Some Assembly Required

 

One Christmas when my sister Sarah was four years old, she received a Barbie Campin’ Out Tent Set.

This was realistic-looking but small-sized tent and fly that Barbie and Ken could use when they wanted to get away from it all, unwind, and relax together out in nature. It came in a bright pink box with long plastic poles, a piece of nylon fabric for the tent, and some assembly required.

My Dad gave it a shot, he worked and worked, he tried and tried, and finally… he gave up.

Sometime in February, when my sister’s friend Colin came over to play Barbies and this tent still was still just pieces in a box, Sarah asked Dad to try again. She wondered if he couldn’t please get the tent up so Barbie and Ken could camp out in their Campin’ Out Tent Set.

The girls sat and waited as patiently as four-year-olds can and after a while of Dad trying to put the tent together, and having no luck, Colin became exasperated.

She said, “I got one of these for Christmas and it didn’t MY Dad this long to put it together.”

Sarah, feeling protective responded defensively, “Well, some Dads are just smarter than others.”

When Dad finally looked at the assembly instructions included in the box, he realized the problem all along had been that some of the tent poles were about an inch longer than others and that made a difference.

 

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy write to the church in Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, to encourage this little community in their faith, to assure them of their friendship, and to praise them for looking deep in the box, finding the assembly instructions, reading them, and using them – in this case: for using the example that Paul and his friends set for them of what it means to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

This letter’s ink was being put to paper and being prepared to send to this brand-new community… In 50 AD, only twenty very-short years after the death and resurrection of Christ. There was no gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John yet. There was no New Testament yet. And the wider culture wouldn’t know what you meant if you said you were a “Christian” yet.

There was just an oral tradition, and stories about Jesus shared by a community that figured it didn’t need to write anything down because Jesus would return any day to establish the fullness of God’s Kingdom as he had promised.

The words of this letter are the very first words of what would become the New Testament to be written down.

The women and men to whom this letter was written were in unmapped territory, trying to figure out what it meant to look to Jesus and to remember his words and try to live them in a culture that didn’t understand their fledging community, and that was hostile to it because they threatened the status quo with their completely reoriented priorities.

And Paul, in his letter, commends the Thessalonians for this: for persevering in the midst of persecution: for staying the course with assembly instructions in hand, following the direction of the Lord by producing the work of faith, the labor of love, and a steadfast hope in Jesus.

 

So now, twenty centuries later, we still wait for the Lord to return. And we are still trying to figure out how to be faithful to God, use the gifts that he has given us, and share the gospel. And our world is changing so rapidly that we feel like WE are traveling in unmapped territory.

It can feel like we got the Barbie Campin’ Out Tent Set from Wal-Mart that by some error did not come with assembly instructions.

We wish we had better instructions as we wonder about how we are to make time in our harried lives for serious prayer.

We wonder about how to live in community that really bears with one another’s burdens and is willing to suffer with those who suffer.

We wonder, even as a healthy and growing congregation, how do we adapt to a changing culture to share the gospel in new ways to reach those who don’t know the life-changing news that although we fail and flail and fall short, God in Christ forgives us, finds us, and puts us together into a living tent that can shelter those in need of hearing this same good news.

We wonder about how to be the community that can succeeded in producing the work of faith, the labor of love, and a steadfastness of hope in Jesus in the midst of persecution.

 

Oh, we’re not persecuted as the Thessalonians were…in the sense that we will likely be attacked or injured for our faith. But our trust of God comes under attack by a culture that tells us at every turn there is not enough to go around.

We hear so often that we should worry, that we do begin to worry about whether there will be enough saving for retirement, enough money for our children’s education, or perhaps even if there will be enough in the bank account to pay the bills this month.

 

We are surrounded by a narrative that we have to take care of ourselves and that resources are scarce, so that our trust of God comes under persecution.

But God’s grace is sufficient to take care of us. Sisters and brother, we have all we need and more. God who created us in his image will preserve us in his image. He will provide for us in this life and the next. God claims us as his own in baptism. He sets us a feast for us at his table. Our cup isn’t half full or even all the way full, our cup is overflowing with blessing.

We learn to trust God’s promise and see God’s abundance living in intentional Christian community in the church. Like a child walking in her mother’s shoes we try it on and in time we grow into this life of looking to God for all things.

 

 

Paul says to the Thessalonians that they’ve not only grown into his shoes as a disciple and apostle of Jesus, but are leaving shoes for others to fill.

Paul says to them, “And you became imitators of US and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that YOU became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia, and beyond …and you were such a powerful example of what it means to follow Jesus that we now have no need to speak about you.

No need to even speak about it! It is that well known! Their reputation is that cemented!

The people of these regions of Macedonia and Achaia – in all the cities and towns and suburbs and neighborhoods – they KNEW about the Thessalonians: how they served the Living God, and how they wait with eager expectation for Jesus’ return, and what kind of welcome they extended.

 

Brighten Our Light is about making sure we extend welcome: to the neighbor, the refugee, the and alien in a foreign land.

It is about making sure we extend welcome to the college student, the young adult, and the clumsy Christians like Missy Hill and me and anyone who has been slow to catch onto how the church lives its life in light of the radical, undeserved grace of God.

It is about making sure we extend welcome to travelers, those who just moved to town, and those who are experiencing crisis and have come to a place where they might be able to hear good news and experience kindness and shelter from the storm.

 

Brighten Our Life is about making sure there are enough classrooms in our facility to offer biblical, theological, and spiritual education to people who are hungry for instruction.

It’s about making sure there is a place where new people to the community can gather and talk and be greeted.

It is about making more room for those people who are not here yet.

 

We are already a community known as a place of welcome.

Say to the pharmacist or the neighbor or fellow shopper, “I am a member of Epiphany Lutheran Church.”

And you may hear: “I love driving by your stained-glass window of Jesus that reminds me of God’s love.”

Or… “It’s not really Christmas until the nativity figures start their trek across the front lawn of 1400 Horsepen Road.”

But it’s not only our message about the gospel in word and sign, but also in power and with conviction, so that people know the kind of persons we are: how we serve Caritas each year, how we take traveling college students into our homes, how we get to know the guests who come to the HHOPE pantry so that they look forward to seeing us and we look forward to seeing them.

 

We have been chosen by God and given the gospel to share.

We are called to be an example of how to live life,

How to trust Christ,

How to suffer with joy,

And how to welcome those new people who come to our community.

Brighten Our Light is about *literally* making more room for those people who are not here yet…expanding the commons and narthex so that when people come in to this place as strangers and visitors for the first time, they are not so disoriented and overwhelmed that they are averse to coming back.

 

 

As an insider that can be a hard thing to understand. But for those who are new, welcome means more than words can express.

For me, and for my family, we will always remember that when we moved to Richmond, not knowing the city or the surrounding area, you gave us a place to live. You welcomed us.

And Grace House was such a wonderful place to live, I never wanted to leave. Great location in town, good neighbors, pretty close to the church. But when our second child came along, Sarah said, we have to make more room.

Because of the desire to grow our family, we need to make more room and trust God to fill it with good things.

 

This past week Grace House was full of Timothy Ministers planning for youth ministry, giving up our regular meeting space in the Star Lodge so that Project Bridge could have conversation and Bible study focused on Lutheran World Relief and our response to suffering in the world.

We as Epiphany Church are called to continued new life and to new growth. We are called to be a place of welcome so that those who are not yet here, can find a place here to try on this life in Jesus where we walk in the shoes of our parents and pass them down to our children, taking steps to grow in the work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfast hope in Jesus.

 

Our life will always include some assembly required. Thanks be to God we are in the Master’s hands.

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Take a Knee, Son

For weeks now in our gospel readings we’ve been hearing and thinking about some of Jesus’ best and most-famous parables; these very-condensed stories that enigmatically point beyond our experience of life-as-we-usually-know-it to how life in the Kingdom of God is experienced.
These stories about God’s Kingdom shock us because the life God prepares for us is different than what we are able to imagine or expect on our own.
And today we hear another one of these mysterious stories, except that something is different with this latest parable because of what has happened off-camera from our Lectionary. The gospel writer Matthew tells us that between the story that we heard from Jesus last week and the events we hear about today something monumental has happened.
We have come to know it as: “Jesus Cleanses the Temple.”
Not at all a work-day at the church to beautify the grounds, Jesus literally ransacks the place.
If you think there was an uproar from the little kids a couple weeks ago when we didn’t have donuts in the Commons, you can begin to image the total chaos of Jesus throwing chairs and flipping tables off their feet in this Holiest House of Worship.
Merchants, you see, set up shop around the vicinity of the Temple to sell animals and birds needed for sacrifices in the Temple. And that could be all fine and good, but Jesus sees that some of these merchants are taking advantage of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from far-away distances and unable to bring their own animals, and they are price-gouging them in their hour of need, and Jesus is hot.
If we could see him up close we could probably see the blood vessels in his neck popping out, as he shouts that his Father’s house is to be revered and respected. And indeed, part of his anger is that God’s traveling-people-far-from-home are to be revered and respected, because Matthew tells us that Jesus, after cleansing the Temple heals those who can’t see and who can’t walk.
You better believe, as vehemently as people are speculating over whether NFL players should take a knee or stand up straight at the singing of the National Anthem, there were as many opinions, and as strong of opinions about whether this Rabbi Jesus had the authority to say anything at all about this taken-for-granted practice, much less the authority to throw tables on their sides and send gold coins flying!
And so, these chief priests and the elders of the people – the people who are supposed to be in charge – come to question Jesus’ authority.
“Who do you think you are Jesus? Let’s see your credentials,” they say. And perhaps they have some genuine curiosity, but they’re also jealous of Jesus and the way the crowd loves him.
And in response, Jesus says, “I’ll ask YOU a question: Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it from human origin?”
Because you see, there are two kinds of authority, s we know it well in our own life.
The first kind of authority we experience is human authority: it comes in the form of bosses or supervisors; in the form of governments and institutions; and we see it playing out every day in the news as leaders of the nations of the world bluster at one another, showing us they believe that if they have the most fire power, or that if they are brazen enough to use what they have, they will be able to take power by force.
The other of authority is God’s authority. We see God’s authority around us in a world that has been created as God imagined it. We see God’s authority revealed to us in God’s truth and in God’s life and in God’s word, which tells us who we are, what we are created for, and how God sees us.
In the short run, human authority looks good, or at least powerful. In the short run, human authority CAN look like it is stronger than God’s authority. Because in the short run, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority – even to crucify it – but ultimately, God’s truth prevails.
And JESUS’ authority comes to HIM because he submits to God’s authority.
Even his question to the chief priest and the elders illuminates Jesus understanding of what he and John and the prophets have been all about.
He doesn’t ask the chief priests “where did John’s authority come from,” he asks “where did the authority of John’s BAPTISM come from?”
Clearly, for Jesus, John had authority because he did God’s work, and submitted to God’s desires.
For Jesus, it all comes down to this: are we doing what God would have us do with our lives? Are we submitting to God’s desires? Are we seeking what we want or what God wants with our life?
And to further this point, Jesus tells… what else? Another parable!
So, there’s a man that owns a convenience store and he has two boys and on Friday afternoon as the boys are coming home from school the older son comes into the house and his Dad say, “Son, I’m going to need you to work the store tomorrow.”
“Are you serious?!” the older brother shouts. “It’s Saturday!! I had plans to go to the movies with my friends!” “You don’t care about me. You just had me so you’d have somebody to work at your store and you wouldn’t have to do it!” And he goes to his room and slams the door.
Next thing you know, the younger brother comes in to the house and his Dad say, “Son, I’m going to need you to work the store tomorrow.”
The younger brother is on his phone, texting his friends and playing “Love You to Bits,” and he’s not even half-listening. He says, “Yeah, yeah, sure thing.” But he isn’t really paying attention and he doesn’t even hear what his Dad says.”
When the alarm clock goes off the next morning, the older brother who yelled at his Dad wakes up with a pit in his stomach. He feels guilty for blowing up at his Dad and, even more, he feels like if he doesn’t just go in and work his shift, it’s just gonna make life more miserable for everybody.
Meanwhile, the younger brother who never even really heard his Dad and said “yeah, yeah, whatever you say,” just to get him to stop nagging him rolls over and goes back to sleep. He never even heard his Dad’s request; he never makes in, and never punches the clock.
Which brother has done what his Father hoped he would do?

The first people who heard this story understood that on some level the story is about how Israel, God’s beloved people, at first said they would be faithful to God but changed their minds and went and did their own thing, while many of the tax collectors and prostitutes who were seen by everyone as a lost cause were meeting John and Jesus and turning their lives around to follow God.
So some people say, “The first son did the what the Father hoped he would do.”
But Jesus doesn’t really explicitly answer the question. Jesus doesn’t say what answer HE had in mind, and it could be that the answer to the question “which brother has done what his Father hoped he would do?” is “neither son.”
Because neither brother really did what their Father hoped they would do. One was sort of polite in that he didn’t yell at his Dad, but didn’t do what his Father asked. And the one that DID work was a total jerk about it, and that’s not really what the Father wanted either.
Both sons had changes that they needed to make. Neither son in the story really did the will of their Father.
And that would be a pretty unsatisfying end to the story except that JESUS is the son who does the will of his Father.
The one TELLING the story is the Son who lives up to his Father’s hope:
He was equal with God, but emptied himself, took the form of a slave, humbled himself, and became obedient to the will of his Father – even to the point of death – even death on a cross,
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This past week we’ve heard a lot about bending knees. And perhaps it is right and good to have respectful conversation about the national anthem and our response to is, but how good would it be if we as Christians were AS concerned about whether at the name of Jesus, every knee is bending and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
How good would it be for the whole church to be asking: what more can I do? What more can we do to share and live the love of Christ so that people kneel before him, stand to praise him, and know the joy of life with him?
The good news of his parable is that we have the chance to change.
Like the sons in his story, we have all disappointed our Father, fallen short of God’s hopes for us, hurt one another and failed to grasp the radical hospitality, forgiveness, and inclusion of God’s Kingdom, but like those sons, we still have a Father.
God calls us sons and daughters and always will.
Like Gus, baptized today, we have been joined to God forever in Christ and we have a place in the Kingdom that we’re asking God to help us understand and live and share.
God our Father welcomes us home; invites us to sit at his Table, forgives us and gives us second chances.
May his Spirit empower us to follow and serve for the sake of the Kingdom that is breaking into the world to shine God’s lovingkindess, forgiveness, and grace.