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, December 8, 2019

December 8 -- Second Sunday of Advent

I don’t know about you, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep Advent as a community of faith and even as a family.  Christmas just gets better and better at encroaching.  Some Christians even believe strongly that that we should just skip Advent, that it’s no longer relevant or “useful”...that we, with the rest of the culture ought to just get on with a 4-week December celebration of Christmas.  And be done with it all the morning of December 26th.

I think we traumatized our own daughter Katie when she was a preschooler (remember this, Katie?): we were pulling down the Advent decorations again that year, which included her nativity, and after she set the whole thing up, she noticed that the baby Jesus was missing.  “Where’s Baby?  Where’s Baby?

I want the baby!”  See, one of our family traditions has been that we don’t put the baby Jesus out in our nativity sets until Christmas Eve.  That all through Advent, we wait and hope and get ready and get excited; that we can’t just have everything we want right when we want it.  We had some tears.  But that’s a discipline I’m not really used to either: waiting.  I get what I want, when I want it...for the most part.  No one’s going to dictate to me that I need to be patient, and wait with hopeful expectation.  

We want Christmas to be here now in our culture, and so we take it, as soon as we want it.

So right off the bat today, all this Christmas stuff all around, makes it really hard to hear the prophet’s call — John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.  It’s almost as loud as a whisper with all the holiday things all around us, with all the Christmas carols and bells and parties and cookies and peppermint spiced lattes and...incessant advertising and shopping.  It almost makes John the Baptist, who we try to hear today, seem way out of place, even though he’s been a part of Christian December readings in church since the middle ages, he kind of becomes a ‘buzz kill‘ — talkin’ all crazy...  Like someone unpleasant bursting into our festivities.  How dare he?  “We want the baby!!”

But patience is a virtue.  And John reminds us of that — listening, hoping, expecting, even looking at ourselves and our unhealthy thoughts and patterns — not rushing to angels and shepherds and a baby in a manger just yet.

I imagine the Sundays of Advent as hilltops, like the gentle rolling hills of the Virginia countryside we drove across last week.  The rolling hills of  Advent.  Meeting prophets — Isaiah, Paul and now John the Baptist — who serve as guides on our Advent journey...pointing us to the stable down in the valley, still 16 days off in the distance.

It’s like the difference between driving somewhere and flying: when you drive, you watch the terrain change ever so slowly.  And when you walk even more so.  We as a faithful community, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, part of our greater family the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and even wider the church of Jesus Christ on planet earth, we’re traveling a little slower than the rest of the culture who seems to have boarded the airplane and never looked back (or out the window even), who never experienced the beautiful Advent hill country.

And here’s what we learn today in the hills, in the wilderness:  That this God-with-us, this Emmanuel, this baby who arrives at Christmas, is not all peaches and lullabies.  He’s not all sweet little baby smell.  This God-come-near us is a judge.  An arbitrator.  He will clear the threshing floor, separating the wheat from the chaff.  That’s an image that might not resonate for us suburbanites in 2019, but the wheat farmer used to separate the good wheat from the chaff by “forking it” all, tossing it to the wind, and the good stuff falls back down and the chaff, blows away.
(putting straw in the manger outside this week)

This God-with-us is searching for substance (that in itself is Good News), fruit that’s worthy of repentance.

In this day-in-age, where there is so much chaff blowing around, so much cheapness, shallowness, emptiness, “lite-ness”.  So much deflection.  (I had a conversation with someone this week—one of my favorite teachers/authors actually—who have no time for chaff...cut right to the heart of the matter...ever talked to people like that?  No fluff, even polite formalities.)

She’s like John the Baptist, who talks about a God who looks and longs for substance and sustenance, wholeness and quality.  Wheat.  That’s the image.  “Goes to the heart of it.”

And this Second Sunday of Advent is a chance for us to go there, to slow down, value the journey, don’t race to the destination, celebrate and honor the beautiful hills of Advent, Hear the prophets callin’… Let the prophets’ words marinate with you for a bit...we’ll get to Christmas eventually.  There’s no doubt, but let the prophet’s words soak.

Today again, we pause atop the hill with John the Baptist, out in the wilds, who teaches us and celebrates with us a God who separates out our own chaff from our own wheat.  Our own emptiness and shallowness:  God-in-Christ-Jesus forks that (forks us) and tosses it (tosses us), and lets the Spirit, the wind, separate our stuff out.  And we fall back to the floor, cleared out of all our chaff, our extra stuff, our junk.  Advent is a time of refining.  Of God’s winnowing.  The chaff, “[Christ] will burn with unquenchable fire”!  That’s good news!  For the wheat that we are is deep beauty, deep blessing: “Child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross”!

God’s winnowing turns us into saints, bless-ed Christ-followers.  And God’s winnowing takes some openness on our part too...

I do have to admit that I love cleaning and de-cluttering during Advent, just separating out, getting rid of all the junk, all the dirt and grime, all the extra.  It’s a way for me to embody the season.  Taking stock.  Clearing up.  Emptying out.  Making room.  How are you making room for Christ to arrive anew?  How are we repenting [metanoia-ing, turning around, 180*], opening up, making space, allowing the Holy Spirit-wind do its “winnowing” on us?  How are you waiting?

Friends in Christ, this is how God speaks to us today, how Jesus invites us, and the Spirit moves in our midst!  This is what John the Baptist proclaims: that we are made new, we are cleared of our sin and our brokenness.  And from this sacred little hilltop, John points us down that bumpy road to a tiny town (that this church is named after) and an even tinier stable and its manger, where we will travel together in these holy weeks, to meet again in the silence and the beauty of the night, this loving and judging wheat farmer God, born to a poor, blue-collar family, who calls us to live justly, to bear fruits of kindness and holiness; who directs us to righteousness, and separates out our sin and our brokenness, our chaff from our wheat, and who sends us even now into the valleys of death in this world to be a flame of hope, to share this Gospel, this good news with everyone.

God is already with us, and still we wait in peace and expectation.  Today, we sit still on the hill with the prophet and marvel anew.  For God is love-come-near, blooming and growing among us.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

November 17 -- Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Sisters and brothers in Christ,

Today’s Gospel, today’s good news is for the tired believers.

It’s for those of us who are a little bit, and especially for those of us who are very tired, and frightened about what the future holds.  (If that’s not you, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and come stand with those who are tired and afraid.)  This is a text for those who look around and see a world that has abandoned the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.  The text I just read, said “you will be hated by all because of my name.”  Maybe that’s true for Christians today in some places, but mostly in our culture, I think the contemporary version of this is not that we will be hatred but rather just treated with apathy or ignorance or misinterpretation, which in some ways is worse.  If you’re hated, then at least your argument has got traction, it’s getting under someone’s skin.  But if you’re ignored, well then you don’t even have a place [“benign”].  Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.”

Do you ever feel totally insignificant or ignored?  Without a place, a voice?  Not even given the affirmation of a counter-argument.  Just brushed off – perhaps by the culture, perhaps by our leaders and law makers, always by the weather, perhaps by the church, perhaps by your family or friends? “You will be irrelevant because of my name,” Jesus might say to us today.  (If that’s not you...)

Today’s Gospel message is for the tired followers of Jesus among us…feeling unimportant and hopeless…like our work and our words are in vain, and the ship is going down.  “Why bother?  What’s the point?  Who cares?”

This Gospel is for those of us who can feel ourselves being sucked into all that apathy, ignorance and misinterpretation flying all around us, like a hurricane.

It’s easy to just give ourselves to those Category 5, gale-force, hurricane winds of this culture—“take care of yourself, it’s all about you, cover your assets, [whispering] they are not your problem, protect yourself, security, security, personal security, draw your circle of family tight and neat, don’t worry about anyone else but you and yours…’cause the ship is going down.”  Watch for those subtexts in all the holiday ads that are already well on their way in our culture…these messages whipping by us like wind...and sometimes much more impactful than that.

I grew up on the Gulf Coast and, like many of you, have been in a few hurricanes.  I’ve got this image in my head this week of “Christians in a hurricane” when I look at this text:

Christians in a hurricane, can you imagine?  Christians, like any creature, would seek cover during a hurricane.  But then, as they wait for the storm to pass, they toil away together in a safe place—maybe a basement of a church, maybe its a community center or someone’s home.  They would be together and working away during the storm … knitting, quilting, assembling packets, cooking, planning their strategy for reaching out very soon, assisting one another with words of comfort, bandages, hugs and long conversations.  Maybe even laughter and games as the trees bend and branches fall outside.  Can you envision it?  Small teams would even venture out into the storm to gather in those who could not find shelter.  They would risk their lives for a stranger.  And when they returned with a cold, wet, lost child or an elderly adult, all would be greeted at the door and ushered in with blankets and bowls of tomato soup and plates of grilled cheese.  And a cot with a pillow.  Can you see it, in your mind’s eye?

The hurricane pounds, and the Christians wait and work.  And then a time would come for worship.  They would gather in a dark place underground.  No electricity, but that doesn’t matter.  They’d pray and sing anyway.  They’d read scripture by candlelight – they’d hardly have to look for passages about earlier believers riding out storms, lights shining in darkness, life overcoming death, peace in times of chaos...because they’d already know them by heart.  And they’d hang on every word from that Holy Book.  And then they’d eat — Christians in a hurricane – they’d break and eat the body of life, the blood of forgiveness, Christ would fill them – and they would be satisfied…with all physical evidence to the contrary.

Today’s text is about hunkering down together.  Patiently working.  Lovingly watching .  Thoughtfully reaching out.  Faithfully hoping.  Christians in a hurricane.
The Gospel of Luke is written by the same author as the book of Acts.  And commentaries reminded us that this text, especially the bits about the hardship that’s coming—the imprisonment, the ridicule, the persecution—is of course a foreshadowing of exactly what happens in Acts.

One of these events in the book of Acts:  there’s a story of Paul traveling by sea with his comrades and they are terrified because they’re caught in a storm...but Paul speaks to them:
“I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship…'Do not be afraid…God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.'  So keep up your courage.” (Acts 27:22-25)

“The ship is going down, and you’ll be OK,” Jesus says to his disciples.   Jesus is unimpressed in this text by the temple, by the building, by the ship.  Bricks and stones and fancy cargo, will all go down.

But you will be OK.  In one sentence, Jesus says, “you will be betrayed and some even put to death,” and in the very next, “but not a hair on year head will perish.”  Malachi: “The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”  Psalmist: “Sorrow spends the night, but...”

This is a text about hunkering down, faithfully enduring.  “By your endurance you will gain your [souls],” Jesus says.  psuche—mind, sanity, calmness.  Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach: “Chop wood, carry water.”  Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:  “Do not weary in doing what is right.”  Hunker down: chop wood, carry water, wash, bake, stitch, weed.  One of the great quotes attributed to Martin Luther: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I’d plant an apple tree today.”  

Hunkering down, sisters and brothers in Christ, patiently doing what is right.  And we do it, not alone, we endure with all tangible evidence to the contrary, we endure in the glorious company of all the saints—who we celebrated a few weeks ago and each time we gather—we endure together and we endure with Christ.  To the tired followers of Jesus, hear his words again.  “My peace be with you,” he says, even as nation rises against nation, even as nation rises against itself, earthquakes from within and without, hurricanes pounding, Christians don’t deny the realities.  They ground themselves in an even deeper reality:  Christ’s peace is present, enfleshed and moving among us—that peace never leaves us.

And because of that peace of Christ, which passes all human understanding, everything turns, everything changes, and we are filled anew...to love and share and trust and live.
Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

November 10 -- Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Well, we are coming into the ‘season of questions’:  questions around the Thanksgiving table, questions around the Christmas dinner table.  Many times those questions are lovingly asked, as family and friends re-unite and catch-up and check in:  “Well, can you tell us about life in the big city?  How are classes going? What new projects are you working on?”  

You know when you get asked a genuine question, how the asker truly wants to learn and hear more because they care about you and are genuinely interested in you, and what you have to say.  Open-heated questions.  

And then there are other questions...questions that are not bolstered with a backdrop of support or any clear intention of loving curiosity and concern or excitement.  These are mean-hearted questions.

Have you ever been asked a mean-hearted question? — Questions that are meant to “catch” you or point out some shortcoming?  Questions that are really just meant to embarrass you, even as they might be skillfully worded to make the asker look totally innocent, even well-intentioned?  Sometimes ridiculous scenarios are created just to see how you’ll react or respond.  Again, questions that are just trying to make you look bad.  I’m afraid these kinds of questions can show up during the holidays too, during this season of questions, and throughout the year as well.

They could even be the exact same examples I just gave...but the tone is so different.  “So tell us about life in the big city.”  (clear disdain for a location or choice you made to move away)  “How are classes going?” (knowing full well that you’re not in school at the moment, unlike other siblings) “What new projects are you working on?” (hinting at some past failures or a pattern of jumping from thing to think without finishing) 

Some questions, friends in Christ, are just cruel.

Ahhh, pay attention to questions these days, and in this quickly-approaching holiday season.  (And pray for God always to be on your/our lips and in your/our heart, as you/we both ask questions and respond in the coming days.)
Jesus, once again, is experiencing the latter forms of questions here in our text — the kinds meant to embarrass and “catch”.  And certainly a ridiculous scenario (even to ancient ears).  You can almost hear the cruelty to the Sadducees’ tone.  

But Christ, once again, uses their mean-heartedness to teach us a lesson about God and offer a vision of justice and peace.  Often the asker of the cruel question has no desire to learn, and I wonder if the Sadducees never learned from Jesus’ response.  But we we get to.  Two thousand years later!  We get to look with fresh eyes and consider Christ’s response.

“Whose wife will the woman be?” they asked.

And Jesus responds with a vision of heaven: In God, that is, in heaven, a woman will not be passed down like an object, from brother to brother.  In God, everyone is valued fully — the text says, they “will become like angels”.  In God, no one is cast aside or passed along crudely.  In God, mean-heartedness and cruelty is no more.  Tears and pain are no more.  In God, dying is no more.  Jesus gives us a glimpse of heaven.  Can you imagine?  I hope that you can!  And that these strange ideas in this text today might even give us direction and instruction for how we live now.  What would it look like to lift others up like angels?!  (And let our selves be seen too...as angels?!)  That’s the image in Luke here!  Do you see yourself as an angel?

Are we capable of seeing and treating each other as angels?  
Each person that walks into this church this next week, can we welcome them as angels?  What if you envision each person who comes into your business or classroom, or sits at the cafe table next to you or waits at the stoplight across from you...as an angel?!  Not just someone to be passed by, passed down, passed over, like the widow in the Sadducees scenario.   But angels.  

(Maybe their example is not that ridiculous, after all, when we think about how carelessly we can overlook one another because we’re always in such a hurry, or suspicious, or actually somewhere deep down believe we’re better than someone else, that they’re not worthy of angelic dignity...)

This text is a wake-up call, friends in Christ.  To see our neighbors, to see strangers in our midst, to see family members and community partners … not just as fellow human beings … but as angels!  Talk about resurrection!  Christ lives (“I know that my redeemer lives”) and so do we...and not just as mere humans but, in Christ, we live as angels, like angels, for one another and for this hurting planet!

Friends, we can glimpse, we can live into a bit-o-heaven even here and even now, even in these mean-hearted days! Our God is a God of life and is calling us to open our eyes and our hearts even now.  This new life is ours, and it’s not just for after we leave this earth!  

Our God is a God of the living, a God of “the now”.  And this God has come near to be with us...in wine and water and wheat and wherever God wants to show up!  This community, this congregational meeting today, this neighborhood, this city, even about this Capitol Beltway!  

This God of the living has chosen to come along side us, and so we start living anew today — Open-hearted.  Interested and caring.  Noticing others, slowing down to appreciate the angels all around us!  This is our call.  

This is grace again, showered down on you and on me.  Thanks be to God.  Christ will come...and Christ is here now.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

November 3 -- All Saints Sunday

Got a voice mail message from my friend Edgar the other day:  “Dan, how you doin’ buddy.  Been a long time.  Things are good here.  You know: [chuckle] ‘first world’ baby.  I got first world problems...” He goes on...

But I’ve been chuckling and thinking about his message this week.  And I think about it today as we revisit and are reshaped by this beautiful Zacchaeus story about Christ’s transformative forgiveness and self-invitation.  I think it helps to start all that from Edgar’s angle: “first world”.  In other words, it helps to start by realizing that we’re up in the tree too, with Zacchaeus.  First world problems: can’t get a nice enough view.

I remember when we did some painting at our house in California some years back.  I’m thinking about giving the pastor’s study here at church an accent wall of color too.  I can’t think of a better example of first-world problems.  I mean we stressed out about this, maybe you have been before too — “What if we buy the paint we think we like, but don’t once it’s up on the wall?”  That’s a first world problem!  [I imagine we can argue why the color of our walls is so important.]  But c’mon...first world, baby.

We’re up there with Zacchaeus, friends, looking down on the rest.  Maybe we haven’t intentionally defrauded anyone quite like that dirty, little tax-collector Zaccaeus, but we’re all broken sinners.  And those of us in the first world have certainly squandered more than our fair share of resources over and against our neighbors, sometimes totally unknowingly.  (I remember when I learned what my carbon footprint was, just in eating a hamburger, much less driving a car or flying in an airplane.)  We’ve all defrauded or cut ourselves off from the rest (pretending not to see or just not caring).  Who would have thought that ‘falling short’ (of the glory of God) meant ‘climbing high’?  But we’ve got a perfect visual of that today: Zack up there in the tree.  (Picture from Nats parade.)  

And not only are we separated and isolated from other parts of the world, friends, we’re separated from each other.  And we know we need each other, we know we’re meant to be together, but still we want to climb that tree.   So we’ve tried to get both — we’ve invented the internet and Facebook so that we can have it all — the glorious tree house up high and the ‘connection’ too.  But of course that’s not a real connection; that’s not sharing a meal at home together.  What a difference.  (You should write an essay this week about the difference between spending an evening alone on Facebook (ok) vs. spending an evening at a dinner party with your favorite people.)

It’s an ok good view from up here, in the tree.  That is, until Jesus comes walking into town, stops at the foot of our tree...[pause] and then our view gets even better...

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God didn’t create us to live up above the rest, or apart from one another.  Isolated.  God made us for community — both in our neighborhoods and across our globe.  Community is at the heart of this passage.  Zacchaeus is being restored to the community, and that restoration of community is at the heart of his salvation:  “Salvation has come to this house today.”  Even with all our defrauding one another and grumbling about each other, we are meant to be together.  God made us for community.  God made us for each other.  And that’s at the heart of salvation.  Salvation is not just for you to get across the finish line, forgetting all the rest; no, salvation looks like a dinner party!

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus walks up to our trees this day, looks up at us, and calls us down too.  Each of us.  We can all get caught up there…not just because of our first-world problems, but because of our human problems: our pride, our self-centeredness, and our fear.  We can retreat up the tree and want to live out our days up there, but Jesus walks up to our tree and says, “Come down.”  In fact he says, “Hurry and come down.”  What are you doing up there?  What are you doing locked up there apart from the neighborhood?  What are you doing walking on other peoples’ backs?  Come down from there.”  Jesus gently calls us down.  Not with a lecture about wealth and poverty, and money, or a guilt trip about our first-world problems, but with another surprise: the self-invite.

Biblically-sanctioned intrusion (just for when you feel like you might be barging in on a friend.)  “I’m coming to your house today,” Jesus says.  Didn’t see that one coming.  Like later in John’s Gospel — “Do you have anything to eat?” — our Lord lovingly intrudes and, in so doing, empowers, even the most unlikely of characters — the tax man!  Even you...even me.

All of us, called out, called down, called back to the earth.

This story is amazing because, notice the order here: Jesus didn’t offer forgiveness and salvation and then Zacchaeus came down and invited Jesus over to celebrate.  First, Jesus just invites himself over, tells him to come down.  First there’s the intrusion.  And then Zacchaeus makes this incredible statement -- “Half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.  And anyone I’ve defrauded, I’ll pay back 4x as much”!!!  Jesus didn’t ask for any of that, but Zacchaeus just couldn’t help himself.  He had been flung by God’s grace out of that tree...and just went crashing into a new life of radical generosity.  And that’s when Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.”  Zacchaeus has been restored to the community.  He’s come back to the earth.

Maybe there should be a St. Zacchaeus Lutheran church!  (I’m always thinking about church names.)  Why don’t we have that?  Because Zacchaeus was one of those turn-around saints.  In some ways that’s way more inspiring than all the saints who were always willing to share what they had in radically generous ways!  Zacchaeus let himself be flipped, cold-turkey, from incredibly stingy and conniving to radically merciful and generous.  St. Zacchaeus.
Jesus is so bold, sisters and brothers in Christ, that he invites himself into our homes!  I don’t know about you, but my home’s a mess right now (especially in the middle of Oct-Nov busyness, my study’s a mess right now here at church).  The last person I’d want to invite over is Jesus.  But we don’t get to invite him, he invites himself.

This is where I don’t understand the language of some of our siblings in Christ, who say, “All you have to do is invite Jesus into your heart.”  No, he invites himself, ready or not!!

And as a result, everything changes!  It’s grace, it’s God’s arrival, that turns our lives around, not guilt or shame about our first-world lifestyles.  It’s love and relationship that changes our ways, not lectures about our self-centeredness and isolationism.  Do you see?  It’s grace, it’s love that brings us down — back to the community, to share all that we have.

Salvation, friends in Christ, comes to your house this All Saints Day...as the bread and the wine intrude, as the rain waters of our baptisms cause us to slip right out of the trees of our self-congratulatory exploits and carry us back into the muddy village.  Back to the table.

It was a bird’s eye view of Jesus.
But now, thanks be to God, we’re sharing a meal with him.  Now we’re across the table from Christ and therefore from each other.  Now everything changes.   AMEN.

Monday, October 28, 2019

October 27 -- Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God who is with us.  AMEN.

I give thanks for this day.  And I give thanks that you are here with me to celebrate it.  This is the first day of the week, the only day we all come together.  And it does us well, in light of this Gospel text to stop and think about what we’re doing here together…and what we’re not doing.

What we’re trying not to do, as students of Jesus, is we’re trying not to be like the Pharisee.  Of all texts to wrap up our stewardship month.  I had to laugh when I read this.  I suppose we could look at this when we’re discerning how and what to pledge to the church in 2020, and justify ourselves by saying look at how Jesus paints the tither.  But I’m pretty sure that would be to miss the point. 

As we reflect and give thanks this morning at church, we don’t want to be like the Pharisee because the Pharisee had no genuine repentance and was full of pretentious piety.  (just look at the posture difference on your worship folder cover)  He might have gathered around the font with us at the beginning of the service, and said what we say: 

“We confess that we have failed to live as your disciples…”  But he wouldn’t have really meant it.  He would have secretly chuckled at the part that alludes to how “we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”  “Well, I have,” he would have thought looking at all of us, “I’ve done a better job of loving my neighbors than all of these people.”  Then he’d start listing all the ways in his head—and they might very well be good ways:  maybe this past week the Pharisee called and went to visit some of our homebound members, not because the pastor was out of town, but just because that was the right thing to do.  Maybe this past week the Pharisee attended a fundraiser at Lamb Center here in Fairfax and gave all kinds of money to the organization that shelters the downtrodden.  

Maybe at work this week, the Pharisee noticed a colleague in the work room who looked unusually sad.  So instead of having lunch with his buddies, like he usually does, he made the sacrifice and went over to check-in with someone who really appreciated and needed the attention as they were going through a major period of grief in their life.  And then he would even call to mind his graciousness on the road, how he let several people cut in while he was merging onto the beltway and people were sneaking in after he had been waiting patiently in line.  

“Never even honked at them,” the Pharisee would secretly be patting himself on the back.  “Love my neighbors as myself?” “Check,” he thinks, “and frankly, I don’t know what I couldn’t have done this past week to do that!” 
(And none of this is verbalized, btw; on the surface, we all love the Pharisee because he’s such a generous, upstanding, kind citizen and member of the church.  No, this dialogue is only in his head and heart.)
Then he would have rolled his eyes as the rest of us confess that we have not been faithful stewards of God’s creation, and “we have feasted with friends and but ignored strangers.”  

“First of all,” he might think, “I’ve given all kinds of handouts to strangers this week, and when it comes to God’s creation, well I’ve recycled and more.  If it means giving a little to animal adoption agencies, check.  If it means picking up trash on the ground when I see it, well, every time I take a walk, I bring a trash bag and pick up trash.  And I drive a Prius.  Hard to see how this really applies to me...it reminds me how others around here need to do way more though”…says the Pharisee standing with us.  “Steward creation?  Done.  Share with the poor and needy?  Yep.”  Says the Pharisee. 

You know, it’s almost as the Pharisee has no need for God.

But we, like the tax collector, on the other hand, are much different.  [pause]  We, like the tax collector, stand around this baptismal font again today, and remember that we’re not as great as the Pharisee.  We, like the tax collector, take this morning to pause again and remember that we’re still coming up short when it comes to our work and our thoughts and our hearts.  We’re still standing in the need of prayer.  We, like the tax collector, have made many mistakes this past week.  We’ve had some unclean and unloving thoughts.  We’ve neglected the grieving among us, the lonely among us, the poor among us.  Haven’t been faithful stewards of the planet or the church or the poor.   

And even while God doesn’t smile at our brokenness, even while God’s heart is saddened by any of our reckless or selfish behaviors, even while a tear rolls down God’s cheek because of our carelessness toward others and the planet itself…God pulls us in this day.  God pulls us in together like a soft, warm mother with big arms—all of us here, even that Pharisee—and here God holds us for a bit.  Can we just let ourselves be held for a moment this morning?…because that’s what we’re doing here.

Now if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to accept and fluffy stuff.  Any love.  I caught myself this week dodging a compliment, which is a verbal form of being pulled in and loved.  I’ve got intimacy issues with God — I don’t always believe that I’m loved.  I believe that you are.  That’s easy for me to say.  But me?  Maybe you’re like me with this fluffy stuff?  We’re a tough, surviving people, and all this talk of mercy and love doesn’t always register.  I’m preaching to myself too: God pulls us in, sisters and brothers in Christ!  God pulls you in like a mother bear.  (a very Luther-an struggle)

I give thanks for this day, like I give thanks when I’m with family or friends I haven’t seen for a long time, and we’re just about to eat a meal but first we sing.  My family always used to sing around the dinner table, and often we’d sing: “Oh Lord, everybody’s home.”

I give thanks this day that “everybody’s home,” we’re all home, wrapped in the arms and held closely to the bosom of God.    (Psalm 84)

God pulls us in this morning in all our brokenness, in all our self-centeredness, in all our fear and anger and bitterness, in all our pain and sorrow, God pull us all in.  And in our humility at God’s awesome power, in our honesty about our own shortcomings, like the sinful-but-repentant tax-collector—we are exalted.  “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  

Acknowledging humbly that there’s still work to be done on us, our journey is not complete.  We’ve got more to meet and welcome, more to offer, more to serve, more to do, more to be.  But we know, us tax collectors (unlike the Pharisee), that even as our time is not yet finished, we know that God’s mercy washes us, refreshes us.  That’s what it means to be exalted.

In our genuine repentance, re-formation, we are watered, like the rain waters the forests and fields today, we are watered for faithfulness.  Gathered and sent.  Gathered and sent.  We go down justified, like the text says.  We go down from this place, from this temple, fed and nourished, watered and warm—ready to serve, ready to love.

The humble will be exalted and so we are…and we are held close, thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

October 20 -- Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Two parts of this reading that I really want to hone in on:
“Pray always. Do not lose heart” & “Will God find faith on earth?”  In other words, I think the lesson here is that those who have faith on earth are those who 1) pray always and 2) do not lose heart.

About 7 ago we took a two-week trip back to my hometown of Houston, TX.  We drove.  I-10.  20hrs13min.

So at first glance, I think I can resonate with the way Jesus describes that judge and that widow who kept continually crying out.  Micah and Katie, you can imagine, gave us a few vivid images from the back seat of continually crying out.  (For the most part they were great.)  But on those long days across the West Texas desert, one might have heard in the Roschke car: “Dad, can I have some more.  Why not, why not?  Mom, Katie’s bothering me.  Dad, Micah took my Uni.”  And of course the ever popular, “Are we there yet?”  There were moments :)

Jesus tells us about a widow who kept coming and asking and pleading and crying, too.  But she was after more than candy and rest stops and ‘getting even’ with her sibling.  She was after true justice.  “Grant me justice against my opponent,” was her passionate plea.  And the widow, it helps to remember, in ancient Mediterranean culture, was a symbol, everyone knew, of injustice, of the edge of society, of the poor.  For the widows, in those days, had no one to advocate for them, to represent them in court, or in life.  So she has to advocate for herself.  And Jesus tells us this parable to teach us something about our need to pray and not lose heart.

The widow was not just a whiner in the backseat who needed a quick fix.  The widow was caught at the bottom of a system in which it seemed she had no hope at all of changing.  The widow was not a little kid who needed a snack (sometimes our prayers can be like that).  The widow is the woman whose people have had to sit at the back of the bus her whole life...but stays in the fight. (pause) The widow is man who has been denied by the church that he loves his entire life because something about him is different...but keeps praying and working fervently for change.  (pause)  The widow is the teenager who just can’t get a break — born with two strikes against him, brought up in a violent home, caught up in a dangerous neighborhood, no choice but to attend grossly underfunded schools, where teachers are trying but are cynical...but keeps hanging on.

The widow is anyone who has endured hardship for a long time, and yet does not lose heart.  And Jesus uses this searing images to teach us a lesson about prayer:  Sometimes prayer doesn’t happen on our knees, with our hands folded.  Sometimes prayer means getting up, uncrossing our hands, and advocating...for ourselves or even for others.
   “Lord, grant me (grant us all, grant this whole world) justice.”

Well, we made it, thanks be to God, safely to Houston, on that trip now almost 7 years ago.  And while we were there, we went to the church where I grew up; the church where I was confirmed; the church that sent me their newsletter the whole time I was in college, even though I usually tossed it in the recycle, this was the church that made sure I knew they were still there and loved me; this was the church that put me and my dear friend both through seminary, full gift, because they too, like this community believed in raising up leaders for the church.  What a gift that church gave...that I get to be your pastor, un-crippled by tuition debt (and Linda went on to serve as the secretary for the entire ELCA).  That Sunday we visited that church — where I was ordained, where probably about two dozen clergy (many of whom had watched me grow up) turned out in their robes and their grey hair to put their hands on me as the stole was placed upon my shoulders.  

I could have told you about any number of road trips that we have taken as a family, where there was some whining in the back seat, but I wanted to tell you about the one to Houston, because that Sunday we went back to that church, and like lots of churches in the middle of fall, with a Houston Texans football game looming that afternoon, with everyone busy with life, the sanctuary of that dear church felt a little empty.  Some apologized to us, I remember that Sunday, that there weren’t as many people there anymore.  But what got me were the ones who still were.  Alice Chadwell, Ron Seimers, Marylyn Healy, Kurt Nelson, Sam and Barbara Skjonsby, Howard and Judy Bolt, the whole Jansen family, their little kids now in high school and college — all still there, and Mary Teslow.  Older folks, and not so old folks.  Still. Showing. Up.

(I’m still talking about praying always and not losing heart, btw.)        

Every Sunday between services, they serve a breakfast at Salem out of their little, run-down old kitchen, that was brand new when I was growing up.  And the people still gather every Sunday between services to study the Bible — two big groups.  One of the church council members was leading the study that I went to, and he started with a simple, beautiful prayer: “Thank you, God, for this day full of grace.”  And together the dozen or so people joined in discussing II Corinthians.  Nothing flashy really about it.

I was nearly moved to tears as they bickered a little bit with one another in the bible study, they seemed to be irritating each other a little with their same old comments.  But they were all still there!  I know many of their stories — lost jobs, lost spouses, lost children.  In many ways, like so many this was yet another congregation of “widows”.  Nothing flashy. But they were still there.

The worship service was OK, I guess.  My dad preached.  Nothing flashy really about it.  But the people gathered.  And they prayed, they prayed for themselves, they prayed for others.  When Christ comes, will he find faith on earth?  I think so, in churches like that, and in churches like this.  (pause)

I hope painting a picture of another small church that’s far away helps us see what’s right here under our noses — people gathering, nothing flashy, week after week, year after year, decade after decade.  Showing up for one another.  Sure, irritating each other at times, but never giving up, never losing heart, supporting one another through good times and bad.  You can tell those same stories here, or wherever you’re from….because this isn’t about us.  It’s about God.  God is faithful and has not abandoned us, and is made known through bread, wine, water and the community of the faithful!

Jesus’ story tells us that this cruel, unjust, self-centered judge granted that widow justice.  And his point is that if that selfish judge did it, then how much more will God do it?!  We just have to open our eyes and see it, right under our noses...see through the hardship and the bickering/whining, and the strikes that are against us.  God sees through all that and has found faith on earth, friends.

Praying and not losing heart is about seeing the things that are right under our noses, and sticking for the long haul.  “Thank you God, for this day FULL of grace.”

It’s yours, it’s ours — this good grace — and it’s meant to be shared.  Bask in that grace again this day, sisters and brothers in Christ, and then pass it on!  God’s mercy and gracious judgement, Christ’s joy and peace is here to stay.  AMEN.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

October 13 -- Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace…from God who creates us, from Jesus who has mercy and heals us, and from the Holy Spirit who challenges us, and moves among us now.  AMEN.

ON THE WAY TO JERUSALEM…our gospel passage starts out…Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.  But then he encounters a group – and pay attention to directionality in scripture – was the group on the way to Jerusalem too?  Probably not.  The movement of the people in this story makes a cross!  This directionality (where people we going) – has always been a part of our experience.  People making crosses—coming this way, going that…

We make crosses all the time today, as we encounter one another, as we encounter difference.   Every intersection is a cross.  Just think how many crosses you’ve made this past week…

It’s true physically, of course, and on other levels as well.  Making crosses all the time, in our conversations and our actions, making crosses across the earth…Jesus makes a cross, in our text today, with 10 lepers, and with us — a cross of healing, salvation (from the Latin for healing).  Jesus makes a cross of peace.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and he encounters this group of lepers, who keep their distance but, knowing who he is—“Jesus, Master,” they say—they cry out to Jesus to have mercy on them.
Interesting – they don’t ask to be healed, even though that’s what we all assume they want.  Interesting their words are simply—well, the same words we say at the beginning of every service.  When we encounter the living God, “Kyrie (Master), eleison…”

And Jesus immediately sends them to the priest.  He doesn’t invite them along his way to Jerusalem.  He simply sends them to a priest.  I imagine, that they were invited to keep moving in the same direction.  Almost like they just asked someone for directions.  Jesus give them some directions, some instructions.  “Go and show yourself to the priests.” And they do:  they’re desperate, they’ll do anything to be rid of this state of rejection anywhere they go.

And AS they go, having encountered the healing presence of the Living Christ, “they were made clean”!  [keep telling the story…only one comes back…]  Only “the tithe”, only one tenth, came back.

Did this one who came back…did his directionality merge with Jesus’ directionality?  Jesus invites him to get up and go “his” way, but did “his” way become Jesus’ way?  Did he go a new direction from that day on?   [+ the directionality in this story when we “cross” ourselves, ending in the center]
Friends in Christ, Jesus has mercy on us too, showers, showers “our ways” with mercy.  “I’m going this way, God!” and yet, Christ still chooses to shower that way that we seem to think is ours, with mercy, love and forgiveness:  WE are made clean too.

When we cross paths with the salvific power of Christ (every Sunday!)...when the healing power of Jesus crosses over us, everything can change.  Everyone receives mercy, but like the one tenth leper, our directionality can even get “dialed in” with God’s directionality, as we come back to the center, as we come back and give thanks.  The healing is much larger and more mysterious than simply the sores going away!  Jesus took the sores away from everyone, everyone gets mercy, but only one was “made well”, only one was made whole, only one was faithful.  [+ going back]

Many in the world have been made free of sores — free of major physical illnesses, free of oppression, free of blatant injustice and discrimination on the level of a leper, free of financial hardship, and social alienation.  Maybe you fit into that?  “I’ve got it pretty good.”  

Think of all those people, many of us fit into that category: how we too can seem (on the world’s surface) to be in a good place — plenty or at least enough material goods, and security and even happiness:  and yet are we whole?  We’re all clean, but are we “well”?  Has our faith made us well, has our joyful thanksgiving made us well?  How we can give God the credit for our being in such a prosperous state, much like how I’m sure the other nine went and told everyone who performed that miracle…“God blessed me, God freed me of my disease, God gave me all this!” they will tell others.  The sores are gone, but are they healed, made whole, are they well?  

You see, the wholeness, the healing, the full salvus that God offers us is wrapped up in this directionality idea.  When our directionality is re-calibrated, and joyful thanksgiving turns us back to the center where we fall at Christ’s feet, dialing into God’s movement, maybe even heading now with Jesus to Jerusalem — then we’re really in for the good stuff.   The wholeness.  That doesn’t always mean fun stuff, but in that sacrifice, in that giving praise, in that offering, that tenth, in that devotion to the one who cures us from our dis-ease, in that morphing of our directionality, because of our encounter with the Living God, our faith makes us well…[get this!]...for our faith becomes the very faith of Christ!  (Our newly installed Bishop Leila Ortiz said yesterday, there’s such a difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus...she diagnoses the church’s condition this way, impacting our programs and our budgets and our staffing and our structures...)  When Christ crosses our paths, knowing Jesus, everything changes.


Finally, I have to say this as we study, “Honoring our Neighbor’s Faith” — Notice how Jesus treats those of another faith and culture, the Samaritans: he treats them with love and longing, not with contempt or condemnation.  Theologian and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this passage as the quintessential story for doing inter-faith dialogue.  For those who would not join Jesus on the journey, Jesus doesn’t spew hatred and curses on them.  With Jesus in Scripture, it’s always a peaceful crossing, albeit a crossing of love and longing.  If Jesus gets ever gets angry in Scripture, it’s always with his own people, for their lack of faithfulness.  There’s absolutely no biblical evidence that Jesus hated people of other faiths.  Some theologians even read this passage as Jesus regarding another’s faith as being salvific in its own way!  Go your way, your faith (whatever that faith is—Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Christian) has saved you.   

However we read this, we must pick up Jesus’ reverence and love for those who are different.  I mean, he takes their sores away!  All of the lepers, all of the foreigners.

In the end, aren’t we all?  Aren’t we all lepers, outsiders, beggars as Luther said on his deathbed?  Aren’t we all foreigners?  Foreign, alienated from God’s path, because of our sinfulness and self-centeredness?  Aren’t we all coming to Jesus, begging for mercy, crying out for wholeness?  

And sisters and brother in Christ, in the end Jesus does offer us healing, offer us life.  We are changed and forever changed in our encounter with the living Christ.  We encounter the living Christ in this place, in the healing waters of baptism, in the life-givng meal of Holy Communion, in the  laying on of hands in our prayers for healing today, in this community that we share with one in our eating & drinking Christ together, in our singing and praying, in our caring for one another and our side-by-side reaching out beyond ourselves.  Jesus loves us and longs for us in whatever our directionality was, and today Jesus invites into his directionality.  

Friends, having been made clean today, may that trust and faith to journey now with Christ be yours, this day and into eternity.  AMEN.