Crossing the River

When I moved to Richmond in 2014, I was definitely excited and interested to learn about this new place that our family would be calling home.   

We moved into the little house next door here which we called Grace House so I walked to work and with two small children at the time I was a little slow to learn about Richmond first-hand by going out so I would often ask people who had lived here awhile to tell me about our city and its surrounding areas. 

“so what should I know about Richmond?” I would ask. 

I recall that people said this was a good place to live, that the people here are friendly, that Richmond has lots of things to do, and that you shouldn’t try to drive up to Washington D.C. if you care about the level of your blood pressure.

And people kept saying something that sounded strange at the time: Almost everyone said, “one thing you have to understand, people don’t cross the river.”

I probably asked, “But in the event that I do need to cross the river,there are bridges, right?” 

And of course, I learned that this was hyperbole and that it’s not exactly true that people don’t cross the river, but it is true that when people cross the river it is significant. 

It’s a big deal.

When Jesus comes to cross through the river to be baptized by John it is significant.  It’s a big deal, not only because this instance of Jesus’ baptism functions as a bridge between the private, early life of Jesus about which we know very little and the beginning of his public ministry where he will begin God’s mission to heal, teach, forgive, and reach out in mercy to those in need.

But also because of what is revealed here at the river about Jesus’ identity.  This beginning to Jesus’ public ministry is more than a mere ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

In fact, there is a special name for what occurs here in today’s reading from the gospel. 

We call this passage of scripture a Theophany, which means a visible manifestation of the fullness of God to humankind in which all the persons of the Trinity are explicitly present.

As JESUS bursts forth from the waters of the Jordan the heavens themselves burst forth and he sees the SPIRIT of God descending like a dove to him, and the voice of the FATHER says for everyone on the bank of the river and knee deep in the water, “This is my SON, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all present in this moment to reveal who Jesus is and to show that he is one with God the Father through the power of the Spirit.

Here Jesus is made manifest, revealed, and shown forth.  But there is even more that Matthew wants to tell us about this Jesus who stands in the waters of the Jordan.

For Jesus to cross the river to come to John is a big deal, but especially because this is the Jordan River.

One of the greatest and most well-known stories from scripture is the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, but much-less-remembered is their crossing of the Jordan River.

Every children’s Bible recalls for us the Israelites walking through the Red Sea to escape from the clutches of the Egyptian pharaoh and how God saved the people from slavery

by sending Moses to lead them. 

And many of the same children’s Bibles subsequently depict the events in the wilderness – the golden calf, the giving of the 10 commandments, the gift of daily manna.  

But not one of the four children’s Bibles we have at home depict the story of the Israelites coming out of the dessert wilderness into the promised land by crossing the Jordan River. 

And yet it is significant that God again parts waters – this time the Jordan – as his people are led into the promised land and to the place prepared for them to start over and live with God.

So, on the day of his baptism, Jesus crosses the Jordan to retrace the steps of the Israelites’ entrance into a new home with God to show us that he means to bring you and me and all God’s people into a new promised land. 

For Matthew, Jesus is the New Moses who brings us out of the wilderness of our sin into friendship and intimacy with God.

Now I have been blessed to live here with you in this River City and, like you probably, I love to swim in the James River on a hot summer day – or a January day when its 70 degrees! – but I have also had people tell me that it can be quite dirty. And I have seen reports of the James River that say that you shouldn’t eat more than two fish a month from the river, which makes me reluctant to eat any fish from the James!

But the Jordan River was, and is, far dirtier and I have also been blessed to pilgrimage to the Holy Land and I have seen the Jordan River and what I would say to you about it, is that the Jordan River is a dirty river. 

The Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth.  When Sarah and I visited my sister and friends in Palestine we rented a car and drove out of Beth Sahour, where she was living, to the Dead Sea. 

You just nose your car down and drive and drive and drive like you’re driving into the center of the earth.  And you see the Jordan River that goes down and down to the Dead Sea, which collects all the filth and muck and runoff and silt on its way there. 

The Jordan River is dirty!

And Jesus wades into this river in order to wade into the filth of our lives. 

Jesus steps into the muck.  He comes to be with us in our sickness and the diagnoses that breaks our heart, Jesus is present with us even in the dysfunction of our human relationships.

Jesus is with us in our chronic pain, with us he comes into the midst of the nations that bomb and shoot down airplanes, and rage with the fire of hatred and injustice and apathy to help those in need.

In Jesus, God takes the initiative to come down, down, down into dirtiness of the world’s sin.

And that is what is behind John’s surprise.

John would have prevent Jesus from entering into the filth. 

And if we’re honest, I think we often want to prevent Jesus from entering into all the totality of our lives. 

We want Jesus to stay on his side of the river. 

We want to domesticate Jesus and maintain the status quo.  We want Jesus to be a good example of how to live, or an idea that points toward moral living that we can subscribe to, but in fact, Jesus is a living person who blows up the status quo, who is unafraid to enter into every part of our life, and even the parts we think of as private.  Like in our homes, and what we do with our money, and our digital life.

Jesus enters so deeply into our human experience that he even dies – that inevitable end we cringe to imagine or pretend isn’t real by distracting ourselves – and Jesus gives his life publicly, on a cross, by the side of the road for every passerby to see. 

But God builds a bridge for Jesus to walk from this life to the next life where death has been robbed of its power, and where Jesus now lives to God forever.

And God promises that we too cross the river to the promised land God has prepared for a home.

But amazingly, this happens to us while we’re still in this life.

In Baptism God crosses the river and comes down toward us in baptism and gives us eternal life now.

And the gift of this new life with God is something we all share, so that for each of us, our life of faith can be personal but it can never be private.

This baptism gives us a new public identity in God that we share, and we say as much when we welcome a person to this life of baptism in the moments when they dry their heads off or someone dries their heads off for them:

“We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share.  Join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” 

Christ’s mission is to the world and we’re all part of it together.

A few of my friends and I like to think of ourselves as music aficionados.  I don’t know that we are but we like to think of ourselves this way. And being subscribers of the cardinal rather than the ordinal decade, we have been putting together lists of some of our favorite albums from the past decade. 

One of mine is a record called Helplessness Blues from the Fleet Foxes. 

While I don’t know what their theological affiliations are if any, the lyrics to one of their songs gets at this sense of the unity and togetherness we share in our mission to witness to Jesus in a public way.

The lead singer intones:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique

Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,

unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be

A functioning cog in some great machinery

serving something beyond me

If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see 

Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak

Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself

Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself

Joined to God in baptism, we become wheels and gears and cogs in the great machinery of God’s love where we all share a part in the same function –  touching one another, like gears, moving one another, dependent upon one another, intimately connected to one another, for the sake of serving the world in Christ’s name.

We know that not only the world God has made but God himself is so inconceivably good, and that while we do sometimes get tongue-tied, we can’t keep it to ourselves.

Like our Lord, we cross the river, because we’re called out of our comfort zones to witness with joy and to be Christ for this world.

So that if someone should happen to be new to our message or unfamiliar with us and if someone were to inquire of us, we might be ready with an answer.

“So what should I know about God?”  They might ask.

May God grant us grace to tell how good the mercy of God is.  And may God grant us the grace to tell how God choses to love us.  How he chooses to forgive us.  To come down to us.  And how God is happy to enter into the mess and muck of our lives and the life of this world, and to bring the healing power that washes us clean. 

Song of Love

The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 has become well-known: During World War I, in the winter of 1914, on the battlefields of Flanders, the Allied Powers of England and France were locked in a fierce battle with the Germans.

The Allied Powers and the Central Powers were dug into the mud for miles as soldiers on both sides hunkered down into trenches six to eight feet deep. Men in gear with guns fought for their lives and perhaps the fate of humankind.

On Christmas Eve, though, spontaneously, German troops began decorating the area around their trenches for the holiday. They placed candles on trees and sang Christmas carols, including the best-loved German carol: “Stille Nacht.”

The Allied troops across the battlefield heard the strains in the silent night around them and responded by singing English carols. Moved by the celebration of the birth of Christ, the shots of the artillery fell completely silent.

Soldiers left their trenches, crossed “no man’s land,” – that land that between two enemies but unoccupied due to fear and uncertainty – meeting in the middle to shake hands, and exchange small gifts of whisky, jam, cigars, and chocolate.

According to the diary of a German who was there, an English soldier brought out a soccer ball and a good-natured match emerged right on the battlefield.

The truce that night allowed for soldiers to claim the bodies of recently-fallen brothers in order to give them a proper burial. Soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in “no man’s land,” soldiers wearing opposing uniforms gathered and read words from the psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Unfortunately, the truce could not last.

British commanders eventually ordered their troops to resume firing at the enemy and after a few days of everyone wasting rounds of ammunition by shooting into the sky instead of at their new found friends in the opposing trenches, the war resumed for real.

The generals and military leaders of both the Central and Allied forces heard about the truce of Christmas Eve and vowed that no such truce would ever be allowed in the future so that in the subsequent years of the war on Christmas Eve, artillery bombardments were ordered to make sure there were no more silent nights on the battlefield and ultimately 20 million lives would be lost.

Today the Biblical account of the birth of Christ bears witness to the hard truth that the coming of Christmas does not bring the fullness of peace and healing the world hoped for. The silent night of Christmas Eve does not last.

Those of us who stood with soft candlelight illuminating our faces as we sung that beloved carol on Christmas Eve have experienced that the silent night doesn’t last. We have entered back into a world where peace is hard to come by, where the silence is shattered, where the world does not stop and give its total attention and adoration to the Christ child.

Today in the account from the gospel according to Matthew we hear that Jesus himself was born to be the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, the Messiah in the flesh, and the one foretold by the prophets but there is no time to celebrate.

There is no time to enjoy the gift of God among us for a first-time mother and father. Joseph is warned in a dream that the silent night cannot last. He is to take the child and his mother to Egypt because Herod is sending bombardments of destruction aimed at squelching this possible usurper to his throne and power.

For his part, Jesus is completely powerless. As an infant, God in the flesh must rely on his mother and foster-father to carry him, feed him, and protect him from the blood-thirsty Herod.

King Herod the Great, who was known as the “King of the Jews,” because he was a Hebrew set up by the Romans to rule his own people for them, killed three of his very own sons and one of his wives when he thought they might be plotting against him and seeking to take his power, causing Caesar Augustus, Herod’s Roman superior, to famously quip:

“It is better to be Herod’s hog, than his son,” alluding to the Jewish law of not eating, and consequently not killing, swine, but his ease at taking any life he saw as a threat, including his own children.

To order the murder of children two-years-and-younger in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus and strangle a possible challenge to his authority was an obvious and, for him, insignificant act in the busy day of the ruthless Herod.

Biblical historians believe that as small as Bethlehem was in the first century, Herod’s army may have killed as many as twenty children in his raid attempting to eliminate Jesus, and for a thousand and a half years the church has commemorated and remembered these boys as the Holy Innocents – children who died as the first witnesses to Christ’s advent.

At Christmastime, when it seems we should be exclusively festive, we pause to remember these boys because God remembers all those who live and die tragically for no good reason, senselessly.

We remember the mothers and fathers of these boys and pray for all parents who lose their children. We give God thanks that in his mercy, God promises to redeem every life that is lost and bring redemption to the grief of his people.

Today we give God thanks that Love has come to us and God remembers every family that has lost a child, every family that is celebrating Christmas for the first time with an empty chair at the table, every family that has one of its members deployed and far away from home.

Herod’s murder of the infants of Bethlehem is part of the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus was born in order to die so that we all might be with God forever and be reunited with one another forever.

Because of God’s protection through Joseph and Mary, Jesus escapes Herod’s grasp and finds his way safely to Nazareth so that he can grow up to teach and heal and restore the world in light of God’s intentions. My guess is that the power-drunk Herod ordered the brutal slaying of these children and went to bed with a sick peacefulness to think he had eliminated the threat to his power.

And when Herod’s son – Herod Antipas – realized that his father had been fooled but he had a chance to eliminate Jesus in Jerusalem by finally cutting off the road to escape, driving Jesus into a corner, pinning Jesus down, and nailing him to a cross, he probably went to bed with a sick peacefulness to think he had really and definitely THIS time eliminated the threat to his power his father couldn’t.

But on Easter morning, like his father, Herod Antipas and all the forces of evil, murder, abuse, and darkness were confounded forever, because God’s song of life sung in Jesus brought him out of the trench dug in the mud, as the fate of humankind was secured in God’s favor.

The love that was born in Bethlehem was reborn to bring God’s presence to every town and city and place.

Christmas and the birth of Christ brings the joy of God-with-us, but we cannot forget the real sufferings of the innocent, the grief of the mourners, the continued abuse of children.

Today children are brutalized through trafficking and abuse and they live in fear of school shootings.

Our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service was founded in 1918 as a way to respond to the post-World War I needs of immigration and refugee resettlement. It set up a Welfare Department with an office for the “rehabilitation and placement of Lutheran refugees” and helped 522 refugees in its first year of operations.

Following the immediate aftermath of WWII, LIRS resettled 30,263 Displaced Persons from Germany and Eastern Europe, and subsequently over the course of the last 80 years, has resettled over a half a million immigrants from Hungary, Cuba, Uganda, Vietnam, Bosnia, Sudan, Burma, Tibet, Afghanistan and Iraq, helping women, men, and children escape violence and abuse and find a new home.

Christmas is the celebration that God has come to be with us.
God came in Christ as a refugee escaping for his life, from Bethlehem to Egypt, to Israel to Galilee, to Jerusalem to the cross, braving the danger, in order to save the life of all humankind.

God is still stepping into the dangerous places of this world. God steps into no-mans-land, that place between enemies that is unoccupied due to our fear and uncertainty.

God steps into the no-mans-land of the politics of our nation and the nations of the world intending to sing a song of peace that we would lay our weapons down and come out to shake hands, to sing together, to be gathered around the small but mighty gifts of bread and wine given for the forgiveness of our sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and Nazi-resistor wrote to the church,

“God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song. It is the song that the “morning stars sang together…It is the victory song of the children of Israel after passing through the Red Sea, the Magnificat of Mary after the annunciation, the song of Paul and Silas in the night of prison…and the song of the Lamb” It is the song of the heavenly fellowship.”

We are called to sing the song of Christ’s love.

Not only standing here singing the Christmas eve song of the silent night, forever in this place… because Christmas, after all is about the incarnation – God being in the world- and we are called to be in the world — but singing in our work, in our homes, among our friends, in a new year, in a new decade, singing the song of faith and trust in God’s protection and promise out among the world God loves.

We are called to sing love to power and chant down the Herods and the haters of this world, until no-mans-land is riddled with the weapons that have been thrown down for good and healing and wholeness have come to the lonely, the least, the last and the lost, and to all.

God is singing a song of peace into the world and he has enlisted us to sing in the choir, to put on the baptismal robe, to warm up our voice, to throw our heads back, to sing with gusto, in harmony, the song of Christ’s love which has come.

So together we sing:

Love has come, a light in the darkness!
Love explodes in the Bethlehem skies.
See, all heaven has come to proclaim it.
Hear how their song of joy arises:
Love! Love! Born unto you, a Savior!
Love! Love! Glory to God on high!

Love is born! Come share in the wonder.
Love is God now asleep in the hay.
See the glow in the eyes of His mother.
What is the name her heart is saying?
Love! Love! Love is the name she whispers.
Love! Love! Jesus, Immanuel.

Love has come, He never will leave us!
Love is life everlasting and free.
Love is Jesus within and among us.
Love is the peace our hearts are seeking.
Love! Love! Love is the gift of Christmas.
Love! Love! Praise to You, God on high!

Like Fire in the Sky

Every year before we can get to the manger, we are confronted, you might even say ambushed by John the Baptist.

Yesterday my family put up not one, not two, but three trees – a bit excessive probably, but we have all these Christmas ornaments.  So, we put up a tree with white lights for our regular family ornaments, a small tree with blinking white lights for the Chrismons the children have received from Kim Yucha over the years, and one with colored lights devoted solely to the antique ornaments Sarah collects. 

It was a spur of the moment thing to get the third tree and yesterday in the aisles of Lowe’s home and garden section I was struck by how unbelievable friendly everyone was.  People were complimenting each other on their tree selection and offering to take pictures of one another’s families.  And I took it to mean everyone is ready to celebrate Christmas.

Here at Epiphany, today we have our tree up so maybe we’re nearly ready as well.  We anticipate the chance to sing Christmas carols together and we look forward to celebrating the Holy Birth.  But all the gospel writers agree: before we can come to celebrate the babe of Bethlehem, first we have to deal with John the Baptist.

It is striking that while only two of our four gospels – so 50% – have an infancy narrative where we hear about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as a baby, all four of them – 100% – agree that before Jesus’ public ministry, John was out in the wilderness preaching his own message, and that the Christian movement Jesus began had its roots in John’s ministry. 

Here at the beginning of the third chapter of Matthew’s gospel we learn that Jesus essentially got his first sermon from John whole-cloth: Just like John, Jesus began his ministry by announcing: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And you might think that the gospel writers would downplay John, as if the Son of God they are ultimately trying to proclaim was powerful enough that he didn’t need someone to help him make an entrance, but they don’t downplay John. They up-play John!  The gospel writers are all clear that John prepares the way for Jesus.

I imagine that the people who went out to John came for different reasons. Some were ordinary people, peasants, and Hebrews who were true believers in the promise of the messiah, and hoped for an end to their suffering under Roman rule and oppression.

Some were religious leaders who most certainly went out in opposition to John, to show themselves in visible protest, or perhaps even hoping to coopt the movement.

And then some people were probably just curious at all the commotion. 

So it sounds like a scene not unlike any given sports bar you might visit where you have diehard fans coming in who painted their faces and are willing to stand in the cold even to watch their team lose, as well as fair-weather fans who just jump on board when the home team is riding high, as well as people who are just looking for some onion rings and a beer.

All these various people gathered around John, but then Jesus comes to join this movement as well. And while Jesus obviously owes a lot of his trajectory to John, the Lord really does improve on John’s message because nowhere in John’s message do we hear anything about forgiveness.  There is nothing about grace.  There is nothing about love.

John’s message is repentance. He offers all the people in Judea and Jerusalem and that region a water initiation rite as a sign they are going to do better.  John offers the message that it’s time to man-up or woman-up.  These people are to take a long hard look at their lives and be better people, be more faithful people, be the people smiling that strangely happy smile in the Lowes home and garden section and doing it year-round.

And repentance is part of the life of faith.  We are called to repentance.  We’re called to take a long look at ourselves, to ask what are the ways we fall short of God’s desire for our lives; to be honest that we ignore God’s blessings to us, and forget the common humanity we share with each other.

We scroll facebook and feel jealousy at the lives other people are living and we look around and think more highly of ourselves than others.  So often we compare ourselves with others and compare our lives to what we wish or hope they could be

We imagine that this life as we see it not is it: we are what we have and what we do. 

But repentance is the invitation to do the hard work of returning to God to see again that we are freed to let go of the comparisons to see again that we are all made uniquely in the image of God.  We are beloved for who God has made us.  And we have been brought in by God to be a part of his mission in the world.

We have to deal with John and we have to deal with repentance, but thankfully Jesus comes to ambush us with grace.  He is the one that does what John can’t: he comes to bring the fire of God’s holy forgiveness and blessing. He comes to baptize us with the refining fire of the Holy Spirit.

John’s gospel of rededicating ourselves to doing better sounds nice, but there’s no power in it.  I can try not to scroll social media and watch TV and pass people while I’m shopping and compare myself to them but I’m going to get sucked into that again and again. 

Just trying to be a better, more caring, less selfish person is going to end in disappointment again, just like last time.  But Jesus claims us in the fire of Holy Baptism and burns away our chaff and our sin.  He welcomes us into a new life where we don’t live to ourselves, we live to God, and we live for God’s purposes and intentions.  

Like fire that refines metal, God’s fire purifies our life.  Like fire that heats clay to make pottery, God’s fire makes us strong. Like fire that cooks food and gives us warmth, God’s fire nourishes and sustains us.

God’s presence in Jesus Christ purifies, strengthens, gives health, and gives us a whole new vision for who we are and what our future holds.

In his letter to the Romans, here in the fifteenth chapter, Paul encourages the early Christians to believe that in Christ the future has arrived.  There’s no need any longer for the Jews to compare themselves to the Gentiles or vice versa.

I mean, let it not be lost on us that this is a big deal: This was like saying there’s no need to compare Republicans and Democrats, because they’ve been made into one new group. 

Like saying there’s no need to compare Washington Redskin fans and Green Bay Packer fans, because they’ve been made into one new group.

Like saying there’s no need to compare boomers and millennials, because they’ve been made into one new group.

It’s a big deal and Paul says no matter who we are, in Christ we are all one new community by the fire of our baptism into Christ and THEREFORE we are to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God.

This sounds familiar to any 7th and 8th graders and their families who were at our Lost and Found retreat near Lynchburg two weekends ago. This was our theme verse:  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you for the glory of God, so for three days I was in a small group with eight 7th grade boys talking about this.

We had conversation about what it means to welcome.  We played games that emphasized welcome.  We talked about how God welcomes us in baptism and at the table.

But we also talked about how even as Christians we are not immune to the sinful forces of exclusion. 

Its sad to say but we exclude others, sometimes based on race, age, or nationality.  We exclude people because of their religion or because they are differently-abled.  And sometimes we are unaware of what we’re doing.  And sometimes we are aware but we’re too afraid of losing our treasured place in the in-group that we can’t risk relationship with the people on the fringes.

We talked about all this quite a lot in our group.  And then Ian, who was one of the 7th grade boys in my group, about halfway through the second day, he sort of stops me and is kind of exasperated and says:

  “Pastor, I know you think you need to tell us about being inclusive because we’re all just in 7th and 8th grade and we’re immature, but we’re about to be in high school and people that old are more mature and don’t exclude people.”

My first thought was to say, Ian, I have some bad news.  But the more I reflect on Ian and what he said, the more I see a young man who is a prophet speaking God’s vision for us:

Jesus shows us a God whose heart overflows with such loves for us that he would come to us in flesh, to bear our hostile exclusion as we tried to push him out of the world on the cross, and who comes back from the dead to welcome us, to forgive us, and to give us his Spirit so that we can grow in maturity to learn to welcome others – especially those who are often ignored, the poor, those living with disabilities, those who are overlooked, and those we perceive to be different from us.

Jesus is the one with the power to usher in Isaiah’s vision of welcome, where the wolf’s jowls don’t salivate at the smell of the lamb, the lion feeds his belly on straw shared with him by the cow, where little children play in the street, where students aren’t bullied at school, people aren’t discriminated against because of where they are from, what they look like, or what they believe.

Jesus is God’s power to gather all humankind into one new family, burning away all the temporary, inconsequential divisions we construct, bringing peace to enemies and this world’s supposedly opposing forces, caring for the poor and outsider, and turning the walls we build into tables.

I’m as ready as anyone to sing “Silent Night” and celebrate the infant King whose birth frees and forgives, but before that, we might pause to see the season of Advent as a time to emulate John and point to the one with the power to give life and strength and health.

At this time of year, amid all the business and amid all the other messages we hear, we are pointing to Jesus as God’s act to purify and refine the world God loves.

The advent of God is coming like the arrival of the rising sun, the dawning of the circle of fire in the sky that gives life and warmth and growth to the creation each day, and like the sun, Jesus’ coming is for every creature and for all creation.

Like ripples on a lake God’s peace and grace and love radiate from Christ outward: God comes to make peace with us, God gives us peace with each other, God gives peace to all creation.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Signs and Wonders

The gospel news we hear today is that no matter what horror, disappointment, or tragedy takes place in our life or in the life of the world, Jesus assures us that our bodies and souls will be preserved by God forever.

In the fall of 2001, I was a student at Appalachian State University. On the morning of September 11, I drove from the house I rented with some buddies to pick up a girl I was dating at the time to give her a ride to campus on my way to class. She came out to the car and sat down next to me, looked over and said, “Two planes just hit both towers of the World Trade Center in New York.”

I couldn’t immediately process what I had heard and I don’t remember anything about the car ride, but I do remember that the building where I was to meet my English class was sparse with people and that students and teachers were wondering through the halls in a daze.

Someone had set up TVs in some of the rooms and we gathered around in silence, watching the replay of the planes crashing into the tall silver buildings, the explosions of fire, the billow of smoke, and ultimately the collapse of glass and steel and debris.

If you’re old enough to have lived through it and to remember it, you know where you were when you heard the news. If you had family or friends in New York you held your breath and waited. I remember wondering what else might happen. I remember wondering if our entire country would collapse. I remember wondering how life would go on.

Collectively, as a nation, we all wondered these things without being able to put our feelings into words. Only later could we say that we were in crisis – on a national, social, and personal level. On every level.

I think for many people who lived through the event, it was the most scared we’ve ever been, because for people like us who live surrounded by illusions to the contrary, what we all saw on the TV that day was a sign that this world is temporary.

For the Hebrews in the first century, the destruction of the Temple, which we hear Jesus speak about in his “Little Apocalypse” from today’s gospel was 9-11.

The Temple and its home in Jerusalem were not only the national, social, and economic center of the world, but they were the religious, ecological, and cosmic center of existence. This was the one house for the One God who had chosen for himself one people, the Hebrews.

And for every Hebrew, the dream and driving desire, no matter how far away they lived from Jerusalem, no matter how poor they may have been, was to scrape together enough denarii out of the dust of their poverty to travel to the Holy City to see this enormous, beautiful structure imagined by King David, built by his son Solomon, and designated as the holiest place on the face of the earth where God himself resided, and to witness with her or his own eyes the first rays of the new day’s sun striking the gold covered stones and glinting off in a blaze of heavenly light from God.

The psalmist articulated in a song written for the people to sing in worship:

“One thing I ask the Lord and that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all they days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”

This one thing desired above everything else was to worship in the temple and so when Jesus predicts that this Temple will be torn down, and that along with this crisis there will be wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues, but that before all this, his disciples will be arrested, persecuted, jailed, and betrayed, and some of them will be put to death, it’s hard to imagine worse news.

“But,” Jesus says, and this small word turns all this on its head. This small word changes everything. “But,” Jesus says, this will all serve as an opportunity for them to testify and witness to the hope they have in Jesus and his promise that not a hair of their heads will perish.

Clearly Jesus’ promise is a promise of ultimate things and eternal things. No matter what evil is present in this world now, God will redeem this whole world and all life, his whole creation, and the humankind God has made in his image and loves with a jealous heart will be healed and made whole.

God promises us that no matter what the testimony of the impeachment proceedings turns up, no matter who’s our president, no matter how many school shootings there may be, no matter what buildings or nations come tumbling down, God promises to preserve and protect us for eternity.

And yet, all these things around us are signs not only of the uncertainty with which we live but our absolute dependence on God.

What you and I need to know about these words from Jesus and the genre of Biblical apocalyptic literature in general is that they are aimed at giving comfort and assurance to people who are suffering more intensely than you and I will probably ever be able to imagine.

We live in privilege.

We throw away so much food we can’t imagine hunger.

We have so many clothes we have to think through where we’re going to store the seasonal clothes that won’t fit in our closet.

We’re so entertained by streaming content from Netflix to Disney plus that we might sometimes want to be cryogenically frozen like Walt himself and come back and live forever just to watch it all. We are privileged. But there is a kind of suffering on this earth that is so grave, news of the end of this world and God’s redemption comes as relief and salvation.

The first followers of Jesus lived under the constant threat of persecution – not someone seeing you pray in a restaurant and telling you not to do it publicly – but being thrown to the lions and burned at the stake and having your eyes gouged out by an empire that was willing to do anything to retain its power.

And in this period of persecution, against the odds, the church grew by leaps and bounds. In fact, the first Christians came to claim the adage: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

You see people outside of the church saw the first Christians go to the lions and the funeral pyre with confident hymns of praise to God on their lips and they had to know more. They had to find out what the story was behind this strange witness.

People had to know about this prophet Jesus, who not only was able to predict the destruction of the temple, but whose followers really were given words and wisdom in the moments of their suffering and trials and were able to speak of the hope of God in such a way, according to Luke’s follow up book the Acts of the Apostles, that thousands joined in a given afternoon.

This message of the cross, spoken by people persecuted in the same way as the One they pointed to touched lives, grew the church, and spread across the world, all the way to this very morning and to you and me, and through our congregation and congregations like it, it is spreading on and out and further still.

You may have noticed the pattern: Every other Sunday we say the Apostles Creed in worship as a sign of our faith. Most of us have most likely memorized these words that recall who God is and what God has done, is doing, and promises to do for the life of the world. And it could be that it becomes rote and that we could say the creed slipping in and out of being attentive to it.

This was more or less the case made by our speaker last month at the Virginia Synod Ministerium. All the Lutheran pastors serving in Virginia attend this conference in the fall in Virginia Beach each year and this year’s theme was on church vitality.

It is, of course, a timely topic, and our speaker had lots of helpful thoughts that I am still chewing on. For me, one particularly provocative thing he suggested is that we should never say the Apostles Creed in worship.

His take is that because the verb tenses in the creed are mostly in the past tense, we send the message to visitors and internalize the narrative ourselves that our Christian faith is something that is more tied to the past than what’s going on now.

We say we believe Jesus was conceived back then, was born, suffered, was crucified, died, was buried, rose, descended – all past tense verbs – and finally, we say, he is seated (a present tense verb), and will come again (a future tense verb)
And perhaps that is something to think about.

And I think there are ways the church could confess a creed that speaks of our conviction that God is still acting in many and various ways today:

We could use Luther’s explanation of the creed:

I believe God has made me and all his creatures. God has given me my body and still takes care of me. He also gives me clothing, richly and daily provides for me, defends me, and protects me, for this it is my duty: to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.

Or we could say:

We believe in God the Father from whom every family on earth comes and is named. And we believe in the Son of God, crucified and risen who lives in our hearts and fill us with his love. And we believe in God the Holy Spirit who strengthens us with power from on high.

But I will say that we ought to remember when we say the Apostles Creed that hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children have died for the content of faith expressed in these particular words and something special happens when God gives us the gift of faith and we express it on our still-warm and wet lips:

And that is that we are connected to the life and the witness and words and discipleship of those who carried this gospel to one possible logical conclusion that comes when you fix your eyes on a cross and the love that died there, and we are reminded that this possible logical conclusion of death for our faith is always a possibility; a possibility that we pray doesn’t come to us, but which we ask God for the strength to accept if it should.

Jesus promises that because he lives we won’t always suffer, and he promises that all this world that we can see and touch and taste is temporary and preparatory.

But while we are here, in the gift of this moment, we point to what is to come.

You are the signs and the wonders of God.

You are a living creed that tells of the faith God gives.

I see it when I go to the hospital to visit someone whose surgery has been postponed and two women of the church are already there with a prayer shawl, knitted with care and in prayer, to lay over their friend as a constant reminder of God’s promise that not a hair of our heads will perish.

I see it.

And you see it.

You see it when you see teenagers assemble Advent baskets for our shut-ins so that even though they may sometimes be plagued by the nagging feeling of loneliness that comes with having their mobility limited and being shut off from parts of the world, they can count down with us to the celebration of Christ’s coming in the manger and his promise to come again in glory to heal the whole creation.

You can see that.

You can see it in the hands that cut red and greed construction paper stars for our Christmas Giving Tree, in hands that assemble Thanksgiving Baskets, in hands the put cans on the shelves of our food pantry and hand them out to friends in the community, in hands that hold one another in prayer.

You can see it in the ones who are helping.

The Richmond Marathon was yesterday, which some of you ran in or watched. I don’t get involved in such things other than to be stuck in traffic. But you may have heard that about a month ago the world record was set for the fastest time in a marathon ever.

Eliud Kipchoge ran the 26+ miles in 1:59:60. Many say this is the greatest feat in running history and maybe the greatest feat in any athletics. No one thought this was possible! But the record won’t stand and it can’t count because he had help. He had a team of pacesetters, encouragers, and re-fuelers.

We do what we may think is possible. In a world of troubles and suffering, God enables us to witness together to Jesus. And it counts! It counts in the loves of those who hear the good news!

The cross is God’s testimony that he has not, does not, and will not desert us or cower and hide from the ongoing crisis, the falling of buildings, the destruction of natural forces, or the terror of war but that God stands firm with us and that he will preserve our bodies and souls forever, and by the endurance he gives us we can stand and sing and shout and serve and say and be his witnesses.

May God bless you with words and a witness.

May God bless us to be signs and wonders.

May God grant us endurance in our every effort.

And may the gospel news that not a hair of our heads will perish be our hope, now and forever.

Life in the Beautiful River

In celebration of the festival of All Saints we sing in this wonderful hymn: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, Gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”

Herman Hesse’s novel named for his main protagonist, Siddhartha, tells of a young man who wanders the wide world in search of the good life: happiness, peace, and meaning.

Siddhartha acquires and loses wealth, he tastes love and finds it unable to satiate his deepest longing, he travels until he becomes an old man and finally, having lost hope of uncovering his ultimate purpose, he sits down by the river he has crossed many times in his life and really looks at it for the first time.

He gives the churning water his attention, and in watching the water pass by he finds enlightenment.

He is illuminated.

He understands his place in creation and comes to know deep within that every person is given the gift of being only momentarily and yet we are all found in God.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, the Triune God gathers us at his river of life. We stand by the baptismal river that claims us as sons and daughters of God and we give thanks for those who are far downstream:

For Daniel and Paul who bring us words of life, and for our mothers and fathers in the faith on whose shoulders we stand.

And today we God thanks, in particular, for Ellen, JoAnn, Bob, Ron, Bradley, Eddie, and Flo, and for all the ways they gave themselves for Christ’s ministry and for all the ways they blessed us.

These sisters and brothers who have gone to be with God were founding members of our congregation, Sunday school teachers, men and women who served on church council, people who blessed us with their gifts, who raised up children in the faith, and who were examples of God’s love.

Today we give God thanks for their lives and their ministry and remember that God has done and continues to do wonderful things thorough the lives of his people.

The gift of baptism, the river of God’s love that comes from the source of God’s deepest longing to make us his own, means for us that we don’t have to search for God. God has searched for us and found us, and as Paul says, God has marked us with the seal of the promised holy spirit, the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

God has blessed us with a rich inheritance.

When Paul spoke of an inheritance, he had his readers’ full attention, because no one in the ancient world would ever have received an inheritance except for royalty and the aristocracy, but Paul impresses upon the first generation of Christians that they stand to cash in handsomely because of what God has done in Christ:

Paul shares the vision with them that as they come to know Christ, with the eyes of their heart enlightened, they will see what is the hope to which he’s called them, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power. Hope. Riches. Power. An inheritance that changes their perspective on what’s possible.

I have a friend in Charleston, SC, named Bob. He is a bit older than me but we grew to be close friends in my time there. Every time we went to lunch, he would pay for it.

Nothing I could say would change his mind. Every time we ate together, I offered to pay and every time he’d grab the check, smile, and explain: “My wife and I received this in inheritance from her side of the family.” And then he’d do this funny shrug as if to say, I don’t really have a choice do I?

The inheritance had changed his life and given him a sense of generosity that seemed beyond his control.

In our baptism we have been given the inheritance of God’s love and favor. It comes as a free gift, not because of who we are but because of who God is, and God means to fill us with a sense of generosity toward each other.

We belong to God and have received the riches of his mercy and friendship and we don’t really have a choice in the matter.
Paul writes his letters, and this letter to the Ephesians, almost as if he has little choice in the matter. Jesus has appeared to him and changed his life with an inheritance that Paul finds to be so valuable he has to share it.

So he writes to this little church on coast of the Aegean Sea, which was surrounded by pagan influence and the Cult of Artemis and all sorts of cultural forces hostile to God as a plea to treasure the gospel, to imitate God, and to share the news of the riches of Christ that are for all people.

Interestingly, we know of no other group in the ancient world besides the young Christians that imagined all the world should be gathered into one community and worldview.

The Romans did not believe all their citizens should worship the roman gods and didn’t try to force them to do so.

The Jews didn’t proselytize and try to bring pagans to the synagogues.

But with the infant church, for the first time, we have this community with the starling notion that God has a plan to untie all things and that plan was laid out even before creation began.

Today we are surrounded by as many different worldviews as the Ephesians. Some say the world is a zero-sum game of politics where if one party gets anything the other necessarily stands to lose everything.

Some people imagine this world to be a place where everything is for sale and you and I are primarily consumers of products that advertisers promise will fill a void we didn’t know we had until they tried to convince us of it.

A secular world view today says that God isn’t active in the world, all truth is relative, and any enlightenment and illumination come from finding our “true self” by building our own identity from scratch.

The truth is that we inherit our identity as a gift from God.

Part of the glorious inheritance we receive from God are the saints — those women and men of faith who have come before us as examples of how to live as disciples of Jesus.

We had some friends over to the house on Friday and Samuel had two little boys to play with. These boys are in the stage of life of looking for archetypes to base their own lives on. It actually has nothing to do with Halloween that they pretended to be cowboys, policemen, robots, and spacemen. For hours.

As we grow and mature as women and men, we learn to become ourselves and discover who God has made us to be, but we always need to have someone to look to in order to imagine who our best unfolding self can be.

We are always being influenced by the people and things around us so we would be wise to ask: who are we learning from and who do we look to as an example?

God provides people, doesn’t he?

Saints at rest and saints among us who show us how to live.

Don’t you know people of faith that you would like to emulate?

I see them all the time.

If fact, I’m looking at them: Fathers who inspire me to be a better father, mothers who show me a picture of the God who shelter and protects the ones entrusted to him, young people who inspire me with their desire to get their hands dirty and risk great things for God, children who come to God with a spirit of open vulnerability and curiosity that I believe resides in all of us and I sometimes wish we older folks could reconnect with.

When Samuel and his friends are playing, constantly changing identities, they have to repeatedly ask each other, “Who are you?” Their identity is changing so frequently they have to ask one another explicitly to stay abreast of the situation.

We learn who we are in community – asking questions, trying on different roles, and taking risks together, and the saints are the ones who point us towards Jesus in whom we find life.

The gift of Jesus is the gift of eternal life with God and all the saints, but the gift of Jesus is also that God comes among us to show us and tell us what a good life, well-lived looks like.

Jesus words and actions in the gospels make it clear that he’s after our heart and our entire person. Martin Luther famously said you could sum up all Christ’s teaching and preaching in the words: Do to other as you would have them do to you.

If we could keep this one thing in mind: Be toward others as we’d have them be toward us – we’d be less lonely, more connected, more joyful, and more at peace.

Jesus made this little statement short enough and memorable enough that we can hold it in our mind and heart, but we often can’t do it.

Jesus asks us to identity with the other person so deeply we imagine they are us and we are them. He asks us to take his lead and bless those who curse us, love our enemy, do good to the haters in our lives.

My best friend Jonathan who really is a gift from God to me – we didn’t like each other when we first met each other. He thought I was aloof and I thought he was a know-it-all. Somehow God brought us together.

God wants us to connect with each other, to find friendship, to take care of each other, to learn to grow in maturity as his disciples, so he shows us how: do to others as you’d have them do to you.

Jesus shows us how: he forgives his betrayers from the cross, he comes from the empty tomb to search out and reconnect with those who stood by and didn’t help him. And that his risen life goes on and on, bringing God’s forgiveness and healing to us today.

Because we are baptized into Christ we receive the promise that the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead is at work in our life.

Because we belong to God, he has gathered us around his table and today we will lift our voices with all the saints so that with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven we praise God’s name and join them in their unending hymn.

I have to say that in this moment around the table, as we sing to the holiness of God, I often find such joy and relief because I know at that moment, we are all in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

I wonder if you are like me. If like me, your life is filled with so many moments of wondering if we’re in the right place, if we’ve prioritized the right task, if we’ve said the right thing. In this moment of total praise of God at the table we have no doubt. We have been joined to the whole creation’s awe and wonder that the creator would take on flesh and come to us in kindness, mercy, and love.

In this moment the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have gathered us in praise to recall and sing the truth that God has filled all creation, that the Lord is the name above every name, that our inheritance from God is that we get to live for the praise of his glory, and that the fulness of his life fills all creation and makes every cell and atom of creation hum with the sacred presence of God.

This table is meant to raise our vision for all the moments of our lives to this level.

It is meant to give us the means of grace to live in the joy of Jesus as saints of God ourselves and put on our baptismal identity as Christ in the world.

With this identity comes hope, riches, and power – and the ability to see life from the perspective of eternity.

Today we give God thanks for the community we share with all the saints – all those people of faith who have now received happy hearts, quivering in the rest of God – even as we await the day when Christ returns to set all things right.

Come Lord Jesus!

Not Afraid to Wrestle

I think its popularity has diminished somewhat in recent years, but once upon a time, professional wrestling was as big as the National Football League. At least, for the ten-year-old boys that I was hanging out with. 

My friends and I loved to watch professional wrestling together on television and we got tosee all the greats:

 Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Jake “the Snake” Roberts – who would put a live python on you after he had knocked you out, Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake – who would cut his opponents hair after he defeated them, and more.  And they all had these great nicknames.  We had the action figures of all these wrestlers and wore the paint off all their faces with a thousand matches on the living room floor that included a million jumps off the top rope. 

When we would watch on TV we would debate about whether wrestling was “real” or just entertainment and one of the features of the TV program that was as entertaining as any actual wrestling was the storylines about which wrestler was mad at which other wrestler and what they were going to do to them.  They would tell you all about it during the pre-match and post-match interviews and we never forgot, how during one of these interviews, Andre “the Giant” had crossed the line by taking “Hulk” Hogan’s gold necklace and ripping it off his neck. 

There are no jumps from the top rope or chairs being pulled out of the stands, but in our reading from Genesis today we have a real “smackdown” by the banks of the Jabbok. The match lasts all through the night and is fierce.  It includes a debilitating injury, but like professional wrestling on tv, more interesting than the action itself is the larger story of these two opponents. 

Jacob “The Trickster” has alienated his brother by stealing his birthright and angered and saddened his father by stealing his blessing so that by this point in the story, in a sense, Jacob has wrestled with his family all his life, and now he is on the cusp of meeting his brother again and facing up to the chaos he has created.

On the other side of this river, Esau is waiting, and when the day breaks, he will meet him and all the problems he has created, and he may well be wondering if his brother will wrestle him into submission or kill him, and what will become of his family. 

So, here by the Jabbok River, Jacob has come to the crossroads of his life.  It is an occasion so large that he perceives that he is face to face with God himself.  Whether he can go on at all is at stake. 

He wrestles with what his life has become, what it all means; he wrestles with God. And what we hear about God is that God is willing to get in the ring with him!  God could destroy Jacob! God Almighty in all his power could pulverize Jacob!  But God wrestles with him and lets him go on with just a limp.  God even blesses him.

This story in Genesis is our opening match, but there is another wrestling match in our texts today. 

In the main event, in one corner of the ring we have the “Unjust Judge.”  Now that’s a great wrestling nick-name.  Its almost better than “Nature Boy”!  He doesn’t fear God and doesn’t have respect for the people, but he is huge and powerful.

My guess is he wears a mask to hide his identity, he has music that plays loudly over the speakers as he and his entourage make their way to the ring.  He is not to be messed with.  He answers to no one. 

And in the other corner we have just an ordinary old woman.  She is a widow.  She is weak.  In a society where only men worked, only men spoke, and only men were counted, she would have been completely powerless. 

If she was a character in professional wrestling, she would be one of the people with no nickname, no entrance music, no cool costume.  One of the nobodies whose sole purpose is to come out early on in the night to do nothing more than get beat up just to warm up the crowd.  The audience knows her storyline before the opening bell.  She’s just here for someone else to throw around.

In front of the crowd, the widow comes out and makes her way to meet the Unjust Judge in the ring. She puts herself on the line, but he slams her request for help, piledrivers her hopes, and he sends her away in shame to learn to live with defeat.

Astonishingly, though, the woman dares to come back; to make her way through the crowd and come back and lock up with the Unjust Judge again.  And she keeps being defeated and she keeps coming back and no matter how many times the judge sends her away, the woman dares to come back and try again.

And she keeps coming back and the “Unjust Judge” keeps sending her away in defeat, until he thinks to himself, This is embarrassing! If I don’t give this woman what she wants, she will keep coming back and she will keep browbeating me – literally in the original language “giving me a black eye” — and wearing me out with her request, but if I just give her what she wants she will go away and I will never have to see her again! 

And so finally, just to get rid of her, he gives her what she wants.

Jesus tells this story to illustrate our need to pray always and not to lose heart. It is a story about persistence in prayer.

We are people who pray frequently.  We all pray together in worship.  We pray when we’re in small group gatherings and at ministry team meetings, and we pray with our family or our friends in our homes.

We have prayed for an end to sickness, for a diagnosis we wish we wouldn’t have received to be reversed, for help in the face of the loss of a job.  We have prayed for the state of the world, for loved ones and the obstacles they face, for forgiveness.

But even most people who are persistent in prayer have at one time or another wondered how effective they can expect prayer to actually be.

Even people who are pros at prayer have wondered if they’re praying for the right thing.

Most of us, at one time or another, have felt like this widow wrestling for a hoped-for outcome. 

And some of us may even feel like Jacob, wrestling with God himself.

There is young man in our congregation who is a wrestler.  I should say he is a real wrestler, for his high school team.  He is really good and he wins a lot of matches and he has a particularly risky style of wrestling that ends in a lot of pins – mostly for him, but sometimes he does get pinned, but he likes to go for it.  I was asking him, months ago now, about his wrestling and somehow it came up that one controversial aspect to wrestling these days is that men wrestle women. There isn’t a division that separates the men and women.  They’re all on one team.

This young man shared that some guys won’t wrestle a girl and will just take a loss when they come up against a girl in a match.  He said these young men say they don’t want to hurt a girl, don’t want to touch a girl or be perceived to touch a girl in a way that is disrespectful.  I asked this young man what he chooses to do and he said without reservation he wrestles girls.  When I asked why that was, he said, “I make sure I don’t hurt anyone I wrestle. I respect everyone I face.  I only want the best for everyone I meet on the mat.”

God is willing to wrestle us only wanting the best for us. He is not out to hurt us.  He is all-powerful and yet he is willing to take our frustration and disappointment, our doubt or anger. He meets us and takes our grief or whatever we need to give him.  He can take it.  And he returns to us blessing and mercy and kindness.  God embraces us, hold us, lets us struggle, and always returns love.

On the cross, Jesus has been fully defeated.  Like the widow in his own story, he was wrestled to the ground and pinned by death.  And like the widow he persists because of his love for us.

Jesus was laid in the grave and three days later he emerged, victorious, hand held high in the air, never to die again and sending to us and to the whole world God’s power of love and forgiveness. 

When we receive that power and respond to God’s grace by reaching out to God in prayer, we’re reaching out not to someone who gives to us grudgingly, like the “UnJust Judge,” as Jesus points out, but to a God who loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

In the last few years of her life, my Grandmother had gotten feeble.  She was in her 90s and she didn’t see all that well, or hear that well, and she couldn’t get around all that well but she fiercely wanted to live at home and so we had gotten her a life alert, which was a little bracelet that she wore on her wrist and she could use to alert the life alert company should she get in a bad situation.

Well, she fell in the kitchen.  But she didn’t push her life alert.  Instead she lay in the floor for two days.  For years, she and my Dad talked every day on the phone so that when he didn’t hear from her, he thought something might be was wrong.  He called Grandmother’s house but she didn’t answer because she couldn’t reach the phone.  So, Dad drove to her house and that’s when he found her lying on the floor. 

He got her up off the floor and took care of her, and then he asked her why she hadn’t pushed the life alert button. And she said she didn’t want to bother anyone.

God wants to hear our prayers.  God wants us to reach out to him.  God wants us to cry out so that he can come to help us.

God delights to have his children call on him.  God delights to come quickly to the help of his beloved and to answer our cries.

Prayer is the way God makes room in us for his guidance as we wrestle with the challenges and decisions and details of our lives.

So like the poor widow in the ring against the Unjust Judge, or Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka being pounded on the mat by Andre the Giant with the referee about to slap the mat for the third time, when we are in trouble or in need, we have been given the gift of prayer so that we can reach out to God – our faithful tag-team partner – he is on our side and God is always coming to help.

Family First

A mom who is dressed for work is standing with her eight-year-old son who is wearing a blue jacket and has his backpack on.  There in the house just before heading out to school.  The mom kneels down in front of her son, zips up his jacket and gives him a love tap on the nose.  “Alright. Let’s do it!,” she says enthusiastically and the boy breaks into a huge grin.  She grabs her bag and they head for the door.  At the bottom of the screen flashes the words: “Family first.” 

The next thing you see the mother and son are at the kitchen table.  The boy has a pencil in his hand, the pages of his homework spread across the table and the mother is sitting beside him tapping away on her laptop.  They’re both working but they’re doing it together.  At the bottom of the screen: “Family second.”

Now the mom and son are in the kitchen – their work is done – and the boy sits on the kitchen counter.  He smiles as he cracks an egg into a large glass mixing bowl.  They’re making cookies together and they laugh as the mom encourages her young son to stir the mix himself using a large wooden spoon. At the bottom of the screen: “Family third.”

As we watch this television commercial, the script across the screen reads: “Family first. And second. And third.  Education built for working parents.  The University of Phoenix.”

Its only fifteen seconds long.  You could easily miss it in the long slog of commercials between segments of the game, but it covers a lot of ground in 15 seconds.  It’s heartwarming.  A mom is getting her degree and doing something good for her family long term, without trading away the short term.  She’s firmly in line with the American ethic of valuing family as the primary and sacrosanct allegiance of our lives.  She’s not just prioritizing family.  She is prioritizing her family, first, second, and third.

Imagine the differences we might see if Jesus directed a commercial that incorporated his view of the family, as heard in today’s gospel reading.  In Jesus’ commercial he stands together with a large crowd just outside the house of a wealthy Pharisee and a crowd that’s gathered and Jesus turns to them, and he opens his arms and begins to speak…

The script across the screen reads: Whoever comes to me and does not hate their family cannot be my disciple.  Education built for losing your whole life.  The way of Jesus Christ.”

Even when we know that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, the word “hate” is a little shocking.  We know that what Jesus means is that as much as we love our family, we should love God even more.  But even that can be a challenging word.

To be a disciple of Jesus and carry the cross means to put God first, and Jesus wants us to know from the outset that enrolling in this way of life requires everything we have.  Following Jesus and being his disciple means prioritizing him above money and wealth and possessions, above our status and reputation, above our family and friends, and above even our own livelihood and well-being.  For us who have been called to follow Jesus — it is God first, and second, and third.

Family is a gift from God.  We are called to love our family, to care for them, provide for them, nurture them.  Jesus supports the institution of the family but, he says, our relationship with our family is not to take priority over our relationship with God. 

I remember being maybe eight or so and staying for a weekend with my grandparents in Blowing Rock, NC, and my Grandmother coming in at night to my room and showing me how to get on my knees, fold my hands, and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  I was uninitiated in this particular way of praying and I was feeling uncomfortable in this very formal body position, and I wanted to be done with it. I tried to pray as fast as I could to get it over with:

 OurFatherwhoartinheavenhallowedbetheynametheykingdomcomethywillbedone

Grandmother snapped at me so sharply it took my breath away.  We don’t pray like that.  We pray reverently.  I didn’t know at that time what “reverently” meant but I knew I had better slow down.

In that moment I might have wondered, does Grandmother love me?  But Grandmother didn’t snap at me because she didn’t love me.  She snapped at me because she loved me and she wanted me to learn about how to be open to letting God connect with me.

Family can be an important incubator of faith.  Family can be as Luther said, a little church where faith is a part of our everyday life, almost taken for granted at times.  Our families are the primary place where young people have faith modeled for them.

But Jesus originally spoke to people for whom this faith thing was a brand-new proposition.

For the first century Hebrews who first heard his invitation, the family was the primary source of belonging, protection, and livelihood.  Family was everything.  “Family first, and second, and third,” wouldn’t have begun to describe its importance.  So when Jesus commanded them to give God priority even over family – and knowing following him might mean expulsion from the family – he cares enough to share the advice to really sit down and count the cost.

Jesus’ advice is to count the cost, almost like planning to build a tower or to go out to war. 

And both these images have a lot to teach us.

For one thing, both images speak to the seriousness of the task, but both images also point out that our personal choices have great effect on the lives of many other people.

It’s not exactly a tower, but our work project here at Epiphany to expand the commons and enhance the education wing, effects not one of us but all of us, and many people beyond us.  The builders and workers on our worksite take a lunch break and sometimes I stop and chat.  They have questions about the building and about our congregation.  I believe if we just sent them all home, if we hadn’t estimated the cost and told them we weren’t going to complete the project, they would be disappointed to see all their hard work end uncompleted.  I believe the Nursery School families would be disappointed.  I believe all the people who drove by us on the street and indeed Richmond at large would be affected if we just sent the bulldozers away and left thing the way they are now.  But we counted the cost and our personal choice as a community is to finish the project, and that effect is on more than just us.

A king going out to war against another king, when he sits down to consider the odds of his victory, makes a decision that effects more than just him and his family and court.  His decision effects all the men who would either line up on the front row to charge toward swords or guns pointed in their faces, or head home to their families and children and farms to produce food and care for their communities.

I think the national popular culture is rife with the message that we belong to ourselves and that if I’m free to do whatever I want if its not actively harming you or anyone else.

But that’s not true. Our actions do affect one another.  We do belong to one another.  We have one earth which is home to all of us.  We are responsible for one another.

The personal choices each of us make as a person effect our families, our co-workers, our schools, and the community we work for… and the choices we make as a community effect many beyond our community. 

But sometimes life in the family is a challenge —  just getting the kids out the door to school on time, or finishing our homework, or picking up the grandkids, or checking on our aging parents, and taking care of all that needs to be accomplished at work, or attending to the grocery run, the dinner plan, the house project that need completing, seems like more than we can do.

Who has time to be a disciple of Jesus and to put God first?

What I hear Jesus saying is that we can’t be. 

We can’t choose to be faithful disciples of Jesus.

If you want to give up all your possessions and prove me wrong, go for it. 

If you want to try to put God above your family and never make the mistake of choosing to care for your blood relatives, family, and children more than the person on the street you’ve never met before, who is a Child of God, I promise to be impressed. 

I will tell you that I do not carry my cross as I should — I regularly choose to prioritize my own needs over the needs of others, and I believe this is a common experience even for the most faithful of us and the most faithful of communities.

None of us can choose to be faithful disciples.  It is impossible.

But what is impossible for us, is possible for God, as Jesus says himself. 

Faithfulness is God’s gift to us.

Jesus puts God and God’s desires first — for us. 

He is faithful to us on the cross, carrying our sin and shame, our weakness and frailty to its death. Jesus is not too overwhelmed by the mocking and bullying the exclusion and name-calling, to choose to love us more than his own life.  So that from the cross come the words: Family First – as in, on the cross God has put us first.

From the empty tomb, come the words: Family first.  God has put us first.  In gathering us here today, God has put us first.  At this table, God puts us first.  Here we are given a new family with God at the center.

God is like the mother in that TV commercial – God works tirelessly and God gives everything for us, and God wants us to see that only in our relationship with him can we find the love, the learning, the health, and the life we desire.

Indeed, it is through our relationship with God – through the gift of daily dying and rising in God – that we become the best persons we can be – it is in God that we become the best child, the best spouse, the best parent, the best sibling — that we can be to the benefit of our family members, be they blood relative or our true family in Christ.

It is in our relationship with God that we as a community become the best we can be.

And all this is a gift from God, who is the eternal family, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. ffff

Good Pleasure

“Do not be afraid, Little Flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

One of my own first memories of my father was of traveling home in the car together. I was just a little guy and we were headed home from somewhere in his grey Honda Civic.

Our little neighborhood called Trayton Woods was made up of tri-level late 1970s homes, all tucked in around a little pond, and at the entrance of the neighboorhood was a little convenience store. It was called Farmer’s and it was just a little country store, but they had candy and treats and all kinds of things that get the attention of little people.

Things were different back then. I didn’t really have any sugar to eat, ever, growing up. No sweet cereal, no desert after dinner, nothing like that, but sometimes when we’d travel by Farmer’s Dad would stop and go in and get a snickers bar.

So I remember him coming back to the car with that candy bar and then we drove home and we sat together at the table and he got out a kitchen knife and a small plate and cut the snickers bar into bite size pieces, and I ate them with delight.

He would do that sometimes – stop and get a Snickers and cut it up for me – and every time, all the little pieces of snickers were for me.

He never had one bite of that chocolaty, pea-nutty, nougaty goodness.

God is our Father, who loves us, and gives to us, and cares for us, and delights to be in our company.

My father was not perfect, and I imagine your father was not perfect, and no earthly father in this life can be perfect, but we have a perfect Father.

We have a perfect Father, who loves us; who created us, who takes good pleasure in us. We have a Father who wants what is best for us and who gives of himself for us.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

The word for “good pleasure” that Jesus uses, “eudokew” means “delight, pleasure, and approval,” and it is the same word the gospel writer uses to describe how God feels about Jesus:

“And when Jesus had been baptized the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and a voice came from heaven, you are my son, the Beloved, with you I am “eudokewed”…in you I take delight, with you I am well pleased.”

So, if you dare imagine it – God our Father, feels the same way about us as he feels about his Divine Son, Jesus, who is one with him in love through all eternity.

God feels the very same way about you.

That is to say he loves you and me and all humankind with a love we can begin to imagine and describe and understand, but which we cannot plumb the depths of.

It is our Father’s good pleasure to give us everything – the very kingdom.

All that belongs to God has been given to us, and this is the reason Jesus can say to us “do not be afraid.”

And it is good to hear these words because there is so much we could be afraid of.

Last week we heard of mass shootings in an El Paso, Texas, Wal-Mart that claimed the lives of twenty-two people, with two dozen more injured; and then of a shooting in the middle of the street of a popular shopping area in Dayton, Ohio where nine people were killed and twenty-seven more injured.

We could be afraid to go out of the house, or to gather in public places, or be afraid of the mental health of our country.
We could be afraid of the open racism that motivated the shooting in El Paso, where the gunman went looking specifically to kill Mexican people.

We could be afraid that as a country we’re so divided that we have no hope of securing our schools, our places of worship, the places we shop, or our own homes.

We could be afraid, but Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And Jesus tells us how not to be afraid.

Jesus says you can sell your possessions, you can give money to the poor, you can share the resources God has entrusted you to be faithful with, you can be ready to serve, but the way not to be afraid is to remember who your Father is and get involved in his mission.

Our fear is diminished when we get involved in reaching out beyond ourselves to extend the love we know God has for us, to a world in need.

This past week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our national church body, met for its triennial Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee. Over 700 called and elected persons, clergy and lay representatives, were gathered by the Holy Spirit to do the work of the church, to be about the mission of Christ.

One of the actions taken approving a memorial that declares the ELCA a sanctuary church that is committed to serving and supporting migrant children and families in communities across the country.

In response to the crisis on our border of detained refugees, the ELCA is declaring that we intend to provide shelter for undocumented immigrants. The ELCA could also fight individual cases of deportation, press for the end of mass detentions and lift up immigrants’ voices; and take “prophetic action” to extend “radical hospitality” to immigrants and immigrant communities.

Christopher Vergara, who works on immigration issues in the ELCA’s Metro New York Synod spoke to CNN saying,

“Christians have offered sanctuary for 2,000 years, continuing an ancient biblical practice in which cities and houses of worship provided refuge and asylum for people fleeing injustice. Today, (our) effort (is) to protect undocumented migrants from needless jailing procedures and deportation, and to address the dire situation within the Department of Health and Human Services that has resulted in the stripping of services to refugees and unaccompanied children.”

Our church is getting involved in God’s mission.

Neither this memorial nor any of the ELCA’s proposed actions break U.S. law, but they are the ELCA’s efforts to say that the God who is Father to you and to me is Father to all and “eudokews” all people, God takes good pleasure in each person.

God our Father, if we dare imagine it, feels the same way about you and me as he feels about his Divine Son, Jesus. He loves us with that same fatherly love.

And he invites us to extend that love to a world that is often afraid – afraid of violence perpetrated against people who are different, afraid of being alone, afraid of being without basic resources; afraid of tomorrow.

I think of the ways we are called to give witness to God and the ways I have seen you show where our treasure is.

I think of all the women and men who gathered here yesterday for Bob Mahanes funeral – of all the women who made wonderful, delicious food for Susie and the family and their friends to gather around. Of all the men and women who ushered and set up the sanctuary and cared for this family in grief, to show them the good pleasure God has in them.

I think of the eight Epiphany members who arrived home just yesterday after 7 days of building and refurbishing homes in Jonesville, VA. I can’t wait to hear their stories. I can’t wait to hear about the friends they met and how the experience was a chance to show the good pleasure God has for us and the people of Jonesville.

I think of all of you who are parents or have little people in your lives and how you work so hard to guide and nurture the little ones in your life.

I’ve talked with so many parents, who know what its like to pick stuff from up the house and make a dinner and get everyone to the table – where a good, hot, nutritious meal is waiting – only to have the child fight, fuss, and refuse to eat – aren’t they programmed to eat?! – and maybe its not their fault…maybe they’ve had a tough day….but you don’t give up.

A Father’s love and a Mother’s love doesn’t give up. It is a love that tries to give your child what’s good for them even when they don’t want it, even when it seems impossible, even when the child mistakenly thinks they know better.

Like a patient Mother, like a patient Father, God tries to lead us to the things that are good for us. He tries to get us to receive the things that are nourishing to us; that will benefit us and benefit one another.

We have a perfect Father who encourages us to share what we have.

We have a perfect Father and to take care of each other.

We have a perfect Father who calls us to pass on the news that he “eudokews” all people…that he takes pleasure in us, his children — Each one.

All of us.

You and me.

All people.

We have a perfect Father, whom we can trust.

Today and always.

Determining the Value

When I was a young boy, I used to love to watch the Price is Right on an old black and white TV we had at the time. Sitting far too close to the television, I would watch as Bob Barker called the next contestant up from the studio audience with his famous phrase, “Martha Smith, come on down, you’re the next contestant on the Price is Right!”

Of all the games the show featured, my favorite to watch was the Mountain Climber game.

You may remember this one: A contestant stood in front of a gameboard which had this huge ascending mountain slope. At the bottom of the mountain was this little mountain man with pickax and tattered clothes and leading him up the mountain were 25 steps. The little mountain man began the game at the foot of the mountain and during the game he would inevitably climb the ridge toward the cliff at the top.

As with most games on the show, the contestant’s job was to determine the value of several items that could be purchased at any grocery store by guessing the actual retail price of each one. Usually there were three items, and one at a time, the contestant would try to arrange a series of given numbers in the correct order to match the right price with the right item.

If the contestant missed the price of the item, the mountain man would move one step up the slope for every dollar the contestant was off the price, and if the mark was missed too many times, the mountain man would go over the cliff and plummet to his demise to the disappointment of the audience and the sound of the buzzer, and Bob would usher the contestant off the stage.

If the contestant correctly determined the value of the items without sending the mountain man over the cliff, she would win the three small items she had correctly determined the value of and a large curtain would be opened showing her what else she had won – a brand new car, a jet ski, or perhaps a vacation.

On first glance, the Scripture texts we heard today seem to address whether or not we can determine the value of the possessions in our life.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is convinced that the value of all our possessions – cars, homes, investments, or whatever might be behind the curtain of our secret desires for pleasure and comfort and luxury – is nothing. No matter what we have, the king is convinced, it’s all worth nothing because after all we can’t live this life on earth as it is forever, and in the end, we will leave our things to those who come after us, as he knew he would and as he did.

The psalmist agrees and composes beautiful lines telling how the 1% die just like the rest of us and the grave is their home forever, even if they might have had streets or coliseums or national holidays or cities named for them. Small gravestones and mighty monuments alike are worn down by the persistent rain and wind of a thousand years on this earth after we come and go.

And then Jesus tells a man in the crowd who has gathered around him that he has no interest in judging between family members about who should receive what inheritance, even though a rabbi would be expected to weigh in on just such a conversation, and instead Jesus reminds the man that our assets are not worth more than our relationship with one another and with God. Our possessions should not possess us, Jesus seems to say to the man and to us.

How often have we been like the man in the parable?
The man finds himself with a superabundance of wealth – too many crops – so that they fill up his barn to overflowing. He has to decide what to do with all this, and so he decides to pull down his barns and build bigger barns.

He might have also had a house with rooms packed full of valuable furniture and decorations, closets busting at the seams with clothes and shoes, an attic filled with more things that won’t fit in the house, a refrigerator packed with goodies, and too much food on his plate to even finish.

The man never even talks to anyone but himself. He never thinks about who might be able to use the extra things he has. He never knocks on a neighbor’s door to see if they’d like to join him at the table. He forgot the Christian adage that if you have two coats in your closet you have someone else’s coat in your closet.

This man mis-values the things in his life.

And like a Price-is-Right host, you can almost see Jesus holding that funny, long, spindly, microphone and looking into our home and into our very soul, trying to tell us that when we incorrectly determine the value of the things that fill up our lives – the things we comb through on the rack, and search for online, and dream about holding as our own – that we too fall headlong like the little mountain man off the top of the cliff down, down to ruin.

So at first these Scriptures seem to speak to the value of our possessions, but I think they invite us even further, to pause, to think, and to determine what is the value of our very life.
If its true that all is vanity, and all our work is for things that only pass away, then what is life for?

If its true that the wise and the foolish meet the same end, what is the purpose of working for wisdom and what are we to do with our lives?

With his parable, Jesus invites us to consider the heart of the matter and think on what it might mean to be rich towards God.

With his story, Jesus means to shake us up and wake us up and to set our minds on the things that are of God, to seek the things that are above, to hope for the things of Christ.
Every day we are being raised to new life in Christ. Every day we are dying to the old ways of our greed.

Every day we have a chance to give away the coat in the closet we don’t wear. Every day we have an opportunity to see our whole life and all our possessions as gifts from God and to consult his guidance and even the guidance of one another about how best to use them for God’s mission in the world.

Our time and our talents and our treasure belong to God – so it is no strange thing for members of our congregation to go to Jonesville, VA, to spend a week sweating and working to repair homes, or to spend a Saturday morning serving in food pantries, or to offer our gift of music in worship.

Everything you have is a gift.

All you have belongs to God and is entrusted to you so that you might use it to bring care to your neighbor and to point the world to Christ.

Jesus invites us to ask:

What is valuable about this life?

What is eternal?

What is worth giving?

The story about Lee Dingle was in the local news across North Carolina last week, as well as on national news syndicates like CNN.

Lee was a 37-years-old engineer and father of two biological children, and with his wife, Shannon, the adoptive father of four additional children, one with special needs.

On Friday, July 19, just about 3 weeks ago, Lee was at Oak Island Beach in the ocean playing with his kids when a wave of freakish power pushed his head to the ground and broke his neck. His children and several bystanders tried to save Lee, but they were unsuccessful.

I knew Lee and worked with him at Lutheridge, a Lutheran summer camp in NC in the summer of 2002. I knew him as a sweet, caring, and focused counselor, who loved kids.

Perhaps part of the reason that the story became nation-wide news is that Lee was an organ donor and Carolina Donor Services reported that the organs Lee donated will save four lives, give sight to one or two people, and ultimately help 55 people altogether.

Christ’s love was at work in Lee Dingle and motivated his valuation of life – the way he gave of himself in life and in death.

On her blog this past week Shannon posted what she said at the funeral:

She said, “C.S. Lewis once wrote that death is an amputation, and it sure feels that way right now. I feel like we are missing a part of ourselves. I don’t think C.S. Lewis was right, though.

“His analogy is based in the ableism that says amputation lessens a person, but I know all of us who were touched by Lee are made better and fuller, our hearts made even more whole, by having him in our lives. The night I told the kids (the news), one of them asked me, “why does this place right here hurt so badly?” I think a lot of us relate to that right now. And I’ll tell you what I told him, “it’s because you love Daddy big and he loved you big. We have big hurt right now because we had big love.”

Shannon finished by saying, “And having known Lee, none of us are made less by any of this. He made us all more, more of the people who God created us to be.”

In the end we will all fall headlong off the mountaintop of this life, spilling the prizes and the things we have gathered, but we have one who loves us BIG.

We have a God who loves us so big and a God who has determined our life to be so valuable as to be worth dying for.

Thanks be to God, we have a God who has created us to be generous and giving, because we are made in God’s image.

Here’s the secret about the meaning of life:

We think that the big prize is behind the big curtain just waiting to be won, but the big prize is all of us playing the game together, gathered by Christ, the host, whose big love invites the whole world to his table of mercy and forgiveness, where we all receive the same care and a place forever.

Thanks be to God.

Amen

People of Peace

Berla and I were always a team.

She was about 70 at the time. She was a straight-shooter and told you exactly what she thought, which I loved. And she was funny, and not only could she could make other people laugh, but she also cracked herself up and I can still hear her great big, infectious East Tennessee laugh.

I was in my late twenties, new to Johnson City, TN, fresh-faced, and as green as they come at being a pastor. The congregation I had just been called to serve was Our Saviour’s and they had an evangelism team with a long tradition of visiting homes in the community, knocking on doors, and inviting people to church.

So twice a year, as many people as wanted to were invited to join us after Sunday service, and we would eat lunch together in the church library, divide into pairs, and talk about our game plan. Carl, the chair of the evangelism committee, almost like a coach in the locker room, would give an encouraging speech about the good we were doing and we would head out in our cars to various points all over Johnson City.

The plan was for each team of two to visit an entire neighborhood, one house at a time. If time permitted, we’d move on to another neighborhood.

So, we’d head out, Berla and I. She drove. And when we got to the neighborhood we would pull up in front of a house, we’d get out and walk up to the door, knock and step back so as not to seem too intrusive, and if someone came to the door on that Sunday afternoon we’d say something like, “Hi, I’m Joseph and this is Berla and we’re out in the neighborhood saying hello. We’re from Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. How are you today?”

If we got into a conversation, we’d ask if the person if they had a home church. And if they didn’t have one, we would invite them to worship with us and we would leave a glossy trifold pamphlet that told about our congregation, including our mission statement, service times, and some pictures which we hoped would give people an idea of who we were as a congregation.

Berla and I had a great time and we had lots of time to talk. We talked about our families, about her grandchildren, about football. I didn’t hold back much and I don’t think she did either, but one thing I never told her – my very own partner – is what a relief it was for me when we rang the bell at one of these houses and no one came to the door so that we could just leave the pamphlet in the doorjamb and feel good about being out in the neighborhood and we didn’t have to feel like we had bothered anyone, taken them away from the game, or interrupted their lazy Sunday afternoon. We didn’t have the risk that someone would slam to door in our faces.

But part of what it means to count ourselves as a disciple of Jesus is to be sent out in order to tell the news of the Kingdom and to risk rejection.

My guess is that if we’re honest I am not the only one who would be reluctant to go today and knock on doors in the neighborhood and invite people to church.
But according to Jesus, it’s not only necessary to share the news, it is urgent.

As he spoke to seventy of his followers in Galilee – more than just the twelve now – he sent them out ahead to all the places that he intended to go, and he sent them with a detailed game-plan to follow. Almost like a coach in the locker room, Jesus assured them: “The Harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

You see, these are words of urgency. A harvest in the field, vegetables hanging plump on the vine, with not enough laborers will rot on the vine and end in ruin.

Jesus says giving our witness to him is urgent.

The mission is so urgent, the game plan so pressing, these 35 pairs of friends headed out into the neighborhood are instructed not to take a purse or a wallet, a duffle bag, a pillow or sleeping bag, a phone charger or toiletries of any kind, in order that they won’t be able to depend on themselves.
They’ll have to rely on those they meet.

And as they walk up the driveway and press the doorbell their message is to be Peace.

And if they enter that home, and the household offers lodging – which in the 1st century would have been somewhat more likely than compared to today – and if there was one person in that household who received their peace, they were to stay there and continue their ministry. They were to cure the sick, and proclaim the Kingdom of God, knowing that whoever listened to them listened to Jesus, and therefore heard the Word of God.

But let’s be honest: We don’t live in the first century and no one expects you or me to uproot our lives and become itinerant ministers, knocking on people’s doors and just asking if we can crash in the guest bedroom for a while.

And so, what does it mean now to follow Jesus and share his Peace and proclaim the Kingdom?

I think there are still ways that we do this. There are still a lot of ways that this is our story.

Today twenty people from our congregation are packing up into three SUV and vans and driving to Tarboro, NC, to meet 25 other folks headed down to Tarboro from Maryland. We’ll meet one another and stay at the community center in town where for this next week we will be assisting the United Methodist Disaster Response team that has been working for months to help those recovering from hurricanes and the subsequent flooding that has disrupted so many peoples’ lives.

Today God sends these 20 of us out – albeit with cell phones and chargers, sleeping bags, and water bottles, but just the same, we go trusting that God has called us to give witness to him through the work we will do there.

Our primary TASK will be to respond to the needs of the Tarboro Community in the aftermath of multiple hurricanes, but our primary PURPOSE is to radiate the love of Christ in all we do.

And so, like everyone else headed to Tarboro and the flooded southeast with the Methodist Church this summer we signed this covenant that includes these words: “At times we will want to hurry and get our tasks complete but never at the expense of our purpose. We will make the best of quiet time to rest, get acquainted, and play with the children in the community. We will need to be flexible, adaptable, sensitive, and patient. Compassionate cooperation is the key.”

In other words, we will be people of peace. People of Jesus’ peace.

So sometimes we are sent, like those 70 disciples on the road. But sometimes we’re the houses of welcome, like when we show Christian hospitality to our friends, when we host seedling small groups, super club, or when we welcome traveling musicians and youth groups as we did last month with the group from Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte.

And sometimes, rather than being the ones sent, or the houses that receive travelers we are the ones’ that do the sending: we send seminarians to be formed for ministry, Ginny and Daniel and those before them: we send young adults to serve in Global Mission in South Africa; we send young men and women of faith off to college, we send our youth and their adult leaders to Tarboro, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit to serve, heal, and share the Word.

And God uses our life together to tell about Jesus in lots of ways: our beer and hymns nights, our Lambs Basket and Hope Pantries, when we do a picnic on the grounds with food trucks and invite the community – these are all ways God is using us to tell about Jesus.

The thing is: We actually don’t have an evangelism team, per se.

And this isn’t just because of what humorist Dave Berry says: “that if you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be “meetings.””

I think it’s because our mission is simply to tell about Jesus.
It doesn’t take a meeting to get ready or make a plan to tell about how good God is.

God is always forming us for mission in our life together by gathering us to hear his word, receive his supper, and remember our bath. The Holy Spirit of Jesus – our crucified and living Lord – is alive in this community to inspire us to articulate our faith.

Maybe we write a song about how God is our Rock and our Fortress and gives us peace, maybe we go visit those who are sick and pray with them, maybe we invite a friend to worship.

It takes many forms, but God puts the word in our hearts and upon our lips, and in your daily life, watch how speaking God’s name in a conversation changes things.

Because God when we share God’s word and point to the cross of Christ as the place where all peace comes from, we sometimes might find a door slammed in our face, but we sometimes may be surprised.

One of my standout memories from knocking on doors with Berla is that one afternoon we were on our route and we got to this house that had a “No Soliciting” sign above the door. It was a brick ranch style house and I remember standing out in the heat of that summer day with Berla talking about whether or not we should ring the bell. The sign said: “No soliciting.” Clear as day. Was that what we were doing? Were we soliciting?

Well, it was too hot and we had to make a decision so we went for it. I went up to the door cautiously and rang the bell. I stepped back. We waited. The door opened and it was dark inside and from the darkness emerged a man. He was much larger than me. He was taller and he had physically commanding presence. To be honest with you he looked tough.

I looked at Berla. “Good afternoon,” Berla said.

“Yeah?” He said, like get to the point.

Oh, boy, I thought. But Berla started in “Well, sir, we’re out in the neighborhood saying hello today. We’re from Our Saviour Lutheran Church. How are you?”

He was delighted to talk to us. He was a member of another church and sang in the choir.

Before we left, something in me felt I had to come clean. I told him about how we had seen his “No soliciting” sign and had wondered if we should knock.

He said, “Son, you’re not soliciting. You’re telling people about Jesus!”

So, we shook hands, and he thanked us for coming, and we headed out.

You see God sends us out into the world with the gospel news of his love for us in Christ, but God is already out in the world, like a Father caring for his creation, like a mother who comforts us, he is out there already calling forth the song of joyful praise from all the faithful, and reaching out to those who are still unsure.

In Jesus, God is knocking on the door of the world. Knocking on your door and mine. He has come to the neighborhood to bring his peace, and his love, and joy. Sisters and brothers, rejoice.

Your name is written on the heart of God.