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Jesus Loves the Weird Ones

Isaiah 60:1-6    
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14     
Ephesians 3:1-12     
Matthew 2:1-12    
The Epiphany of our Lord
January 5, 2020
Jesus loves the weird ones.
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    Tradition has it that the season of Christmas shall last 12 days and on the evening of the 12th day of Christmas, the church moves from the season of Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord.  Once seen as the the second holiest day of the church year, Epiphany is now almost forgotten because it is a moveable holiday.  It falls the most often during the week and most churches rarely have a special liturgy to commemorate the Epiphany.  Some churches just skip it all together.  Some churches are doing as we are doing and moving the the feast day from the 6th to the second Sunday in Christmas, but then you miss out on the Second Sunday in Christmas.  And then there is the rest of the world where they are already peddling Valentines Day and St. Patrick Day stuff.  Christmas is not over for another few hours so I think on this day, the 12th day of Christmas, we remember Nativity of Lord from the perspective of St. Matthew.

    St. Matthew has one of the most boring of the birth narratives.  You have Mary telling Joseph that she is pregnant.  Joseph decides to dismiss her quietly because he is a righteous man and that is what righteous people are suppose to do. Then Joseph has a dream and is told it is okay to take Mary as his wife.  She bears a son and they name him Jesus/Emmanuel, but in the in-between time of the dream and the birth, Joseph and Mary have no Marital relations.  That is it.  There is no trip to Bethlehem. In fact it appears Mary and Jospeh are already living in Bethlehem.  There is no stable, no shepherds, no sleeping in a stable, just Magi.

    People from the east coming to see Jesus.  They stopped in Jerusalem searching for the new born king, but instead meet a man who is terrified of being replaced as King.  Their encounter in Jerusalem shows us that the insiders who are suppose to know about Jesus and the messiah know nothing of his arrival.  About a month ago, my parents took us all to Lancaster to see the Miracle of Christmas.  In it, they portray all the characters as understanding what exactly was going on, but our scriptures tell us that nobody had a clue.  According to Matthew, Herod had to send his scholars to search through scriptures to find this very obscure prophecy in Micah 5:2, but it was the best passage that they could find that mentioned a Jewish savior/king and a town.  The Jewish King uses this information to create a plan to destroy this king.  The outsiders, the magi/astronomers/palm readers, though, use this information to continue their search for the savior of the world so that they might worship him.  They understand who Jesus is suppose to be.  The insiders have no clue.  
   And so the magi go to Bethlehem and present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  What is not written is the wise women coming in after the wisemen leave with more practical gifts of diapers, a casserole, and some wine for mom.  These outsiders travel a great distance to visit the home Jesus.  They bring him strange but elaborate gifts, and they return back home to their countries.  They traveled over two years to see Jesus and then have to travel two years back home, but God warns them not to return to Jerusalem.  Herod figures out that he has been duped by the magi and sends his men to kill all the boys 2 years and under in Bethlehem.  It seems Matthew's gospel takes a very strange turn in his recount of the Birth of Jesus.  

    None of us like to think about this part of the Christmas story.  We bury it, ignore it, but yet it still remains.  Innocent children lost their lives because the so-called Jewish King was a coward and was scared of being replaced.  Had Herod even read his Bible, he would have remembered that another king in Egypt attempted to do something similar a long time ago and it didn't end well for him or his son.  I, myself, feel very uncomfortable with this part of the gospel.  Just yesterday, sitting at an ordination as we were singing I was there to hear your burning cry, I had a hard time singing that final verse:

When the evening gently closes in 
and you shut your weary eyes, 
I’ll be there as I have always been, 
with just one more surprise.

    As I hold my now 2 and a half year old son, I can't imagine a king killing him in order to protect this throne.  Yet, I feel compelled each year to hear this part of the birth of Jesus because I know the reality for most people after Christmas is that we find ourselves in similar situations of weeping and mourning.  One commentator says it best:

As a general theme, life after Christmas is not all that sweet. Following the birth there is anger and murder, weeping and wailing, moving and resettling. After our wonderful Christmas celebrations we are again confronted with the fact that the kingdom has not fully arrived. The "peace on earth" sung by the angels at Jesus' birth (in Luke), is followed by death and destruction, suffering and evil (according to Matthew's account).

The coming of God is not good news for the tyrants who will be throned down from their thrones.  On this, the 12th day of Christmas, it is good for us to remember that Christmas did not necessarily bring peace, it did not wonderment and amazement, it did not bring happiness to all people.  What Christmas brought to us is Jesus who is God with us.  Who is God for us.  Who is God near us.  Who is God.  Having God come into our world does not mean all the bad and evil things were taken away. No, no, no.  Having God come into our world means we have someone to lean on, to be with, to feel our pain and our fear.  Having God come into our world means the fear brought by tyrants will one day be no more and though their might be weeping and wailing and loud lamentations following the birth, our God stays with us.

    Life after Christmas is not all that sweet, but what this story also teaches us is that you can't chase our Lord away for long.  Yes, he might have fled to Egypt as a refugee, but he came back.  I mean, that is the story of our Lord. How many times did Jesus barely escape an angry mob in the Bible.  Or what about the cross, those tyrants tried to get rid of Jesus once and for all.  They crucified him, threw him in a tomb to let his body rot away, but he came back.

    Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us.  It doesn't matter what this world threw at him, Jesus came back.  And today, even when we try to push Jesus away, Jesus comes back into our sorrow, into our joy, into our fears, into our hopes and brings us a different word, a different message.  Our God brings us the final word—Emmanuel.  Our God lives, my brothers and sisters and on this day when we remember those innocent lives lost to the hands of Herod, we also should remember all those innocent lives lost as the hands of tyrants and evil and we stand here in our grief and pain over the loss of such innocence and we say, “no more.” We preach this powerful gospel that tells us that people like Herod will not prevail and they will be brought to justice.  Let us remember on this 12th day of Christmas, the day we remember the Magi/the strange visitors from east, let us remember on this day the sacrifice of the innocent children in Bethlehem—even though their names have been lost to time let us not forget them.  For they join us in this great cloud of witnesses that surround us each week.  Let us not forget them by working to make sure genocides and atrocities like that in Bethlehem will be no more.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

A Not So Silent Night

Isaiah 9:2-7    
Psalm 96     
Titus 2:11-14     
Luke 2:1-20    
Christmas Eve (11pm)
December 24, 2019
A Not So Silent Night
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    Some of you are well aware of the events that led up to this evening's worship.  Yesterday, a chemical spill at the Water Treatment plant on John Street shut down all of downtown Martinsburg.  The Mustard Seed was evacuated.  My child care for the day was non-existent.  All my plans to get ready for Christmas Eve vanished.  Then word got out that evacuation order for downtown Martinsburg could be in effect for 24-48 hours.  All of our plans for Christmas Eve were thrown out the window.  The perfect bulletin.  The perfect hymns.  The perfect choreographed worship.  The perfect choir music.  The perfect everything.  

   I don’ know why it is but it seems every pastor since the days of St. Peter and Paul, pastors have worried and fretted over Christmas Eve.  I don’t know why that is, but pastors have this Hallmark idea of what Christmas Eve needs to look like.  And we go to all lengths to make it happen.  I nearly broke a evacuation order to get into church.  I was angry over the fact that we might be homeless for a night or two but clearly, homelessness on Christmas Eve is not all that uncommon.  
    Most people make a huge fuss over the fact that Jesus and his family could find no place to stay on their first night in Bethlehem.  And it is true, that was the case, but I often think we pay too much attention to this minor detail.  Luke clearly wants us to spend time on the Shepherds and not so much on the fact that Bethlehem was too full; that Bethlehem was not ready. 

    The first Christmas was not perfect.  Nobody was ready for our Lord.  Not Mary or Joseph.  Not the town.  Not the Empire.  Not the world.  And the people who do come to pay their respects are shepherds.  Covered in dirt.  Smelling of animals.  Sketchy by nature.  Yet Mary says nothing.  She doesn’t storm out of the cave.  She doesn’t scream and kick everyone out.  Luke says, “that Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” This birth was not perfect, yet Mary choose to not complain or fret, but to treasure and ponder all these things in her heart.

    The world was not ready and we still are not ready.  How many of us found ourselves rushing around this December?  How many of us, in the great hustle and bustle, took time to stop and pray?  I feel like this month has gone by so quick and I haven’t taken any time to enjoy it.  77% of adults say that they find the holidays to be stressful and anxiety producing.  I think it is because we keep striving to make things perfect.  We keep trying to make things like how we remember them as a child.  But nostalgia has a funny way of making things better than it really was.  

    “Back in my day” rarely is a true statement.  We always remember things better than they were.  We always remember it better than it was. And what I find so fascinating about this Nativity story is that it is brutally honest in its recollection.  Nobody was ready.  Nobody would make room for Mary to have a space for her child to be born—the savior or the worldly be born.  That the savior of the world was homeless on his first night.  He was born in a cave.  He slept in a cow’s food bowl.  The place was not clean.  It was not fit to have a child.  Luke is brutally honest in his telling of the story.  He leaves no imperfect detail out.  

    We glorify this humble story and sing beautiful songs about this night.  Silent night.  Holy night.  I doubt it was very silent that night when Jesus was born.  I found the video of when Thomas was born.  I took it about a half hour after he was born.  He is crying his little heart out.  He was cold.  The nurse had taken him away from his momma to clean him up.  He was not having any part of it.  It was not a silent night when Thomas was born.  There hasn’t been too many silent nights in our home since Thomas was born.  3 am feedings.  5 am diaper changing.  And we are living in the lap of luxury compared to Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  We have heaters that are thermostat controlled.  A Mattress that is hypoallergenic…It is not filled with hay.  Thomas’s crib is so well built that it can probably support my truck.  Jesus had none of this.  I can’t imagine it was a silent night.

    Nor should we make it out to be a silent night.  It was a night that change the world.  It was a night that angels filled the skies outside of Bethlehem and woke up sleeping shepherds.  The angels tell the shepherds that “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” - this isn’t just any news, but this is good news for all people.  This is good news for all those who have a room in Bethlehem.  This is good news for all those who are keeping watch over sheep in the fields.  This is good news is for ALL people.  “TO YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Martin Luther writes, “[The Angels] do not simply say, Christ is born but to you he born; neither does he say, I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy. This joy was not to remain in Christ, but it shall be to all the people.”   Of what benefit would it be to any of us if Christ had been born a thousand times, and if it would daily be sung into our ears in a most loving manner, if I/we were never to hear that he was born FOR ME and was to be my very own?

    We keep searching for the perfect Christmas, that silent night of sort.  We keep searching for something that simply is not there.  What is there is a child who is both God and human.  What is there is a child who will one day grow up, teach us many things, show us many things, be willing to die for people he has never met.  To you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.  Repeat after me, my brothers and sister.  To you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord. To you. For you.  A child is born in the most humble and rudest of ways and he was born for you.

    He wasn’t just born for the kids.  There are lots of people who say they only do Christmas for the kids.  Christmas is not just for the kids.  Jesus was born for you.  Jesus was born for the the insiders.  He was born for the outsiders.  He was born for you.  And he will stay in your imperfect life, where all your best laid plans go a rye, he will stay in your heart even when you don’t have the space for him, and he will go wherever you go, because he came for you.  He came for all of us so that one day, we might not be scared of the grave.  He came to give us hope and show us that God loves the world so much that God would dwell with us, that God would want to be with us, that God would live like us, hurt like us, love like us, die like us and one day, show us that resurrection is possible. 

     Tomorrow will come and many of us will find ourselves driving here and there.  You will be picking up wrapping paper off the floor, searching for those gifts that you hid so well.  You will be eating lots of Ham and Turkey.  Tomorrow, we will once again search for that perfect, silent night and we probably won’t find it.  Tonight, however, the perfect night does comes. It comes because Christ dwells in our midst.  In the reading of scripture, singing of hymns, in the blessed sacrament of bread and wine and we, the angels, the shepherds, even the animals in the stable—tonight is made perfect because our God, our lord is present and we cannot stay silent no more. 

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

A Way Beyond our Dreams

Isaiah 35:1-10  
Psalm 146:5-10    
James 5:7-10    
Matthew 11:2-11    
Advent 3
December 15, 2019
A Way Beyond Our Dreams
On this Sunday, we welcomed Pastor Diane for our quarterly pulpit exchange.  Click the link below to hear Pastor Diane's Sermon from this day.
And as a special bonus, here is Pastor Matt's sermon that he preached down at St. Thomas.

The Asp

Isaiah 11:1-10    
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19    
Romans 15:4-13    
Matthew 3:1-12    
Advent 2
December 8, 2019
The Asp
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    As I said last week, we are going to be working our way through the first lessons throughout the season of Advent.  Last week, your activity was to do free writing. I didn't get any complaints or emails this week, so I am assuming nobody had a serious, traumatic event from last week sermon or activity.  I know we are all Lutheran and doing things like we did last week and will be doing in the subsequent weeks is terrifying.  Trust me, I was the one who wanted to leave the workshop at the couples retreat.  For this week, I want to engage those Kinesthetic learners.  Those who learn the best by doing it themselves or working with your hands.  

    Dr. Voelz started this session by handing out play doh.  He read the text and then told us to sculpt an image from the text.  Yeah, not sure how many of you know this but I am not very artistic. I took a ceramics class in college.  Ceramics for non-art majors.  I hated that class.  I was covered in head to toe in clay every week. The first week of class, I came directly from my desk job at the hospital.  All my nice clothes were ruined.  Last week, at the Advent Craft Night, Darcy asked me to help her with a craft.  I think I might have glued my hand to the table.  You give me some 2x4s, some screws, and a few other tools and I can build you almost anything (I can't promise you it will look good, but you will probably be able to stand on it and it won't fall down).  You give me a craft and tell me to be creative, and I will probably end up gluing my self to something or someone, and most certainly be covered from head to toe in paint and glitter.  Now what in the world am I going to create with a small thing of play doh?

    Dr. Voelz reads the text for us and one word stands out to me.  Asp.  I had no idea what an asp was so I do what every millennial does...I googled it.  An Asp is a snake.  The light bulb went off in my head...anyone can make a snake from play doh. And of course, the snake needs a place to live, his hole.  So, I made this very simple sculpture of a snake and a cylinder.
    My brothers and sisters, this stupid little activity did something for me.  Typically, when I read this text, I go for what sounds familiar:  

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

How many of you hear in your heads: 
O come, O Branch of Jesse's stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
I can picture this part of the text very easily.  I can sing it even.  And then in verse two and three, we hear what many Christians call the "Gifts of the Holy Spirit":

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

When I read this passage, this is what immediately draws my attention because it makes me feel comfortable.  I know what the prophet is saying.  I picture it.  I can sing it.  I have heard these things talked about before.  This is an easy sermon for me to whip together.
    And then in verse 3b-5, we get into the good stuff:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

All we need is some eye of the tiger music in the background and we be set, right.  I feel like this is every Christian's dream passage.  All those people who made fun of me, didn't help me, didn't support me, all the time that I got the short end of the stick, the time is coming when God will smite them all.  Its like saying, "you all just wait...you think you are strong now." We all think of our selves as the poor, the meek, the weak.  We like to think that God will "kill the wicked."  That God will one day strike the earth and seek vengeance on our behalf.  This passage makes us feel good inside.  We revel in this sort of thing.  Rags to riches stories.  But I had no idea how to sculpt any of this.  I can preach it with no problem. How do you sculpt it?

    Instead, my attention was drawn to the latter half of this pericope before.  "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid."  Have any of you ever witness something like this?  I haven't.  A baby calf and a Lion living in harmony.  A little child leading them all.  Can you visualize something like this?  Only in my strangest of imaginations does an image like the one the prophet is describing exists.  A cow and bear gazing in the same field.  A lion turning down a delicious dinner of caribou for a bowl of salad.  A child will play with snake and a mother will be okay with it.  Listen y'all, I let Thomas play with a lot of things.  I even let him play with my electric trains.  I would never hand my son a wild snake and say, "have fun."

    This image that the prophet is describing is so very foreign to our very existence.  It would seem none of this is ever going to be possible.  Lions eating straw, children playing with wild snakes, lambs and wolves dwelling together.  It is impossible to think any of this is possible, yet the prophet says one day, this will be our reality.  The world will only know peace when this happens.  So the glass half empty side of me says, "So, we will never know peace.  The world will always be in a state of chaos and mess."  The glass half full side of me says, "But we will know when this new era is near, this new time is near, when when the impossible starts to become possible."  God does impossible things, for impossible people, in impossible times ALL THE TIME.  

    And we are so quick to forget that very fact.  We even put it into scripture, Matthew 19: 26--‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’  One day the  earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord just like the sea is made of water.  One day, this new reality will take hold in our lives and that is certainly both really good news and really bad news.  It is really good to have something like this to hope for but it bad news for us in the mean time.  How I would long to live in this reality now.  To just have a glimpse of this age. And then we get to the very last verse of today's pericope.  

    "On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious."  On that day, the offspring of Jesse will stand as a signal.  What possible signal could God have used to mark the beginning of this new era?  What possible, cosmic like sign could God have put into the sky to signal to the world a new era had begun?  A star...And who comes and sees Jesus?  Who follows a star for a ridiculously long time.  Foreigners.  Magi. Outsiders. That sounds a lot like "The nations shall inquire of him..."
   "...and his dwelling shall be glorious." Well, you got me there.  Being born in a stable, laying Jesus in a feeding trough, and wrapping him in scraps of cloth does not sound all that glorious.  I have often talked about stables not being what we might imagine them to have been.  Stables most likely would have been a cave.  Caves are naturally well insulated from the cold, require little to no maintenance, and were essentially free to make.  The idea that Jesus would be born in a cave is a whole lot less appealing to Americans than being born in a barn till we realize where Jesus was laid after he was taken down from the cross.  In this final dwelling place of Jesus, the world was forever changed when he rose from the grave, destroying the hold of death once and for all.  
   So, what in this text is speaking to you this day?  What do you feel like sculpting?  Are you all about the season of Advent? Are you all about the gifts of the Holy Spirit?  Are you all about seeking vengeance, recompense, seeing the evil thrown down and the lowly lifted up?  Are you all about the impossible being made possible?  Are you already in the mindset of Christmas and the little baby leading his people?  Or are you a hopeless artist stuck with a bunch of snakes?  God likes hopeless causes.  No matter where you fall on this spectrum this day, go home and craft something with this play doh and may you be witness to the new era God has been crafting for many millennia. 

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Trading in our Tanks for Combines

Isaiah 2:1-5    
Psalm 122    
Romans 13:11-14    
Matthew 24:36-44    
Advent 1
December 1, 2019
Trading in our tanks for a combine
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    Back August, my wife and I went to our second clergy couple marriage and family retreat.  I have really come to enjoy these retreats if for nothing else, there are kids the same age as Thomas for him to play with and to grow up together.  This year, the retreat focused on how clergy families can enjoy the holidays together.  My wife and I both work our tails off during the month of December and it is a worry among many clergy couples that we neglect our families too much.  So, we spent the time at this retreat talking about ways we can spend more time together as well as devote some time to Advent and Christmas prep so that, less time needs to be spent on study, sermon prep, liturgy prep and more time can be spent with our family—at the very least, it was the hope that we be less stressed.

    Dr. Richard Voelz led the resource time that helped up plan out Advent and Christmas.  Dr. Voelz is an Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA.  Instead of working through the gospel texts appointed for each Sunday in Advent, he focused on Isaiah.  I thought that sounded pretty good.  I do not normally preach on Isaiah so I do like a challenge.  And you all know that I am very analytical.  I love the technical details of the Biblical texts.  I like to hear all the text critical notes and nuances of the Hebrew.  And Dr. Voelz gets up and says he is not going to do any of that.  Instead, he is going to do a different activity for each week.  I really didn’t like the idea at first but it turned out to be really cool.  So, for the next four weeks, our worship theme is going to focus on the texts from Isaiah and you all are going to have the opportunity to participate in a different activity each week.  

    Okay, everyone, pull out your Celebrates and let’s look at the reading from Isaiah.  I am going to read the text back and I want you to grab a pen or pencil and underline anything that stands out to you in the text.  Things that sound weird.  Things that make you happy.  Things that make you worry. Write down any of initial thoughts that you have.  I also want you to do something called Freewriting.  I put a half sheet of blank paper in your bulletins.  Take five minutes during the distribution of communion or when you go home and just write everything that comes to your mind around this text. It doesn’t have to make sense, but it will help you think differently about the text and see what stands out to you.  I tried Freewriting and was amazed at what I found in the text that I probably would not have noticed from just reading a commentary.  You don’t need a degree in theology to have the text speak to you.  So, I am going to read the text again. Listen to the prophets words one again:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.   Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,   and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

As I said, when I did the freewriting exercise, I was fascinating by all the things that spoke to me in this text.  I reread my notes and thought I would expand upon what I wrote.  
  • One of the first things I noticed is that nobody talks this way anymore.  Or at least it seems this way.  One of my favorite movies is National Treasure 1 and 2.  I force our confirmands to watch it multiple times because I love it that much.  One of the lines that Nicholas Cage’s character says over and over as he quotes lines from the Declaration of Independence is that people don’t talk this way. In one scene, Diane Kruger tells Cage that people don’t talk that way.  Cage’s reply, "I know, but they think that way.”  Verse 3—“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” We might not talk this way, but we do think this way.  We want to be with God.  We want to learn God’s ways.  We want to imitate God actions.  We want to walk in his paths.  If it were not so, why would any of you be here?  
    One of the most powerful lessons I learned in High School was in my 10th grade history class.  Mr. Bressler kept asking us, why are we in school? Up to that point, I thought it was because I had to be there, but I could have dropped out.  I remembered that question throughout the next 10 years of schooling. Why am I here?  I don’t have to be here in school.  I am an adult.  I stayed in school because I got something out it.  I took a call at small two point parish because I wanted to be there and I felt called to that place.  I took a call here and I have stayed here because I want to be here.  I don’t have stay here, but I want to.  None of you all need to be here, but yet here you are.  I don’t care why you are here, but I can assure you whether or not you realize it, you are growing closer to your God every time you come.  You are walking all that closer to to the paths of God.  You are learning God’s ways. God works in mysterious ways.  Sometimes he speaks through me, sometimes he speaks through your neighbor, but we know God always speaks through the word and sacraments.  So yeah, we might not talk this way, but the sentiment is still true—we want to be with the Lord.
  • Look at verse 4:  “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples…” I won’t tell you what I wrote initially.  Needless to say, it was not good.  If this verse is true, then I am in big trouble.  We are all in big trouble.  I look at all my mistakes, all my failings, all my sins and I realize if God comes and judges me, I am doomed.  The first part of Verse 4 terrifies me to death, but then I keep reading…
  • “…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  It is unclear to me who “they” is, but the message is clear. At the appointed time, we will turn swords and spears into farming implements.  We will take our tanks and make them into combines.  

    Things that use to be used to destroy others will be used to grow food.  Things that were once used to create fear and terror, will one day be used to tend the ground.  Our weapons of war once use to destroy other nations will be used to fed these same nations.  President Dwight Eisenhower, after leading Nato forces and winning the WWII, decided that his presidency would move the country in a different direction.  He saw the atrocities of the war, all the pain that the fighting had inflicted on millions of people, the fear that war created among so many innocent people,  and said no more.  One of the best examples of this was that he moved the division for Space Travel out of the Air Force and made it a civilian organization.  Space exploration was going to be for the advancement of humanity and not for a strategic, military purpose. Essentially, the giant rocket ships that we used to send people into outer space were once designed to hold a nuclear payload.  Sounds a lot like beating swords into ploughshares; spears into pruning-hooks...”
  • Verse 5 sums up the prophets ambitions for the people:  
“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  Oh house of Jacob, come.  O House of Jacob get up.  O house of Jacob, get up and walk in the light of the Lord.  You might not need to be here, but you are here.  And since you are here, quit sitting around, my brothers and sisters.  Quit waiting on the Lord to do this holy work.  Remember, I said it was unclear who the “they” were.  Is it God? Is it your neighbor? Our enemy? Can it be you?  How can you turn instruments of war and violence into instruments of peace?  

    Yeah, sounds monumental right?  Especially for average citizens who do not have any legislative authority.  We can’t end the nuclear proliferation.  We can write our elected officials but that doesn’t always work.  We can vote but that can take years.  How can you turn instruments of war and violence into instruments of peace here and now?   What little things can you do starting today?  

    The prophet tells us that a sign for God’s reign involves peace.  How can you bring peace to your little part of the world?  What can you do this day to promote peace? Turn your swords into a shovel?  Your tanks into a tractor? I don’t know, but what I do know is this—when you do this work, God’s kingdom, God’s reign, gets a little bit closer, become a little bit more clear.  The advent of our God’s coming is no longer seen as legend or an idle tale, but becomes real and takes hold in the lives God’s faithful people.  God is our judge and yet, God has chosen to show mercy even to us—sinful, violent, hellbent on starting wars instead of promoting peace.  God has shown mercy even on us, go and show mercy and peace to others.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The King and the Cross

Jeremiah 23:1-6    
Psalm 46    
Colossians 1:11-20    
Luke 23:33-43    
Christ the King
November 24, 2019
Our King and the Cross
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    There is a story of the King of Sweden (or Denmark...or Norway...it really doesn't matter) who visited a different Lutheran congregation every week as part of his kingly duties.  One week, the pastor recognized the king sitting in the congregation and decided to change his sermon.  He spent the entire time praising the king, praising all the good things the king has done, and told the congregation to continue to support the king.  A week or two later, the pastor received a package in mail from the king.  In the box the pastor found a beautiful crucifix and note from the king.  The note told the pastor to hang the cross on the wall by the pulpit so that next time he decides to not to preach on the gospel, the people can look up and remember the gospel.  

    My dad told that story on the day they dedicated a new crucifix to be hung in the church.  People in the congregation were wondering why we Lutherans were hanging something that was clearly Catholic.  We hear that a lot among Lutherans today. The crucifix is too Catholic.  We believe in Christ being resurrected.  That is our focus.  That is partially right.

    We do believe that Christ was resurrected, but us Lutherans claim to be theologians of the cross. Pastor Paul T. McCain,  Lutheran Pastor, once said "The "empty cross" is not a symbol of Christ's resurrection, as some say, for the fact is that the cross would have been empty regardless of whether or not Christ had risen from the grave. The point to be kept clear here is that both an "empty cross" and a crucifix, symbolize the same thing: the death of Christ our Lord for the salvation of the world. Many feel that the crucifix symbolizes this truth more clearly and strikingly. That has been the traditional opinion of historic Lutheranism, until the last fifty years ago."  Pastor McCain is right.  If you go over to Europe, most Lutheran congregations will have a crucifix on the altar.  In most rubrics, there is not only a crucifix on the altar, but a smaller one on the altar facing the pastor to remind the pastor who they are praying too.  But here in America, Lutherans tend to shy away from the crucifix.  

    Most of our angst is because of the crucifix being associated with our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic tradition.  That is a shame, but I also think that we don't like to imagine Jesus as the convicted criminal hanging on the cross.  We like to think of Jesus as the good shepherd.  We like to think of Jesus as this strong towering figure.  Yet, when we look on the crucifix, we see that Jesus is "weak. His arms are pulled taught. His knees are buckled. His rib cage is showing. His head lolls."  That makes us uncomfortable. 

    But we are Theologians of the Cross and our theology around the cross proclaims power in the face of great weakness.  Martin Luther once said, "When I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it." Luther is saying that when we think of Jesus Christ, the natural image that comes to our mind is that of him hanging on a cross because cross changed everything.  For Christ on the cross means that when we suffer, our Lord joins us in our sorrow.  When we face defeat, our Lord joins us in our defeat.  When we face death, our Lord join us in our death.  The cross is the great equalizer for God.  It was where God's humanity was fully revealed to us. The cross shows us that our God could suffer and die just like any of us.  Christ hanging on the cross is a powerful image, but what about the times when we are not dying, when we are not suffering, when we are not feeling defeated?  Can't we just have our bare, gold crosses?

    Have you ever noticed that nobody has a problem with seeing Jesus in the manger. We love that image of a sweet little baby asleep on the hay.  Away in the manger, asleep on the hay.  That is a comforting image for many American Christians.  We like to keep Jesus in the manger.  We like to picture Jesus triumphant, powerful, beautiful with long flowing hair.  We don't like seeing Jesus weak.  We rather think of him as a sweet little baby.  Babies don’t make us feel uncomfortable.  They are cute.  They are cuddly.  But babies grow up and that is why it is okay to have Jesus in the manger.  We put Jesus in the manger as a reminder that He is man, that He has experienced all that we have, that He is humble, that He is not above suffering on our behalf.  And it is okay to have Jesus on the cross because we know he does not stay there.  We know after three days, he rose from the dead.  Resurrection is still proclaimed in the cross that holds the corpse of Christ.  But it is in this cross—in the image of Christ hanging on the cross—it is in this brutal but holy story that God reckons and unites God's self with humanity in such a way that we cannot see God in any other way. 

    When we think of God, when we try to picture God, we need to see Jesus hanging on a cross.  Broken, beaten, vulgar in all the wrong ways, but necessary for our salvation.  Our Lord is made king because he was willing to lay down his life for his friends.  Our Lord is made king because he was faithful to the cross. Our Lord is made king because he was willing to become like one us.  Our Lord is made king in weakness, and death, hanging between two criminals.  Even as one berates him and another looks to him for comfort and assurance, our Lord does not give into the pain and agony of his death, our Lord gives the other bandit hope in a most hopeless of situations.  

    Our Lord is king because of all these things and so for so many other reasons unknown to us. We do not need to think of Jesus solely as a great warrior. Maybe we shouldn’t even think of him as this towering figure, as this invincible man.  Maybe it better to think him as a man who was crucified for our sake, who died for our sake, and who lives despite all that evil and this world could muster against him.  This our is our King.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Enduring through hate

Malachi 4:1-2a    
Psalm  98    
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13    
Luke 21:5-19    
Proper 28
November 16, 2019
Enduring through hate
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    There appears to me to be two types of Christians in the most general of terms.  On one side, you have the Christians who are only concerned about what is happening here and now, and rarely do they speak about the age that is come.  On the other side, you have Christians who are only concerned about the age to come and ignore the needs of those in the present.  Where do you think Lutherans fall?  

    Well, it really depends on who you ask and when you ask.  Let me tell you, I have been all over this perspective.  I think before college, I was very much on the side of the age to come.  Then I went to college and became very social justice minded and swung far to the left.  I think for the first few years of ministry, I would preach many sermons on what we can do; on our works; on our social ministry programs.  Then I matured over these past seven years.  I have tried to swing back to middle.  I credit this much to being called to this synod, to this congregation.  If all we ever do is focus on caring for the needs of the people in the present, that work will become very burdensome.  Jesus even said that you will always have the poor with us.  Day after day of this work and not see any improvement can do a lot of harm for the Christian’s psyche.  Instead of joy and growth through good works, we essential create a vast army of broken-down, tired Christians with nothing to look forward too—no hope in the future..  

    It is why I have resisted to participating in "God's Work.  Our Hands." Sunday.  What is the point of that day?  To just wear our shirts and do some community service projects for the day?  What happens the other 364 days?  What is the point of doing these projects?  To make us feel good inside or proclaim the kingdom of God has come near?  Most often, it is the first—to make us feel good inside—and that is sad.  Its a sad indictment on the fact that we have forgotten that it is not our works that matter to God.  Article 6 of the Augsburg Confession titled "Concerning the New Obedience (or Good Works in the German translation) reads: 

Likewise, they teach that this faith is bound to yield good fruits and that it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God. For forgiveness of sins and justification are taken hold of by faith...For Ambrose says: “It is established by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved without work, by faith alone, receiving the forgiveness of sins as a gift.”

    Then we the other side of the perspective.  Christians who are so focused on the age to come that they sensationalize the end of time.  They write books based on misinterpretations, on a false narrative, on incorrect facts.  They ignore the hungry and the poor because in the new age to come, there will be no poor.  So, forget those who suffering now.  Those who suffer now will not suffer in the future, so the best thing we can do is make sure we usher in this new age as fast as possible—if that means destroying the world so that God has to speed up God’s timeline, then so be it.  It all about the end of time.

    Neither of these extremes are healthy.  And often times, we Lutherans find ourselves in both of these extremes and never in the middle.  We need to be in the middle more.  We need to focus not just on improving the lives of people in the here and now—good and holy work that we should be doing because doing this work shows what the future age to come looks like—but we also need to give people something to have hope in.  We need to tell people that their work is not in vain, but that Jesus Christ is present here and now, and will be present in the age to come as King and Lord of all, and the things that we are fighting against will not prevail in this age.  We need to give people something to hope for and that is what Apocalyptic stories like the one in Luke's gospel does.  And yes, I know we get really uneasy around these stories, especially about the temple being destroyed.  Buildings being torn down stone by stone does not sit well with us.

    I can assure you that it didn't sit well with Luke's audience either.  It had been about 10-15 years since the destruction of the temple when Luke wrote his gospel.  Luke's community, like most Christian communities from the first century, are still trying to make sense of the temple being destroyed.  For Luke, he has had a pretty positive opinion of the temple:  
  • Simeon enters the Temple “guided by the Spirit” (2:27);
  • It is a place of “fasting and prayer” (2:37; 18:10; 19:45);
  • The boy Jesus was discovered there learning (2:46);
  • Jesus attempts to protect the space as a “house of prayer” (19:45).
And later on in the book of Acts, Luke continues with his positive view the temple:
  • Peter and John attend the “hour of prayer” at Temple (3:1-3) and heal a crippled man who “entered the Temple with them” (3:8-10);
  • The apostles teach in the Temple area regularly (5:20-25); in fact, “every day in the Temple” they taught Jesus as Messiah (5:42!);
  • Paul claims to have caused no “against the temple” (25:8);
  • Paul even received his “revelation” (of Jesus’s Gospel) in the Temple (22:17).
Luke clearly has no ill-will for the temple, yet it was still destroyed and he, and his community, are trying to figure out what its destruction means?  Jesus' words about its destruction are not merely symbolic here.  Something really bad happened to a place that is said to be the dwelling place of God here on earth, but isn't that true for most things in life.  Bad things happen to all each.  Sometimes, daily do we experience pain and loss.  Persecution is not out of the realm for followers of Jesus.  Destruction and death are not absent.  Yet, our Lord's message in face of persecution, death, and destruction is one of hope: “not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18).

    Even when your family turns on you, cast you out, takes away your personal identity—do not see that as a time to run away in fear, but see that as a time to witness to Jesus Christ.  Jesus says, "This will give you an opportunity to testify."  Our Lord will give you the "words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."  We need not prepare our defense in advance.  God's word will come out of our mouths.  God's wisdom will take down the wisdom of everyone else.  For no one is more wise than our God and we have a share in this wisdom.  

    Even though we might have logic and wisdom on our side, evil will still win over the hearts of the foolish.  Jesus says, "they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name." Sometimes it might seem as though we have lost the battle and maybe that is true.  Maybe evil does prevail a time or two, but God will win the war.  Jesus says, "But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls." Not a hair on your head will perish.  Not a hair on your head will be lost.  Our God cares so much about your wellbeing that God cares about the hairs on your head.  

    If our God cares about the hairs on your head, imagine how much our God cares about your hands, you feet, your heart, your σπλαγχηνον, your eyes, your ears, your mouth.  God cares about you and wants the very best for you.  And this is why we need to to care and worry about the the people who are suffering.  We need to pray for them and we also need to, if we are able, to rescue them.  We also need need to faithful proclaim that Jesus, our Lord, will have the last word.  Jesus, our Lord, will not allow evil to win.  Jesus, our Lord, cares even about the hairs on your head and not a single hair on your head will perish.  You will gain your soul because of your endurance, because of your persistence you will know the Lord.  The empire will not win.  Satan will not prevail.  They might tear down our temples and tear apart our fellow brothers and sisters in faith, but they will not win.  God has won the battle and though you might suffer today, joy will come in the morning.  

    Joy will come when the son returns, and all tyrants will be torn from their thrones by Michael and all his angels.  And will meet God along with all the saints still living and we will see that what our has Lord's promise is true—that not a hair on any of our heads will have been destroyed and we will be with the Lord.  Until then, my brothers and sisters, let us live in the middle—caring for the hopeless while also preaching hope; enduring the hate of this age. And pray each and every day for the Holy Spirit to come and give us the faith and endurance to face these days with a holy persistence and wisdom to speak the truth to power.

     In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I don't wanna be a Sadducee

Job 19:23-27a    
Psalm 17:1-9    
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17    
Luke 20:27-38    
Proper 27
November 10, 2019
I Don't Wanna be a Sadducee
 In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
    I don't wanna be a Sadducee...
    I don't wanna be a Sadducee...
    Cause there just sad, you see
    I don't wanna be a Sadducee...

    I just wanna be a sheep ba ba ba ba
    I just wanna be a sheep ba ba ba ba
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
    I just wanna be a sheep ba ba ba ba
I kid you not, that song helped me pass a test in seminary.  What is the difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees? The Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection, that is why they are sad, you see.  The Sadducees believed very strongly in the role of the temple in Jewish Worship.  In essence, they ran the temple much like the Levites did for the Jewish people before the Babylonian exile.  According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed that:
  • There is no fate.
  • They believed in the written word versus the oral word that the Pharisees promoted.  
  • God does not commit evil.
  • Man has free will; "man has the free choice of good or evil".
  • The soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife.
  • There are no rewards or penalties after death.
  • The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection of the dead, but believed in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol for those who had died.
That last point is interesting and worth some discussion.  Sheol is the dwelling place of the dead versus Resurrection which refers to the physical rising of the body.  A Sadducee would say that Resurrection is not possible but those who are elected, chosen, would go to this place of the dead and be there because their is no Biblical proof for the resurrection in the Tanakh—the Hebrew Bible.  "Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died."  Even though Sheol is not well defined in the Hebrew Bible, a Sadducee would argue that neither is the resurrection of the dead.  There are really only two prominent, literal references to the resurrection of the dead:  Daniel 12 and Isaiah 25–26. The Sadducees believe in what they see and read. Because there is no real description of life after death in the scriptures, they have come to the conclusion that it just doesn’t exist.  That kind of faith really makes Jesus' words to Thomas take on a whole new meaning:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
   The Sadducees really fall away after 70 CE when the temple was destroyed and never rebuilt.  When your whole existence is for the proper order and administration of the temple, and that building/institution is taken away, your very existence comes into question.  Why do you exist?  What is your purpose in life other than for the care of a building?  The pharisees, after the fall of temple, helped hold Judaism together.  They taught people to memorize the Holy Scripture—“Burn our scrolls and books?  That is okay.  We can recite from memory.”  Along with the Samaritans who believe that worship did not have to happen in Jerusalem, Judaism survived because of groups like the Pharisees and the Samaritans who were willing to exist outside the building.  

    So, we have this story about the Sadducees asking Jesus about the Resurrection. Which is strange because resurrection is not something they believe in nor care about, so why ask our Lord the question other than to try to trick him?  Their question is, frankly, a horrible, sexist question to ask and a reflection of a male-driven, patriarchal society where the rights of women were ignored.  The woman's husband dies and she has no say over her future!?!?  The reason she is married off to the next brother is because she is not permitted to work.  She could starve to death, so in some ways these marriages were seen as merciful.  My 21st century eyes see it was not something I would ever want to have happen to my daughter.  

    The Sadducees had little concern for the woman-in-question  future implications because of their theological assumptions.  They want to trick Jesus.  They want to get Jesus to say something wrong. They want Jesus to say something that would cause the the people to rise and drag him out of the town with stones in their hands.  The Sadducees’ trick leads Jesus down a theological road worth exploring because who does’t have question about life after death?  What happens to these relationships we create with one another after we die?  The answer? "Human (legal) relationships—even those bound by Torah—have no bearing in the next life." That abusive ex-husband might act like he has power over you now, but that is not the case in the resurrection.  God holds the power.  Not us.  Not you or I.  

    And does that mean that we won't recognize people from this life?  Does this mean I won't see my wife and not have some kind of affection for her?  Or see my son and not have some kind of love for him?  I think the answer is no, but to be honest, I am not sure because I am still living.  I haven’t died yet. What I do expect to find is "life, energy, meaning, and substance." For as Jesus says, our “God is a God of the living.'”  We should expect to find life but not with the same social order that we find ourselves experiencing today.

    I worry about anyone who says they know exactly what will happen to someone when they die.  Jesus doesn't come out and tell us.  Paul does not come out and tell us.  In the letter he wrote to the Thessalonians, he says in chapter 4:

"...we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 

The main emphasis of his message to the church is that we will be with the Lord.  That is his message throughout the letter that Paul wrote.  As he says in our second lesson from today..."the day of the Lord is already here."  Nothing can change that very fact, but it is easy to wonder what this next life holds for us.  Especially as many of us grieve the loss of a loved one, the question many of us what to know, what will be like?

    So, we turn to people who have had these near death experiences instead of scripture because these books offer specifics.  The book, Heaven is for Real, was a best seller a few years ago (though to be truthful, the movie is better). Books like this one offer specific, concrete examples of life after death.   I wish there was something more concrete from scripture that I could give people who just want to know, but their is nothing.  There is nothing there mainly because I don’t even think we can even begin to fathom life with our Lord.  What scripture does tell us about life after death is that we will be with God.  We will be with our Lord.

    So, instead of giving illusory hope, instead of trying to answer the daunting question of what will happen to us when we die, I want us to approach the topic from a different angle. I want our message, our answer to simply involve being with our Lord.  That is what people really need to hear.  They don't need specifics.  They don't need to know if it will happen instantly, if you are sleeping, if your soul is separate from your body, if you are there now but at the same time in the ground.  People need to know that their loved ones, that they themselves will be God.  That is the message that I strive to tell people at funerals, at the bed side, and in my every day walk of life.  The best care of the soul is to give people what they need—Jesus—not specifics that we cannot back with scriptures.  

    There is also the care for the living.  How are we bringing the kingdom to people here and now? How are we helping people experience life and resurrection here and now?  I went to this symposium this weekend on the opioid crisis.  We heard from a mom who’s son was addicted to opioids.  She felt like she was all alone.  She was a faithful member of her church but felt ashamed to talk to anyone there.  She didn’t want to feel judge.  Turned out, there were two other families going through it.  Unfortunately, she learned about their struggles years later.  She asked all of us to to stop hiding because our white picked fences and be open with each other.  That we all sin and fall short of God’s glory.  She could have used the support.  These families could have used each other for support.  But nobody wanted to mention their family’s problems because of the shame and stigma they all felt.  How can we give people life and resurrection?  Admit that we are all messed up, we all have problems, that we are all in this together.  That Jesus Christ loves you no matter what you have said or done—that their is hope and there is life.  We should not not be like the Sadducees who were solely concerned about preserving an institution— a place, but to be with the people and give them the tools necessary to face all that Satan can throw at us.  

    So, how can we give people Jesus this day?  How can we bring Jesus to people who are grieving, who are feeling hopeless, who want to know that their loved ones are safe?  Proclaim hope in hopeless situations.  That is our mission.  Be the hope the world needs you to be.  Be the hope that your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ need you to be. Be the hope for the stranger on the street.  

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

The Blessings and Woes of Death

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18    
Psalm 129    
Ephesians 1:11-23    
Luke 6:20-31    
All Saints Sunday
November 3, 2019
The Church Shall Stand
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    One of the products of the Reformation, that which we celebrated last week, was the theology that we are all simultaneously saint and sinner or in Latin, Simul Justus et Peccator. This was a revolutionary way of thinking about the person.  Saints are no longer these perfect beings but rather are forgiven sinners. "We are called saints not because we change into something different but because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace. Luther said: “The saints are sinners, too, but they are forgiven and absolved.”  All saints have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, but all sinners have a future where they are and will be a member of the great saints of the church.

    While this theology is very liberating, it causes days like All Saints to be very difficult for those who have lost ones.  For one, All Saints Day is a joyous festival where we celebrate the lives of the faithful departed, but for some, the pain of grief causes this day to be a terrifying day to come to church.  Reliving the pain of that loss while the congregation joyously sings, For all the saints..., it is a bit hard to bear. While our theology was revolutionary, the practicality of it all sometimes makes things difficult.  There is a reason that the Roman church has All Saints Day on November 1st where they celebrate the lives of the saints and then on November 2nd, have a very different worship where they mourn the loss of dead.  The color for All Souls Day under the old calendar is black.  It is more of a requiem, somber liturgy.  A liturgy where the dead are remembered, where candles are lit, and photographs are displayed.  Very similar to what we will be doing in a few minutes.  

    None-the-less, people much smarter than myself have deemed that we set aside at least one day a year to remember the faithful depart and that is what we will do.  And each year, the church has appointed different readings to commemorate this blessed day. Year A, we will hear Matthew's version of the beatitudes.  Year B, we have the raising of Lazarus.  And this year, year C, we have Luke's version of the beatitudes. I have never really understood the reason why we have the beatitudes two years in a row though in reality, these beatitudes are one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave us.  Early on in my ministry, I might have indeed complained about having to preach on the beatitudes on a day when we clearly should be talking about death and resurrection.  I have learned to not think this way, though.   Instead, I find myself thinking about the blessings and woes that Christ describes and how these blessings and woes described the lives of the saints who have gone before us?  

    For when we think about the great saints of the church, we do not remember the ones who were rich beyond all imagination, who held onto power against all odds, we do not remember those who hated and destroyed their enemies.  We remember those who were poor; those who spent their lives hungry; those who have weeped; those who were hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed on account of the Son of Man. 

    We remember the blessed Apostles who, according to tradition, except for John were killed for their faith.  These men went out into the world and spread the good news of Jesus Christ. We remember the women of the early church, Mary Magdalene who was the first evangelist and told the first gathering of the church on Easter Sunday that Jesus had indeed been risen.  As also remember Dorcas, Tabitha, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in the letters of Paul and in the book of Acts— humble, holy women determined to preach the good news just like their male co-workers in the gospel.  We remember more modern day saints such as St. Nicolas of Myra, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Katherine Von Bora, Philip Melanchthon, William Tyndale, Søren Kierkegaard, Isaac Watts, Henry Muhlenberg, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King Jr just to name a few.  None of these individuals sought power.  None of these individuals sought worldly success.  These individuals are remembered because they sought out a better life for the the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated or ostracized. They heeded Jesus' words and sought to bring God's blessing to those who the world deemed unworthy of God's love.

    Often when we think of someone being blessed, we think of good things happening to them.  We call new parents blessed because they have a new little child to care for.  We call rich and successful people blessed because of their vast fortune.  But blessings, according to the Bible, is not a status that anyone would want for our children. 
   I do not want Thomas to grow up where he is hated, villainized, hungry, or poor.  I want Thomas to grow up and face none of these things, yet the Bible says that those who are the poor, those who are hungry, those who are crying, those who are hated and those who are ostracized are blessed.  They are blessed by God.  And people have taken this passage from scripture to justify keeping people poor, hungry, crying, hated and ostracized.  And that is not what Jesus is saying.  In fact, our Lord says, 
  • Woe to you who are rich...
  • "Woe to you who are full now... 
  • "Woe to you who are laughing now... 
  • "Woe to you when all speak well of you...
"In this context, “woe” functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word [we translate as woe (ouai)] does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement. Jesus therefore promises relief to some groups, to those people who travel rough roads through life. To others, to folks who find existence rather enjoyable or easy, he cries, “Look out!”
   "[Jesus] seeks to bring satisfaction and belonging to those who suffer from poverty—which includes more than the people who lack money but also the powerless and the disenfranchised. His ministry feeds the hungry...and lays a foundation for the hospitality and meal-sharing that are hallmarks of the community he creates. The people who cry, who live in perpetual loss and grief and who have lost hope, will not be forgotten but will experience joy. Exclusion and persecution prove to be no match for those who share in Jesus’ prophetic, liberative ministry." And we, the church, are called to continue in this prophetic, liberative ministry.  And today we remember those individuals who sought to do this holy work during their life on this earth.  See, "the blessing and woe statements signal something for people to experience in the present."  When we do what our Lord is calling us to do, when we seek to bring God's blessings to the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated and ostracized, we bring God's coming reality to this reality, to this time and place.  And the blessed saints should be remembered for this holy work.  The saints are blessed because they were a blessing to the last, lost, least, the little, and the lifeless.  We are called blessed when we are a blessing to this same group of people.  And we hear Christ's words of caution when we are not a blessing.  When we are hinderance to God's people receiving God's grace and mercy—God cautions us.  Our God has made a commitment to the poor and in this sermon Christ is "describing the ways of living that conform to God’s commitment to see the poor and unprivileged raised up."

    "The communion of saints—that intimate unity we share through Christ with one another, including those who have finished their race—creates a community, a new social reality. Jesus’ sermon describes that community as odd. Its values do not match life experience... Jesus calls the church to more than acting differently or see the world differently. He calls us, each of us, to a new existence in which God’s generosity benefits the downtrodden. That generosity creates a culture formed and sustained by the mercy of God. Woe to those who are missing opportunities to experience tangibly the giving and receiving of that mercy. Rich, satiated, carefree, and respectable people can share immediately in the new existence God has instituted, but only to the degree to which they participate in Christ’s calling to enter into true solidarity with those who find themselves destitute, underfed, mournful, and vilified." This way living is not easy. It is hard.  It is terrifying, but it is not impossible.  It has been done by those whom we remember today.  It has been lived out by people like Ella, Rosalee, Gaylor, Wayne, Jim, Chris, Rosie, Bill and Rosalie.  It was lived out by those we have written on this board, those who names are only known to God.  These people were not perfect in this way of living, but they were faithful.  And God took their faithfulness, sanctified it and made them saints.  

    May we look to the blessed saints who now rest from their labors.  May we seek to live as they lived—Sinners who sought God's forgiveness.  May we look to their example, but more importantly, look to Jesus Christ and seek to emulate his example of holy living so that we might bring the kingdom of God to people who do not even realized that they are blessed by God.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Church Shall Stand

Jeremiah 31:31-34    
Psalm 46    
Romans 3:19-28    
John 8:31-36    
Reformation Sunday
October 27, 2019
The Church Shall Stand
     In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
    2000 years ago, the charted a crisis on her hands.  People, who St. Paul called judizers, were coming into St. Paul’s mostly Gentile congregations and telling them that they could not be a part of God's covenant unless all the males were circumcised.  That baptism wasn't enough and you can imagine any adult males hearing this, it put an undo burden on their conscience  Many believed what the judizers were saying to be true and were abandoning their baptism and turning to the law, to circumcision for salvation.  They believed that baptism wasn't enough to be saved.

    And so Paul wrote to one of his congregations who were practicing and teaching this false gospel.  Paul was furious because he knew the power that baptism held for a believer.  Baptism means that we are brought into the covenant that God first made with Abraham. Baptism means we need not worry about following the law exactly as it is writen, we need not worry about meriting God’s love.  Baptism means freedom for the Christian and this freedom should not have any extra addendums attached to it.  Because if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed.  St. Paul believed that the message preached by the Judizers had the ability to obliterate the believer’s ability to enter into the glory of God because the Christian is no longer put their trust in God to save them, rather their own abilities. By trusting in the law, you are counting on your own ability, your own works, your own faith to save you rather than the faith of Christ or the power of our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross.

    The church overcame this controversy around baptism and circumcision, but that doesn't mean it didn't cause division in the church.  Paul writes about the divisions in his letters to the Galatians.  It seems that he did some irreparable harm with his relationship with the other apostles.   According to Paul, Peter would say baptism was enough, but as soon as others in the apostolic leadership showed up, he would change his tune.  According to Galatians, Paul stood up to Peter.  Paul writes, "I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction..." you can almost input here: "Here I stand, I can do no other.  God help me."

    This controversy, at least from the eyes of Paul, challenged the early church's perception of who was entitled to the gospel.  Is the gospel open to all or just those who are Jewish converts?  Those who only obey the law? Who can be saved? Paul believed with all his heart and his mind that the gospel was for ALL people and he was willing to challenge the leadership of the church until they changed their ways.  He was willing to put his life and reputation on the line to defend the gospel—to defend the proclamation of the gospel to ALL people who wished to be baptized.  To defend the gospel truth that baptism is enough. As Paul says in Romans 3, For "we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law."
   Fast forward 500 years, we meet a monk who was troubled in body, mind, and soul.  After years of worrying about his salvation, he was asked to teach a class on the book of Romans. He had never read the Bible before this.  He was trained to do one thing as a priest—say the mass.  So, he begins his preparation for teaching this class by translating the book of Romans.  He read in Romans 5:1, "since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ..." It was in preparing to teach this class, Martin Luther's eyes were opened and for the first time in a long time, Luther found peace for his soul.

    Then comes the sale indulgences and a priest named John Tetzel.  Tetzel pushed indulgences on the people, people in Luther’s congregation, claiming that with this paper, they could get anyone out of purgatory or be forgiven for even to most heinous of sins.  People were scared into believing Tetzel and took money from their family’s income to pay for a meaningless piece of paper.  People from Luther’s church.  People who could not even afford to put food on their tables for their families—they were tricked by corrupt, tyrannical leader to buy this meaningless piece of paper.  So, Luther sat down and wrote an academic paper, the 95 theses, and posted them in the hopes of having an academic debate on the sale of indulgences.  He not only posted them in Latin but in German as well so that the average person could see and hear Luther's argument against the sale of indulgences.  He refused to budge in his position against indulgences and was eventually excommunicated for his teachings and his words.  He risked his life for the gospel and if it had not been for the the other princes of Germany, who also believed in the gospel truth of justification, Luther probably would have been killed.  Luther’s words divided the church.  Even though he had scripture on his side to back up his belief, his words and actions brought chaos.  Yet even in these divisive times, the church still stood as one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
   502 years after he first published the 95 theses, we gather here together carrying on in that faithful tradition of standing up against those who oppose the gospel—only our fight is not with the same challenger as it was 502 years ago.  In many ways, as I have said in the past, the fights of the Reformation have ended.  Rome and the Lutheran church signed documents on a joint a declaration on the sale of indulgences and on justification.  We believe the same thing about the eucharist and baptism. Rome is not our enemy.  We are our own worse enemy.

    There is not a day that goes by that I do not read some article on facebook about how mainline churches are declining.  There isn't a day that goes by that I don't see some article that claims if we do these 10 easy steps, if we pay some consultant a boat load of money--our church will see unprecedented growth.  There isn't a day that goes by that I don't hear people worrying about the future of the church, yet in our own scriptures Jesus says, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." This is what we hold to be true and self evident, yet we don't hold it to true in our hearts.  

    I should note that this promise from Jesus in Matthew's gospel does not mean that our sect of Christianity will survive the test of time.  None of St. Paul's congregations are around today, but the church still stands.  Congregations die just like people die, but their is resurrection and hope for congregations just as there is resurrection and hope for each of us.  St. John's survived a civil war battle.  It has survived lighting strikes.  Our congregation has seen great loss.  Go over to our cemetery and you will will see the graves of many children.  Parents lost children from our congregation. We said good bye to a pastor who had been here for 38 years.  How many people said St. John's would fall a part after Pastor Riley retired? Our congregation has faced great odds over the years and yet, we are still here.  And that doesn't mean we should just do whatever we want, spend whatever we want, do what everyone else is doing.  That doesn’t mean we should go through life without a care in the world.  We need to be good stewards of the things God has placed us in charge of otherwise, they will be taken away.  We still need to be true to the gospel and be willing to die for what we believe to be true.  
   I think, in some ways, most Christians love the church more than we love Jesus. We love this space, our piety, our music, our precious vessels, our youth, our choir, our leaders, our pastors (maybe you love me)--we love all these things more than we love Jesus.  We have turned these things into an idol and our god rather than worshipping Jesus Christ.  For it is in Jesus that we find freedom.  Only the son can set us free.  None of these other things can set us free.  And Christ has set you free.  Free from sin.  Free from the worry about whether or not we are good enough God's eyes.   Free from the pain of never knowing that our God is a God of love and mercy.  We know Jesus Christ because we can read about him.  There was a time in place in the church when this was not the norm.  When only those who had degrees in education could read scripture.  We can read about him in our own language.  In this book, in our very own language we hear the word of God and know that these words are true and holy.  We know Jesus Christ because we can see him in this blessed sacrament.  We know Jesus Christ because we have been clothed in his presence through the gift of baptism.  We have nothing to fear, my brothers and sisters. Nothing at all. Yet, we are so very afraid of what the the future might hold.

    The church will stand the test of time.  The church will stand and prevail against death, against the devil, against a changing culture, against tyrants, against corruption.  The church will stand against all these things and so much more.  And even though our congregation might not always be here, the gospel will be preached in our death.  The gospel will be proclaimed through the sacraments in our absence.  The church will stand.  If the Reformation gave us nothing else, it gave us the freedom in knowing that the gospel is all that matters.  

    Preaching and proclaiming the gospel can be done without power and prestige, even without magnificent stone structures, with steeples as tall as the sky.  We can be the church as long as we have the gospel, the sacraments, and a gathering of the saints.  That is what it means to be church.  Preaching, sacraments, and the blessed saints—this is what makes a church, a church and nothing more.  What the world needs, what the church needs is for the blessed saints, i.e. you all, to be faithful in to proclamation and right administration of sacraments.  The church needs the blessed saints to SHOW UP, to show up and be faithful to the care of each other.  And if one day this congregation should not exist, our legacy will be that we were faithful to the proclamation of the good news, we were faithful in administering the sacraments, we were faithful in our care for each other.  That is how the world will remember us for that is all that matters.  
   May you continue to be faithful to the gospel.  May you continue to be faithful in your care of the sacraments.  May you continue to be faithful in your care for each other.  And may you have the blessed assurance that even though our steeples might one day crumble, the church will stand. It will stand and be faithful to the gospel until Christ returns and makes all the world new.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  
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