Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Stroll Through Baptism

Sermon 1-14-18
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

According to our readings Mark this year, Jesus has the shortest childhood ever. Just a few weeks ago, he was born, then last week for Epiphany he’s still very young when he’s visited by the wise men, and now, just a week later – BAM - he’s an adult. But then again, that’s pretty par for the course when it comes to the gospel of mark, which is the Gospel we are reading through this year. Mark tends to move very fast – going from scene to scene without time to take a breath. Since this is the year in the three-year cycle that we are in Mark, I challenge you to read the entire gospel straight through, preferably in one sitting – then you’ll notice a few things: it’s fairly short and Mark writes like he’s pulling an all-nighter and his Gospel is due at 8 the next morning.  

You will also notice: no birth story. No shepherd or angels, no Bethlehem or manger, not even Mary or Joseph get a mention at the beginning. Here, Jesus just appears on the scene, in fulfillment of the prophecy proclaimed by a camel-pelt-wearing, bug-eating prophet named John who baptized people out in the middle of nowhere. So, Jesus joins the line to get baptized, but when he does… something different happens. The heavens are ripped apart, the Holy Spirit descends on him, and he is called beloved child of God.

Wait minute here. This is not actually all THAT different than what happens to YOU when you were baptized. Well, maybe not the part about the heavens being ripped open. But we believe that when we are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes to us and we are called beloved children, welcomed into the family of God.

How many of you were baptized when you were a baby or really young? How many of you were baptized when you were older or an adult? Baptism starts Jesus’s ministry, much like it starts OUR lives -  at whatever age - as part of God’s family and the body of Christ.
Today, we commemorate The Baptism of our Lord, is a great opportunity to talk about …. Baptism of course. When was the last time you thought about your baptism? Martin Luther taught that we should think about our baptisms daily… but how many of us do? After all, some days it’s hard to feel like we have been chosen by God… in much the same way, it’s sometimes hard to see God’s constant and sustaining presence in our lives. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. So, at some point, the Church came up with the idea of “sacraments.” One of the early church teachers named Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “the visible form of an invisible grace.” Think of sacraments as giant post-it notes that can remind us of God’s love in our lives.

Lutherans, along with most other protestants, have two sacraments –one being baptism, and the other is the Lord’s supper. If you’re familiar with the Catholic tradition at all, you might remember that they add five more to their list - marriage, confession, confirmation, last rights, and ordination. No one would argue that these aren’t all good things to do, things that could enhance our lives a Christians and followers of Jesus in many ways… but it’s just that WE do not consider these other five things sacraments… or rather, they are not quite as central to our faith as Baptism and Holy Communion.

So… then what makes a sacrament a sacrament? Luther defined a sacrament as having two parts. First, it must contain: First, a word from Jesus, and second, some sort of early element, something tangible and of visible substance.

For holy communion, Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me,” and the elements are – (bread and wine). For baptism, Jesus commands us to baptize us in his name and promises to be with us, and the tangible early thing is – (Water, of course, very good).

Luther wrote a lot about this in his Small Catechism – which you might also say is the Lutheran Handbook for Dummies. It’s got all the basics of the Christian faith in there – the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, and short explanations on the sacraments, of course.

You can even have access to the  Small Catechism right at your fingertips, on your smart phone! The next time you get into a deep theological conversation about baptism with one of your work colleagues, friends, or family, - because I’m sure it happens a lot! - you can pull out your smart phone, and go right to Luther’s explanation of Baptism. Because of course you have all downloaded the Small Catechism app, which is completely free! And if you haven’t, this app can be found in both iTunes and in Google Play. Feel free to download it after the service though. But seriously, you never really know when you might need to look up something about baptism. After you’ve downloaded that, and also have read the entire Gospel of Mark, you can move on to reading what Luther wrote about baptism. It’s short, I promise.

Now we’re going to do something a little different… we’re going to take this time to walk through the baptism service and explore why we do what we do. If you would turn to page 227 in the front of the hymnal, that’s where our baptism liturgy begins… of course with prayer. Both options summarize what baptism is and why it’s important – how it connects us to new life in Christ.

Flipping over to the next page… you’ll see at the top, an option for either the parents and sponsors to present their child for baptism, or an option for the person to respond for themselves, if they are old enough…..

With baptism comes promises… the most important promise of course is that we are God’s beloved children and God is always with us… but with baptism also comes the call to live as God’s people out in the world. Look at that list here… how are we doing?

How have we been at living with God’s people and treating OTHERS as beloved children of God?

How have we been at listening to God’s word and coming to the Lord’s supper?

How familiar are we with the basic teachings of our faith?

How often to we crack a Bible open, or at least read a devotional book or email?

How often do you talk to God?

How are we doing at nurturing the younger generations in all things?

This is quite a list. Of course, living in a world where we a bogged down by sin, temptation, limitations, brokenness, and injustice… living the baptismal promises is easier said than done. So many things get in the way… and so that’s why there is an exorcism included in the baptism service. That’s right! I bet you didn’t know that! … at the top of page 229 is the remnants of parts from an ancient exorcism rite. At this point, we proclaim together what we are turning our backs on or renouncing – the devil, the forces that defy and rebel against, and draw us away from God… followed by the creed, which of course is the proclamation of what we DO believe.

Flip the page… and you’ll see the Thanksgiving at the Font, and hear a prayer written by Martin Luther that’s called “The Flood prayer.” Here we get a thanksgiving of all that God has done, with and through the gift of water throughout the ages… starting at the very beginning, back in Genesis, which we heard in our Old Testament reading for today. What began at creation culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism we are baptized into Jesus’ death… but we are also raised up to new life in Jesus’ resurrection.

….and THEN we get to the actual BAPTIZING part… finally! For something that takes about five seconds to actually do… it certainly has a BIG IMPACT. Whether you were sprinkled with just a little water, or dunked into a pool… whether this happened when you were 5 days old, 5 years old, or 50 years old… whether you were wearing a white gown or a white tux or just a white onesie…. Once you are baptized, you become God’s child forever, and you now belong to Christ.

In the ancient tradition of anointing with oil, a cross is drawn on the forehead of the baptized person, along with a prayer for the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, which comes from the prophet Isaiah. In the words of another, modern prophet, Stevie Wonder, here is where we say: “here we are… signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours, God.”

But baptism does not happen in a vacuum. We get baptized with other people from our faith community present for a reason – because we all need help in living out the baptismal life. As the family of God, we support and sustain one another in this work, in “bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” It’s a big job… but we’re all in this work together… with Jesus leading us and guiding our way. He has walked this way before us, and we could not have a better guide.

You may not remember hearing it, but on the day of your baptism, God whispered this in your ear, “YOU are my child and I love you!” We may not have SEEN the heavens rip apart above us, but on your baptism day God burst into your life and you would never be the same again. You may not remember FEELING the Holy Spirit descend on you like a dove, but on that day the Holy Spirit lit a fire inside of YOU, to let this light shine. You are daughters and sons of God, beloved, and nothing can take that away. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Star Words and U-Turns

Sermon 1-7-18
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

“In one thousand feet, take the exit on the right. Continue for three quarters of a mile. In five hundred feet, turn. Left. Left…..LEFT. Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn. Recalculating route.”

Have you ever felt that going through life can be a little like following the directions on your GPS? Everything seems to be going just fine for a while – when suddenly she doesn’t warn you until it’s too late you just passed the turn you were supposed to make. Or she wants you to take an exit that doesn’t exist. Or tells you about the traffic jam AFTER you’ve passed all the alternate routes.

Maybe that’s how this last year felt for you: like one big recalculation. Perhaps it started out fine, but took a few detours here and there, and you ended 2017 in a part of the map you weren’t expecting, and you’re finding that the map is unclear, and the usually dependable GPS lady is suddenly at a loss. Am I going the right way? Do I have the right directions? How in the world did I end up on this road, and how do I find my way around, now?

January 6th began a new season of light we call Epiphany. While the rest of the world has already finished up the after-Christmas sales and New Year’s parties, and put away the Christmas lights and decorations, today WE are observing the last element to the Christmas story. Wise men from the East finally show up on the scene followed a blazing star, looking for a child born a king. Today we too give honor to a king who so often comes into our world as a blazing light, surprising us in our hopelessness, and shining on us when we seem to have lost our way, like a bright star on a dark night.

Often we are too busy to look up at the stars anymore – and especially around here there is so much light at night that they are hard to see. And we have our fancy GPS devices and apps, anyway. Do you remember the last time you looked up at a night sky full of stars?
When I was a camp counselor at a Lutheran camp in Wisconsin, one night during the week every cabin went out into the woods for a camp-out. It wasn’t very far at all from the main camp, and it was only for one night, but for every cabin of teenage girls I took out there, I may as well have been talking them to the Canadian wilderness. After it got good and dark, we would go on a hike to find a nice dark spot. Then… I turned the flashlight off. After a few moments I pointed out the North Star and why it was special.

Before there were such things as cars and GPS ladies or even reliable maps, people used the stars to find their way. Here in the northern hemisphere, people navigated by something called the North Star. Now, the North Star is NOT the brightest star or the easiest to find. However, while all the other stars travel around the sky during the night, the North Star stays fixed in place… making it so very helpful to find out which way is north… which can help you find the other directions. For slaves in the South a hundred and fifty years ago, the North Star was both a beacon of hope and a map to show them the way to freedom.

Each of those teenage girls lived in a world that was constantly changing. They were trying to figure out who they are and who or what they should follow. They were trying to find their way in a world that was often not very kind. But while everything around them swirled and shifted, the love that Jesus has for them will never change. would never shift or change or falter or dim, like a kind of North Star shining in our night sky.

In many ways that world hasn’t changed. The world was a dark place back when the wise men followed a very special star on a long journey far from their homelands, and it continues to be a dark place today. Then, like now, there was political intrigue and power plays.

Perhaps the wise men who followed the star had felt like it had steered them wrong like faulty GPS, when they arrived in Jerusalem. They expected to find a prince, born to be king. They certainly found a king all right, but one who was frightened out of his mind at the news that there was someone out there who would threaten his position.

Magi by Chinese artist He Qi
For people like King Herod, the darkness was just fine, thank you very much. The way things are is just great - the powerful would continue to rule the powerless, the strong would oppress the weak, the rich would lord it over the poor. All would continue as it “should” be, with the Herods of the world living it up while the hopeless continue with nothing.

But a light shown out in the darkness, a star appeared and rose in the night sky, and things started to happen.

The wise men had to keep following the star, and the light stayed with them until they arrived at their destination – Jesus, the one who would shepherd his people, who had been called Messiah and Savior and Lord by an angel to some shepherds working the graveyard shift in a field with sheep.

The life of this Jesus when he grew up seemed to take a few unexpected detours, too. He did not grow up to be the king that others expected him to be. Instead of wearing fine robes and dining in palaces, he broke bread with poor people and hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, the sick, and the forgotten. Instead of wielding a sword as a warrior, he used his words to teach and to heal and bring peace. Instead of being crowned and venerated as king of his people, he was worshiped and given gifts by wise men from another country. And later, he was crowned with a crown of thorns and enthroned on a cross… and not even that could make Jesus waver. The light that he brought into the world blazed on, and could not be snuffed out. 

These days in Epiphany will continue to grow brighter, little by little, by precious minutes each day. But while we’re in the midst of it, this little increase of light can be hard to notice. We all need reminders that the light is indeed growing in our days, and that the light of Jesus is with us, shining in the darkness of our hearts. We also could use a reminder that that Jesus wants us to let this light shine out so that others can see it.

For the wise men, this reminder was a star. But for us, in these days, it can be something smaller and less interstellar. It can be something physical, perhaps something that you use often or see every day.

Last year I was introduced to something called “Star words.” Star Words are like the opposite of a new year’s resolution – instead of a goal you choose for yourself because you feel deficient in some way, and failing at it before February… A star word is a gift that you receive that you carry with you for your whole year. You receive a word, not of your own choosing, to listen to how God is speaking to you through that word 2018. Last January, my star word was “release,” and God spoke to me a lot through that word this year, I think.

In 2017 God showed me how to release my fear of the unknown and doing lots of things for the first time by myself. ….to release my worry about the things that I can’t control. To free myself from over analyzing and second guessing myself. To stop gripping both mistakes and successes too tightly, and to give them both to God instead. All that, from one little Star Word.

This year I got another Star Word from another friend. I can’t wait to see where this word will show up in my life this year. For 2018, my word is “illumination.”

You’re going to get a star word today too, if you would like one. There will be a couple of star stations set up, one on each side, so that you can take a star as you go back to your seat after communion, if you wish. This is for any and all ages, and you can feel free to share what your star says, or keep it to yourself. Take this star, and hang it somewhere you can see, so that you may be reminded in the coming year that God loves you, and Jesus arrived into this world to give life and love to all of us – even the dim bulbs and the broken lights that we may feel like sometimes. Even when we feel lost and our lives are in constant need of U-turns and recalculations and detours.

May this star word, and the coming light of this Epiphany season, give YOU some illumination this year. May Jesus enlighten your life in 2018, and guide you as a light that never dims, never wavers, and will always brighten whatever in your life seems dim and hopeless. Amen. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Fear not, and drop the blanket

Christmas Eve Sermon:

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, born to us this night, amen.

Congratulations! You made it! Christmas eve has finally arrived, after a month-long mad dash of present-buying, concert-attending, house-decorating, and holiday merry-making. Or rather… a month full of stress-eating, online-shopping, over-tired children-wrangling, and tired-of-dealing-with-the-traffic anxiety. And how many of you are tired of hearing Christmas songs on the radio or in stores? Come on, don’t be shy! I swear, if I hear “Baby It’s cold outside” or “Mary did you know?” one more time… it’s not going to be pretty. If this earns me the title of Christmas Grinch, Scrooge, or Charlie Brown, I’ll accept with gladness.

Do you remember the classic Charlie Brown Christmas Special that comes on every year? I think poor Charlie Brown speaks for many of us when he admits to his friend Linus, “I think there must be something wrong with me. Christmas is coming, and I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” He sounds a bit jaded… perhaps he too has heard one too many overly-happy Christmas songs that have been playing everywhere since Halloween.

His friend Lucy – in her famous “the doctor is in” booth - tries to help by attempting to diagnose and label what he MUST be afraid of.  After all, if we know what fear he has, we can fix it, deal with it, and make it go away, right?

She starts to list all kind of weird phobias – fear of cats, stairs, oceans, crossing bridges, fear of everything… I’m surprised she didn’t include “fear of Christmas” in her list, which is “Christougenniatikophobia,” in case you were wondering.

But Lucy might be on to something about Christmas. Rather than the perfect scene in hallmark Christmas cards, we find that even the characters in our most beloved story have plenty to fear.

The shepherds watching their flocks on the night shift had a thing or two to be afraid of…. Not including a singing army of angels. They were working class people, having no secure place in their society. Their livelihood depended on defending the vulnerable sheep from predators and thieves, which involved lots of risk for not much pay.

That Christmas night, as Mary labored in the darkness, far from home, in a place where animals were kept, she had a lot to fear, too. Whether or not she would make it through the birth. If she would know how to be a good parent. How people would treat her as being pregnant before she was married. If Joseph would stay by her side. What the future of this child would be.

Joseph had some fears on his mind too. How helpless he must have felt as Mary went into labor and gave birth. How was he going to take care of his new soon-to-be-wife and child, a child born from God, when all he had to offer at the moment was an animal feeding trough to put him in?

Fast forward two thousand years… and not a whole lot has changed. Our top fears, according to a poll by Chapman University, are things like: not having enough money for the future, high medical bills, threats of violence and war from other countries, worries relating to the future of the environment, anxiety about the economy and the government, worries about identity theft, and for the health and safety of loved ones.

The future seems very uncertain, with so many things in our lives that we have little or no control over. The world feels like it’s spinning faster and faster every day, and we are on the verge of flying off. So maybe Charlie Brown’s friend Linus has the right idea, of carrying around his blue security blanket with him everywhere he goes… even to Christmas pageant practice… even when everyone gets on his case about it. After all, he feels like it’s keeping him safe in a very scary and chaotic world… Something for him to hang on to in a world where nothing feels secure.

Including the Christmas play he’s in. When play practice goes haywire, Charlie Brown, at his wits end, yells, “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus steps forward, trusty blanket in hand, and then something astonishing happens. Everyone remembers the part where Linus recites this part of the Christmas story: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

But this is the part that is easy to miss: when Linus gets to “Fear not,” … he… drops… his blanket.

We too are sore afraid. Where do we turn when the bottom threatens to drop out on us at any moment, when our worst fears threaten to come true, when white-knuckling feels like the only way we can keep ourselves together to make it through the night anymore? What will protect us from what we fear most?

The good news of Christmas is that in those moments where fear keeps us prisoner, God breaks in – sometimes with a singing angel army… sometimes in the voice of a kid who carries a blue blanket around with him everywhere…. Just when the night is at its deepest and most hopeless, God breaks into our lives and tells us to fear not. There is good news of great joy, in the form of a baby born to save us from what we fear.

This gift comes to us as God with skin on – as the embodiment of love itself, as someone we can hold on to. Our savior came into this scary world so that we would know that we are not alone.

Jesus came to be born just as we are, to grow up, to laugh, to cry, to comfort and to challenge…. To feed the hungry, care for the ignored and those on the margins, heal the sick and suffering, to point out injustice, and to defeat fear and free us from it - fear of power, of failure, fear of death itself.  

This gift comes to us, not as a powerful kind or a mighty warrior, to be yet another power to control us and make us afraid. But instead, this gift was born to separate us from our fears, in the form of a helpless baby born to a teenaged girl, born to regular folks just trying to get by, like you and me, who are imperfect and make mistakes, who struggle to feel Christmas-y on Christmas, like Charlie Brown.

Toward the end of the Charlie Brown special, Charlie feels he has goofed up yet again – since he has failed as a director, he is given the simple task of picking out a Christmas tree for the play… but he picked out exactly the wrong kind – a small and unimpressive looking tree that others laugh at…. And yet… Charlie Brown sees something in this tree that the others don’t.

While it is true that Linus DID pick his security blanket back up as soon as he was done with his speech from Luke 2…. He doesn’t hang onto it for long. In the end, Linus wraps his blanket around his friend’s little Christmas tree, and declares, “maybe it just needs a little love.” And together, Linus, Charlie Brown, and the other kids make the tree into what it was meant to be – a beautiful shining, Christmas tree.

Sure, some days I don’t feel exactly at the “transformed Christmas tree state” quite yet.  But I know that God is not done with me, and will keep wrapping me up in that love through all the hands of all the people who love me.

And sure, some days feel like I’m not are quite ready to give up that security blanket… and you might not be either, maybe not even tonight, despite the music and the sermon and the candle light. The thing is, none of us ever really get there – not completely, not in this life. That’s why Christmas comes around every year, no matter what.

Every year, we celebrate that this small and unimpressive-looking baby stopped fear in it’s tracks, and made it shake in its boots. Fear may not be gone, but Jesus has it on the run. Tonight, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus… Tonight, Jesus meets US, a God we can hold, and who holds us always. Thanks be God, Amen. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Photobombing for Jesus

Sermon 12-17-17
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many of you have taken a selfie? Haha, a few of us. Selfies can be fun -  a way to share with the world when we’re with people we care about or having a good time. But they can have a downside too… when we only share with the world our very best “SELF-ie” self. Our “best hair day” self. Our “marriage is great all the time,” self. Our “handling the diagnosis well” self. Our “I’m just fine” self. Our “I don’t need help, thank-you-very-much” self.

It’s like that perfect photo Christmas card you always get from that one family…. You all know one. Or maybe you are the ones trying to BE “that family.” In your ideal picture, your children smiling, your pets behaved, house clean, tree perfect, everyone dressed in their best and on their best behavior. What usually isn’t included on these cards are the before and after. How the kids were fighting, the cookies came out of the oven burnt, the house is a disaster, the cat had knocked over the tree. THAT doesn’t make for a very good Christmas card.

We have become very good at editing our lives to look perfect inside that Christmas card frame. It takes a lot of energy. What’s inside our perfect frame becomes our world, and we ignore or try to hide everything else. But often, something surprising can sneak into the frame.

A few years ago, I remember an interesting Christmas publicity ad sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. It’s an image of a young woman taking a selfie, but on the screen of her phone you see someone else in the picture behind her… it’s fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be Jesus, with the tagline being “It’s never just a selfie – join us this Christmas.”
Also, this is not really how selfies work!

Ok, Creepy Jesus aside… but I think this ad is TRYING to say… that Jesus is present in with you and will show up when you least expect it, even when – or ESPECIALLY when – we are still stuck focusing on ourselves. Like when we are orchestrating our lives to be a Hallmark Christmas card.

Basically, God is photobombing us. Are you familiar with that term? It’s happened to most of us - you’re on vacation, taking a picture of your family in front of a beautiful vista, and later see that the view is spoiled because in the background is some random kid making a funny face. Or when you’ve set up a nice portrait, put the camera on a timer, and your cat sticks her face right in front at the last minute.

…. Or, apparently, when Jesus unexpectedly shows up in your selfie. Or when he shows up unexpectedly in your life. Or when Jesus’ forerunner sent from God shows up unexpectedly to tell the people that God is about to do something big. That the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world… spoiling the illusion of our “perfect selfie.”

John the Baptist seems to be the kind of guy who would never take a selfie. We really don’t know much of anything about him, at least if we were to base our facts in the Gospel of John. Here there is no indication of his wardrobe choices, hair style, or eating preferences, like we heard from Mark last week. Even the Pharisees knew next to nothing about him – so they sent their people to get the scoop on this guy: Who was he? Was he the messiah? Was he the prophet? Was he Elijah? Why was he baptizing? What did he have to say for himself?

They tried to get a read on him, tried to get him to write his biography, invited him to be interviewed on Oprah, tried to get him to write a bestseller, “Your Best Baptism Now.” 

After all, he was a smash hit, and people showed up to hear him preach and be baptized in droves. Had there been a Time Magazine, they might have even put his face on the covers as “Person of the Year.”

But nothing deterred him. He stayed on message. John knew who he was – not the promised Messiah, but the voice crying out in the wilderness getting the world ready for his coming.

John came as a witness to testify to the light, to prepare the way of the Lord and make the paths straight, to make the world ready for the one coming after him. In a great devotion from an advent devotional book shared in our council meeting the other night, it was said that John “likes to use his finger”… No not that finger! haha, his pointer-finger. In most of the paintings John throughout the ages, John is pictured pointing…. away from himself, up and out beyond the frame, toward the light. And just a little later in the Gospel of John (not the same John), as the light manifests in Jesus, John the Baptist points and cries out “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

Yes, behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Yes, behold the light that is coming into the darkness of the world, the word who became flesh and lives among us. Behold, a little baby born to an unmarried teen mom far from home and placed in a manger. Behold, one who fed the hungry and healed the sick and cared for sinners. Behold the good shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Behold, the son of God lifted up on a cross, drawing all people to himself. Behold, the empty tomb and stone rolled away. 

Behold, the Lamb of God photobombing our selfies and interrupting our lives with bright beam shining out in the hopelessness and evil of the world.

John was not the light, and we are not the light either…. but we, like John, are sent from God to be witnesses to the light, to see it, and then tell others what we see. We are created in the IMAGE of God, revealing who God is and pointing to where God IS showing up in the world. And so, we show up too, to the places where cruelty and power holds sway. We are created to be photobombers, too.  

Our lives and are actions are to be like that of Jesus – spoiling the perfect picture that the world would like you to believe, that everything is fine, we’re fine, and nothing needs to change. But God is breaking into the world, and we are called to be like John and to break the silence of oppression and injustice.

What I wore in Namibia for
"Thursdays in Black"
Sometimes this work can even take the form of actually taking selfies. From the Lutheran World Federation staff I met while I was in Namibia, I learned about “Thursdaysin Black.” It’s a global movement started in the 70s to call attention to people who live in fear of being harassed, discriminated against, assaulted, raped, or other violence. It began before selfies were a thing, with women in Argentina protesting while wearing black on Thursdays….  but now has progressed to be a worldwide social media movement with people posted selfies every Thursday, myself included, using the hashtag “Thursdays in black.”

Apparently, the entire staff of the Lutheran World Federation headquarters in Geneva participates. And while we were all together in Namibia we were encouraged to pack black clothes to wear the Thursday we were all there. And many of us did just that.

When I choose to wear black on Thursdays, and to share picture on social media, I do it to speak up. Not just for women around the world who are facing threats of sex trafficking, rape as a weapon of war, and honor killings. I do it also to speak up for women closer to home, like my friend who was sexually harassed in seminary and was never believed. I do it for my female pastor colleagues who are the recipient of inappropriate comments or contact… or worse. I do it because women still aren’t believed or taken seriously. I never imagined that women like Taylor Swift and Ashley Judd would be like modern-day versions of John the Baptist, speaking out and facing push back from people in power. And just like back then, people are taking notice.

We don’t speak out and break the silence of the status quo because it’s easy or fun. We do it because it’s what we are called to speak out like John the Baptist, and be photobombers for Jesus. And there will be resistance. People aren’t always going to be on board. John too was questioned and not believed.

But he kept at it. He knew that the light is going to shine. The darkness will be overcome. Jesus is coming, and will break into the world, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and release to those who are imprisoned. And that good news it that they are SEEN. God sees them, and we see them too, and we stand with them, pointing with John the Baptist…

Pointing to a world where all people are seen.

Pointing to a world where we don’t have to wear black on Thursdays anymore.

Pointing to where Jesus is photobombing our world - and in our lives - and showing up.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Now is the time to ..... Prepare for Jesus."

Sermon 12-10-17
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

How are your Christmas preparations going? … that bad, huh? Is your tree up? Is it decorated? What about the outside of your house, is that all ready for Christmas? House cleaned for guests or parties? Christmas cards sent? All your presents bought yet for all your kids and grandkids? Are they all wrapped? Are all your cookies baked? Travel plans finalized? Gosh, I’m tired just thinking about all the things I still have to do yet!

These texts for this 2rd week in Advent aren’t exactly helping, either. Here we are, half way through, and there is still no sign of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, star, manger, no Christmas NOTHIN’.

Instead, we have… John the Baptist. He is NOT one we usually associate with Christmas cheer… and we certainly will never find HIM on a Christmas card, or as one of the light-up, blow-up characters we see in people’s yards. I think it’s kind of hilarious that we see just about EVERYTHING ELSE on Christmas cards and as those blowup, light up characters…. Polar bears, snow globes, penguins, Yoda, Snoopy driving a Christmas train… Maybe a Mary and Joseph… everyone BUT John the Baptist!

Which is such a shame, because John the Baptist is perfect for this role – a larger-than-life, weirdly dressed guy with a strange diet, living out on the edge of town, doing his preaching and baptizing thing.

Bur really, John’s job is NOT to look pretty on his own Christmas card. His message is a baptism of repentance and “Preparing the way of the Lord” out in the wilderness… and that sounds kind of weird on a Christmas card, doesn’t it?

John has one job… and that is to point the way to Jesus, and get us ready for his coming. The writer of Mark begins his gospel paraphrasing the Isaiah passage that we heard in our first reading. He doesn’t start with Jesus’ birth, not with shepherds and angels or even Mary or Joseph. No, no, not Mark. For Mark, the advent of Jesus happens when Jesus’s ministry starts. John is telling the people to “Prepare, and get ready!” And the people are responding! They’re coming out from the city in droves to hear a message of repentance, confess their sins, and be baptized by this strange man who wears camel hair.

As much as he seems like a rock star, John is pretty clear about what his role is in the coming kingdom of God – he’s the opening before the main attraction, the guy who gets the crowd pumped up, the billboard that tells you how long until the rest stop. He’s laying the groundwork for what it to come – because something so amazing is about to happen, it is going to just BLOW people’s minds.  It’s going to be a complete reorienting of everything - the desert highways will become straight, the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains will be made low, the uneven ground will be made level and walkable, and the rough places flattened out.

If John DID have a Christmas card, the inside might say, “You think I’M ‘out of this world’? Buckle up, buttercup. You ain’t seen NOTHING yet!”
Meme credit: Mike Russo

He is of course talking about Jesus. The word of God made flesh. The son of God. The Christ, the anointed. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the prince of peace. Mark spells it out in his first sentence: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. THIS is who we are getting ready for during these four weeks before Christmas, which we call the season of Advent.

But you may have noticed… that this is NOT the message we’re getting from pretty much everywhere else. The church kind of feels like it’s John the Baptist in a Christmas-overdrive world every December – we’ve had nothing but texts about getting ready, staying awake, and preparing for Jesus for weeks now… when all around us, we’ve heard nothing but Christmas songs and seen nothing but Santas, Christmas trees, and ads for stuff, stuff, and MORE STUFF!!! We find ourselves caught between ramped up secular Christmas in all it’s trimmings, and in celebrating the birth of Jesus. We’re constantly bombarded, distracted, stressed, and depressed this time of year, aren’t we? Can I get an Amen?

We can’t get away from it… it’s on the radio… in every store… even as we drive. If you’re coming from the north down 413, you’ll notice that every few weeks Peddlers Village advertises some new event happening. Last week, I noticed a new one is up – have you seen it? It says simply, “Now is the time to shop.” Yikes.

So, what are our choice here? Are we to go don some fur and head out into the fields of Bucks County, to eat bugs and completely separate ourselves from the world in order to find the “true meaning of Christmas”? Tempting…. But perhaps not. Or are we to completely succumb to the barrage of Christmas cheer?

What if… Jesus can still be found… even during the frenzied preparations for Christmas? What a novel thought. What if the very “material rituals of getting ready for Christmas – the very distractions that are accused of removing Christ from the celebration – can constitute gateways to deeper faith”? (quote from "A Season of Little Sacraments")

This is the very premise of a book I picked up a few months ago called “A Season of Little Sacraments.” In a glut of Advent devotionals, all claiming to bring a much-desired sense of sacred back into the season (when they are just adding one more thing to do on our list) … this book reminded me that Jesus can be found in both the sacred AND the mundane… in things as ordinary as hanging Christmas lights, creating an Advent playlist on Spotify, or getting ready for a holiday get-together. What if Jesus shows up in these things, even in the crazy Christmas prep, even when we don’t feel quite ready?

A friend who is also a pastor shared how her own family’s preparations for Advent and Christmas has embedded themselves in the mind of her three-year-old. She told him that Advent is coming, and that is why they put blue lights on the tree. She told us “He's convinced "Advent" is a person (a girl, specifically) who is blue (literally, not figuratively), and that we need to get ready for her and make her feel welcome by putting up blue decorations.” According to her son, my friend concluded that we know that Advent is female, and that her toddler understands how to make people feel welcome by making them feel they belong with the colors that reflect them. Out of the wisdom from the mouth of babes, my friend exhorted us to “go and do likewise,” as her own “toddler John the Baptist” has preached.

We may NOT ALL be called to BE John the Baptist… but we are called to be LIKE him. As followers of Jesus, baptized with the Holy Spirit, we are all billboards for Jesus – NOT by saying “now is the time to SHOP” of course… but perhaps instead to take a page out of John the Baptist and the Prophet Isaiah

Our message instead might be - “Now is the time to REPENT of our habits that leave our lives too cluttered for God…. Now is the time to GET READY for Jesus coming… Now is the time to WELCOME the stranger among us…. To lift up those that have been brought low…. Give COMFORT to those who need it…. To REMEMBER the forgotten and ignored…. LIFT our VOICE on behalf of the voiceless…. To POINT the WAY to where God is at work in the world and say, ‘Here is your God!’”

Here is our God, who strengthens weak hands and feeble knees when they are weighed down by change and sadness. 
Here is our God, born to us as a tiny helpless infant. 
Here is our God, who died and rose again for you, even when you are too stressed and distracted to notice.
Here is our God, showing up in AA meetings, at the grocery store, and at Starbucks.
Here is our God, who makes sandwiches and give coats to the homeless.
Here is our God, who will see to the finish what has been begun in all of us.
Our God is here, in the frenzied activity of the season… in our un-readiness and unpreparedness… a new kind of Kingdom is still being born, and we are still invited to be a part of it.

God is preparing God’s way among us, right here and right now. We’re in a kind of our own advent time. How would WE, as Family of God, fill-in-the-blank – “Now is the time to ______”? What are we known for in the community? If Family of God suddenly disappeared, what kind of impact would that have? What kind of hole would that leave? Would people notice? What kind of mission is Jesus preparing us for here in Buckingham? Are we awake to the signs?

We’ve had rough places and some valleys in the past. We can’t go back to the way things used to be, and yet, we’re unsure of the way through the wilderness we find ourselves in. We’re not quite sure exactly what God is getting us ready for. We’re probably not “ready” in the sense that we’re not what others’ might consider “successful” or “thriving” or “sustainable” yet.

But Jesus didn’t wait until the world was “ready” in order to come. Jesus worked with what he had. And Jesus won’t wait to use us until we’re “ready,” he’s going to use as we are. Likewise, we CAN’T wait until WE think we’re “ready” to point others to Jesus and help birth this kingdom into being.

Ready or not, it’s time to prepare the way of the Lord.

Ready or not, it’s time to point the way to the manger and the cross.

Ready or not, it’s time to welcome the stranger, help the needy, comfort the suffering.

Ready or not, its time to work for justice and peace in this world.

Ready or not, it’s time to love one another, whether we are black, white, or blue.

Ready or not, here is our God! Amen.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The End is the Begining


Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday is behind us and yet stores all over are advertising deal after deal while playing music with jingle bells and “ho-ho-ho”s. Chubby men with white beards in red suits pop up wherever you look, and the smell of evergreens and cinnamon wafts over everything like a blanket of snow we don’t – yet - have. It gets darker earlier during the evenings now, but that’s ok – nearly every house is beautifully lit with twinkling lights. Look at all the signs – it must be nearly Christmas!

There were signs for the very first Christmas too, when Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. I’m sure you all know them already. There were shepherds. There was a very pregnant woman about to give birth and her very worried fiancĂ©. There was hay and perhaps some animals. And, of course, there was a manger to place the baby Jesus in when he was born. And much, much later, a bright star, there were wise men from the East who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In our Gospel reading for today, however, Jesus is all grown up. What happened? Where is Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the rest of our familiar nativity scene that we’re expecting? This is NOT the kind of beginning that we were expecting. In fact, it seems much more like the end. Like someone didn’t rewind Mark from the last time we used him three years ago… you know - like a cassette tape that someone forgot to rewind. We seem to have traded one scary Gospel for another, and are stuck in a sort of Apocalypse loop, or something.

At the beginning of Advent this year, we don’t find ourselves Jesus in the manger, but instead, with Jesus at the Temple, describing a catastrophe that feels like the end of time. 

At this point in Mark, grown-up Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover – Peter and John and the rest of them are doing the typical touristy thing and admiring the Temple mount and the trappings of the establishment. Probably like the first time I was in New York City, rubber-necking like a tourist.  And I bet the disciples could easily have been thinking that soon THEY and not the ROMANS would be in charge…. That is, once Jesus took power, kicked out the oppressors, and set up shop as full-fledged king and messiah. Soon, THEY rule from all these impressive buildings.

But Jesus is not impressed. Not one bit. Instead of joining in the rubber-necking, Jesus describes their destruction. Before our Gospel lesson begins, Jesus has gone on and on about wars and destruction and suffering, of trials and false messiahs. Then, as described in verse 24, the very fabric of the cosmos itself will begin to unravel. All this what Jesus’ final coming will look like. Not exactly the rosy picture the disciples imagined or expected.

This is probably because Jesus has other things on his mind: This is, after all, Jesus’ last Passover. In fact, Jesus only has a few days yet to live in Mark’s Gospel, and here too he is filled, not with the kind of cheer surrounding Christmas (his birth), but instead with more of a “Good Friday” tone.

And the writer of Mark had others thing on his mind as well. This author is writing to an audience of early Christians neck-deep in life-altering and unsettling upheaval. Forty years or so after the events of Good Friday, the very buildings the disciples had been admiring lay in a smoking ruin, destroyed by foreign armies. The center of how they had worshiped God for centuries was gone. It’s no wonder that, to them, the future looked dark with no way forward.

Which left the early followers of Jesus wondering, can God still show up, even after all the temple is gone?  Is God’s kingdom still near, even when everything looks so bleak? Will God be able to break into the hopelessness that seems so thick and heavy? Why did this happen… and why does God delay in coming? Why do we have to wait? “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” God, so that you can get to the business of saving us!

Advent, the season of the church year that we have now started, is a time of waiting for the promised hope of Christmas to arrive. I think that most of us have experienced living a kind of “Advent time” waiting and wondering when – and if – God is going to show up. We, as we read Mark’s words from two thousand Advents ago – and Isaiah’s words from thousands of years before that – can easily wonder the same things. What does hope look like when so much seems hopeless and beak?

Perhaps for you the catastrophe to be lamented is less of a cosmic one and is much more personal. Perhaps this Advent brings the loss of a job or … or the stress of crazy work hours. Perhaps it brings deteriorating health…. News of a terminal illness…. Maybe it’s the first year of holidays after a loved one has died, and facing the grief of an empty chair at the family table. … or an addiction that immobilizes an entire family…. marriages that fall apart…. Or waiting for good news after yet another IVF treatment…. Our lives can fall apart in ways big and small that can certainly feel like the end of the world.

We wonder right along with the people of faith for centuries before us… in THIS Advent… Where is Jesus? What’s the delay? Why does he always compare himself so much to someone who ups and leaves all the time?

If Jesus is the one arriving at an unknown time, and we are these slaves, given tasks to do in the dark… while struggling to stay awake while keeping discouragement at bay while waiting for Jesus to show up… at least we are in good company.

Mary and Joseph spent a long night waiting for Jesus to be born – not in an inn, but in a shelter or cave where animals were kept, with only a manger to put the baby Jesus in.

Shepherds watching their flock in field by night were waiting too… not exactly to be serenaded by the heavenly host… but they WERE waiting for daybreak and the light of the coming dawn. They were just not expecting it to appear in the form of a baby, born as the savior of the world.

And much later on, the wise men from far away followed the leading of a bright star… which, I’m assuming, they would only be able to see at night. They traveled miles and miles… in the dark… to a land they have never been… All to honor a king they had never met.

Much, much later, when this king grew up, fed and healed some people, preached about God’s love, he made the wrong people angry… and the faithful women disciples stood watch, wept, and waited while darkness fell over the whole land.

And then as some of those same women crept to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body with spices in the dim light of the early morning hours… they found that the stone had been rolled away, and only darkness had taken up residence.

Barbara Brown Taylor – writer, theologian, and former Episcopalian priest wrote a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” In this book she does something that none of us I think are eager to do – explore how God is actively at work in “the dark.”

Because, as she concludes, God is just as active the dark places we find ourselves in… where the way forward is obscured & unknown… when life has left us in a dim fog, not able to see what comes next, waiting for something, or some ONE, to break through and show us the way. Or at least show us that we are not alone.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Even when light fades and darkness falls--as it does every single day, in every single life…  darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.” … For with God, “...new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” 

A prayer that I have prayed many times, that has gotten ME through stumbling along shadowy paths plenty of times, is called the “Servants Prayer.” Perhaps the slaves in the story Jesus told may have even prayed some version of it during the night they waited for their master. The prayers goes: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.
From St. John's Abbey artists

During the season of Advent, God is in both the light and in the darkness. In Advent, Jesus comes to us as a baby and as a grown man. He is on a cross and he is raised. He came, he is here, and he will come again, but we don’t know just when and how until he shows up. His kingdom will come, and at the same time his kingdom IS ALREADY HERE among us. Jesus shows up all the time. Even when it’s too dim to see beyond our own world ending… Jesus shows up. That’s what Advent is all about.

In the tinseled and bright “Christmas” fakery all around us, Jesus gives us some real joy and peace to hang on to. And that is the promise that he has come…. Is coming to us… and will come to us again. Especially now. Especially in the dark. Thanks be to God. Amen.