Sunday, December 14th, 2014 – Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Warning: the following sermon contains words and stories that are depressing. Listener discretion is advised.

This weekend (and by this weekend, I mean yesterday afternoon), I kept trying to figure out how not to give a sermon that isn’t super depressing. But I just couldn’t. And maybe that’s okay. I mean, sometimes I think we spend so much time pretending like we’ve got it all together and “we use religion as the place where we can escape from the difficult realities of our lives, (when in fact, the church is meant to be) the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.” [1]

So, you’ve been warned – depressing. But maybe that’s okay.

(Just as a side note: As if my sermon wasn’t already going to be depressing enough, right at this point in the sermon writing and clearly, right on cue, I got a call from Stan saying that his mom was dying. Oh and then, I logged on to Facebook to look up the story I’m about to tell you, I saw a post about how my friend’s dad just died. You can’t make this stuff up, people.)

A colleague and fellow ELCA pastor has put on leave from his call because, from what I gather, members of his congregation haven’t liked some of things he’s said in recent sermons. As you can imagine, Advent isn’t the best time to be suspended from your calling when you are a pastor. But here’s what he said in a recent Facebook post: “Advent hymns…mean so much more in the midst of struggle.”

And he couldn’t be more right. Today, we sang, Light three candles to watch for Messiah, let the light banished darkness. And then we sang, Oh, come, strong branch of Jesse, free your own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of hell your people save and give them victory over the grave. 

Let light banish darkness. Save your people, Lord, from the depths of hell and give them victory over the grace. I hear those words differently after a 17-year-old has died from the flu in our community. The word influenza has never frightened me as much as it has this past week. And I’m not the only one, because the shot clinic was full on Friday and had no openings. I hear those words differently when a cousin and a friend to many of you, Ken Dinse, is in a medically induced coma after a major accident. And everyone is just waiting, waiting, waiting… I hear those words differently when I’m reminded that it has been two years since the shootings at Sandyhook Elementary in Newtown, and it is all I can do to even begin to imagine the hell that those families have been through.

Let the light banish the darkness. Just take it away. Save us, Lord, from this hell we are living in.

And so while I’m not grateful for all that we are struggling with, I find myself more grateful for our advent hymns. Because they speak and give voice to a reality that we know all too well.

This is a reality that the prophet Isaiah knows too. Those of you who were here last week remember that Isaiah is speaking to people who are living in exile. And to understand exile, I invited us to remember 9/11 and then to imagine that all of Washington, D.C. was destroyed and people taken from their homes to live in a foreign land as soldiers took over America. And it is into that kind of depressing and devastating world that Isaiah speaks a comforting word, “Comfort, o comfort, my people, says your God.” A word that says God will make a path out of this devastation.

And now listen again to what Isaiah has to say today: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn…They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

So what does God do when devastation is all around? He sends people into the devastation! He anoints the prophet Isaiah in to bring good news to the oppressed and the brokenhearted. To proclaim freedom to those who are prisoners. And to comfort those who mourn.

But then, at the very end, Isaiah said, “They shall build up the ruins, they shall raise up the devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities.” You see, God’s not just sending Isaiah, God is sending all kinds of people to go and rebuild. To repair.

Right now, at this very moment, there is a memorial service happening for Shannon, the high schooler who died. And God is sending hundreds of prophets there not only to comfort that family who is mourning, but also to help them rebuild and repair their shattered lives.

And that is the heart of the Christmas story, isn’t it? That God would send someone in the flesh into this messed up world. And God sends God’s very self in the flesh of Jesus.

And now get this – this is really amazing – Jesus’ first sermon was on Isaiah 61 the very text we read today. Jesus goes to his hometown to preach and he proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;”

And that becomes Jesus’ mission statement. That’s Jesus’ purpose. To bring good news and repair to a broken world. To quote Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, (T)he world into which Christ was born was certainly not one of a Norman Rockwell painting. The world has never been that world. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent-night, snow-blanketed peace-on-earth sugar cookie suspended-reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.” [2]

When the world is broken and devastated, God does what God does best, God sends God’s very self, hidden in the flesh of humanity, to bring good news to this messed up world and to rebuild us into the people God has called us to be.

When preacher Tom Long’s uncle Ed died at the early age of 40, he remembers vividly when everyone gathered for the funeral. The pastor of the church, who was out of state at the time Ed died, drove all night and arrived just in time to come to the family home to accompany everyone to the church. “The moment of his arrival was unforgettable… The extended family was all together in the living room of Ed’s home, jammed onto the sofa and scattered onto the piano bench and various chairs borrowed from the kitchen and dining room (You know the scene). Then through the big picture window (they) saw the minister arrive. He pulled up in his stripped-down Ford, got out and walked toward the house, all spindle-legged (from the long drive), wearing a cheap blue suit, clutching his service book like a life preserver. (Tom being a pastor himself knew what was going through the preacher’s mind): ‘What to say, dear God, what to say? What words do you speak when words seem hardly enough?’ What he did not know, could not know, was how the atmosphere in that room changed the moment (they) saw him step out of his car.” His arrival, in some strange way, revealed the presence of God in the midst of such devastating grief. “This frail human being, striding across the lawn in his off-the-rack preacher suit, desperately trying to find some words of meaning to speak, brought with him the grace of God.”[3]

It’s not the words he said that comforted them. But it’s that God would send someone. Someone to enter into their devastation. And that’s how God shows up in the flesh. By sending flesh. A person.

Someone said this week, what’s the point of Advent. This time of waiting. Yes, we are waiting to see and hear once again the story that God came incarnate in the world in the flesh of Jesus, but maybe we are also waiting to see how God will come into the world now. Through our flesh. Or through the flesh of others. The Good News is that God enters such a chaotic and crazy world. That’s our Christmas story.

It is a mess out there right now. And it is scary and it is frightening. Which is actually kind of how Advent is meant to be. It was into such a world that the Advent speaks… for the Advent season is a season of hope in the midst of darkness. Jesus was born into a messy world. And what does God do, God sends people into it. God sends you into it. What’s your mission statement? What’s your role? Who are you in God’s story? So how is God sending you back out into that world out there? What’s the mission statement for your life for how God is sending you out to bring comfort and healing to a broken world? Maybe your mission is simply to love your children as best as you know how – to be the best parent. Or maybe to foster children who need a safe home. Or to teach knitting and crocheting to the younger generation, so that they ministry of prayer shawls will never end. Maybe your mission is to feed hungry people. Maybe your mission is to lift up and point to the value and worth of those who have so often been viewed as worthless.

And you know, God can send us on a new mission. Sometimes, when our life changes suddenly, with an illness or a disability or grief or sorrow or loneliness, then our mission can shift and change. A colleague of mine was a youth director in Texas. But then his son, Max, died at the age of 18 from the flu. And now, he runs a non-profit called Love to the Max. His new mission through this organization is “to help young people live a life filled with love.”[4] I wonder how Shannon’s family life mission will shift. God calls us all to something. To bring good news. To repair our broken world. And that’s how God shows up in the world. In the flesh. And as our reading from 1 Thessalonians says, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

So, what better way to end a depressing sermon than with the good news of an Advent hymn. Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel. Amen

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/12/the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-of-sandy-hook/#ixzz3LovRzw5o

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral, pg. 48-49.

[4] http://www.lovetothemax.org

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Sunday, December 7th, 2014 – Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11

Mark 1:1-8
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Isaiah 40:1-11
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

I was 16 years old. I’d had my driver’s license for about a month. I was driving my parents’ relatively new car to the gym and a turned left down the big hill we lived on. And the next thing I know, I am about 300 yards down the road, driving in the ditch. WHAM! I hit a road sign, which scratches down the right side of the car, takes off the side mirror, scratches all along the doors, and takes off the right tail light. I gain control of the car, get it back into the empty road, put it in park, get out of the car, and I run up and down the road screaming, because I was so freaked out at what had just happened. To this day, I still have no memory of how it happened.

I go back home, I confess the accident to my brother, who then called my dad. My dad came home, looked at the car, and then he came inside. I’d never been so scared in my whole life. He comes up to me, and what does he do? He asks me if I’m okay. And he says, with compassionate eyes, “I’m just glad you are not hurt. We will talk about this tomorrow.”

And then the next day…oh we talked about it alright. “WHAT THE HECK WERE YOU DOING!? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!” And then he handed down some sort of punishment that I can’t seem to remember. And those were hard words to hear. But I needed to hear them.

But here’s the thing, my dad knew that there is a time for consequences and there is a time for comfort. Anyone who has helped raise a child knows this – is this a time to punish or is this a time to comfort? And my dad knew that right after the accident was a time for comfort. It was a time to embrace and declare, “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

In our reading from Isaiah, it is the time for comfort. “Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God.” This part of Isaiah is written to the Israelite people who were living in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the great temple (which was a sign of God’s presence) were destroyed and the Jewish people were forced to leave their land, and to live as slaves in Babylon. Now, it can be hard for us to relate to what it means to be in exile. So I invite you to imagine something… go back in your mind to September 11, 2001. Remember where you were, what you were doing, how it seemed like a normal day. But now remember what you felt as you watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center. And then Flight 77 crashing in to the Pentagon and Flight 93 crashing into the field, though we know it was meant for the U.S. capitol. Remember all that you felt that day, and now imagine that the entire city of Washington, D.C. was destroyed too. The White House, Congress, and all the homes. The President is taken away in chains and all of the leading citizens of America are “forcibly relocated to a far-off country, while America is overrun with foreign troops with no hope of ever regaining freedom. This was the experience of the Jewish people in exile.” (Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, pg. 35).

And that is who Isaiah is writing to in chapter 40. People living in that kind of exile. So what do the Jewish people need? What would you need? It is time for a comforting word. Through the prophet Isaiah, God declares that today is the day for comfort. And the comfort comes in the form of a promise – a promise that they, the Jewish people, will return from exile. This will not be the end of them. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. This word of our God will stand forever. So get you up on your mountain; do not be afraid and shout with a loud voice, “God is here!” He will lead you back like a shepherd to the promised land where you came from.

A new day is coming. Valleys will be lifted up and mountains will be brought down. A new future is arriving. A new path forward. Isaiah brings a word of comfort, at a time when comfort and hope was needed.

And then there is our gospel reading from Mark. And how does that reading begin? Well, we might be tempted to think that the first line of the gospel is “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God.” But scholars agree that this very first verse actually functions more like a title, rather than part of the gospel itself. So the title is really, ‘The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God.” Which means that the opening line is, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

And the moment Mark’s hearers heard that, they would have immediately been reminded of Isaiah and the time of exile. And they would think, we are about to hear a comforting word. In fact, back in the ancient days authors would use their opening lines like a movie’s opening credits. It lays out the “credentials” of the story. (Binding the Strong Man, pg. 92). Just how a movie that begins with the words, “Directed by Steven Spielberg” or “Staring Clint Eastwood” is laying the groundwork for what kind of a movie it is. So for the gospel of Mark to begin by quoting this hopeful and comforting word from Isaiah is to lay the groundwork for what kind of story Mark is going to tell us.

You see, by the time the gospel of Mark was written down, it had been over 400 years since the last prophet of God had spoken. And so many were afraid that the word of God had…fallen silent. But by quoting Isaiah as the very first line, what the gospel of Mark is saying is that the good news of Jesus Christ is that God is speaking once again. And what’s the word that God is speaking? A comforting one. A word that a new day is dawning. So get up on your mountain; do not be afraid and shout with a loud voice, “God is here!” He will lead you back like a shepherd to the promised land where you came form! A new day is coming. Valleys will be lifted up and mountains will be brought down. A new future is arriving. A new path forward. That’s Mark is saying.

I don’t know about you, but we need a new day, don’t we? In light of all that has happened in our country in the past few weeks. After juries across the country failed to bring charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown or the chokehold death of Eric Garner, both black Americans. And all the arguing back and forth of whether this is a race issue or not, or whether racism is systemic in America or not. And all the protests and cities burning. And we all get anxious because none of us is comfortable talking about the issue of race and racism in America and in ourselves. Whether you think this is simply police upholding their rights and doing their jobs or whether you think this is racism through and through, regardless of what side we see our selves on, I think we can all agree – we need a new day. People of color need a new day. Police need a new day. We all need a new path forward.

Many black people in America feel like their lives don’t matter. Many police feel threatened because of the actions of a few. We can critique and analyze all of it, if we want. But the question to ask is: What’s God up to here? Is God doing something new in America? Demanding something new of America? Maybe bringing about a new day. Maybe God is dragging out the buried racism that exists within all of us, if we are being honest, so that it can finally be removed like the cancer that it is?

You remember what the title of the gospel of Mark is? The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God. What if that’s true? What if Mark’s story about a new day coming in Jesus is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God. Meaning that the story of the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t over yet. But rather is still be written. Which means God is still up to something in this world, so as to bring about comfort and healing. And here is the thing, you and I get to be part of that. This is God’s story which means this is our story. And you and I have a roll to play. In the next couple of weeks, virtually every church in the country will have some sort of children’s Christmas Program. And each child gets a part to play in God’s story of salvation. What if God’s story here and now is just like that – we all still have a part to play. I don’t know what your role is. You’ll have to discern that yourself. But whatever it is, it is a part of the puzzle of God’s unfolding story of bringing hope and comfort in this world in the flesh, as seen in the story of Jesus Christ.

“There was once a Christmas pageant at a small church in which the part of the innkeeper at Bethlehem was played by a high school student. He was a quiet and polite boy, but the kind of boy for whom the word “awkward” was an apt description – awkward in manner, awkward in social relationships, even awkward in size, his growing frame always pushing at the limits of his clothing. His peers liked him well enough, but he was the sort of person who was easy to overlook, to exclude from the center of things. When Joseph and Mary appeared at the inn, he stood…awkwardly…in the doorway, slumping a bit toward the couple as they made their request for lodging. He them dutifully recited his one line, “There is no room in the inn.” But as Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away toward the cattle stall where they would spend the night, the boy continued to watch them with eyes filled with compassion. Suddenly, responding to a grace which, though not part of the script, filled the moment, he startled himself, the holy couple, and the audience, by calling, “Wait a minute. Don’t go. You can have my room.” (Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, pg. 42-43).

You have a roll in God’s story. A part in how God is at work bring a comforting word to the world at this much needed time. What if it is when you can finally see what’s really going on – as Mary and Joseph walk away with no room to stay in, as black people in America fear for their lives – maybe that’s the moment. That’s the moment when we, who are part of God’s story, get the chance to change the story. To bring about a new day.

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. And it is only just the beginning. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014 – Sermon on Isaiah 64, Psalm 80, and Mark 13

Mark 13:24-37
24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Isaiah 64:1-9
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth 2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! 3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 4 O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? 5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. 6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. 7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. 18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. 19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from our God revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Do you ever wish you could start over? Do you ever wish that you could go back to the beginning and do things over once again? Maybe with that conversation that didn’t go as you had hoped. Maybe so that you could make a different decision at a turning point in your life. Maybe so that you could have appreciated more the time you had with a loved one who is now gone. Maybe so that you could have chosen a different career, or told that friend how you really felt about them before they went off and dated someone else. Do you ever wish you could just start over?

Our reading from Isaiah today begins with these words: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. What could lead Isaiah to say such a thing to God? Isaiah says, Lord, we sinned and you are angry. But don’t be angry any longer. Please. Lord, tear open the heavens and come down. And consider us your people once again. Let us start over.

And you can hear Isaiah’s desperation in that word tear. Lord, tear open the heavens. Don’t just open them. Don’t unzip them. Tear them open. Come quickly, Lord, we need you. Now. Whenever someone tells you tear something open, they never mean “take your time” or “be careful and go slowly.” Think of children at Christmas time. What do they do? They tear open the presents, because it is quickest. O Lord that you would tear open the heavens and come down. We’ve sinner and your angry. But please don’t be angry any longer. Consider us your people once again. You get the sense that Isaiah is wishing to start over. Wishing that they could go back and do things differently.

Or take our psalm for today. There was a repeated phrase in the psalm. We spoke it three times: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. Restore us. So that we might be saved. The people of Israel are in need of restoration. And the problem with restoration is having to go through the desperation that calls it forth. If you restore the roof of your house, it is because you have been leaked on. If you restore a friendship, it is because it was once broken. If you restore a painting, it is because layers of grim have collected upon its surface for decades, muddying the bright colors and the intricate details. And so in our psalm we learn of a desperate people in need of restoration. Listen to their words at the end: Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. 19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” You get the sense that the psalmist and his people are wishing they could start over. Re-store us. Bring us back to how things used to be. Help us start over, Lord, and do things differently.

And then there is our gospel reading. And while it might not seem entirely clear after just one reading, our gospel text for today begs for a chance to start over as well. The gospel began, “But in those days, after that suffering.” What suffering? Well around the time this gospel was written, there was a war going on in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire was destroying the Jewish people and destroyed the temple. It was absolute destruction. And you can imagine that after such a war and after the temple is destroyed and after all that suffering, the people in Jerusalem would love for nothing more than a chance to start over.

And so all three of those texts long for a chance to start over. But here is the thing about starting over. In order for something to start over, something has to end. In order for something to start over, then the current situation has to come to an end. I heard this wonderful quote a couple of weeks ago – “Corporations are afraid of death; gardeners aren’t.” (Rachel Held Evans). Corporations are afraid of death; gardeners aren’t. Isn’t that a great line? Gardeners know that the death of the garden is the beginning of something new. Next year’s garden. And in fact, the death of the old garden feeds and nourishes the life of the new garden.

We long for a chance to start again, but in order for something to start over, something has to end. And if we continue reading the rest of our gospel for today, at first glance, it sounds like what’s coming to an end is… the world. The sun is darkened, the moon will give off no light, and the stars start falling from the sky and the powers in heaven will be shaken. It sounds like a text that is meant to frighten us or scare us into believing in God so that God will take us in the end. The text is one that makes all of us think about the rapture – or the end of the world. But let me be very clear, this is not about the end of the world. This isn’t about the rapture. The rapture isn’t even in the Bible.

This is actually meant to be a hopeful word, not a frightening one. Why? Because the thing that is coming to an end is not the world, but rather it the end of that great suffering. It is about the end of the Roman Empire oppressing the Israelites. It’s about the end of wars that leave people dead in the streets. And so the readers of Mark’s gospel would not hear this text as something that scares them, but as something that brings them hope. “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” This was a hopeful word because it means a new day is coming. A chance to start over. It says that the heavens are being torn open and God is coming down. God is coming to put an end to the Roman Empire and the things that bring suffering to this life. Isaiah asks for the heavens to be torn open and now they are. The psalmist asks for restoration and now it’s coming. This text from the gospel of Mark – it is the gift of a new start. God’s healing of the world. A new age. A new dawn. The Kingdom of God coming to earth. And the gospel tells us to keep awake. Because we don’t want to miss the moment, all the moments, when God shows up giving us a chance for a new start.

I have always thought that the Scripture readings on the first Sunday of Advent were strange. Out of place. Not appropriate for the feeling of this season. But now I have changed my mind on that. All the texts are about the end of something, but they plead for the beginning of something. They plead for a new start.

And that’s what the season of Advent is. This season of Advent is the gift of a new start. A new church year. Now, with the God of Jesus, every moment is a moment to start over. Every moment is a time when we can begin again in a new way. A way of grace. But Advent gives us this marked time. A time of starting over that reminds us and revitalizes us into the promise that God is here and at work bringing an end to the world all right. But it is the world of poverty that is coming to an end. The world of injustice and the world of people getting killed by the police and no one knows whose story is true that is coming to an end. It is the world of chronic illness and suffering and the world of addiction and broken relationships that is coming to an end. It is the world of homelessness and hunger that is coming to an end.

Advent is the season when we get to start over and be reminded once again of the promise that God is at work tearing open the heavens and coming down so as to bring about a new earth – a healed earth. But we know that this hasn’t happened fully yet. We know that those worlds are not fully over. “We see the state of the world around us, what with war, famine, illness, greed, abuses of power, and we know that the world God hopes of us—that reign of God marked by never-ending love and flourishing life—that world is still yet-to-come.” (Erik Koepnick). That Kingdom of God is not fully here yet. And so we wait. In hope. The season of Advent has all this talk about waiting. In one sense, we are waiting to celebrate Christ’s birth. But we are also waiting for that time when we can say that Jesus has finally come once again fully and completely. A time when the world is fully healed and restored. And so we are waiting for that time. But we don’t wait passively. We wait actively.

We wait actively “trusting that God’s goodness is always present, that God’s love for the world will never go away, that even the worst that can happen or the most powerful evil in the world cannot outlast or extinguish God’s love for the world.” (Todd Lippert) How do we do this? By going to Meals of Hope and feeding hungry people. By putting mittens on the mitten tree and by giving food to the food shelf and by putting coins into the little red buckets. We do all of this not so we can be nice, but because as Christians we get to proclaim that hunger or homelessness or poverty or brokenness or addiction or depression or mental illness do not get to have the last word on anyone’s life. That God is at work in this world putting an end to all of the things that destroy life, so that something new can grow in its place.

So happy New Year friends. A new church year for us. A chance to start over. A chance to put an end to our fears and to trust once again in the promise that God is always being born into this world. Isaiah pleads, “O Lord, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The Psalmist begs, “Restore us, O Lord God so that we may be saved.” And the gospel of Mark says, “Keep awake.” Because the Lord God is already here. Amen

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014 – Thanksgiving Eve Sermon on Luke 17:11-19

GOSPEL Luke 17:11–19
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

A couple of months ago, in our newsletter, I was asked what my favorite part of ministry was. And I said funerals. I have found that funerals, and the time preparing and leading up to a funeral is some of the most sacred and God-filled time that I experience in ministry. When someone has died, everything and everyone seems to move slower. I find that I walk slower those weeks. Everything slows down and we all seem more aware of how fragile, and sacred, and precious this life is. As I get older, I have found the same to be true with the holidays. For as crazy and busy as it is, I walk more slowly during the holiday season. I see differently. I don’t know what it is about this season – the low light and driving home in the dark or the music or the decoration, but I always get nostalgic, and I really actually find myself being more thankful for the things in this life. And it is totally cliché and fleeting and the luxury of a somewhat trouble free holiday is not lost on me. But that’s how it is for me these days.

One of our preaching professors says that preaching on Thanksgiving can be one of the hardest times to preach. Because other than telling people that we all ought to be thankful, what else is there to say?

And often on Thanksgiving is this text from Luke about the 10 lepers. Where all 10 lepers are healed, but only one turns back to praise Jesus in thanks for the healing he has received. And so we tend to lift up this tenth leper as the example and say, “See! Now go home and be like him. Be thankful for what you have.”

Recently, we’ve been very proactive in teaching Elliot to say, “Thank you.” And he does. Robotically. “Thank you.” Elliot, what do you say for mama making you lunch? Thank you. What do you say to Ms. Lisa for watching you today? Thank you. And we know that he is simply just telling us what we want to hear. We don’t actually know or feel that he really is grateful.

Which is why it is so amazing when he says, “Thank you” all on his own. You bring him his lunch over, without prompting he says, “Thank you, mama, for making me lunch.” Or you sit down to play Legos with him and he says, “Thank you, daddy, for playing with me.” And it just melts your heart. Because you know he did it on his own. You have this sense that he meant it.

And that’s just the thing about gratitude, right? You can’t force it. You can’t tell someone to be thankful. You can’t demand a “thank you” – because it renders it meaningless.

And I think we learn more from this story about the ten lepers than simply the need to be thankful.

All ten lepers were healed. But only one turned around to offer thanks. Why only the one? What was different about him? “And as the ten went away, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” What was different about him? He noticed. He recognized the healing that had happened. And when he saw that he was healed, he turned back.

Once he realized that he was healed, he couldn’t help but turn around and offer his joy and thanksgiving to Jesus.

And that’s at the heart of gratitude, isn’t it? It isn’t simply about saying thank you. Anyone can do that robotically. Even my 2-year old Elliot. But it’s about noticing, really noticing what has happened. It is about seeing with new eyes what someone has done for you.

All ten lepers were healed, but the one who turned back was healed and he could see it – which means not only was his leprosy healed, but his eyes were too. So that he could finally see again. Really see.

At the heart of gratitude and thanksgiving is first the recognition of the gift given. I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago, when a friend of mine heard that when I was growing up, my dad always taught us to say thank you to my mom for the very nice dinner that she made. And upon hearing this, my friend’s eyes lit up with this half desperation, half excitement as she said, “Really? That sounds so nice. Will you tell my husband that? Seriously. Will you tell him about what your dad taught you? Because that would be amazing if he said that after each meal. You go tell him that if he starts doing that, it will improve his marriage. No, his love life.”

Isn’t it interesting how most parents teach their kids to say please and thank you, but then how rarely we do it ourselves as adults?

And here’s the thing, my friend isn’t really looking for a habitual or assumed or robotic “thank you” after each meal. No, what she is really looking for is for him to first notice – to see – that she has worked so hard to put a nice meal on the table. And when he can see that – with new eyes – the gratitude will flow out naturally.

After that tenth leper saw the healing that had happened, and then turned back in gratitude, Jesus says to him in the end, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” But that word there – the greek word for “well”, can also be translated as “whole.” Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you…whole. Complete.

Maybe we are never fully whole, fully human until we recognize and really see what we have, and from there offer our genuine thanks. Because when we do, it seems to start this cycle of gratitude that catches everyone up in it.

This is the gift of the holiday season, I think. That they can slow us down and help to see with new eyes. But really it is the gift given in every worship service. That we might be able to leave this place every week with clear eyes and full hearts.

“Anyone actively engaged in this world can’t help but have his or her vision made a little foggy. There is so much pain, and doubt, and hardship that it can be difficult to sustain faith in a loving God. The readings and sermon, the prayers and songs that constitute our weekly worship serve to remove the film that clouds our ability to see God at work in the world and to recognize God’s face shine through to us in the need of our neighbor. So week in and week out, we come to church to have our vision clarified, our eyesight restored, so that we might return to the world looking for God out ahead of us, knowing that by the end of the week our vision will once again be cloudy and that (clear eyes) await us again on Sunday.” (David Lose)

God’s blessings are all around us in such ordinary ways. And all it takes is noticing. Seeing. And then saying thank you. And then in some odd way, we are made fully whole. By sharing in deeper connection with one another.

So, I simply want to take a little time to share some of what I have seen with new eyes in just the past couple of days and weeks that reflect to me God at work in the world, for which I am extremely grateful.

I am grateful for one of my best friends, Pastor Laura Aase, who had the courage and the faith to walk into a congregation member’s home late last Friday night and sit with them as their world was ripped apart by the sudden death of their 27 year old daughter, Erin.

I am grateful for Jesse Knutson – who is from Aurora – for being willing to pick up a friend of mine, but a complete stranger to him, yesterday morning, and drive him to and from Mankato for a court hearing that he had no way of making it to. This guy needs a helping hand, and Jesse was just that.

Yesterday, Lauren and I had a big scare with the baby. And for a couple of hours, I didn’t think this pregnancy was going to last. In the midst of that, I am grateful for the way our nurse, Peggy, approached us in the waiting room with such caring eyes and a compassionate voice, choosing not to just shout out our name, but rather to walk over to us, to place her hand on Lauren’s head (almost in blessing), and ask us if we were ready to go back. Her gentleness towards us was simply incredible. And by the way, the baby is doing fine now.

And lastly, I am grateful for all of you and our two churches. I am grateful for how you surround the youngest ones among us with love and welcome. I love how you really do act like a big family, bickering sometimes but also having a rooted and deep love for one another too. I love how you support people in need through Meals of Hope, and the mitten tree, and the backpacks for kids over seas. I am grateful for the love and support you show me and my family throughout the year. And I am grateful for how you keep showing up here at church week in and week out.

When I am given new eyes to see, when my sight is clear, those are just some of the ways I see God at work in and among all of us. For which I am so grateful… May this time of worship – may each and every Sunday – clear our vision and slow us down – to take notice and recognize all that God has done and all that God is doing in and among all of us. Happy Thanksgiving… Amen

*I am indebted to David Lose for the insights into this Scripture text