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 30, 2018

December 30 -- First Sunday of Christmas

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

[Willing to share?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas Eve 2018

It’s hard to see in the driving rain.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

December 2 -- First Sunday of Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

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