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, February 9, 2020

February 9 -- Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace.

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus tells his disciples in “Sermon on the Mount PART TWO” that they are salt and light.  Salt, by the way, was a Hebrew symbol of covenant, of God’s promise: preservative and flavor enhancer.  One of my favorite translations of the Bible, The Message by Eugene Peterson of blessed memory, puts it like this:  “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth…You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors of the world.”  What does it mean to you, that you bring out the God-flavors of this life, you bring out the God-colors of this world?

As we prepare again to host the Hypothermia Shelter here at Bethlehem in 2 weeks, you know that’s another opportunity to bring out the God-flavors and God-colors of this earth, right?

This past week, we signed on, because we’re a Reconciling in Christ Congregation, to walk in the DC Pride Parade in June.  You know that’s an opportunity to bring out the God-flavors and God-colors of this world, right?

Chili cook-off and bingo last night…

Listen for implicit salt and light language in our New Member Welcome in just a little bit...

You bring out the God-flavors and God-colors of this earth, you are salt and the light, in what you do at work, what you say to strangers, how you treat people in restaurants and in the airport and on the road, how you post on the internet.  Friends in Christ...YOU are the salt of the earth, the rays of hope and community for this hurting world.  You preserve God’s covenant and enhance this earthly walk.

Saw the movie Just Mercy this week (thanks to the nudgings of Sister Ramona).  It’s based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson who graduated from Harvard and moved down to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned on Death Row, who couldn’t afford proper representation, and had all the cards stacked against them because of the color of their skin.  In the face of so much blatant racism, and its ugly trail of cruelty.  Talk about salt and light!  Hope in the face of despair and the endless struggle for justice and truth.  Hope and the community stood as a beacon in that movie.

Being salt & light has so much to do with HOPE & COMMUNITY.

Because why would Christ call us flavor enhancers and covenant enjoyers and hope bringers and then hide us?  Why would Christ name us lights, and then put a bushel over our heads and hide us?  Being salt and light has a lot to do with HOPE and COMMUNITY!   [sing it] “Hide us under a bushel? No!  God’s going to let us shine.”  God says today, to all sisters and brothers in Christ that we are the light of the world, we bring out the God-colors in this world.  You reflect God in your words and actions, even in your just-being, for all to see.

Do you believe that?  We say this to our kids, in an attempt to get them to behave themselves.  “Now remember, you represent our congregation and our God, you reflect on all of us at BLC.”  We say it to our children.  But what about the rest of us?  Do you believe that you reflect God!?

It’s easy to be humble here, Lutherans:  “No, not me, I don’t reflect God.  I wish I did, but I’m nothing like [this person].”

Let’s entertain our humility for a moment.  Think about who is that other person?  Who do you seeing bringing out the God-flavors and God-colors through their words and actions?  (with us still or dearly departed) Do you have a person like that in your mind?

Anybody mention anybody in this congregation?  We can bring out the God-colors in each other, we reflect God to each other in different times...

(I want to just encourage you, to write a letter or a thank you card to whoever it is that has helped/is helping to bring out the God-colors, or the God-flavors in your life.  Who has helped make your faith 3-dimensional?  Maybe that person has since died or is somehow inaccessible…but perhaps then think of another person you do know, and write them a note this week…because they are God’s gift to you — God’s salt and light.)

But now,  let’s get back to you, humble people…
For if they have reflected God on you, now you definitely reflect God to the world.  For now Christ has shined his eternal light of hope on you, plus you’ve had that same light shined on you by an esteemed faith partner.  You are the salt of the earth, most definitely, you are the light of the world.

...Not even necessarily because I think you bring out God-colors, God-flavors.  I’m saying this because Jesus says it.  I try to preach what Jesus says, not what I think.  This is not my opinion, this is God’s fact, Christ’s truth: YOU REFLECT GOD, bringing out divine flavors and colors that cheer up this planet!  We are living embodiments of God’s hope and community for this world.

Friends, Jesus says it’s already so:  you’re the light of the world, the salt of the earth...
And Christ calls us to it anew again today. Christ has called you, to keep shining brightly.  Not in a showy of flashy way.  Not in a self-righteous way.

But to keep sharing God with this world—keep showing God to this planet, keep pointing to hope and community—keep drawing out the covenant, lifting up the promise of grace, enhancing the flavor of the Incarnation, illuminating the radical embrace of the Divine...through your actions.  “Let your lights shine bright, people of God!”

A light is warm and inviting, not excluding.  A city on a hill, which Jesus talks about in our Gospel, is not meant to be over and against the world; it’s a place that all can see.  It’s recognizable not for its own glory and good, but for the good of the world.  It has many entrances.  A city on a hill is a place where everyone knows they will be safe and welcomed and loved and accepted and fed and washed and empowered.

Here is that place!  Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

Because of Christ, Bethlehem is that place.  We are that city that Jesus is talking about...see the city is not a literal city, namely Jerusalem, any more!  “The city of God” is extending beyond  the confines of one ancient group, breaking out into the world – we are one of many in this city of God’s mercy – not for our own good and glory, but for the good of the world.  We are that people, a light shining bright, salt that enhances.

And we are safe here, so we go now to be safety for others.  We are fed here, and so we go now to feed others.  We are washed here, forgiven and renewed here, and so we go to wash, forgive and renew others.

And we are loved here…
Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Monday, February 3, 2020

February 2 -- Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Grace to you and peace…

Friends in Christ, today Jesus climbs up onto the mountain and teaches us all.  Today we have some of the core lessons of the Christian life brought to us “pow, pow, pow” in three of the most powerful, most central readings in the entire Bible.  Micah, Paul, Jesus.  It’s almost too much to handle.
Micah’s famous passage:  “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk [shrewdly] with your God.”  This is why we named our son Micah.

The theme of shrewdness/wisdom ultimately being about doing justice and loving kindness is carried over in Paul.  Paul talks about the wisdom of the world, the shrewdness of the world vs. the wisdom and shrewdness of God.  This text of Paul’s becomes one of Martin Luther’s main focal points as he discusses, what he calls, “the theology of the cross.”  Luther contrasts the “theology of the cross” to the “theology of glory”.  [Lutheran Handbook, and center page on “How to become a Theologian of the Cross” – read points 1 & 3]

This leads us right up the mountain, to find Jesus preaching, the Sermon on the Mount…where Jesus takes his listeners “next level.”  You want to follow me?  You want to be elevated with me up here on this mountain?  Well then, get ready for some surprises, Jesus says to us today.  Because Jesus continues on the themes that the prophet Micah and Paul set forth – that faithful discipleship has nothing to do with showy offerings, or popularity, or success, or the world’s wisdom.  In other words, the mountain top, is the last place you’ll find Jesus and his blessings.  Blessedness is down in the valley, on the plain, in the everyday.  Blessedness is shed upon the suffering, in the sermon on the mount – the lowly, the poor in spirit, the meek.  Jesus is not the king of the mountain; he’s the shepherd of the valley.  And his followers act in a similar way.  This is a radical idea.

It’s a topsy-turvy message again today.  The world would expect Christ, or any deity, to reign supreme – like a super-hero with giant muscles and awesome weapons, and servants, and enemies underfoot.  Conquering hero, like Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe, these characters that once were underdogs, but then overcame all the odds and now are just awesome and all the girls are screaming for them and they know how to fly jump motorcycles and shoot guns with precision and sword fight and do back-flips, bomb a football 70 yards...

...I know not everyone liked him (to say the least) but do you remember how cool President Obama was?  Swagger, calm, carried himself with poise and...just so cool.  Friends in Christ, Jesus is anything but cool.  Sorry.  Jesus is anything but cool, powerful, and smooth.

Seriously, if you want to step into these lessons of Scripture, think of a loser—a modern-day loser.  No muscles, probably clumsy.  Definitely not cool: “Despised and rejected.”  How quickly we forget that!

 Douglas John Hall’s  quote…
“How could we have been listening to the Scriptures all these centuries and still be surprised and chagrined by the humiliation of Christendom? How could we have honored texts like the Beatitudes
and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?

"How could we have been contemplating the ‘despised and rejected’ figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, ought to be universally approved and embraced?”

It is a topsy-turvy message!  I hope you’re a little offended here, a little scandalized.  Going “next level” means flipping everything on its head.  For to suggest that Jesus is a loser is a winning statement.  [back to Lutheran Handbook, read point 4]
This is radical stuff!  And Jesus is just giving us a preview of what is to come, as he inaugurates his ministry with this Sermon on the Mount, lifting up all those who seem insignificant and silly to everyone else.

This is Jesus’ State of the Union address:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.”  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, whether we find ourselves in these categories or not, this is Good News.  Because it means that we and the rest of this world will never be abandoned by God, will never stop being blessed by God.  There’s no way that God can ever disappear.  If Jesus is casting blessings on the least of these in our midst—sometimes that’s you, sometimes it’s not—
but if Jesus is casting blessings-upon-blessings all the way down the least of these, then we know we’re always covered by God’s love — ALL of us.

For in the moment when we too feel despised and rejected, clumsy, with no swagger, no muscles, no voice, no smile – Christ is right there.  In the moment when we feel lost and forsaken, alone or confused, Christ is right there too.  At the moment we feel so unforgivable, so broken or poor in spirit, Christ is there.  We find Jesus abiding, not on the red carpet, or at the 50-yard line (seems like we’re witnessing all the power and money in the world today) . . . but at the cross – foolishness to the power-hungry and awesome, “but to us who are being saved,” Paul writes, “it is the power of God.”

These words of Scripture this morning—do not frighten us or dis-engage us, sisters and brothers in Christ.  These words of Scripture send us off this mountain, this good place, where we can be together and encounter the living God.  These words send us down, into the world, with new hope and new life.  They shape us and mold us for forgiveness, for blessedness, and for faithfulness – for going to the next level, that is the gutters, the sad places, the cold places, the ugly places – bringing and doing and being justice, loving kindness, and walking wisely with God…this day and always.

Let’s go.


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

January 26 -- Third Sunday after Epiphany

I’m afraid that the quick (immediate) response of Andrew and Peter, James and John is more a feature of Matthew the Gospel writer than what might have actually happened.

Matthew’s text says they “immediately” left their nets and followed Jesus…they just dropped it all, which is both inspiring and intimidating when we put ourselves into the text.

Sometimes I wonder if it was more complicated than that.  Some archeological evidence is helping to confirm my wonder:  You see, fishing was big business, although I’ve always tended to think of fishing as a lower class job, stinky and for people without much in that time, archeologists and historians are showing us that fishing was actually quite lucrative.  Because of the Roman Empire’s presence there were trade channels throughout the Mediterranean and so a fisherman was actually quite connected and well paid.  So much so that it was not uncommon to become the family business…like the Zebedee and Sons Fishing Co. we hear about here today.

If fishing was just stinky low-wage labor, I think it would be much easier to follow Jesus...

Just like if we didn’t have anything, if we hated our jobs, if our families and friendships were unimportant, and if all our stuff — our homes, our valuables, our positions, our inside-industry connections — didn’t matter to us, sure we could drop the nets and follow Jesus too!

But as it turns out, I have many things.  We all do, in this context.  Many nets, many fish, many relationships, many dollars, and many-a-healthy day left.  Many blessings. [pause]  Maybe I should title the first part of this sermon “When Our Blessings Become Our Excuses.”
So many excuses...that frankly make me want to believe it was easier for the disciples because they didn’t have all the things I have.  If they did, they never would have risked it all.  “It was easier for them; they were just fishermen.”

But maybe I’m kidding myself.  To leave behind their livelihoods and their connections to “follow Jesus” in a political and economic climate as harsh as the ancient Mediterranean world was just as frightening and risky – if not more – than it would be today.
What are your nets, friends in Christ?  What are your excuses, blessings that you’re unwilling to yield?  What do you need to drop in order to hear Christ’s loving invitation more fully?   Doesn’t have to be just physical things...Do you have obsessions that are getting in the way?  Relationships that are unhealthy and “tangle-some”?  Anger at something someone did to you, that’s pulling you under?  Anger at God?  What stuff is holding you back from letting go and following this One who proclaims, “Repent, for the realm of God is here & now!”?

Let’s engage a little more: Type, write down and answer this question (p28 is blank).  It’s one thing to say you believe in Jesus, but what is it that’s keeping you these days from following Jesus, i.e. what are your “nets”?

That’s a private question, and rather than dropping them immediately, or bringing them up front or burning them symbolically right now, take those “nets” home.  Live with that which is entangling you a little bit longer.  Hopefully you’ve named it; that’s good.  Now live with it, for a bit more.  Acknowledge that “nets” can be a companion – probably been with you for a long while.  Even our unhealthy habits – our anger, our over-consuming, our destructive relationships – can become friends because they’re what we know.

But in time, maybe later today, maybe later this week or in a month, maybe during Lent, start to let go of those, start to put down those nets.  God will give us/you the strength.

“Nets” — I wonder about the nets the disciples were carrying, even after they left their physical nets.  What were their doubts, their fears, their anger, their child-hood wounds...  even after they got on the road with Jesus?  We can engage this text on many levels...

But the bottom line is that Christ calls us.

Jesus calls you from the safety of your nets, from the security of your boats.  Jesus calls you from your blessings...and your burdens and pains, and invites you, invites us — commands us, actually — to plunge into the deeper waters and rockier roads of ministry.  All that we do is ministry: as we work in the office, as we parent our children, as we drive our cars, and as bake our bread.  All is ministry, and Christ is calling each of us deeper.  That’s why you’re here today: because Christ has a call for you.  (If you were dragged here by your mom, then that’s God working through her :)

And sisters and brothers in Christ, while this plunging deeper talk may sound difficult and frightening, and it is certainly risky, this is God’s gift to us today.  This is God’s love and God’s grace at work in many and mysterious ways.

God is offering us a richer life in following Jesus.   Following Jesus looks different for each of us; and the specificity becomes clearer as we start let go of all the baggage, all the nets.)   But I trust it looks something like ‘deeper connections,’ as we plunge into Christ’s call —
deeper connections with our neighbors, with the earth, with our own bodies.  All, such a gift!  This is salvation, in fact!

God is offering us our integrity and our health in this summons.  (The word salvation, of course, comes from salvus which is all about wholeness and health of body, mind and spirit.)

So many of us live divided lives.  Hidden secrets, immense baggage from past experiences.  And we tend to pad that pain with stuff, we tend to busy our lives so much that don’t have to hear Christ’s command, Christ’s beckoning:  “Drop that stuff.  And follow me, Marie, Kate, Richard, John.   Let’s go fish for people.  We’re going to plunge into the world, and find lost, lonely, stuck, angry, sad, hopeless people.  We’re going to pull them out from the depths of despair, from death itself, and into the radiance of God’s grace and mercy.  How ‘bout it?  That’s the kind of fishing we’re going to do now…

“And I am here with you,” Jesus assures us, “as you leave your abundance and your pain, your lucrative busy-ness and all the noise in your lives, your determination to be secure, I am here,” Jesus says, “holding you and calling you this day to come and follow me.”

The road will be rocky.  The seas will be choppy.  But when we are held in the arms of Christ, there is true peace—the peace that passes all understanding.  That peace is yours...even today...even now...even before you drop anything and decide to follow.

But let’s let go of those nets.  That’s the gift.  God’s got you and Christ’s peace pours down on you...this day and forever.  AMEN.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

January 19 -- Second Sunday after Epiphany

Didn’t we just read about Jesus Baptism in Matthew last week?  Yeah—actually named the entire Sunday last week after it, colored the altar in gold, lit the Christ candle, splashed the kids at the font, read a special prayer...remember?

So why are we reading about it again in John today?!
It’s the year of Matthew after all!  (You guys aren’t feeling my frustration ;)

Friends in Christ, here’s what we need to know about John’s Gospel:  it’s the brightest and highest of all.  It’s too shiny and glorious to have an entire year of John.  We would go blind.  We have to take it in small doses, inserting it from time to time into our 3-year cycle of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Fascinating book I’m reading* and loving right now looks at the four gospel as a journey of transformation, where Matthew is about facing change, next Mark is about the suffering that comes when we face that change, then John comes third on the journey, and is that moment of coming into glory, clarity and joy.  (Luke-Acts finally is about going back with that clarity of justice, with that joy to the world, it’s the road back to our communities.)  But John is the apex, the mountain top experience.  The bright, shining star.  The epiphany.  Martin Luther called John’s Gospel the eagle because “it soars above the rest”.  It’s too much.  You can’t eat caviar and drink the best campaign every day...

But we’ve got John today! And Christ’s baptism and the calling of his first disciples is so important...
that in case you had any question about who that was who got baptized last week in Matthew, John’s gonna clear it up for us today: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  John the Baptist doesn’t even splash water of Jesus, all he does is point at him and sings a hymn.

My NT professor (she came and preached here at my installation) Dr. Audrey West says in her commentary on this text, "’It is not about me.’ That is the message whenever people in the Fourth Gospel ask John the Baptist who he is.”   In the Gospel of John, I think John the Baptist would be more appropriately called John the Pointer.

And here the radiance that’s almost too bright (just going to slip it in here).  It’s like coming out of a dark cave into a clear, snowy winter’s day:  this Jesus, walking along, is not not just God’s son.  Jesus is God!  Love divine, all loves excelling.  Come down to be among us, to save us and this whole world, to forgive us and this whole world, to love us and this whole world unconditionally!  We have to squint and protect our eyes from that much brilliance.

Baptism is central to the Christian journey.  We have to look at it again today, in John’s telling: even more radiance.  “Lamb of God who takes away sin, who conquers death and the devil, who shines like the sun.”  What a text for our long nights, right?  For any of our seasons of pain and loss and hopelessness.  What a text for this moment.  It’s like January is the season of baptism.  We watched last week talking about Eastern Orthodox, I showed a video in adult ed of Russian Orthodox Christians dunking into icy lake in January to celebrate these texts of Jesus’ baptism, and remember their own baptisms.  Yeah, this is the season of baptism... showered with gifts by the magi, showered with water last week, showered with glory and brilliance and praise from John today.

So what?  What does Jesus’ baptism in John have to do with us?   So what?  What does this have to do with me?

On one hand, nothing.  On the other, everything.

But let’s start with nothing.  On one hand, Jesus baptism has nothing to do with you.  That’s the whole point.

That’s the point Dr. West is making:  For once in your life, in other words, get over yourselves!  

It’s not about you!  (Or me. I hope you know I’m preaching to myself here too.)  John points away from himself and away from everyone else.  Simple.  It’s about Jesus.  Simple.  And yet so profound in our selfie culture, right?  Social media is a great indicator…just scroll through.  If an alien landed here and started scrolling through our Facebook feeds...what a self-focused culture.  Guilty — I take and share selfies all the time:  “Look at me...and whoever else can fit in the frame.”

In a way, this second week of Jesus’ baptism is a second chance to shift the focus away from us.  Often the angle on Jesus’ baptism is: Jesus was baptized therefore you, you, you...You are loved, you too are named child of God, you too are called and sent out — all great and true, but...

...Let’s just bask in the point, today.  The pointing of John the Pointer.  Let’s just worship God — not ourselves — for a minute here this morning.  (“worship”, again, from the OE worth-ship, i.e. what’s worthy of our sacrifices).  We do worship ourselves.  Make sacrifices for ourselves most of the time, if we’re honest, right?  As Mother Teresa said, we draw our circles, our frames, our definitions of family, too tightly.  Me and whoever else can fit in my frame.  We make sacrifices only for that inside, small group.  (By the way, on the other hand, this was one of the most radical things about those early Christian communities: they were way ahead of the curve on drawing wider and wider circles, opening up bigger and bigger, in another era where circles were super tight.)

Today, let’s bask in the point.  The pointing of John the Pointer.

On one hand, this has absolutely nothing to do with us, for a change.  This is about God’s glory and grace shining through.  There’s nothing we can do about it...except give thanks and praise...like John did…more than once.  “Behold the Lamb of God,” he proclaimed one day and the next.  That’s why we sing it over and over, every Sunday at Communion “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world”: to remind ourselves, for one thing — it’s not about me.  (story - Adam’s plane ride: “Well, I believe in myself.”

And then on the other hand...when we stop and worship God.  When we look at what John the Pointer is pointing at.  Gaze as the majesty of the the Savior of the world, the forgiver of all our sin, the conquerer of death itself, the very brilliance of God...when we stop and really see this, everything changes.  And suddenly everything is about us.  Everything that the radiance of God in Christ shines upon is our concern.  Every person, every creature, every landscape, every beat of our own heart and of our neighbor’s heart — humans and beyond — all of it is our concern.  All of it is about us.

And Jesus invites us with Andrew and Simon Peter to “come and see”.  On one hand, it’s not about us, and on the other, it’s all about us and the whole cosmos.  Jesus cracks us out of our rusty old frames, and presents us again this day in 2020 a new vision.  An expansive embrace.  A fuller mission.   A cosmic joy.  A more glorious union.  In this broken, sinful, self-centered, cruel, sick and twisted world...this. is. our. call. from Jesus.  today.  We are a part of this radical grace and glory.  “Come and see,” the rabbi says.  So, let’s go.

* Heart and Mind: the Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, A.J. Shaia, Quadatos, 2019.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

January 12 -- Baptism of Christ Sunday

Grace to you and peace, from God in Christ Jesus...

There may be things that we do in worship, that we may not be 100% behind; but we do them anyway, because that’s what we do in church.  Do you ever feel like that?  Do you ever come to church and you’re not 100% there, but you just come anyway.  (I think I may have just described all of us.)  It’s as if the Holy Spirit is whispering in your ear:  “Just go along with me here.”  And somehow, when we do just that “go along”...when we join in the hymns, read along with the prayers, something happens at times, and we are swept up with the assembly of the faithful -- not always in a completely dramatic way, not like a raging river, but in the way a small current can help you swim or float a little easier.  (Jordan River as a polluted, little stream.)

One example: I have a colleague-pastor who says to her critical and very academic friends who won’t say the Nicene Creed because of this part or that, in which they can’t believe...that she doesn’t generally say the Nicene Creed either, except when she’s with the community, because when she’s with the community, they carry one another in faith: the part I can’t believe today, your faith carries me, the part you can’t speak today, my faith carries you.  Like a small current our shared and borrowed faith helps us swim a little easier.

I find this to be true, as well, with singing the great hymns of the faith...particularly at Christian funerals:  “Beautiful Savior”, “Abide with Me”, “Amazing Grace”.  If you can sing — and I don’t mean if you can sing in key or with a perfect voice, but — if you can get the words of the hymns out, then sing out as well has God gifted you, because there are others there who can’t, and they need you to carry them.  Another day, they will carry you, like a small current helping you swim a little easier.
Today in our Gospel lesson, Christ Jesus asks John to baptize him — a strange request as John the Baptist quickly identifies: “Wait a minute, Lord: you should be the one baptizing me!”
But what does Jesus say?  “It is necessary to fulfill all righteousness,” he says, [whisper] “just go with me here, John.”

Theologian and scholar Dale Bruner puts it like this:  “The first thing Jesus does for the human race is go down with it into the deep waters of repentance and baptism.”  

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, but in so doing we are carried as Christ allows himself to be carried.  In other words, Jesus enters the stream, Jesus too gets washed in the current.  In other words Jesus joins with the community of the faithful, and receives and accepts God’s blessing and God’s call to serve in this world.  It is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.

And through Christ, because of Christ, we accept and receive the same thing from God above: the name “Beloved”.  Peace.

I like to take Confirmation kids in our first session of Confirmation (it was this time last year...we have some amazing kids!) — I like to take them out to discuss for 5 Saturdays the 5 parts of our baptismal covenant.  (Turn to p. 236) “Living among God’s faithful people.”  [explain]  These long-time members, of our church, describe how God has been with them through it all: through walks in the evening, through the death of children and siblings, through holidays, and job changes, working through the daily grind...Necessary to fulfill all righteousness — it’s not just about going to church, doing religious rituals (although worship is central): it’s the whole package — like a small current helping you swim a little easier.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus comes among us, is baptized in the same earthly waters as we are, washed in the same current, sharing with us in this life and the many and various ministries we do.  Christ gets down with us.

You are all “at ministry” during the week!  Whether, that’s at home, or in a government building, or on a ship, or in a field, Christ is there and “gets down with us” in our daily lives, as we make decisions, follow instructions, create, lead, prosecute, lecture, diagnose.  Christ has entered your same water ways (as polluted as they may be), and like a small current, carries you through our days.

And...Christ is with you when the sun sets and the temperatures drop, when the distractions of the daylight are gone, when doubts and fears can overwhelm, as we worry, as we age...as a beautiful hymn in our red hymnal puts it: “when memory fades, and recognition falters, when eyes...grow dim and minds confused, as frailness grows and youthful strengths diminish”.  Christ is with you at the end of the day too, like a small current carrying you through the night.  Christ enters our waters in order to fulfill all righteousness, in order to help us understand the holistic nature of this life of faith — that even as we simply walk and talk, eat and play, worry and  lose sleep, Christ is with us.  Through all the changes — reading a new scholar who says the Gospel of Matthew is all about living through both small and large-scale changes — through it all God, Emmanuel, is here and still calls us Beloved.  Through this life and ministry, and into the next, Christ is with us, and so we then are able to carry others at one moment, and we ourselves are carried at others.

Christ enters the waters, and is baptized.  “Just go with me here, John.  This is what it means,” Jesus says, “to live among God’s people: I too must be baptized for I am in this flow of the faithful.  I am at the center of it,” Christ says.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, you too are part of this flow of the faithful, and you too are named Beloved — not by any human necessarily, but by God, who showers down affection, parental pride and love, and grace upon grace, forgiveness and new life.  In these waters, in this flow we serve, we reach out, we love and we care for one another -- we can’t help ourselves.  The gentle current has got us.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Monday, January 6, 2020

December 24 -- Christmas Eve 2019

Henry Ward Beecher wrote: “Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry [one] above others for [their] own solitary glory. [One] is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of [their] own.”  

I got that — not from being a student of Henry Ward Beecher — but from the book and the movie Wonder, which has enthusiastically made the rounds in our household, a few years ago, and watched it together again this past year.  And what a Christmas message it is!  (Check out Wonder in these Twelve Days of Christmas, if you haven’t already.  It’s a way to really get into the ‘incarnation celebration’ we have before us.)

“Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry [one] above others for [their] own solitary glory. [One] is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of [their] own.”

Grace to you and peace from Jesus who comes to us this holy night in peace.  AMEN.

It is perhaps the hardest thing in the world, dealing with a bully.  I’m thinking more about bullies these days, have encountered the story Wonder...but also reflecting on our lives and our world...  

I’ve had a few experiences myself, one in high school that I’ll never forget.  The visceral feelings come back even now, just thinking about it: heart racing, sweat beading down, ready for anything and nothing at the same time — not sure if our stand-off was going to end in fists swinging, and blood dripping, or what.  He was way bigger and stronger than I was, had this threatening smirk, big ol’ biceps, veins sticking out…But he was making fun of a friend of mine in the weight room, and something in me kind of snapped.  And I couldn’t take it anymore and stay quiet.  I mouthed off back at him.    

And probably, fortunately it ended the way it should have, anti-climactically, with a coach breaking up our heated stare-down.  But I didn’t sleep well that night, and I fretted about that bully for a long time after, even while nothing ever happened again.  

Bullies are tough, on one hand:  They can really eat you up, physically for sure, but I think the other wounds they inflict can last even longer:  They can embarrass you, get others laughing at you too.  They can make you cry just with their quick words, or a mean picture that they draw.  And how bullies can go to town on social media...  Here’s probably the worst: bullies can even make you turn on yourself — start to cut yourself down, make you laugh along with everyone...at yourself.  
If you’ve never been bullied, praise God.  
But the Christmas story is for anyone who’s been bullied.  

I recently asked my kids once how they deal with bullies and bad dreams in these tough times...and one of the things Katie said was “stay calm and let an angel help you.”  (Maybe that coach was the angel, in my case: kept things from getting worse?)  This Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is for anyone who’s been bullied, anyone who’s been haunted by cruelty. 

The shepherds in the field were pretty beat up, bullied, haunted by a cruel world — hearts pounding with anxiety about how they’d get their next meal, paycheck, or rent paid.  Ready for anything and nothing at the same time.  Shepherding was not an easy life.  They were on the edges.  They were nobodies.  But an angel came, and they stayed calm, and they let that angel help.  

Micah — when I asked him once how he deals with bullies — said that both laughing and singing helps.  (few years ago)  He also said, “Remember and give thanks for your family.”  

Do you see all these components in our Christmas celebration here at church this evening...as we gather, and try to stay calm, even as stresses creep in all the time, even as bullies can haunt? As we pause to reflect on the multitude of angels who have come to our aid over the years?  Friends, family members, coaches, mentors, spiritual guides, rainbows, dogs, authors and actors, teachers, nurses — so many angels.  As we gather at the manger of the one “whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own”?  Jesus the Christ.   In this holy place, under perhaps stressful conditions, laughing and singing help, and we give thanks for our family of faith too.  

God’s strength is not made manifest in the big-bully muscles of world leaders or cool-kid group ringleaders, not in the mean words or the name-calling, not in threatening smirks or frightening stare-downs, and certainly not in fists flying.  No, God’s divine power is instead made manifest this holy night... in a baby.  In peace.  (I got to hold a little baby again on Sunday for a baptism!  Couldn’t imagine anything farther from a bully.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out: “God is in the manger!”  

How do you feel about that?  In this season we also reflect on John’s Gospel, where we find and confess this Jesus is God, not just God’s son.  One God, three persons.  God is in the manger.  

The word becomes flesh and dwells among us!  This almighty God has humbled, shrunk, all the way down to become the child of a poor refugee couple, born in the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere!  A stable, a manger.  Revealed first to bullied and scared shepherds.  

This God in the manger is strength that “carries up hearts”.  Christ.  Is.  Born.  To you.  For you.  In you.

Let’s laugh, let’s sing, let’s let angels help us, let’s stay calm and kind, and let’s share this Good News with everyone:  God carries up, lifts up our hearts, for God is here today.  

Will you pray with me:

He came down
to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all.
And his shelter was a stable
and his cradle was a stall
with the poor and mean and lowly
lived on earth our Savior holy.


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.