Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

January 27 -- 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

If I made you close your eyes and read you passages from all 4 Gospels (the first 4 books of the New Testament)—Matthew, Mark, Luke & John—you would almost always be able to pick out which book was Luke because it would mention so frequently the Spirit.  (This week’s Gospel text starts out “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returns to Galilee…”  Jesus has been in the wilderness, he’s coming home after the Spirit drove him, tempted for 40 days by Satan.)    

The Holy Spirit figures into Luke’s Gospel more than any other Gospel, and twice as much as Matthew and John (larger books).  (Come read Luke with us on Saturday!)  You see, the different Gospels have different agendas, and one of Luke’s main agendas is to proclaim the work of the Spirit, in Christ’s life, and then that same author, Luke, goes on to write the book of Acts, where the Spirit figures into our lives too, not just Christ’s, but the life of the church (the Spirit is Christ’s gift to the church) — many words are spoken and deeds are done by everyday Christians, because they are “filled with the power of the Spirit”.  (Martin Luther King, Jr. was just an average man, actually.  But filled with the power of the Spirit, he said and did great things.)  How does the Holy Spirit figure into your life and into your being?  Specifically, how does the Spirit “fill” you?

Imagine a man rowing a little boat wildly at sea: a metaphor for our lives (think of all we do, rowing, rowing, rowing, even while we’re exhausted).  And now envision that man putting up a sail, and letting the wind fill that sail, putting his oars back in the boat, off he skips across the water…[p] Spirit’s driving.

Heather and I have a friend from college, SH, who’s a pilot...and he also loves to sail and surf.  And one time he was describing to me in beautiful detail that moment that he never gets tired of when he flies: when the wind lifts the plane off the ground at take-off.  If you’ve ever flown, you’ve probably felt that too…[that moment], when you no longer belong to the ground...and you’re taken by the wind.  Shin pointed out that it’s the same kind of moment in sailing and surfing too…

The word spirit in Greek and in Hebrew is the same word for wind and breath: pneuma in Greek / ruach (f.) in Hebrew.

The Holy Spirit fills us like wind in our sails and allows us to move in ways and into places we never could have...by our own rowing.  
So how does that “flesh out” for you?  [p]
Well, in Jesus’ case, filled with the Holy Spirit, he faces temptation in the wilderness (first 13 verses of Chapter 4), and then he faces, perhaps even more impressive...his hometown crowd.  For a prophet, it’s hard to return home and get any kind of serious audience.  Everybody just sees you as this innocuous kid.  Has anyone ever taken the wind out of your sails when they told everyone that they knew you when you were a teenager?  That’s what the hometown crowd can do.  There’s great power in that.  You can have power over a person when you say, “I knew him/her/you when…”  

Jesus is only about 30 years old here (dismissive of young Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez...) But he’s got something to say, in spite of the power that his hometown crowd might have over him.  And he says it.  Come back next week (for Part 2 of Jesus’ Homecoming) to hear how they respond, but here’s what he says...here’s Jesus’ Inaugural Speech agenda:

He lays out our priorities for the new term.  And it’s aggressive.  These are not gentle suggestions, or sweet promises for after we die!

This is what Jesus comes to do in the world now, with real people, in real time.  I tend to want to spiritualize this list, but I’m convinced that Jesus in the Gospel of Luke would chastise me heartily for sugar-coating and making excuses.  Here’s Christ’s agenda!  He declares war on my ease and comfort, on my unwillingness to change and take risks.  If the Gospel of John’s all grace overflowing like gallons of wine, then the Gospel of Luke is Spirit-fire.  

Here’s God’s holy-righteous, fiery, Spirit-borne agenda:  To bring good news to the poor.  (What would that be?  What would good news to the poor mean, someone without a paycheck and no back-up?)  To proclaim release to the captives.  (I’ve known people who worked as officers in prison system: I wonder how they hear that?  Know anyone who’s locked up?)  Recovery of sight to the blind (sounds the least controversial, the most innocuous, for us...until Christ tells me that I’m the one who’s blind, and when my sight recovers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, there are people and situations that I will suddenly see that need healing). To let the oppressed go free (in case you didn’t get it the first time) and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!

This is an offensively economic reference.  The Year of the Lord’s Favor comes from Leviticus, and it’s the idea that every seven years is to be a Year of Jubilee, where every person and every nation is to forgive the debts owed to them.  The Lord’s prayer, which comes right out of the Gospels, actually says, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  The Lord’s prayer is inherently economic...and therefore problematic.  Because incurring and collecting debt is the way our system works.  Yet Christ is inaugurating something radically different!  

And all this is all because he is filled with the Holy Spirit.     

Friends in Christ, that same Spirit fills you this day!  [p] 
It lifts you and me to say, do and imagine things that we never thought possible.  It’s that moment where we no longer belong to the ground.  We are taken by the Spirit, by the wind, and we are lifted.  There’s a moment as the spirit-filled body of Christ, where we no longer speak our own minds, but rather speak the mind of Christ!  We’re taken by the Spirit, you see.

My own mind usually suggests caution and retribution...but we are of one mind in Christ, so loving our enemy is Spirit-borne.  That’s not me rowing wildly alone.  I can’t love my enemy by myself, but with the community and the Spirit, I sail.  

My own mind might suggest shrewd financial dealings that always benefit me and the people closest to me...but we are of one mind in Christ, so we share our wealth freely and joyfully.  That’s not me panting breathlessly on the sea, wondering how I’m going to make it.  I can’t give generously by myself, but with the community and the Spirit, I sail.

My own mind might suggest isolation, cut-off, from the messiness of the city, of civilization, of community that are naturally not perfect, to say the least.  It’s cleaner to just go it alone.  “Let me just paddle here!  And you paddle over there!”  [p] We can’t live faithfully together, on our own accord.  We can’t do church on our own accord.  We’ll tear each other down, break up.  But with the Holy Spirit, we sail.  We lift upwards, we trust, we hold each other, and we soar.  

With the Spirit, we hear the Gospel, and our sight is restored.  
With the Spirit, friends in Christ, we are set free, even if that makes us uncomfortable!  We are set free.

Praise the one who frees us, this day and every day.  Praise the one who brings light to a weary world.  That light is ours, and it’s ours to share!  AMEN.          

Sunday, January 20, 2019

January 20 -- 2nd Sunday after Ephiphany

Our scripture reading today starts by saying “On the third day” — “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana.”  Let’s think about Third Day Events here.  I suppose John’s suggesting that the first two days occurred in Chapter 1 because we’re just starting Chapter 2.  But with John, there’s always more to it:  The Third Day is a connection here at the beginning of this book to the resurrection that takes place at the end of this book.  The Third Day is when life conquers death.

And we hear that this is the first of Jesus’ signs.  There are 7 signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  This is the first.  It’s like those puzzles that reveal a little bit at a time, or a spotlight that shines on just a little part of a greater whole.  Not until all the pieces, all the lights are shined will Jesus be fully revealed.  But this is the first!  And man, this one is exciting!  So god that we can call it a Third Day Event, a life-conquering-death event.
Unexpected extravagance is almost unacceptable for us.

Have you ever been lavished with goodness and you really have a hard time accepting it?  This is a tough text for us Lutherans...who don’t always act like Lutherans!  I mean, if we’re honest, we can be reluctant if not totally rejecting of the extravagant grace and abundance that is ours.  We tend more to just point to our theology, not dive into it.  “No, no, no,” we say humbly (and even selfless-ly, “You go ahead,” we think to ourselves, “make sure someone else gets the extravagance, the grace.  Not me.”  (I just heard someone say that this week, when offered a gracious gift.)  Sometimes being in a position of sacrificing, even suffering, is preferable to having extravagance heaped upon you.  If you’re resonating with this kind of struggle, this is the text for you!    

It’s kind of like struggling to let someone else pay for the whole meal at a restaurant, even if paying yourself could be a hardship.  I suspect a lot of this is going on right now with kindnesses being extended to government employees affected deeply by the shutdown.  

(Now, not everyone struggles with letting others pay.  Some are happy to let others pay for their food and drink...and this text is for you too...if that describes you).  

But how about you who always cover themselves — and take care of others too — so graciously and extravagantly?  Can you accept another covering you?   Grace, symbolized by wine here in this text, comes flowing in such ridiculous amounts of abundance here!

(150 gallons!  I personally translate wine images into beer: that’s 10 giant kegs!  1 keg at a wedding is too much! 10??!!!  It’s definitely not needed!) 

But here it is: Wine overflowing — this is our first glimpse of Jesus’ glory in John.  One scholar talked about this miracle as thing of “dissonance”*.  It’s not only a surprise, it’s actually a little disturbing.  There shouldn’t be that much wine, right?  That’s scandalous (which literally means a “stumbling block”)!  Exactly.  Paul says Christ is a stumbling block.  Some simply can’t get past certain things about grace to fully accept this God-with-us, this Word that becomes flesh and dwells among us!  It’s hard to hear, it’s dissonant, this much goodness.  NO!  “You’ve got to earn it, earn it,” our little Western, Protestant-work-ethic brains are crying out.  [pause] But there is this part of our hearts, maybe even our whole bodies, that is whispering (maybe shamefully), “Would be fun though…”

You see, John’s Gospel again and again challenges the mind, threatens and seeks to annihilate the shameful voices in our heads, the “you’ve gotta earn it”, [slowly] and instead draws us into extravagance!  That’s what grace really is.  It’s totally undeserved and overflowing, Third Day stuff.  We have a hard time with that.
OK, the six 20-30 gallon jars?  Let’s talk about that:  Everything is symbolic in John.  Six jars represent the old religion.  The old way of doing things, even the old way of celebrating.  They’re water jars for religious purification! Did you get that?  That’s like taking our holy things here in order to have a party?  

Can you imagine grabbing [this chalice] for a wedding party you’re going to on Saturday night?

Jesus is consecrating the new by using the old.  He’s taking the holy and using it for the everyday, and in that way making the everyday holy.  

For Jesus in John, everything becomes holy!  Everything becomes “a sacrament”!  Jesus is blowing up religious tradition, and by that I don’t mean destroying it: I mean more literally blowing up [wider and wider, bigger and bigger] — YES, this is holy, but so is this and this and this and this!

(“We’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Fr. Richard Rohr)

Walking your dog and picking up after her in the rain is sacramental.  Scrubbing the gunk off of the dinner plates as you listen to a music or talk with your high schooler is sacramental.   Going to the dentist and sharing your plans for the MLK holiday is sacramental.  Having a drink with a friend,  getting a massage, laughing together in a boardroom meeting, reading a bedtime story to a toddler, watching a game, flying to Atlanta, shopping for fruits and vegetables...you see?  It just goes on and on!  Everything is holy now!  And this doesn’t diminish the church sanctuary, it opens it up and makes it relevant and enfleshed!   Grace overflowing, pouring out 150 ridiculous gallons, more and more!

When you think about when you’ve most felt God’s presence in your life, which we have to ask ourselves often when studying the Gospel of John.  Don’t just think about the toughest of times — when you/your loved one was sick or death was at hand, but somehow you knew God’s deep, abiding, very real presence.  Don’t just think about the dark times when God was truly there for you.  Those are definitely true moments of God’s presence…

But today reminds us that God is with us in the absolute overflowing grace-filled, joy-filled, love-filled, laughter-filled, beer-and-wine-filled, food-filled, family-and-friends-filled, glorious-nature-filled highlights ... the very best that this life and this world has to offer, too.  Third Day Events!

I think of my brother and sister-in-law's wedding in Ireland in 2009.  That was a Third Day Event for me.  Family and friends — new and old —  gathered together in an area that seemed like the edge of the world.  For days (in the rain — didn’t matter) we too celebrated a wedding, toured around, sat by the fire, laughed and laughed, ate and drank, and danced and sang, and told stories and celebrated life and love, and joy and peace.

And when you experience those things, you want to share them with others.  You want others to have Third Day Events too, you long for everyone to be so blessed...you just can’t help yourself from feeling that way...That’s the power of a Third Day Event…

Let me conclude by calling our attention to Jesus’ mother:  We should follow her lead and approach Jesus pleading, “They have no wine.” In other words, we should come to Jesus and tell him what to do too: We pray for other people.  We don’t just hoard all this abundant, overflowing grace for ourselves.  We can’t!  We don’t just revel in Jesus’ presence and then go home, forgetting what we’ve experienced at the party.  That’s not a Third Day Event.  No, we accept this absolute wonder and joy, we swim in it -- laugh and eat and sing and drink and dance.  We party with Jesus, and we also, even during the party, like his mother, plead with Jesus for the sake of others: “They have no wine.”  Let’s try that now: let us pray...

“Loving God, give to others the grace that we have received so abundantly now.  Blow open the old ways that come up empty.  And fill us and this whole world with newness, with joy and mercy and unity and peace.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  AMEN.”

* New Interpreters Bible, “John”, Gail O’Day

Sunday, January 13, 2019

January 13 -- Baptism of our Lord Sunday

John the Baptist was a truth-teller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

January 6 -- Epiphany Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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