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Who are Your Favorites? (February 17, 2019)

Luke 6:17-26

[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

There is a major theme throughout the gospel of Luke. Everywhere in this gospel God is lifting up those who are low, revealing God’s loving intentions for the poor, the hungry, and the powerless. We can see God’s vision all through this gospel. We can really hear God compassion for those the world excludes and looks down on. In this gospel, the author is clear that the low are lifted up and those up high are brought down. Everyone is level, even. Those who think they are God’s favorites discover they aren’t, and those who think they are far from God discover they aren’t.

Unlike Matthew’s “sermon on the mount,” in today’s text Luke deliberately has Jesus doing this “Beatitude-like” teaching on a level place. Luke has everyone at the same level.

The author spells it out, making it very clear. Those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who are weeping, and those who are hated and excluded are blessed by God. Regardless of what others say, they aren’t lower. They aren’t despised. They are loved and included and welcomed and valued. Just as much as those whom everyone thinks are favored.

The playing field is level. Good news, right? Well, think about that, because the implications of a level playing field affect us more than we may believe. It goes in all kinds of different directions and extends into parts of our lives that we hadn’t considered before.

Not only is the man who stands at the intersection with a cardboard sign and a mental illness just as beloved by God as I am, but it goes beyond that. Beyond those who are socioeconomically low. It also means that those whose theology I despise, those who use the holy name of Jesus in abhorrent ways, those who abuse and twist and distort this life-giving gospel message for profit and their own agendas, those who give Christianity a black eye, are beloved to God. And that’s hard to hear.

That means God favors Pat Robertson, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Marilyn Hickey, Franklin Graham, T.D. Jakes, Beth Moore, Joel Osteen, and rest of them just as much as God favors Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, the apostles, Mary Magdalene, all those who are deliberate about revealing the living, resurrected Christ in our world.

This level field of God’s favor applies everywhere. Including political figures and parties, business and non-profit, race and ethnicity, gender identity and sexual identity, citizen status and documentation. Those who are low or ignored or hated or treated unfairly are favored by God.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that, but it also means they have to be favored by me, too. As a disciple of this Jesus who taught about levelling the field on a level place, I need to acknowledge the presence of Christ in each of these people. In all of these people. Those who are not favored by me are nonetheless blessed by God. And I need to deal with that. If not, then I’m included in the “woe to them” part of this gospel text.

This level, lack of favoritism by God extends beyond that even. It also means that those the world seems to favor, e.g., the rich, the powerful, the popular, the good-looking, the healthy are not favored by God over me. There are those people who just seem to have everything put together. They’re gifted, talented, intelligent, good incomes, have well-behaved children, they’re respected in their field, never sick, have yet to experience hardship—even the death of a loved one. And I know everyone has their issues and it’s not fair to generalize, but it does seem that a few people already have a leg up on life. We call them blessed, we think of them as favored—if not by God then certainly by everyone else.

Jesus’ teaching and example on the level place today says that as far as God’s compassion and love, they have no advantage at all. Luke uses the language of “woes,” meaning these who seem to have everything need to recognize, too, that none of that matters to God.

Those at the top, those we look up to, those who have all the luck, those who are constantly fortunate, those who are our heroes, they are not that way because they are closer to God.

And those at the bottom, who can’t catch a break, who fight and scratch every day to pay rent, who live in fear of the next catastrophe that will put them over the edge, who struggle to gain some kind of acknowledgment that they are present and valuable, they are not that way because they are further from God.

God’s care, God’s compassion, God’s grace all rain down equally on everyone—regardless of how much value the world places on them.

But like rain, God’s mercy and justice, though it falls on everyone, still flows down and pools in the lowest places. Some days that’s you. Some days it’s not.

This major theme of levelling in the gospel of Luke becomes real for us in the church. That which God does, we do also. Those who are at the bottom today, need us the most today. Those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and excluded today are to be cared for, fed, comforted, and welcomed today. Those who think they are God’s favorites discover they aren’t, and those who think they are far from God discover they aren’t. As Christ lives, may he live through us.

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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Right Now. You are Called. And It Matters (February 10, 2019)

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Two call stories. Isaiah and Simon. Two different ways of being called:

Isaiah Simon
  Inconvenienced x2

·         After working all night, “put out a little way from shore.”

·         After no catch, “put out into deep water, let down nets.”

WOW! Presence of God!

·         Throne Room

·         Hem filled temple

·         Seraphs crying out, “Holy!”

·         Earthquake and smoke

WOW! Presence of God!

·         Big catch!

   Unworthy, “Woe is me! I am lost” Unworthy, “Go away, I’m sinful”
Forgiven–

Seraph brings live coal and touched his lips with it.

Now he’s worthy.

 
Called to speak Called to catch
Accept with understanding proclaim to Israel their ignorance and their destruction.

But needs clarification, “how long?”

Accept with no idea what this means or what it entails.

But left everything to follow (along with James and John).

There is no clear-cut pattern to being called by God. No template where people can fill in the blanks. No checklist where people can mark off the steps as they’re completed. Each call is unique. And each call is specific. And each call is necessary.

There are a couple of things about being called by God that we can say with a little bit of certainty. One is that through our baptism we are called! Through our discipleship we are called!

Another is that we are called to be part of something that God is doing. It fits somehow into God’s vision, God’s mission, God’s intention for the world. What that looks like and how we recognize it are up for grabs, however.

Accepting a call from God is not a smooth process. It’s not a “one and done” kind of deal. It’s ongoing, it involves making mistakes, and it usually feels more like stepping off a ledge than it does following a well-defined path.

If this is all true, then how do we go about figuring out this call stuff?

  1. Trust that you are called by God to be part of what God is doing. Remind yourself every day. Say it out loud, “I am called by God — to be part of what God is doing.”
  2. Know that none of us do this alone, but we are all parts of a whole. We need to remind each other that we are all called to be part of what God is doing. Tell someone, “You are called by God — to be part of what God is doing.” As a congregation, we need to be encouraging each other, supporting each other, lifting each other up. Because it’s not just each of us separately following, but all of us following together.
  3. Grow in your own understanding. Discover your gifts and your passions. Isaiah loved the temple and Jerusalem. He was concerned about the people’s straying from their temple identity as God’s people. Simon knew fishing. That was about it. Grow in your spiritual life, grow in your discipleship, and grow in your own self-awareness. God isn’t calling you to become something you’re not; God is calling you because of who you already are.
  4. Accept that we won’t do it right. Forgiveness means that you get to try again. How many times in scripture does God have to remind people, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus says it to Simon in this text today, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” We don’t have to afraid that we’re not doing it perfectly. God can easily work with failed attempts and mistakes. It’s a lot tougher for God to work with no attempt at all.
  5. Keep at it. The prophets that make up the book of Isaiah watched the destruction of Jerusalem and the people being forcefully taken away as captives into Babylon. Simon watched the as the one on whom he bet everything—his entire life—was killed on a cross as a criminal. When it looks like nothing is happening, when it seems God has abandoned this project, when it appears that God may not be able to use you after all, keep at it. When we see that God’s work isn’t going as expected or hoped for, we’re in really good company.
  6. Celebrate the victories! Watch for God’s justice happening. Pay attention to compassion being shown. Look for love and grace and mercy being lived out in unlikely places. See how God is surprising people not only with what God is doing, but through whom God is doing it! And then, having recognized God’s vision moving forward, share that good news!
  7. Rinse and repeat. We continue in this process of our spiritual awakening and discipleship growth. As we continue working these process steps, we’ll re-discover our call to a deeper purpose for our lives and a fulfillment that comes from being who God has created us to be. Plus, our trust, our faith, our awareness of the reality of God takes on new life and more meaning. And all the while, God’s intention for creation continues in its fulfillment.
 
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Posted by on February 10, 2019 in Sermon

 

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There is Good News! But Being Favored Isn’t It (February 3, 2019)

Luke 4:21-30

Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Last week was Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke back in his home congregation in Nazareth. Today’s text continues, even overlaps a verse, and includes the congregation’s response to it. In a word, it wasn’t a great response.

I can’t imagine going back to my home church in Salt Lake City right after seminary and preaching my very first public sermon ever. And the congregational response is to drive me out of town and try to throw me off a cliff. I think I’d likely rethink this whole preaching thing as a career choice.

But we need to look at why they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. He was their hometown hero at this point. His reputation as a preacher and teacher had spread throughout Galilee already. Everyone was amazed at him and they all praised his ability.

So the bar was high when he comes back to Nazareth. Things start out just fine. Everyone was amazed at what he was saying. They liked his emphasis on God’s good news coming into the world. They beamed with pride, “Yup, this is Joseph’s son, he’s one of us!”

And then someone shouted, “Hey, Jesus! We’ve been hearing about some things you did in Capernaum. How about doing one of those miracles or something here?” And everyone else chimed in too. “Heal one of our sick, cast out a demon from one of us. After all, we’re your people. We’re like your family. We’ve always supported you. We deserve something from you.”

That’s when the wheels came off. Instead of showing favoritism to his family and friends, Jesus took the opportunity to make a bigger point. “That’s not the way God’s reign works,” he said. “If God shows any preference, it’s for those who are on the outside, the poor, the oppressed, the migrant, and the prisoners. You’re not entitled to better treatment and bigger miracles because you know me.”

Then Jesus gives them two examples from their own scriptures. In a famine which lasted 3 ½ years, God’s prophet Elijah wasn’t sent to his own people in Israel, but to a poor Gentile widow from Sidon. And later, God’s prophet Elisha was sent to heal only one leper, and that wasn’t someone from Israel, but a man from Syria.

Jesus found out that apparently, people get mad when you say they are no more deserving of God’s power than anyone else. Apparently, they are enraged when you let them know that their enemies are at least as favored as they are. And apparently, they try to kill you when you tell them God doesn’t tip the scales in their favor.

Let’s not get too judgmental about these hometown folks in the synagogue in Nazareth. Because that attitude of being God’s favorites, of being more entitled to God’s salvation, and more deserving of God’s help is still pretty prevalent among us.

For the people in Nazareth, they feel more entitled because they know Jesus. For us, we feel more entitled because . . . we know Jesus.

We’re Christians, we believe in the Triune God, which includes Jesus. We know the Lord’s prayer, we confess Jesus as Lord, and we are good moral people—in his name. We honestly try hard. That’s gotta be worth something, doesn’t it? If God is going to help anyone, it oughta be someone who knows God’s son, right? If anyone is saved, it should really be those who know Jesus, shouldn’t it? Don’t we still kind of believe that we as Christians (especially as Lutherans; and even more especially as Americans) are somehow favored? That we’re just a bit entitled? That we should get God’s attention first?

Think about it. We trust that we who go to Christian churches are destined for heaven, but aren’t so sure about those that go to the Mile Hi Church of Religious Science on Alameda. We are in favor of converting non-believers, but not so enthusiastic about loving them. We pray for the safety of American troops, but rarely pray for the safety of enemy troops. We welcome educated European immigrants, but put up walls to keep out poor Central American ones, and bans to keep out Muslim ones.

And what does Jesus say to us? The same thing he says to his hometown church. Jesus says, “The truth is, there were many Christians who are suffering loneliness and despair; yet my disciples are sent to the Hindus and the agnostics. There are also many Christians who are hated and persecuted, yet my disciples are sent to welcome the Muslims and the non-religious.”

In Nazareth, people thought Jesus was great when he said things they liked. But they were ready to kill him when he said things they didn’t.

We can listen to those parts of Jesus’ teachings that we agree with and that seem to be good news for us personally, e.g., you’re forgiven, I go to prepare a place for you, today you’ll be with me in paradise, those who believe and are baptized will be saved, etc. It’s easy to find Jesus amazing!

We also need to hear the parts that are hard, and trust that since they’re coming from Jesus, they’ve got to be good news too. E.g., love your enemies, forgive everyone, serve the poor, protect the immigrant, and accept the reality that we are not more favored because we know Jesus. Like the folks in Nazareth, it can be hard to follow Jesus when we hear these things.

But the good news is Jesus. Not just some of his teachings, but Christ himself. In this crucified and risen one is God’s vision for us and for all creation. This Christ is present and comes and calls and invites all of us into God’s redemptive work in the world. He brings it—all of it—into our hearts and into our lives. The good news for the world is Jesus—all of him. Jesus has come. Not just for us, but for the whole world. As Jesus said to those in Nazareth, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Christ has come into the world, and has come to us. Whether easy or hard, it is good news!

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Sermon

 

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When Good News is Really Good News, and When It’s Not So Much (January 27, 2019)

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Last week, in John, Jesus’ first public act was turning water into wine. In Luke’s gospel today, his first public act is this sermon in his home congregation. He preaches from Isaiah 61 on Isaiah’s vision of God’s reign and God’s justice for all people. This means it is especially good news for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.

  1. Good news of Jesus is universal. When poor are released from poverty, that is good news for the whole world—and that makes it good news for us. When those shoved to the edges are fully included, that is good news for the whole world—and that makes it good news for us. When the homeless are housed, the hungry fed, the sick are healed, the refugees are welcomed, that is good news for the whole world—and that makes it good news for us.

Because we are all connected within creation. What affects one affects all. We are one giant community of creation, connected, intersecting, interdependent—all part of God’s same created order. So good news for one is good news for all.

The problem is that this release may not affect us in the ways we individually hope for. E.g., Year of Jubilee (the year of the Lord’s favor) all land returned to its origins. For those of us with European ancestry, that wouldn’t be individual good news when the land we pay mortgages on is returned to their Native origins.

So we tend to view “good news” through the lens of how good it is for me, not how good it is for the world. Yet justice for all of God’s creation is what good news looks like. We can’t recognize God’s good news unless it releases the poor from captivity to poverty.

  1. At the same time, God’s life of release from captivity does include us individually. Again, not in the ways we may hope for. What if our release from captivity meant release from relentless pull of our cell phones, calendars, the never ending chaos and frenzy of our lives today. Release! Today! This good news of God’s release in Christ means we can stop living that way. We can have a life that includes art, music, friendships, reading, hobbies. A life with more joy and more love.

For me personally, release from captivity might look like this:

  1. Don’t check email after 8pm and minimize email on days off.
  2. Don’t go it alone, i.e., seek appropriate support from GM clergy, Metro South Conference, (and, if possible) LCM Council.
  3. Stay more focused on positives and gratitude; less attention to criticism and negativity.
  4. Recognize I cannot (and do not need to) “fix” anything about LCM, but am only responsible for my own health and life in the midst of this community.

This is not just abstract, pie-in-the-sky dreaming. It’s not just a vague hope or an “if only” kind of thing. That’s why this matters that Jesus is the one who proclaimed the reality of this good news. It is real, it is present, it is possible, it is now part of the world. There has been a trajectory of God’s justice through history from Isaiah’s vision. In Jesus, that trajectory has caused it to break through into the present-day world. The reality of this good news, this release from captivity, affects real people in real situations in real life in real time.

Jesus is the one in whom this good news has broken in and revealed as God’s intention for creation. That’s why it is good news today. That’s why it is being fulfilled in our hearing. For us individually, but more importantly, for all creation. And we get to be part of it. We get to experience that release today. And we get to be part of that release in the world today.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2019 in Sermon

 

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The Best Wine. Who Knew? (Jan. 20, 2019)

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

There are some stories we have of events in our lives that will never go away. These are the incidents that shape us, that tell us who we are. Sometimes they are really good events, sometimes the stories are tragic.

Here’s one of those stories. I was a sophomore in high school and had a history of being a favorite target for bullies. But it had died down since Junior High. Until that day.

Our high school had a pool next to the gym. And on that day, for some unknown reason, a group of kids picked me up and carried me to the pool and threw me in. Fully clothed and before lunch. I had a long day in wet clothes.

All the old memories of being bullied rose up and took over again. Once more, I was nothing more than the unpopular nerd kid. I figured I just deserved to get beat up several times a week. I would, I assumed, continue to get picked on for the rest of my life.

The humiliation of having to go to class dripping wet for the rest of the day was, I thought, unbearable. I will never live this down. Ever. I could only imagine what new and horrible nick-names would haunt me from now on. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than this.

I think that must have been how the bride and groom felt in this story from John’s gospel. Weddings were big deals then, bigger even than they are for us. Everyone was invited, they became huge community festivals, and lasted for a week. It was the biggest event in a couple’s life. And to run out of wine was the worst possible thing that could happen. They would never live this down. The shame and humiliation of their wedding would haunt them for the rest of their lives. They would now be the benchmark for every bad wedding that would ever be held. I’m sure they couldn’t imagine anything worse than this.

You’ve been there before, right? Maybe you’re there now. You know what that’s like. Thinking nothing could be worse, unsure how you’re going to get through this shame or pain or depression or slip up. That horrible defining moment in your life with a hole so deep that you’re sure it has no bottom. You will just fall forever.

Well, my involuntary dip in the high school pool was, in fact, a defining moment. But different than I ever could have imagined. The story spread through the school, but no one laughed at me or ridiculed me. Instead, somehow, it was told with some awe, and my name was—dare I say it?—used in the same sentence with the word “cool.” “Did you hear about Moss? Yeah, he got tossed into the pool. It was awesome! Look, there he is! He’s still wet!”

The worst event became one of the best. My life changed as a result. I was never picked on again.

The worst event became one of the best. “The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’”

The worst event became one of their best. This newly married couple’s lives changed as a result. Now, theirs was the benchmark for the best wedding—the wedding to beat.

The worst event became one of the best. Jesus shows up.

It’s important to note that this wedding wasn’t a fancy affair with important guests. It was a poor couple in a backwater village who didn’t plan their wedding very well. But Jesus still shows up.

It’s at the worst times that Jesus reveals something better. It’s at the poor, backwater, poorly planned events that Jesus points to something better for us.

I would never disregard the awfulness of these desperate moments in our lives. It’s horrible when these tragic, shameful, painful events assault us. The pain and shame are real. It seems as if the horror will never leave. But it Jesus shows up. And so we hang on and wait patiently. Even now, though no one notices, Mary is telling the servants to do whatever Jesus says. Even now, back in the kitchen, large stone jars are slowly being filled up with water—one after another. Even now, unnoticed by anyone, the chief steward is tasting the new wine in those jars and looks up in surprise. Even now he’s looking around to complement the despairing bridegroom. Even now Jesus is showing up.

At some unknown point in your life, in some surprising way in the midst of the shame and the hurt, the astonished steward will call you over and say, “I don’t understand it, but this is amazing. You have kept the good wine until now.”

And the worst event will be the event that assures you that Jesus does, in fact, show up. The worst event will be the event that assures you that God’s reign is true.

“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Even at the little wedding of Cana, Jesus shows up. Even in your life, Jesus is there.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2019 in Sermon

 

An Epiphany: God Meets You Where You Are. Right Now.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I think I’ve been unfair to the magi on Epiphany. I’ve often referred to them as tea-leaf reading, chicken-bone shaking, fortune tellers from the Psychic Hotline.

That may not be true.

Matthew is likely actually describing priests of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of the Persian Empire before Islam. One of the key components of this faith was using watching, plotting, and paying attention to the movement of the stars. It was, in fact, the most advanced science of the time.

Think about what that would mean. In Matthew’s gospel, there is no manger and no shepherds. The first people to acknowledge the newborn king of Israel are these magi—non-Jews following a foreign religion. And the birth of Jesus was revealed to them through science quite apart from faith or scripture. These are the ones who go and worship the Christ-child. Not Herod, who was the ruler of all Israel. Not the chief priests and scribes who through scripture advised Herod of the place of Jesus’ birth, but missed the relevance of this newborn king.

No, the only ones who show up are these Zoroastrian scientists. Hardly what one would expect! There was a newborn king of Israel, yet no one in religious or political authority in all Israel knew anything about it! Matthew’s point is that the birth of Jesus is truly good news for ALL people!

Now, I’m the first to encourage everyone to be serious about spiritual growth. There are lots of ways to do it and we should. But it’s not like there’s some mystic secret to enlightenment or a particular path to God. GOD finds a way to connect with you. If God could find Zoroastrian priests in Persia through their science and stars, then God can certainly find you.

The magi were passionate about the science of stars. So that’s where God found them. What are you passionate about? That’s likely where God will find you. Is it books, movies, sports, bicycling, writing, nature, or even science? Matthew is making the clear point that God comes to you where you are. It’s like an Epiphany!

One fault of the institutional church is that we’ve convinced the world that God only works in the ways that the church can control: Prayers(especially old ones other people wrote); the Bible (especially when interpreted in a way the church says is correct); Sunday worship(especially when it has the right music); or social justice (especially when it benefits causes endorsed by the church).

There are a couple of problems with the church controlling the ways God can come to people. If God only comes to us in pre-approved ways,

  1. It limits people outside the church from recognizing God present and calling them.
  2. It limits the church from recognizing God present and calling us.

Don’t get me wrong. The church has good reason to recognize God’s presence and invitation through prayer, scripture, worship, and justice. Because God is present and inviting through these things! We know it, we’ve witnessed it, we can testify to it. But Matthew’s magi would seem to indicate it’s wrong to think that God is limited somehow to these.

Take a minute and think about what you love to do most. What excites you, that you’d stay up all night talking about? What are you passionate about? What matters to you? . . .

That’s where God is likely to reveal God’s self. That’s often where the invitation will come. Follow that star, whatever it is.

I want to add here, that if that’s true for us individually, it’s also true for us congregationally. If you were to summarize LCM’s passion as a community, you’d probably come up with something about care or compassion. We excel at that. Why wouldn’t God, then, be present with us there? Why wouldn’t that be an important way where God invites us to come and see Jesus?

This matters, because whether it’s affected you individually or not, this congregation has really gone through a very difficult year. We’ve grieved more in the last 12 months than we ever have in our history. But I’ve also watched more compassion shown in the last 12 months than I’ve ever witnessed before.

Matthew writes that God comes to us where we are with what we know and what matters in our lives. The science of stars for Persian priests, and compassionate care for this congregation.

Make no mistake, God has come to us in our compassion for one another. God invites us to meet the Christ-child in the care we express together.

Christ has come. God is present. With the magi, today we experience this as good news for all people. God comes to us where we are. It’s like an Epiphany!

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Today is the Day of Hope (Dec 23, 2018)

Luke 1:39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Part of this text is called “the Magnificat,” sometimes “the Song of Mary.” Mary, pregnant with Jesus, rejoices in the promises of God being fulfilled, including justice for the poor and the lowly, feeding of the hungry, and help for all Israel. God’s justice, she remembers, includes God bringing down the powerful and sending the rich away with nothing.

That’s a pretty bold statement of hope in any situation, but it is even more so in Mary’s particular context. The Roman Empire was vast, powerful, and unforgiving. Historians write about a Jewish rebellion around 4 BCE, which triggered a massive military response from Rome. A village about 4 miles from Nazareth was burned to the ground. Those Jews who were found were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived that were left with nothing. Mary was certainly well aware of this cruelty of Rome’s power, it having occurred so close to her town of Nazareth.

Yet in the face of Roman power which reached to the ends of the known world, Mary sings this song of hope. Not of hope for the future, but hope present right now in the world.

For Mary, today is the day of hope.

For Jews in that day, the only hope for justice wasn’t found in government or military or revolution. Hope could only come from God keeping God’s own promises of justice, of mercy, of compassion for all people.

For Mary, today is the day of hope. Her hope is that God would rule in the world the same way God rules in heaven. Her hope is that her soon-to-be-born son, the promised Messiah, would bring God’s justice—bringing down the power-ful and lifting up the power-less.

For Mary, today is the day of hope. Mary sings this song of hope into the very face of overwhelming helplessness. She sings this song of hope in situations like this: From NBC news Tuesday:

While the executives who presided over the bankruptcy of Sears and Kmart will ring out 2018 with news of $25.3 million in bonuses, laid-off worker Ondrea Patrick will be using her unemployment check to pay for new brakes on her 2000 Dodge Durango.

Patrick, who lost her job when the Kmart she worked at in Rockford, Illinois, closed in October, had been hoping to use the money to buy her kids . . . something new for Christmas.

And it infuriates her that they’ll be getting hand-me-downs and relying on charity this Christmas while the people in charge are handsomely rewarded.

“Those top people and (Sears CEO Eddie) Lampert are having a wonderful Christmas,” Patrick, 36, told NBC News. “They got $25 million in bonuses. Me? I’m late on my bills. The electric company is threatening to shut me off. And I don’t have anything left to spend on the kids this Christmas.”

Patrick, who worked part-time for Kmart for nine years, is one of the thousands of workers whose lives were upended in October when Sears Holdings, more than $5 billion in debt and unable to compete with Walmart and Amazon, declared bankruptcy.

“I was making $10.50 an hour when they closed my store,” Patrick said. “I got my pharm tech license and was working at the service desk. All my life we struggled and I finally felt like I was making it.”

On Friday, a U.S. bankruptcy court judge allowed Sears Holdings to hand out the bonuses after the company successfully argued that it would lose its top people if there’s nothing in their stockings this Christmas.[1]

Mary sings this song of hope into the very face of overwhelming helplessness. She also sings this song of hope in situations like this:

This week a judge in US Federal Court allowed four women with their children, who were fleeing abuse and violence yet were turned away at the US border, to re-enter the US and reapply for asylum. 

It’s in real-life situations that Mary sings her song of hope. For Mary, today is the day of hope. In the coming of Jesus, the promises of God’s compassion and justice are present in the world. Right now.

Advent is a season of hope. Hope in our lives, hope in our church, hope in our neighborhood, and hope throughout the whole world.

Our thanks to Bishop Jim Gonia for being here for this 4th week of Advent hope, and sharing with us his reflections on God’s hope revealed in our world. In the coming of Christ, our hope is real. The world’s hope is real. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can be among those who reveal God’s hope just as it is revealed to us.

[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/while-sears-executives-get-25-million-bonuses-laid-workers-struggle-n949446

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2018 in Sermon

 

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