Sunday, January 18th, 2015 – Sermon on Psalm 139 and John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

This past week, a group of us began a book study on Making Sense of the Bible. We focused on the Old Testament this past week and we learned that there is an entire section in the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible that is not in our Bible. It’s called the Apocrypha. Now back about 500 years ago, our good friend Martin Luther decided to take those books of the Bible and put them in a separate section of the Bible in between the Old and New Testament. And then over time, publishers stopped including that section of books in the printing of the Bible.

Now, there are very few days in my life when I wish that the Apocrypha were still part of our Bibles. I don’t know much about it and I don’t miss it. But there is this one story in the Apocrypha that has grabbed a hold of me and won’t seem to let me go. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a sad story. But I think it is story that we all need to hear.

The story is a Jewish folk-tale about a righteous man named Tobit, who is among many other Jews that have been taken into exile by the Assyrians. We’ve been talking a lot about the Jews being taken into exile over the past couple of weeks and how horrible that must have been to be taken from your homes and forced to live enslaved in a foreign land.

But Tobit was determined not to lose his faith. Cautiously, yet courageously, he practiced his Jewish faith underneath the nose of his captors. At home, he kept kosher and only ate the food his Jewish faith allowed. When out in public, he shared his food and his clothing with the other poor refugees who filled the streets.

But then he does one more thing to practice his faith, and it is the thing that gets him most in trouble – he becomes the unofficial funeral director for the enslaved Jewish refugees. You see, the Assyrian slave-drivers would toss the dead bodies of the Jewish slaves over the city wall, leaving them, in a heap to decompose in the sun and the shame. To the Assyrians it was a form of throwing out the trash and reminding everyone who was in charge.

But then Tobit, in a risky yet reverent act of faith, would go out side the city walls, and reclaim the bodies and give them a decent burial. It was his way of practicing his faith and quietly proclaiming –these bodies are not trash. But rather they were created by God and declared “very good.”[1]

Tobit was a Jew. Which meant that he would have probably known the psalms. In fact, he maybe even had them memorized. And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps his favorite psalm was 139.

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up …

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…I come to the end—I am still with you.

Knowing Tobit’s story, I can’t help but think that that Psalm was the one that had the deepest meaning to him. That when he first heard it, his heart swelled and he got goosebumps on his arms, because it spoke to him like nothing had ever spoken to him before and he knew that it had the most sacred and divine words that could ever be shared with this world. Maybe at night when he was a child, his mom or his dad would sing the psalms to him, and every night he put in a request for 139. And his parents must have grown so tired of it. Like I do of Good Night Moon or Let it go.

I wonder if Psalm 139 was in his mind and on his heart when he watched as those beautiful and beloved bodies were discarded like trash. And perhaps the words of Psalm 139 inspired him to march outside those city walls in an act of political and faithful defiance to reclaim those bodies and to do that sacred work of caring for the dead. Maybe Psalm 139 had been so deeply written into his heart that it changed the very way he lived his life.

The story of Tobit is about 2,500 years old. But you know, we have a more modern Tobit story from our lifetime. Some of you may remember that in 2011, there was a tsunami that struck and devastated parts of Japan. During that tragedy, Fumie Arai lost her mother. After a long and desperate search, Fumie finally found her mother’s mud-covered body in an abandoned middle school that had been turned into a make-shift morgue. But for as awful and heartbreaking as it was, there was one piece of comfort: someone had apparently cared for her mother’s body, having tenderly washed her face and set her features to look at peace.

Fumie said, “I dreaded finding my mother’s body, lying alone on the cold ground among strangers…When I saw her peaceful, clean face, I knew someone had taken care of her until I arrived. That saved me.”

Unknown to Fumie, her mother’s caretaker was Atsushi Chiba, a retired undertaker and a father of five who attended to the bodies of more that 1,000 tsunami victims. Why? Because as Buddhist, he too had a strong tradition of caring for the dead. You see, most of the victims of the tsunami had been quickly wrapped in plastic, retaining their twisted shape and faces frozen in fear. Atsushi, the retired undertaker, would take them out of the plastic and speak to each body with compassion. He’d say, “You must be so cold and lonely, but your family is going to come for you soon…” Then he would get on his knees and gently massage the body to relax into a peaceful posture. And then every time a body was claimed by a family member, the workers at that morgue would line up with their heads bowed in prayerful respect.[2]

He may have been a Buddhist, a different religion entirely, but what Atsushi believed and what the Jewish psalmist and Tobit believed were not that far apart – bodies are sacred. Bodies matter. Bodies matter to God.

Which, following in the footsteps of the Jewish faith, has also become a core inherited belief for us as Christians. As the Apostle Paul would put it from our reading from 1 Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit within you?” Which is not to say that your body is something to be preserved and protected and kept clean. This is not to say that your body is like a church sanctuary, which so many of us view as a place where we aren’t supposed to yell or run or bring in snacks or drinks out of fear that we might spill them and somehow ruin the sanctity of this space. It is, however, to say that your body is a temple, meaning a house of God. Meaning that God lives inside you. In your body. You carry the divine with you. Wherever you go. Bodies matter to God. As Christians, we do not simply believe that bodies are the very art sculpted by God’s hand, but that because of what we have seen in the story of Jesus, in the flesh is where God has chosen to live.

Which is what Jesus asks of us as followers – our flesh, our bodies to be used in such a way that they bring about more light and life, peace and justice into the places where we are. Notice that when Jesus called Philip as a disciple, he didn’t say, “Believe in me, Philip, with all your heart.” He didn’t say, “Worship me, Philip, with your spirit.” No, Jesus said, “Follow me.” As in, “Let’s go. Move your legs. We’ve got work to do.” Which Philip figured out pretty quickly, because it wasn’t long before he was on the move to find Nathanael. And when Nathanael was a little skeptical about this Jesus guy, Philip echoed Jesus when he said, “Come and see.” As in, “Let’s go. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”

“Follow me,” Jesus said. “Come and see,” Philip said. That is body talk.

As people of God, we are called to keep an eye out not only for how bodies, both young and old, healthy and ill, are cared for and respected, but also for how we might use our bodies as an act of faith.

I was struck by how close to 2 million people chose to speak with their bodies this week. This past week, after the violent shootings in Paris, France, 2 million people took to the streets of Paris as a sign of peace and unity. It showed that the entire nation and world was grieving with them in light of the violent attack. People of all ages, and nationalities, and religions gathered together to speak with one voice, as they called for peace and unity. 50 world leaders came together in Paris to march in solidarity with the people. One woman proclaimed, “We are united – Muslims, Catholics, Jews, we want to live peacefully together.”[3]

People could have sent cards or flowers or prayers. But instead they sent their bodies. To stand together in grief and solidarity and peace.

When Jesus says, “Follow me”, he isn’t concerned about your soul, but with your body. And how we use it for the sake of this world. Just how God shows up in the flesh of Jesus to bring us hope beyond hope and grace and upon grace, so Jesus calls you and me to be hope in the flesh. To use our hands and our feet and the words from our lips to help and to heal rather than to hurt and harm.

And the truth is, you already do. You already do bring hope to people in the flesh. I’ve seen and heard about it as you care for an entire household of sick kids, or when you helped a person get to their car after they ran out of gas on a cold day. Or when you wrote a check with your hand to help someone pay their heat bill.

You already do these things in so many ways. But what I hope you’ll see is these are the very ways that God is born into the world through your body. If you carry God in your body, then wherever you are, there is the potential for God to be born in that place. For hope to be born in that place. For light and life to flourish there. At work, at home.

When we forget that bodies matter to God, then we tend to treat them as if they don’t matter. When we forget that what we do each and every day with our bodies matters to God, we tend treat the work we do as if it doesn’t matter and makes no difference, We tend to forget that we have a calling and a purpose in this life. And that what we do matters to God.

So hear these words from Scripture again so that they can sink deeply into your bodies and transform the way you see and live: God made you, God knit you together in the warm darkness of your mother’s womb. Your body is a temple; God has chosen to live inside you. And now, Jesus has something to say to you and that sacred body of yours: follow me. You have been called into a life that will seek hope and love and justice in this life.

So where will you show up this week as hope in the flesh? At work, with that stingy co-worker? In the lunchroom, when you sit with the kid nobody sits with. At home, when you take a deep breath and respond to the conflict in the family with compassion instead of anger? Or when you show up to visit someone in grief even though you don’t know what to say or where to look or how to act?

Whatever you do, know this: it matters to God. You matter to God. Amen

[1] Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, The Good Funeral, pg. 90-91.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/11/paris-france-anti-terror-rally-massive-show-unity

Sunday, January 11th, 2015 – Baptism of Our Lord Sunday Sermon on Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
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.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This past summer, Niki Jensen and I took a group of 8 of our youth on a 5-day, Christian camping and canoeing trip down the Flambeau river in Wisconsin. Each day, we were on the river. Each night, a new campsite. All of which was surrounded by wilderness. And we learned one thing very quickly when we entered the wilderness – it is not a predictable place. First of all, rain. Lots and lots of rain. Pretty much from the moment we got there. And with rain, wet wood, which makes it very hard to start a fire. And very hard to stay warm. Each morning, it was a complete gamble on whether the ticks or the poison ivy had snuck beyond the layers and layers of security that we kept between our skin and the wilderness. We even had to hide our food packs each night just in case there was a bear lurking around. We were vulnerable to in that wild wilderness.

One afternoon, most of us spent our free time swimming in the river. But the current was so strong in some parts that it grabbed a hold of one our youth and sent him drifting down stream far enough that it was nearly impossible for him to crawl his way back to us on his own. So we had to send our rescue team of teenagers and life jackets to go get him, and he made it back safely. On this trip, we suffering from bug bites and cuts, sun burn, dehydration, and, yes, even one broken ankle. (As I say this, I realize that you parents will probably never be sending your child on this trip ever again.) Like I said, we learned one thing very quickly – the wilderness is not a predictable place. And it certainly isn’t tame. But rather it is wild and beyond our control.

I mention this because this is exactly where our gospel for today has placed us – in the wilderness. The wild and rugged wilderness. Where it is not predictable. And not tame. But this is the place where John the Baptist has chosen to offer his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And what strikes me is that this location for a baptism, in the wilderness and in a river that could grab a hold of you and send you down stream at any moment, is meant to teach us something about baptism. That is, baptism is not tame. It is not predictable. It is wild and beyond our control.

John the Baptist is standing out in the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance. An opportunity for anyone to come forward and be cleansed of all that was wrong with their lives. To be forgiven for the things that they had done or for the things that they hadn’t done. Which was probably the same kind of stuff for which we need forgiveness: some form of greed, or selfishness, or violence, or indifference. But that’s what John was offering – a chance to start over, to come clean with their life. And John had no idea if anyone would show up. He just started preaching and offering a baptism of forgiveness and waited to see what would happen.

And here is what amazes me – the people came. People from all over the Judean countryside and all over Jerusalem. They all showed up and confessed their sins and were baptized by John. And you know that must have been a….diverse group of people. To put it lightly. There were probably CEOs standing in line next to the homeless. Machinists and carpenters bumping elbows with bankers and lawyers. People who knew God and believed in God walking beside people who hard never even heard of God but knew that they needed a change in their life. And I can only begin to imagine how vulnerable that must have felt for everyone involved. To be standing in line for the whole world to see – that you were you someone whose life needed cleaning up. That you were someone who needed help.

And then to know that you were totally and completely at the mercy of another person’s willingness to forgive you. Who knows, you could wade out into that river water, stand in front of John for a moment, only to have him say no and dismiss you for being beyond hope and beyond repair. How embarrassing – and heartbreaking – that would be. Or, if he is willing to baptize you and to send those sins of yours floating down the river as far away from you as they can get, you still are literally putting your life in his hands, as he dips you back into the water, and trusting that he will bring you back up again. Either way you look at it, the whole situation was extremely vulnerable. The only comfort was that those who saw you there were standing in the exact same line. And you knew you weren’t alone.

And then something happens in the story. Jesus steps into line too. There the people were, as nakedly vulnerable as they possibly could be, and Jesus, the Son of God, could have simply stood on the edge of the riverbanks, encouraging them.

“Good work, Joe, I’m proud of you. It’s about time you confessed that sin.”

“Anne. Welcome. Thanks for being here. I knew you would come. You’ll never be the same again. Have a good time in there.”

But that isn’t what Jesus does. No, Jesus steps into line too. Jesus enters the waters as well. Jesus becomes vulnerable with the vulnerable.

And here is the thing: all of us, all of us, are standing in that line. The only difference between now and then is I don’t know that we are standing in a line waiting to have our sins forgiven. As I look around and listen to people, I don’t see a lot of people struggle with all of their sin and needing them forgiven. But rather, I see all of us standing in line carrying on our shoulders the weight of what Brene Brown calls “The Never-Enough Problem.” Where we see ourselves as never something enough.

Never good enough.
Never perfect enough.
Never thin or attractive enough.
Never powerful or successful enough.
Never smart enough.
Never certain or faithful enough.
Never safe enough.
Never rich enough.
Never skilled enough.
Never funny enough or in-shape enough.
Never conservative enough.
Never liberal enough.
Never unique enough.

Churches suffer from this too.
Never big enough.
Never enough money.
Never cool enough for the youth in town.
Never contemporary enough.

And this is the case for all of us. This “never enough” line that we stand in. We all suffer from the vacant and lifeless feelings of not being enough in some part of our life.

Which is why it is such good news… great news… amazing news that Jesus stepped into that line as well. Alongside humanity. And such good news that as Jesus was dipped down into that living water and then brought up again like everyone else, that is the moment when God’s voice speaks for the very first time. That is the moment when God’s voice, so full of pride and joy, love and grace that it tears at the very fabric of the sky, comes into Jesus’ ear, whispering, “You are my Son, my beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” It is such good news, because those are the words from God that come to us as well. You are my child, my beloved; with whom I am well pleased. Or to put it another way, you are enough for God.

This whole scene out in the wilderness, with this diverse group of unlikely people, with the heavens to tearing and God’s voice speaking, just goes to show that there are no rules, no boundaries that God will not break through when it comes to baptism. No rules over who can step in line and who cannot, and no rules over what God will do with the people when they do. This is the wilderness and the heavens have just been torn open. This is not a tame and predictable place for a baptism.

Which is not what we are used to, when it comes to baptism. We are used to baptism in a predictable place (the church), at a predictable time (Sunday morning), with the predictable person (the pastor), with the predictable necessities (white outfit; warm, but not too warm, water; maybe a little screaming.). While there is nothing wrong with the way we baptize, it can easily lull us into thinking that baptism is a simple, and sweet, and controllable event. Which is just not the case.

The first time I ever baptized someone, I was an intern chaplain at a hospital in the cities. I was on call one afternoon and my pager buzzed telling me to call the maternity ward. Now, when you are a chaplain in a hospital, you never want to be paged to the maternity ward because your mind goes to the worst-case scenario. But I call and enter into the room that had paged, and there I find this lovely young couple with this beautiful newborn in their arms. They wanted to know if I would baptize the baby. I said I would. So I left for a couple minutes to go and gather some things that I needed for the service, and when I came back to the room, it was just wall-to-wall with people. Family, friends, kids. It was insane. And I was caught off-guard. But I said, “Well, I hear we are going to have a baptism today.” And the new parents looked at me and said, “Yeah. Three!”

“Three!?!?” I stammered?

“Yeah,” they said, “Our other two kids are here, so we figured you could just do them too while your at it. Actually, the middle one’s already been baptized, but what the heck, just do him again too.” So, we did it. I had to leave to get some more things, since I was planning on just one baptism, but we did it. Two baptisms and one remembrance of baptism. It was completely insane and unpredictable, and while at first that seemed disappointing, because it wasn’t this calm, powerful spiritual moment that I expected it to be. But today, the way it went seems quite fitting for how baptisms should be. Wild and unpredictable. Out of control.

For that is the truth about God’s love… it is wild. And unpredictable. And untamable. And beyond our control. It goes where it chooses and it chooses to proclaim each one of us as beloved… each of us as enough for God.

This is what today is about. God’s wild and untamable love for you. You being enough for God. You’re enough. That is what baptism is about. Whether you have been baptized or not. The message that God has to say in baptism is this Word – you have always been my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased. Or in other words, what God is saying is, “You are enough for me.” Your value and your worth does not rest in the things that you have done with your life. And your value and your worth does not rest with what you haven’t done with your life. The great promise of baptism is that since the moment you were knit together in your mother’s womb, you have been enough for God.

And now, having heard that promise for yourself, I invite you to picture in your mind your co-workers. They are enough for God too. I invite you to picture the students in your math class or at your lunch table. Or other parents waiting for rehearsal or practice to get out. They too are enough for God. They too are children of God. I invite you to picture that person in your mind that you just despise and never want to speak to again. They are enough for God. They too are children of God.

And there is nothing tame about that message, because the truth of the matter is, I don’t know the core of you. I don’t know the whole of your life. I don’t the dark spots that you keep secret about your life. But it’s true. You are enough. As you are. With whatever you carry in here today.

Baptism. It is an untamable and unpredictable promise from God that carries such passion and weight with it that it will tear open the heavens in order to get to you. And in order to help you remember this about yourself and then to share it with others, each of you today is going to receive a candle after worship. And I invite you to burn it every day this week sometime during the day. It is your “You are enough” baptismal candle. And then, burn this candle on your baptismal birthday, whenever that is. As a reminder at least once a year that that is what baptism is all about. It is about God declaring to you and to all people, “You’re my beloved. And you are enough.” Amen.

Sunday, January 4th, 2015 – Sermon on John 1:1-18

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

[1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.] 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ “) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

I can remember back in high school in anthropology class learning about the theory of evolution. And there was always that classic picture of what looked like a hunched over ape that then with each new step progressively became an upright human being. And there were those Latin names for each stage of the evolution of humanity – homo erectus, Neanderthal, and then finally, for us, the modern human being – homo sapien. Homo sapien is the Latin phrase for “thinking being” or “one who can think.” For so long now, humanity has been described as the “thinking beings”. Which is quite arrogant when you think about tit in relation to the rest of creation. As if my compassionate cat at home cannot think. But that is just how it goes. For so long, we’ve been known as the ones who can think.

But more recently, it has been suggested that perhaps we should start going by a different term – homo narrans – meaning “story-tellers.” Some are making the argument that we, as human beings, are not best described as beings that can think, but rather as beings that tell stories. That our stories are the foundation of our culture and our stories are at the very heart of who we are.

Think about it: when someone dies, we don’t sit around simply thinking about them. No, we tell stories about them. Because when we do, in some way, they still feel close to us. And not far off. Or when a child is born, you don’t simply think about the fact that a child was born. No, you tell the story, about where you were when your water broke and how awful the hospital food was. For many years now, preachers have tried to incorporate more and more stories into their sermons, because without a doubt, people remember the stories more than anything else that is said. We are story-tellers. And the way we tell a story is crucial.

It is crucial, because the way we tell a story has a way of highlighting what is most important to us. If you listen to two lovebirds tell the story about how their relationship blossomed, you’ll often hear them disagree about how it all began. Because the defining moment in the relationship was different for each of them. What was important was different for each of them. Yesterday, Greg Gehring and Tiffany Johnson got married. And for Greg, after six months of dating, he knew that Tiffany was the one for him. As if commitment early on was important. But for Tiffany, that moment took a couple more years. As if being really certain before making any permanent decision was the most important thing. Depending on who you talk to, they would tell the story just a little differently.

Well, something similar happens among all four of our gospels. All of our gospel writers are story-tellers. They all tell the story of Jesus, but they disagree about how to tell the story. Where the story should start; about what’s most important. For the gospel of Mark, the story begins when Jesus is in his 30s and being baptized by John the Baptist. The gospel of Luke says, “No, no, no. You’ve got to start with Jesus and John’s birth story. That’s where it all begins.” But then the gospel of Matthew says, “No, no, no. You have to go all the way back to Abraham. That’s where Jesus’ ancestry started. That’s where it all begins.” But then in comes the gospel of John. And where does this gospel begin? In the beginning…

When people read the way John started the story, what do you think it made them think of? Where does the gospel of John think the story starts? At creation. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. Only John says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It is this heavenly poetry about the beginning of the Jesus’ story that seems to soar on the heavenly clouds.

Which makes this the gospel of John’s Christmas story, right? If Christmas is the beginning of the story of Jesus, then this is where the story begins for John. All the way at the beginning with the Word. And the Word is Jesus. So what John is saying is that Jesus’ story doesn’t begin at his baptism. It doesn’t begin at his birth. It doesn’t begin with his ancestors. No, Jesus’ story begins all the way back at the beginning of all things. At the beginning of creation.

But then John makes a startling claim. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Notice that in this Christmas story, it isn’t Mother Mary who is giving birth, but rather it is Jesus who is giving birth! John says of Jesus, “All things came into being through him.” All things came into being through him. John says the Word, Jesus, has given birth to all things. To the world! And just how a child carries the genetic make up of his or her parents, John is saying that all of creation carries the DNA of Jesus.[1] That all of creation is infused with Jesus.

And I love that Jesus is described here as the Word. The Word of God. You are only as good as your word, people will say. And God says, “I give you my Word. I’m as good as my Word.” And whenever someone says to you, “I give you my Word,” you are then invited to trust that Word. But before we can trust, we first have to listen.[2] And what is God saying in the Word of Jesus?

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us. Or I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of this text: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. God is saying, “I’ve come down from heaven to be with you.” Notice it doesn’t say that God slipped into flesh, like some Halloween costume that God would eventually abandon after the night was over. It doesn’t say that God came hiding in the flesh, like God was just trying to fit in for awhile. No, it says that the Word of God became flesh. Which means God has permanently come to be with us, by actually becoming part of us. In the fleshy-ness of life. Into the everyday stuff. We learn that it is God who comes down here, not us who go up there.

So when God gives us God’s Word – Jesus – what God is saying is, “I have come down to be with you.” But that is not all. You see, God isn’t simply here to loiter or to just hang around. No, through this Word, God is telling us one more thing: as verse 16 says, From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Not only has God come down to be with us, in the flesh, but God has come to bring us something, a present if you will for Christmas. And the gift? Grace upon grace upon grace.

So what does this mean? As one theologian puts it, it means that “all of human life and history is infused with holiness.” Which isn’t to say that everything in life is awesome. “Anyone who has seen the torture chambers of the Nazi regime, any surgeon who has removed a malignant tumor, any reformer who has tried to clean up government, (any parent who has been given a diagnosis for their child) knows that everything is not (awesome). (To trust in this Word of God) does not mean that people do not waste their lives, get hurt or hurt other people. It does not mean that there is no hardship…no evil, no tragedy. (But) what it does mean is that there is no corner of (this life) so hidden that (God’s) grace cannot find it…There is no moment so dark that it can extinguish the light of God which even now shines in it.”[3] It means that there is no God-forsaken place. None. For God is everywhere, seeking to bring grace upon grace upon grace. It means that God is at work in every place at every single moment, no matter how dark it is, bringing light to this world. That is the story that John is trying to tell.

We are storytellers and we have a story to tell. The word of God, Jesus, gave birth to you, which means you are his descendants. You have his DNA coursing through your veins. So do the world a favor and be the storyteller that you are, and tell his story. The one about how he is God’s Word, God’s promise to us to never leave us alone. And I promise, when you tell that story to another person, it will feel like Jesus is right there in the room with you. In the flesh. He will feel close. And not far off. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Alan Storey for this insight.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, pg. 56.

Christmas Eve/Day Sermon – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew 1:18-25

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Recently, I looked back at the past three Christmas sermons that I’ve preached and I realized that every single one of them was on the Gospel of Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know the one with the decree from Emperor Augustus that everyone needs to return home so they can be counted for the census. The one with there not being any room at the inn and Mary giving birth in a cattle stall. The one with the angels and shepherds. You know the story. You’ve heard it. But what I didn’t entirely realize until this year is that Luke’s version of the story is the selected gospel for every single Christmas. Now, some of you may know that the gospel of Mark and John don’t really have Christmas stories. They don’t tell of Jesus’ birth. But the Gospel of Matthew does. You know with angel whispering to Joseph. And the three magi who traveled afar.

Which got me thinking. Why isn’t the gospel of Matthew ever chosen for Christmas Eve? It is easily one of the most well attended church services of the year. Are they trying to hide something from us? Why don’t they want the vast population to hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story?

At first, I thought it was because Matthew uses the phrase “marital relations.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Perhaps the lectionary committee thought that was a little too PG-13 for such a family oriented holiday. But then, I thought, “Nah, that can’t be it.”

But then, I wondered if it is because the gospel of Matthew’s Christmas story is all about Joseph. And who wants to come and hear a story about the guy who literally had no part to play in Jesus’ birth? I mean, Mary only shows up by name and Jesus doesn’t make an appearance until the last verse. And those are the only ones most of us care about, right? It’s not like anyone fights over who gets to be Joseph in the Christmas pageant. Why? Because none of us know what to do with him. I mean, who is he in the story? Father or Stepdad? Husband or chaste roommate?[1] Who is he? He pretty much disappears from the scene after Jesus’ birth anyways – so what are we to do with this guy?

But then I thought, “Nah, that can’t be it.”

And then it hits me. Maybe we don’t read the gospel of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve because it is all a dream.

Did you notice that? The heart of the whole story happens in a dream. So Mary and Joseph are engaged, which back then was a little closer to marriage than it is for us. But Mary is found to be pregnant. And the child isn’t Joseph’s. Which is such heart breaking news on so many levels. Not the least of which said that Mary could be stoned for such a thing. But Joseph actually does this incredibly gracious thing – he decides to dismiss her quietly. He did not want to expose her to public humiliation and dis-grace, so he decidedly to let her go quietly. Despite our modern ears where it sounds like just another single mother to fend for herself, Joseph’s actions here are quite a gracious and kind thing.

But then, after he decided this, the text says, “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream!” The angels goes on to tell Joseph not to be afraid and how really it is God’s child that Mary is carrying and how they need to name him Jesus because he will save the whole world and that this was the fulfillment of prophecy about a child who is coming who will be “God with us.

But then it says Joseph woke up! You see, it was all just a dream. Maybe that’s why we don’t read this gospel on Christmas – the lectionary committee doesn’t want anyone knowing it is just because we all know dreams aren’t real.

Hey speaking of dreams. A friend of mine, Pastor John Weisenburger, had this crazy dream. He was walking around his house and he could hear this baby crying. So he goes looking around and he finds this baby lying there. So he picks it up. But then almost like it was a heavy bowling ball, he drops it. So he picks it up again. And he’s carrying it around, but then he drops it again. So, he picks it up again. But then he drops it again and this time when goes to pick it up, the baby and the floor are all covered in this sticky, slimy goo. And it is just everywhere.

And then John wakes up from the dream. And he hears his phone buzz with a text message. When he reads the text message, he learns that one of his congregation members just gave birth to a baby.

But it was just a dream….right?

Maybe Joseph’s encounter with the angel was just a dream. But maybe that’s okay. Because maybe our dreams are actually one of the ways that God communicates to us. Maybe our dreams are sometimes the way God wakes us up to say, “Hey! Something important is happening here!”

And then Joseph wakes up. As at it turns out, the whole story now rests on whether Joseph will believe the dream or not. “If Joseph believes the angel, everything is on. The story can continue. Mary will have a home and a family and her child will be born the son of David. But if Joseph does not believe, then everything grinds to a halt. If he wakes up from his dream, shakes his head, and goes on to the courthouse to file the divorce papers, then Mary is an outcast forever – either killed by her family for disgracing them and herself or disowned by them and left to scratch out her living however she can, feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she can beg or steal.[2]

According to Matthew, Joseph isn’t just the stage tech, setting the scene for someone else to star in. No, Joseph is the one to keep your eye on, because Joseph and whether he believes this dream or not is just as crucial to the story as Mary’s womb.

In the end, “The heart of (Joseph’s side of the) story is about a just man who wakes up one day to find his life wrecked: his wife pregnant, his trust betrayed, his name ruined, his future revoked. It is a about a righteous man who surveys a mess he has had absolutely nothing to do with and decides to believe that God is present in it.”[3]

And then the question we are left with is – do we believe the dream? You see,“(Joseph) in the story is the one in the story who is most like us, presented day by day by day with circumstances beyond our control, with lives we would never have chosen for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all when an angel whispers in our ears: ‘Do not fear. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it.”[4]

Maybe that is enough hope for a night like tonight. Just simply the idea that God would be born. That the God we put our trust in, has entered into this world – the same way we all do – by being born. Pushed into existence through the labor of love given by another human being. That of all places God could be, God would chose nowhere else to be but here with us – in this terribly beautiful, and yet terribly broken world.

Sometimes, it, Christmas, can all seem like a dream. Like just a nostalgic moment in time that is fleeting. But maybe that’s okay. Because maybe our dreams are actually one of the ways that God communicates to us.

In a dream, the angel said to Joseph:

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’

Amen

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, “Believing the Impossible.”)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Sunday, December 21st, 2014 – Sermon on Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This past week, I have been working with a friend who is trying to get his life back on track. And part of what is coming to the surface for him is all of these messages that he either has been told or has told himself in his life. Messages that he is worthless and no-good and basically just a total mess up. And for so long, he’s just been bearing that weight on his shoulders, and you can see that it is crushing him.

And so I kept trying to find a way to communicate to him God’s love for him. That God cares about him. That he matters and has worth in this world. And the truth is, when I think back on it, I probably too much explaining and not enough telling. I probably got all heady and explained to him who God is, and what God is like, and how God works, and you know, therefore, God cares about you. But the whole time you could feel that everything I said just kept hitting this brick wall in him and falling to the floor. He was not receiving the message. All I wanted to do was find a way to get to the core of him and bless him in the name of God, but it just wasn’t working.

And so then that got me thinking about all of you. I couldn’t help but wonder what it is that you need, what works for you, for you to hear or to feel like God’s blessing really is upon you. What has the ability to cut to the core of who you are and bless you? To know that God cares about you, and that you matter to this world. And that you are important and have something to contribute.

I mention this because I keep thinking about that interaction between the angel Gabriel and Mary and how Gabriel is way better at pastoral care and speaking into Mary’s heart than I was with my friend. Which makes sense, with Gabriel being an angel and all. But still – it’s not good for this pastor’s ego.

Did you notice what Gabriel’s first words were to Mary? Gabriel shows up and says,”Greetings, favored one.” Which is shorthand for – “Hey, how’s it going? Oh, and by the way, you’re awesome.” And then Gabriel adds, “The Lord is with you.” So, not only are you awesome, but God thinks you’re awesome too and has come to hang out. Now, I’m not saying that we all can have such angelic pastoral care skills, but wouldn’t our world be a much better place if we all just greeted each other like that? “Hey, favored one. God is with you.” It is like a little blessing before the conversation even begins.

That’s the first thing that Gabriel does with Mary – he blesses her with those words.
She doesn’t earn it or deserve it. We don’t even know who Mary is at this point – it the first time we meet her. She’s probably a poor peasant girl. She likely has very little going for her. And yet the first thing Gabriel does is bless her.

Which isn’t typically how we understand blessing. We don’t usually think of blessing coming first. If you listen to televangelists you’ll usually hear that first comes your acceptance of Jesus as your Lord and Savior and then comes your blessing. First you give your life over to God and then God will bless you. Or more often than not, we’ll say we’ve been blessed only when good things are happening, right? We’ll say we’ve been blessed with a new car, or a big home, or a high-paying job, or healthy grandkids. But what are we really saying? That the guy in line to register for medical assistance and food stamps isn’t blessed and loved by God?

And that’s where we get blessing wrong. That’s not how it works in the gospel of Luke. No, in our story for today, God just blesses Mary. And then actually gives her some really scary news. Psssst, hey, uh…I know you and Joe aren’t married yet, and I know it’s kind of against the law for you to get pregnant before your married, but….ummm….you’re gonna be pregnant. And it’s going to be God’s baby. I know, I know, no one’s gonna believe a story like that…but…well, sorry.

I mean, that is not good news. In fact, that’s new that is more likely to get mother Mary stoned than it is for her to be viewed as blessed by God.

But that is what God does – God has this habit of blessing those who have a pretty high chance of never feeling like they are blessed: poor peasant girls, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the sick, lowly fisherpeople, thieves beside him on a cross. It’s just kind of what God does.

It’s almost like God blesses people not because they’ve done such righteous stuff in their life, but rather God blesses people so that they can handle the hard stuff in their life. So that people know that no matter what they do or what is done to them, they belong to God and God alone.

And then, after Gabriel blesses Mary, I can’t get over Mary’s response. After some totally appropriate skepticism and confusion on Mary’s part, in the end, her response is, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

I was thinking about those words and how passive they are. Let it be. Mary is saying, “Sure, yes, bring it on. Let it be.” And those words, “Let it be” took me all the way back to my Hebrew class in seminary when we were talking about creation. And most of us know the part of the creation story where it says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” But a more accurate translation is, “And God said, ‘Let light be.’ And the light was.” Let the light be. Let the light be. Just let it be. And it was. Which in fact is the same verb that Mary uses – “Let it be with me.” And so I can’t help but think that something creational or re-creational is happening here. It is almost as if the simple act of the angel speaking words of blessing and favor onto Mary is what creates her into a blessed and favored being. The words do what they say. By calling her blessed, she becomes blessed.

And so can you believe that word about yourself? That you are blessed and favored by God simply because God says so? God chooses you as God’s blessed and favored one. When God looks at you, God doesn’t say “no” or “hmmmm…maybe, if he tries a little harder.” When God looks at you, God gives a resounding, “Yes.”And just in case hearing that promise isn’t enough, we get to see and feel and taste that very promise here at this Communion table. Communion is the visible version of God’s yes to you. It’s like a school yard game of kickball and God and the devil are the captains and God’s just like, “Yeah, I’ll just take all of them.” And the devil is left with absolutely no one to choose from. And we get to witness that here at this table. That God chooses each and every one of you as blessed and favored.

And you see that was my mistake with the friend I mentioned earlier. I spent way too much time explaining and not enough time simply telling. Instead of trying to explain to him how God loved him, I wish I would have just told him – God loves you, man. I wish I would have just been crystal clear about it like Gabriel – “Greetings favored one! God is with you.” And by simple saying, it would have become true.

So what greater opportunity than right now to proclaim a blessing to each other with a word from God? And not only that, but to also practicing being like Mary and saying yes to the blessing. I invite you all to partner up with someone. I would like you to place your hand on their shoulder or their arm and say to them, “May you feel God’s blessing and favor upon you this day.” And in response, I invite you to say, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

And now, you know what? After that, I don’t know about you, but I think all of us here are not only filled up with God’s blessing right now, but I think, just like Mary, we all are just a little more prepared to give birth to God out there in the world. Let it be so with all of us here. Amen.