|January 15, 2017||"The Lamb and the World"|
|November 13, 2016||"We Will Survive"|
|September 25, 2016||"Looking Up and Out"|
|September 18, 2016||"Are You Ashamed to Beg?"|
|September 11, 2016||"Lost and Found"|
|August 21, 2016||"For Us"|
|August 14, 2016||"The Jesus of Fire and Division"|
|August 7, 2016||"Left Behind"|
|July 31, 2016||"Treasure Hunters"|
|July 24, 2016||"Pentecost 10"|
|July 17, 2016||"At the Feet of Jesus"|
|June 19, 2016||"The Truth Shall Make You Odd"|
|June 18, 2016||"The Water Blushed"|
|June 12, 2016||"Jesus' Outrageous Etiquette "|
|June 5, 2016||"A Place of Holy Mystery"|
|May 29, 2016||"Outside and Inside"|
|May 22, 2016||"Why Bother with the Holy Trinity?"|
|May 15, 2016||"Come, Holy Spirit, Come!"|
|May 8, 2016||"Remain Here in the City"|
|May 1, 2016||"Saying Goodbye Well"|
|April 17, 2016||"Pretty Much Unknown and Still Very Extraordinary"|
|April 10, 2016||"153 Fish, Fran and Zoey, 20 Others"|
|April 3, 2016||"Authentic Faith"|
|March 27, 2016||"Hallelujah Hullabaloo-Christ Is Risen!"|
|March 26, 2016||"Stories Resisting Domestication"|
|March 25, 2016||"So Few Words Yet So Much Love"|
|March 24, 2016||"The Generous One"|
|March 20, 2016||"Selecting Our Next Leader"|
|March 13, 2016||"Extravagant Love"|
|February 28, 2016||"What Did They Do to Deserve That?"|
|February 21, 2016||"The Lord Is My Light and My Salvation"|
|February 14, 2016||"The Perfect Valentine’s Day Gift for Imperfect People"|
|February 10, 2016||"Cast Me Not Away from Your Presence"|
|February 7, 2016||"Are You Experienced?"|
|January 31, 2016||"The Heart of Christ in the Heart of the City—No Fences, Please!"|
|January 24, 2016||"Words that Tilt the World"|
|January 23, 2016||"Memorial Service for Kim Sciuva"|
|January 17, 2016||"Deliver Us, Good Lord, from Sour-faced Saints"|
|January 10, 2016||"Jesus’ Dirty Little Baptism"|
|January 3, 2016||"Nothing is Perfect"|
John the Baptist has been our constant companion on our journey through Advent and into Epiphany. First, it was his task to make ready the way of the Lord. Next, it was his privilege to baptize Jesus in the River Jordan. Now, it is his purpose to bear witness to Jesus’ identity. [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward Him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Because salvation is about restoring our relationship with God, do you all agree with that? The reason I ask is because I know, as I am sure you know as well, people, who, in response to the question, “What is salvation?” often respond with, “Salvation is going to a place called heaven when we die.” However, the New Testament, in a variety of places, defines salvation as a relationship with God. For example, the Apostle Paul proclaimed that “God was in Christ reconciling (i.e., bringing back into relationship) the world to Himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.” After we die, this restored relationship God in Christ gives us by grace through faith is fulfilled and completed.
Because salvation is about restoring our relationship with God, which then enables us to heal our fractured relationships with our loved ones, friends, strangers, and even our enemies, and because sin is understood in the NT primarily in terms of broken relationships, we could translate this declaration of John in this way: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the broken relationships of the world!” Jesus does this by His death and resurrection. As the Lamb of God on the cross, Jesus restores our relationship with God and one another. The emphasis is on our sinfulness, rather than on our individual sins. Sinful acts are the consequence of our sinful condition. We commit sinful acts because we are living in a sinful condition of broken relationship from God and our neighbor. To restore this relationship is why God sent His Son as the Lamb of God to die on the cross. We receive this as a gift through faith. And this is why John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” rather than the sins of the world! This is an important distinction.
“Lamb of God.” What an odd title for the One who would take away the sin of the world. If we had been naming Jesus, we would have most likely chosen a much stronger image. We would likely have said, “The LION of God,” or “The EAGLE of God.” We would have chosen a power image. After all, it is a Herculean task to take away all the sin of the whole world. We would want to invest Jesus with the power to accomplish that. But John said of Jesus, “Here is the LAMB of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Israelites longed for a powerful Savior. They wanted their Messiah to be a great warrior like King David. But the Prophet Isaiah told them about the Lamb of God. In Isaiah 53:7, the prophet said of the One who was to come: “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent.” It was a strange saying, but a familiar one. Isaiah was telling Israel that the Messiah would, by His own sacrifice, redeem His people. Many of our pop culture so-called Christian beliefs in our contemporary society run counter to what Isaiah was saying, and what God is declaring in our Gospel for this morning. This isn’t the way many Christians in our society today would have done it! Frankly, it isn’t the way the Israelites would have done it! But God’s ways are not our ways! We should allow God to be God, and not try to fashion God in our image. So John said of Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The writer of the Gospel of John, from which our Gospel Lesson for today is taken, also wrote the Book of Revelation. The declaration of John the Baptist, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” is also the central message of the Book of Revelation. Why is it that so many refuse to see that “Lamb of God” is the central image in the Book of Revelation?
When John identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, he is, of course, using a metaphor or symbol. John has reasons for depicting Jesus as a lamb – “Lamb” underscores Jesus’ vulnerability and innocent suffering, and it links Jesus to the Passover Lamb that saved the Israelites in the Exodus story.
The Lamb is an amazing and yet wonderfully disarming vision. As the Apostle Paul stated so clearly in his first Letter to the Church in Corinth, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1Corinthians 1:18) In the face of Rome’s ideology of Victory, the victorious Lamb of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation looks out of place. It doesn’t seem to fit in.
How are we to understand John’s words that we have repeated and sung so many times? The reference of Scripture to the Messiah under the figure of a lamb is most clearly contained in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, verse 7, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent.” The Lamb of John’s Gospel and Revelation became the victor, not by militaristic power and slaughter, but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, John’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians where God emptied Himself and became a servant, being born as a human being. Lamb theology is the whole message of John. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence, but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.
Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer, not by force and violence, but remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love. “Lamb power” is a new way of life, a lifestyle oriented around Jesus’ self-giving love. “Lamb power” is the power of vulnerable but strong love to change the world. It is the power of nonviolent resistance and courage in opposition to injustice; it is the power of solidarity and forgiveness. In all things, large and small, personal and political, the power of vulnerable love can bring healing. Living by “Lamb Power” means we accept the cross as the ultimate expression of love. At the very heart of God is the slain Lamb who has somehow conquered.
We are called, beginning with our baptism, to become followers of God’s slain Lamb, Jesus, and to participate with Him in God’s new world. In every way, John wants us to be grasped by a new and wonderful vision of Lamb power – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The slain Lamb’s victory through suffering love is the heart of the message of the Book of Revelation. This message, this counter-understanding of victory in the Lamb, is more relevant today than ever. In the face of terrorism and the glorification of war, we need the vision of “Lamb power” to remind us that true and lasting victory comes in our world, not through aggressive military action, but through self-giving love. Revelation’s conquering Messiah is the slain, but standing Lamb, the very opposite of Rome’s victory image. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus conquers, not by inflicting violence, but by accepting the violence inflicted upon Him in crucifixion. In the face of terrorism and the glorification of war, we need the vision of “Lamb power” to remind us that true victory comes in our world not through military might but through self-giving love. This is the opposite of the OT view of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth retribution theology that perpetuates violence and war. Jesus rejected this view encouraging us rather to love even our enemies.
In our Gospel this morning, [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” Those in our culture who believe that the Book of Revelation is about the rapture and predicting the end of the world, do not seem to believe the Lamb has truly “conquered” or won the victory when He was slaughtered. Of course, they preach, oh yes, they preach, the saving power of the blood of the Lamb in Jesus’ crucifixion, but it is not quite enough saving power for them. Oh no! They need Christ to come back again with some real power, not as a Lamb, but as a roaring lion. Jesus has to return so he can finish up the job of conquering. The cross was not enough! There is still more conquering to do!
But there is no indication that John, the author of both our Gospel and Revelation, ever wants to call upon Jesus to return as a lion. John very deliberately replaces the lion with the Lamb in chapter 5 and never again refers to Jesus as a lion. Only evil figures are identified as lion-like in subsequent chapters of Revelation – the locusts have teeth like lions in chapter 9, and the horses of death have heads like lions.
So where do the fundamentalists and the religious right get the idea for Jesus to return as a lion? I believe they fabricate this lion-like Jesus because they have a problem with the Lamb’s weakness and vulnerability. They crave the avenging Jesus who will return as a lion and show His true power and fury: This is no weak-wristed, smiling Jesus who comes to pay earth a condolence call. Oh no, for them a loving Jesus is a wimpy Jesus.
So many in our culture seem to prefer exclusion, rather than inclusion, of those they wish to blame for our problems, sometimes even using the political rhetoric of hate and violence. This was often the case during our recent and continuing political battles. This kind of rhetoric seems to be what really works to get people elected.
This symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God is in keeping with the Old Testament emphasis on the importance of sacrifice as an atonement for sin. But we should note in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah also describes the Messiah as the One who identifies with all that is human in the form of a suffering servant. The Word became Flesh in order to share our humanity and reveal who God is in humanly understandable terms.
It is this life, with its sorrows and griefs; its heavy burdens, its lack of hope, its discouragements and despair, that the Lamb of God shares with us. The vision of the Lamb is of One who, in that identification with our sinful human nature, unites us with the presence and power of God. This is Luther’s Theology of the Cross, where we meet God where God chooses to find us – in our sorrow, our pain, our weakness; where we hear God’s gracious Word manifest in the death of Jesus on the cross; where we follow Jesus in His death and resurrection. The vision of the Lamb of God is of One who brings us salvation and hope and joy and peace in the midst of this life and this world.
But John’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God was not confined to that of solidarity with our humanity. In those well-known words, John proclaims that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” (John 3:16). John continues, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved (i.e., brought back into relationship) through Him.” (John 3:17)
It is God’s love that binds us all together in interdependence and interrelationship, each and every human life, and every living thing, animals, fish, plants, trees, the oceans, the mountains, the plains and the valleys, the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. Everything in all creation is purified and made infinitely precious by the redeeming power of that love made manifest in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. For as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “in Him all things were created in heaven and on earth…and in Him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:16-17)
This often repeated Biblical theme of a universal love, which joins together and unites all things in the created world, is one that shapes the way we live and act in our daily lives. It causes us to look askance upon every form of flag-waving pride which calls itself ‘patriotism’, but whose sole purpose is to turn us against other groups, and designate them as enemies to be destroyed at all costs, rather than accepted as fellow-human beings, dividing rather than uniting. God’s love in Jesus Christ motivates us to reject every appeal to separate ourselves from those fellow human beings by reason of our skin color, or social standing, or religion, or even politics. There is, of course, a legitimate purpose for flag-waving pride, but it should not be to instill in us rejection and even hatred toward those different from us. It should not be to create enemies! Easier said than done, of course, because there are real enemies with real power who will revile and persecute those who love. But Jesus offers a solution: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:43-45).
The magnificent vision of John the Baptist, who was somehow enabled to see in Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” tells us a great deal about who we are, and what our place is in the whole scheme of things. In her book, Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor laments the loss of the language of sin and salvation within the mainline church. She says, “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience (broken relationships), alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”
John the Baptist testified to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Therefore, we are not left speechless. We are not left speechless!
November has been an interesting month. Following a drought of 108 years, the Cubs won the World Series. The hot Santa Ana winds have been hanging on a little longer this year than I remember in years past. And then something else happened. Oh, yeah, the election. Donald Trump was elected to be the next President of the United States. Then we have our gospel reading with apocalyptic overtones. I can't help but wonder, is there a message for us here? At times like these some of us really try to find the right words, to say the right thing
The morning following the election, Pacifica Synod Bishop Andy Taylor wrote, "We have just completed another election cycle, which was among the most divisive I have witnessed in 40 years of voting for a U.S. President. The people have spoken, but have delivered a divided decision. Donald Trump won the electoral vote and will become our next President, while Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote (at least it appears that way as of 9:15 am Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday morning) but will lose in the Electoral College. Clearly we are a divided country. This division is mirrored in our congregations. Some people in our congregations are jubilant, believing that change was necessary; while others are mournful, concerned about what will happen to immigrants, refugees, and Muslims, to name a few. Others are angry at a political system that delivered two candidates that were distasteful to many.”
Bishop Taylor wrote more, but I want to stop there for now and ask you a question. Have you ever wished that you had the right words to share your values and your faith with someone else? Some of you, I’m sure, share your faith with ease. Others, maybe a little less assured, fearful of saying the wrong thing. And yet, our Lord has words of encouragement for would-be witnesses in our lesson. He says that when we are called to proclaim our faith, he will provide the words we are to use. On the other hand, when those words don't seem to come, we may wonder if this promise is for us.
What was going on when Jesus said these words in this lesson? This discussion took place the last week of his life. In a few days, Jesus would die on the cross. Of course, his disciples knew nothing of that. He had finally made it to Jerusalem where he had been welcomed that Sunday as the king of Israel when people shouted Hosannas and put palm branches in his path. And in Jerusalem, the disciples looked at the magnificent temple, and praised it to Jesus. The temple was big for the people of Jesus’ day. It was not just a place to go to worship and pray and offer sacrifices. It was indeed the visible sign of the presence of the invisible God with his chosen people. So the disciples assumed that Jesus, as God’s chosen Messiah or king, would revere and defend the temple.
Instead, what he said must have shocked them. They are told that the visible sign of the presence of the invisible God would be torn down, with not one stone left upon another. The disciples wonder when these things will take place. Jesus’ words were meant then, as now, to remind us that the world will someday come to an end, and that until it does, Christians may be called to suffer for the faith.
But little did the disciples know many of them would witness the destruction that Jesus foretold. In the year 70, just about 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Rome was tired of the trouble they had with those who believed in Jewish Messiahs, and persecuted Christians for being enemies of the state. Faithful Jews, devastated at the loss of the temple and of Jerusalem, came to see Christians not as brothers and sisters but as idolaters who had brought God’s wrath upon Israel. Christians were persecuted on all sides. These words of Jesus were remembered in this context, and brought hope to people who were dragged to authorities in Israel and in the greater Roman Empire.
For the promise of this lesson is that the disciples would be given the words they needed to speak, that God would give them the wisdom they needed to say the right thing. How was this wisdom given them? It was given through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the invisible God himself, within believers. How did the presence of the invisible God move from inside the temple to inside believers? By the death of Christ. For on the cross, Jesus took on our sins, and all that would separate us from God and God from us, and put to death their power forever. And when he rose from the dead, he rose to pour his Holy Spirit into us. Now, when people want to go where the invisible God is, they do not need to go to the temple, to the Holy of holies. In fact, the Bible tells us that the curtain that separated the holy of holies from the world was torn in two, from top to bottom, when Christ died. Through the death of Christ, God made himself present in the world. And he makes himself present through us, his people. Through our words, God gives himself to the world. And God does so even, maybe especially, when we feel like we don’t have the right words to say.
In our lesson, it sounds like, armed with the right words, nothing bad will happen to the disciples, right? You know what happened? Many of them were killed for their words of faith in Christ, others were imprisoned. If we based the effectiveness of their testimony on their success at avoiding death or suffering, we’d call them failures. But Christian faith did not survive because every disciple survived. Christian faith survived because God spoke through the disciples and that word has brought faith in God’s presence, strength to meet each day’s challenges, hope for a better future, and courage to face each tomorrow. We survive because God survives and lives within us. And even if we, like the disciples, were to die for the confession of faith, God will still be alive and at work among his people, giving courage, strength and hope and, yes, the right words to help share the good news of Jesus Christ with others who desperately need to hear those words.
We live in a country and in a world that desperately needs to hear those words. On the heels of such an historic election, how are we as Christian Lutherans to respond? Bishop Taylor writes, "We are called to remember we are simultaneously citizens of the United States and members of the Reign of God. We are to live as U.S. citizens by putting into action our faith in the God who made and redeemed people of every land. How do we do this? By loving God and loving our neighbor. Please note that when Jesus calls us to love, he is not speaking about emotions, but about actions. Love is a verb, not a noun. We are called to love people we may not like, whose politics we may not agree with, and whose views of America's future may differ strongly from our own.
“How are we to love our neighbor as Christ calls us to do? We are to listen calmly and try to understand our neighbor's point of view. We are particularly to care for those who would be forgotten or oppressed. We are called to love the immigrant, the refugee, the poor, and to work for their good. We are to stand against injustice of any sort. We are to seek not victory for ourselves, or vindication of our own points of view, but the common good. We are to keep in mind Christ Jesus who, as noted in Philippians 2, emptied himself and took the form of a servant in order to live a life of love."
Bishop Taylor points out, "Such a life of love does not mean a denial of differing political views. It does mean that we recognize that God may be speaking through one with whom we disagree and we should listen for God's voice in these discussions. But we are also to speak in ways that do not insist on our own viewpoint, but instead insist on what is right, just, and good for our neighbor. Through such political speech, God will guide us forward.
“So what do we do today? I'd encourage us all to pray for wisdom and guidance for President-elect Trump, for President Obama as he prepares to leave office, and for all who have been elected to positions of leadership yesterday. We are to grant respect to the office of those elected, especially when we respectfully and forcefully disagree on policy issues. And we are to pray for the good of our neighbor, our country, and our world. May God bless us at this time of change, and help us to love others as God loves us."
And so Bishop Taylor reminds us that God continues to go to work. He brings faith, courage, strength and hope to us through the sharing of his word. His word comes to us in Holy Communion and Holy Baptism, through the bread and wine and water. The word comes in the words we say to each other, encouraging one another in our walk in faith. The Word comes through Christ himself, present with us, making us the visible sign of the invisible God who is alive and at work in the world today. What do we do now? Where do we go from here? We remember and trust that God is at work in and through us making us visible signs of the invisible God. All thanks be to God for giving us this word. And let us trust the promise that he will give us the words we need to share his goodness with a world in need. Amen.
Let’s get straight to the parable today. We have a story of two men – one wealthy, who lives in luxury and has everything he could need. The other poor, who is reduced to begging, who suffers hunger every day of his life. Which of the two would you rather be? I suppose it depends on how long you want to suffer. For when the rich man, who’s lived a life of ease, dies, he ends up in eternal torment in hell. And the poor man, who suffered hunger and deprivation in his earthly life, goes to heaven and lives in ease in paradise. So, on the surface of it, this parable seems to be teaching us that it is a good thing to be poor, and bad to be rich. The rich go to hell, while the poor end up in heaven.
But there’s a problem with that interpretation of this parable, for there are not just two people in this story, but three. Who’s the third? Abraham, of course. Abraham, one of the patriarchs, husband of Sarah, father of Isaac, grandfather of Jacob, ancestor of the people of God. Abraham is in heaven. And when he was alive, was Abraham poor, or rich? He was rich. He owned livestock, money – he even owned slaves. In fact, a couple of stories in the Bible are about how Abraham became rich with the help of God. So, it can’t be that wealth in and of itself is the problem in this parable. Something else must be going on.
I think the key to that something else comes in the conversation that takes place between Abraham and the unnamed rich man. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus down to him, to dip his finger into water to soothe the rich man who is burning up in the flames. Do you know what I think is interesting about this? The rich man knows Lazarus by name. Lazarus was not some nameless beggar whom the rich man occasionally saw. Instead, the rich man knew Lazarus, knew who he was, yet did not share his wealth with him in his lifetime. He kept his eyes on himself, and on his own wants and desires, and failed to look up, notice the suffering of the man on his doorstep, and do something to help him. Perhaps he felt that feeding Lazarus was not his job. His job was to care for his family, maybe the brothers he mentions toward the end of the parable. They were his concern, not this man whose name he knew but whose suffering he did nothing to alleviate.
The rich man thought that taking care of Lazarus was nothing he needed to do. In fact, even in death, the rich man is more interested in Lazarus taking care of him than of thinking in terms of what is good for Lazarus. Note how he wants Lazarus to serve him. First, he asks that Lazarus be sent to serve him by dipping his finger in cool water. Then he asks that Lazarus serve him by going to warn his brothers of their eternal fate if they did not change their ways. But Abraham is clear that this is not Lazarus’s job. We have the law and the prophets. They tell us over and over again to care for people in need. They tell us to look up, away from our own concerns, and help others in their need.
Thank God we have one who did that for us. One who looked up and saw every human being, and realized that we needed be saved. One who saw that without help, we would be subject to misery and death, and would never know that we had a God who loves us. That one came to earth for us. Jesus came to us because he looked beyond himself and saw us in our need. He went to the cross, taking on our sins, and especially tonight we remember he took on our sin of self-absorption, and put to death its power over us. And when he rose from the dead, he rose to pour his Holy Spirit into us. With the Spirit’s help, we can do what the rich man could not do. We can look up and notice the Lazaruses in our world. We can look up and see people who are hungry, and do what we can to feed them. We can look up and see people who live in despair, and do what we can to give them hope. We can look up and see that all the human race is our brother and sister, not just those who are biologically related to us. We can look up and give of ourselves to help others in their need. Through such acts, God continues to unite the world, asking people to care for others.
Last Monday night, I witnessed a group of folks preparing for such care. The folks gathering together were medical doctors, dentists, an acupuncturist, first-year, second-year and fourth-year medical students. Preparing to provide care, in our facility upstairs, here at First Lutheran, through the UCSD student run free medical clinic. A second-year medical student spoke with passion and enthusiasm as she reminded the folks gathered together about their four core tenets.
Empowerment means to create an environment where the other (individual, family, community) takes charge of their lives and achieves joy and well-being. Helping people to identify, address, and overcome obstacles to achieve health and wellbeing. Often this means addressing the social challenges such as transportation, employment, and housing.
Transdisciplinary--I know it is shocking that a medical student would use a big word. A transdisciplinary model is one in which all health disciplines are working together, side by side, with mutual respect, with the patient at the center, with the patient in the lead.
Community as Teacher: The community, the patients, will teach us how to be good physicians to them, and will teach us the solutions. They also teach us about how to face and overcome the challenges of life with wisdom and strength.
Humanistic means to fill each action with empathy, and positive regard. To become self-aware as a health professional and to have that self-awareness help guide your interactions. Positive regard means to show respect to all; one does not have to respect someone's behavior, but you can respect the other as a human being and show them respect. This core tenet really touched my heart. The second-year medical student leading this time of gathering and preparation before meeting with patients explained, “Your first job is not to diagnose an illness, although you may diagnose an illness. Your first job is to build a relationship with your patient and build trust. As you build trust, you will be able to better provide care, including diagnosing illness and health challenges. You see the other person as a human.” As I reflected on this core tenet, I wondered how people of faith might describe this tenet. One way to describe might be to say, that we see the whole human race as our brothers and sisters. Through acts of care for the brother and sister God is at work, to put God’s broken world back together. God invites us to a part of what God is up to in the world.
And so this day, we gave thanks to God. He looked up, saw us in our need, and reached out to help us. More than that, God sends us out to help others, calling us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick. As we look up from our own concerns and strive to share God’s love, let us give thanks to our Lord that our salvation is assured, and that we are God’s forever. And let us share the good news of that salvation with all we meet. Amen.
After reading today’s lesson, I was reminded of a well-known story of a little boy lost inside a busy shopping mall. He was standing in the aisle of a department store just crying and crying. “I want my mommy, I want my mommy.” People who passed by felt sorry for him and many of them gave him nickels and dimes and quarters, even dollar bills to try to cheer him up. Finally a salesperson from the floor walked up to the distraught little boy and said, “I know where your mommy is, son.” The little boy looked up his tear trenched eyes and said, “Shhh! Keep quiet, I got a good thing going here.” The less-than-honest behavior of the little boy may bring a smile to our face, but the less than honest behavior of the steward in our bible lesson leaves us puzzled and confused. This is one of those passages that makes you go “huh?” We have here an unjust manager. He is a crook, he is dishonest. He gets caught, and when he’s caught, he proceeds to cheat his master even more in order to gain a home after he is kicked out by the master. So he’s a crook to begin with, and he compounds his crime by more thieveries. And the master says, “Way to go, good job.” The manager knows what he has done. So, what is going on here?
To understand this parable we are going to have to take a closer look at the parable. We will begin by looking at some key verses, like verse 3, “Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Let’s stop there, and let me ask you this question, are you ashamed to beg? Are you ashamed to beg? Keep that question in the back of your minds because I am going to ask you that question again at the end of the message. For now, let’s take a look at another key verse to help us understand this parable verse 8, “[Jesus said] And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” So what does that mean? Is Jesus really commending thieves and robbers? Here I will go out on a limb and answer that question with one word: No, Jesus is not commending thieves and robbers. What is going on, what I think this parable is about is our very human desire to bargain with God, to try somehow to work our way into God’s good graces, to earn his help now and to win for ourselves a home in heaven. Can we bargain with God? Can we earn a way into an eternal home?
The answer given at first look in our lesson seems to be yes. Look at verse 9, “[Jesus says] make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” But what kind of eternal home will that be? To answer that let’s see if we can find ourselves anywhere in this parable. The manager has squandered and stolen his master’s resources. Have you ever known any one that has squandered and stolen our master’s resources? Do you know someone that has squandered their time in self-centered pursuits? Do you know anyone that squanders their money on goods for themselves, to raise their own standard of living? Do we ever squander our lives in the pursuit of self-centered happiness rather than giving ourselves totally to God and totally to our neighbors? All of us can think of ways in which we have taken the time, money, and lives God has given us and wasted at least parts of them on ourselves and ourselves alone. And God knows that we have done this. So we and the manager are both caught by the master. What do we do?
This servant decides to bargain, not with the master, but with others to help them also rob the master. He thinks to himself, “If I can’t have a home with the master, I’ll bargain with someone else to take me in.” And the master’s praise is, I think, a backhanded compliment. He’s saying, “Well, at least this servant is consistent, and is using what he can to find a home.” But again, what kind of home will he, and we, end up with by doing such bargaining? Sin, death and the devil are always ready to give us a home, to take over our lives. To rob us of joy. To rob us of hope. To rob us of peace. We know from our own experiences how quickly evil can rob us of joy, rob us of hope, rob us of peace. Those forces are ready to take everything we have and are, everything we are willing to bargain with, and make us pay and pay and pay. But that is not the sort of eternal home we would want to live in. The good news is, nor is that the eternal home that God wants us to live in.
No, God has a different kind of eternal home he wants us to live in. There are three points that I want to make about this parable. The first is that God is the one that gives us an eternal home. We do not earn this home, we do not bargain for it, and we certainly do not deserve it. It is simply given to us by Christ, who lived for us, died for us, and rose from the dead for us. He did this not because we earned it or could bargain for it. He did it because he loves us. Our eternal home is given to us out of the love of the God who gave his own self to make us his own.
Second, we are not to be ashamed to beg from God. Everything we have is a gift from God. There is nothing that we have that is not owned by the master. We begin by admitting that we cannot equal what God gives, and continues to give to us. God, who has given us every good gift including the air that we breathe, family and friends to share our lives with, even the brains which allow us to work and to earn an income. We can only give a portion of what God gives to us to do the work of His Kingdom. In other words, we have nothing to offer God that does not already belong to him. Therefore, we are not to bargain or to try to make deals or to try to deceive him. Instead, we are to simply ask; as a child asks a parent for a glass of water or something to wear or for help in learning a new skill, so we are to ask from God. We do not need to bargain or bring anything to the table, with the exception of our love for God. But we are to acknowledge that even our ability to love is a gift from God. We are to trust in God’s love for us, and ask for whatever we need.
Third, though we do not bargain with God, we are not to squander his gifts, as the unjust manager did. Now using our gifts wisely will not gain us an eternal home, but it will help our neighbor to have enough to eat, and it will also help us to grow in trust for God. For God has been at work and continues to be at work here at First Lutheran in some meaningful ways. Yesterday, our new Bishop, Andy Taylor, talked about this congregation, First Lutheran, at the San Diego area Bishop’s Gathering. Bishop Andy retold the story of how this congregation, many years ago, back in the 1970s, noticed that downtown San Diego was beginning to re-gentrify. New businesses and business folks were moving into downtown. The congregation decided to bake bread and invite folks to stop by for some free bread. However, the folks that showed up were not business people; the folks that showed up were the homeless. First Lutheran responded by saying, “this must be the people that God is sending us, so let’s find ways to be of service to the homeless.” All these years later God continues to be at work in meaningful ways. The feeding ministry is still alive and well, feeding the homeless and hungry. The UCSD student-run free medical clinics that serve the poor through general medical care, dentists, acupuncturists, ophthalmologists, and social services that are provided through Third Avenue Charitable Organization. God continue to call to us, to keep our eyes and hearts open to what God is up to next. As we trust God, as we grow in faith we will discover that we can never, and will never out give God. In other words, our parable reminds us that our faith grows by understanding that all we have comes from God and so is not to be squandered, but is to be put to his use. But more than that, this money is used to help us who give it, give thanks to the God who has given us everything – jobs, children, family, forgiveness, even an eternal home
So are you ashamed to beg? I hope not before God. Our lives, the moments we share together, and all of our possessions are precious gifts from God. We are all beggars, in the sense that God gives us more than we can hope for, better than we deserve, and for many of us more than we could ever use. Let us thank God for his grace and gifts on this day.
It’s a good thing God keeps track of what belongs to him. Today we have two parables about the joy that is experienced when the lost are found. One sheep wanders off and gets separated from the flock. The shepherd finds the sheep and he and his household rejoice. A woman loses a valuable coin. She searches and searches until the coin is found and she and her friends rejoice. Just as we are told the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner repents and is made a part of God’s family.
What do these parables have to teach us? Who are the lost who need to be found? Brooks never considered himself to be lost. A musician by night and an office worker by day, Brooks lived pretty much for himself and himself alone. He had a succession of girlfriends, but was never interested in a commitment. He never could commit to a job because he needed as much spare time as possible to play his music. He got kicked out of a lot of the bands he played with when his creative vision clashed with that of his bandmates. He was lonely a lot, but figured he was fine with just his music. As for God, he had heard the name but he was not raised in the church, and thought church people were uptight and rigid--not his sort.
It strikes me that those were the kind of people Jesus hung out with in our Bible lesson. The tax collectors and sinners probably did not think of themselves as lost. But the Pharisees were certain they were, as certain of that as they were that they were safely in God’s hands. The Pharisees were faithful in worship, faithful in service, faithful in devotions. They came to know Jesus, heard him teach the scriptures and Jesus knocked their socks off. They were fascinated by him, but were also critical of him. For someone who claimed to be an authority on scripture, Jesus sure spent a lot of time with folks that broke the commandments. Tax collectors who broke the seventh commandment, “Thou shall not steal,” by taking more money than was owed in taxes. Prostitutes that broke the sixth commandment, “thou shall not commit adultery,” and did so at an hourly rate. Sinners who failed to keep the Sabbath holy, who coveted, who lied about their neighbors. Jesus accepted these lost people, even started a ministry of eating and drinking with them. Now, no good Pharisee would go near these people, and thought Jesus shouldn’t either. They didn’t understand why Jesus was hanging around lost people.
In reality, what the Pharisees didn’t understand was that they, too, were lost people. The parables we read this morning tell us that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 righteous people that have no need of repentance. What I want to know is where are those righteous people? Could all the righteous people raise your hands? But before you raise your hand, I want to remind you that Jesus’ standard of righteousness is perfection. You don’t need repentance, you don’t need forgiveness, you don’t need God’s grace or direction in your life. All right, if you don’t need any of those things go ahead and raise your hands. What, not one? All of us are in some way lost. So thank God that Christ came to seek and to save the lost.
God came seeking us - came all the way from heaven and made his way onto earth. He was born in a manger in order to live among us. He spent his earthly life doing good in order to draw us to him. And he died on the cross in order that nothing might separate us from him again. For on that cross, all the powers that could make us lost forever--sin, death, and the powers of evil--were put to death. And by rising from the dead, Jesus not only conquered the grave but promised us new life, which the Holy Spirit gives us today, and we get to keep forever.
Even when we feel lost due to the mistakes we make in our lives, the things we say or do, we can be assured that we are in God’s hands. For faith is more than a feeling, faith comes by grace and grace is God’s promise that he will never leave us. And grace holds on to us promising that though we may feel lost we are always found by Christ. And when Christ finds us, we are filled with the benefits of his own righteous life. Even though we are sinners, we are forgiven, are filled with Christ’s righteousness and are therefore righteous in God’s eyes.
Now I am going to ask you to raise your hands, and this time I want the righteous to raise their hands. Didn’t I ask for this before? Oh, not really. There, I was asking for those who trusted in their own righteousness to raise their hands. Here, I am asking you to raise your hands if you trust in God’s righteousness. Do you trust that God has done in you what God has promised to do? That despite your sin you are made right with God daily, moment by moment. And before you raise your hands, let me point out that this righteousness has nothing to do with you--it is God’s gift to you. In other words, I am simply asking you to raise your hands if you trust God and believe that God fulfills his promises. So will all the righteous raise their hands? Yes, we have been made righteous by God, and though we may sometimes feel lost, we can trust God’s promises that we are found. For God will hold onto us and keep on seeking to bring good into our lives.
Brooks never thought of himself as lost. But one day he was hanging out with some musician friends who asked him to join them on Saturday evening. They were going to check out some of the new bands at clubs in town. But first, they were headed for church. Church, Brooks asked. Why church? Great music, man, was what his friends replied. One of the churches had an incredible jazz group and were rumored to play some of the best music in town. What does it matter if it’s in a club or at a church, as long as the music’s good, they asked. Brooks went to church for the first time, and was enthralled by the music. He met the musicians, asked permission to sit in on their practices, learned some things musically, but learned more about God. Through the ministry of these musicians, he learned of the God who loved him so much that he gave his life for him. He learned of a God who asks for commitments because this God makes and keeps commitments. He learned of a God who gave everything for us so that we can give for others without worry about ourselves. Gradually, over time, he found his life was changed. Eventually, he was baptized in that church, and has found his life changed. He received forgiveness, help, hope, every day of his life.
And on this day, as we lift up Sunday School and education in prayer, we emphasize the ministries that emphasize--that God hangs onto us and never lets us go. Ministries that support weekly worship as the Holy Spirit feeds us in ways that we are not always aware of. Ministries of God’s Word, where the stories of God’s people and Christ himself nourish our faith and remind us of God’s faithfulness. Ministries of fellowship with other believers which brings comfort and hope even at the worst time of our lives. And outreach ministry that reminds us to think not of ourselves, but the needs of others, through which the Holy Spirit gives us faith and courage to walk our own path. Let us acknowledge that we are people that are found by God and that sometimes find ourselves lost. Let us embrace opportunities for worship for learning for fellowship and for service. And let us give thanks to God who seeks us when we are lost who makes us righteous and who promises that nothing can part us from him.
This is a great privilege to be here with you today. I have heard, over the years, from many people, about the faithful ministry of First and TACO. Including Rachel Line, who went to Germany with Pastor Andy Taylor, now Bishop Andy Taylor and I on a Luther tour about 6 years ago. Of course, before Bishop Taylor became bishop, he served on the TACO board and he spoke about the ministry and mission here and he continues to keep you in prayer. I want to tell you, to be considered by Bishop Finck, now Bishop Emeritus Finck, as a possible candidate to serve as your Intentional Interim Pastor, and then to have been prayerfully selected by your interviewing team, it is a real honor and privilege to be here today, and to begin Interim Ministry with you. My first day on the job, earlier this week, began with Hannah warmly welcoming me, showing me around the facility, getting me settled into the office. The day ended by spending time with Council President Kathryn Kanaan, and then meeting with leadership, your Church Council. What a capable and talented group of leaders God has called to First. On Friday, I was here for the clinics and the Friday meal, and the core volunteers that keep that ministry moving forward. I witnessed how the good people of First and Taco, through word and deed, were extending hospitality to our guests and graciously finding ways to “put me to work”, and let me help out and be a part of the Friday meal. Again, many people welcoming me and extending hospitality. As I experienced Friday morning, as I thought of today's bible lesson, with this bent over unnamed woman, I thought about the words of Henri Nouwen, words shared in an email earlier this week by Executive Director of TACO, Jim Lovell. Nouwen wrote, "Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: "What is my poverty?" Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That's the place where God wants to dwell! "How blessed are the poor," Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty.
I thought of these words, as I thought about our bible story for today. It is easy to see the "poverty" of the unnamed woman, a woman who everyone else around her could easily see her physical ailment. She was bent over, and could not stand up straight. This woman came to worship despite this ailment. She did not come to worship in order to ask Jesus to heal her. No, she was in worship to receive comfort and peace from God. Though the woman in the Bible could not lift her head and shoulders to look at others when they spoke, she came because she wanted to join with God’s people in worshiping the Lord. She came to receive the blessing that worship alone can bring. But something unexpected happened, the unnamed woman also received the blessing of healing.
And then she received a boatload of criticism as well. The leader of the synagogue chastised her for being healed on the Sabbath. “There are six days on which you can come for healing. But the Sabbath is to be a day of rest.” Why was he so against healing on the Sabbath? To understand that, we need to know a little of the story of God’s people.
Most of you know the story of Moses, how God sent Moses to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. Moses brought them to the Promised Land, the country that the Lord had promised years before to the ancestors of the people of Israel, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God had promised all three that he would give the land of Israel to them, and Lord delivered on his promise. What he asked in return was that they worship him and him alone. He would continue to bless them, and thus the whole world would come to know that he alone was the God in whom people could trust, and all the earth would turn in faith to the Lord. There was only one problem with this plan – God’s people failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Instead of worshiping the Lord alone, they worshiped idols, even putting foreign idols, gods made of wood and stone, into the temple that was built to worship the Lord alone. Time and again, God sent prophets to warn the people to return to him, or he would repossess the land he had given them. Time and again, the people failed to worship the Lord. And eventually, the Lord withdrew his protection, and the people went into exile, away from their land.
In exile, the people figured they had learned their lesson. They had been unfaithful to God, and disobedient to his commandments. If they ever were allowed to return to the Promised Land, they would not make that mistake again. They would obey every one of God’s commands, and encourage their fellow Israelites to do the same. The figured it was up to them to keep God’s laws and thus earn God’s favor. And that is why the leader of the Synagogue was so upset. There was a law, the third commandment, which says “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” God had commanded a day of rest for all the people. When Jesus healed, he was working. The Lord had commanded rest. And the leader of the Synagogue took the woman to task for tempting, indeed allowing, Jesus to break the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. For the leader believed, as did most of the people, that if they disobeyed the commandments, God would withdraw his blessing from them. They believed it was all up to them.
And sometimes we believe it is all up to us to make our lives right with God. Debbie certainly did. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Debbie, in prayer, made a pact with God. If you will heal my mother through her treatments, then I will go back to church and be more faithful to you. Eight months later, her mom was declared cancer-free, and Debbie went looking for a church in the city where she lived. She found one she enjoyed, where she heard the word of God regularly, and she not only attended, she encouraged her husband and children to attend with her, which they did. And for awhile, all felt right about this bargain. Debbie had done her part, God had done his, and everything seemed to be working out. But then Debbie’s husband lost his job. Debbie prayed in confidence that he would find a new one. But that job did not materialize. Debbie thought she was praying incorrectly, and began to read up on proper ways to pray. But no matter what she did, her husband remained unemployed. Worse, he was stressed and unhappy, and it began to take a toll on the kids and the marriage. Debbie kept on trying to figure out what she was doing wrong that was keeping God from taking care of her family. Because she was certain that her suffering could be reversed if she only did the right thing, the thing that God wanted her to do. She really believed that it was all up to her.
But it was not up to her. Just as it is not up to us to make God bless us. Just as it was not up to the woman in the Synagogue to ask to be healed. Instead, it is up to Jesus. And Jesus our Lord has acted for us. Jesus saw our poverty, the brokenness we all share, whether we are bent over or stand up straight, whether we are people of financial means or poor, whether we are single, or married, confident or insecure, or whatever our situation. Before God we all have “poverty”, as Henri Nouwen points out. So Jesus acted. He went to the cross to take on our sin, our brokenness, and all that separates us from God and God from us, all that separates us from one another. When he died, he put to death sin’s power over us. And when he rose from the dead, he rose to be with us. It is not up to us to make us right with God – Christ has already done that for us. We do not need to do things in the right way to earn God’s favor – our Lord has already let us know how important we are to him by his death and resurrection for us.
But then, what are we to do? We are to show our love for God by loving our neighbor. The people of Israel had it right, in a way. After they had lost the land, they realized they had blown it by not loving God. The problem with the leader of the synagogue was that he thought the Sabbath commandment was about restricting what people were to do. The reality, if you read the giving of the commandments in Deuteronomy, is that God gave the commandment in order to help people. For the Lord our Creator made human beings with a need to rest. If this commandment had not been given in a society like the one of ancient Israel, where the wealthy were allowed to own slaves, then slaves would have been worked 7 days a week. It was to protect people, to give them rest, that God gave the commandment. And to follow not only this commandment, but every commandment, we are to put the needs of people first. We obey all of God’s commandments when we show love for God by doing loving and good things for our neighbors. And Christ, by reaching out to heal the woman, was doing something loving for her. He was not breaking the commandment. He was instead keeping the greater commandment, to show love for God by loving our neighbor.
And it is not up to us to make ourselves right with God. Yet we are called to do those things that help us show our love for the Lord. We are to take time for worship, as the woman did, trusting that God is with us in a special way, strengthening us for service as we hear God’s word and share his supper. It is not about what we do, but about what God does for us. We are to utilize our financial resources to give generously to God’s work, so that people throughout the world may have shelter, clothing, sustenance, and a chance to hear God’s word. We do this not to earn God’s favor, but out of our love for God and neighbor. And we are to put our faith and trust in God even when times are difficult, not because we earn something from God, but because such trust helps us live more peaceful, hopeful lives, especially in times of great stress.
Debbie was living in a time of great stress, and finally asked a friend at church “What am I doing wrong, that all these bad things are happening to me?” Her friend listened, suggested that she was doing nothing wrong but going through a bad time, and assured her that God still loved and cared for her. She prayed with Debbie, praying for her peace and hope in the midst of a difficult time. And Debbie began a journey that continues to this day, a journey in which she realizes that it’s not the bargains she makes with the Lord that are important, but it’s what the Lord has done and will continue to do for her, giving her hope, strength and peace that make the real difference. And for that, she gives thanks to God.
As we can give thanks to God on this day. For our God is with us here in worship. We come not because this is what we must do in order to earn God’s favor, but because this is the place where God’s word is spoken and we find our Lord reaching out to us to bless us with his peace. Receiving God’s blessing through the service, through the Scriptures, being with God’s people, through receiving the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. I hope and pray that you and I hear of a God who loves and gives everything for us, and that we hear that word each and every worship. For our God, has done it all for us. Thanks be to God.
Because I’m one of Jesus’ followers, like you, I’m going to give Him some advice! Why can’t you stay on message Jesus? This is not the message people want to hear! You are not going to win many, if any, converts with this kind of message! Are you losing your mind? Who are you? Are you both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? As you often said, your Father sent you to bring people together, not to tear people apart! Your Father sent you to bring unity, not division; peace, not war! What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you stick with the script Jesus? You are sounding more and more like a politician!
Furthermore, Jesus, because I’m a Pastor, I have to explain your message to these good folks at First Lutheran this morning. What am I supposed to say?
There are few other speeches of Jesus in the New Testament that catch us more off-guard than this one. How can we call this the Gospel, the Good News, of the Lord? How can we possibly praise Jesus for this message? How can we call such a message of fire and division “Good News”? Anyone who has experienced the agony of family division and disrupted relationships can hardly call this Good News. We already live in a splintered world, especially today! Why do we need this? These words demand explanation.
Because these words are so different from everything else we read regarding God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, we must be very careful how we interpret and understand them. We have to look at the context. We must ask what was happening in Jesus’ life at this particular time. Also, how is this message connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection? We must not use these words, like some Christian Fundamentalists misuse them, to judge others, or to justify their personal prejudices. Then when division occurs, they can say that Jesus said there would be days like this. We must not use these words, like some Christian Fundamentalists misuse them, to advocate and promote war. Jesus Christ never advocated war as the way to deal with human conflict. It is not God’s way of dealing with human conflict in Jesus Christ. God in Christ brings Peace. Of course, war is often the consequence, because sinful human beings reject God’s gift of peace in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus spoke these disturbing words, He was facing His own suffering and death. His crucifixion will be brutal, and Jesus knows this, and the anticipation of it brings fear and trembling. When Jesus spoke these words, He was under great stress. He knows that His own nonviolent efforts to announce and proclaim the kingly rule of God will soon result in extreme violence against Him, with great suffering and death upon a cross.
What we must grasp here is that Jesus is speaking about the consequences of His ministry, rather than His intent. God in Christ is not motivated to create division, but, as a consequence of His reconciling efforts and peace giving activity, hostility and division becomes one of the inevitable consequences. There are those in every age who will always reject Jesus. This results in broken relationships, alienation and division. This results in an “us” versus “them”, or a “me” versus “them” mentality, rather than a “we” mentality. Jesus is a threat to the status quo, to those in power!
Jesus is pointing out what is happening as a consequence of His ministry. He is bringing division! He is deeply disturbed by these consequences. He says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” But, and this is critically important, it is precisely this division, this alienation, which is conquered and put to death on the cross. In short, Jesus bringing the opposite of what He intended to bring was necessary so that He could bring what He intended to bring. You got that? Jesus death and resurrection is necessary to bring about what God’s will, God’s intention, for the human family, which is to heal divisions, to bring people together. The death and resurrection of Jesus, which is a consequence of His ministry, is what brings peace, reconciliation, restored relationship and community. That is the Good News behind this Bad News. That’s what enables each of us to carry forward Jesus’ ministry in our world. If, when Jesus Himself walked the earth, everyone had accepted Jesus’ message of peace and unity, He would NOT have been crucified! There goes Easter! There goes Lent and the Lord’s Supper! There goes Christianity! The baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
In every culture, family relationships are very important. But Jesus says, in our Gospel this morning, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (v. 52). Families will be divided because of Jesus.
This is a disturbing word! In Israel’s life, family relationships were especially important. A person’s place in the family conferred both personal identity, and a place in the community. People know who you are, because they know your father and mother. Without public welfare programs in Israel in Jesus day, in order to provide a safety net, the family provided the only support system. There was no safety net outside of the family. There was no TACO program in the Synagogues. To divide a family was to leave its members on shaky ground socially and economically. When one was estranged from their family, they were without support. In fact, they were shunned and ignored. Jesus is hacking at the very roots of Israel’s social structure.
Rather than being sensitive to the needs of other people, as a consequence of God’s transforming Grace and Love in Jesus Christ, some Christians believe it is their Christian duty to force their religious views on others, including members of their own family. When division and alienation result, which is inevitable, they may even beat their chests, like the Pharisees, thanking God that they are not like other people. They have the truth. They have certainty. These misguided Christians, misinterpret and misuse our Gospel Lesson in order to promote, in the name of Jesus, their own self interests. They are exclusive and judgmental, rather than inclusive and welcoming. Do you know any people who are like this? I sure do.
There is evidence of splintered families all around us and among us. A cartoon strip showed a young woman talking to a minister. She said, “John and I are having a terrible time, and we need your advice. We are trying to decide how to divide the furniture, who gets what of the money we’ve saved, and who gets custody of the children.”
“Oh,” the minister asked, “are you contemplating divorce?”
“Oh, no,” she replied. “We are trying to work out our prenuptial agreement.”
Jesus came to transform a sinful world, a divided world, but transformation does not come easily. Evil cannot stand goodness. Have you ever thought about that? In its very nature, evil is not only uncomfortable in the presence of goodness, but becomes enraged. In C.S. Lewis’ delightful book, Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, a senior devil instructing a junior devil, Wormwood, on how to win a soul for hell, becomes furious whenever Wormwood blunders and allows any goodness!
Christ warned that this would be so. Wherever holiness appears, that which is unholy seeks escape, or digs in to resist. The forces of hell cannot tolerate the forces of heaven. There can be no peace between righteousness and unrighteousness. There is no peace between Nero and Paul, between Hitler and Bonhoeffer.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus experiences conflict that will culminate on the cross. The early church will also experience conflict without and within. Tradition and church history tell us that all of Christ’s disciples, save one, died a violent death for their faith. Only John escaped martyrdom. Andrew died on a cross. Bartholomew was flayed alive. James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded. Simon was crucified. James (son of Alphaeus) was beaten to death. Thomas was run through with a lance. Mathias was stoned and beheaded. Matthew was slain by the sword. Peter was crucified head downward. Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows. Philip was hanged. You and I are here today, at First Lutheran Church, because these disciples put Jesus first in their lives. We are here because they were committed, because they cared, because they loved. And, without us making the same commitment, future generations may not be here!
As we continue to accompany Jesus in His journey toward Jerusalem, where His commitment to fulfill His Father’s purpose resulted in His brutal death on a cross, we discover again how costly it is to really follow Jesus. None of this – “Give your life to the Lord Jesus, and all of your problems will be solved.” None of this – doing church work, while totally neglecting the work of the church. None of this – don’t rock the boat business, or don’t offend anyone. To follow Jesus into the ambiguities of human relationships, to follow Jesus into the world of political action, to respond to Jesus as He encounters us in human need, to follow Jesus into the future which entails an effort to change the status quo, costs something! And very few Christians are willing to pay that cost. What Christians often want is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran theologian imprisoned for his opposition to Hitler, who was killed just a few days before the end of the war. He says:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
I direct these words to myself as much as anyone else.
This Gospel Lesson for today is probably the most demanding of any passage in the entire Bible! In contrast, the emphasis in some churches is on how easy it is to be a Christian. We have forgotten that Christianity is a tough religion. Throughout Scripture, the message is clearly stated that ultimate commitment to anyone or anything less than God is idolatry. God said to ancient Israel, and He says to us, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have not other gods before me.” God so loved the world that He sent His own Son to once again make this message crystal clear. Ultimate commitment to anyone, or anything, less than Jesus Christ is idolatry. In short, we are being asked to get our priorities straight.
The primary work of God in Christ is to restore relationships, to bring about reconciliation, to make community possible. As Saint Paul states it, “God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) We are the instruments of God’s reconciling work today.
“This morning Jesus delivers harsh words about the purifying and potentially divisive effects of obedience to God’s call. The way of the cross often leads followers to encounter hostility and rejection, even from those they love. Faithfulness to Christ and to the community of the baptized is likely to be countercultural, unpopular, even divisive. Next to the dove of peace is the sword of the word.”
It was a little over one year ago that Jessica and I moved here. A few months ago I said, “It’s about time, I can’t procrastinate any longer, I need to find a dentist.” So I went in for my first appointment and after the hygienist finished sand-blasting my teeth and assaulting my gums, the dentist came in. Making small talk he said, “So what do you do?” Now, it’s always interesting what people tell you when you say you’re a preacher. (Of course, it’s probably more interesting what they don’t tell you, but usually you don’t find out about those things.) But he says, “I’ve never been very religious myself but I think religion is important.” He went on to tell me about his daughter. He said he got her to go to college at the Christian College in El Cajon. He thought this would be a good place to go since this is the school where Tim LaHaye is and of course he wrote the very popular Left Behind series of books. He said that after a while she transferred to USD where the Jesuits tried to influence her thinking. But now, he said, she’s atheist. I think the subtext might have been: you religious folks sure aren’t very persuasive.
But he got me thinking about Tim LaHaye and the Left Behind books. I hadn’t remembered that he was right here and I don’t know if he had a lot of influence in the Christian community here but there was a lot of attention around the country 10 years or so ago about these books and the theology behind them. LaHaye just died a few weeks ago and there was a big write-up about him in the UT. It was on an airplane when he got the first inspiration for the series. He saw a married pilot who was flirting with a flight attendant and he wondered, “What if the rapture happened right now?” He wondered who would be caught doing the wrong things and how can you use this as a motivation to think more seriously about the consequences of your actions. Yet, as I thought about him, I also remember back how many of us took exception to the rapture narrative and the fear that undergirds its theology.
One of my heroes, (perhaps you studied her work--back at the time this was big stuff) is Barbara Rossing who teaches at our seminary in Chicago. She got no small amount of attention herself by writing books like The Rapture Exposed in which she challenges the rapture proponents’ biblical foundation and sees it as destructive. Perhaps the fact that this kind of theology doesn’t attract as much attention today and the fact that the Dentist’s daughter wasn’t influenced by it tells us something.
Rossing attacked rapture theology for various reasons but she sees it as a fairly recent attempt to make the message of scripture a threatening, fear producing narrative. If the rapture comes as their proponents suggest and some are snatched away into heaven and for seven years, the world is left in chaos before Christ returns. This is a pretty brutal image of God. It’s like saying, “God so loved the world that he plans to give us World War III.” While Revelations and other biblical books are filled with violent imagery Rapture theology distort the message of hope that they include. And importantly, they create very bad ethics. If the rapture is coming soon, why bother with caring for the earth, as it is likely to be destroyed anyway.
Our Gospel lesson today has echoes of this kind of apocalyptic imagery. It’s a little more subtle than the language in recent Sundays or as you’ll see next week. Hear it again: Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” He goes on to say that blessed are those who are ready for him, “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, the owner would not have let the house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son-of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I’m not quite sure what this means but it makes you a little anxious. And if you have images of the Rapture in your mind, then you’re really anxious. So, it seems to me, if we live with our fears that we won’t measure up when the judgment, the Parousia (Christ’s reappearing) comes, than we constantly must be on our guard to keep all possible lights lit. But, if we look at this as a reminder of the joy to come when Christ reunites with us as the loving brother, teacher, savior, it changes our anxiety to anticipation. Learning to live with a sense that God is constantly looking to brighten our days is an attitude of welcoming the unknown, doing what we can to bring such joy to others and living in wonderful and joyous expectation!
The earlier part of our lesson has a very different perspective than the last part. God seeks to give you the dominion so give back for all your gifs. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. It doesn’t sound like a short term strategy as if the end is coming very soon. It seems to say that looking at our treasures, good or not so good, tells us a lot about our values, where our heart is. But I think it can also mean that putting our treasures to work for important things is a way of softening or changing our hearts to be more loving.
On the same day that the UT remembered Tim LaHeye’s life, they also remembered Conrad Prebys who was one of the prominent philanthropists in our community. By all accounts, he gave generously to a great variety of causes. He said he chose which things he wanted to support by saying, “Which projects made me want to jump up and down.” A few days ago, the paper also remembered Pauline Foster who also gave millions to art, schools and health care. She traveled a lot with her children and grandchildren but they weren’t vacations, they were “trips”, teaching the kids about the cultures and people they met.
Talk about legacies, about what they left behind.
Jesus was always concerned about those who are left behind, not believing that God would only want a select group to watch while the rest are engaged in great tribulations or suffering. Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, is always hunting for those who might be forgotten, like the shepherd more concerned about the lost lamb more than the 99 other sheep.
Let us worry less about whether we’ll be left behind and more about what it is that we leave behind. May we look to Christ for our inspiration and the comforting thought that what he left behind still gives us comfort and joy. Amen.
Jesus issues a warning, a warning inspired by a squabble over inheritance. All of us need to hear this! He says: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
In these few words, Jesus rejects much of what keeps our economy and our society humming. How countercultural can you get? This seems downright un-American! At the heart and core of our American economic system and culture is the belief, reinforced over and over and over again, that life consists of the abundance of things possessed. Jesus rejects this belief, and thus rejects much of what keeps our economy and our society humming. He warns us against greed, avarice, the desire to possess more than we need, more than we can use, more than we want.
This sin of avarice is a popular one, and we prefer not to name it, or even recognize it. By not naming it, we may feel that we don’t need to deal with it. Recovery groups talk about something similar regarding a person’s alcoholism. For the alcoholic’s family, the alcoholism can be like an elephant in the living room, which everyone knows is there, and which dominates family life, but nobody talks about. It may well be that avarice is the elephant in the living room of our culture.
For some of us even the term avarice may be unfamiliar. It may sound archaic, outdated. But avarice is as contemporary as the newest shopping mall. Avarice is the desire to possess something for the sake of possessing it, not for any enjoyment it brings, or any purpose it serves. It is the vice which simply piles things up, whether we store those things in bigger barns, like the rich fool in today’s parable, or in houses so large they dwarf the people living there.
Our culture encourages avarice. Corporate America even sees avarice as a necessary virtue providing high octane fuel to drive the economic engine - our economy. Countless messages scream at us each day: Get more! Buy more! Have more! AT & T used to have a cute commercial with little children. Its message – “More is better!”
This approach does not look on human beings as rational animals, or children of god, or citizens of the republic. Instead, it views people as consumers, beings that exist simply to consume, vast, open, hungry maws into which merchandise disappears. The uniform worn by the loyal consumer is a Tee shirt with the slogan – the comic, pathetic, and all too true slogan – BORN TO SHOP. Does this apply to anyone here this morning? Of course not!
Visit any shopping mall, and you find yourself on the holy ground of the Temple of Avarice. So much stuff! And much of it nobody needs! Yet the entire ambiance is cleverly arranged to invite you to buy whether you need to or not.
It is clear that our culture is still convinced that “more is better” or “bigger is better,” but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a denial that “more” or “bigger is better.” Poverty, not wealth—death, not life—is the only material God uses to save us. The cross, the cruel instrument of torture and death which the Roman Empire reserved for rebellious slaves, violent criminals, and threatening political subversives, is central in God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. The cross is central because we confess, “It is here, on the cross, that God meets us.” Here God makes Himself present…hidden in weakness, vulnerable, suffering, forsaken, dying. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a denial that “bigger is better.” Jesus wins by allowing Himself to be killed. He did not organize an army to go after His enemies to destroy them! He allowed Himself to be destroyed for our sake. The church growth folks, whose supreme goal seems to be the mega-church, often seem to be seduced by the cultural value that “bigger is better.” They often seem to substitute a cultural value, namely, that Christian success is always numerically determined, for faithfulness to the Gospel, for faithfulness to the message of Jesus Christ.
So often we are consumed with consuming, even in a slow economy. We must have the latest, the fastest, the newest, the biggest or the smallest, the costliest and the “coolest.” Sure, it’s nice to have “stuff.” I’ve got way too much stuff! And it’s even nicer to have new stuff (or if your “thing” is antiques, new old stuff).
But the next time you reach for your credit card, or your checkbook, ask yourself, “Am I stocking up on possessions, or treasures?” So often we confuse the two. Our junkyards are full of people’s treasures – “stuff” they had lived and died for. Now they are fit only for the dump. Placing your hopes and dreams on material things will eventually lead you nowhere but to the junkyard. Materialism is a junk value.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus teaches that God does indeed want us to be rich – but God defines riches very differently than our world does. Our riches are not possessions. “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus teaches. The good life turns out to be something we have substituted for the real thing: the blessed life. Jesus suggests seeking the blessed life, one in which we are “rich toward God.” Augustine said it well: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”
The issue here, and this is important, is not ownership of possessions but ownership by possessions. So often, our possessions own us. Wealth is a hard taskmaster. The person who desires wealth is tempted to make its acquisition top priority. The person who has wealth is tempted to devote his or her life to guarding and growing it. We are all tempted to believe that we can find true security in wealth.
Faith in wealth crowds out faith in God. It is not money that is the problem, however, but love of money (1 Timothy 6:10). When money, or what money can buy, becomes our ultimate concern, what we live and die for, what always drives us, and causes us to lose sleep, it then becomes our god! Jesus spoke often about money and possessions. Our Gospel lesson puts money in perspective. Real security comes only from being ‘rich toward God.’ Jesus says, “Take care, be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Of course, televangelist Joel Osteen, do you know who I mean?, he is always smiling, who serves the largest church in the United States, would contend that God’s primary desire revealed in Jesus is for each of us to be wealthy (he means materially wealthy) and successful. Jesus loves winners! Jesus rewards winners! People love that message! Oh yes! I’ve always wondered where Osteen finds this in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! I’ve searched for it, but I can’t find it anywhere. He must have a different Bible than I have!
Then Jesus told the crowd gathered around Him a parable. A rich man had a great harvest. The harvest was so great that the man had to tear down his little barns to build big ones. This man didn’t say thanks to God. He didn’t give his workers a bonus. He didn’t help to feed the poor. His only thought was of himself. He said, “What should I do, for I have no place to store MY crops? I will do this: I will pull down MY barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all MY grain and MY goods.” The first hint of a problem lies in the man’s use of the first-person pronoun. When we go through the parable and circle the words “I” and “my”, we get a sense of the man’s self-absorption. In his short conversation with himself, he uses the word “I” six times and the word “my” five times. He gives no thought to a bonus for his hired hands, or a service project for his community. He offers no word of thanksgiving to God for this tremendous harvest. Everything is “I” and “my.” Money has such pulling power. That is why the man was driven to build more barns. The point of the parable is not whether he had two barns or 20 or 200. The disaster is that he died between barns. (Repeat) He was right in the middle of all that barnbuilding when he died.
Now there is an interesting way of pegging the time of death—not by the cessation of breath, or the stopping of the heart, but by our location between those things we consider worth living for and dying for. Some people die between barns, some between babies, some between golf rounds, some between meals. We die between all kinds of things.
If you died tonight, what would you die between? Instead of giving answers, I ask questions like that, because that is what parables do. That is why parables can be applied to different times and places. Parables are cruelly realistic.
“But God said to the rich man in the parable, ‘Fool! This night your life is required of you; then who will own all this stuff you’ve spent so much time preparing?” Whose will they be?
You can’t take it with you. A story! A certain man knew he was dying. He asked his wife to take out a stone from the fireplace where she would find a jar of money. He asked her to place it on the sill of the attic window so that, as he left, he could grab it on his way up. She did as she was told and found a large jar of one hundred-dollar bills which she did not know he had. She put the jar on the attic window sill. A few days after the funeral, she thought she would check to see if he had taken the jar when he had supposedly ascended. She found the jar of money still where she put it and then she remarked, “I knew all along that I should have put it on the basement window!”
Then Jesus concluded: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Please note that Jesus did not say that it is bad to have money. He didn’t say that! Bill and Melinda Gates are using their money to fund medical research to eradicate malaria and other Third World diseases. God bless them! Andrew Carnegie used his wealth to start the public library movement in this country. God bless him! Alfred Nobel used his money to endow the Nobel Prizes – to encourage excellence and to promote peace! God bless him! There are many others, who are wealthy, who share their wealth for the common good. Whether we are rich or poor, God gives each of us so many riches that He intends for us to share with others. We are saved for the sake of others, not simply for our own sakes.
Jesus Christ is the one who makes us rich toward God. To be a Christian is to accept what God gives us in Christ through faith. And God gives each of us forgiveness, life, and salvation in His Son, Jesus Christ. Our parable for this morning is vitally relevant and carries an important message for anyone who believes that putting their primary emphasis and effort on possessions is the way to obtain the good life.
One of the most enduringly romantic notions is the dream of being a treasure hunter. The key to the treasure hunter’s success is some kind of secret knowledge, or unearthed map. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is our map, the secret knowledge revealed by the Holy Spirit, for the Treasure we are seeking.
True “treasure hunters” aren’t found diving into the wrecks of sunken ships, or hiking hidden trails through rugged mountains. True treasure hunters are not Indiana Jones, but followers of Jesus Christ. True treasure hunters are found serving breakfast, or lunch, to the homeless here at First Lutheran, or down at a homeless shelter; they are found teaching illiterate adults how to read; they are found doing chores or errands for someone who is housebound; they are found sitting with their children and talking heart-to-heart; they are found on their knees, and they are found praising on their feet.
We can all be successful treasure hunters because each of us has access to the key that reveals all the true treasures of life – Jesus Christ. In Him we are all made wondrously rich before God.
The conference football championship was on the line and the score was tied with only 7 seconds left in regulation time. The field goal team prepares to kick the winning field goal. On one side of the stadium, fifty thousand fans are praying that the kicker will make the field goal; on the other side of the stadium, fifty thousand fans are praying just as hard that he will miss. The kicker crosses himself, the ball is centered, the kick is up . . . .
Whether the ball splits the uprights or not, I doubt that 50,000 football fans will suffer a crisis of faith because things didn't turn out the way they wanted. But you don't have to be in the ministry very long before someone will come to you and say, "Pastor, I prayed and prayed, but she just kept getting worse. I can't understand how such a good person could be allowed to suffer so, especially when so many people were praying forher." Didn't Jesus say "Ask, and it will be given you, search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."
In the light of these verses from today's gospel, unanswered prayer can create a huge crisis of faith. Did God fail? Or did we? Does God even hear? Is God even there? Most of us believers are reluctant to say that God failed us. Even though that may be what we feel deep inside, we're hesitant to say it out loud or even admit it to ourselves. So we conclude we failed somehow. Didn't pray hard enough, didn't have enough faith, I'm not a good enough person for God to listen to me, I must not have prayed correctly. I once counselled with a woman who carried some pretty bitter feelings because she was told by a minister in her church that her husband died because she didn't have enough faith when she prayed for him. Talk about carrying needless and destructive guilt--for a time she felt that she had killed her husband.
"Ask and it willl be given you." When Jesus spoke these words, I have to think that he was not so naive as to think that prayer was some kind of magic wand that we can wave in order to get what we want. Jesus was a pretty savvy guy who probably knew more about human nature and how things are than anybody else. He would have known from his own human experiences that prayer is not a ticket to all the goodies God has to offer.
There are a lot of things I do not understand about prayer. I am not an outstanding prayer. And I have to admit that I don't have a definitive grasp on everything Jesus is saying in his teaching about prayer. Now that I have my disclaimer in, I'll tell you that I find what Jesus has to say, strangely encouraging and comforting.
I find Jesus words encouraging because they tell us that God wants us to pray and to ask for anything. Certainly, prayer is more than asking for things. Prayer is praise, prayer is giving thanks, prayer is adoration, prayer is conversation, prayer is questioning, prayer is arguing with God, prayer is action in behalf of the neighbor, prayer is laying out our feelings, prayer is all this and more. But especially prayer is asking God for what we need and desire. Jesus teaching on prayer invites us to ask God--Luther points out in the Small Catechism that God gives us what we need even if we don't pray for it, God even gives good things to the downright wicked folk, but God wants us to ask.
Asking in prayer helps us acknowledge our basic dependence on God. God will supply our needs anyway out of God's goodness and mercy, but when we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God's goodness--and that's good for us.
Jesus' teaching about prayer is also comforting because it assures us that God hears our prayers. God wants to be in relationship with us and prayer keeps the communication that is so important in any relationship going. God hears when we pray for the small things in life, even when we pray for the selfish things. That means when the big things come--even the life and death things, God hears our thoughts and desires and is with us, suffering with us, holding on to us in the deepest and darkest times of our lives. God meets us in the hardest most painful moments.
We believe in a God who knows those moments of fear, and loss and pain first hand. We believe in a God who in Jesus took on our human experience and suffered and died so that we can know there is no place where we can go that Christ hasn't already gone and that there is nothing we can do--or have done to us--that God cannot love and forgive and redeem and save.
Sure, we're like the disciples who asked Jesus to teach them to pray. We'd like to know how prayer works. We want something we can practice and maybe master, some formula, some mechanism. A bit of what Jesus says in today's gospel even complicates the issue but what he clearly says leads us beyond the mechanical question of "how" to the relational question of "who". We pray to the God who loves us even more than we can imagine loving our own children--the One who loves us deeply, passionately, audaciously. We pray to the God who listens and who provides all that is good.
The story of Mary and Martha is often misunderstood. This story does not teach us that it is better to sit than to do. Rather, it teaches us to discern – to set our priorities carefully – to seek the better thing, the good portion, whatever that might be in the situation in which we find ourselves.
The story of Mary and Martha shows us what happens to a person when they are distracted by their need to be busy, or, perhaps, also in this case, in order to gain the favor of their house guest. If they do not receive what they deem to be appropriate recognition, they often become resentful and judgmental. In contrast, because this house guest is Jesus Himself, those who are responsive to God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ in this kind of context are set free from the obsessive need to please Him in order to gain His favor. It seems that Martha is driven more by duty than delight. She may be an effective organizer, a great cook, conscientious in all that she does, but she is focused on herself and what she is doing, rather than on her guest, who is Jesus Himself. With whom do you identify? Do you identify with Mary, or do you identify with Martha?
Jesus’ concern for Martha is about more than her busyness. The Greek word has been translated as “distracted.” However, in Greek, it carries connotations of panic or grief, or an intense inner struggle: what we sometimes talk about as being “torn up inside.” Martha has gotten to that point where she’s so much about doing the next thing that her work has stopped being her vocation and has become her identity. And it’s killing her spirit. With whom do we identify? Do we identify with Mary, or do we identify with Martha?
I believe that most of us, if we are really honest about it, are more likely to identify with Martha, rather than Mary. I often identify with Martha. Oh my God, yes! I sympathize with her; I feel for her; I understand exactly how she feels. I’ve been there many times. Martha was concerned that everything would be proper. After Jesus arrived, there were still many last minute preparations, many last minute details to attend to, but her sister Mary, rather than pitching in to help, sat down at the feet of Jesus and listened to His teaching.
Seated there in the living room, Jesus heard the clanging of pots and pans as Martha worked in the kitchen. Obviously, Martha wanted her rattling of pots and pans to have an effect on Jesus. She wanted Jesus to recognize and praise her for all she was doing for Him. She was trying to get His attention. She was trying to divert His attention away from her sister Mary to herself. She wanted the focus to be on her.
Martha is feeling sorry for herself. “Oh, woe is me. I wish I could relax and sit at your feet, but I have too many things to attend to. Frankly, Lord, I don’t mind Mary sitting and chatting nearly as much as I mind not being recognized and praised for what I am doing, paying attention to all of these details.”
In Jesus’ familiar visit to the sisters Martha and Mary, the reality of God, present, as the subject of hospitality, is again the focus. The sisters respond in kind, each according to her gifts: Martha in making and doing; Mary is laser-focused on the presence of God in her midst. And though Jesus refuses to ask Mary to conform to Martha’s standards of busy hospitality, neither does He indicate that the making and doing of hospitality are entirely beside the point. This is important to recognize. Jesus’ response is less about shaming or devaluing Martha than it is about affirming Mary.
Throughout Western Christian history, and certainly in our society today, most Christians place strong emphasis on the idea that what counts is what we do for Jesus. And, of course, what we do for Jesus, or more accurately, what we do in response to what Jesus is doing for us through the work of the Holy Spirit, is very important. The problem is that we forget that our doing is a response, rather than a way of getting a response. God’s prior action in Christ received through faith enables us to do likewise in relation to our neighbors. This is how God continues His work in our world today. The re-enactment of God’s action in Jesus Christ becomes possible for us when we are transformed, when we are changed, by God’s Grace and Love in Jesus Christ. Our problem is that we so often separate faith from doing. Faith and doing are connected, not disconnected. We often believe that what we do is what really counts with Jesus. We are mostly “doers.” Or, at least, we think we are! Some would even go so far as to say that it doesn’t matter so much what we believe – it’s what we do that matters. However, what we do, as Christians, should flow out of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for us in Jesus Christ, who encounters and relates to us each day in our relationships with each other. That’s how God relates to us today – incarnationally – in the flesh, in our relationships with each other.
Those who are “worried and distracted by many things,” often miss what God is presently doing in their midst. Jesus answers Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Here Jesus unambiguously names Mary as making the better (literally “good”) choice. Cell phones off; laptops closed; forget the hors d’oeuvres. The eternal source of life, purpose, wisdom, reconciliation, and peace is close at hand. Pay attention! These passages in our Gospel seek to prepare people to attend to that reality, regardless of what else gets left undone.
There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why. And the popular little phrase, “I believe everything happens for a reason!” totally misses the point! We are not controlled. It is not a matter of predetermined fate. God does not have a blueprint of our life before we live it, but rather we are set free by God’s love and grace received through faith to determine our own destiny, our own future with God. However, God is revealing to us in His Son Jesus Christ why we are born. His love and grace set us free to choose the destiny He makes available to each of us in His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ.
There are multiple ways we can choose to respond to and follow Jesus Christ in our everyday life. Our backgrounds, our opportunities, our situations in life are all different, so the way we respond will be different. God in Christ puts before each of us, if we are able to pay attention, and not be distracted, the best possibility, but we often miss it because, like Martha, we are distracted. We are worried, or, fearful. When we are fearful we are easily manipulated and emotionally controlled. What is happening in our country, at the present time, makes this painfully obvious. People are being driven by fear and anxiety. This results in resentment, anger, rage and even violence. It produces division, not reconciliation and peace! It makes for really bad choices.
The New Testament commands us to center our lives on Christ. We have to ask ourselves whether God in Christ is the center of our lives. Are we centered on Christ? And how do we do this anyway? And if our lives are not centered on Christ, then where are they centered? People can center their lives on a lot of things besides Christ: their marriages, their children, their homes, their work, the environment, justice issues, church work, community service, their health, their wealth, their pleasure, or even hatred and revenge. You name it!
The issue here is not either/or; that is, either marriage, or Christ; children, or Christ; work, or Christ; the environment, justice, church work, community service, health, wealth, or Christ. The issue is both/and, with Christ as the center of one’s marriage, children, work, and on and on and on. It is not either/or, it is both/and, with Christ as the center.
We are talking here about what is the center of one’s life. What is your ultimate concern? In short, what, or who is your God? Jesus cautioned Martha, and He cautions us, to make sure our lives are centered on what “will not be taken away.” To be a Christian is to accept what Jesus gives, what Jesus offers us, what Jesus has to give us through faith!
Here we find a story about priorities. This is not a story about manners, but a story about priorities. Martha asks Jesus to sympathize with her, to show appreciation for her attention to practical duties. Jesus instead reminds Martha that she has her priorities reversed. God, in the richness of His Grace, has so much to give Martha and each of us, but often we are so distracted, or so busy, doing what we think is right, that God has an extremely difficult time getting our attention! And so we miss out on so much of life. Martha is deaf to God’s Word, who is Jesus in her situation. She is resentful of what she regards as being ignored and exploited. She must be reminded that to listen to the voice of God in Christ and to respond to His invitation is the single enduring responsibility of human beings.
“Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Consequently, she became “anxious and troubled.” Anxiety is an attitude in opposition to trust. Martha’s life just seems to be distracted busyness, one thing after another with no end in sight. She is so busy doing what she believes to be right, that she doesn’t have time to receive. She doesn’t have time for personal refreshment.
We so often get lost in the details of life and fail to see the big picture. God in Christ is trying to show us the big picture. The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote that, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha has the fox mentality, whereas Mary has the hedgehog mentality. All Martha can see are the many things that need to be done, the many details that must be attended to, whereas Mary could see the big picture, the unifying vision, which puts everything in perspective. We desperately need this unifying vision, this transcendent perspective that is available to each of us in Jesus Christ. It is very clear that the mood of our day, in our culture, but particularly in the church, is that of the fox, not that of the hedgehog. Perhaps this is why most of us identify with Martha. She is like us. And like her, we are distracted by our many tasks. So, when Jesus answers Martha’s question, He is speaking, not only to her, but also to each of us. We could substitute our names for Martha’s. And He is saying to each one of us – “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Martha, like so many of us, misses this point. This delightful, faithful, hard working woman was missing a central truth of the Gospel. Jesus is saying to Martha, and us, “God loves you Martha simply because you are His child. You are not loved because you keep a clean kitchen; you are not loved because your children are always mannerly in public; you are not loved because you do a great job at work. In fact, you are not loved because of anything you do. You are loved and accepted because you are God’s child, God’s daughter, or God’s son. You are loved because of who you are in your relationship with Christ, not because of what you do.
And the message of this Gospel Lesson is exactly the same for every person here this morning. You are loved and accepted, just because of who you are, just because you are a child of God. Amen.
Thank you, Bishop Murray and Rhoda Finck, for your presence today as you conclude your distinguished ministry as the bishop of our Pacifica Synod; thank you good Congressman Scott Peters and Lynn Gorguze for you incredible support during these years; thank you to our fine staff who works so hard to make Christ known in this place; thanks to our church council working hard to ensure this congregation’s future is filled with every good thing; thank you to today’s musicians for lifting us with the angels; thank you all for making our ministry what it is.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ of First Lutheran Church, I will remember you as a courageous people. You have risked much to keep our doors wide open for forlorn drifters; you have stood fast to make our tables oases for weary wanderers, both here in the sanctuary and outside on our patio. Of course, the truth is that each of us is a wanderer, each a weary drifter in search of God’s mercy table.
Open doors and open tables come at a cost. Our neighbors are not always happy with the company we keep. Business people and sports talk radio hosts can’t fathom why we advocate for more bathrooms and housing for homeless people when spending a cool billion dollars for a new Charger’s stadium in our neighborhood makes perfect sense. The Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
You are an odd people. Not only are you odd, you defy the odds! Bishop Finck will tell you that First is one of the fastest growing congregations in our synod if not the fastest. This year alone, you increased your financial commitment for ministry by more than 20%. 10% of your offerings go beyond our doors to support the work of the greater church. We just gave the final portion of our $16,000 Lenten offerings to Pastor Samuel Kumissa and the Oromo Christian Fellowship of San Diego, a poor and yet vibrant Ethiopian congregation. You could argue that First needs the money more; after all, our mission is to the poorest of the poor. But your vision is greater, your compassion deeper. You are odd indeed.
As our nation mourns the brutal shootings in Orlando that have touched the LGBT community so deeply, we are painfully reminded of the work still to be done. First Lutheran, you have been a Reconciling in Christ congregation for twenty-seven years. How fitting that the final wedding during my time as your pastor was Leon Stevens and Kevin Vallone’s yesterday afternoon.
So-called church growth experts tell us that such risk-taking can actually shrink congregations: people are uncomfortable with controversial stuff. But, you, dear First Lutheran, have chosen the better way. You know deep in your heart that the character of this community is not measured by how you treat the powerful or even by how rapidly or large you grow; rather the character of this community is measured by how you treat the most fragile. How odd, really, that your church is vibrant and growing against all odds. God is good….God is very good.
It has never been fashionable, by the way, to place the vulnerable ones in seats of honor. Jesus encountered the man plagued by demons, refusing to steer clear of this tortured soul. He did combat with the pesky demons and sent them straight into pigs and the pigs promptly jumped off the cliff and drowned. The local town folk were none too happy with Jesus’ healing ministry—it was not good for the economy! Similar disgruntlement is voiced when we cast out demons of poverty and despair in the Lord’s name right here at 3rd and Ash; yet again, it is said, “It isn’t good for the economy.”
Over the past eleven years, you have heard me talk of many people who have touched my life. One of those is the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Yale’s chaplain when I was in divinity school there. Reverend Coffin once said: “Courage means being well aware of the worst that can happen, being scared almost to death, and then doing the right thing anyhow.”
The early Christians confronted such scary times head on and they were often murdered for their bold faith. Today, the greater risk for the North American church is not dying of martyrdom but dying of boredom…We dare not be lulled to sleep by mediocrity; we dare not become cowards fearful to stand for what matters!
During the past few weeks, you have been so kind to Dagmar and me. You have offered us your precious gifts of tears. You have thanked us for a host of things, including Dagmar’s weekly floral arrangements. Also, deserved or not, you have repeatedly complimented me on my preaching. But let me be honest with you: it takes two to preach, one to speak and one to listen. You do not tolerate trifling sermons with no hits, no runs, no errors. You demand words that matter in these days even when you disagree with me. Like the African American church, you cry out, “Preach, brother!” Your encouragement has been an astonishing gift to me.
Our community and world desperately need odd places like First, places where we listen carefully to God and then speak boldly and yet humbly on God’s behalf.
Where do we get such courage? In a few moments we will head to the First Lutheran River where Jackson and Matthew will be baptized. First time visitors are mesmerized by our meandering and yet turbulent waters. We will soon face West where the sun sets and death lurks; we will raise our hands in defiance of the devil and shout as loud as we can, “We renounce him.” You know God fights sea monsters here and God always wins so you scream straight into the demon face, “I believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That is why you keep your doors and tables wide open.
I have quoted far too many theologians, preachers, and authors in my time here. As Dagmar and I take leave of this enchanting place, I am sure I will be quoting you in months and years to come. I will quote, not so much your words as your actions: how you stood up when the city threatened to shut our feeding program down; how you refused to be bullied by a prosperous developer who blamed us for homelessness around our little part of God’s creation; how, time and again, you stared death in the face and prayed confidently for those you love, “Rest eternal, grant them, O Lord.”
Yes, you are an odd people and my deepest honor has been to have you call me “your pastor.”
Dagmar and I cannot imagine a more breathtaking eleven years. You dear people of First Lutheran Church have taught us how good and faithful people live courageously and lovingly and we greatly admire you for that. May you continue to know the truth and may that truth make you very odd on behalf of this suffering world, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Never in my thirty-nine years of ministry have I seen the wedding couple dressed in Hawaiian shirts bedecked with pink flamingoes. This is such a spectacular day! Do you agree, Kevin and Leon? Do you agree, friends and family and brothers and sisters in Christ?
It was a delight watching the two of you walk down the aisle, to see your smiles, to witness the anticipation. It was worth the steep price of admission.
The reading we just heard from John’s gospel is Jesus’ first miracle. It is fitting that his first miracle occurred at a wedding.
Kevin and Leon, when you invited all your friends and family and the entire church to your wedding, your deepest desire was that everything would go absolutely smoothly. When you are an executive chef and soon to be married to one, everything must be perfect!
That’s the way it was at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. The family wanted everything to go flawlessly. Influential business associates had been invited, local synagogue leaders were there, and even the nosy neighbors got an invite. Everyone came for the food and wine—that is, after all, why people come to weddings, right, especially when Kevin is baking the cake?
As you know, the wine ran out. Imagine: your best plans going down the drain. Impossible! How could the wine run out?
Kevin and Leon, you have been planning this day for months, figuring how much cake is necessary, how many horderves we will eat, how much beverage we will drink. Imagine if people from exotic places like New York State and Chicago showed up and the food and drink ran out.
Well, that’s what happened 2,000 years ago. The wine ran out! The wedding party and family were a wreck. Jesus performed his first miracle to save the day and you might say everyone lived happily ever after.
To be honest—and you tell me whether I am being honest—this day is a miracle as well. Forty years ago, this day would have been unimaginable, even ten years ago. Think of the agonizing discussions about two men getting married! Think of all that our Lutheran church has gone through. And, of course, we are not out of the woods yet: the recent tragedy in Orlando is a heartbreaking reminder of the hatred that still festers for the LGBT community.
And yet, let us not hover on the negatives today. That’s not what Jesus did and that’s not why we are here. Rather than lamenting that the wine ran out, Jesus changed the water into wine and there sat 180 gallons of the finest wine the connoisseurs had ever tasted ready for the pouring. Yes, a miracle.
Leon and Kevin, as all weddings are, your wedding is a miracle, too, as you promise to become one, in good times and bad times, in times of health and sickness. A miracle!
Dagmar and I worshipped in London a few years ago and the gospel reading for the morning was the same one we use today, the Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee. Here’s how the preacher described what happened. Jesus looked at the water and the water stared back at Jesus. When the water saw Jesus’ beautiful and tender face, the water blushed and turned into wine.
I suppose that’s what the two of you do today, you look at one another and, with the blessing of Jesus, you blush and become one.
So, let the miracle commence as you make your vows one to another.
Emily Post’s classic book, “Etiquette,” has schooled many people in proper manners. Here’s a bit of Miss Post’s advice: “As meals are social events, it is essential to practice proper manners…consideration for those around you can make a world of difference to the outcome.”
With this guidance in mind, little children have been schooled to keep their elbows off the table, chew their food with their mouths shut, and not to start eating until everyone is served.
God’s children, however, do not learn proper meal manners from Emily Post. We learn them from Jesus and, if the truth be told, Jesus’ etiquette has a steep learning curve; it is far different from how we normally act. Children need to be taught Jesus’ odd gracefulness by parents and grandparents, Sunday School teachers and pastors. We all learn from Jesus that if the company we keep on Sunday morning does not horrify “polite company,” we are probably not doing things the way Jesus did.
We catch sight of Jesus eating habits in today’s gospel reading. It is almost impossible not to be shocked by his outrageous behavior. Jesus scandalized upstanding religious people who knew the biblical rulebook down to every jot and tittle. They watched the bedraggled woman, with a shocking reputation, join Jesus for dinner. They could not fathom why he let her come near him; add to that, he let her anoint his feet with ointment, bathe them with her tears, and dry them with her hair. The good Pharisees were through the roof in outrage.
While the Pharisees blew their respectable religious gaskets, the outcast woman did just the opposite: she celebrated being in Jesus’ presence. She had never been treated so affectionately, with such tenderness and reverence.
Watching how Jesus treated the ostracized woman, we perceive that there is nothing we do more radical as Christians than eating together here at worship on Sunday morning—NOTHING! Some people, of course, do not view our worship as radical at all. These naysayers see the real Christian action occurring somewhere beyond this sanctuary, out on the streets. They view what we do here as perfunctory, superfluous to the authentic Christian life. Believe it or not, I have actually heard pastors—some right here in San Diego and Lutheran to boot—say, “I am not into worship.” That always strikes me as similar to a doctor saying, “I am not into surgery.”
I urge you, the good people of First Lutheran, please never forget this: this community’s eating habits say volumes about who you are and who you care about. People will learn more than they ever need to know about your beliefs and commitments simply by watching with whom you eat here on Sunday morning; they need look no further. Look around if you don’t believe me: see who is eating here right now and you will quickly realize whether we are with Jesus’ downtrodden friends or more polite and acceptable company, people with whom the Pharisees dined…but not Jesus.
What book of etiquette informs First Lutheran Church’s life? What book teaches our children their habits of grace? Do our little ones learn to play with those different from themselves? Are they stretched beyond their little insular families, exclusive tribes, and gated communities? Do they wonder in amazement why we embrace those not quite like us? Do they see us gathering with outcasts and learn to say, “She is my sister in Christ, he is my dear brother?” Quite simply: are our children schooled in the etiquette of Jesus?
When our oldest son Sebastian was four years old, he was asked by an adult church member of our congregation who his best friend was. He said he had two best friends, Mao and Aurelio (Mao from Namibia and Aurelio from Angola—both countries in southern Africa). When the adult asked Sebastian what Mao and Aurelio looked like, he said, “They look just like me except they are black.” In the church where Sebastian grew up, there weren’t a million kids—it was much like First Lutheran; there were no fancy youth programs taking trips to pricey theme parks and exotic fantasylands. Sebastian learned something far deeper, far more profound, and far more honest about the world. He learned—just as do our kids here—that God’s children are rich and poor, African and Mexican, White and African American, and, at their best, they gather together every Sunday morning. Sebastian’s best friends taught him how to eat spicy foods he had never tasted before; they taught him to listen carefully and lovingly to their beautiful accents; he watched as these kids’ parents limped into the sanctuary because of the terrible torture they had endured in their war torn homelands. This was Sebastian and Caspar’s church youth group growing up. This was the community that taught them who Jesus’ friends are.
Of course, First Lutheran is just as exceptional when it comes to the opportunity of seeing Jesus’ best friends. Our children are schooled in a world of unusual etiquette where God’s blessed poor are brought to the heart of our life together. Some of you have been brought to the center as well—actually, we all have!
First Lutheran Church lives, breathes, and rubs shoulders with Jesus’ motley friends. Our finest moments occur when the stringent biblical eating codes end up treated rather chaotically and even haphazardly: we are Jesus’ kids after all, young and old alike, with elbows on the table and food spilling out of our mouths every which way. We look like Jesus did when he had dinner with that scandalous woman so long ago. On such occasions, we behold the mystery of outsiders becoming insiders and we realize Jesus welcomes us all to the mercy table.
Watch closely who comes to our table this morning and you will see Jesus. Watch even more closely and you will see Jesus eating with you.
I have presided over more than thirty funerals and memorial services as your pastor. We have wept together. We have entered here many a Sunday morning afterwards, numb, expecting to see those we have loved sitting right next to us. Tears have been our daily bread for a time. In all this, we have never ceased giving thanks and even celebrating as we have dared to entrust our loved ones into the eternal arms of God.
This all happened to the widow of Nain.
When you hear the word “widow” in the Bible, think dead-end, hopeless, wretched. More than anyone else, the widow was grief-stricken, vulnerable, and bare. Her husband was long gone, her son dead now as well.
It is not just the deaths of mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, that make us ache like the widow of Nain. There are the little deaths we die every day: the little deaths of friendships gone awry and seemingly beyond our capacity to forgive; of precious little ones headed off to preschool and feeling out of our arms forever; of two becoming one at God’s altar and causing parents to wonder if anything will ever be the same again. Little deaths but agonizing ones nonetheless.
Many of us are feeling “little deaths” these days as we celebrate our rich ministry at First Lutheran Church and yet wonder what comes next.
In such a time as this, we do well to hear a story where Jesus defeats death and where life prevails. This happens time and again in the Bible; in fact, the primary biblical theme seems that death never has the final word.
In the “The Message” Bible, Eugene Peterson translates this morning’s gospel this way: “When Jesus saw her, his heart broke. He said to her, ‘Don’t cry.’ Then he went over and touched the coffin. The pallbearers stopped. He said, ‘Young man, I tell you: Get up.’ The dead son sat up and began talking. Jesus presented him to his mother.”
And then these words about those who happened to be present that day so long ago when the widow’s son was restored to life: “They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them.”
Many say the same thing about our life together here at First Lutheran: “We are in a place of holy mystery.” This is not just said when all is going swimmingly well but even when death rears it ugly head and we bravely declare that life will prevail. Year after year here, we have smelled wretched death close by and yet, repeatedly, we have opted for the fresh breezes of new life. We have cared for the poor ones among us down on our luck, even while our city’s richest citizens have bullied us with lawsuits and threatened to shut us down. We have celebrated marriages of those in the LGBT community even when our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was not quite ready and even when a few members left this congregation. We have stared down death as we, the addicted and drunk, have walked straight into the scrumptious sober life. It is what we cherish about this mysterious place—life triumphs over death.
Some are understandably scared to death by our reliance on God raising us up from our musty ashes: it seems too bold, too honest; it threaten the shiny, yet vulnerable, veneer we have kept polished for ages. Others, however, have discovered in this refreshing frankness about our foibles, failures, and sins, a hopeful delight for the first time ever. Every time we trust that God can raise us from our little deaths and make us new again, we find ourselves proclaiming together, “We are in a place of holy mystery.” Just like the widow of Nain, we hear Jesus say to our broken hearts, “Don’t cry.”
The ever-present challenge to this wonderful community is to live in such a way that death is never permitted the final word—NEVER! It is why we stand before freshly dug graves and say, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” It is why we embrace those for whom tomorrow seems impossible and say on Jesus’ behalf, “Don’t cry, things will get better.”
It is why we will commission Jeremy Kaercher in a few moments to join other Simon’s Walk Volunteers who boldly walk hand-in-hand with our dying homeless brothers and sisters into the valley of the show of death.
It is why little Wallace Robinson will come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ for the first time in his life. Wallace loves coming to church and has been eagerly anticipating this day. He protests going to the nursery because he wants to “praise God, alleluia!” here in the sanctuary. Wallace’s joy reminds us all again, if we too easily forget, of the delicious grace we receive in the milk and honey of Christ’s body and blood offered us in all the joy and sadness life brings.
In these days, we face a “little death” as we say goodbye and envision what the future holds for each of us and for this beloved community. Ours is a joyful message though. We trust and proclaim “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is the only reason we are here today, the only reason we have been here for the past 128 years, and actually the only reason we have for being here in the years ahead. We are a people who sing for all to hear on this Rock and Roll Marathon Sunday, “In thee is gladness amid all sadness, Jesus sunshine of my heart.”
It’s been exactly eleven years now since we came to First Lutheran Church. I have learned so much from you about what it means to be the people of God.
My very first week here, when I had not had a chance to dry off behind the ears, a representative from the city’s license and inspection division knocked at our door inquiring about our feeding permits. I was clueless what she was talking about but pretended to be quite conversant on the subject. I asked why we needed a feeding permit. She said we needed a permit to feed people. I asked her whether Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, catty-corner to us, had a permit. She replied, “They don’t feed.” I said, “I assume since they are Roman Catholics they feed the body and blood of Christ every Sunday morning.” This diligent city worker responded appropriately, “That is not the kind of feeding I am talking about.” I responded, “That is the kind of feeding I am talking about. Please write this down on your clipboard: the feeding we do in this sanctuary and on our patio is central to our theology. We are feeding God’s children their daily bread.”
I learned that from you and, as you know, I have been saying it ever since before we begin every Sunday morning service here: “All are welcome here to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus. You need not be a member of this congregation nor a Lutheran. All our tables are open, whether here on Sunday morning or outside on our patio where hundreds of hungry people have been receiving their daily bread for the past forty-one years.” Whether you like it or not, by now, you can repeat these words verbatim.
What I have learned living with you is that God is discovered in surprising places and in surprising people, sometimes in the sanctuary, sometimes outside on our patio, and often times on our city streets.
We Christians are accustomed to find Jesus in the church. And yet, as retired Methodist Bishop William Willimon notes, “Christ is not content to be the Lord of the Church.” You could say Jesus is the Lord of the streets as well as of the sanctuary.
That is exactly what we hear in this morning’s gospel reading.
There was a Roman centurion who had a very sick slave. While he was a powerful man, overseeing 100 soldiers or more, he was unable to restore his servant’s health. When the centurion heard Jesus had come to town, he sent some Jewish elders to ask whether Jesus might heal his slave. Note well: the centurion never came to Jesus. He was uncomfortable being in the presence of this great holy man. The centurion was an outsider when it came to Jesus: he was part of the Roman occupying army; he was not a Jew, he was a Gentile.
Even when Jesus went to the centurion, he was still uncomfortable. He never did see Jesus face-to-face. He said: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
I know many of you have said, “Lord, I am not worthy,” as well. You have told me that the first time you entered this sanctuary you were sure the roof would cave in. Remember? You were an outsider, too. You were clueless what a Lutheran is but you had passed this building countless times. One of you told me, “I used to sleep on the church patio at night.” Some of you had eaten here on the patio, on Mondays and Fridays, on the outside looking in. Some of you came here the first time, not for the liturgy here in the sanctuary but for the liturgy of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous out in the lounge. Quite a few of you have told me your home pastor said from the pulpit that people like you are abhorrent in God’s eyes and one day will rot in hell. Remember how hard it was to enter here after almost twenty-five years of staying away? You felt way, way outside.
It took enormous courage on your part to enter and stand before this table, on the inside. You felt like an outlier, an imposter, definitely not welcome.
But you came here anyway one Sunday morning.
One of you told me this past Thursday (while you asked me to mention your name, I am not going to do so because, in truth, your story is similar to so many of ours here this morning). You said you knew you were unworthy of God’s grace and love. You had heard this ever since you were in diapers. You felt just like that centurion who said, “Lord, I am not worthy to come under your roof.” You found out who God is, here, among your brothers and sisters in the faith. What you have found, according to you, is that God welcomes you, with rotten past and ferocious hangovers, to the very center of this blessed community.
Does this story feel like anybody else’s story here this morning?
I must confess, I have never heard a more stirring and heartfelt description of what it is to be Lutheran than the story you just heard: “I am not worthy of an iota of God’s grace and yet God has welcomed me home.” You know exactly what it is to be Lutheran even though you say you don’t have a clue and don’t use the fancy language of a theological textbook.
Of you, just like the centurion, Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
I learned this about this community, you!, the very first week I was here. You seek Christ, not just in this sanctuary, but also out on the patio and on the streets of San Diego. I have a hunch that is why this congregation is so vibrant and growing like wild fire. You realize that Jesus loves all the little children of the world, inside the church and outside, and that Jesus loves you very, very much.
That is what it means to be a Lutheran. That is what it means to be a member of First Lutheran Church.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we do something quite odd, we celebrate the Holy Trinity. You may or may not ever have noticed: this is the only time during the church year that we lift up a doctrine of the church at worship.
Frankly, lifting up the doctrine of God’s name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not as easy as you might think. In fact, in our day, it is just plain tough.
Many people these days are quite suspicious of any institution and of any of their guiding documents, especially if those institutions and documents are more than three years and two months old. I’m sure you have noticed that people running for public office have detected this distaste and take a perverse delight in ranting about the evils of government. Never mind that our government builds roads, funds the military, and takes care of us when we lose the capacity to care for ourselves. If it bears the name “institution,” some of us are hands down against it.
Some people harbor similar antagonistic feelings toward the church and its ancient doctrines. We love Jesus and God’s creation with the birds and bees and little children, but the one holy catholic and apostolic church gives us the creeps—too institutional, too traditional.
Is it any wonder that the church's doctrine of the Holy Trinity gives some of us the heebie-jeebies? The thought of upholding such an “old doctrine” smells musty and feels irrationally passé. Don’t such rigid belief systems, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, cause untold violence? Can’t we be more flexible? Can’t we just say that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we believe?
Holy Trinity Sunday, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit….why bother with it at all?
I have spent the better part of my life thinking about God. I majored in religion in college and all I thought about in seminary focused on God. While most of you are not paid to do that, you think a lot about God, too. Many of you went to Sunday School as little kids and have attended church most of your lives. You would think after all the Summer Bible School, worship services, and adult Christian education classes, you would be smarter than Einstein when it comes to the nature of God.
And yet, at least for me, the older I get, the dumber I feel when it comes to matters regarding God. Do you experience that: the more you know, the less you seem to know?
I wonder if that is why, every time a church council or congregation gathers to brainstorm about its future, the paper on the wall is filled with desires for more and more adult Bible studies (even thought most of us don’t attend!) and more Sunday school opportunities for our children. It only stands to reason that the more we learn, the more we will understand about God…Well, maybe and maybe not.
The most difficult course I took in divinity school was Paul Holmer’s class on the Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s dense writing was tough sledding for this boy from West Virginia. One thing, though, I did learn in that class. Mr. Holmer warned us: “In your ministry, people will come to you time and again asking, ‘Tell me a book that will clear up the mystery of the Holy Trinity.’” Mr. Holmer cautioned that whenever we recommend a book to understand God, inevitably, the book will end up raising as many new questions as providing convincing answers.
I imagine you are pretty much like me: the more you read the Bible, the more Christian education classes you attend, the more you worship on Sunday morning, the dumber you feel about God. Well….maybe not dumber, but at least more insignificant. You feel like the psalmist who said, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Maybe feeling dumb is not as bad as it sounds. Maybe feeling dumb leads us to a more profound worship of God. Suddenly, given our lack of convincing answers about the Triune God, we realize just how wondrous God is.
It matters deeply what we believe: that God created our universe and cares deeply that we do not ruin it; that God so loved the world—notice not just you or me but the entire world—that God gave God’s only son to die for us; that God does not leave us alone to figure out how God loves us but sends the Spirit amidst this community in the words we proclaim to one another and in our celebrations as we gather around water, bread, and wine. This all matters deeply.
And yet, this magnificent God confounds us every step of the way. We can never quite figure out God. Why does God allow wars to occur…or does God allow wars to occur? Why do those we dearly love endure such wretched sickness and why can’t God end such senseless pain with the wave of a divine wand? Why do God’s children quarrel incessantly? And perhaps most perplexing: why does this unfathomable God become a tiny child and die an ugly death on Calvary’s hill? I can’t even begin to answer these questions—can you?
This God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is deeply mysterious and far beyond our grasp. If our deep belief in God means anything—which, of course, it does—it means that God never tires of seeking ways to love us. Maybe, at best, we end up feeling like the psalmist who said, “Yet you have made [us] a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honor.”
Whether we understand God or not, how good to know how much God loves us. This seems more knowledge than we will ever need and perhaps more than we are able to bear. Just to gather here this morning and sing our praises to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…perhaps that is far more than enough.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
There is something about the Holy Spirit that is just plain weird! And there is something about the Holy Spirit that is even weirder to explain.
God the Creator—you get that, right: God created the heavens and the earth—simple! Jesus Christ—God’s only son, crucified, died and buried—no problem. But the Holy Spirit—how to explain that?
We try to explain the Holy Spirit, of course we do. That’s why we are here this morning dressed in red. We like the thought of the birthday of the church and loud rushing wind and tongues of flame descending every which way. Here we are at the tail end of Easter, fifty days later, pleading for God to be present with us throughout our lives with the spirit of the resurrection.
My hunch is that we easily get lost in a netherworld when trying to define the Holy Spirit. Our definitions feel like séances around a Ouija Board with lava lamps pulsating in the background and Enya and Yanni offering their subtle tones.
Holy Spirit…It feels unmanageable, ungraspable, indefinable. Perhaps that is why people claim to be spiritual and not religious. “Spiritual and not religious” sounds so cool, so counter-cultural, so la-la land, so anti-institutional.
Father Timothy Radcliffe, a Roman Catholic priest from England, writes: “There is a hunger for books on spirituality but, to me at least, these frequently seem vacuous or mildly crazy.” I must confess, I agree.
The Holy Spirit? Maybe it is not so bad that we come up short when struggling to offer a sensible definition.
Most of my explanations of the Holy Spirit are similar to the building efforts of those who tried to construct the Tower of Babel. They thought they could reach the heavens with their own cleverness, skill, and intellect. Who needs God, they thought. My Holy Spirit definitions are often quite similar
Martin Luther writes of our dismal Babel attempts in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…”
Never forget Luther’s words: “I believe that by own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord…” When we try to come to belief on our own terms, we end up tongue-tied or vacuous or mildly crazy. That was the case for the Apostle Peter. Remember how tongue-tied he got the night before Jesus died? A young servant girl asked him if he knew Jesus. Peter was a mess—a coward, a liar, a nincompoop; he claimed he had no idea who Jesus was. It was a pathetic performance by Jesus’ right hand man, one called “the rock” by Jesus himself.
And then, a mere fifty-three days later—and fifty after Easter, Peter stood before a huge crowd in Jerusalem and preached the sermon of a lifetime, on the day of Pentecost. What had gotten into him? How had he risen to the occasion? I think you know: it was the Holy Spirit who lifted him up, making him ten times the person he had been when he was the world’s greatest foul-up. His new found courage did not come by his own understanding or strength; it came as a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The past six months, as you are so tired of hearing by now, have been excruciating for me. There have been nights when I could barely sleep, occasions when I wandered through our house, crying into the night, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.” Some of you have asked, “Pastor, are you losing weight?” Answers did not come quickly or gently for me. The longer I sat and stared into the darkness, the fewer answers there were that came.
Whenever I looked for the Holy Spirit deep inside myself, I ended up with a frightful case of spiritual indigestion; the only answers percolating down deep amidst the roiling acids were hackneyed ones. And then I had a novel brainstorm—actually I think it was the Holy Spirit knocking me over the head. What if I listened to a few of my trusted brothers and sisters in Christ: pastors, confidants, maybe even a therapist? Might they preach a useful and sometimes hard, honest word to me?
Lutherans call this listening to others, extra nos. This is a fancy Latin way of saying, listening for a word beyond ourselves. It occurs through the scripture we read, the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, the peace we pass, the meal we eat, the conversations we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
You have likely spent a few excruciating nights wondering what’s next in your life. You do that when a job goes awry, a relationship teeters, your uncertain health scares you to death. God willing, you have come to the graceful realization that you cannot go it alone. You reach out into the night of desperation and find someone there to lift you out of your own boiling ruminations, to a glorious new day.
Luther found that out as he longed to be a perfect person. Is there any worse plague than thinking we are perfect, that we can go it alone? Luther tried and tried and tried. He never felt perfect enough, not even close. And then, in a flash, he realized God would save him—not he, himself, by building his own magnificent tower, but God. Luther was raised up by God’s Word, that mighty fortress is our God of which we Lutherans love to beat our breasts and sing. You might say the Holy Spirit had settled down on him or dive bombed on him for that matter!
So, what is the Holy Spirit? When we quit trying to build the perfect definition by our own ingenuity and instead humbly turn beyond ourselves to God, we discover the definition. We discover the definition in friends and family, those we love and those who love us; we discover the Spirit in a word from God; and that, my dear friends, is the best definition of the Holy Spirit I can think of.
May the Holy Spirit come, as they say, in places like this, in people like you and me, in the one holy catholic apostolic church and the communion of saints.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Those hours and days following Jesus’ death and resurrection must have been startling and excruciating ones for his followers. What were they to think? Had their personal sacrifices been for naught? They had abandoned their fishing nets and tax ledgers and had followed Jesus straightaway only to see him hanging on a cross to die. Imagine how they must have felt.
Given the emotion of those days, especially as Jesus was carried off into heaven—ascended—where would you have looked if you had been there?
Whenever we hear the word “heaven,” most of us look straight up into the sky. Many churches’ ministries consist of looking excessively up into sky, preparing, as it were, for heaven. Even the questions asked, “Who will get into heaven?” and “What will heaven be like,” get us looking upward.
It is remarkable that Jesus counseled something quite different: rather than looking up into heaven and speculating about what heaven might be like, he advised his followers, “Remain here in the city until you are invested with power from on high.” There is not an ounce of the Sound of Music here, no call to climb every mountain.
Even though Jesus tells us as well, “Remain here in the city,” don’t you instinctively catch yourself looking up when you hear the word “heaven?” Remember how your mother taught you to pray when you were a kid? You knelt at bedside, folded your hands, and, if you didn’t bow your head, you lifted it to the sky. Remember what you thought as a little tyke—maybe you even do today: heaven is way up there; earth is right here; and you know where hell is—way down there (this is called the three-tier universe).
In this morning’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes what Jesus’ followers did when he ascended into heaven. Even though Jesus told them to remain in the city, you know what they did because you would have done exactly the same thing: they gazed up into heaven as Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.
And, wouldn’t you know it, as they all stood gawking into the clouds, two men in white robes—angels might you think?—said to them, “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Why do we look into heaven, especially when Jesus said, “Remain here in the city”? Isn’t it better if we look for heaven right here on earth not up in the sky. Isn’t wise to take Jesus’ own words of prayer to heart, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”
One of San Diego’s finest preachers Mark Trotter preached here a few years ago. The Reverend Trotter was the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley right along the 8, the largest Main Line congregation by far in the area. You may remember that Pastor Trotter offered a bouquet of appreciation to this wonderful congregation, First Lutheran Church. He said that he greatly admired our remaining here in the city when so many other congregations fled the city for greener pastures, including his own—he said that, not me!
Not for a minute do I think that means we are so much more exceptional as a Christian community but I do think it means we have believed over the years that Christ will come again, not where we imagine things to be rosier, bigger, brighter, or any of the other superlatives that intoxicate and seduce so many Christian congregations. Rather, this congregation has trusted over the years that through the generous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Christ—heaven—is to be discovered right here in the mundane occurrences of our daily life, in the pedestrian happenings that transpire on our patio day-after-day, in the unadorned gifts entrusted to our care here in this sanctuary—bread, wine, water, and garbled words uttered by preachers like me, and as we seek Christ’s face in the faces of one another gathered here.
We can stare into the sky for all we are worth but, at the end of the day, if we are lucky, we will hear Jesus’ words echoing in our ears, “Remain here in the city,” and the words of the two angels as well, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?”
I have a hunch that if we are to take Jesus and the two angels at their word, we have a pretty good chance of gazing upon heaven right here. Sometimes it is hard because we expect more drama—something fancier, more exotic, even more “spiritual” as some are fond of saying these days. It can be hard because we expect heaven to appear amidst perfect people and, well, we know ourselves better than that; sometimes we expect heaven to be more exceptional that what occurs at our little church, here on our little corner, in our city of San Diego.
The saints over the years have remained here in the city. Last year, just about his time, we had five of our precious saints die, one after another. It was excruciating. Marlyss Carlson, Jerry Kuck, Dorothy Magdich, the Rev. Jim Halleberg, Mickey Lester—all five died right in a row. All five loved this place and loved you. They were ones who remained here in the city and gave their finest gifts that heaven might be discovered here. While some were men, like all good mothers and grandmothers and aunts and Sunday School teachers do, they taught us how to find heaven here in simple gifts and even in simpler people.
Yes, you are where heaven is to be found. Like many mothers whom we honor and remember on this very special day, we are invited by God to find Christ in thick and thin, in good times and bad times. We look for heaven, not way up in the clouds, but as Jesus invited us, here, in this holy precinct, here at 3rd and Ash.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
As I think most of you know by now, I have accepted the call to become the next pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City. That means Dagmar and I will be leaving this place we deeply love on Sunday, June 19.
I have learned so much from you….what it means to love a place so deeply that you voluntarily and generously commit your time, expertise, and finances to make Christ known in this place. I tell anyone who will listen: this is the healthiest church I know. As one pastor said of First Lutheran this week, you have created a very “large footprint” as you love God’s blessed poor in downtown San Diego.
Part of a being a healthy community is saying goodbye well. You are aware, I’m sure, that in saying goodbye there are a range of surprising emotions—perhaps you have experienced some already: joy, sadness, thanksgiving; even anger and feelings of betrayal crop up. This is natural when we dare to love one another. Pity those who have no emotions at a time like this.
We have already begun the process of saying goodbye. There have been tears; there have been questions; there has been thanksgiving. You have written emails and posted on Facebook, thoughtful words Dagmar and I will treasure for a lifetime. You are also already asking how First’s amazing ministry will continue to grow and flourish well into the future.
It has been emotional for Dagmar and me as well. Six months ago, I was approached by our Pacifica Synod to inquire whether I might place my name into nomination to become the next bishop to be elected this coming week in Irvine (I have removed my name from consideration on Wednesday of this week). Almost to the day, I also received a call from the Metropolitan New York Synod asking whether I would consider being a candidate at Holy Trinity in Manhattan. It has been excruciating! I always thought the Holy Spirit worked gently and kindly; for me, the Spirit has struck with fierce lightening and brusquely knocked me off my horse. There have been countless sleepless nights. I developed what I thought was a colossal zit six months ago, caused, I was certain, by the emotion of it all only to discover it was a different thing requiring a little dermatological digging (thus to answer your question: no one took a swing at me on Thursday upon receiving news that we are leaving).
Anyway, how we say goodbye matters.
Almost a year ago, on June 17, 2015, the Charleston church massacre occurred at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Myra Thompson was one of the nine people murdered. That same morning she had asked her husband, the Reverend Anthony Thompson, to look over a manuscript she had prepared for the evening Bible study. He went into his study to examine her text. She was in a rush and had to run. He called out, “Wait. Hold on. Be right there.” He heard the door close and his beloved wife was already gone.
This couple’s tradition was to kiss and say goodbye every morning. Sadly, this goodbye did not occur that fateful day. The Reverend Thompson says that not being able to say goodbye well still haunts him to this day.
Saying goodbye mattered deeply to Jesus as well. If you read John’s gospel, you will discover one quarter of the entire book involves a conversation between Jesus and his disciples the night before his crucifixion—not one chapter of John but the entire book of John. The range of emotions is beyond imagination. And yet, in the midst of it all, Jesus taught us how to say goodbye. How do we care for one another as we move into the next chapter of our lives?
Here’s what Jesus said, only hours before he died, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus assured his friends that God would shower the Holy Spirit upon them.
If these days of Easter teach us anything, it is that God is always with us. Our entire ministry in this place is pushing all our chips to the middle of the table—ALL IN!—betting that God will grant us peace. First Lutheran Church has made that risky wager for 128 years! In the face of a changing neighborhood, at times a very tough one, you and the saints before you have hunkered down here, trusting that the Holy Spirit will provide. In the face of homelessness and poverty faced by so many of us, God reassures us that we will not be left orphaned. In the face of the death of those loved ones we have buried from this sanctuary, God has assured us that death is not the final word and that life will prevail. Not only has First stayed, it has thrived like few other congregations.
In these days, may we all look to God who provides us with the blessed assurance of heavenly presence here at 3rd and Ash. People will watch to see how we model such grace. I know the answer already: you will trust that nothing shall separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus—not sickness, not poverty, not addiction, not loneliness, not homelessness, not anxiety, not even the death of those you love…it is what you have always done and what you will continue to do; it is why you are here. You are a people confident that God will do a new and wonderful thing, right here in the city.
Oh, my dear people of God at First Lutheran Church, you are a very good and generous and faithful people. I am certain God will be with you as you walk into the future as children of the light.
Let us pray…O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Oh, and by the way….Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In the last congregation I served, we invited guest pastors to preach every Wednesday evening in Lent on a given theme. One year, we asked the preachers to reflect on their favorite obscure biblical character. If you had been invited to preach, whom would you have chosen?
What about Dorcas? If you were asked to stand up now and give a quick overview of Dorcas, what would you say, if anything? She is so obscure, you must admit.
For those of you feeling a bit sheepish, let me fill in a few blanks—after all, I have had some time to sound like I know what I am talking about when it comes to Dorcas.
Dorcas is neatly tucked into the Bible in the book of Acts where most of us probably cannot easily find her. Dorcas had a number of aliases: Tabitha and, those who knew her well might fondly have referred to her as “The Gazelle.”
She seemed such a plain woman. When she came to church on Sunday, big shots pointed and whispered, “Who is she again?” The answer was something like this: “Dorcas is the one always on the lookout for some poor widow left forsaken by her husband’s burial or her only son’s premature death. She is deeply affected by the eerie wailing of mourning women and whenever she hears such grief, she quickly sews a coat or a dress and brings it to her sister in Christ.”
Dorcas…aka Tabitha, “The Gazelle”…an obscure woman, a sewer of smocks and wraps…And yet, surprisingly, we come to find out she is the only woman in all of Scripture to have the word “disciple” affixed to her name.
When Dorcas died, the other women of Joppa were heartbroken. They went to Dorcas’ tiny second floor efficiency apartment where her body rested next to her sewing machine and they wept. Amidst their tears, they performed a most touching gesture: they waved around the clothes Dorcas had made for them in tribute to their love for her.
Isn’t it remarkable? Just as Dorcas touched her sisters in Christ, the women who touch us most deeply are most often the ones the rest of the world never knows. Dorcas, you say? How many of us knew her before this morning?
Think about the person in your life who has touched you most deeply…….
My hunch is most of you did not name a senator, a sports star, a show business celebrity, or anyone else most of us have heard of. Am I correct that most of the people who have touched you most deeply are ordinary folks doing ordinary things?
I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the Devil’s peskiest tricks is making us believe that life’s ordinary routines are insignificant and not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. Who would ever think it important that a mother cleans up her child’s vomit at four in the morning? Who would ever think it important that one of you takes your elderly neighbor shopping every week and no one else knows you even do it? And what about that mother who declines a promotion at work so she can spend a bit more time at her son’s t-ball games and her daughter’s soccer practices?
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It occurs every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. At the conclusion of this sermon, we will sing, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” which is Psalm 23 put to music; during Communion, Jared will play the stunning music of Psalm 23 from John Rutter’s Requiem. What precious words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Mrs. Keister made me memorize these words when I was attending Bible School in fourth grade. None of you have ever heard of her, but Mrs. Keister taught me the words I so often recite with you when you are in the hospital or have just lost someone dear to you. Mrs. Keister was and is unknown to you but extraordinary to me and, in an odd way, extraordinary to you as well because she entrusted “The Lord is my shepherd” to your pastor.
During this Easter season when baptism is so central to all that we do, we are reminded that one day, either last week, two weeks ago, or many years before, God looked at us and called each of us by name: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We are extraordinary people because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows our name. What bigger name dropping can we do than to say, “Jesus knows me by name and, of course, I know Jesus.”
As you leave here this morning, think how important you are: GOD KNOWS YOU BY NAME!
At the end of this liturgy, we will say, “Go in peace. Practice resurrection.” We do that because we realize every little thing we do in life matters. You know by now that Dorcas was brought back to life by Peter and that is earth-shaking for sure; perhaps just as earth-shaking, if not more so, was how Dorcas cared for grieving women by sewing them unique cloaks. Peter brought Dorcas back to life; Dorcas sewed a cloak for a friend; you console a neighbor over a cup of coffee at ten at night. Each of these simple acts is filled with the power of Christ’s resurrection. Each of you practices resurrection. Each of you is important. God knows you by name. That is why we shout during these days…Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
When I was a kid, I was positive fishing was fun…that is until I went fishing. I loved buying the Zebco rod and reel and the shiny lures with treble hooks. The anticipation of catching titanic trout kept me tossing and turning well into the night.
Nevertheless, if you have ever gone fishing, you know how discouraged you can get as you sit on the bank hour after monotonous hour, getting snags, baiting countless hooks with stinky worms, and having not one measly minnow to show for your effort.
That’s fishing. It must have been like that for Jesus’ disciples soon after his execution. They had thought they were part of something much bigger, the incredible in-breaking of the kingdom of God, and yet the only in-breaking they could lay claim to now was nails driven into Jesus’ flesh and a spear thrust into his side.
Jesus had promised them so much more but they were back out on the family’s leaky boat with tattered nets and nothing biting except furious mosquitoes. Their lives were filled with nothing!
In the midst of the nothingness, Jesus appeared as the disciples bobbed about on the Sea of Tiberias. It couldn’t be him, they thought; we must be seeing ghosts. And then they heard that soothing voice they could never forget: “Children, you have no fish, have you…Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
Even though they were in the throes of anguish, the voice said it all...just like us hearing, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” Remarkably, they listened, even though they were fishermen and Jesus was nothing more at this point than a two-bit crucified carpenter. But it was the voice, the voice.
There are those times when our lives are filled with nothing. At those times, we do well to listen to the crucified carpenter and risen savior whose soothing voice urges us to change our fishing habits. While we might think we know better than he, for some mysterious reason we throw the nets of our lives to the other side and, lo and behold, there is an embarrassment of riches beyond measure.
Today is such a day…
In this week’s New Yorker magazine, David Remnick writes about Aretha Franklin singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2015. Of the Queen of Soul’s performance, Remnick writes: “Watch it [on YouTube] if you haven’t: in under five minutes, your life will improve by a minimum of forty-seven per cent.” I love that: 47%. Why not 72%? Reminds me of the disciples catching 153 fish, not 122 or 7, but 153. How are such enchanting numbers chosen: life improved by 47%? 153 fish? Who cares about the details when everyone is having so much fun?
Here we are today catching fish, maybe not 153 but, to my count, twenty-two. Can you believe your eyes? Watch as Fran and Zoey are baptized, watch as twenty others join this community of faith. Our lives will be improved at least by 47% if not by 93 or 110%.
And yet, the two and twenty and the rest of us are like Peter. We know Peter’s shortcomings and we know ours. Three times Peter claimed he had no idea who Jesus was, three times when Jesus needed him most; three times Peter lied through his teeth. And then, on the Tiberias beach, Jesus gave Peter another chance to redeem himself, actually three chances. Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. “Yes Lord, you know I love you,” said Peter: three times to make up for all the disappointment, three times so Peter might also be raised from the dead after his ghastly lying about his best friend.
Remarkably, this liar became a pillar of the church, a leader in announcing the good news of the crucified and risen Savior. By a gift of God, this coward became ten times the person he ever imagined he could be just by hearing the voice at seaside. Peter experienced the embarrassment of riches, the extraordinary opportunity to say, “Yes, Jesus, I love you,” not once but three times and maybe 153 times more throughout his lifetime.
We are about to participate in a similar breathtaking occurrence. We will gather on First Lutheran’s beach and hear Jesus’ voice again, “Fran and Zoey, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” As we splash at our favorite seaside resort, we will recall how we, too, somewhere, someplace, however long ago, were baptized and became 47% the people we ever imagined being or maybe even 110% more. Who’s going to quibble with the percentage points? It is an astonishing number and that’s what counts. 153 fish caught before our very eyes…Fran and Zoey baptized, twenty others joining, all of us reaffirming our baptisms.
Let’s go fishing!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Why do we like Thomas? I suspect it has something to do with his authenticity. He is honest about his questions. Said another way, the apostle Thomas is a stand up guy.
There is so much about Christianity that is way too airbrushed for many of our tastes. Many Christians come off as if their halos are far too big.
In our “Quote for the Week,” Douglas John Hall writes, “One of the greatest reasons that our world has so much trouble believing Christians is that Christians so characteristically exaggerate their belief and hide their doubt.”
Let me ask you point blank: are you drawn to phoniness? Even in the church, are you attracted to those whose pious displays of religiosity walk three feet off the ground as if not an iota of sin has ever touched their soul? We can smell religious phoniness as quickly as a dead skunk on the road.
Maybe that’s why we adore Thomas. Call him the doubting one if you wish, call him the one with questions. Dare we call him the honest one? Whatever title we choose, we admire him for being real and not holier-than-thou.
If you had not seen Jesus rise from the dead—which you didn’t by the way!—wouldn’t you harbor a question or two? If you hadn’t been with your ten friends when the Risen Savior appeared in the room—which you weren’t—wouldn’t you demand to see exactly what they claimed to have seen? You understand Thomas’ words: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” You can imagine saying those words yourself.
It is so hard to be truthful with your questions when you think you should be perfect. I ask every Confirmation class, “Have you ever sinned?” The students always—always!—look down at their feet and then sheepishly begin to peek at their cohorts to see if any are raising their hands. Inevitably there is a brave soul who does raise her hand. All the others are thinking, “She sins?” Only when honesty prevails do the others dare to raise their hands. And when all hands are raised, suddenly everyone feels better; we can all now be honest. I think that’s why we adore Thomas: he invites us to be real.
Don’t we all love honesty even though it can be scary? Did any of you watch the 2016 Grammy Awards from the Staples Center in LA? Lady Gaga sang a tribute to David Bowie; Alabama Shakes rocked the house; Kendrick Lamar rapped away from his much heralded “To Pimp a Butterfly” album. The highlight for me was megastar Adele singing her much heralded “All I Ask.” In some ways, her performance was a mess: the piano microphone kept going kerplunk; she struggled to hit the high notes. And yet, there was something magical about her performance. I think it was the authenticity. The LA Times noted the next morning: “But even when artists drift out of tune on live TV, or find that their bodies have failed them at the last minutes, it’s a last vestige of the kind of animal fear that can grip even the mighty Adele when they get in front of the crowd.” Yes, we loved the humanity, the honesty, the nervous jitters. That’s exactly how we would feel if we were singing at the Staples Center before millions.
That, of course, is why we are touched by Thomas. What is more remarkable is that Jesus accepts Thomas and us even with our questions. Jesus even lets Thomas and us place our hands in his side if we wish.
And, as you just heard, not even the Risen Christ is air-brushed in today’s gospel reading. After Jesus has risen from the dead, his hands still have nail holes, his side is still pierced—a few sour notes and a startling screech of feedback still hang in the air. As my seminary professor Henri Nouwen notes, Jesus remains a wounded healer.
This morning we baptize Noah Bradley Miller. Like all baptisms at First, Noah’s will be a raucous affair. Decorum will go out the window quickly: water will be everywhere as children stir up the baptismal river, calling down the Holy Spirit, and the baptismal river will once again overflow its banks. Noah—what a perfect name for a baptismal child!—will ride the waves just as did his great ancestor on his rickety ark so long ago; and, just like old Noah, young Noah will have to trust that God will save him from the demonic, chaotic, and terrifying seas. We will refuse to airbrush or pretty up the moment: Noah will be nude and water will pour all over him; he might even pee. The cataclysmic baptismal battle between life and death will not occur in the shadowy corner of this sanctuary but in the midst of Noah’s brothers and sisters in Christ…Messy and honest and oh so gorgeous.
Each of us (Noah’s parents and grandparents, family and friends, and his new brothers and sisters in Christ) will behold something about ourselves as the waters run wild over him. We, too, will remember we are human just in case we have forgotten. When we get too close to the terrorizing waters of life, we are a lot like Thomas and little Noah with as many questions as assurances, as many fears as joys. And yet in all our humanity, the Risen Savior draws so very near. He comes just as we are not as we wish. And that is, of course, why we proclaim…. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
“Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!”
Every Easter we get caught up in this riotous “Hallelujah Hullabaloo.” I cheerlead you, shouting, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” and you shout back, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Even if this all feels a wee bit foolish to you, you’ve got to admit it is a blast.
You don’t have to be a church junky to know something astonishing is afoot this morning. Lilies are everywhere, floral decorations are dramatic, music lifts you out of your seat. You even have gotten in on the act: while you typically reserve your finest arias for the bathroom shower, you just can’t help yourself and you have been singing your head off this Easter morn. You even dressed up for this festive occasion in your finest flip-flops and your classiest Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt.
There is an infectious buzz in the air. You were dragged here with the threat of “You come to worship or you get no brunch” and yet even you catch yourself smiling. It is like Friday night’s Rolling Stones concert in Havana before 500,000 people or at least like opening day at the Padres’. “Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!” Oh, what fun it is!
The ancient church is a bit more majestic in its invitation to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. As we heard last night at the Easter Vigil in the Exultet:
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.”
But hold on to your mighty “Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!” voices for just a second.
That first Easter was not an “Hallelujah Hullabaloo” by a long shot. You just heard how dejected Jesus’ closest friends were only days after he had been brutally crucified. It was a noxious numbness. In the midst of our merry-making, we do well to remember the emotions of that first morning when the dew was still on the grass and the cross still saturated with blood.
Saint Luke says the women were perplexed when they found the tomb empty. No “Hallelujah Hullabaloo” there! And when they saw those two mysterious angelic men and heard them say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise,” they were frightened and perplexed not dancing and jumping for joy.
Apparently, somehow, the women did take off running to tell Jesus’ apostles what they had just heard and seen—an empty tomb and no body. While they were not quite able to figure out what had happened, they told Jesus’ closest associates that God had raised him from the dead; that’s what they had been told after all. You call that, by the way, faith.
And how did Jesus’ closest associates react? Was your first guess that they belted out strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus?” Guess again! The Easter Gospel we just heard lends us a clue. Did you notice that it did not conclude with a striking up of the timpani and brass, but rather with these sober words, “The women’s words seemed to [the apostles] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” So sorry, no “Hallelujah Hullabaloo” the first time around.
Perhaps some of you are feeling like Jesus’ best friends did when they received word that he had risen from the dead. While you hear the singing of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today!” you are not quite prepared to shake your tambourine. After all, you have recently visited your own tomb of bone-rattling anxiety or your tomb of desperate loneliness or the tomb of your beloved partner dying after a prolonged illness. For you, this “Hallelujah Hullabaloo” may seem like, well, too much ado about nothing.
Speaking of much ado about nothing, I invite you to look around our neighborhood: homelessness is on the rise. Who would think to shout “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” this morning? Our ministry here to homeless, underserved, and elderly people is bursting at the seams and doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. You can barely get an appointment at our free medical, dental and acupuncture clinics; our fine social workers burn the candle at both ends; our meals are jam-packed with nearly 200 or so folks eating on our patio every Monday and Friday. Quite a few of us in this congregation sleep on the streets; we slept there last night before coming to church this morning! Like in Brussels and West Africa’s Ivory Coast, some of us are wondering what all the shouting is about. “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”—are you kidding me?
Maybe some of you are like the first apostles thinking this Easter business an idle tale. You might shout a few half-hearted alleluias and even sing “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done,” but in truth, this resurrection stuff feels a tad silly.
I am so glad you are here, all of you. We are gathered where we have been for 128 years now, seeking how to help one another make a “Hallelujah Hullabaloo” in our lives and to believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead when the facts don’t add up.
Our job here, if you can call it a job, is to persuade one another in words and deeds that Jesus’ bursting from the tomb is a life-giving, true story when little deaths nip at our heels almost every day. That’s why we shout; that’s why we make fools of ourselves; that’s why we are so happy you here—all with hopes that you will experience resurrection joy springing up in your life.
I love the Easter sermon preached 1600 years ago by Saint John Chrysostom also known as old “Golden Tongue” (sound like a rapper, huh?). Listen to a few words:
So please, join in the Easter merry-making. With disappointments, fears, and questions, with celebrations, delights, and faithfulness, let us all, together, shout as loud as we can....
“Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!”
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
March 26, 2016
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Genesis 7-9, Exodus 14: 10-31; 15: 20-21;
Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Daniel 3: 1-29: John 20:1-18
"Stories Resisting Domestication"
During our Lenten journey, we have been reading a wonderful devotional booklet created by our members. I hope you have been as moved as I by reading and praying “Today You Will Be with Me.”
Carol Schultz reflected on Jesus’ weary followers as they navigated the day between Good Friday and Easter morning. She focused our attention on these words from Saint Luke: “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”
We nestle tonight on that Sabbath day, the one between Good Friday and Easter. It is a quiet night. Like so much of what we experience in the days of death, there are as many questions as answers. The church down through the ages begs us to slow down tonight and to listen as God does a few new things, things we cannot quite articulate, things we cannot quite fathom, things only God can do.
The days of our lives between Good Friday and Easter are always the hardest. We are afraid and anxious. We wonder what God will do, if anything. We are tempted to offer our own flimsy answers to impenetrable questions. Somehow, it seems better to say something rather than nothing at all.
Tonight, we are invited to rest our weary bodies, slow down our frenzied minds, surrender our puny insights, and let God do the talking. The stories we are about to hear can easily stretch us beyond our comfort level: How could God create the universe and you and me with just a word? Why would God destroy almost everything and then, just as suddenly, promise never to do such a dastardly thing again? How could hapless and hopeless slaves be roused to flee for freedom across a raging sea? How did brittle bones rattle anew and sinew upon sinew come alive? How can Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego withstand Nebuchadnezzar’s flaming furnace and brutal onslaught?
We now listen to big stories that cause us to rub our chins and scratch our heads; they bewilder us. Sometimes our wont is to domesticate these stories, erasing every ounce of wonder, hoping to make them convenient for our small-mindedness. But these stories resist domestication. They are endowed with wonder and mystery.
The stories we now hear are created for nights such as this, nights between Good Friday and Easter. These stories expand our minds, soften our hearts, and make us smile; they prepare us for the most remarkable story of all, the one where Christ is raised from the dead. We all need this story when we stand at the tombs of those we love and long for them to live forever.
Yes, this is the night for listening, the night for mustering hope. Let us listen to stories beyond our imagining, stories of God creating new life.
Jesus said so few words as he hung on the cross.
I am certain I would have said more, many more. I would have spewed forth words of rage, lashing out at my detractors, ridiculing my cowardly friends, furious at those who could not muster the courage to stand up when push came to shove.
We usually are at our wordiest when we must defend ourselves. Our words quickly become judgmental and irate, unmeasured and ugly. In the heat of battle, our words do not stop…on and on they flood forth.
Think of a time when you were fuming at someone: could you muster words of forgiveness or were you a boiling pot of frenzied fury? It is so hard to love others when they take advantage of us…so hard. You know the words you utter on such occasions even if under your breath.
Every year, it occurs to me, yet again, how few words Jesus spoke on the cross; I imagine you noticed as well. These are the words I find once Jesus was nailed to the tree, according to the gospel of John:
-“Woman, here is your son”—he said this to his dear mother;
-“Here is your mother”—he said this to his disciples, hoping they would tend to the one he loved and who loved him;
-“I am thirsty”—he said this in his deepest hour of need;
-“It is finished”—he said this, of course, in resignation as he breathed his last.
So few words and not one word of judgment.
My hunch is most of us can’t quite remember what Jesus said as he hung there dying. What we do remember is how he died. These were not words uttered but rather words died. As his side was pierced, as blood flowed down his side, as he thirsted, as he looked with tenderness on those he loved, as he gazed with compassion on the criminals at his side…It is in how he died that touches us most deeply.
We can actually hear compelling words in the absence of words if we only listen carefully in the quiet darkness of this evening. As we gaze upon the cross, we can most certainly hear him say, “I love you.” If you can’t hear him, you can certainly see him say it to you.
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
March 24, 2016
Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
"The Generous One"
Do you remember last year’s Maundy Thursday liturgy when a few pastors anointed you with oil and offered you forgiveness in Christ’s name? I remember, in particular, the oil streaming down my arm and saturating my newly washed white alb. I also remember as we washed one another’s feet and shared in Christ’s presence in bread and wine. If you were here, I’m sure you remember this as well.
There was an embarrassment of riches that night and there promises to be an embarrassment of riches once again this evening—a generosity of oil, a generosity of washing, a generosity of earthen stuff at Holy Communion.
We are not, of course, the ones to take credit for such astonishing generosity—we are simply the servants of the Generous One; we do as he has commanded us; forgiving one another’s sins—with reckless abandon—in his name; washing one another’s feet—tenderly; sharing bread and wine—delicious morsels and bighearted gulps of angels’ food.
On this night, we cannot help but recall the night before Jesus died so long ago—that is why we are here. On that night as death drew near, when emotions ran high and anger seeped in, Jesus was ever the Generous One. And we are well aware that Jesus, yet again, is the Generous One…tonight.
We are often called a people of the word. We preach and teach and sing and pray and in those words we hear God speaking to us. Tonight we are a people of visible words, hearing God beyond spoken words. Words from heaven also invade our bodies through touching, smelling, tasting, and seeing. As our sins are forgiven with the tracing of the cross, we are touched and we smell, too, as the scented oil drips down our foreheads; as we eat the body and blood of Christ, we taste the gifts of salvation; as we say simply, “Peace be with you,” we watch and feel brothers and sisters lovingly embrace us in Christ’s name. In all of this we behold God’s love made visible, in the words we hear for sure but also in the words we taste and touch and see and smell.
And so, on behalf of the church throughout the ages, I invite you to an extravagant gathering of Christ’s love. Pay attention: taste and see, smell and feel, and, certainly, listen. In all this know that the Lord is gracious and merciful and good, drawing near to you this night and during these holy days.
I hate to create controversy this morning, the very first day of Holy Week. Nonetheless, knowing there would be more of you here than usual, I believe this an opportune occasion to address our current political climate and to state whom I believe we should support as our leader. I am aware my thoughts might create a treacherous spark that might ignite an even fiercer firestorm and yet I feel compelled to take a stand.
As many pastors do when endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, I, too, will resort to the Bible for support. Listen to Psalm 73: “Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.”
Yes indeed, let the psalmist’s words make us extraordinarily suspicious of politicians whose pride is their necklace and who with arrogance threaten oppression.
Whom to choose? The disciples wondered the same thing. They asked Jesus who was the greatest; it is, of course, the political question of every age.
Some would say make the country great again. Jesus’ answer to the political question regarding greatness of candidates: choose the leader who serves others, who becomes not first but last of all.
Let us look at Jesus to see whether we might catch a glimpse of the nature of leadership. Over and over again, people asked him whether he was the king, the Messiah. Be bold, they urged him; tell us unequivocally, they begged. And yet, as the old African American spiritual would have it, Jesus never said a mumbalin’ word. They crucified him, they nailed him to a tree, they pierced him in the side, the blood came trickalin’ down, he bowed his head and died, and he never said a mumbalin’ word.
The disciples, the crowds, Pilate, the religious leaders—they all asked Jesus to announce the true nature of his leadership. As you will hear momentarily, in response to their questions, he simply bowed his head and died.
We are in search of a leader with answers, a leader who will vanquish our enemies once and for all and lead us to untold prosperity. Whether Peter or Judas, servant girls or bystanders, clergy or politicians, you or I, we all want the perfect leader.
If our chosen leader doesn’t produce for us, we become cynical. We expect our leaders to be assertive, to stand up, to win the day; if they don’t, we get caught up in the crowd’s vicious frenzy, criticizing and lambasting; we say in one way or another, “Away with this fellow…Crucify him!”
So who should our leader be in these days? As we embark on our Holy Week journey and ponder that question throughout these days, we do well to remember the words of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian: “The tyrant dies and his rule ends; the martyr dies and his rule begins.”
Jesus is the candidate I urge you to support. He will not vanquish our enemy, he will love them; he will not lead with arrogance and demagogy, he will be humble, letting us even crucify him; he will not ridicule the outcast, rather he will embrace the criminal. Even as we drive nails through his hands and feet, he will look lovingly upon each of us and say, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
I wonder how many votes Jesus will get in the upcoming election. I pray that he will get your vote and mine as well. Remarkably, he has cast his vote for us, giving his life that we might live forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Love is foolish. Love is excessive. Love never calculates.
Every year as Christmas nears, Dagmar and I enact a solemn ritual. We sit in candlelight and decide how much we will spend on each other’s gifts. As the weeks pass, I inevitably ask Dagmar how much she has spent. She promises me that she is well within the established limit. I ask her, “Within the limit or just a bit over?” She always says, “Just a bit over.” As you might imagine, I always end up a bit over as well, usually obscenely over. And thus, the dance of love.
What I have learned in the giving of such love gifts is that extravagance inevitably rules the day. Can you afford such obscene extravagance? Of course not and yet, as you know, love never measures the cost even if we are paying our Visa bills months on end.
As Mary rubbed expensive perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet and then dried them with her hair, we must never forget that this was for Mary’s delight as well as Jesus’. You will remember that Jesus had just recently done the unimaginable: he brought Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus back from the dead. I can only assume Mary was gaga over this astonishing man Jesus.
As so often occurs in the face of such loving extravagance, there was a detractor, Judas. Judas masqueraded as a compassionate one, asking, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Those who are in love never ask such a question.
I have always been astonished by how impeccably well kept African American churches are deep in our inner-cities. (Last night, a number of us attended a wonderful concert by the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir in which Robin Withers sings. I was struck by one segment of the concert in which people were going to church; they were wonderfully dressed with flowing dresses and stunning hats. They were clearly in love with Jesus.) I have often been sadly struck by how some of our whiter churches, in similarly poor neighborhoods, seem to take a peculiar pleasure in being run down and disgracefully kept: the interiors are woefully in need of paint, the bathrooms stink, weeds grow wildly around the buildings, and the worship space is raggedy. At least to my experience, you will never see this in thriving African-American congregations: these houses of worship are beautiful, tended with lavish love. Maybe they are poor, but these folks are in love with Jesus because Jesus has done amazing things for them.
Now, obviously we could ask—and some do, “Why waste valuable resources on church buildings when the members’ homes are poxed by poverty?” This question to my ears is inevitably the wrong one.
Maybe Judas was playing games with Mary as she anointed Jesus’ feet and, then again, maybe not. Even though he claimed he championed the poor, you know how obnoxiously he treated the poorest of all, Jesus our Lord.
And then this touché by Jesus to Judas, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” These words are often interpreted as “why care for the poor if they are always with us?” And yet, lest we be confused, Jesus is counseling something far different. As Stanley Hauerwas writes: “The one who said ‘You always have the poor with you’ was poor himself. That Mary saw fit to bestow a lavish gift on a poor person, a poor person who was soon to die, is sure to be celebrated—particularly by the poor.”
What I believe Jesus was saying and is saying is let extravagant giving occur, especially for the poor. Let our greatest delight, today and every day, be in giving extravagantly to one another.
One of our Wednesday evening Lenten groups is reading, “The Road to Character,” by PBS news commentator and New York Times writer David Brooks. Of love, Brooks writes: “We don’t build love; we fall in love, out of control. It is both primordial and also something distinctly our own, thrilling and terrifying.…”
Love is out of control, it never measures the cost, it is always paying bills. In these days so close to Holy Week, we think of Jesus’ love for us, the very epitome of grace. He didn’t love us to get on his heavenly Father’s good side; he didn’t love us to show just how compassionate he was. Jesus gave his life on the cross because he was madly in love with us. Such love seems crazed, foolish. And, of course, if you are not the one in love, it makes no sense.
I often think of you who give so extravagantly that Christ’s love might be known in this place. You have a million-and-one other things that would be quite fun to have and to do. But that is not the point: you are in love with this place because this is where you have seen Jesus bring dead people back to life. Maybe you are one of those who has come back to life in this place. One of you said, “I was so angry about how the church treated me until I came here.” Actually, you are just like Mary: you are in love with Jesus because he is so in love with you.
As Mary lovingly rubbed that outrageously expensive perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet, something magical was afoot. Instead of miserly self-interest, Mary’s generosity was driven by the one who had loved her family and brought her dead brother back to life. This Jesus whom she loved would soon hang on the cross because he loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus and you and me so very much.
Love is foolish. Love is excessive. Love never calculates.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What did they ever do to deserve that? Have you ever said that or at least thought it? We seem born with the question on our lips.
Let me tell you when I first assumed God rains down evil on my misdeeds. I stole a loaf of bread from Vinson’s, the local mom and pop store, when I was seven years old. I thought the bread that had tumbled off the rack onto the floor was the perfect gift for my mother but she was neither grateful nor amused. She made me take it back to the owner and to apologize immediately. Worse than the all the embarrassment was the certainty that God would judge me and make me roast in the fires of Hades forever.
What about you? Do you remember the first time you imagined that God rains down punishment on your missteps—“Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back.” Not a terribly sophisticated doctrine of theodicy (why evil occurs) but didn’t you believe that if you stepped on a crack, something nasty would occur to your mother’s poor back? Oh sure, you can say it is silly, but….
Such deep in the bones thoughts bedeviled the people of Jesus’ day. There was, after all, the report of Pilate killing Galileans and mingling their blood in his strange brew of sacrificial concoctions. We would wonder, too, what they did to deserve that. And then there was the tower of Siloam that collapsed, killing eighteen unfortunate souls. What did they ever do to deserve that?
The question of why evil happens to people is as old as the hills. Read of Job’s suffering in the Old Testament or of the question asked of Jesus in John’s gospel, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We simply assume there is a direct correlation between sin and suffering.
Now, make no mistake about it, there can be a correlation between sinful acts and suffering. Corporate greed causes the working class to sink deeper into financial misery. Careless habits wreak havoc on God’s good planet. Sinful acts cause enormous pain, personally and societally.
But what about the folks who struggle to lead a good life? Why do innocent little children suffer appalling diseases? Why do the poorest of the poor always seem to get the brunt of drought and starvation, floods and earthquakes, and the selfish ones go on their merry way, getting richer and richer?
To top it off, why did Jesus, the one without a speck of sin, die such a wretched death on Calvary’s hill?
So many questions, so few answers.
When we are tongue-tied by evil and paralyzed by disasters, we all too easily revert to saying, “It is God’s will.” Admittedly, we often say this because we have no idea what to say and so want to be compassionate. And yet, why do we blame the worst disasters and the most horrific evil on God, the very One who, over and over again, cherishes life in the face of death, forgiveness in the face of sin?
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin is one of my heroes. He was the chaplain at Yale University for many years and then the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. When his son, Alex, died after drinking a few too many frosties and putting his car into the drink, Rev. Coffin preached what, to my mind, is the finest sermon I know, particularly in the face of tragedy. The good reverend said: “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘it is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that.” Or, as the prophet Isaiah noted, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”
Jesus never speculated either about why the Galileans blood was mixed with Pilate’s sacrifices or why innocent victims were crushed by a faulty tower. Jesus never said, “It is the will of God.”
What Jesus did say is that “unless you repent, you will all perish like they did.” And then he told a little parable about a fig tree that had been planted three years earlier and, to date, had produced not a single stinking fig. The farm owner told his gardener to cut down the good for nothing tree immediately—it was, after all, wasting good soil. The gardener, however, said, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” To my ears, the gardener was erring on the side of mercy, biding time, praying that all would turn out well. This erring on the side of mercy is inevitably the way of God, giving us all a second and fifth chance.
We can twist any biblical message into a negative one. Christians are all too often masters of this. Rather than seeing God’s deepest desire to err on the side of mercy, hoping that we will turn our wicked ways around and live, we twist the message, not into words of new life, but into words that try to send someone to hell. We can be so quick to assign blame, to explain evil, and yet Jesus said, “Not so fast, slow down, I beg you.”
Rev. Coffin also said these memorable words in remembering his son—and I hope you will never forget them. You may even say them one day to a tormented friend when you come up short for a reasonable explanation as to why evil has befallen their precious loved one: “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
Rather than speculating on why bad things happen to good or even bad people, let us give thanks for our God whose heart breaks first when bad things happen to any of God’s children. God’s will, after all, is that death will never prevail and that we will live forever.
The hymn we just sang is a paraphrase of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” There was something deep in the psalmist’s bones that enabled him to wait for his light and salvation.
Are we any different than the psalmist? Aren’t we all little birds nestled under our mother’s wings for protection? Just by repeating “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear” over and over again, we discover calm that protects us against the paralyzing anxiety that can easily rattle our bones at four o’clock in the morning. God is there, God is here; do not be afraid.
Abraham and Sarah waited for what seemed an eternity for their salvation to arrive. God promised that they would be the parents of a bouncing baby boy and of a nation as substantial as the stars in the sky and yet no baby boy arrived. By grace, they were somehow able to wait and wait well into their eighties and nineties, hoping against hope that God would provide in God’s good time.
Jesus received a similar gift of patience from the Psalms in his own agonizing waiting. As he screamed “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” from Calvary’s cross, a Psalm or two deep in his heart made it possible for him to believe that the Lord was his light and salvation and whom should he fear. Yes, his heavenly Father would provide for him as the nails were driven, the spears were thrust, and the crowds jeered.
The Psalms promise us a calm we have never experienced before. Sometimes others shore up our confidence when we have surrendered all hope. It is in the deep darkness with tears running down our cheeks that we hear the gorgeous music of our entire community singing to us, “The Lord is your light and your salvation; whom shall you fear?”
My parents were always the last to leave the church, every Sunday morning. I hated the wait. “Let’s get out of here,” I moaned. Later in life, I realized why they stuck around: the church was where my mom and dad’s dearest friends were, those who helped them trust in the Lord amidst whatever obstacles they faced, including death. Aren’t we a similar community that soothes one another as we sing, “Whom shall you fear?” We call, email, visit the hospital, chat away following worship over coffee and cake, all to support those we love when monsters lurk under the beds of their souls.
You have experienced those excruciating times when all you can do is wait on the Lord. One of our great Lutheran preachers in the last century, Edmund Steimle, said: “You can’t rush God…He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. And unless we slow down and wait for God occasionally, we may miss God entirely in our frenzied rush.”
But we are in such a rush. Time is money and not to be wasted.
During Lent here at First, we sit quietly between lessons—or at least we try to. How long does the quiet last—twenty, thirty seconds? How many of us catch ourselves looking at our watches, fidgeting, even moaning, “I can’t stand this! Why can’t we move things along?” How hard just to wait for the Lord.
One of the testiest moments I have experienced as a pastor came when a good friend in a previous church I served became disgruntled over the length of worship: some Sundays went on for an hour and fifteen minutes! He was so hot under the collar one Sunday morning that he told me on the way out of church that I better see to it that worship ended in an hour or else.
He was actually on to something. Countless studies have been done to see what makes churches grow. One of the rules of thumb is that worship should never last more than 58 minutes—not 62 or 70 but 58 minutes. Do you know why? That’s how long we are accustomed to sitting for a television show. Anything else seems rude.
We have all faced stretches in our lives when waiting was torture and we have had to wait much longer than fifty-eight minutes. We abhor the wait: no answers from the doctor, no phone calls from children, no cards from friends—just waiting—it is utter agony.
Funny, given our loathing of waiting that we hear the psalmist’s deepest longing is to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [his] life, to behold the beauty of the Lord…” Not just fifty-eight minutes but for all the days of his life. In fact, heaven is often described as the place where worship with the martyrs and saints never ends; it goes on forever.
The devil is always trying to get us to rush things: decide now! have an answer now! do not surrender to indecisiveness! make worship as quick as the Simpsons and CSI! Move, move, move! The devil can make us like frantic teenagers weaving full throttled motorcycles in and out of traffic at eighty-five miles an hour: we risk our lives as we rush aimlessly about with no good place to go. Why the rush? Is anything really more valuable than sitting safely under the wings of our merciful Savior? If we are unable to wait quietly for the Lord, there is something haywire with our lives.
Lent is a marvelous opportunity to practice waiting on the Lord. I hope you are reading First’s breathtaking Lenten devotional booklet, “Today You Will Be with Me…” I encourage you to meditate each day on a few select verses from St. Luke’s passion and to memorize a poignant phrase one of your brothers or sisters in Christ has written. This is a glorious way to wait on the Lord in the rush of the day.
May God grant you grace to slow down during this Lenten season. May you listen to our community singing to you and with you, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” May you snuggle safely in the arms of God.
A blessed First Sunday in Lent to you and Happy Valentine’s Day as well.
On this day of lovey-doveyness, I thought I would take a moment to talk about weddings. In my wedding preparation sessions over the years, one thing couples have almost always balked at was using these words from our previous hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship: “Because of our sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of the family can become a burden.” With the country club bedecked in lavish splendor and mom and dad in the hole for a $100,000, how dare I suggest to the adoring couple that they listen to such pessimistic drivel (“because of our sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast”) right before they exchanged their vows at the wedding of the century?
Honestly, I really am elated when people are madly in love. But I am also a realist. Whenever I meet with couples, I always ask, “How do you fight?” not “Do you fight?” I worry most about couples that think their relationship is perfect. If they haven’t been forewarned that there will be some bad times as well as good ones— something the old marriage vows made crystal clear—when the first wine glass flies against the wall and one screams at the other, “I’m out of here for good,” they will certainly fear their marriage is ruined forever.
One of greatest dangers facing any relationship, whether married couples, parents and children, churches and members, or citizens of this nation, is the belief that someone is perfect. In fact, if you have watched the presidential debates on both sides of the aisle, you have figured out that candidates do their best to convince us they are perfect for our country. Yikes!
Let us look at today’s Gospel reading as a case in point. Give the devil his due: when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he does not offer silly choices like chocolate, television, and Facebook. The devil is far more clever that that. He forces Jesus to make tough choices, not between terrible and perfect, but between better and best. Think about it. If Jesus had turned that stone into bread, he could have fed lots of hungry people. If Jesus had bowed to the devil ever so slightly, he could have ruled the world rather than some vicious despot who slaughtered helpless souls. If Jesus had jumped from the temple’s pinnacle, he could have proved to everyone beyond a doubt that he was a miracle worker. These were tough choices, choices between better and best.
Do we think that we can make perfect choices just as Jesus did? As we listen to the verbal jousting between the devil and Jesus, might we be led to believe that, just like the twitterpated wedding couple, we will never yield to temptation and we can perfectly imitate Christ in the excruciating decisions we must make every day of our lives?
I urge us during this forty day Lenten journey to realize we are not Jesus. No matter how hard we try to be good, we will fail. It’s tough to come to terms with our imperfection but, at least according the church, it is the bitter reality, the truth, and it will enable us to keep our eyes on Jesus, our salvation.
The Christian life is always honest; that means we always begin with confession. When we baptize charming babies and everyone is fussing about how gorgeous they are, the church says, “By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ.” Goodness gracious, how can a precious little angel possibly sin? And this morning we began worship at the baptismal pool, not with a cheery “good morning,” not with “aren’t we all beautiful people for being here,” but rather with words that some consider quite put-offish: “Merciful Father, we have sinned against heaven and before you.” Even at death, at the very end of the funeral liturgy, we commend to God a “sinner of Your own redeeming.” What we say at every point in the Christian life is that we are imperfect and it is only the Perfect One who can save us no matter how hard we try to be good.
For those of us who try really hard to be good, we know how maddening it can be to try to make perfect decisions. Let me give you an example. I am pretty confident there is such a thing as global warming though I admit the highest science I ever mastered was “Rocks for Jocks” (geology) in college and I barely passed that. There has been a lot of talk lately about the havoc fossil fuels are wreaking on our environment. The church has gotten in on this discussion. Recently, I got an email from a friend who is on a national church board considering whether our Lutheran church’s pension fund should divest from companies making money from fossil fuel. He wanted my opinion. I hate what is happening to our planet—88 degrees in mid February gives me the heebie-jeebies; I believe our disregard for God’s creation is an horrendous sin. However, as our church passes all kinds of noble resolutions to stop fossil fuel, I have not heard one solution as to how poor coal miners will find alternative employment and how their families will be fed when the coal mines are shut down. Maybe it is the West Virginia boy in me that knows that our nation’s largest coal producer and one of the poorest states in the Union might just be pinched by our well-meaning church resolutions. Coal miners’ families will be the ones who ultimately pay the price of our church’s goodness. See how hard it is to be perfect?
Said bluntly, no matter how hard we try to avoid the devil’s enticements, we finally fail…call it sin if you dare. Not one of us is Jesus Christ.
The good news is that God loves us nevertheless. Our greatest Valentine’s Day gift is Jesus Christ our Lord who loves us so much that he gives his life for us, no matter how hard we try and no matter how far we fall.
In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Blessings to you as you begin your forty day Lenten journey…
For those of you who grew up Lutheran—and please don’t worry if you didn’t—you can probably name all the hymnals you have used by name and by color. Our current hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is fondly called the “cranberry hymnal,” published in 2006. Before that, we used the Lutheran Book of Worship, the “green hymnal,” published in 1978. Prior to that, the “red hymnal,” the Service Book and Hymnal, was first used in 1958. And some of you may recall using the Common Service Book and Hymnal, the “black hymnal,” dating all the way back to 1917.
What I love about our church’s hymnals is precisely what some people detest: our hymnals school us in casting the liturgy to memory. Some say this is boring and claim that when the same service is used over and over again, it becomes rote. I find, however, when worship is cast to memory—even at times becoming rote—it ends up deep in our hearts.
A wise gentleman in the last congregation I served (who was general counsel for one of our predecessor national church bodies) complained about what he referred to as the church’s “excessive tinkering with the traditional liturgy.” He once scolded me as he left church on Sunday morning: “Pastor Miller, you keep changing things; due to my failing eyesight, I feel like worship is increasingly being taken out of my hands;” he might just as easily have said, “You are wrenching God from my heart.” And, to tell you the truth, I agreed with him!
As I prepared for today’s Ash Wednesday liturgy, I meditated on today’s biblical texts. What struck me—stunned me to be more precise—is that I actually know Psalm 51 by memory or, as they say, “by heart.” I have heard “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” since my parents first carried me into God’s house as an infant. “Create in Me” was sung every Sunday morning, year after year, when the offering was brought forward. I didn’t give much thought to the words over the years; I am not sure I gave much thought to them until yesterday, nearly 65 years after I first heard them as a babe in arms. How remarkable that these words, words I said by rote so many times, are deep in my heart.
The particular words that struck me are “Cast me not away from your presence.” Isn’t this what our forty day Lenten journey is about—“Cast me not away from your presence, O God”?
In many sports that use a ball—golf, tennis, baseball, football, even ping-pong—you are taught, “Never take your eyes off the ball.” In our Lenten journey, we are taught, “Never take your eyes off God.”
During Lent, when we think we are being particularly holy—swinging for the holy fences if you will—we are tempted to take our eyes off the ball. At least for those of us gathered here today, we long to be more holy by keeping a vigorous Lent and yet this longing can actually be hazardous to our spiritual life as we look more at ourselves and less at God.
Jesus offers us practical Lenten advice: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Here’s what we might be tempted to think during Lent: don’t I give more generously to the Oromo Christian Fellowship than others; don’t I pray often and marvelously; don’t I come to church a lot during Lent; I haven’t missed a day reading the wonderful Lenten devotional booklet, “Today you Will Be with Me…” created by our members. The danger, as Jesus warns, is that we take our eyes off God and spend an excessive amount of time taking pride in our newly minted religious habits. And when Easter finally rolls around, rather than having spent a season cherishing God’s love for us in Christ our Lord, we might discover we have spent most of the time congratulating ourselves on what victorious warriors of the faith we are. As Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.”
In a few moments, ashes will be smudged on our foreheads and we will hear the words from Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
If our eyes are not on God, these words will sound awfully harsh, sadistic even. However, during this forty day journey, if we let the cross lead us and we cast our eyes cast on God, we will find we are looking beyond ourselves to the great day of Easter when Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and eternal life is offered to us all, even in our dustness.
The disciplines of Lent (repentance, devotions, sacrificial offerings, faithful worship attendance) are meant to help us keep our eyes on the ball as we marvel at God’s presence, now and forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A little rock and roll trivia…Name a left-handed rock guitarist in the 60s? If you need another clue, he wrote “Are You Experienced.” Jimi Hendrix is the answer.
Are you experienced? I don’t mean Jimi’s kind of experience. Rather, have you ever had a religious experience, the kind that knocked your socks off with lightening and you saw the Lord, something like Martin Luther and Saint Paul experienced?
Moses had an experience when he was talking with God on Mount Sinai. The conversation made his face turn shinier than the Super Bowl trophy. Peter, James, and John had an experience as well after they climbed the mountain with Jesus and suddenly saw him talking with the great prophets, Elijah and Moses.
We churchy sorts like to go around the room from time-to-time, recounting our personal religious experiences. If Jesus has never appeared at the foot of your bed, you might be petrified to speak when it is your turn to share. After all, the best religious experience you can dredge up is going to church every Sunday morning with your parents when you were a kid…Well, there was that other experience, the one when you went to church camp, fell madly in love the very first time, and got all moisty eyed as you held hands also for the first time and sang Kumbaya—wasn’t that Jesus staring at you from the bonfire flames on the final night?
Before you throw in your spiritual towel for the lack of a certifiable religious experience, listen to the experiences of Moses and Peter, James and John. As far as Moses goes, his one great dream was making it to the Promised Land. Even though a burning bush talked to him and his conversation with God on Mount Sinai made his face look like he had sunned far too long on a San Diego beach, Moses never did reach the land of milk and honey. The closest he got was on Mount Nebo. He was almost certain that his cataract eyes were spotting Jericho in the distance but that was as close as Moses ever got to the land God had promised.
And Peter, James and John, while they were almost certain they saw Jesus talking with the Moses and Elijah and saw him dazzle before their eyes, they still thought their ears were playing tricks on them when Jesus said that his death was fast approaching in Jerusalem.
The southern preacher Fred Craddock writes, “This is a mountaintop experience but not the kind about which persons write glowingly of sunrises, soft breezes, warm friends, music, and quiet time. On this mountain the subject is death, and the frightening presence of God reduces those present to silence. In due time, after the resurrection, they will remember, understand, and not feel heavy. In fact, they will tell it broadly as good news.”
There is a great temptation to be holy voyeurs, to want to tell the greatest religious experience story of them all. As we go around our sacred circles, we feel coaxed to “out religious experience” one another. But here’s the deal: every religious experience, no matter how profound or pedestrian, is meant to sustain us as we bear the cross of Jesus down in the valley; anything else is pretty much worthless.
On this first Sunday of Black History Month and this Transfiguration Day, recall the speech Dr. Martin Luther King delivered in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers there: “It's all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Dr. King was dead the next day. Like Moses before him, he could only gaze from far-off to the Promised Land. His religious experience sustained him, however, when the going got tough; he trusted that God would prevail and lead him and those he loved to the land on the far side of the Jordan.
I give thanks to God for our life together here at First Lutheran. Do you agree that we have some breathtaking mountaintop experiences? As we sing a hymn with reckless abandon or Pass the Peace and see an old friend or meet someone for the first time, we are thrilled. These moments do us well. They sustain us as we go back down the mountain to the rough and tumble where we tell others of the dream of God prevailing in the face of what often seem insurmountable odds.
This past Wednesday afternoon, we gathered in this sanctuary to hear J. S. Bach’s lovely cantata, “Ich habe genug.” Even with all its beauty, we had to come down from the music-making mountain; that is what the best music does—it fortifies us and sends us forth to make a difference in our world. On Friday morning, as I turned from Ash onto Third, with Bach still ringing in my ears, I saw a long line of folks snaking up our sidewalk, waiting to sign up for low-income housing as they do here every first Friday of the month; the lounge had a gaggle of sailors and a load of Lutherans ready to serve breakfast as we have done more than forty years. As we prayed the breakfast prayer with our patio parishioners, we looked up to the balcony where acupuncturists and medical doctors were ready to offer their free services to those in need; the Catholic Worker was giving out tons of clothes. It struck me then: no lightening knocked us off our horses, no great epiphanies came down from heaven. The transfiguration occurred on our patio amidst shopping carts and weary souls. We saw Jesus in the faces of our homeless brothers and sisters coming for warm food, clothing, housing, medical care, and a kind smile after a chilly night on our neighborhood streets. The mountaintop was our patio.
I suppose there is no way we could notice Jesus on such occasions if we didn’t go back up the mountain, to this holy table, time and again. Jesus repeatedly appears to us in measly bread and cheap wine. This is how we get are training in discovering the transfigured Lord down in the valley where those we love are sick and broken and confused and chilly.
The next time you are in a group that asks if you are experienced and you feel like you are coming up short, why not try saying this: “I heard Jesus say to me, ‘This is my body given for you.’ With those wonderful words, I was on the mountaintop and then I came back down for the sake of our suffering world.”
I hope you have seen our annual report cover. Luke Williams took the picture. It presents a different view of our church than we often see. Our building appears so diminutive nestled amidst trees and parking lots and seemingly overwhelmed by neighboring high rises; our little steeple peeks up like a tiny bird. First Lutheran Church looks like what our mission statement proclaims we are: “the heart of Christ in the heart of the city.”
The healthy heart must keep all the arteries clear so blood flows freely and strongly. For our church to be the healthy heart of Christ, Jesus’ blood—his very love for us— must flow freely and strongly. While word, bread, wine, and water are diminutive stuff themselves, Christ’s generous love makes these gifts more than enough for all who come by here.
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes of the importance of this love. You have heard the words a million times at weddings. Paul speaks of all the astonishing gifts you have demonstrated in this church during the past year:
-gifts of prophetic powers (you gathered at courthouses and police stations calling for fair treatment of young black men; you advocated for policies to treat homeless folks with dignity);
-gifts of profound knowledge (you have taught well and learned with eagerness in adult classes and children’s Sunday School and during Lent);
-gifts of giving away everything we own to the poor (you have given and pledged at record levels for our ministry to the poorest of the poor, to the Ethiopian Oromo congregation only a few miles away, and to our church around the world).
And yet Paul cautions: “but if I do not have love, I gain nothing.”
It is so easy to shackle Christ’s love. I can think of quite a few imposing churches with soaring steeples, charming gargoyles, and majestic sanctuaries and yet, sadly, wrought iron fences hem them in. These stately fences send a message, at least to me: keep out, our love has restrictions. These houses of worship are like exclusive country clubs with guards informed whom to let in and whom to keep out.
This is not what St. Paul had in mind. The love he envisioned was much more open, far more life-giving. The love of which Paul spoke “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
At our best, our ministry here tries to keep wrought iron gates to a minimum. If you walk outside, you will discover we have a few fences ourselves and, to tell the truth, there are days when I wish we had more. Hardly a day goes by when someone in their rambunctious disregard for God’s little oasis here at 3rd and Ash doesn’t make me wonder whether we should erect a few more fences.
No matter how strong the impulse to protect things, love locked up is no good!
One of the saddest things I have witnessed in my days as a pastor occurred in 1979. Eighty-eight year old Ella Grant died of a horrible disease that finally destroyed her beautiful spirit. Her grandson, Robert, was incarcerated at Philadelphia’s notorious Holmesburg Prison for armed robbery. The sheriff’s department called to ask me the time of Robert’s grandmother’s service and when the crowd would start arriving. The sheriff’s deputies came with Robert Grant shackled in body cuffs and leg irons before most family and friends were present. Robert was so chained up, he could barely walk up the aisle or embrace his grieving mother or bend down to the orchid laden casket to kiss his grandmother one final time. Robert was quickly whisked from the sanctuary, not allowed to be present with his family as they entrusted his grandma into God’s almighty arms. Chains locked him up and love could barely flow.
Oh to see love at work. When I heard that the Rev. George and Ethel Falk were our greeters this morning, I was overjoyed. I knew that you long time members and first time visitors would all be welcomed with beautiful smiles and kind words as if you were Jesus—no fences at the door with George and Ethel doing the greeting.
They say first time visitors determine in less than ten minutes whether they will ever return to our church. The immediate impression has nothing to do with our architecture, music, or preaching. It is far simpler than that: it has to do with the gift of love. Think about it: do you run to those you know best or do you break down fences and rip chains apart, seeking out new folks who have entered our doors the first time? You know, there is nothing worse than standing alone with no one welcoming you; you probably won’t go back to that church. Ten minutes and visitors have figured out whether we are a community of Christ’s love or have erected our own silent wrought iron gates. We apparently do not need elaborate plans, fancy websites, or expensive advertising; all we need is to treat visitors as if angels have come to our doors.
St. Paul writes: “Love never ends…now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Someone who is planning to join our church recently told me she loves First Lutheran Church because you treat her well. She never mentioned our worship, not a peep about my preaching-darn it! What she mentioned over and over again is you. She said what so many of you have said, “I know I am not good enough to be here but this congregation welcomes me with open arms.” Do you know how I responded to that: “I feel the same way. I am not good enough either!” At our best, we become Jesus’ hands welcoming every suffering soul into the arms of this little and loving place just as someone first welcomed us.
As we move into our 128th year, let us pray that we will do as those who have come before have done: by God’s grace, let us keep the fences down, the doors open, and the tables—here and on our patio—spread out for all. May we be the heart of Christ in the heart of the city.
Yes, indeed, and the greatest of these is love.
Someone recently said to me, “I don’t put much stock in the words spoken by the church. Words are cheap,” he said. “What I long for is a church that demonstrates love and strives for justice and peace.”
I get that sentiment, I really do. But, I will tell you in the privacy of this room, behind closed doors and in hushed tones, that attitude scares me to death.
I always want to ask—and often do, “Whatever makes you think we should strive for love, justice, and peace?”
Striving for love, justice, and peace, at least for me, does not come naturally. These qualities don’t come in the San Diego water we drink or the California air we breathe. They seem like alien pursuits to most of us….Peace, justice, love—are you kidding me? You slap me and I will slap you back and harder; you argue with me and watch out for my verbal artillery.
Whenever I ask, “Where in the world did you ever get that far-fetched idea about peace, justice, and love?” the person inevitably says, “From Jesus, of course.” I then ask, “And where did you hear Jesus talk about this novel idea? Did a Sunday School teacher tell you a story about turning the other cheek or did a preacher quote Jesus about blessed are the poor or blessed are the peacemakers?”
Almost always the person goes on the offensive, “But we need more than words!” I understand, honestly I do. But I respond, “We also need more than deeds!”
We often define our ministry here at First by what we do. We are so proud and humbled as well by our forty-one year ministry to the homeless and underserved community and by being a Reconciling in Christ congregation (open to the LGBT community) for twenty-seven years. And yet I always hope we define our ministry far more deeply and profoundly than that, not just by what we do but also by what we say….and here’s why.
You just heard how Jesus began his earthly ministry in Nazareth. He came to the local synagogue on Saturday morning, unrolled one of the sacred scrolls until he found the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, and read: “The Spirit of the Lord 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
If you have ever been to a worship service in a Jewish synagogue, you likely were struck by the profound adoration paid to God’s word. As the sacred scroll is paraded through the congregation, people reach out to touch or even kiss it. Christian worship is similar as we bring God’s word into our midst. In many traditions, the priest lifts the sacred book, kisses it, and censes it. We do these things because we believe that this divine word has the power to change the world just in its speaking and just in our hearing.
When Jesus was done reading the prophet Isaiah, he preached. Do you have time for me to repeat Jesus’ entire sermon or must you run off for the football playoff games? Please indulge me. Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it, the sermon is over. Nine words. Remarkable
In hearing these words, I can’t imagine a single one of us daring to say that what Jesus read and preached were “just words.” In the hearing of these powerful words, “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” our lives and our world are tilted differently. Even if we don’t do them, we have heard Jesus’ astonishing vision, the vision he heard as a boy in his local synagogue.
It was just these words that compelled Jesus to eat with sinners, to touch the leper, to talk with a woman at the well, to bring his dead friend Lazarus back to life. It is just such words that compelled Saint Paul to envision neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. It is what made Jesus look with compassion on those who condemned him, ridiculed him, spat on him, and crucified him. Just words tilted our world for the better. Not everyone follows through on them—of course we don’t—but how blessed are we when we hear these words of God. Even when we turn our backs on the poor, torture our enemies, and kill condemned criminals, these words tilt us and make us ponder late into the night what we might do better.
Whenever someone asks me what First Lutheran Church “does,” I always say that we worship together. Unsatisfied and disappointed by my answer, people almost always follow up with, “What else do you do?” Words spoken and proclaimed and sang at worship never seem enough. I then launch into the litany of ministries that occur in this place and people say in awe, “Your church is so amazing.” What I fear, however, is that they will never adore the Word of God, never cense it, never bow before it, let alone kiss it. Said another way: it is so easy to forget why we do the astonishing things we do for the sake of the world.
It is God’s word that calls us to test our heritage. It is God’s word that sends us forth to remember the poor. Without it, we might only think of ourselves. But God’s word invites us to seek a higher vision. This is God’s world and we are God’s children. Do you know how we know that? Remember those words you learned as a tiny kid: “because the Bible tells us so!”
“The Spirit of the Lord 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Let us listen carefully and, in so doing, may we be titled in such a way as to change the world in Jesus’ name.
To you, Barbara and Raymond and Tommy; to Kim’s brother Raymond and sister Charisse; to her Aunt Kay; to her dear friend Sherrie; to her nieces and nephews; and to all you who loved Kim…May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the one who conquered death for you and for your precious Kim.
I will not forget Kim coming to church on Sunday mornings. She always entered quietly. There was never any fanfare; she was no prima donna demanding attention. She sat three rows from the back, over by the wall—there must have been a plaque on that seat that said “Reserved for Kim Marie Sciuva.” As you know, Kim was not a chatter-box. She sat quietly in God’s presence, listening for a good word from heaven and waiting for a tasty meal of Christ’s body and blood.
I remember fondly when Kim, along with her mother Barbara and friend Sherrie, came to what is called “Centering Prayer.” It lasted one hour every Tuesday evening. We sat in a circle back there in front of the baptismal pool. Kim liked that time when hardly a word was spoken—no sermons, no hymns, not much at all; our eyes were closed and our feet were flat on the floor, and we simply sat in the lap of our heavenly Father.
Kim always seemed longing to snuggle in God’s embrace. It was enough for Kim to know that God loved her and would be with her forever and ever.
Those are some of my fondest memories of Kim. You have yours as well—far more, I’m sure. Those memories have flooded over you since Kim died on January 6. I can only imagine your gatherings of family and friends. You have told stories about Kim, some have made you laugh those wonderful deep belly laughs, others have caused you to weep many, many tears; some have brought a profound silence over the room.
Kim was a gentle soul. She was thoughtful, kind, loving; she had a good and beautiful heart. As you said, Barbara, “She would never hurt a fly.”
She was as thoughtful as could be—she made a special blanket for you, gave you an ankle bracelet. She would say to you and you to her, “Happiness is hanging out together.”
Kim had her struggles as, by the way, we all do. It would be silly to pretend otherwise because it was in how she found peace in the midst of the storms that taught you all so much. As you thank God for Kim this afternoon, you think of a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, whom you should, you must, call a saint: “Saint Kim Marie of Quiet Grace in the Midst of the Storm.”
Kim’s was a quiet courage from which you learned and a courage you deeply admired.
You have all been telling stores of Kim in these days, of her delight in the simple pleasures of life: going to the movies and yoga, shopping, and, yes, even going to the casino (though, it is claimed, her mom put the money in the slots, and Kim simply pressed “go”).
In losing Kim far too early, there will be those moments when out of the blue you find yourself weeping. Maybe the smell of crisp air or the freshly mown grass at Torrey Pines Golf Course; maybe an image of her gentle smile will cross your mind. It will surprise you how suddenly the memory comes and you will weep. As the tears fall, accept them as gifts from God. They are blessed reminders of how much you loved Kim.
Please remember that Jesus wept too. When his friend Lazarus died, he shed tears. Tears are what it means to love. Pity those who never cry for lost loves.
And yet, as those tears stream down your cheeks, as they will, know that Jesus was never comfortable with the death of those he loved. In fact, Jesus came to earth to conquer death, to silence it forever.
Our greatest celebration in this church is on Easter morning. It is the day when we shout that God has raised Jesus from the dead; we spit in the face of death and say, “You have been defeated forever.” Easter is, as an old Benedictine monk professor of mine was fond of saying, “The day when we pull out all the stops and let 'er rip.” We place lilies everywhere and dress up to the nines. The church over the ages has said a most peculiar thing in the face of death, “Even at the grave we sing ‘Alleluia.’” We trust that the death of the one we love is never the final word. Never!
In these days, as you remember your dear Kim, know that God is never comfortable with death. The last thing God wanted was for her to die. The entire Bible is one story after another about God conquering death. Just as one father said at his son’s death, we could say the same today, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break when Kim breathed her last.” Simply put: God hates death.
But also know that it is a wonderful idea to celebrate during these days. Celebrate by dreaming of where Kim might be this very moment; celebrate in knowing she rests secure in God’s lap. Always remember that God sent Jesus into this world, not to embrace death, but to destroy death forever.
Let us give thanks for “Saint Kim Marie of Quiet Grace in the Midst of the Storm.” May she rest in God’s lap forever. Now, open your hands and let her fly to God.
Teresa of Ávila lived 500 years ago in Spain. She was a Roman Catholic nun in the strict, cloistered order of the Carmelites. She once prayed, “Deliver us, good Lord, from silly devotions and sour-faced saints.”
As we gather this morning and celebrate the wedding feast at Cana it is pretty hard to imagine a sour-faced saint. Jesus’ first miracle makes most of us want to stand up and sing “alleluia.”
You know the story. Jesus and his mother were at a wedding when the wine ran out. How embarrassing this must have been for the wedding couple’s families. They had dreamed of this day since their children were in diapers and spent a fortune to make this a magical day. When the rabbi announced that the lovely couple was now husband and wife, it was party time; that was why many came in the first place—for the open bar.
Weddings make for hilarious movies: broken zippers on bridal gowns, groomsmen’s pants arriving from the tux shop three inches too short, feuding family members sitting on opposite sides of the aisle and refusing to look at one another—you know how it is. The wedding at Cana must have been like that when the wine ran out. Were the proprietors of the Cana Marriott to blame or had the bride’s parents gone cheap, hoping the kids’ fraternity brothers and sorority sisters would drink more soda water with a twist and much less of that elaborate drink called the “Galilean Grenade,” concocted with Kool-Aid, wine, and 150 proof grain alcohol? Who knows?
What we do know is that Mary reported to her son that there was not a sip of wine to be found. Against Jesus’ better judgment, he finally obeyed his mother and turned the water into wine—makes you smile every time you hear it, doesn’t it? He created the wine not into a few measly boxes of Gallo red with plastic twist off tops but into 120 exquisite gallons of vintage wine that delighted the palates of the most discriminating connoisseurs in Galilee.
Whatever Bible stories we know, this one rates among our favorites. The mystery, the joy, the extravagance—Jesus turning heartbreaking disappointment into barrels and barrels of absolute glee gives us all hope for a miracle or two in our own lives—you know, “If Jesus can turn water into wine then he can…”
In the midst of such wonder, it is almost impossible to be sour-faced. Praise God for those saints among us who can dream of new days and celebrate mystery. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a saint. He would have turned 87 two days ago. Can you believe that he was only 26 when Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama; 34—34!—when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Lincoln Memorial steps, and 39 when his candle was snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of a Memphis motel?
On this Martin Luther King weekend and during these Epiphany days, I pray that we are filled with that great preacher’s wonder who believed that God’s light will prevail no matter how dark things may be. His dream was as audacious as 120 gallons of water turned to wine: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table together…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. King dared to dream against the pessimistic and sour faced folks of his day and you will remember, I’m sure, there were quite a few.
We remember his speech because brother Martin dreamed boldly of all God’s children walking hand-in-hand. He dreamed that miracles could occur by God’s grace and that God’s light could shine into the darkest corners of our lives. While there continue to be those who wrench the wonder out of his courageous dream, thank God for those propelled forward by Dr. King’s faithful vision. Far from a sour-faced saint, Martin Luther King was a drum major who led the band in a stirring march of God’s vision of peace and justice for all.
It is almost 48 years now since his death and our admiration continues to increase for the preacher’s kid made good. He taught us to be more open to one another; he challenged the timid to find delight in risk-taking; he emboldened cowards to dream extravagantly for this nation and for God’s world. Dr. King was and is a saint who refused to temper his profound belief that God can do a new thing when the wine runs out and he inspires many of us to do similarly in these days.
Have you, by the way, seen Jesus changing water into wine here at 3rd and Ash? Someone who knows about such things told me a few days ago, “First Lutheran Church is probably the fastest growing congregation in our synod.” Whether that is exactly precise or not, might we say a miracle is afoot? When I took Communion to one of our long time members at Christmas, she said, “I cannot believe what is happening at First; I am thrilled.” She is far from a sour-faced saint. She and her family have committed themselves to this place for years and years. She is seeing barrel upon barrel of wine being served up here, to young and old, to those down-on-their luck and those who once wondered whether they would ever find a church that would accept them. She is elated that so many of God’s children are finding a welcome here. Water into wine!
In a few moments, we will see another miracle. Jesus will say to us, “Drink you all of it, this cup in the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.” This is a wedding feast like no other. Christ celebrates with us. Behold the miracle, rejoice, smile, and taste the wine, the cup of salvation.
Dagmar and I first visited San Diego eleven years ago this very weekend. We met with First Lutheran’s Call Committee, interviewing for the position of your pastor. Those on the call committee will recall that it rained like whales and porpoises. I remember people asking, “So, how do you like San Diego?” I didn’t want to say it then, but Dagmar and I did wonder: what’s the big deal with the much praised weather of American’s finest city? It poured down rain on Hotel Circle where we were staying and Fashion Valley Mall was flooded. Who would come to this city because of the weather? The only good reason to come here, it seemed to us, was because of this wonderful congregation.
It has eleven years now and, guess what? San Diego and the Fashion Valley Mall are drenched again and this congregation is as wonderful as ever.
The church where I preached that day, Gethsemane Lutheran Church (just above Qualcomm Stadium), was celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord—as was First Lutheran. I remember their outdoor labyrinth looked like a huge mud puddle. It does make you wonder why record downpours always seem to occur when we are commemorating Jesus’ baptism.
Speaking of rain, how has your week been? Flooded basements, leaky roofs, standing water on the highways—have you thanked God for this torrential rain that has begun to make a dent in the dreadful drought or have sand bags, wet socks, and cheap umbrellas blown to bits made you compose a mournful song entitled, “It Always Rains in Southern California?”
However you are feeling, this week has been heavenly for kids. Children can’t resist mud puddles. They have not been saddled yet with the dictates of proper decorum in which they must remain bone dry and wear rain coats and clunky rubber boots or else.
Dogs are the same way. We spent three days in Borrego Springs this week. Our dog Cisco headed for mud puddles every chance he got. His tail wagged gleefully rocking his ecstatic body back and forth. Furry Cisco assumes God created mud puddles for frolicking.
Jesus, too, seemed jovial in the Jordan River muddle. His joy, however, was deeply embarrassing for the early church. Christians thought it uncouth for him to jump into the water with the riff-raff. Jesus certainly knew that John’s baptism of repentance was for the forgiveness of sins. The church shouted at Jesus from safer shores and higher ground, “Get out of the water. Stay dry. You are getting way too close to notorious sinners.” As they screamed at him, Jesus was having the time of his life.
It has been 2,000 years since Jesus played in the Jordan mud puddle. Many of us are still scandalized. Who wasn’t taught that cleanliness is next to godliness (those words, by the way, are not in the Bible but is easy to understand why we think they are)? We have tried to read the purity laws in Leviticus. We have grown weary of the innumerable ways God’s chosen ones were required to remain clean and holy in this third book of the Old Testament.
So much of Christianity—many of the major religions in fact—has become a “stay clean religion.” Some of us can’t stand dancing at weddings because someone told us along the way that dancing is the devil’s hop. People often call the church, asking if we have a Sunday dress code: don’t good Christian boys wear sport coats and bow ties and girls patent leather shoes and frilly dresses? And we all know Christian dare not let wicked spirits touch our lips; even though Jesus took a cup of wine at the Last Supper, we will take grape juice, thank you, and leave Satan’s elixir to someone else.
In all this purity stuff, rather than being a group of joyous splishers and splashers, we can easily end up being a group of cranks and sourpusses. Sometimes the operative principle seems: the more uptight we are, the more holy we must be.
Splishing and splashing constantly got Jesus into trouble. One of my worship professors Gordon Lathrop says that at Jesus baptism, he didn’t get clean for us, rather he got dirty for us. Read through Luke’s gospel if you don’t believe Dr. Lathrop. Jesus always seemed to be hanging with the hoi polloi. He ate with sinners, even calling them to be his closest followers. He was constantly touching people whom the Bible claimed to be unclean—dead people, leprous people, hemorrhaging people—offering them hope and bringing them back to life.
If you like everything neat, tidy, and perfect, reading through Luke’s gospel on Sunday mornings is going to be a rough ride for you this year. However, if you have found yourself in a mess or two and prayed for Jesus to jump in with you when you felt as muddy as pig pool, then this gospel is just for you. If you have spoken out on controversial issues only to be told by good friends and family that Christians do not believe or even say such things, then Luke’s gospel will become your friend. In Luke Jesus constantly broke religious rules to bring healing to suffering souls and hope to the poorest of the poor.
Today, on this the Baptism of Our Lord, we celebrate Jesus romping in muddle puddles. His delight should bring smiles to our faces. Make no mistake, some good, holy people are going to be horrified by his seemingly frivolous behavior and his even dirtier death. On the other hand, those who never feel clean enough will come to cherish Jesus’ dirty little baptism at the Jordan as his special gift to you.
If you are thinking right about now that I am way off target about this splishing and splashing and getting dirty, then listen to what our heavenly Father said to Jesus as he climbed out of the river dripping wet: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let it rain, let it pour, and, by all means, splish and splash to your heart’s delight.
I am always intrigued by King Herod’s reaction to the three wise men when they come seeking the baby Jesus. Why was Herod so intimidated by the little tyke whom the wise men claimed to be the king of the Jews?
Herod did his best to be pleasant; however, anyone with a sensitive ear can immediately tell he got caught up in his own lethal secrets: where was this baby to be born and when exactly did Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar see the star appear? Herod sent the wise men out to find tiny Jesus. We sense he wanted to find the child as soon as possible. Herod, all twisted up in his maniacal mind, feared this little one would one day control something like a nuclear arsenal in Nazareth and threaten his leadership.
While it doesn’t appear in this morning’s Gospel reading, soon after the Magi left Bethlehem after seeing the Christ Child, an angel told Joseph to take Jesus and Mary and run for their lives to Egypt. Herod flew into a furious rage and ordered all the male children in Bethlehem and the region who were two years old or under to be killed.
By the way, do any of you have King Herod on your mantel along with the Wise Men, the angels, shepherds, donkeys and sheep, Mary and Joseph and Babe, and a lighted Moravian star hanging from the ceiling? To tell the whole story truthfully, King Herod should appear at Christmas, too. Most of us don’t care for this brutal part of the story. There is a day in the church year, December 28, called the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs. This day appears on Sunday about once every seven years so, in most cases, we don’t have to deal with the violence and can rest easy with Santa Claus, the reindeers, and eggnog with a dash of Jack Daniels.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is the “adults only” version. It takes eyes of faith to discover the little king amidst the raging jealousy, barbaric bloodshed, and a refugee family on the run.
One of the difficulties of Christmas is that we are so starry eyed. We see this in the Christmas letters we receive where everyone is successful and happy, newly married and pregnant. Rarely do mom and dad mention that precious Johnny flunked out of the ol’ U because he was having way too much fun, that Susie hooked up with a notorious Southern California motorcycle gang and changed her name to Mama, or that Mom and Dad are fighting worse than Republicans and Democrats. We prefer the airbrushed Christmas story, the one with visions of sugar plums and white Christmases galore.
Maybe this is why Christmas is often referred to as “Depression Alley.” For those of us not experiencing perfection, the losses, unhappiness, and failures are magnified as if with the Hubble telescope. We look at everyone in pretty dresses and decked out homes and wonder why our songs of glad tidings are so off key.
The truth, though, is nothing is perfect for anyone. In a recent article in the New York Times, it was said that up to a third of all Britons have dreams about Queen Elizabeth II and the Royals. The dreams often involve the dreamer sharing cups of tea with her Majesty. One characteristic of these dreams is that the Queen comments on what a nice cup of tea the dreamer makes and then says: “You don’t know what a relief it is to talk to somebody normal and ordinary like you. I’m at my wits’ end how to deal with my grandchildren, I can tell you.”
We imagine that Queen Elizabeth has led a charmed life with bejeweled carriages, elegant horses, and stately castles. And yet, those of us who pay attention to such matters were transfixed by the breakup of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and crestfallen when lovely Dianna was killed in an automobile accident. We thought royals lived in a perfect world and then the veneer got marred and we realized the Royals are just like us.
The Wise Men dreamed, too, of having tea with royalty. What is remarkable—and it must have taken them by great surprise—is that they discovered the Christ Child, not in a gilded palace with uniformed knights at attention, but in a lowly manger with sheep and goats standing as the honor guard. They did leave their gifts and they did kneel to pay King Jesus homage but we do wonder if, under their breath, they said to one another, “This is the oddest sovereign we have ever seen.”
It doesn’t much matter what they thought. Far more important is what we think. The star leads us here, to this manger, today. We place our gifts in the offering plate to honor this child. Then we hear: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you; drink this all of you, this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Did we expect something fancier, more majestic?
God’s appearance is always a surprise. Here at 3rd and Ash, this child, whom wise men adored, promises that we will behold him not in the high and mighty but in those often passed by without a word. This little child grew up and right before he died, said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me….” He then added, “Truly, I say to you, just as you did it to one of the least who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Have you seen the Christ Child lately?
Not only do we celebrate God’s appearance to the Gentiles today, folks like you and me and the Magi, we also celebrate the first Sunday of the New Year. May we remember this king and where he started from and of course where he finally ended life before rising from the dead. May we remember he comes to us at our kitchen tables around cups of tea and listens to our joy and pain, our celebrations and sorrows as we listen to his as well. It is surprising this king comes to us. Who would ever have thought it?