  God is right there with us, in it and through it.  That’s where it all connects.  [Ahh...]

So even in our pain, God sits and stays with us?  Even if no one else does?  Ahh.  So even in our stresses about this new year, even though everyone’s talking about hope and joy and happiness and starting over, but really I’m freaking out and have no idea what might be coming next, or how I’m going to make it, God is with me?  Ahhh, so even when I feel so ashamed about things that I’ve done in the past, or even things I’m doing right now, God hasn’t left me?  Ahh. 

Friends, this is a hard time:  recovering from the holidays, paying off the debts, a government shut-down has got us all anxious.  And then we’re all amping up for another round, a new year, working off the Christmas pound.  Trying to make resolutions and claim new habits...it can all be overwhelming.  
There can be quite a wake from disasters and tragedies that have happened in December (that was a hard month too).  And yet God refuses to go back into the box with the nativity figurines.  God chooses to stay right beside you -- imbedded/incarnated love, living in the fiber of your being.  Ahh.  

God gets specific.  This is the gift, once again, of the Christ-child who shines in the darkness.  

We’re about to sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” which I think names where some of us—maybe many of us—are: cold and concerned.  God finds us wherever we are in this December-January turnover time.  God breaks into this world, into our lives...and even into our breath and our bones!  And, friends, there’s nothing we can do about it!  God loves you, whether you like it or not!  (Tell that to someone this week.)  All we can do, in this bleak midwinter, is open our hands and receive this most precious gift:

Salvation.  It is ours through this incarnated Jesus Christ who is God.  Thanks be to God, dwelling right here with us this very moment...and forever.  God is here to stay.  AMEN.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas Eve 2018

It’s hard to see in the driving rain.  

Why bother?  Giant drops fall from the sky and we can barely even open our eyes in the driving rain.  We duck our heads, pull our hoods, and look down at our wet-shoes-getting-wetter in the puddles.  And it’s tempting to just go back inside.  It’s hard to see in the driving rain.  

Hard to drive too:  Even when we’re covered and dry in the car, the roads are slick, the visibility is cut way down.  The wipers squeak irritatingly across the windshield, and we can’t even hear our own thoughts with the pounding of the driving rain all around.  “What if I get stranded, what if I start to slide?” we worry in the driving rain.  Then you have to get out when you get to wherever you’re going, and splash through a parking lot or down a sidewalk, risking a slip or a drop.  Who wants to drive in the driving rain?

I wonder if it was raining the night Jesus was born?  Maybe that’s why there was no room anywhere: everyone crammed into the inns.  Everyone in, except out in the stable.  I wonder if the stable creatures were wet, with that wet smell of animal smell?  I wonder if the shepherds had to duck for shelter from the driving rain while they watched their sheep.  We know it was a dry climate, but we also know that everything was different that night.  Maybe it was driving rain…

Rain has a way of getting us down.  Cloudy and cold.  Perhaps a good description of this whole season, this whole year, in many ways.  Even in our parties and songs and gifts and attempts at good cheer, the visibility can be pretty low.  We have no idea how things will turn out in 2019.  

The roads are slick.  
And the wipers of the raindrops—you know, all those people who just force the smile and positive thinking only—are like an irritating windshield wiper [eek, eek] helping for a moment, but almost in vain, as the huge drops come back as soon as the squeaking stops.  We duck our heads and look down at our wet-shoes-getting-wetter in the puddles of 2018.  And it’s tempting to just “go back in” — into ourselves, into our circles,  into our routines and habits, into our locked and familiar little worlds…because it’s hard to see in the driving rain.  

But if it was raining the night Mary and Joseph were sent out to the stable, the rain surely didn’t stop the Child from being born.  It didn’t stop the angels from singing, 
even if their wings were soaked, 
it didn’t stop the shepherds from hearing and going to the stable, even if their feet were freezing and their cloaks were heavy.  If it was raining, it didn’t even make the story!  [pause]

When it rains, you have to squint, you have to work to see.  And when you have to work you become stronger.  In the rain, your senses go on high alert so you don’t slip or slide or drop anything.  We hang onto our bags and our children extra tightly, we get off the phone and pay attention to the roads, we think ahead and wear extra layers.  When you have to work, you become stronger.

We’ll never know if the first Christmas came in the rain, but we know that Christmas 2018 comes in the rain.  Even if it stopped literally raining this week, the rain keeps falling, if we’re honest.  Even as we find peace in this place for a moment, the conflicts pour on around us.  Many homes are unsafe, many spouses are angry, many children are afraid.  Innocent blood washes down the gutters of our world, even this holy night.  Some of our own members and loved ones sit in lonely beds, wondering if they’ll live to see another Christmas on this earth.  Many families have wrung out the last of their savings on this “joyous” occasion, and are wondering how they’ll get through then next month.  The road is slippery, as the storms rage on, and it is hard to see in the driving rain.
But the hearers and the sharers of God’s unstoppable Good News are not deterred by their impaired sight in the driving rain:

We sing on, even if we can’t see so well, even if our wings are soaked.  We strain our ears to hear through all the noise, all the drip-drops of false advertising and merchandising and empty promises of “happiness”.  

“No,” we confess, “those things won’t weather the storm.”  

So we trudge, having heard the angel chorus.  We trudge.  through the muck and the mire, like the shepherds, from one strange, soppy spot to another: from a cold, dark pasture outside the fence, to the unseemly feeding trough of an ox.  Our garments, heavy with storm water and smelly with history.  This has not been an easy road.  We can barely find the stable, and can hardly believe what we’ve just heard, 
but we still go.  
So here we are in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, its meaning in Hebrew.  To think that we would find ourselves in this damp stable of Jesus, leaks in the roof, spots on the floor…the feeding trough of an ox. 

[pause] And still it is beautiful.  Still there is joy.  Still the flicker of a light shines in the darkness.  
For wrapped in scratchy bands, held close to his mother’s breast, is a child.  A new born child peaks through the pain!  

The cry of new birth, the glimpse of hope.  For from this child comes—not armed forces or smooth, political persuasions—but the redemption of our fallen world, the healing of our selfish hearts, the forgiveness or our broken deeds.  From this child comes the very peace of God.  From this little child, that we inch closer to see in a dripping stable, squinting through the darkness of our lives, comes the light of life...who calms every storm, who heals every ill, who releases every sin-locked captive, who breaths every peace, and grants every grace.  [pause]  Christ.  Is.  Here.

And when the storms finally pass and the sun finally stretches out across the piedmont to warm the earth and dry our tears, we will see – maybe not even in this life, but – we will see a glorious new growth.  The light green shoots across the fertile ground, the colorful blossoms, the rivers that flow, the trees that wave in the wind, the jagged edges smoothed, the friend and foe alike, gathered for stew over a common fire.  Weapons melted, condolences offered, laughter and wine, apologies accepted, songs and dances shared.  We shall see that the angels’ song is true: “Peace upon the earth, good will to all!”

It’s hard to see in the driving rain, but the storms will pass, for Christ has come.  For Christ is here.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.    

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

December 2 -- First Sunday of Advent

I came across a great story this week:  “During the colonial period in American history, an eclipse of the sun caught members of a New England state legislature off guard. In the midst of general panic a motion was made to adjourn, but one of the legislators stood up and said, ‘Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, let candles be brought.’” (story appeared in The Christian Century, November 17, 2009)

Advent is the season for candles to be brought, it is the season for hopeful expectation, and it is the season for doing our duty in the face of chaos and even eclipse.  So get ready, travel light, and lift up your heads because our redemption is drawing near!  

This is a strange and abrupt gospel text for kicking off our new church year and the first Sunday of Advent.  Did anyone else wonder about this?  What about texts with Mary and the angel visiting?  What are we doing in Luke 21?  Or why don’t we just skip all the build-up—whatever the meaning of these text are—and just get on with Christmas readings, Christmas songs?  That’s what everyone else is doing.  Wouldn’t you like to interview those who put together our assigned lectionary readings and ask them “what were you thinking?”  [pause] I do know this — every single reading we hear aloud in church is chosen for one reason:  every one of them is a powerful proclamation of the Good News of God, alive in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, for the redemption of the world.  Do we see that here?  Absolutely.  And while there are terrifying images once again, which only reflects our own experience in our time, we mustn’t get caught up in the fear and loose sight of the promise.  Lift up your heads, dear friends.  

Our salvation is not a matter of choice.  God is good all the time.  So God’s going to take care of that.  What is a choice is how we respond when salvation comes knocking:  “I choose to found doing my duty.  I move you, sir, let candles be brought.” [pause] Hope and joy are ushered in with the light.
Our brother in the faith Martin Luther, would agree with the good senator because, as I shared before, Luther reportedly once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”  Hopeful expectation.

What a terrific idea and a powerful text on this New Year’s Day!  We live differently, people of God!  These are chaotic, anxious, stressful, frightening days, so much busy-ness everywhere—people going, going, going all the time, running themselves into the ground, chasing after what?  Money, security, success, raising healthy kids, status, beauty, longer life, a sense of meaning or the desire to leave our mark/legacy…I don’t know, what do you chase after?  Often it can keep changing as we age.  How easy is it to loose our direction?  Do you have direction?  Vision?  Do you know where you should be headed and why?  [pause]  We need ultimate/ending texts like this one…[pause]…at the beginning of our days.  We need to glimpse the gracious and glorious end of days now—the Son of Humanity flying in on a cloud to make everything right again through God’s reign of justice and love.  We need a picture like that here at the beginning, because we’re about to get a picture of exactly the opposite, and it’s easy to loose our direction.  We’re about to get a picture of an un-wed pregnant teenager...drunk, smelly, immigrant shepherds...and while there is there is great meaning and power in those stories as well, it’s easy to wonder: “Where’s this all going?”  This is “all going” to our redemption drawing near.  That’s where “this is all going.”

Live in hope, people of God.  Joyful expectation.  We’re going to sing “Joy to the World” this season every Sunday after communion...because it is an Advent hymn. Ponder the words as we sing.  

Luke’s Gospel is arguably the most literary and artful of the gospels, so it seems appropriate on this New Year’s Day where we are introduced again to Luke, that we usher Luke in with some poetry.  Gary Snyder, recipient of the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, captures our themes for the day with his poem entitled “For the Children”:

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

When we have direction, when we know where we are headed and why, we are able to do our duty right smack in the midst of chaos and confusion — whether it’s planting an apple tree, or working for equality and justice, or teaching in the schools, or healing in the hospitals, or sewing in the churches [or voting in the congregational meeting ;) ] — when we have direction we are able to do what God has called us to do because we live in hopeful expectation, in the full assurance of God’s love and Christ’s coming.  We live differently, people of God, Christ is stirring up some power in us and Christ is on his way.  So bring on the candles!  This is the season to work with less, to “go light.”  This is the season to “learn the flowers”…and this is the season to “stay together.”  Strip away all that is clouding your vision.  Today we start anew…because you know what?  Our redemption is drawing near.  Lift up your heads and praise God! These are good days.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

November 25 -- Christ the King Sunday

Grace to you and peace, from GOD who creates us from the good stuff, from Jesus who redeems us from the bad stuff, and from the Holy Spirit who accompanies us, challenging and comforting us, along the way, through all the good and the bad stuff.  AMEN.
Today on this Christ the King Sunday, we have an interesting picture: Jesus is not crowned in our readings with glory and gold—as much of our art and our music would have us believe.  Jesus is standing before Pilate, “a prisoner” in the Empire’s terms.  
Now why would we focus on this picture on such a regal Sunday, on such a celebratory day?  Jesus is about to be sentenced to death…and that’s our reading for Christ the King?  Other years, the assigned reading on Christ the King is actually the story of Jesus on the cross.  That’s a little strange, a little depressing, don’t you think...especially in this festive, holiday time?  
But sometimes we need to be confronted with the starkest of contrasts in order to hear and understand the Truth of Jesus’ way.  Sometimes we need to see him, face to face with the powers of this world.  [pause] The Roman Empire was the most powerful nation on earth, the greatest country in the world—the mightiest, most sophisticated, most majestic.  It had the most advanced and well-trained military, the best technology in its cities, an order and system of governing that was proven to be most effective, the promise of freedom and peace for all citizens of Rome.  Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.  It’s a little scary to think about comparing the Roman Empire to the United States of America.  Often we imagine ourselves as the underdog, I mean we Americans love the underdog stories, as we should—it’s written into the fabric of our history, with our humble beginnings and all the underdogs who worked and suffered to get us where we are today.  But we mustn’t kid ourselves now, we are one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world, even in these days.  I like to imagine Christ on our side, but at the beginning of this text today, Jesus is opposite us.  The USA looks a lot more like Pontius Pilate.  Jesus is standing face to face with the power of this world—military might, brute force, Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, ambassador of ROME.  Pilate represents us.
It’s kind of a classic build-up we’ve got here, at first glance.  ESPN and Fox Sports have mastered the building up of classic rivals before the great match.  Virginia Tech vs. UVA.  The Red Sox vs. the Yankees, the Cowboys vs. Redskins.  Other rivalries?  Help me out… You can almost hear the music and see the helmets clashing and exploding.  “Jesus vs. Pilate!  TODAY ON FOX!  Let’s get ready to...!!”
That’s the way of this world.  Two contenders, someone’s going to win and someone’s going to loose.  And that makes sense to us, doesn’t it?  And in retrospect, every time we read the story, we’re rooting for Jesus.  We’re rooting for Jesus’ might to make everything right.   We’re rooting for our idea of power to be expressed and made known in the ONE TRUE GOD dominating and even destroying the opposition.  “Yeah, show ‘em Jesus!”  It’s so easy to want what the disciples and the Jewish people wanted—an underdog but powerful leader, eloquent and brilliant like a star quarterback to spearhead the underdogs from oppression to freedom, freedom in the world’s terms.  That would make sense!  (& be awesome, right?)
But that’s not what we get.  
First of all, what we get is someone we can’t relate to.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is ice cool.  He is what he says he is—not of this world.  I don’t know about you but I like a Jesus who I can relate to.  I like Mark’s portrait of Jesus: a guy who gets angry and impatient at times, who gets scared at times, but still manages to overcome death and the grave.  
But not here in the Gospel of John—oh, he overcomes death and the grave alright—but totally unflinchingly.   Jesus has always been portrayed as weak, wracked with pain, humiliated during the Passion, in movies and probably in our imaginations.  Sometimes we try to recreate that on Good Friday.  But in John’s Gospel you’ll notice that he never shows fear.  He never cowers, sweats like blood, praying in the garden that he doesn’t have to go through with this.  Always remember that in John’s Gospel, Jesus is ice cool, calm, almost inhuman.  He practically climbs up onto the cross himself!  In fact what we see here is Pilate getting more and more upset at Jesus’ lack of fear in the face of all the power that ROME represents.  In those classic head-to-head battles that we can relate to so well, we know that both sides have to have a healthy dose of fear in order to take on their opponent.  But Jesus has no fear, never did.  Certainly the most courageous leaders in history tell us that they had to overcome their fear in order to succeed.  But Jesus never overcame fear because he never had it.  Jesus is all God, all divine.  It’s hard for any of us to relate to that kind of Jesus—we kind of draw a blank.  So we imagine other models.  We draw from other Gospels.  We want so badly to relate to Jesus.  We write hymns about “what a friend we have in Jesus,” and we cling to them.  We need those ideas of Jesus to which we can relate...but that’s not what we get today.  [pause]
WE GET A MONARCH, A SOVEREIGN.  You can’t be friends with a heavenly king, no earthly underdog can.  Now how is that Good News?  
[slowly] It’s good news because what we get this day—on this New Year’s Eve Day of our church year, on this day of turning a page in our congregation, on this day of looking both back on this past year and forward into the next—is the all encompassing love of God for this world.  What we get this day is not simply another clash between good guys vs. bad guys, to put it simply, but an embrace…an all encompassing embrace.  In the Gospel of John, LOVE just pours out of Jesus like an ever-flowing stream.  It’s inhuman, that is, beyond this world.  Jesus is LOVE.  There is no clash because Jesus’ reign covers the entire cosmos.  All the world.  Pilate can’t see it, his view is so narrow.  (His love covers the cosmos like light fills a room.  It’s everywhere.)  
It’s like the children’s song, “He really does have the whole world in his hands.”  No one is conquered when they are conquered with love.  That’s what we have today.  Forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, freedom from fear ourselves, confidence to walk in grace led only by the voice of the one true Shepherd King who guides our feet into the way of peace, who is our only true protection.  How quickly we forget and seek other forms of comfort and protection (like Pilate, the disciples, the Jews all did), but Christ is our King—not King in the way the world understands it, but King [pause] over the way the world understands it.  [pause] Jesus’ love pours out all over us and this world today, saturating us with joy, pouring over us comfort and security, flooding us with forgiveness, drenching us with eternal salvation.  It’s overwhelming really.  There’s no contest—a classic duel between good guys and bad doesn’t even make sense.  
It’s all God, all Love, all Jesus.  That’s the cross of Christ, around which we gather here again, before a new year begins.  In this cross is healing, peace, love, life and joy.  Happy New Year.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

November 18 -- 26th Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace…

Take a moment and turn to your neighbor and describe to her or him the most impressive building in which you’ve ever been in your life – doesn’t have to be religious, but it could be.  Perhaps a cathedral, perhaps an athletic stadium or a building in DC, perhaps a skyscraper or a castle.  Think about it for a moment, and then tell your neighbor…

[share some responses. Wrigley Field, Castle Church]

Well maybe you had to think about what the most impressive building you’ve ever seen is, but for the people of Jesus’ time and place, this would not have been an interesting question, because everybody knew:  It was the temple in Jerusalem.  

And in our Gospel text, as some of the disciples are admiring that temple – “What large stones, and what large buildings” –  Jesus prophesies:  “See these stones?  See this temple, see that cathedral, that stadium, that mall, that skyscraper, that castle?  Not a stone will be left on stone.”  In other words, all earthly things will eventually deteriorate and waste away…as glorious as they may be right now.  “But my body,” Jesus says to us today, “will rise up through the ashes.”  

Friends, Christ speaks to us today about ultimate things—the end of the world, the end or our lives—and thank God for it.  The world will end.  Our lives will end.  But Christ will rise up through the ashes to take us with him, to shower the ruined world, the dead and all creation with compassion and righteousness. Christ will rise up through the ashes, the crumbled buildings and wasted empires, to rule all in all.
Come, this morning, sisters and brothers in Christ, receive the comfort of God in the midst of our fears and tears. 

Do you ever worry about the world coming to an end?  You wouldn’t be alone.  It seems like no matter what era/period/administration/chapter we’re in, someone is always able to relate to these texts about nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, natural disasters...  Whether the halls of power are dominated by Democrats some years or Republicans other years, there’s always that voice:  “Uh oh, this is the end.”  With fires and hurricanes and blizzards and for decades now, mass shootings.  Maybe the fears and tears come from whatever political party is not currently in power.  Or maybe it’s on our tv sets or radios or computer screens.  Or maybe that voice is in our own heads, when we read passages like this (of which there are a few in Scripture), that we say to ourselves: “Uh oh, the end is at hand.”

But here’s what’s at the heart of our readings today, friends in Christ:  Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God!  That’s actually from the book of Romans, but it’s at heart of today too.  Come, you who are scared about the end of the world or the end of the church or the end of your life!  Come, you who are terrified about what’s going on now or what might be next.  Come—all are welcome in this place—and receive the comfort of God this day—offered to us in Bread and Wine, Word and Water.  The comfort and presence of our God: the antidote to all our fears and tears!  Our places of worship—i.e. our stadiums and shopping malls, and amazon.com and FB—will one day be gone!  Those are the places where we sure can put our trust, our joy, our money and our time.  (Not us Lutherans though, right?)  

Maybe our beloved places of worship—our churches, where Christianity is studied, preached and practiced—feel like they’re slipping away these days.  “Nobody cares anymore,” I hear.  I don’t happen to believe this actually (I actually see our post-Christendom challenges as a refiner’s fire moment), but I’ve been wrong before; and sometimes we forget that everything we have, is actually God’s, and it can be gone even in the blink of an eye.  

But even if we were to lose everything, sisters and brothers who follow Jesus, remember that Christ rises up through the ashes to save us, to heal us, to redeem us, and to comfort us.  Can we trust that promise?  Can we open our hands to receive that gift freely given in Christ Jesus?

The Church is not a building, the church is the body of Christ.  The Church is you.  But not just you, it’s the generations and generations that came before you and me.  And it’s the generations and generations that, thanks be to God, will follow.  The church of Jesus Christ will live forever, wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, wherever the word is preached and the sacraments are administered.  It’s OK: God’s got this.

What if this structure was all to fall down?  That’s worth asking with our text today.  What if this beautiful building was reduced to a pile of ashes along Little River Turnpike?  Would Bethlehem Lutheran Church still exist?  Would you still have a church home?  According to the children’s song, it would: “I am the church.”

Christ rises up through the ashes.  Our God lives, not confined to buildings and rituals (which rise and fall), but our God lives…among us (prof who threw the Bible against the wall), in us, around us…as we seek ways to love and care for each other and this frightened world. 

Let our reading from Hebrews guide us this day and always: Let’s wait for God by caring for each other.   Let us lift one another up… let’s “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Let us be the church together.  Let us wait for God by reaching out.  (Luther’s apple tree quote.)

Sisters and brothers in Christ, someday it will all end—maybe tomorrow, maybe light years from now—but remember this day and always that whether you live or whether you die, whether this world lives or whether it dies, WE BELONG TO CHRIST.  May that strong Word, that enduring promise, that unshakeable truth be your comfort in all you do.

Let’s read together our HOD #327.  

God, our help in ages past, help us to trust in you now.  In the midst of our joy, in the midst of our fears and tears, help us to trust in you now.  We give you thanks for the gift of your Son, who rises up through the ashes, and leads us on our journeys.  Continue to hold us together, strengthen our hearts, and assure us of your promise, forgiveness and all embracing love, this day and for evermore.  AMEN.