No and Yes

Today the flowers on the altar are given in part by Tracey Fatzinger and Greg Parker in celebration of their wedding anniversary. This week Tracey and Greg are celebrating twenty-four years of marriage since that day they held one another’s hands and promised their life to one another, and among the many unexpected blessings they will give thanks for are their two intelligent, beautiful children – blessings they could never have imagined all those years ago, on the day they were married.

In the months leading up to each wedding ceremony that I serve as pastor for, I invite the couple to attend four sessions of marriage counseling. We typically meet here at the church in my office and after we’ve all sat down and visited a bit, I always begin by asking the couple to tell me the story of what has brought them to this decision in their lives.

Some couples tell the entire story of their courtship, and sometimes their telling of the story includes the actual proposal – and they will tell me who asked who, and what the response was; what they were feeling at that moment they first said YES to each other – that moment at which they both said in some form or fashion, “I promise to share my life you forever.”
But that YES that couples say to each other, when they promise their lives to one another, is also a NO. Or perhaps its more-fair to say that their YES to one another is a NO to a myriad of other things, many of which they may have enjoyed in the past.

Their YES to one another is also a NO to leaving for the weekend without having to tell anyone what they’re up to, it’s a NO to doing whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, it’s a NO to other potential partners, and it’s a NO to spending money however they like without consulting one another.

The things that these spouses-to-be say NO to aren’t necessarily bad things, but they can’t say YES to them anymore because they’ve said YES to one another.

Out in the wilderness, Jesus says NO to the devil because he has already said YES to God.
The first temptation laid out before Jesus by the devil is this: will you desert God for bread? Certainly, bread is not bad! Even Jesus, the Son of God, needed food to eat! He became exactly like us except for our sin – hunger and all! Certainly, God provided bread for the Israelites in the wilderness and after all, later on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn two fish and a few loaves into bread for five thousand people, which is at least something similar to what the devil is asking Jesus to do.

But Jesus can read the devil’s intentions: He knows that the devil is a slanderer and an accuser. And this becomes even more clear with the devil’s second offer: the devil invites Jesus to desert God for power of his own and to commit idolatry. The devil only asks Jesus to bow low and worship him, and turn his back on the Lord God.

But Jesus reminds the devil of the first commandment, on which all the others rest: Worship the Lord God only and serve only him.

So finally, the devil, giving it one more shot, asks Jesus: will you ask God to do your will rather than you seeking his will? But Jesus refuses and so the devil leaves Jesus until a more favorable time.

Jesus could say NO to these tests because he had said YES to God.

And really, these three temptations are all the same, as all temptations are the same.
Jesus was tempted with bread, then power, and then control, but at each turn the real underlying temptation was for Jesus to put his hope in something other than God.

This is always the temptation, from the garden when Adam and Eve take the bite of fruit hoping that it will put them on even footing with God…to the people of Israel in the wilderness who complain against God believing if they were calling the shots all the wilderness wandering we be going more smoothly…to us who don’t really trust God to take care of us and often believe we’ll have better luck if we take care of things on our own.

Maybe the things that Jesus was tempted by are the things that tempt us…maybe we’re tempted by food, or power, or control. Or maybe we’re tempted more by wealth and status… our maybe its our own comfort and pleasure… or maybe a carefree life of drifting from one cool new experience to another taking pictures along the way so we can post them on facebook and make everyone jealous, which will bring more approval and acceptance from others, which is what we may very well desire most of all.

These temptations get dressed up in different clothes – but whatever the form – is always the same. The temptation that comes from outside of us and acts on us is the temptation to find our identity in something else or someone else other than the God revealed to us by a suffering Jesus on the cross.

Maybe this story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil seems fanciful and unreal or mythological, what with the devil speaking to Jesus in person, face-to-face, and whisking Jesus around from place to place in an instant like some archaic version of a Christmas Carol and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future — but what is more real than temptation?

Jesus knew real temptation. And what’s more-true about this life than knowing the difference between right and wrong and finding ourselves unable to choose to do what’s right?

We experience it every day. Its easier to tell a little white lie –or a big one for that matter – than face the uncomfortable truth, its easier to be mad at someone rather than to see where our own decisions contributed to the problem, its easier to look the other way than to get involved in the hard work of making our community stronger, its easy to choose the path that both major political parties in our country have chosen and which has brought us to this long cold stalemate, which is to believe that the ends justify the means and its okay to do or say the wrong thing if it brings about some envisioned greater good.

We are tempted daily. And we fail daily. By our actions we show that we love ourselves more than others, we love things more than people, and we love control more than compassion.

But when Jesus is tempted, he says, “We do not live by bread alone…power…or control, “but we live instead by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Jesus faced all these temptations we face and said NO to them, because he had already said YES to God.

And in our baptism, we are joined to Christ and God says YES to us.

God says YES to us and calls us his own. God says YES to us and promises faithfulness to us. God says YES to us and promises he’ll never leave us. And because in every YES there is a NO, in baptism God also says NO: God says NO to punishing us for our failing. God says NO to cutting us loose and leaving us on our own. God says NO to giving us what we deserve.
Every time we celebrate a baptism we hear an echo of this very wilderness scene.

The baptismal party – the family of the infant – or the adult, if an adult is being baptized, is asked three questions to which they are to respond NO and three to which they are invited to respond YES.

They are asked to say NO to the devil and all the forces that defy God, NO to the powers of this world that rebel against God, and NO to the ways of sin that draw us away from God.
And they are asked to say NO to these things… so that they can say YES when they are asked: Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

Within every YES there is a NO and within every NO there is a YES.

As a congregation we help one another say YES to God and help one another say NO to the things that would hurt us, or hurt one another, and lead us away from God. We live together in partnership trusting that once and for all God has said YES to us in welcome and unconditional love.

Every year on the first Sunday in Lent, the church hears this story – the story of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Even before the cross of Good Friday and empty tomb of Easter that are to come, we are able to see that the devil, darkness, and sin, which have their way with us on a daily basis, have no power over Jesus.

Jesus defeats all these dark powers because of the YES he has said eternally to God, and he takes our hand and leads us through the wilderness into that YES of God in which he lives. He leads us on this journey that begins with ashes and leads to life.

Thanks be to God.



Blessings and Warnings

When I was living in Baltimore and working at Project PLASE, a homeless shelter for men living with HIV and AIDS I was surprised and stirred by the common response to the ordinary morning question, “How are you?”
Now, I hear morning greetings in and around Richmond all the time. Nearly every day I hear people ask, “How are you?” And the responses I most often hear are the usual. “I’m okay,” “I’m good,” “everything is fine.”
But nearly all of the men at 201 North Avenue in Baltimore would answer the same question by saying, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Anthony, “How are you?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask William, “How’s it going?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Squeeze, “What’s going on?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
I have to say that it startled me to hear it. I had to pause when these guys who were so sick, who were hardly more that skin and bones, without much of anything in the world beyond what they could fit into a bookbag to call their own, many of them battling addiction, many of them estranged from family, who had to ask me for a bus token each morning because they couldn’t afford to ride the bus on their own… identified and designated themselves “blessed.”
Most of us probably have our own ideas about what it means to be blessed. I am not certain then or now I would begin my definition by describing these guys’ lives as blessed. But they did.
Jesus pronounces blessing in a way that is just as startling.
Jesus comes down the mountain with his twelve disciples and stands on a level place and invites us to hear — you are blessed, you are favored and you are given happiness when you find yourself with empty pockets, an empty belly, emptiness inside that leads to tears, and an empty social calendar and the experience of exclusion because of your love for him.
Blessed are you, Jesus says to the poor. You will be filled and yours is the Kingdom of God. You will laugh. You will leap for joy.
This is not the gospel of Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes where Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says blessed are the poor. And here in Luke, Jesus also pronounces woe.
Jesus invites us to hear that pain and grief are for you who have pockets that are full, bellies that are full, mouths that are full of laughter, and ears that are full of people’s praise for you, but woe to you who are wealthy and filled and carefree now, because you will be hungry, you will grieve, and you will cry because, Jesus says, you have already received what you wanted and what you worked for.
I don’t know about you but this is not the message that I most often hear from the world.
Most often, the message I think we receive is that blessing and happiness can be ours if we just choose it and work hard enough. It can be found somewhere down the strip of Broad street, in the stores of Short Pump, at the outlet malls, on Amazon; it can be experienced with a luxury vacation, the purchase of a new truck, a vacuum that can be programmed to work while we sleep, or whatever else.
How many times must we be disappointed until we learn deep down that the things we purchase won’t and cannot bring us happiness?
Soren Kierkegaard tells that story of walking by a shop window with a sign that read “we press pants.” He ran home to bring back his trousers, walked into the store and laid them on the counter. He said, “I’d like to have these pants pressed please.” “Oh, we don’t do that,” the man at the counter said. “Yes, but your sign says ‘We press pants.’” The man said, “Yes, but we don’t press pants, we print the sign that says ‘we press pants.’”
It’s an illusion. The world advertises that happiness is available through material over-consumption but the truth is it is all an illusion. And so there is a chasm between what the world promises will bring us happiness and the life Jesus invites us into and shows us how to live.
And you guys, what if Jesus is right?
What if equating success with having resources, relaxation, and reputation is hollow? What if Jesus can’t just be an add on to our life, one part of our identity, and someone to call on when we need divine intervention in the few and far between instances when we can’t figure out what’s next on our own?
Jesus calls us to experience the blessing that comes from emptying ourselves, and as we listen to his word it becomes clear that if we’re going to trust Jesus, it’s going to cost us everything. So, we have to ask what the proof would be that we can trust him.
And certainly, Jesus comes down to this level place and speaks these words of blessing and woe having just healed and cured and shown his power, but its Paul who gets to the heart of the issue and tells us what’s really at stake.
Paul says to the church in Corinth and to us: If Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith has been in vain and we are of all people most to be pitied.
If Jesus is not living and standing with God, sending his Spirit to gather us here today to receive his word and his supper, his forgiveness and his mercy, then this hour of your life is a waste, and worse yet, all of your worship and prayer and serving and sharing in his name has been a waste, and worst of all, there is no hope for this weary, broken, divided, violent and hurting world, so somebody declare a National Emergency and an International Call to Hopelessness.
If Jesus is not alive then the death that awaits us all simply quiets all that we are and all that we have been – our work, our memories, our tears and laughter, our energy, and our hope.
And certainly, if Jesus is not Lord of all, his words of blessing and woe make no sense at all. We might as well fill our pockets and our bellies and lives with as much stuff as we can, while we still can.
But in fact, Brothers and Sisters, the good news is that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. His heart which had been slowed and silenced by the cross, beats again and forever. His breath that was stopped by betrayal and hatred, breathes his Holy Spirit into our life again today. His work of healing and forgiveness which was buried under the rock and dirt of the ground is loose in the world to create new life in you and me, in his whole church and in the world.
Because Jesus is alive, sending us his forgiveness and compassionate mercy, these words of blessing and woe become an invitation.
Jesus stands on a level place, not above us but with us to issue these woes as a warning. Jesus doesn’t want any pain to come to you. He doesn’t want grief or hunger for you. His cross shows the lengths to which God would go to bring you and the whole world back to him!
From this perspective we can hear the woes as warnings. “Woe!” Jesus says, “Be careful. Don’t miss out on the blessing of God.” These are words of warning and instruction to people whom God loves.
About 2 years ago, in March of 2017, the youth group went down to Norfolk for a youth event. First Lutheran in Norfolk had invited us down for a lock-in called the Hunger Rumble – over the weekend we had bible study and we did service in the community. And everyone was invited to fast – to actually abstain from eating for a period of about 30 hours in order to get a small glimpse of the experience of hunger. We had a wonderful time and we collected a large amount of food for a local Norfolk food bank.
On the way back I was driving the van and Rob Burger was in the passenger seat. Rob was catching up on some work email, but we were also talking and the radio was on, and all of a sudden Rob looks up. And the surroundings did not look right. Come to find out, we had overshot our exit by about 20 miles. Rob, a good man and a good friend, but also a man of sound decision making and high expectations, looks at me for a response, and as he tells the story, my response was, “Dude, I’m just driving.”
Jesus knows that it is so easy to get off the path of following him. With these woes he cautions against following our own way, of being misdirected by wealth or our own comfort, of being oblivious to our surroundings and the people around us. We have people in the van with us after all, who are looking to us to be carried along the way of discipleship.
These words of Jesus, these woes and warnings to watch what our heart loves, are an invitation to repentance and to come back daily to journeying with him.
Jesus invites us to a level place where we share what we have.
The poor are blessed, and they are a blessing. Anthony and William and Squeeze didn’t just befriend me in Baltimore. They invited me to church at a time when I wasn’t sure the church was something I wanted to be a part of. The people I worked with, all women and men who had been through the experience of homelessness and had gotten their lives together through help, and prayer, and the ministry of the church invited me to their homes where they showed me why they were blessed, because God had given them enough for another day.
We are renewed in the path of Christ when we meet him in the poor. When we realize the ways we are poor ourselves.
Christ blesses those who are empty from the cross. With absolutely nothing left and completely emptied he pours out God’s love on you who are poor and you who are rich, you who are hungry and you who are filled, you who are weeping and you who are laughing, you who are excluded and you who are spoken well of.
So Sisters and Brothers come to the table and receive God’s blessing.

One Little Word

We come to worship each week and it is interesting and, I think, beautiful to pause for a moment and think that our Lord Jesus also gathered in a similar way to worship.
We don’t know everything about the practice of worship in the synagogue during the time of Jesus’ life and ministry but we do know that there was a liturgy and an order to the weekly gathering, somewhat similar to the liturgy we practice this morning.
We know, for example, that it was customary for a teacher to stand and read from the scrolls of the holy scriptures and then for the teacher to take a seat to interpret what they had read and teach the people.
So, Jesus, freshly baptized, begins his public ministry by coming to the synagogue of his hometown on the sabbath day to worship. As a teacher among the people he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he unties the string and unrolls it, he finds this powerful, prophetic passage:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As was common practice, Jesus then sits down to interpret the scripture, but what Jesus says for an interpretation, no one is ready for.
What Jesus says next is not what these hometown Nazarenes would have expected from his very first sermon. These are words from Isaiah are words of promise and words that all imagined described a far-distant future. But Jesus is saying that he has come to bring God’s ultimate reality to the present.
With one little word, Jesus calls their hearts and minds to be open to God’s immanence crashing into the present. With one little word, Jesus calls us to be open to God showing up in the present. With one little word: “Today.”
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Lots of teachers have taught about the meaning of “today,” of course. From the popular adage of “Carpe Diem” during the time of the Roman Empire, which they took from the much more ancient teaching of the Greeks, the idea of seizing the day and squeezing everything we can out of it, has come all the way down to us, which we see when teachers teach mindfulness, and the idea that power that comes from being present to the moment at hand.
Jesus is not the only teacher who has lifted up the importance of “today,” and, in fact, we almost don’t need a teacher to understand how it differs from the past and the future.
Life itself teaches us, somewhat brutally, that we can never go back to the past and make different decisions no matter how desperately we might wish we could. We also know that we can’t always affect the future in the ways that we would like. It is often beyond our control as well.
But we are always being given this moment of now; this gift of today.
And I think we get that. We understand that very well.
But Jesus says its more significant than we thought: TODAY is when and where God encounters us and meets us.
Today is not just a gift, but a gift from God who is present in this moment and is calling to us in this very moment.
Certainly, we tell the story of God’s activity in our past and sing and write and celebrate all the ways God has saved us, has provided for us, and has led us in the past.
And certainly, we know and tell about how God promises to prepare a future for us that is good, and a future with hope.
But we meet God in this moment. God encounters us today.

In some sense, there is no difference between us and the Israelites gathered around the Water Gate of Jerusalem with Nehemiah and Ezra.
These Israelites had been taken into captivity far away in Babylon, and for a generation were not free – not free to be and not free to worship – and now they have returned home and they have rebuilt the city and the temple and this second generation of returnees is gathered together in the morning sun to listen to the reading of the books of Moses, the beginning of our scriptures, that tell of God creating us, extending a covenant to us, and promising to bless us to be a blessing.
And these people in the bright morning sun hear this story and these words for the very first time. They hear the reading of scripture and its interpretation and all the people weep and mourn for their sins, for the ways that their actions have lead them far away from God, but Nehemiah says, “Listen, don’t weep and mourn, but instead eat the fat of the meat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for this day – today – is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Today is the gift of God encountering us again, for the first time.
Just because we trusted God in the past doesn’t mean trusting him today has been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to trust him.
Just because we have been open to a prayer life in the past, doesn’t mean that our prayers for today have been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to open your life to him.
Again and again, Jesus shows us that this very day, this very moment is holy. Listen to what Jesus has to say about it:
Out in the village, when Jesus meet the tax collector Zacchaeus, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” And Zacchaeus is able to stop and really listen.
On the cross, Jesus says to the man being crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise and the man is able to see who Jesus really is.”
And when the disciples come to Jesus and ask how to pray, Jesus says to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. And give us today our daily bread.”
Jesus instructs us, who have so much, to ask God, “Give us today our daily bread,” because we have to be reminded we need God. We have to be reminded that God recreates the world every day, and that without him we perish. And that the only way we can connect with God is in the present moment.

This past week, our middle and high school youth and their families have been handing out what they call blessing bags to people in our community hoping for daily bread.
On Monday of this past week, as a way to celebrate MLK Day, some of the middle and high school youth gathered in the Star Lodge for a day of service.
We started the day thinking together about all the ways God has blessed us in the past, about the ways God is blessing us in the present and at this time in our life, and about the promises God makes to bless us in the future. We shared these with one another and remembered again how God blesses us to be a blessing.
So then we formed ourselves into an assembly line to make what we had come to call “Blessing Bags.”
We took about 50 gallon-sized Ziploc bags and filled each one with a lip balm, a toothbrush, a tube of sunscreen, a couple protein bars, hand-knitted scarves and socks made by our friends and partners in ministry at Hanover Adult Center, a hand-written word of hope from the scriptures, and various other goodies.
And at the end of a half-hour we had a large pile of blessing bags. Everyone in the group took a couple bags home so that throughout this week, with our families, we could give these bags to people around town who look like they could use one.
Youth have been texting me this week to tell me about how they were able to hand their bag to someone and say, “God loves you.”
Our young men and women seemed surprised at how easy it was to give and how grateful the men and women who received them were.
A man from Russia here in the US with a 2-year-old daughter and waiting on immigration papers said that just a chance to talk with another person about his challenges meant everything in the world to him.
A family said they were in awe that the person who received their bag said “God bless you!” and blessed them when they thought they were the ones doing the blessing.
Families told me that they continued to pray for the people they met on the street throughout the rest of the week.

Isaiah writes:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing, through you and me, and the ministry of the congregation God has gathered here today. Through feeding ministries, through friendship, and through service to those who are crying out to God for help.

Like Paul’s image of a body with many members, we are each given our own unique gifts to share, and the Spirit binds us all to Jesus, who gathers us here around his table for the meal that feeds us with enough trust in God for today.

How beautiful to pause and think:

In this meal, Jesus is placed in our hands, and then Jesus calls us back into the world to use these same hands as he lives in us, and through us, for the sake of a world in need.

Not only yesterday. And not only tomorrow. But today.

Loose in the World

On Thursday of last week I was hanging out with Cheryl Baggs, our Faith Formation Director, and Tod Mitchell, our brand-new Facilities Manager, and thinking out loud about how high school seniors are really getting serious about their choice of college.
Tod and his wife Jackie have sent three off on their own and Cheryl is getting ready to send her oldest son to college in the fall.
Both agreed that parenting is a profound blessing, and you do all you can do as a parent to form a child, you try to teach them and shape them and help them to come to a place where they can think critically, act independently, and live confidently. You try to prepare them for a life beyond yourself. But at a critical point, all you can do – all that’s left to do – is to say “I love you,” and to turn them loose in the world.
At his baptism, God the Father says “I love you” to Jesus and then turns Jesus loose in the world.
Just as a parent shapes a child with their values and the child’s life is an extension of their own, so Jesus is let loose in the world to bring God’s values to the world and to be an extension of God in his ministry.
At Jesus’ baptism, God looks down on him and speaks, and this is the first time we hear God’s voice in Luke’s gospel. Angels have spoken to Zechariah and Mary, magi have worshipped Jesus as divine, but only now does God speak, and he say, “You are my Son. I love you. With you I am well-pleased.”
Now, in Jesus of Nazareth, God makes baptism something new. No longer will it be a ritual washing that communicates our best intentions to do better and love God more. Now baptism is the opening of heaven and the pouring out of the Spirit that moved over the waters at creation, bringing about a new creation in the one who stands under God’s voice, which says, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”
It is significant that God speaks these word of blessings and love over Jesus as a gift — before he has done any work: before he has cured diseases or healed anyone, before he has preached a sermon or taught a single lesson, before he has cast out demons or bested the devil, before he has raised a person from the dead, and before he has stilled the storm.
Jesus hasn’t don’t anything yet, really, but God speaks words of love and encouragement and lets Jesus loose in the world.
In fact, its these words of love and blessing that make Jesus ministry possible. With these words and the gift of the Holy Spirit God empowers Jesus life and work.
These words of love and blessing make it possible to heal, cure, preach, and point to God. Only the love of the Father gives Jesus the power to be the one who hold the winnowing fork to clear his threshing floor and separate the wheat for his barn and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Only the love of God at work in Jesus makes him the one who burns my brokenness and sin and your brokenness and sin– our chaff – as he works in us through the days and the weeks and the years and the lifetime we have been given, as we spend time with him in prayer and reading the word and living in Christian community.
In baptism, God pours out his love on you and me and we are made to be a part of God. We die to ourselves and are raised up to live in Jesus Christ.
We are made a part of his team.
A few weeks ago, we were really having football fever in our house. Sarah is a huge Green Bay Packers fan and we had been watching the Packers on tv. We were outside in the front yard and in the road and the children wanted to play football.
They aren’t able at 3 and 4 years old to comprehend many of the rules or even much beyond getting touchdowns, tackling, and end-zone dancing, but they knew that a football field had to have a logo in the middle of it.
So we got out the sidewalk chalk and I asked them what logo they wanted me to draw. They agreed that the logo should be Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, because Lucia, said, “That’s our team.”
We are made a part of Jesus’ team in our baptism.
He is our leader and he faithfully calls the plays that his Father would want us to run: He calls the play of forgiving, of bearing with our enemies, of working for healing. Jesus calls plays that we wouldn’t run if it was just up to us.
In our reading from Acts we hear how God the Father and Jesus his Son have called a play that has everyone sitting on their heels. They have turned the Holy Spirit loose in the world which brings people together, even though they wouldn’t choose one another.
These Samaritans and Hebrews would not choose to talk with one another, work together, or be a part of the same team, but the word of God is loose in the world and the Spirit sends Peter and John down to them to lay hands on them, pray with them, and be the vehicle through whom the Spirit will come to them.
We live in a world the plays up our differences – socioeconomic differences, differences of race, political differences – and we talk to people who are like us less and less, work together only if necessary, we build walls and imagine those who are different from us or who disagree with us to be evil.
The Holy Spirit says that all who are in Jesus are on the same team. The Spirit will separate our prejudice, judgment, and broken relationships out as chaff and leave us with our shared humanity, all people made in God’s image and people whom God has spoken over with the words, “You are my beloved child. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
From Jesus’ baptism I think we learn three things about ourselves:
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, we can be obedient to God. Before the cross, Jesus kneels on the Mount of Olives and prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done.” Because Jesus is obedient to God and we are joined to Jesus, we can be obedient.
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, our prayers have power. Jesus’ prayer has the power to open heaven and when we pray our prayer is joining Jesus’ prayer, already in progress. We do not have the pressure of beginning to know what to ask for but are invited to join our Lord as he prays.
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, we are called to mission. God speaks over you and me, before you have done any work or any good thing: “You are my beloved child.” And yet, we are reminded that in that love we are sent out to a world in need, because God loves the world so much to and wants its healing through our lives.
Brothers and sisters, rejoice! We are baptized and our whole life is found in God, who turns us loose in the world. As a team.
Thanks be to God!

Expecting More

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, And caroling out in the snow, there’ll be scary ghost stories, And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”

As the old song goes…“There’ll be much mistltoeing, And hearts will be glowing, when loved ones are near, because it’s… the… most… STRESSFUL time of the year!”

Well, at least that’s how some of us feel that the song should go.

Because for many of us, between parties and shopping and baking and wrapping and negotiating traffic and fighting the crowds and taking on too much and traveling or welcoming travelers…

…and in the midst of it all just living with the anticipation…

…and all the while knowing that this Christmas will not be able to live up to the high expectations our culture places on the need to reach the heights of the glories of Christmases long, long ago, and in some magical way exceed them… because of all this Christmastime has become a season of high stress.

This time of year reminds me of how once, when I was in school, we had a professor who gave us an inventory, a test, that was intended to measure a person’s mental health. It was essentially a list of 100 or so possible life events – some large, some smaller – things like marriage, divorce, a move, death of a parent, death of a pet, enrolling in school, losing a job, gaining a job, and all sorts of other things, some good, some bad – but with each life event worth a certain number of points. The idea was that good or bad, significant events and transitions add up and exert a kind of exponential pressure on us.

So we were to take this inventory and give ourselves a certain number of points for each of the events we had personally experienced in the last year. We were to total them up and in that way we would find out where our mental health stood on the spectrum from healthy to being a candidate for a nervous breakdown.

I don’t know what Mary’s score would be on this inventory, but it would be high.

Mary, a young girl from the smallest of towns, with probably not-the-most life-experience-ever is engaged to be married – which is a wonderful time in a person’s life, but stressful – she is anticipating a move, beginning to say goodbye to family and friends, preparing for a new home with all the arrangements and transitions that this entails.

And Mary has just discovered that although unwed, and although a virgin, she is pregnant. And so, in addition to all the other unsettled things in her life, she contemplates the words the messenger from God has spoken to her:

That the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her and conceived in her a son. Now, in addition to everything else, she contemplates what it might mean that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob, and whose Kingdom will have no end.

This sounds wonderful, of course, until we remember what all this really means for Mary.

Last year, a member of our congregation gave our children a movie called “the Nativity Story,” which was made in 2006 and stars Kesha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaacs. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The film takes you through the entire series of events leading up to Jesus birth with incredible artistry and acting and music, but the most shocking scene is when Mary, having been away visiting Elizabeth, returns home to Nazareth.

Her pregnancy is visible and the reaction from the people in the town is astonishing. First her neighbor’s see and stop what they’re doing – they stop working, they stop talking, and their jaws drop in disbelief. Her father and then her mother see her as she arrives and cannot hide their heartbroken bewilderment and profound disappointment. Mary is enveloped in shame and humiliation right in front of nearly every relationship that mattered in her life.

We think we feel the crush of pressure to live up to people’s expectations of us?

Mary is like us in every way – she knows all the stress we experience — almost certainly more.

We are like Mary in every way – both of us enduring almost more pressure from life than we can stand –and yet, Mary’s response is not to complain but to say without reservation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

Our response to this season, and to the pressures we face in these days we are living can be that of of frustration, of trepidation, of fear, of grinchiness, of relief when we think about how it will all be over soon, but we learn from Mary what our response should be as we remember that God has chosen to come into the world in Jesus:

In those days, we hear, carrying God in her body, Mary sets out with eagerness, with enthusiasm, with haste, unafraid of what anyone will think, unconcerned with anything else, to visit Elizabeth and to rejoice together at what God is doing in their lives.

Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary replies: “My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and humiliation and has done great things for me.”

Mary and Elizabeth show us how to rejoice that God in Christ has come to be WITH US in the stress, the pressure, the humiliation, the crushing inability to rise to the occasion, and the disappointment.

God has come to be WITH US in it all – in the midst of our addiction, our depression, the violence that robs us of life. God has come to be WITH US in our grief as we long for those who are no longer with us, and whom we miss at Christmas. God has come to be WITH US, as one of us — and in Jesus, to know our limitations.

Jesus has come for us, as the letter to the Hebrews says, so that our lives are sanctified once and for all through the offering of his body.

There is a couple in our congregation who put out a nativity set – like many of us, for sure. But when our seedling small group gathered at their house a couple weeks ago and I saw their little wooden nativity, it absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen anything like it.

All the pieces were there – the diligent father, the expectant mother, the unassuming camels and sheep, and the little child, but looming over it all was a large wooden cross, standing on a pedestal right there in the manger.
For a moment it seemed out of place….premature. But as this couple know so well: Jesus is born in the shadow of the cross.

Jesus birth is for the purpose of bringing God’s desires to fruition:

To bring mercy and compassion to those who fear him, to scatter the arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their places of power and to lift up the poor and undistinguished, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed, to come to the help of his children, according to the promise he made to Israel…
…and the Lord does this through the gift of his life.

The Lord came to save us and to love us and to fulfill his promises, and Mary shows us how to receive the Lord with joyful expectation.

There is a poem that has been going around facebook this week. It was on a lot of people’s feeds and getting a lot of shares. I saw it on a good friend’s page. It’s the shortest of poems. A poem written by an Australian poet named Pam Brown.

It goes like this:

“We expect too much at Christmas. It’s got to be magical. It’s got to go right. Feasting. Fun. The perfect present. All that anticipation. Take it easy. Love’s the thing. The rest is tinsel.”

Lots of shares, likes, and loves, commend this profound advice as wise words to live by. Love is the thing. Its not all about the trimmings and not about all the trappings; and perhaps, as Pam Brown says, we do expect too much of Christmas, but another way to look at it would be what we expect too LITTLE of Christmas.

The same God who promised Bethlehem that she would be the place from which a shepherd would be born to feed God’s people, makes a promise to us.

The same God who promised Zechariah and Elizabeth that they would have a baby in their old age who would prepare a way for the Lord, makes a promise to us.

The same God who promised Mary she would give birth even though it seemed impossible, makes a promise to us.

This same God has come to us in our living Lord Jesus Christ, born to a virgin, crucified on the cross, and risen from the tomb. He comes to us again today and tomorrow, bearing God’s promise.

He promises to speak to us through his word and to feed us with his supper, to forgive or sins and to make a home for us with God.

If we expect anything less that to be with God and join the angel chorus that hails his birth, we have expected too little of Christmas.

Our God makes promises and keeps promises, and he promises us that he will come again to this world being crushed by our desires to be perfect and save ourselves – once and for all he will lift us up, fill us with good things, and remember the promise of his mercy forever.

He will come again, and I don’t know about mistletoeing, but hearts will be glowing, and loved ones will be gathered near, and all creation will join in Mary’s song of praise:

“My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and has done great things for me.”

Yes, that’s how the song will go.

Thanks be to God!

Face to Face

Brandon and Emily hosted our young adult seedling small group at their house this past week and as we read scripture, prayed, and talked, one of the leader’s guide questions inspired Brandon to tell us a story about how he had been on his way home from work one night in the past week.
He had stopped someplace for supper and sat at the bar. He ordered a drink and something to eat and found himself sitting next to a guy who was also there for supper. As they sat and ate, God was present, as he always is, and he came up in conversation.
The man sitting next to Brandon made it clear that he was no friend of God. He sounded hostile to those who would call themselves Christians, and conjectured that the biggest problem our country is facing is that we need freedom from religion. Again, and again he said, we need “freedom from religion.” Brandon listened, tried to understand, and shared his perspective about God’s graciousness, but at the end of the meal Brandon left fairly certain that he had not changed this guy’s mind.
We are looking for Jesus and waiting for him to return, trusting the promise that he is coming to bring renewal, redemption, and healing to us and to the whole world – to those of us who gather on a cold and misty Sunday morning to praise him and to those who sit with a chip on their shoulder at the bar.
Like an unexpected knock or ringing of the doorbell, Jesus will come, and open the door so that we see the guest on our doorstep — we will see our Lord face to face, and the whole world will see him. He will appear to all flesh, to all creation, and to the whole world. And Jesus encourage us to be ready for that day, to hope in that day above every other hope in our life, to yearn for that day.
With his own passion and cross just ahead of him, he describes the Day of his reappearing with apocalyptic, end-of-the-world language:
“There will be indications in the sun and moon and the stars, and even on the earth there will be distress and anguish among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and from terror of what is coming into the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the cloud with power and great glory.”
But you can almost imagine Jesus finishing these words and then twirling around on his barstool and looking you dead in the eye when he says, “But, now when YOU see these things begin to take place, you stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption and release are drawing near.”
Because there is a distinction between how the world will receive this promised Day to come, and how we are to receive this same Day. The world may find itself in anguish and despair, but we are encouraged to stand, and to straighten ourselves up with confidence, because the Lord promises that whatever this Day may be like or look like, it is for our good.
We can trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
One of my best friends in high school and college was Brent Wilson. In high school, Brent drove a Bronco II, had great taste in music, was really smart, and always super interesting to talk to. Back then, we had a lot of mutual friends with whom we hung out, but a lot of times the two of us would get into adventures on our own.
One night really late, we were out and Brent said he had to go by his Dad’s office for some reason. Brent’s Dad was a dentist and so we drove to the office park where his Dad’s practice was located. Everything was really dark, and we parked, and Brent had a key, and we went into the office and turned on the lights.
Brent went into the office area, and while he was doing whatever he was doing, getting some piece of paper or a making copy as I remember, I poked my nose into the rooms where the business really happened. I eased back into the kooshie dentist chairs, looked at the white, futuristic looking robotic dental arms, the large hanging lights, and the little sinks where you’re instructed to spit.
“Hey Brent, does your Dad clean your teeth?” I just though of it in the moment.
“Yeah,” He called.
“Just whenever.”
I had never really thought about it, but it turned out that Brent never really made an appointment to see the dentist like the rest of us. He would just be there with his Dad sometime and hop in the chair for a quick check-up, plaque removal, and deep clean. No big deal.
Now, our children, who three and four, are scared silly to go to the dentist like a lot of kids. The dentist we go to gives out stickers at the end of a good visit, hoping that if there are tears and yelling, (which who am I kidding, there always are) — at least everything ENDS on a good note.
Many adults, if not outright scared of a trip to the dentist, are at least apprehensive about the prospect.
The difference between my good friend Brent and all of us who are scared of the dentist is the kind of relationship we have with the dentist.
Because I get uneasy when my appointment for a teeth-cleaning pops up on the calendar, but candidly, I don’t even recall my dentist’s name. I see him twice a year, after all.
But Brent rides in the car and shares holidays with his dentist. They watch Carolina basketball together, talk on the phone, and eat meals together. They love one another. Because their relationship is so close every day, Brent is not scared of the day when he sees his dentist face to face.
One day, the whole world will be brought to its consummation and stand before God our Maker. The difference in how we will receive that Day, and the difference in how we can live our life in the meantime, has to do with the relationship we have NOW with the God we will see on that Day face to face.
And God comes to us now in his word, in bread and wine, in water, in community, so that we can trust he is real, so that we can learn to see that he is also with us when we ride in car, celebrate holidays, talk on the phone, eat our meals, when we remember his kindness and when we have a chip on our shoulder, when we’re able to articulate his goodness and when we fail miserably.
In all these things Christ is present to assure us that there is no need to faint with fear in the face of the worst the world can offer; war and violence in the news, hunger or addiction, feelings of hopelessness or chronic illness; brokenness in our homes, in our hearts, or in our lives, because God has initiated a relationship with us in Jesus, so that the God who already knows US intimately has also made HIMSELF known in the birth and life, teaching and healing, and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
He has come to us, sent by God our Father, who made us in love, who delights to watch us grow, who wants the very best for us, who cares for our health, who is there to welcome us home, and who also wants to give us freedom from fear.
Yes, we are sad about all the ways this world is broken and in need of care, but Jesus says “do not be afraid.”
Heaven and earth will pass away, but our Living Lord’s words will not pass away:
He says to us with love, “This is my Body and Blood, given for you, do this for the remembrance of me.”
He says from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
He says to us after his resurrection, “You are my witnesses.”
These are words that will not pass away.
With these words in our hearts, we are on our guard so that we are not weighed down, drunk with the worries of this life.
We are not afraid.
The consensus in our small group at Brandon and Emily’s house was that we know what the guy with the chip on his shoulder at the bar feels like sometimes. We also would sometimes like to choose freedom from the constraints of following Jesus.
We would rather not live under his demands to forgive those we don’t want to forgive, to listen to those who bore us or infuriate us, to give of our money and time and selves without reserve to a world in need – but to imagine that this kind of life would be more-free is a trap.
In following Jesus and his way of life we receive true freedom – freedom from fear, as he teaches us to trust him with this day and all the days to come.
The. Very. Last. Parable. Jesus tells, as the cross looms on the horizon is this: look at the fig tree and all the trees, as soon as they sprout leaves you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
Jesus invites us into life, budding, growing…
…like a seedling group working out its call to discipleship,
…like a congregation gathering gifts for members of the larger community to make the celebration of Christ’s birth brighter, …like children and adults bringing cans of food for the food pantry,
…like women and men taking time to listen to those who feel estranged from God, trying to understand, sharing the perspective of God’s graciousness, and trusting God’s promise to increase our love for one another and for all.
On the great Day to come, and on this day, the Lord who gives us life makes us to stand up, raise our heads, and trust soon and very soon, we will see him face to face.
Thanks be to God!
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Luke 21:25-36]

Never Let Go

“Bring Peace to Earth Again,” the hymn we just sang, was written in a collaboration between two people. The music was written by Perry Nelson, who some of you may remember as our own organist and musician here at Epiphany.

The writer of the text for the hymn was a man named Herman Stuempfle, a pastor and professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg.

Perry Nelson had attended a lecture in 1995 at Gettysburg and the two men met. Subsequently, Pastor Price and Perry Nelson invited Stuempfle to Epiphany to preach and to participate in a festival of his hymns, and at the end of that gathering he gave the lyric of this hymn to Perry Nelson to see if he could write a tune, which he did.

Stuempfle said he was moved to write the lyrics of the hymn because of the state of the world at the time – particularly, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which had only just happened.

The hymn they wrote together is a plea for God to have mercy and bring peace to earth again, and dare I say, that 23 years later it speaks to us and through us, even more vividly than when it was written.

Back in 1995, I don’t believe we could have ever have imagined the school shootings to come. Today our country continues fighting the War in Afghanistan, which is the longest war in American history, with no end in sight. The epidemic of men and women who are losing their life to drug abuse is ongoing. The death toll rises in California where loved ones are lost, and the elderly were unable to run to safety, and whole families have been erased from the earth.

We still cry out for peace.

It can feel like things are unraveling, collapsing, and that the end of the world is on its way, but as real as that feels, we are aware that every generation has felt this way. Jesus calls them birth pangs. And while the immediacy of the moment in which we live seems more urgent than the secondhand account of someone else’s experience in previous times, the contractions of these birth pangs have been felt in every generation…

Truly, it must have felt like nothing less than the end of the world to faithful Hebrews on the day the temple was destroyed. Jennike Duignam has illustrated what it may have looked like: collapsing columns and falling stones and debris. This is the picture Jesus paints for his disciples as they walk out of the temple – that one day the stones of this great place of worship would be thrown down.

This would have seemed like the end of the world for these disciples. This is the place where they had come to worship all their lives, the place where their parents had come to worship all their lives, the place where their grandparents had come to worship all their lives, the place that housed the tablets of the ten commandments, the ark of the covenant, the memories of God’s deliverance of their people and the hope of their connection with God. It would have seemed like the end of the world to imagine it in a heap of rubble.

But walking out of the temple, a disciple observes that the temple is made of truly large stones, prompting Jesus to predict they will all be thrown down, and that idea rattles around in these disciples heads as they walk together out of the city gate, as they hike through the Kidron Valley, and as they sit down together on the Mount of Olives. From this vista on the Mount of Olives they can look back at this temple gleaming in the sunlight and try to imagine the land without its largest structure, and they get up the courage to ask when this will happen and how they will know.

And Jesus extends and expands his assertion, and begins to tell them about and the birth pangs that will come – wars and rumors of war, nations rising against nations, the earth crying out in seismic despair, leaving people hungry and in need…
Well this – just what Jesus said would happen – is happening all around us…and it is happening in our own lives…

We die little deaths every day: We experience a sickness that brings a new normal and the end to life as we knew it. Or we go through a divorce and the subsequent new living arrangements. Or we experience the death of a loved one that brings terrible loneliness. Or we experience the end of a pregnancy and the hope of a child turns to grief. Or, we just don’t make the team. We don’t get the internship. Or we lose our job.

All these little deaths are the end of worlds.

But in all this turmoil, when we are vulnerable, Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.”

When all this turmoil and chaos is happening all around us, Jesus wants to be the one to lead us. He wants to teach us. He wants to shepherd us. He wants to be with us in all the joys and celebrations this life has to offer and he wants to lead us through all the deaths of our life.

He doesn’t want us to settle for second-rate imitations; he doesn’t want us to be wowed like the disciples, who look up and say, “what large homes, and what large cars, what large retirement accounts, what a large following on social media, that’s what life’s all about!” and Jesus doesn’t want us to fall for the illusions cast by the political parties, by consumer-culture advertisers, or celebrity personalities, who claim to be able to lead us and be our guide.

Only Jesus can lead us to the ultimate destination of our life because only Jesus is the Source of our life. Only Jesus can lead us beyond this ephemeral and frail existence, through death, to the life God has prepared for us. Because only he has known death and defeated the power of death.

And our risen Lord Jesus now stands at the edge of time, calling us to himself. He calls to us with healing and life, extended as a free gift for you and for me and for all of creation, even while he is with us in the struggle.

William Stafford, the poet, wrote a poem called the “Way It Is”:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Jesus is with us among the things that change so that we don’t get lost, even when tragedies happen, even through the hurt, through the dying, and through the suffering.

Jesus holds us and Jesus doesn’t let go of us. He holds us through his word, through the meal, and through the life we life together.

He holds us when we reach out for him, but also when we try to run from him, and when we ignore him.
Jesus hold us though it all.

In baptism he has grasped us and holds on forever – and nothing can break his grasp: not drug addiction, not divorce, not fire, not gun violence, not war, not death – nothing can take us from his embrace.

Through the cross and empty tomb, Christ has won the war with death, and so we can be unafraid of death – we are able to declare its impotence and powerlessness, we are able to say things change but God’s mercy remains the same, we are able to consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds and participate in God’s healing to the world.

As Jesus sits on this mountain vista, the Mount of Olives, with his disciples, overlooking the temple — they can’t know yet, but he will not run to protect himself, but he will enter back through the city gate, and on the very grounds of this temple he will stand trial before the chief priest, and he will be condemned and sent to Pilate, who will sentence him to death. The Romans will burn the temple and it will crumble and in the dust-cloud that follows all that will be found is chaos and violence. But Jesus will appear to these disciples, he will recommission these men who will desert him, and send them out. He forgives them and entrusts them to tell the news that he is alive.

But before all that, they sit together here on the Mount of Olives, gazing at the temple and trying to imagine it.
This scene is depicted in our other drawing in the bulletin this week.

Something about this event in Jesus’ life captured Harper Doherty’s imagination.

Harper is in the fourth grade and sometime during the course of this past week she and her family were reading the scripture for this Sunday and she was inspired to do a drawing to represent these events. Carmen, Harper’s mom, asked the office about where the bulletin art comes from and we explained that we already had an artist and there was a cover prepared for the bulletin, but that we could include Harper’s drawing as well, and so you can find it on the last page of your bulletin.

What is so wonderful about Harper’s drawing is that she has depicted Jesus with his disciples on the mountain overlooking all that is to come, and he is reaching out to hold their hands.

harper's temple picWe are not very different than these disciples – in need of forgiveness, often unable to see the vision Jesus casts of loving and forgiving, unable to see that Jesus is truly in control of our life even in the midst of the birth pangs all around us.

But just like in this picture, Jesus who reaches out to hold the hands of his disciples, truly reaches out to hold onto us through all that has been, all that is, and all that is to come.

We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future, and we know that the one who holds the future also holds us in love, and these birth pangs will give way to a glorious birth when Christ will return with all of God’s healing for this weary world.

Thanks be to God.


The Subject of Active Verbs

It’s official. The build up to Halloween is now as long and involved as the hoopla preceding Christmas. The entire month of October is filled with candy swaps, costumes, parades, and parties. And the truth is – it’s a lot of fun! So why not?

We watch children put on their costumes and become someone else.

Even if you’re no longer a trick-or-treater, I bet you remember what it was like to put on a mask and become whatever you can imagine. You can be something else. You can be someone else – a character, a persona, a villain, a hero – and these children, they get into it with everything they’ve got, so in a gaggle of kids all dressed up, you better keep your eyes on them if you think there’s one who is supposed to come home with you.

These children dress up but when they take off their masks, they reveal who they really are.

On the night before his arrest, Jesus sits with his disciples and says, “The person who knows my commandments and keeps them – that’s who loves me. And the person who loves me, will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them – and I will make myself plain to them.”

The people Jesus has met along the way in his travels up to this night have tried to dress him up as many things – his opponents have called him a false teacher, a deceiver, and even accused him of being demon-possessed, but now, in this upper room, it is becoming truly plain and painfully clear to the disciples that there is no one waiting in the wings to rescue Jesus. The world that Jesus came to love will not accept him, they will seek to terminate him, and they will gnash their teeth with celebratory ecstasy when they see his body go cold and rigid.

The disciples know who Jesus really is, making all this all the more painful, and so Judas, son of James dares to ask Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will make yourself plain to us, and not to the world?”

This question from Judas isn’t some historical nugget that becomes anachronistic when voiced out loud today. We also ask with urgency, “Lord, how is it that you make yourself plain to us, and not to the world?”

Today we mark five hundred and one years since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, when Dr. Luther and his compatriots did everything in their power to make the gospel more plain to the world.

Painstakingly, they translated scripture so people could read the word in their own language. By day, and by candlelight, they reworked the liturgy of worship so people could hear the word and understand the meaning. They wrote hymns that would connect with people, they explicated the scriptures into new catechisms and a plethora of teaching documents, they preached, and taught, and argued – to make the gospel more vibrant, powerful, persuasive…

So what happened?

There is no less confusion in the world today about who God is, and perhaps a whole lot more.

Five hundred years ago, the fight was about what could be said with certainty about God, but everyone pretty much took for granted that God existed. Today its not even clear there’s much of a fight, as people stream away from the church in pursuit of more “relevant” experiences, seeing little to no need for a place in a community that believes in a Creator who is still moving and active in the world.

What is clear according to Jonathan Merrit, is that the way we talk about God and faith has changed. In an article which ran on October 13th in the New York Times- and which begins rather provocatively- he writes:

“More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time.”

You could probably help me make a list of the reasons we don’t talk about God. It can be offensive to others, God is mysterious and we feel reluctant to say definitively what God is up to, and we don’t want to sound like fanatics and television evangelists. Today we pray for our Sisters and Brothers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg as their community is ripped apart in the aftermath of loved ones murdered and violence perpetrated because of their faith, and we acknowledge that there may be consequences for our faith and our speech.

Almost certainly, one of the main reasons is that, like it or not, the wider culture influences us.

And according to Jonathan Merrit, in a survey of 1,000 American adults conducted last year by the Barna Group, it was made plain that most Americans — more than three-quarters — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.

More than one-fifth of respondents admit that in the past year they have not had a single spiritual conversation. Six in 10 say that in the past year they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions.

An unbelievably small amount of Americans – 7 percent – say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. But according to Mr. Merrit’s findings, here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly are hardly distinguishable from anyone else: Only 13 percent of Christians who attend church regularly had a spiritual conversation this past year at least once a week.

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced what Mr. Merrit is talking about, in myself and in others.

It seems to me, we are fairly comfortable talking about Epiphany, about how much we love serving with friends from church, I would be happy to tell you what a true blessing it was to go to Virginia Supportive Housing last weekend and serve lunch to residents and play bingo with them; it is easy to talk about the beauty of the music of worship, the importance of this building where we gather, the value of faith formation, or the awesome people we know and love from this community.

But most of us have a harder time talking about God’s activity in the world.

Both of your pastors were formed by a doctor of the church named Tom Ridenhour. He taught us homiletics, which is just a fancy word for preaching, and one of the things he drilled into us and all of his students and anyone who would listen was that in our preaching and in our speaking as Christians, we should make God the subject of active verbs.

As in the sentence: God loves the word, “God” is the subject, “loves” is the active verb, and what God loves is “the world.”

But that’s harder these days. And its not just you and me.

According to the same article in the New York Times, this change in language has been happening on a large scale for a century. Using a program connected to Google and searching a collection of millions of books, newspapers, webpages and speeches published between 1500 and 2008 – the time of the Reformation and almost to this day— it is possible to find the frequency of word usage between these years, and the data shows that most religious and spiritual words have been declining in the English-speaking world since the early 20th century.

According to the findings, it’s not just big churchy terms like “salvation” or “eschatology,” which one could argue would only be used by the theologically erudite, but it’s also the language of Christian virtues — words like “love,” “patience,” “gentleness” and “faithfulness” — All these have become much more rare.

Words that connote humility – words, like “modesty,” fell by 52 percent. Words that connote compassion, like “kindness,” dropped by 56 percent. Words that convey gratitude, like “thankfulness,” declined by 49 percent.

Apparently people talk about God less frequently these days, and so we ask, along with Judas, son of James, “Lord, how is it that you make yourself plain to us and not to the world?”

And Jesus responds, “Those who love me! Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

In other words, in God’s infinite good humor, he has made us the answer to our own question. God does intend to make plain to the world who he is, and to reveal himself and his plans for us, and he intends to do it through those who love him – through you and through me, through those who treasure his word and keep it and meditate on it and allow our lives to be formed by it, and are brave enough to speak it.

We are the ones who God calls to speak his word. We are the ones God has invited to tell the story of his love. And God sends his Spirit to help us. The Spirit will teach us. The Spirit will remind us. The Spirit will give us peace.

We are the ones, like the prophet Jeremiah, who have been sent by God to speak the words into the ears of those around us. Like Jeremiah, we may face hostility. We may be reluctant to speak about God because we fear that the word of God will be rejected, ignored, mocked, overrun by the world and we feel we can’t bear to watch that happen.

But that has already happened – Jesus has gone through death at the hands of the ruler of this world, for us. He has already been rejected, ignored, mocked, and killed by the world, but the Word made flesh is not silenced by the tomb. The tomb is empty and Jesus is living and we can now follow him, unafraid, with hearts that are not troubled, because we know his cross leads to a resurrection that breaks the power of this world, and fills us with courage to speak the Name and tell the Story.

It takes more mental planning to formulate a sentence that has God as the subject of active verbs, as Dr. Ridenhour at Southern Seminary used to say. But because he lives in us and speaks through us we can do it together.

Listen closely and you can hear the Name spoken and the Story told on the lips of parents, Confirmation mentors, Timothy Ministers, Bible Study participants, council members, Seedling small group members, Sunday school teachers, and each of us – because we have been baptized into Christ, and so we have put on the Lord, revealing who we really are.

We can take off the masks we sometimes wear to impress others or shield ourselves from the world and reveal our true selves – you are Sons of God and Daughters of God, precious in his sight.

We belong to Jesus.

And Jesus lives!

And Jesus gives us peace and courage to be who he has called us to be and speak the Name that gives life.

Thanks be to God.


How to Make a Bigger Circle


At West Rowan Middle School, where I was once a student, the day started about the same every morning. Seventh and eight graders got to school by bus or their parents giving them a ride and all of our classes were on one long hall and kids would be going to their locker and getting ready for class, and every morning there was a circle that would form of the most popular boys and girls. They were talking about plans for the weekend, who was dating who, and what they thought about things, but the content of the conversation was far less important than who was in this circle of power.

There were some kids who had such a cache of cool they would always be in the circle, and some kids who couldn’t hope to ever be in the circle, but then there were a lot of people in the middle — the kids who were on the edge. Maybe if they said the right thing, or wore the right clothes, or worried enough about it, or made friends with the right people they could get into the circle.

There was this tremendous gravity pulling everyone in so there would be three and four rows deep around the circle of people hoping to get in. You could feel the palpable desire. People on the outside were hoping someone would leave the circle and they could just squeeze their way in and maybe be unnoticed but just be there, or more truthfully, probably, hoping that someone would invite them in and make room for them because they were wanted in the circle.

The truth is that this doesn’t happen only in seventh and eighth grade or at West Rowan Middle School but it happens at lots of schools.

And it happens for adults in the places that we work or among the people that we know.

And it happens in the church.

There are insiders and outsiders. And its true that there are greater and lesser degrees of being aware of all this going on.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher there was someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us – because he wasn’t one of the people in your inner circle.

The heartbreak of course is that John is so worried about who is in and who is out of the circle that he misses the real point that the man who was casting out demons in Jesus name was bringing healing and relief to lots and lots of people.

Living in the 21st century, we might not know what to think about demons and we can be glad that they aren’t mentioned in the Apostles Creed as something we even necessarily have to subscribe to. There is a freedom to believe that the term is a stand-in for mental and physical illnesses that weren’t to be diagnosed for a long time. Of course, we can also believe that some sort of personified evil or dark force may have inhabited people. I have certainly known people who have seemed to have demons – something hard to describe but no less real – that they couldn’t quite shake and that tormented them.

Whichever it is, to talk about someone “having demons” could only be meant to describe a person with some sort of sickness, it could only mean someone who is living with hurt and heaviness and darkness and misery – and how heartbreaking that John couldn’t see how glorious it would be for these people to experience relief and health and release and freedom from these dark forces.

But sometimes we can get so focused on who is inside and who is outside and our own place in it all that we lose sight of the bigger picture and what is important.

Jesus’ kind but firm response to John is that the inner circle that John has imagined isn’t a reality and that John and this man are not enemies or separate from one another in some way but are working for the same thing.

Jesus shows his true friendship and compassion to John in how carefully he invites him to see his point of view. He could have brought up the fact that John’s motivation for his complaint in the first place is his jealousy and that the reason he is mad and hurt is because he and the other disciples had just recently tried to cast demons out of people and failed. Miserably.

Instead, Jesus invites John to give up his desire for power and his hunger for a place of privilege and be humble enough to receive from those who would minister to him: “For truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Jesus cares for those that others would consider outsiders, talking with and befriending women, the poor, the forgotten and overlooked; a man who heals the leprous, the blind and the sick.

Jesus is so devoted to those people who others would consider outsiders and who others would exclude that he turns the world upside down and inside out by being abandoned by all and crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem, in order to bring you and me and the whole world into the circle of God’s embrace.

Jesus binds us all together in the embrace of God and we are made one body, even though we are different and have different experiences.

Those of you who are suffering – there is a place for you. Those of you who are cheerful – there is a place for you. Those of you who are sick – there is a place for you.

Jesus casts out the demons of exclusivity and control and privilege and includes everyone in his community… and he asks us to do the same.

And the gift he gives to us to enlarge the circle until it includes everyone is prayer.

James writes: Those who are suffering should pray for strength and healing. Those who are cheerful should sing songs of praise, which is just a prayer with a melody. And those who are sick should call the elders and let them know you’re sick so we they come to you and pray with you in person.

James says, in these words addresses to the entire community, “pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

The Southern English translation of the Greek is, “Y’all pray for one another, so that y’all may be healed.”

Or the real, real Southern translation, “all y’all pray for one another, so that all y’all may be healed.”

Whatever dialect, the meaning is clear. We are all healed when we all pray for one another.

James’ words are not addressed just to individuals but to the community in which everyone has a place, no matter their circumstance. Everyone in this community is worthy or our prayer.

A wonderful, sweet and faithful woman who is a member of the congregation was in the office this week. She is sick but there is a very good treatment. All the same, it came as a shock to get the diagnosis she received.

She was telling us the news and we asked her, “would you like to be put on the prayer list?”

And she said, “Well…I’m not dying.”

And we said, “You don’t have to be dying to be put on the prayer list.”

She said, “Well….if you have space.”

Prayer is a powerful gift from God and there is space, there is room in our prayers, for all whom we hold up to God, because God has already made room for us all.

Prayer truly heals us and enlarges our heart.

This past week thirty-one women were given a temporary home in Price Hall as lots and lots of us made meals, washed clothes, and befriended our guests.

The seventh and eighth graders of our youth group and their families volunteered to cook dinner on Wednesday night. There were more than a dozen of us who gathered in the kitchen to cook ham, potatoes, green beans, and dessert, and was about a half an hour to forty-five minutes of down time after we got everything in the oven and while we waited for it to cook. So we were just waiting and during this time the women who were staying with us all arrived back at Epiphany, from working or looking for work.

Some of the kids had a question ball. A question ball is a large, inflated ball that has maybe 50 questions written all over it, which is used to get to know one another better. You throw the ball to someone and when they catch it, they read off the question that is under their right thumb and share their name and answer the question. There are questions like: What book would you take to a deserted island? If you could ask God one question what would it be? If an actor played you in a movie about your life who would it be?

On Wednesday night, the game started with just a few people – a couple girls and one of the girl’s father— but they invited more people to play, and as they did the group formed into a circle and as people walked by they would say, “won’t you join our circle and play with us?” And each time someone new joined in, everyone would take a step back and make room for more people in the circle.

And all of a sudden there was this large circle of seventh and eighth graders, their parents, and a woman named Melanie who was one of our guests, all tossing the ball back and forth, asking questions and taking time to get to know one another. And many of our guests were invited but declined to join in the circle, too tired to stand up on their feet after a long day, but they pulled up their chairs and watched and listened and laughed along so that the circle became, really, everyone in the room.

These seventh and eighth graders and their parents have an answer to the question “How do we make the circle bigger?” In the name of Jesus, you take a step back and make room.

Where are the places in our individual lives, in the workplace and school, that we have an opportunity to step back and make room and invite people into the fellowship of Jesus?

What are the opportunities we have as a congregation to step back and make room for others to be a part of friendship in Christ?

May the Holy Spirit remind us that God’s embrace of love encircles our lives and may that same Spirit inspire us to step back and make a place for others so that they know they are loved and that there is a place where their face is welcome.

From this Seed

Well, this is finally it. For most of our students and their families, this is the very last weekend of your summer (Not that you needed me to tell you!). You have today and tomorrow and then your whole world will change.

This past week at Epiphany Nursery School, the halls were buzzing with parents and children. Some of the kids brought flowers picked from their yard to give to their brand-new teacher. Some came extending drawings in ecstatic reds and blues. Some of the teachers had gifts to give their new students. One teacher was handing out Teddy Grahams with a card stapled to the corner saying, I’m BEARY glad to have you in my class.

This coming week all over town students will ride school buses, catch rides from parents, or drive themselves to school, and locate their room, and find their very own desk and sit down with expectant, perhaps even nervous hearts in front of their new teacher, asking: Who is this person? What’s she like? Will we get along with one another?

The 7th chapter of the gospel of Mark begins to develop a picture of Jesus as Teacher and invites us find a seat and to sit down in front of him to see who he is, what he’s like, what his hopes are for us. And we are given a chance to see who Jesus is by the contrast that is developed in comparison to those other famous teachers – the Pharisees.

In schools these days, especially high schools, there are sometimes fights – There’s a lot of emotion and sometimes a lot of frustration coursing through your veins when you’re a teen or preteen – and I have heard about these fights. Sometimes the fighting in the hall is just bumping one another, but sometimes there’s a push and it can become a fist fight, as a large group gathers around to watch.

It goes without saying that these fights are usually between students. It would be strange to see teachers in a fight. However, what we have today in the gospel is a teacher fight, and not in the privacy of the teachers’ lounge but out in public.

Jesus has been traveling and healing people in cities and on their farms and wherever he meets them, and when he passes through this village, a group of teachers – the pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem – they surround Jesus in the hall. And they have come for a fight.

Because these Teachers have a particular paradigm – they want to teach about God, and to be faithful to God. And they think they are more faithful than Jesus.

The Pharisees’ burning passion was to sanctify and make all aspects of life holy. They lived and breathed to remember and remind Israel that God had called them to be a light to the nations and to show the world what it looked to live in covenant relationship with God.

If God had given them the law, they would follow it, and they would go further. Since the law required the priests to wash their hands before performing holy actions, they would teach that everyone should abide by the law of ritual hand washing, so that everyone could be as holy and set apart as the priests. They say: Let’s wash our hands and cups and pots and all sorts of things in the kitchen when we eat as a reminder of God and our relationship with him.

And now as these Teachers gather around Jesus they are really on a mission, because the backstory is that they’re worried about the future of their faith. The numbers are coming in and it doesn’t look good. The numbers of people who identify as “nones”- that is, those people unaffiliated with faith – is on the rise. Since the Roman empire has overtaken their people, less of the Hebrews are coming to synagogue, they are more often found in the colosseum. The Pharisees want to renew the people and call them back into relationship with God.

Their desire to wash hands and to perform other sacred rites is simply a desire to have ways to remember God. These Pharisees want to be faithful and they will attack anything that they see as a threat to that aim, even this new teacher in town, and they have come for a pedagogical showdown with the intention of embarrassing Jesus in front of his disciples and the crowd by proving that he is not as devoted and faithful to God as they are.

But Jesus points out their misunderstanding. They have come to believe that their relationship with God is as good as their own end of the bargain. They have come to believe that their devotion to God is what keeps the relationship with him healthy. They have become enamored with their own perceived goodness.

If we’re honest with ourselves and one another, we might agree that sometimes our own discipleship can become an attempt to impress ourselves and others rather than a sincere attempt to be faithful to God.

If I’m honest with you, I would tell you that I sometimes wonder if we believe in Jesus and his promise.

Oh, I know we sing and pray to him. We talk about him. We believe that God sent his Son into the world, that he died on the cross, and that rose from the dead to walk out of the grave – and he did it for all of us.

But do we believe in Jesus to help us when we’re in trouble? Do we really believe in his promise and make decisions based on that belief, or do we most often believe that it’s up to us to save ourselves, to use our own intelligence, to work it all out for ourselves, and to figure our own way out of the jams we get ourselves into? Do we rely on ourselves rather than trusting Jesus to save us, and help us, and guide us?

We live in a culture with a deeply-rooted belief that its up to us to save ourselves through our good grades, completed projects, strategic thinking, our morality or success or whatever else. We hear it so much and so often, we’re all susceptible to believing the lie.

But this is the truth: only Jesus saves us.

These Pharisees mean well. They mean as well as we do when we believe our prayers will save us, our attendance in church will save us, our volunteering at a food bank or local school, or anywhere else will save us.

But salvation does not come within us. It comes from outside of us, from God, as a gift.

One coming-of-age story that some young children will read this fall is Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s story of a pig headed to the slaughter and certain death, but saved by an industrious web-spinning spider who writes superlatives above his stall such as, “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble.” These astonishing messages in silk bring attention to Wilbur and convince his owners that he is better to them alive and so they allow him to live and subsequently to compete in the county fair.

After the exhilaration of competing in the fair, Wilbur and Charlotte talk to one another alone in Wilbur’s stall.

“Charlotte,” Wilbur said after a while, “why are you so quiet?”

“I like to sit still” she said, “I’ve always been rather quiet.”

“Yes, but you seem especially so today. Do you feel alright?”

“A little tired perhaps, but I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur – this lovely world, these precious days…”

Charlotte stopped. A moment later a tear came to Wilbur’s eye. “Oh, Charlotte, why did you do all this for me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

If you have any knowledge of yourself, any self-awareness, any self-understanding, Jesus’ words ring true: for it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come. We don’t deserve God and we do not do anything for God.

So God comes down to us in the word, in the meal, and in the bath of our daily baptism. God comes down to us to penetrate into our hearts.

The Luther’s Rose illustrates how God puts his word into our hearts and, from that seed, our life blooms into health and faithfulness.

The real challenge from the gospel is that it asks for true transformation of our heart.

As for me and my house: Let me at the ritual practices. Where’s the water and the soap. It would be easy to follow the most complicated hand-washing instructions or the most convoluted ritual practices, but instead the gospel invites us to leave ourselves open to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

So we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Jesus invites us to follow him in trusting God with our life, and to trust that even if we come to the cross, we will come to the empty tomb, where God remakes the world and shows us that Jesus is the teacher we can trust.

So may we trust Christ with our worry, with our fear, with our hope, and with our future. Christ is faithful and he is worthy to be praised.