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Monthly Archives: January 2016

Good News! (for other people) — January 24, 2016

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.”

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

This is Jesus’ first public act of ministry recorded in Luke. So this is the action that sets the bar, names the priorities, establishes the direction in this gospel.

In his home synagogue one Sabbath, Jesus was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He looked through it deliberately until he found this particular passage. This is the text he chose to read. And this is the teaching Jesus starts with.

So we ought to pay careful attention to what Jesus does here. He is anointed by God to bring–and to fulfill–God’s good news, “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . . Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

But notice that this good news isn’t general–it’s rather specific. He is anointed for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. What about everyone else? Is Jesus bringing good news to those who don’t fall under these categories? We have a tendency want to make this about us, claiming to be oppressed, captive, blind, poor. But we’re not the primary audience here.

I was talking with someone a few years ago who was very proud of the new clothing bank their church had started. “It’s the only one in this area,” he said. Imagine how unhappy he was when I pointed out there was a reason it was the only one–it was because there was no one in their wealthy area who needed used clothing. “Oh,” he said, “maybe that’s why no one is using it.” That church closed not long after that. Not for lack of effort, but because their good news of clothing wasn’t good news to any of the people in their neighborhood.

The good news Jesus brings–while he’s filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, remember–is aimed at a particular audience. The poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. Those who, in that day, were pushed to the edges of their culture or ignored. Those who no one wanted around. Those who were helpless or targets for those with wealth and status. Those who were scapegoated and blamed.

So what about the rest of us? Although many of us experience those things sometimes, it’s not everyday for us. So what about those of us who most of our lives fall outside of Jesus’ categories? Those in this country who are white, who have pensions and savings accounts, who are (at least in name) Christian, who have no significant disabilities? Isn’t there any good news for us? Doesn’t Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, have anything good to say to us?

Sure. Of course. The reign of God, the kingdom of God, the dream of God is for all people–that all will be loved, saved, redeemed, cared for.

It’s just that most of us who are here this morning already have some experience of that good news now. We have opportunities, income, access to healthcare. We have a voice in our culture.

Others don’t. Jesus reads the text from Isaiah that says God also has good news for them.

David Lose, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, compares it to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and he writes: “A colleague of mine [who is an African American pastor] put it this way: ‘When you see a house on fire and direct the firefighters to that house, you’re not saying that all the other houses in the neighborhood don’t matter; you’re saying this one especially matters because it’s on fire.'” Jesus is saying that there are some people whose house is on fire. And God’s priority for compassion and grace needs to go to them.

Here’s why we need to hear this text even if we may not always be the primary audience, if it isn’t always directly aimed at us: This is where Jesus goes when filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Right to the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the powerless. That’s apparently what it looks like when people are empowered by the Holy Spirit. God’s priority is to first lift up those who are low. Sometimes we are the recipients of God’s priority compassion. But most of the time, most of us here today are therefore called to be part of fulfilling God’s compassion.

If we’re not poor, captive, blind, or oppressed today, then praise be to God! We’re already experiencing good news. But as the church, the community whose very existence is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we make those who are on the outside, who are powerless, who are victims, who are helpless our priority too.

That’s what being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit looks like. That’s the good news–whether we are receiving it or helping to fulfill it. This is God’s good news for the world: we too are anointed to proclaim release, to give sight, and let the oppressed go free. This is the year of the Lord’s favor, and we get to be part of it! That is good news.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Grace, Not Fanfare (Jan. 17, 2016)

John 2:1-11

 

1 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.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Jesus’ first miracle in the gospel of John is this one: turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Apparently he didn’t really want to do it, but his mom made him. She comes to him very concerned, saying, “They have no wine.”

Now running out of wine was a big deal. Weddings were major celebrations for the village, and lasted for several days. The family’s status was at stale. Can you imagine hosting a wedding reception and having to tell some of guests that you invited that there isn’t enough food, so they are among those that won’t be eating this evening?

As embarrassing as that would be for us, it would be absolutely devastating for the family in this text.

So Mary is concerned for the family’s reputation as well as concerned for the guests. So she comes to Jesus and tells him that there is no more wine.

Jesus’ response? That’s not our fault. They apparently didn’t plan this wedding very well, did they?

But his mother encourages him and leaves it in Jesus’ hands. That would be a sermon in and of itself, wouldn’t it? Tell Jesus your concerns and then leave it up to him. But that’s not what I think is most important here.

The author here makes a point of saying that this wedding took place in Cana of Galilee. He says it twice. That matters because Cana is such an insignificant village that no one is even sure where it is. Except that it’s in Galilee, which was known as a pretty rough region full of robbers, thieves, and Gentiles. Not exactly a savory, wholesome place.

So why does the author state the location at both the beginning and the end of this story, making sure we know that Jesus’ first sign took place in such a difficult place?

That IS the point. In John, Jesus performs “signs,” not “miracles.” Signs aren’t about themselves, but point out something else. The signs Jesus performs point out what grace is like, they show us what it’s like when God’s reign comes into the world.

So it matters that Jesus didn’t do his first sign in the temple in Jerusalem. It wasn’t at a prayer meeting of people seeking God. The first time Jesus revealed what God’s reign was like was at a wine-infused block party in a remote little village in the middle of a region so bad that Herod was said to have had to come and clean it out twice.

That’s God’s grace. Showing up where it has no business.

What’s more, Jesus makes more wine than they could possibly drink several weeks. Six stone jars each containing 20-30 gallons? That comes out to just shorty of 1000 bottles of wine. About 75 cases. We had over 100 people or so at Emily and Ross’ wedding reception, and with lots of people drinking, we only had five cases, with more than one left over.

That’s God’s grace. Way more than you can ever use!

And beyond that, Jesus changes water into the best wine. Not just big jugs of Gallo, but expensive, fine, snooty kind of wine. The kind reserved for special guests–even royalty.

That’s God’s grace. Way better than the situation calls for.

One more thing. Very few people even knew what had happened. Some of the servants knew, but not the steward, the person in charge of serving the wine. The bride and groom, the family, and none of the guests ever had a clue that this was going on. They simply continued to enjoy the wedding party. Other than noticing the wine was of really good quality, served later rather than earlier, everything continued as usual. And no one probably ever knew what Jesus had done among them.

That’s God’s grace. Quietly working right in our midst, and we often don’t even know it’s happening. Grace, present now, doing amazing things, more than we can use, where we don’t expect it to be.

This was the first sign Jesus did. No fanfare, no spotlights, no headlines. Just overflowing, abundant, more than you need, better than you think, life-changing grace that comes in the middle of everyday life, even when it has no business showing up.

God doesn’t just come to church. God doesn’t just come to Christians. God doesn’t just come to good people. God comes, bringing overabundant grace, wherever you are.

What parts of your life resemble Cana of Galilee, far from where you think God is, separated from God? That’s where grace shows up.

What’s going on in your life that feels shameful, embarrassing, needs to stay in the dark–like you’ve run out of wine? That’s where grace overflows for you; more than enough.

What parts of you seem to be bad, cheap, unworthy? That’s where the best God has to offer comes to you.

God’s grace doesn’t make headlines, but is simply present, working in your life, renewing, restoring, and filling you in ways you may not even know.

Even at a remote wedding in Cana of Galilee, the gracious reign of God shows up. God’s grace is for you. And there’s more than you will ever need.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2016 in Sermon

 

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An Ungodly God (Epiphany–Matthew 2:1-12)

starMatthew 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.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Today we celebrate Epiphany! The time of “aha,” of new insights, of revelation as to who Jesus is and of God’s presence in the world! And the gospel text for this important day is one most people are pretty familiar with—the coming of the magi. What do you do with a story most people already know? In celebrating the Epiphany, hopefully you do something new, insightful, revealing. An epiphany about Epiphany.

Magi in Jesus’ day had no business visiting the Jewish Messiah. These people would not normally have been welcomed. The shepherds were bad enough: smelly, rude, rejected outcasts who spent their time not with other people but with animals. But at least they know who God is. At least they have some sense of worship and God’s ways.

But these magi were about as far from pious Jews as you could get. Magi were not “wise men”. They weren’t kings. They were everything that a God-fearing person tried to avoid. They were pagan, chicken-bone reading, star-gazing magicians. Their faith was not in the God of Israel, it was in tea leaves or chicken gizzards. They knew nothing of God, nothing of the promised Messiah, nothing of worship.

So they come all this way in order to offer gifts to the young King of the Jews because they saw a star. That wouldn’t make sense to good Jewish folk, because every good Jew knows that God doesn’t work that way. We know how God works. Through the law of Moses, through righteousness, through obedience.

But God reached out to these magi in a way that worked for them, made sense to them. They weren’t Jews, so God didn’t call them in a way Jews would understand. Instead, God led them in a way that would make pious Jews squirm. It was different because it was for these foreign pagans, so they could experience the presence of God. That’s how far God is willing to go. That’s how radically inclusive this God is.

How many of us have arguments with other Christians about where God stands on some issue (even other Lutherans. Even other ELCA Lutherans. Even other members of LCM!)?

I work hard to try and align myself with God about hot topics like Syrian refugees, presidential politics, immigration, or same sex marriage. But then I have a discussion with another person who has also aligned themselves with God on those issues. And we completely disagree.

Like most people, I simply assume I’m right. I’ve studied and paid attention to God on these issues. If you disagree with me, you simply have to be wrong about God! You couldn’t know God’s ways as well as I do. Because God could never work the way you are saying. And I know that because I know how God works. Right? Right?

Which is exactly what all Jerusalem was saying when these magi came looking for the new king. They don’t know God like we Jews do. God would never reveal God’s own Messiah through a star. That’s ungodly!

Yet God did. And God does.

Whenever God does things in ways that are outside our experiences of God, or outside of Lutheran thinking, or outside our sense of righteousness, or–let’s face it–outside of what we believe to be godly, it can be a bit unnerving or uncomfortable. Too often our response is to just deny God’s activity. But God is about calling all people, loving all people, revealing grace to all people, forgiving all people.

Even people who hear things differently.

Even people who need different signs of God’s presence.

Even people who aren’t the least bit interested in being part of a Lutheran congregation.

Even people who aren’t Christian, or who don’t believe in God at all.

God shines a star for them; reveals God’s loving, gracious presence for them. God can do it in ways that may not make sense to Lutherans.

The magi, led by God through a star to the newborn Messiah, make it hard to judge people who have different theologies or different perspectives on God, the Divine, Allah, Spiritual things. Because God does things for others that wouldn’t make sense to me. And God does things that I may disagree with or think are godly. Sometimes we have an ungodly God.

But that would be my problem, not theirs. And certainly not God’s.

This is the celebration of Epiphany! The time of “aha,” of new insights, of revelation as to who Jesus is and of God’s presence in the world. This is the celebration of Epiphany, and God is revealing something new in the world. It doesn’t have to seem godly to us. It just has to be God doing it. Happy Epiphany.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Jesus Didn’t Come to Save You

Luke 2:41-52 (The First Sunday of Christmas, Dec 27, 2015)

Have you ever wondered why Jesus was so disrespectful to his parents? As a kid, I would try and use this text as an excuse to my mom about why I didn’t do my chores. “Rob,” she’d say, “Why didn’t you take out the garbage like I asked?”
“There were other things that were more important, mom. Just like Jesus said to his mom, ‘did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?’”
That didn’t over well.
But the fact remains that Jesus doesn’t do what he’s told. He didn’t do it then, and he doesn’t do it now.
Things take a bad turn, life overwhelms us, our path is dark and scary, terrible things happen. Disappointments come, hopes are dashed, lives are snuffed out, expectations are shattered, despair nags.
And with Mary, we ask, “Why have you treated us like this?” Isn’t Jesus supposed to help us? Isn’t he supposed to be in our corner pulling for us?
Yet we ask with Mary, “Why have you treated us like this?”
Even at twelve years of age, Jesus doesn’t do what others tell him to do.
And Jesus answers, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
You see, we know where Jesus has gone. He’s about his Father’s business. Even at twelve years old, he’s focused on God’s work.
But we can’t let go of our own expectations for Jesus. We still believe he came to fulfill our wishes and our wants. We still want him to do what we tell him to do. We actually believe he came to make our lives better, easier, more fulfilling. We continue to expect him to remove the obstacles, pave our way, supply our desires.
And when Jesus disobeys us, we can’t figure it out and ask, “Why have you treated us like this?” We’ve been searching for you with great anxiety. You owe us more than this.
Even at twelve years of age, Jesus doesn’t do what we tell him to do.
And Jesus answers us, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
You see, we know where Jesus has gone. He’s about his Father’s business. Even at twelve years old, he’s focused on God’s work.
If we go looking for Jesus so that our lives will be better, we won’t find him in our own expectations. We won’t find him in our own desires, even our very noble and selfless ones. Because Jesus wasn’t born to fulfill our expectations. He didn’t live so that our lives could be the way we wish they could be. Jesus didn’t die and rise for me at all.
No, Jesus came to be about God’s business. Jesus was born, lived, died, and was raised to fulfill God’s expectations, not our own. He came in order to show God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s compassion in the world.
The good news for us in these days is that God’s love, forgiveness, and compassion include us. Even when things take a bad turn, life overwhelms us, our path is dark and scary, terrible things happen. Disappointments come, hopes are dashed, lives are snuffed out, expectations are shattered, despair nags, and we ask “why have you treated us like this?”
Jesus answers with amazingly good news. He says, “I must be in my Father’s house, doing God’s work. Which means I love you, am with you, and I care for you.” That’s been God’s work all along.
It’s there, of course, that we find Jesus. In love, compassion, and forgiveness. Not so much in our own expectations and desires, but in God’s.
In the difficult times when we need to ask why Jesus treats us this way, we get the best answer of all: Jesus is always about God’s love and compassion. For all people. At all times. Even for you. Even today. No matter what. Whether we expect him there or not. Jesus came for God’s business, and God’s business is loving you.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in Sermon

 
 
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