7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/19/17)

first reading:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40

second reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:38-48


For the past four weeks we have been making our way through chapter five of the gospel of Matthew – the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We end the chapter today with what seems like some really impossible guidance.

This is one of the reasons why instead of just reading the Bible “cold,” it’s important to take the time to look at the context and then prayerfully consider what a passage or passages can mean for us in the here and now.  Because passages like this have been used (or rather ABUSED) to tell communities or individuals who are oppressed that they should just “take it.”

“Do not resist an evildoer,” turn the other cheek, “give your cloak,” can all be twisted when taken out of context.

Now, we could do a fascinating Bible study on what Jesus’ statement actually meant for the people to whom he was talking, but suffice it to say, Jesus did NOT mean to roll over and play dead.

The English, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is actually not a good translation.  Matthew scholar Robert H. Smith says, “The meaning is actually very close to Paul’s ‘Repay no one evil for evil’ (Rom. 12:17).”¹  I mean, Jesus confronted and resisted evil and evildoers all the time in his earthly ministry!

What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t resort to violence or take revenge against evildoers. Believe it or not, giving the other cheek, the cloak, and going an extra mile were SUBVERSIVE acts in that time and place.  They were acts that would cause shame and embarrassment and even negative consequences to those on the receiving end.  They WERE in fact forms of resistance.

Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. even cited the Sermon on the Mount as a strong influence in their practices of nonviolent civil disobedience.  Again, what Jesus means is for us not to take revenge, and not violently respond to violence.

When we see evil around us – which Jesus would define as NON-love of neighbor – he makes it clear in other parts of the gospel that we ARE to act, to serve and love the “least of these” (Matt. 25).  NOT to act is a sin.

Speaking of love, that’s where Jesus is going next.

In the first part of the passage, he tells us not to be violent or take revenge.  But not taking revenge isn’t good enough.  We’re to do more than not hate.  We’re to do more than not take revenge.  We’re to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us].”  In fact, this is the FIRST time the word “love” appears in the gospel of Matthew, so it must be important.

And why this call to love – even to love our enemies?  Jesus says, “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  As scholar Robert Smith writes, “Here is the first reason for loving:  so that you may be like God, reflect the essential being of God, display kinship with God.  Like parent, like child.”²

It goes back to what I preached weeks ago on the Beatitudes – what we do is a reflection of who we are and who we are is reflected in what we do.  We love because we belong to God who IS love.  And because we are God’s children we love.

But Jesus does give us a challenge here that’s for sure.  It’s not just about loving our loved ones.  It’s not about returning kindness to those who have been kind to us.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Again, this doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead with those who would want to hurt us.  It doesn’t mean we stay with abusers, or put our heads down when we see injustice being done.  It IS possible to love someone, or some group, without getting sucked into their dysfunction.  It IS possible to love someone while truly hating some of the things they do.

How do we know it’s possible?  Because Jesus did it, and continues to do it.  As he was on the cross praying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,”(Luke 23:34) he was praying for the people around him then – and for you and me now.

How many times I wonder, does Jesus see me and shake his head in sorrow and frustration, and yet he still loves me. As Christians we believe God should rightly hate and condemn us – that we are sinful – and yet what we receive is love and grace.

The reality though, is that this is probably THE hardest thing Jesus asks us to do.  The whole Sermon on the Mount feels impossible.  And perhaps for regular folks like you and me it IS.  But the old standard Lutheran answer of, “We can’t do it, Jesus has done it for us.  Praise God!” seems like a cop out here.

It IS true that we are saved from our sin of failure.  But too often we can’t even be accused of trying. Let’s not fall into the habit of using grace as an excuse to be lazy.  If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus our lives should be centered around following him as closely as we can, knowing that his grace is for us when we fall.

We are living in a world right now where this preaching of Jesus – this SERMON – speaks volumes to us as believers.

If, through our baptism, we believe we are called to be “workers in the kingdom of God,”³ then we’ve got a lot of work to do.  To be creative and faithful in standing against injustice and evil, while at the same time loving and praying for those who might even seek to do us harm.

May we take Jesus’ sermon to heart, and follow where his preaching leads us.

AMEN.

sermon on the mount, Laura James

sermon on the mount, Laura James


¹Matthew, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament.  Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.  Robert H. Smith. p. 102

2 ibid, p. 104

³From the liturgy of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Lutheran Book of Worship

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5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/5/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 112:1-9

second reading:  1 Corinthians 2:1-16

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:13-20


Sometimes preachers look at the readings for the coming Sunday and pray, “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  Other weeks we look at the readings and pray, “You’re speaking to me in a million ways Lord.  Help me choose!”  This is one of THOSE weeks.

Each of our readings today are wonderful – challenging to be sure, but also filled with amazing imagery, and profound truths.  This week I have been especially drawn to the prophet Isaiah.

In our reading from Isaiah today the people have been through a tremendous ordeal.  They have been oppressed and conquered.  They’ve been in exile, are “home” now – physically restored.  But something is still not right.

“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”

They are fasting as the Lord requires, they’re doing all the “right” things, but they’re not seeing any “results” from their fasting.  Why?  Something is missing.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Through Isaiah, God tells them.  God tells them that their relationship with God is made up of more than just their individual actions towards God.  Through Isaiah, God tells the people that they can’t have blinders on, only looking to heaven, and be faithful.

And as the prophets often are when speaking for God – Isaiah is blunt – not so kind.

I read part of verse 2 a moment ago, but let me read the whole verse:  “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, AS IF they were a nation the practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…”  OUCH.

And there’s more.  The people ask plainly, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

I think we have all asked these questions at times in OUR lives.  I know I have.  Times when we pray and plead for God to help us or to give us a sign that we haven’t been abandoned.  Times when we feel like we’re doing all the right things but we’re still not getting anywhere.

I’m not saying that God’s answer to us in every time of OUR questioning is the same answer that God gives here, but I believe it’s worth looking at.  Because when the people pose these questions, Isaiah DOES give them an answer, and perhaps it’s not the one they wanted to hear.

“Look, you serve your OWN interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”

God tells the people that they may be following the rule that tells them to fast, but they’re going about it all wrong.  God tells them to look in a mirror and watch themselves – to see that as long as they perform this outward action to God, but mistreat one another, the action isn’t faithful.

Simply bowing one’s head and putting on sackcloth and ashes aren’t enough.  Going to church and praying on Sunday then going to work and being unkind on Monday isn’t going to cut it.  It’s not that God didn’t see their fast – God DID see how they were treating each other, so the fast meant nothing.

What’s the saying?  “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”  In powerful words God then tells them what a FAITHFUL fast looks like.  It’s a powerful litany.

THIS is the fast:

  • “to loose the bonds of injustice
  • to undo the thongs of the yoke,
  • to let the oppressed go free, and
  • to break every yoke –
  • Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and
  • bring the homeless poor into your house;
  • when you see the naked, to cover them, and
  • not to hide yourself from your own kin…
  • remove the yoke from among you,
  • the pointing of the finger,
  • the speaking of evil…
  • offer your food to the hungry and
  • satisfy the needs of the afflicted…”

It’s not that God didn’t see their fast.  God also saw how they were treating each other, and mistreating each other, but also ignoring each other’s needs.

Last week, I preached about how in the Beatitudes Jesus blesses us for who we are and what we do.  That who we are is reflected in what we do, and what we do is a reflection of who we are.  This is what God through Isaiah is saying to the people here too.  Our faith is more that just coming to church and praying, or saying our prayers at night before we go to sleep.

As Lutherans sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because we don’t have to earn our salvation, because Jesus has gone SO over the top in loving and rescuing us, we can be lazy in loving our neighbor.  Isaiah – and Jesus, especially in today’s gospel – tell us that our actions towards our neighbors, near and far, DO matter to God.

The fast that God wants from us, the fast that God sees and loves – is the giving of ourselves, in God’s name, in serving one another.

Then there are wonderful promises.  The images that Isaiah paints are profound and beautiful.

  • “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
  • your healing shall spring up quickly…
  • you shall call and the LORD will answer…
  • Your light shall rise in the darkness and
  • your gloom be like the noonday.  
  • The LORD will… satisfy your needs in parched places, and
  • make your bones strong; and
  • you shall be like a watered garden,
  • like a spring of water, whose waters never fail…
  • Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  • you shall raise up the foundations of  many generations;
  • you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  • the restorer of streets to live in.”

I’ve got nothing to add to that.

AMEN.

 

Personal, Pastoral and Political

I’ve been pondering about my presence on social media lately.  Interestingly it was the Women’s March that prompted it.  I did quite a bit of thinking before attending the march, sorting out my thoughts.  On the way to NYC my 17 year old daughter, along with some of the other people we went with, asked, “Why aren’t you wearing your [clerical] collar?”  I answered,  “Well, I’ not going to this march as a pastor.  I’m going as a ‘regular’ person.”  They responded that they thought it would be a great message to wear it and show that the Church was supporting people, but I told them that I didn’t think it would be appropriate.  If I were going with a church group that would be different, but in this case I just didn’t think it was right.  Not for me anyway.  (I saw many pictures of pastors at the marches and I have no judgment about the decision they made – I did what was right for me.)

Since then I’ve had a few occasions to reflect on the distinction between what I do as a pastor and what I do as private person separate from my calling/occupation – as well as my presence on social media as a person and pastor. The United States’ 2016 election has especially brought this to the forefront since I have become more vocal than I have probably ever been  in my whole life.  My mother has reminded me a few times recently that I’m a “pastor,” and although I’m not quite sure what she means when she says this, I guess she means that as a pastor perhaps I shouldn’t be so loud about my political views.

There are no clear-cut rules for what a pastor can and cannot do or say politically, although there is a LAW regarding non-profit organizations (which churches are).  A church cannot endorse any political candidate or party, which I wrote about in this post before the election.  As I wrote then, I completely agree with this.  But other than this law, there isn’t a lot of guidance.  Through my years in ministry (this year I’ll celebrate the 22nd anniversary of my ordination), I have come up with some guidelines for myself, which, like all things in life, are still a work in progress.

1.  I will never stand in the pulpit and endorse anyone EVER (even if it wasn’t against the law I’d still think it was wrong).

2.  As a pastor I’m called to serve people of all political leanings.  I have parishioners who are solidly liberal and those who are firmly conservative.  I know there are people in my congregation who voted for different parties.  I am pastor to all of them.  And as their pastor I love all of them.  Even if we may not always understand one another perfectly we ARE called to love one another.  And on the personal side I am not one who lives in an “echo chamber.”  I have friends and loved ones who vote and think differently than I do.  This is good for me and them.  Being with and relating to people who think differently than we do helps us clarify what we believe and at the same time learn from each other.  I have been challenged at times, made to expand my thinking, and even proven wrong and admitted it. Sadly, I think this kind of give-and-take is sorely lacking in our current political climate and both the left and the right are to blame.  We have to find a way to talk WITH one another instead of “over” and “past” each other, and foster relationships rather than making excuses to not like each other.  I take Jesus’ call to love my neighbor seriously, and that includes my liberal neighbor, my conservative neighbor, my socialist neighbor, my libertarian neighbor and my non-political neighbor.

3.  As a “regular person” I am, however, entitled to have political/personal opinions/beliefs and express them.  For me, it is ALSO the case that my opinions/beliefs are grounded in my faith in Jesus.  As a Christian, Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, care for the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, provide for the orphan and widow etc… (John 13:34 and Matthew 25:31-40).  Sometimes these issues are brought up in our national life as Americans – and when they are, I will do my best as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor to stand for what he has taught and commanded.  To say as a “pastor” I shouldn’t speak up (or get political) when I see injustice done to my neighbor is to ask me not only to neglect my vocation as a pastor, but my call as a Christian.

4.  Social media is great and awful at the same time.  For example, when I set up my Facebook account there were very few guidelines for pastors and professional people on how to do this.  Now, my denomination (ELCA) gives very helpful guidelines, but it’s hard to go backwards.  My denomination recommends that pastors not “friend” people in their congregations, and I understand that completely.  Sometimes social media is a good outlet to vent with friends (especially those far away) – but parishioners may not feel comfortable reading their pastor’s rants or not want to know so much about their pastor’s political or personal views.  I haven’t really gotten any pushback from my congregation because I have been with them for a long time and I (hope!) they know I love them and that our relationship is based on more than posts on social media or political/personal views.  But I would’ve done things very differently if I had known then what I know now.  If I go to a new congregation I will create separate professional social media accounts to give both my parishioners and me some space from each other while still cultivating a supportive sharing dialog.    It’s a new world that we’re all still trying to maneuver, me included.

I have a feeling this isn’t the last time I’ll be pondering on these things.  I think everyone could stand a little reflection on where our views/beliefs come from, how we can best live them out, and how we relate to those with different views.  How do we proclaim what we believe in love?  How do we love our neighbor with whom we disagree?  What are the lines we cannot cross?  And even then, how do we love our enemies?  I’m still working on this, sometimes getting it right, sometimes failing.  That’s discipleship.

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 1/15/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

second reading:  1 Corinthians 1:1-9

gospel reading:  John 1:29-42


Last week as we read about the baptism of Jesus his encounter with John the Baptist was front and center.  This week, we get to hear the declaration of John, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  But John and Jesus don’t actually speak in our text this morning.  John talks about Jesus, and Jesus talks to others.

When Jesus does speak, he speaks to two of John’s disciples – who based on John’s testimony, decide to “check Jesus out.”  It’s THIS encounter I want to focus on this morning.

John was with two of his disciples when they saw Jesus.  John again called Jesus the “Lamb of God.”  As a result, those two disciples followed Jesus.  Jesus sees these two following him, so he asks, “What are you looking for?”

Instead of answering Jesus, they ask him a question in return:  “Where are you staying?”  At this Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

Jesus’ question “What are you looking for?” and moments later, his answer to them, “Come and see,” form the foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Each one of us can be asked, as we walk through these doors on a Sunday morning, “What are you looking for?”  The question is a good one.  It get to the heart of why we’re here.  How many of us, me included, have Sundays when we get up, get dressed, get in the car, pull in the parking lot and plant ourselves in the pew, without thinking “Why?” or “What for?”

What ARE we looking for when we follow Jesus?  What ARE we looking for when we worship?

artist unknown

artist unknown

And when we really think about it, is what we’re looking for what we actually find?  Is the Jesus of our dreams the Jesus of reality?

I think sometimes not.  I think sometimes we expect Jesus to be a lot more “macho.”  I think sometimes we expect Jesus to be a lot more “successful.”  And when I say “we” I’m not just talking about you and me, I’m talking about Christians everywhere and throughout history.

Sure, we DO have a vision of Jesus victorious over the cross, the King of heaven, the one who we confess shall come again to judge the living and the dead.  But he is also the same God/man who walked and talked, ate, slept, cried and died.

Jesus is no superman or Rambo.  He didn’t come to earth to beat other people down, or to give us earthly riches, power or prestige.  As one of my former pastors used to say, “God is not our heavenly Santa Claus.”

Ethiopian - artist unknown

Ethiopian – artist unknown

Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, only AFTER being betrayed, beaten and killed on the cross.   Jesus is the God/man who DIDN’T save himself – and by NOT doing so, has saved each one of us.

So… if we follow him or come to worship so we can be powerful or successful or find answers to every question we have in life, we will NOT find what we’re looking for.

But…

if we’re looking for a savior who can carry us, who will be our companion and strength and guide through all of life, whether we succeed or fail;

if we’re looking for a savior who will gift us with heaven despite our sin and failures, who has prepared a place for us not because we deserve it, but because he is LOVE;

if we’re looking for a place to gather where we can be accepted as a saved sinner/saint, and accept others as the same…

well then – to that Jesus says, “Come and see.”  This is discipleship in a nutshell.

Jesus said, “Come and see,” and those two men “came and saw.”  And once they “came and saw” they started to witness, “We have found the Messiah.”

Following Jesus, being a disciple, is as simple and as hard as that.  We follow, we see, and we witness to what we have seen.

Scholar Robert Kysar highlights this order.  “The risk of the journey (come) necessarily precedes the experience of seeing.”¹  It’s true.  We who follow Jesus ARE on a journey – a journey of faith where we don’t know what’s around the corner, even if we DO know the ultimate destination.

We come along for the ride with this savior, not knowing exactly where we’re going or what will happen. We often can’t see where God has been working in our lives to get us through things, how we got from point “A” to “B” until we get to point “C.”  Discipleship is an amazing act of trust given to us through faith.

Following – being a disciple – coming and seeing, then leads to witness.

Andrew (one of the men who “came and saw”) responded by searching out and saying to his brother, “We have found the Messiah,” and then “brought [him] to Jesus.”  Our calling as disciples, once we have come and seen, is to give that invitation to others.

We hear “come and see.”  So, we “come, and see.”  Then we tell others to “come and see.”

No matter what our station in life, our mission as disciples is the same.  Tomorrow we will honor The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   A man of courage, who preached the love and JUSTICE of Jesus, who knew his life was constantly in danger and yet kept preaching Jesus’ gospel of equality and loving neighbor anyway.  Today we read about the call of some of the first disciples, who would also preach to many, and whose testimony we still hear.

Thousands heard their words – yet our call – yours and mine – is the same as theirs.  We may not have the audience or the influence they did and still do, but our call is just as important as theirs.

It is the call of the disciple who preaches to hundreds as well as the disciple who shares with just one – telling the love and forgiveness of Jesus for every person –

“We have found the Messiah.”

“Come and see.”

AMEN.

Name of Jesus (Circumcision of our Lord), 2017

Name of Jesus (Circumcision of our Lord), preached 1/1/17

first reading:  Numbers 6:22-27

Psalm 8

second reading:  Galatians 4:4-7

gospel reading:  Luke 2:15-21


This morning’s gospel reading begins with the story of the shepherds, which we read on Christmas Eve, and ends with the event of our special commemoration today – the naming and circumcision of our Lord.

Along with the story of his birth, the story of Jesus’ circumcision places him in a specific place and time, and in a specific culture and faith.  Our God is not a god that comes to us out of context.

Jesus was born into a family that was under Roman rule – a brutal oppressive government which he would experience personally.  As a child, Jesus and his family would have to flee Israel to Egypt, because King Herod wanted the newborn king the Wise Men spoke of, killed.  Herod wanted no threat to his power, and would go to the extreme of killing all the baby boys.  It was a death sentence, that through the family’s fleeing to Egypt, Jesus escaped.

But Jesus did NOT escape the death sentence of the crucifixion – another brutal, cruel fixture of the Roman Empire. A very long and agonizing way to die.

But Jesus wasn’t just born into a specific time in history, he was also born into a specific faith and culture.  He was born a Jew.

His Jewish identity formed him from the time of his circumcision to the time of his death.  Marked and named on his 8th day, a trip to the Temple itself when he was 12, sitting at the feet of the rabbis, quoting from the Hebrew scriptures from the beginning of his earthly ministry until its end on the cross, honoring the Sabbath, celebrating Passover – Jesus was a Jew.

Why is it important that we remember Jesus being born, living, and dying in a specific time and place?  I mean, isn’t he our savior for ALL time and place?  Isn’t he OUT of any particular context?

Well, certainly Jesus was more than a first century Jew.  He came in a specific context, but he most definitely TRANSCENDS time and place.  He was not just the savior for his first disciples – he is our savior for ALL time.

But context DOES tell us something.  It tells us that God didn’t cut corners when Jesus came to be with us.  God put Jesus right into the thick of it.  God didn’t pick a time when it was easy to be Jewish, or when it was easy to be a non-Roman.  God chose to come to us as a persecuted religious minority, as a member of a population that was exploited and victimized.  Indeed, God in Jesus became exploited and victimized for you and me.

This is incredibly important, because you and I do NOT have a savior/God who is unable to understand our lives. Because of the context in which he was born and lived and died – even though VERY different from our context in 2017 – Jesus experienced all the same things we do, and even some things we’ve been lucky NOT to have experienced.  Jesus felt happiness, sorrow, love, pain, grief, doubts, confusion, success and failure.

He lived in a real family with real family tension.  Remember the story of Jesus’ parents losing him when they went on the pilgrimage to the Temple, and his response to their worry?  “Why were you looking for me?  Didn’t you know where I’d be?” (Luke 2:41-52)  Such a typical adolescent reaction, it even translates well now!

His first miracle at Cana, when his mother wants him to do something about the lack of wine – he has a testy response to her request, but he listens to her anyway. (John 2:1-12)  And from the cross, he makes sure that Mary will be taken care of after his death, when he says to the beloved disciple, “behold your mother.” (John 19:27)

Jesus GETS it.  He lived a REAL life, in a real family, in a real culture.

The Incarnation is “God WITH us.”  Not just with us in some overly spiritual fashion, but with us eating and breathing, walking, talking and sleeping.

So when we’re frustrated with our lives, when we’re in pain, when we feel we’ve been betrayed, when we’re frightened, when our bodies are broken, when we grieve, Jesus is truly WITH US because he’s been there too.

He is not just a god of earthly triumph, sent to praise and reward the strong and powerful.  Jesus is God come to lift up the fallen, heal the broken, forgive the sinful and bring life to the dying.

That’s an amazing comfort, a tremendous source of strength, a guiding light.

Our God comes to be with us, experience everything we experience, and to conquer it all – even death – so that we ARE never, and WILL never be alone or forsaken, so that we can be with him as his own – forever.

Ethiopian icon, artist unknown

Ethiopian icon, artist unknown

AMEN.

Christmas Eve, 2016

Christmas Eve, 2016

first reading:  Isaiah 9:2-7

Psalm 96

second reading:  Titus 2:11-14

gospel reading:  Luke 2:1-20


On Friday, the actress Carrie Fisher had what was reported as a “cardiac event” on an airplane and the internet blew up.  Some of the comments were very clever and creative, but ALL of them had the same theme:  2016, you’ve been awful, and we refuse to let you take any more from us!

Of course, we don’t have that kind of control over time or illness.  Only that we could…

But 2016 has been rough.  Lots of famous people are no longer with us.  We’ve watched wars play out on television.  Terrorist attacks.  Deep political divisions surround us and even include us.  Hate crimes.  Uncertainty and even fear about the future.

Some people have wondered how we can  celebrate and have a “Merry” Christmas in the midst of it all.

But to ask, “How can we celebrate in the midst of human suffering and violence and even death?” is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole point of the Incarnation – of God becoming a human being.

Sure, we all like happy Christmases – family gathered around, presents under the tree, good food, smiles and laughter.  But that’s not what makes the perfect or even a “good” Christmas.  REAL Christmases are often far from what media and advertising or our own expectations say they should be.

Real Christmases are stressing over the menu if you’re the cook, getting the presents wrapped, finding just the right gift, having money to buy presents.  Real Christmases involve the pain of hanging ornaments that remind us of loved ones who will be missing from our tables.

Real Christmases involve ambivalence over sharing that same table with “certain” relatives who make us bite our tongues to keep the peace.  Real Christmases often get tied up with end of the year reflecting over what we could’ve done better, how we could’ve BEEN better.

Here is the irony of it all – the things we thing “ruin” Christmas, or make it difficult to celebrate are the very reasons we have Christmas in the first place.

Have you had an awful year?  Are you in a BAD mood?  Are you seeing little reason for joy?  Are you grieving?  Are you sick or struggling with how your body isn’t working the way you want it to?  Are you feeling burned out stressed out, like a failure, worthless?

Then Christmas is for YOU!  Christmas is PRECISELY for you!

The “good news of great joy” has nothing to do with parties or menus or liking everyone around our table.  The “good news of great joy” has nothing to do with feeling bubbly and “Merry” or being healthy or like we’ve got our lives perfectly together.

The “good news of great joy” is that God comes to us in the middle of everything that ISN’T perfect, together, peaceful or merry.  The “good news of great joy” is that God comes to usGod is WITH us -in the messiness of life.  God comes to us, is WITH us in our sin and in the sin of the world.

This year reminds me a lot of the classic cartoon “Charlie Brown Christmas.”  All the characters are lamenting, and Linus has to stop and remind everyone about what Christmas really means.

Christmas isn’t a new car wrapped with a big red bow in your driveway.  Christmas is “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Christmas is the gospel, pure and simple.

God came to be with us in Jesus.  God came to be with us because we sin.  That’s right, we sin.  We are human beings filled with imperfections in the way we see and treat ourselves and one another.

God came to be with us because God LOVES us.  God does not want to leave us in our sin.  God came to be with us in Jesus so that we are saved from that sin eternally, but also so that we have a loving companion in the here and now.  That “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” is our great teacher, our Prince of Peace and our savior.

  • Jesus is with us when our Christmas is perfect, but most especially when it is not.
  • Jesus is with us when we’re feeling on top of the world, but most especially when we’re feeling defeated.
  • Jesus is with us when it’s easy to love those around our tables, but most especially when we’re feeling wounded and when WE’RE the ones who do the hurting.
  • Jesus is with us when our bodies are strong and healthy, but most especially when we are feeling weak and vulnerable.
  • Jesus is with us when our society feels secure and stable, but most especially when we live in times of uncertainty and even chaos.  For Jesus is just as much with you and me as he is with the people of Aleppo, or south Sudan, or Venezuela, or anywhere else in the world or down the street where people are living in fear and violence.

In some circles people like to bicker over the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas” over “happy holidays.”  I don’t like either.  Because they both miss the point of Christmas – the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation isn’t about being “happy” or “merry.”  The Incarnation is about God coming to be with us even as we are BROKEN.  I think “Blessed Christmas” works much better.

Because this is what Christmas truly is – a blessing – a means by which we are blessed with the greatest gift God could give:  Jesus.

Blessed Christmas to each and every one of us.

AMEN.

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent, year A, preached 12/4/16

first reading:  Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

second reading:  Romans 15:4-13

gospel reading:  Matthew 3:1-12


Way back when I was in seminary, my dear friend, Violet, preached a sermon whose main point has stayed with me for over 20 years now.

She began her sermon by talking about “four letter words,” and their power.  She got a few chuckles, including from me, because Lord knows there have been times in my life when nothing else seems to fit a situation except a four letter word or two.

But then Violet shocked all of us, when she said the four letter word she was think of – the four letter word that hold such great power is… HOPE.  HOPE wasn’t even in the top ten list of four letter words I was thinking of!

What Violet was illustrating is exactly what our readings today also show us – that in the midst of very trying, practically impossible circumstances, HOPE is the power that gets us through.

hope1In our first reading we have a vision of hope despite a bleak reality.  The prophet imagines the shoot coming out of the dead stump of Jesse – King David’s line will be restored, and what a wonderful time that will be.  The peaceable kingdom as it’s popularly called.  The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, all living together; little children playing with snakes – no more pain or destruction.

Our psalm is a prayer of hope for an earthly king who will bring justice, who shall “defend the needy” and “rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.”  A prayer that under this king “the righteous flourish” and “there shall be abundance of peace.”

Our second reading from Romans speaks it plainly.  St. Paul even uses hope as a blessing:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

He wrote these words to a community with struggles from within and without.  The Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were having a hard time accepting one another.  It wouldn’t be the first time a church has suffered from factions within.

Yet, in the midst of their division, Paul reminds them that the scriptures were given to us so that “we might have hope,” and that our God is a “God of hope.”  His wish for those in the Roman church, is that these competing factions “welcome one another” and “abound in hope.”

The hope in the gospel is less clear.  When we look at the surface of it we see a lot of judgment.  John the Baptist calling the religious leaders poisonous snakes, and warnings about the wheat and the chaff.  I see hope here in John’s warning for the big shots not to be presumptuous.  We are ALL called to repentance.  No one is better than another.

You and I have as much right (or NO right) to God as the richest tycoon or the holiest saint.  I don’t know about you, but that gives me a LOT of hope.  Through faith, through repentance, through our baptism into Jesus, I, a poor penitent sinner receive grace and mercy.  Our pedigree or social station has no bearing on whether we are “good enough” or NOT “good enough” for the kingdom of heaven.

When confronted with the times, it would have been easy for our biblical writers and prophets to despair.  And certainly in the Bible there are those moments – and sometimes the moments last for DECADES.  But despair does NOT prevail.

HOPE is a four letter word in the face of despair.  Instead of capitulating or simple cursing our circumstances, hope speaks a TRUTH to those circumstances.  Hope looks at reality and says, “Yes, I acknowledge you, but I will not give IN to you.”  THIS is the power that hope has – the power to carry us.

hope3

When seen this way, hope is one of the ultimate acts of defiance.  Hope is resistance.  Hope gives us strength to carry on and to ACT.  This is what we mean when we say hope is a four letter word.

We look at the growing darkness around us.  Winter is fast approaching.  The solstice is in a few weeks, when we will experience the “shortest” or “darkest” day of the whole year.  Into this darkness comes the child of hope.  The one of whom John the Baptist spoke – more powerful than him, or any one of us.

This hope is THE light that shines in the darkness, THE light the darkness cannot overcome.

THIS hope, gives US hope.  This hope lifts us up when we are weak and breathes in us the power of the Holy Spirit. This hope gives us hope even when we know we will fail.  This hope gives us the strength to even work for a thing that we know we will never see.  This hope has given people through the centuries courage to stand up against all odds – martyrs, prophets, teachers – all regular believers who had hope.

It’s so easy to find that perfect four letter word to curse.  But for God, the perfect four letter word is word that actually brings energy and passion and a vision for justice and righteousness – the peaceable kingdom, the righteous king, the ability to “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How could the people in the prophet Isaiah’s time have imagined a new king from the dead line of David?  How could the psalmist dare imagine a king who would defend the poor and needy?  How could Paul possibly think the Jewish and Gentile Christians would find a way to live together?

How can we, you and I, find a way to make it through all the challenges that come OUR way from within and without?

We see the coming baby in the manger, the savior on the cross, the risen Lord for US – and we have HOPE.

AMEN.