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Not Qualified? That’s the Point (December 17, 2017)

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Have you ever wondered why God picked Mary to be the mother of Jesus? What were her qualifications? Did she have some special piety or righteousness? Was her faith above other girls of her day? Was she better able to protect this Messiah she would raise?

It doesn’t seem so. Luke goes into much more detail about Mary than any other gospel, yet even here there’s nothing other than she’s a young, poor, powerless girl with no real experience at much of anything.

Yet God’s messenger Gabriel visits her, tells her she’s favored by God, that God is with her, not to be afraid, and tells her again that she’s favored by God. Then he goes on to describe in some detail this son she is being asked to bear whose kingdom will never end.

Mary is confused, suspicious, and has doubts about this whole plan. She also points out an obvious flaw around her becoming pregnant. She may be young, but she knows where babies come from, after all. What she is, therefore, is just kind of normal.

Gabriel tells her that this isn’t any kind of obstacle for God. Take a look at Elizabeth, who’s never been able to have children, yet now in her old age is six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible with God.

Can you imagine, though, how frightening that must have been for her? Would you want that responsibility? “By the way, Mary, the salvation of all humanity is resting on this baby. So, don’t mess this up.”

What if she is a terrible mother? What if the baby gets sick? What if, instead of being a savior, he turns into a terrorist? What if, because of her, this bizarre plan of salvation doesn’t work?

What if she’s not competent enough?

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” says the angel. “God is with you.”

What’s fascinating about Mary is not how qualified she is to be the mother of Jesus. It’s that the only qualification she has is that she’s favored by God.

What in the world does that even mean? Is Mary like the teacher’s pet? The favored child? Does God now play favorites? What is it to be “favored by God”?

The word translated as “favored one” is rooted in the word for “grace,” and implies not something she’s done to make God like her more, but that she is the recipient of grace—God is with her. Which doesn’t separate Mary from the pack, but makes her part of the rest of humanity. God is present with us all.

Now, I don’t want to be disparaging of Mary the mother of Jesus, but according to Luke’s account here, the only qualification she really has is the same qualification each one of us has too. God is present with her.

Even if she has weaknesses that get in the way, even if she doesn’t have all the answers at her fingertips, if she can’t do this perfectly, that’s all OK. Because God has promised to be with her through it all. She is favored. God’s grace is given to her. God is with her.

Just like God is with us. We, too, are blessed. We, too, are favored. We, too, have the presence of God with us.

And just like Mary, being favored by God means you are chosen for something. Not being the mother of Jesus—that job has been taken already. But like Mary, you too have found favor with God. God notices you and has something in mind for you. And God will be with you through it all.

That’s not how we’re used to thinking, though. We tend to be so concerned about messing it up, that we generally avoid doing things God has in mind. I think we’re so worried about failing, doing it wrong, that we believe our efforts would be more sinful than helpful. We better avoid sinning, so we neglect to consider that God might still be asking us.

And the angel says to you, “You have found favor with God. Do not be afraid. God is with you.”

God isn’t asking any of us to do big things in the reign of God because we’re competent, or qualified, or so much better than anyone else. It’s not like our resume is so dramatically impressive. No, just like Mary, we’re asked to be part of God’s work because God favors us, God’s grace comes to us, God is with us. That’s our qualification.

  • What might God be asking of you? Are you not thinking about it because it might be just kinda normal things? They probably are. But you are still the favored one.
  • What might God be asking of you? Are you not considering it because you don’t have special “Godly” qualifications for it? Too young, don’t know enough. Don’t go to church enough. Not spiritual enough. You probably aren’t qualified. But God is with you.
  • What might God be asking of you? Does even the thought of messing it up, doing it badly frighten you? Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.

What might God be asking of you? Remember, nothing will be impossible for God. Even accomplishing amazing things through you. May  we answer with young, poor, powerless Mary, “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”

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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“Easter Isn’t About Belief. It’s About God” (April 16, 2017)

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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.

You know the story. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, was raised from the dead 2000 years ago. Good news! Because it’s good news, we can ask what difference it makes in our lives right now, today? That’s a fair question.

Maybe the resurrection of Christ comforts you so that you can trust that there is life after you die. That’s good.

Maybe this story in Matthew helps you believe that there is a God who is more powerful than death. Again, that can be great comfort for when we face death. That, too, is good.

Or maybe these biblical resurrection texts help you find solace in a God who can work amazing, supernatural miracles. That’s good too.

If your faith is somewhere along those lines, and this Easter Day helps you there, that is absolutely wonderful! Keep it up. Continue to grow in your faith. Keep on your spiritual journey of trusting and believing. Keep going.

But again, if that’s you, you need to understand that you’re now  a diminishing minority. Fewer and fewer people find that kind of spiritual significance in the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Fewer and fewer people take this text in Matthew literally. Fewer and fewer people consider Jesus’ resurrection from the dead very meaningful to their lives today at all.

If that’s you, and you find yourself struggling with the meaning of this Easter day, know that you’re not alone. What’s more, wherever you find yourself right now on these issues of faith and God and resurrection is not only OK, it is good! You are among a growing number of people who are thinking deeply and personally about this cornerstone of Christian faith, who are facing legitimate doubt with honesty and asking appropriate questions about the relevance of a claimed event 2000 years ago. Your thoughts and opinions on this whole resurrection thing matter. And you are worth hearing. Whatever you think about Jesus’ resurrection, whatever you believe about it is actually important! And it needs to be part of the conversation.

We need to  listen to each other and be open to what another person thinks about all this—whether the other person is devout in their Christian faith, or whether the other person has never been inside a church.

As important as those conversations are, and as helpful and inclusive as they need to be, here’s the thing: Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

Easter day should never have been about correct beliefs or right doctrine or coercion into a particular set of religious values that you have to claim if you want to avoid eternal hellfire. This day isn’t about that at all. Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

Whatever you believe about God, Easter shows us is that God isn’t a far-off, distance entity watching over the world and occasionally intervening if we ask nicely. Easter shows us that God enters into, is fully present, in the very fabric of life. God is already there in all aspects of creation. Easter is a declaration that there is nothing, there is nowhere, that God isn’t already completely and totally present. Nothing can keep God away. Nothing can keep God out. Not so much because God is more powerful, but because God is, and has always been the very essence of creation.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

What this story in Matthew tells us is that nothing can stop God from being present. Not political authorities who bring death. Not religious authorities who self-righteously call for death. Military guards who, out of fear, are now “like dead men.” A gigantic stone rolled over the entrance of the grave. Death itself. With God who is the essence of creation, life is real, it is absolute, and it is unconditional. Life is what God is about.

The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration of just one more normal thing for God. It is a continuation of what God has always done, of who God actually is. And nothing can get in the way of God being present and therefore bringing life.

In Genesis, God who was already there, breathed life into dead clay and it became a living person. In Ezekiel, God who was already there, brought dry, dead bones lying in the desert sun back together, and they became living people. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard about Jesus being present, restoring life to Lazarus, calling him forth from the grave. Life is what happens because God is there. Life is the way of God, central to who God is. Life isn’t earned, bought, coerced, bargained for. Where God is, there is life. And nothing can keep God out. God is in all things and through all things.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

And like it or not, believe it or not, trust it or not, the God of Easter day is present in you and gives life. To everyone. Even you. Especially you. Isn’t that what we witness every day in creation? It’s what we witness in our own lives. The very presence of God. All creation sings with life because God is fully present there. We sing today of new life because God is fully present with us.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.  

We celebrate today because we recognize the presence of God: the source, the essence, of life. Life that cannot be stopped by politics, military, graves, fear, or disbelief. This is the good news of Easter day. God is here. Fully and completely here. That means there is new life here. That means there is hope for creation here. Hope for us. Hope for you. God is here. God is life.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Sermon

 

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What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything (March 5, 2017)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on 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.

This is the very first thing that happens to Jesus after his baptism. He’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit leads him, deliberately, into the wilderness. If the Spirit is doing it, it must be important, somehow.

In the Bible, the wilderness is always a difficult place. It’s a place of preparation, of waiting for God, of learning to trust God. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. Where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left.

And you can’t hurry through it, either. Which is why it’s often described biblically with a metaphor of “40.”

  • It rained 40 days and nights with Noah and his family trapped in the wilderness of an ark.
  • Moses fasted 40 days and nights on the wilderness of Mt. Sinai waiting for God to inscribe a covenant.
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
  • Which is why, by the way, that this Lenten season of preparation, repentance, and fasting lasts for 40 days.
  • Now, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Have you been there? I have. I’ve spoken of it before. A “dark night of the soul” when everything within me that I’ve looked to and counted on to sustain me seemed to disappear. My strengths, my gifts and talents, my intellect, even my theology couldn’t hold me up. And I felt like I was falling with nothing to grab hold of, nothing to slow my fall. I was diagnosed during that wilderness period with depression, no amount of strength, perseverance, or endurance could get me out. It was a wilderness.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in God or questioned God’s existence, it’s that God didn’t matter. It’s not that I was hopeless, I was helpless, which is different. I was utterly, completely, and totally without any of my reliable resources. Lost in wilderness. Completely vulnerable.

Have you experienced that wilderness before?

Grief feels like that. When you put out all possible effort and still fail feels like that. Addiction feels like that. I imagine that our new refugee neighbors who have had to leave their homes and their countries, and who have been living in terror for years feel like that. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

So why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a place like that?

Because it’s in the wilderness that you meet God most profoundly. Biblically, that’s what happens.

  • After the wilderness, Noah met God and was given a covenant of life.
  • After the wilderness, Moses met God and was given the law.
  • After the wilderness, the Israelites met God and were delivered into the promised land.

Maybe it’s because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe it’s because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe it’s because we’re so desperate that we actually are willing to trust God. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, our relationship with God changes. What really happens in the wilderness is that we come to know who we are.

This is actually our Lenten journey. A wilderness journey of 40 days where we learn to rely more on God and less on the world. Where we get to know and to trust God more deeply. Where we find out who we really are as God’s beloved children.

When I was falling in the wilderness, feeling utterly helpless and vulnerable, I met God in a way that was entirely new. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t meet God. God met me in the wilderness. I realized at some point that I was no longer falling, but instead, I was being held, lifted up. As weak and helpless as I was feeling, I experienced the reality that I was worth something to God. Without access to any of my own personal resources that I had been able to trust my whole life, I came to understand that I am gifted by God.

I went into the wilderness with fear and trembling, God met me there, and I came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for my life.

Why wouldn’t it be the same for Jesus? He went into the wilderness having just heard in his baptism that he was the Son of God, the Beloved. How could he live up to that? So he was led into the wilderness, God met him there, and he came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for his life.

When you find yourself in the wilderness, when you are feeling helpless and vulnerable and weak, Jesus assures us that God will meet you. 40 days is a metaphor for a long time, but God will meet you. You eventually will have the opportunity to experience God in a new way, to recognize how trustworthy God is.  You can, after the 40 days, know how loved and how worthwhile you really are.

I don’t ever want to go back into the wilderness. But if I find myself there, I will cling to the promise of a God who will meet me there.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Jesus is in Our Junk Rooms (Christmas 2, January 5, 2013)

2nd Christmas—A

Jeremiah 31:7-14; John 1:1-5, 9-18

You know that room in your home where, when you have people coming over, you stuff everything in it and close the door? We all have that room that we hope no one ever sees.

And we all have those parts of our lives that we hope no one ever sees. The place where all our personal junk is stored. The part of us that we never let the public see.

Yet it is to these parts of our lives, these parts of our world, that Jesus has come. And the gospel writer John makes it clear. Jesus is in our junk rooms.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that the Gospel of John is not my favorite. So much of his gospel strikes me as imagery and spirituality detached from practicality. He can come across to me as so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.

Except here. In the first chapter, John’s description of Jesus is real life, concrete, earthy, dirty, flesh and bones. John goes out of his way to make the point that this eternal, spiritual, heavenly God is as real; as human; as blood pumping, air breathing, bodily functioning present as any of us. The Word of God–that which existed before time began–now has become one of us. The Word of God–responsible for the creation of everything that exists–has taken on the same flesh and blood is us. God is present with us not just spiritual, ethereal way, but physically, tangibly as well. God is now incarnate–in the flesh.

This is desperately important to John to make clear, right away. God enters the world we know. God is present in the world we touch and feel. God comes into the reality of our blood, our pain, our confusion, our doubts, our fears, our work, our money, our family. God enters in, not just symbolically or floating around the edges where we can invite God when convenient, but fully into the mess and the joy, the shame and the triumph of every day. Jesus is in our junk rooms.

In Jesus, God has entered into everything–good and bad, spiritual and physical, believing it unbelieving, Christian and non-Christian. Like it or not, wanted or not, recognize it or not. God is in the midst of your life–every tiny part of it. Holy and unholy, secret and public. The Word has come among us.

That’s why John writes of the presence of Christ as “the true light which enlightens everyone.” I don’t know about you, there are segments of my life I prefer not to have God present in–not to have a light shined on. Parts of my past I’d like to pretend never happened; some of the ways I use money (or don’t) I’d like God not to mess with; some of my attitudes and ways of dealing with people I’d prefer God just respectfully keep a divine nose out of.

But John makes clear that this is not who God is or how God works. God’s light comes into the world, into my world, and it shines on everything. God is now present in everything; because it is the intention and purpose of God incarnate to make everything and everyone holy. Flesh and blood, bread and wine, water and word, sacred and secular, all of it is being redeemed, saved, enlightened, made holy. All of it. All of us. Even our junk rooms.

We cannot stop God. God didn’t enter the world because we invited God to do so. God just came. The Word just became flesh. Jesus is just present. The God who created us is just grabbing hold of us, shining a divine light on us, and making us holy. God opens our past, messes with our relationships, laughs at our plans, touches our finances, inspires our creativity, gathers us in community, forgives our selfishness, makes whole our brokenness, and loves us deeply all the while. We know this because God has become flesh, and this God incarnate has revealed this to us about God. In John’s words, “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

God has come. The Word is made flesh. Jesus is present with us. The manger is in our lives. And we can’t help but be changed by that. Jesus is in our junk rooms. We are becoming different people–new people. And that’s good news: for us and for our world.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2014 in Sermon

 

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