Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ" 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, September 9, 2018

September 9 -- 16th Sunday after Pentecost

Sisters and Brothers in Christ – Don’t you dare let Jesus off the hook!  I don’t care if you’ve been part of a Christian community for a long, long time, or if this is your first time in a church ever today!  Don’t you dare let Jesus off the hook.

This Syrophoenecian woman didn’t let Jesus off the hook…and it was her first encounter (so it’s never to early to say, “Hey Jesus, you can’t get away with that!”)  Ask for what you want from God – make sure it’s the right thing to ask – and don’t let Jesus off the hook, casting you off like a dog.  Don’t imagine yourself unworthy of Christ’s eyes, ears and healing hands.

Did you hear that in the Gospel?  Jesus called that woman asking for help a dog!  That’s bad now—sounds kind of like “bum” and name-calling is a big deal: we’ve got a president who’s got a quick derogatory name for everyone, we’ve got a Social Statement that we just started studying TODAY on Women and Justice, timely right? Name-calling is a big deal today—but in that period in time, you have to understand, this wasn’t just a mean name, this was a racial slur:  

Syrophoenecia was the area up north over by the Mediterranean sea, modern day Lebanon, only the difference of about 100-150 miles.  So just stretch it, and think of Philadelphia. [pause]  Some stinky woman from Philadelphia, who never went to church (and cheers for the Phillies and the Eagles).  Can you believe she’s got the nerve to ask our dear Jesus for a hand out?  And Jesus calls her a dog. 

How do you deal with this? …Jesus making cruel, racial slurs.  Does that mean it’s ok?  Biblical scholars have tried to soften this through the years (some say Jesus was testing her, or he was just kidding) – but many scholars are also realizing we can’t get around this terrible name-calling episode – 
The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence said that Jesus called a woman something that would have made his mamma slap his mouth and say, “I did not raise my boy to talk that way!”  

And she knew it too – that Syrophoenecian woman — she was a mama herself.  She knew that it was not an appropriate thing to say, and so she spoke up; she stood up to Jesus and said:  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.”  [pause]

She didn’t let him off the hook.  And it was as if something snapped in Christ and he turned to her – and instead of chastising her (imagine if you were in a position of power over someone and they talked back to you)  — instead of publicly shaming her or punishing her for her lack of respect – Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter (the next generation).”   [pause]

What a story.  What do we learn from it?  And the account immediately after where the blind man is made to see?  
What do we learn of God from all this?  

One: Don’t let Jesus off the hook.  Ask for what you want—make sure it’s the right thing.  And then keep coming back.  Jesus can take it.  He can take your anger, your standing up to him, your assertiveness.  Christ even admires it.

This text is not about emboldening bullies and racists, it’s about empowering the downtrodden and pushed-aside.

It’s not always pretty — Jesus employs a racial slur and you should be furious at him for that (and under anger is always hurt and fear)!  It’s not always pretty, but in the end, sisters and brothers in Christ, God always responds.  
It’s not always pretty, but in the end God gathers us in, heals our hurts and our fears and our sins, and then—having been forgiven and transformed—we are sent back out…to go and do likewise.  To go and heal the hurts and pains of our neighbor, to forgive and love, and forgive and love, and forgive and love…and serve.  We emerge from this very challenging Gospel text even stronger.  

And then the pesky book of James today holds our feet to the fire and says, “When someone comes into your church who’s obviously down and out, poor, maybe smelly (an outside group perhaps that asks to use “our” church).  And we say, ‘Sit way over there, you dog.‘  Versus when someone who drives a fancy car, wears nice jewelry and designer brands, smells good, and has a nice wallet, you say, ‘C’mon in.  Please sit here in the front row.  Could I get you some coffee?  Wanna teach Sunday School?”  

James full-on questions that person’s BELIEF IN GOD!  When our words and our actions, our faith and our works, don’t line up, James might just dismiss us—like many young people, frankly, who look at the church and say, “Well, they must not really believe in God.  Look at how they treat the outsider.”  Ugh, that pesky Lorax James – would have certainly held Jesus’ feet to the fire, upon hearing how Jesus himself first treated that annoying woman from Philly.

Sisters and brothers in Christ – these are challenging texts today, they go deep.  Here’s the Good News: first, we get to hold Jesus’ feet to the fire.  Put the pressure on him.  Ask Jesus for what you want for yourself, for this country, for this planet.  Demand justice for women.  Cry out for peace.  

“Smart off” to him for fair treatment of everyone regardless of gender or nation of origin or religious persuasion or any other hot-button modern-day dividers. Make sure it’s the right thing.
Shouldn’t everyone get the same…mercy, love, forgiveness, healing care, grace, treatment from God?  The Syrophoenecian woman sure thought so.  And she demanded it from Christ.  And Christ came through in the end.  In the end, there is healing and grace.

Christ comes though with you today.  The road might have been rocky up to this point, it’s not always pretty, but God is here.  Reaching out to you, promising you the same things that the Syrophoencian Philadelphian woman demanded.  God reaches out to you with a hand of healing.  Forgives you this day, and asks that you now go out and forgive and serve and welcome others…with the kind of passion and commitment that we see in the Scriptures.  

You know the other thing we see in the scriptures?  Imperfect people, mouthy people, racist people, selfish people.  We see broken people in the Bible, and this is good news because it means that God can take even us and turn us into forgiven and blessed healers and tellers of God’s enduring love.  Our eyes have been opened too.

Beloved, let us love one another, Ephesians says, for love is of God and anyone who loves is born of God.  You are born of God – a child of God: forgiven, healed, joyful, eyes wide open – and now free to go and tell the Good News to everyone you meet.  

May it be so, this day and all days.  AMEN. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

September 2 -- 15th Sunday After Pentecost

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, welcome back to the Gospel of Mark.  For like 6 weeks we’ve been hearing from John, about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  Now we shift gears again, as we begin a new school year, as we stop for a moment to celebrate Labor Day, as we brace ourselves for another busy fall, as we continue to go about our work as people of God — welcome back to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is short-tempered and quick, particularly with any who think they’re better than anyone else.  With those who “lord it over” others. 

You know, I’ve been known to do that.  I’ve been known to lord it over others – maybe not out loud, but in my head, certainly.  Thinking I know better. Thinking I deserve what I have, thinking my churchy life marks me, not just as different, but better, than all those slackers and non-practicers out there.  Hypocrites!  “Dang it, Jesus is talking to me here this Sunday.”  And thanks be to God for that.  Welcome back to the Gospel of Mark. 

This text is obviously about much more than dirty hands: Not what goes in – churchy stuff, churchy friends, churchy house with crosses and bibles and jewelry and bumper stickers on display, the churchy life.  It’s what comes out – love, compassion, and namely care for the marginalized: the orphan and the widow (code for any who have no advocates)…It’s Christ-follower ACTIONS that make a person clean….not just honoring Christ with our lips.

I always think it’s a helpful exercise to think back on all the words that you said this past week.  What was on your lips?  (Maybe even go home and write down what you can remember.)  What came out of your mouth this week?  What kinds of words were on your lips?  Were they words of love, or words of anger?  Words of slander behind someone’s back, words of bitterness, words of impatience, or gossip?  What was on your lips this week—as you dealt with your family or your co-workers?  As you “chatted” with your friends?  Were they good words, or were they hurtful?  Were they words of humility or words of “lording it over others”?
I’m going to take a risk, sin boldly, and “lord it over” someone right now...but I still think it’s an interesting illustration: 

I’ll never forget how when I went backpacking in high school with our Lutheran camp in Colorado, we had to keep track of what came out of our mouths, what words were on our lips.  We had to hold each other accountable for any cut-downs:  any time you cut someone down in any way, we had to say 3 positive things to build them up.

And the one who was stuck constantly in this consequence of having to offer 3 positives, was the one in our group who never said a bad word, who always went to church, who dressed very properly, who had lots of Bible verses memorized – but she was full of contemptuous glares…and little comments that chipped away at other people’s self-esteems.  (see how I’m “lording it over” her now?)  And it was a struggle for her to think of positive things to say.  But wasn’t that interesting: it’s not what goes into a person that defiles, Jesus says, but what comes out.  Keep track of what you say this week…

(Maybe say a prayer for your lips and your tongue when you wake up every day this week.)

James, the book of James – we’ll be in it for about 5 weeks and I encourage you to read the whole thing during the week – the book James, like Jesus in Mark, isn’t concerned about putting on a show.  It’s about pureness of heart.  Religion that is pure and undefiled is this:  it’s having the most glorious church building the world has ever seen ;) it’s having the brightest, most colorful Sunday School program in the ELCA, it’s having the sanctuary completely packed on Sunday mornings!  NO, of course not.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, according to James (and the long line of prophets that came before him, including Christ himself) is religion that cares...for one another and for those with no advocates (widow and orphan).
It makes me think of the LORAX…“I speak for the trees!”

Take beliefs and churchiness — talking — out of it: who are the people who are actively caring for the voiceless in our society, for the 21st century equivalent of the widows and orphans?  Who are the people actively reaching out to the poor, the planet (who’s going to speak for the trees, besides the fictitious Lorax)? Who is looking out for the immigrant, the disabled, the uninsured, the silenced, the oppressed, the powerless, for the one who is alone (even here at church on Sunday)…

Take religious beliefs and rituals out of it: who is doing the Word?  Who shows up in times of distress and conflict?  Who stays?  Who gives generously?…You know, we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at our credit card statements – I’d never want to share mine with you.  Who shows you Jesus, not just tells you about Jesus?  (Think of people in your life — doers of the Word.)  Maybe they’re from inside the church, but maybe not.

Ever had that happen to you: a non-Christian, maybe even atheist actually teach you something about Jesus?  The “happy reversal”?  I’ve been blessed by many instances…pure and undefiled persons, not part of my Christian family, showing me about care for the voiceless and the powerless!  These kinds of things happen all the time, but I invite you to pay more attention, to notice those people.  (maybe say a prayer for our eyes too)

Now, I plan to stay in the church for as long as I live.  This not church bashing.  (Article a few years back: “So You’re Spiritual but not Religious, Don’t Bore Me”)  The imperfect and yet faithful community, the Word, the Meal, the Font—these are just too important in my life to go without them.  But these things alone don’t make me pure and undefiled…

Christ makes me clean.  And I need the church to keep hearing that, reminding me of that.  Jesus is the one alive in but also beyond the pages of Scripture – Christ is the one alive in my sisters and brothers outside of the church too!  I need the church to keep calling me back to that.  I need this inside to keep moving me outside.

Surround yourself with people who care for the “voiceless in their distress”.  Who’s your Lorax?  Your scratchy old voice that, while annoying, might just be right, and at the core is deeply loving?  

Who are those who don’t just say the Word of God, they do it…as Francis of Assisi put it: they, “preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary, use words.”  Maybe they’re children, or people in their 20’s or their 80’s – crying out for justice and compassion, annoying the rest of us.  But maybe they’re spot on?

These people are God’s gift to us, part of God’s on-going work in shaping you and molding us.  We can resist them, “the Loraxes” but they keep coming and nipping at us, pointing us to greater faithfulness.

Will you pray with me…  “God, we’re doing our best here.  But we fall short.  Take us the rest of the way.  Continue to mold us and fashion us.  God, you have washed us in the waters of baptism, you have cleaned our hearts.  And we give thanks that you continue to cover us in your faithfulness, in your forgiveness, grace and love.  Bless our lips and send us out be doers of your joy and hope and welcome in a hurting world.  Thank you for sending us prophets, advocates for the voiceless, to nip at us and call us back to what matters.  Thank you for leading us in this journey, through your Son Jesus Christ, AMEN.”

#808 “Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song as I Journey”

Sunday, August 26, 2018

August 26 -- Fourteenth After Pentecost

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we put on the whole armor of God in the midst of incomprehensible evil in this world.

This is a challenging text because it talks about evil—evil that is all around us, and evil that is inside us as well.  

There was a trend in some theologies during the 20th century to downplay evil.  “To say that humans are evil is just too negative,” some said in the 1920’s & 30’s.  Then comes Nazi Germany: millions of Jews were tortured and killed during WWII.  And theologians started rethinking the human potential for evil, not only because of the horrible evils inflicted by the Nazis, but also when they considered how many stood by…while the Jews were being murdered.  

And evil is real in our lives today, too.  One of my professors in seminary drove this point home for me when he said, “If you don’t believe in sin, just open your window and breathe the air.”  Air pollution is a constant reminder of our recklessness, apathy, self-centeredness, ultimately our sin.  This is not a fun text, here in Ephesians, to deal with…especially now—at the end of the summer, we’re getting geared up for the fall, new ministry is stretching its wings, revitalization all around, and here we are talking about evil.  It might be easier to discuss, if I could just point to some group of people and pin blame and sinfulness and evil on them.  Or, if I could just point to an individual engaged in some sort of sexual impropriety that would make us all gasp, that I know we would never be a part of, but Ephesians nips this one in the bud and says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against cosmic powers of this world, against spiritual forces of evil in high places.”  Evil is much greater than one person or a group of persons -- “the wiles of the devil” are much more elusive and very hard to pin down.  

How do we address world hunger, for example?
I preached a sermon once on my internship in St. Louis, and I was talking about a service trip that we took to Nicaragua, and I said something like, “poverty isn’t just an issue, it’s a face” and went on to describe sweet little Olivia who I at one point even carried on my shoulders there.  A woman came up to me afterwards and told me that she liked my sermon, but hated that I had put a sweet face on poverty.  “Poverty is not Olivia,” she said to me with tears in her eyes, “Olivia is a victim of poverty.  Poverty is a horrendous monster.”  Hunger, poverty—these are elusive, gargantuan evils, too great to pin on any face.

How do we battle—to borrow the imagery that worked well for the people of Ephesus—the cosmic forces of evil?  How do we acknowledge, confront and defend against sin?  

You ask me these questions directly, and I’m afraid I’ll tell you that I cope with these things usually by ignoring them—barricading myself from them with my own preoccupations.  I’m on the mailing lists for orgs that send out alerts, and I can’t even tell you how many of those emails I’ve deleted.  Sometimes I do pay attention to such great evils, but just to assuage my conscience I write a check or even take a trip.  I go down to Mexico to build a house.  Then I come back across the border and get back into MY life.

These elusive and tremendous evils—hunger, war, famine, poverty, environmental degradation—are not easy or fun things to talk about.  Very quickly we can talk ourselves silly and just give up.  It’s not REALISTIC to care that much.  It’s not PRACTICAL or LOGICAL.    

But then, neither is our God.

If God was realistic or practical, I’d never be standing here preaching.  Who am I to speak?  I’m too new, too young, too old, too inexperienced, too imperfect, too shy and self-conscious.  But God says, “I have chosen you Dan for special things. I need you.”  
If God was realistic or practical, we couldn’t call ourselves God’s children.  There are far too many terrible things that we have done to each other, to our neighbors, our families, our friends and even to our own bodies…way too many things to really call ourselves “little Christs.”  But God is unrealistic and says, “I have chosen you, Zoe, Tim, Jay, Barb, Marva, Adam for great things.”  I have chosen you to be my messengers.  I have chosen you to go out into the world and share the Good News of my love, offer hope…despite all the dangers, all the hopelessness, despite hunger, war, famine…not because you’re gonna fix it all (only God can do that), but because this is what God “splashes us in baptism” to do.  

Not to belabor this, but if God was realistic or practical, why would God become human?  Why would God come down to earth in the form of a peasant to take on all the sin of the world?  God became human!  That defies all logic and reason.  It is completely unrealistic!  Why would the God of the cosmos choose to do such a thing?  Christianity, by its very definition, defies all logic and reason.  God forgives us all our sin.  That’s crazy!!  God lifts the burden and frees us all!!

So here in Ephesians, we hear of what we are offered for defense amid this chaotic and evil world:  standard issue.  Freely forgiven of our sin, in the midst of the swirling powers of evil, God covers us with something completely new.  Not just armor…that’s something old.  It’s a metaphor.  The Pauline author takes imagery that was very effective for the people of that time, who were used to seeing Roman centurions, pushing everyone around, forcing them back into place if they got out of line.  But Ephesians speaks of a different kind of armor:  THE ARMOR OF GOD.  The NEW image breaks into the OLD.  I’d like to reflect on a few of these articles of God’s armor this morning:  

First, the belt…of truth.  Big word these days: truth.  Putting on God’s belt of truth, all that we say and do becomes honest, caring and sincere.  Gone are the days of double talk, trickery, gossip, deceit.  God, through this letter to the Ephesians, invites us into a new communication and lifestyle—one that is genuine and clear, speaking the truth in love.  (Bonhoeffer)

The breast plate of righteousness.  We don’t show respect for our neighbors because we have to, or because we are guilted into it, or because it’s politically correct.  We respect and even advocate for our neighbors because it’s simply the right thing to do.  Righteousness is about right living; I think the Greek word is even better translated as “justice-orientation.”  When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, we orient our lives in a way that resembles God’s justice and love.  When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, issues of hunger, poverty, harassment, racism, sexism, heterosexism—these become important to us because they are about God’s justice.  When people are treated unjustly or as objects, subjected to another’s abuse, we move into that fray, chest first, heart first, to care and speak as people of God, even if an end to injustice seems unrealistic.

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  (combat boots) Shoes take us to new places.  This passage calls to mind another scripture passage from Luke 1: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…[and] guide our feet into the way of peace.”  To talk about peace, or to have a moment of silence to “visualize world peace,” is not enough.  In the midst of violence and apathy, God invites us and leads us into moving our feet into the way of peace, from war to dancing.

The Shield of Faith.  Faith is what we live by.  It is [get ready, definition :) ] “the ability to trust the promise”.  Thinking about faith as a shield helps us think about faith as actually protecting us, as opposed to so many other things we are tempted to use to protect us from harm.  

I’ll never forget, when I was in college, I had this position on our student congregation council called Global Peace and Justice Coordinator.  And we’d put on events that were designed to be thought provoking.  We’d bring in two people on different sides of an issue, and let them go at it.  The most intense event was when we had this guy from the National Rifle Association come and literally face off with a guy from some organization called the Coalition for Peace in the Inner City.  And they fit their stereotypes to the T.  Also present in the audience at the event was this old and pretty famous Lutheran scholar named Eric Gritsch.  The NRA guy really seemed to be dominating in the “discussion,” but I’ll never forget when Professor Gritsch entered the conversation using his faith as a counter-response to arming oneself against danger.  He was challenging the NRA representative, and he was doing while sitting cool and collected.  He eventually made the NRA guy so upset that he was literally standing over Gritsch barking all the reasons why he should carry a gun.  And Gritsch just kept saying essentially that God was his protection.  It makes me think of the shield of faith.  I can’t remember Gritsch’s eloquent words, but I certainly remember his body language.  I’ve never been more amazed with that visual image of this angry, seemingly paranoid, “protected” man standing over a calm, cool, even humorous, faithful man. Now was Gritsch being stupid or unrealistic?  I mean there are some dangerous places in this world.  Maybe he was, but maybe he was simply choosing to carry a different type of shield. 

Helmet of salvation.  Our heads sure can mess with us, can’t they?  I don’t know how, but one constant source of distress is thinking that we have to earn God’s favor.  Whether it’s by doing good things, or stating out loud our beliefs and commitments, somehow we hope that God is hearing and seeing it all and will reward us.  (Lifelong Lutherans stiill.)  But friends in Christ, OURS IS A GOD OF GRACE!!  The helmet of salvation is what covers our heads with the promise of salvation.  It protects our heads against all those other voices...  Maybe we think of the helmet of salvation as BAPTISMAL water.  It is that ever-present protection that allows us to stop trying to win-over God, for God has already won-over us!  Jesus died so that we could live, and so we LIVE in that joy.  

Joy is the final concept here, in thinking about God’s whole armor.  Joy spreads through every aspect of these articles of equipment and sinks into our flesh and bones too!  We could be terrified at what lies ahead on the journey that God has set before us.  Many soldiers are traumatized by battle, and understandably so.  But God is doing a new thing here with us, instead of marching ultimately in fear, and in aggression, and in trauma, and in joylessness --  we march, completely covered with God’s joy.  We are “marching in the light of God.”  

Evil is real.  But so is our God, who abides with us today.
And so we press on, day by day, despite the cosmic forces of evil, we continue on, marching, singing, dancing in the light of God, covered and protected with divine joy, peace, the promise of forgiveness, love, and the hope that only God can provide…this day and forever.  AMEN.             

Blessing for the New School Year

God our creator,
you surround us with the marvels of this world
and give us the ability to explore 
the mysteries of creation.
You fill the earth with the Spirit of wisdom
and inspire us to search for the truth.
You have sent us prophets and teachers
as witnesses to your love for us.
You have come among us in Jesus Christ
to teach us your saving truth by word and example.

We pray for all who are beginning a new school year,
that both students and teachers
will be blessed in their academic endeavors and explorations.

Almighty God, you give true wisdom and knowledge.
Grant teachers the gift of joy and insight,
and students the gift of diligence and openness,
that all may grow in what is good and honest and true.
Support and cover with peace all who teach and all who learn, 
that together we may know and follow your ways; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What is BLC’s Mission and Vision?

Dear Bethlehem, I’m sorry — I’m guessing you may have been asked some form of this question a time or two in recent years, as you’ve journeyed through pastoral and congregational changes.  I know that our most recent official mission statement is “Building lives — through worship, mission and connection.” But honestly, I haven’t talked to too many who have much to say about it, or even know it.  
Anyway, I am asking a different kind of question; I’m not wondering if you can recite what was voted on a while back (if you voted on it)...

Here are my working definitions of mission vs. vision statements:

mission statement says “who we are (right now)”.  It’s not about what we fancy ourselves to be, or where we’ve been in the past.  Rather this reflects who we are as God’s faithful this moment.  Bethlehem is a lot of good this moment.  Amid all our hopes and dreams for the future, and any sadness or frustrations about the past, who are we right now?  How would you answer that about BLC?  (It may be helpful to get at this by trying to imagine how God — as opposed to me or you — might describe us right now: beloved, forgiven, welcoming, quilted together in love, etc.)  

Then, a vision statement says “where we are going”.  Like Moses or Martin Luther King Jr., we might not ever get there.  But a vision statement is most definitely clear about our direction.  My favorite example from the secular world is Microsoft:  Their vision statement a few years ago was "to put a Microsoft computer in every home in America."  Probably not possible — they might not ever get there — but you know exactly where they're going and what they’re all about.  What is Bethlehem definitely all about, even if we have yet to arrive?

How I would love to retreat to the mountains for a couple days with you all and delve into this conversation at one of our Lutheran camps, with a bible and a guitar nearby, sipping coffee or wine.  But alas, life is busy.  And we probably need to settle for a virtual fireside chat...  

So I am asking a couple things of you:

a) Please pray about this for at least a day, first.
b) Then, write a bit about 'who Bethlehem is right now' as God’s faithful people in Fairfax.  What are the unique gifts that describe  (Mission)
3) Write a bit about what you believe God is calling us to be all about.  Where are we going?  (Vision)
4) Pray and let this marinate for at least another day before hitting the final “send”.  (Think of this not as homework with a deadline, but soul work).

May I share your responses?  

Grace and peace, 
Pastor Dan

Sunday, August 19, 2018

August 19 -- Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Friends, today the Christian community continues to worship together and sing.  That’s something to give us pause and ponder. 

After everything that’s happened! 

One of the more pressing concerns on our congregation's mind, I imagine, is that we had yet another vandalism this week.  If you hadn’t heard, a window in the basement was broken.  What is going on?!  I don’t know about you, but this has re-triggered my feelings of anger and fear and frustration and sadness.  “Why haven’t the police caught anyone?  Are they doing anything?  What about our safety and that of our children?  Are these events all related?  What are we going to do about it?!”  That’s a big, troubling thing that’s happened.  Lots of activity here at church, with LSS, new members, Living Room Faith series, Sunday School planning, continued orientation for me…  After everything that’s happened: So many traveling this month.  Some of you too.  I’m learning, Washington clears out in August.  So that means lots of us are jet-lagged, road weary.  Filled with new adventures, or skeletons in the closet.  Travel brings up all kinds of things, good and bad.  We’ve got this hot, humid weather.  More rain coming.  (“August, you are a garbage month”) Our lead headlines show us all-too-often how divided and cruel we can be as a nation, as the human species.  Family issues at home, healthy issues, work issues.  Busy-ness always, the drive to produce and succeed, or just the drive to stay afloat!  Revving up for the new school year.  A lot has happened! 

And yet we continue — the Christian community even today continues  — to gather, to worship, to sing.  Profound really.

I want to reflect a bit on Ephesians today--

Ephesians instructs us to be wise and not foolish, making the most of our time, for the days are evil.  (Sure can be evil...) 

And then Ephesians says “so don’t get drunk,” and I want to stop right there…

This is obviously good literal advice — for all sorts of reasons.  But this is more than a finger wag for temperance.  

I’d like to invite us to look at getting drunk as a metaphor this morning.  What happens when a person gets drunk? 

They stumble, say things they don’t want to say, they slur.  A person who’s drunk misses the details.  They miss the expressions and emotions of others (which aren’t too hard to see otherwise) because they’re too caught up with saying or doing what they want to say or do.  A drunk person is reckless, God forbid, driving off the road, causing accidents and terrible consequences.  Blacking out.  And waking up later not even knowing what all they’ve done.

Consider of all these disturbing images as metaphors.

A person may never even touch alcohol, but live his/her life in a way that is reckless, self-centered and loud.  Slurring their actions and interactions, only interested in themselves, not realizing what they’ve done, missing the details, how others are hurting, and causing all kinds of accidents in the process.  

(Now, there’s a tendency to point fingers right now in our minds eye...but consider your own actions too.   What are ways that you’ve perhaps acted drunkenly?  And if you haven’t, you’re better and way holier than the rest of us ;) 

Ephesians warns us all against drunkenness, calls it “debauchery” in this translation. Other words that are derived from that Greek word are “wasteful”, “reckless abandon”. When we get drunk, metaphorically, we’re not just wasted, we’re wasteful.

So, all those images help instruct us and call us into images for how we are to be in the world.  Basically the opposite -- 

But...Ephesians envisions that as singing, being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Fascinating!  It’s not the image to which one might oppose drunkenness.  One might think drunkenness would be opposed with solemn sobriety, right?  Imagine that in metaphorical terms.  Sitting proper, quiet, stoic, studious...

That’s really the interesting part of this Ephesians text: the opposite of drunkenness is singing together — hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs...a whole variety of singing that’s very intentionally listed here.  Sing all kinds of things, but sing together in praise.  That’s the opposite of drunk.
We finally made it to a Nats game this week!  And one of the many reasons I love going to baseball games is because we sing together -- it’s one of the only public places where that happens anymore.  And I was nearly moved to tears during the National Anthem.  Nats fans sing, they don’t just let the voice on the mic do it for them!  I loved it -- singing together the National Anthem, and of course the 7th inning stretch.

Something happens when people sing together -- not one person with an awesome voice on the microphone, but everyone singing together.  We do this all the time, and it’s what you’re supposed to do in church.  And it can be very powerful…and when it happens out of the normal context, it’s incredibly moving.
(Story of the Metro train, back in 2012, visiting Tim.)  

We are filled with something when we lift our voices in song.  We transcend barriers and boundaries, and you really have to just experience it to understand it.  We become aware of being part of something larger, and part of something hopeful.    

Sisters and brothers in Christ, even after all that’s happened, we continue to come together to sing.  To worship God with a grateful heart.  Even after all that’s happened in our churches, in our lives, and in our world, we continue to sing God’s praises, with old songs and new songs.   

At the Pentecost event when God’s people were singing they were accused of being drunk.  Remember that line?  But they weren’t drunk, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  And they were deeply aware of what was going on around them.  They were deeply aware of the pain and the suffering that needed their attention and care.  They were deeply aware of each other, and interested and concerned about the other -- the stranger, the widow, the immigrant and the orphan.  They were not stumbling around, slurring their words and actions, blacking out.  They were walking and singing together in unison, deeply aware.  Noticing the world.  Lifting one another up, holding one another in their pain.  God made us and calls us to be like that too -- not drunk but singing. 

After everything that has happened, the Christian community continues to gather, to break bread together, to trust in God, and to sing.  And this is Christ abiding in us and we in him.  

Will you pray with me:
“Gracious and loving God, transform us again this day...from singers.  Thank you for giving us the stamina, the faith, the voices, and the hope to keep gathering and singing even today.  Thank you for giving us new life now.  AMEN.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

August 12 -- Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Our wedding day was a day to remember.  June 25, 2000, Thousand Oaks, California.  From start to finish it’s one of those days at the top of my list.  It was a Sunday, and our families and friends had started gathering in and around our hometown a few days before – the bachelor party was on Friday, Saturday was of course the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner, and Sunday was the big day.  

A wise friend of ours – and I can’t even tell you which one – had suggested we stop and take moments throughout the festivities just to take it all in – really intentionally stop and look around or pause and consider all the love and joy that is present.  I had one such opportunity after the Rehearsal Dinner: the older crowd had all gone home to bed, the younger crowd was out dancing at the restaurant next door to where we had the Rehearsal Dinner, and I had decided to leave that party a little earlier to get some rest.  I had walked back to the hotel by myself and apparently that same weekend at our hotel was a big international Irish folk music convention.   In the lobby of the hotel were all these Irish folk musicians – this is a random hotel North of L.A., not the north coast of Ireland, but there they were, circled up, about 30 of them.  The lobby was filled with this beautiful music, so I sat down right in the middle of it to—as our friend said—take it all in, to consider the all the love that was present.  And it was a foretaste of the joy to come.  That was Saturday, the day before I got married.

Then on Sunday, the wedding was scheduled for the afternoon, and so I went to church with my family in the morning.  And we gathered with the faith community around the Word.  Lots of winks and hugs and “see you laters” that morning I remember.  Such a special time and a centering place for me.  I won’t go on and on with the details of the wedding and reception.  But I can tell you, that in the midst of it all there was such great joy and peace that over came us.  The ceremony was beautiful; it was at California Lutheran University’s chapel, where Heather and I had met.  Mark Knutson was our campus pastor and the pastor that married us, so our 2 pastor dads could wear tuxedos and just be dads.  The words and the toasts were all so touching (and appropriately humorous), the pictures turned out amazing, there was dancing and singing – literally: our friends got up and did a rendition of a Jimmy Buffett song in our honor.  We had negotiated to have the hotel ballroom until 1 in the morning, unlike most contracts, I understand.   And people stayed late into the night, talking, and laughing and dancing.  Heather and I stayed ‘til the very end too!  It was all our closest people at the time gathered in one place!  We couldn’t miss it.  

But you know what I didn’t mention in my recollections here?  The food!  Traditionally, isn’t this one of the greatest food days in so many of our cultures?!  I honestly don’t even remember what I ate for dinner!  I’m sure it tasted great.  And I never even had a slice of wedding cake!  I know I ate.  

But when I look back at it all, I think the real food that sustained me that whole weekend, the real food that filled me was the love and the community and the laughter and the joy that had come to surround and embrace Heather and I, as we made our sacred vows to each other...
This is my illustration for our Gospel text today.  And my great wedding experience is only a glimpse of the way that God feeds us.  Jesus says, “I am the true bread that comes down from heaven.”  There’s lots to be said of earthly food – and I love it – but when Jesus says he is true bread, we are brought into something much greater than the short-term joy of a good meal or even a wedding feast.  When Jesus offers himself to us as the true bread of life, we are offered a place on the dance floor, a seat in the pew at church surrounded by the faithful, a front row to the swirling melodies of traditional reels and jigs, with fingers and toes tapping along to the rhythm, our bellies full of laughter, our eyes full of tears, our hearts full of joy, and our minds full of peace.  This is what God’s got in store for us.  And it’s offered to us here, in this life, even in this day, at this table!  Christ is present with us, today, offering himself here – in bread, in wine, in water, and in the community of faith and doubt. (reverencing both ways)  

Let us eat of this Bread of Life.  Because it’s so much better than just the bread of lunch or even the fancy breads of dinner.  The Bread of Life gives us the true strength and nourishment and the p-e-a-c-e of God that we need to face our difficult days.  [pause]

Now, we can actually become addicted to earthly bread: to food and other substances, to money, to stuff.  Those earthly breads do comfort us at times, they even give us great joy in the moment...or at least, they numb our pain for a second.  And they’re not all bad.  But all the earthly breads do come up short.  
The real bread, the true bread that comes down from heaven, is God’s Love.  Have you received this bread before?

This is the true bread of forgiveness.  All that you’ve done, all that you’ve failed to do.  Mercy.  ...held out to you this day.
Have you been able to accept this bread before? (dead ritual)
Friends, I want to invite you:  don’t look at the bread and wine that you will receive at this table in a few minutes with earthly lenses.  Everything else we consume, we use our earthly lenses to evaluate it, critique it, quantify it. 
Don’t taste and compare this meal to other breads and wines you’ve tasted before, don’t pay attention to the flavor, with an earthly palette.  Don’t think about digesting with an earthly stomach.  But when you come to this table, you are not receiving earthly bread!  Through faith, through the words of Christ, through this sacred community — you are receiving heavenly bread today!  So see this holy meal with the lenses of faith, taste it with the palette of trust, digest this meal in a body of hope.   

For this is the true bread of justice and compassion!  In a climate of injustice and hatred, Christ is born in quiet, holy ways, in crumbs and sips, and yet fills us to the brim with the ability to open our hearts in care for the stranger, the immigrant and the orphan, the hungry and the sick, and also those we’ve struggled to love and like! – This is the true bread of justice and compassion, and it is offered to you this day.  

This is the true bread of joy and peace.  Calming our anxieties and our cravings for more, bringing a contented smile to our faces and air to our lungs. “Ah,” take it all in, like my wedding weekend.  Joy and peace is offered to you this day, despite all the chaos, all the opposite-of-joy-and-peace swirling around our cities, our nation, our world, our our own hearts — divine joy, peace, the true bread of heaven, Christ himself is for you.

Let us take this bread together.  Let us break it and share it.  Let us eat it in community, with the whole earthly community heavy on our hearts in prayer.  For this is the true bread of heaven that raises us all up on the last day, that draws us to God and therefore to one another and the good earth.  
“Take and eat, this is the body of Christ, 

given for you and for all.”  AMEN.