Sunday, February 26th – Sermon on Matthew 17(1-9)

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with your celestial fire. For if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. We pray this in the name of your beloved. Amen.[1]

Well, it was family movie night again. Disney’s Tangled this week. That’s the one about Rapunzel and her long hair. Rapunzel who was taken from her royal parents, the King and Queen, when she was a young child and held in a high tower away from the world by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel, who only want Rapunzel for her hair and its ability to keep Mother Gothel young and beautiful forever.

Rapunzel’s parents are obviously distraught and grief-stricken. Every year on Rapunzel’s birth day, the whole town releases lanterns into the evening sky  – this beautiful but also brutal memory of the long lost princess. This symbol of memorial but also a sliver of hope. Rapunzel grows up in this tower, watching those lanterns in the sky every year on her birthday, never knowing who she really is – the long lost princess. Never knowing that those lanterns of light were for her. The film is of course filled with the tension of will she or won’t she be released from the prison tower and reunited with her parents.

My son, Elliot, is the kind of kid who he feels that tension, that uncertainty with his whole body. In fact, about three quarters of the way through the movie, with a hesitant fear and trembling in his voice and tears right on the edge of dropping to his cheeks, he asks the question we all ask – what’s gonna happen? When is she going to be with her parents again? Mom, Dad, can we just fast-forward to the part of where she sees her parents again?

And what do you do? We wrap him up in our arms and we say, “Honey, it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

But this weekend, as we comforted our child, I had a moment where I wondered – am I telling the truth? It’s gonna be okay. Is that true? I mean, sure, for the movie, of course it’s true. But on a bigger level – am I lying to my child?

Later, I remembered that this is the exact question that Peter Berger, a professor of sociology and religion, asks. Berger describes a child crying out in terror in the middle of the night, having had a nightmare. What does the mother do? She gets up, she rushes down to the child’s room, she sits on the bed and she holds that child as close as she can, and she says, “Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright.”

And Berger asks, “Is she lying to the child? Does she not know what kind of world we live in? Does she not know that both of them will die? How dare she say everything is alright!”

No, says Berger, she’s not lying. She’s confessing her faith. That despite it all, she and her child are floating on a sea of grace.[2]

I’ve start to wonder if this odd story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which comes about three fourths into the story, is the gospel writer’s way of putting his arm around the reader and saying, “Honey, do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.”

Why do I think that?

Because everything is not okay.

Not yet anyways.

Liturgically, we’ve leapt off the mountain top of the sermon on the mount from the past few weeks and landed down about 12 chapters later here on another mountain top. The mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration. This incredible story of light bursting forth from Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah who have been dead for quite some time, and Peter, James, and John who are just stunned by the whole thing. And then this moment of God surrounding them all in a bright cloud, and speaking once again the promise we heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It is this unbelievable story that defies explanation but begs for meaning and understanding. Taken in isolation and on its own, all it seems like is a pretty cool magic trick that leaves our hearts and our hands empty. But taken in context, it just might be our very salvation. And what’s the context? Everything is not okay.

Since Jesus’ sermon on the mount, things have only gone downhill. As one scholar has put it, “Jesus has been labeled a blasphemer, accused of demon possession, doubted by his friend and colleague in kingdom work John the Baptist, rejected by his hometown to the point that he stopped doing ministry there, resisted by the very people he came to serve and save, and is the subject of murder plots that will, of course, finally be successful.”[3] Things just aren’t going as we imagined. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has just told his disciples that he would soon suffer and be crucified and raised from the dead and that they too are called to take up their cross and follow him. This was so off the plowed path that the disciples saw for their life that Peter stood up to Jesus and proclaimed, “God forbid this from ever happening to you.”

You can almost hear the reader wonder: what’s gonna happen? When’s Jesus gonna be raised from the dead? Mom, Dad, can we just skip ahead to that part?

 Everything is not okay.

Because of this stark contrast between what has been happening down the mountain and what happens up the mountain, some scholars are led to believe that this transfiguration story is misplaced. Sort of like an ancient spoiler alert to the end of the story, this passage, some say, was originally a resurrection story that belongs somewhere after Easter, and that it had somehow been mistakenly placed too early in the gospel.

But preacher and theologian Tom Long suggests while that may be true, that it doesn’t matter. Sure, the placement of this story could be historically inaccurate, but theologically, the placement of this story is spot on. That right in the midst of this dark and dreary world, when things don’t seem to be going as planned, Jesus shines with the glory of God and we are reminded of who Jesus really is.

In this beautiful and spooky collision of light but also clouds we are reminded of those claiming and identity defining words spoken over Jesus in his baptism – This is my Son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased.

Just as the darkness of death looms and the doubts of whether Jesus really is the one we’ve been waiting for darken the minds of the disciples (us included), we get to peak through the keyhole of the locked door to the future, to see who Jesus really is. Is Jesus a failed Messiah? Did we back the wrong horse? No, this really is my Son, the voice from the cloud says. Listen to him.

At the moment when Jesus and his life is the most disfigured from what we imagined it would be, Jesus is transfigured before our eyes so that we might not forget who he has been since the beginning. In the midst of what looks like suffering and death, this is a gripping promise of hope. Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Jesus whispers to his disciples.

But there’s more. If in Jesus’ transfiguration we see who he really is, perhaps we see ourselves and others for real too. This story suddenly becomes just as much about the reader as it is about Jesus. You see, Matthew’s community was in the middle of living through its own crisis. They were likely a group of Jewish Christians who have just been kicked out of their home synagogue, their home church, for believing in this suffering Messiah named Jesus. People whose lives have just been turned up side-down and who are figuring out how to live into this new reality. People who need to see themselves not based on their present circumstance, but to be seen as they were from the very beginning and as they will be in God’s future – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Matthew whispers to his readers.

When your life is falling apart, do you ever need a reminder of who you really are? Who you are beneath everything else. Do you ever wish those around, those whose lives are living breathing collateral damage of whatever mess is happening in your life, do you ever wish they could see you that way too? Who you really are, who you’ve always been since the beginning? And who you hope to be in the future?

A couple of years ago, I heard a story about two kids, Charlie and David, who were not getting along at school. In fact, Charlie and David used to be friends, but now Charlie was bullying David at school. Typically, what happens in this situation is that Charlie is punished for such unacceptable behavior and acting out. But this particular school was trying a new approach to these situations. It’s called Restorative Conferencing. Both parties are brought together along with their parents in for a conference about what has happened. Each person shares the problem as they see it and the effect it has had on them. Together they decide on a consequence for the youth.

But before that happens there is this crucial step that I just marvel at. The mediator asks the group to acknowledge that the problem and the problem story is not the whole story. In this particular situation, the mediator asked this question, “Is this who Charlie has always been? Has this always been his story – being a bully?” And as soon as that question was asked, something soften in David’s mother, who’d known Charlie for a long time. With a heartfelt sigh, she said, “No, that’s not who Charlie has always been. From the very beginning, I’ve known Charlie to be a loving, kind friend to my son, David. Not a bully.” And suddenly, in that moment, Charlie was transfigured in her eyes. Seen for who he has always been since the beginning and not for who he was in that moment. From there, the mediator asked the groups, including Charlie, which story they would like to live out of going forward.

Maybe that’s what it looks like to live out the Transfiguration. Perhaps as Christians, we are called to live this life with Transfiguration lenses. Ones that let you see yourself and others as they were in the beginning and as they really are today, and as they will be in the end – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

I don’t know if you are on a mountain top moment of life right now or if you are in the valley of despair or on some incline or decline in-between. But I think this transfiguration story is for us all and we are to carry it with us. In the eyes of God, there is more to you and everyone else, more to your life and the lives of every person than the present circumstances. Whether you can see it or not, you are a child of God, beloved and held in the arms of God, surrounded by a cloud of grace. Full of light.

Do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.

Is this a lie? No. I don’t believe it is. Amen.

__________

[1] This is a prayer that Barbara Brown Taylor regularly prays before preaching.

[2] As told by Tom Long, here: http://www.luthersem.edu/celebration/archives.aspx?m=6158

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 26.

Sunday, February 12, 2017 -Sermon on Deuteronomy 30 and Matthew 5

You can listen to this sermon here.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 5:21-37
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Well, happy Valentine’s day week. Nothing screams love and affection quite like a gospel reading about lust, adultery, and divorce. But maybe that’s okay – Valentine’s Day isn’t everyone’s favorite holiday.

But we have our work cut out for us this morning. And we will see what we can do with that. But for now, let’s set that reading aside.

Instead, I want to engage your imaginations. I want you to imagine with me for a moment that you are a police officer and you are on the night shift. And you know, it’s Northfield, MN -things are pretty slow. But you like to hang out in the Culver’s parking lot, right there on Highway 3. You have a good view of the intersection, access to the highway in either direction. Plus, the custard flavor of the day is Chocolate Oreo Volcano. It’s a win-win.

Now, it is the middle of the night. A couple of cars come by here and there. But then you see this car coming down Woodley St. It’s a green Ford Focus and you just have this sense that something is about to happen. And as the car approaches the red light, it slows down a little bit, but then without stopping, turns right and accelerates quickly on to the highway.

“Aha!,” you think, “That car just ran a red light. They broke the law.” Plus, you figure it is a bored teenager with a new license and this is a good opportunity to teach them the rules of the road. So, you put down your Chocolate Oreo Volcano, and you quickly follow the car. Eventually, you catch up to the car right around Kwik Trip. Turn on your lights, pull the car over, and you take your time registering the license plate number. Let them sweat it out a little bit. And then as you approach the car, you can see that there are two people in the car. The driver rolls down his window, and you can tell from the size of his eyes that he’s terrified and nervous. And then you glance over at the passenger and you notice that not only is she sweating but she’s also breathing deeply, over and over again. And then as you notice the woman’s round, firm belly, you hear the driver say, “Officer, I’m sorry I rolled through the intersection back there. I looked both ways, I promise. My wife is in labor and I’m just trying to get her to the hospital.”

And now, you have a choice to make: do you either give this driver a ticket for running a red light – which is the law! – or do you let this couple go, and in fact, usher them to the hospital?

So, show of hands, who here would still give the couple a ticket for running a red light?

Who would let the couple go on to the hospital, and in fact, maybe even lead the way?

Exactly. Because while the driver did break the law, the real crime in that situation would be ticketing them and delaying these people in need. Because, what’s at the heart of the law of red light? Why do we stop? To keep us from hurting each other. That’s the heart of it. But then once you saw that the woman was in labor, in order to keep with the heart of the law, in order to not hurt the child or the mother by delaying them, the real law, the law of compassion leads you to get them to the hospital.

So, we can see that we have laws that govern our land and our life, but we have to work the law in the context of a situation in order to uphold the heart of the law. If you just apply law without any nuance to it, you could end up keeping the law but missing the heart of the law.

Our readings this morning take up the law of God and how we are called to use it. To work it. How we are called to understand it. And I think for most of us, most of us think of the law of God as this firm, steadfast thing that never changes. As if it is written in stone. I mean that’s how the 10 commandments came, right? Chiseled in stone.

But we are going to see that even God’s law needs to be worked in order to uphold the heart of God’s law. To begin, we start with Deuteronomy and Moses’ farewell speech.

In our reading, Moses is coming to the end of a very long speech. In fact, it is his last speech – the Israelites have arrived at the border of the promised land. He knows that he doesn’t get to go in with his people. He’s tired, he’s old. This is it for him.

He’s been speaking for about 25 chapters, beginning with the 10 commandments, and then he’s given commentary on what it means to live those commandments out. And now he’s coming to the end of his speech, with a strong climactic point. It is almost as if Moses is saying, “If you remember nothing about what I’ve told you, remember this. Before you head into a new land, remember this about God’s law: I have set before you life and death. Choose life – so that you and your descendants might live.

Choose life. I think from just those two words, we learn two things about God and about humanity. The first thing we learn is from that word “choose.” And what we learn is that God gives us freedom of choice. God gives us power, God shares power with us. Which is a sign of God’s love, right? Any relationship in which only one person holds all the power is an abusive relationship – and that is not the kind of relationship God has with God’s people. So God shares power. God gives us choice. Out of love for us.

The second thing we learn from the words “choose life” is that God has an opinion about our choices. God has a preference. God wants us to choose life. And clearly, life in God’s eyes is more than having a pulse. God is talking about the way we live our life. And does it bring life? Does it lead to “abundant life, extravagant life, my cup-runneth over life”[1]? And not in the sense of do you have a life of comfort, and security and power and prestige. But do we live life in a way that lets life flourishes in the world for myself or for my neighbor, or do we live life in a way that brings death and destruction for myself or for my neighbor. Let me put it this way – every time I choose fear, or dishonesty, or revenge, or resentment. Or every time I think too highly of myself or too lowly of myself, I’m not choosing a way of life that brings life, I’m choosing a way of life that brings death.

Now, is it easy to always discern what is the way of life and what is the way of death? No, it isn’t. We face incredibly difficult situations in this life, and it can be very difficult to figure out which option God longs for us to choose. But as our guide we have those words from Moses – choose life.

And this is the heart of God’s law – choosing life. The flourishing of life for God’s people. The law isn’t this burdensome command from an angry tyrannical god who just thirsts for obedience. The law is a gift from God to serve the flourishing of life in the world. But in order to keep God’s law, we have to work it, to keep asking – does this law still protect the flourishing of life or does it not?

That’s what Jesus and the rabbis would do. They would loosen and bind the law of God in order to keep the heart of it. They would loosen it, meaning making it less strict or easier. We see Jesus do that with the Sabbath Day. Remember Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in order to heal someone – he loosens the law for the sake of life. If you are that police officer, you loosen the law in order to let life flourish.

But now, in our Matthew reading, we are going to see Jesus bind the law, make it tighter, more difficult in order to keep the heart of the law.

So let’s take that idea that at the heart of God’s law is life, let’s apply that to the painful words we heard Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. We will see that Jesus is working the law in order that the law might serve life.

So, Jesus says, “You have heard that it said, “You shall not murder’, But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” It sounds harsh and strict but perhaps Matthew’s community was struggling with anger issues but they saw no problem with it because it’s not like their murdering anyone? Perhaps people were taking advantage of God’s law by saying, “Well, I won’t murder you but I will berate you and demean you and shame you and embarrass you publicly. But hey, I’m not killing you, so I’m still within God’s law.” It’s only facebook. It’s only twitter. Which is where bullying happens these days. Is the heart of this law that you’re allowed to bring someone right up to the brink of death, but as long as you stop there, you’re okay? Is that choosing life? No, of course not. That’s choosing death. At the heart of God’s law is the flourishing of life, and so at the heart of this law is the respect, reverence, and regard for another human being as a child of God. Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.

Or Jesus says, “You have heard ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you whomever looks at a woman with lust commits adultery.” Is this to say that none of us should ever be attracted to another person who isn’t our spouse as long as we live? No, of course not. We’d have to tear out our eyes, and removes our brains. But in this context, perhaps the men of Matthew’s community thought that as long as they didn’t commit adultery, they could still whistle at the women walking by. Still comment on their body and their beauty. Still objectify them. But hey, as long as they haven’t committed adultery, they were still within God’s law. No! That’s not choosing life for your neighbor, that’s choosing death. That’s taking God’s law too literally to advantage you and to hurt another. It misses the heart of the law. It is about not only about honoring and respecting a person’s marriage, it’s about honor and respecting that person. So, Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.

And then one of the hardest one of all – divorce. Is Jesus saying that God want us to stay in broken, and miserable, and painful marriages? No, I just can’t believe that. I mean, I’m not saying that God likes divorce – no one likes divorce. But this world and this life are just too complicated to draw that line in the sand to say that God would never want you to get divorced. Sometimes, I think in order to choose life for us and for others, we have to choose the end of a relationship. So, what is Jesus saying? Well, remember that back then, women were viewed as property of the men. And perhaps some of the men were just divorcing their wives at the drop of a hat. But hey, they gave them a certificate of divorce like the laws says, so….I’m still good, right? Is that the heart of this divorce law? To keep the man’s hands clean? No, of course not. Divorce meant terrible, terrible things for the wife and the children, leaving them totally vulnerable with no way to support themselves, not to mention the public shaming and pushing to the edge of society to be forgotten. The heart of this law is to value and protect the woman.

So in that context Jesus made it more difficult for divorce to happen, for the sake of life for all. We live in a different context today. And today, sometimes the best way for life for all to flourish is for there to be a divorce. Please know, I do not think Jesus is condemning modern-day divorce. He is simply asking that our decisions as disciples of Jesus be oriented around what brings about the flourishing of life to our relationships, to our community. To our world.

In closing, what are we to do with all of this? Friends, we have just a few more weeks to this season of Epiphany. And this season isn’t about remembering how Jesus began his ministry back then, it is about acknowledging how Jesus’ continues his ministry now.[2] Through you. The salt of the earth. What I take away from these readings, is that you and I, we as a y’all (if you heard the sermon last week), are invited to consider our relationships and how we are engaging in those relationships, and the rules and laws in our own life that govern those relationships. The laws of our government, the laws of our church community, and even the rules that we set up in our own life. And we are invited to put God’s law to work in those situations: are we choosing life, the flourishing of life for me and for my neighbor? It is about being a faithful disciple for the sake of life for your neighbor. Or to put it another way – what’s the most important thing that is happening in your life right now? Not what is the best thing or the worst thing, but what’s happening in your life that feels like it is the most important? And in that situation, what choices do you have? And among those choices, which ones do you think bring life and help and healing and service to the world? In the name of God, make that choice. Choose life. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Sermon Brainwave.

Sunday, January 29th, 2017 – Fear and Love, A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 5:1-12
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

It was quite the experience to wake up yesterday morning and to look at my phone and to read this headline: Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports.

And of course, my mind immediately went to our refugee family Paul, Ariat and their 7 beautiful children, who were here with us just 6 weeks ago. The refugee family we pray for every single week.

And my mind started racing with the thought about how if this were six months ago, the family that we’ve welcomed to this country because of our faith, because we felt called by Jesus to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the one in need…that family that we welcomed in the name of Jesus, would’ve likely been detained at the airport.

Now you might think that this is a moment when your preacher is engaging our politics, but no. We can play those games out there if we have to, but in here, we are one body of Christ. One family. And as your pastor, I’m asking you to let this moment to engage your faith. What does your faith have to say about this? Surely, in honor of our refugee family, we can sit with that question, for the sake of all the other refugee families seeking safety.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve all become gripped by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other. Fear for the other. Fear of violence against us. Fear of violence from us. Fear of the government. Fear of the people. Fear. Fear. Fear. We seem to be drowning in a sea of fear.

In light of all of this, I was helped by a sermon from our friend, Alan Storey, who was here in this fall and whose videos some of us are watching on Mondays at noon. He reminded me of the inaugural words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Which are necessary and urgent words for us at this time.

Fear is our greatest enemy because the bible says that just as love casts our fear…fear casts out love. A fearful people will be a loveless people.

 You see, what fear does is it makes us forget who we are. And fear makes us forget who other people are. The moment I forget who I really am and the moment I forget who you are, I can do all sort of inhumane things in that state of forgetfulness. Driven by fear. Out of fear, I’m more likely to respond out of prejudice than principle. Out of fear, I’m more likely to be selfish than generous. Out of fear, I’m more likely to lie than be truthful. Out of fear, I’m more likely to be judgmental than accepting. I’m more likely to be violent and forceful than gentle.

Therefore, if we have one enemy that all of us needs to resist it is fear. Because fear casts out love. And we are called to be a loving people, so that we can be a fearless people.[1]

So we are living in a context of fear. And here’s the thing: the same is true for our gospel reading for today. You see, we’re so used to lifting the Beatitudes off the page and hanging them on the wall and making them look and sound beautiful that we forget the context into which these words were spoken.

To find the context, we have to go back to last week. If we look back at our reading from last week, we’ll recall the line, “When Jesus had heard that John had been arrested.” In other words, detained. And these words would’ve instilled great fear. John has been detained by King Herod. John – Jesus’ friend and mentor, the one who baptized him. And now John has been arrested and will never be set free, because King Herod will take his head.

That is the context. A context in which the powerful empire prevails and the powerless people get pulverized. It is a context of danger. Of threat. Of fear.

And that is the context into which Jesus enters his public ministry. He goes into the fear. That is the context that Jesus calls his first disciples, which tells us that perhaps this is the time for church outreach. That is the context that Jesus teaches and cures the sick and vulnerable, which tells us that perhaps this is the time we are most needed. Perhaps we were born for just such a time as this. And it is that context of fear that he delivers his sermon on the mount, beginning with the beatitudes.

Now, in the light of that context, what could the Beatitudes mean? What is Jesus doing with them? What could they mean for us today?

The first thing for us to notice is that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and he isn’t just speaking to them. He’s not just handing out blessings on the street corner. He’s teaching them. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.

Why do we teach? We teach to equip. To empower. We teach so that the student can go and do.

And in this moment, perhaps Jesus isn’t just blessing people, perhaps he is teaching his disciples to recognize blessedness, where others might see fear.

You see, it dawned on me that all of the people listed in the beatitudes could just as easily be fearful people.

Fearful are the poor in spirit, for the world is cruel.
Fearful are those who mourn, for death wins everytime.
Fearful are the meek, for they get trampled on.
Fearful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will never be filled.
Fearful are the merciful, for they will never see justice.
Fearful are the pure in heart, for everything is a threat
Fearful are the peacemakers, for war never ends.
Fearful are the those who are persecuted, for they achieve nothing.

They could be seen as fearful people. Perhaps they see themselves as fearful people.

But that’s not what Jesus’ says. Jesus says, Blessed are they. And in doing so, Jesus is teaching the disciples how to see rightly. How to see as God sees.

Now throughout the Gospel of Matthew, there is a major theme of sight and seeing. We will hear Jesus talk about the eye a lot.

We think we know how the eye works. Light comes through the pupil, it strikes the retina and generates electrical impulses to the brain and images are formed. That isn’t the way they thought the eye worked in the first century. In Jesus they thought of the eye not as a receiver of light but as a source of light. When you looked at something, they thought that light streamed from your body onto whatever it is you were looking at, so the eyes quite naturally became a metaphor, a symbol for the soul.[2]

In fact, Jesus talks about this in the sermon on the mount. Listen. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your body will be full of light. And if your eye is unhealthy, your body will be full of darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how deep is the darkness.“

Or perhaps to put it another way. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes is healthy, if you can see the world as God does, through Jesus as deserving of mercy and kindness, justice and redemption, your body will be full of love. But if your eye is unhealthy, if you see the world not as God does, but simply as punishment and reward, your body will be full of fear.

Maybe, in this opening class lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching his disciples how to see. How to see and recognize blessedness. How to see that there is blessing and light in places that the world cannot see, but that God sees.

Might it be that it be that in teaching them to see blessedness among the fearful, he is also teaching them to proclaim blessedness to the fearful. And in doing so, transforming fear in love. Despair into hope. To call them blessed is to drive out their fear.

Now, let me be clear. This isn’t some ignorant sermon about how we just have to see the good in everything and we will be okay. But it is to say that Jesus’ followers were no strangers to suffering and darkness. They have been living under the boot of the Roman Empire. And Jesus is giving them a flashlight for their soul. A light, a lamp for their body. New eyes. Because if all the eye sees is darkness, then the body will be full of darkness. But Jesus seeks to correct our vision. So that we might see the world around us, our neighbors, and God anew. And in turn, to go and build our life around that and live accordingly. So that, as one preacher has said, “Rather than merely take pity on people’s losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge people’s failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they’ve settled for. And rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the truest point of meeting between God’s children. For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently at our places of deepest need.”[3]

My friends, Jesus is trying to correct our vision. To see the world, our world that seems to be instilling so much fear… to see with kingdom eyes. That where we have been trained to see darkness, God sees blessedness and light. Because God is there. Because that is who God is. And God is teaching us to see light there too. So that we will not, in our fear, turn away from such places but rather, in our love, risk ourselves to go there too. Because that’s who we have been called to be.

May these beatitudes not be words that lull us into soft sweet comfort. But rather may each one be a corrective lens at the optometrists office, clicking into place to slowly focus our eyes on who our God really is and how God see the world.

Blessed are the pour in spirit…click.
Blessed are those who mourn…click.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…click.
Blessed are the merciful…click.
Blessed are the pure in heart…click.
Blessed are the peacemakers…click.
Blessed are those who are persecuted…click.
Blessed are you….click.

Do not be afraid.

But go, and in the name of Jesus, love bravely.

Amen.

[1] This section and this sermon are more indebted to Alan Storey than I care to admit. See: http://cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2017-01-22-ALAN.mp3

[2] Tom Long.

[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/epiphany-4a-recognizing-blessing/

Sunday, January 8th, 2016 – Baptiphany of Our Lord, Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

My son, Elliot, has recently learned the word “weird.” It seems to have become one of his favorite words actually. Needless to say there are apparently lot of weird things in our home these days. That movie we watched with the talking bears – it was weird. That lovely meal his mother slaved all day over that included onions, mushrooms, and celery? That was weird too. The way daddy’s hair looks early in the morning? Weird.

If Elliot today were the church nerd he is bound to be in just a few years, he might notice that our worship today is a little weird. You see, you’ll notice on the front of your bulletins that today is called “The First Sunday after Epiphany.” But the church nerds here today (and I use that term lovingly) will note that the first Sunday after Epiphany is always “Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.” So, what gives? Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. But the feast of Epiphany and the story of the Magi coming to baby Jesus is always on January 6th, which was just a few days ago. So we wanted to pull some Epiphany into today but we also didn’t want to lose the theme of baptism. So we gave thanks for baptism and splashed you with water. We read the Old Testament reading and sang the psalm from Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. But then for the New Testament and the Gospel, we’ve shifted to the readings from the feast of Epiphany. So there you have it – Baptiphany of Our Lord Sunday. Or more practically – The First Sunday after Epiphany.

It’s kinda of weird. But I think they can be stitched together. So hang with me.

This spring, the 90s grunge band, Pearl Jam, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is a big moment for me.

Pearl Jam, and their lead singer Eddie Vedder, has been my favorite band since I was about 16 years old. Their lyrics and melodies gave voice to my angst filled teenage years better than anything I’d ever heard before. And their heart aching ballads brought comfort and solace to my twenty-something self who’d found and lost love a couple of times over.

I love this band. To this day, I devour any albums they put out and watch for any concerts that are within a six-hour driving radius.

One of the things that I have loved about this band, and one of the things that the Rock and Roll culture has struggled with about this band, is how Pearl Jam, and particularly Eddie Vedder, has always struggled to keep himself and his personal life out of the media, avoiding the celebrity spotlight. For many of years of their success, they never did a single interview. Instead of basking in the light of stardom, Eddie Vedder and the band spent much of their energy speaking out about social justice issues, political awareness and environmental responsibility. And then during their concerts in recent years, Eddie Vedder has started to do something unusual with the light that is literally shined down upon him. And it has completely captivated me. During their concerts, there is often this moment when a spotlight is shined on him. And then he takes his guitar, which has a shiny metal plate on it, and holds it above his head. And what happens is the spotlight that is shining upon him instead hits the surface of his guitar and is refracted onto the crowd. And with the band playing behind him, Eddie takes his time, as he slowly moves his guitar to make sure that the light shines on all people of the crowded stadium.

I share this story with you because it reminds me of the gospel of Matthew and the Epiphany story we just heard. There is something similar happening in it with light.

The whole story of the Magi gets started because of a light, shining down. A bright star shining like a spotlight against the backdrop of the stadium sky. Now, I have no idea how to understand such a phenomenon historically or scientifically – was it a comet, or two planets and stars coming into perfect alignment creating a superstar. Did it really move and then stop for their detour to Herod’s place and start moving again? I don’t know.

But the really weird thing about this story is the people who noticed that light and thought to follow it. These Magi, these wise ones. All we really know about them is that they are different. They come from another land. The East. They are foreigners. They are non-religious. They are not Jewish. They don’t worship in a temple. They are astrologers and magicians who watch the sky. So you can see how that’s the particularly amazing part of this story. That this guiding light leading to the Christ child would be revealed to these people who are different than everyone else. And that they would become the ones who point it out to the rest of the world. And we all call learn and take comfort from that. Let’s not discount those who are different, or weirder, than we are, trusting that God will use them to reveal something of God to us. And if we are the ones who are different, then let’s not discount ourselves either.

So these Magi follow the star to Herod’s palace – and notice Herod didn’t see the star and neither did his scribes or chief priests, the ones who are supposedly closest and more in tune with God than anyone else. So much for that.

So, these wise ones ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” which ticks off Herod because HE is the king of the Jews. But thanks to the scribes and chief priests who know their Bibles but who missed God’s arrival, the Magi learn that they were just 9 miles off. So they head back out and that bright star leads them 9 miles south to the town of Bethlehem, and shines it’s bright light on to a house. And there in the house, in the throne of his mother’s arms sat the king of the Jews – Jesus.

So this divine celestial light appears in the sky. The Magi point to the light. And the light points them to Jesus.

And now, I invite us to ask the question, what happens to that light? Does it stop at Jesus?

If we, like the Magi, can follow the light in the gospel of Matthew, the first thing we will notice is that the light gets closer to Jesus. We trace it down to the river Jordan in the very next chapter, Jesus is baptized and it says, “Just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

So the next thing that light does is fall from the sky and it alights upon Jesus in his baptism – when God proclaim, “This is my child! This is my beloved. I love him.”

But then we will track the light up the mountain with Jesus as climbs up to give his Sermon on the Mount. And in that sermon, listen to what we will hear Jesus say. He does not say, “Blessed is me because I have the light of God shining upon me”…..but rather he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…” And then, in case that was not clear enough, he makes his point crystal clear with this incredible line. “You are the light of the world.”

You are the light of the world, Jesus says. Do you see what’s happened? The Magi point to the light, the light points to Jesus, and then Jesus reflects the light and points it…to you. So often we want this divine light that is shined upon Jesus to stop there. But Jesus does not let that happen. You are the light of the world, Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Jesus takes his light and shatters it into a thousand points of light, refracting onto you. I have a pastor friend who hangs disco balls all around the sanctuary of her church during the season of Epiphany. So that there are all these little bits of light scatter around the church all season long. Jesus is making you stars, called to shine against the darkness of this world.

And did you recognize Jesus’ words? “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Those are the words we speak at baptism after lighting a candle for the one with water all over their head. You are the light of the world, Jesus says. Go, shine. Show others your good works that point them to God, so that they too can know that God is shining on them too and they are the light of the world. And then they can go and shine before others…

Now I’m mindful that perhaps not all of us or our loved ones are baptized. Is this promise of light still for you or for them? Of course it is. God’s grace and mercy are free, and forever, and for all. It’s yours. Today. But whenever you want to make that public and let us surround you with that promise, you let us know. We will bring the water and God will bring the promise.

Sometimes preachers will invite you to consider who you are in the Gospel story. Here’s what I think: Surely we know the Herod within all of us. The fearful and frightened part of us who becomes dangerous when threatened. And surely we know the Magi within all of us. That part of us that seeks something that is greater than ourselves. A longing and a searching for a promise that we can follow.

But what I want you to walk away with today is the awareness of the star, of the light that you are and that you bring into this world. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.

So, this morning, as a way of living out that promise, as a way of participating in this epiphany story, I invite you to learn from the wise men and to go home a different way. If you usually take 3rd st out of the parking lot, take Plum. If you usually take Plum, take 2nd st. If your home is north of here, drive south for a couple of blocks. Who knows what you will see. Either way, you will let your light shine on a different corner of this community, and you will let a different corner of this community shine it’s light on you. And wherever you go, God’s light will be there too.

Splashing water and burning candles. Bright lights and disco balls. Rock ‘n roll bands and their guitars. Magicians and heavenly stars. A divine baby king, an unwed mother, and a dripping promise from God that never dries off.

Let’s keep church weird.

Amen.

Saturday, December 24th, 2016 – Parents of God – A Christmas Eve Sermon on Luke 2

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” [15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours on this Christmas eve night. Amen.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones?

A child.

Because a child has this uncanny ability… to mess up just about anything.

Your home.
Your social life.
Your savings account.
Your new blouse or suit.
Your sleep.
Your family dynamic.

And even your mighty empire.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones? A child.

Some of you will remember this movie plot from the 80s. Peter was a successful architect, who lived in a high-rise Manhattan apartment with his cartoonist friend, Michael, and his actor friend, Jack. They were all bachelors living the high life. Expensive parties, fancy dinners, and everything that goes with it. Until one day, Peter opens the front door to find an unexpected package at his feet. And it was moving. And drooling.

Outside his front door…a child. In a wicker basket and with a note.

Dear Jack, here is your daughter. I have to go away for six months. Take good care of her. Good luck. Love, Sylvia.

 Peter yells for his roommate, Michael, and the two proceed to panic.

What are we going to do with it?

 I don’t know, give it back to her mother!

 But her mother is gone for 6 months!

 Meanwhile, the child begins to cry and do other things that babies do. And in that moment, these three men, Peter and Michael and Jack all become unexpected fathers to this unexpected child and their lives as they knew them were ruined.

Who can bring the might down from their thrones?

A child.

Because a child has this uncanny ability to mess up just about anything. But then at the same time, a child has this uncanny ability to teach us to love, in their need to be loved.

You see, it wasn’t long before the love that child required from these men grew into love given by them freely. They fell in love with her. These three bachelors were transformed by this little girl, as each of them slowly embraced this newly appointed parenthood.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones? A child. And who can teach us to love? A child.

Luke begins his Christmas story with the mighty. Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Apparently Luke didn’t get the memo that we don’t talk about politics at Christmas. Instead, he just walks right in the door, drops the gifts and says, “So, Trump, huh?”

Luke puts it this way, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

But this isn’t small talk for Luke. He isn’t bringing this just up just to figure out how Dad voted. No, he’s dragging the hand-painted backdrop drapery across the stage of this Christmas story, setting the scene for the show that’s about to begin. And it should frighten us.

Emperor Augustus and his Roman Regime rule everything. At the snap of a finger, in a single decree, he can control all the movement in the land. Forcing people out their homes, like displaced refugees, in order to register them. In order to tax them more efficiently. In order to take more from them than had already been taken.

Mary and Joseph were there. Just part of the crowd who marched to these orders.

If you look up Pieter Bruegel’s Christmas painting called The Numbering at Bethlehem, you have to search hard to find Mary and Joseph among the villagers crowding into town. “Mary and Joseph have disappeared into the anonymity of the powerless….They are faceless nobodies under the boot of an uncaring empire. [1]

But then a movement started in Mary that could not be controlled by the emperor and could not be stopped by the emperor. The movement of birth.

Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones?

A child.

And Emperor Augustus did not expect this child on the doorstep of his empire.

And now watch what begins to happen…

Notice that the birth of this child, Jesus, triggers a new decree, a new message going out to all the people. Notice that immediately after Jesus’ birth, an angel announces out in the field, “Behold—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 When you’re the emperor and a child is triggering decrees that you did not command, you get threatened. It means your control and your grip is in jeopardy. It means this child is messing up your life.

And notice this heavenly decree is in complete contrast to the emperor’s. First, this decree from heaven is spoken to the lowly shepherds. You see, there was this belief back then that God only spoke to Kings and Emperors. But here God speaks to the shepherds, the lowest of the low, and not the Emperor. As theologian Alan Walker has said, “Jesus is God’s answer to a bad reputation.” God speaks of Jesus’ birth…to the shepherds.

Next, remember, in the emperor’s decree, the emperor commanded the people to move. To leave their homes like his little puppets all in order to take something from you. In this heavenly decree, God is the one who moves. Moves down. Moves out of God’s heavenly home. God moves in to human skin. God becomes the refugee. Why? Not because God wants to take something from you but because God wants to give something to you. The gift of God’s self. In the form of a child. It’s almost as if God says, “Well if the Emperor will force you to leave your home, then I will leave mine too. So that I can be with you.”

And it is that confronting and comforting decree that gets taken out into the people by the shepherds. Not by command. But their own free will.

Who can bring down the mighty from their thrones?

A child.

Because a child can mess up just about anything.

But just in case we think the only life Jesus came to mess up was the Emperors, think again.

Did you notice that this child, this incarnation of God, is born to you. This child comes as a gift of good news just outside your doorstep. “To you is born this day…” the angel says to the shepherd – the commoner – the regular one. To you.

It dawned on me that we all walk away from Christmas as new parents. To us a child has been born. I spend so much time talking about you as children of God, tonight I get to call you parents of God.

And like all children, this Christ child will mess up your lives too. This child asked Joseph to be loving instead of righteous. This child asked Mary to be brave instead of fearful. This child asked the shepherds to be preachers of good news and not just hearers of it.

To you a child is born. I wonder what this child is asking of you.

If God is your child then God needs your love in order to grow in the world. Not in a pietistic, overly spiritual, “Just love God!”, sort of way. No, God needs you to love and care for God’s flesh. And God’s flesh is human flesh. What you do unto others you do unto me, Jesus said.

So this Christ child will mess up your life too by asking you to come down from your mighty throne in order to love him and in loving him, loving all people. But for such a mess, it is also the greatest gift. Because this child teaches us to love.

Most of us had our lives messed up by one specific child this year.

That Syrian child, Omran, photographed in the back of an ambulance, silent, stunned, bleeding and covered in ash from an airstrike in Syria. That child who, overnight, became the face of the fighting in Aleppo. That child who inspired a 6-year-old boy from New York to write a letter to President Obama asking if Omran, this refugee, can come and live with him.

This photograph tears us up inside and haunts us. Because deep down, I believe that we know that in the eyes of God, we are all parents to that child. And I believe that child is trying to teach us to love.

Now, like most of my parenting moments, I’m not sure what to do. But I know the first step is at least recognizing that that is our child in the back of that photograph.

omran400x500In one of the most stunning pieces of art I’ve ever seen, artist Judith Mehr painted a picture of Omran in the back of that ambulance and surrounding him are three heavenly angels. It is called, “Omran, Angels are here!” You can see on the door of my office if you’d like. For as haunting as it is, it is equally beautiful and full of love, and it has become the picture of Christmas for me this year.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones? A child.

And who can teach us to love? A child.

My friends, that’s why Jesus came – to mess up our life and to teach us to love. All triggered by coming as a child who is born to you who needs your love in order to grow in the world.

Soon, just like those shepherds, we all will be on the move too. Out these doors and back into the world God loves so much.

Know that you leave here as a child of God – loved beyond all measure. But know that you leave here not with the decree from the Emperor. You leave with a decree from the angels – to you a child has been born.

You leave here as parents of God – entrusted to love. Beyond all measure.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Tom Long, Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-11/nativity-december-24-and-25-2014

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 – An Advent Vespers Sermon on Matthew 1 and 28 – God with us.

Matthew 1:18-25
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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 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.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 Matthew 28:20
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

In this season of Advent Vespers, we are reflecting on the theme and the name we give to Jesus, Emmanuel: God-With-Us.

Last week, Pastor Pam took up that behemoth of words – God. Reflecting on the book of Job, she reminded us that we are part of something very, very big. This wonderful and complex world created by a wonderful and complex God. Not only have we been created by God, but we have been created together with all that exists.

This week, a smaller word – with. God is with us.

 When I was young, I was frightened by people who were homeless.  I can remember when I was in Sixth grade and on a trip to Washington, D.C. with my family.  We were coming up the escalator of the subway, when I saw a homeless man up ahead, begging on the street.  The way we all were situated, I was going to be the one closest to him when we walked by.

I didn’t know what to do. I had nothing for him. No change in my pocket to give, no hopeful word in my mouth to speak.

For a moment his eyes caught mine, and it was like a finger touching a hot stove. It burned with pain quickly, and I swiftly turned my head and moved myself to the other side of my mom and dad, so that they were between me and him.

Though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, that experience felt like a moment of social disaster. Here we are – human beings encountering each other. An affluent family with plenty to give, and a man whose life was frail and in desperate need of help with nothing to give and everything to receive. And no one had a clue what to do or what to say – not the man, not me, not my parents.

As I grew older, and my parents were no longer constantly at my side, I protected myself from the homeless who frightened me by retreating into the safety of my mind, as my fear mutated into more of a moral argument – I shouldn’t give this person money for food or they will just go spend it on drugs and booze. It’s okay to just walk passed them.  I only felt slightly better and less guilty in the shelter of that mind. But really the fear remained.

And so I usually would still try to avoid those moments of social disasters.

But then, a couple of years back, I read an article in the Star Tribune. It was on the topic of the homeless who stand on the streets of Minneapolis asking people for money. The article interviewed a handful of Minneapolis’ notorious homeless, the ones everyone knew.  The interviewer asked the typical questions – why are you homeless, do you want food or do you want money?  What was great about the story is that it seemed that the people were honest.  Some said they simply wanted money so that they could buy some alcohol.  Some said they needed the money so that they could buy their much-needed insulin.  But the common thread that each of them mentioned was that when they are out on the streets asking for money, the only thing they are really looking for is for someone to look them in the eyes.  For someone to look at him or her as if to say, “I see you.  You exist.  You are not invisible to me.”  They said that you don’t have to give them money, but what they desperately want is to be noticed.

To put it another way, they want someone to be with them. Even if just for a moment. In a glance. To look them in the eye. To recognize that you see them – a human being – right in front of you.

Which is the hardest work of all actually – to be with someone. We can do a lot of things for people without ever getting our hearts dirty with an actual relational encounter. But being with is what most of us fear – because it asks more than we know how to give, when simultaneously being with is what most of us long for.

I share this story because it reminds me of God. God is one who does the hard work – the work of being with.

In fact, as preacher Sam Well’s puts it, with is the most important word in the Bible. It is the word that describes the heart of God and the heart of Christmas.[1] To be with.

I don’t know if you noticed, because it is easy to miss. But the story of Christmas that you just heard from Matthew’s gospel is, like my encounter in Washington DC, a moment of social disaster. We don’t think about Christmas that way very much and there is a reason we keep Matthew’s version quarantined to the fourth Sunday of Advent and away from Christmas Eve. It’s a social disaster and no one knows what to say.

We are used to hearing Mary’s side of the story – but tonight, we get Joseph’s. He is a man who wakes up one morning to find his life has been ruined. He had a fine job, he was soon to be married to his beloved. Until one day, Mary says, “Honey, we need to talk. I’m pregnant.” An unplanned pregnancy can be startling news to hear but isn’t always a disaster. But add to that, however, the certainty that the child isn’t yours and swelling realization that the punishment for adultery is death of your beloved by stoning, then you understand what a catastrophe this really is for both Joseph and Mary.

And no one knows what to say.

And it is into that mess of a situation that Christ is born. It is into that disaster that God arrives, in the flesh.

Like a diamond in a pile of manure, like a friend in a sea of strangers, like grace in the midst of suffocating guilt, a child is borne into this disaster. A child whom we call Emmanuel – God With Us.

Perhaps the miracle of Jesus’ birth isn’t how it happen, or where it happened, but when it happened. In the middle of lives that have been ruined. Not only is God with us, but God is with us there.

Jesus is the fullest reflection of God. Who is God? What is God like? God is with. “God’s whole being is shaped to be with.”[2]

And as we heard Jesus proclaim at the end of Matthew, “Behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age,” which is to say, there will never be a time that God is not with.

What we learn is, not only does God create, but God creates in order to be with. God has promised to not be God without us.

If the heart of God and the heart of Christmas is shaped around that word with, and we are made in the image of God, then perhaps Christmas teaches us about the heart of the Christian life. To be with.

 A friend of mine, Eric, took a trip in college to Egypt. Part of the trip included a stop a monastery at Mount Sinai. Part of the tradition there is that thousands of people would wake up around 2am to start the 5-hour hike up Mount Sinai to catch the sunrise. My friend joined his classmates and many others to start this grueling trek upward. As he puts it, it was a treacherous trail of switchbacks all the way up the mountain. After awhile, he started to slow down and grow tired. He needed a break and some water, so he stopped at a rest station along the way and told his friends he’d catch up with them later. As he got some water and snack, this overwhelming sense came over him – I’m not going to make it all the way up. This isn’t going to happen for me. He was at a time in life when things were fragile – he was still on depression medication, his body wasn’t in peak physical condition. This was just one more moment of disappointment. The irony of sitting on a high mountain with such spiritual significance yet feeling so spiritually low was evident. But in that moment, three travelers from Nigeria walked by. One of them greeted him, and they exchanged stories. They invited Eric to walk with them and so he did. After awhile, it started getting light out. Realizing that he was only two-thirds they way up, Eric knew this was his chance to catch the sunrise. He thanked the three for walking with him and he went over to sit on a rock. He overheard the Nigerian man tells the others to go on without him, and then he came over and sat with Eric. As they watched the sunrise together, they shared stories about their faith and their family, and what brought them to Mount Sinai. It was an unexpected but blessed moment for Eric. Eventually, this man stood up and told Eric that he was hungry and was going to head back down the mountain. As they said goodbye to each other, the man said, “You know, I never caught your name.”

“My name is Eric.”

“It’s nice to meet you Eric. My name is Emmanuel.” And then he turned, and walked back down the mountain.

As we live into these finals days of Advent, may we consider that perhaps in the eyes of God, we are all named Emmanuel. God with us. Maybe it be so. Amen.

[1] Much of this sermon is informed and inspired by by Sam Well’s sermon “The Most Important Word”, found at the beginning of his book The Nazareth Manifesto.

[2] Ibid.

Sunday, December 11th, 2016 – Advent 3 Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35:1-10

Audio will be posted soon.

Matthew 11:2-11
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Isaiah 35:1-10
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Friends, welcome to the third week of Advent.

I’m reminded around this time of year, as I am every year at this time, that preparing for Christmas is hard work. There are gifts to find and cards to address. Lights to hang and trees to straighten. Parties to host and parties to attend. Family to welcome in and in-laws to avoid. And in the midst of that, all the other normal parts of life that don’t stop for the season. There are relationship that need healing and relationships that need ending. There are jobs to search for and committee meetings to attend. There are annual reports to write and the dog still needs a walk. Preparing for Christmas is hard work.

But what I’ve realized is this season more than any other is that this season of Advent, this season of patient preparation and patient waiting for the arrival of Christ, the incarnation of God in the humble and vulnerable form of a child, this season of making room for Jesus in the Inn of our lives is even harder work. Because Advent, unlike Christmas, won’t ask for much from your wallet or your time – but it will ask for something from your heart.

It has dawned on me that throughout these past few weeks, in worship we’ve been confronted each week with a question. A question that, if we let it, will burrow its way into our heart and create a holy disturbance there.

In the first week, we were confronted with the question, “Are you awake?” In the scripture, we were told to “keep awake, for you do not know the hour that your Lord is coming”, which begs the question not only can we keep awake, but are we awake. We are invited to ask, “Where have I fallen asleep with regard to my own life and the life of my neighbor and the world?”

Are you awake? That’s the first question of Advent.

And then once we are awake and alert, last week, we were asked to consider what are the places in our life needs starting over. Despite what we might hope, we cannot simply separate ourselves into the wheat and the chaff, the good and the bad, but rather as Pastor Pam said, we all need to repent, which means “turn around”. Why? Because the line between the wheat and the chaff runs right through the middle of each of us. And so what is the chaff in your life that finally needs to be released into the wind and burned in the fire, so that our lives might bear fruit and provide nourishment to the world once again.

What needs repentance in your life, what needs turning around? That is the second question of Advent.

Now, those two alone are hard and haunting questions and so it’s a miracle that any of you have showed up here today, trudging through the snow, looking for more.

Because today’s advent question is perhaps the most difficult of all.

Is Jesus the One we’ve been waiting for? Or are we to wait for another?

That is the third question of Advent and it is the question of the Christian life. And the question itself comes from, of all people, John. John the Baptist.

You know John. He was the wild one last week – so confident in his message and his mission that he had no need for a custom made, slim-fitted tunic and red power belt. No, just some camel hair and an old belt of cracked leather would do. John, who was shouting in the wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near!” and who warned of the One who was coming who was greater than he. John, who knew exactly who Jesus was the moment he laid eyes on him at the river Jordan, and said, “I need to be baptized by you!” John, who held Jesus’ torso in his hands as he lowered him into the current of the water. John, who had a front row seat to the symphonic ballad of God’s voice breaking through the heavens to proclaim, “This One, this is my beloved Son, of whom I am well pleased.”

 That’s the confident John, the one who knew so clearly, who now is having second thoughts.

You see, John’s life is not what it was a week ago. Today, he is in prison at the hands of King Herod, and for the confident he had, he now has a question.

Go and ask Jesus, he says to his disciples, are you the one, or do we need to wait for another?

It is a question that is whispered out the small window in a prison cell that lets in just enough oxygen and sunlight to preserve life and just enough oxygen and sunlight to prolong it. It is a question asked to John’s faithful followers, who had every reason to find greener pastures. It’s amazing that John still has disciples. It’s not good for your resume as a prophet to start questioning your own prophecy.

Go and ask Jesus, he says to his disciples, are you the one, or do we need to wait for another?

Can you feel the weight of those words? Just imagine those words in the mouth of a foster child, arriving at her fifth foster home in three years. Are you the one I’ve been waiting for, or should I wait for another? Imagine those words in mouth of a mother whose miscarried 14 times, only to hear that this embryo has held on…for now. Are you the one I’ve been waiting for…

That is the weight of the hurt and the disappointment and the fear and the uncertainty in John’s words. John who has held Jesus in his hands, looked Jesus in the eyes, even heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as God’s son. But that’s how dark this prison cell is. You forget and you doubt the things that have been most loudly proclaimed to you.

We know what that’s like. To be in a place of such darkness and brokenness and despair and insecurity that we start to doubt the things that have been loudly proclaimed over us – that we are loved, that we are powerful, that we are valuable, that what we do matters to this world.

In prison times of our life, we can forget the very ingredients of life that have been given to us, that are necessary for life. People say you need water to live – the same is true about love. Without it to give and receive, we grow cold. The same is true about purpose. Without purpose to get us out of bed to face the world each morning, we whiter away.

So, yes, we can feel the weight of John’s words. We get his full-throated question because we have asked it ourselves.

Are you the one, Jesus, or do we need to wait for another?

And the beauty of hearing this text in Advent is that, if John can ask it, then so can we. Then in the middle of Advent and in the middle of a sanctuary, fragile faith that’s gone cold is welcome here. That’s the beauty of this text.

The risk of such a scripture reading is that it invites us to actually answer the question– is Jesus the One you’ve been waiting for? Really? Or should I wait for another? Or more realistically, should I just stop waiting.

Now, let’s take a look at how Jesus responds to John. First off, let’s be honest, those are hard words to hear. Because built into them is a vote of disappointment and hesitant-confidence.

The first thing he does is he tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see!” What remarkable grace that is. Jesus doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t give a simple, “Yes, John, I am the One. Quit being a doubter. Just let me into your heart and you’ll know it’s true.” No, Jesus says, “Don’t ask me, tell John what you see!”

Jesus entrusts his reputation, his identity into the experience of others. He trusts that their testimony will be enough. And they aren’t even Jesus’ disciples –they are John’s! But he trusts their experience. What do you see and hear?

And then Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah, that we heard earlier from Oden – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Now those words from Isaiah….John would know those words. Even if he had forgotten them for a time, he would know those words the moment he heard them. It is such a hopeful word – about the wilderness and desert being glad and breaking forth with streams of water, the blind receiving their sight, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping like dear.

But here is the interesting thing – some scholars and theologians will say that those words are out of place. They don’t belong there. You see those words are spoke in the 35th chapter of Isaiah… while the people are still imprisoned in exile. Which means they aren’t true. The blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear. The lame are still lying on the ground and the desert runs dry. It is a word out of place. Some scholars say it belongs later in Isaiah, when the world is in a better place for the people of God. So, who moved it?

But theologian Barbara Lundblad suggests that perhaps no one moved it. Perhaps the Spirit of God planted that word right where it needed to be. “Put it here,” breathed the Spirit, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.”[1] In this way, “It is a word that dares to disturb the despair of the present.”[2] It speaks of hope and light in the prison of exile.

And these are the words Jesus sends to John, the prisoner who hasn’t been set free. These words that don’t belong here – these words that are out of place. But these words dare to disturb the despair of John’s present, shedding a ray of light into that dark prison cell, reminding John of the promises of God that have faded away.

That’s who Jesus is – he’s the One who interrupts the narrative of despair.

Is Jesus the One we’ve been waiting for? It is the question John asks, and it is the question we are asked on this third Sunday of Advent. Is Jesus the One you’ve been waiting for? Jesus, who speaks hope into despair, light into darkness. Jesus, the one who believes in and brings peace instead of violence, mercy instead of vengeance, presence instead of isolation.

And if we can say yes to that and celebrate that birth of Jesus in our day, then we become the ones speaking a word out of place. Advent and Christmas are Word out of place. A word of defiant hope interrupting the narrative of suffering and despair. Because, let’s be honest…“(t)he world appears to be pretty much the same as it was before Jesus with respect to idolatry, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation, scarcity, and violence.”[3] And it is just such a world that needs a word out of place needs to be spoken.

Is Jesus the One, we’ve been waiting for? If so, go and tell the world what you see: tell the world that oil pipelines are being rerouted away from drinking water; tell the world that American Muslims and American Jews are joining hands in solidarity during a time when they both feel threatened; tell the world that the eyes of New York are being opened to the systemic racism in their parole boards which prevents black captives being set free and changes are on the way. Or more locally, tell the world that children of Northfield are receiving toys at Christmas, and tell the world that Northfield sees the need for affordable housing and it is being designed.

Friends, welcome to the third week of Advent.

There’s still time.

Are you awake?

Have you repent, have you changed your ways?

Is Jesus the One?

If so, then the fourth question that will confront us next is this: where is God asking you to give birth to Jesus in your life? Or maybe from the perspective of Joseph, into what part of your life is God trying to be born, and will you welcome God there, or will you dismiss her quietly?

May these questions continue to confront you and live in you as we live into the day of Christ’s arrival, which is both here and on its way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1941

[2] Alan Storey

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3091