Through These 40 Days

The face mask is the ashen cross for 2021.

This year instead of one night and some ash on our forehead

acting as the powerful but brief reminder of our mortality,

we are reminded of our mortality every day,

but especially, I think, when we wear a mask and when we see them all around us.

One columnist I read at some point said

that at no time in the history of world has a new article of clothing caught on so fast. 

They’re all around us. 

We see disposable and cloth masks. 

We see people with single and double layered masks. 

Some masks are plain, some are printed with images of Darth Vader or Master Yoda.

I even saw one on “Old Lutheran,” which is an online store,

that that had a picture of Martin Luther and said,

“Here I stand…You stand over there.”  

So, we won’t have ashen crosses this year as a sign of our mortality,

because we’re worshipping online (or need to maintain social distance in-person)

but we have reminders all day, every day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Like ashen crosses, everywhere we go, in the grocery store and Lowes,

we’re reminded of our frailty and fragility, the impermanence in this body,

we’re reminded daily of the death toll from the coronavirus

that has grown to nearly half a million people in our own country

and five times that around the world –

as well as the economic devastation, the stress, and difficulties it has caused. 

The more I think about it, the more it seems as if this whole last year has been one long Ash Wednesday,

and one long season of Lent, with (hold up mask) ashen crosses on everyone’s face through it all.

In fact, the connection between this whole year and Lent is more specific that one might think. 

The word “quarantine” – the word for the isolation we have been living through, day after day –

comes straight from the Italian word that literally means “40 days.”

In fact, in scripture, anytime we see 40 connected with time,

it means we’re talking about a long, long time –

a time too long to be comfortable – a liminal time of waiting.

For example, Noah and his family were in the boat while it rained 40 days and nights,

Moses was on the mountain with God 40 days and nights,

the Israelites wondered in the wilderness 40 years,

Jesus was in the desert 40 days. 

Noah, Moses, the Israelites, even Jesus were quarantined.

A time of 40.  


Needing God.

We are in a quarantine, a long season of Lent, a time of 40, that is,

an indefinite time of unknowing, a time of needing to trust God like never before.

A time with more questions than answers.

It is hard to wait here where we have to trust God more than ever,

but God is in the business of leading people out of quarantine…

Noah hit dry land,

Moses came down the mountain with the commandments,

God led the people to the promised land,

Jesus defeated the devil and the forces of evil and death and darkness in the wilderness,

And then journeyed on, making his way to the cross to secure our salvation. //

For us to remember our mortality means for us to remember our reliance on God alone.  

It means to wait in this season of 40 days of Lent,

in this season of quarantine. 

But we do not wait alone. 

We wait with God

and we wait with God’s promise that Jesus will bring Easter and resurrection. 

The same God who brought you and me to life from dust,

Has already proved that he can make life from dust!

So that we know, God will be there when we return to dust,

And God can and will remake us from dust again into a New Creation.

God who created, will re-create. 

The God you come from is the God you go to.

So, Yes, this night, ashes, and our daily masks

are a reminder of our need for God,

but they are also a reminder of the way God promises to protect us.

And maybe it’s because all my masks have been made loving hands,

by Chris Crouch and Esther Lang and Cathy DeLesDenier,

and I have seen Joe and Brenda Barnes pick up disposable ones to share,

and I have seen our greeters on Sunday morning passing them out if anyone forgot theirs,

which is easy to do.

But, for me, a mask is an image of protection –

 protection for me, protection for my family,

protection for the people I come in contact with,

and a promise that God is busy and active in the community

that is caring for those who are sick and in need,

 and helping care for and prevent sickness.

The face mask is the ashen cross of 2021.

Every day, every mask we see is a promise, an act of care, a determination to love in action.

Just as the cross, ashen or watery is a sign of God’s protection and promise and the truth of Jesus’ trust in God.

Jesus trusted that God would bring him through the agony and isolation of death to resurrection life

and renewed relationship with God. 

And Jesus still trusts God for us,

when the burden is too much,

when the quarantine feels too long,

when we can’t endure the time of 40.

when the quarantine feels too long,

We look to the cross and we are reminded that Jesus has taken our sin and sickness on himself,

God is with us in our death, and is leading the way to resurrection.

It is this same Jesus who invites us to renewed commitment tonight,

who is encouraging us toward acts of prayer, and fasting, and selfless giving,

with the promise that our Father who sees in secret, will reward us.

And that feels like a timely promise.

Because it feels a bit like we all do live secret lives –

with an inability to gather in large groups publicly,

or with the need to keep distance from one another,

and living in public with our faces covered –

It feels like we do have a secret life –

when I see my friend Jon in person, I wonder does Jon have a beard or did he shave?  It’s a secret!

What did Steven’s lower face look like again?  I don’t know! it’s a secret! 

Did Susan smile at me or not?  It’s a secret!

It feels like we live in secret now.

But Jesus says that God sees in the secret. 

God knows our heart and our deepest desires, fears, and doubts.

 God knows what we need before we can ask.

 And Jesus tells us that we can grow in our understand and love of God.

Jesus says that through giving and acts of love,

through talking and listening to God,

and through focusing on God by making a choice to abstain from distractions

 we can be closer to God.

When we serve and give and fast and pray in secret –

God’s desire

and God’s hopes for us and for the world

become less of a secret to us. 

God reveals Godself to us.

Secrets are powerful stuff.

And knowing secrets even more powerful.

Lucia, our daughter turned 7 last week and she got a lot of gifts,

 some nicer or bigger in a way than the one she claimed was her favorite,

 but without even being asked,

she volunteered that her favorite gift was a set of oil pastels

 that she’ll use for coloring and drawing with.

She had me curious so I asked her why that was her favorite.

She said,

“Oh those are my favorite, because

I heard you talking to my Aunt Sarah on the phone about what I might like

and you tried to keep what she was getting me a secret, but I heard what you said.”

It is good to be in the know…to know and be known.

There are not secrets from God, who hears and knows what we need.

And Jesus reveals the depths of God’s love for us

and Jesus will give us stamina to go the way of the cross,

 to follow with him, which is the way of self-sacrifice for the good of others.

Jesus Christ gives us the strength to stand,

the strength to endure,

the voice to speak

Through the 40 days, as long as it takes, for the length of the quarantine,

and God will lead us out to life.

God promises it will be so.

Live in that hope.

Mission: Perseverance

The breeze on Mars sounds remarkably similar to the wind as it blows here on Earth, but still, hearing it for the first time and knowing what I was hearing made me kind of shutter.  If you haven’t heard it yet it really is something worth checking out.

The sound of Martian wind was captured by the onboard microphones of the Perseverance Rover, which NASA launched into space this past summer and which landed on the crust of the fourth stone from the Sun this past week.  The rover sent back sounds of the winds of Mars blowing, as well as video of the vehicle’s own entry and decent, the deployment of the parachutes, and its safe landing on the Red Planet.

David Gruel, speaking for NASA’s propulsion lab said the expectations of both the audio and the visual they could get were actually very low. As if he’d been watching Daniel Tiger with his kids he said, “We get what we get and we don’t get upset,” but all went better than planned, and the information we received this past week was among the most spectacular in the history of space exploration.

NASA’s mission hopes to answer key questions about the potential for life on other worlds –

were there habitable conditions on Mars in the past? 

Are there signs of microbial life still present?

Are there possibilities for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere that would make the future of humans going to Mars more possible?  

All these questions may be answered from the findings and footage of the Perseverance mission, but already the images and sounds that NASA has collected have brought our understanding of the planet Mars into sharper focus.

Jesus, in our gospel text today, brings God’s mission into clearer focus as her begins to teach us that he must suffer, be rejected, be killed and be raised.

His Galilean ministry has brought him and his followers to the distant locale of Caesarea Philippi – almost like another planet in terms of its difference in culture; it was a place outside of Israel’s orbit, where the large part of society was devoted to a God named, “Pan,” and various other cults.

Here, Jesus asks his disciple who they say he is. 

And, having reflected on all Jesus has said and done, his healing and miracle-working along the way, Peter has come to understand that Jesus is the one for whom all Israel has waited. He confesses this faith, saying “Jesus, you are the Messiah!”

And it’s clear that Peter’s expectations are high and he probably supposed everything should just keep on going up:

more healings and more miracles on the way to Jesus filling the vacant throne of David, and crushing the power of the false gods all around them, and restoring God’s Kingdom to glory and power, as promised by the prophets of God.

But all is not going to go as planned for Peter and the others, because Jesus is a Messiah who will suffer and die – and he will be raised, yes – but my guess is that Peter, having heard about suffering and dying, may never have even heard the last part.

None of us like to suffer and so it may be that we can relate to Peter’s knee-jerk reaction. 

But Jesus is obedient to God and to God’s mission no matter who it sets him in opposition to – whether it’s the chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the Empire, or even if it brings him to clash his own disciples.

Maybe, from where we sit, Peter’s desire to tell Jesus what to do is laughable, or pitiable, but I think its also all-too-familiar for us who would like to tell God how to act in our lives, how to lead us, what we would have God do for us, to spare suffering for the glory. 

How often have we thought and prayed: O God, won’t you make everything right for us and won’t you make sure it’s easy for us as well!

But Jesus will not be patronized or told what to do and he responds to this idea by saying: get behind me Satan!

Contrary to Peter’s desire, and at times our desire, to control God and to have God bless our own already-chosen path, Jesus shows HE is the leader.

But do I wonder what Peter really wants.

Does Peter want to save Jesus from suffering and humiliation, or perhaps, does he want to save himself as one of Jesus’ followers from suffering and humiliation as well.

Whatever it is, Jesus calls it a Satanic idea – a contorted, wrong-spirited, and directionless hope, and demands that all who would become his disciples get behind his mission and let God set the course.

He has not come to be our own private God, to do for us just what we would have God do, but he has come to do God’s will and we are to follow him.

At the last ELCA national gathering for high school youth, our large group always had to be aware of the danger of getting lost in a sea of tens of thousands of other people, forces pushing us in every which way on the streets of Houston. 

And so, Sylas Parker carried a flag on a long pole up ahead of us.  The flag was emblazoned with the cross and to find our way, to stay together, to keep from being lost, we had to keep our eyes on the cross, and stay behind the cross that was leading the way.

We are people who follow the man of the cross,

and we become, therefore people of the cross. 

To be people of the cross means denying ourselves,

looking to God, and following Jesus.

We are called to suffer for others, to endure pain, voluntarily, for the sake of the other and for the sake of the world God loves.

This does not mean, as is sometimes popularly used idea: “that we all have a cross to bear” in the form of suffering that God condones or passes out. 

It does not mean that domestic abuse, or self-loathing and self-harm, or the scourge of disease or sickness are things that God lays upon us. 

God does not cause our suffering. 

Rather in the cross we see that God is with us in our suffering and has acted in a mission to journey to the depths of suffering, despair, loneliness, and death to FREE US from its power and IN OUR FREEDOM to make us a part of God’s mission to extend freedom, love and health to others.

I actually read one article this week that said that NASA, in preparation for their mission to Mars, in the early stages of planning, extended an invitation to anyone who wanted to participate, that you could send your name to them and they would place your name on a microchip which they would include inside the Perseverance Rover. 

In response to this invitation 10, 932,295 people sent in their names! Nearly 11 million people’s names are literally on Mars! They are literally a part of the mission!  And as part of that, they receive special emails, or communications of some kind that include updates about how the mission is going.

In baptism, our name is taken up into the mission of God.  We are claimed by a watery cross in God’s unconditional free gift of love, and we are actually, literally a part of God’s mission.

Thorough God’s word we receive updates on God’s activities in the world.

We are connected to Jesus’ mission of love and we are invited to take up the cross each day.

That is, we are invited, by God’s grace, to see other people enduring suffering and choose to enter into their pain to be with them, as Jesus Christ has done for us.

Carrying the cross looks high school student who sits down at the lunch table to eat with the person who is outcast by her peer, to be with her in friendship.

Carrying the cross looks like listening to a person who is in crisis,

Carrying the cross looks like forgiving the person from whom you are estranged,

Carrying the cross looks like choosing to use your resources to help alleviate the crisis in someone else’s life,

Carrying the cross looks like making your voice heard on behalf of those who are marginalized by virtue of their race, nationality, who they choose to love, or choices they have made. 

For most of our lives, all around us we hear the message that our life belongs to us.  That we can shape it and make into what we want it to be.  Celebrities and influencers build up their own name and their own brand.  Amazon’s popular titles are self-help books and titles to unlock your authentic self.

Jesus says that the meaning of life it to give it away. 

His paradoxical way is an invitation to find the answer to the key questions of life not by plumbing ourselves for the answers but to find them by learning who Jesus is and to emulate him in reaching out to others.

Perhaps, by God’s grace, in the moments when we reach out to others will be able to alleviate their suffering.  Sometimes we won’t be successful.  But the calling is to open ourselves to God’s desire for our life.

And we are invited to find our fulfillment in Jesus’ way of self-denial. 

That might mean that our life has to change.

To those of us who are overly-comfortable in life, we are called out of our comfort.

And to those of us who have made politics and power over others our central hope – we are called to look again to the power of God revealed in the weakness.

And to those of us who suffer and feel alone, in despair, and the cloud of depression, we are called to see and believe that in Jesus Christ, God has acted to bring even those who are bowed down in the earth to praise God, to stand in awe of the Lord, and to proclaim God’s deliverance.

How ironic that Peter wants to pull Jesus aside and keep him from his mission – because it is a mission that is undertaken out of love for Peter and his friends and God’s people.

Peter wants to hide Jesus away.

But the way of the cross is not to hide our faith. 

Our relationship with God is personal, but not private.  It is public. 

And to follow Jesus means to risk scorn and suffering from others.

When I visited my sister in Bet Sahour, Palestine, when she lived there several years ago, I met the Palestinian Christians who were here host family.  George and Shaddai and their children gave my sister a room in their home in which to live, invited her to their family table each day, and when Sarah and I visited invited us as well, and told us of their life and faith.

I found out that in Palestine today, Christians make up about 10% of the population, and as a minority, they are somewhat shunned and scorned by the rest of the population. 

After they shared this, I took note that George and Shaddai had iron gate around their property, as most families do in the town and that they had a large cross included on top of the iron gates.  I remarked to him my surprise that he would have the symbol on his home as a minority in a hostile environment. 

With confidence, George exclaimed: “This is who I am, my friend!!” 

Indeed, this is who we are, my friends.

We are people of the cross.

People who have been claimed and called to be a part of God’s mission to heal, help, save, suffer with and extend love to God’s beloved.

We are a people who are a part of God’s mission of Perseverance through death to life.

We are a people who tell the news that God will go anywhere for us.  Not just up to the heavens – but even down to the bottom of the pit of death.

In Jesus, God has plumbed our deepest pain and suffering, and he has gone all the way to the depths of the grave and he brings life and healing to that very place –

he brings life and healing to every crack and crevasses of the universe, to every planet and to every galaxy – and to all creation.

God can and does bring real life out of real death

and our names and identities are joined to his mission.

So take good courage to enter into the suffering of others knowing there is more than potential for life…new life is a promise from God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who was, and is, and is to come.

Raised Up

Some folks may think of this worship service in front of the TV this morning as the “pre-game show…”

As if we’re just warming up as we anxiously await

the Buccaneers and Chiefs and their face-off later today

You may have some munchies out already or maybe they’re in the oven!

The truth is: my family’s team, the Packers, are out of it, but we’ll still watch —

Sarah for the game, and me too, though I’m at least as interested in the commercials…

hoping to laugh, to be surprised, and trying to guess which ones might go viral…

A few years back there was a Duracell commercial featuring Derrick Coleman,

the first deaf player to ever make it to the NFL.

He ended up playing in the super bowl for Seattle

the same year his TV commercial went viral –

and he and the Seahawks ultimately took home the NFL Championship.

Anyway, you may remember the commercial.  It was honest about Derrick’s struggles in life and specifically his challenges as a person with a disability on the path of trying to make it as a professional football player. 

In the commercial there’s a voiceover – it’s his voice speaking –

as you seen images of him practicing and training.  Derrick says:

They told me it couldn’t be done

That I was a lost cause

I was picked on and picked last

Coaches didn’t know how to talk to me

They gave up on me

Told me I should just quit

They didn’t call my name (for the draft)

Told me it was over

But I’ve been deaf since I was three

So, I didn’t listen…

And now I’m here

With a lot of fans in the NFL cheering me on

And I can hear them all.

The line that gets you is:  But I’ve been deaf since I was three…

so I didn’t listen, and now I’m here. 

Even when I re-watch it now, the commercial sends a wash of hope over me,

thinking about how things that seem impossible can be possible.

By playing in the NFL, Derrick Coleman experienced a certain kind of healing. 

His disability didn’t go away,

He wasn’t able to hear with his ears because a doctor

gave him some new treatment

or a new kind of hearing aid,

But he had been told that because of his disability, doors were closed to him,

As he says, he was “picked on” and “picked last” 

and told to quit by some…

and yet he got to put on a real uniform,

he caught passes, and he scored touchdowns…in the NFL…

He was even in the SuperBowl…on the winning team…

and he was able to do all this because, ultimately, a team did choose him,

did extend him a contract, and did give him a chance to play.

Some clubs overlooked him, but finally the Seahawks saw him

and welcomed him as a part of their team

and that was clearly a healing experience for Derrick Coleman.

Jesus is busy seeing, welcoming, and healing in Capernaum in our gospel text this morning. 

He doesn’t overlook Simon’s Mother-in-Law, although it would have been easy to do.

The truth is we have many records of other ancient rabbis healing men

But we have no records of them healing women,

Because it would’ve been shameful to touch a woman that was not a family relation,

much less to heal them.

So, it would have been easy for Jesus to tell this woman that it couldn’t be done

That she was a lost cause

That it wasn’t worth it to Jesus to put his reputation on the line —

After all, it was still his first day on the scene

And he was just establishing his name and ministry among the people in Galilee.

But Jesus doesn’t care about his status in other people’s eyes

or who he’s seen with, or what people think about him,

He cares that people who are faint receive power,

That those who are powerless are renewed in their strength,

And his concentration is focused on lifting up those who are weary like wings on eagles.

Indeed, Jesus has the power of God at work in him.

There is no limit to his power and authority.

He will heal anyone he wants, anywhere he wants.

Last week we heard Jesus healed a man in the synagogue – a holy place

This week we hear that he heals a woman in her home

A domestic, every day, and common place.

Last week we heard Jesus casting out supernatural powers, or demons,

Today he casting out natural powers in the form of a fever that was threatening the life of Peter’s Mother-in-Law…   

And we hear that Jesus “raises her up.”

The only other time this verb is used in Mark’s gospel

is when God raises Jesus up after his death on the cross… 

Which makes me think that this woman experiences healing

that is deeper and more profound than just her fever breaking. 

Jesus “raises her up.” 

This is a healing that frees Peter’s Mother-in-Law

from the sickness that had a hold on her AND restores her to her whole self,

in other words, she is healed of her disease AND her illness. 

If that sounds redundant, it’s not, because you see,

a disease is the thing that causes the body pain or discomfort or stops it in its tracks. 

(For example, the coronavirus is a disease.)

But an illness includes all the associate feelings that come from that disease.

(as with Covid, its feeling of isolation and loss of community and connection)   

For Peter’s Mother-in-Law the illness included being unable

to perform her role as the honored hostess of the house,

receiving the respect that would’ve come from welcoming others into her home,

or even just hearing the cousins tell her again

how they loved her hummus recipe and how no one could ever make it like her. 

This mother-in-law’s illness would’ve included

the distress and sadness and the feelings of worthlessness from all this…

And when Jesus lifts Peter’s Mother-in-Law up

he lifts her up from her disease and her illness

and restores her to health and her place in her community.

I have a good friend who got some very bad news about his health recently.

After the news, for weeks he was stopped in his tracks and had stopped doing a lot of the daily things that had been a part of his routine and family life for a long time.

This can easily happen when something bad

that’s not even been in your life

becomes the main thing in your life,

and attempts to squeeze everything good out of the picture.

But I talked to him this week and he told me that the silver-lining is that he is a part of a trial

And will get experimental therapy and medicine.

To get ready for this trial he spent an hour with the doctor he hoped to get,

And all day, from 8am to 1pm or something like that,

Having the medical team look at him and listen to him

As they prepare treatment.

There is already for him, a way in which, this illness is on a path of healing,

He is back into his daily routine. 

Restored to his family and community.

Because he has been seen, and heard.

He has been raised up.

God has us in his sights and knows the totality of our disease and illness.

God sees us and welcomes us and chooses us

God is a stadium full of 100,000 football fans,

painted in our colors, cheering us on as we come through the tunnel,

healing us by never giving up on us.

By cheering us on

By wanting the best of us

Raising us up.

The cross is where we see God raised up in agony and loneliness for us.

On the beams of the instrument of his death,

Jesus carries all our sickness, and disease, and illness,

And these powers that seem so powerful,

so insurmountable, are defeated.

Simon’s Mother-in-Law experienced the power  

that took away her disease and illness, and having been healed,

she got up to serve!

She filled glasses, laid out plates, gathered a community in her home

around good things on her table, as people talked and laughed and connected, and so

Jesus is seen, multiplying his healing through the tasks of her hands.

When I was doing homeless ministry in Baltimore, MD,

working with men living with HIV/AIDS

I made some good friends among my co-workers and I got to know their stories.

Our little staff on N. Main Street, worked together

helping our clients work through the 12 steps of recovery

from abuse of drugs, alcohol or other behavioral disorders,

Together, we were helping our clients begin to admit they were powerlessness

in the face of alcohol or other substances.

We were helping them begin to acknowledgement that the power to be healed and be restored

Comes from outside us — comes from God who offers care to us.

In my work with these colleagues –

I got to be friends with them

and I had been enjoying hearing their stories

and learning about them –

and then one day it just dawned on me:

I looked around the room and I realized that

Down to a person, every single one of my colleagues had come through recovery themselves.

Every one of them:  Ms. Yvonne, Mr. Huff, Leroy, Kevin, Jerome…

they all knew healing themselves, personally, from addiction

and that, literally, was what was powering their ministry.

God sets us free…

God sets you free and that freedom is for service,

To free others, to see other, to listen to others, to heal others…

Jesus comes to you in worship and prayer, in your baptism and at the table,

And raises you up to be with God,

like a Mother-in-Law walking again

waiting on tables, and serving others because you have been healed.

When Simon Peter and the others come to look for Jesus to say,

Hey, Jesus! You’re everyone’s first-round-draft pick, there looking for you

We find out Jesus isn’t interested in being famous

Or taking the easy way out by staying put and being celebrated as just a healer

Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns

so that I may proclaim the message there also.”

And so Jesus goes on

Healing and leaving servants like you and me in his wake

Raising up women and men who have been healed, to will serve alongside him,

As he continues on his way to the cross

where he has in mind a larger healing

A more lasting healing than we can even ask for or imagine,

That will overcome all disease and illness for all time.

And so Jesus invites us to go with him, with the message that:

God’s grace is at work,

Transcending all the limits

Coming to men and women,

In holy and everyday places

Unwilling to settle down and rest,

But always lifting us up

Strengthening the powerless,

Renewing our strength,

Calling our name,

Seeing us, welcoming us, healing us,

Inviting us to suit up,

Stretch out, and get ready,

We’re on God’s team

And he is lifting us up like eagles on the wind,

As we are freed to pass on the healing to others.

And when the clock winds down to zero, God wins.  Healing is ours.  Jesus raises us up.

Sound You Can See

St. John Apostle

In the United States, pre-pandemic, the most popular day of the entire year to go see a movie has been Christmas Day; and the days surrounding Christmas, with people off from school and work would usually find long lines of people buying tickets to see the fare the big studios roll out for the holiday season – thrillers, comedies, dramas, animated films – all the entertainment we love.

How ironic it is that theaters will sit empty this year!  Of all years, this is the one in which we’d most like to get comfortable in one of those big theater seats – and forget about the pandemic, racism, and economic hardships – just sit with a tall paper bucket of popcorn drizzled with butter and just forget the troubles of the world for a few hours!

There’s a question of whether theaters will return at all, BUT not long before the pandemic hit, my family went to our first-ever feature-length movie in a theater. It was Toy Story 4… and we tried to tell the kids a little bit about the backstory of the series, and to get them ready for what they were about to see, but even if they didn’t quite follow all that, they sat in their seats looking up, slack-jawed and saucer-eyed, amazed at the monstrous-sized screen, the flashing light, and the enormity of the sensory-experience unfolding before them. 

As for me, I hadn’t been to a movie in a theater in a long time and I was seeing it all with fresh eyes and I have to say: I was surprised by just how LOUD it was. 

Like, really, really loud.  Do you remember this about theaters? 

It was so loud that our seats vibrated beneath us, and it felt like that fabric they line the walls with was shaking.  It seemed like the sound was leaving ripples in the soda I was drinking like the water in the cup in that scene from Jurassic park. 

We could FEEL the sound as it rumbled us in our seats, moving our insides around.  I looked down the rows filled with people and I could SEE the sound, I could see people hair literally vibrated with the pulse of sound that actually moved our very bodies as if we were in an earthquake.

The story of Christmas is that sound became visible, when God’s voice, that spoke in creation, pronouncing that the houselights be turned up to shatter the primordial darkness; this WORD came into the creation in a human, flesh-and-bone life and lived among us.

The earthshaking, soul-quaking news of Christmas is that the God who imagined the more-beautiful-than-Hollywood-could-ever-produce-it sunrise, who gave the earth its form, who filled the ocean’s deep, who raised the beams on his own architectural concepts for the constellations, who filled the forests and seas and skies with creatures, and who made humankind in his image…

…this invisible God came among us in the life of Jesus, full of grace and truth, and a real person like you and me with ears that listened, a mouth that spoke words of life, eyes that cried real tears, and hands that touched and healed those who were sick. 

He lived a real human life like ours. He walked over the hills and through the cities of Palestine. He made friends.  He ate and drank and fed the hungry, and raised the dead.  He had hopes and desires like you and me.  …and while no one has ever seen the Father; his only Son, who has given us grace upon grace was seen, and touched, and heard and came to make God known and God’s way for us known. 

And this is what John the Apostle, the Lord’s beloved disciple, wants to tell us: John admits that the screenplay he has written about Jesus has holes in it: he says freely, Jesus’ life was so full there would be no way to include everything he did, but the heart of his testimony is this:

Jesus became like us in every way, EXCEPT THAT where you and I miss the mark of how we are to live in relationship to each other and struggle to be faithful to God, Jesus was and is righteous, speaking the truth to us and for us, offering us forgiveness and leading us on the path of life and light.

Because of our sin and brokenness, we live in a false world where we sometimes deceive ourselves – we believe happiness can be purchased, we believe our credentials define us, we believe that broken relationships can’t be renewed with forgiveness, we believe that our own wants and needs are the center of the universe –

…we deceive ourselves in the way that a movie is a deception (and we most often enjoy it!) and yet Jesus comes to usher us out of the theater of our self-deception, and into the brilliant light of a new reality, blinking our eyes with astonishment to see that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all, and in him there is fellowship with each other that brings God’s gift of joy.

John writes his letters to urge us to see and understand and believe the wonderful news of the Word made flesh, so that we can be a part of the fellowship that includes the Father, the Son, and all who know the Son…  And I find it interesting that John says, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

I would think that a just a letter written to group of people John clearly cares about, would be a pale substitution for being with them in person, but John doesn’t say “I’m sad because I can’t visit you,” or “I wish I could be there with you in person,” or “These words are an alternative to what I really want.” 

Instead, he says “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”  Which is to say, that the joy we have in Jesus is made complete when we share it – however we share it. 

John writes a letter, probably on parchment, read for the first time to a gathered assembly in the context of worship.  He writes his words down and they become visible on the paper, and therefore sharable, and they have the power to communicate the message, and in he says that in sharing these words he and his community experience joy.

In preparation for Christmas and in the season of Advent, we asked members of our community to share signs of God’s grace in their life, not with written letters on parchment, but with daily video devotionals, we called “Come, Lord Jesus.”  They will live forever as I understand it on our facebook page, all you have to do is scroll down, and I was overwhelmed at the depth, the humor, the clarity of what people shared, and more than one video got me choked up…

One family shared an Advent calendar made by their Nana, which they used to prepare for Christmas, this year thinking about the grandmother whom they hadn’t seen since the last Christmas, but whose witness still informs their faith.

One person shared the homemade Christmas tree ornaments, created by her children, which recall the faith shared and Christmases celebrated when her children were young, the memories of which are a witness to all the growth God has provided their family since those long-ago days. 

Two college students in one family showed the fragile Nativity scene made of glass that is strictly “no-touch,” but also shared the plastic Nativity set that they were encouraged to play with growing up – and I couldn’t see it up close but I like to image that the shepherd in their nativity has a face partially scraped off, Joseph’s staff is broken and the baby Jesus has a little marker on him from being played with, as young faith was being formed through play.

I believe all these people and families who invited us into their homes and thoughtfully presented their witness can say with John, “We are (sharing) these things so that our joy may be complete.”  

Whether its singing Christmas carols, gathering around the table in prayer before a good meal, “watching church” together and worshipping the way that we can for now, giving a gift, writing a card, giving a donation, reaching out in friendship, offering forgiveness, or telling the Christmas story, when we share our faith, God grants us the gift of joy to know that through our fellowship with God and one another God is calling others deeper into the fellowship and friendship that he extends to everyone.

In fact, as I watched each days Advent devotions, I found it notable how many of the traditions, activities, and physical items that were shared by people and families – creches, advent calendars, or ornament – were significant because they recalled significant relationships… and how faith was passed on through those relationships.

The message of Christmas is that the God who created this world in love, comes again in Jesus with the same love, befriending us, and reaching out to us to bring us close, and deep into the heart of God. 

And while there’s no way we could know everything that Jesus did, we do know that everything Jesus did was for love.

John says: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and so we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

And again: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

And again: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

And again: No one has ever seen God; (however) if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

In sharing the love God has given us with one another, God makes our joy complete.

For me to share something on facebook, I have to be pretty excited.  But every once in a while, I will have a picture to share, a quote, a banjo meme, perhaps even a movie recommendation – something that’s just so good, I can’t keep it in. 

You probably know what its like to think something is so great you just have to share it.  And to me, I have to say, it feels good when I see that I got a lot of “likes” – to me that means that what I thought was worth sharing was also appreciated by other people, and maybe even made someone smile or laugh… we had a connection – even a fellowship, if you will.

God loves us so much, God just can’t keep it in, he has to share with us.  Jesus comes to bring God’s love and light.  Jesus comes to show us how to live and care for one another.  He comes for you and for me – and for the whole world. 

This has been a rough year and its coming to a close.  Like I said, we would almost be happy to sit in a darkened theater and escape from the pain and frustrations of the world.

But God loves us so much he has no desire to escape being with us.  He come to us, to be with us in our suffering and in our struggles.

And so, with gratitude to him, may we walk in his light, may we worship him faithfully together, and may we witness with joy to the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and as it will be forever.


Holding the Ladder

Just for fun, I’d like to invite you to play a game with me called Magic Number.

The way we play is, you pick a number between 1 and 10. 

It can be any number between one and ten…so just go for it… think about it… commit to it…  And I am going to try to read your mind. 

So, first take your number…and double it…Do you have your new number?

Ok – now – I want you to add 10 to your new number…

Now if I’m going to try to predict your number, I don’t want it to get too big so let’s divide the number by two…

Ok now, let’s take this new number and subtract your original number…

Ok, have you got your new number?

Okay, good. 

Now, …your number is 5!

I think anyway!

The truth is it may not even have worked…because this is the first time I’ve ever tried it!  I saw someone do this once and I just looked it up on the internet. It is supposed to be a mathematical formula that gives everyone the number 5.

This little illusion obscures for a moment, at best, the truth we all know well: that we have this interior life that no one else is privy to except us and God.  I can’t read your mind and you can’t read mine.

One of life hardest challenges is learning to communicate what’s inside of us clearly and truthfully with others.  And there are plenty of times I bet we all have wished people could understand what we’re thinking but having a hard time expressing.

 When you add on a pandemic that obfuscates many of the ways we can gather and communicate it has left many of us feeling lonelier, more isolated, and more disconnected than ever. 

All this difficulty communicating has disrupts school and work. 

And many of us feel more frustrated, angry, and hopeless than we’ve ever known. 

This past week, in the wake of the storming of the Capitol in Washington, one of the many upsetting thoughts I had was a deep sadness that our nation’s citizens don’t seem to be able to understand one another.

We know we can’t read each other’s minds but we can’t even seem to comprehend one another when we talk to each other,

we can’t agree on what is true and what is real, if we’re even bothering to talk to each other at all anymore.

I think we tend to focus on all the ways we are misunderstood and misunderstand others, and on all the ways we are so unknown to each other.

My friends, how good it is that God knows us.  How good it is to dwell on the fact we are not alone within ourselves, as the psalmist says, but that God who made us,

knows all our journeys and all our resting places, and has known our thoughts and the words on our lips before they are spoken!

The same God who knit you and me together in our mother’s womb, and knew us before the seed and egg and divine spark of God’s touch created all that you are body and soul, with freedom to think and act and choose and speak and listen and love…

continues to stays with us, continues to know us, and continues to love us. 

The same God whom we cannot hide from, to whom all our thoughts are known, all our desires, are known and from whom no secrets are hid, delights to lead us on all the way through our lives no matter what they may hold.

This God who knows and loves us is the same God who knew the boy Samuel in the temple,

and called him to be a prophet mighty in deed, sending him to speak truth to power,

telling Eli the priest that he would pay for his mishandling of his children and inattention to his duties, and then sending Samuel to anoint David to be king of Israel.

This God who knows and loves us is the same God manifest in Jesus Christ

who displayed the same all-knowing as God in his ability to see Nathaniel under the fig three and read his mind, calling Nathaniel to join with Jesus in the ministry he was beginning.

How wonderful it is that this same God knows your thoughts and my thoughts,

especially when we may not know what we think ourselves – because the crisis in our country

of new daily Covid-death records, impeachment proceedings, murmurs of continued violence, and our own personal concerns –

all this together can prevent us from knowing how to formulate coherent thoughts at all!

Last week I checked my phone for news with a compulsion I‘ve never experienced, wanting to know what was going to happen.  You may have had a similar experience.  It was hard to be held in suspense.

But Jesus isn’t held in suspense of what is to come.  He could see Nathaniel under the fig tree, and he could see all the way to the cross.  He knew what was going to happen.

Even as he was just beginning his ministry, setting out from the start,

with Nathaniel and the others almost certainly full of hope and expectation and at what it might mean that they had found the new King of Israel to sit on David’s throne,

Jesus could see the cross ahead, knew that an angry mob that would storm the streets of the capital city and attack him and hang him from the gallows, cheering on his death –

and even knowing this, Jesus makes his way onward to Jerusalem, determined, calling disciples, ministering to those he meets, showing greater signs that anyone could imagine.

Jesus promises that Nathaniel and these disciples will even see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

And Nathaniel would have understood Jesus’ meaning, would have known well the story of patriarch Jacob, who, on the run from his brother Esau who hated him and wanted to kill him,

came to rest for the night, went to sleep and had a vision in his mind of a ladder with angels descending and ascending –

a picture of a reunion of heaven and earth, the sin in creation healed, perhaps even brothers who were estranged, reunited….angels ascending and descending, as if on a ladder, upon the son of man.

At our living nativity about a month ago we had an angel ascending and descending on a ladder.

 His name was Jake Barger. 

If you came to worship with us in the parking lot that night, or even if you just saw the picture on facebook, you could see Jake with a white robe and wings standing on the pinnacle of our church’s new addition dressed as an angel. 

He was there like the rest of us -to help tell the story that God is born in the most unexpected way to be with us in this world, in the flesh of Jesus Christ. 

But I got to be with our cast behind the scenes, I got to see several people hold the ladder for Jake as he made his way up for rehearsal, as came down,

 as he went back up for the event, as came back down,

and it occurred to me that as Jesus disciples we do get to hold the ladder for a God who reveals himself to the world in signs of his presence.

God sets up a ladder in Jesus connecting heaven to earth and earth to heaven, making a way where our sin had caused division, healing creation, seeking to reunite brothers and sisters who are estranged.

Jesus is the ladder on which God comes down to take part in our lives through his healing, forgiveness, and mercy.

Jesus is the ladder on which we are able to carry our petitions and prayers and intercessions up and directly to the heart of God. 

His cross reconnects heaven and earth…

…reconnects God with God’s people…

…reconnects lost, unknowing, tongue-tied, jumbled-thought-thinking,

misunderstood and misunderstanding children of God….with God’s mission and ministry.

Jesus invites us to follow him, and I think, amazingly, he even invites us to hold the ladder. 

To assist with the work God is doing.  To get involved in God’s mission.  To point to the crib of his birth, the cross of his death, and the chrysalis of the tomb, the new creation he is Living Lord over forever.

To hold the ladder there aren’t any magic numbers to guess.  There isn’t an entrance exam, there’s not a test, or any special requirements.

You can be from rural Nazareth, big city New York City or our own Richmond, VA – because Jesus has determined any place, any person is fertile soil for growth, faithfulness, and God’s presence.

Anyone can bring others to Jesus, like Philip did.  Anyone can claim Jesus as the Son of God and King of Israel as Nathaniel did.  As Dr. King said: anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.

Anyone can hold the ladder for God, not to keep God safe of course, but, by God’s grace and by God’s design to mediate the reconnection God brings about through Jesus.

I think of Scott Dietrick leading the children in a Sunday school opening with songs and prayers,

Ms. Betsy and all her helpers and all our Sunday school teachers teaching generations of children,

Matt Greenshields inviting you to join his exciting bible studies,

I think of all these saints and more, holding the ladder, serving so that heaven and earth touch – so that we hear from God.

I think of all of you – our congregation – our diligent council, faithful staff, pioneers and volunteers, even in the midst of a pandemic, still worshiping, still serving:

Gathering 106 Thanksgiving baskets – a record!

Donating 277 Twenty-five-dollar gift cards to our Angel tree benefitting Ridge Elementary  (which exceeded our goal of 250 cards)

Collecting 3286 items for ACTS (a homelessness prevention ministry): – an all-time record!

Making 205 Lutheran World Relief Quilts: which is an all-time record!

Making 201 Lutheran World Relief school kits – also an all-time record!

And heaven and earth are rejoicing, where families are wrapped in quilts,

where children have supplies for school, where neighbors on the margins who have a place to live because of God’s mission through his church.

Angels are ascending and descending where we lift up our prayers,

where God’s children talk and listening to the one in love seeking truth and understand,

where by grace as God’s people we lay our lives before the one who knows our needs before we do.

There is so much we don’t know and understand about one another…in the secret places of the heart…, things we can’t admit to ourselves, secrets that are too painful,

our complicity in the brokenness around us.

We think the internet gives us endless knowledge and we can look up lots of facts and seemingly endless information but we can’t search out wisdom except that God reveals Godself. 

We look to the news on TV with expectation that it can tell us what will be, but our expectation should be in God’s word that tells us we are all fearfully and wonderfully made

and that God is determined to accompany us each step of the way, each day that we are given.

God will be with us – inside each of us, in the innerworkings of ourselves – and connecting us together in mission, using the gifts he has given to you and me and entrusted to us in our shared life.

God is calling us to hold the ladder together for he delights to come to be with us. 

Because Jesus has died and has risen and now lives forever. 

And so, thanks be to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…

for God goes before us unafraid,

God lives…God heals… and God reigns over all… forever and ever.


More Than A Glance

This past Monday was my first day back in the office after two weeks of vacation.  We didn’t go anywhere overnight but we saw family, outside and socially distanced, and we tried to be out in the sunshine as much as possible, knowing that those warm days wouldn’t last. 

When I got back to the office this week, I found the AT-A-GLANCE calendar Hanne gets for us each year and sat down with it and gave about two hours to the process of transferring information from my old calendar over to my new calendar. 

I like to keep people’s birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant dates on a paper calendar.  I’ve tried to use google calendar and other apps and programs for my phone, but I like to be able to open up a paper calendar and flip around easily to see where everything is. 

My guess is that you have your own process for keeping up with significant dates in your life.

Hanne has been getting these at-a-glance calendars for me all the years that I have been here at Epiphany and so I know what to expect when a new one arrives and I know how they’re laid out

and I know that every year for the last five years

the new year’s calendar also includes the last 6 months of the previous year

so that you can go ahead and start using it right away when you get it in October or November or December. 

I remember well that my 2020 calendar had the last six months of 2019 in it too, so that I could make an easy transition to the new year.

But when I looked at the front of my newest calendar, I did a doubletake, because it just said 2021 and when I opened it I was surprised to see that it starts abruptly on January 1! 

Either the makers of AT-A-GLANCE know it’s good for business NOT to include the dreaded numbers “2020” embossed on the front of their calendar, or they don’t want the reminder of this past year any more than the rest of us.

I think that it’s not just the At-A-Glance calendar company, but all of us –

All of us are ready for a new beginning. 

We all want a new start. 

We’re anticipating what’s next. 

We are anxious to get to a new season of life.

God gives us a new beginning.  

And thanks be to God — the new beginning that comes from the Maker of All Things is different than all the other new beginnings of our lives…

because the new calendar year will not erase our racial division,

the new administration in the White House will not bring an end to the political division in our nation,

 and even if a vaccine becomes available and the long process of distribution begins in the coming months (and let us pray that it does!),

the economic disparity that the pandemic has uncovered will not be so easy to cure. 

Yes, we long for a new beginning that only God can provide.

We long for a remaking of all things!

And the Gospel according to Mark announces that God, in Christ, has given us this new beginning. 

Mark doesn’t promise that it will be an easy transition from the old to the new, but he does claim that for those who hear and understand this good news,

there is a new beginning with a future in which we can place our hope.

Mark starts by abruptly announcing, like an alarm waking us from sleep: “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 

We have heard the phrase the “good news” so often that it may have lost something of its meaning.

In the world in which Mark lived “Good News,” or evvangelion in Greek, was news of a military battle…

 news that your king had won the battle which meant there wouldn’t be the burning of your town and ripping down of your city. 

Evvangelion was the news that your team was victorious, and would get to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy high, stand under the confetti, and shower in champagne as the champions,

but this victory of God, this good news, according to Mark, is definitive, and once and for all times.

There’s not a next-years’ Super Bowl.  This is it and it is conclusive. 

This is not just A new beginning, but THE New Beginning for the community that hears this message.

It is probably worth mentioning, on this first Sunday in December, that Mark begins his good news of Jesus, Son of God, very differently than our other gospels.

Mark begins with Isaiah and then John the Baptist crying out the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus, but in this narrative, there is no baby Jesus, no Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, no night song by the angels, no visit from the shepherds, or the magi.

What we find instead, from the very beginning, is a full-grown man who is filled with the power of God and smoldering with the white-hot urgency of the mission to bring a new order into the world.

A quick glance at this gospel’s sixteen chapters reveals a man who teaches with authority, confronts evil and demonic forces, heals sickness, and is always busy, yet finds the time to stop and pray. 

Continually moving forward, he has pity on the sick, cleanses those who are unclean, gathers followers, preaches, instructs, and proclaims God’s favor.

He shows new possibilities by healing a paralytic, crosses cultural boundaries and defies long-held norms when he invites a gentile tax collector into his inner circle, and makes new interpretations of God’s law.

He gets angry at those who lack compassion to those who are disabled, makes enemies with those who would slow the inbreaking of the reign of God, and passes leadership to his followers giving them the message of the gospel and authority to heal. 

Mark’s account of the Good News tells of a Jesus who stills a raging storm on the sea,

raises a young girl who has died, miraculously feed thousands of hungry people,

confronts those who are apathetic to the message of God, gives the ability to hear and speak to those who are unable to… 

All the while making it clear that he wants US to hear and understand and speak his message, which at its core is that faithfulness to God drives out all fear,

and nothing — no amount of suffering, opposition, or evil, not even the cross and death itself — will stop Jesus from being faithful to God’s call on his life to love this world.

And ALL this activity of God in Jesus Christ is the beginning of the Good News,

not just this first verse in our text today or even the first chapter of this gospel…

all of it together tells us of Jesus who is God’s Son,

come among us in the flesh, and whose life, death, and resurrection

are the act of a new beginning that God calls us to be a part of

so that now, we turn the page and see that because of God’s new beginning we are not afraid.  We will not fear!

Calendars companies may be afraid to print the number 2020 on their products and others may find it advantageous to point us ahead to 2021,

but God has NOT been afraid to glance at 2020.

God has not been afraid to gaze at 2020. 

God has not been afraid to enter deeply and profoundly into the year 2020. 

God is unafraid of 2020. 

God is unafraid to be with us though the deepest darkest depths we experience — depression, addiction, fear, worry, and brokenness, when the whole world trembles, in this or any year —

God comes into even the deep silence and darkness of the grave in the death of his Son on the cross.

God has been with us through the worst of it all, but God has raised Jesus and dug a trench through time so that all of the power of these dark forces lay on the other side of where we stand.

God has been here with us all this year – active and busy, providing for us, nourishing us, leading us…

as parents and children told the story of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham and hung glow stars on their ceilings

so that when the lights were cut out for the night, the reminder of the promise of God glowed in the darkness.

God has been here with us –

as middle school and high school students gathered with their parents to rake leaves for members of our community again this year. 

As they created care packages for college students, wrote notes to the homebound, and gathered every other week to name the specific and personal ways God has blessed us richly this year.

God has been here with us as we reached out to the community as a congregation –

and God is coming into the homes of students and families at Ridge Elementary as God uses us to gather Christmas gifts for our neighbors in creative ways this year to make this season brighter.

God has been with us though this year –

in circle gatherings, in our music ministries, in our Bible studies;

though HHOPE Pantry and ACTS House and LAMB’s Basket. 

God has been with us as we made care packages, health kits, and quilts. 

God has been with us, baptizing a parade of people who received the new beginning of baptism and were immersed in God’s river of love.

And God will be with us in the coming year, no matter what it may hold…

So we look to our calendars and to the days ahead with hope.

We give thanks for the gift of faith that casts out all fear.

And we continue to be the church and serve, filled with the power of God’s new beginning, the joy of Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise that the Holy Spirit will continue to be with us in our work and in our words, in our living and giving and in our loving and forgiving.

Thanks be to God, our Living Lord, the One for whom a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day, holds us and all our days in his love.


Enter into the Joy

Enter into the joy of your master.

I don’t know about you but if I hear someone say that there’s a door that I can walk through to find joy, I’m all ears.  And all I want to know at that point is: what’s the address and where is the door and how do I get to it? 

Because a lot of life – and especially these days — is mundane, and repetitive, and everyday there are tasks that just have to be done, but we also know there is delight and happiness, and there are moments when everything else dissolves and it feels like nothing but that wonderful moment exists.

There is joy.

And we want joy

and Jesus tells us in this parable from our text today that he wants joy for us too.

The story goes like this:

Once there was a master who entrusted three servants with a varying number of talents, (which, at the time, was a kind of money).  But specifically, a talent was a superabundant, exorbitant, lottery-payout- change-your-life kind of amount –

an amount that the peasants and day laborers first listening to this story couldn’t begin to imagine, and an amount that we can’t imagine someone just giving us. 

In today’s currency a talent would be about a million and half dollars.

So, to one person, this master gives 7.5 million dollars, to another 3 million dollars, and to another person a million and a half dollars. 

The master gives them total control of these huge sums of money. 

He risks his riches, and he’s not going to micromanage them. 

he simply gives them the money and let’s them do what they will with it, and then he goes away for a looong time. 

And when the master returns, he calls on his servants,

And the first, who had received 7.5 million dollars comes and presents the master with twice that, 15 million dollars!  

And the master opens the door and says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

And the second servant comes and shows his returned master that he has doubled his money to 6 million dollars!

And the master again opens the door and says, “ enter into the joy of your master.”

But the third comes before the master who has returned and admits that he was afraid of losing what was given to him and tells the master that in his fear he dug a hole and buried the money in the ground.

The master had expected more of this servant;

had expected him to do something with it,

and so, the master takes the unused money from him and gives it to the first servant and casts the third servant out!

Now he has nothing.

Jesus story tells us about God’s grace and God’s judgment, and what we are to do with the time while we wait for the future kingdom of God to come with all its fullness, and I think there are a few specific things he intends to communicate to us:

First, God’s gifts to us are superabundant. God gives us all  we have as a free and gracious gift:

God gives us life, claims us in baptism, grants us faith, assists us with love, accompanies us in friendship, surrounds us with community, entrusts us with vocation, supports us with the gift of the word, directs our hope with his promises, and God’s forgiveness is without end and his mercy is exorbitant and lavish and extravagant.

And then I think Jesus also means to communicate that we cannot, not matter what, diminish the riches of God’s grace.

Even the talent that was unused by the third servant, and on first glance seems to have gone to waste, was dug up and given to the first servant and we have to assume is going to be put to good use, because given his track record, the first servant will make more with it.

So, God’s riches can’t be decreased or lost or eliminated.

And finally, I what I think is at the heart of it all is that Jesus asks us a question:

The question is this:

Will we put the riches God has given us to good use, and will we be a part of the joy that comes with using the master’s gifts?

The English word “talent” meaning ‘ability’ or ‘aptitude’ comes to us from this parable, and it makes it easy to understand that God has given us talents and gifts, and expects us to put them to use out in the world…

and when we use these gifts, we will experience the joy of Jesus, because we are working for his mission.

I remember being at a conference a few years ago where the presenter suggested a new thought to me at the time — we shouldn’t think about our weaknesses and how to make them stronger,

but think about the things we’re already good at, things that are already strengths in our life, and trust God has created us this way and work to develop things that are already gifts and aptitudes.

A really important part of each of our lives becomes getting in touch with what our gifts are

and listening to what others in our community tell us about our gifts,

and discerning the gifts we’ve been given as a congregation.

In my first call in Johnson City, TN, we had a member of the congregation who had been a professional concert pianist.  I mentioned to her that I had always wanted to learn the piano but I never had lessons and that in my 30s I thought it was too late.  She was so gracious and she offered to give me lessons as a gift and I so I took piano lessons from her and she was a wonderful teacher.

And sometime on Thursdays when I would drive to her house and we would sit at the keyboard together and she would say, with a pleased voice “You’ve been practicing!” 

Other Thursdays I would drive to her house with a sinking feeling and sure enough we would sit at the keyboard and she would raise an eyebrow at me and say, “Have you been practicing?”

God gives us gifts and talents and an important part of our discipleship is to practice them, to use our gifts for God.

Or, perhaps sometimes to do some discernment and realize that we’re practicing the wrong gift, and at least in my case, admit I’m not gifted at the piano,

but I’m better suited to pursue the guitar! 

Its messy, hard work.

Perhaps you could think about your life, what your gifts already are, what you are good at, what you have an aptitude for, and how you could use the gifts God has given you for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps with your family this week (or with your friends) you could talk over supper (or over zoom!) about what gifts you see in each other…because it can be easier to see someone else’s gifts before we see our own.

Whatever our gifts, there is no reason to fear naming our gifts, putting them to use, and honing them for the ministry in service to Christ.

Because, in the parable, the third servant’s error was being afraid to use the gift. 

And the servant’s fear shows that, really, his error is that he did not know the master.

If he had known the master, he would have known that the master was able to give such exorbitant gifts because there is no end to his riches.

The master’s riches were so superabundant that he would have been okay if he had taken the risk and not had a return! 

The master could give more!  And more!  And more!  And more than we could imagine! 

What the master wanted was not for the servants to invest the money just so he would have more,

but for the servants to use the gifts, and to put them out into the world, and for the servants to trust that because the gifts came from the master, they would necessarily be successful to bring a return.

Our master, Jesus, gives to us superabundantly, and prepares JOY for us that comes from trusting him and following him in discipleship.

When we use the gifts God has given us we take part in the life of God.

And all we need to be faithful is already given to us as a community. 

Our strengths, all put together, cover our weaknesses.

Our youth group taught me that:

when we prayed, before this pandemic time, we would get in in a big circle and we would all lock fingers like this, and they told me that this reminds us that where one is weak, another is strong, and God gives all that is needed to our community. 

I think about this now when I pray and I look forward to the day when we can all lock fingers and pray in this way again.

Sometimes we are afraid to use the gifts God has given us.  We are afraid to risk using our money for the sake of the gospel. 

We are afraid to risk speaking up for the gospel. 

We are afraid to reach out in service to others who are different from us with the gospel.

Like the third servant, we have, at times, dug a hole and put the gift of God in the ground,

but thanks be to God, God’s gifts can’t stay buried.

Jesus, the true gift of God, was crucified and buried in a hole, but God dug him up, and sent him back into the world full of the power to multiply the life and the joy of God that exceeds our ability to number or count or fully comprehend.

And Jesus’ new creation and resurrection life are the power that fuels your gifts and your talents for the sake of a world in need.

We have sometimes been like that talent buried in the ground. 

Like the talent in the ground, we have sometimes been buried by the mundane, repetitive nature of life and lost the vision to be looking out for the coming kingdom.

Like the talent buried in the ground, we have sometimes hidden our gifts or been reluctant to risk ourselves.

Like the talent buried in the ground, we have been silent in our witness to God.

Our talent has sometimes been buried or gone unused, but in baptism God digs us up, cleans us off, washes us clean and sends us back out in the world, to risk and to multiply the riches of God’s extravagant grace.

God has claimed you and me in baptism and says, Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.

So let your light so shine – let your gifts so shine – let your talents so shine that all may hear and see that in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection God has blown the doors off the hinges and said to us all,

“Enter into the joy of your master.”

Ready for the Returns

This past Tuesday millions of Americans participated in our democracy by casting votes in an election that saw engagement and participation levels never seen before in the history of our nation.

Some of us mailed in our ballots, some stood in line, some worked the polls, many posted selfies with “I voted” stickers…

And on Tuesday night many of us stayed up late into the night watching the returns, before finally giving up and going to bed

For me, even with the TV on and my browser open, I found myself texting with friends and people more in-the-know than I am, to find out who the real expert out there was, who I should watch for the most accurate analysis,

and I found myself looking for someone to give a clear picture of what was happening and what that meant.

For days — for literally 5 days we didn’t know who had won — because the race came down to a razor thin margin — but no matter who each of us voted for, I believe we can agree on this:

an election is really about the future. 

The future is famously unknowable, but in an election, we vote for candidates based on what we project the future would look like under their leadership and our vote is an action we take to choose our preferred future.

The heart of Jesus’ message is God’s preferred future, and all throughout his teaching, and in today’s gospel Jesus gives us a clear picture of God’s full and future kingdom…

He says it will be like a banquet of celebration.

It will be like a wedding feast in which we are with God forever and there are no more tears, no more grief, no more despair. 

When there will be no more human leaders falling short and no more political attack adds to sit through before you can watch your YouTube video.

When there will be no more sickness and no more masks and no more death.  

When there will be no more civil wars, bombardments of homes while people sleep, no more natural disasters that destroy communities, 

and where all that hurts will be healed and all that divides will dissolve

And there will be unity with God and one another. 

Jesus’ story in our gospel text about 10 bridesmaids – five foolish and five wise — tells us how we, as his disciples, are to prepare for the fullness of this future Kingdom and what it means to be ready now.  

 It is a story of extreme urgency 

And it’s urgency comes from Jesus’ insistence that there is time now to prepare and make ourselves ready but that the time of preparing will run out.

What separates the bridesmaids who join the celebrations and those who are locked out is the that some are wise and some are foolish.

I think we want to be wise and I think we want to be associated with people who are wise. 

We want to make good decisions and give good advice and we want to know whose analysis to trust on election night and in other situations.

When I go see a doctor, before I’m willing to follow her advice or take any medicine she might prescribe, I check her wall. 

I don’t need to know which school she studied at but I do want to see a diploma with a gold foil sticker on it saying that some institution has tended to her education and calling to practice medicine and certified her as qualified. 

I want to see a sign on her wall that says she is wise in medicine.

But the bridesmaids who are called wise in the parable don’t have a diploma, or credentials, or a degree – they are wise simply because they chose actions based on love of the bridegroom. 

They were thinking about him and wanted to be with him so much that they prepared for multiple scenarios, and used their time of waiting to make arrangements so that even if problems arose, they would be ready to join him when he arrived.

Today, the Spirit has gathered us to pondering the bridegroom together, to think and spending time with him, and God is preparing us to be ready for the full arrival of his kingdom. 

Through this meditating on the word, our lamps and oil reserves are being filled so that we know who Jesus is and Jesus knows who we are –

Just as all the gifts of fellowship, and worship, and Bible reading, and prayer, and service to others, fill us more and more

because these are some of the ways we are with Jesus, who is the most accurate analyst, and gives the clearest picture of what is happening in the world and what is going to happen in the future – namely God will make all things right.

Perhaps Jesus hopes that in the same way some of us felt longing on Tuesday and Wednesday and beyond for the returns to be tabulated,

that we would feel this deep desire and longing for his return when he will call us into the feast of joy and light with our eternal God.

The bridesmaids that are called wise in the story, are the ones who had extra oil for their candles… 

which is to say that they took the long view.  Not just living in the moment, they prepared for a marathon and not a sprint, and they didn’t stop planning for the future.  

Their readiness came from their action based on a longing for the bridegroom.

I have seen some deeply wise saints of God this week.

This week I have seen evidence of the saints of God at Epiphany making themselves ready, preparing for God’s preferred future.

I have seen Timothy ministers zooming to prepare for youth group meetings – planning a Bible study for youth and ways to keep connected.  They are making our community ready. 

I have seen the Wednesday lunch bunch that no lunger lunches together but does bunch together, socially distanced, of course –gathering to check in on one another, share concerns and prayers for members who can’t get out and join them, and study the word. And they are making our community ready.

I have seen confirmation students meeting with Pastor Phillip and Pastor Bosserman to study the Lord’s prayer and divide up the individual petitions of the prayer and paint them into beautiful tiles, that in previous years have hung in Price Hall and this year were made into a video you can check out on our facebook page.  They are making our community ready.

I have seen members persist in collecting and distributing food to those who are hungry –

and I wasn’t the only one to see it because several of them were featured in a write up in Living Lutheran magazines that goes to homes and congregations all over the US, so that hundreds of thousands of people will see the faces of Brenda Barnes, Mike Long, Matt Greenshields, and Stephanie Hamlet and be encouraged and know that while 1 in 8 households across our country are food insecure,

even in a time of pandemic, our congregation will be providing Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to individuals and families in need and God is making our community ready.

Jesus is the center and foundation and inspiration for all these actions, and he is made know to us and we are made known to him through them.

I would bet my life that all these people – all of you I have mentioned and more – are wise bridesmaids, who are already ready and who will be ready when the knock comes at midnight and the bridegroom calls us all into the final feast.

But I don’t have to bet my life.

Because what’s clear about Jesus’ parable is that only the bridegroom judges who is wise and who is foolish. 

The bridesmaids do not judge one another. 

They aren’t asked and they don’t give an opinion. The bridegroom alone is the judge.

There’s an awful lot of judgement going on in our nation. 

We seem to be split, in regard to partisan affiliation, almost like these bridesmaids, 50/50….

and I know that we all understand that candidates and their actions and policies matter, but what would it look like, now that we have voted for our candidate…

for us as people who belong to Jesus, to talk about policy and politics and the future, by beginning with an acknowledgement that we are all made in the image of God. 

We all are loved by God.   

We all are invited by God into a beloved community where all have a place, all are valued, all have been given gifts to share in bringing the Kingdom to fruition and blossoming here and now.

Could we begin each day this coming week, before we scroll the news and Facebook…

Could we begin each day by praying for our nation, for both political parties, and for the people in our lives with whom we agree and with whom we disagree, and could we remember everyone needs a little grace.

 God is the judge and we are not.

And everyone needs a little grace.

Because the long view is that now that the election is over,

we still live together and work together and we are still be citizens with one another,

and our individual health is tied up with our collective health. 

Our individual good is tied up with our collective good.

Our individual future is tied up with our collective future.

In our life now, what we need is wise leadership.

Someone with credentials we can trust.

And when we look to Jesus, we don’t see a diploma with gold embossed signet or calligraphy script hung on a wall,

but the cross,

and in the cross, we see his credentials and his accomplishment –

Jesus met hatred with love, betrayal with fidelity, and abandonment with forgiveness, 

and in his resurrection, God certified him as qualified. 

Now he prescribes us with a life of love and fidelity and forgiveness and is the expert in how to live out this prescription.

Jesus is our wisdom.

And because we belong to Jesus, that makes you and me the real experts out there, 

you are the ones the world can watch for the most accurate analysis, the ones to give a clear picture of what is happening and what is means.

Jesus invites us to the wedding banquet and the church is invited to God’s bridal chamber.

And because God knows us and has made himself known to us we are the ones who get to say and show that the verdict is in…

and we are 100% sure, 

and so rejoice and be glad: the future belongs to God and God is good.

Shout (A Little Bit Louder Now)!

A feast of rich foods, meat filled with the marrow, well-aged wines, a cup filled and running over.

Today we hear from the scriptures that the Lord takes care of us and provides for us, offers us more than we need, so that we are not wanting, not lacking, but find ourselves filled, and our cup running over.  God promises to provide for us in our need and to care for us in our times of despair and need.

Jesus, in his third consecutive parable about the nature of the Kingdom of God, compares God’s reign to a royal wedding banquet thrown by a king for his son, in which the king prepares a dinner, slaughters all the good meats – the oxen and fat calves – makes a sumptuous feast ready for the guests – and sends out messengers to those who are invited letting them know everything is ready.

Clearly, Jesus views the Kingdom of God as a celebration to be enjoyed, where as in the case of a wedding, a new beginning opens up before us, full of possibility and new life.

In my role as pastor, I have been invited to attend and preside at some wonderful weddings through the years, but one of my favorites took place two summers ago, right here where I’m standing. 

It was a wedding for a beautiful couple – but a different kind of wedding than I had presided at in a few ways –

She was a widow and he had been previously married, but they had gone to high school together and reconnected, and in fact, the weekend before the wedding ceremony, they attended their 50th high school reunion together!

It was actually during the process of planning for that 50th high school reunion celebration that this couple rekindled their friendship and connected over their love of Tucker High School, their shared friends, and their faith.

At their wedding ceremony, we worshipped together, we received holy communion together at the Lord’s table together, and their children and grandchildren and friends watched as they promised their love and support to one another.

I’ll never forget the service because they chose 5 readings from the gospels, 2 from the Old Testament and 2 additional readings from the Epistles!  They asked if that was too many and I said, “it’s your wedding!”

And I’ll never forget the wedding because the party afterwards was a throw down!  We went to a club with good food, good drinks, and a great DJ who spun tunes and got us all out to dance floor with the Isley Brothers singing;

Well, you know you make me want to (Shout)
Kick my heels up and (Shout)
Throw my hands up and (Shout)
Throw my head back and (Shout)
Come on now

And when they sang “a little bit softer now” we all got down low…

And as they sang “a little bit louder now” we all jumped up again – and we danced and we danced and we danced – the grandkids, the kids, the grandparents, people with walkers shuffled and babies rocked their heads back and forth as the music pumped – we sweated and danced and we rejoiced.

God wants us to rejoice in him.

God’s Kingdom is like a celebration and God wants us at the party.

God wants us to be filled and running over with joy and peace.

And so God has put you and me on the guest list.  God has prepared a name card to sit on the plate at the table with our name on it.  God invites us.

The Kingdom of God is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son and when the guests say their too busy to come, he sent more messengers out to try to convince them, and when the intended guests make more excuses, he goes out and invites others – anyone, people on the street, anyone hanging around – both the good and the bad so that the wedding hall was filled.

God comes to us again and again – inviting, extending, reaching out, searching out, laying out blessings, preparing good things, because he wants us to be there at the party, in the Kingdom, with him where there is joy and peace.

But we don’t have to accept the invitation.

And I think that’s what the curious ending to Jesus’ parable is about…

The ending here is notorious among Biblical scholars who agree that they don’t really know what to make of it…

But the way the story ends: One person who is compelled to come, maybe for the free food or for the choice drinks, hasn’t brought (or won’t wear the festival garment that is provided).  And when he is questioned, he is speechless and the king says to the attendants, bind him hand and foot and throw him into the outer dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth…

For whatever reason, this person is at the party, but doesn’t want to celebrate.  The king has offered everything, but the person is ungrateful and won’t participate in the festivity. 

And there are lots of excuses we cite these days for not wanting to celebrate.  For leaving the festal robe of gratitude in the back of the closet behind the vacuum cleaner and our snow boots.

A worldwide pandemic has rocked us to the core, our election season is wildly unnerving and ugly and we are unsure of the future, and everything is more difficult. 

But the scriptures are clear: God wants us to rejoice.  

Paul says it well:

“Rejoice in the Lord always;”

And the word “always” is significant.

Remember again that Paul is in Rome, in prison, and he doesn’t know what the future holds.  If or when he will be executed.  Each day could be his last.

But he encourages the church in Philippi and us – Rejoice in the Lord.  Always.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

God rescues us from the worry.  God eases us with the assurance that he is near.  God listens to the outpouring of prayer and speaks wisdom to guide us.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true,” Paul continues, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Here’s the thing: you and I have choices.

God has given us agency.  We can choose what we think about, we can control how much news we consume, we can decide how long we spend in front of our devices. I know it’s hard.  But God invites us to rejoice.

And I would go so far as to say that God instructs us to rejoice and even expects us to rejoice, even when it feels like good Friday, because we know we live in the light of Easter and God’s victory over death and power over darkness.

And so, we are called to receive God’s joy and peace —

We can’t muster our own joy and peace through positive thinking, we can’t order it off Amazon, there’s not a TED talk about how to achieve it, but in the midst of the trouble and the trial God extends joy and peace that come as a gift.

And we are called to receive it.  And accept it.  And treasure it. 

And so, we see that as large and as long as God’s guest list is, although it includes you and me and all people, God will do some casting out. 

We are invited to God’s party but God will banish and destroy the shroud that is cast over the people, God will expel tears and disgrace and shame, God will swallow up death forever, and extinguish all the forces that would separate us from God and make our hearts heavy with reluctance to praise and shout and dance in celebration of God will be thrown into the outer darkness.

If we are honest, not only are we reluctant to attend the celebration of God, but there are some people we would exclude from the banquet.  But God doesn’t and God won’t.  God extends the invitation to those the world overlooks and shuns, those whom we would overlook and exclude, and even invites the good and the bad.  In the end, God will finally cast out the divisions we believe separate us.

An so, thanks be to God we are not making the guest list for the Kingdom of God – but God makes the guest list.  And God prepares the banquet.  And God fills the cups to overflowing.

And God is behind the DJ table, pumping the music, calling us onto the dance floor, spinning the jams inviting us to

Kick our heels up and (Shout)
Throw our hands up and (Shout)
Throw our head back and (Shout)
Come on now!

Because our Lord prepares a banquet where we are seated with God and with one another and where God invites us to feast on peace and joy, which are overflowing, so let us rejoice in the Lord always,

And sing it a little bit softer now…. This is our God…let us be glad and rejoice…

Sing it a little bit louder now… This is our God…let us rejoice and be glad.

The Captain of Team Grace

It’s a scene that plays out on baseball diamonds, basketball courts, and in backyards

all over the world,

in as many languages as the people of the world have invented,

wherever kids get together and play.   

You have two captains, one for each team (sometimes there is even the formality of a coin toss) and these captains take turns choosing people to play on their team, in a pure, true meritocracy.

Who is selected first?

The best, the most skilled, the strongest, the biggest, the boldest,

and the most gifted are picked first – until the teams are filled –

-and the rest, those who are unpicked and unchosen, the ones who don’t make the cut, and who are overlooked,

end up stranded with nothing to do but watch.

Jesus’ story is one about a landowner who comes to choose players for his team. 

And as much as a baseball player wants to get dirt and grass stains on his or her uniform, the urgency for the day laborer to get in the games was even greater…

Because without the security of a ‘job’ with a contract as we might think about it… Every day was the same:

their hunger and worry about their family’s hunger (if they had one)

would rouse them from sleep well before the sun came up and carry them to the gathering spot where day laborers would enter a pool

hoping a team captain would call their name and pick them, so they could get in the game.

But the “game” for them was grueling manual labor, done in the scorching heat of the day,

because the economy ran on the backs of those working poor, who were used, abused, paid little, chewed up and spit out.

These day laborers had no hopes of a savings account, a pension, or social security. 

They were just looking to make enough money to feed their families for the day. There were no assurances beyond that.

So, there they are.  Standing together.  Their lives on the line.  All pleading inside: pick me!

When a landowner comes to the day laborers pool

and picks several workers to begin the day in the field.

Those who aren’t picked are disappointed,

They’re just sitting on the bench

but there’s something unusual about the landowner in Jesus’ story because after the initial round,

a few hours later,

he comes back to the lot where the unchosen workers are still hanging out and

picks up a few more people,

telling them that he will pay them whatever is right –

they don’t know how much, but they are in no position to argue or question because they need work.

And this landowner reveals himself to be even more peculiar than first imagined because

all throughout the day

he keeps coming back:

at noon and

then at three

and he asks them: why they aren’t you working?

And they say, we just weren’t hired.  No one picked us.

Maybe they are scrawny, maybe they’re older, weaker, maybe they have a disability, maybe they have a murky past,

but this landowner hires them and sends them into the field saying that he will pay them whatever is right.

And then, at FIVE o’clock, with one hour in the work day left,

the landowner hires even more workers who have stood idle

 for the last eleven hours

and EVEN sends them into the field.

Just an hour later, with the last-to-be-chosen probably having barely broken a sweat,

the landowner comes with his manager to pay everyone for the day’s work, and…

The manager lines everyone up

and begins by paying those who were picked last,

and to everyone’s surprise, he gives them pay for a full day’s work.

A full denarius! which was the daily minimum wage and what a family would need to buy food for the day.

And here’s the interesting thing: no one bats an eye. No reaction at all, from anyone, that we know of.

Of course, the workers who went into the field at 5 o’clock are probably overjoyed,

but those who have worked all day don’t complain, because they are imagining that based on what’s fair and just and right, they will get more.

But they are ALSO given a denarius — the EXACT same amount!

And they grumble and they complain.

For them, this is now beyond peculiar!

This is an outrage!

This is unfair!

This is an offense!

After all – they are the best!  The first picked! They are the most skilled! Look how much work they did!

Surely, they should be rewarded with more than those who came last, who were left on the sideline, who hardly did anything at all!

But it is the landowner’s prerogative to be generous to the last-picked and within his power to make them equal to the first-picked.

But notice this: the landowner goes out. of. His. Way. really, to cause a stir.

He could have paid the first-chosen, all-day workers first… and sent them on their way and they never would’ve even known that all the workers were paid the same

but the landowner clearly wants to make a point of his generosity to the first-to-be-chosen.

The landowner wants the first-chosen to see that the last-chosen are receiving the generous gift of a denarius

and the means to get plenty of food for their family’s dinner table too.

The landowner and the storyteller who imagined him mean to overturn our sense of justice and fairness.

Jesus is telling us that God includes those whom the world overlooks,

AND not only does God include those whom the world overlooks, but God intends for us to do the same:

For us to learn to see those who are overlooked, and to see value in those to whom the world assigns no value

Some people jump to say that this story isn’t fair

and doesn’t illustrate how life REALLY works.

And people who would say this are 100% correct.

This isn’t how things really work –

because our sin guides us in choosing teams and sides

where we leave some people out because they are

black or brown

or poor or disabled

or gay or from a different country or culture or region or religion.

This isn’t the way life really is –

because the media and Hollywood and sports industry

elevate those who are physically talented and beautiful

as the ones to be heaped with attention and

praise as super-human.

This isn’t what life really looks like –

because under the power of the empires of this world

the value of a person is dictated to be equal to their intellect,

family lineage, earning power, or pedigree.

This isn’t the way things really are –

because schools, colleges, universities, and companies

are meritocracies that celebrate standard achievement

and overlook those who test poorly,

aren’t supported, don’t speak the language, or can’t pass the test.

This story Jesus tells us does NOT illustrate fairness

as the temporal,


hopelessly anxious,

every-person-for-themselves (or) every -community-for-itself

world we live in defines it.

This is a story about the Kingdom of God

that illustrates God’s values

and God’s sense of fairness and justice, and means to

break open our stone hearts and inspire them to beat with God’s burning desire.

God is always coming back to the pool of those overlooked to include more of us,

God is always choosing those who the world leaves out,

God is always making room for those who lack the privilege we may sometimes take for granted,

God is always providing hope for those who live day to day without reassurances,

God is always identifying with the last and the least and the lonely and the left out and

choosing them for his team.

Jesus’ intention is to train us to see that God’s love for us is unconditional,

and train us to see God’s love is also unconditional for others…

And especially for people unlike us.

And especially people we don’t think deserve it.

God’s love is given to each of us equally,

regardless of how good we are at hitting a baseball,

how successful we are in our work,

how faithful we are to the promises in our life,

how long we’ve been sober or even if we’re not,

how educated we are,

how hard we work,

how much we go to church (or watch church on our phone),

whether or not we need medication to help us function.

Regardless of our past.

Regardless of our present.

God loves us a free gift.

And we call this grace.

The heart of God… is love for us …no matter what.

Grace is such an easy word to use.

After bedtime prayers one night last week, as I was getting ready to leave the room, our son Samuel asked

, “Dad. What’s ‘grace’?”  I must have used the word in the prayer.

I thought about that for a second.

I said, “Well, it’s when you get something good that you don’t deserve.

So like, let’s say you don’t clean up your room like we ask (a timely example if I ever heard one),

and we tell you that if you don’t clean up you can’t have any ice cream,

but let’s say we’re all having ice cream and we give you some anyway. That’s grace.”

He was real quiet for a minute and then he said, with a deep frown on the forehead,

“So you…tell me to clean up… and…

you say that I can only have ice cream… if I do…

but I don’t…

and then you’re having ice cream… and you give me some??? …..”

I said, “Yeah”

“Dad!” He said, “It’s that last part I don’t understand.”

And none of us understand God’s grace.

But God picks us for the team, not because of our prowess but because of God’s prodigal love.

Not because of our skill but because of God’s kindness

Not because of our resume but because of God’s grace.

God’s love for us comes to us,

not because we are so good, but because God is so good. 

AND God’s grace comes to other people not because they are so good –

which we’re often sure of –

but because God is so good to them, too,

no matter what we might hold against them.

The story of Jonah – the other Galilean prophet in today’s texts –

is perfectly paired with Jesus story

to show the hardness of heart we have towards other people

being the recipient of God’s graciousness.

When God sent him to Ninevah to preach God’s kingdom,

he ran the other way to Tarshish – to the West instead of East.

And when his boat sank and the fish swallowed him

and he found himself in despair and cried out to God,

and the fish spit him out on land and God called him again to go to Ninevah

and he did and he preached the shortest and worst sermon

in the history of preaching,

saying nothing more than: “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”

and the people of Ninevah all repented…

and from the day laborers all the way up to the king,

everyone dressed in sackcloth and ash and asked for God’s mercy…

and God spared them, Jonah finally comes clean: Saying, “

the reason I ran in the first place

is that I know you are gracious and merciful slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love

and ready to relent from punishing!”

Jonah ran because he knew God was gracious

and would extend his care to people Jonah detested!

We can run from God’s grace but we can’t escape it. 

God’s grace is coming to you and to me always, choosing us. 

Not leaving us on the sidelines but giving us a place.

The scene plays out in homes,

church buildings, on lawns where we gather, physically distanced,

over zoom Bible study, as we drop off food for the food pantry,

gather around the kitchen table to do Sunday school to-go,

as we pray for one another, share a conversation, open our hearts to one another… God has chosen us.   

And we have a captain who is good and trustworthy –

Who is making the line up to include you

Who is working in the Spirit to give his gracious love,

Who is coming to us and choosing us to be on God’s team,

And who is inviting us to see each other as teammates,

called to the one and same mission,

standing firm in one spirit,

striving side by side for the gospel.

God is calling our name.